Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 14
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Armenia

by Vahan M. Kurkjian

published by the
Armenian General Benevolent Union of America

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 16

 p90  Chapter XV
Rivalry between Parthia and Rome

Roman suzerainty

The Emperor Augustus, instead of reducing Armenia to the status of a province, kept her under a sort of vassalage. In accordance with the wishes of the nobles of the country, he had maintained the succession to the throne in the royal family of Tigran. But after the extinction of the national dynasty, the Parthians and the Romans each tried to hand Armenia over to such princes as would be the more devoted to their respective causes. None of these so‑called rulers, however, could secure the succession to his own family.

The historians who describe the military operations of the Romans in the East give no space to these kings of Armenia whose tenure depended on this or that foreign power. As for the Armenian chroniclers, they ignore the very existence of such rulers. At one time during this period, Vonon, the son of Phraates IV of Parthia, came to Armenia, offering himself as a candidate. The release of this Vonon, long held as a hostage in Rome, had been demanded of the Romans by the Parthian nobles after the assassination of Orodes II; he was crowned, but was soon dethroned by Artaban III, king of Parthia. The occidental manners which he had acquired in Rome being disliked in his home country, he fled to Syria.

Zeno a popular King

About this time Germanicus was sent from Rome with the mission to stop the encroachments of the Parthians in Armenia. The two opposing elements in the country finally agreed upon Zeno as occupant of the throne. He was a son of Queen Pitidoris of Pontus, whose husband, Polemon, was a loyal vassal of Rome. From his early youth Zeno had practiced Oriental manners. His love for hunting and feasts made him popular in Armenia. Germanicus, upon arriving  p91 in Artashat, placed the royal circlet on his head in the presence of a great multitude, and the nation offered homage to the new monarch, acclaiming him by the name "Artashes" (18 A.D.). This was a clever choice, and won Germanicus a sort of triumph.

Parthia seizes the throne

Peace prevailed in Armenia during the sixteen years of Zeno's reign, but upon his death in the year 34, Artaban, the King of Parthia, placed upon the Armenian throne his eldest son, Arshak (Arsaces). He furthermore claimed all the treasures hoarded by Vonon in Syria and Cilicia and everything else to which he, as an alleged successor of Darius and Alexander, was theoretically entitled. The answer of the Emperor Tiberius to such demands was the concentration of more Roman forces in the East. Once again, Armenia was to become for twenty-five years the theater of bitter warfare between the two greatest powers of the known world. The alternate triumphs and reverses of each of the opponents in rapid succession subjected the native population to cruel oppressions for alleged sympathy with the side temporarily in eclipse. Mention may be made of the devastation inflicted upon Armenia in 44 A.D. by King Mithridates of Caucasian Iberia, a satellite of Rome, who ruled in Artashat for several years.1

King Trdat the Pahlavid

[image ALT: An engraving of a statue of a bearded man wearing baggy trousers, a short belted tunic over them, and a cape clasped by a brooch at the right shoulder; he has a staff in his right hand. It is a statue of Tiridates I, King of Armenia, currently in the Louvre.]
Statue of Trdat I
King of Armenia
(Marble, Louvre Museum)
Parthian supremacy in Armenia was asserted upon the advent of Valarses I (Vagharsh) of the Pahlavid family (50‑90 A.D.), who bestowed the throne upon his youngest brother Tiridat or Trdat I. The new king drove the Iberian usurper away, but when he retired to Parthia for the winter season, Rhadamist reappeared and committed many brutal acts of vengeance. Exasperated by such excesses, the people of the capital revolted while Trdat, the King, was on his way back. Rhadamist fled towards the Caucasus, and was saved only by the speed of his horse.2

 p92  Romans destroy Artashat

Again Roman intervention was called into play. The Emperor Nero sent in 58 A.D. Domitius Corbulo to check Trdat's incursions within the eastern borders of the Roman dominions. Corbulo's legions soon reached the suburbs of Artashat and forded the river avoiding the bridge in order to execute a flanking movement. But Trdat had already evacuated the city. Corbulo set fire to it and reduced it to utter ruin. He then proceeded southward to capture Tigranocerta. By that time the King of Kings himself had assumed the high command, and was threatening a Roman force stationed on the banks of the Arzanias River. Corbulo changed his course and hastened to the aid of the endangered legions, but in the end he accomplished nothing more than a success­ful retreat to the west of the Euphrates, which Valarses consider as the frontier of the Roman Empire.

