Archive for the ‘Ancient East’ Category

Tigranes the Great: Whom Emperors Feared – Part 2/3 (ca. 95-55 BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

A coin with the image of Tigranes the Great. It was normal practice for empires to mint coins with pictures of their ruler on it, even in ancient times.Although Tigranes and Mithridates had experienced some great successes in their alliance, the Roman Empire managed to cut a blow to the strongest force Europe at this time. Mithridates IV was defeated – but not beaten – in the First Mithridatic War, and soon after forged a temporary peace settlement with Rome. This had certainly not been part of Tigranes’ plans, and so turning from his Pontic alliance, Tigranes decided to go it alone against the Parthian Empire.

The king under whom he had been held hostage died in 88 BC, and due to excessive internal squabbling and numerous Scythian invasions, Parthia seemed ripe for the taking. Tigranes promptly seized control of Parthia and his seventy valleys, ravaged the countryside, forced compliance out of the lands along the upper Tigris, and swept his army across Mesopotamia, the Euphrates, parts of Syria, and then Phoenicia, taking control of as much territory as possible.

Apparently, breaking the alliance with Mithridates had been a good thing! After a bloody feud in Syria for the throne, in 83 BC the Syrians actually chose Tigranes as their protector, offering him the crown. In acceptance, he destroyed the last remnants of the Seleucid Empire.

Tigranes had no qualms about devastating large territories and shipping off their inhabitants to a new city he’d built called Tigranakert. At the height of his empire, his borders stretched from the Pontic Alps to Mespotamia, and all the way across the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. In a bit of a display of machismo, he went as far as Ecbatana in Persia and claimed the title ‘king of kings’ – an arrogant gesture even for him, since neither the Armenians nor the Parthians used this title for their leadership.

Prior to Tigranes’ assumption of power, none of the Armenian kings had issued coins, let alone coins with their own image stamped on them. Taking up the Seleucid tradition – after all, he had taken away their Syrian kingship – Tigranes had coins minted at Antioch and Damascus, and displayed the image of himself wearing an Armenian tiara with ear-flaps. Most of the coins were silver tetradrachms or copper, though a few gold examples have survived.

With so much territory and power, Tigranes seemed set. Who could oppose him now…?

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Tomorrow: The conclusion!

Tigranes the Great: Whom Emperors Feared – Part 1/3 (ca. 95-55 BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

Tigranes the great was king of Armenia, who for awhile held more power in his small territory than the Roman Empire.

Born in 140 BC, Tigranes the Great was an intelligent man whose military exploits, for a short while, earned him the position of the most feared man in the Roman Empire. As king of Armenia, he was a representative of the Artaxiad Royal House and was married to Cleopatra of Pontus – he was forty-seven and she was only sixteen at the time of the marriage.

For the majority of his life, Tigranes was a hostage at the court of King Mithridates II of Parthia – when he was 40 years old, Tigranes was able to purchase his freedom by giving away an area of land called the “Seventy Valleys” to the Parthians, and only then did they allow him to do so because his father had died, leaving the throne open to his succession.

When Tigranes took power, the foundation of the empire in Armenia had already been well laid by his father. However, the Armenian mountains created natural borders between different sections of the country, which had caused the feudalistic Nakharars to exert a little more power over their regions and provinces than was appropriate. Naturally, Tigranes saw that this could cause significant problems in the future, and he decided that he’d much rather consolidate his power in Armenia before heading out and conquering more land – leaving the door open for regional leaders to revolt really wasn’t an option.

After taking care of the organizational matters in his own empire, he quickly forged an alliance with Mithridates VI of Pontus by marrying his daughter. The two leaders were able to forge their way into Asia Minor and began to expand their empires together – but it wasn’t long before the Romans noticed what was happening. In 90 BC, the Roman Republic sent legions after Tigranes and Mithridates, but Tigranes thought better of fighting the Romans at this point, and although he supported the Pontic alliance, he refused to get directly involved.

With Tigranes forging new ground in the East and his ally gaining ground in Roman-controlled Europe, the Romans realized that more needed to be done. In 88 BC, Mithridates ordered the massacre of 80,000 Romans in Asia – and as the two kings slowly made their way around Cappadocia, the Roman senate appointed Lucius Cornelius Sulla to command an army against the Pontics and Armenians.

As the power of the Roman Empire advanced on Mithridates, it looked as though the dynamic duo’s partnership would soon come to an end…

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Tomorrow: Part 2!

A Brief History of Polo (ca. 600 AD – onward)

By: The Scribe on September, 2007

Image of a polo game being played in Persia, an illustration from a poem called ‘Guy u Chawgan’ from 1546.Although its origins and history are somewhat obscure, polo seems to have appeared in Persia around 2500 years ago, making it possibly the oldest known team sport in world history – not to mention being a sport that has typically always been restricted to the more privileged classes of society!

Owning a horse has historically been considered a bit of a status symbol, and in polo, all team members must have their own, well-trained beast, in order to participate. The sketchy historical records suggest that polo was initially developed by competing tribes in Central Asia, and was quickly adopted as a training program for Kings’ cavalry and other elite troop guards – these “training” matches could actually have up to 100 mounted men per side, creating a true sense of replica warfare.

