Infobox Former Country
native_name = Ashkâniân (اشکانیان)
conventional_long_name = Parthian Empire
common_name = Parthia|
continent = moved from Category:Asia to the Middle East
region = Middle East, Central Asia, and Western Asia
country = Iran
era = Classical antiquity
status = Empire
status_text = Empires of Persia
empire = Persia
government_type = Feudal Monarchy|

year_start = 238 BCE
year_end = 226|
year_exile_start =
year_exile_end =|
event_start = Established
date_start =
event_end = Overthrown
date_end =|
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p1 = Seleucid Empire
flag_p1 = Seleucid Empire 323 - 60 (BC).gif
image_p1 =
p2 =
flag_p2 =
p3 =
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s1 = Sassanid Empire
flag_s1 = Sassanid empire map.pngimage_s1 =
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image_map_caption = Parthia at its greatest extent under Mithridates II (123–88 BC)|

image_map2_caption =|
capital = Hecatompylos 238 BC to
Ecbatana 139 BC to
Ctesiphon c. 129 BC
capital_exile =
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national_motto =
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common_languages = Parthian
religion = Zoroastrianism
currency =|

leader1 =
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title_leader = Shāhanshāh
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legislature =
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Parthia ["Parthia" derives from Latin "Parthia", from Old Persian "Parthava-", a dialectical variant of the stem "Parsa-", from which Persia derives its name. "Ashkanian" appears to have come from the Sassanian chronicles, from which they entered in Ferdowsi's epic poem "Shahnama".] (Middle Persian: اشکانیان Ashkâniân) was an Iranian civilization situated in the northeastern part of modern Iran.

At the height of its power, the Parthian Empire covered all of Iran proper, as well as regions of the modern countries of Armenia, Iraq, Georgia, eastern Turkey, eastern Syria, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Kuwait, the Persian Gulf, the coast of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and the UAE [ [ Parthia (2): the empire ] ] . The Parthian empire was led by the Arsacid dynasty, which reunited and ruled over the Iranian plateau, after defeating and disposing the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, beginning in the late 3rd century BC, and intermittently controlled Mesopotamia between 150 BCE and CE 224. It was the third native dynasty of ancient Iran (after the Median and the Achaemenid dynasties). Parthia had many wars with the Roman Empire.

After the Scythian-Parni nomads (Assyrians called them Ashkuz) [ [ Parthia (2): the empire ] ] had settled in Parthia and built a small independent kingdom, they rose to power under king Mithridates the Great (171-138 BC). [George Rawlinson, "The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World", 2002, Gorgias Press LLC ISBN 1931956480] Later, at the height of their power, Parthian influence reached as far as Ubar in Arabia, the nexus of the frankincense trade route, where Parthian-inspired ceramics have been found. The power of the early Parthian empire seems to have been overestimated by some ancient historians, who could not clearly separate the powerful later empire from its more humble obscure origins. The end of this long-lived empire came in 224 AD, when the empire was loosely organized and the last king was defeated by one of the empire's vassals, the Persians of the Sassanid dynasty.

Relatively little is known of the Parthian (Arsacid) dynasty compared to the Achaemenid and Sassanid dynasties, given that little of their own literature has survived. Consequently Parthian history is largely derived from foreign histories, controlled by the evidence of coins and inscriptions; even their own name for themselves is debatable due to a lack of domestic records. Several Greek authors, of whom we have fragments, including Apollodorus of Artemita and Isidore of Charax, wrote under Parthian rule. Their power was based on a combination of the guerrilla warfare of a mounted nomadic tribe, with organizational skills to build and administer a vast empire — even though it never matched in power and extent the Persian empires that preceded and followed it. Vassal kingdoms seem to have made up a large part of their territory (see Tigranes II of Armenia), and Hellenistic cities enjoyed a certain autonomy; their craftsmen received employment by some Parthians.

eleucid satrapy

Parthia was originally designated as a territory southeast of the Caspian sea encompasing the Kopet Dag mountain range in the north and Dasht-e-Kavir desert in the south. It was a satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire from 550 BC when it was subdued by Cyrus the Great until the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great in 330 BC [ [ Parthia (1) ] ] . Following Alexander's death, the government of Parthia was given to Nicanor, at the Partition of Babylon in 323 BC. At the Partition of Triparadisus in 320 BC, Parthia was then given to Philip. Philip in turn was then succeeded by Peithon. From 311 BC, Parthia then became a part of the Seleucid empire, being ruled by various satraps under Seleucid kingdom.

