Brief Notes on Spoons and Forks in Greco-Roman and Ancient Iranian Civilizations

Cutlery is one of the most important aspects of food consumption, as this technology helps limit the intake of bacteria and germs in the preparation, serving and eating of food. The end result of the benefits of cutlery is the increase of health which in turn results in higher human life expectancy. Spoons for dining dated to the 500s BCE (at the time of the Achaemenid dynasty) or earlier have been discovered in ancient Pasargadae, southwest Iran (currently housed at the National Museum of Iran).

Pasargadae Spoon

Achaemenid silver spoon with a curved swan’s head handle discovered at Pasargadae (mid-500s century BCE) (Source: David Stronach & Hilary Gopnik, Encyclopedia Iranica).

The cutlery discovered in Pasargadae appear to pre-date Greco-Roman cutlery by almost 1000 years.


Roman spoons with swan heads (Source: Public Domain, photographed by Linda Spashett): note the remarkable resemblance between the Roman spoon and its Achaemenid predecessor.

The site of Pasargadae has also yielded evidence of the Achaemenids having used dining knives.

Dining knife-Pasargadae

Achaemenid silver dining knife discovered at Pasargadae (mid-500s century BCE), housed at the Uşak Museum of Archaeology in Turkey (Source: Ecuador-Comeze). Note that this, like the Achaemenid spoon, also has a swan’s (or duck’s) head.

The fork however is absent from the ancient Persian archaeological finds and is apparently a Romano-Byzantine invention dated to at least the 4th century CE. The fork then spread from the Romano-Byzantine Empire into Sassanian Persia. This brief description of the history of cutlery demonstrates the long-standing cultural links between the Greco-Roman and ancient Iranian civilizations.


Iranian bronze forks dated from the 8th – 9th centuries CE (post-Sassanian era) housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris (inventory MAO 421-422-431) (Source: Public Domain, photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen).

Klaus Schippmann: The Arsacid Dynasty

The article below on the Arsacid Dynasty of the Parthians is authored by Klaus Schippmann and was originally posted in the Encyclopedia Iranica.

Kindly note that the pictures/illustrations inserted below do not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica posting.

For readers of Parthian military history, a monograph-booklet has been published (2016) in Persian (with an English section) on the structure of the Parthian army by Kaveh Farrokh (University of British Columbia-Continuing Studies) and Gholamreza Karamian (Tehran Azad University-Central Branch, History and Archaeology Department):

کاوه فرخ و غلامرضا کرمیان (۱۳۹۵). ساختار ارتش اشکانیان. تهران: خانه تاریخ و تصویر ابریشمی. Farrokh, K., & Gholamreza Karamian (2016). The Structure of the Parthian Army. Tehran: Khaneye Tarikh va Tasvire Abrishami.

1-Parthian-Armored Lancer

Parthian armored lancer (Picture Source: Civilization Fanatics Center).


The 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 Ipsus (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.)

1-Map of Parthian Empire 44 BC to 138 ADMap of the Parthian Empire in 44 BCE to 138 CE (Picture source: Farrokh, 2007, page 155, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا–).

The most important role during this period was played by the Parni, an Iranian tribe belonging to the Dahae who, according to the ancient writers (Arrian, Anabasis 3.28.8, 10; Quintus Curtius 8.1.8) lived in the territories between the Oxus and the Jaxartes at the time of Alexander the Great. 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 Jaxartes and 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, Grundzüge der parthischen Geschichte, Darmstadt, 1980, pp. 15ff.)

Around 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 however also I. N. Chlopin, Iranica Antiqua 12, 1977, pp. 143ff.) 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 Orientalis 32, 1975, pp. 15ff.)

In 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 kingdom.

The 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 politique du monde hellénistique [323-30 av. J. C.] I2, 1979, pp. 281ff.) 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 and Parthia in 145 BCEParthia and the Seleucid kingdom in circa 145 BCE (Picture source: Farrokh, 2007, page 119, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا–).

The 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 operations.

Fully 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 Camb. Hist. Iran III/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. 171-39/8) to Mithridates II (ca. 124/3-88/7 B.C.). The next ruler, Mithridates I, ushered in that great and decisive epoch in the history of his 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 Seleucids 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.

Mithridates I of ParthiaCoin of bearded Parthian monarch: the Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.  and Wikipedia cite the coin as depicting Mithridates I (165-132 BCE). However as noted by Kostas Kokkoras (Κώστας Κόκκορας) the Greek inscription reads “ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΜΕΓΑΛΟΥ ΑΡΣΑΚΟΥ ΦΙΛΕΛΛΗΝΟΣ” which translates to “Of great king Arsaces the Philhellene”.

The 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 conquered Media in the second half of 148 B.C. (According to the Seleucid inscription of June 148 at Bīsotūn 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, Archäologischer Anzeiger, 1974, p. 123.) On the evidence of a cuneiform text it is also known that by 12 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.

Not 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 conquer Elymais.

His greatest achievement had been to make the Parthians a world power. It seems quite probable, as J. Wolski has suggested (in H. Temporini and W. Haase, eds., Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen 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 conquest 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.

His son and successor, Phraates II (ca. 139/8-ca. 28 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 Parthians. The Seleucids then suffered a crushing defeat and Antiochus VII himself met his death (on these events see Th. Fischer, Untersuchungen zum Partherkrieg Antiochus VII im Rahmen der Seleukidengeschichte, Tübingen, 1970). From this point on the Seleucid kingdom effectively ceased to be a rival for the Parthians.

Antiochos VII - DioscuriThe end of the Seleucids in Persia: After initial successes against the Parthians, Antiochus VII Sidetes (138-129 BCE) (see coin above – Source: Uploadart in Public Domain) was defeated and killed by 129 CE; after this the Seleucids were to be confined for the remainder of their tenure in Syria. The Parthians were now the undisputed rulers of Iran.

For 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 Yüeh-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. Daffinà, L’immigrazione 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, Berytus 13, 1959-60, pp. 83ff.)

Under these difficult circumstances Mithridates II (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 of Adiabene, Gordyene, and Osrhoene into vassal states, and conquered Dura-Europos in 113 B.C. 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 11.14.15). The two countries were henceforth to be in virtually constant contact with one another, whether on a friendly or a hostile basis.

Mithridates II, 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 115 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. 157ff.; 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 l’état Parthe à l’égard de Rome—d’Artaban II à Vologèse I (ca. 11-ca 72 de N. E.) et les facteurs qui la conditionnaient, Cracow, 1983, pp. 15-69. The Parthian ambassador Orobazos offered Sulla, the propraetor 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.

Mithradates II-Drachma CoinMithradates II portrayed on Drachma coin with Hellenic influences (Source: Dynamosquito in Public Domain).

Even 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 sous les Séleucides et les Parthes, MDAFI 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. 2ff.) 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 Bīsotūn. (E. Herzfeld, Am 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

Disorder 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, Grundzüge der parthischen Geschichte, 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.

The 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.

6-Marcus Licinius CrassusRoman statesman and general Marcus Licinius Crassus (c. 115 BC – 53 BCE) (Source: Photo by Diagram Lajard of Crassus’ dreams of becoming the new Alexander by conquering Parthian Persia were to be crushed by the cavalrymen of General Surena at Carrhae in 53 BCE.

Even 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.