Rome was celebrating an imagined triumph over the enemy when messengers arrived from the victorious Parthians, bringing evidence that the Roman legions had been forced to evacuate Armenia. The Emperor ordered a continuation of the war, but was willing to discuss terms of peace. Corbulo, after some negotiating, finally agreed to recognize Trdat I as King, on condition that he receive the crown of Armenia from the Roman Emperor. Trdat consented to this compromise, and also to a preliminary curious sham ceremony.

Pretended Crowning by Nero

The Romans erected in the camp near Artashat a rostrum surmounted with a curule chair,​3 upon which was placed an image supposed to represent Nero. Then from a distance Trdat appeared at the head of a magnificent parade of military and civilian dignitaries. The Parthian and Armenian cavalry were arrayed along one side of the platform in gorgeous national trappings. On the opposite side were ranged the Roman legions, with their brilliant display of eagles and ensigns, and with statues of divinities between the lines, as if they were in a temple. Sacrificial animals were first slaughtered. Then Trdat marched forward, took his own diadem from his  p93 head and humbly deposited it at the foot of Nero's statue. The spectacle is said to have stirred the legionaries with a deep and intense emotion. Trdat next replaced the crown on his own head, and the pompous ceremony was followed by many gestures of courtesy and by feasts spread by Corbulo.

Trdat's journey to Rome

But Trdat must next go to Rome to be crowned by the Emperor himself. Before setting out on this excursion, he paid visits to his mother and brothers in Media and Parthia. He then began the long journey, accompanied by his family and an imposing retinue, comprising many feudal lords and 3,000 horsemen, Armenia, Parthia all being represented in the cavalcade. Trdat himself being a chief Magian of the Zoroastrian religion, avoided the sea route and traveled by land, Mazdeism prohibited spitting in the water or desecrating it with any other refuse of the human body. Their route therefore lay across Thrace, through Illyria, on the eastern shores of the Adriatic, and Picenum, in northeastern Italy, the journey taking nine months. Trdat, a handsome and noble figure, rode on horseback, having his children and the Queen at his side. Throughout the entire time his wife must have her face screened from the public gaze, according to Oriental custom; but instead of using a veil, she wore a golden helmet whose visor, when lowered, completely covered her countenance.

 p94  Trdat and Nero, 66 A.D.

Nero awaited Trdat at Neapolis (Naples), sending a state chariot to carry the visitor over the last few miles. No one was supposed to approach the Emperor armed, but Trdat maintained his dignity by refusing to remove his sword as he approached the ruler of the world, though as a compromise, he agreed to its being firmly fastened in the sheath, so that it could not be drawn. At Puteolis, the modern Pozzuoli, near Naples, Nero ordered athletic games to be staged in honor of his guest. The Armenian King himself had opportunity to display his ability as a marksman by shooting one arrow through the bodies of two buffaloes.

Pageantry in Rome

The climax of the ceremonies was of course reserved for the world's capital. Rome was profusely decorated with flags and bunting, and gorgeously illuminated at night. On the day after their arrival, Nero came to the forum, clothed in triumphal vestments and surrounded by dignitaries and soldiers, all resplendent in gay attire and glittering armor. While he sat on the imperial throne, Trdat and his retinue advanced between two lines of soldiers. Arriving in front of the dais, the Eastern King knelt, with hands clasped on his breast. When the thundering shouts and acclamations excited by this spectacle had subsided, Trdat thus addressed the Emperor:

"My Lord, I am a descendant of Arshak and the brother of the Kings Valarses and Pacoras. I have come to you who are my god; I have worshipped you as the Mithra; I shall be whatever you would order me to be, because you are my destiny and fortune."

To which Nero replied in these words:

"You have done well by coming here to enjoy my presence in person. What your father has not left to you and what your brothers did not preserve for you, I do accord to you, and I make you King of Armenia, so that you, as well as they, may know that I have the power to take away and to grant kingdoms."