Andragoras (d. 238 BCE) was the last Seleucid satrap of the province of Partahia, under the Seleucid rulers Antiochus I Soter and Antiochus II Theos (Justin, xli. 4). Andragoras tried to wrestle independence from the Seleucid Empire, at a time when the Seleucid were embroiled in conflict with Ptolemaic Egypt. In defiance, he issued coins in which he wears the royal diadem as well as his name (Will: I, 1966). Andragoras was a neighbour, a contemporary, and probably an ally of Diodotus I in Bactria, who also fought the Seleucids for independence around the same time, giving rise to the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. [Pliny the Elder, "Natural History", chapters 28 and 29]

The Parthian Empire

Around the same time Andragoras seceded from the Seleucids, an Eastern Iranian Dahae tribe called the Parni entered the Iranian plateau from Central Asia. They were consummate horsemen, known for the "Parthian shot": turning backwards at full gallop to loose an arrow directly to the rear. Initially, around 238 BCE, their king named Arsaces (Ashk) toppled Andragoras and established his dynasty's independence from the Seleucid Empire, ruling his kingdom in remote areas of northern Iran in what is today known as Turkmenistan.

:"He (Arsaces) was used to a life of pillage and theft, when he heard about the defeat of Seleucus against the Gauls. Relieved from his fear of the king, he attacked the Parthians with a band of thieves, vanquished their prefect Andragoras, and, after having killed him took the power over the nation" [ Justin, xli. 4] .

Arsaces' immediate descendants ruled free of the Seleucids until 209 BCE, when King Antiochus III the Great invaded Parthia, occupied the capital at Hecatompylus, and pushed forward into Hyrcania. The Parthian king Arsaces II successfully sued for peace, and recognized Seleucid authority. Antiochus III had so well secured Parthia that he moved further east, where he fought the Greco-Bactrian king Euthydemus I for three years and then went into India.

It was not until well into the 2nd century BCE that the Parthians were able to profit from the continuing decline of the Seleucid Empire. King Mithridates I defeated King Eucratides of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and annexed Bactria's territory west of the Arius (the regions of Tapuria and Traxiane) and gained Herat. This choked off the movement of trade along the Silk Road to China, and effectively doomed the eastern Hellenistic world of Greco-Bactria and the Indo-Greeks.

The Seleucid monarchs attempted to hold the line against Parthian expansion; Antiochus IV Epiphanes spent his last years on a campaign against the newly emerging Iranian states. After his death in 164 BC, the Parthians took advantage of the ensuing dynastic squabbles to make even greater gains.

In 139 BC, Mithridates I captured the Seleucid monarch Demetrius II Nicator, holding him captive for ten years while his troops overwhelmed Mesopotamia and Media.

By 129 BC, the Parthians were in control of the lands east of the Tigris and established their winter encampment on its banks at Ctesiphon, a small suburb directly across the river from Seleucia on the Tigris, the Seleucid capital of Mesopotamia (downstream from modern Baghdad). Because of their need of the wealth and trade provided by Seleucia, the Parthian armies limited their incursions to harassment and allowed the city to preserve its independence. In the heat of the Mesopotamian summer, the Parthian army would withdraw to the ancient Persian capitals of Susa and Ecbatana (modern Hamadan).

After 130 BC the Parthians suffered numerous incursions by Scythian nomads (also called the Tocharians from Bactria, possibly the Yuezhi), in which kings Phraates II and Artabanus I were successively killed. Scythians again invaded Parthia around 90 BC, putting king Sanatruces on the Parthian throne.


After the conquests of Media, Assyria, Babylonia and Elam, the Parthians had to organize their empire. The former elites of these countries were Greek, and the new rulers had to adapt to their customs if they wanted their rule to last. As a result, the cities retained their ancient rights and civil administrations remained more or less undisturbed. An interesting detail is coinage: legends were written in the Greek alphabet, a practice that continued until the 2nd century AD, when local knowledge of the language was in decline and few people knew how to read or write the Greek alphabet.