At 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 17), 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 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 e il mondo greco-romano, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Quaderno 76, Rome, 1966, pp. 51ff.).

This 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.

6-Horse Arhers at Carrhae

Parthian Horse archers engage the Roman legions of Marcus Lucinius Crassus at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Unlike the Achamenid-Greek wars where Achaemenid arrows were unable to penetrate Hellenic shields and armor, Parthian archery was now able to penetrate the armor and shields of their Roman opponents (Picture Source: Antony Karasulas & Angus McBride).

In 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 civil war.

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 Taḵt-e Solaymān 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 Feuerheiligtümer, Berlin, 1971, pp. 309ff.; H. Bengtson, Zum Parther-Feldzug des Antonius, 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.

Mark-AntonyMarc Antony (83-30 BCE) Roman statesman and military leader (Source: His expedition into ancient Praaspa (near modern Tabriz) ended in disaster in 36 BCE mainly at the hands of Iranian Parthian armoured knights and horse-archers. In one of the engagements, the Mede infantry destroyed 10,000 Roman legionnaires. Marc Antony and his surviving troops fled into Syria and from there to Egypt where Ptolemid Queen Cleopatra provided them sanctuary and shelter (For more details consult Farrokh, 2007, pp.144-146).

Like 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 B.C.

For 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 Marc 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 und dem Partherreich, 1964, Wiesbaden, pp. 48ff., 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.

Soon 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.


Reconstruction by Peter Wilcox and the late historical artist, Angus McBride of Parthian armoured knights as they would have appeared in 54 BCE (Picture Source: Osprey Publishing).

The 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, Artabanos III. und 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 from Vonones.

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 1 B.C. The main loser was Vonones who was deported to Cilicia by the Romans and died there in A.D. 19 when attempting to escape.

The 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.).

In 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., pp. 103ff.)

However, 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, Artabanos III., pp. 25ff., 44ff.) or possibly because of a “class struggle” between rich and poor (thus N. Pigulevskaja, Les villes de l’état iranien aux époques parthes 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.

Gotarzes II

Gotarzes II (c.43/44-51 CE) (Source: Classical Numismatic Group in Public Domain).

He 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.

Dissatisfied 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 Bīsotūn 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. 156f. argues against their identity.) The joys of victory were, however, short-lived since Gotarzes died in A.D. 51.

It 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 a long time by Parthian standards; even though he too had to come to terms with a series of political problems at home and abroad.

In 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 Arsanias, 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.

Tiridates I Armenia

Statue of Tiridates I, founder of the Arsacid dynasty of Armenia, at the Parc et jardins du château de Versailles (Source: Eupator for Public Domain). Tiridates, a Zoroastrian priest, was to travel with the magi to Rome in 66 CE to symbolically receive his crown from Emperor Nero (r. 54-68 CE). This was part of a political solution to resolve the Parthian-Roman conflict over Armenia. In practice however, the Armenian question between Rome and Iran was to remain well into the Sassanian era.

Vologases died in A.D. 80 or perhaps earlier if certain coins are to be ascribed to him (see R. H. McDowell, op. cit., pp. 119ff., 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. 77/8-146/7), 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. 111/12 (see also E. J. Keall, JAOS 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 Trajan. 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 parthique 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.

In 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. 117.

Bust of Trajan (Vatican 2269)Bust of Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 CE) housed in the Vatican Museums (inv. 2269) (Source: Trajans Column). 

Trajan’s 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, Trajan’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 Trajan, which corresponded roughly to the territory of ancient Babylonia. No doubt the peace must have been welcome to both sides.

Osroes, 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.

Vologases 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.

Peaceful 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.

For 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 193-208/09). 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 Ḥayal) via Singara (Beled Sinǰar) further east via Zagurae (ʿAin Sinu) to Vicat (Tell ʿIbra) and possibly up to the Tigris (Mosul).

After 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.

Artabanus 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.

Battle of Nisibus 217 CEThe three-day Battle of Nisibis (summer 217 ) fought between Roman emperor Macrinus and the Parthian army of King Artabanus IV (Source: Fall3nairborne.Deviantart,com for Pinterest). Macrinus failed to defeat the Parthians, obliging him to negotiate a peace settlement by paying them fifty million Dinars as well as gifts. This also signaled the end of Caracalla’s attempted invasion of Mesopotamia the previous year.

In 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.

It was Ardašīr (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 Kermān. (For details of these events, see G. Widengren in La Persia nel Medioevo, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Quaderno 160, Rome, 1971, pp. 711ff.) 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 Golpāyegān, between Isfahan and Nehāvand (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 Ardašīr 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 Ardašīr, possibly his grandfather Sāsān, already exercised power throughout the Parthian empire before the year A.D. 230.

Ardashir1Ardashir I (r. 224-242 CE) in a lance-joust scene at Firuzabad which commemorates the great battle in which the House of Sassan overthrew the Parthians in 224 CE (Picture source: Photo taken by Farrokh in August 2001 and shown in Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at The University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies DivisionStanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).


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,” Transactions of 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.

There 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. Ghirshman, 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. II, 9/1, 1976, pp. 204f.).

32-Partho-Sassanian belt buckle 2nd or 3rd century CEPartho-Sassanian belt buckle dated to the 2nd or 3rd century CE (Picture source: Farrokh, page 143,Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا).  

On the basis of details like these and others, J. Neusner (Iranica Antiqua 3, 1963, pp. 40ff.) and Wolski have arrived at the opinion that the Arsacids had a 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.

However, 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.

One 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 Alans and 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.).

Parthian society from the third century B.C. to the third century A.D.

As a 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.

Parthian-1-Parthian Nobleman

A reconstruction of the face on the statue of a Parthian nobleman housed at Tehran’s Iran Bastan Museum (Picture Source: Parthian Empire).

Such 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. 101ff.). 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 Beiträge zur Geschichte der Alten Welt, ed. E. Weiskopf, I, Berlin, 1964, pp. 379ff.).

It 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 I 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.

In 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 foncière et l’organisation de l’armée parthe,” Klio 63, 1981, pp. 105ff.).

Historians differ in their judgment 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., II, 9/1, 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 und 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. Mesopotamia.

1-Andika-Karamian and AstarakiThe Parthian relief at Andika discovered by Dr. Gholamreza Karamian and Farzad Astaraki. The specific location of this relief is in the northern village of Darvish Ahmad that is 50 kilometers from western Andika in Khuzestan Province. The GPS position of the site is: N 32 23 32/3 and E 49 30 21/5. The dimensions of the Andika relief are 2 meters (length) by 1.20 meters (width) (Courtesy of Dr. Gholamreza Karamian and Farzad Astaraki). For more on the findings of the Karamian-Astaraki team see here

Soviet-Russian 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 l’état iranien, p. 136 and A. Perikhanjan, VDI, 1952, pp. 14ff.).

Economic life in the Parthian Empire

Agriculture 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 traffic 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 II. 114 B.C. is the first known date on which a caravan traveled from China to the west (thus A. Herrmann, Das Land der Seide und Tibet im Licht der Antike, 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, Syria 36, 1959, pp. 264ff.; Chaumont, Syria 51, 1974, pp. 77ff., and G. A. Koshelenko, Studi in onore di Edoardo Volterra I, Milan, 1971, pp.761ff.)

