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Statius' Young Parthian King 

('Thebaid' 8.286-93)


By: A. S. Hollis

October 1994


In the eighth book of Statius' Thebaid the Argives meet to appoint a successor to the dead seer Amphiaraus (27Sff.). Their choice falls on Thiodamas son of Melampus (277-9); he, however, is overwhelmed by the prospect, which he regards with a mixture of joy and apprehension (281-5). There follows an eight-line simile which David Vessey[1] rightly describes as 'unique in the Thebaid'. Thiodamas is compared to a young Parthian king who succeeds to the throne following his father's death (286-93):  

sicut Achaemenius solium gentisque paternas

excepit si forte puer, cui vivere patrem

tutius, incerta formidine gaudia librat,

an fidi proceres, ne pugnet vulgus habenis,

cui latus Euphratae, cui Caspia limina mandet.

sumere tunc arcus ipsumque onerare veretur

patris equum, visusque sibi nec sceptra capaci

sustentare manu nec adhuc implere tiaram.


As may happen if a Persian boy (safer were his father still alive) has taken over the throne and the ancestral tribes; he balances joy with ill-defined dread - whether the nobles will prove loyal, lest the common people resist his governance, to whom he should entrust the flank of the Euphrates, to whom the Caspian Gates. At that time he shrinks from taking up his father's bow and setting himself upon his father's horse; in his own judgement his hand is not broad enough to hold up the sceptre, nor yet can he fill out the tiara.


Similes from contemporary life are by no means uncommon in Latin mythological epic; also many Roman poets have a liking for faraway lands and peoples. Catullus had first mentioned the 'arrow-bearing Parthians' (11.6 sagittferosve Parthos), and from the Augustan period onwards certain Parthian topics occur regularly in verse: above all their feigned retreats and parting shots, also their poisoned arrows, heavy- and light armed cavalry, many wives, treasure-houses, jewellery, daggers, head-gear, and breeches[2] But what we have here (at least up to line 290) is quite different: a close observation of the rival great power, the stability of its government, rumblings of political discontent, its pressing concerns and appointments to sensitive positions of trust. All these are viewed from a Parthian perspective, in a manner which nowadays we might associate with diplomats and intelligence officers.[3] So unusual and so detailed is the picture drawn here that one naturally wonders whether Statius had in mind a real situation from recent Parthian history. The western literary sources do not help us very much, but by bringing in the evidence of Parthian coins (as interpreted by the latest numismatic scholarship) we can, I believe, identify a young Parthian king who came to the throne at an appropriate date and whose circumstances seem to match those of Statius' king in several respects.


First the date: Statius himself tells us that he laboured over his Thebaid for twelve years, 'o mihi bissenos multum vigilata per annos I Thebai' (12.811-12). According to David Vessey[4] these twelve years of toil almost certainly drew to a close in A.D. 90 or 91. So the period which we should examine most closely is the later 70's and the 80's. A word, too, about the coins. The Parthian silver tetradrachms (which give most information) of the period under consideration were probably all struck at Seleucia on the Tigris. They bear on the obverse the bust of the king (nearly always to the left), wearing a diadem or, occasionally, a tiara.[5] The legend on the reverse, in Greek (for the Parthians took over the empire of the Seleucid kings of Syria), most often reads ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΝ ΑΡΣΑΚΟΥ ΕΥΕΡΓΕΤΟΥ ΔΙΚΑΙΟΥ ΕΠΙΣΦΑΝΟΥΣ ΦΙΛΕΛΛΗΝΟΣ, 'of Arsaces, King of Kings, the Benefactor, the Just, the God-made-manifest, the Philhellene'. Arsaces had been the founder of the Parthian dynasty (c. 250 B.C.), and his successors continued to bear his name as a title. The later kings' personal name seldom occurs on the coins; if it does, this is almost always a sign that the throne is in dispute, with more than one person claiming to be the true Arsaces. The reverse of most tetradrachms also shows the king, enthroned and receiving the symbols of power or conquest (sceptre, diadem, or palm) from an allegorical figure (a Fortune, who may be the city goddess of Seleucia, or a Victory). Most interestingly, the coins are often dated -this greatly increases their value as historical sources –by the year of the Seleucid era (which began in October 312 B.C.) and the Macedonian months; since, however, the month appeared in the exergue of the coin, sometimes it has been lost off the edge of the flan owing to the irregularities of manual striking or to the use of a flan too small to take the whole design.


