Armenia between Rome and Parthia at the beginning of a New Era – The reign of Zeno-Artaxias

In 15 AD, after the Parthian Vonones I was deposed from his brief Armenian kingship and fled to Syria, the Armenian nobles and a sizeable military force in full pomp had ceremoniously convened at the foot of mount Niphates in support of Artabanus II of Parthia.

He installed his son Orodes as governor of Armenia, being cautious not to crown him king, to avoid provoking another war with Rome. It was obvious, however, that Armenia was drifting away from Rome and aspiring towards the Parthians, particularly after the disastrous Armenian policies during the latter two decades by Augustus.

After the death of Augustus, Tiberius attempted to resolve the explosive situation in Armenia. In 17 AD, he dispatched his adopted son Germanicus to the East to resolve the political instability, namely to install king Zeno-Artaxias III on the Armenian throne.

He first visited Pythodora, Artaxias’ mother and widowed queen of Cappadocia. Pythodora and Germanicus were both grandchildren of Mark Antony. In fact, Pythodora was the first grandchild of Mark Antony to be born, and her son, Artaxias, was Mark Antony’s very first great grandson. Her second husband king Archelaus III of Cappadocia had just died after falling out of favor with Tiberius and having been recalled to Rome.

Germanicus and Pythodora met and discussed the plans to install her son Zeno to the Armenian throne, as well as to reduce Cappadocia into a Roman province, while he tried to resolve the dilemma of having to safely escort Zeno-Artaxias to the Armenian capital. He did not have enough troops to enforce this move.

Considering the prevailing anti-Roman and pro-Parthian sentiment in Armenia, he was expecting resistance from the pro-Parthian nobles. Piso, the governor of Antioch, was not sending reinforcements out of spite.

Nevertheless, in 18 AD Germanicus escorted Zeno to Artaxiat, and without even a show of force. It was overall a great mystery how the same powerful pro-Parthian aristocracy in Armenia embraced Germanicus without the accompaniment of a token Roman army, and allowed the installation of a Roman appointed client king such as Artaxias III.

In fact, upon seeing the “armed colours of Armenia” during the ceremonies of the crowning of Artaxias III, at one moment Germanicus got uneasy and requested once more from the governor of Syria Piso that he send legions from Antioch as a show of force. He never got these.

The theories behind Germanicus’ mysterious success and his warm Armenian welcome are as follows:

  1. The king of Cappadocia, Archelaos III, the stepfather of Zeno, and his wife, Pythodora, must have nurtured good clandestine relations with Parthia. They may have also been the “ears” of Artabanus for him to foresee what the Romans were up to, as the Parthians had developed a keen network of political intelligence throughout their neighbors. This indicates that Artabanus knew about the Roman intentions regarding Armenia even before the arrival of Germanicus. When Archelaos had fallen out of favor with Tiberius and had been recalled to Rome in 17 AD, to stand trial for some shady dealings he had conducted, it most presumably involved these secret negotiations with Artabanus, which may have even included the prospects of appointing Zeno as king, even before Germanicus had been tasked in this matter.
  2. From his early childhood, Zeno Artaxias enjoyed imitating and copying the customs, clothes, and other pastimes associated with Armenians, such as hunting and feasting, and in the words of Tacitus, “whatever else barbarians practice” (quae alia barbari celebrant). Why would Zeno imitate Armenian customs? Tacitus actually implies that Zeno grew up in Armenia Minor, among Armenians, in the very heartland of the upper Euphrates, as his actual father, Polemo, and later his stepfather, Archelaus, both had ruled over Armenia minor after she was given to them by Mark Antony. Therefore the Armenians knew of Zeno long before Germanicus. One theory about why Zeno adopted the name Artaxias, was partly to commemorate an anti-Roman king, in remembrance of Artaxias II, the son of King Artavasdes II, who was treacherously captured by Mark Antony and who had thereafter ravaged Armenia. Soon after, Artaxias II had taken over the Armenian throne with the help of the Parthians and exacted bitter revenge on the Romans. Ever since then, Armenians had never forgotten the insult they had suffered. Therefore this name carried a secret anti-Roman agenda and served to appeal to the Armenians and the Parthians of the times.
  3. Many historians believe that the brilliant character and “the very gravity of the personality” of Germanicus must have contributed to his scoring such a spectacular success, and in winning over the Armenian nobility, despite his unarmed presence in a “dangerous” land which had just 15 years ago caused the death of Augustus’ last grandson and heir.
  4. Germanicus and Artabanus had a previous understanding prior to his arrival in Armenia. The “preliminaries to the pact” were established before his arrival in Armenia. Germanicus seems to have obtained a prior guarantee of safe conduct for his Armenian mission. For the lords of Armenia it meant a prospect of peace for their country thereby avoiding a further clash between superpowers. Armenian detachments from nobles from the Western provinces of Armenia accompanied Germanicus in escorting Zeno-Artaxias to the capital Artaxiat. In essence, the Armenian nobility of the region was instrumental in arranging for the successful passage of Artaxias III to his Armenian capital.
  5. As a matter of fact, coins of Artaxias III, based on certain numismatic interpretations, were minted before and in preparation of the coronation, in Western Armenia.
    Which brings me to this coin I have posted today: A pristine example of a very rare variety probably minted before Germanicus escorted Zeno and crowned him king. The attribution of this coin is Kovacs 189. Obverse: laureate and jugate heads of Tiberius and Zeno. Reverse: Armenian tiara with the legend ΚΑΙ ΤΙΒΕΡΙΟΣ Κ ΖΗΝΟΣ “Caesar Tiberius and Zeno”.
    Quoting Frank Kovacs, “Why are they both laureate? Are they celebrating a joint triumph? And why does the inscription use Zeno instead of Artaxias? Perhaps this issue predates Zeno’s coronation”. Indeed, why would a coin be minted before coronation, unless all superpowers, including Artabanus and the kings in the region were fully in agreement of this event? It may even imply that the parties involved were not aware that Zeno would choose the reigning name “Artaxias” before his arrival into Armenia. This coin is in full support of the theory that Zeno was pre-determined to become king long before Germanicus escorted him.

Artaxias III reigned over Armenia in peace for 16 years, until 34 AD. He was the longest reigning client king of Armenia.

by Joseph Sarkissian

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