The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Dynasty of Arsacids
By: Klaus Schippmann
Iran under the Arsacid Dynasty
rise of the Arsacids is closely linked to the history of another dynasty,
that of the Seleucids (q.v.). After 308 B.C. its founder, Seleucus I, had
conquered the eastern part of Iran and also after the battle of lpsus (301
B.C.), annexed large portions of Syria. In the following decades the
Seleucids were mostly to concentrate their interest and their power on the
western half of their vast kingdom, particularly as a result of their
struggles against the Lagids for dominance in Syria. This led to the
Seleucids losing large parts of their Iranian possessions within a period
of roughly fifteen years from 250 to 235 B.C. (Although there is some
dispute amongst historians as to the chronological sequence of events, it
is at least agreed that they occurred within this span of time.)
most important role during this period was played by the Parni, an Iranian
tribe belonging to the Dahaewho, according to the ancient writers (Arrian,
Anubasis 3.28.8,10; Quintus Curtius 8.1.8) lived in the territories
between the Oxus and the Jaxartes at the time of Alexander of Macedon.
About the end of the fourth or at the latest by the middle of the third
century B.C. the Parni had advanced as far as the frontiers of the
Seleucid kingdom, whether in the vicinity of the Caspian Sea or on the
river Tejen (Turkmenistan). The movements of the Parni and Dahae beginning
in the area between the Oxus and the Jaxartesand ending in the immediate
vicinity of the Seleucid satrapy of Parthava, are difficult to reconstruct
and therefore a matter of dispute among historians. (cf. K. Schippmann,
Grundzuge der parthischen Geschichte, Darmstadt, 1980, pp. ISff.)
250 B.C. at any rate, the Parni, under their leader Arsaces, penetrated
into the Astauene, that is to say probably into the territory along the
Atrek valley. (See N. Chlopin, lranica Antigua 12, 1977, pp. 143.) Shortly
afterwards, probably ca. 247 B.C., Arsaces was proclaimed king in Asaak,
the exact location of which has still to be identified. This event, it is
widely assumed, marks the beginning of the Arsacid era. (See most recently
P. H. L. Eggermont, Bibliotheca Oriemnlis 32, 1975, pp. 1Sff.)
about 245 B.C., during the reign of the Seleucid monarch Seleucus II (r.
246-25 B.C.), Andragoras, the Seleucid satrap of the province of Parthava
made himself independent. Soon afterwards, ca 239 B.C., his example was
followed by Diodotus, satrap of Bactria, a Seleucid satrapy which was to
play a significant role for more than a hundred years as the Greco-Bactrian
reasons for the defection of these two satrapies in such rapid succession
are not known, nor is the extent to which the inhabitants, i.e.
Macedonians, Greeks, and the natives, participated in the rebellions (cf.
E. Will, Histoire politigue du monde hellenistique X323-30 av. J. C.,
1979, pp. 281fT.) At any rate, the Parni exploited the defection of these
two eastern provinces of the Seleucid kingdom by launching an invasion
into Parthia, ca. 238 B.C., in the course of which Andragoras met his
death. Shortly afterwards they also occupied Hyrcania. It is likely that
the term Parthians was applied to the Parni during this period after their
occupation of the satrapy of Parthava and subsequently, no doubt, they
came to use the designation themselves. Originally, therefore, Parthava is
to be understood as a geographical term; then, in the form
"Parthian," it became the name of a people when the Parni
invaders started to extend their kingdom.
Seleucids did not mount a counter-campaign in the east until the year
231-27 B.C., by which time it was already too late. Above all else it
failed because unrest in Asia Minor soon forced Seleucus II to break off
two decades passed before the great Seleucid ruler Antiochus III made a
renewed attempt, ca-209 B.C., to regain the Parthian and Greco-Bactrian
territories, but this, too, was a failure. Although he was able to
register a certain degree of success, in the end the warring parties
concluded treaties, according to which the Parthians and Greco-Bactrians
nominally recognized the Seleucids as overlords, but the letter conceded
de facto independence to the two kingdoms.
In the Parthian kingdom itself, from 217 B.C. onwards, Arsaces I had been succeeded by his son Arsaces II. (Some historians also take the view that after a reign of 2-3 years Arsaces I was replaced by his brother Tiridates, see A. D. H. Bivar in Cantb. Hist. !run II1/3, 1983, p. 37.) Very little is known of events during the reign of Arsaces II or those of his successors Phriapatius (ca. 191-ca. 76 B.C.) and Phraates I (ca. 176-ca. 71 B.C.), but it is certainly true to say that their small kingdom had consolidated its position on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
The Parthian empire from Mithridates I. (ca. I7I39/8) to Mithridates ll the Great (ca. 124/3-88/7 B.C.).
next ruler, Mithridates I, ushered in that great and decisive epoch in the
history of Iranian people during which Parthia rose to become a major
power in the Ancient East. This Mithridates and his successors achieved in
a series of campaigns against the Seleucid invaders and later the Romans
in the west, and in the east against the Greco-Bactrian kingdom and the
nomadic peoples who again and again emerged from the steppes between the
Oxus and the Jaxartes. More source materials are available for this period
in Parthian history than for the initial phase, but the exact chronology
of events is still in many ways unclear.
first campaign of Mithridates I was probably directed against the Greco-Bactrian
kingdom (between 160 and 155 B.C.) with the aim of reconquering the
territories that had been lost in that region during the reign of Arsaces
I, especially the area around Nisa.
