Parthians in Nineveh: Terminology of Parthian


The 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).

The Parthians brought with them a number of distinctive traits - indicative of their nomadic origins - that appear when their culture is identified in Mesopotamia.

Figure 3

Terra-cotta 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.

Figure 4

Parthian 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.

Figure 5

Comical 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 high.

One 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).

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