Another source of inspiration was the Achaemenid dynasty that had once ruled the Persian Empire. Courtiers spoke Persian and used the Pahlavi script; the royal court traveled from capital to capital, and the Arsacid kings styled themselves "king of kings". It was an apt title, as in addition to his own kingdom the Parthian monarch was the overlord of some eighteen vassal kings, such as the rulers of the city state Hatra, the kingdom of Characene and the ancient kingdom of Armenia.

The empire was, overall, not very centralized. There were several languages, many people, and a number of different economic systems. The loose ties between the separate parts of the empire were a key to its survival. In the 2nd century AD, the most important capital, Ctesiphon, was captured no less than three times by the Romans (in 116, 165 and 198), but the empire survived because there were other centers of power. On the other hand, the fact that the empire was a mere conglomeration of kingdoms, provinces and city-states did at times seriously weaken the Parthian state. This was a major factor in the halt of the Parthian expansion after the conquests of Mesopotamia and Persia.

Local potentates played important roles, and the king had to respect their privileges. Several noble families had votes in the Royal council; the House of Suren had the right to crown the Parthian king, and every aristocrat was allowed and expected to retain an army of his own. When the throne was occupied by a weak ruler, divisions among the nobility became dangerous.

The constituent parts of the empire were surprisingly independent. For example, they were allowed to strike their own coins, a privilege which in antiquity was very rare. As long as the local elite paid tribute to the Parthian king, there was little interference. The system worked well: towns such as Ctesiphon, Seleucia, Ecbatana, Rhagae, Hecatompylos, Nisâ, and Susa flourished.

Tribute was one source of royal income; another was tolls. Parthia controlled the Silk Road, the trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and China.

Parthian language

Arsacid Pahlavi or more popularly known as Parthian is a now-extinct ancient Northwestern Iranian language that originated in Parthia (a region in the north-eastern part of modern Iran, including and not limited to Khorosan, Mazandaran and southern parts of what is today known as Turkmenistan). The language was the official state language of the Arsacid Dynasty (248 BC – 224 AD) and may have served as a secondary language for the Sassanid dynasty of Iran in its early years. The language was written using the Pahlavi script.

Contact with China

The Chinese explorer Zhang Qian, who visited the neighbouring countries of Bactria and Sogdiana in 126 BC, made the first known Chinese report on Parthia. In his accounts Parthia is named "Ānxī" (Chinese: 安息), a transliteration of "Arsacid", the name of the Parthian dynasty. Zhang Qian clearly identifies Parthia as an advanced urban civilization that farmed grain and grapes, made silver coins and leather goods; [ [ "Silk Road, North China", C. Michael Hogan, The Megalithic Portal, ed. A. Burnham (2007)] ] Zhang Qian equates the level of advancement of Parthia to the cultures of Dayuan (in Ferghana) and Daxia (in Bactria).

Following Zhang Qian's embassy and report, commercial relations between China, Central Asia, and Parthia flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the 1st century BC:

The Parthians were apparently very intent on maintaining good relations with China and also sent their own embassies, starting around 110 BC:

In 97 BC, the Han general Ban Chao formed direct military contacts with the Parthian Empire and establish military bases as far west as the Caspian Sea with his cavalry of 70,000 men during expeditions against the Xiongnu, while protecting the trade routes now known as the Silk Road.

Parthians also played a role in the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism from Central Asia to China. An Shih Kao, a Parthian nobleman and Buddhist missionary, went to the Chinese capital Luoyang in 148 where he established temples and became the first man to translate Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.

