Post 59: Rome, Parthia and India (part 2)

In my last post, I discuss the first part of John B Grainger’s book ‘Rome, Parthia & India‘. The scene is set in the mid second century B.C, with the Roman Republic on a high following its victory over Carthage, and the old successor states of Alexander the Greats empire falling into chaos as usurpers and internal strife leaves them in a weakened state.

The rest of the story

By 130, Greek Bactria was more or less gone. The nomadic Saka and Yuezhi had invaded, pillaged the cities and forced the remaining Greeks out to the east. One of the big archeological sites here is Ai Khanoum or Alexandra-on-the-Oxus – judging by the coins present, this may not have even lasted beyond the end of the reign of Eucratides I in 145 B.C. The Indo-Greek state that survived would become locally influential on culture, but its connections with the rest of the Greek world would be largely myth and rumour and by 10 A.D it too would conquered by nomadic scythians.

The Seleucids would continue on their destructive civil war with usurpers and pretenders from the families of Alexander Balas and Demetrios taking turns to control the throne. Within this chaos, the Parthians, the Maccabees and briefly others would carve out their own states. It wasn’t the end entirely, and a rump state in Syria would limp on for a while yet but they were no longer the great super power. However – mentioned as a bit of a footnote in the book, but a great story in its own right, was the false dawn of Antiochus VII. This last great king brought the Maccabees and anatolian states back under his control then led an army into the east, recapturing Mesopotamia, Babylonia and Media. Unfortunately his success was short lived and in 129 he was marching with a small force to cut off a Parthian attack, when he was ambushed and killed.

The story in Greece is much less straight forward. Andriskos, the Macedonia pretender would sparked everything off, would have some initial success against Rome but he would soon after be defeated in the second battle of Pydna. Rome began to look at ways to keep the peace in the region, and left a permanent garrison to keep it under control. Andriskos had not been popular in Greece, but the Roman garrison didn’t really do much better. They set about dismantling the leagues of city states and removing any potential threats. It didn’t matter whether the state had been an ally, neutral or an enemy – all were under suspicion. This culminated in the Battle of Corinth in 146 B.C, where the Romans defeated the Achaean League and destroyed the great city of Corinth.

Knock-on effects in the West

What holds the book together is the idea that these crises started a domino effect across the world. Andriskos was pulled into the Carthaginian wars with Rome, and pulled the Romans deeper and deeper into the world of Greek politics. The collapse of the Macedonian status quo and subsequent defeat of a Roman army led the senate to move their attention in that direction. Even a minor threat to Roman power could not be tolerated and a new, permanent solution was needed to the problem.

The Romans were also going through internal issues: as successful as Scipio Aemilianus was, his rise to consul had happened below the minimum age requirement – weakening the shaky constitution of the republic; and the not-yet professional Roman army was struggling with numerous problems. New land was being annexed, but there was no overall plan for how to run this or what to do with the additional wealth and power. Superficially things looked good, but the issues that would eventually lead to the civil wars and end of the Republic were already beginning to take shape.

In the East

The nomad invasions of Bactria removed the pressure on the Parthians from the East and gave them free reign to strengthen their own position. The problems in Bactria would prove almost fatal as Ai-Khanum was destroyed, and the west collapsed. The east would recover under Menander and survive for another century or so, and in time the nomads would begin to threaten the Parthian borders again. But as it was, the Parthians were able to push west into the ailing Seleucid empire and take control of Persia.

The collapse of Seleucid power also played into this, giving the Parthians space to expand, but it had larger effects. It was from Syria that Andriskos raised his mercenaries and set off to conquer Macedonia. The involvement of Egypt and the Jews in the crisis, just led to further enmity and isolation – with no one left to help when the end came. Even provinces that were loyal to the empire found themselves spiraling towards separation as they had to take on more and more responsibility themselves.

Legacy

At the end of this period of strife, we find the classical world dominated by two superpowers – Rome and Parthia (the India of the title was really doing its own thing, and only really involved in the book as far as Bactrian decline is concerned). Rome was shifting from the republic of old to a new colonial power, with the slide to empire beginning. Parthia would control the East in a more traditional, nomadic style than the Seleucids had done. Egypt was still holding on as wealthy and powerful, but had almost become an old irrelevance in this changing world – the remaining rulers would be preoccupied with internal troubles. In a short period of time, the old status quo of the hellenistic age had melted away.

This wasn’t down to a grand plan on the part of the beneficiaries – more an accidental chain of events sparked by individual actions here or there, that eventually left the whole rotten structure to fall down. There are few great heroes in this story, few decisive and detailed narratives. This is perhaps why the era is often so overlooked. Grainger does well to collect the different aspects and find the common themes and effects that bind them together. It’s not a perfect book – India is somewhat tacked on, Rome is a huge part of the story but the internal history of it is brushed past only briefly. With these, the book can feel a little unbalanced and I’d recommend having some knowledge of the major background events (Carthage, Alexander the Great, the fall of the Roman Republic) before reading it; but I would still recommend reading it. It’s an interesting take on an often forgotten time.

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