Ruins of ancient Tus

The Parthian empire was the most enduring of the empires of the ancient Near East. It began as a small kingdom of tribal warriors in northeast Persia. After the Parthians defeated the Seleucids — a Macedonian dynasty that ruled in the Asian territories of the former Persian Empire — they controlled most of Persia, Mesopotamia and parts of eastern Arabia. At its height, the Parthian empire occupied all of modern Iran, Iraq and Armenia, parts of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and -for brief periods- territories in Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. The Parthians endured from 250 B.C. to A.D. 229 until they were replaced by the Sassanians, another Persian dynasty. The Parthians are often called the second Persian Empire and were one of the great rivals of Rome.

The Parthian Empire was a major Iranian political and cultural power in ancient Iran founded by Arsaces I, the leader of the Parni tribe of nomadic horsemen. Its name comes from Parthia, a region in northeast Iran conquered by Arsaces I in the mid-3rd century B.C. when it was a satrapy (province) in rebellion against the Seleucid Empire. After that Parni nomads settled in Parthia and built a small independent kingdom. They rose to power under king Mithradates I of Parthia (171-138 B.C.). Also known as Mithridates the Great, he greatly expanded the empire by seizing Media and Mesopotamia from the Seleucids. The empire, located on the Silk Road trade route between the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Basin and the Han Empire of China, became a center of trade and commerce.

After the victories of Mithradates II, the Parthians began to claim descent from both the Greeks and the Achaemenids. They spoke a language similar to that of the Achaemenids, used the Pahlavi script, and established an administrative system based on Achaemenid precedents.

The Parthians largely adopted the art, architecture, religious beliefs, and royal insignia of their culturally heterogeneous empire, which encompassed Persian, Hellenistic, and regional cultures. For about the first half of its existence, the Arsacid court adopted elements of Greek culture, though it eventually saw a gradual revival of Iranian traditions. The Arsacid rulers were titled the "King of Kings", as a claim to be the heirs to the Achaemenid Empire; indeed, they accepted many local kings as vassals where the Achaemenids would have had centrally appointed, albeit largely autonomous, satraps. The court did appoint a small number of satraps, largely outside Iran, but these satrapies were smaller and less powerful than the Achaemenid potentates. With the expansion of Arsacid power, the seat of central government shifted from Nisa to Ctesiphon along the Tigris (south of modern Baghdad, Iraq), although several other sites also served as capitals. [Source: Library of Congress, Wikipedia +]

The Parthian empire was smaller than that of the Persian Achaemenid Empire and was far less centralized. It lacked a standing army. Instead it relied garrisons of towns and forts as well as armed retinues of tribal chiefs and feudal lords. Although they came under the command of the King of Kings their power was limited and disunited. Even so, the Parthian Empire dominated central Asia and formed a barrier to Roman expansion. At the same time it served as an important communications and trading centre, at the crossroads of north-south and east-west routes. [Source: Iran Chamber Society, UNESCO]

Native Parthian sources, written in Parthian, Greek and other languages, are scarce when compared to Sassanid and even earlier Achaemenid sources. Aside from scattered cuneiform tablets, fragmentary ostraca, rock inscriptions, drachma coins, and the chance survival of some parchment documents, much of Parthian history is only known through external sources. These include mainly Greek and Roman histories, but also Chinese histories, prompted by the market for Chinese goods in Parthia. Parthian artwork is viewed by historians as a valid source for understanding aspects of society and culture that are otherwise absent in textual sources. +