After this reply, Trdat mounted the steps of the platform and knelt, while Nero placed the royal diadem on his head. When the young King was about to kneel a second time, Nero lifted him by his right hand after kissing him, made him sit by his side on a chair a little lower than his own. Meanwhile, the populace gave tumultuous ovations to both rulers. A Praetor (judge), speaking to the audience, interpreted and explained the words of Trdat.

 p95  "Golden day" of festivity

Great public entertainments continued for some time after the coronation ceremony. The interior of the Theatre of Pompey and every piece of its furniture were entirely gilded for the occasion; for which reason Rome ever afterwards recalled that date as "the Golden Day." Daytime festivities were on a scale no less lavish than those of the night. Royal purple awnings stretched as protection against the heat of the sun. Nero, clad in green and wearing a chariot driver's headdress, took part in the chariot race. At the evening banquets, in gold-embroidered vestments, he sang and played on the lyre. In memory of these events, the Senate honored Nero with the laurel wreath and the title of Imperator, or commander-in‑chief of the armies.

Munificence of Nero

[image ALT: An engraving of a fragment of a long thin slab of stone, carved with stylized foliage; it is a piece of lapidary débris from classical antiquity, at Garni in Armenia.]
Fragments of ornamental carvings from the temple of Garni​a
No reception comparable to this in magnitude and splendor is recorded in the history of Rome. Besides the enormous sum spent in festivities, the Roman Government bore the entire cost of the journey of Trdat and his retinue from and to their homeland. Nero also made a gift to Trdat of 50,000,000 sesterces, equivalent to about $2,000,000.​b Amazed by the extravagance of the Emperor, Trdat is said to have expressed to Corbulo his surprise at his serving such a master. On the other hand, he remarked to Nero, "Sire, you have a wonder­ful servant in the person of Corbulo."

World Peace

Peace prevailed at this time throughout the Roman Empire. Nero therefore closed the gates of the Temple of Janus, which were never shut save in times of universal peace.

When Trdat returned to Armenia, he took with him a great number of skilled artisans for the reconstruction of Artashat. He renamed the capital Neronia, in honor of the Emperor; he embellished the royal residence of Garni, near by, with colonnades and monuments of dazzling richness.

[image ALT: An engraving of a slightly damaged rectangular block of stone with 9 lines of Greek carved on it. It is an inscription of Trdat I the Great, King of Armenia.]
Greek inscription of Trdat I
relative to the reconstruction of the fortress of Garni

Armenia assailed by barbarians

Rome now counted upon Armenia as a loyal ally, even after Nero's death and through the entire duration of Vespasian's rule in the East. Armenia also enjoyed peace until a new invasion came to  p96 trouble her. The Alans,​4 together with other Caucasian tribes, fell first upon Media and then, in 72 A.D., upon Armenia. Trdat valiantly attacked the barbarians, and had a hairbreadth escape from being caught with the leather noose or lasso which the Alans used to capture enemies. The invaders were repulsed, though carrying with them considerable plunder in their retreat, and alternate sorties went on for some time before peace was concluded.

Trdat's death

A major problem remained, however, blocking the way to any improvement of international relations. Trdat died in 75 A.D., leaving no issue to succeed him, and Rome's choice fell upon an alien, non-Arsakhid prince. Khosrov II (Chosroes) the Parthian King, wasted little time in dethroning this puppet and replacing him with his own nephew. Trajan, the Roman Emperor from 98 to 117, in his zeal to enhance the glory of his reign, came to Armenia in person in 115 and camped before the walls of Karenitis, the modern Erzerum. The Parthian incumbent, failing in his attempts to cajole and placate Trajan, sought to take flight, but was killed by Roman guards.

