The emperor was in no hurry. He proceeded, by way of the pleasant gardens at Daphne, to Antioch, where he passed the winter of 113. His first destination was Armenia, the ostensible cause of the war, and he was obliged to wait until the winter snows had melted from the passes leading into that remote and high kingdom.
Trajan had promoted Hadrian to something like a modern chief of the general staff and so given him a key role in the management of the Parthian expedition. His ambivalent feelings had apparently firmed into wholehearted approval. Hadrian was for the moment the second man in the empire. However, despite the fact that he was well qualified for the purple, his position remained insecure. Despite his six decades, the emperor still showed no interest in securing the succession.
How are we to explain what looks like a dereliction of duty on the part of a levelheaded ruler? Perhaps Trajan obstinately refused to acknowledge the approach of old age, part of the same mind-set that encouraged him to emulate the ever-youthful Alexander. But just as powerful a factor may have been disagreements at court. Among the emperor’s comites opinions were sharply divided. The Historia Augusta has a passage on the subject, typically condensed to the point of obscurity:
At this same time [Hadrian] enjoyed … the friendship of Quintus Sosius Senecio, Marcus Aemilius Papus, and Aulus Platorius Nepos, both of the senatorial order, and also of Publius Acilius Attianus, his former guardian, of Livianus, and of Turbo, all of equestrian rank.
These men were the leaders of a meritocracy, for they had all reached the top through talent and endurance. Senecio held high command in Dacia and had twice been consul; a cultivated man, he was a friend of Pliny, who gossiped to him about the difficulty of getting audiences for literary readings, and of Plutarch. Hadrian became a friend of his, probably as early as 101, at the beginning of his career. Papus and Platorius Nepos had Spanish connections and were members of the Baetican “mafia,” with villas in and around Tibur. We have already met the now aging Attianus, when he and Trajan took responsibility for the child Hadrian when he was orphaned nearly three decades previously. He was now praetorian prefect and, as cocommander of the Guard, a guarantor of the stability of the regime. Titus Claudius Livianus had been one of his predecessors as prefect, and was perhaps of special interest to Hadrian as the owner of twin boys celebrated for their beauty.
Turbo we have also already met: he had been a centurion at Aquincum, where he probably first got to know the youthful Hadrian and join his circle, and rose swiftly from the ranks; he was now admiral of the fleet at Misenum (modern Miseno, at the northwestern end of the Bay of Naples). He was Hadrian’s kind of soldier, hardworking and without airs and graces. Dio Cassius writes of him: “He displayed neither effeminacy nor haughtiness in anything he did, but lived like an ordinary person.” (The fact that his character was the complete opposite of the not-long-dead Licinius Sura’s illustrates the wide range of Hadrian’s affections.)
On the debit side, the Historia Augusta pointed to Aulus Cornelius Palma and Lucius Publilius Celsus, “always his enemies.” Palma was a younger friend of Trajan; trusted and trustworthy, he had twice been consul, and in 105 or 106 he had conquered the Nabataean Arabs, hardy nomads on the southern border of Syria who traded in frankincense and myrrh, and brought them within the empire. Celsus was consul for the second time in 113 and stood high in Trajan’s favor. According to Dio, he and a colleague were awarded the signal distinction of public statues. In the shadows, other critics of Hadrian are to be suspected, among them his elderly brother-in-law, Servianus.
Grounds for the distrust of Hadrian are hard to determine. He was obviously competent and intelligent, and no reports have come down to us of serious disloyalty to Trajan. History shows that factions tend to gather around close relatives of a monarch and criticize official policy. So one might speculate that Hadrian opposed the Parthian war, but if he did he surely held his tongue. Otherwise, as he played a large part in preparing the expedition and was working closely with the emperor, he would have been open to charges of subversion or hypocrisy.
There may have been objections to Hadrian’s personality. A picture does emerge of a hardworking but cocksure man—a combination often irritating to colleagues. Not suffering fools gladly is insufferable to the fools.
Whatever the explanation, Trajan would have been rational to conclude that the eve of a major expedition was the wrong moment to alienate one side or the other by coming to a firm decision about his former ward. The question of the succession would have to wait.
In the spring Trajan marched with his army northward from Antioch to the town of Satala in Lesser Armenia, on the Roman bank of the river Euphrates. It was a long trudge—some 475 miles—across awkward terrain, and the Romans probably arrived toward the end of May. The advance precipitated a line of embassies from client kings and minor rulers, all wishing to make their peace with the emperor. One who stayed away was Abgarus, king of Osrhoene, a tiny kingdom on the far side of the Euphrates that he had purchased from the king of kings. “Afraid of Trajan and the Parthians alike,” he sent gifts and kind words, but not himself.
