Parthian jewelry from Nineveh
Iran was under Greek rule for about 80 years. After Alexander the Great died his generals spent 40 years fighting among themselves before three main dynasties merged: the Antigonids of Asia Minor and Greece; the Ptolemies in Egypt; and the Selecuids, who occupied a stretch of land that extended from present-day Lebanon to Persia.

The Selecuids (330 B.C. To 129 B.C. ) were named after Seleucus, one of Alexander’s generals. They captured Babylon and fought with the Ptolemies and Nabataeans.

The eastern part of the Selecuid empire broke off to become the Parthian Empire. The Selecuids and Parthians fought each other until the Selecuid empire was completely absorbed by the Parthian Empire in the 2nd century B.C. .


The Parthian Empire began as a small kingdom of tribal warriors in northeast Persia. After it defeated the Seleucids it controlled most of Persia, Mesopotamia and parts of eastern Arabia. 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 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.

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]

Parthians and Romans

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").

Trajan (A.D. 101-106) extended the Roman Empire to its furthest extent by conquering Dacia (Romania) and Mesopotamia. His armies extended the Roman Empire to the Persian Gulf by capturing Armenia in A.D. 114 and defeating several Middle eastern kingdoms, including the Parthians. Hadrian pulled back from the Euphrates and making peace with the Parthians. Marcus Aurelius and Marc Antony and Cleopatra also battled against the Parthians.


The Sassanids (A.D. 226-651) were native Persians. Their homeland was the original homeland of the Persians. The Sassanids ruled mainly over what is now Iran and Iraq. At its height it ruled over what is now the Caucasus, the southwestern side of the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. They were the last great Persian dynasty before the arrival of Islam.

The Sassanids (also known as Sassanians or Sasanians) emerged from the Persian-speaking people in the Fars region of southern Iran. They were dominated by a single family and ruled through a hierarchy of officials and used Zoroastrianism as means of unifying their subjects.

The Sassanids came to power when the first Sassanid king Ardashir I defeated the last Parthian king Artabanus and ruled from A.D. 229 to 651. They revived Zoroastrianism and Persian culture and established a capital in Ctesiphon in central Iraq, an area with a great many Nestorians, Jews, Manicheans, pagan philosophers and Greek medical scientists. The Sassanids controlled the supply of silver in the Near East

Sassanid Religion and Culture

silver Sassanid vase
The Sassanids practiced a severe form of orthodox Zoroastrian. Anyone who renounced the religion was punished by death. Even so Jews survived the persecution and new religions emerged. Mithraism merged Zoroastrianism with the worship of Mithras, a pagan Persian sun god that had been reounced by Zoroaster. Manichaeism (named after Mani, the “ambassador of light”) merged Zoroastrian with Christianity. Both Mithraism and Manichaeism spread to the Roman empire, where they conflicted with Christianity.

Zoroastrianism as practiced by the Sassanids was more philosophical than its previous incarnations and emphasized the dualism of good and evil. There was a priesthood, formal worship and support of the Sassanid ruler, who was regarded not only as a king but was considered a force that maintained harmony between different classes and ethnic groups.

In addition to Persian, Aramaic and Arabic were widely spoken. Their art included silver and gold rhytons (drinking horns) with a ram on one side. Many of Persia’s subjects liked Persian rule because it introduced near technologies such as qanats.

The Sassanids made great works of art from silver, which was fashioned into royal artworks with royal images. These include silver cups with images of kings such as Shapur II hunting wild boar. Sassanid coins were finely wrought and depicted Zoroastrian fire altars on one side and Sassanid rulers on the other.

Sassanids, Romans and Byzantines

The Sassanids battled with Romans, Huns, Turks and Byzantines. The Sassanian king Shapur I (died A.D. 272) captured the Roman emperor Valerian in Edessa in A.D. 260 and made him a slave and held him prisoner until his death. They were successful defending their homeland but lost most of their campaigns outside of Persia and were able only to hold on to Babylon and the lower Tigris-Euphrates Valley.

The Great Sassanian king Shapur II (ruled A.D. 309-379) is remembered for wresting control of Armenia from Rome and outlawing Christianity — which had been tolerated in Persia — in direct response to the Roman Emperor Constantine embracing it. Shapur II feared that Christians might be tempted to shift their allegiance from himself to the Christian ruler just to the west.

The Sassanids and Byzantines were almost constantly at war between A.D. 540 to 629. Most of the battles were fought in Iraq and Syria. At one point the Sassanids managed to capture Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria but in the 620s they were pushed back by the Byzantine Emperor Heraculius.

The Huns were able to conquer large chunks of Persia during the Sassanid era. In the later years of their rule the Sassanids devoted themselves to the pursuit of luxury while their subjects were repressed and treated with cruelty.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.