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The Parthian Empire (247 BC - 224 AD), was a major Iranian political and cultural power in the Ancient Near East, and a counterweight and eastern boundary to the Roman Empire of the Mediterranean Basin.

The ruling dynasty came from Parthia ("roughly western Khurasan" in Iran's north-east) and was established and named after Arsaces, therefore the nation is also called Arsacid Empire (Persian: اشکانیان [Ashkanian]).

The Arsacids were contemporaries of the Seleucid Empire, and conquered much of its territories; unlike the successors of Alexander the Great, they were an indigenous Iranian dynasty - although Seleucus I had married an Iranian princess. Adopting Greek culture, they proclaimed themselves philhellenes "friend of Greeks." The Arsacids' Hellenism was subsequently portrayed by the Sassanians as a betrayal of Iranian values, and used as a justification to overthrow them. This portrayal as morally and culturally corrupt was followed by academia for decades , but there is today significant evidence that the Arsacids not only saw themselves as legitimate heirs of the "(divinely bestowed) Iranian glory", but were committed to the idea of an Iranian nation.

At the height of its power, the empire ruled most of Greater Iran, Mesopotamia, and Armeniamarker. But unlike most other Iranian monarchies, the Arsacids followed a vassalary system, which they adopted from the Seleucids . The Arsacid Empire was thus not a single coherent state, but instead made up of numerous tributary (but otherwise independent) kingdoms.

The Arsacids were in an almost perpetual state of war, either to capture and hold territory from the Seleucids, or to prevent vassal states from breaking away, or defending themselves against the Roman Empire in the west and nomadic tribes in the east. Economically and militarily severely weakened by the incessant warring, the infighting of its nobility, the Parthian Arsacids were finally vanquished by the Persian Sassanids, formerly a minor vassal from southwestern Iran, around AD 220. In Armenia, a branch of the Arsacid dynasty continued to rule their kingdom until the 5th century.


Early period

Around 250 BC, Arsaces I became the leader of the Parni, a north-eastern Iranian tribe. Under his command, the Parni established themselves in Astabene, the administrative capital of which was Kabuchanmarker. In ca. 247 BC, Arsaces was crowned king in "Asaak" (precise location unknown, probably near Kuchan), an event that in Arsacid chronology was understood to mark the beginning of the Arsacid epoch.

Meanwhile, Andragoras, the Seleucid governor of Parthia, proclaimed independence and established his own kingdom. Around 238 BC, Arsaces and the Parni battled Andragoras, during the course of which Andragoras was killed, and Arsaces captured Andragoras' kingdom.

From the base in Parthia (and from then identified as Parthian), Arsaces then ventured westwards and seized Hyrcania. Around 230 BC, the Seleucids mounted a counter-campaign to recapture Parthia, but failed. In 209 BC, by which time Arsaces I had died and control had passed to Arsaces II, the Seleucids under Antiochus III attempted to recapture Parthia again. Antiochus occupied Parthia's capital at Hecatompylusmarker, then pushed into Hyrcania before Arsaces II recognized Seleucid authority.

Soon afterwards Antiochus was defeated by the Romans, which severely weakened the Seleucids and allowed Parthia to maintain its freedom from the Seleucids. Arsaces II died in 191 BC and was succeeded by Phriapatius.

In 171 BC, Phraates I subdued the Mardi tribe, but was killed in battle against nomads. His brother Mithridates I survived the battle and ascended the throne, and ushered in the period in which the Arsacids became a major power.

Rise to major power

Profiting from the continuing erosion of the Seleucid Empire, Mithridates captured Artaconamarker in 167 BC, which disrupted the trade routes to India and effectively split the Hellenistic world into two parts. The Seleucid monarchs resisted Arsacid expansion as best as they could; Antiochus IV Epiphanes spent his last years campaigning against the newly emerging Iranian states. After initial successes in Armenia, his sudden death in 164 BC allowed the Arsacids to take advantage of the ensuing dynastic squabbles to make even greater gains.

In the second half of 148 BC, Mithridates I conquered Media. About 141 BC, Arsacid troops overwhelmed Mesopotamia and seized the Seleucid capital of Seleuciamarker. Mithridates I had himself crowned king of Seleucia.

