PROBLEMS OF THE TERM “PARTHIAN?
Romans, like the Greeks, found the Parthians difficult to
understand. Both cultures were focussed upon the notion of
empire as occupied land, while the Parthians, like other nomadic
groups, probably defined a nation as a body of individuals who
were related to a chief. This lack of attachment to land
in a western sense is probably related to the comparatively
recent expansion of the Iranian groups that would later be
termed Parthians. The Parthians, like other Iranian-speaking
groups that penetrated into Iran before them, probably came from
the North (Mallory 1989: 50-52). However, it would be a
mistake to assume that all Parthians were Iranian. Like
many other nomadic peoples, including the Huns (Maenchen-Helfen
1973: 358-375) and more recently the Mongols, the Parthians were
probably a mixture of ethnic groups that shared common cultural
features. Although all these groups had nomadic origins, they
came to control many sedentary societies. They evolved
distinctive administrative structures, combining their own
systems of government with local traditions. In Iran the
Mongols left many high ranking bureaucrats in place, while in
China they usually appointed foreigners to the highest posts.
The most important aspect of their rule was not minute running
of day-to-day affairs, but the maintenance of Mongol military
supremacy. (Morgan 1986: 108-111).
Parthians brought with them a number of distinctive traits -
indicative of their nomadic origins - that appear when their
culture is identified in Mesopotamia.
plaque of a Parthian cavalryman with a spear. Similar
themes are commonly encountered from a number of Parthian
period sites. The Parthian military was known for a powerful
cavalry. Birmingham City Art Gallery 187’62. 7.5
cm high x 8 cm wide.
Horse and rider
figurines [FIGURE 3] are a hallmark of the period; and many male
figurines that are not mounted are clothed in riding gear
[FIGURE 4, 5]. This type of dress says much about how the
Parthians saw themselves.
man in baggy trousers and heavy coat. Parthian dress,
at least for men, appears to be ill suited to a desert
climate. This ceramic figurine depicts trousers that
are in keeping with a riding costume. Birmingham City
Art Gallery 157’60. 9.5 cm long.
Parthian. This figure is lying on a bed with a typical
Parthian hat. He appears to be inebriated. This
is a popular type of ceramic figurine, as there were similar
examples (perhaps from the same mould) recovered from the
site. Birmingham City Art Gallery 402’61. 9 cm
has only to look towards one of the reasons for Parthian
military success - the cavalry - and take into consideration the
ancient province known as Parthia in modern Turkmenistan.
The region is today famous for its horses. Renowned for
their stamina, they have allowed the ancient and modern
inhabitants of Turkmenistan to survive in a hostile
environment. Recent studies suggest that the region became
much drier between 2000 BC and AD 700, leaving the way open for
nomads on horses to exploit a land that had become less suitable
for agriculture (Maslow 1994: 82-85). Whatever the case,
constant movement in search of fodder was required of nomads,
and this trait was easily adapted to military needs. The
Parthian cavalry may have been assisted by use of the stirrup
for stability in the saddle (Herrmann 1989).