The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
The Beginnings of the Arsacids
Elias J. Bickerman
accounts of the beginnings of the Parthian Empire, as given by Strabo, Justin
are in substantial agreement and go back, probably, to a common source which may
be the Parthica, of Apollodorus of Artemita, written about 100 B.C. in
Parthia. According to this unknown
Greek author, under Antiochus II (plus 246 B.C.) a "Scythian" tribe of
Parni settled in the valley of Ochus (Arius, now Tedjen), in the Seleucid
satrapy of Bactria,
rose in revolt, under the leadership of two brothers, Arsaces and Tiridates.
When, two years later, Arsaces lost his life, the brother succeeded to him as
the chieftain of the tribe. In the fashion of all Nomades, the Parni used from
time to time to overrun the satrapy of Hyrcania and Bactria and exact tribute.
Then, under Seleucus II (246-223), when Diodotus, the satrap of Bactria seceded
from the Seleucid Empire and proclaimed himself Basileus, Tiridates with
his tribe, under pressure of Diodotus' power, left Bactria, invaded Parthia and
then Hyrcania, and established a new domination destined to become "the
rival of the Romans."
original account suffered from the combined errors of the authors transmitting
it to us. Arrian, for example, interpolates the fable that the Arsacids descend
from Artaxerxes II of Persia.
Justin telescopes together the date of the insurrection of Parni and that of the
conquest of Parthia.
Modern scholars find this narrative confused and untrustworthy,
and are inclined to distinguish between two strata of the tradition: the
earlier, represented by Justin and Strabo, which assigns the formation of the
Arsacid power to the time of Seleucus II, and the latter one, repeated by Arrian,
which places the beginnings of the Parthian dynasty under Antiochus II.
As a matter of fact, there are no conflicting traditions. Justin and Strabo, in
their general works, speaking of the Parthian Empire cursorily, simply omit to
narrate the humble origins of the royal house, while Arrian, writing a special
work on the Parthian history, goes back to the beginnings of the Arsacids. A
confusion arises only when you mix up, as Justin and some modem historians do,
the Parni and the Parthi.
a matter of fact, local defections from the Empire, such as that of Parni, were
a common occurrence in the immense monarchy of the Seleucids, and often led to
temporary establishment of petty "dynasts," like that of Arsaces. and
Tiridates. Nothing, then, is more
likely than that Diodotus, satrap of Bactria, who, as his coins show,
prepared his secession methodically, left undisturbed the rebel tribe, settled
at the frontier next the satrapy of Parthia
and raiding the latter. But after his secession, during the war of Laodice,
Diodotus, quite naturally, drove out the Parni from his new kingdom.
Diodotus' defection and the fraternal war between Seleucus II and Antiochus
Hierax crumbled the Seleucid authority in the East and so Tiridates was able to
override Parthia and then Hyrcania
and plant his domination there. In fact, we are told that Tiridates invaded
Parthia when he had heard of Seleucus II's defeat by the Gauls, This fateful
battle at Ancyra occurred, probably in 239 (see above paragraph). The occupation
of Parthia by the Parni and the establishment of the Parthian Empire, then, took
place about 238 B.C. But the earliest evidence referring to the Arsacids assigns
their beginnings to the reign of Antiochus 11. The so-called Arsacid Era,
attested as in use before 141 B.C.
has as its starting point the year 247-6 B.C.
