Parthian Empire

John Florens | Dec 15, 2023

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The Parthian Empire (247 B.C.-224 A.D.) or Arsacid Empire was one of the Iranian political and cultural powers in ancient Persia. It was ruled by the Arsacid dynasty, founded by Arsaces I, leader of the nomadic Scythian-Iranian Parni tribe, who founded the Empire in the mid-3rd century BCE by conquering Parthia in northeastern Iran, a satrapy then in revolt against the Seleucid Empire. Under Mithridates I of Parthia (r. c. 171-138 BCE) the Parthian Empire expanded, conquering Media and Mesopotamia to the detriment of the Seleucids. At its peak (1st century BCE), it stretched from the Euphrates (present-day southeastern Turkey) to eastern Iran. It was traversed by the Silk Road, which connected the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean basin and the Han Empire of China, and experienced flourishing trade.

The Parthians absorbed various aspects of the civilizations of the subjugated peoples, especially the Persian and Hellenistic ones. As the centuries passed, Persian civilization prevailed over Hellenistic civilization, which was abandoned over the years, though never completely.

The Arsacid kings were called "Kings of Kings" and called themselves heirs to the Achaemenid Empire. They differed from it, however, in a more decentralized system of government: many regions were ruled by vassal kings, not satraps. As the Empire expanded, the seat of government was moved from Nisa, in Turkmenistan, to Ctesiphon along the Tigris (several other cities were capitals for a short time.

The Parthians' first enemies were the Seleucids in the west and the Scythians in the east. However, as Parthia expanded westward, it came into conflict with the Kingdom of Armenia, and then with Rome. Rome and Parthia disputed indirect control over the client kingdom of Armenia for centuries. Conflicts between the two powers, fought in Armenia, Syria, and Mesopotamia, ended in nothing, and neither contender succeeded in taking territory permanently from the other. Frequent civil wars between Parthian contenders to the throne were more dangerous than foreign invasions, and the Parthian Empire fell when Ardashir I, a Parthian vassal king, turned against the Arsacids and dethroned their last king, Artabanus IV, in 224 CE. Ardashir founded the Sasanian Empire, which was destined to rule Iran and large parts of the Near East until the Islamic conquests of the 7th century CE, although the Arsacid dynasty was perpetuated in the Arsacid dynasty of Armenia.

Native Parthian sources, written in Parthian, Greek, as well as numerous other idioms, are very few when compared to Sasanian or Achaemenid sources. Apart from a few cuneiform tablets, fragmentary ostraca, rock inscriptions, drachma, and a few other documents, much of Parthian history has come only through foreign sources, Greek and Roman as well as Chinese. Parthian art is considered by scholars to be a valuable source for the study and understanding of those aspects of Parthian society and culture that are not covered in other sources.


Before Arsaces I founded the Arsacid dynasty, he was the tribal leader of the Parthians, one of several nomadic tribes that were part of the Dahae confederation. The Parthians were an Indo-European population from Central Asia, and they resided in the north of Parthia. The latter was a northeastern province of the Achaemenid first and Seleucid later Empire. The scant attention paid to the eastern provinces of their empire by the Seleucid rulers of Syria allowed the satrap Andragoras to revolt and separate Parthia from the rest of the Empire around 247 B.C.E.; shortly thereafter, around 238 B.C.E., Parthia was invaded by the Parthians, led by Arsaces I, who deposed Andragoras and seized the region, thus founding the Parthian Empire, as narrated by the Roman historian Justin:

Beginnings of the Parthian Empire (from 247-171 B.C.)

Why the Arsacid court retroactively chose 247 BCE as the first year of the Arsacid era is unclear. Some scholars, such as Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, assert that 247 BCE was simply the year that Arsaces was appointed tribal chief of the Parni; and Gene Ralph Garthwaite, argue, instead, that it was in that year that Arsaces conquered Parthia and expelled the Seleucid authorities; still other scholars, such as Curtis believe that Andragora was not overthrown by the Arsacids until 238 BCE. Adrian David Hugh Bivar concludes that Arsaces I conquered the region around 238 BCE, but "backdated his years of reign" to the time when the Seleucids lost control of Parthia due to the revolt of their satrap Andragoras (247 BCE).

It is unclear who was the successor of Arsace I, partly because of disagreements among the sources: according to Arrian's Parthica fragments, upon Arsace I's death he was succeeded by his brother Tiridates I, who in turn was succeeded by his son Artabanus I; for the Roman historian Justin, however, Arsace I's successor was his son Arsace II. In the past, based on the authoritative opinion of the Polish scholar Jozef Wolski, Arrian's version has been rejected in favor of Justin's account by much of modern historiography, for whom Tiridates I was to be considered a legendary ruler and Arsaces I would actually have reigned from 246 BCE until 211 BCE, succeeded by his son Arsaces II. Recently, however, the theory that Arsaces I was succeeded by his brother and not his son has come back into vogue following the discovery of an ostraca during archaeological excavations, which attests that Phrypathius was the "son of Arsaces' nephew," suggesting that indeed his father Artabanus I

In the following years, Arsaces consolidated his position in Parthia and Hircania by taking advantage of the fact that the Seleucids were engaged in a war against the Hellenistic king of Egypt Ptolemy III Euergetes (r. 246-222 BCE), who among other things had invaded Syria itself, and therefore could not focus their attentions on the eastern provinces of their empire. The conflict with Ptolemy, the so-called Third Syriac War (246-241 BCE), also allowed Diodotus I to revolt and establish the Greco-Battrian kingdom in Central Asia. The latter's successor, Diodotus II, formed an alliance with Arsace against the Seleucids; despite this alliance, the Parthians were challenged by the subsequent Seleucid counteroffensive aimed at regaining lost territories: Arsace was temporarily forced to withdraw from Parthia by the forces of Seleucus II Callinicus (r. 246-225 B.C.E.), although later, after spending time in exile with the nomadic tribe of Apasiacae, he was able to mount a victorious counteroffensive that enabled him to regain his kingdom. Seleucus II's successor, Antiochus III the Great (r. 222-187 B.C.E.), was unable to intervene immediately because his troops were still intent on suppressing Molon's revolt in Media.

Antiochus III launched a massive campaign to reconquer Parthia and Bactria in 210 or 209 BCE. He failed in his efforts, but negotiated a peace agreement with Arsaces II. The latter was granted the title of king (ancient Greek: basileus) in exchange for his submission to Antiochus III and recognition of his superiority. The Seleucids were unable to intervene further in Parthian affairs because of the growing influence gained by the Roman Republic in Asia Minor and the subsequent Seleucid defeat at Magnesia in 190 BCE. Phryapatius (r. c. 191-176 B.C.) succeeded Arsaces II, followed in turn by Phraates I (r. c. 176-171 B.C.). Phraates I ruled Parthia without any Seleucid interference.

Expansionism (171-92 B.C.)

Phraates I expanded the possessions of his empire as far as the Gates of Alexander, occupying Apamea Ragiana, the site of which is still unknown. But the largest territorial expansion of the Parthian Empire occurred during the reign of his brother and successor Mithridates I of Parthia, whom Katouzian compares to Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire.

