East Meets West: The Unexpectedly Diverse History of the Parthian Empire 

Getting back in into harder history, I thought after talking a little bit about the Roman Republic’s greatest enemy, Carthage, last week that this week we’d shift forward and look at the Roman Empire’s most stubborn foe: Parthia. Despite ruling a majority of the Middle East from Turkey to Afghanistan for nearly five hundred years and its fame as the redoubtable counterweight to Rome, the Parthian Empire is somewhat mysterious compared to the other major players of its time in this hemisphere (Rome and China). Sandwiched in its own ethno-cultural history between the classical Persian Empire and the pre-medieval Sasanian Empire that would rule largely up until the Islamic Conquest, even the proto-Iranians that made up its elite would often bypass the Parthians in their histories. In the great Sassanid epic, the Shahnameh (شاهنامه), the poet Ferdowsi (Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi Tusi— c. 940–1020s AD), who exerts painstaking effort to turn Alexander the Great into a secret Persian prince born to the very dynasty he would conquer, Parthia merits barely a passing reference between Persia and Alex and the rise of the Sassanids, whose heroic, semi-mythic kings are the focus of the narrative.

This might be because in spite of its depiction as the exotic Other by Romans, Parthia was a culturally diverse hybrid empire that perhaps had more in common with Ptolemaic Egypt than the Median and Persian empires that came before it. The Parthians were artistically and religiously omnivorous, but left comparatively few historical records of their own, which has meant much of our insights into their rule and achievements have been given to us by others. This means that we should be cautious when stating “facts” about the empire, but let’s dive in and see if we can untangle some of this enigmatically famous people.

[Traditional dress of a Parthian horseman, likely based on their nomadic clothing]

We think the Parthians descended from the Parni, a nomadic tribe from what was northeastern Iran in its day, but we’d identify as southern Turkmenistan. Despite the eventual name of their empire, they seem to not have originally been a ethno-cultural part of the northeastern Persian imperial region of Parthia. The Parni spoke a different dialect than the Persian Parthians, and have been instead associated with a semi-independent tribal confederation called the Dahae (داه‍ان). In addition to the Parni, the Dahae consisted of two other tribes, the Xanthii and the Pissuri, all of which Strabo would call “Scythian” (Geographika 11.8.1), which was kind of a Greco-Roman catch-all term for any nomadic horse tribe in Central Asia. This imprecision in source material has led to a plethora of potential roots for these groups. It has been suggested that the Dahae tribes may be the Dāsa (दास) mentioned in the Rigaveda as the the enemies of the Ārya who would dominate ancient classical India, but this is based on speculative linguistics more than the concrete historical record. 

While nominally part of the Persian Empire, the Dahae seem to have operated, like many nomadic groups, as independent contractors when the situation arose. They fought with Persia against Alexander at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BC), but by the time of the empire’s collapse the next year, they were happily recruited by Alex to join his invasion of India. They also show up as envoys in the records of the Han Dynasty in China by the 1st century BC as the Dayi (大益). Both of these contacts will end up deeply influencing the shape of the empire that they will one day have, albeit in different ways. Alexander recruits the Dahae because even among other nomadic tribes of the region, their fame as horse archers was already unrivaled, and this partnership with the Macedonian Greeks will arguably place the confederation in a prime position when the king of Macedonia’s conquests are divvied up among the Diadochi. As for their Chinese contacts, they will be invaluable later when their empire will be able to dominate access to the east. So at the beginning of their extent history, we see the Parni poised to join the imperial age as a kingdom built on trade and conquest achieved on horseback, both of which we will discover to be both their greatest strengths and possibly their ultimate weaknesses.

