Parthia is a region of
north-eastern Iran, best known
for having been the political and cultural base of the Arsacid dynasty, rulers of the Parthian Empire.
The name "Parthia" is a continuation from Latin , from Old Persian
, which was the Parthian language
self-designator signifying "of the Parthians".
Parthia roughly corresponds to the western half of Khorasan
. It was bordered by the Kopet Dag mountain range in the north (today the border
between Iran and Turkmenistan) and the Dasht-e-Kavir desert in the south.
It bordered Media
on the west, Hyrcania
the north west, Margiana
on the north east,
on the south east.
Arsacid times, Parthia was united with Hyrcania (which today lies partly in Iran and
partly in Turkmenistan) as one administrative unit, and that region is
therefore often (subject to context) considered a part of Parthia
Under the Achaemenids
As the region inhabited by Parthians, Parthia first appears as a
political entity in Achaemenid
governates ("satrapies") under their dominion. Prior to this, the
people of the region seem to have been subjects of the Medes
, and 7th century BCE Assyrian texts mention a
country named Partakka or Partukka (though this "need not have
coincided topographically with the later Parthia").
rate, a year after Cyrus the Great's
defeat of the Median Astyages, Parthia
became one of the first provinces to acknowledge Cyrus as their
ruler, "and this allegiance secured Cyrus' eastern flanks and
enabled him to conduct the first of his imperial campaigns –
According to Greek sources, following the seizure of the Achaemenid
throne by Darius I
, the Parthians united
with the Median king Phraortes to revolt against him. Hystaspes,
the Achaemenid governor of the province (said to be father of
Darius I), managed to suppress the revolt, which seems to have
occurred around 522/521 BCE.
indigenous Iranian mention of Parthia is in the Behistun
inscription of Darius I, where Parthia
is listed (in the typical Iranian clockwise order) among the
governates in the vicinity of Drangiana.
The inscription dates to circa
520 BCE. The center of the administration "may have
been at [what would later be known as] Hecatompylus".
The Parthians also appear in Herodotus'
list of peoples subject to the Achaemenids; the historiographer
treats the Parthians, Chorasmians, Sogdians and Areioi as peoples
of a single satrapy (the 16th), whose annual tribute to the king he
states to be only 300 talents of silver. This "has rightly caused
disquiet to modern scholars."
At the Battle of Gaugamela
331 BCE between the forces of Darius III and those of Alexander the Great
, one such Parthian
unit was commanded by Phrataphernes, who was at the time Achaemenid
governor of Parthia. Following the defeat of Darius III,
Phrataphernes surrendered his governate to Alexander when the
Macedonian arrived there in the summer of 330
. Phrataphernes was reappointed governor by Alexander.
Under the Seleucids
Following the death of Alexander, in the Partition of Babylon
in 323 BCE,
Parthia became a Seleucid
. Phrataphernes, the former
governor, became governor of Hyrcania
320 BCE, at the Partition of
, Parthia was reassigned to Philip
, former governor of Sogdiana
. A few years later, the province was
invaded by Peithon
, governor of Media major,
who then attempted to make his brother Eudamus governor. Peithon
and Eudamus were driven back, and Parthia remained a governate in
its own right.
BCE, Stasander, a vassal of Seleucus
I Nicator and governor of Bactria (and,
it seems, also of Aria and Margiana) was appointed governor of Parthia.
For the next 60 years, various Seleucids would be appointed
governors of the province.
Coin of Andragoras, the last Seleucid
satrap of Parthia.
BCE, following the death of Antiochus
II, Ptolemy III seized control of
the Seleucid capital at Antioch, and "so
left the future of the Seleucid dynasty for a moment in
He proclaimed independence around 250 BC.
Taking advantage of the uncertain political
the Seleucid governor of Parthia, proclaimed his independence and
began minting his own coins.
"a man called Arsaces, of Scythian or
Bactrian origin, [was] elected leader of the Parni", an eastern-Iranian peoples from the
Tajen/Tajend River valley, south-east of the Caspian Sea. Following the secession of Parthia from the
Seleucid Empire and the resultant loss of Seleucid military
support, Andragoras had difficulty in maintaining his borders, and
about 238 BCE - under the command of "Arsaces and his brother
Tiridates" - the Parni
invaded Parthia and seized control of Astabene (Astawa), the
northern region of that territory, the administrative capital of
which was Kabuchan (Kuchan in the
A short while later the Parni seized the rest of Parthia from
Andragoras, killing him in the process. Although an initial
Seleucids under Seleucus II
successful, the Seleucids under Antiochus
recaptured Arsacid controlled territory in 209 BCE from
Arsaces' (or Tiridates') successor, Arsaces
. Arsaces II sued for peace and accepted vassal status, and
it was not until Arsaces II's grandson (or grand-nephew) Phraates I
, that the Arsacids/Parni would again
begin to assert their independence.
