Rise of Parthia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Parthians rose from obscure origins to become a dominating force in the Near East in the third and second centuries b.c.e. until colliding with the expanding Roman Empire. They became symbolic of the resistence of eastern, Greek-based culture against the encroachments of Rome.

Summary of Event

Out of the historical mists surrounding the regions northeast of the Caspian Sea rode the vanguards of barbarian invaders of what is now Iran in the first half of the third century b.c.e. They were the Parni. Toward the middle of the century, Diodotus I, king of the Greco-Bactrian state, attacked and drove them westward into the Seleucid provinces of Hyrcania and Parthia. At that time, these districts were sparsely populated by nomadic Iranian shepherds, a few agriculturalists, and occasional brigands. Here, about 245 b.c.e., the Parni met the Seleucid satrap Andragoras and defeated him. The fact that such a small army could overcome the mighty Seleucid forces and kill their leader was no doubt largely because of contemporary Seleucid involvement in the Third Syrian War (246-241 b.c.e.) against Ptolemaic Egypt. Arsaces Tiridates Andragoras Antiochus the Great Mithradates I

Their victory gave the Parni a permanent home in Parthia, and the province gave them the name by which they are known in history. Their first known king was Arsaces, who ruled about the middle of the third century b.c.e. and apparently died while fighting. He was succeeded by Tiridates, who most likely was the real founder of the kingdom. Few details of early Parthian history are known. After the death of Tiridates, Seleucid control of Parthia was reasserted by the indefatigable campaigner Antiochus the Great, who was intent on restoring to his kingdom the territory it had possessed in the days of its founder, Seleucus I (c. 358 or 354-281 b.c.e.). Antiochus’s defeat by Rome in 189 b.c.e. was followed by his own death at the hands of rebels in Elymais in 187 b.c.e., and the Arsacids seized the opportunity to throw off Seleucid suzerainty. Thereafter, Parthia grew stronger, and by 140 b.c.e., Mithradates I had overrun Media and Persis and had taken most of Babylonia from the Seleucids. These rich conquests transformed Parthia, until then a third-rate power, into an important state.

A Parthian horse archer, c. third century b.c.e.

(Kimberly L. Dawson Kurnizki)

Parthia was a loosely organized monarchy with its capital sometimes at Ecbatana in Iran and sometimes at Ctesiphon in Babylonia. Its kings ruled over a feudal aristocracy of Parthians dwelling mostly in modern-day Iran. The noble families were half-independent princely clans who lived in fortified castles and held sway over Iranian serfs who toiled in the valleys below. In this eastern, Iranian, half of the state, the old institutions, customs, and culture of the Orient continued, and the Arsacids pretended to be descendants of Artaxerxes I (the Achaemenid king of Persia from 465-c. 423 b.c.e.) and worshipers of the traditional gods of Iran. In the western, Babylonian, half of the state, a different set of values obtained. There the Parthians carefully fostered good relations with the Greek cities founded by Alexander the Great, Seleucus I, and Antiochus the Great. The cities continued, as they had under Seleucid rule, to be autonomous states governing their own territory, speaking Greek and maintaining Greek institutions. To these cities, the Arsacids, Mithradates I especially, advertised themselves as Philhellenes.

Many Greeks readily accepted this new order because the military strength of the Parthians protected them from participating in the miserable wars that had begun between rival branches of the Seleucid Dynasty. Some Greeks did not take kindly to the Parthians and made gibes about their kings, said to love their horses so much that they would not dismount from them even to hold a trial. The Arsacids did develop a sincere admiration for Hellenistic culture; King Orodes II (r. c. 57-37/36 b.c.e.) was interrupted once while enjoying a performance of Euripides’ Bakchai (c. 405 b.c.e.; Bacchae, 1781).

After the death of Mithradates I, Parthian power continued slowly to expand until it reached the Euphrates in northwestern Mesopotamia, where, in the middle of the first century b.c.e., it met the rapidly growing empire of the Romans. There then ensued between these two powers a series of wars that caused the periodic expenditure of the resources of both to the advantage of neither. In 53 b.c.e. the great noble Surenas defeated the Roman plunderer Marcus Licinius Crassus (c. 115-53 b.c.e.) in the bloody Battle of Carrhae by wearing down the sturdy Roman infantry under a hail of arrows shot by horse-archers. His men replenished their supply of missiles from a mobile ammunition column of camels.

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Marc Antony (c. 82-30 b.c.e.) sought to avenge this disaster by invading the Parthian Empire in 36 b.c.e., but his campaign ended in a second Roman defeat. The Parthians thus appeared as the champions of eastern Greeks and of Asians alike against the rapacity of Rome. Some Hellenic historians highly approved of them in this role, and a Jewish prophet forecast that the Messiah would be nigh when a Parthian tied his horse to a tree outside Jerusalem. That dream ended when Augustus (63 b.c.e.-14 c.e.) consolidated the Roman Empire on a new and more formidable basis, and negotiated a settlement with the Arsacids. Thereafter, the Parthians were not a serious menace to Rome. Nero’s great general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo (d. 67 c.e.) inflicted severe defeats on them; the emperor Trajan (c. 53-117 c.e.) actually overran all Babylonia; and Marcus Aurelius (121-180 c.e.) and Septimius Severus (145-211 c.e.) repeated Trajan’s feat. The last invasion seriously weakened Parthia, and about 224 c.e., the last Parthian king was killed by Ardashīr I of Persis (r. 224-241 c.e.), who founded the powerful Sāsānian Dynasty as the standard-bearer of revived Zoroastrianism and Iranian nationalism.

