He may have been great, but just as our empire surpasses his, so too, am I to surpass Alexander!

—Sergius Parthicus Magnus

There is only one emperor and only one faith, and I will drown China in gold and blood until it understands this!

— Sapadbizes I

A modern depiction of Roman and Chinese forces in battle. The Battle of the River Talas continues to be a popular event in history and popular culture.

The 2nd century A.D. heralded many changes across the world, especially for the three strongest Classical nations. In particular, the Roman Empire and the Qiang Dynasty of China reached their apex only to collapse shortly afterwards, with the Romans struggling to maintain order and territorial integrity while the Qiang fell apart completely and was succeeded by a host of squabbling states. Conversely, the Totonac dynasty of Teotihuacan continued their rise, growing in martial and cultural power, ready to overwhelm the Zapotec and Mayan states to their south. Finally, the expansion of the three main world religions enters a fever pitch as Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity begin their battle for the many souls of Humanity and the old world. 


"To Surpass Alexander"

In Rome, the new emperor Gnaeus Sergius Orata had great ambitions despite his young age. When he took the throne in 94 A.D. from his uncle and regent Caius he was only twenty-two years old. Overcoming the opposition of the Senate and other nobles, Gnaeus began plans for the subjugation of Dacia, the neighboring kingdom that caused many problems along the Empire's Danube border. Acknowledging that he was still somewhat inexperienced, he took six years to prepare for the campaign, which launched in 100 A.D. with much success. Dacia was reduced to a client status, but this eventually proved unacceptable to the Dacians who revolted again. Gnaeus defeated the Dacians once more and formally added the province to the Empire, earning his first triumph.

Of all the emperors of the Empire thus far, Gnaeus perhaps had the most ambition when it came to territorial expansion. He planned to move north against the Caledonians and Hibernians and restore Roman control of Germania past the Rhine River. Despite this, Gnaeus' biggest goal was to finally defeat the Arsacid Persians, the greatest threat to Roman power. Many Roman generals thought this to be impossible beyond the flat territory of the Mesopotamian plains. Both because of preparation for this great campaign and because of his disdain for client states following the affair with Dacia, Gnaeus ordered the annexation of Rome's eastern client states, all of which was done by 110 A.D.

Aware of the manpower required for this task, Gnaeus created an army of twelve legions and several auxiliary units, the largest in Roman history. The last attempted invasion of Persia was four legions and was met with disaster, so Gnaeus anticipated the need for a stronger and more resilient army. In order to create this new army Gnaeus raised three new legions to supplement the eastern border legions, a process of which put considerable strain on the Imperial treasury. The riches looted from Dacia and the vast trade wealth from recently annexed Sabaea made this accomplishment possible.  

In 113 A.D., Gnaeus began his campaign against the Arsacids. With their reformed military, the Parthian nobility put up strong resistance in Mesopotamia. However, unlike the Battle of Tagrit in 34 B.C. where the Persian military was largely able to escape, the Arsacid army was almost completely crushed, with many casualties and captured soldiers. The Battle of Massice was a total disaster for the Persians, who were forced to flee and leave almost all of Mesopotamia to the Romans. With almost no opposition, Gnaeus marched into Ctesiphon, Babylon, Ptolemais Charax, and Susa before the end of the year. With the Iranian mountains covered in snow, Gnaeus and his generals opted to wait and resupply in Susa, allowing the Arsacid king Vologases III to stage a small recovery. 

Emperor Gnaeus, later known as Parthicus Magnus, is considered one of if not the best Roman emperor for his role in expanding the Empire to its greatest territorial extent at the cost of Imperial Rome's traditional enemy, the Persians.

When the arrival of spring cleared the valleys, Gnaeus continued his campaign into the heart of Persia. With the Arsacid forces eviscerated, Gnaeus felt confident in sending a legion of his force to secure Media and the wealthy city of Ecbatana. By late 114, the Romans had penetrated into Persia, forcing Vologases to flee yet again. In his haste, he left behind the sacred texts and fire of the Zoroastrian faith. Had it not been for the ingenuity of a cadre of priests and civilians, who reportedly hid the texts a wall and revived the flame from a single ember, a central part of the Zoroastrian faith might have been lost forever. Without a conclusive victory, Gnaeus vowed to pursue Vologases III as long as possible, a repeat of the Alexandrian experience. With word of the Zoroastrian desecration spreading like wildfire, Vologases hoped for small hit and run attacks to sap Roman morale while he recovered. 