Alexander the Great, the Seleucids, and the Parthians

Envisioning a new world empire based on a fusion of Greek and Iranian culture and ideals, Alexander the Great of Macedon accelerated the disintegration of the Achaemenid Empire. He was first accepted as leader by the fractious Greeks in 336 B.C. and by 334 had advanced to Asia Minor, an Iranian satrapy. In quick succession he took Egypt, Babylonia, and then, over the course of two years, the heart of the Achaemenid Empire — Susa, Ecbatana, and Persepolis — the last of which he burned. Alexander married Roxana (Roshanak), the daughter of the most powerful of the Bactrian chiefs (Oxyartes, who revolted in present-day Tajikistan) and in 324 commanded his officers and 10,000 of his soldiers to marry Iranian women. The mass wedding, held at Susa, was a model of Alexander's desire to consummate the union of the Greek and Iranian peoples. These plans ended in 323 B.C., however, when Alexander was struck with fever and died in Babylon, leaving no heir. His empire was divided among four of his generals. [Source: Library of Congress, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Alexander the Great’s successor as ruler of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran was one of his generals, Seleucus I. Based in Babylon, he established the Seleucid dynasty in 312 B.C. and gradually reconquered most of Iran. Under Seleucus's son, Antiochus I, many Greeks entered Iran, and Hellenistic motifs in art, architecture, and urban planning became prevalent Along the trade routes that linked ancient and newly established cities, Hellenistic art and culture, a fusion of the various Near Eastern and classical Greek traditions, permeated the Near Eastern world.

Although the Seleucids faced challenges from the Ptolemies of Egypt and from the growing power of Rome, the main threat came from the province of Fars (Partha to the Greeks). Arsaces, whose name was used by all subsequent Parthian kings, revolted against the Seleucid governor in 247 B.C. and established a dynasty, the Arsacids, or Parthians.

A seminomadic confederacy, the Parni, advanced from the northeast of Iran toward the frontier of the Seleucid satrapy of Parthia, near the Caspian Sea. In about 250 B.C., they launched an invasion made their own imperial aspirations clear by instituting a dynastic era in 247 B.C. Under Mithradates I (r. ca. 171–139 B.C.) and his successors, the Parthians grew into the dominant power in the Near East through a series of campaigns against the Seleucids, the Romans, the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms, and the nomads of Central Asia. The Romans, who were ambitious to dominate the Near East in the style of Alexander, underestimated the capabilities of the Parthian kings and had to negotiate peace under Augustus.

Early History of the Parthians Empire

The Dutch historian Jona Lendering wrote: “After the fall of the Achaemenid Empire, Parthia, northeastern Iran, was governed by the Seleucid kings. In 245 B.C., a satrap named Andragoras revolted from the young Seleucid king Seleucus II, who had just succeeded to the throne. In the confusion, Parthia was overrun by the Parni, a nomad tribe from the Central-Asian steppe. In 238 B.C., they occupied the district known as Astavene. Three years later, a Parnian leader named Tiridates ventured further south and seized the rest of Parthia. A counter-offensive by king Seleucus ended in disaster, and Hyrcania was also subdued by the Parni. The first king of the Parthians (as the Parni were called from now on) was Tiridates' brother Arsaces I. His capital was Hecatompylus. [Source: Jona Lendering, Iran Chamber Society |~|]

“The Parthian kings -Arsaces I, Arsaces II, Phriapathus, Phraates I- recognized the Seleucid king as their superiors, especially after the campaign of Antiochus III the Great, who reconquered the lost eastern territories between 209 and 204 B.C.. The Arsacid dynasty was recognized as the lawful ruler of Parthia, but the kings had to pay tribute to Antiochus. |~|

“After 188 B.C., when Antiochus had died, a new phase of Parthian expansion started. King Mithradates I the Great (171-138 B.C.) first attacked the eastern kingdom of Bactria. Having covered his rear, he moved to the west, where he conquered Media, one of the most important parts of the Seleucid kingdom. Now, Assyria end Babylonia lay almost unguarded. In July 141 B.C. Mithradates captured the Seleucid capital Seleucia, and in October he reached Uruk in the south of Babylonia. His enemy Demetrius II tried to reconquer his lost territories, but was defeated and -even more humiliating- caught. Two years later, Elam was added to the Parthian empire.”


Nisa — 10 kilometers west of Ashgabat. Turkmenistan — was the capital of the Parthian Kingdom between the 3rd century B.C. and the A.D. 3rd century and remained active until is was razed by the Mongols. Situated on a grassy plateau in the foothills of the Kopet Dag, it once contained a fortress with 43 towers, a royal palace and some temples. All that remains are some mounds, broken up by excavation pits, and the mud-brick remains of a courtyard house with wine cellar as well as a circular chamber believed to have once belonged to a Zoroastrian temple. Artifacts unearthed at the site are now in the Turkmenistan National Museum.

