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Province of Osroene in Roman politics

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

An iconographic depiction of the king of Osroene - Abgar V - reigned in the years 4 BCE - 7 CE and 13 CE – 50 CE
An iconographic depiction of the king of Osroene - Abgar V - reigned in the years 4 BCE - 7 CE and 13 CE – 50 CE

Looking through the list of Roman provinces, most of them are easily identified on a modern map, e.g. Gaul is today’s France, Moesia is Bulgaria and Serbia, and Britain is England. Libya and Egypt function as countries with the same name even today.

Cilicia, Bithynia and Pontus are associated with Asia Minor and Turkey. However, there are provinces that rarely appear on maps depicting lands controlled by the Romans. So it is with Osroene, a little-known region in the east of the Empire, bordering the Parthian Empire and then Sassanid Persia. The province lay in what is now northern Syria and southern Turkey. Its western border was the Euphrates, the province’s capital was Edessa, and the larger cities were Carrhae, Batnae and Rhesaenae. Geographically, the area of ​​the province of Osroene was considered northern Mesopotamia in ancient times.


The independent Kingdom of Osroene arose from the ruins of the increasingly weak Seleucid monarchy in 132 BCE. It was founded by tribes of nomads who came from the north of the Arabian Peninsula. The first ruler was Osroes, and the dynasty founded by him took the name of the Abgar or Abgarid dynasty.

Roman-Parthian rivalry

The history of the land of Osroene, as well as of Armenia located further to the north, was inextricably linked with the Roman-Parthian rivalry. The treaties concluded by Sulla, Lucullus and Pompey after the wars with the Hellenistic Kingdom of Pontus recognized the division of influence between the Parthians and the Roman Republic on the Euphrates River, which meant that Osroene was under Parthian influence. During this period, the area of ​​the land came under the temporary rule of the Armenian king Tiridates II, an ally of Mithridates VI Eupator, which quickly passed after his defeats with the Roman army of Lucullus in 69 BCE and Pompey in 63 BCE.

In the Roman-Parthian Wars, the land of Osroene played a leading role in the campaign of Crassus in 53 BCE. It was through its territory that the Roman triumvir attacked, wanting to match Pompey and Julius Caesar in military glory. The ally in this campaign of Crassus against the Parthians was the king of Armenia and the then king of Osroene Abgar II. The campaign on the right bank of the Euphrates ended with Crassus’ defeat and death at Carrhae. His ally King Abgar II also died for his involvement in the war on the Roman side. In some sources, the allied Arabs of Osroene are blamed for Crassus’ defeat, as having led the entire army into the desert to make them easy targets for Parthian archers. This thesis is disputed, but if it were true, how much would it influence the whole history of Rome? What would have happened if the third triumvir had not left this world so quickly and violently?

In the following years, the Roman-Parthian rivalry focused on Armenia, located north of the kingdom of Osroene, and the kingdom itself remained an autonomous part of the Parthian state. The Roman Empire strengthened its possessions in the east by annexing Little Armenia, Cappadocia and Commagene – provinces directly bordering Osroene in the west, strengthening the Euphrates line as a border with the Parthians. During the reign of Nero and Corbulo’s campaign in Armenia, the territory of Osroene was attacked by the Romans and King Tiridates VI of Armenia, but the attack was repelled or the Romans retreated on their own in the face of other threats.

In 115 CE Emperor Trajan conquered all of northern and eastern Mesopotamia, including the land of Osroene. Quickly, however, because in 117 CE The Romans withdrew from their gains – the new emperor Hadrian was of the opinion that maintaining new provinces was too expensive for the Empire.

In 162 CE already during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, the Parthian attack on Asia Minor met with a powerful counterattack by the army led by the governor of Syria, Avidius Cassius, who, after conquering Ctesiphon, was stopped by a great plague epidemic. As a result of the peace in 165 CE The Kingdom of Osroene formally came under Roman rule as a satellite state, modelled on Armenia.

In 193 CE the kingdom of Osroene during the reign of Abgar IX, called the Great in the Roman civil war, supported Pescennius Niger, thanks to which it became an independent state again. However, the defeat of Niger in the civil war with Septimius Severus meant a lot of problems for the border kingdom. In 195 CE Septimius organized a great expedition against the Parthians and all the border states supporting his former rival for purple. In 195 CE Osroene was turned into a Roman province, and further areas of Mesopotamia were subordinated to the Empire.

