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The Parthian Empire was the dominating force on the Iranian plateau beginning in the late 3rd century BC, and intermittently controlled Mesopotamia between ca 190 BC and 224 AD. Parthia was the arch-enemy of the Roman Empire in the East and it limited Roman's expansion beyond Cappadocia (modern-day central Turkey).

The Parthian empire was the most enduring of the empires of the ancient Near East. After the Parni nomads had settled in Parthia and had built a small independent kingdom, they rose to power under king Mithradates the Great (171-138 BCE). The Parthian empire occupied all of modern Iran, Iraq and Armenia, parts of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and -for brief periods- territories in Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. The end of this loosely organized empire came in 224 CE, when the last king was defeated by one of their vassals, the Persians of the Sassanid dynasty.



The Parthians were a member of the Parni tribe, a nomadic Iranian people thought to have spoken an Iranian language, who arrived at the Iranian plateau from Central Asia. They were consummate horsemen, known for the 'Parthian shot' turning backwards at full gallop to loose an arrow directly to the rear. Later, at the height of their power, Parthian influences reached as far as Ubar in Arabia, the nexus of the frankincense route, where Parthian-inspired ceramics have been found. The power of the early Parthian empire seems to have been overestimated by some ancient historians, who could not clearly separate the latter, very strong empire from its rather obscure origins.

Little is known of the Parthians: they had no literature of their own and consequently their written history consists of biased descriptions of conflicts with Romans, Greeks, Jews and — at the far end of the Silk Road — the Chinese empire. Even their own name for themselves is up for debate due to a lack of domestic records; the best guess is that they called their empire Eranshahr. Their strength was a combination of the guerilla warfare of a mounted nomadic tribe with sufficient organisation to build a vast empire, even if it never matched the two Persian empires in strength. Vassal kingdoms seem to have made up a large part of their territory (see Tigranes II of Armenia), and Hellenistic cities enjoyed a certain autonomy; their craftsmen received employment by some Parthians (illustration, above left).

The Parthian Empire

Initially, a king named Arsaces (possibly of a nomad tribe named Parni, a name whose relation to the word Parthian is much debated, or according to Armenian sources of White Hun origins) made himself independent of Seleucid rule in remote areas of northern Iran ca 250 BC, where his descendants of the same name ruled until Antiochus III the Great briefly made them submit to the Seleucid empire again in 206 BC.

It was not until the second century BC that the Parthians profited from the increasing Seleucid weakness and gradually captured all of their territories east of Syria. Once the Parthians had captured Herat, the movement of trade along the Silk Road to China was effectively choked off, and the post-Alexandrian Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian Kingdom was doomed. At its height, Parthia at one time occupied areas now in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaidzhan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.

It fell to the Seleucid monarchs to hold the line against the Parthians. Antiochus IV Epiphanes spent his last years fruitlessly battling the Parthians in the endless war, until he died in 163 BC. The Parthians were able to take advantage of Seleucid weakness during the dynastic squabbles that followed Antiochus' death.

In 139 BC, the Parthian king Mithridates I captured the Seleucid monarch, Demetrius Nicator, and held him captive for ten years, while the Parthians overwhelmed Mesopotamia and Media.

By 129 BC the Parthians were in control of all the lands right to the Tigris River, and established their winter encampment at Ctesiphon on the banks of the Tigris downstream from modern Baghdad. Ctesiphon was a small suburb directly across the river from Seleucia, the most populous Hellenistic city of western Asia. Seleucia they only harassed; they needed its wealth and trade, and the city preserved its independence and Greek culture. In the heat of the Mesopotamian summer, the Parthian horde would withdraw to the ancient Persian capitals of Susa and Ecbatana (modern Hamadan).


After the conquest of Media, Assyria, Babylonia and Elam, the Parthians had to organize their empire. The elite of these countries was Greek, and the new rulers had to adapt to their customs if they wanted their rule to last. So the cities retained their ancient rights and the civil administration remained more or less undisturbed. An interesting detail is coinage: legends were written in the Greek alphabet, and this practice was continued in the second century CE, when knowledge of this language was in decline and nobody knew how to read or write Greek characters.

Another source of inspiration was the Achaemenid dynasty that had once ruled the Persian Empire. Courtiers spoke Persian and used the Pahlavi script ; the royal court traveled from capital to capital; and the Arsacid kings wanted to be called -as Cyrus the Great had ordered his subjects to do in the sixth century- "king of kings". This was a very apt title. The Parthian monarch was the ruler of his own empire plus some eighteen vassal kings, such as the rulers of the city state Hatra, the port Characene and the ancient kingdom Armenia.

