Parthian Empire

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The Parthian Empire of the Arsacids was the dominant power of the first pre-Christian and the first and second centuries AD in the Iranian highlands and Mesopotamia . The Parthians ( old Persian Parθava , Latin Parthi ) were an Iranian people who lived from the 3rd century BC. BC built an empire in what is now Iran , which at the time of greatest expansion also encompassed large parts of Mesopotamia, southwest Central Asia and some adjacent areas, including some Greek poles . Sometimes this empire is also referred to as the Arsacid Empire after the name of the ruling dynasty , to express that the population by no means only consisted of Parthians.

The empire ended with the Sassanids coming to power in Iran, who defeated the Arsacids in a civil war in the early 3rd century AD . However, the Parthian aristocratic families continued to play an important role under the Sassanids, and the Arsacids were able to maintain their position in Armenia until the 5th century.

History of the Parthian Empire


Iran and neighboring areas in antiquity

The Parthians were probably originally a sub-tribe of the Scythians called Parner ( Parni ), who lived on the southeast corner of the Caspian Sea . When she in the satrapy of Parthia emigrated, they took the name derived Parthians on. Between 250 BC BC and 238 BC The Parthians, under their leader Arsakes I , conquered part of the Iranian territories of the Seleucid Empire and thus at least indirectly linked to the Achaemenid Empire - although the sources are generally very thin, this also applies to the early days of the empire.

Most of the area conquered by the Parthians was only superficially Hellenized . Still, there were regions where a strong Greek influence was noticeable, especially in some cities ( Poleis ). The Parthians soon adopted Greek coinage, and Greek was one of the administrative languages ​​for a long time. In general, Iranian and Greek-Seleucid traditions were often combined in the Parthian Empire. The last promising attempt of the Seleucids to recapture their lost territories was the so-called anabasis of the Seleucid king Antiochus III. dar (209-206 BC); the Parthians had to temporarily accept the Seleucid supremacy again, but Antiochus then turned to the west, so that the Parthians could soon resume their policy of expansion after his defeat against Rome (188 BC). In the east, the Parthians of the Graeco-Bactrian Empire had to defend themselves , but this soon showed signs of disintegration - ultimately due to the invasion of steppe peoples from Central Asia , who represented a constant threat; The Parthians, too, were later to be embroiled in partly heavy defensive battles at this border.

Expansion and defensive struggle

Approximate extent of the Parthian Empire

Under Mithridates I , the Parthians added in 141 BC Mesopotamia also added to their empire, which the Seleucids finally, after Antiochus VII had been able to confront the Parthians again with short-term success, in 129 BC. Chr. Was permanently lost. This was a decisive step, because the rich land between the Tigris and Euphrates endowed the crown in particular with considerable means of power. Ctesiphon , located directly next to Seleukeia on the Tigris , became the main arsakid residence. Mithridates was the first Arsakid to assume the titles šāhān šāh ("King of Kings") and " Great King ". Under the successful Parthian king Mithridates II (124 / 123–88 / 87 BC) was 115 BC. The Silk Road "opened": A delegation of the Chinese Emperor Han Wudi paid their respects.

Soon after the first encounter with the Romans at the beginning of the 1st century BC. Under Sulla (see Velleius Paterculus 2,24,3), and finally, as 64/63 BC. When the remains of the Seleucid Empire were converted into the Roman province of Syria , the Parthian Empire became Rome's rival for power in the east, not least because of trade interests. From then on, the relationship between the two states was characterized by numerous military conflicts, with the Parthians mostly being the attacked. The best known is the Roman defeat in the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. BC, in which about 20,000 Roman soldiers lost their lives and 10,000 were taken prisoner by the Parthians; another 10,000 or so men reached Syria with difficulty . The reason for this battle was the break of 69 BC. The treaties concluded by Crassus , the Roman governor of Syria , concluded the Euphrates as a border river . Crassus himself was killed in this campaign, and his army lost its legionary eagles, which was a humiliation for Rome. 40/39 BC Then the Parthians, together with the Roman general and republican Quintus Labienus , invaded Syria and Asia Minor to take advantage of the Roman civil wars, but were soon driven out. The Parthian campaign of Mark Antony in 36 BC BC failed: The inhospitable climate in the Armenian mountains and the constant attacks by the Parthians decimated Antony's armed forces. This is seen in modern research as a possible factor for the later defeat of Antony against Octavian / Augustus.

Coin from Vonones I. The reverse shows a Nike ; Inscription on the front: King Vonones. The coin was minted in Ekbatana and shows a style that has already moved away from Greek models.