What is certain is that the Parthians then liberated Media in the second
half of 148 B. C. (According to the Seleucid inscription of June 148 at
Bisotun a Seleucid governor was at any rate still in office there at that
point in time. Cf. L. Robert, Gnomon 35, 1963, p.76; H. Luschey,
Archaologiscl:er Anzeiger, 1974, p. 123.) On the evidence of a cuneiform
text it is also known that by !2 October 141, Mithridates' power was
recognized as far afield as the ancient Sumerian city Uruk in southern
Mesopotamia. Shortly before this he had had himself crowned king in
Seleucia. It is also possible that the capital was transferred to Ctesiphon
as early as his reign.
long afterwards the Parthians were for the first but not the last time
forced to defend themselves against a fierce attack by nomads, possibly
the Sakas, in the
east. Mithridates took personal command of the campaign, even though the
Seleucids were just then making ready to reconquer Mesopotamia. Presumably
he considered the adversary in the east to be the more dangerous, an
assessment of the situation which subsequent events confirmed as correct.
The invasion in the northeast was successfully repulsed, then the Seleucid
ruler Demetrius II, after making initial gains, was taken prisoner.
Shortly before his death in 139/8 B.C. Mithridates also went on to
liberate Elyma province.
His greatest achievement had been to make Iranians under the the Arsacids a world power. It seems quite probable, as J. Wolski has suggested (in H. Temporini and W. Haase, eds., .4 ujst ieg and Niedergang der remischen Welt II/9. 1. Berlin, 1976, pp. 198ff.), that the western policies of the Parthian king were based on a strategy involving not only the liberation of Iranian provinces of Mesopotamia but also the subsequent overthrow of Syria in order to gain access to the Mediterranean. Certainly, the exploits of Mithridates can no longer simply be classified as a series of raids for the purpose of pillaging and capturing booty.
son and successor, Phraates II (ca. 139!8-ca. 128 B.C.) had to face the
final, fruitless attempt on the part of the Seleucids to regain their
power in the east. In 130 B.C., his adversary Antiochus VII Sidetes
(139/8-29 B.C.) gained fairly substantially reconquering Babylonia and
Media, but soon afterwards the inhabitants of the Seleucid garrison towns
revolted and allied themselves with the Iranians. The Seleucids then
suffered a crushing defeat and Antiochus VII himself met his death (on
these events see Th. Fischer, Uniersuchuttgen zunt Partherkrieg Antiochus
VII int Rahmen der Seleukidengeschichte, Tbbingen, 1970). From this point
on the Seleucid kingdom effectively ceased to be a rival for the Parthians.
their part, however, the Parthians were unable to rejoice in the victory
for long because in the next few years they were again forced to come to
terms with the nomads on their eastern frontier. As a result of the
movements of the Huns in inner Asia various nomadic peoples began to
appear in the region of the Oxus approximately during the period 133-129
B.C. The most important ones were the Yiieh-chih,
who conquered the Greco-Bactrian kingdom and founded the empire of the
Kushans (q.v.), the Sakas, and the Massagetae who turned against the
Parthian empire. (For an account of these events, see P. Dafftnii,
L'immigrozione dei Saka nella Drangiane, Rome, 1967.) Both Phraates II and
his successor Artabanus I (ca. 127-24/3) lost their lives in the course of
these struggles. In addition to this, Hyspaosines, the ruler of the
newly-founded kingdom of Characene in southern Mesopotamia, conquered
fairly large parts of Mesopotamia, reaching as far up as Babylon. (For the
history of this kingdom, see S. A. Nodelmann, BPrytus 13, 1959-60, pp.
these difficult circumstances Mithridates II, the Great (ca. 124/3-88/7
B.C.), one of the most outstanding ruling figures of the ancient East.
ascended the throne. First, he succeeded in defeating Hyspaosines (ca.
122/1), then he made the northern Mesopotamian kingdoms or Adiabene,
Gordyene, and Osrhoene into vassal states, and conquered Dura-Europos in
Then he established contact between Parthia and Armenia (ca. 97 B.C.), deposed King Artavasdes, and replaced him with his son Tigranes on the throne, in exchange for which he received "seventy valleys" (Strabo IL 14.15). The two countries were henceforth to be in virtually constant contact with one another, whether on a friendly or a hostile basis.
lI, known as "the Great" and from ca. 109/8 B.C. assuming the
title "King of Kings," also presided over events of a more
peaceful nature. Around II5 B.C, he was visited by an embassy from the
Chinese emperor Wu-ti, and the two rulers reached an agreement on the
opening of the trade route later known as the "Silk Road." A
meeting also took place with Rome, the major world power in the West, on
the Euphrates in 96 B.C. not in 92 B.C. as hitherto accepted. (E. Badian,
.Studies in Greek and Roman History, Oxford, 1964, pp. 157IT.; see also J.
Wolski, op. cit., p. 196 n. 5. On relations between Rome and Parthia since
Mithridates II see E. Dabrowa, La politique de Petat Parthe d Pegard do
Rome-d'Artaban ll a Vologise I (cu. II-cn 7? de N.E.) et less 1ucteurs qui
la conditionnuient, Cracow, 1983. pp. 15-69. The Parthian ambassador
Orobazos offered Sulla, the proprietor of the province of Cilicia, the
"friendship" and "alliance" of his master. Though the
exact outcome of this meeting is unclear, the agreements with China and
Rome prove Parthia's rise to world status.
Mithridates II, however, soon came up against an internal problem which
was eventually to prove a contributory factor in the downfall of the
Parthian empire: the power and influence of the Parthian nobility,
represented by a few great families, were from now on in a position to
oppose the monarch frequently.
