Tiridates I was King of Armenia beginning in 53 C.E. and the founder of the Arshakuni Dynasty which ruled until 428. The dates of his birth and death are unknown. His early reign was marked by a brief interruption towards the end of the year 54 and a much longer one from 58 to 63. In an agreement to resolve the Roman-Parthian conflict in and over Armenia, Tiridates (who was the brother of Vologases I of Parthia) was crowned king of Armenia by the Roman emperor Nero in 66 C.E.; in the future, the king of Armenia was to be a Parthian prince, but his appointment required approval from the Romans. Even though this made Armenia a client kingdom, various contemporary Roman sources thought that Nero had de facto ceded Armenia to Parthia.
In addition to being a king, Tiridates was also a Zoroastrian priest and was accompanied by other magi on his journey to Rome in 66 C.E. In the early twentieth century, Franz Cumont speculated that Tiridates was instrumental in the development of Mithraism, which—in Cumont's view—was simply Romanized Zoroastrianism. This "continuity" theory has since been collectively refuted. Following the example of their founder, rulers of the Arsacid dynasty continued to maintain de facto independence by carefully and skillfully manipulating their relationship with Rome and Persia. The religious and cultural foundations laid down during the Arsacid period endured long after it ended, enabling the Armenian people to retain a sense of identity during centuries of subsequent domination by various imperial entities. A desire to be free and as far as possible self-governing, rather than to dominate others, characterized Tiridates reign and that of his dynasty.
Tiridates was the son of Vonones II of Parthia and a Greek concubine. Virtually nothing is known about his minority and youth, which he spent in Media, where his father was governor under the reign of his brother Gotarzes II. Tiridates' name meant given by Tir. Tir was an Armeno-Parthian god of literature, science and art based on the Avestan Tishtrya and fused with the Greek Apollo. In 51 the Roman procurator of Cappadocia, Julius Paelignus, invaded Armenia and ravaged the country, then under an Iberian usurper Rhadamistus. Rhadamistus had killed his uncle Mithridates who was the legitimate king of Armenia by luring the Roman garrison that was protecting him outside of the fortress of Gornea.
Acting without instruction, Paelignus recognized Rhadamistus as the new king of Armenia. Syrian governor Ummidius Quadratus sent Helvidius Priscus with a legion to deal with the situation but he was recalled so as not to provoke a war with Parthia.
In 52, King Vologases I (Vagharshak in Armenian) of Parthia took the opportunity and invaded Armenia, conquering Artaxata (Artashat in Armenia) and proclaiming his younger brother Tiridates as king. This action violated the treaty that had been signed by the Roman emperor Augustus and Parthian king Phraates IV which gave the Romans the explicit right to appoint and crown the kings of Armenia. Augustus had also recovered the Roman standards held by the Parthians as a prize after the Battle of Carrhae during the signing of the treaty, thereby wiping out a longstanding stain on Roman honor. Vologases considered the throne of Armenia to have been once the property of his ancestors, now usurped by a foreign monarch. Vologases is referring to Vonones I of Parthia, and the sons of Artabanus II of Parthia, Arsaces and Orodes as the earlier Arsacids who had sat on the Armenian throne. A winter epidemic as well as an insurrection initiated by his son Vardanes forced him to withdraw his troops from Armenia, allowing Rhadamistus to return and punish locals as traitors; they eventually revolted and replaced him with the Parthian prince Tiridates in early 55. Rhadamistus escaped, along with his wife Zenobia, who was pregnant. Unable to continue fleeing, she asked her husband to end her life rather than allow her to be captured. Rhadamistus stabbed her with a Median dagger and flung her body into the river Araxes. Zenobia, however, was not fatally injured; she was recovered by shepherds who sent her to Tiridates. Tiridates received her kindly and treated her as a member of the royal family. Rhadamistus himself returned to Iberia and was soon put to death by his father Parasmanes I of Iberia for having plotted against the throne.