With the collapse of the Persian Empire (330 BC) and the premature death of Alexander (323 BC), after some Greek scuffling, the lands of the Dahae and by extension, the Parni, fell to the lot of Alexander’s general Seleucus I Nicator, who we last saw establishing Greek-India. The Indo-Greek kingdom in northern Pakistan would be the eastern limit of the Seleucid Empire, but the Parni would be much closer to the heart of the territory controlled by Seleucus and his successors centered in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. But perhaps importantly for their purposes, while not on the extreme northern Asian border of the Seleucid’s lands, they were as far away from the capitals like Antioch and Seleucia as they could be while still being centrally located.

Because while the Seleucids would amass the largest kingdom by volume of the Diadochi, it would prove to arguably be the most volatile and its size meant it was constantly under siege on its far-flung borders. As we saw, most of Seleucus’ gains in India were almost immediately reconquered by Chandragupta’s Mauryan Empire, and the last great independent kings of Pontus continually menaced much of the empire’s northwestern territories in pushes that would only abate when Pontus was defeated by Rome in 63 BC, though by then, the Seleucids were all but finished themselves. However, as was usually the case with the Diadochi kingdoms, the worst and most persistent threat to Seleucid sovereignty came from their Macedonian relatives. As the other most powerful of the Alexandrian descendant empires, the Seleucids were at almost constant odds with Ptolemaic Egypt for control of the eastern Mediterranean, fighting on and off wars over the western Arabian coast, Palestine, Syria, and Cyprus. The Ptolemies managed to hold their own dynastic instability together long enough to constantly meddle in the Seleucids’, usually through a steady succession of inter-cousin marriages that meant that the queen of the Seleucid Empire was usually the sister or daughter (or sometimes both!) of the reigning Ptolemy pharaoh in Egypt. Suffice to say, the Seleucids didn’t have a ton of extra attention or resources to devote to policing a small nomadic arm of their cavalry that was mostly minding its own business.

[Parthian light cavalryman]

As I insinuated earlier, we don’t know a lot of specifics about the Parni during this period. We know that the Seleucids largely lost control of the Parthia region of Persia in 247 BC when their local satrap rebelled and took it from them, but we don’t know how involved the Parni were; though the shahs of the Parthian Empire would backdate their own rule to this year, so perhaps they had a hand in it. We can at least deduce that they had become the most powerful third of their Dahae confederacy, based on their forthcoming supremacy in the region generally. Their chieftain at this time was a man named Arsaces, who would come to be held as the founder of the Parthian Empire as Arsaces I and the progenitor of the empire’s ruling dynasty, the Arsacids. The somewhat newly-christened Parthians would spend the first 150-ish years of their existence finding their footing and consolidating their territory. They would trade land back and forth in greater Mesopotamia with Seleucids, based on the strength of the latter dynasty at any given point during its declining century, finally claiming much of the Fertile Crescent and confining the Seleucids to a narrow sliver of Syria. Parthia also had to contend with threats from neighboring nomadic tribes to their north in Bactria (modern-day Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), as well as to their east, where the Yuezhi of northern India/Pakistan and western China operated in a powerful tribal confederacy similar to the Dahae.

But during the 1st century BC, several fortuitous circumstances arose to greatly reduce the external problems of the Parthians. A faction of the Yuezhi formed the Kushan Empire and appeared willing to hold to their borders with Parthia to the east, which freed up the Parthians to focus on their northern and western fronts. Additionally, in 121 BC, Emperor Wu of China had agreed to a trade agreement with Shah Mithridates II, giving Parthia control of the lucrative Silk Road trade through the Middle East. The kingdom of Pontus had largely finished off what was left of the staggering Seleucids, and it in turn would be defeated by Rome in the 60s BC before it could turn its attentions eastward. With Pontus subjugated by Rome, and Parthia’s own defeat of its perennial thorn, the kingdom of Armenia, suddenly after centuries of Seleucid control, the Middle East was largely divided by two new powers. Sensing that at the moment neither was likely to obtain the upper hand, the Parthians and Romans agreed to meet and negotiate the borders of their territories. The Euphrates River was decided upon as the proverbial line in the sand, and so began the delicate dance of the next two hundred years in Latin-Parthian diplomacy. Circumstances and stressors would lead to outbreaks of open hostility, but the two halves of the Mediterranean usually ended up avoiding war with one another whenever possible, finding it much more profitable to pick off rebel kingdoms in Armenia and Syria than to directly fight one another. But it would be struggles over control in these buffer zones, combined with internal dynastic strife, that would eventually cause Parthia’s decline against the growing consolidation of imperial Rome and lead to the rise of the Sassanids whose empire would replace Parthia’s, as well as largely eclipse it in Iranian history.