In the Statian simile the Parthian king is not young enough to need a regent, but still a puer, uncertain of his own judgment and authority; he sounds like a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old. It seems that his father did intend him to inherit the throne, but the father has died (whether through violence or illness) before the boy could grow to full manhood. Clearly there are other contenders for the throne, and the loyalty of the great Parthian nobles (who functioned as independent rulers in their own territory, and whose absence from the coronation of the King of Kings would be a damaging blow) cannot be taken for granted.


I suggest that Statius' young Parthian king may be identified as Pacorus II. His earliest known tetradrachm from Seleucia is dated approximately February A.D. 78 (=Dystros 389 Sel.), almost exactly the time when Statius started composing his Thebaid.The coin illustrated[6] bears (beween the two heads on the reverse) the year 390 Sel. = A.D. 78-9: no month can be discerned. Notice first that the king is beardless (something very rare on the Parthian coinage). Sellwood[7] reasonably concludes 'at the time of his accession this monarch was probably quite young'. Note too that, on the reverse of the coin, to the right of the enthroned king, in the place normally occupied by the title ΕΥΕΡΓΕΤΟΥ (Benefactor), we find Pacorus' personal name ΠΑΚΟΡΟΥ. So at that time there was another claimant to the dynastic name of Arsaces. We can in fact identify him as Volagases II, who strikes tetradrachms in the same years (A.D. 77-8 and 78-9), and even some of the same months, as Pacorus II. These coins too (type 72 Sellwood) include the king's personal name ΟΛΑΓΑΣΟΥ. Obviously Volagases was older than Pacorus, since the former is bearded. We may also be able to recognize the pater of Statius, Theb. 8.287 as Volagases I (c. A.D. 5 1-78).


He appears only as Arsaces on his Mesopotamian tetradrachms, but his last issue of drachmae (type 71 Sellwood), struck in Iran (perhaps Ecbatana) where Greek was virtually a dead language, bears an abbreviation of the name Volagases in Parthian script, 'an indication that he was in conflict with some other aspirant to the throne. . .Volagases I seems finally to have succumbed to internal enemies. Among them was Volagases II, to whose existence only his coins bear witness.'[8] So by combining the evidence of the coins with Statius' simile, we may tentatively reconstruct the following sequence of events: Volagases I has a favourite younger son whom he wishes to succeed him. Another member of his family (very likely an older son) rebels in jealousy and frustration and drives the old king from the throne, eventually killing him. There follows a struggle between Volagases II and Pacorus II in which the latter was clearly victorious, since the known tetradrachms of Volagases do not stretch beyond approximately September A.D. 79, while those of Pacorus continue into the 80's and 90's.


No sooner was Volagases II defeated than another challenger arose in the person of Artabanus III (A.D. 80-l), who is also named on his tetradrachms (type 74 Sellwood). But Pacorus quickly disposed of him too, and seems to commemorate the submission of Artabanus in a remarkable issue (type 75 Sellwood) struck between A.D. 81 and 85. The illustrated piece comes from A.D. 82-3; the young king's growth to maturity is marked by 'vestiges of incipient beard' (Sellwood p. 237). On the reverse Fortune, as usual, offers him a diadem and sceptre. But, instead of being enthroned, Pacorus sits on horseback. Behind Fortune stands a male figure who holds in his hand an untied diadem, which presumably he has just removed from his own head, thereby renouncing his claim to the throne; probably (as Dr. Michael Dewar has suggested to me) he is about to lay the diadem at Pacorus' feet in a familiar gesture of submission. Sellwood (p. 236) is surely right to identify the standing figure as Artabanus. The contrasts are clear: the victorious king on horseback, his defeated challenger on foot; Fortune turned away from Artabanus, presenting sceptre and diadem to Pacorus.[9]



Other details of the simile deserve attention. The young king is specially worried about the loyalty of the proceres (289); these would be primarily the (by tradition) seven great families. Malcolm Colledge in his book The Parthians[10] some of them; the Suren [Sūren] family based on Seistan [Sistan], which had the hereditary right to crown the king at the coronation ceremony (an earlier head of his family had defeated Crassus at Carrhae); the house of Karen [Kāren] whose seat lay probably at Nihavand in Media; the family of Gew [Gēv] based on Hyrcania, and that of Mihran [Mīhrān] on Rhagae (forerunner of modern Tehran). Then there are two appointments over which the king agonizes.