In 2007, the Parthian Fortresses of Nisa were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to UNESCO: “The Parthian Fortresses of Nisa consist of two tells of Old and New Nisa, indicating the site of one of the earliest and most important cities of the Parthian Empire, a major power from the mid 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. They conserve the unexcavated remains of an ancient civilization which skilfully combined its own traditional cultural elements with those of the Hellenistic and Roman west. Archaeological excavations in two parts of the site have revealed richly decorated architecture, illustrative of domestic, state and religious functions. Situated at the crossroads of important commercial and strategic axes, this powerful empire formed a barrier to Roman expansion while serving as an important communication and trading centre between east and west, north and south. [Source: UNESCO]

Parthian Rule

Establishing a primary residence at Ctesiphon, on the Tigris River in southern Mesopotamia, Parthian kings ruled for nearly half a millennium and influenced politics from Asia Minor to northern India. Jona Lendering wrote: “After the conquest of Media, Assyria, Babylonia and Elam, the Parthians had to organize their empire. The elite of these countries was Greek, and the new rulers had to adapt to their customs if they wanted their rule to last. So the cities retained their ancient rights and the civil administration remained more or less undisturbed. An interesting detail is coinage: legends were written in the Greek alphabet, and this practice was continued in the second century CE, when knowledge of this language was in decline and nobody knew how to read or write Greek characters. [Source: Jona Lendering, Iran Chamber Society |~|]

“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 wanted to be called -as Cyrus the Great had ordered his subjects to do in the sixth century- "king of kings". This was a very apt title. The Parthian monarch was the ruler of his own empire plus some eighteen vassal kings, such as the rulers of the city state Hatra, the port Characene and the ancient kingdom Armenia. |~|

“The empire was not very centralized. There were several languages, several peoples and several economic systems. But the loose ties between the separate parts were the key to its survival. In the second century CE, the most important capital Ctesiphon was captured no less than three times by the Romans (in 116, 165 and 198 CE), but the empire survived, because there were other centers. On the other hand, the fact that the empire was a mere conglomerate of kingdoms, provinces, marks and city-states could at times seriously weaken the Parthian state. This explains why the Parthian expansion came to an end after the conquest of Mesopotamia and Iran. |~|

“Local potentates played an important role and the king had to respect their privileges. Several noble families had a vote in the Royal council; the Sûrên clan had the right to crown the Parthian king; and every aristocrat was allowed/expected to retain an army of his own. When the throne was occupied by a weak ruler, divisions among the nobility could become dangerous. The constituent parts of the empire were surprisingly independent. For example, they were allowed to strike their own coins, which was in Antiquity very rare. As long as the local elite paid tribute, the Parthian kings did not interfere. The system worked very well: towns like Ctesiphon, Seleucia, Ecbatana, Rhagae, Hecatompylus, Nisâ, and Susa flourished. Tribute was one source of royal income; another was toll. Parthia controlled the Silk Road, the route from the Mediterranean Sea to China. |~|

Parthian Army

A. Sh. Shahbazi, a professor of Archeology at Shiraz University, wrote: “The Greco-Persian wars and Alexander's victories proved that light-armed troops could not stop heavy, well-trained, and brilliantly led infantry of the type of hoplites or phalanx. These could only be encountered with heavily armed and highly professional cavalry causing disorder in the massed ranks and then attacking them on vulnerable points with bowshots capable of piercing armour and lances effective against shields. This lesson went home with the Parthians who in ousting the Seleucids — successors to Alexander the Greek — the from Iran had ample opportunity to experience the effect of heavily armed professional infantry led by Macedonian kings, and soon came to learn about the armament, tactics, and strategy of the Roman empire as well. So they formed their armies on sound bases, taking into consideration what was needed and what was available to them. [Source: A. Sh. Shahbazi, Iran Chamber Society ||||]

“The military concerns were conditioned by the feudal system: when the need arose, the Great King appealed to his subordinate kings (there were 18 of them at one time), regional, and tribal lords and garrison commanders to muster what they could and bring them to an appointed place at a given time. The feudal lords and officials brought the mustering levies (hamspah), and sometimes supplemented them with foreign mercenaries. The backbone of the army (Parth. spad) and the chief power of controlling the empire consisted of the Iranians themselves. Accustomed from an early age to the art of horsemanship and skilled in archery, the Parthian dynasty secured a reputation that is still echoed in the Persian term pahlevan while Parthian tactic and shooting are examplary in military histories. ||||