The empire was not very centralized. There were several languages, several peoples and several economic systems. But the loose ties between the separate parts were the key to its survival. In the second century CE, the most important capital Ctesiphon was captured no less than three times by the Romans (in 116, 165 and 198 CE), but the empire survived, because there were other centers. On the other hand, the fact that the empire was a mere conglomerate of kingdoms, provinces, marks and city-states could at times seriously weaken the Parthian state. This explains why the Parthian expansion came to an end after the conquest of Mesopotamia and Iran.

Local potentates played an important role and the king had to respect their privileges. Several noble families had a vote in the Royal council; the Srn clan had the right to crown the Parthian king; and every aristocrat was allowed/expected to retain an army of his own. When the throne was occupied by a weak ruler, divisions among the nobility could become dangerous.

The constituent parts of the empire were surprisingly independent. For example, they were allowed to strike their own coins, which was in Antiquity very rare. As long as the local elite paid tribute, the Parthian kings did not interfere. The system worked very well: towns like Ctesiphon, Seleucia, Ecbatana, Rhagae, Hecatompylus, Nis, and Susa flourished.

Tribute was one source of royal income; another was toll. Parthia controlled the Silk Road, the route from the Mediterranean Sea to China.

Contacts with China

The Chinese explorer Zhang Qian who visited the neighbouring countries of Bactria and Sogdiana in 126 BC, made the first known Chinese report on Parthia. In his accounts Parthia is named "Anxi", a transliteration of "Arsacid", the name of the Parthian dynasty. Zhang Qian clearly identifies Parthia as an advanced urban civilization, which he equates to those of Dayuan (in Ferghana) and Daxia (in Bactria).

"Anxi is situated several thousand li west of the region of the Great Yuezhi (in Transoxonia). The people are settled on the land, cultivating the fields and growing rice and wheat. They also make wine out of grapes. They have walled cities like the people of Dayuan (Ferghana), the region contains several hundred cities of various sizes. The coins of the country are made of silver and bear the face of the king. When the king dies, the currency is immediately changed and new coins issued with the face of his successor. The people keep records by writing on horizontal strips of leather. To the west lies Tiaozi (Mesopotamia) and to the north Yancai and Lixuan (Hyrcania)." (Shiji, 123, Zhang Qian quote, trans. Burton Watson).

Following Zhang Qian's embassy and report, commercial relations between China and Central Asia and Parthia flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the 1st century BCE: "The largest of these embassies to foreign states numbered several hundred persons, while even the smaller parties included over 100 members... In the course of one year anywhere from five to six to over ten parties would be sent out." (Shiji, trans. Burton Watson).

The Parthians were apparently very intent to maintain good relations with China and also sent their own embassies, starting around 110 BC: "When the Han envoy first visited the kingdom of Anxi (Parthia), the king of Anxi dispatched a party of 20,000 horsemen to meet them on the eastern border of the kingdom... When the Han envoys set out again to return to China, the king of Anxi dispatched envoys of his own to accompany them... The emperor was delighted at this." (Shiji, 123, trans. Burton Watson).

In 97 AD the Chinese general Ban Chao went as far west as the Caspian Sea with 70,000 men and established direct military contacts with the Parthian Empire.

Parthians also played a role in the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism from Central Asia to China. An Shih Kao, a Parthian nobleman and Buddhist missionary, went to the Chinese capital Loyang in 148 AD where he established temples and became the first man to translate Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.

Conflicts with Rome

In 53 BCE, the Roman general Crassus invaded Parthia. At Harran or Carrhae, however, he was defeated by a Parthian commander who is called Surena in the Greek and Latin sources, and must have been a member of the Srn clan. This was the beginning of a series of wars that were to last for almost three centuries.

The Parthian armies consisted of two types of cavalry: the heavy-armed and armoured cataphracts and light brigades of mounted archers. To the Romans, who relied on heavy infantry, the Parthians were hard to defeat. On the other hand, the Parthians could never occupy conquered countries; they were unskilled in siege warfare. This explains why the Roman-Parthian wars lasted so long. In these years, the Romans were divided between the adherents of Pompey and those of Julius Caesar, and because of the civil war, there was no opportunity to punish the Parthians. Although Caesar was victorious in this conflict, he was murdered, and a new civil war broke out. The Roman general Quintus Labienus, who had supported the murderers and feared Caesar's heirs Mark Antony and Octavian, sided with the Parthians and turned out to be the best general of king Pacorus I. In 41, they invaded Syria, Cilicia, and Caria and attacked Phrygia and Asia. A second army intervened in Judaea and captured its king Hyrcanus II. The spoils were immense, and put to good use: king Phraates IV invested them in Ctesiphon, a new capital on the Tigris.

