The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
ANCIENT IRANIAN HISTORY: PARTHIAN DYNASTY
Statius' Young Parthian King
A. S. Hollis
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
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):
Achaemenius solium gentisque paternas
si forte puer, cui vivere patrem
incerta formidine gaudia librat,
fidi proceres, ne pugnet vulgus habenis,
latus Euphratae, cui Caspia limina mandet.
tunc arcus ipsumque onerare veretur
equum, visusque sibi nec sceptra capaci
manu nec adhuc implere tiaram.
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.
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
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
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
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 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. 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.
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
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
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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
some of them; the Suren [Sūren]
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.
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. 
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.
Pliny protested at the confusion vigorously (N.H. 6.30 'Portae Caucasiae, magno
errore multis Caspiae dictae')
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!
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
A.J. 18.97). In the 60's
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
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,
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
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).
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Statius and the Thebaid (Cambridge, 1973), p. 266, n. 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.).
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.
Statius and the Thebaid, p. 55.
'like a tea cosy in shape' (David Sellwood, An Introduction to the
Coinage of Parthia (London, 197 l), p. 7), nearly always ornamented with
From Sellwood, Coinage of Parthia,p . 230, type 73/1.
Sellwood, DO. 220,226.
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
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.'
(London, 1967), p. 61.
For a discussion of the precise spot, see J. F. Standish, 'The Caspian
Gates', GeR 17 (1970), 17-24.
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'.
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.
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
Eva M. Sanford, HSCPh 48 (1937), 98.
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).
Josephus, B.J. 7.244-51 (though this time he seems to have confused the two
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).
And the Alanic threat is probably the reason why the Caspian Gates are
called 'fearsome' (meruendu) in Statius, Silvae 4.4.63.
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.
Tacitus. Annals 2.2 'diversus a maiorum institutis, raro venatu, segni
Tacitus, Annuls 6.43 'inluvie obsitus et alimenta arcu expediens'.
Of course we may yet find coins dated to the missing years.
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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