“The nature of their state and political conditions combined with lessons of history enforced an unusual military structure in Parthia: North Iranian nomads constantly threatened eastern borders while in the west first the Seleucids and then the Romans were ever ready for full-scale invasions. Any stratagem against such a double danger required rapid mobility for going from Armenia to the Jaxartes on short notice; and the solution the Parthians found was to rely on cavalry (asbaran; 'sb'r attested in Nisa documents). It is true that Parthian armies did have foot soldiers, but their numbers were small and their function insignificant. On tactical considerations, too, only the cavalry could be useful to the Parthians, for the nomads of the east could easily break through any infantry that the Parthians were able to muster, while no Parthian infantry could have matched the Roman phalanxes on the western front. The Parthian nobles (azat, misunderstood by Greek and Roman sources as "free-men”) formed the army by bringing along their dependants (misunderstood by Greek and Roman sources as "slaves"). The example par excellence was Eran-Spahbed Suren-Pahlav who was not yet thirty years old when he vanquished Crassus: he came escorted by a thousand heavy-armed horsemen and many more of the light-armed riders, so that an army of 10,000 horsemen was formed by his bondsmen and dependants. 400 Parthian azats threw an army of 50,000 mounted warriors against Mark Antony. ||||

“The organization of the Parthian army is not clear, and lacking a standing force, a strict and complicated organization was unnecessary in any case. The small company was called washt; a large unit was drafsh, and a division evidently a gund. The strength of a drafsh was 1,000 men, and that of a corps 10,000 (cf. Suren's army). It seems, therefore, that a decimal grade was observed in the organization of the army. The whole spad was under a supreme commander (the King of Kings, his son, or a spadpat, chosen from the great noble families). The largest army the Parthians organized was that brought against Mark Antony (50,000). At Carrhae the proportion of the lancers to the light horse was about one to ten, but in the first and second centuries the number and importance of the lancers as the major actors of the battle-field increased substantially...The Iranians marched swiftly but very seldom at dark. They used no war chariots, and confined the use of the wagon to transporting females accompanying commanders on expeditions. |||

Parthian Military Tactics

The Parthians were originally nomadic tribesmen. They were skilled at fighting on horseback. One of their favorite tactics was showering their enemies arrows and then swinging their horses around and pretending to flee while shooting more arrows as they twisted backwards on their horses. This tactic gave birth to the phrase, “Parthian shot," or “parting shot," which means to insult someone while leaving.

A. Sh. Shahbazi wrote: “Experience had shown that light cavalry-armed with a bow and arrows and probably also a sword was suitable for skirmishes, hit-and-run tactics, and flank attacks, but could rot sustain close combat. For the latter task, heavy cavalry (cataphraoti) was formed, which wore steel helmets, a coat of mail reaching to the knees and made of rawhide covered with scales of iron or steel that enabled it to resist strong blows. This was akin to the lamellar armour of the Sacians of the Jaxartes who in 130 B.C. overthrew the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. The charger too was covered from head to knees by armour made of scale armour said to have been of steel or bronze. An actual example of this horse-armour was found at Dura-Europos, while a famous graffito of the Parthian cataphract from the same site clearly demonstrates his full panoply. [Source: A. Sh. Shahbazi, Iran Chamber Society ||||]

“For offensive weapons the cataphract had a lance and a bow. The spear was of unusual thickness and length, and was used with such skill relying on its weight and power that it "often had impetus enough to pierce through two men at once". The bow was of the powerful and large compound type which outranged Roman weapons and its arrows, shot with swiftness, strength, and precision, penetrated the armor of the legionaries. The cataphract was probably equipped with a knife as well. So armed and thus skilled, he was one of the ablest and most feared soldiers of antiquity. The Parthian army was at times additionally supported by camel-borne troops. The animal could bear the weight of the warrior and his armour better and endure harshness longer than the horse; also, the archer could discharge his arrows from an elevated position. These would have made the division very desirable had it not been greatly hampered by Roman caltrop (tribulus) which, scattered on the battlefield, injured the spongy feet of the animal. [Source: Professor A. Sh. Shahbazi, Iran Chamber Society ||||]