How to explain this apparent divergence between literary tradition and the
chronological statement? The Arsacid Era was the dating "as the king
reckons." The kings of Parthia,
like those of Pontus, of Bithynia, etc., imitated the Seleucid computation with
one of their own. These reckonings were not calculated from a fixed event (as
the eras are in the proper sense of the term) but by numbered regnal years. Only
this numbering was continuous without breaks at each succession. But if the Arsacid Era is
the counting of regnal years of the Parthian dynasty, how could it start in
247-6? At this date, Antiochus II, victorious in the war against Ptolemaios II,
ruled without competitors, from. Samarkand to Damascus. No prince in the sphere
of his influence dared yet to assume the royal title: neither the Achaemenidae
ruling in Persis
nor Attalus of Pergamum nor Ariaramnes of Tyana,
nor Diodotus of Bactria, to which province the Parni belonged. But the official
date is not necessarily the authentic one. When a Hellenistic ruler succeeded in
gaining the sovereignty, the symbol of which was the royal title, he often
antedated the initial year of his kingship. For instance, in the second century
B.C. the kings of Pontus computed their regnal years from 336 B.C., when their
reputed ancestor Mithridates was established as governor of Cius, although the
dynasty had not assumed the royal title before Mithridates III, brother-in-law
of Seleucus II. The Arsacids followed the
same patterns. But when and why did they choose 247-6 as the initial year? The
Arsacids used the Babylonian form of the calendar, the year starting in spring (Nisanu
while the Seleucid administration and Greek cities began the civil year in the
fall. The fact shows that the Arsacids initiated the counting of their regnal
years very early, before they came under the influence of Macedonian colonies,
in a native environment where the months had been counted in the Babylonian
manner since the introduction of the standard calendar by the Persians. In fact,
we are told that "Arsaces was proclaimed first king" in the city of
Asaac, an obscure road station
in Astauene, in the upper Atrek valley, that is, in Hyrcania.
Now, the capital of the Arsacids, before the expansion under Mithridates I, was
Hecatompylos in Parthia.
Still earlier, in the latter part of the reign of Tiridates I, his residence was
Dara in Apavarktikene;
the royal tombs were at Nysa.
Why, then, the assumption of the title in Asaac?
the Hellenistic Age, the title Basileus was used as a mark of personal
supremacy. It passed, so to speak, from the vanquished king to the victor. Even
L. Aemilius Paulus, a Roman, was indignant when Perseus of Macedonia, after his
defeat, still pretended to keep the name of Basileus.
Still Himerus, Parthian regent in Babylonia, styled himself Basileus when
he retook possession of Babylon, which had been occupied by "King"
Accordingly, we must look for a significant victory won in the beginnings of the
dynasty. Now Seleucus II attempted to recover the lost provinces in the Far
East. His preparations and his first successes are still reflected in his
Eastern coinage. Before the advancing
Seleucid army, Tiridates had to flee, and took refuge with the tribe of
Apasiacae, in the Caspian steppe.
But with the help of Diodotus II of Bactria who, reversing his father's policy,
had allied himself with Tiridates, the latter returned, met Seleucus II in
battle and utterly defeated him. The Parthians thereafter celebrated the
anniversary of victory as the beginning of their independence.
Is it preposterous to suppose that on this occasion Tiridates was proclaimed Basileus?
Seleucus II's army must have followed the caravan route which connected the Far
East with Mesopotamia, through Ecbatana (Hamadan), Rhaga (in the vicinity of
Teheran), Nysa (in the vicinity of Nishapur), toward Meshed. Tiridates overrode
the returning army, cut it to pieces, and was crowned at Asaac, a nearby station
on the imperial road. The date of the battle may be indicated approximately.
Seleucus was compelled to withdraw by new troubles in Asia, that is, Asia Minor. That can refer only to
the new war between Antiochus Hierax and Attalus I, which began about 231 B.C.
Tiridates therefore assumed the royal title about 231 B.C. But following the
august examples of the Seleucids and the Attalids, the barbarian chief began to
reckon his regnal years from his accession to power. Therefore 247-6 would be
the year when he succeeded to Arsaces as the chieftain of the Parni. Tiridates,
we are told, ruled 37 years." Accordingly, he must have died in 211-0. He
was succeeded by his son, Arsaces II, who successfully resisted Antiochus III.
New Polybius informs us that in 209
Antiochus III attacked Arsaces of Parthia, testimony which confirms the proposed
chronology. We have assumed, then, that for some years, between about 239 and
231, Tiridates ruled in Parthia and Hyrcania without taking the royal title, and
was proclaimed Basileus about 231. Parthian coinage confirms this
The earliest series of Parthian coins, minted in the Far East, is that of
fractional silver and bronze, with the beardless head of a ruler, wearing an
Iranian cap tied with diadem.
The legend is
there was a period when an Arsacid ruled in Parthia without the royal title
which he then assumed.
us sum up the chronological results of our investigation:
XI, 9 (515 C) ; Just. XL1, 4; Arrian, Parth. 1.
the Parni (Aparni, Sparni) cf. Strabo XI, 7,1 ; 8,2; 9,2; just. XL1, 4,7.
The tribe belonged to the group of the Dahae. Cf. Tarn, p. 80.