In 39, Mark Antony was ready to retaliate. Pacorus and Labienus were killed in action, and the Euphrates was again the border between the two nations. The Parthians had learned that they could not occupy enemy territories without infantry. However, Mark Antony wanted to avenge the death of Crassus and invaded Mesopotamia in 36 with the legion VI Ferrata and other, unidentified units. He had cavalry with him, but it turned out to be unreliable, and the Romans were happy to reach Armenia, having suffered great losses.

This meant the end of the first round of wars. The Romans were again fighting a civil war, and when Octavian had defeated Mark Antony, he ignored the Parthians. He was more interested in the west. His son-in-law and future successor Tiberius negotiated a peace treaty with Phraates (20 BCE).

At the same time, the beginning of our era, the Parthians became interested in the valley of the Indus, where they started to take over the petty kingdoms of Gandara. One of the Parthian leaders was named Gondopharnes, king of Taxila; according to an old and widespread Christian tradition, he was baptized by the apostle Thomas. The story is not impossible: adherents of several religions lived together in Gandara and the Punjab, and there may have been an audience for a representative of a new Jewish sect.

The Roman-Parthian war broke out again in the sixties of the first century CE. Armenia had become a Roman vassal kingdom, but the Parthian king Vologases I appointed a new Armenian ruler. This was too much for the Romans, and their commander Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo invaded Armenia. The result was that the Armenian king received his crown again in Rome from the emperor Nero. A compromise was worked out between the two empires: in the future, the king of Armenia was to be a Parthian prince, but needed approval from the Romans.

Expansion to India

Main article:Indo-Parthian Kingdom

Also during the 1st century BCE, the Parthians started to make inroads into eastern territories that had been occupied by the Indo-Scythians and the Yuezhi. The Parthians ended up controlling all of Bactria and extensive territories in Northern Subcontinent, after fighting many local rulers such as the Kushan Empire ruler Kujula Kadphises,in the Gandhara region.

Around 20 AD, Gondophares, one of the Parthian conquerors, declared his independence from the Parthian empire and established the Indo-Parthian Kingdom in the conquered territories.

Decline and fall

The Armenian compromise served its purpose, but nothing was arranged for the deposition of a king. After 110, the Parthian king Vologases III was forced to dethrone an Armenian leader, and the Roman emperor Trajan -a former general- decided to invade Parthia. War broke out in 114 CE and the Parthians were severely beaten. The Romans conquered Armenia, and in the following year, Trajan marched to the south, where the Parthians were forced to evacuate their strongholds. In 116, Trajan captured Ctesiphon, and established new provinces in Assyria and Babylonia.

However, rebellions broke out (which proves the loyalty of the population to the Parthians). At the same time, the diasporic Jews revolted and Trajan was forced to send an army to suppress them. Trajan overcame these troubles, but his successor Hadrian gave up the territories (117 CE). Nonetheless, it was clear that the Romans had learned how to beat the Parthians.

Perhaps it was not Roman strength, but Parthian weakness that caused the disaster. In the first century, the Parthian nobility had become more powerful, because the kings had given them more right over the peasants and their land. They were now in a position to resist their king. At the same time, the Arsacid family had become divided.

But the end was not near, yet. In 161 CE king Vologases IV declared war against the Romans and conquered Armenia. The counter-offensive was slow, but in 165 CE, Ctesiphon fell. The Roman emperors Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius added Mesopotamia to their realms, but were unable to demilitarize the region between the Euphrates and Tigris. It remained an expensive burden. But it was now clear that the Romans were superior.

The final blow came thirty years later. King Vologases V had tried to reconquer Mesopotamia during a Roman civil war (193 CE), but when general Septimius Severus was master of the empire, he attacked Parthia. Again, Ctesiphon was captured (198 CE), and large spoils were brought to Rome. According to a modern estimate, the gold and silver were sufficient to postpone a European economic crisis for three or four decades, and we can imagine the consequences for Parthia.

Parthia, now impoverished and without any hope to recover the lost territories, was demoralized. The kings had to do more concessions to the nobility, and the vassal kings sometimes refused to obey. In 224 CE, the Persian vassal king Ardair revolted. Two years later, he took Ctesiphon, and this time, it meant the end of Parthia. It also meant the beginning of the second Persian Empire, ruled by the Sassanid kings.

Parthian rulers

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See also

Last updated: 06-01-2005 23:23:00
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