One is the 'flank of the Euphrates' (290), always important as long as that river represented the boundary between the Parthian and Roman Empires. The other, 'cui Caspia limina mandet' (290), when correctly understood, emphasizes that this simile belongs to the real world of the 60's to 80's A.D.


No doubt 'Caspia limina' is just a poetic equivalent of 'Caspiae Portae', the Caspian Gates. The pass of this name which was best known (through the exploits of Alexander the Great) lay south of the Caspian Sea, at the southern edge of Mt. Elburz on the boundary between Media and Parthia proper (Parthyaea), east of modern Tehran. [11] But, from the time of Nero, the designation 'Caspian Gates' was applied to a quite different spot, the Pass of Darial, which runs through the central Caucasus, 100 miles north of Tbilisi.[12] Pliny protested at the confusion vigorously (N.H. 6.30 'Portae Caucasiae, magno errore multis Caspiae dictae')[13] but unavailingly. That Statius in Theb 8.290 means the Pass of Darial is suggested very strongly by Silvae 4.4.63-4, where one of the possible military postings for Vitorius Marcellus is 'metuendaque Portae | limina Caspiacae’; the Parthians would have taken a dim view of Domitian posting a legion in the heartlands of their empire![14]


The significance of the Pass of Darial was that through it the Scythian nomad tribe of the Alani had more than once come to attack Armenia, Media Atropatene and parts of Parthia. We hear of their incursion first in the mid 30's (Josephus, A. J. 18.97ff.) when the kings of Iberia (part of modern Georgia) and Albania (modern Azerbaijan) gave them free passage, 'throwing open the Caspian Gates' (τας θυρας τας Καςπας ανιξαντες,  A.J. 18.97). In the 60's Lucan anachrnistically[15] credits Pompey with an interest in the Caspian Gates and the Alani (8.222-3 'peterem cum Caspia claustra | et sequerer duros aeterni Martis Alanos'). We have seen[16] that Nero planned an expedition to the Caspian Gates just before his death. About A.D. 72 the Alani again devastated Media Atropatene and Armenia,[17] and some three years later Volagases of Parthia proposed a joint Roman/Parthian expedition against the Alani, to be led by one of Vespasian's sons; the latter's younger son was extremely disappointed when the proposal came to nothing (Suetonius, Dom. 2.2 'cum Vologaesus Parthorum rex auxilia adversus Alanos ducemque alterum ex Vespasiani liberis depoposcisset, omni ope contendit ut ipse potissimum mitteretur').[18]


By now it should be abundantly clear why a new Parthian king c. A.D. 78 would be particularly concerned 'to whom he should entrust the Caspian Gates' ('cui Caspia limina mandet', Theb . 8.290).[19] Although the Pass of Darial was never, of course, within Parthian territory, the commander appointed would have to watch the threat which might at any time issue forth from it, and perhaps would be expected to take the offensive against the Alani (as Volagases I had proposed to Vespasian).


In the last three lines of the simile Statius describes with fine economy the symbols of status and power among the Parthians: the bow, the great war-horse, the sceptre, and the tiarae.[20] A Parthian king would be expected to delight in the hunt and to be a skilled bowman. One of the complaints against the westernized king Vonones I (c. A.D. 8-12), who had lived much of his life in Rome, was a lack of interest in hunting and horses;[21] by contrast, when his rival Artabanus II (c. A.D. 10-38) was temporarily driven into exile, he took refuge in Hyrcania, wearing filthy rags and supporting himself by his bow.[22] The great Parthian war-horses were much feared by enemies, and played a considerable part in the dynasty's military successes. We have seen that Pacorus II is depicted on horseback in the tetradrachm (type 75 Sellwood, reproduced above) which probably commemorates his defeat of Artabanus III, though, for practical reasons, the horse does not look too impressive! On the same coin Pacorus receives a sceptre from Fortune, and he wears the tiara on his last issue of tetradrachms (type 77 Sellwood). So Statius has caught the ethos and atmosphere of Parthian royalty with great skill. At the same time he has expressed something with universal appeal, the awe and apprehension of a teenager suddenly called to take up vast responsibilities for which he feels quite inadequate. The whole comparison seems to me brilliantly successful.