The ancient writers characterize this period as a "time of internal disorder," an indication of how difficult it is to reconstruct events precisely. (Historians, especially those who take Babylonian texts as their sources, differ radically in their interpretations (For recent views, see G. Le Rider, Suse soul les Seucides et les Pnrthes, iL1DAFI XXXVIII, 1965, pp. 391ff.; M. L. Chaumont, Syria 48, 1971, pp. 152ff.; K. W. Dobbins, NC, 1975, pp. 19ff.; D. G. Sellwood, JRAS, 1976, pp. 21f.) One can not discount reports that Mithridates II had to contend at the end of his reign with a rival monarch called Gotarzes, probably the same Gotarzes who is depicted on the well-known bas-relief in Bisotun. (E. Herzfeld, Ain Tor von Asien, Berlin. 1920, pp. 35ff., is firmly of the view that the two are identical, but see also M. L. Chaumont, Syria 48, 1971, pp. 156f.).
Parthia and Rome.
persisted after the death of Mithridates II in 88/7 B.C., and the
Armenians seized the opportunity to reconquer the "seventy
valleys" they had ceded to the Parthians. At this time a series of
monarchs ruled in the Parthian empire, such as Gotarzes, Orodes I,
Sinatruces, and Phraates III, of whom little more than names is known.
(Cf. Schippmann, Grundzuge der parilrischen Geschichtc. pp. 33F. Also
Orodes and Mithridates, sons of Phraates III, who struggled for power
after having murdered their father, are obscure figures. In 54/3 B.C.
Mithridates defeated his brother, averting a fraternal strife, which would
surely have diminished the chances of success in the impending great
conflict with Rome.
Romans had no real reason to seek conflict. Its main cause lay rather in
the ambition of Crassus. At the end of 60 B.C. or the beginning of 59 B.C.
Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus had established an alliance, the so-called
"triumvirate" in Rome, and shortly afterwards (55 B.C.) control
of' the province of Syria had been assigned to Crassus with special
powers. He wanted to use this position to enhance his standing and
authority by fighting a war against the Parthians.
in Rome opinion was against such a campaign. Nevertheless, at the end of
55 B.C. Crassus marched off to Syria, where he arrived in the late spring
of 54 B.C.. and set out for Mesopotamia in the spring of 53 B.C.
this time the Romans knew little about the Parthians and their army, which
explains why Crassus "in addition to the campaign itself, which was
the greatest mistake of all" (Plutarch, Crassus l7), made every other
conceivable mistake. At the beginning of May, 53 B.C. Crassus and his
Roman army fell into a trap set by the Parthians under their young
commander General Surena at Carrhae. Roughly one
half of the Roman army of about 40,000 men, including Crassus and his son
perished, 10,000 men were made captive, and only ten thousand were able to
escape. (For details of this campaign, see N. C. Debevoise, A Political
History of Parthia, Chicago, 1938, p.78, n. 38, and E. Gabba in La Persia
a il mondo greco-romano, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Quaderno 76,
Rome, 1966, pp. 51 ff.)
victory produced a mighty echo amongst the peoples of the East without
however causing any decisive shift in the balance of power. (Cf. D. Timpe,
"Die Bedeutung der Schlacht von Carrhae," Museum Helveticum 19,
1962, pp. 104ff.) As for Surena, the victor of Carrhae, it soon cost him
his life. Probably fearing that he would constitute a threat to himself,
King Orodes II had him executed.
the next few years the Parthians proved incapable of exploiting their
victory, even when, after 50 B.C., the Romans were preoccupied with the
conflicts between Pompey and Caesar and the subsequent civil war. Not
until 41 B.C. or the start of 40 B.C. did the Parthians launch a major
attack. Their army was led by Pacorus, son of Orodes, and the Roman,
Quintus Labienus, who had been sent as an ambassador by Cassius, the Roman
commander in chief in Syria, to conduct negotiations at the Parthian court
and had remained there after the defeat of the republicans in the Roman
At the outset the Parthian attack was crowned with success: Labienus conquered large parts of Asia Minor, while Pacorus occupied Syria and Palestine. Soon, however, the situation changed. Mounting a counterattack in the year 39 B.C., the Romans defeated first Labienus and then Pacorus, who both lost their lives.
The death of his son Pacorus caused Orodes to appoint his eldest son Phraates IV (ca. 40-3/2) as successor. This was to prove a fatal error because Phraates murdered not only his father and brothers but also his own son and persecuted the nobility, many of whom left the country. The Romans under Antony saw an opportunity to attack the Parthians when the latter rejected a peace offer, coupled with a demand to hand back the Roman standards and captives taken at Carrhae, and Antony began the war in 36 B.C. According to Plutarch (Antonius 37.3) he marched with 100,000 men across Armenia to Media. But this campaign, too, was destined to fail. The Parthians inflicted a crushing defeat on the Roman rearguard, destroying the siege engines, while Antony, marching on ahead with the main body of his troops, started to besiege Phraata (Phraaspa), the exact location of which remains unknown. The widely-held suggestion that it is identical with Takt-a Solayman to the southeast of Lake Urmia, where excavations have been carried out by the German Archeological Institute since 1959, is unproven (see K. Schippmann, Die iranischen Feuerheiligtumer, Berlin, 1971, pp.309ff.; H. Bengtson, Zum Parther-Feldzug des Amonius, Munich, 1974). Because his Armenian auxiliaries had withdrawn and since the season was advancing and his supplies were running low, Antony had to break off the siege and embark on what proved to be a costly retreat. Plutarch (Antonius 50) puts the Roman losses at 24,000 men.
after Carrhae, however, the Parthians were unable to use this victory,
because of a civil war which lasted from 32/1 B.C. to 25 B.C. A certain
Tiridates revolted against Phraates IV, probably with the support of
aristocratic circles and also, it seems likely, abetted by the Romans from
time to time. After certain initial successes this rebellion failed, but
the difficulties of the Parthian king were by no means at an end, as can
be seen from the fact that his coinage ceased in about 24/3 B.C. Also,
according to Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 16.253), Phraates had to contend
with a further rival king by the name of Mithridates in the years 12-9
their part the Romans under Augustus exploited this difficult situation of
the Parthian king. In 20 B.C. they sent an army against Armenia, then
ruled by King Artaxes who was hostile to Rome. In the circumstances,
Phraates felt obliged to comply with the frequently expressed demands of
the Romans that the captives and standards of the legions seized at
Carrhae and other standards taken from Decidius Saxa (40 B.C.) and Mare
Antony (36 B.C.) should be returned. In Rome this act of restoration was
celebrated as if a great victory had been won over the Parthians on the
field of battle. In the context of these events both sides seem also to
have concluded an informal peace treaty. (For details see K. H. Ziegler,
Die Beziehungen zwischen Rom and dem Partherreich, 1964, Wiesbaden, pp.
