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).

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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 Ancient.eu). 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: Markantony.org). 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.

Parth-Savar1

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).

Résumé

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: Americanhistory.si.edu).

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.]

Bibliography

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.

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.

Parthia-1-Shivatir

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

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).

University of Chicago: Battle of Carrhae

The article below on the Battle of Carrhae was posted by the University of Chicago. Kindly note that none of the other pictures/illustrations posted below appear in the original University of Chicago posting. The article is of special interest as it provides citations by ancient classical authors such as Plutarch and Dio Cassius.

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The Battle of Carrhae was fought in June 53 BC. Caught on the open plain, it was the last fatal blunder in a series that began when Marcus Licinius Crassus garrisoned the towns of western Mesopotamia with a fifth of his army but then, rather than advancing directly to Seleucia or the treasures of Ctesiphon, returned to winter quarters in Syria. Advised by his Armenian ally to invade from the mountains to the north, where the terrain would offer safety from the Parthian cavalry, Crassus insisted on crossing the Euphrates at Zeugma to join the Roman garrisons that had been established the previous season. Even then, his quaestor Gaius Cassius Longinus cautioned that he should advance along the river. Instead, Crassus was deceived and, in pursuit of the Parthian army, drawn into the desert, where the Roman army miserably perished at Carrhae. Cassius, himself, together with five hundred cavalry, managed to escape in the night and make his way to Syria. Crassus died as he retreated north toward the Armenian hills, the Romans and Parthians fighting over his body.

Map displaying the Romano-Parthian borders and the location of the Battle of Carrhae (54 BC) (Picture Source: CAIS website).

He had marched into Parthia with seven legions, says Plutarch, nearly four thousand horsemen and as many light-armed troops. Twenty thousand were said to have died and ten thousand taken prisoner. It was the worst Roman defeat since the disastrous loss to Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BC.

The poignancy of that slaughter can be read in Plutarch and Cassius Dio, who provide virtually all that is known of the battle. Against the Roman infantry were arrayed ten thousand Parthian cavalry, either cataphracts, who wore scaled or mail armor from head to thigh and were armed with a heavy lance, or mounted bowmen, trained to shoot even as they retreated (hence the expression “Parthian shot”).

Now as long as they had hopes that the enemy would exhaust their missiles and desist from battle or fight at close quarters, the Romans held out; but when they perceived that many camels laden with arrows were at hand, from which the Parthians who first encircled them took a fresh supply, then Crassus, seeing no end to this, began to lose heart….Then the Romans halted, supposing that the enemy would come to close quarters with them, since they were so few in number. But the Parthians stationed their mail-clad horsemen in front of the Romans, and then with the rest of their cavalry in loose array rode round them, tearing up the surface of the ground, and raising from the depths great heaps of sand which fell in limitless showers of dust, so that the Romans could neither see clearly nor speak plainly, but, being crowded into a narrow compass and feeling upon one another, were shot, and died no easy nor even speedy death. For, in the agonies of convulsive pain, and writing about the arrows, they would break them off in their wounds, and then in trying to pull out by force the barbed heads which had pierced their veins and sinews, they tore and disfigured themselves the more. Thus many died, and the survivors also were incapacitated for fighting. And when Publius urged them to charge the enemy’s mail-clad horsemen, they showed him that their hands were riveted to their shields and their feet nailed through and through to the ground, so that they were helpless either for flight or for self-defence” [Plutarch, Life of Crassus, XXV].

Horse Arhers at Carrhae[Click to Enlarge] Parthian Horse archers engage the Roman legions of Marcus Lucinius Crassus at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Unlike the Achaemenid-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).

