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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Young man with Parthian costume. Palmyra, Syria, 1st half of the 3rd century CE. Decoration of a funerary stela. Musée du Louvre.

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 Parthia, from Old Persian Parthava, which was the Parthian language self-designator signifying "of the Parthians".



Parthia roughly corresponds to the western half of (Greater) 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 on the north west, Margiana on the north east, and Aria on the south east.

During 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 proper.



Under the Achaemenids

As the region inhabited by Parthians, Parthia first appears as a political entity in Achaemenid lists of governates ("satrapies") under their dominion. Prior to this, the people of the region seem to have been subjects of the Medes,[1] and 7th century BCE Assyrian texts mention a country named Partakka or Partukka (though this "need not have coincided topographically with the later Parthia").[2]

At any 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 – against Sardis."[3] 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.

The first 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".[4] 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."[5]

At the Battle of Gaugamela in 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 BCE. 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 governate under Nicanor. Phrataphernes, the former governor, became governor of Hyrcania. In 320 BCE, at the Partition of Triparadisus, 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.

In 316 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. He proclaimed independence around 250 BC.

In 247 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 question."[6] Taking advantage of the uncertain political situation, Andragoras, the Seleucid governor of Parthia, proclaimed his independence and began minting his own coins.

Meanwhile, "a man called Arsaces, of Scythian or Bactrian origin, [was] elected leader of the Parni",[7] an eastern-Iranian peoples from the Tajen/Tajend River valley, south-east of the Caspian Sea.[8] 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"[7][9] - the Parni invaded[10] Parthia and seized control of Astabene (Astawa), the northern region of that territory, the administrative capital of which was Kabuchan (Kuchan in the vulgate).

A short while later the Parni seized the rest of Parthia from Andragoras, killing him in the process. Although an initial punitive expedition by the Seleucids under Seleucus II was not successful, the Seleucids under Antiochus III recaptured Arsacid controlled territory in 209 BCE from Arsaces' (or Tiridates') successor, Arsaces II. Arsaces II sued for peace and accepted vassal status,[9] 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.[11]

Under the Arsacids

Parthian horseman, now on display at the Palazzo Madama, Turin.
Reproduction of a Parthian archer as depicted on Trajan's Column.
Coin of Mithridates I (R. 171-138 BCE). The reverse shows Heracles, and the inscription ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΜΕΓΑΛΟΥ ΑΡΣΑΚΟΥ ΦΙΛΕΛΛΗΝΟΣ "Great King Arsaces, friend of Greeks".

From their base in Parthia, the Arsacid dynasts eventually extended their dominion to include most of Greater Iran. 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.[12]

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 their lives.[12]

Around 32 BCE, 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 BCE.[13] 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.[14]

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

Under Sassanid 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 very early. 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."[15]

Language and literature

The Parthians spoke Parthian, a north-western Iranian language related to Median. No Parthian literature survives from before the Sassanid period in its original form,[16] and they seem to have written down only very little. The Parthians did however have a thriving oral minstrel-poet culture, to the extent that their word for minstrel – gosan – survives 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.[17] These Parthian heroic poems, "mainly known through Persian and Arabic redactions of the lost Middle Persian Xwaday-namag, and notably through Firdausi's Shahnameh, [were] doubtless not yet wholly lost in the Khurasan of [Firdausi's] day."[18]

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) at Nisa, 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 (51-58 CE).[19] 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.


Parthian waterspout, 1-2nd century CE.

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."[20] 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.[20] 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.


  1. ^ Diakonoff 1985, p. 127.
  2. ^ Diakonoff 1985, p. 104,n.1.
  3. ^ Mallowan 1985, p. 406.
  4. ^ Cook 1985, p. 248.
  5. ^ Cook 1985, p. 252.
  6. ^ Bivar 2003, para. 6.
  7. ^ a b Curtis 2007, p. 7.
  8. ^ Lecoq 1987, p. 151.
  9. ^ a b Bivar 1983, p. 29.
  10. ^ Bickerman 1983, p. 19.
  11. ^ Bivar 1983, p. 31.
  12. ^ a b Schippmann 1987, p. 527.
  13. ^ Schippmann 1987, p. 528.
  14. ^ Schippmann 1987, p. 529.
  15. ^ Lukonin 1983, p. 704.
  16. ^ Boyce 1983, p. 1151.
  17. ^ Boyce 1983, p. 1115.
  18. ^ Boyce 1983, p. 1157.
  19. ^ Boyce 1983, p. 1153.
  20. ^ a b Schippmann 1987, p. 532.