48ft., Dabrowa, op. cit., pp.91ff.) Rome recognized the Euphrates as a
frontier whilst the Parthians on their side accepted Roman overlordship
over Armenia. Now, however, the "personal" difficulties of
Phraates IV really began. Augustus had sent the Parthian monarch a
"Greek gift," an Italian slave-girl called Musa. She rose to
become his favorite wife and bore him a son named Phraataces, the later
Phraates V. Hoping to obviate any problems over the succession, Phraates
IV sent his four first-born sons to Rome where they would be protected by
loyal hands, but Musa seized the opportunity to poison him, and her own
son mounted the throne.
afterwards conflict arose between Rome and Parthia over the question of
Armenia. As a result the Romans appeared with a large force in Syria.
Phraates gave way, and negotiations held in A.D.1 ended with the Parthians
relinquishing any claims to influence affairs in Armenia and the Romans
granting recognition to Phraataces as a legitimate and sovereign ruler.
Only a few years later, however, an uprising led to his being driven from
the country (A.D. 4), and he died shortly afterwards in Syria. His
successor, Orodes III, was murdered two years later in A.D. 6.
Parthian nobility now turned to one of the sons of Phraates IV who had
been sent to Rome. Augustus returned the eldest of them, Vonones, to
Parthia where he was crowned king in 8/9. But life in Rome, in the opinion
of the Parthians at least, had made Vonones "soft," and they
were unhappy about his tight budgetary control, so a rival candidate was
set up by a section of the nobility. This was Artabanus who came from the
northeast of Iran, probably Hyrcania. (For a comprehensive, specialist
study see U. Kahrstedt, Artabonos III. and .seine Erben, Bern, 1950.) When
he first tried to seize power he was defeated by Vonones. Only at the
second attempt was he successful, being crowned king in Ctesiphon in
10/11. Vonones withdrew to Armenia where he occupied the vacant throne for
a short time, probably with Roman approval. However, when Artabanus
threatened military action against him, the Romans withdrew their support
Encouraged by the Romans' willingness to yield to him in this way, Artabanus now attempted to make his own son king of Armenia, but Rome was not prepared to accept this. Instead, the emperor Tiberius sent his adoptive son Germanicus to Armenia at the head of a large army, and he appointed a son of the king of Pontus as monarch there with the title Artaxes III. After this Artabanus gave way, with the result that about 18/19, amicable relations were apparently re-established on the pattern of the treaties concluded in 20 B.C. and I B.C. The main loser was Vonones who was deported to Cicilia by the Romans and died there in A.D. 19 when attempting to escape.
following decade and a half was a period of peaceful coexistence for the
two powers, and Artabanus profited from this to consolidate his own
position within the Parthian empire. In Media Atropatene, Mesene-Characene,
Persis, and Elymais the native dynasties were removed and replaced by
Parthian secundogenitures. Only in the eastern part of the empire did
Artabanus encounter difficulties. Here a dynasty of Parthian provincial
rulers, frequently referred to as "Pahlawa," held sway (probably
the Surena family from eastern Iran; on the internal policy of Artabanus
II see Dabrowa, op. cit., pp. 73ff.).
A.D. 35 conflict with Rome was to break out again, and once more Armenia
was the cause: King Artaxes had died without leaving an heir, and
Artabanus moved to install his eldest son Arsaces on the throne. However,
fearing that Artabanus was becoming too powerful, the nobility negotiated
with the Romans against him: Emperor Tiberius then sent them Phraates, one
of the four sons of Phraates IV, and when he died en route in Syria,
Tiridates, a grandson of Phraates IV, was sent in his place. The Romans in
addition appointed Mithridates, a brother of the ruler of Iberia, as king
of Armenia. An Iberian army then conquered Armenia and beat off a
counter-attack by the Parthians. With the backing of a Roman army
commanded by L. Vitellius, the governor of Syria, Tiridates was crowned
supreme king in Ctesiphon, and Artabanus withdrew to Hyrcania. However,
Rome's efforts to maintain "Roman" Parthians on the throne met
with little success. Very quickly the Parthians became dissatisfied with
Tiridates; indeed, before the year 36 was out, a section of the nobility
was inviting Artabanus to take over the monarchy again. The Romans
therefore arranged a meeting on the Euphrates between Vitellius and
Artabanus in the spring of A.D. 37. The precise outcome of these
negotiations is not known, but in all likelihood "status quo"
was re-established: the Parthians agreed not to intervene in Armenia, and
the Romans recognized the existing frontiers as well as Parthian
sovereignty. (On the foreign policy of Artabanus, see Dabrowa, op. cit.,
the internal political problems of Artabanus were not over yet. Seleucia,
one of the most important cities in the Parthian empire rose in rebellion
from A.D. 36 to 42 perhaps due to a struggle between the indigenous and
the Greek aristocracies (so R. H. McDowell, Coins from Seleucia on the
Tigris, Ann Arbor, 1935, pp. 224ff.; but see also U. Kahrstedt, Arlabanos
III., pp. 25ff., 44ff.) or possibly because of a "class
struggle" between rich and poor (thus N. Pigulevskaja, Les villes de
l'etar iranien uua- epogues parrhes et sassanides, Paris, 1963, pp.61ff.,
85). Furthermore, Artabanus had to contend with a rival who enjoyed the
support of the Parthian nobility, Cinnamus, one of his own foster sons.