At Satala the seven eastern legions, gathered by Hadrian, joined others dispatched from the Danube provinces (a risky step, one might have thought, to denude an unsettled region of its troops). Some of them were not at full strength, but Trajan now commanded the equivalent of eight full legions with the same number of auxiliaries—in other words, about eighty thousand men.
He also deployed his towering prestige. He marched into Armenia and then, before an arrow had been released or a spear cast, paused at a place called Elegeia. Here he staged a splendid ceremony—like the durbars of the British Raj—at which local satraps and princes came to meet him and offer their fealty. One of them presented Hadrian with a horse that had been trained to prostrate itself as if it were a subject in the presence of an eastern monarch. It knelt down on its forelegs and placed its head beneath the feet of anyone who stood by it.
The culminating event saw the arrival of the Parthian pretender, Parthamasiris. This should have been a significant propaganda coup, but it went badly, and mysteriously, wrong.
The emperor sat on a tribunal set up in the Roman camp and was forced to wait for his visitor. In a surprising breach of protocol, Parthamasiris turned up late, pleading as excuse the need to evade roaming supporters of his deposed rival, Exedares. He laid his diadem before Trajan, expecting to receive it back. The soldiers shouted in delight at this “victory.” But the emperor refused to crown Parthamasiris, who protested loudly. Trajan replied that he would surrender Armenia to no one, and declared that it was now a Roman province. He gave Parthamasiris permission to leave.
This is a very odd incident. Parthamasiris had been in communication with Trajan and presumably agreed terms for the encounter in advance. He was to be recognized as king of Armenia provided that he accepted Rome’s right of confirmation and coronation. Are we to suppose that events got out of hand by some mischance—or that Trajan had decided in advance to break the negotiated deal and trick Parthamasiris out of his throne? The accounts we have seem to imply confusion rather than conspiracy, except that it is unlikely that Trajan would announce out of the blue the annexation of Armenia. This was a strategic decision of some importance, and the humiliation of Parthamasiris was a striking means of dramatizing it. The Romans were well aware of the propaganda opportunity, as shown by several coin issues that depict the rex Parthus as a supplicant in front of Trajan.
But why let him leave the Roman camp? Surely the prince would be dangerous if set at large? Indeed. The Romans had thought of that. Parthamasiris and his entourage were given a cavalry escort to see them on their way, presumably to Parthia. Soon news arrived of the prince’s death; apparently he had been cut down while trying to escape his guard—an explanation deployed by ruthless captors throughout the ages.
Over the centuries Rome placed great weight on honest and straightforward dealing; treaties were sacred. The episode damaged the good name of the optimus princeps. He must have known it would do so, and we can only assume that Parthamasiris could call on very powerful support in Armenia for it to be worth Rome’s while to tolerate the moral cost of removing him.
Armenia was soon reduced. Various commanders, among them Lusius Quietus, the Moorish chieftain with his fierce horsemen, were dispatched to various parts of the kingdom to subdue resistance. The fighting seems to have gone on into the winter, for there are reports of soldiers making themselves snowshoes. But victory was complete, and previously hesitant local kings decided it was time to join the winning side.
Among them was Abgarus, who had the luck to have an extremely good-looking son, a certain Arbandes, who wore gold earrings and caught the emperor’s roving eye. Thanks in part to the young man’s intercession, his father’s early reluctance to meet the emperor was pardoned. Dio Cassius remarks that the king “became Trajan’s friend and entertained him at a banquet. During the meal he brought in his boy to perform some barbaric dance or other.” History fails to record how the evening concluded.
It would have been difficult to retain control of Armenia without annexing a large slice of the Parthian empire to its south, Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq), the fertile land between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris. That was to be the business of next year’s campaign.
Entry into Parthian territory in 115 was an event of historic proportions, and Trajan led his troops in the field. Despite his age he made a point, as he always had done, of marching on foot with the rank and file, fording rivers with them and so forth. According to Dio, he paid special attention to training. “Sometimes he even made his scouts circulate false reports, so that the soldiers might at one and the same time practice military maneuvers and become fearless and ready for any dangers.”
The campaign went well, and it appears that Mesopotamia was entrapped in a pincer movement with Lusius Quietus moving into eastern and Trajan into western Mesopotamia (taking care to march around the lovely Arbandes’ Osrhoene).
The emperor returned to Antioch for the winter, and before the end of the year Trajan sent dispatches to Rome—a “laureled letter” betokening victory. He probably announced the creation of Armenia and Mesopotamia as two new Roman provinces. The Senate received the news on February 21 to loud acclaim. It awarded Trajan the title of Parthicus, despite the fact that much of the Parthian empire remained to conquer.
