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Parthian Empire at its greatest extent, c. 60 BC.
|Existed||238 BC–228 AD|
Parthia (Middle Persian: اشکانیان Ashkâniân) was a civilization situated in the northeast of modern Iran, but at its height covering all of Iran proper, as well as regions of the modern countries of Armenia, Iraq, Georgia, eastern Turkey, eastern Syria, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Kuwait, the Persian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and UAE.
Parthia was led by the Arsacid dynasty, who reunited and ruled over the Iranian plateau, taking over the eastern provinces of the Greek Seleucid Empire, beginning in the late 3rd century BC, and intermittently controlled Mesopotamia between ca 150 BC and 224 AD. It was the third native dynasty of ancient Iran (after the Median and the Achaemenid dynasties). Parthia (mostly due to their invention of heavy cavalry) was the arch-enemy of the Roman Empire in the east; and it limited Rome's expansion beyond Cappadocia (eastern Anatolia).
After the Scythian-Parni nomads (Assyrians called them Ashkuz) had settled in Parthia and had built a small independent kingdom, they rose to power under king Mithridates the Great (171–138 BC). Later, at the height of their power, Parthian influence reached as far as Ubar in Arabia, the nexus of the frankincense trade 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 powerful later empire from its more humble obscure origins. The end of this long-lived empire came in 224 AD, when the empire was loosely organized and the last king was defeated by one of the empire's vassals, the Persians of the Sassanid dynasty.
Little is known of the Parthians; not much of their own literature has survived. Consequently Parthian history is largely derived from foreign histories, controlled by the evidence of coins and inscriptions; even their own name for themselves is debatable due to a lack of domestic records. Several Greek authors, of whom we have fragments, including Apollodorus of Artemita and Isidore of Charax, wrote under Parthian rule. Their power was based on a combination of the guerilla warfare of a mounted nomadic tribe, with organisational skills sufficient to build and administer a vast empire - even though it never matched in power the Persian empires that preceded and followed it. 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.
 Parthia as a satrapy
Parthia originally designated a territory southeast of the Caspian sea. It was a satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire, which was conquered by Alexander the Great circa 330 BC. Following Alexander's death, the government of Parthia was given to Nicanor, at the Partition of Babylon in 323 BC. At the Partition of Triparadisus in 320 BC, Parthia was given to Philip. Philip was then succeeded by Peithon. From 311 BC Parthia then became a part of the Seleucid empire, being ruled by various satraps under a Seleucid king.
Andragoras (?-238 BC) was the last Seleucid satrap of the province of "Partahia", under the Seleucid rulers Antiochus I Soter and Antiochus II Theos (Justin, xli. 4). Andragoras tried to wrestle independence from the Seleucid Empire, at a time when the Seleucid were embroiled in conflict with Ptolemaic Egypt. In defiance, he issued coins in which he wears the royal diadem as well as his name (Will: I, 1966). Andragoras was a neighbour, a contemporary, and probably an ally of Diodotus I in Bactria, who also fought the Seleucids for independence around the same time, giving rise to the Greco-Bactrian kingdom.
 The Parthian Empire
- See also: Seven Parthian clans
The tribe of the Parni, a nomadic people of Iranian origin, who originally spoke an Eastern Iranian language and later known as the Parthians, entered 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. Initially, ca. 238 BC, their king named Arsaces (Ashk) toppled Andragoras and established his dynasty's independence from Seleucid rule in remote areas of northern Iran in what is today known as Turkmenistan.
- "He (Arsaces) was used to a life of pillage and theft, when he heard about the defeat of Seleucus against the Gauls. Relieved from his fear of the king, he attacked the Parthians with a band of thieves, vanquished their prefect Andragoras, and, after having killed him took the power over the nation" Justin, xli. 4.