As noted by Dio Cassius:

For if they decided to lock shields for the purpose of avoiding the arrows by the closeness of their array, the pikemen were upon them with a rush, striking down some, and at least scattering the others; and if they extended their ranks to avoid this, they would be struck with the arrows. Hereupon many died from fright at the very charge of the pikemen, and many perished hemmed in by the horsemen. Others were knocked over by the pikes or were carried off transfixed. The missiles falling thick upon them from all sides at once struck down many by a mortal blow, rendered many useless for battle, and caused distress to all. They flew into their eyes and pierced their hands and all the other parts of their body and, penetrating their armour, deprived them of their protection and compelled them to expose themselves to each new missile. Thus, while a man was guarding against arrows or pulling out one that had stuck fast he received more wounds, one after another. Consequently it was impracticable for them to move, and impracticable to remain at rest. Neither course afforded them safety but each was fraught with destruction, the one because it was out of their power, and the other because they were then more easily wounded….Finally, as the enemy continually assaulted them from all sides at once, and they were compelled to protect their exposed parts by the shields of those who stood beside them, they were shut up in so narrow a place that they could no longer move. Indeed, they could not even get a sure footing by reason of the number of corpses, but kept falling over them. The heat and thirst (it was midsummer and this action took place at noon) and the dust, of which the barbarians raised as much as possible by all riding around them, told fearfully up the survivors, and many succumbed from these causes, even though unwounded” [Dio, Roman History (XL.22, 23)].

The legionary standards lost at Carrhae were not recovered until 20 BC, when Augustus negotiated their return from the Parthians, a diplomatic triumph celebrated the next year by the dedication of the Arch of Augustus.

Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.” [Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (I.ii.193)]

The above line comes from Plutarch, where Caesar is quoted as saying:

I am not much in fear of these fat, long-haired fellows, but rather of those pale, thin ones” [Life, LXII.10].

Cassius survived the battle and stayed to defend Syria against Parthian raids. Eventually, he would lead the conspiracy against Caesar.

References

Dio Cassius: Roman History (1914) translated by Earnest Cary and Herbert B. Foster (Loeb Classical Library).

Plutarch: Parallel Lives (1916) translated by Bernadotte Perrin (Loeb Classical Library).

Shapour Suren-Pahlav: General Surena- Hero of Carrhae 53 BCE

The article below is authored by Shapour Suren-Pahlav who first posted this in his CAIS website in December 1998. A number of the illustrations are from the original CAIS articles with a number of others added below for illustration purposes.

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Eran Spahbodh Rustaham Suren-Pahlav was born sometime in the late 1st century BCE. The name under which he appears in the western classical sources was no more than his hereditary title, that of ‘Surena’, and he continued to be referred to using this appellation in Iranian records far into Sasanian times.

Plutarch describes General Surena as:

“. . [not] an ordinary person, but in wealth, family, and reputation, the second man in the kingdom, and in courage and prowess the first, and for bodily stature and beauty no man like him. Whenever he travelled privately, he had one thousand camels to carry his baggage, two hundred chariots for his concubines, one thousand completely armed men for life-guards, and a great many more light-armed; and he had at least ten thousand horsemen altogether, of his servants and retinue. The honour had long belonged to his family, that at the king’s coronation he put the crown upon his head, and when this very king Hyrodes had been exiled, he brought him in; it was he, also, that took the great city of Seleucia, was the first man that scaled the walls, and with his own hand beat off the defenders. And though at this time he was not above thirty years old, he had a great name for wisdom and sagacity, and, indeed, by these qualities chiefly, he overthrew Crassus”.

“. . Surena was the tallest and finest looking man himself, but the delicacy of his looks and effeminacy of his dress did not promise so much manhood as he really was master of; or his face was painted, and his hair parted after the fashion of the Medes . .”.

A Bronze statue discovered in Shami, in Bakhtiari mountains denoted to General Surena (Picture Source: CAIS website).

Surena’s victory at Carrhae against the Romans and his personal “feat of arms there was certainly the most celebrated of the whole Arsacid era” (Bivar), but it is not directly attributed to him in the Shahnameh, the Iranian national epic.

In this book, the record of the Arsacids seems to have been suppressed at its true chronological point – for example the story concerning the Arsacid warrior Gotarz / Goudarz was transferred to the later legendary period of Key-Kavous, and incorporated there.

Surena’s historical personality is, however, curiously parallel to the stories about – and attributes of – Rustam, the mightiest of the Shahnameh’s heroes (Bivar). The atmosphere of the episodes in which the latter features is also strongly reminiscent of the Arsacid period.

Surena’s name is therefore preserved indirectly amongst the throng of epic heroes whose deeds are recalled in the Kayanian (Kianian) section of the Shahnameh.