  • Bickerman, Elias J. (1983), "The Seleucid Period", in Yarshater, Ehsan, Cambridge History of Iran, 3.1, Cambridge University Press, pp. 3–20  .
  • Bivar, A.D.H. (1983), "The Political History of Iran under the Arsacids", in Yarshater, Ehsan, Cambridge History of Iran, 3.1, Cambridge UP, pp. 21–99  .
  • Bivar, A.D.H. (2003), "Gorgan v.: Pre-Islamic History", Encyclopaedia Iranica, 11, New York:,  .
  • Boyce, Mary (1983), "Parthian writings and literature", in Yarshater, Ehsan, Cambridge History of Iran, 3.2, Cambridge UP, pp. 1151–1165  .
  • Cook, J.M. (1985), "The Rise of the Achaemenids and Establishment of their Empire", in Gershevitch, Ilya, Cambridge History of Iran, 2, Cambridge University Press, pp. 200–291  .
  • Diakonoff, I.M. (1985), "Media I: The Medes and their Neighbours", in Gershevitch, Ilya, Cambridge History of Iran, 2, Cambridge University Press, pp. 36–148  .
  • Lecoq, Pierre (1987), "Aparna", Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 151,  .
  • Lukonin, Vladimir G. (1983), "Political, Social and Administrative Institutions", in Yarshater, Ehsan, Cambridge History of Iran, 3.2, Cambridge University Press, pp. 681–747  .
  • Mallowan, Max (1985), "Cyrus the Great", in Gershevitch, Ilya, Cambridge History of Iran, 2, Cambridge University Press, pp. 392–419  .
  • Schippmann, Klaus (1987), "Arsacids II: The Arsacid Dynasty", Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 525–536  .
  • Yarshater, Ehsan (2006), "Iran ii. Iranian History: An Overview", Encyclopaedia Iranica, 13, New York:,  .

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

PARTHIA, the mountainous country S.E. of the Caspian Sea, which extends from the Elburz chain eastwards towards Herat, and is bounded on the N. by the fertile plain of Hyrcania (about Astrabad) at the foot of the mountains in the corner of the Caspian and by the Turanian desert; on the S. by the great salt desert of central Iran. It corresponds to the modern Khorasan. It was inhabited by an Iranian tribe, the Parthava of the inscriptions of Darius; the correct Greek form is HapOvaioc. Parthia became a province of the Achaemenian and then of the Macedonian Empire. Seleucus I. and Antiochus I. founded Greek towns: Soteira, Charis, Achaea, Calliope (Appian, Syr. 57; Plin. vi. 15; cf. Strabo xi. 516); the capital of Parthia is known only by its Greek name Hecatompylos (" The Hundredgated ") from the many roads which met there (Polyb. x. 28), and was, according to Appian, founded by Seleucus I. (cf. Curtius vii. 2). In 208 many Greek inhabitants are found in the towns of Parthia and Hyrcania (Polyb. x. 31, 11).