These attacks, while damaging, did not produce the result that the Persians had hoped for. Energized by their victory, the Romans raced across the Iranian mountain valleys, reaching the farthest domains of Persia by 117 A.D. and all of it under substantial control. For the first and only time in Rome's history, their Persian opponents had been completely defeated and occupied. Desiring stable borders for his new eastern provinces, Gnaeus pressed his troops forward, conquering small kingdoms along the Indus River just as Alexander's general Seleucus had done nearly four hundred years earlier. With discontent in the military rising, Gnaeus promised one last campaign north into Sogdiana to finalize the border before returning home. 

In this northern campaign, Gnaeus and his legions, bolstered by local Persian and Indian auxiliaries, including the only recorded use of Roman war elephants, pushed deep into Sogdiana, further than Alexander had done. Gnaeus and his generals identified the Talas River as a suitable northeastern border. However, this ran into conflict with the Qiang Dynasty of China, which was in the area for expansion purposes of their own. Believing each other to be a threat, the two battled to a draw, the only instance of a European and Serican nation fighting for thousands of years. Each side won a strategic victory, as Gnaeus prevented the Chinese from crossing the river into Roman territory but the Qiang inflicted so many casualties the Romans could not sufficiently secure the new border. 

The Imperial Retreat

Despite their apparent success in pushing the Empire to its greatest expansion, Gnaeus and his army was not able to stay in the east for any longer. The troops were restless and eager to return home while the council of Senators appointed to manage the Empire in his absence was beginning to break down. Exhausted and pushed to his limits, Gnaeus finally turned back and marched his forces home, surpassing Alexander as he had wished. Upon returning to Rome, the Senate gave him the grand titles of Parthicus and Magnus, signifying his great efforts in protecting the Empire. However, the strain upon him was significant, and he died nearly a year after returning to Rome in 121 A.D., leaving the Imperial throne to his son Marcus.

Emperor Marcus virtually eliminated the gains made by his father, but instead integrated the territories that remained and vastly enriched the Empire through new resources and trade routes, bringing a new era of prosperity.

Marcus had much of the talent of his father but little of his ambition. Concerned about the feasibility of holding onto the eastern provinces, which were too far away and expensive to maintain properly and filled with a hostile population, Marcus decided to gradually ease them out of the Empire. He didn't abandon all of the territory captured, holding onto the new provinces of Media, Mesopotamia Superior, and Arabia Tylosia. He believed that the former two contained much of the power of the previous Arsacid state and could be reliably protected with available Roman forces. Media, although subject to a hostile population like most of the other Persian areas, served as a more defensible staging ground for any future campaigns in the Iranian mountain chain. 

Marcus ended all further expansion projects in the Empire, preferring to ensure its territorial integrity and internal prosperity. With the far eastern lands ceded away, extensive fortifications were constructed in order to protect existing borders. A series of forts along the Median mountains proved particularly resilient and forestalled many Persian attempts to retake the territory. Similar walls were built in northern Britannia, southern Arabia, and the Balkans. Under Marcus' reign, the Empire prospered economically and socially as Rome's enemies were either deterred or struggled to recover from Gnaeus' harsh campaigns. 

Marcus was succeeded by his cousin Catilina, who maintained the eastern borders but attempted to expand into Hibernia and Caledonia, which ultimately proved unsuccessful despite considerable success. Catilina was the last of the Sergian dynasty, adopting a successor. This successor, Heluius Pertinax, was a capable ruler, but was ultimately usurped and murdered by court politics. This led to the period of instability called the Crisis of the 3rd Century, only interrupted by occasional islands of peace and prosperity when a dynasty managed to secure itself from opposition. 


The Disaster

The Roman invasion completely destroyed the Arsacid dynasty and placed Persia under foreign rule for the second time. The Arsacid government fled the country, unable to stop the Romans from marching all the way to the Talas River. The Zoroastrian holy fire and the golden Avesta were nearly lost. Roman rule was particular harsh because of the multiple wars between them and the Persians over time. Many Persian storehouses and treasuries were looted and multiple places of worship were replaced with Roman temples. The Romans withdrew three years later, as their new emperor Marcus was unwilling to spend the high costs of ruling over a land full of hostile inhabitants.