“The Parthian tactic was that of harassing the enemy by the hit-and-run action, dividing his forces by pretending retreat and enticing pursuit but then turning unexpectedly back and showering the foe with deadly arrows, and, finally when he was reduced in number and courage, to surround him, and destroy him with volleys of missiles. The tactic was thus unfavourable to close combat operation, and inefficient in laying siege to forts and walled towns; nor could the Parthians sustain long campaigns, especially in the winter months. Since they lacked siege-engines, the Iranians under the Parthian dynasty made no use of Roman machines whenever they captured them. And since the army was composed mainly of the dependants of the azats, it had to disband sooner or later and go back to the land and the crops. ||||

The Parthian general desired to bring to a close a campaign as soon as possible and return home. When the King of Kings led the army this haste was doubled by the fear of insurrection at home, the frequency of which was the greatest weakness of the Parthian empire. The battle was furious: war cries and kettledrums resounded from all sides, setting fear in enemy ranks; mounted on the light horse the archers showered the enemy with volley after volley, and then retreated but again turned back to shoot while the charger was at full gallop-an ancient art which came to be known as "the Parthian shot". Then the shock cavalry (cataphracts) moved in, still avoiding hand-to-hand combat but picking up the enemy with their missiles and piercing them with the heavy lance. Charging on large and trained war horses (see under Ash), of which some were brought as reserves, the Parthians avoided the deficiency of the Achaemenid cavalry by carrying camel-loads of arrows for use in the field as soon as their archers ran out of their own; this enabled sustained and effective long-range engagements and reduced the number of the enemy rapidly.” ||||

Parthians Verus the Romans

The earliest enemies of the Parthians were the Seleucids in the west and the Scythians in the east. However, as Parthia expanded westward, they came into conflict with the Kingdom of Armenia, and eventually the late Roman Republic. Rome and Parthia competed with each other to establish the kings of Armenia as their subordinate clients [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Parthian kingdom was Rome's biggest rival in the East. They defeated the Roman army near the Euphrates and kept the Romans from advancing any further into Asia. The Parthians defeated the Romans in 53 B.C. at the Battle of Carrhae, one of the Roman Empire's worst defeats. The Romans were led by Crassus, the richest man in Rome. He purchased an army and was sent to Syria by Caesar. During the battle Crassus was captured by the Parthians, who according to legend, poured molten gold down his throat when they realized he was the richest man in Rome. The reasoning of the act was that his lifelong thirst for gold should quenched in death. The Romans got their revenge against the Parthians under Caesar, who annihilated them in Zela in the Middle East in 47 B.C. After his victory he sent home the immortal message, " Veni, vidi, vici " ("I came, I saw, I conquered").

In 40–39 BC, Parthian forces captured the whole of the Levant except Tyre from the Romans. However, Mark Antony led a counterattack against Parthia, although his successes were generally achieved in his absence, under the leadership of his lieutenant Ventidius. Also, various Roman emperors or their appointed generals invaded Mesopotamia in the course of the several Roman-Parthian Wars, which ensued during the next few centuries. The Romans captured the cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon on multiple occasions during these conflicts, but were never able to hold on to them. +

The Parthian armies consisted of two types of cavalry: the heavy-armed and armoured cataphracts and light brigades of mounted archers. To the Romans, who relied on heavy infantry, the Parthians were hard to defeat. On the other hand, the Parthians could never occupy conquered countries; they were unskilled in siege warfare. This explains why the Roman-Parthian wars lasted so long.[Source: Jona Lendering, Iran Chamber Society]

Parthians and the Silk Road

Silk began reaching Europe from China and India in significant amounts via Persia when Persia was ruled by the Parthians. The Parthians loved silk. In the early days of the silk trade they traded ostrich eggs for it. When their empire was at its height, Parthian armies carried great banners made of silk into battle.The first complete east-to-west land routes were linked together under the Parthians. They controlled strategic trade centers in the Middle East and many stops on what became the Silk Road passed through their empire. Some scholars argue that the Silk Road was formally founded when Parthia and China exchanged ambassadors and made trade agreements on the caravan route between them in the 2nd century B.C.