Background to the Battle of Carrhae

The Parthian empire was perpetually menaced by hostile armies both in the east and in the west and was already deeply injured by the encroachments of Pompey. However, its decentralized and feudal structure may help to explain why it never mounted a strong offensive after the days of Emperor Mithradates II. Instead, Iran tended to remain on the defensive. The wars between Iran and Rome therefore were initiated not by the Iranians – but by Rome itself. Rome considered itself obliged to claim the inheritance of Alexander of Macedonia and, from the time of Pompey, continually attempted the subjection of the former Hellenistic countries as far as the Euphrates River. As part of the attempt to extend Roman control further eastward, Marcus Licinius Crassus, the Roman triumvir, took the offensive against Iran in 54 BCE. Such then were the protagonists in the decisive battle that was about to develop.

Map displaying the Romano-Parthian borders and the location of the Battle of Carrhae (54 BC) (Picture Source: CAIS website).

Before the Roman march towards Parthia began, Crassus had been advised by a Roman ally, Artavasdes, king of Armenia, to lead his forces through the mountains of that country, to shelter from the Iranian cavalry. However, Crassus ignored this advice, being anxious to include in his army the substantial Roman garrisons posted during the previous season in the towns of Mesopotamia. Then, after crossing the Euphrates at Zeugma, he also rejected the plan of his legate Cassius, that he should follow the course of the river to Babylon. Instead Crassus followed the guidance of an Arab chief, whose name is given by Plutarch as Ariamnes. This seems improbable, and other sources name the guide as Abcar or Abgar, and identify him as the chief of the city of Edessa. This guide, suspected by historians of collusion with Surena, led the Romans away from the river into the desert, and towards the main Iranian force.

The Strength of the Two Armies

With regard to the size of the two armies, that of the Romans was reportedly greatly superior in numbers. According to the most reliable account, that of Plutarch, Crassus commanded “seven legions, [with] little less than four thousand horse, and as many light-armed soldiers”. A quarter of the latter were Gaulish troops lent by Julius Caesar. Other commentators have given somewhat higher total estimates. At the minimum estimate, the army of Crassus would have numbered thirty-six thousand men.

The Iranian forces under Surena consisted, according to Plutarch, of a thousand fully armored lancers, the cataphracts, who formed the bodyguard of the General. Nine thousand horse-archers formed the main body of the troops, and a baggage-train of a thousand camels was available to bring up extra stocks of arrows. The entire force was mounted, and therefore highly mobile under the desert conditions. However, in numerical terms, the Roman force seemed sufficient for the task in hand.

Events showed, nevertheless, that in two critical respects the Romans had underestimated the Iranian forces. The power of the horse-archers’ arrows to penetrate the legionnaires armour had not been appreciated, perhaps because the Roman commanders were unaware that the compound bow which the Iranians employed was a more powerful weapon than the lighter bows found at that time in Rome. Additionally, the Romans had anticipated that the Iranian cavalry would quickly exhaust their stock of arrows; but the camel train of General Surena made it possible for him to bring up plentiful stocks of arrows as the quivers of his men were emptied.

Additionally, the Romans were also ill-adapted to the open terrain of the battlefield. The vast distances of the Mesopotamian plain, and the heat (for the battle took place in June) put the Roman infantry at a disadvantage. Moreover, the Roman means of retaliation against their adversaries were ineffective, since the range of the Roman javelin was obviously limited, and the Gaulish horsemen relied on for a counter-attack were provided only with short javelins, as well as being lacking in adequate defensive armour.

Map displaying the deployment of Crassus’ forces towards Parthian forces at Carrhae (54 BC) (Picture Source: CAIS website).

With all these miscalculations, even the squares of Roman legionnaires could not hold their own against the Iranians.

The Battle

At first the Romans prepared to advance to the encounter in extended line. Then Crassus formed the legions into a square, and so advanced to the River Balissus (Balikh). Contrary to the opinion of his officers, he decided not to camp by the water, but hurried the troops across, and before long came in sight of the advance-guard of the Iranians. The strength of their main body was at first concealed. Then the thunder of the Parthian drums burst on the ears of the Romans. The mailed cavalry of Surena’s bodyguard uncovered their armour, and the sun glittered on their steel helmets.