Vologases III, the last Arsacid ruler, returned from exile to try to restore his rule. Sasan, a Persian warrior and priest, rapidly gained popularity for his resistance to Roman rule. He defeated the Arsacid remnants and had Vologases killed, establishing the Sasanian dynasty. With minimal opposition, Sasan consolidated his rule over all of Persia and the eastern regions and began to prepare for any future confrontation with the Romans. He also began to craft important reforms to all sections of society, especially in terms of religion, administration, and the military. These reforms would shape all of Persian society for many centuries to come. 

A New Dynasty

A modern depiction of Sasan. Sasan overthrew the weakened Arsacid dynasty, reformed the Zoroastrian religion, and fought the Romans to a draw multiple times.

After gaining power, Sasan immediately began to strengthen and reform the state in order to accomplish his goals. The new Sasanian military was changed from the previous Arsacid model. Instead of relying primarily upon levies from subservient kingdoms, a standing army was instituted to protect Persia's borders. In addition, a stronger reliance upon infantry and siege warfare was also instituted. Despite these changes Sasan did retain some previous military formalities, such as the Parthian cavalry model and Achaemenid formations. The military was charged with protecting the east and west from nomadic and Roman incursions respectively. 

In the Achaemenid and Arsacid dynasties Zoroastrianism was favored but did not take on a role comparable to a state religion. With the rise of the Sasanian dynasty, this changed drastically and Zoroastrianism was officially placed into that role. The temples of the Greeks and Romans were either destroyed or replaced with Zoroastrian Atashkadas. A priestly hierarchy, already in place but subject to shifting rules and obligations, was standardized as part of the process in making Zoroastrianism the state religion. In addition, the sacred fire was divided into three parts. The original remained interned at the Adur Burzen-Mihr in Parthia while the other two were located in Media and Persia. In this way the Sasanians both centralized the religion under their control while at the same time preventing any area from having too much importance.


In the region of Punt, the new city of Axum was beginning to emerge as the principle power south of Roman territory in Kush and Arabia. Aware of Rome's superior power, Axum sought to maintain peaceful and prosperous relations. For their part, the Romans already had access to Indian trade routes through Arabia and thus had no large incentive to invade. Because of the influence of various noble bloodlines related to Sabaean Jews most of Axum and its territory followed Judaism, although elements of native polytheism persisted in the countryside. As such, Axum was notable for being the only independent Jewish state for over two hundred years. Because relations with the Roman Empire and local Arabian merchants were largely positive, Axum prospered for centuries. 


The Tocharian Tigers

During this century the power of the Tocharian peoples from the Tarim Basin reached their height. In India, the Kushan Empire already controlled much of Bactria and the Indus River Valley, with more territorial gains as they pushed into the central Indian plain over time. The capture of the great city of Pataliputra marked the farthest the Kushans would expand into eastern India while in the south the various Deccan states successfully resisted. Further north, the Tocharian homeland became increasingly influenced politically by the expanding Qiang dynasty of China, which put the local city-states under a protectorate-style administration. This lasted for much of the preceding century. 

A mural of Tocharian nobles from an old palace complex discovered on the outskirts of Tianjing. The Tocharians would be the first, but not last, of both China's conquest dynasties and Indo-European dynasties.

That state of affairs did not last following the climatic Battle of the River Talas between the Roman Empire and the Qiang Army. While neither empire conclusively won, Emperor Huan of China died shortly after the campaign, with most of the Qiang military still in the Tarim Basin. Mainland China began to fall apart as eunuchs and local lords began to vie for control while the Qiang court fell apart due to no effective successor. Sapadbizes, the leader of the largest Tocharian city-state, successfully bribed much of the former Qiang expedition force, substantially bolstering his capabilities. With this new army, he marched into northern China, declaring himself the first emperor of the Fu dynasty. 

While both India and China were now partially ruled over by the Tocharian peoples, relations were not always positive. The Fu dynasty typically held the Tarim Basin but this was sometimes contested by the Kushans. During Kanishka's latter years, the Tarim Basin answered to him and the Kushans but the region reverted back to the Fu upon his death. Following the loss of mainland China, relations between the Kushans and the Fu became and remained largely positive, although some tensions did remain over trade and supposed purity. 

