Parthian Empire

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Parthian Empire


an ancient state, established circa 250 B.C., south and southeast of the Caspian Sea, in a territory whose native inhabitants were the Parthians, an agricultural tribe. At its height (in the middle of the first century B.C.) the Parthian Empire had under its power and influence vast regions from Mesopotamia to the borders of India. The empire existed until the third decade of the third century A.D.

Around 250 B.C. the Sakas, a nomadic tribe of Parni (Dahae) headed by Arsaces I (the founder of the Arsacid dynasty), invaded the Seleucid satrapy of Parthyene (Parthia), soon after it had been lost by the Seleucids. The Parni conquered the territory of Parthyene and, subsequently, the neighboring region of Hyrcania. After an unsuccessful attempt to reestablish his authority (230–227 B.C.), Seleucus II was obliged to recognize Arsacid power over Parthia. In 209 B.C., Parthia was subjugated by the Seleucid king Antiochus III. Taking advantage of the weakening of the Seleucid state, Parthia soon regained its independence. The Parni were assimilated by the Parthians, whose culture, language, and beliefs they adopted.

Approximately between 170 B.C. and 138–137 B.C. the Parthian king Mithridates I conquered the eastern satrapies of the Seleucids: Media, most of Mesopotamia, and Elymais, as well as Susa, Parsa (Persis), and part of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom (c. 136 B.C.). However, further expansion by the Parthian Empire was halted by uprisings in the Greek cities in Babylonia, which were dissatisfied over the loss of their privileged position, and by the intrusion of the Sakas over the northwestern borders of the kingdom.

Relying on support from the disgruntled Greek cities, the Seleucids attempted to reassert their dominance. Their attempts ended with the defeat of the Seleucid army of King Antiochus VII in 129 B.C. However, the Parthian Empire remained unstable: the Parthians lost control of Susa; Hyspaosines, king of Characene, seized Babylon in 128–127 B.C.; and on the eastern borders the struggle against the nomads continued.

Stability came with the reign of Mithridates II (c. 123 B.C. to 88–87 B.C.), who conquered Drangiana, which was occupied by the Sakas, and seized Aria, Margiana, and, to the west of these territories, northern Mesopotamia. The Parthians intervened in the political struggle of the last Seleucids in Syria. Greater Armenia, where Tigranes II was placed on the throne, was under Parthian political influence.

The first contact between the Parthians and Rome took place in the early first century B.C., during the Romans’ struggle against Mithridates VI Eupator, king of Pontus. Under an agreement reached in 92 B.C., the Euphrates was recognized as the border between the Parthian Empire and the Roman state. During the reign of the Parthian king Orodes II (c. 57 B.C. to 37–36 B.C.), Roman troops commanded by M. Licinius Crassus invaded Mesopotamia, which was then part of the Parthian Empire. However, they suffered a crushing defeat at Carrhae (53 B.C.). By 40 B.C. the Parthians had seized almost all of Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine, thus threatening the hegemony of Rome in the East. During 39–37 B.C. the Romans reestablished their control over these regions, but Antony’s defeat (36 B.C.) in Media Atropatene halted the expansion of Rome beyond the Euphrates. At the same time, the Romans attempted to exploit an internal struggle in Parthia, where two opposing groups had emerged among the ruling strata. The slaveholding elite and the Parthian elite of the Greek and local cities in Mesopotamia and Babylonia were interested in the development of trade and of close contacts with Rome. However, the elite of the original districts of Parthia, who were linked with the nomadic tribes, adopted an uncompromising position toward Rome and strove for extensive territorial conquests.

The struggle between these groups, which led to civil wars in 57–55 B.C. and 31–25 B.C., reached its peak early in the first century A.D. After the suppression in A.D. 43 of a seven-year anti-Parthian uprising in Seleucia on the Tigris, the Greek cities lost their independence. Interest in local culture increased, and anti-Hellenistic and anti-Roman tendencies grew more intense. Parthia was weakened by the struggle for the throne between Vardanes and Gotarzes, the heirs of Artabanus III. During the reign of Vologeses I (c. 51–52 to 79–80), however, a degree of stability was restored, making possible the resumption of an active foreign policy. As a result, in 66 the throne of Greater Armenia was secured for Tiridates I, the brother of Vologeses I.