Relations between Parthia and Greco-Battria had meanwhile deteriorated, and Mithridates' forces conquered two of its eparchies during the reign of Eucratides I (r. c. 170-145 BCE). Turning later against the Seleucids, Mithridates invaded Media and occupied Ecbatana in 148 or 147 BCE; the region had been destabilized by a recent Seleucid suppression of a local revolt led by Timarchus. This victory was followed by the Parthian conquest of Babylon in Mesopotamia; Mithridates struck coin at Seleucia in 141 BCE and held an official investiture ceremony in the region. As Mithridates retreated to Hircania, his forces subdued the kingdoms of Elymais and Characene and occupied Susa. At that time, Parthian authority in the east extended as far as the Indus.

While Ecatompilus had been the first capital of the Parthians, Mithridates chose as his own royal residences Mithradatkert (Nisa, in Turkmenistan), where the sepulchres of the Arsacid kings were built, Seleucia on the Tigris, Ecbatana, and Ctesiphon, a new city he founded. Ecbatana became the main summer residence of the Arsacid king. Ctesiphon, on the other hand, may not have become the official capital until the reign of Gotarze I (r. c. 90-80 BCE). It became the place where the king's coronation ceremony took place and the representative city of the Arsacids, according to Brosius.

The Seleucids were unable to intervene immediately as they were intent on suppressing a revolt in the capital Antioch led by General Diodotus Tryphon (142 BCE). Despite the fact that Tryphon's revolt was still going on, in 140 BCE. Demetrius II Nicator launched a counteroffensive against the Parthians in Mesopotamia: his goal was probably not only the reconquest of the lost provinces but also the recruitment of fresh troops from those regions to suppress Triphon's revolt. Despite some initial successes, the Seleucids were defeated and Demetrius himself was captured by the Parthians and taken into captivity in Hircania. There Mithridates treated his captive with great hospitality, even allowing him to marry his daughter, the Parthian princess Rhodogune.

Meanwhile, Antiochus VII Sidetes (r. 138-129 BCE), brother of Demetrius, ascended the Seleucid throne and married the latter's wife Cleopatra Tea. After defeating Diodotus Tryphon, in 130 BCE. Antiochus launched an expedition to reconquer Mesopotamia, now subjugated to the Parthian king Phraates II (r. c. 138-128 BCE). At first success accrued to the Seleucids: the Parthian general Indate was defeated at Great Zab, which was followed by a local revolt in which the Parthian governor of Babylon was killed; after defeating the Parthians in three battles, Antiochus conquered Babylon and occupied Susa, where he struck coin. After his army's advance into Media, the Parthians begged for peace, and Antiochus imposed on them the restitution of all lands conquered by the Arsacids in previous decades except Parthia itself, the payment of heavy tribute and the release from captivity of the former Seleucid king Demetrius. Phraates, however, refused such peace terms except to grant freedom to Demetrius, whom he sent to Syria. In the spring of 129 B.C., the Medes were in open revolt against Antiochus, whose army had caused the depletion of agricultural resources during the winter. As the Seleucid army attempted to suppress the revolts, the bulk of the Parthian army attacked the region and killed Antiochus in battle. His son Seleucus, welcomed into the Parthian court, was treated with honors worthy of a prince, while a daughter became part of Phraates' harem.

As the Parthians reconquered lost territories in the west, another threat arose in the east. In 177-176 B.C. the nomadic Xiongnu confederacy drove the Yuezhi out of their lands, corresponding to today's Gansu province in northwestern China; the Yuezhi consequently migrated westward into Bactria and drove out the Saka (Scythian) tribes, who in turn were forced to move further westward, where they invaded the northeastern frontiers of the Parthian Empire. The Parthian king Mithridates was then forced to retreat to Hircania after conquering Mesopotamia.

Some of the Saka were drafted into the army of Phraates sent against Antiochus. However, they arrived too late to be employed in the conflict. Because Phraates refused to pay them, the Saka revolted, a revolt that the Parthian king tried to suppress with the help of former Seleucid soldiers, but these too abandoned Phraates and joined forces with the Saka. Phraates II marched against this coalition, but was defeated and killed in battle. His successor Artabanus I (r. c. 128-124 B.C.E.) shared a similar fate fighting the nomads in the east: the Roman historian Justinus claims that Artabanus was killed by the Tocarians (identified with the Yuezhi), but, according to some scholars, this claim is implausible and it is possible that Justinus confused them with the Saka; in any case, Bivar argues that, given the laconicity of the information provided by the sources, it would be preferable to stick to it as closely as possible. Mithridates II of Parthia (r. c. 124-90 B.C.) later recovered the lands lost to the Saka in Sistan, succeeding not only in securing the eastern frontiers against the nomads but even in expanding the empire.

Following the Seleucid withdrawal from Mesopotamia, the Parthian governor of Babylon, Himerus, was ordered by the Arsacid court to conquer the Characene, then ruled by Hyspaosines from the Charax Spasinu. When the conquest of the Characene failed, Hyspaosines invaded Babylon in 127 B.C. and occupied Seleucia. But in 122 BCE, Mithridates II drove Hyspaosines out of Babylon and defeated him, making the Characene kings vassals of the Parthians. After Mithridates expanded the Parthian domains even further west, occupying Dura-Europos in 113 BCE, he became involved in a conflict against the Kingdom of Armenia. His forces defeated and deposed Artavasides I of Armenia in 97 BCE, taking as hostage his son Tigrane, who would later become Tigrane II "the Great" of Armenia (r. c. 95-55 BCE).

The Indo-Parthian kingdom, whose territory stretched over present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, formed an alliance with the Parthians in the first century BC. Bivar argues that these two states considered themselves political equals. The story goes that when the Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyana visited the court of Vardane I (r. c. 40-47 CE) in 42 CE, he expressed a desire to travel to Indo-Parthia, so Vardane provided him with the protection of a caravan. When Apollonius reached the capital of Indo-Partia, Taxila, the commander of the caravan read Vardane's official letter, perhaps written in Parthian, to an Indian official who accordingly treated Apollonius with great hospitality.

Parthians, Rome and the Armenian Question (92 BC-31 BC).

The Kusana Yuezhi Empire in northern India largely ensured the security of Parthia's eastern frontier. For these reasons, from the mid-1st century BCE onward, the Arsacid court focused primarily on securing the western frontier, which was threatened by Rome. A year after the subjugation of Armenia by Mithridates II, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, proconsul of the Roman province of Cilicia, met with the Parthian diplomat Orobazo near the Euphrates River. The two signed a treaty stipulating that the river would be the border between Parthia and Rome, although Rose Mary Sheldon argues that Sulla had only the authority to communicate these terms to Rome.

Despite this treaty, in 93 or 92 B.C. Parthia fought a war in Syria against the local chieftain Laodiceus and his Seleucid ally Antiochus X Eusebe (r. 95-92? B.C.), killing the latter. When one of the last Seleucid monarchs, Demetrius III Eucherus, attempted to besiege Beroea (modern Aleppo), Parthia sent military aid to the inhabitants and Demetrius was defeated.

