The Parthians were originally a nomadic tribe of Eastern Iranians known as the Parni who conquered the region of northeastern Persia known as Parthia. From here the Parthians soon established an empire that stretched from Indus to the Euphrates. Though often in conflict with Rome, the Parthians were never conquered and inflicted several famous defeats on the Romans. Meanwhile, wealth drawn from control of the Silk Road allowed the Parthians to construct works of art and architecture that reflected a culture that blended Hellenistic and Iranian elements. However, surviving source material from the Parthian Empire is scarce, so much of what we know must be taken from Greek, Roman, and even Chinese sources.
1. The Parthian Empire Was Founded by Arsaces I
The Parthian Empire was founded in 247 BCE, by Arsaces I (r.247-217 BCE) for whom the ruling Arsacid dynasty was named. Arsaces began as the ruler of the Parni, a nomadic Eastern Iranian tribe that had been part of the Dahae Confederation. The exact sequence of events which led to Arsaces and the Parni seizing control of the Seleucid satrapy of Parthia is unclear. Yet by 238 BCE, Andragoras, the possibly rebellious Seleucid Satrap of Parthia, was dead and Arsaces controlled the entire territory. With the conquest of Parthia, the Parni adopted Parthian as the official language of their court and became known as Parthians in the Greco-Roman sources. Later the Parthians would claim fictitious descent from the Achaemenid king Artaxerxes II (r.404-358 BCE).
The Seleucids did not allow the loss of their territory to go uncontested. However, conflict with the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt prevented them from launching an immediate counterattack. Arsaces used this time to strengthen his control of Parthia, expand into Hyrcania, and form an alliance with Diodotus II who ruled over the Greco-Bactrian kingdom which had also seceded from the Seleucid Empire. Seleucid campaigns during the reigns of Seleucus II Callinicus (r.246-222 BCE) and Antiochus III the Great (r.222-187 BCE) failed to bring Parthia or Bactria back under control though they were forced acknowledge Seleucid superiority.
2. The Empire Was Established Through a Series of Wars with the Seleucids
Conflict with Rome and the Ptolemies prevented the Seleucids from further interfering with Parthian affairs. This allowed Phraates I (r.176-171 BCE) to establish his rule independently of Seleucid control and expand his territory around the Caspian Sea. However, it was Mithridates I (r.171-132) who is most often recognized as the founder of the Parthian Empire. Upon ascending the throne, he came into conflict with the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, which he decisively defeated and annexed its territory.
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Next, he turned his attention to the Seleucids. In c.148-147 BCE Mithridates swept across the Eastern Seleucid territories capturing Media and Mesopotamia before extending his control to the Indus River. The Seleucid counterattack was defeated in 140 BCE, but Mithridates was forced to turn his attention to the nomadic Saka attacking his Eastern borders. The threat posed by such attacks was something that the Parthians would continue to deal with.
Renewed Seleucid attack in the 130’s BCE brought a great deal of pressure on the Parthians but ultimately resulted in the death of the Seleucid monarch Antiochus VII Sidetes (r.138-129 BCE) in 129 BCE at the battle of Ecbatana. After this the Parthians alternated their campaigns between the East and West. In the East there was continued conflict with the nomadic Saka and possibly the Yuezhi until the early 1st Century BCE. However, the Eastern border was eventually stabilized by alliances with the Indo-Parthian Kingdom and the Kushan Empire of the Yuezhi. To the West the Parthians continued to expand into Mesopotamia and Syria, occupying Dura-Europos in 113 BCE. This brought them into conflict with the Kingdom of Armenia which was to have a lasting influence on the Parthian Empire.
3. Parthian Culture Was a Mixture of Iranian and Greek Influences
Compared to the earlier Achaemenid Empire, the Parthian Empire was far more decentralized. Parthian kings ruled an empire that consisted of both satrapies and semi-autonomous kingdoms. Nor was there a permanent standing army, although troops could be recruited quickly in times of crisis. This meant that Parthian nobles enjoyed a great deal of power and influence so that Parthian society is often described as feudal. The Parthians were also heavily influenced by both Hellenism and an Iranian Cultural Revival, though it should be noted that the Greek cultural influence never fully disappeared. Thus, Parthian kings minted coins with Greek and Parthian inscriptions, enjoyed Greek theater, and chose regnal names from the Avesta, the primary collection of religious texts of Zoroastrianism. So while the Parthians were tolerant of other cultures and drew influences from them, the Iranian and Greek influences were the most important.