From there the route led across the Zagros mountains to Kermānšāh and Hamadān, then on to Marv (Antiochia Margiana). Here it divided, one branch leading via Bukhara and Ferghana past the Issyk Kul into Mongolia, the other, more important one going to Bactria, then on to the “Stone Tower” (probably identical with Tashkurgan or with Darautkurgan in the Alai valley (Kirghizia), where Chinese traders took over the merchandise.

Parthian Trade RoutesMap showing the trade routers of the Parthian Empire from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE (Source:

Maritime 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 heartlands 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. 557ff.).

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, Crassus 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.

The 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, Persien, 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, n. 66).

30-Parthian Cavalry officers and bannersParthian cavalry and banners (Picture source: Farrokh, page 130, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا– these drawings originally appeared by Zoka in the 2,500 Year Celebrations of the Persian Empire in 1971).  

The 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 pelátai (serfs) and partly of doûloi (retainers), but the precise distinction between the two is a matter of dispute. (See G. Widengren in Temporini and Haase, op. cit., II, 9/1, 1976, p. 282, nn. 336, 252; J. Wolski, Iranica Antiqua 7, 1967, pp. 141; Altheim and Stiehl, Geschichte Mithelasiens, p. 464, on the other hand, translate doûloi [servi] as “slaves” as do Pigulevskaja, Les villes de l’état iranien, pp. 81ff., and Wolski, “Les relations de Justin et de Plutarque sur les esclaves et la population dépendante dans l’empire Parthe,” Iranica Antiqua 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. 285ff. and Wolski, Iranica Antiqua 5, 1965, pp. 103ff.). [See also ARMY i.]


See also for Parthian history: W. W. Tarn, “Parthia,” in CAH2 X, pp. 574-613 (especially the bibliography pp. 946ff.).

J. Wolski, “The Decay of the Iranian Empire of the Seleucids and the Chronology of the Parthian Beginnings,” Berytus 12, 1956-58, pp. 35-52.

M. A. R. Colledge, The Parthians, Nijmegen, 1967.

Archeology: G. A. Pugachenkova, Puti razvitiya arkhitektury Yuzhnogo Turkmenistana pory rabovladeniya i feodalizma (The development of architecture in Southern Turkmenistan during the periods of slavery and feudalism), Yuzhno-Turkmenskaya Arkheologicheskaya Kompleksnaya Ekspeditsiya VI, Moscow, 1958.

G. A. Koshelenko, Kul’tura Parfii, Moscow, 1966 (detailed review by G. Glaesser in East and West 17, 1967, pp. 148-51).

M. Oppermann, “Beiträge zur parthischen Festungs- und Sakralarchitektur,” Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Universität Halle 17, 1968, G, pt. 6, pp. 43-115.

G. Frumkin, “Archaeology in Soviet Central Asia,” in HO 7, 2/1, Leiden, 1970 (especially the section on “The Parthians”).

T. N. Zadneprovskaya, “Bibliographie de travaux soviétiques sur les Parthes,” Studia Iranica 4, pp. 243-60.

L. Vanden Berghe, Bibliographie analytique de l’archéologie de l’Iran ancien, Leiden, 1979 (especially pp. 256-71).

Idem and E. Haerinck, Bibliographie analytique de l’archéologie de l’Iran ancien. Supplement l. 1978-80, Leiden, 1981.

Arts: D. Schlumberger, Der hellenisierte Orient, Baden-Baden, 1969.

M. A. R. Colledge, Parthian Art, London, 1977.

G. A. Koshelenko, Rodina parfyan (The homeland of the Parthians), Moscow, 1977 (detailed review by P. Bernard in Studia Iranica 8, pp. 119-39).

Economy: M. Rostovtzeff, Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World, 3 vols., Oxford, 1948.

H. Kreissig, Wirtschaft und Seleukidenreich, Schriften zur Geschichte und Kultur der Antike 16, 1978.

The following chapters in Camb. Hist. Iran III, Cambridge, 1983, deal with the Arsacids and contain extensive bibliographies: A. D. H. Bivar, “The Political History of Iran under the Arsacids,” III/I, pp. 21-101; D. Sellwood, “Parthian Coins,” III/I, pp. 279-98; O. Kurz, “Cultural Relations between Parthia and Rome,” III/2, pp. 681ff.; D. Schlumberger, “Parthian Art,” III/2, pp. 1027-54; M. Boyce, “Parthian Writings and Literature,” III/2, pp. 1151-65.

Stephanie Cronin: A short History of the Iranian Gendarmerie

The article below by Stephanie Cronin on the Iranian Gendarmerie first appeared in the Encyclopedia Iranica in December 15, 2000 and was last updated on February 7, 2012. The article is also available in print (Vol. X, Fasc. 4, pp. 398-405).

Kindly note that the pictures and captions featured below do not appear in the original article in the Encyclopedia Iranica.


Gendarmerie, the first modern highway patrol and rural police force in Persia. It was established in 1910 by the Persian government with the help of Swedish officers and continued its services into the Pahlavi era. This article discusses the history of the Gendarmerie during two periods: (1) the Swedish period, 1910-1921, and (2) the Pahlavi period, 1921-79.

The Swedish Period

The Government Gendarmerie (Žāndārmerī-e dawlatī) was established in 1910 by the second Majles and proved the most enduring in a series of official projects for the modernization of the armed forces under the leadership of foreign officers. Military modernization had been a central objective of Persian reformers for most of the 19th century. By the early 20th century the Persian government was also coming under pressure from Britain, which demanded, more insistently as disorder in the provinces increased, the establishment of some sort of force which could guarantee security for trade, particularly in the south of the country (Cronin, 1997a, p. 18). Although little was accomplished by the first Majles, the increased prominence of state-building as a constitutionalist objective during the second phase of the revolution, 1909-1911, produced effective legislation. In July 1910 the Democrats came to power and, as part of their ambitious program of modernization, took steps towards the organization of the Government Gendarmerie. Although with the suppression of the Majles in 1911 efforts at reform and state-building were abandoned, the Gendarmerie had acquired sufficient vitality to survive and continue as a focus for radical modernizers.

Gendarmerie-Swedish periodHjalmar O. Hjalmarson (center) and officers of the Gendarmerie (Source: Encyclopedia Iranica; After M. Sepehr, Īrān dar jang-e bozorg, Tehran, 1336 Š./1957, p. 106).

In August 1911 a Swedish military mission led by Major Hjalmar O. Hjalmarson arrived in Tehran, the Persian government’s original choice of an Italian mission having been vetoed by Russia and Britain as Italy ranked among the major powers. The Swedish mission’s task was to provide officers to instruct a gendarmerie, with the primary duty of maintaining security on the highways and roads, under the Persian Ministry of the Interior (Cronin, 1997a, p. 19).