Shortly thereafter, Parthia entered a period of sharp decline, owing to an increase in local separatism, incessant dynastic struggles, and invasions of the Alani, a nomadic tribe. Taking advantage of the situation, the Romans ruthlessly laid waste the western districts of Parthia during 114–117, 163–165, and 194— 198. However, Rome’s territorial acquisitions were limited to northern Mesopotamia, and its attempts to annex Babylon were unsuccessful, chiefly because of uprisings by the local population.

The Parthians sometimes succeeded in inflicting defeats on the Romans, but it was impossible to bring an end to the political disintegration of the Parthian state. Margiana, Sacastene, Hyrcania, Elymais, Parsa, Characene, and the city of Hatra were virtually independent. Foreign and internecine wars exhausted the country. In 224, Ardashir, the vassal overlord of Parsa (Persis), inflicted a decisive defeat on Artabanus V on the plain of Hormizdagan, after which the Parthian Empire ceased to exist. Its territory became part of the Sassanid (Sassanian) state, the founder of which was Ardashir I.

The social structure of the Parthian Empire was not homogeneous. In the eastern regions the mass of the population consisted of communal peasants who enjoyed personal freedom but who were exploited by the state. Gradually, the peasants became the personal dependents of individual members of the elite. The azats (freemen), or the elite class, included the descendants of the Parthian nomadic tribal aristocracy, as well as the upper strata of the Parthian agricultural class. Evidently, slavery was only weakly developed. In the western regions (Babylonia,

Mesopotamia, and Elymais) slavery played a more important role, and there were other forms of dependency as well.

The territory of the Parthian Empire was divided into satrapies. The king’s power was limited by councils of the dynastic aristocracy and the priests. Taxes from royal estates in the satrapies went into the royal treasury. There was no single state religion. In the eastern regions various forms of Zoroastrianism prevailed; in Margiana, Buddhism; and in the west, the Greek and ancient Babylonian cults, as well as various syncretistic doctrines that paved the way for Manichaeism. By the end of the Parthian era, Christianity had begun to spread.

Architecture, representational art, and applied decorative art. Parthian art was originally a branch of Hellenistic culture. Later, some of the elements of Hellenistic art introduced by the conquerors were abandoned, and others were creatively reworked by the local population.

Characteristic of the architecture of eastern Parthia are temples built according to a basic plan that may date from the ancient temple of fire in Persepolis (third century B.C.): a square sanctuary with four central columns, surrounded by outer rooms. The buildings of palace complexes were usually grouped around a central court, onto which iwans, or audience halls, opened (for example, the palace on Kuh-e-Khvajeh in Iran, first through third centuries A.D.).In addition to Hellenistic sculptures, local painted clay statutes were popular in eastern Parthia (for example, in the buildings at Nisa), as were miniature sculptures (Margiana). Bas-reliefs and frontal reliefs have been found (for example, the cliff at Behistun, first centuries of the Common Era), as well as fragments of polychrome frescoes in the palace on Kuh-e-Khvajeh.

Among the most outstanding examples of applied decorative art in eastern Parthia are ivory rhytons found in Nisa (second century B.C.), with bases using local forms and friezes on Greek as well as on local themes.

Characteristic of the temple architecture of western Parthia is the wide variety of sanctuaries. Temples of the Babylonian type, having an interior courtyard with rooms along the perimeter, were built in Nippur. The Greco-Roman influence was important in the temples of Hatra. Fortress and palace structures often combined the Greek peristyle and the local man (for example, the palace in Assur, first century A.D.). The architecture of dwellings evolved from the pastas type (with porch or colonnade), introduced by the Greeks, to the iwan type.

Paintings from the first centuries of the Common Era (in the temples of Dura-Europos), as well as sculptures from that period (statues of kings and gods at Hatra), are characterized by a tendency toward frontal composition and flatness. In miniature sculpture, Greek subjects were gradually abandoned for local ones, such as the reclining goddess or the horseman.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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