When about 255 B.C. Diodotus had made himself king of Bactria and tried to expand his dominions, the chieftain of a tribe of Iranian nomads (Dahan Scyths) east of the Caspian, the Parni or Aparni, who bore the Persian name Arsaces, fled before him into Parthia. 1 Here the satrap Andragoras appears to have shaken off the Seleucid supremacy, as he struck gold and silver coins in his own name, on which he wears the diadem, although not the royal title (Gardner, Numism. Chronicle, 1879-1881). In Justin xii. 4, 12, Andragoras is wrongly made satrap of Alexander, of Persian origin, and ancestor of Arsaces. He was slain by Arsaces (Justin xli. 4), who occupied Parthia and became the founder of the Parthian kingdom. The date 248 B.C. given by the list of the Olympionicae in Euseb. Chron. i. 207, and in his Canon, ii. 120 (cf. Appian, Syr. 65; Justin, xli. 4, gives wrongly 256 B.e.), is confirmed by numerous Babylonian tablets dated simultaneously from the Seleucid and Arsacid eras (cf. Mahler, in Wiener Zeitschrift fill' die Kunde des Morgenlands, 1901, xv. 57 sqq.; Lehmann Haupt in Beitrage zur alten Geschichte, 1905, v. 128 sqq.). The origin and early history of the Parthian kingdom, of which we possess only very scanty information, is surrounded by fabulous legends, narrated by Arrian in his Parthica (preserved in Photius, cod. 58, and Syncellus, p. 539 seq.). Here Arsaces and his brother Tiridates are derived from the royal house of the Achaemenids, probably from Artaxerxes II.; the young Tiridates is insulted by the prefect Agathocles or Pherecles; in revenge the brothers with five companions (corresponding to the seven Persians of Darius) slay him, and Arsaces becomes king. He is killed after two years and succeeded by his brother Tiridates, who reigns 37 years. There is scarcely anything historical in this account, perhaps not even the name Tiridates, for, according to the older tradition, Arsaces himself ruled for many years. The troubles of the Seleucid empire, and the war of Seleucus II. against Ptolemy III. and his own brother Antiochus Hierax, enabled him not only to maintain himself in Parthia, but also to conquer Hyrcania; but he was constantly threatened by Diodotus of Bactria (Justin xli. 4). When, about 238 B.C., Seleucus II. was able to march into the east, Arsaces fled to the nomadic tribe of the Aspasiacae (Strabo xi. 513; cf. Polyb. x. 48). But Seleucus was soon recalled by a rebellion in Syria, and Arsaces returned victorious to Parthia; " the day of this victory is celebrated by the Parthians as the beginning of their independence " (Justin xli. 4). Arsaces was proclaimed king at Asaak in the district of Astauene, now Kuchan in the upper Atrek (Attruck) valley (Isidor. Charac.), and built his residence Dara on a rock in a fertile valley in Apavarktikene (Justin xli. 5; Plin. vi. 46), now Kelat still farther eastward; the centre of his power evidently lay on the borders of eastern Khorasan and the Turanian desert. The principal institutions of the Parthian kingdom 1 Strabo xi. 515; cf. Justin xli. 4; the Parni are said by Strabo [ibid.] to have immigrated from southern Russia, a tradition wrongly transferred to the Parthians themselves by Justin xli. 1, and Arrian ap. Phot. cod. 58.

were created by him (cf. Justin xli. 2). The Scythian nomads became the ruling race; they were invested with large landed property, and formed the council of the king, who appointed the successor. They were archers fighting on horseback, and in their cavalry consisted the strength of the Parthian army; the infantry were mostly slaves, bought and trained for military service, like the janissaries and mamelukes. But these Scythians soon amalgamated with the Parthian peasants. They adopted the Iranian religion of Zoroaster (in the royal town Asaak an eternal fire was maintained), and " their language was a mixture of Scythian and Median " (i.e., Iranian). Therefore their language and writing are called by the later Persians " Pehlevi," i.e. Parthian (Pehlevi is the modern form of Parthawa) and the magnates themselves Pehlevans, i.e. " Parthians," a term transferred by Firdousi to the heroes of the old Iranian legend. But the Arsacid kingdom never was a truly national state; with the Scythian and Parthian elements were united some elements of Greek civilization. The successors of Arsaces I. even founded some Greek towns, and when they had conquered Babylonia and Mesopotamia they all adopted the epithet " Philhellen." To Arsaces I. probably belong the earliest Parthian coins; the oldest simply bear the name Arsaces; others, evidently struck after the coronation in Asaak, have the royal title (ifictutMcos 'Apob.Kcv). The reverse shows the seated archer, or occasionally an elephant; the head of the king is beardless and wears a helmet and a diadem; only from the third or fourth king they begin to wear a beard after the Iranian fashion. In honour of the founder of the dynasty all his successors, when they came to the throne, adopted his name and officially (e.g. on the coins) are almost always called Arsaces, whereas the historians generally use their individual names.