The Persian officer corps and the rank and file of the Government Gendarmerie were initially composed of the officers and men of Morgan Shuster’s Treasury Gendarmerie. Morgan Shuster had been appointed to the post of treasurer-general as part of the same program of reform. During 1911 he had begun to organize a gendarmerie to be under his own direct orders which was to assist the civilian officers of the Treasury in the collection of revenue throughout the country (Shuster, pp. 69-70). When, on Shuster’s dismissal, the Treasury Gendarmerie was dissolved, its officers and men were transferred to the Government Gendarmerie, giving the latter force much impetus and stamping it indelibly with a pro-Democrat, nationalist and anti-Russian character.

morganshusterWilliam Morgan Shuster (1877-1962) whose writings about the exploits of Iranian women and their importance in ensuring that the ideals of the Constitutional Movement remained alive in Iran; for more, see here…

With the transfer to his fledgling force of more than 1,000 Treasury gendarmes, including 35 officers, Hjalmarson, now with the rank of colonel, acquired the raw material he needed and was able to begin work in earnest. Over the next two years his force made steady progress, gradually consolidating its position and extending its influence over an ever widening radius from Tehran. Numerical and organizational growth were consistent. At the end of 1912 the Government Gendarmerie numbered 21 Swedes and nearly 3,000 Persian officers and men while by the end of the following year the number of Swedish officers had risen to 36 and the Persian component had doubled to nearly 6,000 (Public Records Office, Kew, U.K., F.O. 371, General Correspondence Political Persia, 1728/15876, Annual Report, 1912, Townley to Gray, 18 March 1913; F.O. 371/2073/10393, Annual Report, 1913, Townley to Gray, 18 February 1914). By 1914 seven regiments had been established, two with headquarters at Tehran, the remainder at Shiraz, Kermān, Qazvīn, Isfahan, and Borūjerd, and the men had gained a good deal of practical experience in operations. The Gendarmerie’s budget requirements grew accordingly and were met, in this period, largely out of loans from Britain and Russia.

Berno-15-M<ashrooteh-MausersPrelude to the Iranian Gendarmes: An excellent photo of Iranian Constitutional Fighters armed with the Mauser (Picture Source: This weapon was to be later introduced on a much larger scale as the Iranian army manufactured this under license from the from the Czechoslovak Zbrojovka Brno Company; for more on this topic, see here…

British financial and political support was initially vital to the Gendarmerie and the major provincial effort of the force in its early years was directed, under British pressure, towards the south, to the towns and roads of Fārs and Kermān. As the Gendarmerie developed, however, it attempted to expand into areas considered part of the Russian zone under the terms of the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 (q.v.), provoking increasing Russian hostility and opposition, and it was not in fact until after the October Revolution that the Gendarmerie was able to implant itself in places such as Tabrīz, Rašt, and Mašhad.

Nonetheless by 1914 the Gendarmerie already constituted a wholly new development in Persian military and political experience. It was particularly successful in assembling and consolidating a Persian officer corps, drawing personnel not only from the Treasury Gendarmerie, but also attracting a section of officers who transferred from the Ministry of War and a number of individuals who had obtained training in European and Ottoman military schools on their own initiative. The Gendarmerie’s own schools were particularly successful in producing officers who were later to reach high rank in the Pahlavi army (Afsar, pp. 74-76). The Persian gendarme officers were drawn from relatively high social strata (Nyström, pp. 27-28) and were, on the whole, well-educated. Many spoke a foreign language, usually French. Such an officer corps had considerable prestige within the wider society, morale was high, and an esprit de corps well established (Arfa, pp. 51-52).

20 Mark-5 TomanThe overprinted regular German 20 Mark banknote is dated from 19 February 1914 (Source [description and figure]: Note the Persian overprint (in red): ۵ پنج تومان (Five Tomans).

The outbreak of the First World War, with its radical political realignments and polarization, marked a watershed in the development of the Gendarmerie. The Government Gendarmerie made a highly significant contribution to the advancement of nationalist activity in Persia which took place during the years of the Great War. Furthermore its experiences during these years transformed the Gendarmerie. By their participation in the Mohājarat (during the Constitutional Revolution) the gendarme officers were propelled to a position of national leadership, spearheading the struggle against foreign intervention, and, from 1917, the force was able to claim a central role in the various strategies, imperial and domestic, put forward to reverse Persia’s accelerating political chaos and disintegration.

Although Persia declared its neutrality, the circumstances of the early years of the war had a profound effect on the force, both organizationally and politically. Firstly, the Swedish government recalled all its officers who were still on the active list of the Swedish army. This produced a serious weakening of the Swedish command structure of the force but allowed the senior Persian officers to assume greater responsibility and authority. A second important effect of the war was financial. With the cessation of foreign loans, the almost bankrupt Persian government was quite unable to fund the force and the Gendarmerie turned to German sources for money (Cronin, 1997a, p. 30).

However perhaps the most significant effect of the war may be found in the growing politicization of the Persian officer corps of the force and in its new activism in cooperation with the Democrats and nationalists in the arena of national politics. Notwithstanding its patronage by Britain and the suspicion which this engendered in certain nationalist circles, the Gendarmerie had, from its birth, always been clearly identified with Persian constitutionalism and the struggle for national unity and independence. During the early months of the war the Gendarmerie decisively shook off its association with Britain and, as a result of the new international situation, became drawn, with its Democrat partners, into an alliance with Germany, the reservations of nationalist elements regarding the force quickly evaporating. Persian nationalism had been trying for some time to enlist the intervention of a third power in Persian affairs as a counter-balance to Britain and Russia. America had been tried without success, but now the war presented the possibility that Germany might play that role (Olson, p. 29). Persian nationalists became interested in a German victory in so far as it would restrain Russia and Britain and promote the cause of Persia’s independence. Democrat and nationalist sympathies and a tactical alliance with Germany explain the political orientation of the Persian gendarmes. For the Swedish officers however, who shared this orientation, it seems that genuine admiration and respect for Germany was an important factor in determining their allegiance.

Dagobert von Mikusch-Wassmuss Deustsche LawrenceGerman language textbook by Dagobert von Mikusch on the exploits of Wilhelm Wassmuss (Source: Wiedler). The title reads “Wassmuss: Der Deutsche Lawrence” Wassmuss: [The German Lawrence] (Berlin: Büchergilde Gutenberg, 1938), in reference to the latter’s exploits in mobilizing the Arabs against the Ottoman Empire.

The nationalist and pro-German tendencies of the Gendarmerie had become more overt as the first year of the war had progressed. By early 1915 various units were accepting money from the Germans and were giving aid and encouragement to the small parties of Germans, such as those led by Erich Zugmayer and Oskar Niedermayer, who were traveling through Persia towards Afghanistan with the object of gathering support for the Central Powers, and to Wilhelm Wassmuss in his attempts to rouse the tribes of the Persian Gulf littoral against the British (see, inter alia, India Office Library, London, Departmental Papers: Political and Secret Separate Files, 1902-31, P&S/10/484, p. 1389, Sir P. Cox, Basra, to Govt. of India, 11 April 1915; P&S/10/484, p. 1434, O’Connor to Marling, 12 April 1915).

As 1915 progressed the struggle between the Allies and the Central Powers for control of the Persian government and the capital intensified. In November, in response to a Russian advance on Tehran, the nationalists fled the capital, intending to establish a new government beyond the reach of Russian military control. On the night of 11-12 November, the Mohājarat (emigration) began and large numbers of Majles deputies, government officials, nationalists and their armed supporters, together with officers and men of the Gendarmerie, and members of the German, Austrian, and Ottoman legations left Tehran. The Gendarmerie played an important role in organizing this emigration. As the Russians advanced, both Swedish and Persian gendarmes collected transport, assisted the Germans to send away their arms and ammunition, and facilitated the departure of some two hundred escapee Austrian prisoners of war. The Gendarmerie assumed control of the entire telephone system, commandeered all carriages, fodder and baggage animals, and caused all the toll stations on the road to Qom to be occupied and the tolls to be collected by gendarmes.

