The disastrous defeat of Rome’s legions by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC ranked among the greatest military catastrophes of the Republican period. Marcus Licinius Crassus’ failure to conquer Parthian territory, the capture of Roman hostages and the loss of legionary standards to the enemy were all a devastating blow, as was the gruesome fate that befell the defeated Crassus, who was treacherously executed during a truce by having molten gold poured down his throat (Plutarch, Crassus 19.1-3; Cassius Dio 40.27.2-3). Subsequent campaigns into Parthia, notably those under the command of L. Decidius Saxa and Marcus Antonius, only resulted in fresh defeats, the capture of more Roman hostages, and the loss of additional standards, so that by the time of the Augustan period the Parthian Empire was both a serious political concern and a constant reminder of Rome’s humiliation (Rose 2005: 22).
Augustus’ détente with Parthia resulted in the recovery of the lost legionary standards in 20 B.C. and their return to Rome in 19 B.C. (Suetonius, Augustus 21.3; Wardle 2014: 178-9). This diplomatic triumph received significant attention in the emperor’s own account of his reign, the Res Gestae (‘Achievements’) (Res Gestae 29.2; Cooley 2009: 242-3). It did not matter that the Parthian settlement was a bloodless victory, and that the enemy had been compelled to restore the spoils and standards of three Roman armies through negotiations rather than action on the battlefield. As the third-century historian Cassius Dio later observed in his Roman History:
‘Augustus received the standards and prisoners as though he had defeated the Parthian in a war and was very proud, declaring that what had earlier been lost in battles he had won back without striking a blow.’ (Cassius Dio 54.8.2, translated by E. Cary).
Upon the emperor’s return, the reclaimed standards were installed within the temple of Mars Ultor (‘the Avenger’) in the Forum Augustum (Cooley 2009: 244-5). Augustus was awarded a triumphal arch in Rome (Cassius Dio 54.8.3), but scholars are divided as to whether this was a new construction or whether additions were made to an existing arch beside the temple of Divus Julius in the Forum Romanum, which had been erected to commemorate Augustus’ victory at the Battle of Actium (Rich 1998: 97-115; Rose 2005: 28-36). The latter option, proposed by Rich, is very probably the correct interpretation.
Representations of the emperor as a preeminent military victor were a keynote of Augustus’ public image, and the Parthian settlement was celebrated in a variety of media, such as monuments, statuary, and coinage (Zanker 1990: 187-9). The image of a kneeling Parthian, proffering the Roman standards could be seen upon the breastplate of the famous statue of Augustus from the villa at Prima Porta, as well as decorative panels within the Basilica Aemilia and on the Parthian Arch itself. Imperial mints based in Rome and the provinces struck coins emphasising Augustus’ achievements. Gold aurei and silver denarii produced by the imperial mint in Spain between 19-18 BC featured reverse images of the Temple of Mars Ultor with the standards, and the triumphal arch at Rome crowned with Parthians (RIC I2 Augustus nos 103-106, 131-137; Rose 2005: 23).
References to the Parthian settlement also appeared on coins produced by the independent mint of Pergamum, a city on the western coast of modern-day Turkey. During the Republican period, the authority to strike coinage was controlled by the Roman proconsul assigned to that province (Burnett, Amandry and Ripollès 1992: 1). Under the new imperial system, however, a city such as Pergamum required the express permission of a senatorial decree in order to design and mint this independent coinage, which was a great honour (Burnett, Amandry and Ripollès 1992: 1-2; Burnett 2011: 7-8). In 20/19 B.C., Pergamum struck silver coins with a variety of Parthian designs, including some depicting the temple of Mars Ultor with the recovered standards resting inside, and others showing the Parthian triumphal arch with the legend ‘SPR SIGNIS RECEPTIS’ (‘The Senate and the People of Rome: the standards have been recovered’) (RPC I nos 2216, 2218). The depiction of the Parthian arch provides a particularly interesting case study for historians who wish to understand how provincials constructed images of the emperor’s authority in the early imperial period.