Arrian, Parth. 18 (ed. A. G. Roos) ; A. G. Roos, Studia Arrianea,
1912, p. 5.
XI, 9,2 (515 C) ; Just. XLI, i,i ; Dio Cass. XL, 14,3.
Cf. now H. S. Nyberg, Die Religionen des Alten
Irans (Mitteilungen der VorderasiatischAegyptischen Gesellschaft, XLII,
1938), p. 482.
calls the Parni "Parthes" (XLI, 1, 1, etc.) and places the
separation of Parthia from the Seleucids under Seleucus II (that is, after
246) and in the consulship of M. (or C.) Atilius and L. Manlius, that is, in
256 or 250.
e.g., Gutschmid, Geschichte Irans, 1888, p. 30; Bevan, The House
of Seleucus, I, 1902, p. 284; Tarn, CAH, IX, p. 575; Debevoise, A
Political History of Parthia, 1938, p. 9. q.
theory has been advanced by Droysen, Geschichte des Hellenismus, II
(1 ed. 1843), 330, often repeated (e.g. Jacoby, FrGrH II d, 568), and
recently developed by Wolski, Eos, 1937, p. 492; 1938, p. 244 (in
Polish). The historicity of Arsaces I has been often denied, e.g. Tarn, CAH,
IX, p. 5 7 5. Strabo (515 C) knows the Bactrian origins of the Arsacids,
stated by Arrian, while Justin's source mentioned the insurrection under
Antiochus II (see n. 43). On the other hand, Arrian (Parth. 1,2b ed.
A. G. Roos) gives the same etymology of the name "Parthi"
("exiles" in Scythian) as Justin XLI, 1,2. The common source may
be Apollodorus of Artemita or an anonymous writing about 85 B.C., on whose
work see Tarn, p. 50.
confusion is committed already by the first modern historian of the
Arsacids, J. Foy Vaillant, Arsacidarum Imperium, I, 1725, p. 2.
Rostovtzeff (see n. 26), p. 502; Walbank, JHS, 1942, p. 9. Classic is
the case of Philetaerus of Pergamum who began to strike coins in his own
name during the Syrian war, about 274. Cf. Newell, The Pergamene Mint
under Philetaerus, 1936.
now Newell, EM, p. 247; Tarn, p. 72.
Tarn, p. 82; Sturm, RE s.v. Ochus (XVII, 1770).
Newell, EM, p. 249, who points out that the royal title may have been
assumed only by Diodotus II.
XI, 9,2 (515 C) ; Just. XLI, 4, 5.
(see n. 19), p. 13.
Sternkunde II, 444; Olmstead, l.c. It is often stated (e.g.
Beloch, Griechische Geschichte, IV, 1, p. 670, n. 1) that Eusebius'
Chronicle gives Olymp. 132, 3 (250-49 B.C.) as the beginning of the Parthian
history. But Eusebius' authentic date was Olymp. 133 (248-244 B.C.) (Hieronymus;
the list of the Olympiads in the Armenian translation). There was, of
course, no era beginning in 380 B.C. as supposed by Allotte de la Füye, Mission
de Perse, XX, 1928, p. 29. If the bronze coin with the date
"191" (121-0 B.C.) really shows the head of Mithridates I, the
piece would only prove that Mithridates' portrait was still reproduced after
his death, as often happened in Hellenistic numismatics.
e.g. The Excavations at Dura-Europos, Report VII-VIII, p. 428.
re-state here these elementary facts (above, pp. 73-74) because the nature
of Arsacid (and Seleucid) computation is mistaken even in scholarly works.
In a recent work on Iranian religions the Arsacid Era is presented, e.g., as
based upon a "zarvanic" theological conception.
EM, p. 161. According to W. Andreas apud Nyberg (see n. 42), p. 483
the title of these princes was "fratarata," that is,
"governors." The current translation of the (Aramaic) legend on
their coins is "Fire-Priests."
Regling, Zeitschrift für Numismatik, 1930,
V. Latyshev, Inscr. Ponti Euxini 1, (2 ed. 1916), p. 402. On a fictitious
era in Bithynia, Robert, Études Anatoliennes, 1937, p. 231.
