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BC 247- 224 AD - Parthia / Arsacids

ARSACES Ic. 250248
PHRAATES Ic. 176171
PHRAATES IIc. 139129
MITHRIDATES II, the Greatc. 12488
ORODES Ic. 8077
ORODES II c. 5739
ARTABANUS Vc. 213227
The only great state with which the Roman empire bordered was the empire of Persia. Consolidated politically by the old Persian royal family of the Achaemenids and its first great-king Cyrus, united religiously by the faith of Ahura Mazda and of Mithra, no one of the ancient peoples of culture solved the problem of national union equally early and with equal completeness. When the Romans in the last age of the republic came into immediate contact with Iran as a consequence of the occupation of Syria, they found in existence the Persian empire, regenerated by the Parthians.

Parthia, in the widest sense, was the Parthian empire, lying between the Euphrates, the Oxus, the Caspian and Arabian seas. In the narrowest sense, Parthia (Parthyene) is the small country formerly inhabited by the Parthians, bounded by Hyrcania, Aria, Carmania and Media, and encircled by mountains. It was situated in the northwestern part of the modern Chorasan, where Kurti and Thus now lie.

In a middle sense, Parthia included the northern provinces of Persia, Hyrcania Felix (now Masenderan, Jcrjan and Corcan), the small Parthyene itself, celebrated for its breed of horses, Aria (a part of Chorasan), Margiana (now Forg and Marushak in East Chorasan), Bactriana (or the southern part of Bucharia), the regions about the Paropamisus (the district around Candaliar), Drangiana (Segistan), Arachosia and Sogdiana (the northern division of Great Bucharia).

The Parthians (fugitives) were known in the earliest times as a nation of barbarians. They were of Scythian origin. Polygamy was common among them. They fought only on horseback, were celebrated for their skill in archery, and were particularly formidable in flight, They were subject successively to the Persians, Macedonians and Syrians. Under the latter they remained till the time of Antiochus II. At that period, Arsaces (Aschak) took up arms, expelled the Syrians, and extended his conquests over the neighboring countries. His successors continued his career of victory. This was the origin of the Parthian empire, governed by the Arsacidae (Aschcanians or Aschakians), from BC 156. Ctesiphon, the capital, on the eastern bank of the Tigris, was built by Vardanus.

The Parthian Empire, when at the highest pitch of prosperity, extended fully two thousand miles from east to west between the Pamir upland and the Euphrates, while it had a general width of about five or six hundred miles between its northern and southern frontiers. It included the whole of modern Persia, the greater part of Afghanistan, much of Turkey in Asia, and some large regions which are now in the possession of the Russians. As Persia is said to extend over five hundred thousand square miles, and Affghanistan over two hundred thousand, while the Russian and Turkish provinces which were once Parthian cannot be estimated to contain less than one hundred thousand square miles, the whole territory included within the empire of the Parthians at its greatest extent can scarcely have fallen far short of eight hundred thousand square miles. It would thus have been about equal in extent to France, Germany, Austria, and Turkey in Europe put together.

The boundaries of the empire were, upon the north, Iberia, the river Kur or Cyrus, the Caspian, the Oxus, and the Hazaret Sultan, and Hissar ranges ; on the east, the Pamir, the Bolor Chain, and the valley of the Indus; on the south, Beluchistan and the Persian Gulf; on the west, Cappadocia and the Euphrates. Westward of the Euphrates lay the territory of Rome ; northward of the Oxus were the wild tribes of Scythia, Alani, Massagetae, Yue-ehi, and others; on the eastern frontier were the Indo-Scyths, a weak and divided people.

Not much can be said on the subject of the Parthian religion. The Parthian kingdom of the Arsacids had no national and religious basis but leant towards Hellenism, and whose organization had always been very loose. It seems probable that, under the Achazmenian Persians, they submitted to the Zoroastrian system, as maintained by the princes of the house of Cyrus from Xerxes downwards; but, as this was certainly not their own ancestral religion, they cannot be supposed to have been at any time very zealous followers of the Bactrian prophet. As age succeeded age, they probably became more lukewarm in their feelings, and more lax in their religious observance. The main characteristic the essence of the Zoroastrian belief, was Dualism recognition of Two Great Principles of good and evil, called respectively Ormazd and Ahriman. With their lips, the Parthians from first to last admitted this antagonism, and professed a belief in Ormazd as the supreme god, and a dread of Ahriman and his ministers.