“When they had sufficiently terrified the Romans with their noise, they threw off the covering of their armour, and shone like lightning in their breastplates and helmets of polished Margianian steel, and with their horses covered with brass and steel trappings . .”.

The first attack was a charge by the lancers of the bodyguard, led in person by the towering figure of General Surena. Then, seeing the steadiness of the Roman legionnaires, the Iranian horse-archers began their work. What followed was more like a massacre than a battle.

Parth-Savar1[Click to Enlarge] Reconstruction by Peter Wilcox and the late historical artist, Angus McBride of Parthian armored knights as they would have appeared in 54 BCE (Picture Source: Osprey Publishing).

The Romans had tried to offset their lack of cavalry by using light infantry mixed with their Gaulish horsemen. But such makeshift tactics were of little avail against the finest cavalry in the world. The legionnaires were soon hard pressed and all but surrounded, so that Crassus was reduced to ordering his son, Publius, who commanded one of the wings, to attempt a diversionary charge with his forces.

Publius led thirteen hundred horse, five hundred archers, and eight cohorts of the infantry, the latter totalling some four thousand men, into the attack. At first the Iranians retired in front of them, but after Publius’ men were separated from the main Roman force they were quickly surrounded, offering an all but helpless mark to the rain of arrows. The threat of a charge by the Cataphracts forced the Romans into close order, thereby reducing their chances of escape. Though the Gauls caught hold of the Iranian lances to pull down the riders, and ran under the horses of their enemies to stab them in the belly, these were no more than tactics of desperation. Soon the young Publius was disabled, and the remnant of his force retired to a mound to make their last stand. The young and naïve commander ordered his Armour-bearer to end his life, although five hundred of his soldiers survived to be taken as slaves.

Horse Arhers at Carrhae[Click to Enlarge] 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).

This agonizing diversion had temporarily relieved pressure on the main Roman force. But the magnitude of the disaster became clear when the Iranians rode back with Publius’ head on a spear. Thereafter the main Roman body had to defend themselves as best they could for the rest of the day under the constant hail of missiles. Only when it grew too dark to shoot did the Iranians draw off, leaving the Romans to pass a melancholy night, encumbered as they were with the many wounded, and anyway anticipating their final destruction on the following morning.

The Roman Retreat

By this time, Crassus himself was prostrate with despair. Octavius and Cassius, his lieutenants, resolved that the only hope was to escape under cover of darkness and seek shelter behind the walls of the city of Carrhae. Thus they slipped away silently from the camp in the darkness. Those of the wounded who could be moved obstructed the march, and the majority, who had to be abandoned, raised the alarm with their cries. Understandably, retreating in the dark, the Romans fell into disorder. A party of three hundred horsemen did reach the city at midnight, and warned Coponius, commander of the garrison there, that Crassus had fought a great battle with the Iranians. They then turned west to make their escape across the Euphrates. Another detachment of two thousand men under the Roman officer Varguntius lost their way in the dark, and were found by the Iranian forces in the morning, marooned on a hill. Of these, only twenty made their escape. At Carrhae, Coponius suspected a mishap, and called his men to arms. Then he marched out, and led Crassus and the main body of the Romans into the city.

Olivier as CrassusThe late exemplary actor Sir Laurence Olivier’s (1907-1989) portrayal of Marcus Lucinius Crassus (115-53 BCE) in the epic movie “Spartacus (1960)” (Picture Source: Murph Place). Crassus’ dreams of conquering Parthian Persia and emulating Alexander ended in disaster at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Several decades after its release of “Spartacus”, Hollywood has yet to produce a “Crassus sequel” epic of the Roman statesman’s failure in Persia.

