Rhodogune (fl. 2nd c. BCE)

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Rhodogune (fl. 2nd c. bce)

Queen of ancient Parthia. Name variations: Rodogune. Flourished in the 2nd century bce; daughter of Mithradates I, king of Parthia; sister of Phraates II; married Demetrius II Nicator of Syria.

Rhodogune was the daughter of Mithradates I of Parthia, the king most responsible for the rise of the Parthian Empire, and the wife of Demetrius II Nicator. Mithradates acceded to the throne of Parthia in 171 bce and began the expansion of Parthian power. By 148 bce, he had annexed Media (in northwestern Iran) and by 141, Babylonia (in central Iraq)—both at the expense of the Seleucid Empire, the heartland of which lay in western Syria. Mithradates' success in the West came in large part because of dynastic wars which weakened the Seleucid Empire, wars which were rejoined in 146 bce when the Egyptian king Ptolemy VI forced the divorce of his daughter, Cleopatra Thea , from her debauched husband Alexander Balas, so as to replace Balas, both on the throne and in Thea's bed, with Demetrius II Nicator, another Seleucid. In the war which followed, both Balas and Ptolemy VI died, leaving Demetrius in power. Balas' faction (then led by Diodotus Typhon) rallied around the interests of Antiochus VI, the son of Balas and Thea, to whom Demetrius II Nicator was then married. Through 144 bce, the armies of Thea's husband fought off those championing her son. However, Demetrius (although he had three children with Thea) failed to meet the expectations of the citizens of Antioch, the Seleucid capital. As a result, the Antiochines drove Demetrius from the city, then offered the Seleucid throne to Antiochus VI, who technically reigned as king until Diodotus executed him in 141 bce so as to seize the throne for himself.

To recoup his reputation, reverse the Parthian gains in Seleucid lands, and justify a return to the Seleucid throne, in the same year as Antiochus VI's murder, Demetrius began a campaign against Mithradates. Initially, this war went Demetrius' way, but in 140 bce, he was captured by Mithradates, who first paraded Demetrius as a captive through the contested provinces, and then, seeking political advantage, married him to his daughter Rhodogune. Thereafter Demetrius was treated with respect, for Mithradates hoped that a grateful Demetrius, whom Mithradates intended to place back on the Seleucid throne, would someday respond with pro-Parthian policies. Mithradates further hoped that one day, through Rhodogune, one of his descendants would rule in Antioch.

Coming up with some congenial arrangement in the West had become a priority for Mithradates by 140 bce, for by that year his policies in the East had fostered the development of threats from that quarter. In addition to his Western wars, throughout his long reign Mithradates also campaigned against the Greek dynasts then ruling in Bactria (modern Afghanistan). His successes there, however, had opened his eastern frontiers to raids from the Sacae, a nomadic nation from the steppes of central Asia once kept in check by the Bactrians. Not wishing to face simultaneous wars on opposing frontiers, Mithradates decided to woo Demetrius. Before any benefit could accrue from the cultivation of Demetrius, however, Mithradates died (peacefully) in 138 bce. Nonetheless, his successor, Phraates II (the brother of Rhodogune), continued where his father had left off. Trusting that the respect Demetrius had been shown was winning his friendship, Phraates even established his brother-in-law in Hyrcania (northern Iran), where Demetrius apparently possessed large estates, cared for his wife, and knew personal freedom. Certainly, his relationship with Rhodogune seemed to thrive, for with her he is known to have had several children, although their names are unknown. Presumably, as Demetrius fell into the habits of a "family man," Phraates came to trust him more.

Whether or not Demetrius was in fact being won over, events in Antioch undermined the Parthians' hopes for maintaining Demetrius' loyalty. In 138 bce, Thea, besieged in Antioch by Diodotus, and fearing that Demetrius would never return, while also coming to hate him for his marriage to Rhodogune (and for fathering potential rivals to her children with her), proposed marriage to Demetrius' younger brother, Antiochus VII. Within a year, Antiochus VII married Thea, crushed the faction of Diodotus, and assumed the Seleucid throne himself. In the wake of these events, Demetrius' true loyalties became known as he twice attempted to escape from Parthian lands and his second family. Both times, he was captured and returned to Rhodogune, but it had become clear to all concerned that neither trust, nor emotion, nor responsibility would constrain Demetrius to honor a sense of debt to either Rhodogune or her brother.

By 131 bce, Antiochus VII had secured the western portion of the Seleucid realm enough for him to worry about the East and his brother. Like his brother before him, Antiochus VII began his eastern war successfully, to the point where he felt secure in demanding the return of Demetrius—supposedly out of piety, but really so as to put him under wraps and remove him as a royal rival. Hoping to stir up trouble between the Seleucid brothers, and by this time understanding Demetrius' character, Phraates released Demetrius. Not long thereafter (in 130 bce), however, Phraates defeated and killed Antiochus VII in battle, and soon came to rue the premature release of Demetrius. (Nevertheless, perhaps Phraates realized some satisfaction from the fact that among those he captured from Antiochus VII's camp was Laodice , the daughter of Demetrius and Thea, whom Phraates admired so much that he added her to his harem.) Thereafter, Demetrius left Parthia and Rhodogune for good. Whatever happened to Rhodogune or her children is unknown, but it is likely that they maintained their prominence as the power of Parthia became established. Demetrius' fate, however, is known. Turning westward, he came into immediate conflict with his estranged "wife," Thea. After years of petty strife, at Thea's instigation, Demetrius was murdered by the order of the Seleucid governor of the city of Tyre in 126 bce.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California