With the end of the reign of Septimius Severus and the rivalry of his sons Caracalla and Geta, Roman influence in Mesopotamia and Osroene was diminished, it is not certain whether it completely fell away from the Empire. These areas were recaptured by Caracalla as a result of the war with the Parthians, led by him in 216-217 CE. In the year 217 CE in the border province, events important for the entire Empire took place. The emperor, preparing for another campaign against the Parthians, in the winter of 216/217 CE he spent in Edessa, and on April 8, 217 CE, in Carrhae he was murdered, in which the new emperor, Macrinus, elected by the army, took part. He continued his war with the Parthians, inconclusively. In 218 CE a peace was made that obliged the Romans to pay a large sum of money, but the areas previously subjugated by Septimius Severus remained in the Roman Empire.

Roman-Persian rivalry

In the mid-1920s, the Parthian Empire was replaced by the Persian Empire, ruled by the Sassanids. The first ruler of this dynasty, Ardarshir, was from 230 CE. attacked Roman possessions in northern and western Mesopotamia. The expedition of Emperor Alexander Severus, despite failures, stopped the impetus of the Persian invader for several years.

During the reign of Alexander Severus’s successor, Maximinus Thrax, the province of Osroene could once again impact the history of the entire Empire – troops of archers from this province, loyal to the last ruler of the Severan dynasty, tried unsuccessfully to remove the new emperor.

In 240 CE Shapur I ascended the Persian throne and in the first year of his reign gained for the Persians all the probably Roman areas of Mesopotamia along with the province of Osroene and Syria up to Antioch. A Roman counterattack drove the Persians from the borders of the Empire, Prefect Timesitheus defeated the Persians at Resaenae, in Osroene, but the taste of victory was interrupted by the death of Emperor Gordian III during military operations in 244 CE, in circumstances unknown to us. The new emperor Philip the Arab concluded a peace in which both sides considered themselves victorious, and the areas of the province of Osroene remained with the Romans. Room of the year 244 CE turned out to be the end of any provincial autonomy within the Roman Empire, despite its status as a province since 195 CE representatives of the Abgarid dynasty still had some influence there. In 244 CE removed the last – Abgar XI.

The 50s of the 3rd century are the period of great victories of Shapur I, who captured the territory of the province of Osroene, and in its territory he defeated the Romans in the battles of Barbalissos and Edessa, taking the emperor Valerian prisoner. The territory of the province was probably recovered for the Romans by Septimius Odenat, the ruler of Palmyra, and certainly by Emperor Carus after the expedition of 282 CE, in which he captured Ctesiphon.

In 296 CE once again the Persian army attacked the lands of the Empire and once again captured the lands of the province of Osroene, defeating the Roman army at Carrhae. Just like several times before, the Roman counterattack turned out to be effective – it ended with the recovery of lost territories, the capture of Ctesiphon, the camp and the royal family of King Narses.

During the next Roman-Persian war, Emperor Julian the Apostate in 363 CE, in response to the capture of numerous border fortresses by the Persians, including Amida, organized a great expedition, the route of which led through Edessa and Carrhae, and finally reached Ctesiphon. During the struggle on the Tigris, Emperor Julian died, which worsened the situation of the Roman army. The concluded peace was unfavourable for the Romans, it gave the Persians many cities in Mesopotamia, including the fortress of Nisibis, but the province of Osroene remained within Roman borders.

The last Persian-Roman conflict that took place before the division of the Empire into eastern and western took place during the reign of Emperor Theodosius the Great and ended with the division of Armenia into Roman and Persian parts, and the borders in Mesopotamia remained unchanged. The province of Osroene remained within the Eastern Roman Empire until the Arab conquests in the 7th century CE.

Author: Eligiusz Idczak (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Aleksander Krawczuk, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 1991
  • Piotr Iwaszkiewicz, Wiesław Łoś, Marek Stępień, Słownik - Władcy i wodzowie starożytności, Warszawa 1998
  • Maria Jaczynowska, Historia starożytnego Rzymu, Warszawa 1983
  • Fergus Millar, The Roman Empire and its neighbours, London 1967

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