Edith Porada, a professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia University, wrote: “Mithradates I called himself 'Great King', thereby manifesting the Parthian claim to the heritage of the Achaemenids. Instead of the massive military campaigns of the Achaemenids toward the west, however, the method and direction of Parthian expansion took the form of caravan trade toward the east. [Source: Edith Porada, Iran Chamber Society ||||]

“Within the territory of Mithradates II (123-88/87 B.C.) — the ablest of the Parthian rulers — caravan trade could proceed unhampered from Dura Europos in Syria to Merv in Turkmenistan. From there the caravans would continue to Central Asia until they reached the place where Chinese merchants or their envoys took over the wares for further transport to the Far East. Tentatively this place has been identified as Tashkurgan on the upper Yarkand river. Riches brought in through trade accumulated in the treasuries of the Parthian empire. Its economic importance in the second century B.C. is documented by a delegation sent to the Parthian capital by the Han emperor Wu-ti (141-87 B.C.). ||||

“The protection of this caravan trade against attacks by predatory mounted nomads required constant vigilance on the part of the Parthian cavalry, whose single-mounted archers probably often had to use their own initiative in a precarious situation. The cavalry could best be maintained by a feudal system in which the army depended on the mobility and valour of the knights and their bowmen. This is the convincing explanation given by Rostovtzeff for the maintenance of a feudal system by the Parthians instead of a centralized autocratic system, such as that of the Achaemenids or Seleucids, which would have seemed more efficient to most modern historians.” ||||

An 1,800-year-old man from the Parthian era was found in a salt mine in Zanjan Province in Iran. He wore leather boots, lamb wool trousers and a gold earring, and had long hair and a beard that had been bleached white after working in the mine. He carried three iron knives and a sling stone and was six foot three. He had a fractured skull and perhaps died in a mine cave in. His boots and trousers were incredibly well preserved when he was found. [Source: National Geographic Geographica, April 2000]

Parthian Art

Edith Porada wrote: “Little has come down through the ages of wall-paintings of the Parthian period, though painting surely was the major art of the age. If the site of Kuh-i Kwadja, mentioned above for the resemblance of its ground-plan to Buddhist monasteries is really Parthian and not already Sasanian, and if one may draw conclusions from Herzfeld's renderings of the fragmentary paintings, they manifest a provincial Graeco-Roman style, hardened and simplified but with a certain competence in the grouping and the rendering of the human figures. Certain features, however, such as a frontally rendered eye and probably also the strong colours bespeak Eastern heritage. Similar statements can also be made about the wall-paintings of Dura Europos on the upper Euphrates, especially about the two paintings in the Mithraic 'cave', which show the god Mithra as a mounted huntsman in the parade dress of the nobles of the rich desert town of Palmyra. [Source: Edith Porada, Iran Chamber Society ||||]

“In striking contrast to these paintings are the crude,flat rock reliefs of the Parthian period in Iran with their awkwardly arranged, usually frontal figures. Only the reliefs of Mithradates II [c. 123-88/87 B.C.] and Gotarzes II (c. CE 38-51) may have been more competently carved, although one cannot really judge their quality in their present fragmentary and disintegrated state. ||||

“The most important free-standing sculpture of the Parthian period is a male figure of bronze, slightly more than life-sized, which was found in the ruins of a temple at Shami on the plateau of Malamire in the mountain region of the Elymais [ancient Elamite territory]. The broad-shouldered Parthian wearing an Iranian costume faces the beholder in a frontal posture which seems both powerful and almost immovable. The figure stands with legs slightly spread. The feet, clad in boots of felt or leather, act as a base for the columnar legs, which are broadened by wide and loose leggings. The rest of the body is proportionately heavy.” ||||

Parthian craftsmen created exquisitely beautiful drinking horns called rhytons from metal and other materials such as ivory. The animals on these vessels included the ram, horse, bull, ibex, supernatural creatures, and female divinities; some bear royal inscriptions. Rhytons of precious materials were luxury wares probably used at royal courts. According to Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Elaborate bowls, animal-headed drinking vessels, and rhytons—vessels with a hole at the front from which liquid flows—were highly valued in ancient Near Eastern society. During the pre-Achaemenid, Achaemenid, and Parthian periods, examples made of silver, gold, and clay were used throughout a vast area extending both to the east and west of Iran. The animals on these vessels included the ram, horse, bull, ibex, supernatural creatures, and female divinities; some were engraved with royal inscriptions. Rhytons made of precious materials were probably luxury wares used at royal courts. Both the rhyton and the animal-headed vessel were adopted by the Greek world as exotic and prestigious Oriental products. [Source:Metropolitan Museum of Art ]