Following the reign of Mithridates II, the Parthian Empire was divided: Gotarze I ruled Babylonia, while Orodes I (r. c. 90-80 BCE) ruled Parthia. The division of the Empire in two weakened Parthia, allowing Tigrane II of Armenia to annex Parthian territory in western Mesopotamia. These territories returned to Parthian hands only during the reign of Sanatruce (r. c. 78-71 BCE). Following the outbreak of the Third Mithridatic War, Mithridates VI of Pontus (r. 119-63 BCE), an ally of the King of Armenia Tigrane II, asked the Parthians for aid against Rome, but Sanatruce refused to intervene in the conflict. When the Roman commander Lucullus marched against Armenia's capital Tigranocerta in 69 B.C., Mithridates VI and Tigrane II implored the help of Phraates III (r. c. 71-58 B.C.). Phraates again sent no aid, and after the fall of Tigranocerta reconfirmed with Lucullus the Euphrates as the border between Parthia and Rome.

Tigrane the younger, son of Tigrane II, after a failed attempt to usurp the Armenian throne from his father, fled to Phraates III, convincing him to march against Armenia's new capital, Artaxarta. When the siege failed, Tigrane the younger fled again, this time to the Roman commander Pompey, promising him that he would lead him through Armenia; however, when Tigrane II submitted to Rome as a client king, Tigrane the younger was taken to Rome as a hostage. At this point, Phraates asked Pompey to hand over Tigrane the lesser to him, but received Pompey's refusal. In retaliation, Phraates launched an invasion into Corduene (southeastern Turkey), where, according to two conflicting Roman accounts, the Roman consul Lucius Afranius forced the Parthians to retreat either by military force or diplomacy.

Following the murder of Phraates III, who was assassinated by his own sons (Orodes II and Mithridates III), a succession war broke out in Parthia between the two parricides in which Orodes initially seemed to prevail, forcing Mithridates to flee to Roman Syria. Aulus Gabinius, proconsul of the Roman province of Syria, decided to support Mithridates in the civil war, but later declined all war support because he was busy assisting Ptolemy XII Auletes (55-51 BCE) in suppressing a revolt in Egypt. Although he lost the support of the Romans, Mithridates still managed to conquer Babylon, and he struck coin in Seleucia until 54 BCE. In that year, Orodes' general, known as Surena, a name derived from his aristocratic family name, recaptured Seleucia and had Mithridates executed.

The triumvir and proconsul of Syria, Marcus Licinius Crassus, launched an invasion into Parthia in 53 B.C. in support of Mithridates, leading his army in the direction of Carre (modern Harran, southeastern Turkey). Orodes II reacted to the Roman incursion by sending against Crassus his best general, Surena, while he himself launched, with another army, the invasion of Armenia, so as to prevent Rome's ally Artavasdes II of Armenia (r. 53-34 BCE) from intervening in support of the Romans. Eventually Orodes succeeded in breaking the alliance between Artavasdes and Rome: he persuaded the Armenian king to ally with him through an arranged marriage between the Parthian heir to the throne Pacorus I and Artavasdes' sister.

Meanwhile, Surena, with an army composed solely of horsemen, clashed with Crassus near Carre. Surena's 1,000 cataphracts, armed with spears, and 9,000 horse archers were outnumbered four to one by Crassus's army, which included seven Roman legions, numerous auxiliaries, many of whom were Gallian cavalry, and numerous cohorts of light infantry. Relying on a convoy of about 1,000 camels, Parthian horse archers were constantly supplied with arrows. They employed the tactic of "Parthian shooting," which consisted of feigning retreat, then turning back and shooting arrows at their opponents. This tactic, combined with the use of heavy composite bows on a flat field, caused immense damage to Crassus' infantry. With about 20,000 Romans fallen on the battlefield, about 10,000 captured, and another 10,000 or so fleeing westward, Crassus sought escape into the Armenian countryside. Leading his army, Surena approached Crassus, offering him an interview, which Crassus accepted. However, one of Crassus' legates, suspecting a trap, tried to stop him as he rode toward Surena's camp, and in the ensuing struggle the triumvir was killed.

Crassus' defeat at Carre was one of the worst defeats suffered by Rome in its thousand-year history. The Parthian victory cemented its reputation as a power at least equal to Rome. After a march of some 700 km, Surena triumphantly entered Seleucia, taking with him not only his army but also his prisoners of war and an immense booty. However, fearing his ambitions for the Arsacid throne, Orodes had Surena executed a short time later.

Encouraged by their victory over Crassus, the Parthians attempted to conquer Roman territories in Asia. The heir to the throne Pacorus I and his commander Osaces sacked Syria as far as Antioch in 51 B.C., but were repulsed by Gaius Cassius Longinus, who killed Osaces in an ambush. Later, when Civil War broke out in Rome between Julius Caesar and Pompey, the Arsacids sided with the latter. They later sent soldiers to support the Caesaricides' troops in the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE. Quintus Labienus, son of Titus Labienus and loyal to Cassius and Brutus, sided with the Parthians against the Second Triumvirate in 40 BCE; the following year he invaded Syria together with Pacorus I. Triumvir Marcus Antonius was unable to lead the Roman defense against Parthia because of his departure for Italy, where he massed his forces to clash with his rival Octavian, and eventually conducted negotiations with him at Brindisi. After Syria was occupied by Pacorus' army, Labienus separated from the bulk of the Parthian army to invade Anatolia while Pacorus and his commander Barzafarnes invaded Roman Syria. They subdued all settlements along the Mediterranean coast south to Ptolemais (modern Acre), with the sole exception of Tyre. In Judea, the pro-Roman Jewish forces led by Hyrcanus II, Phasel, and Herod were defeated by the Parthians and their Jewish ally Antigonus II Mattathias (the latter was crowned king of Judea while Herod fled to his fortress at Masada.

Despite these successes, the Parthians were soon expelled from Syria by a Roman counteroffensive. Publius Ventidius Bassus, an officer of Mark Antony, defeated and had Labienus executed at the Battle of the Cilician Gates (in Turkey) in 39 BC. A short time later, a Parthian army led by General Farnapates was defeated in Syria by Ventidius at the Battle of Mount Amano. As a result, Pacorus I was temporarily forced to withdraw from Syria. When he returned there in the spring of 38 B.C., he clashed with Ventidius at the Battle of Mount Gindar, northeast of Antioch. Pacorus was killed during the battle, and his forces retreated across the Euphrates. His fall in battle was followed by a succession crisis in which Orodes II chose Phraates IV (r. c. 38-2 BCE) as his new heir.

After ascending the throne, Phraates IV eliminated his main rivals to the throne by killing or exiling his brothers. One of them, Monaeses, fled to Antony and persuaded him to invade Parthia. Before proceeding with the expedition against Parthia, Antony worked to bring Judea back into the Roman zone of influence by dethroning the Parthian ally King Antigonus of Judea and installing Herod in his place as Rome's client king (37 B.C.). The following year, when Antony marched as far as Erzurum, Artavasdes II of Armenia again changed alliance by sending the triumvir reinforcements. Antony's next move was to invade Media Atropatene (modern Azerbaijan), ruled by the Parthian ally Artavasdes I of Media Atropatene, with the intention of conquering its capital Praaspa, the location of which is still unknown. However, the rear guard of Antony's army was attacked by a Parthian army led by Phraates IV himself, and although the arrival of reinforcements allowed Antony's rear guard to escape, the attack cost the Romans dearly: not only were about 10,000 soldiers of Antony's army killed in the course of the clash, but the Parthians managed to destroy the siege weapons that were to be used for the siege of Praaspa; moreover, the reversal induced Artavasdes and his Armenian cavalry to abandon the triumvirate's forces. Although pursued by the Parthians, Antony's army, which was meanwhile retreating through

Peace with Rome, court intrigue and contacts with Chinese generals (31 B.C.-58 A.D.)

