Ctesiphon, capital city of the Parthian Empire,
March, AD 55
The setting sun lit up the broad stretch of the Tigris river, so that it gleamed like molten gold against the pale orange of the sky. The air was still and cool, and the last clouds of the thunderstorm
that had drenched the city had passed to the south, leaving the faintest odour of iron in the gathering dusk. The servants of the royal palace were scurrying about their duties as they prepared
the riverside pavilion for that evening’s meeting of the king and his council to discuss the latest Roman threat to Parthia. They were urged on by the impatient shouts and blows from the chamberlain, a thin rake of a man, prematurely grey with the anxiety that came from attending the irascible ruler of an empire that stretched from the banks of the Indus to the borders of the Roman province of Syria. King Vologases was a man bent on reviving the grandeur of Parthia and was not prepared to suffer anyone who stood in the way of his destiny, to the smallest degree.
Neither rebellious noble, nor clumsy or inefficient servant. The last chamberlain had failed to ensure that the food served at a banquet had been sufficiently hot when it reached the royal table. For that he had been flogged almost to death before being thrown into the street. The current chamberlain was determined not to follow his example, and so he cursed and beat his underlings as they set up the divans, piled fuel by the braziers and hung thick embroidered screens on three sides of the pavilion. The fourth was left open for the king and his guests to enjoy the view of the river as the sun disappeared beyond the horizon and the stars came out and shimmered on the dark waters of the river.
When the last silk cushions had been carefully deployed, the servants backed to the side of the enclosed space and waited as the chamberlain scrutinised their work and bent to make a handful of
minor adjustments until satisfied that there was nothing his master could take exception to. Not that Vologases was inclined to closely inspect every detail of the luxury he was accustomed to living
within. Still, the chamberlain mused, better to be scrupulous than take the slightest risk of incurring the king’s wrath. Having completed his inspection, he clapped his hands loudly.
‘Away, you dogs! Bring the fruit and wine.’
As they began to trot away, he turned to his assistant. ‘And you, tell the kitchen master to have the meal readied to be served the instant I give the word.’
His assistant, a younger, corpulent man who no doubt aspired to replace him, nodded and scurried away. The chamberlain cast another look round at the handiwork of his staff and then stood in
front of the king’s dais and narrowed his eyes as he inspected the large divan, cushions and covers minutely. He leaned forward to ease out a crease in the cloth and then stood back and folded his
arms in satisfaction. Then, uncharacteristically, he gave a thin smile and glanced around warily. But he was quite alone. It was a rare moment in his life, consumed as it was with the myriad duties of his post. The interlude would be brief enough before the servants returned with the fruit and wine, along with the royal taster, who would sample each bowl and jar at the behest of the chamberlain to ensure that King Vologases would be able to eat and drink safely. Vast and enduring though Parthia was, the empire’s rulers were less enduring, regularly falling victim to the plots of powerful nobles, or the ambitions of members of the royal family.
The chamberlain breathed deeply as he smiled at the royal divan and felt an almost irresistible urge to bound forward and throw himself upon its silk cushions, unobserved. It would be the act of a
moment and no one would ever know. His heart quickened at the prospect of such an extraordinary breach of protocol, and for a few breaths he tottered on the brink of temptation. Then he drew
himself back and covered his mouth in horror at the thought of what would become of him if the king ever discovered what he had done. Although the chamberlain was quite alone, the fear of his
master ruled his heart and he quailed at his fleeting madness. With an anxious gasp he hurried to the top of the steps leading down to the gardens either side of the path that stretched towards the bulk of the palace. The first of the servants was returning, laden with a large silver platter of figs, dates and other fine fruits.
‘Run, you idle dog!’ the chamberlain snapped, and the man broke into a trot as he struggled not to upset the arrangement on the platter. The chamberlain took a last look at the setting and offered a quick prayer to Mithras that his master would find nothing amongst the arrangements to displease him.
When the king and his small retinue emerged from the palace, the sun had slipped beyond the horizon and a band of bronze sky stretched across the shadowy landscape across the river. Above, the
bronze gave way to violet and the dark velvet of night, where the first stars glittered like tiny specks of silver. A party of bodyguards marched in front, armed with lances and wearing their flowing,
richly embroidered trousers tucked into their leather ankle boots. Scale armour cuirasses and conical helmets gleamed in the light of the torches and braziers burning either side of the path. But their appearance was as the basest metal to the purest gold compared to the magnificence of their master. Vologases was a tall, well-built man with a broad brow and square jaw, made to look more square still by the meticulous trimming of his dark beard. His eyes were equally dark, like polished ebony, which lent his gaze a formidable intensity. Yet there appeared to be humour in his expression too. His lips lifted at the very edges so that he smiled when he spoke in his deep, warm voice. And, indeed, he was capable of wit and kindness, alongside his wisdom and ambition, and his soldiers and his people regarded him with loyal affection. But those who knew him well were wary of the mercurial change in mood that he was capable of and smiled when he smiled and stood in rigid, fearful silence when he raged.