Of the successors of Arsaces I. we know very little. His son, Arsaces II., was attacked by Antiochus III., the Great, in 209, who conquered the Parthian and Hyrcanian towns but at last granted a peace. The next king, whom Justin calls Priapatius, ruled 15 years (about 190-175); his successor, Phraates I., subjected the mountainous tribe of the Mardi (in the Elburz). He died early, and was succeeded not by one of his sons but by his brother, Mithradates I., who became the founder of the Parthian empire. Mithradates I. (c. 170-138) had to fight hard with the Greeks of Bactria, especially with Eucratides; at last he was able to conquer a great part of eastern Iran. Soon after the death of Antiochus IV. Epiphanes (163) he conquered Media, where he refounded the town"of Rhagae (Rai near Teheran) under the name of Arsacia; and about 141 he invaded Babylonia. He and his son Phraates II. defeated the attempts of Demetrius II. (139) and Antiochus VII. (129) to regain the eastern provinces, and extended the Arsacid dominion to the Euphrates.

For the later history of the Parthian empire reference should be made to Persia: Ancient History, and biographical articles on the kings. The following is a list of the kings, as far as it is possible to establish their succession.

The names of pretenders not generally acknowledged are put in brackets.

Vonones I.. 8 - ii Artabanus II. C. 10-40 (Tiridates III.. 36) (Cinnamus. .. 38) (Vardanes I... 40-45) Gotarzes.. 40-51 Vonones II. 51 Vologaeses I.. 51 -77 (Vardanes II.. ... 55) Vologaeses II. 77-79; 111 -147 Pacorus.. 78 - c. 105 (Artabanus III.. 80-81) Osroes 106-129 (Mithradates IV. and his son Sanatruces II., 115; Parthamaspates, 116-117; and other pretenders.) Mithradates V... c. 129-147 Vologaeses III... 147-191 1 The names of the following kings are not known; that one of them was called Artabanus II. is quite conjectural.

Vologaeses IV. 191 -209 Artabanus IV... 209-229 (Vologaeses V.. 209-C. 222)/n==Authorities== - Persian tradition knows very little about the Arsacids, who by it are called Ashkanians (from Ashak, the modern form of Arsaces.) Of modern works on the history of the Parthians (besides the numismatic literature) the most important are: G. Rawlinson, The Sixth Oriental Monarchy (1873), and A. von Gutschmid, Geschichte Irans and seine Nachbarleinder von Alexander d. Gr. bis zum Untergang der Arsaciden (1888).

The principal works on the Arsacid coinage are (after the earlier publications of Longperier, Prokesch-Ostan, &c.): Percy Gardner, The Parthian Coinage (London, 1877), and especially W. Wroth, Catalogue of the Coins of Parthia in the British Museum (London, 1903), who carefully revised the statements of his predecessors. Cf. also Petrowicz, Arsacidenmiinzen (Vienna, 1904), and Allotte de la Fuye, " Classement des mounaies arsacides," in Revue numismatique, 4 serie, vol. viii., 1904. (ED. M.)

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

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From Latin Parthia, from Parthava, the Parthian language self-designator signifying "of the Parthians".

Proper noun




  1. a region in northeastern Iran
  2. territories corresponding to the empire ruled by dynasts from Parthia.

Derived terms


Simple English


Parthian Empire at its greatest extent, c. 60 BCE.
Languages Parthian language
Religions Zoroastrianism
Capitals Ctesiphon, Hecatompylus
Area Middle East
Existed 238 BCE–228 CE

Parthia is an ancient country of Asia, now Iran and regions of Armenia, Iraq, Georgia, eastern Turkey, eastern Syria,Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Kuwait, the Persian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and UAE.

Parthians were excellent horsemen and archers. In battle, mounted Parthians often discharged their arrows back towards the enemy while pretending to flee.

In 250 BC, the Parthians succeeded in founding an independent kingdom that in the 1st century BC it grew into an empire extending from the Euphrates River to the Indus River and from the Amu Darya River to the Indian Ocean.

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