Unhappy with the growing Parthian influence at their doorstep, Roman Emperor Nero sent General Corbulo with a large army to the east in order to restore the rule of Roman client kings. A Hasmonean named Aristobulus was given Lesser Armenia (Nicopolis and Satala), Gaius Julius Sohaemus of the house of Emessa received Armenia Sophene. In the spring of 58, Corbulo entered Greater Armenia from Cappadocia and advanced towards Artaxata, while Parasmanes I of Iberia attacked from the north, and Antiochus IV of Commagene attacked from the southwest. Supported by his brother, Tiridates sent flying columns to raid the Romans far and wide. Corbulo retaliated using the same tactics and the use of the Moschoi tribes who raided outlying regions of Armenia. Tiridates fled from the capital, and Corbulo burned Artaxata to the ground. In the summer, Corbulo began moving towards Tigranocerta through rough terrain, passing through the Taronitida (Taron), where several of his commanders died in an ambush by the Armenian resistance. However, the city opened its doors, with the exception of one citadel, which was destroyed in the ensuing assault. By this time the majority of Armenians had abandoned resistance and accepted the prince favored by Rome.
Nero gave the crown to the last royal descendant of the Kings of Cappadocia, the grandson of Glaphyra (daughter of Archelaus of Cappadocia) and Alexander of Judea (the brother of Herod Archelaus and the son of Herod the Great) who assumed the Armenian name Tigranes (his uncle was Tigranes V). His son, named Alexander, married Iotapa, the daughter of Antiochus IV of Commagene and was made King of Cilicia. Nero was hailed vigorously in public for this initial victory and Corbulo was appointed governor of Syria as a reward. This was a very prestigious appointment. Not only was Syria a wealthy province, it was also one of the largest. A guard of 1,000 legionary soldiers, three auxiliary cohorts and two wings of horses were allotted to Tigranes in order to defend the country. Border districts were bestowed to Roman allies that assisted Corbulo including Polemon, Parasmanes, Aristobolus and Antiochus.
Although infuriated that an alien now sat on the Armenian throne Vologases hesitated to reinstate his brother as he was engaged in a conflict with the Hyrcanians who were revolting. Tigranes invaded the Kingdom of Adiabene and deposed its King Monobazes in 61, who was a vassal of Parthians.
Vologases considered this an act of aggression from Rome and started a campaign to restore Tiridates to the Armenian throne. He placed under the command of spahbod Moneses a well-disciplined force of cataphracts along with Adiabenian auxiliaries and ordered him to expel Tigranes from Armenia. Having quelled the Hyrcanian revolt, Vologases gathered the strength of his dominions and marched toward Armenia. Corbulo, having been informed of the impending attack, sent two legions under the commands of Verulanus Severus and Vettius Bolanus to assist Tigranes with secret directions that they should act with caution rather than vigor. He also dispatched a message to Nero, urging him to send a second commander with the explicit purpose of defending Armenia as Syria was now also in peril. Corbulo placed the remainder of the legions on the banks of the Euphrates and armed irregular troops of the nearby provinces. Since the region was deficient in water, he erected forts over the fountains and concealed the rivulets by heaping sand over them.
Moneses marched towards Tigranocerta but failed to break the defense of the city walls as his troops were unfit for a long siege. Corbulo, although eminently successful thought it prudent to use his good fortune with moderation. He sent a Roman centurion by the name of Casperius to the camp of Vologases in Nisibis located 37 miles (60 km) from Tigranocerta with the demand to raise the siege. Because of a recent locust storm and the scarcity of fodder for his horses Vologases agreed to raise the siege of Tigranocerta and petitioned to be granted Armenia in order to achieve a firm peace. Vologases demanded that both the Roman and Parthian troops should evacuate Armenia, that Tigranes should be dethroned, and that the position of Tiridates be recognized. The Roman government declined to agree to these arrangements and sent Lucius Caesennius Paetus, governor of Cappadocia, to settle the question by bringing Armenia under direct Roman administration.
Paetus was an incapable commander and suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Rhandeia in 62, losing the legions of XII Fulminata commanded by Calvisius Sabinus and IIII Scythica commanded by Funisulanus Vettonianus. The command of the troops was returned to Corbulo, who the following year led a strong army into Melitene and beyond into Armenia, eliminating all the regional governors whom he suspected were pro-Parthian. Finally in Rhandeia, Corbulo and Tiridates met to make a peace agreement. The location of Rhandeia suited both Tiridates and Corbulo. It appealed to Tiridates because that is where his army had beaten the Romans; on the other hand, it appealed to Corbulo because he was about to wipe out the ill repute earned before in the same location. When Tiridates arrived at the Roman camp he took off his royal diadem and placed it on the ground near a statue of Nero, agreeing to receive it back only from Nero in Rome. Tiridates was recognized as the vassal king of Armenia; a Roman garrison would remain in the country permanently, in Sophene while Artaxata would be reconstructed. Corbulo left his son-in-law Annius Vinicianus to accompany Tiridates to Rome in order to attest his own fidelity to Nero.