Without the coins it would not have been possible to reconstruct the earlier part of Pacorus' reign. Thereafter we lose their help, since the last dated tetradrachm of Pacorus II, published hitherto, approximates to February A.D. 96 (type 77 Sellwood), perhaps a year later than the reference to him in Martial 9.35.3 'scis quid in Arsacia Pacorus deliberet aula' ('you know what Pacorus is pondering in his dynastic palace'). Perhaps he lost control of part of his realm, including Seleucia on the Tigris where tetradrachms were minted, or perhaps the striking of these large silver coins was interrupted because of economic difficulties.[23] It seems that Pacorus survived until the principate of Trajan (which started in A.D. 98), since, at an undeterminable date, he complained to Trajan about the conduct of the Romans.[24]

I am grateful to Dr. D. G. Sellwood (and to the Numismatic Department of his publishers, Spink and Son) for permission to reproduce his own line-drawings from An Introduction to the Coinage of Parthia (London, 1971). Also Mrs J. Kerkhecker (who is writing a doctoral thesis on Statius, Thebuid 8), Professor Fergus Millar, and Professor R. G. M. Nisbet kindly commented on a first draft of this article.




[1] Statius and the Thebaid (Cambridge, 1973), p. 266, n. 2.

[2] There is a fairly full, but not exhaustive, list in N. C. Debevoise, A Political History of Parthia (Chicago, 1938), chapter 9 ('Parthia in Commerce and Literature'), pp. 208-1 1. Many of the standard topics can be found in Valerius Flaccus' portrait of a Parthian, transposed back into the mythical age (irgonauttca 6.690 ff.).

[3] Indeed Debevoise (A Political Histmy of Parthia, p.211) ascribes Statius' 'intimate knowledge of eastern affairs' to his friendship withDominitian’s secretary. Flavius Abascantus ( Prospographia Impen'i Romani, vol. 111 p. 133 no. 194), the addressee of Silvae 5.1, in whch poem h s concerns are said to include the affairs of Parthia (89-90). One should be cautious about this; the dedicatory prose epistle stresses the friendship between the wives ofthe two men ('amavit enim uxorem meam Priscilla'). For discussion of the difficult question as to what part imperial officials played in diplomacy, see Fergus Millar, 'Government and Diplomacy in the Roman Empire during the First Three Centuries', Intemtiml History Review 10.3 (August 1988), 345-77 (especially 362ff.) and 'Emperors, Frontiers and Foreign Relations, 31 B.C. to A.D. 378', Britannia 13 (1982), 1-23.

[4] Statius and the Thebaid, p. 55.

[5] 'like a tea cosy in shape' (David Sellwood, An Introduction to the Coinage of Parthia (London, 197 l), p. 7), nearly always ornamented with jewels.

[6] From Sellwood, Coinage of Parthia,p . 230, type 73/1.

[7] p. 229.

[8] Sellwood, DO. 220,226.

[9] In the Cambridge History of Iran vol. 3(1), 'The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian Periods' (ed. Ehsan Yarshater, Cambridge, 1983), p. 296. Sellwood described this issue as 'one of the few examples of irony in numismatics. Tyche offering a diadem to the enthroned monarch is the standard reverse type of later Arsacid tetradrachms, but Artabanus III had introduced a variation by showing her

holding an untied diadem…. Artabanus II [c. A.D. 10-38] provided the prototypes for the coinage of Artabanus III and so may have been related to him. Now the latest of the tetradrachms of Artabanus II have the king on horseback, not enthroned. In mocking commentary, therefore, Pacorus is depicted on horseback, receiving a normal diadem from Tyche and an untied diadem from a male figure, presumably the defeated Artabanus.'

[10] (London, 1967), p. 61.

[11] For a discussion of the precise spot, see J. F. Standish, 'The Caspian Gates', GeR 17 (1970), 17-24.

[12] R. G. hl. Nisbet, who discussed the gate through the Caucasus in his paper on 'The Dating of Seneca's Tragedies' (Papers of the Leeds International Latin Seminar, Sixth Volume (1990), pp. 95-114), quotes (pp. 106-7) Encyclopaedia Biaritannica" V (Cambridge, 1910), p. 552. 'a gorge (8 m, long) of singular beauty, shut in by precipitous mountain walls nearly 600 ft. high, and so narrow that there is only just room for the carriage-road and the brawling river Terek side by side'.

