Who Were the Parthians in Ancient History?

Arsacid Military Costumes
Image ID: 1619753Costume militare degli Arsacidi. (1823-1838). NYPL Digital Gallery

Traditionally, the Parthian Empire (Arsacid Empire) lasted from 247 B.C. – A.D. 224. The starting date is the time of which the Parthians occupied the satrapy of the Seleucid Empire known as Parthia (modern Turkmenistan). The end date marks the start of the Sassanid Empire.

Founding

The founder of the Parthian Empire is said to have been Arsaces of the tribe of the Parni (a semi-nomadic steppe people), for which reason the Parthian era is also referred to as the Arsacid.

There is a debate on the founding date. The "high date" sets the founding between 261 and 246 B.C., while the "low date" sets the founding between c. 240/39 and c. 237 B.C.

The Extent of the Empire

While the Parthian Empire started as the Parthian satrapy, it expanded and diversified. Eventually, it extended from the Euphrates to the Indus Rivers, covering Iran, Iraq, and most of Afghanistan. Although it came to embrace most of the territory occupied by the Seleucid monarchs, the Parthians never conquered Syria.

The capital of the Parthian Empire was originally Arsak, but it later moved to Ctesiphon.

The End of the Parthian Empire

A Sassanid prince from Fars (Persis, in southern Iran), rebelled against the last Parthian king, the Arsacid Artabanus V, thereby starting the Sassanid era.

Parthian Literature

In "Looking East from the Classical World: Colonialism, Culture, and Trade from Alexander the Great to Shapur I," Fergus Millar says that no literature in an Iranian language survives from the entire Parthian period.

He adds that there is documentation from the Parthian period, but it's scanty and mostly in Greek.

Government

The government of the Parthian Empire has been described as an unstable, decentralized political system, but also a step in the direction "of the first highly integrated, bureaucratically complex empires in Southwest Asia [Wenke]." It was for much of its existence a coalition of vassal states with tense relationships among rival ethnic groups.

It was also subject to outside pressure from Kushans, Arabs, Romans, and others.

References

Josef Wiesehöfer "Parthia, Parthian empire" The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Oxford University Press, 1998.

"Elymeans, Parthians, and the Evolution of Empires in Southwestern Iran," Robert J. Wenke; Journal of the American Oriental Society (1981), pp. 303-315.

"Looking East from the Classical World: Colonialism, Culture, and Trade from Alexander the Great to Shapur I," by Fergus Millar; The International History Review (1998), pp. 507-531.

"The Date of the Secession of Parthia from the Seleucid Kingdom," by Kai Brodersen; Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte (1986), pp. 378-381