A silver, Parthian-period rhyton at the Metropolitan Museum of Art “is a fine example of the enduring influence of Hellenistic culture, which owes much to the artistic traditions of Achaemenid Iran. The horn-shaped vessel ends in the forepart of a wild cat; a spout for pouring is in the middle of its chest. A gilded fruit-laden grapevine winds around the animal's chest; at the other end of the rhyton, an ivy wreath encircles the rim. These are the symbols of the Greek god of wine Dionysos, whose cult spread eastward with the invasion of Alexander. Dionysiac images—wild felines, grapevines, and dancing females—were absorbed by the Parthians and continued to appear in the art of Near Eastern cultures in the later Sasanian period (224–651).”

Among the works of minor art which seem most characteristic of the Parthian period should be mentioned the handles in the shape of an extended feline animal, a panther or leopard. Several stylistic trends which were operative in the Parthian period are noticeable in these small works of art: the naturalism of Graeco-Roman art, expressed especially in the heads of the feline creatures and in the sinuous grace of their bodies, the tendency of the peoples to the north of Iran to attenuate the bodies of animals for formal reasons, and the tendency [p. 190] of the ancient Near East, especially of Iran, to combine in one object animal and vessel for decoration. Other works of Parthian minor art are small clay figures and plaques of horsemen, of which only the plaques really deserve to be classed as art because the three-dimensional clay figures of riders — of Achaemenid derivation — are usually too crude to be considered in a book devoted to the art of Iran. The plaques, on the other hand, are strongly influenced by Graeco-Roman art and therefore belong more definitely in a work on Hellenism in Asia than in the present volume. Bone figurines of nude females, descendants of the prehistoric figurines, vary from some fairly naturalistic and even elegant examples to others of complete and crude schematization.

Decline and Fall and Parthian Empire

The end of the loosely organized Parthian came when the last king was defeated by one of their vassals. Ardeshir, son of the priest Papak, who claimed descent from the legendary hero Sasan, had become the Parthian governor in the Achaemenid home province of Persis (Fars). In A.D. 224 he overthrew the last Parthian king and established the Sassanid dynasty, which was to last 400 years.

Jona Lendering wrote: “After A.D. 110, the Parthian king Vologases III was forced to dethrone an Armenian leader, and the Roman emperor Trajan -a former general- decided to invade Parthia. War broke out in 114 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. [Source: Jona Lendering, Iran Chamber Society ||||]

“However, rebellions broke out (which proves the loyalty of the population to the Parthians). 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 (A.D. 117). Nonetheless, it was clear that the Romans had learned how to beat the Parthians. Perhaps it was not Roman strength, but Parthian weakness that caused the disaster. In the first century, the Parthian nobility had become more powerful, because the kings had given them more right over the peasants and their land. They were now in a position to resist their king. At the same time, the Arsacid family had become divided. [Source: Jona Lendering, Iran Chamber Society ||||]

“But the end was not near, yet. In A.D. 161 king Vologases IV declared war against the Romans and conquered Armenia. The counter-offensive was slow, but in 165 CE, Ctesiphon fell. The Roman emperors Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius added Mesopotamia to their realms, but were unable to demilitarize the region between the Euphrates and Tigris. It remained an expensive burden. But it was now clear that the Romans were superior. ||||

“The final blow came thirty years later. King Vologases V had tried to reconquer Mesopotamia during a Roman civil war (193 CE), but when general Septimius Severus was master of the empire, he attacked Parthia. Again, Ctesiphon was captured (198 CE), 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 we can imagine the consequences for Parthia. |||

“Parthia, now impoverished and without any hope to recover the lost territories, was demoralized. The kings had to do more concessions to the nobility, and the vassal kings sometimes refused to obey. In 224 CE, the Persian vassal king Ardašir revolted. Two years later, he took Ctesiphon, and this time, it meant the end of Parthia. It also meant the beginning of the second Persian Empire, ruled by the Sassanid kings.” ||||

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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