The descendants of Arsaces ruled until Antiochus III the Great invaded Parthia in 209 BC, occupied the capital Hecatompylus and pushed forward into Hyrcania. The Parthian king Arsaces II apparently successfully sued for peace, and Parthia recognized Seleucid authority. Antiochus III had so well secured Parthia that he moved further east into Bactria, where he fought the Greco-Bactrian king Euthydemus I for three years, and then went into India.
It was not until the 2nd century BC that the Parthians were able to profit from the continuing erosion of the Seleucid Empire, gradually capturing all its territories east of Syria. Once the Parthians had gained 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.
The Seleucid monarchs attempted to "hold the line" against the Parthian expansion; Antiochus IV Epiphanes spent his last years on a campaign against the newly emerging Iranian states. After his death in 164 BC, the Parthians took advantage of the ensuing dynastic squabbles to make even greater gains.
By 129 BC the Parthians were in control of all the lands right to the Tigris, and established their winter encampment on its banks at Ctesiphon, downstream from modern Baghdad. Ctesiphon was then a small suburb directly across the river from Seleucia on the Tigris, the most Hellenistic city of western Asia. Because of their need of the wealth and trade provided by Seleucia, the Parthian armies limited their incursions to harassment, allowing the city to preserve its independence. In the heat of the Mesopotamian summer, the Parthian army would withdraw to the ancient Persian capitals of Susa and Ecbatana (modern Hamadan).
From around 130 BC, the Parthians suffered numerous incursions by Scythian nomads (also called the Tocharians from Bactria, possibly the Yuezhi), in which kings Phraates II and Artabanus I were successively killed. Scythians again invaded Parthia around 90 BC, putting king Sanatruces on the Parthian throne.
After the conquest of Media, Assyria, Babylonia and Elam, the Parthians had to organize their empire. The former elites of these countries were Greek, and the new rulers had to adapt to their customs if they wanted their rule to last. As a result, the cities retained their ancient rights and civil administrations remained more or less undisturbed. An interesting detail is coinage: legends were written in the Greek alphabet, a practice that continued until the 2nd century AD, when local knowledge of the language was in decline and few people knew how to read or write the Greek alphabet.
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 styled themselves "king of kings". It was an apt title, as in addition to his own kingdom the Parthian monarch was the overlord of some eighteen vassal kings, such as the rulers of the city state Hatra, the kingdom of Characene and the ancient kingdom of Armenia.
The empire was, overall, not very centralized. There were several languages, many peoples, and a number of different economic systems. The loose ties between the separate parts of the empire were a key to its survival. In the 2nd century AD, the most important capital, Ctesiphon, was captured no less than three times by the Romans (in 116, 165 and 198 AD), but the empire survived because there were other centers of power. On the other hand, the fact that the empire was a mere conglomeratation of kingdoms, provinces and city-states did at times seriously weaken the Parthian state. This was a major factor in the halt of the Parthian expansion after the conquests of Mesopotamia and Persia.
Local potentates played important roles, and the king had to respect their privileges. Several noble families had votes in the Royal council; the Suren-Pahlav Clan had the right to crown the Parthian king, and every aristocrat was allowed and expected to retain an army of his own. When the throne was occupied by a weak ruler, divisions among the nobility became dangerous.
The constituent parts of the empire were surprisingly independent. For example, they were allowed to strike their own coins, a privilege which in antiquity was very rare. As long as the local elite paid tribute to the Parthian king, there was little interference. The system worked well: towns like Ctesiphon, Seleucia, Ecbatana, Rhagae, Hecatompylos, Nisâ, and Susa flourished.
Tribute was one source of royal income; another was tolls. Parthia controlled the Silk Road, the trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and China.
 Parthian language
Parthian is a now-extinct ancient Northwestern Iranian language that originated in Parthia (a region in north-east of modern Iran and the Greater Khorasan, including southern part of what is today known as Turkmenistan) and was the official language of the Parthian Empire under the Arsacid Dynasty (248 BC - 224 AD).