Since the Parthian Empire was rather heterogeneous most Parthians appear to have been polytheistic. Greek and Iranian deities were blended together, and each city or ethnic group had its own designated deities. The extent to which the Parthians as a whole and the Arsacids in particular followed the tenets of Zoroastrianism is hotly debated amongst modern scholars. The Zoroastrian magi priests were certainly present at the Arsacid court but other cultic practices they would have considered objectionable continued. It is also important to note that there were minority communities of Jews and Christians as well. At least one Parthian serving as a Buddhist missionary is known to have traveled to China, though the evidence of Buddhism in the Parthian Empire is scant.
4. Parthia Fought Against the Romans Over Armenia
In 97 BCE the Parthians defeated and deposed the Armenian king and took his son, the Future Tigranes II the Great (r.95-55 BCE) hostage. Shortly after this, the Parthians signed a treaty with the Roman Proconsul of Cilicia, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BCE), establishing a border between their territories. Despite violations, this treaty held for many years as both the Parthians and Romans were distracted by events elsewhere. However, the situation changed as Tigranes II the Great and his son Tigranes the Younger attempted to play both sides off against each other in their political struggle for the throne of Armenia. When Tigranes II the Great submitted to Rome as a client king, the Parthians demanded that Tigranes the younger be turned over to them but were refused. Thus, Armenia brought Parthia and Rome into direct conflict for the first time.
In 53 BCE the Triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus launched a legally dubious invasion of Parthian Mesopotamia in support of his Armenian allies and in an attempt to influence a Parthian Civil War. Crassus was killed following the battle of Carrhae during which some 30,000 Roman soldiers were lost. The emboldened Parthians then extensively raided Roman territory but were themselves repulsed. During the Roman Civil War (49-45 BCE) the Parthians supplied troops to Pompey and supported those opposed to the Second Triumvirate. Parthian forces overran Syria and Judea bringing them into conflict with Mark Antony (83-30 BCE) for most of the 30’s BCE.
Armenia seesawed back and forth in its support of Rome and Parthia depending on who was winning and who was on the throne. Following Octavian’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BCE, peace was established between the two empires and the Parthian ally Artaxis II (34-20 BCE) ascended the Armenian throne.
5. It Controlled Silk Road Routes and Was in Contact with Han China
Contact between the Parthian and Han Empires was established in 121 BCE, as a result of the diplomatic efforts of Zhang Qian. The Han had hoped for a military alliance against the nomadic Xiongnu, but trade relations still benefited both empires greatly. Parthian spices, perfumes, fruits, and exotic animals were greatly valued by the Han, while the Parthians purchased Chinese pearls and silk. Caravans carrying Roman goods such as fine glassware also made use of Parthian-controlled trade routes. The Parthians were thus greatly enriched by taxing the many caravans that traveled along the silk road.
The Parthians understood that their geographic position in relation to the Han Empire brought them many advantages and sought to carefully guard their access. In 97 CE the Han emissary Gan Ying arrived at the Parthian court on a mission to reach Rome. He had been dispatched by Ban Chao, the Protector of the Western Regions, who had just won a decisive campaign against the nomadic Xiongnu. Gan Ying was treated with great hospitality but was told that the only way to reach Rome was a dangerous voyage around the Arabian Peninsula. Discouraged, he delivered a detailed report to the Han court about the Roman Empire based on information he received from his Parthian hosts. While Parthian efforts did not prevent any contact between the Romans and Han from occurring, they did ensure that contact was limited. Understandably, Han sources provide a more neutral view when describing the Parthian Empire compared to the Greeks and Romans.