In Qom the nationalists set up a body known as the Komīta-ye defāʿ-e mellī (Committee of National Defense), a kind of provisional government, the core of its armed support consisting of the gendarmes and some nationalist volunteers. Meanwhile, the nationalists had also seized control of Shiraz in a coup organized by the Gendarmerie, under the command of Major ʿAlīqolī Khan Pesyān (Afsar, p. 98). He and his men took over the British Consulate, the Bank, the telegraph office, and other government offices and arrested the British residents of Shiraz. All the available notes and silver coin in the local branch of the Imperial Bank of Persia were seized. The British colony were taken south where the men were imprisoned by a Tangestānī khan. The Shiraz coup was quickly followed by similar action in other towns in southern and western Persia. The gendarmes came out in open revolt and took possession of Hamadān, Kermānšāh, Solṭānābād, Isfahan, Yazd, and Kermān, forcing Allied nationals to evacuate these places. In Hamadān, for example, the Gendarmerie, under the command of Major Moḥammad-Taqī Khan Pesyān, a cousin of Major ʿAlīqolī Khan Pesyān, took control after forcibly disarming the local Cossack detachment (Afsar, pp. 130-31).

Colonel Pesyan-Frpm Mehdi Farrokh memoirsColonel Taghi-Khan Pesyan (1891-1921) in Imperial Germany (note German officer to the left) during World War One (Picture from page 143, Mehdi Farrokh, “Khaterate Siyasiye Farrokh” [Political memoirs of Farrokh], Tehran: Amir Kabir Publications, 1968). Mehdi Farrokh noted that Pesyan was”Motehaver” [ultra-courageous]. Pesyan had in fact flown several combat missions for the German air force during World War One, reputedly shooting down up to 25 British aircraft. It is believed that Pesyan was decorated with the “Eisernes Kreuz” [Iron Cross] by the Germans for his daring exploits in air to air combat.

The Russian military advance continued and the nationalists were driven westwards; the gendarmes, although on the defensive, engaged the Russians in a number of battles. The Gendarmerie constituted the backbone of the national army set up under the auspices of Reżāqolī Khan Neẓām-al-Salṭana’s national government in Kermānšāh but could not prevent the nationalists finally being driven into Ottoman territory. By early 1917 the national government, having taken sanctuary deep in Iraq, was clearly a spent force and many of the Persian gendarme officers went into exile, some, such as Moḥammad-Taqī Khan Pesyān and Ḥabīb-Allāh Khan Šaybānī, to Germany but the majority to Istanbul where they joined the Ottoman army. Some gendarme officers with their men, however, began to filter back into Persia immediately. Initially dispersing to their homes, they soon found their way back into the newly-reorganized Government Gendarmerie.

In Fārs, the gendarmes had not moved westwards after the Mohājarat from Tehran, as had large sections of other regiments, but had remained at their posts in order to support the authority of the Committee of National Defense in Shiraz and to hold the province for the nationalists. However by the spring of 1916 financial difficulties, a general decline in popular support, and the demoralization among the nationalists caused by the reverses suffered in the west combined to produce a climate ripe for a pro-Allied counter-coup in Shiraz. The pro-British Ebrāhīm Khan Qawām-al-Molk, chief of the Ḵamsa tribe, with the help of the British Resident in the Persian Gulf, Sir Percy Cox (q.v.), assembled a tribal army and his son recaptured Shiraz for the Allies. Towards the end of 1916 Sir Percy Sykes arrived in Shiraz and incorporated the Fārs Gendarmerie into the new British-officered force, the South Persia Rifles, he was responsible for raising. Within this force, however, the elements from the former Gendarmerie continued to constitute a politically turbulent element (see FĀRS v).

Although the bulk of the Gendarmerie had come out in open support of the Committee of National Defense, a small percentage of the first and second regiments, with headquarters at Tehran, a few hundred men and a handful of Swedish officers, had preferred neutrality, remaining loyal in the capital to their pro-Allied Commandants. It was on this component of the Gendarmerie that attention was now focused again. All Persian governments throughout this period had remained committed to the principle of a Gendarmerie, and they possessed, in the Swedish and Persian gendarmes who had remained at Tehran, the core around which the force could be rebuilt. In August 1918, when Mīrzā Ḥasan Khan Woṯūq-al-Dawla formed a government, one of his projects was to re-form and re-arm the Government Gendarmerie and, by the late autumn, he was making plans for the restoration of order in the more accessible parts of the country using the force (Cronin, 1997a, pp. 42-43).

Iranian Gendarmes-75 mm gunsThe most effective force of the Iranian military prior to and during World war One: the Gendarmerie – above are Iranian Gendarmerie posing with two 75mm (Shneider-Cruesot?) in Tehran prior to World War One (Picture Source: Morgan Shuster, The Strangling of Persia, T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1913, pp. 144, 152). Despite being a para-military force, the Iranian Gendarmes fought very well against opponents who enjoyed superiority in numbers and military equipment.

The Gendarmerie’s growth during the next two years was rapid and extensive. By 1920 it numbered 3 Swedish officers, including the Commandant, 242 Persian officers and 8,158 men, and by the time of the 1921 coup its strength had reached nearly 10,000 (Cronin, 1997a, p. 43). In the newly-reorganized force the Persian officer corps had much greater responsibilities and they now had command of the regiments since only three Swedes remained.

In the years from its reorganization in 1917 to the coup d’état the Gendarmerie was undoubtedly the most significant military force at the service of the Persian government and spearheaded its attempt to arrest the centrifugal tendencies so dangerously aggravated by the Great War and to reestablish its authority throughout the country. The Gendarmerie participated, sometimes in cooperation with the Cossack Brigade (q.v.), in the campaigns of these years against the Jangalīs and the Bolsheviks in the Caspian provinces, against the Kurdish rebellion led by Esmāʿīl Āqā Semītqū (Sīmko) in Azerbaijan, as well as engaging in its traditional duties of guarding the roads and suppressing banditry.

However the Gendarmerie’s political significance was undoubtedly greater than its military role and it occupied a central place in the two most significant strategies adopted to halt the country’s political and territorial disintegration and to restructure and modernize the Persian state. These were, firstly, the proposals to rebuild the Persian state with British hegemony embodied in the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 (q.v.), and, secondly, the movement which culminated in the coup d’état of February 1921 (q.v.).


2-Bofors-75 mmAn old undated photo of an Iranian Swedish made Bofors 75mm mountain gun. These had seen service with the Gendarmes (and later with the Iranian army) since the early 20th century. Four of these have survived to this day, now on display at the gates of the Gilan barracks in northern Iran (Picture Source: Matofi, A., 1999, Tarikh-e-Chahar Hezar Sal-e Artesh-e Iran: Az Tamadon-e Elam ta 1320 Khorsheedi, Jang-e- Iran va Araqh [The 4000 Year History of the Army of Iran: From the Elamite Civilization to 1941, the Iran-Iraq War]. Tehran:Entesharat-e Iman, p. 1043).