[13] Cf N. H. 6.40 'corrigendus est in hoc loco error multorum, etiam qui in Armenia res proxime cum Corbulone gessere. namque ii Caspias appellavere Portas Hiberiae, quas Caucasias diximus vocari'. The same 'error' must be recognized in Tacitus, Histories 1.6.2 (troop movements at the end of Nero's reign) 'electos praemissosque ad claustra Caspiarum'; Chilver ad loc. comments 'though one cannot confidently ascribe ordinary prudence to Nero in 66, one would expect that Parthia would have reacted had he planned an expedition through hledia'. See also F. A. Lepper, Trajan's Parthian War (Oxford, 1948), p. 128, n. 2 on Arrian's mention of the 'Caspian Gates' in connexion with Trajan's campaign.

[14] Compare Chilver's comment on Tacitus, Hislories 1.6.2 (quoted in n. 13 above). Kathleen Coleman on Silvae 4.4.63-4 (in her edition of Statius, Silvae IV' (Oxford, 1988, pp. 149-50) takes the Porta Caspiaca to be the pass south of the Caspian Sea, between Media and Parthia, but also refers to an inscription from Boyuk Dash in [modern] Azerbaijan (on the west side of the Caspian Sea!) which attests (F. Grosso, Epigraphzca 16 (1954), 118) that Domitian posted Legio XII Fulminata 'to the area which could be designated Portae llmina Casptucae'. Yes, indeed - provided that one takes the 'Caspian Gates' to be the Pass of Darial. Believe it or not, Valerius Flaccus works an allusion to the posting of this legion into his mythological Argonautica, 6.55-6 'nec primus radios, miles Romane, corusci | fulminis et rutilas scutis diffuderis alas' ('fulminis' suggests Fulminata).

[15] Eva M. Sanford, HSCPh 48 (1937), 98.

[16] Tacitus, Hist. 1.6.2, quoted in n. 13 above. The text continues '. . . et bellum quod in Albanos parabat', which is puzzling. Chilver in his Commentary on Nist. 1-11 (Oxford, 1979), pp. 55-6, rejects Mommsen's emendation of 'Albanos' to 'Alanos', and inclines to think that Tacitus has made a mistake. Val. Flacc. (for what this is worth) mentions an 'Albana . . . porta' (3.497), and, in addition to 6.55-6 (see n. 14 above), may elsewhere allude obliquely to near-contemporary conflicts in this region, e.g. 5.558-9 (?Armenians, Iberians, and Parthians cannot resist the invaders), 5.166 'Armeniae praetentus Hiber' (?Iberia is, or should be, a shield to Armenia).

[17] Josephus, B.J. 7.244-51 (though this time he seems to have confused the two Caspian Gates).

[18] The request was not so unreasonable, since in this respect the interests of Rome and Parthia coincided: 'both countries would have profited by the prevention of the Alanic invasion of 72 A.D., and even more by the continued security of the pass' (Sanford HSCPh 48 (1937), 95).

[19] And the Alanic threat is probably the reason why the Caspian Gates are called 'fearsome' (meruendu) in Statius, Silvae 4.4.63.

[20] Mrs Juliane Kerkhecker draws attention to the parallelism between the insignia of the seer in lines 276-7 (tripod, laurel, and priestly hair-band) and those of the king (291-3). In both cases the insignia represent the legitimation of the young successor.

[21] Tacitus. Annals 2.2 'diversus a maiorum institutis, raro venatu, segni equorum cura'.

[22] Tacitus, Annuls 6.43 'inluvie obsitus et alimenta arcu expediens'.

[23] Of course we may yet find coins dated to the missing years.

[24] Arrian, Parthica FR. 32 (from Suidas s.v. επικλημα), cf. Lepper, Trajan's Parthian War, p. 173. There is also the tall story in the younger Pliny (Ep. 10.74) about a slave called Callidromus who claimed that he was captured by the Dacians, and sent as a present to Pacorus king of Parthia, whom he served for many years; furthermore that he had been robbed of a jewel which depicted Pacorus in his royal robes. This story, even if false, might be taken as evidence that Pacorus I1 was still alive about A.D. 110; Pliny in no way commits himself to the reliability of Callidromus' story, and did not hurry to send him on to Trajan. See A. N. Sherwin-White's Commentary (Oxford, 1966),  p. 662 on Pliny, Ep. 10.74.1, R. P. Longden, 'Notes on the Parthian Campaigns of Trajan', JKS 21 (1931), 20-1, F. A. Lepper, Trajan's Parthian War (Oxford, 1948), pp. 168-9.



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