Shortly thereafter, around 140 BC, the Empire suffered the first of the eastern incursions by nomads, perhaps Sakas. Mithridates took command himself, even though the Seleucids were preparing to attempt to retake Seleucia. Mithridates repulsed the invasion in the northeast, and then returned to Mesopotamia, where Demetrius II Nicator, who had made some initial gains, was taken prisoner (Demetrius II would be held hostage for 10 years). Around 139/138 BC, shortly before his death, Mithridates also conquered Elymaismarker.

In 130 BC, Antiochus VII Sidetes succeeded in making substantial gains in Babylonia and Media, but the inhabitants of the Seleucid garrison towns revolted and allied themselves with the Arsacids. In the battle that followed in 129 BC against Mithridates I's son and successor Phraates II, the Seleucids suffered a crushing defeat and Antiochus VII was killed. From then on, the Seleucids ceased to be a serious rival to the Arsacids.

By then, the nomads on the eastern frontier had become a serious problem, and in battles with which Phraates II and Artabanus I were successively killed (in 127 BC and in 124 BC respectively). Simultaneously, a new kingdom was formed in Characene, and its king Hyspaosines, succeeded in conquering parts of Mesopotamia, reaching Babylon.

Artabanus I was succeeded by Mithridates II in 124/123 BC. In quick succession, Mithridates II defeated Hyspaosines in ca. 122 BC, subjugated the northern Mesopotamian kingdoms of Adiabene, Gordyene, and Osrhoene as vassal states, and conquered Dura-Europosmarker in 113 BC. In ca. 97 BC, Mithridates II conquered Artavasdes of Armenia, and put Artavasdes' son (or nephew) Tigranes II on the throne in exchange for "70 valleys" (Strabo 11.14.15). The two countries would be in constant contact with each other from then on.

Around 115 BC, Mithridates II was visited by an embassy from the Chinese emperor Wu-ti, and the two agreed to open a trade route, today known as the Silk Road. Around 109 BC, Mithridates II assumed the title "King of Kings" (basileus tōn basiléōn), a title that his successors would also bear.

From ca. 105 BC until his death in ca. 88 BC, Mithridates II rule began to be weakened by a handful of Parthian noble families whose power and influence was such that they frequently opposed the monarch, and would eventually contribute to the downfall of the dynasty. A series of monarchs followed Mithridates II – Gotarzes, Orodes I, Sinatruces, Phraates III – but about whom little but their names is known. The disorder created by the Parthian nobility gave the Armenians the opportunity to reconquer the "seventy valleys" that they had previously ceded to Mithridates II. Phraates III was murdered by his sons Mithridates (III) and Orodes (II), who then began to fight with each other for control.

Conflict with Rome

In early 53 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus, a member of the First Triumvirate, sought to invade Mesopotamia. He and his army walked into a trap set for them by the Parthian commander Surena, and in the resultant Battle of Carrhae roughly one half of the Roman army of about 40,000 men – including Crassus and his son – were killed. Of the remaining 20,000 men, 10,000 were made captive and only 10,000 were able to escape. The Arsacids did not capitalize on their victory, and Surena was himself executed by Orodes II.

In late 41 BC or early 40 BC, the Arsacid army under the command of Pacorus (son of Orodes II) and Quintus Labienus (who had defected to the Arsacids following the defeat of the Republicans in the Roman civil war) attacked the Romans. The expeditions were initially successful; Pacorus took Syria and Judeamarker, while Labienus occupied large parts of Asia Minor. In 39 BC, the Romans counter-attacked, defeating both Labienus and Pacorus and killing both.

Following Pacorus' death, Orodes appointed his eldest son Phraates IV as his successor. Phraates IV promptly murdered his father, and then his other brothers and even his own son. He also began a campaign against the nobility, many of whom left the country. Marc Antony took the opportunity to attack with 100,000 troops in 36 BC. The Roman rear-guard (including provisions and siege engines) was destroyed by an Arsacid attack from the rear, but Anthony continued briefly, briefly laid siege to Phraata/Phraaspa (location unknown) but had to retreat when supplies began to run low. Plutarch (Antonius 50) states 24,000 men were lost in the expedition.
The Parthian Empire and its vassals and neighbors, circa 1 AD.
In 32 BC/31 BC, civil war broke out when a certain Tiridates rebelled against Phraates IV, probably with the support of the nobility that Phraates had previously persecuted. The revolt was initially successful, but failed by 25 BC. The Romans capitalized on the civil war and in 20 BC marched on Armenia. They also renewed their demands for the standards of the legions that had been seized in battle. Phraates complied, and although the return of standards was seen as a great victory in Rome, there was no battle fought; the Romans recognized the Euphrates as a frontier, and the Arsacids accepted Roman suzerainty over Armenia.

