The Horribly Unsuccessful Political Career Of Parthian King Vonones I


Vonones was a Parthian prince who, although he managed to seize two thrones during his life, was unfortunately always outmaneuvered by his enemies. His father was the Parthian king, Phraates IV (r. 38-2 BCE), who after making peace with Augustus (r. 31 BCE – 14 CE), sent the Roman dictator several of his sons (including Vonones) as hostages, in a display of peace and respect. Therefore, Prince Vonones grew up with a thorough dose of Greco-Roman culture that would stay with him for the rest of his life. From the luxury of Rome, Vonones could only listen as reports came in of his father being murdered, followed by the short reign of Phraates V, and then the even shorter reign (mere months) of Orodes III. After the death of Orodes III, the Parthians were in need of a new monarch, and luckily enough, they had several members of the Parthian royal line living in the Roman Empire. Therefore, a party of diplomats from Parthia soon arrived in Rome to petition the emperor to allow Vonones to return home and become king of the Parthians. The Romans, thrilled at the thought of having a pro-Roman king leading the Parthians, sent Vonones home to be crowned.

The exact date of King Vonones’ reign remains in debate. Almost all scholars agree that he was politically active in the first two decades of the 1st century CE, with 8/9-11/12 (give or take a few years) being the usual dates given for his time of rule in Parthia. He seemed to have been a well-educated man, who brought his Greek and Roman teachings with him to Parthia. For instance, he minted coins in which his name was stamped in Greek. The new king’s noticeable Romanization, however, quickly became a problem among his subjects. The Roman statesman and historian, Tacitus (c. 56-117), claimed that Vonones I was uninterested in the local Parthian culture and tradition. Unlike his countrymen, the king did not care for horses. Similarly, while he enjoyed being carried around in a litter, he supposedly detested the Parthian-styled banquets that were expected of him. Also, instead of filling his court with local Parthians, he was said to have imported Greeks and Romans to serve as his government advisors. As these differences between ruler and subjects continued to persist, both sides began to look at the other as something entirely alien.

In the end, the Parthians rallied behind a rival king named Artabanus III (r. 11/12-38) and Vonones I was forced to flee from his kingdom. With remarkable timing, he then found shelter in Armenia, which miraculously happened to be a kingdom without a king. Curiously, Vonones was able to quickly place himself upon the Armenian throne. Yet, the Parthians did not like that Vonones had found a new kingdom, especially one that neighbored their own empire. The refugee king in Armenia also threatened the uneasy relationship between the Roman and Parthian Empires, for which the Kingdom of Armenia served as a buffer state. Eventually, around the year 15 or 16, the Roman governor of Syria became so concerned about the situation that he had Vonones seized and placed him under luxurious house arrest in the Roman Empire.

According to Tacitus, Vonones remained under house arrest in the Roman province of Syria until the year 18, when Emperor Tiberius’ adopted son, Germanicus, had the twice dethroned monarch moved to the town of Pompeiopolis, a settlement on the coast of Cilicia. This was apparently done as a diplomatic gesture to Parthia after King Artabanus III had accused Vonones of leading intrigues from his luxurious prison in Syria. Unfortunately, the new location in Pompeiopolis must not have been up to Vonones’ standards, for he attempted to escape in the year 19. He was reportedly attempting to flee to relatives in the lands of the Scythians when Roman troops caught up. Sadly, Vonones apparently had outlived his usefulness, for he was killed during or shortly after being apprehended.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Coin of Vonones I of Parthia with Greek inscriptions from the mint at Ecbatana. The reverse shows Nike with a palm, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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