Following Antony's defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian consolidated his political power and in 27 BC was appointed Augustus by the Roman Senate, becoming the first Roman emperor. Meanwhile, Tiridates II briefly succeeded in overthrowing Phraates IV, but he was able to regain the throne with the help of the Scythian nomads. Tiridates fled to the Romans, taking one of Phraates' sons with him. In negotiations conducted in 20 BCE, Phraates was able to obtain the return of his kidnapped son. In return, the Romans regained the legion insignia that had been lost in the defeat at Carre in 53 B.C., as well as the surviving prisoners of war. The Parthians considered this exchange a small price to pay to get their prince back. Augustus had the return of the insignia celebrated by his propaganda as a political victory over the Parthians; this victory was celebrated by Augustan propaganda with the issuance of new coins, the building of a new temple where the recovered insignia would be housed, and even in art (see Augustus statue at Prima Porta).

Along with the prince, Augustus handed over to Phraates IV an Italic slave girl, who later became Queen Musa. In order to secure the succession of his son Phraatace, still in his infancy, Musa persuaded Phraates IV to hand over his other sons to Augustus as hostages. Once again, Augustus took the opportunity to have propaganda celebrate Parthia's "submission" to Rome, listing it among the great achievements in his Res gestae divi Augusti. When Phraatace came to the throne as Phraates V (r. c. 2 B.C.-4 A.D.), Musa married his son and reigned with him. The Parthian aristocracy, disapproving of both the incestuous marriage and the fact that the new king was of non-Arsacid blood, forced the couple into exile in Roman territory. Phraates' successor, Orodes III, reigned only two years, and was succeeded by Vonon I, who had lived as a hostage in Rome where he had learned a Roman way of life. The Parthian nobility, resenting Vonon's sympathies for the Romans, supported the usurpation of Artabanus II (r. c. 10-38 CE), who eventually defeated Vonon, forcing him into exile in Roman Syria.

During the reign of Artabanus II, two Jewish brothers, Anilai and Asinai, from Nehardea (modern Fallujah, Iraq), led a revolt against the Parthian governor of Babylon. After defeating the latter, the two obtained the right to rule the region from Artabanus II, who feared further revolts there. The rule of the two Hebrew brothers did not last long, however: Anilai's Parthian wife poisoned Asinai fearing that she would attack Anilai for his marriage to a gentile, and, as a result, Anilai became embroiled in a conflict with a son-in-law of Artabanus, who eventually defeated him. Having removed the Jewish regime, the native Babylonians began to persecute the local Jewish community, forcing them to emigrate to Seleucia. When that city revolted against Parthian rule in 35-36 CE, the Jews were again expelled, this time by the local Greeks and Arameans. The exiled Jews fled to Ctesiphon, Nehardea, and Nisibis.

Although at peace with Parthia, Rome continued to interfere in its affairs. The Roman emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37 CE) became involved in the coup d'état, carried out by Farasmane I of Iberia, to place his brother Mithridates on the throne of Armenia by assassinating the Parthian ally, the Armenian king Arsaces. Artabanus II tried in vain to restore Parthian control over Armenia, but was forced by an aristocratic revolt aimed at deposing him to flee to Scythia. The Romans freed a hostage prince, Tiridates III, to rule Parthia as an ally of Rome. However, Tiridates did not rule for long: Artabanus, supported by the anti-Roman faction of the Parthians, who did not intend to accept Rome's protectorate over their empire, quickly succeeded in dethroning Tiridates from the throne by employing troops from Hircania; Tiridates fled, pushing the Roman emperor (in the resulting peace treaty, Rome recognized Artabanus as king of the Parthians, but in return forced him to hand over one of his sons to the Romans as a hostage. When Artabanus died in 38 CE, a long civil war broke out between the rightful successor Vardane I and his brother Gotarze II. After Vardane's assassination following a hunting expedition, Gotarze became sole ruler; part of the Parthian nobility was hostile to him, however, and in 49 CE appealed to the Roman Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54 CE) to free the hostage prince Meherdates to allow him to challenge Gotarze. The attempt by p

In 97 CE, Chinese General Ban Chao, the Protector General of the Western Regions, sent his emissary Gan Ying on a diplomatic mission to reach the Roman Empire. Gan visited the court of Pacorus II at Ecatompilo before leaving for Rome. He went as far west as the Persian Gulf, where the Parthian authorities convinced him that an arduous journey by sea along the Arabian Peninsula was the only way to reach Rome. Discouraged by this, Gan Ying returned to the Han court and provided Emperor Hedi of the Han (r. 88-105 CE) with a detailed account of the Roman Empire based on the oral accounts of the Parthians who hosted him. William Watson speculates that the Parthians did not view favorably the Han Empire's vain attempts to open diplomatic relations with Rome, especially following Ban Chao's military victories against the Xiongnu in the Tarim Basin. In any case, Chinese sources attest that a Roman embassy, perhaps just a group of Roman merchants, arrived at the Han capital Luoyang in 166 CE, during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 CE) and Emperor Huandi of the Eastern Han (r. 146-168 CE).

Continuation of hostilities and decline of the Parthians (58-224)

Meanwhile, the conflict between Parthia and Rome over control of Armenia flared up again. Hitherto the region had been one of Rome's client kingdoms, but the situation changed when in 51 Radamistus (r. 51-55), son of the king of Iberia Farasmane I, invaded Armenia on his father's orders and deposed the Roman client king Mithridates. Shortly thereafter Armenia came into the sights of the Parthians: Vologase I (r. c. 51-77) decided, in fact, to invade Armenia in order to place his brother, Tiridates, on the Armenian throne. Radamisto was shortly dethroned, and, from the beginning of Tiridates' reign, Parthia would retain firm control over Armenia, with brief interruptions, through the Arsacid Dynasty of Armenia. Even after the fall of the Parthian Empire, the kingdom of Armenia continued to be ruled by Arsacids.

In 55 Vologese I was, however, forced to withdraw his forces from Armenia to suppress the revolt of his son Vardane II, and Rome quickly attempted to fill the political vacuum created by entrusting the commander Gnaeus Domitius Corbulone with the task of bringing Armenia back under Rome's control. In the course of Corbulone's Armenian-Parthian campaigns, the Roman general achieved several military successes against the Parthians, eventually succeeding in installing Tigrane VI of Armenia on the Armenian throne as a client king of the Romans. However, Corbulone's successes were undermined by his successor Lucius Caesenius Peto, who failed to stand up to the Parthian counteroffensive: soundly defeated by the Parthians, he was forced to evacuate Armenia by fleeing to Cappadocia. Rome was thus forced by a peace treaty to recognize the Parthian candidate, Tiridates I, as king of Armenia: the latter, in return, had to submit to Rome, thus becoming its client king, and travel to Italy in 63 to be crowned king of Armenia by the Roman Emperor Nero (r. 54-68) himself: the coronation ceremony was performed twice in two different cities, in Naples and Rome.