Significance

The Parthians were a small feudal, military aristocracy settled in parts of modern-day Iran, lording it over the peasants, intermingling Greek and Asian civilization, extracting a derivative art from them, creating nothing original, and interested in commerce only because it could be taxed. It is a commentary on the Parthian contribution to the stock of human culture that their history is known almost entirely from Greek and Latin sources and not from Parthian literature at all, except for a small number of official administrative documents. In general, the kings of Parthia were tax gatherers, raiders, and collectors of booty, remembered only for their military accomplishments.

Parthian history is a catalogue of wars. There were Corbulo’s extended campaigns from 58 to 63 c.e., which arose out of a quarrel as to whether Parthia or Rome would make Armenia its sphere of influence. Trajan made war on Parthia, using Armenia as a pretext, from 114 to 117 c.e., invading Babylonia and sacking Ctesiphon. Marcus Aurelius also invaded Babylonia from 162 to 166 c.e., again ravaging the country and taking the capital. Although this was a Roman military success, it became a human disaster, for the army became infected with plague and brought it home with catastrophic results. From 195 to 199 c.e., Septimius Severus conducted the last great offensive against the Arsacids, overrunning Babylonia for the third time in less than a century, and sacking Ctesiphon. All these Roman victories were hard on Mesopotamia, and the level of human existence there, as shown by excavations at Dura-Europus and Seleucia-on-Tigris, was reduced by these heavy-handed campaigns.

Although many scholars dismiss Parthia as a minor force in the history of Mesopotamia, others hold that the Parthians were not entirely without virtue. From a point of view that does not view the classical world as the sole arbiter of taste, Parthian art and architecture, far from being merely degenerate Greek forms, were interesting blends of Greek and Iranian ideas. The Arsacids defended Iranian culture against the Greeks. In the third century b.c.e., Hellenism penetrated readily into Iran under the protection of the Seleucids. At that time, the population was under the spell of the victories of Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.e.), which had so easily toppled the seemingly invincible power of the Achaemenids. The Parthians, however, by first checking and then repelling the Seleucids, served to diminish Greek influence in Iran and to afford a breathing space for the Orient.

As the power of the Seleucid Empire slowly ebbed, not least because of the military blows dealt it by Mithradates I, there was something of a revival of native Iranian culture and tradition. To this the Parthians adapted themselves and may even have supported it, although the lack of sufficient evidence does not allow a definitive judgment on this point. The Parthians, moreover, were tolerant of all religions, leading them to protect Zoroastrianism, which now slowly developed a more definite theology and detailed forms of organization than it had had in the Achaemenid period. For all this, they deserve better remembrance.

Their worst detractors were actually their native Persian successors. The Sāsānians regarded the Parthian era as an age of darkness that fell between the glory of the Achaemenids of Persis and the period of grandeur inaugurated by themselves. There is evidence of Sāsānian tampering with the tradition of Parthian history; they certainly shortened the length of time allotted Arsacid rule in Iran, possibly to make the expected reappearance of Zoroaster at the end of earthly time a more remote event.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colledge, Malcolm. The Parthians. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1967. Part of the Ancient Peoples and Places series, this is one of the few works devoted completely to Parthian history and culture. Includes genealogies, chronology, illustrations, and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curtis, John, ed. Mesopotamia and Iran in the Parthian and Sasanian Period: Rejection and Revival c. 238 b.c.-a.d. 642. London: British Museum Press, 2000. A collection of essays covering many aspects of Parthian history, culture, and costume.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curtis, Vesta Sarkhosh, Robert Hillebrand, and J. M. Rogers, eds. The Art and Archaeology of Ancient Persia: New Light on the Parthian and Sasanian Empires. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1998. This volume of twenty-three conference papers touches on many aspects of Parthian and Sāsānian Persia, largely through the analysis of material culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiesehöfer, Josef. Ancient Persia. Translated by Azizeh Azodi. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001. This history of Persia from 550 b.c.e. to 650 c.e. devotes three chapters to the Parthians. Well written for a general audience. Includes illustrations, a bibliographical essay, a chronological table, and a list of dynasties and kings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yarshater, E., ed. The Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanid Periods. Parts 1 and 2 of Vol. 3 in The Cambridge History of Iran. Reissue ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. The most compendious history of the Parthian period available.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Alexander the Great; Antiochus the Great; Marcus Aurelius; Seleucis I Nicator; Trajan. Parthia

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