On the origins of the Parthians
2nd CE to 4th CE
Title of work:
Epitome of the Philippic Histories of Pompeius Trogus
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
This text is an excerpt from an Epitome – which has to be understood as a kind of “anthology” rather than a simple “abridgement” (Yardley and Heckel, Justin. Epitome, p. 15) – of a book originally written by Trogus Pompeius, The book of the Philippic Histories, of the origins of the whole world and of the outline of earth, known as the Philippic Histories. The author, Trogus Pompeius, was a Roman citizen belonging to the people of the Vocontii in Gallia Narbonensis. Roman citizenship had been granted to his family, more precisely to his grandfather, by Pompey, as he fought for Rome during the war against Sertorius in 76-72 BCE. We also know that Trogus’s uncle served as cavalry squadron-leader under Pompey in the war against Mithridates in 66-62 BCE, and that his father served under Julius Caesar (on his family see Epitome XLIII.5.11). Even if Trogus’s family had been deeply invested in the service of Rome’s imperatores, Trogus Pompeius, who lived under Augustus and probably also Tiberius – he may have died around 20 CE –, chose to devote himself to the composition of geographical, ethnographical and historical works.
Among these, the most famous is the Philippic Histories, of which the goal was to narrate the main events or actions of every king, nation and people in the world, especially for those who experienced some kind of universal control. Nevertheless, Trogus’s original text has been lost. We only know it through prologi, or abstracts, of each of its 44 books, and through an anthology, called Epitome, later made by a man who may have been a teacher of rhetoric, Marcus Junianus Justinus. The dating of his Epitome is debated. Even if a large majority of scholars think that it may have been written during the second or at the beginning of the third century CE (Yardley and Heckel, Justin. Epitome, p. 8-13), Ronald Syme suggested the fourth century (Syme, “The date”). Justin’s goal was not to give a representative summary of Trogus’s work, as he suppressed most of the geographical or ethnological developments, and kept some of the historical examples. The aim of Justin’s Epitome was to serve as a kind of “aide-mémoire” for the teachers, in order to teach non-Roman history to people who did not know Greek (see Yardley and Heckel, Justin. Epitome, p. 9). The interventions of Justin in the original text of Trogus – which could have been successive collections or full rewritings – make it difficult to see what the original words and intentions of Trogus were.
With this history of the succession of the universal empires, Trogus wrote the first “universal history” aimed at Latin speakers, as until this time this kind of history had been written in Greek only – the Histories of Polybius, the Library of History of Diodorus Siculus, the Universal History of Nicolaus of Damascus and Timagenes of Alexandria’s On Kings (Inglebert, Le Monde, p. 243). Concerning the dating of Trogus’s composition, it may have been composed between 10 BCE and 9 CE (see Alonso-Núñez, “Trogue-Pompée,” p. 73-74), implying that “Trogus’s work would thus be roughly contemporary with Livy” (Yardley and Heckel, Justin. Epitome, p. 5-6). The Historiae Philippicae was a universal history dealing with all the peoples on earth. Contrary to Livy’s work, which dealt with Roman history only, Trogus seems to have remained focused on non-Roman peoples and history, even if one of the final goals of his work was to highlight the new universal hegemony of Rome under Augustus. However, even when he recalls the history of the Roman expansion, he does it from the point of view of the submitted peoples (Lerouge-Cohen, “Les livres,” p. 364). As Hervé Inglebert rightly states, the Historiae Philippicae was an history in the antique sense of the term, namely it was a continuous narrative focused on military and political themes with some geographical and ethnographic developments (Inglebert, Le Monde, p. 243). One of the most debated issues is probably that of the sources used by Trogus. The idea that the Historiae Philippicae was mainly a Latin adaptation of the Greek and anti-Roman work On Kings by Timagenes of Alexandria has been suggested, but it is now largely accepted that Trogus used a great variety of books written by Greek authors (see Yardley and Heckel, Justin. Epitome, p. 30-34).