[Han Chinese silk found in Iran (c. 2nd century BC)]

So that’s how the Parthians got their empire, but what was that empire like? Much like the Mongols would later do after their conquest of Asia, the Parthians were great absorbers of the existing cultures of their empire. This not to suggest that the Parni didn’t have a culture of their own, but they might have leaned toward preexisting elements, both as a signal of legitimacy and because those elements might have been more suited to the Parni’s suddenly much more sedentary rule. Where they had been a nomadic tribal group, they now had to control both their nomadic hereditary allies and enemies, but also a large and sophisticated urban population. So it’s no surprise that Parthian imperial culture, at least on the surface, greatly resembled the Persian culture it was replacing. But what may surprise one, especially coming from the Roman historical tradition, is that Parthian culture was also fairly Hellenized as a result of their long satrapy to the Seleucids. For example, the king of Parthia traditionally took the Persian title shahanshah, “king of kings”, and like the Persian shahs, was polygamous, but like the Hellenistic Diadochi kingdoms, the shahs frequently married their half-sisters and nieces as a way to consolidate royal power. And in at least one case, that of Musa/Thea Musa, a (female) shah married her own son to shore up her authority. Because someone always has to find a way to one-up the Ptolemies.

[Coinage of Phraates V and his mother, Musa]

This might sound extreme, but a closer look at the overall structure of the Parthian government reveals why its kings might have had to resort to such drastic measures. The Parthians appear to have clung to a semi-decentralized tribal style of government by consensus that might have ultimately contributed to the empire’s general instability and eventual downfall. While the shahanshah was the supreme authority, the Parthian nobility remained more powerful than many similar aristocracies of the time, no doubt a cultural hangover from the Parthians’ nomadic roots, where tribal confederations ruled more by shifting strength and forced consensus than a single monarchical entity. Unlike in its surviving Hellenistic neighbors, the shahanshah was essentially elected from within the ruling dynasty by the consensus of the nobility. With a very few exceptions, the shah was male, but primogeniture was not a guarantee of accession. In theory this gave the Parthian crown a certain amount of flexibility that other contemporary monarchies might have envied, but in practice it usually increased court intrigue and violent regime change that often distracted the ruling class at inopportune times.

Additionally, as the Roman Empire would do, Parthia ruled a constellation of Hellenistic-style dependent client kingdoms and Persian-style satrapies, all of which contributed another sub-nobility whose loyalty to the empire largely depended on the strength of any given shah to keep them there. The kingdom of Armenia is probably the best example of this and its reduced royal family and semi-nomadic barony never missed an opportunity to try to break Parthia’s hold on them (often with the covert or overt aid of Rome).

[Parthian cataphract wearing mail armor]

Part of the reason Parthia and Rome were kept in abeyance with one another for as long as they were was their opposing military style. The strength of one was largely the weakness of the other, making it difficult for either side to gain an advantage. Where the backbone of the Roman legions were their infantry, the Parthians relied on the horsepower that had carried their ancestors out of the Bactrian steppes into the very seat of Mesopotamian power. This continued until the Roman legionary army was just so big and had absorbed a large enough set of auxilia forces from provinces like Germania, Numidia, and Thrace that could equal the Parthian cavalry’s skill that they could finally overwhelm the Parthian army.