But, practically, their religious aspirations rested, not on these dim abstractions, but on beings whose existence they could better realise, and whom they could feel to be less remote from themselves. The actual devotions of the Parthians were rendered to the Sun and Moon, to deities which were supposed to preside over the Royal House, and to ancestral idols, which each family possessed, and conveyed with it from place to place with every change of habitation. The Sun was saluted at his rising, was worshipped in temples, probably under the Arian name of Mithra, with sacrifices and offerings; had statues erected in his honor, and was usually associated with the lesser luminary.

The Romans represent the sovereigns of the Parthians as exceedingly proud and haughty, assuming the title of king of kings, like the Assyrian and Babylonian monarchs before them. The same title was also assumed by the Sassanian monarchs: and, indeed, the title has been always used by the sovereigns of Persia of every dynasty. At the present day, the title of " Shah in Shah," or king of kings, is assumed by the sovereigns of that country. Both Greek and Roman writers accuse the Parthian monarchs of demanding and receiving divine honours.

The government of the Parthians was in every respect the same as that of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, and Persians-absolute and despotic in the highest degree. Their whole conduct was answerable to the lofty titles they assumed ; for, not satisfied with the respect due to majesty, they obliged all those whom they deigned to honour with an interview, to kiss the threshold, on their first entering the palace ; to prostrate themselves before them, with their faces on the ground ; and to acknowledge their majesty with some offering, as though they appeared, says Dio, before the great Jupiter.

The constitution of the Parthians was monarchal-aristocratic, something like that of the Poles, in the period of the Jagellons. At the king's side sat a supreme state council, (senatus, in all probability what was called the megistanes,) who had the power of deposing the king, and the privilege, it is supposed, of confirming his accession previous to the ceremony of coronation performed by the field-marshals (swrenas.) The right of .succession was only so far determined as belonging to the house of the Arsacidas : the many pretenders to which this uncertainty gave rise produced factions and domestic wars, doubly injurious to the empire when fomented and shared by foreigners. Success did not accompany the arms of Rome herself against Parthia, until she had discovered the art of raising her own parties within the kingdom itself, by lending her support to pretenders.

The Parthians were so engrossed in the fearful art of war, that they utterly neglected agriculture, navigation, commerce, and the useful arts. Only two neighbors seemed to be of much account - Rome upon the west, and the Scythic tribes upon the north and north-east. With each of these enemies Parthia had important and dangerous wars, but her destruction came from neither. They carried on war with the Romans with various fortune, but the Romans never gained any permanent advantage over them. Crassus was slain in a battle against them, BC 53, in which he was defeated with great loss. Trajan, indeed, conquered a part of Parthia; but this conquest was lost partly by himself and partly by Hadrian.

The Parthians were a very warlike people, and they were esteemed the best horsemen and archers in the world. The consul Crassus, when being told by an astrologer that his expeditions against the Parthians would prove unsuccessful, by reason of the ominous aspect of the constellation Scorpio, humorously replied, that he did not fear Scorpio, but Sagittarius, or the Archer. To their exercises of horsemanship and archery, the air and country greatly contributed, for the dry air, as Dio observes, seasoned their bows, and their plains afforded scope for training horses. From the age of twenty to fifty, they were all obliged to learn the military exercises, and to be ready at a short warning to take the field. There is one remarkable fact noticed by the Roman historians respecting the Parthian armies; namely, the use of drums. They did not use trumpets, like other nations, but large hollow vessels of brass, covered with skins, such as our kettledrums, which, being beat with hammers, yielded a warlike sound.

Arsaces was the founder of the Parthian monarchy. According to some oriental writers, he was of the royal Persian race of the Achemenidae, and a descendant of Darius Codomannus; according to others, by birth a Parthian. Strabo says, that he was the king of the Dahae before the revolt of Parthia ; and Syncellus, that he was a nobleman of Bactria. Arsaces revolted from the rule of the Syrian monarchs, and established himself on the throne of Parthia. It is from this epoch that the Parthians reckoned the recovery of their liberty, and hence the commencement of the Parthian empire is dated BC 229.