Eventually the ruler of Adiabene, Izates II, into whose kingdom Artabanus
had withdrawn, managed to reconcile the two rivals. Artabanus probably
died in A.D. 38 after a reign of some twenty-eight years.
was succeeded by his son Vardanes I (ca. 39-ca. 45, thus Le Rider, MDAFI,
1965, p. 461, who does not rule out the possibility that Vardanes reigned
until 47/8, see p.426 n. 1; Kahrstedt, Artabanos III., pp. 24ff. et alibi;
R. Hanslik, Pauly-Wissowa, VIII/A, 1, 1955, col. 369, and others name
Gotarzes as direct successor). A rival monarch, Gotarzes II, (43/4-51), a
nephew of Artabanus caused several years of conflicts which ended with the
murder of Vardanes.
with Gotarzes, the Parthians requested the return of a rival, Meherdates,
son of Vonones, who lived in Rome. In A.D. 49, however, Gotarzes managed
to win a decisive victory over his new rival in Kurdistan. A famous
bas-relief on the rock at Bisotun may refer to this event. (Thus E.
Herzfeld, Am Tor von Asien p. 46, and others, who take the view that the
Gotarzes mentioned in the accompanying inscription is identical with
Gotarzes II, whereas M. L. Chaumont, Syria 48, 1971, pp. ( 56f. argues
against their identity.) The joys of victory were, however, short-lived
since Gotarzes died in A.D. 51.
is not clear whether a certain Vonones, brother of Artabanus II and king
of Armenia now took over the reins of power, to be followed by his son
Vologases, or whether the latter succeeded directly. Certainly. Vologases
I (ca. 51-77/9) reigned for along time by Parthian standards; even though
he too had to come to terms with a series of political problems at home
A.D. 53 Vologases succeeded in appointing his brother Tiridates king of
Armenia after King Mithridates had been murdered. At first the Romans were
unable to do much about the situation because of the poor condition of
their forces in the region, and merely wrote to Vologases, recommending
him to make peace and to give hostages.
In 58, however, the Romans proceeded to attack. They enjoyed some initial success, but in the winter of 62 Vologases managed to surround a Roman army near Rhandeia (on the Arsons a tributary of the Euphrates) and force it to capitulate. After negotiations, the Parthian lifted their siege and the Romans withdrew from Armenia, leaving Vologases to apply directly to Rome to have Tiridates invested with the Armenian crown in fief (on the relations between Parthia and Rome from 63 to 79, see Dabrowa, op. cit., pp. 154ff.). In A.D. 66 Tiridates traveled to Rome, where he received the crown of Armenia from the hands of the emperor Nero himself (see Dio Cassius 53.5, 2). The two empires then co-existed peacefully for a few decades.
died in A.D. 80 or perhaps earlier if certain coins are to be ascribed to
him (sec R. H. McDowell,op. cit., pp. ll9ff., 230, but also Le Rider,
MDAFI, London, 1965, pp. 174f. and G. D. Sellwood, An introduction to the
Coinage of Parthia, 1971, p. 220). Parthian history in the next few
decades is difficult to reconstruct. Various pretenders to the throne,
Pacorus II, Vologases II, and Osroes must have held sway over fairly large
territories within the Parthian empire. In view of the apparently very
long reign of Vologases II (A.D. 77/8146/7), Le Rider, op. cit.,
introduced a further king, to whom he ascribed the coinage of the years
77/78, 89/90, and 106/08; the ruler referred to as Vologases II thus
becomes Vologases III; according to Le Rider's account, he ruled from A.D.
1 I 1/I2 (see also E. J. Keall, JAGS 95, 1975, p.630 n. 36). At any rate,
after the internal conflicts came to an end (from 114) Osroes probably
occupied the Parthian throne; he was the adversary of the Romans in the
Parthian war begun in 114 under the emperor Trojan. The precise reasons
for this war are unknown. Economic factors may have played a part, such as
the desire to gain control of the trade routes through Mesopotamia (thus
J. Guey, Essai sur la guerre parlhiyue de Trajan, Bucharest, 1937, or
military aims such as the attainment of a secure frontier by annexing
Armenia and northern Mesopotamia (thus F. A. Lepper, Trajan's Parthian
Way, London, 1948, or simply the pursuit of personal glory on the
emperor's part (thus Dio Cassius 68.17.1). It may well be, however, that
all three reasons played a part.
114 the Romans marched into Armenia, killing Parthamasiris whom Osroes had
installed as king there. From there Trajan conquered northern Mesopotamia
(by the end of 115) and shortly afterwards the Parthian capital Ctesiphon.
The Romans even managed to advance as far as the Persian Gulf, but then
the reverses began. Trajan was in Babylon on the march back when he heard
that a rebellion had broken out in many parts of the territory he had
conquered. In addition, a revolt by the Jews had begun in Cyrenaica and
was spreading throughout the Levant as far as Egypt. In the end the Romans
once again proved masters of the situation, but not without suffering
losses, both materially and in terms of prestige. Trajan also profited
from power struggles within Parthia itself, but ultimately his victory
cost too much. The Parthian Great King still had sufficient military
forces at his disposal, and Trajan's attempt to conquer Hatra, one of the
main Parthian bulwarks in northern Mesopotamia, ended in failure. Before
he could contemplate a new campaign Trajan died in the summer of A. D.
successor Hadrian recognized only too clearly that apart from a few
spectacular but momentary successes, such as the capture of Ctesiphon and
the advance to the Persian gulf, Trojan's campaign had produced little of
value for Rome. Thus more peaceful times returned. The Euphrates once
again became the frontier and Rome relinquished Armenia, Mesopotamia, and
Assyria, a province re-established by Trojan, which corresponded roughly
to the territory of ancient Babylonia. No doubt the peace must have been
welcome to both sides.
however, had conflicts with his rival Vologases III, which must have ended
in victory for Vologases after 129 since Osroes' coinage ceased to appear
in Seleucia in 127/8.
