Parthians in Nineveh: Abstract

PARTHIANS IN NINEVEH:
IDENTIFYING A
NOMADIC ADMINISTRATION

Abstract: Parthian material culture in Mesopotamia is difficult to define when compared with contemporary Greek and Roman remains. Using particularly select examples of Parthian figurines and ceramics from the site of Nineveh in modern Iraq, nomadic culture is considered in the light of modern ethnographic parallels. The main issue that emerges is not the difference between sedentary and nomadic lifestyles, but the mores of the Parthian elite.

We know that the organism of Parthia consisted of a number of kingdoms under the sovereignty of the house of the Arsacids.  This confederation is usually called nomadic, i.e. one without civilized centers, industries, cities, or towns.  Apparently the administration of the empire was not based in towns or castles.

Lozinski 1959: 9

This quote aptly summarizes the main problem in appreciating the Parthian (150 BC - AD  250) period in Mesopotamia, for unlike the Greeks or Romans in the Near East, there is difficulty in defining this period based on material remains (Pigulevskaja 1963).  Few points of similarity unite Parthian art from one region to another (Brentjes 1990: 83-100). While the Romans brought with them distinctive architectural traditions, particularly for frontier fortifications (Kennedy and Riley 1990), and well known ceramic forms (eg. Hayes 1997), easily datable remains from the Arsacid period are sparse.  The account of the Parthian Stations by Isidore of Charax, demonstrates that a central administration controlled a major segment of the overland trade route between Rome and China (Schoff 1914: 18-20) in the first century BC.  The Parthian empire did exist as a political entity with a sedentary bureaucracy, but how was the society organized? By focussing on the material remains recovered from the ancient site of Nineveh in modern Iraq, and drawing upon parallels from modern nomadic societies, perhaps some insights can be gained. The bulk of the material from Nineveh considered here was excavated between 1928-1932, and is now deposited in UK museums, particularly the Ashmolean Museum, the British Museum, and the City Art Gallery, Birmingham.

Excavations at many Parthian sites, particularly Old Nisa in Turkmenistan (Philipko1994) suggest that the Parthians generally followed a Greek model for their fortifications (Olbrycht, 1993).  Many of their coins can also be thought of as “east Greek” on the basis of both art and language (eg: Sellwood 1980).  The question arises as to whether these material remains are indicative of the Iranian nomads now termed Parthian, or were such things as architecture and coins designed for - and perhaps by - the subject population?  Can the Arsacid dynasty be seen as a sedentary culture, or were they simply the backward nomads so many classical authors seem to - or would like to - believe?

Copyright 2003

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DR. MURRAY EILAND

ARCHAEOLOGIST

UNIVERSITY OF DAMASCUS

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