Meanwhile, the emperor had a narrow escape from death. Early one morning in January a severe earthquake occurred, with its epicenter near the city. The emperor’s presence had attracted large numbers of soldiers, officials, visiting embassies, and tourists, so the loss of life was all the greater. Many people were trapped beneath collapsed buildings, “able neither to live any longer nor to find an immediate death.” Two of the very few to be pulled out of the debris some days later were a mother and child; she had survived by feeding both herself and her baby with her own milk. One of the consuls for 115, Marcus Vergilianus Pedo, lost his life—and Trajan was lucky to have saved his by jumping out of a window.
The disaster did not materially impede the course of the war. With the beginning of spring the emperor “hurried” back into enemy territory. Settling the Armenian quarrel may have been the original war aim, but now he was determined, as one suspects he had been from the beginning, on the overthrow of the Parthian empire. He built a fleet of fifty river vessels on the Euphrates and marched alongside it down into the Parthian heartland. Meanwhile other forces followed the Tigris south; some of them passed through Gaugamela, where Alexander had scored the culminating victory over Darius III that had made him master of the Persian empire and its new, foreign king of kings. To Trajan’s mind, history was ready to repeat itself.
By the summer he arrived at Seleucia, a city opposite the Parthians’ winter capital, Ctesiphon, which stood on the far or eastern bank of the Tigris. At this point the two rivers flow within twenty miles of each other and the fleet was dragged overland from the Euphrates to the Tigris. The Romans entered Ctesiphon without encountering any resistance and found it empty.
It has been supposed that the Parthians had fled, but as the Romans arrived in the summer it was unsurprising that the place was deserted. Chosroes and his court were presumably to be found at their summer capital, Ecbatana, in the Zagros Mountains, where the air was cooler. However, the king had evidently decided against challenging the Romans in the field: according to Dio Cassius, civil strife had removed Parthia’s capacity to the resist the invader.
For Trajan the moment was sweet. He now deserved the cognomen Parthicus, and new coins showed a military trophy (enemy shields and weapons fixed on a pole) with two captives and the legend Parthia capta, “Parthia taken.” He busied himself with the details of administration—for example, raising the ferry charges across the Tigris and the Euphrates for camels and horses. He made arrangements to create a third new province, Assyria.
And then, a vacation, sailing down the Tigris with his river ships. According to Arrian,
four of them carried the royal flags and they led the way for the flagship furnished with long planks of wood. This ship was about the length of a trireme [about 130 feet], its width and depth those of a merchantman, like the largest Nikomedian or Egyptian vessel, and it gave the emperor satisfactory living quarters. It displayed stem-post ornaments [of gold] and on top of the sail the emperor’s name was inscribed along with the rest of his imperial titles in gold letters.
Traveling downriver, the emperor continued the business of government, holding conferences on board the flagship. When navigating around an island in the Tigris delta, he was nearly sunk by a combination of storm and tide, but eventually reached the Persian Gulf at a place called Charax (today’s Basra). He saw a ship sailing to India and said wistfully: “I would certainly have crossed over to the Indians, too, if I were still young.” He counted Alexander, who reached the subcontinent, a lucky man.
The emperor built a statue of himself signaling the limit of his advance (it was still standing in 659) and lost no opportunity to send another laureled letter to Rome. Public opinion was astounded by the demolition of the Parthian empire and the stunned Senate voted him many honors, among them the privilege of holding triumphs over as many peoples as he pleased. The senators explained, helplessly:
Because of the large number of peoples about whom you are constantly writing to us, we are unable in some cases to follow you intelligently, or even to use their names correctly.
If ever a mission had been accomplished, this was the occasion.
The Jews had never forgotten the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Titus. Scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean, large settlements flourished alongside their Greek-speaking neighbors. Unhappily, they seldom got on with them well and there was regular intercommunal strife, for which both sides bore a fair share of the blame.
Many Jews remained bitterly opposed to their Roman oppressors and despised the pagan environment in which they lived. They especially disliked the fiscus judaicus, which Titus had imposed after the bloody end of the siege of Jerusalem in 70. Nerva had restricted its application to religious Jews, but it still rankled.
In 115 the Jews in Cyrene revolted and by the next year the insurrection had spread to Alexandria, where about 150,000 Jews lived, and to the island of Cyprus. The match that lit the fire is uncertain; it is not inconceivable that the Parthians incited the Jews to disrupt the Romans’ supply chain to the legions in the east, but anti-Roman nationalism may be a sufficient explanation. Messianic fervor could also have played a part, for the Jewish leader in Libya, one Lukuas, was elected king by his coreligionists.
Dio Cassius paints a picture of unrelieved brutality. The Jews, he claimed,
would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their skins for clothing. Many they sawed in two, from the head downward; others they gave to wild beasts [in the arena] and still others they forced to fight as gladiators.