There were no supplies in Carrhae for a long siege, nor hope of relief from the outside, since Crassus had concentrated all the forces in the Roman East in his army. The Roman commander therefore determined to break out of the city on the second night, and make his way to safety in the shelter of the Armenian hills. Once again, his guide, Andromachus, was a Parthian sympathizer, who was rewarded after the Roman debacle with the governorship of Carrhae. It is said that Andromachus misled the main Roman column in the dark, so that by dawn they were over a mile from the shelter of the hills. Octavius had a reliable guide and took refuge in the mountains. At daybreak, Crassus and his force had occupied a spur connected by a low ridge to the main mountain range. When they came under attack, Octavius and his men moved down from the heights to offer support. At this moment Surena rode forward to offer terms of peace and to spare the Roman’s lives. It is not clear whether Crassus accepted voluntarily, or under pressure from his men, but he and Octavius, with a small group of Romans, went down to meet the Iranians. The latter mounted Crassus upon a horse, to take him away for the signing of the treaty. Octavius, suspecting foul play, seized the bridle of the horse, and, when a scuffle broke out, drew his sword. In the melee that followed, all the Romans in the party were slain and their leaderless troops then either surrendered or scattered. Very few were successful in making good their escape. Of the entire force, twenty thousand are said to have been killed; while ten thousand were captured and deported to distant Margiana as slave labourers. Thus ended the disastrous Roman campaign of Carrhae. The Euphrates was firmly established as the boundary between the two Empires.

Despite the crushing defeat of the Romans, the Iranians made no attempt to follow up their victory or to invade the Roman Empire.  The Romans learned to introduce cavalry into their army, just as nearly a thousand years earlier the Assyrians had learned from the first Iranians arriving on the Plateau.

The Roman defeat won unquestioned recognition for Iran as a military power superior to Rome and the resurrection of Iran as a united nation.

The Death of General Surena

The success had excited the jealousy of Orodes II, the Parthian king, and soon after the battle of Carrhae General Surena was executed. Iran was thus deprived of an exceptional commander.

References

Plutrach, Crassus, translated by John Dryden.

A. D. H. Bivar, “The Political History of Iran Under the Arsacids” in Ehsan Yarshater (ed.) Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. III, Part I. CUP, 1983.

G. G. Cameron, History of Early Iran 1936, repr. 1969.

G. M. Cohen, The Seleucid Colonies (Historia Einzelschriften 30). Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1978.

V. S. Curtis, “Parthian culture and costume”, in J. Curtis (ed.), Mesopotamia and Iran in the Parthian and Sasanian periods, London, 2000.

M. A. R. Colledge, The Parthians (1967).

N. C. Debevoise, A Political History of Parthia 1938, repr. 1970.

R. Girshman et al., Persia, the Immortal Kingdom 1971.

E. Herzfeld, Archaeological History of Persia 1935.

G. J. P. MacEwan, “A Parthian campaign against Elymais in 77 BC.” Iran 24, 1986.

P. B. Lozinski, The Original Homeland of the Parthians 1959.

A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire 2d ed. 1969.

P. S. R. Payne, The Splendor of Persia 1957.

J. Wolski, L’Empire des Arsacides, Peeters, Gent, 1993

M. L. Chaumont: Greek Historian Arrian (2nd century CE)

The article below by M. L. Chaumont on the Greek historian Arrian (2nd century CE) was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1986 and last updated on August 15, 2011. This article is available in print (Vol. II, Fasc. 5, pp. 523-524).

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

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Arrian, L. Flavius Arrianus, Greek historian from Bithynia, born in Nicomedia, whose father had obtained Roman citizenship. He held very high positions. The apex of his career occurred under the emperor Hadrian who appointed him governor of Cappadocia in 131 A.D. His reputation as a historian earned him the name the new Xenophon. Achaemenid and Parthian Iran occupied an important place in Arrian’s historical work, including: (1) the Anabasis, which treats Alexander’s expeditions; its supplement, the History of India; and the History of Events after Alexander; and (2) the Parthica or History of the Parthians.

Arrian-FlaviusPortrait of a bearded man attributed to Flavius Arrianus (Source: Fernhill.com).

The Anabasis is divided into seven books on the model of the Anabasis of Xenophon. Written in a sober and simple style, it is a mine of information on Iran toward the end of the Achaemenid period. It not only describes the famous battles of the Macedonian forces against the armies of Darius III Codomannus, but it also contains many details about the provinces and peoples of the Persian empire, as well as its leading generals and satraps.