6. Armenia Was the Fruit of Discord Between Parthia and Rome
Peace between Parthia and Rome did not last long as the Romans continued to interfere in Parthian affairs, especially where Armenia was concerned. Hostilities flared up again with the Roman-Parthian War (58-63 CE), when Rome tried to install a client on the Armenian throne. This conflict ended in a compromise in which the Armenian king would be a member of the Arsacid dynasty but receive their crown from the Roman emperor. Even after the fall of the Parthian Empire the Arsacid line continued through the Arsacid dynasties of Armenia, Caucasian Iberia, Caucasian Albania, and Georgia. When the Parthians later crowned an Armenian king without consulting Rome, the emperor Trajan launched a campaign into Mesopotamia (115-117 CE) that reached Susa and the Persian Gulf. Although the Romans sacked the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon, they were unable to hold on to the majority of their conquests.
The next Roman-Parthian War (161-166 CE) began with the Parthian king Vologases IV (r.147-191 CE) attempting to regain the territory that had been lost to Rome. Lucius Verus (r.161-169 CE) the co-emperor of Marcus Aurelius (r.161-180 CE) succeeded in again burning Ctesiphon but had to withdraw when a plague ravaged his army. War again broke out, 195-197CE, when the Parthians attempted to invade Armenia and provided support to Pescennius Niger (r.193-194) during his war with Septimius Severus (r.193-211 CE). Once again, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus led the legions into Mesopotamia and sacked Ctesiphon.
Though much of Mesopotamia was annexed, the Romans ultimately withdrew. The final conflict between Rome and Parthia, the Parthian War of Caracalla (216-217 CE) was again the result of competition for control of Armenia. Although the Roman caused widespread devastation, they were defeated and forced to pay a large indemnity following the assassination of Caracalla (r.211-217 CE) by his own soldiers.
7. After a Persian Revolt, the Sassanids Replaced the Parthians
Despite the victory over Caracalla, the continued conflicts with Rome had greatly weakened the Parthian empire. A dynastic struggle between Vologases VI (r.208-228 CE) and his brother Artabanus IV (r.213-224 CE) had divided the empire. This allowed Ardashir I (r.211-224 CE), the local Iranian ruler of Pars to begin conquering the surrounding territories. Soon he was able to demand the fealty of the provinces of Kerman, Isfahan, Susiana, and Messene. This drew the attention of Artabanus IV who ordered his governors to handle the situation. When they failed and Ardashir continued to conquer more territory Artabanus IV led his forces against Ardashir in an attempt to crush the upstart. The resulting battle of Hormozdgan in 224 CE was a crushing defeat for the Parthians and Artabanus IV was killed.
In the aftermath of the battle, Ardashir assumed for himself the title of Shahanshah, or king of kings. Ardashir thus became the founder of a new Persian dynasty known as the Sassanid Empire. By 228 CE he had conquered all of the former Parthian territory and eliminated Vologases VI who had holed up in Mesopotamia. Ardashir displayed a deep hatred of the Parthians, who had ruled a Persian empire despite not being Persians themselves. That this hatred for the Parthians was displayed by later Sassanid kings as well suggests that Parthian rule may have been harsher than is usually thought. However, it is also possible that the Parthians practiced a different form of Zoroastrianism than the Sassanids and were thus considered heretics.
8. It Is Difficult to Understand the Legacy of the Parthian Empire
The lack of source material from the Parthians themselves makes it difficult to truly understand their influence and legacy. Most of what we have is from the point of view of their enemies. Nonetheless, the Parthians exerted an enormous influence on the Ancient Near East and beyond. They brought an end to the Seleucid Empire, the largest of the Hellenistic successor kingdoms. This enabled an Iranian cultural revival that would have a profound effect on the region. Despite their less than stellar battlefield record against the Romans, they effectively halted Rome’s eastward expansion.
Few can claim to have fought the Romans for so long whilst maintaining their territorial integrity. They also made important contributions to the growth and development of the silk road which brought them into contact with China’s Han Empire. The continued success of the trade route owed a great deal to the Parthians. Politically, the legacy of the Parthians survived even longer as many kingdoms in the Caucasus region were ruled by Arsacid dynasties of their own.
Today we are most likely to encounter the Parthians in the histories of the great Greco-Roman historians of antiquity. It is unfortunate that as of yet no comparable Parthian historian has been discovered. Thus, we can know them best through the material remains that they left behind across the Ancient Near East. Other examples of Parthian material culture can be viewed in museums all across the world. Although they are not as well-known as the earlier Achaemenids or other later Persian dynasties, the mighty Parthians deserve to be remembered for their many great accomplishments.