Arsacid Empire

Arsacid Empire

Infobox Former Country
native_name = Ashkâniân (اشکانیان)
conventional_long_name = Parthian Empire
common_name = Parthia|
continent = Asia
region = Middle East, Central Asia, and Western Asia
country = Iran
era = Classical_antiquity
status = Empire
status_text = Empires of Persia
empire = Persia
government_type = Feudalist Monarchy|

year_start = 238 BC
year_end = 226 AD|
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event_start = Established
date_start =
event_end = Overthrown
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p1 = Seleucid Empire
flag_p1 = Seleucid Empire 323 - 60 (BC).gif
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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 (12388 BC)|

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capital = Hecatompylos 238 BC to
Ecbatana 139 BC to
Ctesiphon c. 129 BC
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common_languages = Middle Iranian
religion = Zoroastrianism
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title_leader = Shāhanshāh
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The Parthian Empire (238 B.C.A.D. 226) was the third Iranian kingdom to dominate Greater Iran in ancient times. Parthia itself was located south-east of the Caspian Sea, between the Kopet Dag mountains and the Dasht-e-Kavir desert. retrieved 2 Mar 2008] The empire was ruled by the Arsacid Dynasty, and at its height they controlled most of Armenia, Mesopotamia, Iran, and Afghanistan.

The Parthians were consummate horsemen, known for a military tactic called the "Parthian shot". The empire was famously a rival state of the Roman Empire.


:See Also: "Parni" and "Parthia (satrapy)".

The predecessors of the Parthians were a Scythian tribe known as the Parni, who were part of the Dahae Confederacy. Ancient Assyrian texts mention a country named "Partakka" or "Partukka" in the seventh century BC. At some point it was subjugated by the Medes, who were later overthrown in 550 BC by their Persian vassals, led by Cyrus the Great.

For the next two centuries the satrapy of Parthia was part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. In 522 BC, Parthia joined King Phraortes of Media in a rebellion that was suppressed by Darius the Great. They fought with King Darius III of Persia during the Battle of Gaugamela against the Macedonians led by Alexander the Great (October 1st, 331 BC). They were commanded by Phrataphernes, who surrendered his satrapy to Alexander in the summer of 330. Phrataphernes was reappointed Satrap and also given control over Hyrcania in 323 BC.

After Alexander's death, his Argead dynasty controlled Parthia during the reigns of Philip III of Macedon and Alexander IV of Macedon. After the empire's unity was shattered during the wars of the Diadochi, Parthia became part of the Seleucid Empire of Seleucus I Nicator. Around 245 BC, the Parthian Satrap Andragoras allied with Diodotus I of Bactria and revolted against the Seleucids to form his own kingdom.

Founding an Empire

Arsaces I became the leader of the Parni tribe. Under pressure from the Bactrians, the Parni sought refuge in Parthia. In 238 BC Arsaces killed Andragoras, the rebellious satrap of the Parthia. [cite encyclopedia |year=2008 |title =Andragoras |encyclopedia=Encyclopedia Brittanica |publisher=Encyclopedia Britannica Online|url=] According to Arrian, Arsaces was then killed and was succeeded by his brother; however modern historians believe that he ruled Parthia until 211 BC, when he was succeeded by his son Arsaces II.

:According to Justin, "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.

In 209 BC, Antiochus the Great invaded Parthia during his campaign to restore the Seleucid Empire's eastern territories. Antiochus occupied Parthia's capital at Hecatompylus, then pushed into Hyrcania before King Arsaces II recognized Seleucid authority. With Parthia secured, Antiochus moved against the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and fought King Euthydemus I for 3 years before securing peace. Antiochus concluded his eastern campaign with an expedition into India. Soon afterwards Antiochus was defeated by the Romans, which severely weakened the Seleucids and allowed Parthia to maintain its freedom from the Seleucids. Arsaces II died in 191 BC and was succeeded by Phriapatius.

In 171 BC, King Phraates I subdued the Mardi tribe, but was killed in battle against Scythians nomads. His brother Mithridates I survived the battle and became one of Parthia's greatest Kings. Profiting from the continuing erosion of the Seleucid Empire, Mithridates captured Herat in 167 BC, which disrupted the trade routest to India and effectively split the Hellenistic world into two parts.

The Seleucid monarchs resisted Parthian expansion as best as they could; Antiochus IV Epiphanes spent his last years campaigning against the newly emerging Iranian states. After initial successes in Armenia, his sudden death in 164 BC allowed the Parthians to take advantage of the ensuing dynastic squabbles to make even greater gains.

Golden Age of Parthia

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

By 129 BC, the Parthians were in control of the lands east of the Tigris river, and established a winter encampment at Ctesiphon, downstream from modern Baghdad. Ctesiphon was then a small suburb directly across the river from Seleucia on the Tigris, the most Hellenistic city of western Asia. Because of their need of the wealth and trade provided by Seleucia, the Parthian armies limited their incursions to harassment, allowing 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).

From around 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. In the early part of the first century BC, the Parthian empire seems to have suffered a very short and intense dark age, where little in writing survived.

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.


ee also

* Parthia
* History of Iran


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