III (after 129-146/8), too, had to contend with a rival king: Mithridates
IV, who met with little success. Probably more dangerous were the Alans
who between 134 and 136 attacked Albania, Media, and Armenia, penetrating
as far as Cappadocia. The only way Vologases was able to persuade them to
withdraw was probably by paying them. The Romans, too, under Hadrian's
successor Antoninus Pius (138-161), were active, installing a new king in
Armenia. The Parthians did not react possibly because their forces were
inadequate or in order to preserve peace and the flourishing, highly
profitable caravan trade that came with it.
conditions also prevailed in the early part of the reign of Vologases IV
(147/8-190/1 or 192(3). On the death of Antoninus Pius, the Parthians
reopened hostilities and gained some successes against Marcus Aurelius:
they conquered Armenia, installing a new king named Pacorus, and also
marched into Syria. But a Roman counter-offensive in 163 won back Armenia,
where a new ruler by the name of Sohaemus was crowned king by the grace of
Rome, and in 164 they forced the Parthians to give up Syria, and their
general Avidius Cassius began to march into Mesopotamia. At the end of 165
or the beginning of 166 the Romans took Seleucia and Ctesiphon, but once
again the Parthians were fortunate: an epidemic, probably of small pox,
broke out forcing the Romans to retreat in the spring of A.D. 166. In the
process they suffered heavy losses.
the next three decades peace reigned, partly perhaps because various Roman
emperors struggled for power. Finally Septimius Severus gained the upper
hand, and began a new war against the Parthians, who by this time were
ruled by Vologases V (190/1 or 193208/09). This war lasted from 195 to
199, but although Seleucia and Ctesiphon again fell to the Romans, and
Hatra was besieged, shortage of food and supplies forced Septimius Severus
and his army to withdraw. Still, the Romans had managed this time to
secure their frontier against Parthia by creating two new provinces,
Osrhoene and Mesopotamia. According to some recent investigations (see M.
G. A. Bertinelli, in Temporini and Haase, op. cit., II, 9/1, pp. 41ff.)
the southeastern frontier ran from Alaina (Tell Hayal) via Singara (Beled
Sinjar) further east via Zagurae ('Ain Sinu) to Vicat (Tell 'Ibra) and
possibly up to the Tigris (Mosul).
207/8 Vologases VI followed his father on the throne, but soon (ca. 213)
had to fight his younger brother Artabanus IV. In the year 216 the emperor
Caracalla asked Artabanus IV for the hand of his daughter in marriage, in
itself a clear evidence of the fact that the latter was then monarch, even
though the coinage of Vologases VI continued to appear in Seleucia until
at least 221/2.
turned down Caracalla's request, thus giving the Roman emperor a pretext
for a new Parthian war. Although Caracalla and his army succeeded in
advancing as far as Arbela, the capital of Adiabene, he does not appear to
have achieved any decisive victory over the Parthians.
April 217 the Parthians mounted a fairly big offensive to avenge
Caracalla's action, demanding from his successor, Macrinus, the withdrawal
of the Romans from Mesopotamia and restitution for the damage they had
caused. Macrinus was neither able nor willing to agree to these demands,
so the war continued and the Romans were defeated at Nisibis, as suggested
by the terms of the peace treaty: The Romans paid the Parthian king and
the nobility a total of fifty million dinars in cash and gifts at the
beginning of A.D. 218.
The peace brought little advantage to Macrinus and his successors, Elagabal (218-222) and Severus Alexander (222-35), since the Parthian era now came to an end.
was Ardashir (q. v.), a minor Parthian vassal in Persis, who was to bring
about the demise of the Parthian empire. From roughly A.D. 220 onwards he
began to subjugate nearby territories and others further afield, such as
Kerman. (For details of of these events, see G. Widengren in La Persia net
Medioevo, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei. Quaderno 160, Rome, 1971, pp.
711tf.) When Artabanus IV proceeded to take counter-measures it was too
late. The decisive battle, probably on 28 April 224 in the region of what
is now Golpayegan, between Isfahan and Nehavand (see Widengren, op. cit.,
p. 743-44), cost the Parthian Great King his life and in practice meant
the end of the Parthian empire, even though ArdasTr only had himself
crowned "King of Kings" some years later, probably in A.D. 226.
At all events it can be assumed that the Sasanian dynasty, so named after
an ancestor of Ardashir, possibly his grandfather Sasan. already exercised
power throughout the Parthian empire before the year A.D. 230.
