Welcome to Connections, the show where we demonstrate how
seemingly unrelated events can combine into a chain of causes and effects which
have unexpected consequences. Tonight,
we show how the humiliating defeat of a Roman army led to the suicide of the
Royal Genealogist of the Parthian Empire 80 years later.
We begin in the year 19 B.C. with a happy scene in the
Parthian capital of Cestiphon where Musa, the favorite slave girl of the
Parthian King Phraates IV, gives birth to his son. The son is named Phraatakes and is raised as a prince in the
palace. This act of affection is
remarkable not only because of the lowly status of the child's mother, but also
because of her heritage. Musa, you
see, was Roman. And while many men
consider the lady in their life a metaphorical gift, Musa had been a literal
gift. A gift from Augustus in gratitude for the return of Roman legionary standards lost in battle
to the Parthians thirty-three years before.
Back in 52 B.C. the standards had been carried by legions
of the Roman army, and Crassus was leading the army in question into Persia.
Crassus was the richest man in Rome and was one of three triumphurs
ruling what was soon to be the Roman Empire, the other two being Pompey (the
Great) and Julius Caesar (the even greater).
Being enormously powerful and even more enormously rich, one might think
that Crassus would have been a happy man, but he wasn't.
So what did he lack? A
Crassus' two colleagues in the Triumphurship were both accomplished military men. Pompey was one of the greatest generals of his age, second only to Caesar, one of the greatest generals of any age. Pompey had defeated Mithridates the Great. Caesar had conquered Gaul. Crassus? He'd played a major role in defeating the slave rebellion of Sparticus. But there was no glory or triumphs in defeating slaves. So when in 53 B.C. Crassus was given the province of Syria to govern he immediately marched off into Persia in search of glory and the head of the current Parthian king, Orodes the Second.
Disaster ensued. On a blazing hot summer day in the heart of Parthia Rome lost Crassus, his son Publius, six legions and their standards. Rome wasn't fussed about losing Crassus, and Rome knew it could replace the legions. But the loss of the legionary standards was an insult to Roman dignity and Rome resolved to get her standards back.
Of course, resolve is one thing, results are quite another. Over the next couple of decades attempts were made to teach the Eastern world the lesson of Roman mastery. But somehow it just didn't work out that way. In 40 B.C, Decidius Saxa lost another standard in Syria, and in 36 B.C. Marc Antony marched into Armenia - and marched back out again the poorer by 10,000 men and two standards. Armenia being a client nation of Parthia, the standards wound up with the others in the Parthian capital (which was starting to have a pretty impressive collection).
Armenia was also a key to getting the standards back. The handing over of royal hostages was a common feature of ancient diplomacy and as years and treaties went by, Rome began accumulating hostages more rapidly than the Parthians accumulated Roman army standards. By 21 B.C. those hostages included the son of the Parthian king and the brother of the Armenian king. In an inspired act of bargaining, Augustus (now the king of the nacient Roman Empire) offered to return these hostages in return for the standards. Phraates IV, the embattled Parthian king, agreed. Augustus was to get by diplomacy and patience what had been lost by aggression and incompetence. Or so it appeared.
After a year had passed with no standards arriving from the East, Augustus showed himself the master of another form of diplomacy, the blatant threat of force. Augustus marched an army into Syria while his stepson Tiberius marched another into Asia Minor. These 'maneuvers' accomplished their aim and the lost standards were promptly returned, proving that one can accomplish more with diplomacy and an army than one can accomplish with diplomacy. The return of the lost standards was one of the great accomplishments of Augustus' reign, being noted on the coinage, illustrated on statues and recorded on the walls of Augustus' tomb.
Which brings us back to young Musa, the Roman slave girl sent to Phraates IV as part of the deal. Musa used her beauty, charms and lethal cunning to move her son by Phraates up the short list of possible heirs, the list ever growing shorter as other sons were banished, traded to Rome as hostages or mysteriously poisoned. When Phraatakes finally rose to the top of the list one final cup of poison sent Phraates to his ancestors and Phraatakes was proclaimed king of the Parthians.
Musa's ambitions didn't stop there however. Having a son for an king wasn't enough for Musa, she wanted to be queen. How could Musa the Roman become queen of Parthia? By marrying the King, of course. And so, Musa married her son Phraatakes and was duly crowned.
And so that is the story of Musa. Just a good old-fashioned love story really. King meets girl, girl has son, king promotes son, Mom poisons king, new king marries Mom.
I do so love a happy ending...
Oh, and the Royal Genealogist? Well, the poor man was faced with quite a dilemma. You see, one of the formal titles of the Parthian King was "Brother of the Moon and Stars". The poor genealogist was faced with trying to develop coherent titles for any children Musa and Phraatakes might have. If a son and heir were to come along, not only would he be both brother and son to the King, but both brother and nephew of the moon as well. This of course would make the moon its own uncle. Faced with a cascading series of paradoxical royal titles, the poor genealogist took the easy way out and hung himself. A sad waste really, since the Parthians quickly grew tired of being ruled by a slave and her son and the two were sent packing within two years.
After all, you have to have standards...