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Through ancient Commagene

An obscure Hellenic kingdom with a touch of Persian

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Wall of Antiochus I Theos of Commagene shaking hands (dexiosis) with Vahagn. Photo: dimitrastasinopoulou.com

05 October 2017

Not many people have heard of Commagene. In fact, had I not researched Hellenic entities for my book From Pyrrhus to Cyprus I would have been none the wiser. As it stands, I discovered this unique gem on the outskirts of Anatolia. Around 163 BCE, reports reached Athens of a mountainous kingdom located on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now Turkey, bordering Syria. That was the year when this kingdom was truly recognised, after breaking away from the Hellenic-ruled Seleucid kingdom.

The name itself refers to a cluster of genes and in my opinion, this is what the kingdom sought to achieve: namely, a fusion of cultures and religions.
The people of Commagene had been under Assyrian, Persian, and Hellenic occupation before forming their small inland entity. At its greatest extent, the kingdom was perhaps 250 kilometres long and contained people who spoke Greek, Armenian, and Persian.

Numerous writers in modern times have had difficulty ascertaining the exact culture of the kingdom. Some have claimed that Commagene was Hellenised, while others say it was half-Persian and half-Hellenic, and of course there are arguments for Armenian. One thing is certain, that the language of bureaucracy was in Greek, and the rulers had Hellenic names.

The kingdom came about around 162 BCE when the Seleucid governor (satrap) took advantage of the decline of the Seleucid kingdom to declare independence. His name was Ptolemy (Ptolemaeus) and he was confident that he could defend the new kingdom from his Hellenic neighbours. He made the Hellenised city of Samosata the capital, reigning there until 130 BCE.

Mithridates I Callinicus came to power in 109 BCE, ruling for the next 39 years. He tilted more and more towards Hellenic culture at the expense of Persian. He married a Hellenic princess and their son was Antiochus Theos who reigned until 38 BCE. With diplomacy and a dedicated military he kept the Romans onside and his kingdom independent.

What was notable about this period was the fusion of religions: on Mount Nemrut, at a height of 2,150 metres, he created the 'Throne of the Gods'. The landmark was 150 metres in diameter with a height of 50 metres, something that the US has copied at Mt Rushmore! The Commagenean statues depict Antiochos and twelve gods and have Greek inscriptions on their backs. Each of the gods was based on a hybrid of Hellenic and Persian.

One of the inscriptions outlines his belief as follows:
'I chose to make this holy place a common consecrated seat of all the gods; so that not only the heroic company of my ancestors, whom you behold before you, might be set up here by my pious devotion, but also that the divine representation of the manifest deities might be consecrated on the holy hill and that his place might likewise not be lacking in witness to my piety.'

Around 69 BCE the Romans, who had defeated the Seleucid Empire once and for all, made a play for Samosata. The confident Romans were actually repelled by the determined defenders.

The strength of the kingdom was again tested in 17 AD when Roman Emperor Tiberius annexed Commagene, only for Caligula to reinstate independence with additional territory in Cilicia, over two decades later.

In 72, the Emperor Vespasian, acting on intelligence of a possible attack by Hellenes of Commagene, decided to formally annex the area. It was absorbed with ease into the province of Syria. The Commagene military was assimilated with the Romans rather than be disbanded. The final royal connection was Philopappos; he was treated well as was his family. They dispersed to Rome and he himself to Athens where he served the city in public life, and by 109 AD had been made a Consul in Rome! A visitor to Athens can find a tomb that was erected on Mouseion Hill, near the famous Acropolis. The hill is therefore called Philopappos Hill.

I have to say that this was a great way for this Hellenic fusion kingdom to meet its end. Alexander the Great would have been proud of the way Commagene brought elements of different cultures together. Whilst the Hellenic kingdom in India which ended around 10 AD is more of an out and out Hellenic kingdom, Commagene can lay claim to being one too, as outlined above. This would mean that the last Hellenic kingdom actually finished in 72 AD, if one were to argue that it was Hellenic.

* The Nemrut Dagi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
* Billy Cotsis is the author of 'From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Remembered and Forgotten Hellenic Kingdoms, Empires, Territories and a Fiefdom'.

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