Under the Arsacids
From their base in Parthia, the Arsacid
eventually extended their dominion to include most of
. Even though the Arsacids
only sporadically had their capital in Parthia, their power base
was there, among the Parthian feudal families, upon whose military
and financial support the Arsacids depended. In exchange for this
support, these families received large tracts of land among the
earliest conquered territories adjacent to Parthia, which the
Parthian nobility then ruled as provincial rulers. The largest of these
city-states were Kuchan, Semnan, Gorgan, Merv, Zabol and Yazd.
From about 105 BCE onwards, the power and influence of this handful
of Parthian noble families was such that they frequently opposed
the monarch, and would eventually be a "contributory factor in the
downfall" of the dynasty.
From about 130 BCE onwards, Parthia suffered numerous incursions by
various nomadic tribes, including the Sakas, the Yeuchi, and the
Massagatae. Each time, the Arsacid dynasts responded personally,
doing so even when there were more severe threats from Seleucids or
Romans looming on the western borders of their empire (as was the
case for Mithridates I
). Defending the
empire against the nomads cost Phraates II
and Artabanus I
Around 32 BCE, civil war broke out when a certain Tiridates
rebelled against Phraates IV
with the support of the nobility that Phraates had previously
persecuted. The revolt was initially successful, but failed by 25
BCE. In 8/9, the Parthian nobility succeeded in putting their
preferred king on the throne, but Vonones
proved to have too tight a budgetary control, so he was usurped in
favor of Artabanus II
, who seems to
have been a non-Arsacid Parthian nobleman. But when Artabanus
attempted to consolidate his position (at which he was successful
in most instances), he failed to do so in the regions where the
Parthian provincial rulers held sway.
By the 2nd century CE, the wars with Rome and with the nomads, and
the infighting among the Parthian nobility had weakened the
Arsacids to a point where they could no longer defend their
subjugated territories. The empire fractured as vassalaries
increasingly claimed independence or were subjugated by others, and
the Arsacids were themselves finally vanquished by the Persian Sassanids
, a formerly minor vassal
from southwestern Iran, in April 224.
Under the Sassanids
rule, Parthia was folded
into a newly formed province, Khorasan
, and henceforth ceased to exist as
a political entity. Some of the Parthian nobility continued to
resist Sassanid dominion for some time, but most switched their
allegiance to the Sassanids
Several families that claimed descent from the Parthian noble
families became a Sassanid institution known as the "Seven houses
", five of which are "in
all probability" not Parthian, but contrived genealogies "in order
to emphasize the antiquity of their families."
Language and literature
The Parthians spoke Parthian
north-western Iranian language related to Median
. No Parthian literature survives from
before the Sassanid period in its original form, and they seem to
have written down only very little. The Parthians did however have
a thriving oral minstrel-poet culture
the extent that their word for minstrel – gosan
to this day in many Iranian languages and Armenian
. These professionals were evident
in every facet of Parthian daily life, from cradle to grave, and
they were entertainers of kings and commoners alike, proclaiming
the worthiness of their patrons through association with mythical
heroes and rulers. These Parthian heroic poems, "mainly known
through Persian and Arabic redactions of the lost Middle Persian Xwaday-namag
notably through Firdausi's Shahnameh
, [were] doubtless not yet wholly
lost in the Khurasan of [Firdausi's] day."
In Parthia itself, attested use of written Parthian is limited to
the nearly 3,000 ostraca
found (in what
seems to have been a wine storage
, in present-day
Turkmenistan. A handful of other evidence of written
Parthian have also been found outside Parthia; the most important
of these being the part of a land-sale document found at Avroman (in present-day Iranian Kurdistan), and more ostraca,
graffiti and the fragment of a business letter found at Dura-Europos in present-day Syria.
The Parthian Arsacids do not seem to have used Parthian until
relatively late, and the language first appears on Arsacid coinage
during the reign of Vologases I
CE). Evidence that use of Parthian was
nonetheless widespread comes from early Sassanid times; the
declarations of the early Persian kings were – in addition to their native Middle Persian – also inscribed in
Parthian waterspout, 1-2nd century
City-states of "some considerable size" existed in Parthia as early
as the first millennium BCE, "and not just from the time of the
Achaemenids or Seleucids." However, for the most part, society was
rural, and dominated by large landholders with large numbers of
serfs, slaves, and other indentured labor at their disposal.
Communities with free peasants also existed.
By Arsacid times, Parthian society was divided into the four
classes (limited to freemen). At the top were the kings and near
family members of the king. These were followed by the lesser
nobility and the general priesthood, followed by the mercantile
class and lower-ranking civil servants, and with farmers and
herdsmen at the bottom.
Little is known of the Parthian economy, but agriculture must have
played the most important role in it. Significant trade
first occurs with the establishment of the Silk road in 114 BCE, when Hecatompylos became an important junction.