Arrian of NicomediaPhilip A. Stadter’s 2010 book “Arrian of Nicomedia” (University of North Carolina Press; for more information see Amazon…)

The principal sources of the Anabasis are Ptolemy, the son of Lagus, and Aristobulus of Cassandreia; these were the authors who Arrian considered most reliable, as he remarks in his preface. Both of them had taken part in Alexander’s campaigns. The former, of Macedonian nobility, had been a member of the bodyguard and the companion in arms of the conqueror before becoming, after Alexander’s death, satrap, and then king of Egypt (Ptolemy I Soter). The second had also belonged to Alexander’s entourage, but in a more modest position, as an engineer or architect. Not even the titles of the works of Ptolemy and Aristobulus have survived, nor do we know what they covered.

Map of Achaemenid Empire-Kaveh Farrokh-2007Map of the Achaemenid Empire drafted by Kaveh Farrokh on page 87 (2007) for the book Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-; Arrian has provided valuable descriptions of the provinces and peoples od the ancient Persian Empire.

The agreement between Ptolemy and Aristobulus on certain points is underlined by Arrian, e.g., Alexander’s generous treatment of the mother, wife, and children of Darius III, taken prisoner at the battle of Issus in October, 333 (Anabasis 2.12.3-6). Similarly, they are agreed that the battle that decided the fate of the Persian empire took place, not at Arbela, as is the general consensus, but at a small Assyrian village, Gaugamela (now Tell Gōmēl) on the Bumelus river (now Gōmēl-sū), 500 or 600 stades from Arbela (ibid., 6.11.5-6). There are instances where the two authors disagree, which Arrian does not fail to note.

Arrian refers to Ptolemy on several occasions, e.g., regarding the intervention of Darius’ mother in favor of the vanquished Uxii (in Ḵūzestān). They were allowed to keep their possessions in exchange for the payment of an annual tribute (ibid., 3.17.6). Probably from the same source is the passage concerning the submission of this bellicose people, who controlled the passes that gave access to Fārs (the Persian Gates) and the taking of these passes in spite of the resistance of the satrap Ariobarzanes (ibid., 3.17. 6; 3.18, 2; cf. E. Kornemman, Die Alexandergeschichte, pp. 56ff. and now W. Heckel, “Alexander at the Persian Gates,” Athenaeum 58, 1980, pp. 168-74). Another example is the account of Bessus, regicide and usurper, who was captured by the soldiers of Ptolemy himself in a village of Bactriana. Arrian also mentions the different version of this event by Aristobulus (cf. L. Pearson, The Lost Histories, p. 166). Again from Ptolemy’s work is the text of the correspondence exchanged between Darius III (in flight) and Alexander after Issus (Anabasis 2.14.1-9; cf. Kornemann, op. cit., p. 115, defending the authenticity of this correspondence).

Alexander and Darius III-Issus-Pompei MosaicPompeii floor mosaic depicting Alexander and Darius III at the Battle of Issus (November 333 BC) (Source: Public Domain). Known often as the “Mosaico di Alessandro” (Mosaic of Alexander) The above is a Roman copy of its Greek original that had been crafted by Philoxenos of Eretria.

From Aristobulus, whose witness is often invoked, came the following information: (a) The order of battle of Darius III’s army at Gaugamela: the different peoples composing the left and right wings are enumerated; in the center was the Great King himself with his kinsmen, picked guard, etc. (ibid., 3.11.3ff.). (b) Description of the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae (a description recognized as exact in modern times). Alexander, finding the tomb profaned and damaged, gave the order to Aristobulus to repair everything and to restore the monument (ibid., 6.20.4-8). (c) The account of the weddings at Susa, especially the marriages of Alexander to Barsine, the eldest daughter of Darius III, and to Parysatis, the youngest daughter of Artaxerxes III, when he was already married to Roxane, daughter of the Bactrian Oxyatres (ibid., 7.4.4).