Despite the force’s nationalist identity, gendarme officers were centrally involved in the work of the Anglo-Persian Military Commission, which was set up under the terms of the intensely unpopular Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, although their political outlook inevitably affected their contribution to that body. The Commission was to report on Persia’s military needs and to make recommendations as to how best these needs might be met. The British component of the Commission was headed by Major-General W. E. R. Dickson and four of its nine Persian members were gendarme officers: Colonel Azīz-Allāh Khan Zarḡāmī, Lieutenant-Colonel Fażl-Allāh Khan Āqevlī, Captain ʿAlī Khan Rīāżī, and Doctor Amīr Aʿlam, doctor-in-chief of the Gendarmerie. The Commission assembled in January 1920 and at the beginning of April presented a report containing a comprehensive survey of the existing military forces and institutions and recommending the merging of these forces and the construction of a uniform national force under British officers (Cronin, 1997a, p. 50).

The involvement of the gendarme officers was necessary both because of their individual military expertise and because of the prestige of their corps, but they were unhappy with the work of the Commission and the nature of British proposals for building a new army, feeling that they damaged Persian independence and national dignity. When the Commission eventually produced its report only two of the four gendarme members, Żarḡāmī and Rīāżī, actually signed it. Āqevlī had, shortly before, committed suicide, an act which was widely interpreted in Persia as a protest against the agreement and the military subjection of the country.

The Gendarmerie now constituted a factor of considerable political importance in Persia and certain circles within the force were drawn into the coup preparations being made in late 1920-early 1921 by Sayyed Żīāʾ-al-Dīn Ṭabāṭabāʾī and Reżā Khan, the civilian and military heads of the movement respectively.

 Qajar Iranian Gendarmerie OfficerLate Qajar era Iranian Gendarmerie officer (circa 1920s) (Source: Booklet of 2,500 Year Celebrations in 1971 by the Iranian Army).

Sayyed Żīāʾ-al-Dīn had apparently been cultivating a relationship with individual gendarme officers for some time. He had defended the Gendarmerie in the pages of his newspaper, Raʿd, and was particularly close to the two officers, Captain Kāẓem Khan Sayyāḥ and Major Masʿūd Khan Kayhān, who were assisting the British officer, Colonel Smyth, in his reorganization of the Cossack division at Qazvīn, the Russian Cossack officers having been dismissed.

During 1919-20 the traditional hostility and rivalry between the Gendarmes and the Cossacks had been modified and even partially superseded by a recognition of common interest. It was their common opposition to British control, implied in the proposals of the Anglo-Persian Military Commission, which first forged political links. This was the first step on the road which led to successful collaboration in the execution of the coup and by the spring of 1920 active liaison between the cossacks and the gendarmes had been established.

Captain Sayyāḥ and Major Kayhān accompanied the Cossacks on their march from Qazvīn to Tehran and the presence of these officers helped ensure that the coup would take place without any dissent from the Gendarmerie in the capital. In fact there is some evidence which suggests that elements within the Gendarmerie, conscious of the seriousness of the impending political collapse in Tehran and the urgency of formulating a response to it, may have been planning a coup of their own which was only just pre-empted by the march from Qazvīn (Afsar, p. 272).


Qajar Iranian Gendarmerie Officer-2Late Qajar era Iranian Gendarmerie trooper (circa 1920s) (Source: Booklet of 2,500 Year Celebrations in 1971 by the Iranian Army).

 For the support which they had given to Sayyed Żīāʾ and the coup d’état, the Gendarmerie was rewarded with important posts in the new government and with considerable power in the provinces. The two gendarme officers who had played such an important role at Qazvīn and on the march to Tehran, Captain Sayyāḥ and Major Kayhān, were appointed military governor of Tehran and minister of war respectively. In the period following the coup d’état the Gendarmerie attained the zenith of its influence, occupying the commanding heights of political power in both the capital and the provinces, the gendarme officers’ perception of themselves, both collectively and individually, as capable of offering national leadership was particularly apparent in the regime headed by Colonel Moḥammed-Taqī Khan Pesyān and firmly entrenched in Mašhad (Cronin, 1997b). However by the end of 1921 the Gendarmerie had largely succumbed to the ascendancy of the Cossack Division within the structures of the new army, as a result of Reżā Khan’s twin tactics of cooption and repression.

The Pahlavi Period (1921-1979)

In December 1921 the Government Gendarmerie was amalgamated with the Iranian Cossack Division to form the new army. In the following March the Majles approved the establishment of a new force, to be entitled amnīya-ye koll-e mamlakatī (The State Gendarmerie) to take over the duties which had formerly been carried out by the Government Gendarmerie, particularly the protection of the main roads.

The first commander of the new amnīya was an ex-Cossack officer, General Sardār Refʿat Naqdī. His successor, appointed in 1925, was another ex-Cossack, General Aḥmad Āqā Khan Amīraḥmadī. However, many of the senior officers of the amnīyya in the Reżā Shah period, and also occasionally its commander, were ex-officers of the Government Gendarmerie. In 1930, for example, General ʿAzīz-Allāh Żarḡāmī was appointed commander (Afsar, p. 238).

2-Farrokh-Family-Photo-Reza-Shah-Coronation-1926Cover jacket of Iran at War: 1500-1988. A photo taken in 1926 of a military assembly in Tehran. The troops are about to pose for a military review. Standing at far left with hand resting on sword is Colonel Haji Khan Pirbastami (of Northern Iranian origin). Note the diverse nature of Iranian troops, reminiscent of the armies of Iran since antiquity. Kurds, Azaris, Lurs, Baluchis, Qashqais, Persians, all partake as one in the assembly.  Colonel Haji Khan and the officer to the right are members of the Gendarmerie para-military forces. Haji Khan died just a year later when fighting as a colonel with the Iranian army against Bolshevik/Communist and Russian troops attempting to overrun northern Iran after World War One.  

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the amnīyya remained a small and relatively weak force, scattered in small posts of three or four men at considerable intervals along the roads. Its main duty was to give warning of the existence of robbers and to identify the perpetrators of any robbery, generally leaving their pursuit and capture to the army. Amnīyya recruits usually served locally and this served to fix the responsibility for the safety of the road on to local villages, actually a continuation in new dress of the old system of village and tribal road guards. Yet this system meant that the local knowledge of the men of the force made them useful intelligence agents and guides for the regular army (Cronin, p. 137-38). In fact the broad responsibility for tribal pacification and rural control down to 1941 remained with the army.

Following the collapse of Iranian military forces after the Anglo-Russian invasion of 1941, discussions took place between the Persian government and the Allies about meeting Persia’s defense and internal security needs. Between May and November 1942 the Persian government and the United States Department of State reached a series of agreements for the provision of American advisers. Three U.S. missions arrived in Persia, that of Major-General Clarence S. Ridley as adviser to the Persian army; of Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, with Lieutenant-Colonel Philip T. Boone and Captain William Preston, to the Imperial Iranian Gendarmerie, and of Arthur C. Millspaugh to the administration of finance.

On 27 November 1943 a formal agreement between Persia and the United States was signed, effective retrospectively as of 2 October 1942, under the terms of which the United States Army Military Mission with the Imperial Iranian Gendarmerie was established. The purpose of the mission, commonly known as GENMISH, was to advise and assist the Persian ministry of the interior in the reorganization and training of the Gendarmerie, with the American officers maintaining precedence over all Persian Gendarmerie officers of the same rank. According to the agreement, the interior minister was to appoint the chief of the mission as head of the Gendarmerie and, according to Article 20, the American chief of the mission was also granted the right to recommend to the interior minister the appointment, promotion, demotion, or dismissal of any employee of the Gendarmerie with no other authority having any right to interfere. Persia also agreed that no officers of other countries would serve in the Gendarmerie while members of the U.S. military mission were engaged (Ricks, p.168).