We do not need to give much credit to these anti-Semitic fantasies, but there is no doubt that ordinary people went in fear of their lives, in the countryside as well as in the towns, as papyri retrieved from desert sands testify. A glum rural correspondent noted: “The one hope and remaining expectation was the attack from our village against the unholy Jews—the opposite of which has now happened. For on the twentieth [?] we engaged them and were defeated, although many of them were killed.” Another strategos apologized to the prefect of Egypt for being away from his post: “Not only because of my long absence do my affairs begin to be in complete disorder, but also, because of the unholy Jews’ attack, just about everything I have in the villages of Hermopolis and in the metropolis needs repair from me.”
That the Jews went on the rampage is beyond doubt; but their objective is mysterious. Could they seriously have hoped to drive the Roman occupiers out, or permanently suppress the indigenous populations among which they lived? We can only suppose that this was a spontaneous uprising. There was no strategic plan, simply a passionate thirst for revenge against an unjust world. In Cyrene many thousands of gentiles were massacred and temples destroyed. The death toll was also high in Cyprus, and the important town of Salamis razed. There was still a sizable Jewish community in Mesopotamia; Trajan suspected their loyalty and ordered his enforcer Lusius Quietus to “clean them out” of the province. Quietus achieved this by the straightforward means of a massacre.
Some legions were withdrawn from Mesopotamia under the able Quintus Marcius Turbo to confront the emergency and support the civilian power. The affected territories were pacified with some difficulty and the utmost ferocity. In Alexandria the Romans had to fight a pitched battle. The troubles were not over until 117. The impact on the Jewish diaspora was catastrophic. Jews were banished from Cyprus (a measure still in force a century later); they also appear to have vanished from the Egyptian and Cyrenian countrysides, and largely from Alexandria.
So far as Trajan was concerned, the Jewish rebellion was bad enough, but worse was to come. On his arrival at Babylon he learned that an insurgency had broken out in all the territories he had conquered. Legions were sent in every direction to meet the crisis. There were three theaters—Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Babylonia. The Armenians had found a replacement for Parthamasiris, another nephew of the king of kings, and although he lost his life in battle with the Romans, his son picked up the baton—to good effect. From a position of military strength, he asked the Roman commander for an armistice, and it was given. Subsequently, Trajan granted him a part of Armenia in return for a peace agreement. It is all too evident that the emperor had overextended himself and did not have the forces to retain his easy conquests.
Another general was defeated and killed in Mesopotamia, but (as well as killing Jews) Lusius Quietus recaptured a number of cities in the province, including the capital of Osrhoene (for Abgarus and his charming son had turned coat).
Finally, down in the south the thriving metropolis of Seleucia, on the Mesopotamian side of the Tigris, was sacked and the Romans, led in person by Trajan, won a great battle outside Ctesiphon. Nonetheless, the emperor could recognize reality. For the time being at least, he decided to cut his losses and pull back from the new provinces, spinning a humbling defeat into victory.
In 117, the Romans managed to find yet another member of the Arsacid clan, a certain Parthemaspates, and invited him to accept the Parthian throne. It took a bribe for him to accept this dangerous promotion. From a high platform erected on a plain not far from the Parthian winter capital, the emperor addressed a large assembly of Romans and Parthians and described “in grandiloquent language” all that he had achieved. The prince prostrated himself before Trajan, who placed the royal diadem on his head.
A coin of the day shows the emperor crowning Parthemaspates while a personification of Parthia kneels beside them. The legend reads proudly rex Parthis datus, “a king is given to the Parthians.” A more honest assessment of the situation was given in a letter Trajan wrote to the Senate.
So great and so boundless is this land and so immeasurable the distances that separate it from Rome that we do not have the reach to administer it, but let us present them with a king subject to the power of the Romans.
An attempt was made to rescue something from the debacle. If Rome was ever to project its power again beyond the Tigris, it was essential to recover the citadel of Hatra, which controlled a strategic road leading east to Babylon. Trajan placed himself in charge of the siege. It was a hard place to capture, for there were running springs inside its walls but little water in the surrounding desert.
The emperor was on his horse watching a failed cavalry attack and, although he had removed his imperial uniform, was recognized because of his “majestic gray head.” An archer shot at him and killed a cavalryman in his escort. The weather was hot and wet, with rain, hail, and thunder. Whenever the soldiers ate, flies settled on their food and drink. Hatra refused to fall. Eventually Trajan lost heart and left. A little later he began to feel ill.
A bronze bust of the emperor, beautifully preserved, used to hang on a wall in the public baths in Ankyra (today’s Ankara). It was made about this time by a fine and candid sculptor who, in place of the haughty, fleshy features of the usual official portraits, reveals a lined, worn face—the very image of disappointment. The adventure was over.