The Historiae Philippicae was thus a universal history of the oikoumenè starting with the Assyrian king Ninus and ending with the submission of the Cantabri to Augustus in 19 BCE. Books 1-6 deal with the history of the ancient Near East and Greece. Next, Macedonia is dealt with in books 7-12, and the Hellenistic kingdoms before their complete submission to Rome in books 13-40. Books 41-42 deal with Parthian history up to 20 BCE, and books 43-44 with monarchical Rome and then with Gallic and Spanish history up to Augustus’s Spanish wars. The text presented here is an excerpt from the beginning of Trogus/Justin’s presentation of the Parthians, more precisely of their origins. Justin might have suppressed a large part of the ethnographical development of Trogus on this question, but he kept an aspect of the presentation which is very interesting for us, namely how the Parthian empire fits in the succession of empires and how its hegemony could be compared to that of Rome.
This presentation of the Parthians starts with a short remark about their origins as they are said to be “exiles from Scythia” (XLI.1.1-2, see also II.1.3 and II.3.1). In this work, Scythians are globally presented by Trogus/Justin as the most ancient people and as a sort of ideal primitive people (Alonso-Núñez, “An Augustan,” p. 67). Concerning their relationship with the Parthians, the beginning of the text shows that they may have arrived in the distant past, at least by the time of the Assyrians, in the territory which would become that of Parthyene, and that they waited until the time of the Macedonians to become influent (in another part of this book, Trogus seems to propose a contradictory version, see Lerouge, L’image des Parthes, p. 174-185).
Through this general presentation given at the beginning of the book XLI, Trogus highlights one important idea: the continuous but amazing progression of the Parthians. They are presented as having always lived under the yoke of the various empires which succeeded each other in the East, namely the Assyrians, the Medes, the Persians and the Macedonians (XLI.1.4-5), but finally they changed the order of things as “they have reached, thanks to their courage (per virtutem), such a success that they rule over these nations (ut imperent gentibus) under whose sway they had been merely slaves” (XLI.1.6). Then, Trogus/Justin adds that the Parthians had also to face Rome during three successive wars led “during some flourishing time, under the conduct of the greatest generals” (XLI.1.7). Trogus/Justin’s reflexion about the rise of the Parthians is explicitly connected here with the main theme outlining the whole work: the succession of the universal empires according to the order Assyrians – Medes – Persians – Macedonians – Romans. The use of this model of the succession of the five empires to explain the history of the universal domination was not something new, yet Aemilius Sura in his work De annis populi Romani – composed during the 2nd or the 1st century BCE, but known only through passages preserved by Velleius Paterculus – asserted that Rome became an hegemonic power after the death of Antiochus III or of Philip V of Macedonia (Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History I.6; Alonso-Núñez, “An Augustan,” p. 62-63; Inglebert, Le Monde, p. 256-257). This model of the five empires was also adopted by two contemporaries of Trogus Pompeius who composed a “universal history,” namely Nicolaus of Damascus, whose work is now mostly lost (Inglebert, Le Monde, p. 241-242, 257), and Denys of Halicarnassus whose aim was slightly different as it was to show that the Roman Empire was the last empire and represented the “completion of historical evolution” (Denys of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities I.2.2-4; I.3.1-5; for the quotation see Alonso-Núñez, “An Augustan,” p. 63; Inglebert, Le Monde, p. 257). However, one originality of the model of the succession of universal empires adopted by Trogus is that he inserted the Parthians in it and presented them as the successors of the Macedonians and the contemporaries and rivals of the Romans. The Parthians and their kings are thus presented by Trogus as another people which, for a limited time, became an empire with a nearly universal hegemony.