The Road of Faith

In addition to the rise of the Tocharians, Buddhism was also a central component of the Silk Road. Both the Kushans and the Fu Tocharians were adherents of Mahayana Buddhism, constructing statues of the Buddha and propogating his sacred texts throughout their respective territories. For the Fu Tocharians, this had the substantial impact of thrusting Buddhism into China, which until this point had been reluctant to offer a large congregation of adherents. The Fu dynasty spread Buddhism throughout northern China, constructing the first temples in Tianjing and gaining converts. From China, Mahayana Buddhism was free to spread to other neighboring lands such as Korea and Japan. In India, the dominance of the Mahayana Kushans would eventually inspire conflict in eastern India, where large numbers of Theravada adherents still remained. 


The Battle of Giants

The campaign beyond the Tarim Basin had brough unexpected results. Various cities had been submitted by the Qiang dynasty in its march, and Emperor Huan was satisfied with the gains thus far. However, the clash with the Roman Empire at the Battle of the River Talas, although a draw, had the largest ramifications for the campaign. The two armies had encountered each other and attempted diplomacy in an effort to avoid conflict with an unknown enemy. This ultimately failed, and the two nations deployed their armies to bear. 

The Romans had crossed the river, deploying their legions with their backs to the river. A small wooden bridge constructed by their engineers was the only crossing available. In addition, the Roman army was smaller than the assembled army of the Qiang and their Tocharian allies. Because of these factors, Emperor Huan aimed to use his numerical superiority and force the Romans back towards the river, expecting them to collapse as they only had one narrow means of escape. On their side, Emperor Gnaeus Sergius was not concerned with the enemy's numerical superiority, confident in the strength of his legionaries and their defensive ability. 

A silver and bronze crossbow mechanism, found at the battle site of the River Talas and believed to be from the Chinese side.

In opening, both armies used their archers to weaken the other. The Chinese archers launched many salvos, with some of them using the innovative repeating crossbow, against the Romans. The Roman infantry used their testudo formation, recorded in Chinese sources as the "fishscale formation", to defend and severely limited their losses. Conversely, the Syrian and Indian auxiliaries of the Romans inflicted many casualties upon the Chinese. Finally, both the Roman ballistas and Tocharian cavalry archers were unanswerable by the other side, hindering their opponents however possible. 

When the battle joined, the Chinese pressed the Romans as much as possible. Their initial charge was weakened by the Romans when they tossed their javelins into the front ranks. Despite this, the Chinese maintained their advance, slowly but gradually forcing the Romans back towards the river. With the ranks in battle, the Roman testudo was broken and the Chinese archers were able to inflict more casualties than before. Over the course of the day, the ranks shifted, with the Romans forced back on the left rank while advancing on the right. With both sides suffering heavy losses, both commanders opted to withdraw. Emperor Gnaeus believed that the Chinese might cut the Romans off from the bridge while Emperor Huan considered his camp to be threatened by Roman cavalry reserves. The next day, both commanders opted to leave, believing that they had ceded the victory to the other. 

A Country Asunder 

Despite the apparent defeat, Emperor Huan was content with the successes of the western campaign. However, tragedy struck not long after and Emperor Huan died from a bad fever. Leaderless, in an effectively foreign land, and fearing the possibility of another Roman attack, the Qiang army was at a loss of what to do. Reports came back from China that the heir to the Qiang throne was feckless and insolvent, causing the eunuchs to reassert their influence in the imperial court. In response, numerous minor nobility rose up in revolt, claiming the Mandate of Heaven for themselves. 

Sapadbizes, the effective leader of the Tocharian city-states, was eager to take advantage of the situation. With his substantial financial reserves, he bribed the Qiang generals and promised to restore order and serenity in China proper. Persuaded, the combined army marched back to China and took control of Tianjing. The Qiang court was deposed and Sapadbizes was enthroned as the first Emperor of the Fu Dynasty, which controlled most of northern China as well as the Tarim Basin. However, all of China remained out of his grasp, falling into the hands of smaller kingdoms and local warlords and remaining so for hundreds of years. 


In Anahuac, the Totonac Dynasty of Teotihuacan continued their rise, although they had yet to push forward and bring the fight to the Zapotec and Mayans. Conversely, the Zapotec and Mayans did not appear to care about the emerging threat to the north, continuing their various power struggles while the Totonac were able to further consolidate and expand against smaller cities like Cuicuilco. 


In Peru the Nazca culture remained the dominant society in Peru, although it did not expand much further than it had the previous century. Construction of the Nazca lines continued. 


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