 p98  Armenia chooses own King

The victory thus won by Trajan proved abortive, and Rome, under Hadrian (117‑138), once more found it advisable to adopt the wiser policy of Pompey, Antony and Augustus, and permit the Armenian nobles to choose their own ruler. The political horizon was thus somewhat cleared in the East, despite some depredations committed by the King of Iberia, a protégé of Rome. The accession in 138 of Antoninus Pius, a strong and upright Emperor, assured a period of tranquillity, which continued until the appointment by Rome of Sohemus, a prince of Syrian origin, as King of Armenia.​5 The Parthian army now entered Armenia and routed the Roman legions in Akilisene, whereupon Sohemus fled. The Romans then came in full force under Priscus, and after capturing Artashat, marched upon the Parthian capital, Ctesiphon, which they overthrew and subjected to devastation. Sohemus was reinstalled on the throne of Armenia in 163, and Roman influence in the country became well-nigh supreme.​c

On the death of Sohemus in 185, the Armenian throne was bestowed upon Sanatrouk, the son of a nephew of one of the Abgars of Osrhoene. He ruled in peace for twenty-seven years, during which time he constructed the city of Mdzur (or Mdzurq) in Sophene.6

Although a loyal ally of Rome, he remained neutral in the war which raged between the two Roman Emperors, Niger and Septimius  p99 Severus, in 195. Artaban, the King of Parthia, who was supporting the cause of Niger, fomented a disturbance in Armenia which cost Sanatrouk his life.7

The Author's Notes:

1 This tyrant was himself suffocated under bed-cushions by his own nephew, Rhadamist, who had seized the throne of Armenia. He had taken oath not to kill his uncle by either fire, steel or poison.

2 His wife, Zenobia, who rode with him, was, so says tradition, pregnant at the time. In order not to retard her husband's flight, she threw herself into the Arax River. Shepherds rescued her and carried her to the palace, where Trdat treated her in a manner due to a royal lady.

3 A chair in which the higher Roman magistrates had a right to sit (chariot).

Thayer's Note: Everything is right except the last word: nothing whatsoever to do with a chariot; and almost certainly a confusion with the word currulis (two r's), that does mean "pertaining to a chariot". For comprehensive details and sources on the Roman sella curulis, see the article Sella in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

4 Alans, by the Armenian historians and by H. G. Wells; Alains by R. Grousset.

Thayer's Note: Alains, which Kurkjian uses here and almost throughout this book, is merely the French spelling. I've substituted the normal English spelling, Alans.

5 Son of an Arshakid mother and Achaemenid father.

6 This name was until recent times confused with that of Nissibin-Mdzbin. One copyist seems to have changed the name. Khorenatsi represented Mdzbin as a center of learning, where he allegedly found the Armenian history, written by one Mar Apas. The location of Mdzbin is far to the south, and outside the Armenian frontiers, while the city built by Sanatrouk was near the center of Armenia Major. Its site has been identified with some ruins at the confluence of the Aradzani and one tributary of the Euphrates Rivers, west of the extensive plain of Mush, which in turn lies west of the Lake of Van. The positions of the fortress and the town had great strategic and commercial value. The German archaeologist Tomasheck identifies the site of Mdzur with that of Oghakan, the stronghold of the famous Armenian warrior, Mushegh Mamikonian. Phaustus, historian of the fifth century A.D., mentions the fort of Mdzur as in ruins. According to Sebeos, the ruins of the royal palace, with its marble columns, were still in evidence in the seventh century.

7 According to Khorenatsi, Sanatrouk became a precursor of the Christian faith in his own country, but later renounced it and condemned to martyrdom the apostle Thaddeus and his own daughter Sandukht, who had also become a convert. He is further said to have massacred all the children of Abgar, in order to eliminate all pretenders to the throne. Notwithstanding the confusion of names and dates, it is certain that Christianity had penetrated into Armenia as early as the reign of Sanatrouk, 166 to 193.

Thayer's Notes:

a Since Kurkjian wrote, the temple at Garni has been beauti­fully and sensitively restored by Soviet archaeologists. See the excellent photoillustrated sites at:

Livius.Org Armeniapedia

b Kurkjian wrote in 1958; with further inflation, in 2020, the figure would now be (according to the U. S. Inflation Calculator) something like $18,000,000.

c For a near-contemporary Roman account of the war, see Cassius Dio, LXXI.2; see also Hist. Aug. Marc. IX.1 (with further links and references in note 66).

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 3 May 20