The second originality of Trogus/Justin’s presentation of the Parthians is their relationship with the Romans. In the first sentence of the text presented here, Trogus/Justin says that the Parthians have shared the rule of the world with the Romans: “The Parthians, in whose hands the empire of the east now is, having divided the world, as it were, with the Romans...” (Parthi, penes quos velut divisione orbis cum Romanis facta nunc Orientis imperium est...). The fact that Trogus/Justinus asserts that, for a period of time, the Parthians shared the world with the Romans, is deeply connected with the global message of the Philippic Histories according to which Alexander the Great would have been the only one who succeeded to control a truly universal empire (on this idea see the passages in which Alexander is said to have been destined to rule the “double empire of Europe and Asia,” XII.16.5; and in which Alexander is said to have ordered to be called the rex terrarum omnium ac mundi, “the king of all the lands and of the world,” XII.16.9). This empire did not exist after Alexander’s death and Trogus may have defended the idea that, later, it would have remained divided between the Romans, for the West, and the Parthians, for the East (see Inglebert, Le Monde, p. 245; Breebaart, “Weltgeschichte,” p. 17-22). This division of the world between the Romans and the Parthians has been interpreted by some scholars as a piece of evidence of Trogus’s relativizing of Rome’s power and hegemony and as a proof of the fact that he may have used a Greek source, probably Timagenes of Alexandria, which was hostile towards Rome. However, as has been rightly recalled, the idea that the Parthians were so powerful that they shared with Rome the rule of the world, is an idea which can be found in Strabo or even in Velleius Paterculus, two authors which cannot be suspected of anti-Roman attitudes (Strabo, Geography XI.9.2; Velleius Paterculus, History of Rome II.101; Liebmann-Frankfort, “L’histoire,” p. 912-913; Lerouge-Cohen, “Les livres,” p. 366). By affirming that the Parthians shared the rule of the world with the Romans for a period of time, Trogus may have fitted in with an idea which circulated during the Augustan period, even if in a previous passage related to the final struggle between Persia and Macedonia he asserted that “the universe could not be governed by two suns, nor could the earth with safety have two sovereigns” (XI.12.15; Alonso-Núñez, “An Augustan,” p. 64). The originality and almost provocative nature – from a Roman point of view – of Trogus’s approach, as far as we know it through Justin’s anthology, is that he seems to present the empire of Alexander as the only one which had been fully universal. Such an idea is confirmed by this passage, in which he describes the world as shared between the Romans and the Parthians, but it is important to recall that the development of the Parthians ends with a description of Augustus’s triumph over them in 20 BCE (XLII.5.11-12), and that in the last sentences of the Epitome,it is written that Augustus submitted Spain as a province after having pacified the entire world (XLIV.5.8). If we follow Trogus/Justin’s narrative, Rome would thus become the last universal empire on earth, but the author does not compare it with that of Alexander, nor does he overemphasize Rome’s hegemony. Such a phenomenon can be explained by Justin’s cuts and rewritings of the original text or by the original aim of Trogus not to be focused on Rome’s empire and to see Rome’s rise to power from the point of view of the foreign peoples.
Through this presentation of the Parthians, Trogus/Justin may have wanted to show that Rome’s power had been challenged by them and that the extension of its empire had not been an easy process. To do so, the author recalls that the Parthians defeated the Romans three times (he may refer to the victory of the Parthians over Crassus at Carrhae in 53 BCE; to the Parthian offensive in September 51 BCE which led them to Antioch, and which was repelled with difficulty by Cassius 51 BCE; and to the Parthian victory over Antony’s troops in 36 BCE), and he hyperbolically adds that they were the only ones to have done that (XLI.1.7). This sentence has been interpreted as a piece of evidence of some anti-Roman argument, probably coming from a Greek source as Timagenes, which would have been used by Trogus (Liebmann-Frankfort, “L’histoire,” p. 913-914). It is true that in many speeches of enemies of Rome quoted by Trogus/Justin, we find references to peoples who, in a more or less remote past, had defeated Rome, be they the Gauls, the Carthaginians, or the men of the Hellenistic king Pyrrhus (Alonso-Núñez, “Trogue-Pompée,” p. 78). This fact first shows that Trogus/Justin’s assessment according to which the Parthians were the only ones to defeat the Romans was exaggerated. Second, this capacity of Trogus to give voice to Rome’s enemies is for certain one of the singularities of his work, but even if these anti-Roman arguments are recalled in the narrative, it does not mean that Trogus’s perspective and work were globally anti-Roman. It would have been strange from somebody who was a member of a Gallic family who had received Roman citizenship three generations before, and whose uncle fought for Pompey against Mithridates. By recalling that the Parthians had challenged Rome’s hegemony over the East, and by highlighting their virtus, namely their military virtue (XLI.1.6; on the use of fortuna and virtus in the Epitome, see Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus XXX.4.6-16), Trogus/Justin may have wanted to insist on the exceptional character of Augustus’s victory over them (Liebmann-Frankfort, “L’histoire,” p. 921-922; Alonso-Núñez, “Trogue-Pompée,” p. 76; Lerouge-Cohen, “Les livres,” p. 367).