Prior to embarking for Rome, Tiridates visited his mother and two brothers in Media Atropatene and Parthia. On his long trek he was accompanied by his family and an imposing retinue, comprised of many feudal lords and 3,000 horsemen. His route lay across Thrace, through Illyria, on the eastern shores of the Adriatic and Picenum, in northeastern Italy. The journey took nine months, and Tiridates rode on horseback, with his children and queen at his side.
Dio Cassius, a second-century Roman historian, described Tiridates favorably at the time of his arrival: "Tiridates himself was in the prime of his life, a notable figure by reason of his youth, beauty, family, and intelligence." Nero greeted Tiridates at Neapolis (Naples) in October, sending a state chariot to carry the visitor over the last few miles. No one was allowed to approach the emperor armed, but Tiridates maintained his dignity by refusing to remove his sword as he approached the ruler of the Roman Empire (though as a compromise, he agreed to have his sword firmly fastened in the sheath, so that it could not be drawn). At Puteolis (modern Pozzuoli, near Naples) Nero ordered athletic games to be staged in honor of his guest. The Armenian king himself had an opportunity to display his ability as a marksman by shooting an arrow through the bodies of two buffaloes. The event at Puteolis also marked the first attested appearance of female gladiators:
Nero admired him for this action [(Tiridates' refusal to remove his sword)] and entertained him in many ways, especially by giving a gladiatorial exhibition at Puteoli. It was under the direction of Patrobius, one of his freedmen, who managed to make it a most brilliant and costly affair, as may be seen from the fact that on one of the days not a person but Ethiopians—men, women, and children—appeared in the theatre.
The climax of the ceremonies was reserved for the capital. Rome was profusely decorated with flags, torches, garlands and bunting, and was gorgeously illuminated at night with great crowds of people seen everywhere.
On the day after Tiridates' arrival, Nero came to the Forum clothed in triumphal vestments and surrounded by dignitaries and soldiers, all resplendent in expensive attire and glittering armor. While Nero sat on the imperial throne, Tiridates and his retinue advanced between two lines of soldiers. Arriving in front of the dais, Tiridates knelt, with hands clasped on his breast. After the thundering shouts and acclamations excited by this spectacle had subsided, Tiridates addressed the emperor:
My Lord, I am a descendant of Arsakes and the brother of the Kings [Vologases] and Pacorus. 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:
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.
Edward Champlin notes: "When Nero entered with the senators and the guard, he ascended the Rostra and sat in his chair of state, looking back down the Forum in an east-southeasterly direction. That is, as Tiridates approached him through the ranks of soldiers, the rising sun would have hit Nero full on the face, in all his triumphal splendor. The prince then addressed the emperor from the ground, looking up to him on the Rostra: "I have come to you, my god, worshipping you as I do Mithra." The important point—something Nero would know as an initiate, whether others did or not—is that for Zoroastrians the sun was the eye of Mithra, and Mithra was often so closely associated with the sun as to be identified with it: "the Sun whom they call Mithres," as Strabo puts it. Moreover, when Zoroastrians prayed in the open air, they turned toward the sun, since their religion bound them to pray facing fire. Thus, when Tiridates stood in the open Roman Forum facing the sunlit emperor, and worshipping him as he did Mithra, he was in essence worshipping the sun. An ex-praetor translated his words and proclaimed them to the crowd. At this stage in Rome's history, very few of those present would have known who Mithra was, but there is a good likelihood that the interpreter relayed Tiridates' words as "I have come to you, my god, worshipping you as I do the Sun." For Nero, the marriage of Roman triumph and Parthian ceremony culminated in a splendid theatrical affirmation of his role as the new god of the Sun."
Tiridates then mounted the steps of the platform and knelt, while Nero placed the royal diadem on his head. As the young king was about to kneel a second time, Nero lifted him by his right hand and after kissing him, made him sit at his side on a chair a little lower than his own. Meanwhile, the populace gave tumultuous ovations to both rulers. A Praetor, speaking to the audience, interpreted and explained the words of Tiridates, who spoke in Greek. According to Pliny the Elder, Tiridates then introduced Nero to magian feasts (magicis cenis). Tacitus claimed that Tiridates was also interested in all things Roman.
