It is one of the most enigmatic stories in the New Testament: the gospel of Matthew reports that sometime shortly after the birth of Jesus, “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’” The enigmatic nature of Matthew’s account stems from its brevity. He apparently thought the Magi needed no introduction, so his readers at the time would already have known who they were. But who were they?
The origins of the Magi begin with the live of the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathrustra). Unfortunately, we know very little about Zoroaster’s life. We don’t even know what century he was born in. Most of his writings have been lost. What we do know is that he lived in what is now central Asia or eastern Iran, and that his teachings formed the core of a new monotheistic religion now known as Zoroastrianism.
In the meantime, Magi first appear in the historical record in the seventh century BC, not in Persia but in the kingdom of the Medes. Herodotus listed the “Magoi” as one of the six tribes of the Medes. They were described as a priestly class, but their main task appears to have been the interpretation of the king’s dreams. In this respect they were like similar “wise men” kept at the courts of various Near Eastern monarchs such as the Babylonian kings.
Dream interpretation would be the Median Magi’s downfall. According to Herodotus’ semi-legendary account, the Median king Astyages had a series of dreams which the Magi interpreted as meaning that his grandson from his daughter’s marriage to a Persian would eventually rule all of Asia. He ordered his infant grandson to be murdered. However, the man assigned to kill the child did not do so but gave away the child, who was raised by a cowherd and his wife in the Median hills.
The boy was later summoned before Astyages, who recognized his facial features. Astyages again consulted his Magi, who told him that there was now nothing to fear, because “some of our prophecies come to very little significance” and suggested that because the boy had been playing “king” with other children, this was the fulfillment of the prophecy that he would be king. The Magi reminded Astyages that they had every reason to seek to keep him in power, as their own power and status depended on it.
The boy later gained the name Cyrus, and led a revolt of Persians against Astyages. After Astyages suffered a defeat, he had the Magi who advised him to let Cyrus live impaled in the capital city of Ecbatana. Nonetheless, Astyages’ army was defeated again and Astyages was captured by Cyrus in 550 BC. This ended Media’s independence and inaugurated the era of the Persian Empire. Cyrus would go on to capture Babylon in 539 and rule the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from Judea to Anatolia to the Hundu Kush.
The next mention we find of the Magi was their institution by Cyrus as Zoroastrian priests. The government of the Persian Empire was inextricably linked to Zoroastrianism. Cyrus himself sang a hymn every day and made sacrifices as the Magi dictated. Magi accompanied Cyrus from his early campaigns onwards. They were present at the capture of Babylon and were given the authority to select first-fruits offerings from the plunder of the city.
The Magi also directed Cyrus to make sacrifices to the local gods after capturing Babylon. Zoroastrians believe that Ahura Mazda (God) created all religions and chose to manifest himself to different peoples in different ways, and therefore all religions are equal, and the righteous from all religions go to heaven. This belief shaped the Persian Empire’s policies of religious toleration. Cyrus is famous for issuing the Edict of Restoration allowing Jews to return to their homeland, but everywhere the Persians conquered they allowed the locals to worship in the manner which they thought best.
Other nations may have had their gods, but Ahura Mazda was the God of the Persian people and his priests were tasked with ensuring the rulers and the people performed proper worship. “The Persians,” according to the Greek writer Xenophon, “think that they ought to consult professional instructors in affairs relating to the gods more than in others.” The austere religious customs of the Magi seemed strange to surrounding polytheistic peoples. According to Herodotus, “the Magi differ a great deal from the rest of the human race.” Their temples contained sacred fires which were kept constantly burning. Their dead were disposed of on top of a Dakhma or “Tower of Silence,” where they were left to be eaten by vultures and decay until the only the skeletons remained so as to avoid polluting the air, earth or water.
The Parthian empire had once been an ally of Rome. Parthians and Romans had fought together to finish off the Seleucid Empire in 63 BC, and enjoyed peaceful relations after. This all changed in 54 BC, when the ambitious Roman Marcus Licinius Crassus launched an unprovoked invasion of Parthian Syria with the intent to march on Seleucia and conquer the Parthian empire. Instead, his army was annihilated in the Syrian desert at the Battle of Carrhae. Of Crassus’ 38,000 men, only 8,000 or so made it back to Roman territory. 20,000 Romans were killed, and 10,000 were prisoners in Parthia.
The immediate result of the campaign was a Parthian invasion of Roman Syria under the command of a general named Osaces and Pacorus, the son of the Parthian ruler Shah Orodes II. The death of Crassus and many of his officers left Gaius Cassius Longinus as the ranking Roman commander in Syria. While the Parthians besieged Antioch, Pacorus was recalled to Parthia by his father. Cassius rallied the remaining Roman troops in the area and broke the siege, then defeated the Parthians again at Antigonea. In this battle, Osaces was killed and his troops dispersed.
The first round of Roman-Parthian conflict thus ended in a status quo ante bellum. As a result, like the United States and USSR 2000 years later, the two superpowers of the ancient Near East in the 1st century BC saw continued direct war as too risky and destructive when compared to its potential benefits. Therefore, the struggle between them for regional supremacy turned from confrontation to war by proxy. Struggle between armies was replaced by each side meddling in each other’s internal struggles, supporting rebel factions and fighting proxy battles with client states.