Parade of Qazvin Gendarmerie June Parade 1941A parade of the Iranian Gendarmerie in Qazvin, June 1941 (Source: Fouman).

GENMISH, and particularly its first chief, Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, became the target of considerable nationalist opposition, both popular and organized. Furthermore, both the shah and the Persian army were unhappy with the arrangement. The shah was incensed at the very broad powers exercised by Schwarzkopf while many senior army officers, including General Faraj-Allāh Āqevlī, the Persian commander of the Gendarmerie, disliked the interior ministry’s control of the Gendarmerie and tried to have it placed under the authority of the military (Ricks, pp. 169-70).

GENMISH’s U.S. personnel comprised a total of eight officers (one of whom was from the Coast Guard), four warrant officers, and twelve enlisted men. From 1942 onwards GENMISH reorganized, trained, armed and commanded a twenty thousand strong rural police/paramilitary force. By 1944-45, GENMISH had achieved considerable success with its reorganization, recruitment and training programs and had gone some way towards re-establishing the central government’s authority in the countryside. By December 1944 the U.S. military attaché in Tehran believed that the army and the Gendarmerie had improved to the point where Allied troop withdrawals would not jeopardize the security of the central government (Ricks, p. 172). In 1946, the Gendarmerie supported the army in its military reconquest of the self-declared autonomous provinces of Kurdistan and Azerbaijan.

In May 1950, U.S. military assistance to Persia embarked on a massive expansion with the establishment of the Mutual Defense Assistance Program and it was decided to extend the maximum possible aid to the Gendarmerie (Iran Almanac, 1964, p. 174).

GENMISH became responsible for the planning, preparation, administration, and supervision of the U. S. Military Assistance Program for the Imperial Gendarmerie. The broad purpose of the Military Assistance Program was to increase the effectiveness of the Gendarmerie by improving its mobility, firepower, and communications. Major items provided from the beginning of the program included small arms, vehicles, medical equipment, radio equipment, and light aircraft. An important part of the program was the training of specialists in the United States. By 1964, over four hundred officers and men had received training in the U.S. services under this program (Iran Almanac, 1964, p. 157). Funds were also allocated to literacy programs for the gendarmes as this was essential if they were to use modern weapons. In 1953, illiteracy within the Gendarmerie was 75 per cent, but by 1957 this had fallen to 10 per cent (Iran Almanac, 1964, p. 174).

 Insignia-gendarmerieHat insignia of Gendarmerie officers in the 197os (Source: Polinsignia).

From the 1950s to the late 1970s the Gendarmerie was able to take over the task of maintaining law and order throughout the countryside, allowing the army to focus on its main task of national defense. During those decades only on rare occasions of major tribal unrest was the army called in to assist in re-establishing law and order. The Gendarmerie, together with the police, functioned under the interior ministry, although it was clearly a paramilitary force. Its officers were provided by the army and, as in the army, the shah personally approved all senior promotions. The other ranks were all volunteers. There was, however, great disparity between the Gendarmerie and more prestigious services such as the air force and navy in terms of pay and living conditions (General Maḥmūd Kay, 1985, quoted by Zabih, 1988, p. 89). While the police were responsible for law and order in the cities, the Gendarmerie remained the main instrument of rural control, responsible for half the population and over 80 per cent of Persia’s territory (Halliday, p. 77). Gendarmerie stations were located in villages, at the crossings of rural roads and at key points of the border areas. In 1963 the Gendarmerie took over border control, with the transfer to it from the Ministry of War of the Frontier Guards. The Gendarmerie was responsible for the administration of conscription and, in 1972, also assumed responsibility for the National Resistance Forces, a militia mobilized in time of war.

By 1957, the Gendarmerie consisted of about 24,000 gendarmes, 1,000 commissioned officers and 23,000 of all other ranks, spread throughout the country in over 2,000 outposts, most of which were small posts consisting of 8 to 35 men each. By this time they had at their disposal about two thousand jeeps, trucks, armored cars, motorcycles and bicycles. (Prior to the Military Assistance Program the gendarmes’ sole means of transport had been horses.) The Gendarmerie had also acquired thousands of miles of telephone lines for their communications (Iran Almanac, 1964, p. 174).

During the 1960s one of the major tasks of the Gendarmerie was still the suppression of tribal disorder. The first targets of the 1963 Fārs tribal rebellion were Gendarmerie outposts. It was after several of these had been overrun and disarmed that the army was called in. At one outpost, the entire garrison, including its commander, was massacred (Iran Almanac, 1964, p. 174). The rebellion was easily quelled by the army but the Gendarmerie casualty figures were never released. In 1967-68 the Gendarmerie was mostly occupied in attempting to pacify the Kurdistan area.

 Gendarmerie Music Band GendarmeA member of the Iranian Gendarmerie Music Band in 1971 (Source: Booklet of 2,500 Year Celebrations in 1917 by Iranian Army).

Another increasingly important function of the Gendarmerie was the suppression of smuggling, particularly the traffic in narcotics and opium smuggling from Turkey and Afghanistan.

With the launch of the guerrilla struggle in 1971, however, the Gendarmerie became primarily a counter-insurgency force (Halliday, p. 77). Just as the Gendarmerie, as the physical manifestation of the state in rural Persia, had been the first target of tribal rebellion, so the guerrilla struggle also began with an attack on the Gendarmerie post at Sīāhkal in Gīlān. In order to fulfill its new role the Gendarmerie was greatly expanded and further modernized. In the mid-sixties the Gendarmerie’s authorized strength had reached about 35,000 officers and men (Iran Almanac, 1964, p. 157); ten years later it had doubled to 70,000 (Halliday, p. 77). It had also become highly mechanized, with its own aircraft, helicopters, jeeps, and marine patrol craft (Halliday, p. 77). In 1976 alone the Gendarmerie established 130 new stations in remote parts of the country. In 1965 General Moẓaffar Malek had been replaced as commander by General Ḡolām-ʿAlī Oveyssī. In 1974 Oveyssī was in turn replaced by General ʿAbbās Qarabāḡī.

HH43F-Iran Gendarmerie-1969-IranianAviationReviewOne of three Iranian Gendarmerie HH-43 Huskie helicopters in 1969 (Source: H43-Huskie & Iranian Aviation Review); the above photo was taken in Kermanshah.

Although in general U.S. military assistance to Persia continued to increase, on 3 March 1976, on the shah’s orders, the U.S. military mission to the Gendarmerie came to an end, and Colonel John O. Batiste, the last head of GENMISH, and his men left the country.

After the Revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Gendarmerie, along with other military institutions of the previous regime, was purged of its commanding officers and lost much of its power and influence. In 1990, the Gendarmerie, the police force (Šahrbānī), and the revolutionary committees (Komītahā-ye enqelāb-e eslāmī-e Īrān) were incorporated into the Security Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Nīrūhā-ye enteẓāmī-e jomhūrī-e eslāmī-e Īrān).


