Wednesday, July 8, 2020

King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene: Meeting the Challenges of a Buffer Kingdom

Head of King Antiochus I at Nemrut Dağ, Turkey,
courtesy of Carole Raddato
The hierothesion (burial complex) of King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene is 50-meter-high man-made burial mound situated upon the peak of Nemrut Dağ within the Taurus mountain range of South-East Turkey, over 2,150 m above sea level. The site was rediscovered in the early 1881 by Karl Sester, a German engineer assessing transport routes for the Ottomans, who reported the discovery of a large number of colossal statues, which he incorrectly believed to be Assyrian in origin. Excavations in the 20th century dated the monumntal tomb to the latter part of the reign of Antiochus I, about 50-36 BCE. The complex is flanked on the north, east, and west with terraces.  The East and West terraces have the remains of colossal seated statues as well as rows of relief stelae (orthostates). The statues have been identified as Antiochus I and a pantheon of Greek, Armenian, and Iranian deities. Antiochus practiced astrology of a very esoteric kind, and laid the basis for a calendrical reform, by linking the Commagenian year, which till then had been based on the movements of the Moon, to the Sothic (Star of Sirius) cycle used by the Egyptians as the basis of their calendar. This would suggest that Antiochus was knowledgeable about, if not fully initiated into Hermeticism,  a tradition based primarily upon writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a pagan philosopher, who taught belief in a single, universal spirit.  He also supposedly invented the process of making a glass tube airtight, hence our term for "hermetically sealed."

Although a vassal state of the Seleucids, Commagene asserted its independence in the 1st century BCE but suffered hardships during the Roman war with Pontus and Armenia. Although Armenia initially succeeded in extending its influence over Commagene, Antiochus was ultimately forced to side with the Romans when the commander Pompey declared war against him.  Although Antiochus claims in his inscriptions on Mount Nemrut to be a friend of the Romans, he was distrusted by them, especially by Cicero.  In 57-37 BCE, he allied with the Parthian monarch Orodes II and offered his daughter Laodice to Orodes in marriage. Later, in 51 BCE, however, some disaffection prompted Antiochus to provide intelligence about Parthian forces led by Prince Pacorus I to the Romans.  But when Pacoras was defeated and killed by the Romans in 38 BCE, the Parthian army fled to Commagene where Antiochus gave them refuge.  This, of course, angered the Romans and the Roman general Publius Ventidus Bassus laid siege to Antiochus' capital of Samosata. Antiochus offered a reimbursement of 1,000 talents and a renewed alliance to the Romans but this offer was rejected by the senior Roman commander Marc Antony, who then took over the siege.  However, Antony failed to capture the capital and finally accepted a new offer of only 300 talents.  Antiochus disappeared from history after this except for a notation by Cassius Dio who said Antiochus was killed by the Parthian king Phraates IV, in 31 BCE.

For a thorough description of Nemrut Dağ and portfolio of images, see Carole Raddato's excellent article at:

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