As use of the sport progressed, it appears that the noble families began to participate, eventually adopting polo as their own Persian National sport, played only by the nobility. Both women and men participated in matches, and there is even one documented record from the 6th century AD of a Persian queen and her waiting ladies having challenged the Persian King Khosrow II Parviz and his men to a friendly, family game!

Indeed, ancient Persian art and literature give detailed accounts of polo games played in the royal courts, including many references in an epic poem, Shahnameh (The Epic of Kings), from the 9th century by the Iranian poet and historian Ferdowsi, where he discusses various matches held in tournament format. He also makes mention of another Persian prince from the early Persian empire, who apparently learned how to play polo sometime during the 4th century AD, when he was just seven years old.

It wasn’t until the 10th century that an Iranian king actually recorded some of the sport’s general and more important rules, in particular pointing out the potential dangers of playing in a match – and as the centuries progressed, a 13th century Iranian poet even used polo as a basis for one of his love stories!

As the Persian nobles continued to invite other royal families from various countries to play in their tournaments, the popularity of the sport grew and spread rapidly across the East – in fact, there was even a stone tablet next to a polo field along the famous Chinese silk road, reading: “Let other people play at other things. The King of Games is still the Game of Kings.” Coats of arms for the Chinese royal families soon included a polo stick, and it is well know that polo was an important part of royal family life during the reign of Ming-Hung, a time that is often referred to as the Golden Age of Chinese classical culture.

Chinese courtiers of the Tang Dynasty, engaged in their own polo game during the 7th century.

Naturally, not everyone was a good sport when playing these ancient polo matches. Although a 9th century Iranian historian had written instructions concerning how players should behave on the field – such as, “a player should strictly avoid using strong language and should be patient and temperate”, and “if a polo stick breaks during a game, it is a sign of inefficiency” – this apparently didn’t stop the Chinese Emperor Tai-Tsu in 910 AD from beheading all the players in a polo match that he had been watching, simply due to the fact that one of his own favorite players had been unfortunate enough to be killed during the game.

Brutality aside, the game continued to spread, with the Japanese learning the game from Chinese diplomats, and the Arab world picking up on the sport during their conquest of Iran in the 7th century. The polo stick actually became an important heraldic symbol in Islamic courts, and Polo Masters were a common addition to a ruling Caliph’s entourage!

Even with its spreading Eastern popularity, the game didn’t actually make it to the West until the Byzantine period. The ruler of Constantinople during the 12th century tried to encourage the sport’s growth, and his own successor even played until his arm and leg were crushed during a particularly rough match.

Polo continued to spread in this way, moving from royal household to royal household in various Eastern countries – and it wasn’t until sometime during the 18th century that the Western world learned of the existence of the sport, eventually refining the game into what is known today as the ‘modern’ version of polo.

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Tomorrow: What the heck are Tupus?

Astyages, Last King of the Medes – Part 2/2 (ca. 585 – 550 BC)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007

Artist’s conception of Cyrus II.After Cyrus II came of age, Harpagus convinced the young man that the Medes were ready and willing to revolt against their now despotic king, Astyages. Cyrus then organized a federation consisting of 10 Persian tribes, and attacked his father… though for some reason – or as Herodotus claims, “blinded by divine reason” – Astyages appointed Harpagus as the leader of his army. Naturally, Harpagus was not eager to fight for the man who had killed his son, and instead marched on the Median capital with Cyrus, both Persian and Median armies in tow, and took Astyages captive.

Although the details of Herodotus’ tale are more likely based around fairy tale than fact, the end of the story has been confirmed by another ancient document called the Chronicle of Nabonidus. The document explains that in the 6th year of the reign of King Nabonidus of Babylon,

“king Astyages called up his troops and marched against Cyrus,
king of Ansan [Persia], in order to meet him in battle. The
army of Astyages revolted against him and in fetters they
delivered him to Cyrus. Cyrus marched agast the country
Ecbatana; the royal residence he seized; silver, gold, other
valuables of the country Ecbatana he took as booty and brought
to Ansan.”

The Nabonidus Chronicle!

At the very least – whether Harpagus was involved with the army’s defection or not – the details in the Chronicle of Nabonidus imply that after three years of fighting, king Astyages’ troops mutinied and handed him over to Cyrus. Unfortunately for Cyrus, Astyages’ allies did not take the capture of the allied king so well – shortly after the capture, King Croesus of Lydia attacked Cyrus II to avenge Astyages. With Harpagus at his side – for which there are confirmed records – Cyrus defeated Croesus’ advances and ended up overthrowing Lydia as well.

What happened to Astyages after his capture remains unknown. Although the ancient sources agree that he was treated with mercy and leniency not typically given to captive kings, the details of how this occurred differ. While Herodotus claims that the king was left imprisoned for the rest of his life, other sources suggest that Astyages was reinstated as a governor in Parthia, and later met his death at the hands of a political rival. Which version of the tale is actually true is likely to remain unknown indefinitely.

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Tomorrow: Ancient Sugar-Free Gum!

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