The Parthian Empire

The Parthian Empire (ca. 125 B.C.E.–224 C.E.)

Parthia, located in what is now northeastern Iran, had been a satrapy of the Persian Empire, but previous to that it had, like Achaemenid Persia, been a vassal state of the Medes. Parthia was one of the satrapies that revolted from the Persian Empire—joining the Medes—upon the ascension to the throne by Darius I.

But the revolt was short lived; Darius reconquered the region and brought it back under Persian overlordship in 521 B.C.E. From then until the end of the empire, the Parthians were loyal and valued members of the Persian army, gaining fame as excellent horsemen. They fought the Greeks under Xerxes and under Darius III fought against the Macedonians led by Alexander the Great.

Parthia surrendered to Alexander in 330 B.C.E. As part of his new “Persian” policy (as the Macedonians thought), Alexander reappointed Phrataphernes as satrap of Parthia even though Phrataphernes, as was custom, had led the Parthian forces against the Macedonians. After the death of Alexander, Parthia became a satrapy of the Seleucid Empire.

As forceful as these Parthians were, however, the catalysts of what was to become the Parthian Empire were the Parni (also known as Aparni). A seminomadic tribe that had moved south from the area east of the Caspian Sea into Parthia during the time of Seleucid rule, the Parni, under their leader, Arsaces (Arshak in Parthian, r. 247–? B.C.E.), came to power in Parthia in an elaborate way.

War in the west in the mid-240s B.C.E. provided the occasion for the satrapy, along with that of Bactria, to revolt from Seleucid authority. In 238 B.C.E., when the Seleucids were defeated by invading Celts at the Battle of Ancyra, Arsaces, as ancient history scholar Malcolm A. R. Colledge notes, was able “to eject [the Parthian satrap Andragoras] and occupy the province of Parthia” (Colledge 1967, 25).

Arsaces’ successor was his brother, also Arsaces (also known as Arsaces Tiridates, r. ?–211 B.C.E.). Much like Caesar in Rome, the name Arsaces was used as a title by the fi rst 19 kings of Parthia, the majority of whom retained their personal names, and the dynasty is referred to as the Arsacid. Arsaces II made a treaty with the satrap of the neighboring and still rebellious province of Bactria, allowing him to consolidate his authority and pursue expansion.

Parthian expansion was at the expense of the Seleucid Empire, as Arsaces II and the next three of his successors methodically picked off territory from the eastern satrapies. However, they were unable to defeat Seleucid power outright, especially during the reign of Antiochus the Great. During this period, Parthia was an autonomous state within the Seleucid Empire.

It was the sixth Parthian king whom historians have credited with creating the Parthian Empire. Arsaces VI Mithridates (also known as Mithridates I and Mithridates the Great, r. ca. 171–138 B.C.E.), the younger brother of his predecessor, Arsaces V Phraates, came to power at a conspicuous time in history as “one by one the provinces of Iran were lost to the Seleucids, and became a series of independent monarchies” (Colledge 1967, 28). Nevertheless, Mithridates bode his time for almost 11 years.

In 160 B.C.E., the Parthians overran Tapiura and Traxiane to the east, formerly Bactrian territory. He then turned westward, and by 147 B.C.E., the Parthians occupied the ever-rebellious kingdom of Media. A few years later, Mithridates took a step that signaled Parthian independence from Seleucid rule: He became the fi rst Parthian king to issue coinage.

The record next becomes somewhat hazy, but Mithridates returned east, “perhaps on account of an attack on his borders” (Colledge 1967, 29). After further eastern conquest, he turned westward again with the intention of taking Babylonia as well as a few kingdoms, such as Elam and Armenia. This he swiftly accomplished, in 141 B.C.E. but once again had to repel an invasion in the east—this time from Bactria.

The Seleucid king, Demetrius II, took advantage of Mithridates’ preoccupation in the east to mount a counterattack to regain his lost territory. But Mithridates defeated the Bactrians, turned west for the third time, and defeated Demetrius, taking the Seleucid king prisoner. Demetrius thereupon forsook his throne but reclaimed it ca. 129 B.C.E. and held it for another four years after that.