Let us compare the image of the Parthian Arch struck upon a silver tridrachm of Pergamum in 20/19 B.C., with that produced by the imperial mint in Rome in 16 B.C. (see the images below). The Parthian Arch on the Roman denarius consists of a central arch, surmounted by a quadriga (four-horse chariot), which is framed by two side smaller arches that each support a statue of a Parthian.
By contrast, the coin of Pergamum does not depict the two side arches with the statues of Parthian captives, but does feature a different Latin inscription which precisely refers to the recovery of the standards (‘SIGNIS RECEPTIS’). Where did the mint masters of Pergamum obtain their information about the arch, and does this help us to explain the differences between the two designs? Since the Pergamum coin was minted before the Roman denarius, it could not have been directly inspired by central coinage.
Rose (2005: 23-5) has argued that the similarity of designs suggest that there was a senatus consultum (‘senatorial decree’) circulated throughout the empire which described the honours voted to Augustus. Though the text of this putative document is no longer extant, Rose has proposed that it would have followed the same structure as later decrees, such as that preserved on the the Tabula Siarensis, which detailed the funerary honours voted to Germanicus, including three triumphal arches. The differences between the coins could be the result of the Pergamum design being based upon the written description of the arch in a senatorial decree, rather than the physical monument itself, which had yet to be constructed at the time their coins were minted (Rich 1998: 109-10). Indeed, as Rich has argued, the arch voted to Augustus for the recovery of the standards was probably never constructed, with additions being made to the Actian arch instead. This helps to explain why the coins of Pergamum include the legend ‘SIGNIS RECEPTIS’ to emphasise the relevance of the arch, but no images of Parthians. The Parthians were, however, included on the later coins minted in Spain in 19/18 B.C. and at Rome in 16 B.C.
What does this reveal about numismatic portrayals of the emperor’s military power in the provinces during Augustus’ reign? On this occasion, the city of Pergamum in Asia, which was authorised to produce its own coinage, derived the images commemorating the Parthian settlement from an imperial order from Rome, before any Parthian Arch had even been built. This resulted in different coin designs being minted in different regions of the empire, though the overall message celebrating Augustus’ Parthian achievement still seems to have been relatively consistent. This would not be the case for all victories – diplomatic or military – achieved by Roman emperors, many of which went unnoticed or unremarked on provincial coinage. But the mint masters of Pergamum evidently decided that the return of the legionary standards from the Parthians was an achievement worthy of commemoration and of interest to their local audience in the province of Asia.
Want to know more?
The essential starting points for the analysis of Augustus’ Parthian Arch in English language scholarship are Rich (1998) and Rose (2005), two very detailed and accomplished scholarly articles. If you are interested in Augustus’ visual programme more broadly, then Zanker (1990) is the first port of call. Roman Provincial Coinage (Burnett, Amandry and Ripollès 1992) is the essential resource for studying coins produced at imperial mints in Asia and other provinces. Burnett (2011) provides an authoritative survey of the Augustan numismatic material.
Burnett, A. 2011. ‘The Augustan Revolution seen from the mints of the provinces’, Journal of Roman Studies 101: 1-30.
Burnett, A., Amandry, M. and Ripollès, P. P. 1992. Roman Provincial Coinage: Volume I. British Museum Press: London. [Abbreviated as RPC]
Cooley, A. E. 2009. Res Gestae Divi Augusti: Text, Translation, and Commentary. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Rose, C. 2005. ‘The Parthians in Augustan Rome’, American Journal of Archaeology 109: 21-75.
Rich, J. W. 1998. ‘Augustus’ Parthian Honours, the Temple of Mars Ultor, and the Arch in the Roman Forum’, Papers of the British School at Rome 66: 71-128.
Sutherland, C. H. V. and Carson, R. A. G. 1984. The Roman Imperial Coinage. Volume I, Revised Edition. From 31 B.C. to A.D. 69. Spink and Son: London. [Abbreviated as RIC 12]
Wardle, D. 2014. Suetonius: Life of Augustus. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Zanker, P. 1990. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. University of Michigan Press: Michigan.