Demetrios Nikator's Second Arsakid War

Founded 11-Dec-2005
Last update 11-Dec-2005

Mark K. Passehl

Originally published in the Hellenistica Discussion List, December 2004, message No. 170; revised version of November 2005.
© 2004 - 2005 Mark K. Passehl; used by permission


The most disappointing of all the disappointingly brief accounts of Demetrios II’s attempt to win back Babylonia is that of Orosius (vi.4.17), who can only spare one brief sentence:

“Demetrium ipsum secundo sibi bello occurrentem vicit et cepit (Mithridates)”.

This at least distinguishes Demetrios’ second war, which he led in person (Demetrium ipsum), from the earlier one (141 BC) in which Mithradates overthrew the Seleukid satrap/strategos of Babylonia (Orosius vi.4.16: “victo Demetrii praefecto”).

The traditional dating of the secundum bellum (140-139 BC) has been overthrown by the notice in an Astronomical Diary from Babylon (Sachs/Hunger No.-137A, Rev.) dating Demetrios’ final defeat and capture, somewhere in Babylonia, to IV.174 SE(B) (= 7/8 July to 4/5 Aug 138 BC).

The traditional date relied upon I.Maccabees (14.1-3), which puts Demetrios’ initial attack in year 172. It is a very brief and summarising account with no indication that the war lasted beyond a few months. I.Maccabees generally seems to use the Jewish calendar version of the Seleukid Era (more or less equivalent to the Babylonian system) to date internal events, but the Makedonian calendar (SEM) for Seleukid matters external to Judaea (i.e. from Greek and Seleukid sources). Therefore SE(M) 172 = Oct 141-Sept 140, with the secundum bellum beginning in about summer 140 (only a year or so after the first). I.Maccabees is generally a pretty accurate source for chronology too, but sometimes exhibits errors of one year.

The traditional termination of the war was provided by contemporary coinage of Antiochos VII Euergetes (“Sidetes”) dated to SE(M) 174 (Oct 139-Sept 138),1 combined with the testimony of Appian (Syr. 68) that Euergetes learned of his brother’s capture while at Rhodes and from there launched an expedition which, with some difficulty, overthrew Diodotos Tryphon. Also the coinage in the name of the child Antiochos son of Alexander extends into SE(M) 171 (Oct 142-Sept 141),2 while Tryphon’s own coinage after murdering the child and usurping the diadem is dated years 1 through 4,3 i.e:

SE(M) dates B.C. Antiochos VI Tryphon Antiochos VII
171 142-1 last year year 1  
172 141-0   year 2  
173 140-139   year 3  
174 139-8   year 4 first year

Furthermore all the Roman accounts of Tryphon’s rebellion and usurpation bundle all his deeds together under or about the consular year 138 BC (most explicitly Liv.Oxy.Per.55), thus confirming the year of his defeat and death. In this context it was only natural and obvious to suppose that Demetrios’ capture belonged to 139 BC. The cuneiform evidence not only overturns this in the most explicit manner, but raises serious questions about the reliability of Appian and his source(s), which probably go back to the extremely detailed history by Poseidonios (covering 145-ca.86 BC). The latter is generally regarded as the main source behind the relevant Diodorus fragments, and these include (xxxiii.28) a mise-en-scene which purports to represent the strategic situation when Tryphon murdered the child king and usurped the diadem “and enaged in war on the satraps and commanders of he of the royal stock”;

  • Dionysios the Mede was about Mesopotamia,
  • the supporters of Sarpedon and Palamedes were about Hollow Syria,
  • Aischrion was in Seleukeia by the Sea (sc. in Pieria) and had with him Queen Kleopatra the wife of Demetrios who had been taken captive by Arsakes.

