Parthia and the Lost Roman Standards by Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC ……
While fighting the Battle of Philippi, Octavian vowed to avenge the assassination of his adoptive father Julius Caesar. Octavian set plans in motion to build a temple honoring the god Mars Ultor (“Mars the Avenger”). Mars was the god of war, protector of Rome, and second only to Jupiter in importance. Caesar had stated earlier that he wished to build a temple honoring the god, but was assassinated before planning could begin.
With the help of Mark Antony and Lepidus, Octavian won the battle and upon assuming the title of Augustus, began planning for the temple to be built in the forum, stating that it would be “greater than any in existence”. This temple served a politically strategic purpose as well, further linking himself to the Roman people’s love for Julius Caesar by continuing and improving upon Caesar’s original concept. However, construction did not begin immediately due to an unstable political situation in the region.
While Rome had succeeded in conquering nearly the entire civilized Mediterranean world, they had never succeeded in conquering Parthia. The Parthian Empire was spread across Central Asia and posed a formidable challenge to Roman control.
Rome fought and lost to Parthia three times, the most devastating of which occurred in 53 BCE. During this battle, Crassus, the leader of the Roman army, was killed and humiliated, and the Roman standards of the Legions were taken by the Parthians.
Detail of the central breastplate relief on the statue of Augustus of Prima Porta shows the return of the aquilae, or “eagles” (Roman military standards) lost to the Parthians. The return of the eagles was one of Augustus’s notable diplomatic achievements.
To the Roman military, the Roman standard held deep symbolic significance and each legion would go to great lengths to protect their standard. The loss of a standard was considered a moral defeat and the Romans were known to sometimes spend decades fighting to recover them.
Upon the loss of their standards to the Parthians, the Romans fought back, seeking revenge. Julius Caesar and Mark Antony both attempted to reclaim the Roman standards by force but failed due to heavy battlefield losses.
After ascending the throne, Augustus focused his attention on reclaiming the Roman standards. Through his conquering of Armenia, he was able to secure a strong offensive position against the Parthians due to its proximity to their kingdom.
Even though he had a strategic advantage, Augustus didn’t want war with Parthia. However, the Parthian king felt threatened, proposing a truce to Augustus, offering to return the Roman standards and any surviving prisoners of war. Augustus agreed and the two superpowers avoided further bloodshed. Augustus hailed the return of the roman standards as a major political victory against the Parthians and used his coinage to celebrate the coup.
This coin is from the commemorative celebratory issues, with the reverse showing a reclaimed standard in a triumphal chariot within the Temple of Mars Ultor. At the time of its minting, the temple was not yet completed, taking at least 10 more years to be built due to logistical issues. Augustus did not want to force the owners of nearby houses to move, so he needed to change his plans and purchase adjacent areas to accommodate his massive Forum.
When it was finally completed, the Temple of Mars Ultor was impressive. Modeled after the Temple of Venus but nearly twice the size, it was the focal point of the 8,000 square meter Forum of Augustus, built next to Caesar’s Forum.
The building became the official meeting room where the Senate would convene when decisions of war were required, as well as the departure point for commanders beginning their military service in the Empire.
Like the Temple of Venus, the Temple of Mars Ultor was built on a raised platform and lavishly decorated with fountains. Surrounding the temple were four-story tall Corinthian columns, eight on each side, three of which still stand today.
The exterior was constructed in white marble and the interior flooring was laid with a mixture of colored marbles. The temple housed additional columns made of purple marble and a variety of statues, all adorned with extensive decorations and gilded rosettes.
Even though the Temple of Mars Ultor opened forty years after its conception, it was well worth the wait and represented an achievement in Roman engineering as well as epitomizing the grandeur and respect with which Rome treated its important gods.
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Augustus, 27 BCE – 14 CE, Denarius (Silver, 3.85 g 6), Colonia Patricia, 18. CAESARI AVGVSTO Laureate head of Augustus to right. Rev. Round tetrastyle temple with a triumphal car, containing a legionary eagle and a miniature quadriga, within the central intercolumniation; to left and right, SP QR. BMC 385. BN 1210. C. 279. RIC 115. Beautifully toned. Extremely fine.
From the A. Lynn Collection, Ex. Helios 4, Munich 2009, lot 215, Ex. Leu 86, Zurich 2003, lot 750
Great article, than you.
An excellent article and highly informative and enjoyable.
However, one inaccurate point; Julius Caesar was not defeated by the Parthians. He was assassinated a few days before he was due to depart to campaign against them.
Decidius Saxa and Mark Anthony both suffered defeats against the Parthians while Antony’s lieutenant Publius Ventidius Bassus defeated the Parthians invading Roman territory to intervene in the Roman civil wars of the time.