The Parthian empire remained in existence for roughly 475 years and
constituted, even during its periodic weak phases, the most significant
power factor in the ancient East alongside the Romans. Though even today
the Parthians are frequently classified as "barbarians" (thus,
for instance, A. R. Bellinger, "The End of the Seleucids,"
Transaction., o/the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 38, 1949,
p.75) or as "princes on horseback" for whom the conquering of
Iran and Mesopotamia meant nothing more than new grazing grounds or feudal
tenure, and who, unlike the Achaemenids and Sasanians, had no great
political aim in mind, this is a view which is no longer tenable. The
Parthians have every right to be considered on a par with the Seleucid and
Sasanian dynasties not only politically but also culturally. One must also
not view Parthian history solely in terms of the struggles against the
Seleucids and the Romans, for the Parthian empire was not only aligned
against the West, but also occupied a position between the Greco-Roman
world to the west and that of Central Asia to the east.
is also ample evidence to show that the Parthians felt themselves to be
the heirs of the Achaemenids. Thus, for example, they adopted the
Achaemenid title "King of Kings" on their coinage. The figure of
the seated archer that appears very early on the reverse of their coins
also derives from the Achaemenids. for whom the bow, as depicted on coins.
seals, and reliefs, symbolized royalty (see R. Ghrishman, in Temporini and
Haase, op.cit., II, 9/1, 1976, p.215). In addition, Tacitus (Annals 6.31)
records that the envoys of Artabanus II demanded from the Romans the
return of all the territories that had once belonged to the Achaemenids
(for a detailed account, see J. Wolski, in Temporini and Haase, op. cit.
11, 9/ 1, 1976, pp. 204f.).
the basis of details like these and others, J. Neusner (lranica Antiqua 3,
1963, pp. 40ff.) and Wolski have arrived at the opinion that the Arsacids
had it political idea, central to which was a commitment to Iran as a
national concept. The somewhat disparaging term "Philhellenes,"
which even today is sometimes used to characterize the Parthians, was no
doubt justified to a certain extent, given the very poor state of findings
and historical research in the early days.
quite aside from the fact that new findings have now established Iranian
elements also in the art of the period, it is possible that the Parthian
kings deliberately used the designation "Philhellene" on their
coinage as a political device to make it easier for them to ensure the
cooperation of the Greeks in their empire, especially in Mesopotamia.
question remains to be answered: What were the reasons for the downfall of
such an important empire or, more precisely, how did a minor Parthian
vassal contrive to bring about its destruction? No doubt there were
several reasons. One was the latent antagonism between the monarch and the
nobility or even, as was frequently the case, the dependence of the ruler
on this group. Another important reason was the fact that the Parthian
empire often fought or frequently had to fight wars on two fronts, for in
addition to the Seleucids and Romans in the west they had great
adversaries in the east, such as the Greco- Bactrians, the Kushans who
succeeded them, the Sakas, the Alansand other peoples of Central Asia. In
the long run these conflicts overtaxed both the military and the economic
strength of the Parthian empire (see also Dabrowa, op. cit., pp. 174f.).
2. Parthian society from the third century B.C. to the third century A.D.
result of archeological research, particularly the work carried out by the
Russians in Turkmenistan and Chorasmia, it must now be accepted that
political entities of some considerable size existed in Parthia and
Margiane, i.e. in the territory of the present-day SSR Turkmenistan, as
early as the first millennium B.C. and not just from the times of the
Achaemenids or the Seleucids (see V. M. Masson and V. I. Sarianidi,
Central Asia, London, 1972, pp. 155ff.). The existence of fairly large
towns can also be assumed, such as Samarkand, Marv, Elken Tepe, and Yaz
Tepe, to name only a few. For the most part, however, there were villages
of varying sizes, and large irrigation systems played a significant role (Polybius
10.28. pp. 3ff.. Justin 41.5.4). Life in southern Turkmenistan was
dominated by big landowners who had large numbers of serfs at their
disposal. Beyond this there was certainly a considerable number of slaves,
although village communities with free peasants also existed.
were the prevailing conditions when the Parni arrived. To label the latter
simply as nomads from the steppes would be injudicious. Soviet Russian
excavations in the territories adjacent to southern Turkmenistan, such as
Chorasmia, have demonstrated that in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.
the area was inhabited by the so-called "Massagetae Federation,"
an association of different tribes who lived a sedentary life, raising
cattle and tilling the land (for details, see S. P. Tolstov, Auf den
Spuren der altchoresmischen Kultur, Berlin, 1953, pp. IOIff.). After the
Parni chieftain had been crowned king in Asaak, conditions must have
changed, for now he had to rule not only over the Parni but also over the
inhabitants of the conquered territory, who were predominantly Parthians.
In other words, he had to try to strengthen his position. (J. Wolski
estimated that despotism was established as early as the first half of the
second century B.C., cf. Deutsche Historiker-Gesellschaft, Neue Britrage
zur Geschichte der Allen Welt, ed. E. Weiskopf, I, Berlin, 1964, pp.
is reasonable to assume that a further change in the social structure of
the empire took place from the time of Mithridates I (ca. 171 to 139/8
B.C.). Then and in the following period the Parthian empire increased
enormously in size, especially as a result of the conquest of Mesopotamia,
so that it now had large Hellenistic cities such as Seleucia, Dura-Europos,
and Susa. The rulers now had to administer and direct the affairs of an
empire of world status, which must frequently have made it necessary for
them to disregard old tribal traditions. One instance of this was the
accession of Mithridates I. It was customary for the eldest son to succeed
to the throne, but in this case Phraates 1 passed over his numerous sons
and appointed as king his brother Mithridates. The execution of Surena,
the victor at Carrhae shows the relatively unlimited power of the supreme
monarch in Parthia.
this period the nobility must also have extended its power and influence
considerably, not least as a result of the vast estates it acquired in the
course of the various conquests (J. Wolski, "L'aristocratie fonciere
et 1'organisation de 1'armee parthe," Klio 63, 1981, pp. IOSff.).
differ in their judgement as to whether it is legitimate to talk of a
feudal system at this epoch in Parthian history. The view that such a
state of feudalism did exist is taken by Widengren (Temporini and Haase.
op. cit., I I, 9/ I , 1976, pp. 249ff.) and others (for example N. C.
