Go to home page
History Geography Coins Art & Culture Resources Search

History of Parthia


Select the links below for specific information on Parthia and its rulers.

Overview - An Overview of Parthian History
          Prelude
          Early History
          Parthian "Dark Age"
          Roman Contact
          Decline
          End of Empire
Calendars
Chronological Listing of Parthian Rulers
Dark Age in Parthian History
Genealogy of Parthian Rulers
Parthian Rulers Index
Timeline of Ancient World Events


Overview of Parthian History

Prelude

There was a district named Partukka or Partakka which was known to the Assyrians as early as the seventh century B.C., and it may have formed a part of Media. Media was conquered by Cyrus (Kurush) the Great, founder of the Achaemenid empire.

The Achaemenids ruled Iran from 550 B.C. to 330 B.C. and their authority extended from the Danube river to the Indus river at its zenith. Under the Achaemenids, there was a satrapy named Parthava, probably gained by conquest between 546 and 539 B.C. during Cyrus the Great's campaign south and east of the Caspian Sea. (Debevoise, Political History, 4) At that time the satrapy included Hyrcania, which lay between the Elburz mountains and the Caspian Sea. Parthava revolted in 521 B.C., but was subdued and probably remained united with Hyrcania at the death of Darius. Later it was apparently separated from Hyrcania and then joined with Chorasmia. In the army of Xerxes, there was a contingent of Parthians under the command of a certain Artabazus son of Pharnaces, probably the satrap of Parthia. Among the Parthians killed in Xerxes' Greek campaign was a cavalry leader named Arsaces. (Aeschylus, Persae, 4) The last ruler of the Achaemenid line was Darius III Condomannus who was defeated by Alexander the Great. The Parthians fought on the side of the Achaemenids against Alexander at Arbela and Darius' satrap of Parthia, Phrataphernes, surrendered to Alexander in Hyrcania. (Arrian, Anabasis, iii)

After defeat by Alexander, Amminapses, a Parthian from Egypt, was made Alexander's satrap of Parthia, which had been joined with Hyrcania. In 318 B.C. Pithon, satrap of Media, seized Parthia and installed his brother Eudamus. But other satraps became alarmed and united under Peucestas of Persis to drive Pithon back to Media. (Justin xiii, 4. 23) After 316 B.C. the province was apparently joined to Bactria under the command of Stasanor. But after nearly a century of Macedonian Greek rule by Alexander and his Seleucid successors, the nearly continuous war with Egypt weakened the Seleucids to the point that Diodotus of Bactria revolted and declared himself king circa 253 B.C. (Justin xli, 4. 5)

Early History

The origins of the Parthian people are clouded. Strabo (xi, 515) says the first Arsaces was a Scythian man with the semi-nomadic Parni tribe, a part of the Dahi, nomads who lived along the Ochus (Tejend or lower Oxus) River, who invaded and conquered Parthia. Strabo also mentions those who claim Arsaces was a Bactrian who escaped from Diodotus after a failed revolt. Justin (xli, 1) agrees Arsaces was a Scythian. Frye's analysis is that we can believe the Parni origins, but it was more likely a migration than an invasion that brought them, and Arsaces, to Parthia. (History, p. 207) These people would not be known as Parthians until they moved southward into the Persian province of Parthava sometime before 250 B.C. Achaemenian and early Greek references to "Parthians" refer to earlier inhabitants of Parthava, not the Arsacid Parthians. (Debevoise, Political History, 2; W. M. Montgomery, Early Empires).

The Parthians took encouragement from Diodotus' success and in 247 B.C. rose against Andragoras, satrap of Parthia for Antichus II Theos (261-247 B.C.). This date is fixed by a double-dated tablet discovered by George Smith (Assyrian Discoveries, London, 1875). The revolt was led by the brothers Arsaces and Tiridates. Arsaces became king and his name the honorific used by all subsequent Parthian kings.