P. Afsar, Tārīḵ-e žāndārmerī-e Īrān, Qom, 1332 Š./1953.

A. Aḵgar, Zendagī-e man dar ṭūl-e haftād sāl tārīḵ-e moʿāṣer-e Īrān, Tehran, 1366 Š./1987.

B. ʿĀqelī, Reżā Šāh wa qošūn-e mo ttaḥed-al-šakl (1300-1320 Š.), Tehran, 1377 Š./1998.

H. Arfa, Under Five Shahs, London. 1964.

S. Cronin, The Army and the Creation of the Pahlavi State in Iran, 1910-1926, London and New York, 1997a.

Idem, “An Experiment in Revolutionary Nationalism: The Rebellion of Colonel Muhammad Taqi Khan Pasyan in Mashhad, April/October 1921,” Middle Eastern Studies 33, 1997b, pp. 693-750.

F. Halliday, Iran: Dictatorship and Development, London, 1979.

Iran Almanac and Book of Facts and Who’s Who in Iran, Tehran, 1961-.

M. Kay, “Arteš wa Ṭūfān 1357,” Īrān wa Jahān, Paris, April 1985.

P. Nyström, Fem Ar i Persien som Gendarmofficer, Stockholm, 1925.

W. J. Olson, Anglo-Iranian Relations during World War I, London, 1984.

N. Palmstierna, “Swedish Army Officers in Africa and Asia,” Revue International d’Histoire Militaire, no. 26, 1967, pp. 45-73.

H. Pravitz, Frau Persien i Stiltje och Storm, Stockholm, 1918.

J. Qāʾem-Maqāmī, Tārīḵ-e Žāndārmerī-e Īrān, Tehran, 1355 Š./1976.

T. M. Ricks, “U. S. Military Missions to Iran, 1943-1978: The Political Economy of Military Assistance,” Iranian Studies 12/3-4, 1979, pp. 163-93.

M. Shuster, The Strangling of Persia, New York, 1912.

S. Zabih, The Iranian Military in Revolution and War, London and New York, 1988.

Structure of the Parthian Army (2016) – (۱۳۹۵) ساختار ارتش اشکانیان

A new book has been published in Persian (with an English section) on the structure of the Parthian army by Kaveh Farrokh (University of British Columbia-Continuing Studies) and Gholamreza Karamian (Tehran Azad University-Central Branch, History and Archaeology Department):

کاوه فرخ و غلامرضا کرمیان (۱۳۹۵). ساختار ارتش اشکانیان. تهران: خانه تاریخ و تصویر ابریشمی. Farrokh, K., & Gholamreza Karamian (2016). The Structure of the Parthian Army. Tehran: Khaneye Tarikh va Tasvire Abrishami.

1-Parthian-Armored Lancer

Parthian armored lancer (Picture Source: Civilization Fanatics Center).

The book examines the development, equipment, tactics, strengths and weaknesses of the Parthian military.


Parthian Shiva-tir (Horse Archers) engaged in discharging their missiles (Source: 

The book is a prelude to an upcoming English-language textbook on the Parthian Army to be published by Pen & Sword Publishing in England.

1-Andika-Karamian and Astaraki

The Parthian relief at Andika discovered by Dr. Gholamreza Karamian and Farzad Astaraki. The specific location of this relief is in the northern village of Darvish Ahmad that is 50 kilometers from western Andika in Khuzestan Province. The GPS position of the site is: N 32 23 32/3 and E 49 30 21/5. The dimensions of the Andika relief are 2 meters (length) by 1.20 meters (width) (Courtesy of Dr. Gholamreza Karamian and Farzad Astaraki).

Nidhi Subbaraman: Early humans in Iran were growing wheat 12,000 years ago

The article below by Nidhi Subbaraman first appeared in NBC News on July 4th 2013.


Among stone grinding tools, clay figures shaped like humans and animals and carved bone artifacts, archaeologists have harvested ancient grains from an early human settlement that are preserved 12,000 years. The finds suggest that generations of communities were earnestly experimenting with plant cultivation since the last Ice Age, and that agriculture, which laid the foundations for later civilizations, emerged concurrently in a number of locations that archaeologists recognize as the “Fertile Crescent” of the near east.

Iran farming-nbcnews-2Wild barley was found in the sediments of Chogha Golan (Source: NBC News).

Since the early 1960s, when the first signs of farming were discovered in parts of Israel, archeologists have uncovered scores of ancient farming communities in Turkey, Syria, Iraq dating a few thousand years older than the first evidence of farming found in Mexico and China. Whether they shared their ideas about farming or came to them independently has remained an open question.

Now, a detailed history of plant cultivation gleaned from sediments at the Chogha Golan site in Iran suggest that the eastern section of the Fertile Crescent was as active as better known sites in the west. A group of scientists present their findings of ancient lentils, wheat, barley and pea grass in the Thursday issue of Science.

The samples themselves aren’t remarkable to look at. “It’s very dried and cracked and looks like something you want to brush off your table unless you know it’s priceless remains,” Melinda Zeder, an archaeozoologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who studies ancient domestication practices, told NBC News. “To look at them they’re not much but the stories that they tell are remarkable.”

Iran farming-nbcnews-3Clay figurines shaped like people and animals were unearthed found at Chogha Golan (Source: NBC News).

Scientists have already found a rich collection of stone tools, clay figurines in the shapes of people and animals, and carved bone artifacts. But the researchers at this site were struck by the abundance of plant material that they found with it.

Usually, “If you get a seed or two you’d be happy,” Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tubingen in Germany, and one member of the research team told NBC News. But at Chogha Golan, “With one bucket we’d get a handful of material,” he said. The researchers analyzed 21,500 plant samples collected from a small section of the site, which in some sections is 8 meters deep.

The new site also suggests why farming may have evolved. One line of reasoning suggests that it arose when early humans wanted to feed larger groups — when just hunting and gathering wouldn’t do.

Iran farming-nbcnews-4The site in the Zagros Mountains in Iran contained 8 meters worth of archaeological layers (Source: NBC News).

But Zeder believes the timing of the evidence from this site — in a warming phase after the Pleistocene ice age — shows “a whole other kind of image.” To her, it suggests that cultivation arose during a period of abundance and bounty, and early people took this opportunity to mess around with wild varieties of barley, wheat, lentils and pea grass.

At about the same time, in pockets of the populated world, human communities were beginning to perform burial rituals and start feasting, Zeder said. “All of this is directed at sustaining communities.”

Though earliest humans weren’t planning for it, agriculture set them on the path to a more settled, a more social life, and eventually more innovative life.

Iran farming-nbcnews-1Stone tools and clay artifacts were collected from a site in the Zagros Mountains in Iran, where humans were cultivating plants 12,000 years ago (Source: NBC News).

You do not get the cooperation and the time to make important new kinds of discoveries that require a more sedentary, more village kind of setting,” Hendrik Bruins, a researcher at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev told NBC News. “I think the article is an important new piece of information from the Eastern part of the near east.”

Plant samples were collected by floating small amounts of soil and burnt residue from the dig sites in water. The wheatey remnants of grains and cereals rise to the surface from which they can be scooped up.

Whether it’s a single person who had one “Aha moment,” or whether it evolved “democratically across the entire region,” Zeder said, “Being able to parse that out gives us a better idea of human history, of how people have faced challenges in the past, and how we as a species have got where we got today.”