This night his mood was sombre. News had reached the Parthian capital that Emperor Claudius was dead, murdered, and that he had been succeeded by his adopted son, Nero. The question for
Vologases was how the change of reign might affect the strained relationship between Parthia and Rome, a relationship that had soured in recent years. The cause, as ever, was the fate of Armenia,
the hapless border kingdom caught between the ambitions of Rome and Parthia. Some four years earlier a pretender to the Armenian throne, Prince Rhadamistus of the neighbouring kingdom of Iberia, had invaded Armenia, killed the king and his family, and installed himself as the new ruler. Rhadamistus had proved to be as cruel as he was ambitious, and the Armenians had appealed to Vologases to save them from the tyrant. So he had led his army against Rhadamistus, who fled his capital, and placed his brother Tiridates on the throne. It was a provocation, Vologases knew, since Rome had regarded Armenia as within the Roman sphere of power for over a hundred years now. The Romans were not likely to regard Parthia’s intervention favourably.
The chamberlain, who had been waiting at the entrance, bowed to the waist as the party climbed the steps into the pavilion. The bodyguards took their positions outside, except for the two largest
men, who stationed themselves either side of the king’s dais. Vologases eased himself down on to the divan and settled comfortably before he gestured to the members of his high council.
In a formal setting his guests would have remained standing before their master, but Vologases had deliberately chosen the pavilion and put court protocol aside to encourage his subordinates
to speak freely. Once they were seated on the divans, the king leaned forward, plucked a fig from his platter and took a bite, thus giving permission for the others to eat as they wished.
Vologases tossed the half-eaten fruit back on the platter and gazed round at his guests: Sporaces, his finest general; Abdagases, the royal treasurer; and Prince Vardanes, the eldest son of the king and heir to the Parthian throne. An ambassador from Tiridates completed the gathering: a younger man, about the same age as the prince, Mithraxes by name.
‘We’ve little time to waste, my friends,’ Vologases announced. ‘So you’ll pardon me for dispensing with any small talk. You’ve all heard the news from Rome. We have a new emperor to contend
‘Nero?’ Sporaces shook his head. ‘Can’t say that I recall the name, sire.’
‘It’s hardly surprising. He was only adopted a few years back. Son of Emperor Claudius’s last wife by a previous marriage.’
‘The same wife who happens to be Claudius’s niece,’ Vardanes added wryly. He clicked his tongue and raised an eyebrow. ‘Those Romans, eh? Quite the decadent type. Never anything short of
The others smiled at his comment.
‘What do we know of this Nero?’ Sporaces continued. The general was a veteran who had little time for levity, a characteristic that suited his thin, almost gaunt features. Most of those in the royal
court held his boorish manners in low regard, but Vologases knew his worth as a soldier and prized his talents. Moreover, as the son of a Greek mercenary and a whore from Seleucia, Sporaces was despised by the great nobles of Parthia and therefore posed no threat to Vologases.
The king nodded to Abdagases, who ran the network of spies that Parthia used to glean information about events within the Roman Empire. ‘You’ve read the full report. You tell them.’
‘Yes, sire.’ Abdagases cleared his throat. ‘Firstly, he’s young. Only sixteen years old. Barely more than a boy.’
‘Maybe so.’ Sporaces tilted his head slightly. ‘But Augustus was only eighteen when he set out to destroy his opponents and become the first emperor of Rome.’
‘Nero is no Augustus,’ the treasurer contradicted him tersely. ‘He may become one, though the possibility of that is remote, according to our agents in Rome. The new emperor fancies himself as something of an artist. A musician. A poet . . . He surrounds himself with actors, musicians and philosophers. He has ambitions to make Rome some kind of beacon for such people, rather than turn his mind towards more martial matters.’
‘An artist? A musician?’ Sporaces shook his head. ‘What kind of a bloody emperor is that?’