But of course (as we know from both dated coinage and the detailed and circumstantial narrative of I.Maccabees) Tryphon murdered the child and usurped the throne about the time of Mithradates’ initial conquest of Babylonia, well before Demetrios marched up from Syria to undertake the secundum bellum. Thus this fragment brings together, as though contemporary, events separated by at least three years (141 and 138). Given that Demetrios’ strategos Dionysios had no real business being in Mesopotamia after his king’s final defeat and capture, it really seems to depict the situation in 139 after Demetrios had crossed the Euphrates (probably summer 140), but before Antiochos Euergetes’ arrival in Syria (probably spring 138) and Demetrios’ capture (July/Aug 138). Perhaps it introduced the lastest campaigning in Syria which took place before the arrival of the Roman legation from Cyprus (about autumn 139). Most significantly it reports Demetrios already in captivity approximately a year before he was.

As a side issue it should be noted that one ms. of this Diodorus fragment gives Arsakes’ name with the variant spelling “Arsakiou” ( Since it is rare for misspellings to take unusual forms of well known names, and much more common for unusual names to be misspelled to conform with familiar ones, this could well disguise an original form “Arsaki<d>ou”, i.e. Arsacides, which is the curious name which Justinus’ text gives (xxxvi.1, and xxxviii.9 twice) for Mithradates I the father of Frahates II. This would underline their use of a common source (Poseidonios).

It begins to look like Poseidonios and Appian were duped by a contemporary Seleukid court history or memoir, written during the reign of Antiochos Euergetes, which rearranged the chronology of events that did not directly impinge upon one another (in any major way), i.e. those east of and those west of Euphrates, in order to portray the young monarch as asserting his own and his dynasty’s right to the throne against the usurper Tryphon only after his brother’s captivity, whereas in fact he staked his claim and attacked the usurper many months, perhaps nearly a year, before Demetrios’ capture. Thus, strictly speaking, also a usurper himself. It is possible to interpret Euergetes’ actions in several ways.

He may really have been a cyncial usurper of his brother’s rights, although this seems unlikely in the overall scheme of things (especially the on-going and successful Lagid policy of backing real usurpers in Syria against the authentic dynasty). Or he may have been encouraged to move from Rhodes rather earlier than he should have by the Aemilian Scipio and his colleagues (who certainly visited Rhodes in about autumn 139 and will have been well informed of the overall strategic situation, as well as local circumstances in both Syria and Mesopotamia). Or he may have been impelled by reports of a serious defeat of Demetrios in Babylonia (ca. summer/autumn 139) which also included (false) rumours of his brother’s capture or death, and already proceeded with his expedition into Syria beyond the point of any possible return before learning that those rumours were false.

However that may be, it seems that the record of Antiochos’ actions was deliberately falsified very early on at his court, and that this falsification of literary history became so pervasive and thorough that it could not be detected by even leading scholars of the next generation, such as Poseidonios. It goes almost without saying that it would also have been undetectable to us without the local Babylonian astronomical records, which were quite independent of the Hellenistic literary traditions.

In this context it is not very tempting to make too much of the alternative chronology preserved in the late chronicles derived from Porphyrius. The Armenian Chronicle of Eusebius (ed. Felix Jacoby, FGrH 260 F32.16, in Karst’s German translation) records that Demetrios II marched upon Babylon and the upper lands against Arsakes in Ol.160.2 (i.e. July 139-June 138) and was taken captive the following year (138-7). This is the only literary text to match the Babylonian astronomical evidence. However, it is frequently out by a year or two and sometimes makes terrible howlers. So its departures from the main (and earlier) literary chronologies are more likely the result of sloppiness and error than better researched alternatives. Its use of the dynastic name Arsakes rather than the personal name Mithradates (which only seems to have reached the west in King Artavasdes’ Artaxiad/Arsakid history, which was begun around the time of Poseidonios’ death in the late 50s BC) shows that Porphyrius/Eusebius were as reliant upon Poseidonios and his informants as Diodorus and Appian, and made no effort to delve into the later and improved historical works provided by the likes of Strabo of Amaseia and Apollodoros of Artemita. This impression is reinforced when we cast our net wider across the Armenian Chronicle’s treatment of Demetrios Nikator’s reign. It dates Demetrios’ defeat of the forces of Antiochos son of Alexander and taking of Antioch and the first (full?) year of his reign to Ol.160.1 (140-139). This is wrong because the child Antiochos’ coinage ceases in SE(M) 171 (i.e. he was murdered before Oct 141) and also a little bizarre in that Demetrios Nikator overthrew the child’s father Alexander Balas, so that it is passing strange to insert the child’s kingship before that of the Seleukid whose own cause and successes made it possible. Likewise the same source informs us that Antiochos Euergetes invaded Syria in Ol.160.4 (137-136), a date certainly at least one year too late owing to the Euergetes coinage dated SE(M) 174 (i.e. struck in and before Sept 138 BC). Most important of all it has the same incorrect information as Appian and Diodorus; that Antiochos only launched his expedition after learning of the defeat and captivity of his brother Demetrios (F32.17). So it is clear enough that the dates in the Armenian Chronicle for Demetrios II and his brother are no improvement on our other literary texts but the same basic tradition further vitiated by the error of misdating all major events one year too late. If we could be sure that this source is only and always out by one year in this context we might use its chronological information with some profit.

