Saturday 22 October 2016

Parthian Empire

The Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 AD), also known as the Arsacid Empire was a major Iranian political and cultural power in ancient Iran and Iraq. Its latter name comes from Arsaces I of Parthia who, as leader of the Parni tribe, founded it in the mid-3rd century BC when he conquered the region of Parthia in Iran's northeast, then a satrapy(province) in rebellion against the Seleucid Empire.

Ruins of Temple Complex at Hatra, Iraq

Mithridates I of Parthia (r. c. 171–138 BC) greatly expanded the empire by seizing Media and Mesopotamia from the Seleucids. At its height, the Parthian Empire stretched from the northern reaches of the Euphrates, in what is now central-eastern Turkey, to eastern Iran. The empire, located on the Silk Road trade route between the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Basin and the Han Empire of China, became a center of trade and commerce.

Relief of Mithridates I seen riding on horseback at Xong-e Ashdar in Izeh, Khuzestān

The Parthians largely adopted the art, architecture, religious beliefs, and royal insignia of their culturally heterogeneous empire, which encompassed Persian, Hellenistic, and regional cultures. For about the first half of its existence, the Arsacid court adopted elements of Greek culture, though it eventually saw a gradual revival of Iranian traditions.

Chinese silk

Chinese silk from Mawangdui Han tombs, 2nd century BC, silk from China was perhaps the most lucrative luxury item the Parthians traded at the western end of the Silk Road. The Arsacid rulers were titled the "King of Kings", as a claim to be the heirs to the Achaemenid Empire; indeed, they accepted many local kings as vassals where the Achaemenids would have had centrally appointed, albeit largely autonomous, satraps.

The earliest enemies of the Parthians were the Seleucids in the west and the Scythians in the east. However, as Parthia expanded westward, they came into conflict with the Kingdom of Armenia, and eventually the late Roman Republic. Rome and Parthia competed with each other to establish the kings of Armenia as their subordinate clients.

Various Roman emperors or their appointed generals invaded Mesopotamia in the course of the several Roman-Parthian Wars which ensued during the next few centuries. The Romans captured the cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon on multiple occasions during these conflicts, but were never able to hold on to them.

The battle between the Romans and the Parthians.
Frequent civil wars between Parthian contenders to the throne proved more dangerous to the Empire's stability than foreign invasion, and Parthian power evaporated when Ardashir I, ruler of Estakhr in Fars, revolted against the Arsacids and killed their last ruler, Artabanus V, in 224 AD. Ardashir established the Sassanid Empire, which ruled Iran and much of the Near East until the Muslim conquests of the 7th century AD.

Ardashir I

Native Parthian sources, written in Parthian, Greek and other languages, are scarce when compared to Sassanid and even earlier Achaemenid sources. Aside from scattered cuneiform tablets, fragmentary ostraca, rock inscriptions, drachma coins, and the chance survival of some parchment documents, much of Parthian history is only known through external sources. These include mainly Greek and Roman histories, but also Chinese histories, prompted by the Han Chinese desire to form alliances against the Xiongnu.

Compared with the earlier Achaemenid Empire, the Parthian government was notably decentralized. An indigenous historical source reveals that territories overseen by the central government were organized in a similar manner to the Seleucid Empire. They both had a threefold division for their provincial hierarchies: the Parthian marzbān, xšatrap, and dizpat, similar to the Seleucid satrapy, eparchy, and hyparchy.

A Parthian Nobleman from Khūzestān Province, Iran
By the 1st century AD, the Parthian nobility had assumed great power and influence in the succession and deposition of Arsacid kings. Some of the nobility functioned as court advisers to the king, as well as holy priests. Of the great noble Parthian families listed at the beginning of the Sasanian period, only two are explicitly mentioned in earlier Parthian documents: the House of Suren and the House of Karen.

Parthian art can be divided into three geo-historical phases: the art of Parthia proper; the art of the Iranian plateau; and the art of Parthian Mesopotamia. The first genuine Parthian art, found at Mithridatkert/Nisa, combined elements of Greek and Iranian art in line with Achaemenid and Seleucid traditions. In the second phase, Parthian art found inspiration in Achaemenid art, as exemplified by the investiture relief of Mithridates II at Mount Behistun. The third phase occurred gradually after the Parthian conquest of Mesopotamia.

Parthian relief 

Examples of clothing in Parthian inspired sculptures have been found in excavations at Hatra, in northwestern Iraq. Statues erected there feature the typical Parthian shirt (qamis), combined with trousers and made with fine, ornamented materials. The aristocratic elite of Hatra adopted the bobbed hairstyles, headdresses, and belted tunics worn by the nobility belonging to the central Arsacid court.

A statue of a young Palmyran in fine Parthian trousers

Usually made of silver, the Greek drachma coin, including the tetradrachm, was the standard currency used throughout the Parthian Empire. The Arsacids maintained royal mints at the cities of Hecatompylos, Seleucia, and Ecbatana. They most likely operated a mint at Mithridatkert/Nisa as well. From the empire's inception until its collapse, drachmas produced throughout the Parthian period rarely weighed less than 3.5 g or more than 4.2 g.

Parthian Coin

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