Conflicts with Rome

During the earlier part of the first century BC, Parthia pursued a peaceful policy of non-entanglement with the west. [Arthur Keaveney examined Parthian foreign relations in two articles: "Roman treaties with Parthia, circa 95—circa 64 B.C." ("American Journal of Philology" 102 (1981:195-212) and "The King and the War-Lords: Romano-Parthian Relations Circa 64-53 B.C." ("AJP" 103 (1982:412-428).] Parthian relations with Imperial Rome largely consisted in intermittent warfare separated by periods of stalemate truce and exchange of gifts and hostages, with Trajan's Parthian campaign as a watershed, until the recognition of Parthia as co-equal in the fourth century, followed the final stages of fierce fighting under Macrinus. No official documents in the form of official inscriptions of treaties survive; the sources are largely Roman and literary. Protocol [The protocol when representatives met is investigated in J. Gagé, "L'Empereur Romain et les rois: politique et protocol," "Revue Historique" 1959.] developed during the fourth century provided the basis on which the Eastern Empire would address the Sassanians

In 53 BC, the Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus invaded Parthia in search of desperately needed gold to fund Roman military campaigns. The Parthian armies included two types of cavalry, heavily-armed and armored cataphracts and lightly armed but highly-mobile mounted archers. For the Romans, who relied on heavy infantry, the Parthians were difficult to defeat, as both types of cavalry were much faster and more mobile than foot soldiers. Furthermore, the Parthians used strategies during warfare unfamiliar to the Romans, such as the famous "Parthian shot", firing arrows backwards at the gallop. Crassus having never encountered such an army or strategic warfare before was defeated decisively at the Battle of Carrhae by a Parthian commander called Surena in the Greek and Latin sources. This was the beginning of a series of wars that were to last for almost three centuries. After the defeat Crassus was fed molten gold, a symbolic gesture for his greed. On the other hand, the Parthians found it difficult to conquer Roman eastern provinces completely.

In the years following the battle of Carrhae, the Romans were divided in civil war between the adherents of Pompey and those of Julius Caesar and hence unable to campaign against Parthia. Although Caesar was eventually victorious against Pompey and was planning a campaign against Parthia, his subsequent murder led to another Roman civil war. The Roman general Quintus Labienus, who had supported Caesar's murderers and feared reprisals from his heirs, Mark Antony and Octavian (later Augustus), sided with the Parthians under Pacorus I. In 41 BC Parthia, led by Labienus, invaded Syria, Cilicia, and Caria and attacked Phrygia in Asia Minor. A second army intervened in Judaea and captured its king Hyrcanus II. The spoils were immense, and put to good use: King Phraates IV invested them in building up Ctesiphon.

In 39 BC, Antony retaliated, sending out general Publius Ventidius Bassus and several legions to secure the conquered territories. The Parthian King Pacorus was killed along with Labienus, and the Euphrates again became the border between the two nations. Hoping to further avenge the death of Crassus, Antony invaded Mesopotamia in 36 BC with the Legio VI Ferrata and other units. Having cavalry in support, Antony reached Armenia but failed to make much impact and withdrew with heavy losses.

Antony's campaign was followed by a break in the fighting between the two empires as Rome was again embroiled in civil war. When Octavian defeated Mark Antony, he ignored the Parthians, being more interested in the west. His son-in-law and future successor Tiberius negotiated a peace treaty with Phraates (20 BC).

At the same time, around the year 1, the Parthians became interested in the valley of the Indus, where they began conquering the kingdoms of Gandhara. One of the Parthian leaders was Gondophares, king of Taxila; according to an old and widespread Christian tradition, he was baptized by the apostle Thomas. While it may sound far-fetched, the story is not altogether impossible: adherents of several religions lived together in Gandara and the Punjab, and there may have been an audience for a representative of a new Jewish sect.

War broke out again between Rome and Parthia in the 60s AD. Armenia had become a Roman vassal kingdom, but the Parthian king Vologases I invaded and installed his own brother as king of Armenia. This was too much for the Romans, and their commander Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo invaded Armenia. The result was that the Armenian king received his crown again in Rome from the emperor Nero. A compromise was worked out between the two empires: in the future, the king of Armenia was to be a Parthian prince, but his appointment required approval from the Romans.

Expansion to India

Also during the 1st century BC, the Parthians started to make inroads into eastern territories that had been occupied by the Indo-Scythians and the Yuezhi. The Parthians gained control of parts of Bactria and extensive South Asian territories in modern day Pakistan, after defeating local rulers such as the Kushan Empire ruler Kujula Kadphises, in the Gandhara region.