Augustus also sent Phraates IV an Italian slave-girl named Musa, who became the Arsacid's favorite wife and bore him a son. Hoping to avoid any complications over the line of succession, Phraates sent his first four sons to Rome where they would be protected. But Musa had Phraates poisoned and put her son Phraataces on the throne.


From about AD 220 onwards, a minor Parthian vassal in Persiamarker named Ardashir began to subjugate territories around his city fief, reaching as far east as Kermanmarker, on the margin of the great salt deserts. Artabanus IV proceeded to take counter action in 224, meeting Ardashir in battle at Golpayeganmarker on 28 April 224. Artabanus IV was killed, and the Arsacid Parthian Empire came to an end. The victor crowned himself 'King of Kings of Iran' in 226. Thus the Sassanid Empire was established

In Chinese sources

Arsacid rule in Iran was roughly contemporary with Han rule (206 BC-220 AD) in China, and the Chinese sources include the reports of Han envoys, and the reports of the Han military administration in the western territories. These reports, as preserved in the official Han dynastic history and fragmentary, contain information not found anywhere else. Unlike the Greek and Roman sources (on which almost all knowledge of the Arsacids is based), the information from the Chinese reports is not hostile testimony. The Chinese name for Arsacid territories was .

The Chinese reports were made in three phases: The reports of Zhang Qian (who did not visit the Arsacid court but reported on it) and the Han presence in Da Yuan (Ferghanamarker) between 126-91 BC, during which time the Arsacids and the Hans repeatedly sent embassies to one another; then the Han establishment of the protectorate general in the western territories between 59 BC-AD 9; and finally the renewed military presence under Dou Gu AD 71-77 and the presence of Ban Chao and his son Ban Yong 91-123 in the Tarim Basin. Han contacts with the west declined after 123, and ceased altogether by the mid-2nd century.

The Chinese reports consider the Arsacid-era culture and civilization comparable to that of the Chinese. They repeatedly refer to Arsacid coinage, and draw special attention to the silver coins and that one issue depicted a woman. There is no notice given in 'western' sources to the social status of women in Arsacid times, and the Chinese report gains special weight in light of the fact that Chinese society of the Han era was not friendly towards women. The Chinese reports also repeatedly refer to Arsacid texts and documentation, and provide a clue why only little Arsacid-era material has survived: like the scribes of the Han court, the Arsacid scribes wrote on parchment.

Han dynastic history (specifically the Hou Hanshu, Book of the Later Han, abbreviated '''HS''') also preserves fragments of historic-political import: In HS 2.1.1, but already mentioned in the Records of the Grand Historian (the Shiji text, completed in the early 1st century BC), the Arsacids are said to have gained control over Tiaozhi (Characene and Susianamarker), and to have treated it as a satellite state. In HS 2.1.4 and 2.2.3, the first Chinese emissaries are stated to have been received with great pomp, and that the Arsacids had sent their own emissaries in exchange. In HS 2.2.4, the Arsacids are described to have maintained diplomatic relations with the Central Asian country of Loulan in 68 BC, and in 35 BC the Xiongnu had plans to overthrow the Arsacid empire. In HS 2.3.5, the Arsacids are described to have sought to control the Silk trade by inhibiting Da Qin (the Roman presence in the Near East) contact with China. In HS 2.3.7-2.3.8, the king Qizjiujue (Kujula Kadphises) of Da Yuezhi of the Guishuang (Kushan) clan captured Gaofu (Kabulmarker) from the Arsacids.

In 97 BC, the Han general Ban Chao formed direct military contacts with the Arsacids and established military bases as far west as the Caspian Seamarker with his cavalry of 70,000 men during expeditions against the Xiongnu, while protecting the trade routes now known as the Silk Road. During Arsacid times, Iranians also played a role in the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism from Central Asia to China. An Shih Kao, a Parthian nobleman and Buddhist missionary, went to the Chinese capital Luoyangmarker in 148 where he established temples and became the first man to translate Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.


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