THE BALKAN BORGIAS
One of the forgotten political dynasties of Roman history is the so-called Sapaioi dynasty, installed by Rome as ‘Kings of Thrace’ in an attempt to legitimize her rule in the region. Following the Roman conquest, which culminated in the campaigns of 29/28 BC by M. Crassus’ against the Bastarnae and the Scordisci tribes (Dio Cass. 51. 26-27), a Thracian puppet government, drawn from members of the Odrysae tribe, who had collaborated with Rome (loc cit), was installed to preside over the Romanization of Thrace. This Thraco-Macedonian tribe had ruled large parts of Thrace until the arrival of the Celts in the 4th/3rd c. BC, and after the Roman conquest of Thrace at the end of the 1st c. BC, members of this dynasty were chosen by Rome to rule Thrace (under Roman patronage) until direct imperial rule was finally established in 46 AD (On the Odrysae Sapaioi dynasty see also ‘Behind the Golden Mask’, ‘The Scordisci Wars’ and ‘Artacoi’ articles).
From the very beginning it was clear that these Odrysae ‘kings’ had no popular support, and were despised by the population of Thrace as traitors. The first ‘Thracian’ king of whom we have extensive numismatic testimony is Rhoemetalces (Ῥοιμητάλκης) I, who came to the throne in 12 BC. Rhoemetalces was a loyal ally of the Roman emperor Augustus, and had initially been the guardian of King Rhescuporis I (his nephew).
In 13 BC the local population, led by a priest-chieftain, Vologaeses of the Bessi tribe, had rebelled against this new Roman backed dynasty. The young Rhescuporis was executed by the rebels, and the new king Rhoemetalces I’s reign began rather shamefully when his Thracian army deserted to the rebels, forcing him to flee Thrace – ‘He (Vologaeses) conquered and killed Rhascyporis, the son of Cotys, and afterwards, thanks to his reputation for supernatural power, he stripped Rhoemetalces, the victim’s uncle, of his forces without a battle and compelled him to take flight. In pursuit of him he invaded the Chersonese, where he wrought great havoc’ (Tacitus 2, 64).
Rhoemetalces I was finally restored to his throne when a Roman army led by the governer of Pamphylia, Lucius Piso, arrived and brutally put down the rebellion (loc cit).
Rhoemetalces I ruled Thrace until his death in 12 AD. Augustus then divided his realm into two separate kingdoms, one half for his son Cotys to rule, and the other half for Rhoemetalces’ remaining brother Rhescuporis II. Tacitus states that Cotys received the cultivated parts, most of the towns and cities of Thrace, while Rhescuporis received the wild and savage portion:
‘That entire country had been in the possession of Rhoemetalces, after whose death Augustus assigned half to the king’s brother Rhescuporis, half to his son Cotys. In this division the cultivated lands, the towns, and what bordered on Greek territories, fell to Cotys; the wild and barbarous portion, with enemies on its frontier, to Rhescuporis ’ (Tacitus, Annals 2:64).
Rhescuporis was apparently unsatisfied with his part of this deal, and set out to annex Cotys’ territory. Inviting his nephew to a banquet to falsely ratify a treaty between them, he arrested and imprisoned Cotys, seizing his part of the kingdom. Cotys died while incarcerated in 18 AD, allegedly by suicide. His wife, Tryphaena, and their children subsequently fled Thrace to Cyzicus to escape Rhescuporis.
Cotys had four children by Tryphaena – Rhoemetalces II who later ruled Thrace with his mother Tryphaena (see below); another son, Cotys IX, who became Roman Client King of Lesser Armenia from 38 AD to circa 47 AD; two daughters -Gepaepyris, who married the Roman Client King, Tiberius Julius Aspurgus of the Bosporan Kingdom, and Pythodoris II (or Pythodorida II). In 38 AD, after the death of Rhoemetalces II, Tryphaena abdicated the throne at the request of Roman Emperor Caligula. Pythodoris II married her cousin Rhoemetalces III, and they ruled Thrace as Roman Client Rulers from 38 AD until 46 AD (see below).
Little is known on the life of Gepaepyris. She married the Roman Client King of the Bosporan Kingdom, Tiberius Julius Aspurgus, who was of Greek and Iranian ancestry. The Bosporan Kingdom was the longest known surviving Roman Client Kingdom. Aspurgus was the son of Bosporan Queen Dynamis from her first marriage to General and Bosporan King Asander. Gepaepyris bore Aspurgus two sons – Tiberius Julius Mithridates - named in honor of Mithridates VI of Pontus, and Tiberius Julius Cotys I – who was named in honor of his late maternal grandfather Cotys VIII. When Aspurgus died in 38 AD, Gepaepyris ruled with their first son Mithridates in the Bosporan Kingdom until 45 AD. Later, her other son (confusingly called Cotys I) succeeded her and Mithridates.
After the murder of Cotys by his uncle, the Roman Emperor Tiberius opened an investigation into Cotys’ death, putting Rhescuporis on trial in the Roman Senate. He invited Cotys’ widow Tryphaena to testify at the trial, during which she accused the defendant of murdering her husband. Rhescuporis was found guilty, and Tiberius sent him to Alexandria. However, en route, Rhescuporis ‘tried to escape’ and was killed by the Romans:
Rhescuporis was removed to Alexandria, and there attempting or falsely charged with attempting escape, was put to death (Tac. Ann. Book 2:67).
His son, who would later rule Thrace as Rhoemetalces III (see below), was spared by Tiberius and allowed to return to Thrace. In the meantime Tiberius returned the whole Thracian Kingdom to Tryphaena and appointed Rhoemetalces II, her eldest child with Cotys, as coruler.
Rhoemetalces II proved to be as unpopular as his predecessors had been. Shortly after he took power, he was besieged in his capital at Philipopolis (Plovdiv) by the local population, intent on executing him as a traitor, and had to be rescued by a Roman legion who arrived at the last minute and massacred the ‘rebels’. As mentioned, the Thracian king is referred to by the Romans as ‘a loyal friend and ally’, and took part in the Roman campaign of 26 AD led by Sabinus against the Celtic Artacoi tribe in the Haemus (Balkan) mountains. Rhoemetalces proved himself an inept military leader, and after leading a campaign of murder and destruction against the local population, his Thracian forces were massacred during a surprise attack by the barbarians (see ‘Artacoi’ article – History section).
THE LAST ‘THRACIAN KING’
Upon Rhoemetalces II’s death in 38 AD, Rhoemetalces III (the son of Rhescuporis II, who had been murdered by the Romans), ‘ruled’ in association with his cousin-wife Pythodoris II. The last Thracian king shared the fate of many of his predecessors, and was himself murdered in 46 AD. It is unclear whether he died at the hands of insurgents, or on the orders of his wife. Following his death, another major uprising by the local population was brutally put down by the Romans, and Thrace subsequently became a province of the empire.