Among Arrian’s other sources was Nearchus of Crete. After the conquest of India Nearchus was assigned the duty of bringing the Greek fleet from the mouth of the Indus to Susa. The work that Nearchus composed describing this long voyage was to furnish Arrian with the essential material for his History of India (Indica), which is, in fact, the history of one of the stages of Alexander’s expedition. (On the facts of the periplus of Nearchus, see W. Capelle, “Nearchus” no. 3, in Pauly-Wissowa, XVI/2, 1935, cols. 2185ff.; Pearson, op. cit., pp. 112-49; W. Spoerri, “Nearchos,” in Der Kleine Pauly IV, 1972, pp. 33-34.) Nearchus described the banks along which his fleet passed, their ports, water courses, and islands, and he cites the distances between points. He discusses the coasts of the “fisheaters” south of Gedrosia (Tūrān and Makurān), of Carmania (Kermān) (chaps. 32-37), of the Persians (Fārs) (chaps. 38-39), and of the Susians (Ḵūzestān). Then followed, after the mouth of the Euphrates, the passage upward from Pasitigris (Kārūn) and the rendezvous of Nearchus’ fleet and Alexander’s army near a bridge of boats (chap. 24) near modern Ahvāz (cf. G. Le Rider, Suse sous les Séleucides et les Parthes, Paris, 1965, p. 264). The itinerary from there to Susa is found in Anabasis 7.7.1-2. This description contains valuable ethnological and climatic details. This History of India also preserves several indigenous place names more or less faithfully: Neoptana, Hormozeia (Hormuz), on the coast of Carmania (chap. 33); the mountain Ochus (Vahuka), Apostana, Gogana, on the coast of the Persians (chap. 38); the island of Margastana, along the littoral of the Susians (chap. 41).

Winged Sphinx of Darius at SusaWinged Sphinx of Darius at Susa (Source: Public Domain).

The History of Events after Alexander (in ten books) has not survived. It is known through a long summary by Photius (Bibliotheca 92; ed. R. Henry, II, pp. 20-33) and through fragments (ed. A. G. Roos and G. Wirth, II, pp. 253-86; F. Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker II, Berlin, 1929, pp. 840-51, 872-73, 874, 881-83. The work in four books of Dexippus of Athens (3rd cent. A.D.) on the same subject seems to have been an epitome of the History of Arrian (see F. Jacoby, op. cit., II C: Kommentar, Berlin, 1926, pp. 306-07; we possess from it a brief summary also by Photius (Bibliotheca 82, ed. R. Henry, I, pp. 188-90). The work, in ten books, is devoted to events from 323 to 321, notably to the two successive partitions of the Achaemenid territories and to their consequences. Most of the actual Iranian satrapies passed into the hands of the Macedonian generals. However, some Persians were among the beneficiaries of these partitions.

The Parthica or History of the Parthians is also lost. Arrian was not ignorant of the Parthians. At the time when he governed Cappadocia, the Alan peril may have brought together briefly Parthians and Romans. But when Dio Cassius (Historia romana 69.15) speaks of the intervention of Vologases in those circumstances, it is not easy to determine whether he is concerned with the king Vologases II (III) of Parthia or rather his parent and homonym, the king of Armenia (for the latter identification, see A. von Gutschmid, Geschichte Irans und seiner Nachbarländer, Tübingen, 1888, p. 147). In writing a History of the Parthians, his essential goal was to set down the different phases of Trajan’s Parthian war (114-17). Of this work, in 17 books, Photius has preserved only a brief notice (Bibliotheca 58; ed. R. Henry, I, Paris, 1959, pp. 51-52). But the important fragments preserved by the Suda (Suidas) and Stephan of Byzantium help to partially reestablish its contents (ed. Roos-Wirth, II, 1968, pp. 223-52). See especially the erudite study of A. G. Roos (Studia), and now C. Coppola, “I Parthica d’Arriano nella biblioteca di Fozio,” Studia in memoria di R. Cantarella, Università di Salerno, 1981, pp. 475-91).

Parthian-1-Parthian NoblemanA reconstruction of the face on the statue of a Parthian nobleman housed at Tehran’s Iran Bastan Museum (Picture Source: Parthian Empire).