A long period of peace followed between Parthia and Rome, with only the invasion of the Alans into the eastern territories of Parthia in c. 72 being mentioned by Roman historians. While Augustus and Nero had chosen a cautious policy when confronting Parthia, later Roman emperors set as their goal to conquer the Fertile Crescent, the heart of the Parthian Empire between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The increase in Roman aggression can be explained in part by Rome's military reforms. To counter the might of Parthian archers and horsemen, the Romans at first relied on foreign allies (especially Nabataeans), but later established a permanent auxilia force as a complement to their legionary heavy infantry. The Romans eventually placed regiments of mounted archers (sagittarii) and even armored cataphracts in defense of their eastern provinces. However, the Romans, despite their progressive reinforcement, gained very little territory in the course of these invasions. The main motivations for the wars against the Parthians were to strengthen the political position and personal glory of the emperor, as well as to defend Roman honor against threats such as Parthian interference in matters concerning Rome's client states.

Hostilities between Rome and Parthia were renewed when Osroes I (r. c. 109-128) deposed the Armenian king Tiridates and replaced him with Axidares, son of Pacorus II, without consulting Rome. Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117) had the Parthian candidate for the throne, Parthamasiris, killed in 114, making Armenia a Roman province. His armies, led by Lusius Quietus, also succeeded in the feat of seizing Nisibi; this occupation was essential to secure control of major routes along the northern Mesopotamian plain. The following year, Trajan invaded Mesopotamia, finding minimal resistance from only Meharaspes of Adiabene: the Parthians did not have sufficient forces to oppose the Roman invasion as Osroe was engaged in a civil war in the east against Vologase III. Trajan spent the winter of 115-116 in Antioch, but resumed the campaign in the spring. Moving down the Euphrates, he conquered Dura-Europos, the capital Ctesiphon, and Seleucia, even subduing Characene, where he witnessed the departure of ships to India from the Persian Gulf.

As Trajan was retreating northward, however, the Babylonians revolted against the Roman garrisons, jeopardizing their new conquests. Trajan, being aware of the impossibility of maintaining direct control over southern Mesopotamia because of logistical difficulties, decided to crown Partamaspates new king of Parthia and vassal of the Romans at Ctesiphon. Further uprisings that broke out in different parts of the empire forced the Roman emperor to withdraw from Mesopotamia in 117, after unsuccessfully attempting to besiege Hatra during the retreat. His retreat was, in his intentions, only temporary, as he intended to renew his attack on Parthia in 118 and "make the subjugation of the Parthians a reality," but Trajan died suddenly in August 117.

During his campaign, Trajan was granted the title of Parthicus by the Senate and coins were minted proclaiming the conquest of Parthia. However, only the fourth-century historians Eutropius and Festus claim that he attempted to establish a Roman province of "Assyria."

Trajan's successor Hadrian (r. 117-138) brought the Roman-Parthian frontier back to the Euphrates, choosing to give up the conquest of Mesopotamia because of Rome's limited military resources. Meanwhile, in Parthia, a revolt forced Partamaspates to flee to Roman territory, where the Romans appointed him king of Osroene. Osroe I thus resumed possession of the territories usurped by Partamaspates and perished in 129 during his conflict with Vologase III, who, as already mentioned, ruled over the eastern part of the Parthian Empire; Osroe I was succeeded in the western part of the Empire by Mithridates IV, who continued the struggle against Vologase III. The Parthian Empire was reunified under a single ruler only beginning with Vologase IV (r. c. 147-191), whose reign was marked by a period of peace and stability. However, this period of peace and prosperity was interrupted in 161, when Vologase decided to renew hostilities with Rome: in that year, in fact, the Parthians invaded Armenia and Syria and succeeded in their feat of recapturing Edessa. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (after some initial setbacks, the Romans managed to recover and launch victorious counteroffensives: Marcus Statius Priscus invaded Armenia in 163, succeeding in briefly placing a client king of Rome back on the throne of Armenia, while in the following year Avidius Cassius launched a counteroffensive in Mesopotamia, succeeding in seizing Dura-Europos.

During 165 the Romans advanced toward the Persian Gulf, succeeding in the feat of seizing and setting fire to Seleucia and Ctesiphon, the latter being razed to the ground; the following year, however, the Roman soldiers contracted a deadly disease (possibly smallpox) that not only forced them to retreat but in a short time spread throughout the Roman world. The Romans nevertheless retained possession of the city of Dura-Europos.

After a 30-year period of peace, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211) resumed hostilities against Parthia, then ruled by Vologase V (r. c. 191-208), invading Mesopotamia in 197. The Romans once again descended the Euphrates and conquered Seleucia and Ctesiphon. After assuming the title Parthicus Maximus, Severus retreated in late 198, attempting in vain during the retreat to seize Hatra, a city that had previously resisted Roman assaults, under Trajan.

Around 212, shortly after Vologase VI (r. c. 208-222) ascended the throne, his brother Artabanus IV (d. 224) revolted against him, seizing much of the empire. Meanwhile, Roman Emperor Caracalla (r. 211-217) embarked on a new expansionist policy against the Parthians: he deposed the kings of Osroene and Armenia to make them Roman provinces again, then declared war on Parthia and conquered Arbil east of the Tigris River.

Caracalla was assassinated the following year along the road to Carre by his soldiers, and, following this, the Parthians launched a victorious counteroffensive by defeating the Romans near Nisibi. After this defeat, the new emperor Macrinus (r. 217-218) was forced to sign a costly peace with the Parthians by which the Romans agreed to pay more than two hundred million denarii plus additional gifts. But the Parthian Empire, weakened by an internal crisis and wars with Rome, was close to falling and being replaced by the Sasanian Empire.

End of the Arsacids: the Sasanids (from 224

Shortly thereafter, Ardashir I, the local Iranian leader of Persis (the Persis region, which became in Islamic times Fārs, in Iran) from Istakhr began to subdue the surrounding territories at the expense of Arsacid rule. He confronted Artabanus IV in battle on April 28, 224, possibly near Esfahan, defeating him and founding the Sasanian Empire. There is evidence, however, that Vologase VI continued to mint coinage in Seleucia until 228.

The Sasaniids would not only take over the Parthian legacy as the Persian nemesis of Rome, but would also attempt to restore the ancient borders of the Achaemenid Empire by briefly conquering Syria, part of Anatolia, and Egypt to the detriment of the Eastern Roman Empire during the reign of King Cosroe II (r. 590-628). However, they would lose these territories in 628 following Heraclius' victorious counteroffensive. In 633 the Sasanian Empire, exhausted by continuous wars against the Romans, was invaded by Muslim Arabs. Within a few years most of the Sasanian territory was annexed to the Islamic Caliphate, and in 651, with the death of the last Sasanian ruler, the Islamic conquest of Persia ended.