‘One who will play into our hands, I trust,’ said Vologases. ‘Let us hope that young Nero continues to concentrate his efforts on his art and is not distracted by events in Armenia.’
Abdagases nodded. ‘Yes, sire. We can hope, but it may be wise not to be guided by mere hope. Nero may be a dilettante, but it would be foolish to dismiss him out of hand. He is surrounded by
advisers, many of whom have the intelligence and experience to cause us problems. Not least because they suffer from the Roman disease.’
‘Roman disease?’ Vardanes cocked an eyebrow, helped himself to a second fig and took a big bite. His jaws worked casually before he attempted to continue with a full mouth. ‘What . . . disease . . . is that?’
‘It’s a term some of us at the royal court have used for those Romans obsessed by the pursuit of glory and their utterly inflexible sense of honour. No Roman noble of any standing ever passes up
the chance to win acclaim for his family. Whatever the cost. Which is why Crassus attempted to invade Parthia and came to grief. And Marcus Antonius after him. It’s a pity that they seem to measure themselves by outdoing the achievements of their ancestors, and are driven to succeed where others have failed.’ Abdagases paused a moment. ‘It would seem that the failures of Crassus and Antonius only serve to inspire Romans to regard Parthia as a challenge to be overcome. Reasonable men might have profited from the example of failure, but Roman aristocratic honour trumps Roman reasoning almost every time. Augustus was shrewd enough to realise that he could gain more from diplomacy than from military actions in his dealings with Parthia, and his heirs have followed his example in the main. Even if that meant frustrating the senators urging them to wage war on us. The question is, will this new emperor be able to resist the blandishments of his advisers, and the Senate?’
‘I sincerely hope so,’ Vologases answered. ‘Parthia can ill afford the risk of war breaking out with Rome while we have enemies threatening trouble on other fronts.’
Vardanes sighed. ‘You speak of the Hyrcanians, Father?’
Vardanes was the king’s favourite son. He had courage, intelligence and charisma, qualities useful in an heir. But he also had ambition, and that was an attribute that was as much to be feared as admired. Particularly in Parthia. The king’s expression darkened.
‘Yes, the Hyrcanians. It seems that they disapprove of the increase in tribute I have demanded of them.’
Vardanes smiled. ‘Which is no surprise. And not helpful at a time when we have provoked our Greek subjects by forcing them to put their language and traditions aside to embrace ours, even though Greek is the common tongue across the eastern world. Then there is the trouble brewing up with Rome over Armenia.’ He sipped his wine. ‘I fear we are overreaching ourselves. Particularly with respect to Armenia. Rome and Parthia are like two dogs fighting over a bone.’
The treasurer coughed politely as he interrupted. ‘His Highness oversimplifies the matter. The bone happens to be ours, and those Roman interlopers have no right to attempt to seize it. Most of the nobles of Armenia share our blood. Armenia owed loyalty to the Parthian empire for centuries before Rome turned its gaze to the east.’
‘I think we can all agree that Rome has no right to Armenia. Nevertheless, Rome lays claim to Armenia, and if it comes to war, she will take it. I have heard much about the might of the Roman
legions. We cannot prevail against them.’
‘Not in pitched battle, my prince. But if we can avoid a head-on clash, our forces can wear them down, weaken them and, when the time is right, tear them to pieces. Just as hunting dogs kill the
mountain bears. Is it not so, General?’ Abdagases turned to Sporaces for support.
The general thought a moment before he responded. ‘Parthia has defeated the Romans in the past. When they have blundered into our lands without adequate intelligence of the lay of the land, or
adequate supplies to sustain them. They march slowly, even without a siege train. Whereas our forces can cover ground far more swiftly, particularly our horse-archers and cataphracts. We can afford to trade ground for time in order to let them exhaust their supplies and their strength. But that is true only if they wage war across the rivers and deserts of Mesopotamia. Armenia is different. The mountainous terrain favours Rome’s infantry rather than our cavalry. I fear Prince Vardanes is correct. If Rome wants to take Armenia, it will succeed.’
‘There!’ Vardanes clicked his fingers. ‘I told you.’
‘However,’ Sporaces continued, ‘in order to take Armenia, Rome will be forced to concentrate its forces. Her soldiers are the best in the world, it is true. But they cannot be in two places at once. If they march into Armenia, then they will leave Syria exposed. Not to conquest. We lack the forces to achieve that. Parthia will never be strong enough to destroy Rome, and Rome will never
have enough men to conquer and occupy Parthia. And that is how it has always been, and always will be, my prince. A conflict neither side can win. Therefore the only answer is peace.’