 Contact 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 "Ānxī" (Chinese: 安息), 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 Tiaozhi (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, Central Asia, and Parthia flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the 1st century BC: "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 on maintaining 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).
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 Luoyang in 148 where he established temples and became the first man to translate Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.
 Conflicts with Rome
In 53 BC, the Roman general Crassus invaded Parthia, but was defeated at the Battle of Carrhae by a Parthian commander called Surena in the Greek and Latin sources, most likely a member of the Suren-Pahlav Clan. This was the beginning of a series of wars that were to last for almost three centuries.
The Parthian armies included two types of cavalry: the heavily-armed and armoured cataphracts and lightly armed but highly-mobile mounted archers. For the Romans, who relied on heavy infantry, the Parthians were too hard to defeat, as both types of cavalry were much faster and more mobile than foot soldiers. On the other hand, the Parthians found it difficult to occupy conquered areas as they were unskilled in siege warfare. Because of these weaknesses, neither the Romans nor the Parthians were able to completely defeat each other.
In the years following the battle of Carrhae the Romans were divided in civil war between the adherents of Pompey and those of Julius Caesar and hence unable to campaign against Parthia. Although Caesar was eventually victorious against Pompey and was planning a campaign against Parthia, his subsequent murder led to another civil war. The Roman general Quintus Labienus, who had supported Caesar's murderers and feared reprisals from his heirs, Mark Antony and Octavian (later Augustus), sided with the Parthians and eventually became the best general of king Pacorus I. In 41 BC Parthia, led by Labienus, invaded Syria, Cilicia, and Caria and attacked Phrygia in Asia Minor. 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 building up Ctesiphon.
In 39 BC, Antony retaliated, sending out the old warhorse general Publius Ventidius Bassus and several of Caesar's crack, veteran legions to secure the conquered territories. The Parthian King Pacorus was killed along with Labienus, and the Euphrates again became the border between the two nations. Hoping to further avenge the death of Crassus, Antony invaded Mesopotamia in 36 BC with the Legion VI Ferrata and other units. Having cavalry in support, Antony reached Armenia but ceased his advance as civil war again broke out in Rome.
Antony's campaign was followed by a break in the fighting between the two empires as Rome was again embroiled in civil war. When Octavian defeated Mark Antony, he ignored the Parthians, being more interested in the west. His son-in-law and future successor Tiberius negotiated a peace treaty with Phraates (20 BC).
At the same time, around the year 1, the Parthians became interested in the valley of the Indus, where they began conquering the petty kingdoms of Gandhara. One of the Parthian leaders was Gondophares, king of Taxila; according to an old and widespread Christian tradition, he was baptized by the apostle Thomas. While it may sound far-fetched, the story is not altogether 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.
War broke out again between Rome and Parthia in the 60s. 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 Gnaeus 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 his appointment required approval from the Romans.
 Expansion to India
Also during the 1st century BC, the Parthians started to make inroads into eastern territories that had been occupied by the Indo-Scythians and the Yuezhi. The Parthians gained control of parts of Bactria and extensive South Asian territories in modern day Pakistan, after defeating local rulers such as the Kushan Empire ruler Kujula Kadphises, in the Gandhara region.
The ruins of the ancient port city of Siraf are in the process of excavation, and its historical importance to ancient trade is only now being realized. Discovered there in archaeological excavations are ivory objects from east Africa, pieces of stone from India, and lapis from Afghanistan. Sirif dates back to the Parthian era.
 Decline and fall
The Armenian compromise served its purpose, but nothing in it covered the deposition of an Armenian king. After 110 AD, the Parthian king Vologases III dethroned the Armenian ruler, and the Roman emperor Trajan decided to invade Parthia in retaliation. War broke out in 114 AD 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 AD, Trajan captured Ctesiphon, and established new provinces in Assyria and Babylonia. Later that year he took the Parthian capital, Susa, deposed the Parthian King Osroes I and put Parthamaspates as a puppet ruler on the throne.