Government and administration

Compared to the earlier Achaemenid Empire, Parthian government was decentralized. An indigenous historical source reveals that the territories controlled by the central government were organized similarly to the Seleucid Empire. Both had a tripartite division of their provincial hierarchies: the Parthian marzbān, the xšatrap, and the dizpat, similarly to the Seleucid satrapy, eparchy, or iparchy. The Parthian empire also included several semi-autonomous kingdoms subordinate to it, such as the states of Caucasian Iberia, Armenia, Atropatene, Gordiene, Adiabene, Edessa, Hatra, Mesene, Elymais, and Persis.

The client kings of the Parthians ruled their territories with some autonomy from the central government and minted their own coinage distinct from that of the Parthians. This was not unlike the early days of the Achaemenid Empire, which included a number of city states and even distant satrapies that, while semi-independent, "recognized the king's supremacy, paid tribute and provided military support," according to Brosius. However, Parthian-era satraps ruled smaller territories, and probably enjoyed less prestige and influence than their Achaemenid predecessors. During the Seleucid period, the trend of local dynasties ruling with some semi-autonomy from the central government, and sometimes rebelling, became common, a fact that was reflected in the late Parthian style of government.

At the head of the Parthian government was the King of Kings; he maintained polygamous relations, and was generally succeeded by his first-born son. As happened with the Ptolemies of Egypt, there were also cases of Arsacid kings marrying their own nieces or even their own half-sister; Queen Musa even married her son, although this was an extreme and isolated case. Brosius reports an excerpt from a letter written in Greek by King Artabanus II in 21 CE, addressed to the governor ("archon") and citizens of the city of Susa. The letter mentions the specific governmental positions of Preferred Friend, Bodyguard and Treasurer, and the document further proves that, "although there were local jurisdictions and proceedings for the assumption of high office, the king could intervene on behalf of an individual, review a case and change the local government if he deemed it appropriate."

The hierarchical hereditary titles of Persian nobility recorded during the reign of the first Sasanian monarch Ardashir I most likely reflected titles already in use during the Parthian period. There were three distinct ranks of nobility: the highest of these were the regional kings immediately below the King of Kings; the second rank of nobility in importance were the relatives, including those acquired by marriage, of the King of Kings; finally, the lowest rank of nobility were the heads of local clans and small territories.

Beginning in the first century CE, the Parthian nobility had taken on considerable interference in the proclamation and deposition of Arsacid kings: whenever a new king was proclaimed, his appointment had to be ratified by the Parthian aristocracy, and if for some reason he was not deemed fit for the throne by them, the nobles had every right to dethrone him; the Parthian aristocracy's considerable interference in the selection of a successor to the throne was a destabilizing factor for the empire, leading to frequent civil wars. Some nobles were court advisers to the king; others were priests. Of the great clans of nobles listed at the beginning of the Sasanian period, only two are explicitly in earlier Parthian documents: the House of Suren and the House of Karen. The historian Plutarch observed that members of the Suren Household, the first among the nobility, were granted the privilege of crowning each new Arsacid king of kings during the coronation procedure. Later, some of the Parthian kings would claim alleged descent from the Achaemenids. This claim has recently been corroborated by the possibility that both the Achaemenid and Parthian kings suffered from the same hereditary disease (neurofibromatosis), as has been inferred from the physical descriptions of the kings and the evidence of hereditary diseases provided by ancient coinage.


The Parthian Empire did not have a standing army, although it was able to enlist one very quickly in times of serious crisis. There was a permanent armed guard corps to defend the person of the king, comprising nobles, serfs and mercenaries; this corps was very small. By contrast, garrisons in frontier fortresses were permanent; particle inscriptions reveal some of the military titles granted to the commanders of these garrisons. Military forces could also be used in diplomatic moves. For example, when Chinese envoys visited Parthia in the late second century B.C., the Shiji recounts that 20,000 horsemen were sent to the eastern frontier to escort the embassy, although this figure seems exaggerated.

The main department of the Parthian army was the cataphracts, heavy cavalry regiments made up of men and horses wearing iron jerseys. The cataphracts were equipped with a spear to break through enemy lines, as well as with a bow and arrow. Because of the high cost of their equipment and armor, cataphracts were recruited from among aristocrats who, in return for their services, obtained a certain level of local autonomy from the Arsacid kings. Light cavalry was, on the other hand, recruited from among the people and consisted mainly of mounted archers; they wore a simple tunic and pants in battle. Using composite bows, they were able to aim and shoot arrows at enemies while standing on horseback; this technique, known as Parthian shooting, was a highly effective tactic. Parthian light and heavy cavalry played a decisive role in the Battle of Carre where a Persian force defeated a much larger Roman army in numbers led by Crassus. Light infantry units, recruited from among the people and mercenaries, were used to disperse enemy troops after cavalry charges.

The size of the Parthian army is unknown, as is the amount of the Empire's total population. However, archaeological excavations in former Parthian urban centers have uncovered settlements that may have supported large populations and thus a large manpower resource. High-density population centers in regions such as Babylon were undoubtedly attractive to the Romans, whose armies could thus afford to live off the occupied land.

Physical appearance and clothing

The typical Parthian riding dress is exemplified by the famous bronze statue (the 2401 in the National Museum of Iran) of a Parthian nobleman found at Shami, Elymaid. Standing 1.9 m tall, the figure wears a V-shaped jacket, a V-shaped tunic with a belt, pants, and a diadem or band over his short, combed hair. This type of clothing is commonly shown on mid-1st century BCE Parthian coins.

During archaeological excavations in Hatra, northwestern Iraq, Parthian sculptures were found showing some examples of Parthian clothing: in these sculptures, Parthians from the region are depicted wearing typical Parthian dress (qamis), paired with pants and adorned with various ornaments. The aristocratic elite of Hatra adopted helmeted hairstyles, headdresses, and belted tunics, the latter typically worn by the nobility belonging to the central Arsacid court. Pants were also worn by Arsacid kings, as shown on the reverse images of coins. The Parthian trouser was also adopted in Palmyra, Syria, along with the use of Parthian frontality in the arts.

Wealthy women are depicted in the particle sculptures wearing long-sleeved robes adorned with necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and woven headdresses. Their dresses were fastened by a brooch at one shoulder. Their headdresses also featured a veil that was wrapped backward.

As Parthian coinage shows, the headdresses worn by Parthian kings changed over time. Early Arsacid coins show kings wearing the bašlyk (the bašlyk may also derive from the pointed hats depicted in Achaemenid bas-reliefs at Behistun and Persepolis. The custom of depicting Arsacid kings wearing the bašlyk in coinage persisted until the early years of Mithridates I's reign: coins from the latter part of his reign show him wearing the Hellenistic royal tiara for the first time. Mithridates II was the first to be depicted wearing the Parthian tiara, adorned with pearls and jewels, a headdress commonly worn not only by the last Parthian rulers but also by later Sasanian monarchs.

Main settlements and territory

The original territory of the Parthians, called Parthia, was surrounded entirely by desert. Bounded on the east by the Aryans, on the south by Carmania, on the west it was by Media and on the north by Hyrcania.

Capital of ancient Parthia was Hecatompylos (literally "city of a hundred gates"), in the center of the original territory. Other important cities in what was once a satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire, and thus the original territory of the ancient Parthians were Calliope and Issatis (in the western part, protecting the Medes), Maria (in the southeast), Arsace and Alexandria (in the Nisiaea region).