‘Peace!’ Vologases snorted. ‘We have tried to make peace with Rome. We have honoured every treaty made between us, only for them to be broken more often than not by the accursed Romans.’
Vologases’ brow creased in frustration as he thought a moment. ‘And for that reason we must be certain that we choose wisely in dealing with the situation in Armenia.’
He turned towards the ambassador sent by his brother. ‘Mithraxes, you have not spoken yet. You have no opinion about the new emperor in Rome and his intentions towards Armenia?’
Mithraxes shrugged nonchalantly. ‘It hardly matters what my opinion is, Majesty. I am an Armenian noble, descended from a long line of nobles, none of whom has ever lived to see our land free of the influence of either Parthia or Rome. Our kings have a habit of being deposed, or murdered. Your brother has been on the throne barely two years. He is no worse than some who have ruled
‘Choose your words carefully when you speak of my brother,’ Vologases warned.
‘Majesty. I was sent to report on the situation in Armenia and ask for your help. I believe that is best done if I speak honestly.’
The king regarded him closely, and noted that the Armenian did not flinch under his gaze. ‘Courage as well as integrity? Are all Armenian noblemen like you?’
‘Sadly not, Majesty. And that is the problem that besets your brother. As I said, he is no worse than many rulers, and better than many. Yet, he has been obliged to rule with a firm hand in order to
establish his authority over his new realm.’
‘How firm a hand?’
‘Some nobles favour Rome, Majesty. Some resent having any foreigner imposed on them. King Tiridates determined that lessons were needed in order to discourage such disloyalty. Regrettably, it
was necessary to banish some, and execute others. This had the effect of quelling most of the discontent.’
‘I can imagine.’ Vardanes smiled. ‘But I dare say it might have inclined some to feel just a little more discontented.’
‘Quite so, Your Highness. However, King Tiridates remains on the throne in Artaxata. His enemies are cowed for the present. Though I am certain they will soon appeal for aid in unseating the
king. If they haven’t already.’ Mithraxes turned his gaze to Vologases.
‘Therefore, your brother requests that you send him an army to ensure his control over Armenia. Enough men to defeat any nobles that conspire against him, and to dissuade Rome from invading
‘An army? Is that all he asks of me?’ the king of Parthia scoffed. ‘And does my brother think I can just pluck armies out of thin air? I need all my soldiers here in Parthia to deal with the threats I
‘He does not ask for a large army, Majesty. Just a force strong enough to discourage any attempts to remove him.’
‘The Armenian rebels are one thing, the Romans quite another.I doubt they would be discouraged by any force I could afford to send to Armenia.’
Mithraxes shook his head. ‘I am not so sure, Majesty. Our spies in Syria report that the Roman legions there are badly prepared for war. They are understrength and poorly equipped. It has been many years since they have seen any action. I doubt they constitute much of a threat to King Tiridates.’
Vologases turned to his general. ‘Is this true?’
Sporaces reflected a moment before he replied. ‘It is consistent with our own intelligence, Majesty. But if the Romans should decide to intervene, they will bring more legions to Syria, and will
be sure to find fresh recruits for the existing legions. Of course, they will need to be trained. Supplies will need to be stockpiled, roads repaired, siege trains massed. It will take time to prepare a campaign.
Years perhaps. But once the Romans have decided to act, nothing will stop them. It is the Roman way.’ He paused briefly to let the others consider his words, then continued. ‘My advice would be not to provoke our enemy any further. Rome already feels affronted by having Tiridates placed on the throne. But it has not yet decided on war. If we send troops to aid your brother, that may tilt the Romans towards action. Besides, we do not yet know the mettle of this new emperor, Nero. He may be swayed either way. So let’s not give the war party in Rome any opportunity to persuade him to fight. Instead, I suggest we flatter him with warm words of friendship and congratulate him on his becoming emperor. If he questions our actions in Armenia, then tell him we were forced to replace a tyrant, and that we have no interest in any other lands that border Rome’s territory.’ He bowed his head in conclusion. ‘That is my humble advice, Majesty.’
Vologases eased himself back on his cushions and folded his hands as he considered all that he had heard from his advisers. It was true that Rome’s pride would endure being pricked only so far. Yet he could not risk sending any men to support his brother while he faced potential rebellion in Hyrcania in any case.
‘It seems that I am forced to wait on events. The choice over what to do lies with Emperor Nero. He will decide whether we have peace. Or war.’