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Emperor Caracalla, and Cataphracts circa 101 AD.

The House of Arsacid Falls to the House of Sasan: It Started with a Wedding – Part I

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Incredibly, the end of the Parthian Empire started with a fake wedding.

Before the wedding took place, a civil war had been raging in Parthia between Vologases VI and his brother Artabanus V. After much warring between the two contesting parties, Artabanus came out as the winner and inherited the Empire. While Artabanus was enjoying his new throne, many miles to the west, the Roman Emperor Caracalla moved his headquarters to Antioch in the summer of 215 CE. The reason for Caracalla’s temporary move was that he was desirous of the title ‘Parthicus’, which would grant him great renown throughout the Roman Empire, and so he devised a plan in 216 CE. 

Coin of the Parthian king Artabanus IV.

Coin of the Parthian king Artabanus IV. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.  http://www.cngcoins.com / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

He decided that the best way to win over the Parthians was to write Artabanus a letter. Once the last scribbles were written, he gave it to his embassy, along with expensive gifts of fine workmanship.

Artabanus enjoyed the gifts, and when he opened the letter, Caracalla made it very clear that he wished to marry one of his daughters. Caracalla's objective was to unite two empires under one great power, which would benefit both men, since not only would a much stronger army emerge from this union, but the trade restrictions could be lifted. Artabanus at first did not approve of the request, saying, "that it was not proper for a barbarian to marry a Roman" and "it was not fitting that either race be bastardized."

Bust of the emperor Caracalla.

Bust of the emperor Caracalla. ( CC BY 2.5 )

Therefore, Artabanus declined the offer. Artabanus was no fool; he knew of Caracalla's deceitfulness when dealing with other nations. But this was not the end of the matter. Caracalla persisted, offering more gifts and showing enthusiasm for the marriage and for the union between the two powers. Artabanus finally believed that Caracalla was telling the truth. Artabanus felt that a permanent peace had finally arrived and publicly announced the wedding.

Caracalla crossed the rivers and was welcomed with sacrifices, decorated altars, incense scattered in his path, and all sorts of entertainment. Once he was near the palace at Ctesiphon, Artabanus came out to meet his future son-in-law in the plain before the city, with his daughter nearby. With an entire city jubilant over the event, crowned with flowers in their hair and wearing the finest robes, the populace danced to the music of flutes and drums. The men left their horses and their bows to partake in the drinking. Nothing out of the ordinary was suspected. When the Parthians were good and drunk, especially the men, the decisive moment was to be unveiled. 

Caracalla gave the signal, and the happy party—celebrating what they thought was to be a peaceful end to many centuries of bloodshed—was slaughtered. Artabanus nearly died, but was helped onto a horse and escaped with a few men. The Roman troops took much booty and many prisoners. Caracalla then gave the order to pull out, and marched away unopposed. However, this was not to be the end, for Caracalla gave his men permission to loot and burn all the towns and villages they came across and to carry as much as they could, for it was all theirs for the taking. How far they went into Parthian territory remains unknown.

Caracalla’s great raid across the western portion of the Parthian Empire was short lived, for as soon as he enjoyed his spoils, one of his own men assassinated him. For roughly three days, the Romans were without an emperor until they chose a Praetorian Prefect, Macrinus, who was not a soldier by any means. There was no time for mourning Caracalla’s death or rejoicing in Macrinus’ ascension, for the Parthians were fast approaching.

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Top Image: Detail; Emperor Caracalla. ( CC BY 2.5 ), and Cataphracts circa 101 AD. ( Public Domain )

By Cam Rea

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