Rebellions soon broke out due to the continuing loyalty of the population to Parthia. 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 AD).
Parthian weaknesses also contributed to the disaster. In the first century AD, the Parthian nobility had become more powerful due to concessions by the Parthian king granting them greater powers over the land and the peasantry. Their power now rivaled the king's, while at the same time internal divisions in the Arsacid family had rendered them vulnerable.
But the end was not near, yet. In 161 AD king Vologases IV declared war against the Romans and reconquered Armenia. The Roman counter-offensive was slow, but in 165 AD, Ctesiphon fell, and the Parthians were only saved by the outburst of a catastrophic epidemic (probably the measles) which temporarily crippled the two empires. The Roman emperors Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius added northern Mesopotamia to their realm (partly as a vassal-kingdom), but as it was never secure enough for them to demilitarize the region between the Euphrates and Tigris, it remained an expensive burden.
The deciding blow came thirty years later. King Vologases V had tried to reconquer Mesopotamia during another Roman civil war (193 AD), but was repulsed when general Septimius Severus counter-attacked. Again, Ctesiphon was captured (198 AD), 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 the consequences of the looting for Parthia were dire.
Parthia, now impoverished and without any hope to recover the lost territories, was demoralized. The kings were forced to concede greater powers to the nobility, and the vassal kings began to waver in their allegiance. In 224 AD, the Persian vassal king Ardašir revolted. Two years later, he took Ctesiphon, and this time it meant the end of Parthia, replaced by a third Persian Empire, ruled by the Sassanid dynasty.
 Parthian rulers
- Arsaces I c. 247–211 BC
- Arsaces II c. 211–191 BC (frequently called Artabanus by early scholars)
- Phriapatius c. 191–176 BC
- Phraates I c. 176–171 BC
- Mithridates I c. 171–138 BC
- Phraates II c. 138–127 BC
- Artabanus I c. 127–124 BC
- Mithridates II c. 123–88 BC
- Orodes I c. 90–80 BC
- Unknown king, c. 80–77 BC
- Sanatruces c. 77–70 BC
- Phraates III c. 70–57 BC
- Mithridates III c. 57–54 BC
- Orodes II c. 57–38 BC
- Phraates IV c. 38–2 BC
- Phraates V (Phraataces) c. 2 BC–AD 4
- Orodes III c. AD 6
- Vonones I c. 8–12
- Artabanus II c. 10–38
- Vardanes I c. 40–47
- Gotarzes II c. 40–51
- Vonones II 51
- Vologases I c. 51–78
- Vologases II c. 77–80
- Pacorus II c. 78–105
- Vologases III c. 105–147
- Vologases IV c. 147–191
- Vologases V c. 191–208
- Vologases VI c. 208–228
- Hill, John E. 2004. The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu. Draft annotated English translation.
- Hill, John E. 2004. The Peoples of the West from the Weilue 魏略 by Yu Huan 魚豢: A Third Century Chinese Account Composed between 239 and 265 CE. Draft annotated English translation. 
- ^ Parthia derives from Latin Parthia, from Old Persian Parthava-, a dialectical variant of the stem Parsa-, from which Persia derives. Ashkanian appears to have come from the Sassanian chronicles, from which they entered in Ferdowsi's epic poem Shahnama.
- ^ History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 21.
- ^ Foreign Experts Talk of Siraf History. Cultural Heritage News Agency. Retrieved on 2006-12-11.
 See also
- Suren-Pahlav Clan
- Parthian language
- Parthian shot
- Indo-Parthian Kingdom
- An Shihkao
- List of kings of Persia
 External links
- Parthia.com - with an extensive bibliography
- Arsacid (Parthian) Dynasty
- The origin of Arsacids (parthians)
- History of Parthia
- The Establishment and Development of Christianity in the Parthian Empire in Transoxiana 6.
- Parthia (Old Persian Parthava)