The Parthian cavalry was divided into two types. The first was a Scythian-style light cavalry of horsemen with composite bows who could be quickly deployed to blitzkrieg an enemy from any point on a battlefield. These were the cavalrymen known for the famous “Parthian shot”, an attack delivered by shooting arrows backwards over their horses’ tails. But equally famous in their time, and arguably more innovative, were Parthia’s heavy cavalry, the cataphracts, known by their horses and riders’ elaborate coats of chain mail. These proto-knights were, like their European descendents, members of the aristocracy who could afford the expensive armor, and like the Mediterranean vogue for war elephants, their novelty kicked off a bit of a fad for heavy cavalry in the west. This was particularly true after triumvir Marcus Crassus’ disastrous defeat at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, where both kinds of Parthian cavalry proved to have a decisive advantage over Crassus’ late Republican legions. But in another show of Parthia’s enjoyment of pan-Hellenic culture, Plutarch tells us that after the battle Crassus’ severed head enjoyed a star-making turn in a Parthian production of Euripides’ The Bacchae put on for the victorious Shah Orodes II and Armenian king Artavasdes II (Life of Crassus, 33.2-3).

[We bring from the mountain/ A tendril fresh-cut to the palace/ A wonderful prey.]

It’s likely Orodes and Artavasdes were watching their Euripides in the original because while the Parni’s dialect was Middle Persian (Pahlavi), Greek would be the official language of the Parthian Empire, with Aramaic and Akkadian serving as a secondary lingua franca in more distant parts. Religion was an equally multicultural affair in Parthia. The Greek gods would have been familiar to the Parthians, though in the empire they were generally worshiped as hybrids melded into Mesopotamian-Persian deities, such as Zeus-Ahura Mazda or Apollo-Mithra. While Zoroastrianism wouldn’t gain its full momentum in Iran until the rise of the Sassanids, there is some evidence that by the early 1st century AD it had a nominal presence at the court of Vologaesus I. There is even a small amount of evidence that some Parthians may have been Buddhists, as some Han Chinese records claim that the 2nd century missionary An Shigao (安世高) was a Parthian nobleman; “An” being a common Chinese abbreviation at the time for Anxi (安息), Chinese for “Arsacid.” But An (安), as any of the almost two million people with that surname could tell you, also means peace or tranquility, so it’s also simply a very good name for a Buddhist monk to have. But Parthia’s potential connections to Buddhism from Han China and Kushan India via the Silk Road don’t rule this out entirely.

Lastly, Parthia’s East/West fusion culture is also evidenced in their art, which as a result meant that it was viewed as somewhat unoriginal up until recently by scholars. Much of its aesthetic is Persian, as was generally evidenced by Parthian dress and hairstyles, but Greek influence can be seen both in subject matter, as with the statue of Herakles/Hercules below, and in the distinct, frontal-facing style Parthian artists used for figures, which was a firm departure from prior Persian or Mesopotamian art. Parthian architecture also utilized a combination of Persian and Greek styles, though like its other visual arts, little of it remains in the archeological record after the repeated sacks of their major cities by Rome and the eventual Sassanid dominance of the pre-Islamic Iranian arts.

[Parthian statue of Herakles]
[Parthian fresco with frontal-facing figures]
[The remains of a Parthian iwan in Hatra, Iraq (c. 50s AD)]

We believe that Parthian literature was a largely oral tradition carried by court minstrels (gōsān), and indeed, any Parthian poetry we have are later written translations made by Sassanid scholars. But while we have no extent Parthian-language works, as we saw earlier, the Parthians also had an enthusiastic appreciation for the Greek literature the Seleucids left in their wake. Not to mention their actors appear to have been excellent improvisers and masters of stage prop work—I think Achillas, Ptolemy XIII, and the Liberatores missed a real opportunity to take the First Triumvirate on the road as the ancient world’s first ventriloquist act.

[One Night Only, Folks!]
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