The first seven books dealt with the period before Trajan: Book I. Origin and customs of the Parthians; the first Arsacids. Arrian gives as ancestor of this dynasty Arsaces, son of Phriapites (frag. I, Roos-Wirth, p. 225 = Photius, Bibliotheca 58, ed. Henry, I, p. 51). This ancestry seems confirmed, to a certain extent, by some Parthian ostraca recently discovered at Nisa. Indeed in the formula of this document the Arsacid king appears as a grandson or great-grandson of Friyapatak (= Phriapites) (cf. M. L. Chaumont, Syria 48, 1971, pp. 145ff.). Book II. The war of Crassus against the Persians and the battle of Carrhae (53 B.C.). Book IV. Mark Antony’s expedition into Media Atropatene (36 B.C.). Book V. Roman-Parthian relations under Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius. Book VI. Corbulo’s campaign into Armenia. Book VII. Relations of Romans and Parthians under the Flavians; the complaints voiced against Trajan by the Arsacid Pacorus II (frag. 32; Roos-Wirth, p. 235).

The account of Trajan’s expedition is contained in books VIII-XVII: Book VIII. Armenian campaign of 114; the attitude of the Roman emperor toward the Arsacid aspirants to the throne of Armenia, Parthamasiris and Axidares (frags. 37-40; Roos, p. 237). Book IX. Mesopotamian campaign (114-l5); many village names mark Trajan’s itinerary from Edessa to Babylonia. In Books XI-XVI he includes, in chronological order: the taking of Ctesiphon, the voyage down the Tigris by the Roman fleet in the direction of the Persian Gulf, the short-lived success in Mesene and Characene, the return to Ctesiphon and Babylonia (116). An interesting fragment survives from the history of the revolt of the Parthian and Armenian princes, concerning the Armenian king, Sanatruces (Sanatruk) (frag. 59; Roos-Wirth, p. 247). In the last book (XVII) were described the siege of Hatra and subsequent events up to the return to Syria.

Roman Emperor TrajanRoman Emperor Trajan as depicted in a marble bust (r. 98-117 CE) (Source: Public Domain).

Although the History of the Parthians probably reflected only the Roman point of view, nevertheless its loss is regrettable. Everything indeed inclines us to believe that Arrian, thanks to his high connections, would have had first-hand access to official and private documents. The few fragments that remain from the original work have been put to good use by modern historians. See N. C. Debevoise, A Political History of Parthia, Chicago, 1936, p. 278 (index); J. Guey, Essai sur la guerre parthique de Trajan, Bibliothèque d’Istros II, Bucarest, 1937, p. 153 (index); G. Wirth, “Zur Tigrisfahrt des Kaisers Trajan,” Philologus 102, 1963, pp. 288-300.

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).  

Bibliography

Editions of Arrian’s work: Arriani Anabasis et Indica, ed. F. Dübner, Paris, 1848.

Flavii Arriani quae existant omnia (Teubner ed.), ed. A. G. Roos and G. Wirth, Leipzig, 1968, I: Alexandri Anabasis; II: Scripta minora et fragmenta (contains the History of India, the fragments of the History of the Parthians). Anabasis Alexandri, with an English translation by E. Iliff Robson (Loeb Class. Library), 2 vols., Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1958-61.

Secondary sources: E. Kornemann, Die Alexandergeschichte des Königs Ptolemaios von Ägypten, Berlin, 1935.

M. Luedeke, De fontibus quibus usus Arrianus composuit (Leipziger Studien II), 1882.

L. Pearson, The Lost Histories of Alexander the Great (Philological Monographs XX), New York, 1960.

A Robinson, The History of Alexander the Great (Brown University Studies 16), Providence, 1953.

A. G. Roos, Studia Arriania, Leipzig, 1912.

E. Schwartz, “Arrianus” no. 9, in Pauly-Wissowa, I, 1894, cols. 1230-47; “Aristobolus” no. 4, ibid., cols. 911-18.

W. Vincent, The Voyage of Nearchus, Oxford, 1809.

F. Wenger, Die Alexandergeschichte des Aristobulos von Kassandreia, Würzburg, 1914.

G. Wirth, “Arrianus,” in Der kleine Pauly I, 1964, pp. 605-06.

Idem, “Ptolemaios I als Historiker,” in Pauly-Wissowa, XXIII, 1959, cols. 2467ff.; Der kleine Pauly IV, 1972, col. 1228.

A. B. Bosworth, A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander (Books I-III) I, Oxford, 1980.

R. Syme, “The Career of Arrian,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 86, 1982, pp. 181-211.