So we return to the new possibilities for the duration of Demetrios’ secundum bellum Parthicum; 139-138, or 140-138 BC.

No decision in this matter can be regarded as certain in the current state of the evidence. However, the convergence of the evidence of I.Maccabees and of Porphyrius/Eusebius reinterpreted as indicated above (i.e. usually dating events one year late in this period), suggests quite strongly that Demetrios crossed the Euphrates in late summer 140 BC.

It is notable that the Mithradates I tetradrachm series struck at Seleukeia on Tigris seems to run without interruption from summer 141 into 138 BC (that is, SEM 171-174; exactly mirroring the four Mak.Cal. years of Tryphon’s usurpation and coinage in Syria). But since Mithradates seems to have reigned (albeit gravely ill in his final years) until 132 BC according to clear indications in the cuneiform record, it is plausible to suggest that the victories which Demetrios gained before his unexpected capture (Justinus xxxvi.1.4) concluded with the taking of Seleukeia on Tigris, and the termination of Mithradates’ coinage there. However, the details and course of Demetrios’ Second Arsakid War are highly problematic; and beyond the scope of this background note.


1 Antiochos’ silver coins dated SE(M) 174 are known from Tyre, see SNG Spaer, 2002-2006 (tetradrachms, royal portrait/eagle), and Houghton, CSE, 757 (tetradrachm, royal portrait/eagle). His bronze coins from this year are known, for example, from Antioch, see SNG Spaer, 1890-1895 (prow of galley/trident), 1897 (lion head/club), and Houghton, CSE, 272-274 (prow of galley/trident), 275-276 (winged bust of Eros/Isis headdress).

2 SNG Spaer, 1821A (Askalon, AR tetradrachm, royal portrait/eagle).

3 Year 1: Houghton, CSE, 816 (Askalon, AE, royal portrait/Zeus with wreath). Year 2: SNG Spaer, 1843 (Askalon, AE, royal portrait/Zeus with wreath). Year 3: Sear, Greek Coins and their Values, 7086 (= Babelon, pl. XXI, 4; Ake-Ptolemais, AR tetradrachm, royal portrait/eagle), 7087 (= BMC, 4.68, 1; Askalon, AR didrachm, royal portrait/eagle). Year 4: SNG Spaer, 1841-1842 (Ake-Ptolemais, AR tetradrachms, royal portrait/eagle), 1844-1845 (Askalon, AE, royal portrait/Zeus with wreath), and Houghton, CSE, 702 (Byblos, AR didrachm, royal portrait/eagle), 800 (Ake-Ptolemais, AR tetradrachm, royal portrait/eagle), 817 (Askalon, AE, royal portrait/Zeus with wreath).


Author’s note: My thanks to Petr VeselĂ˝ for helpful comments and assistance with up-to-date Seleukid coinage references. M.K.P., Nov 2005.