Around the second half of the second century B.C.E. the Parthians founded their new capital, Ctesiphon, opposite the city of Seleucia (which Pliny says had a very large population of about 600,000), on the opposite bank of the Tigris River (only about 5 km away). Later, the "king of kings," Volagase I, founded a new and third city nearby called Vologesocerta. In principle, the Parthians did not follow the Greco-Roman urban planning model of developing cities on an orthogonal plan; instead, they preferred development on a circular basis.

The Parthian Empire consisted of eighteen kingdoms at the time of Pliny the Elder (1st century CE). It stretched from the Persian Gulf in the south to the Hircan Sea and the Caucasus chain in the north. The kingdoms are then divided into "upper" kingdoms, numbering eleven, and "lower" kingdoms, numbering seven. The upper kingdoms bordered to the north with the kingdom of Armenia, the Hircan Sea and the Scythians, with whom "the Parthians lived on an equal footing."

In the Parthian Empire, being heterogeneous both politically and culturally, several religions were widespread, of which the most prevalent were the Greek and Persian polytheistic ones. and Christians, the majority of Parthians were polytheistic. Because of the syncretism between Greek and Persian deities that arose as early as Seleucid times and perpetuated in Parthian times, they were often merged into one: for example, Zeus was often confused with Ahura Mazdā, Hades with Angra Mainyu, Aphrodite and Hera with Anahita, Apollo with Mithras, and Hermes with Shamash. In addition to the main gods and goddesses, each city and ethnic group had its own characteristic deities. Parthian art attests that the Arsacid kings regarded themselves as deities; this emperor cult was perhaps the most widespread.

The extent of Arsacid patronage of Zoroastrianism is debated in modern historiography: Mazdaism had evolved into an early form of Zoroastrianism as early as Parthian times, but it is unclear to what extent the Arsacid court adhered to this religion. Followers of Zoroaster would have found the bloody sacrifices of some Parthian-era Persian cults unacceptable. There is evidence, however, that Vologese I favored the presence of Zoroastrian magi priests in the court and promoted the writing of the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism that later formed the Avestā; it should be noted, however, that most specialists on the subject are inclined to reject the theory that a written text of the Avesta existed as early as the Arsacid period, asserting instead that the contents of these sacred texts were transmitted, at least initially, orally. The Sasanian court would later adopt Zoroastrianism as the official state religion of the empire.

Although the prophet Mani (216-276 A.D.) only founded Manichaeism in 228

There is scant archaeological evidence for the spread of Buddhism from the Kusana Empire to Iran proper; according to Emmerick, "on archaeological grounds it seems possible to infer that it never flourished west of the line joining Balch with Qandahar," implying that the spread of Buddhism in the Parthian Empire was limited to eastern regions. However, it is known from Chinese sources that some Parthian Buddhist monks played an instrumental role in the spread of Buddhism in China: for example, Ān Shìgāo (2nd century CE), a Parthian nobleman and Buddhist monk, who traveled as far as Luoyang in Han China as a Buddhist missionary and translated some sutras of the Buddhist canon into Chinese, is mentioned.


Typically made of silver, the drachma, including the tetradrachm, was the standard currency used throughout the Parthian Empire. The Arsacids maintained royal mints in the cities of Hecatompylon, Seleucia, and Ecbatana. They most likely also operated a mint in Mithridatkert.


Pliny reports that trade was flourishing, first between Romans and Parthians:

Following Zhang Qian's diplomatic venture in Central Asia during the reign of Emperor Wudi of the Han (r. 141-87 BCE), the Han Empire of China sent a delegation to the court of Mithridates II in 121 BCE. The Han embassy opened official trade relations with Parthia via the Silk Road although it did not obtain the desired military alliance against the Xiongnu confederation. The Parthian Empire further enriched itself by taxing the Eurasian caravan route along the Silk Road, the most expensive commodity imported by the Romans. Pearls were another high-value commodity imported from China, while the Chinese purchased spices, perfumes, and fruits from the Parthians. Exotic animals were also used as presents that the Arsacids sent to the Han court; in 87 CE. Pacorus II sent Persian lions and gazelles to Emperor Zhangdi of the Han (r. 75-88 CE). In addition to silk, Parthian goods bought by Roman merchants included iron from India, spices, and fine leather. Caravans traveling along the Parthian Empire brought luxurious Asian-Western and sometimes Roman pottery to China.

The Parni most likely spoke an eastern Iranian language, described by ancient sources as somewhere between Medo and Scythian, in open contrast to the northwestern Iranian language spoken in Parthia at the time. After conquering the region, the Parthians adopted Parthian as their official court language, speaking it in addition to Middle Persian, Aramaic, Greek, Babylonian, Sogdian, and other languages of the multiethnic territories they would conquer in later centuries. The Parthian language was written in distinct characters derived from the characters used by the Aramaic imperial chancery of the Achaemenids, and which later morphed into the Pahlavi writing system.

Hellenism and the Iranian Renaissance

Although the Hellenistic culture of the Seleucids had been adopted by all Near Eastern peoples during the Hellenistic period, the Parthian period was marked by a Persian cultural revival in religion, the arts, and even clothing. Aware of both the Hellenistic and Persian roots of their sovereignty, the Arsacid kings proclaimed themselves Kings of Kings (like the earlier Persian dynasty of the Achaemenids) and Philhellenes ("friends of the Greeks"). The practice of engraving the word "Philhellenian" on Parthian coins stopped, however, with the reign of Artabanus II, due to the gradual abandonment of Hellenistic traditions due to the revival of Persian civilization in Parthia. Vologase I was the first Arsacid to have inscriptions in Parthian characters and Parthian language appear on the coins he had minted along with Greek, by then no longer understood by most of the population. Despite this, engravings in Greek characters continued to appear on Parthian coins until the collapse of the Empire.

Hellenistic cultural influence, however, did not disappear entirely from the Parthian Empire, and there is evidence that the Arsacids attended Greek theatrical performances. When Crassus' head was brought to Orodes II, he and the Armenian king Artavasdes II were busy attending a performance of The Bacchae by the Greek playwright Euripides (c. 480-406 BCE). The producer of the play decided to use the head of Crassus instead of the fake head of Pentheus.

On his coins, Arsaces I is depicted looking similar to Achaemenid satraps. According to A. Shahbazi, Arsaces "deliberately diverges from Seleucid coins to emphasize his nationalistic and royal aspirations, and calls himself Kārny


In fact, there is no Parthian language literature that has survived in its original form, as the Parthians, although possessing their own distinctive writing system, did not hand down their literature in writing, but only orally; therefore, the surviving works have only survived in altered form, first handed down orally and only later transcribed. Parthian secular literature consisted mainly of epic poems accompanied by music and recited orally by the court minstrel (however, their tales, composed in verse, were not handed down in writing until the later Sasanian period. It is believed that stories such as the romance tale Vis and Rāmin and the epic cycle of the Kayanian dynasty were part of the body of Parthian-era oral literature, although compiled much later. Although Parthian language literature was not handed down in written form, there is evidence that the Arsacids recognized and respected ancient written Greek literature.