The first shot of the proxy war came from Cassius’ replacement as governor of Syria. Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus arrived in 51 BC to take control of the province from Cassius. He sought to divide the Parthians against each other so as to preclude further invasions of Roman territory. Bibulus befriended a Parthian satrap named Ornodapates, who carried an old grudge against Orodes. Using Ornodapates as a go-between, Bibulus constructed a plot to stage a coup d’etat, overthrow Orodes and install his son Pacorus on the throne in his stead. The plot failed, but the resulting strife temporarily distracted Parthia from any westward expansion.
While the Parthians were otherwise preoccupied, the political situation in Rome was spiraling out of control. Once allies, Julius Caesar and Ganeus Pompey were now enemies. In 49 BC, their rivalry and refusal to disband their armies spilled over into open civil war. Julius Caesar rapidly marched on Rome, forcing Pompey to withdraw to Greece without a fight. Pompey spent the winter of 49-48 BC regrouping in Greece and preparing for a decisive showdown against Caesar.
Scarcely had Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire than it began to rise from the ashes. While most former Persian territory was under the control of the Seleucid Empire, in 247 BC, Shah Arsaces I founded the Arsacid Dynasty in Parthia. Parthia had been a minor outlying province in what is now northeastern Iran, but after much hard fighting they seized Iran from the Seleucids, and finally allied with the Roman general Pompey the Great to finish off the Seleucid Empire in 63 BC, leaving Parthia and Rome as the major powers in the Near East. Between them lay minor buffer states and client kingdoms.
At this point, the two sides were at peace. The Parthian king Mithridates III wanted no further territorial expansion, and Rome had its hands full consolidating its newly acquired territory in the East and did not want trouble with another great power.
Yet by the 50′s B.C., Rome’s internal political machinations spilled over into Parthia. In 59 BC, Julius Caesar, Pompey Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus formed a powerful but informal political alliance known as the First Triumvirate. Crassus and Pompey were both elected consuls in 55 BC after instigating mob violence against their opponents on election day. Their first acts were to extend Caesar’s term as governor of Gaul (which he was still in the process of conquering), and make themselves the governors of Spain and Syria once their term in office expired. They cast lots to see who would govern which territory. Pompey won Spain, and Crassus won Syria.
Crassus was fabulously wealthy, with a net worth in 54 B.C. of an estimated 7,100 talents or about $142 million. He made much of his fortune through seizing the property of those murdered in Sulla’s purges of 88 BC. Other sources of income included his ownership of silver mines as well as a profitable business in real estate development. Crassus was fond of saying that no man was truly wealthy unless he could buy his own army.
Crassus was also brazenly ambitious. Plutarch would later condemn this as “foolish ambition, which would not let him rest satisfied to be first and greatest among many myriads of men, but made him think, because he was judged inferior to two men only, that he lacked everything.” After he was assigned the governorship of Syria, he immediately began laying plans for the conquest not only of Parthia, but of Bactria and India as well until Rome’s borders stretched all the way to the “Outer Sea.” Crassus was exceeding his authority here, as the law making him governor of Syria carried with it no authorization for war with Parthia. What’s more, his plans were highly unpopular with the Roman public. Many people viewed Crassus’ plan to launch an unprovoked surprise attack on a Roman ally who presented no immediate threat to Rome’s interests as both dishonorable and unwise. The anti-war faction was led by the tribune Ateius Capito, who tried to have Crassus arrested to prevent him from leaving Rome for Syria. He was dissuaded by the other nine tribunes, and had to content himself with placing a ritual curse on Crassus as he passed through the city gates.
In Parthia, on the other hand, in 54 BC Mithridates III was overthrown in a coup d’etat and fled from the capital of Ctesiphon across the river to Seleucia. His brother Orodes seized the throne and besieged Mithridates III in Seleucia with the aid of his brilliant general Surena, finally forcing the city’s surrender and seizing full control of the throne of Parthia. He was still in a shaky position, which led Crassus to think that victory would be easy and that many Parthian cities needed only a little prodding to revolt and side with Rome.
Electricity in the ancient world? The idea that generating electricity is a relatively recent invention is taken for granted almost as much as our modern society’s total dependence on it. While lightning, magnetism and static electricity were known in the ancient world, they were not utilized in any way nor was it understood that the phenomena were related. They were curiosities, interesting anomalies to ponder over, sometimes destructive, but not useful.
Yet, we have evidence that in the 1st century AD one ancient culture not only recognized electricity, but harnessed it and learned how to generate it. Yet, this was not done by the Romans, Greeks or Chinese, generally considered the most technologically advanced of ancient civilizations. Instead, this was accomplished in the Parthian Empire, not especially noted for its engineering or technical prowess.
In 1936, archaeologists working for the Iraqi Antiquities Authority were excavating the Parthian site of Khujut Rabou near Baghdad when they uncovered a strange pot. The jar was 5.5 inches (14 cm) tall. Inside the mouth of the jar a tube of copper was held in place with an asphalt seal, and inside the tube of copper there was an iron rod also held in place by asphalt.
Wilhelm Koenig, an Austrian who served as director of the Baghdad Museum at the time, recognized that the jar and its odd metal attachments were in a configuration that the whole thing could have functioned as a wet-cell battery. All the battery needed was the addition of an acid. Numerous acids would have been available at the time, including citrus juice and vinegar. The artifact was quickly dubbed the “Baghdad Battery.”