The ruins of the ancient port city of Siraf are in the process of excavation, and its historical importance to ancient trade is only now being realized. Discovered there in archaeological excavations are ivory objects from east Africa, pieces of stone from India, and lapis from Afghanistan. Sirif dates back to the Parthian era. [cite web
title=Foreign Experts Talk of Siraf History
publisher=Cultural Heritage News Agency

Around 20 AD, Gondophares, one of the Parthian conquerors, declared his independence from the Parthian empire and established the Indo-Parthian Kingdom in the conquered territories.

Decline and fall

The Armenian compromise served its purpose, but nothing in it covered the deposition of an Armenian king. After 110 AD, the Parthian king Vologases III dethroned the Armenian ruler, and the Roman emperor Trajan decided to invade Parthia in retaliation. War broke out in 114 AD and the Parthians were severely beaten. The Romans conquered Armenia, and in the following year, Trajan marched to the south, where the Parthians were forced to evacuate their strongholds. In 116, Trajan captured Ctesiphon, and established new provinces in Assyria and Babylonia. Later that year, he took the Parthian capital, Susa, deposed the Parthian King Osroes I and put Parthamaspates as a puppet ruler on the throne.

Rebellions soon broke out due to the continuing loyalty of the population to Parthia. At the same time, the diasporic Jews revolted and Trajan was forced to send an army to suppress them. Trajan overcame these troubles, but his successor Hadrian gave up the territories (117).

Parthian weaknesses also contributed to the disaster. In the first century AD, the Parthian nobility had become more powerful due to concessions by the Parthian king granting them greater powers over the land and the peasantry. Their power now rivaled the king's, while at the same time internal divisions in the Arsacid family had rendered them vulnerable.

But the end was not near, yet. In 161, king Vologases IV declared war against the Romans and reconquered Armenia. The Roman counter-offensive was slow, but in 165, Ctesiphon fell, and the Parthians were only saved by the outburst of a catastrophic epidemic (probably the measles or smallpox) which temporarily crippled the two empires. The Roman co-emperors Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius added northern Mesopotamia to their realm (partly as a vassal-kingdom), but as it was never secure enough for them to demilitarize the region between the Euphrates and Tigris, it remained an expensive burden.

The deciding blow came thirty years later. King Vologases V had tried to reconquer Mesopotamia during another Roman civil war (193), but was repulsed when general Septimius Severus counter-attacked. Again, Ctesiphon was captured (198), and large spoils were brought to Rome. According to a modern estimate, the gold and silver were sufficient to postpone a European economic crisis for three or four decades, and the consequences of the looting for Parthia were dire.

Parthia, now impoverished and without any hope to recover the lost territories, was demoralized. The kings were forced to concede greater powers to the nobility, and the vassal kings began to waver in their allegiance. In 224, the Persian vassal king Ardašir revolted. Two years later, he took Ctesiphon, and this time it meant the end of Parthia, replaced by a third Persian Empire, ruled by the Sassanid dynasty.


Parthian rulers

Notes on the text


* [ Encyclopedia Iranica, "Arsacids", A. Sh. Shahbazi, K. Schippmann, M. Alram, M. Boyce, C. Toumanoff]
* Hill, John E. 2004. "The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu." Draft annotated English translation. []
* Hill, John E. 2004. "The Peoples of the West from the Weilue" 魏略 "by Yu Huan" 魚豢": A Third Century Chinese Account Composed between 239 and 265 AD." Draft annotated English translation. []

Further reading

* Debevoise, N.C. "A Political History of Parthia", 1938.
* Lerouge, C. "L'image des Parthes dans le monde gréco-romain. Du début du Ier siècle av. J.-C. jusqu'à la fin du Haut-Empire romain" (Stuttgart, 2007) (Oriens et Occidens, 17).

ee also

* Parthian language
* Parthian shot
* Indo-Parthian Kingdom
* An Shihkao
* List of kings of Persia (Iran)
* Elymais
* Patigrabana
* Parthian Coinage

External links

* [ - with an extensive bibliography]
* [ History of Parthia]
* [ The Establishment and Development of Christianity in the Parthian Empire] in Transoxiana 6.
* [ Parthia (Old Persian Parthava)]

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