After this, Arsaces reduced Hyrcania, and some of the neighbouring provinces, and was slain, at last, after seven years' reign, according to Khondemir, in a battle with Ariarthes rv., king of Cappadocia. B. C. 222. He was succeeded by a son of the same name. little known to the Romans: Sylla was, therefore, overjoyed at the circumstance of receiving ambassadors from so gallant a nation. In his audience, he affected great state. Assuming the middle seat of honour, he placed Ariobarzanes on his right hand, and the Parthian ambassador on his left. This gave offence to Parthian majesty. On the return of the ambassador, Pacorus caused him to be beheaded, for degrading the dignity of the Parthian monarch to a Roman praetor. Notwithstanding, he renewed the alliance with Lucullus, another Roman praetor, about BC 69.

Mithridates reduced the Bactrians, Persians, Medes, Elamites, and extended his dominions into India, even beyond the conquests of Alexander. He also defeated, and took Demetrius Nicator, king of Syria, prisoner, BC 141, and obtained possession of Mesopotamia and Babylonia ; so that he became master of all the provinces between the Euphrates and the Ganges. The reign of Mithridates is usually considered as the summit of Parthian grandeur; and he excelled not less as a statesman and legislator, than as a warrior. But neither his wisdom nor his valour could ward off the blow of the irresistible conqueror, death: he died BC 131, bequeathing his crown to his son Phraates, or Firouz.

Soon after his re-establishment on the throne, BC 54, Orodes was unexpectedly invaded, in a time of profound peace, by the Roman proconsul Crassus, through motives of the most sordid avarice. Having crossed the Euphrates by a bridge of boats, Crassus entered the Parthian territories, and commenced hostilities. Having made no preparation for their defence, the Parthians were easily driven out of all Mesopotamia. But there his conquests ended. By some strange blunder, instead of pursuring his career, Crassus repassed the Euphrates in the beginning of the autumn, leaving only 7000 foot and 100J horse to garrison the places he had taken: he put his army into winter quarters in Syria. This hasty retreat gave the Parthians time to recover from their terror, and to collect forces for their defence.

The issue of this unjust invasion of Parthia was most disastrous to the invader. In the next campaign, BC 53, Crassus, with his son and the greatest part of his army, were destroyed at Carrhae, in Mesopotamia, chiefly by the policy of the surena, or generalissimo of the Parthian forces. It is said that the Romans lost 2,000 men killed, and 10,000 who were taken prisoners in this campaign. The prisoners continued in captivity among the Parthians, and contracting marriages, became identified with them.

On the death of Orodes, the Parthians sent ambassadors to Rome, entreating Augustus to send one of the sons of Phraates to rule over them. The emperor readily despatched Vonones, or Narses. This prince was received with every demonstration of joy ; but as he affected the Roman manners and dress, the Parthians soon grew weary of him. and invited Artabanus, king of Media, who was likewise of the house of Arsaces, to take possession of the crown, with which invitation he readily complied in AD 18. Pacorus II, the son of Artabanus, succeeded to the throne, and during a long reign, preserved a strict friendship with the Romans; whence he was enabled to improve the internal condition of the Parthian empire. He died AD 107, and was succeeded by Chosroes.

On ascending the throne, Chosroes invaded Armenia, expelled Exadares, who had been appointed kmg of that country by the emperor Trajan, and placed his eldest son, Parthamasiris, on the throne in his stead. As this was an open violation of the treaties subsisting between the two empires, a war was commenced by Trajan, in which Chosroes lost the richest provinces of the Parthian empire; but Trajan dying immediately after his conquests, his successor, Adrian, voluntarily relinquished all the provinces beyond the Euphrates, withdrew the Roman garrisons from Mesopotamia, and concluded a peace, which Chosroes faithfully observed during the remainder of his reign. He died AD 166.

Revolt within her own borders brought the Parthian dominion to an end, and substituted in its place the Second Persian or Sassanian monarchy. In the year AD 214, Artaxerxes, a Persian, son of Sassan, excited a rebellion, drove the Arsacida from the throne, and, in 229, subjected all Central Asia, and founded the line of the Sassanids.

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Page last modified: 10-01-2012 19:28:08 ZULU