Nevertheless, the Seleucid Empire was at a virtual end; the dynasty continued to rule until 64 B.C.E. but had long since fallen back on Syria as its fi nal domain, where it served as a buffer state between the Parthian and the Roman Empires. Mithridates died in 138 B.C.E., but the empire he founded continued to expand. By 113 B.C.E., during the reign of Arsaces XI Mithridates (c. 124–87 B.C.E.), upper Mesopotamia fell under Parthian sovereignty.

This was the furthest west the Parthians would push. From then on, the focus of the Parthian kings shifted from conquest to maintaining and governing their possessions. This era, dating approximately from the accession of Mithridates the Great to the throne of Parthia in 171 B.C.E. to 10 B.C.E., is known as the phil-Hellenistic period because many of the provinces of the empire had retained their Greek qualities, especially language and culture, and the Parthians utilized them, though individual regional characteristics were preserved.

One characteristic of the Parthians that the kings themselves maintained was their nomadic urge. The kings built or occupied numerous cities as their capitals, the most important being Ctesiphon on the Tigris River, which they built from the ancient town of Opis. The Parthian monarchs shuffl ed their courts between these capital cities, though Babylon does not seem to have been one of them.

Possibly as a result of all that movement, comparatively few offi cial records from the Parthian Empire have survived, but this may be due in part to Sassanian hostility (Colledge 1967, 174). Dura Europos (Syria), Susa (Iran), and Nisa (Turkmenistan) seem to be the main repositories of Parthian documents and inscriptions, further suggesting the decline of Babylon under the Parthians.

Despite such decline, Babylonia on the whole fared well under Arsacid rule: “Minority languages of the Empire included the living and defunct tongues of Babylonia still written in cuneiform script until, at least, 6 B.C., and of course Hebrew” (Colledge 1967, 71). Colledge also makes the point that Babylonian law also survived as it “underlies the parchment contract of 121 A.D. from Dura” (Colledge 1967, 73), near the end of Parthian rule.

Art and Religion under the Parthians

Greek culture underlay the Parthian Empire; this is most evident in surviving artwork and less so in architecture, the latter being more diffuse in style. However, it took more than a century before classical Greek artistic styles began to infl uence Parthian artists. A late date for such infl uence can be partially attributed to the degree of political autonomy that Parthia enjoyed under the Seleucids. In addition, there was a “new Hellenic style . . . [a] variation between oriental and Greek style” (Colledge 1967, 143).

One of the major Greek infl uences was the positioning of fi gures in reliefs. Ancient Near East artists positioned fi gures in profi le, usually in rows, and the Parthians were no exception. When Greek infl uence fi nally arrived, spreading eastward—and the Parthians are considered the fi rst Eastern artists whose work was trans formed by Hellenic culture—Parthian artists began positioning fi gures frontally. This new style fairly quickly became the norm for Parthian artists.

Frescoes, reliefs, and statuary survive from the later period of the empire (especially in Dura) that show Parthian adaptation of Greek infl uence. Another aspect of Parthian art was that it was less imperial than either Achaemenid or Sassanian art and in this sense resembled Seleucid art.A second and perhaps more important aspect of Parthian rule is the infl uence of imported religions in Babylonia and Mesopotamia. During the empires of the Achaemenids and Seleucids, the ancient religions managed to survive and, indeed, were actively promoted by the dynasties.

But during the Parthian period, the ancient religions of Mesopotamia became extinct (though worship of Shamash continued), replaced at first by Greek and Persian religions—the latter reintroducing and/or reinforcing Zoroastrianism—then by Jewish monotheism, to which the royal family of the semiautonomous kingdom of Atiabene (in Assyria) converted. Christianity also spread into Mesopotamia and Babylonia during the fi rst two centuries C.E., especially the Gnostic variety. Lastly, there is evidence in Dura Europos of Roman cults where the legions had been stationed.

The death of the old religions and cults and the fact that the newer ones vied with each other and were never able to gain deep-rooted stability across Mesopotamia made it easier for Islam to supplant other religions in the region in later centuries. Lastly, this infl ux of new religious ideas in the last centuries B.C.E. and the fi rst of the common era contributed to the further decline of Babylon, as its god, Marduk, was abandoned.