Parthian Empire: History, Culture, Expansion, Accomplishments, & Decline
In 247 BCE, the Parthian Empire was born, and over the years, it grew into one of the ancient world’s most powerful and biggest empires. At its peak, it stretched from the Mediterranean to China. Its vastness made it one of the most diverse empires in history.
However, as Parthia began to move westward, they locked horns with many powerful kingdoms, including the Kingdom of Armenia and later the Roman Republic. Parthia and Rome fought many battles over the control of Armenia.
But just like its predecessor, the Seleucid Empire, Parthia experienced several challenges, from internal conflicts to foreign invasions, especially from the Roman Empire.
How did the Parthian Empire leverage itself to becoming a powerful state which could fend off many invasions by the Roman Empire? And what led to its eventual downfall?
History: Birth & Expansion of the Parthian Empire
The birth and rise of the Parthian Empire began with the death of Alexander the Great, the famous Macedonian king and conqueror. After Alexander’s death, his army generals decided to split those conquered territories amongst themselves. For example, General Ptolemy (later Ptolemy I Soter) took the Egyptian territory and went on to establish the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt for close to three centuries. General Seleucus was given Mesopotamia, as well as other central locations in the Persian region, resulting in the birth of the Seleucid Empire.
For effective administration, the Seleucid Empire was divided into different districts, also known as satraps, and these were headed by governors who reported to the central government and the ruler. One of such satraps was Parthia, which served as the birthplace of the Parthian Empire.
Parthia was located at the southeastern section along the Caspian Sea. The nomadic Parni tribe settled in the satrap and took charge over its affairs. During that period, the Seleucid Empire started to fall apart, mostly due to both internal and external conflicts.
While fighting with the Ptolemies to the west, the Parni decided to move eastwards, eventually gaining the opportunity to become an empire after a local governor called Andragorus led a rebellion against the Seleucid Empire.
With the Seleucids busy fighting and Andragorus’s rebellion attempts growing weaker, Arsaces I successfully conquered Parthia and became its first king. Prior to his conquest, Arsaces served as a governor under Diodotus, king of the Bactrian Greeks. He led his army westward after rebelling against Diodotus. Arsaces I ruled Parthia from 247 BC to 217 BC.
That all changed again in 209 BC, when Antiochus III, who was the ruler of the Seleucids at the time, reclaimed Parthia. King Arsaces’ son, Arsaces II, had succeeded his father and Antiochus made him satrap rather than kill him, a move he probably might have regretted later.
Following Antiochus’ return to Syria, the Parthians were extremely unhappy with the changes that had befallen them. The people revolted and Arsaces II was deposed. Phriapatius was then installed as king.
As luck would have it again for the Parthians, the power of the Seleucid Empire drastically weakened after signing the Treaty of Apamea with the Romans around 188 BCE. As a result, Phriapatius’ son, Phraates, embarked on a mission to reclaim and expand the Parthian Empire. With the empire expanding into Media and Hyrcania, Phraates ensured that his brother, Mithridates, would succeed him and continue the expansionist drive of the empire.
Mithridates spared no time in expanding Parthia once he was king and successfully conquered Bactria in the east around 168 BCE. He captured Seleucia, which had been the capital of the former Seleucid Empire, and also extended Parthia into Babylon, as well as Elam and its capital city Susa.
But the Seleucids refused to give up and attempted to reclaim their lost territories. They waged war against the Parthians for many years only for them to lose after their ruler, Antiochus VII, was killed in battle by Mithridates’ son, Phraates II. But that was only the beginning of some of the challenges Parthia would later experience.
In the mean time, Parthia continued to be a force to be reckoned with. Artabanus I, who was the uncle of Phraates II, successfully ended rebellions in Elam and Babylon. However, he died early while in battle against the Yuezhi tribe in the Bactria region. Perhaps his death was a blessing in disguise because his son, Mithridates II, ended up becoming Parthia’s best and most powerful ruler, especially in such a crucial time.
During Mithridates’ rule, he strengthened the empire and added the regions of Albania, Armenia, as well as the city of Dura-Europos to his growing empire. With its span of control spanning beyond the Mediterranean and China, the Parthian Empire had become one of the most powerful empires at the time.
Centuries-old Conflict with Rome
But the empire suffered major setbacks years later, most notably from the rising Roman Empire. Between 70-57 BCE, Parthia lost Albania, Armenia, and other regions to the Romans. At that time, Phraates III ruled the empire and this loss caused his sons to kill him. One of his sons, Orodes II, became the next king of Parthia. Orodes later killed his brother Mithridates III and recaptured Seleucia, and Parthia was back on track to regaining its power in the region.
The Parthian Empire thwarted many invasion attempts by some of the most powerful Roman generals. In the decades before Rome went imperial, the Parthian Empire put up a fierce resistance against Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the triumvirs of the First Triumvirate. At the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, the Parthian army was able to obliterate Crassus’ forces. To add insult to injury, the Parthians successfully captured Rome’s standards. In ancient times, there was nothing more hamulating to a defeated army than the victor snatching their standards.
With Julius Caesar assassinated (in 44 BC), the Parthians were emboldened and went on to seize almost all of the Levant from Rome around 39 BC. Caesar’s surviving generals were incensed by Parthia’s blatant aggression.
Therefore, some Roman generals stepped up to restore Rome’s reputation in the east. One such general was Mark Antony, who, like Crassus, simply could not bring the Parthians to kneel in 32 BC. Antony and some of his top officers were fortunate to make it out alive from the conflict, as Parthia took back Armenia.