Debevoise, Political History, p. xlii, and E. Herzfeld, AMI 4, 1932,
p.54). In my opinion, however, Parthian history falls into different
stages of development, and it is therefore impossible simply to refer to
the state of Parthia as a single feudal state (thus also K.H. Ziegler,
Beziehungen zwischen Rom and dem Partherreich, Wiesbaden, 1964, pp. 16f.;
F. Altheim and R. Stiehl, Geschichte Mittelasiens, Berlin, 1970, p.528).
Thus we know little about Parthian history from the beginnings until into
the first century B.C., and what information we have about the subsequent
period derives predominantly from the western part of the empire, i.e.
historians, who define the concept of feudalism quite differently by
focusing attention on the conditions of production (see B. F. Porschnew,
Sowjetwissenschaft, Gesellschaftswissenschaftliche Abteilung 1, 1954, pp.
75ff., 84), view the system as one of slave ownership. According to their
interpretation, the existence of a feudal system can not be assumed before
the subsequent Sasanian era (thus, for instance, N. Pigulevskaja, Les
villes de I'etat iranien, p. 136 and A. Perikhanjan, VDI, 1952, pp.
3. Economic life in the Parthian empire
undoubtedly played the most important role in Parthian economy, but few
details are known about it. The same applies to handicraft. Our best
information concerns trade. Numerous routes existed for the trallic of
goods between East and West, not only the Silk Road. Although trading of
some kind must surely have been carried on beforehand, it only began on a
significant level in connection with the sending of an embassy by the
Chinese to the court of Mithridates 11. 114 B.C. is the first known date
on which a caravan traveled from China to the west (thus A. Herrmann, Dns
Land der Seide and Tibet int Licht der Anlike, Leipzig. 1938, p. 4 [repr.
Amsterdam, 1968]). Isodorus of Charax has supplied us with some sort of
survey of the routes in his Parthian Stations, written around the
beginning of the Christian era. From Antiochia on the Orontes various
routes led via Dura-Europos or across the Syrian desert via Palmyra to
Seleucia, Ctesiphon, and Vologasia. (For details of the last named town,
the location of which is still not identified exactly, see A. Maricq,
Svria 36, 1959, pp. 264ffi.; Chaumont, Spria 51, 1974, pp, 77ff., and G.
A. Koshelcnko, Sludi in snore di Edoardo Volterra 1. Milan, 1971, pp.
there the route led across the Zagros mountains to Kerman'sah and Hamad3,
then on to Marv (Antiochia Margiana). Here it divided, one branch leading
via Bukhara and Ferghana past the Issyk Kill into Mongolia, the other.
more important one going to Bactria, then on to the "Stone
Tower" (probably indentical with Tashkurgan or with Darautkurgan in
the Alai valley (Kirghizia), where Chinese traders took over the
trade also deserves to be mentioned. The most important port was Charax
Spasinu on the Persian Gulf, from where merchandise was shipped to India
or sent overland to Seleucia. Besides, the Euphrates with its ramified
system of canals played an important part in the trade of Mesopotamia.
Here the Parthians acted primarily as middlemen, making their profits from
the numerous customs posts they set up and from the various taxes they
levied on goods in transit. The well known "Palmyrenian Tariff,"
an extensive inscription in Palmyra of the year 137, provides us with an
example of these taxes and also of the sorts of merchandise bought and
sold at the time. With regard to economic conditions in the Parthian heart
lands the ostraca from Nisa are now beginning to yield a certain amount of
information (see I. M. Diakonov, M. M. Diakonov, and V. A. Livshits,
Sowjetwissenschaft, Gesellschaftswissenschaftliche Abt. 4, 1954, pp.
The army in the Parthian empire. Unfortunately there is no comprehensive
account of the Parthian army. The numerical size of the Parthian army can
only be estimated approximately. At the battle of Carrhae 10,000 cavalry
are said to have taken part on the Parthian side (see Plutarch, Crassu.r
17; Dio Cassius 41.12) and in the struggle against Mark Antony in 36 B.C.
their cavalry reportedly numbered as many as 50,000 (Justin 41.2.6).
Probably the latter figure represented their maximum strength.
most important types of forces in the Parthian army were the lightly armed
cavalry equipped with bows and arrows and the so-called cataphracts,
cavalrymen who were both heavily armed and heavily armored so that both
horse and rider were protected by coats of chain mail. Their weapon was
the lance or sometimes also the bow. It is not clear whether the terms
clibanarii and catafracti were used to designate different kinds of
armored cavalry, armed respectively with the lance and the bow (thus R. N.
Frye, Per.rien, Essen, 1975, p. 391), or whether they are merely different
terms for one and the same type of force (thus E. Gabba, op. cit., p. 65,
social composition of the armed forces is unclear. Justin (41.2.6) claims
that of the 50,000-strong army that fought against Mark Antony 4,000 were
"freemen," by which it is likely that he means nobles. Plutarch
(Crassus 21) reports that at the battle of Carrhae the army was composed
partly of pel6tai (serfs) and partly of doriloi (retainers), but the
precise distinction between the two is a matter of dispute. (See G.
Widengren in Temporini and Haase, op.cit.. II, 9/I, 1976, p. 282, nn. 336,
252; J. Wolski, Iranica Antigua 7, 1967, pp. 141; Altheim and Stiehl,
Geschichte Mithelasiens, p.464, on the other hand, translate doriloi [servij
as "slaves" as do Pigulevskaja, Les villes de I'etat iranien,
pp. 8lff., and Wolski, "Les relations de Justin etde Plutarque sur
les esclaves etla population dependante dans 1'empire Parthe,"
Iranica Antigua 18, 1938, pp. 148ff.). Finally, mention must be made of
the mercenaries in the Parthian army, although historians differ in
assessing their significance (see Widengren, op. cit., pp. 28Sff. and
Wolski, Iranica Antigua S, 1965, pp. 103ff.).
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