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Sulla in Cappadocia: First Meeting with Parthia

Updated: Sep 20

This story of the first diplomatic contact between Rome and Parthia, is illustrated with three coins. The story begins around 101 BC when the first coin, a Roman republican denarius, was minted in Rome by L Sentius. The obverse is one of several that declare that the coin is made from the state treasury: "argentum publicum" is abbreviated on the obverse as ARG PVB. Why some issues declare this is not known. Sentius was brother to C Sentius Cf, praetor urbanus in 94, the senior city magistrate and held the same position himself somewhere between 93 and 89 BC.

Obv: Helmeted head of Roma right; behind, ARG PVB

Rev: Jupiter in quadriga right, holding reins and thunderbolt in left hand, and scepter in left; above, control letter A; in ex. L SENTI C F

Ref: Crawford 325/1a; Sentia 1; Sydenham 600


While this coin was minted in Rome and circulating, 101-100 BC, Mithridates VI "Eupator" of Pontus had the Cappadocian king, Ariarathes VII, killed by Gordius, a Cappadocian quisling (i.e. traitor), and overran Cappadocia. He then installed one of his sons as King of Cappadocia under a fictitious name Ariarathes IX, whom Gordius tutored. There was another challenger put forward by Nicomedes III of Bythnia. The Roman Senate encouraged the Cappadocian nobility to choose their own government, and they chose Ariobarzanes I, who recognized as King of Cappadocia by Rome in 97 or 96 BC. There are varying accounts of the role Rome may have played in settling the claims to the throne.

Cappadocia, Ariobarzanes I, 96-63 BC, AR Drachm

Obv: Diademed head right

Rev: BAΣIΛEΩΣ ΦIΛOPΩMAIOY APIOBAPZANOY Athena Nikephoros standing left, holding Nike in right hand, supporting shield and spear with left; monogram left, KE (date RY 25 == 71/0 BC) below

Ref: Simonetta 36a var. (orientation of monogram

Note: It is worth noting how Ariobarzanes is described on the coin: ΦIΛOPΩMAIOY, Philoromaios, Friend of Rome.


Mithridates then looked for support from Tigranes, king of Armenia, to advance his interests in Cappadocia, and gave Tigranes his daughter Cleopatra in marriage. Tigranes chased Ariobarzanes out of Cappadocia and Ariobarzanes fled to Rome. Sulla was sent to restore him to power circa 94 BC.

After his praetorship, he [Sulla] was sent out to Cappadocia, ostensibly to reinstate Ariobarzanes, but really to check the restless activities of Mithridates, who was adding to his dominion and power fully as much as he had inherited. Accordingly, he took out with him no large force of his own, but made use of the allies, whom he found eager to serve him, and after slaying many of the Cappadocians themselves, and yet more of the Armenians who came to their aid, he drove out Gordius, and made Ariobarzanes king again. - Plutarch, Lives, Sulla, English Translation by Bernadotte Perrin, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, London​


While Sulla was in Cappadocia he held a meeting with an ambassador from Parthia, Orobazus. This was the first diplomatic connection between the Parthians and the Romans. Sulla didn't get the relationship off to a good start:


As he lingered on the banks of the Euphrates, he received a visit from Orobazus, a Parthian, who came as an ambassador from king Arsaces, although up to this time the two nations had held no intercourse with one another. This also is thought to have been part of Sulla's great good fortune, that he should be the first Roman with whom the Parthians held conference when they wanted alliance and friendship. On this occasion, too, it is said that he ordered three chairs to be set, one for Ariobarzanes, one for Orobazus, and one for himself, and that he sat between them both and gave them audience. For this the king of Parthia afterwards put Orobazus to death; and while some people commended Sulla for the airs which he assumed with the Barbarians, others accused him of vulgarity and ill-timed arrogance. - Plutarch, Lives, Sulla, English Translation by Bernadotte Perrin, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, London​


By sitting between the two men Sulla asserted himself as the most important person, and further offended by putting on equal footing Ariobarzanes, already a subservient "Friend of Rome", and Orobazus the representative of a powerful and independent kingdom. A more probable reason for Orobazus being put to death is that he even allowed Ariobarzanes to take part in the meeting - a usurper in the eyes of Parthia.


Mithradates II was the King of Parthia referred to by Plutarch and can be seen on this third coin. Perhaps an opportunity for alliance was missed, Orobazus paid with his life, and this would not be the last encounter between Parthia and Rome. For more on this relationship, this article has some interesting observations and references.

Kings of Parthia, Mithradates II, 121-91 BC, AR Drachm, Ekbatana mint

Obv: Diademed bust left

Rev: Archer (Arsakes I) seated right on omphalos, holding bow; A behind throne.

Ref: Sellwood 26.3; Sunrise –; Shore 79.


References

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