Parthian art can be divided into three geo-historical phases: the art of Parthia proper; the art of the Iranian plateau; and the art of Parthian Mesopotamia. The earliest genuinely Parthian works of art, found at Mithridatkert

Common motifs from the Parthian period include scenes of royal hunting parties and the investiture of Arsacid kings. The use of these motifs expanded to include portraits of local kings. Rock bas-reliefs, frescoes, and even graffiti were made. Geometric and stylized plant motifs were also used on stucco and plaster walls. The common motif of the Sasanian period consisted of two horsemen engaged in spear combat and made its first appearance in Parthian bas-reliefs on Mount Behistun.

In portraits, the Parthians tended to emphasize frontality, which meant that each person portrayed in paintings, sculptures, and reliefs on coins turned their gaze directly toward the viewer instead of showing their profile. Although the use of frontality in portraits was an old artistic technique already in use before the Parthian period, Parthian frontality was marked by innovative traits, as explained by Daniel Schlumberger:

Parthian art, with its characteristic use of frontality in portraits, was abandoned due to the profound cultural and political changes introduced by the Sasanian Empire. However, even following the Roman occupation of Dura-Europos in 165 CE, the use of Parthian frontality continued to flourish in the area. This is exemplified by the murals dating to the early 3rd century CE of the Dura Europos Synagogue, a temple in the same city dedicated to Palmyrene deities, and the local Mithraeum.

Parthian architecture, while adopting elements of Achaemenid and Greek architecture, remained quite distinct from the two. The style is first attested at Mithridatkert

A characteristic feature of Parthian architecture was the iwan, an entrance supported by arches or barrel vaults and open on one side only. The use of the barrel vault replaced the Hellenistic use of columns to support roofs. Although the iwan was already known even before the Achaemenid period and used in smaller, underground structures, the Parthians were the first to build them on a monumental scale. The earliest Parthian iwans were found in Seleucia, and are dated to the first century CE. Monumental iwans have also been found in the ancient temples of Hatra and were possibly modeled on the Parthian style. The largest Parthian iwans from that site were 15 m long.

Many objects from the so-called "Parthian period," i.e., produced during Parthian rule (3rd century B.C. to 3rd century A.D.), both goldsmithing and handicrafts (including metal and ceramic objects), were largely influenced by both the earlier Iranian civilizations of the Assyrian-Babylonian period and the Hellenistic civilizations that came as far as the Indus with Alexander the Great in the late 4th century B.C.

Local and foreign accounts, as well as unwritten sources such as archaeological findings, have been used to reconstruct Parthian history. Although the Parthian court kept records, the Parthians neglected the systematic study of their own history; the first universal history of Iran, the Khwaday-Namag, was completed only during the reign of the last Sasanian Shahanshah Yazdegerd III (r. 632-651 CE). Indigenous sources concerning Parthian history are very few, far fewer than in any other period of Persian history. Most coeval written accounts of Parthia consist of inscriptions in Greek, Parthian, or Aramaic.

The most valuable sources for reconstructing an accurate chronology of the Arsacid kings are the metal drachma made by each king. These represent a "transition from nontextual to textual remains," according to historian Geo Widengren. Other particle sources used to reconstruct their chronology include astronomical tables in cuneiform characters and colophons found in Babylon. Indigenous written sources also include stone inscriptions, scrolls and papyri, as well as ceramic ostraca. Such indigenous written sources also provide crucial information for understanding various aspects of Parthian civilization: for example, the discovery of ceramic ostraca in the Parthian capital (early period) of Mithradatkert

Greek and Latin historical works, which account for the majority of materials concerning Parthian history, are not considered entirely reliable because they are written from the perspective of wartime rivals and enemies. Such foreign sources generally dwell on major military and political events, often neglecting the social and cultural aspects of Parthian history. The Romans generally portrayed the Parthians as proud warriors but also as a culturally refined people; the inclusion of recipes for typically Parthian dishes in the recipe manual of the Roman gourmet Apicius exemplifies the Romans' admiration for Parthian cuisine. Apollodorus of Artemita and Arrian wrote histories that particularly focused on Parthia, but these works are lost and survive only in fragments included in other historical works. Isidore of Carace, who lived during the principate of Augustus, provides an account of the territories of Parthia, probably compiled using official documents of the Parthian government. In less detail, several important accounts of Parthian history are provided in the works of Marcus Junianus Justinus, Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, Cassius Dion, Appian, Flavius Josephus, Pliny the Elder, and Herodian.

Parthian history can also be reconstructed through the Chinese historical tradition. In contrast to Greek and Roman histories, early Chinese histories adopted a more neutral point of view when describing Parthia, although the habit of Chinese chroniclers of copying from older works makes it difficult to reconstruct the chronological order of events. The Chinese called Parthia Ānxī (Chinese: 安息), a bisyllable pronounced *ʔˁan*sək in Old Chinese, a term possibly derived from the Greek name of the Parthian city Antioch in Margiana (Greek: Αντιόχεια της Μαργιανήs). However, it could also be a transliteration of "Arsace," the eponymous founder of the dynasty. Chinese historical works of some use in reconstructing Parthian history include Sima Qian's Shiji (Historical Memoirs), the Han shu (Book of the Han) by Ban Biao, Ban Gu, and Ban Zhao, and the Hou Han shu (Book of the Later Han) by Fan Ye. They provide information on the nomadic migrations that led to the first invasions of Parthia by the Saka, as well as valuable political and geographical information. For example, the Shiji (ch. 123) describes diplomatic exchanges, such as the sending of exotic gifts to the Han court during the reign of Mithridates II, but it also provides other valuable information on the types of agricultural crops grown in Parthia, the production of wine from grapes, itinerant trade, and the size and location of the territory d


  1. Parthian Empire
  2. Impero partico
  3. ^ (EN) Josef Wiesehöfer, Ancient Persia, I.B. Tauris Ltd, 2007, p. 119.
  4. ^ Sheldon 2010, p. 231.
  5. ^ Waters 1974, p. 424.
  6. Sheldon 2010, p. 231.
  7. Josef Wiesehöfer, Ancient Persia, (I.B. Tauris Ltd., 2007), 119.
  8. De Jong 2008, "It is impossible to doubt that the Parthians were Zoroastrians. The evidence from the Nisa ostraca and the Parthian parchment from Avroman suffice to prove this, by the use of the Zoroastrian calendar, which was restricted in use, as it had been previously, to communication with Iranians only, yielding to the Seleucid calendar whenever the Parthians dealt with non-Zoroastrians. There are indications, however, that the practice of Zoroastrianism had reserved a large place for the cult of divine images, either those of ancestors in the Fravashi cult, or of deities, and for the existence of sanctuaries dedicated to named deities other than Ahura Mazda, and including deities that are of a non-Avestan background. The Parthian god Sasan is a case in point, but better evidence comes from Armenia, where alongside Aramazd and Anahit, Mher and Vahagn, the West Semitic god Barshamin, and Babylonian Nane were worshipped, as well as the Anatolian Tork and the goddess Astghik of disputed origins.", p. 24
  9. Waters 1974, p. 424.
  10. Del griego Ἀρσάκης Arsakēs, del parto 𐭀𐭓𐭔𐭊 Aršak.
  11. a b Fattah 2009, p. 46.
  12. a b Green 1992, p. 45.
  13. Skjærvø 2006.
  14. Wiesehöfer 2007, p. 119.

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