Duly acknowledging the strength of Rome’s eastern foes, the astute and cunning Roman general Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) pursued a softer approach in dealing with the Parthian Empire. Through diplomatic means, Augustus at least was able to get the Parthians to send back the Roman standards that Crassus lost. Upon their return, the standards were placed in the Forum of Augustus.
Government & Administration of the Parthian Empire
The Parthian Empire ran a more decentralized system of governance and comprised numerous semi-independent kingdoms such as Armenia, Gordyene, Caucasian Iberia, Hatra, and Persis. These kingdoms had their own leaders.
The overall head was the King of Kings, which was the title that Parthian rulers gave themselves upon assuming power. A typical ruler was polygamous by nature and were often succeeded by their first-born sons. Some of the kings also married their nieces or half-sisters. Queen Musa, who was the Queen of Parthia from 2-4 AD, married her own son!
The empire took its nobility seriously, and by the 1st century AD, its noblemen and women were among some of the most powerful people, responsible for the succession and even deposing of kings. Some of them were also advisors and priests.
Military strength of the Parthian Empire
As powerful as it was, the Parthian Empire didn’t have a standing army. However, the empire could quickly organize and recruit troops when faced with a threat. What made the Parthian army so formidable were the cataphracts, which were men and horses clad in mailed armor. They were a highly-skilled set of elite men who, in return for their service to the empire, enjoyed certain liberties that commoners couldn’t.
The Parthian army was also made up of the light cavalry, who were commoners and wore simple clothes when going into battle. The light cavalry were also excellent archers and could shoot at enemies while riding towards and away from them. This skill is popularly known as the Parthian Shot. There were also smaller units comprising mercenaries and army conscripts.
The Parthian Way of Life: Society & Culture
The Parthians traded with the Greek drachma and it was the main currency used throughout the empire. They owned royal mints in major cities like Seleucia and Hecatompylos.
As a result of those trading ties, there was some Greek influence in Parthian culture, especially given its history. But that all changed during the Iranian cultural revival, which changed several aspects of the Parthian lifestyle, including the arts, religion, and fashion.
The Parthians were somewhat liberal, especially when it came to expressing themselves artistically or through the types of infrastructure constructed in the empire. Again, most of its buildings were strongly influenced by Greek architecture.
However, they were more conservative regarding their appearance and fashion, opting for uniformity, especially among the upper classes. Most Parthians wore tunics or trouser suits. The men of Parthia also preferred to have longer mustaches and kept their beards neatly groomed.
The reason why the Parthians preferred to dress more uniformly was because of its diverse religious landscape. The Parthian territory was large and had expanded into various regions in the east and west, conquering areas that had their own religions and cultures. They believed that showing any differentiation would have sparked rebellions.
Different religious groups existed, including Zoroastrianism in western Parthia, which involved the worshiping of natural elements. Parthian territories that had the original Greek Seleucids, worshiped Greek gods. The Babylonians worshiped their gods. And then, there were the Jews in Mesopotamia who worshiped Yahweh. Despite the various religions, many historians believe that the Parthians were extremely tolerant and that helped them rule for over five centuries.
How and when did the Parthian Empire fall?
Like many other empires in ancient times, the Parthia Empire eventually fell. But it didn’t happen all at once. Instead, it was a series of events that led to its fall.
It all started in 20 BC, after the empire signed a treaty with Augustus’ Rome. It is likely that the Parthians believed that their empire was finally safe from Rome’s aggression. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. In the centuries that followed, Parthia faced many challenges, including internal conflicts and series of invasions from its fiercest rival, the Romans.
King Artabanus II, who reigned from 10-38 AD, was successful in quelling local rebellions, as well as foreign invasions. But the peace was short lived and by 115 AD, Rome invaded Parthia again, this time led by Emperor Trajan.
Hailed as the Roman emperor who grew Rome to its largest expanse in history, Trajan conquered the large parts of Mesopotamia and looted extensively from Seleucia and Ctesiphon. The Parthians were stretched thin at this point as they were also in a battle against the Kushans.
Rome invaded Parthia again in 165 AD, this time led by Lucius Verus. Like his predecessors, Verus looted many Parthian cities and won many battles. But the Parthians succeeded in sending the Romans away. It is also likely that the Parthians handed the Romans a little parting gift in the form of the Antonine Plague. Most likely smallpox, the plague Verus’ soldiers brought from the east caused a lot of pain and misery. Verus himself would succumbed to the plague in 169.
The Romans returned in 198 AD but left shortly after since there was a food shortage in Parthia. These frequent civil wars and battles severely weakened the Parthian Empire.
The empire was dealt its last blow in the 3rd century when the King of Media, which was still part of Parthia, launched a rebellion against his brother, Vologasus IV. This revolt weakened the state and paved the way for King Ardashir to overthrow the entire empire and establish the Sasanian Empire.
Other interesting facts
The Parthian Empire was also known as the Arsacid Empire. It gets that name from Arsaces I, the founder of the empire. Arsaces ruled Parthia from around 247 BC to 217 BC.
Prior to Ctesiphon (located in present-day Baghdad, Iraq) becoming the political and administrative hub of the Parthian, the city of Nisa (located in present-day turkmenistan) served as the capital city of the Parthian Empire. It is believed that Arsaces I founded the city.
Other famous cities in the empire include Ecbatana, Susa, Hecatompylos, Rhages, and Asaak. It’s been said that rulers from the Arsacid Dynasty were crowned in the latter city.
At it’s largest expanse, the Parthian Empire covered almost 3 million km2 , which is about 1,15 million square miles.