Public festivities continued for some time after the coronation ceremony. The interior of the Theatre of Pompey and every piece of its furniture was entirely gilded for the occasion; for this reason, Rome thenceforth 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 a chariot race. At the evening banquets, Nero, in gold-embroidered vestments, sang and played the lyre with zither accompaniment. Tiridates was amazed and disgusted by Nero's extravagance, but he had only praise for Corbulo and expressed to Corbulo his surprise at his serving such a master. He made no concealment of his views to Nero's face and said to him sarcastically: "Sire, you have a wonderful servant in the person of Corbulo."
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. 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 Tiridates and his retinue, both from and to their homeland. Nero also made a gift to Tiridates of 50 million sesterces.
On his journey back to Armenia, Tiridates viewed an exhibition of pancratium. When he saw that one of the contestants had fallen on his back and was being beaten by his opponents, Tiridates exclaimed: "That's an unfair contest. It isn't fair that a man who has fallen should be beaten."
Later, Nero summoned the Parthian King Vologases to Rome several times, but when the invitations became burdensome to Vologases, he sent back a dispatch to this effect: "It is far easier for you than for me to traverse so great a body of water. Therefore, if you will come to Asia, we can then arrange to meet each other."
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 Tiridates returned to Armenia, he took with him a great number of skilled artisans for the reconstruction of Artaxata. He renamed the capital Neronia in honor of the emperor; he embellished the royal residence at Garni, nearby, with colonnades and monuments of dazzling richness and also the addition of a new temple. Trade between the two continents also grew, allowing Armenia to secure its independence from Rome. 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. Peace was a considerable victory for Nero politically.
The immediate dividend of the peace was Rome's ability to turn its full attention to the mounting problems in Judea, which broke into open warfare culminating in the First Jewish-Roman War just one year after Tiridates' coronation. Large numbers of legions were diverted to Judea from Syria, which would otherwise have been impossible. Nero became very popular in the eastern provinces of Rome and with the Armenians and Parthians. The name of Legio XII Fulminata discovered carved on a mountain in Gobustan (in modern Azerbaijan), attests to the presence of Roman soldiers by the shores of the Caspian Sea in 89 C.E., farther east than any previously known Roman inscription. The peace between Parthia and Rome lasted 50 years, until emperor Trajan invaded Armenia in 114.
In 72 the Alans, a warlike nomadic Sarmatian tribe, made an incursion into Media Atropatene as well as various districts of northern Armenia. Tiridates and his brother Pacorus, King of Media Atropatene, faced them at a number of battles, during one of which Tiridates was briefly captured, narrowly escaping being taken alive. He was lassoed from a distance and caught, but he quickly managed to whip out his sword and slash the rope in time. The Alans withdrew with a lot of booty after plundering Armenia and Media Atropatene. The king of Iberia asked for protection against the Alans from Vespasian, who helped reconstruct the fortress of Harmozica around the Iberian capital Mtskheta, near modern Tbilisi. An Aramaic inscription found near Tbilisi indicates that Tiridates also warred with Iberia during his final years. The exact date of the end of Tiridates' reign is unknown; various sources name Sanatruces as his successor. Both Classical Greco-Roman and Armenian sources from the Late Antiquity mention Sanatruces (Sanatruk in Armenian), in Armenian sources he is identified with the martyrdom of Thaddeus. Professor Nina Garsoian, Emerita of Columbia University, states that there is no explicit evidence naming Sanatruces as Tiridates' successor. It is known that Tiridates' nephew, Axidares, the son of Pacorus II of Parthia, was King of Armenia by 110.
The dynasty established by Tiridates ruled Armenia until 428. In 301, the kingdom of Armenia became the first Christian state in the world. Following the example of their founder, rulers of the Arsacid dynasty continued to maintain at least de facto independence by carefully and skillfully manipulating their relationship with Rome and Persia. A desire to be free and as far as possible self-governing rather than to dominate others characterized both Tiridates reign and that of his dynasty. The religious and cultural foundations laid down during the Arsacid period endured long after it ended, during centuries of subsequent domination by various imperial entities.
Historical sources for Tacitus include Tacitus Annals and Cassius Dio's Roman History. His possible role in the development of Mithraism has interested scholars, which as a mystery religion became popular with Romans soldiers and was a competitor with Christianity for some time. Tiridates is one of the principal characters in George Frideric Handel's Radamisto and Reinhard Keiser's Octavia operas.
|King of Armenia
Classical Review. 15(3):159-165.
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