During the second century B.C., the Parthians were able to extend their rule to Bactria, Babylonia, Susiana, and Media, and under Mithradates II (c. 123 - 88 B.C.), Parthian conquests stretched from Armenia to India. After the victories of Mithradates II, the Parthians began to claim descent from both the Greeks and the Achaemenids. They spoke a language similar to that of the Achaemenids, used the Pahlavi script, and established an administrative system based on Achaemenid precedents.

Parthian "Dark Age" c. 95 - 57 B.C.

The most confused period of Parthian history is from the late years in the reign of Mithradates II (ended c. 88 B.C.) to the establishment of the sole rule of Orodes II c. 57 B.C. While Mithradates II was still in power, we have coins from Gotarzes I (c. 95 - 90 B.C.), Orodes I (c. 90 - 80 B.C.). And during the period immediately following the reign of Mithradates II, we see overlapping coinages of Orodes I (c. 90 - 80 B.C.), an Unknown King (I) c. 80 B.C., another Unknown King (II) (c. 80 - 70 B.C.), Sinatruces (c. 77 - 70 B.C.), and Darius of Media Atropatene (c. 70 B.C.). Phraates III appears to have consolidated control in the years around and following 70 B.C., and Orodes II took firm control c. 57 B.C. See the expanded discussion of this very confused period at the page on The Dark Age in Parthian History.

Roman Contact

In 53 B.C. Crassus and over 40,000 Roman troops were annihilated by the Parthian forces of Orodes II and the peoples from the Mediterranean to the Indus understood the strength of Parthia. But by 40 B.C. even Rome had to acknowledge a Parthia whose forces, under the joint command of Pacorus I and Q. Labienus, a Roman, had struck directly into the heart of the Roman East and captured the provinces of Asia, Pamphylia, Cilicia, and Syria; even as far south as Petra, Parthia's word was law. For two years this vast area, so vital to Roman interests, was under Parthian occupation. Possession of the Carian and perhaps the Ionian coast by foreigners struck close to home as many Romans were native to that part of the world or did business there. The occupiers were no sooner pushed out by Ventidius than another Roman army under Anthony was defeated and barely escaped annihilation at Parthian hands. [Debevoise, 208]

The tug of war with Rome on the western border of Parthia continued almost without cease while Parthia had to constantly see to other threats from the north and east. The western border between Rome's dominions and Parthia gradually stabilized on the banks of the Euphrates, but war was always a threat and though major campaigns by the Romans were seen in A.D. 116, 161, 195, 217 and 232, Parthia was never conquered.

Decline

The Parthian landed nobility gained power and influence due to their their military power and increasing rights over the land and its peasants. As these grew, they were sufficient to allow the nobles to resist then defy the king, refusing to pay levies and failing to answer the call to arms that had been Parthia's source of power. Concurrently, the royal Arsacids fell to internal disagreements over succession which often ended in murder and a continued slide in their power. The resulting disorganization and fragmentation of the empire made way for successful Roman incursions into Parthian territories where rich commercial centers and royal treasuries were plundered, and territories lost to invaders. Petty kings rose to fill the power void;  this power redistribution culminated in a direct attempts to overthrow the monarchy.

End of Empire

In A.D. 224, Ardashir, Parthian governor in the Achaemenid home province of Persis (Fars), overthrew Artabanus IV and established the Sasanid dynasty. The last Parthian king, Vologases VI, issued his last dated coin in A.D. 228.  The Sasanians would rule Iran until the Islamic conquest in A.D. 641. The Sasanians were ardent Zoroastrians in conflict with their Armenian subjects who originally were Zoroastrians but subsequently embraced Christianity. The years of Sasanid rule saw a continuation of the struggle between Persia and Rome begun in the Parthian period. References to Parthia by Romans after A.D. 228 are to the Sasanid empire.


This page last updated 17 Apr 2008

Home Site Index Site Map Feedback New Items Tech Info Search

Online since 28 March 1998
Copyright ©1998-2012 Edward C. D. Hopkins, all rights reserved

    Click button to validate this page as HTML 4.01 compliant Click button to validate this page as CSS compliant