From a quite similar perspective, the last sentence of the text presented here has been understood by some as another anti-Roman assertion of Trogus: “... though it may have been a greater glory to them, indeed, to have been able to rise amidst the Assyrian, Median, and Persian empires, so celebrated of old, and the most powerful dominion of Bactria, peopled with a thousand cities, than to have been victorious in distant wars (longiqua bella)” (XLI.1.8-9). For some scholars, the wars against the Romans – symbolized here by the expression “distant wars” – would be less gratifying for the Parthians, than to have become a great empire in a part of the world which had had previously numerous powerful empires (Liebmann-Frankfort, “L’histoire,” p. 913-914). However, as Charlotte Lerouge-Cohen has rightly analysed, Trogus may just have wanted to see the situation of the Parthians from their own point of view. What mattered the most for them was the fact that in the East they came after such great empires, and they succeeded to protect themselves from their hostile neighbours – the Scythians. In addition, the idea that the conquests of close territories was a vital first step in the process of the settlement of any empire, rather than the waging of foreign wars, is a leitmotiv in Trogus’s work (Lerouge-Cohen, “Les livres,” p. 369). Such a reading seems convincing and it would mean that through this presentation of the history of the expansion of the Parthian empire, Trogus adopted the point of view of the Parthians: for them the military operations against the Romans were not a central element in the history of their territorial expansion. However, it remains important to consider this text dealing with the rise of the Parthian empire in the framework of the whole work as, at the end of the book XLII, Trogus/Justin insists on the fact that it was finally Rome, embodied by Augustus, which succeeded in stopping the amazing progression of the Parthians.
Presenting the Parthians as the leaders of an empire which was both a contemporary and rival of Rome, Trogus/Justin followed the aim of his literary project to present the history of the succession of the universal empires from the point of view of the non-Romans. Contrary to other contemporary historians who presented this succession according to the order Assyrians – Medes – Persians – Macedonians – Romans, Trogus/Justin innovated by inserting the Parthians in this succession and by presenting them as the main rival of Rome, with whom they are said to have shared the rule of the world for a period of time. Contrary to what may have been said, neither Trogus’s perspective nor the Historiae Philippicae were anti-Roman. This work dealt with the point of view of non-Roman peoples, and it was thus normal to mention some anti-Roman ideas and arguments of these peoples or rulers who reacted to Rome’s expansionism. At the end of book XLII (on the Parthians) and of book XLIV (dealing with the conquest of Spain by Augustus), Augustus is presented as the new unifier of the world because of his victory over these peoples. However, two elements remain difficult to understand. First, Trogus/Justin does not deal at length with the exceptional size of the Roman empire after Augustus’s victories and does not explicitly compare the universal control of the first emperor with that of Alexander the Great – which thus seems to remain in the work the ruler of the most realised universal empire. Second, Trogus/Justin does not assert that the empire of Rome under Augustus is going to put an end to the historical succession of the universal empires, as was the case with an author like Dionysus of Halicarnassus (Alonso-Núñez, “Trogue-Pompée,” p. 83). There may be various reasons for such a silence. It could be the reflection of the global aim of the work which was a “polycentric history,” that is a history dealing mainly with non-Roman peoples and empires and not focused on the depiction of Rome’s expansion and on an excessive glorification of Augustus (Inglebert, Le Monde, p. 252). Actually such a project had already been undertaken by Livy. If so, Trogus’s point of view would be a very singular one. Second, it could be explained by the fact that Augustus’s project of universal domination was not complete, as some regions, such as Britain, were not controlled by Rome. This would be an explanation for the most critical passages towards Rome, and it seems obvious that Trogus Pompeius could not explicitly deal with such an issue. Third, this silence could also be explained by the editing and the rewritings of Justin, making a proper appreciation of Trogus’s opinion on the longevity of the Roman empire difficult.