Royal Correspondence, 1934, no. 75: The Parthian royal letter of 17
Audnaeus 268 is received in Susa in the year 333 of the Seleucid Era. The
difference between two datings being 65 years, it is evident that while the
Greek city of Susa calculates from the fall 312, the Parthian chancellery
computes from the spring 247. Cf. McDowell, Coins from Seleucia on the
Tigris, 1935, p. 148. The subjects of the Arsacids kept, of course,
their traditional calendars. See, e.g. a Pahlavi document in Aramaic
characters from year 300, that is 53-4 A.D. apud Nyberg, Le Monde
Oriental, 1923, p. 182. This evidence makes somewhat unlikely a recent
hypothesis ascribing to Mithridates II, in 121 B.C. the introduction of a
vague year of 365 days (see H. Lewy, JAOS, 1944, p. 199, n. 27).
Mansiones Parth. II :
Euseb. Chron. ad Olymp. 133: < regnavit>. On Isidorus' sources
cf. <I.TARN< i>, p. 53. On Fire-temples cf. now A. Pagliaro in Oriental
Studies in Honour of C. E. Pavry, 1933, p.384. Erdmann, Das iranische
Feuerheiligtum, 1941, is inaccessible to the writer. On the temple in
Nisaea. cf. A. V. W. Jackson, Zoroaster, 1899, p. 98, and 0. Hansen, Zeitschr.
Deutsch. Morgenl&aunl;nd Ges. 1938, p. 98. New
archaeological material is presented by Ghirshman apud G. Salles, Rev.
des Arts Asiatiques, 1942, p. 1.
(see n. 44), p. 31 has supposed that Arsaces, before his invasion of
Parthia, had established his power in Asaac, in 250 B.C. But the region of
Astauene, with the city of Asaac, was a district of the (Seleucid) satrapy
of Hyrcania. Cf. Ptol. VI, 9; Tarn, pp. 3 and 232. Now, Hyrcania was
conquered by Tiridates after the occupation of Parthia. On the other hand,
it is unlikely that under Antiochus II, a rebel should be able to establish
his sovereignty in a town which was a station of the royal road linking
Syria with the Far East.
Cf. Debevoise (n. 44), p. 15. The
site is not yet identified. Cf. Erich F. Schmidt, Flights over Ancient
Cities of Iran, 1940, p. 38.
XLI, 5,1. The town was situated on the mountain Apartenon in Apavortene (Plin.
N.H. VI, 46), that is, it seems, Apavarktikene, on which district cf.
Isid. Mans. Parth. 13. The site is not yet identified. Various
conjectures are quoted by Debevoise (n. 44), p. 15.
Mans. Parth. 12. The site is unknown. Cf. now Sturm, RE., s.v.
XVII, 711. But Nisaia formed a district of Hyrcania under Seleucids. Cf.
Kiessling, RE, IX, 482. On the Parthian burial cf. K. Inostranzev, Journal
of the Minist. of Education, 1909, p. 195 (in Russian).
Mithridates of Parthia, 1925.
EM; Newell, WM, pp. 19, 30.
XI, 8,8; 513 C.
XLI, 4,10: quem them Parthi exinde solemnem velut initium libertatis
he was called "king" or not by the men of his tribe before this
date in Scythian language, we do not know and that is immaterial for our
is a fashion now to assign the beginnings of the Parthian coinage to the
reign of Mithridates II, about 16o B.C., following a theory of J. de Morgan.
See now his Mannuel de Numismatique Orientale, 1923, p. 123. His view
is accepted by the best authorities on the subject-as Newell, WM, p.
35; McDowell (n. 60), p. 159. But while coins of this group were often
issued in the second century B.C. by the same mints in the Parthian East
(cf. Newell, EM, p. 256, n. 14), the type must have been introduced,
as the legend
before the Arsacids assumed the royal name, that is, long before Mithridates
II. We may note that this class of coins has only the dotted border, while
other Parthian silver has mostly the filleted border introduced by Antiochus
III, ca. 222 B.C. (cf. Newell, WM, p. 395). The tetradrachms, of
course, were minted only by Mithridates, modeled after coins of Demetrius I
of Syria. Cf. Newell, Royal Greek Portrait Coins, 1937.
the form of this bonnet cf. J. de Morgan, loc. cit., p. 133. I note
that the diadem itself is worn also by rulers without royal rank, e.g.
Vahuzbert (Oborzus) of Persis, etc.
coins with legend:
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