Under Augustus , 20 BC recognized BC the Romans re-added the Euphrates with the city of Dura Europos as a border; the Parthians returned the captured standards to the Romans, which Augustan propaganda celebrated extensively and exaggerated as a triumph. Further Roman-Parthian wars took place under the emperors Nero (in relation to Armenia: 54–63; the conflict had already emerged under Claudius ), Trajan (114–117), Mark Aurel and Lucius Verus (161–166), Septimius Severus (195 and 197/198) and Caracalla (216-18; the war was only ended after his death under Macrinus ) instead. The Parthians seem to have attacked only 161 surprisingly - and even this has recently been doubted in research, as there are indications that the Romans had already deployed strong troops in the Orient since 158 and that the Arsacids may only be ahead of a Roman attack wanted to.

Trajan's Parthian War in particular was evidently designed to conquer larger parts of the Parthian Empire, which of course was unsuccessful since Rome's capacities were already reaching their limits; When the Arsacids, initially taken by surprise, went over to counterattack, Trajan had to withdraw. His successor Hadrian consequently gave up most of the conquests and tried to normalize relations with the Parthian Empire, whose ruler the Romans now apparently granted the title rex regum ("King of Kings"). The last Roman-Parthian conflict ended in 218 with an Arsacid success; After a lost battle, Emperor Macrinus had to buy the peace with high payments.

In these Parthian Wars the same pattern often emerged: If the offensive (as presumably 161) emanated from the Arsacids, a Parthian advance followed, in some cases deep into Syria and Armenia , and after the contraction of correspondingly powerful reinforcements ( vexillationes ), a Roman counter-offensive in Armenia and Mesopotamia. Even if the aggression originated in Rome (like 113, 197 or 217) these areas were targeted. These Roman advances were initially mostly successful, and the capital, Ctesiphon , was plundered several times (three times in Parthian times: 116, 165 and late 197 / early 198). However, the Romans never succeeded in maintaining their conquests, and an early retreat restored the initial situation. If the Romans attacked, the Parthians were often only able to fight back after a while, as they did not have a standing army and first had to pull together the nobility in the Iranian highlands. It turned out that the Parthian Empire, although it was often plagued by civil wars internally, was able to defend itself quite successfully against invaders, possibly precisely because of the decentralized structure of the empire (see below). In view of the numerous wars, the Euphrates border proved to be astonishingly durable and remained essentially unchanged until the end of the Parthian Empire - however, Septimius Severus added regions in northern Mesopotamia, which had probably been under Roman influence since Lucius Verus , as provinces to the Roman Empire. In the following four centuries, the Arsacids and their successors, the Sassanids, strove again and again to restore the Euphrates border. In the north the conditions were even more unstable: although a compromise had been reached under Nero in 63 with regard to Armenia (the Armenian king was determined by the Parthians, but formally he was appointed by the emperor), the country remained controversial for centuries; this should not change later under the Sassanids , as the country was of great strategic importance.

Decline and end

Coin of the Kushan King Kanishka

In the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the Parthian Empire was shaken by several civil wars. Even in the fight with the old rival Rome one had to accept defeats, but was ultimately able to assert oneself successfully in the last war with the western neighbor 218. But also the defensive struggles against the steppe peoples ( Saken , Kuschan ) on the northeast border represented a constant burden for the empire, whose king had only relatively few sources of income - such as customs duties.

In Persis started at the beginning of the 3rd century. Chr. A revolt among the local Prince Ardashir I. , who took in the neighboring regions since about 213 campaigns. He benefited from a long fratricidal war between two Arsacids. Ardaschir was finally able to defeat and kill the Parthian king Artabanos IV (according to an older count, Artabanos V) in a battle in 224 . He himself was crowned King of Kings in 226 after the conquest of Ctesiphon , where another Arsacid had held out for two more years. He founded the Sassanid dynasty , whose Neo-Persian Empire continued into the 7th century and only perished in the course of the Islamic expansion at the end of late antiquity . This resulted in numerous continuities in terms of state structure and society, and many Parthian noble families were able to come to terms with the Sassanids and in this way secure power and influence. Apparently they were able to preserve their “Parthian” identity including their language into the Middle Ages. The more recent research understands the foundation of the Sassanid Empire more as a change of dynasty. In Armenia , the Armenian Arsacids were able to hold onto the throne for about 200 years (until 428) before the Sassanids placed most of the country under their direct rule (so-called Persarmenia ).

In any case, one should refrain from viewing the Parthians as “half barbarians”. Rather, they were also culturally fertile and represented the link between the Greco-Roman world and Central Asia and China - even if many details remain unclear due to the poor tradition.

The Roman Empire in AD 117 under the reign of Emperor Trajan (114–117) with the “Regnum Parthicum” in the east

Military affairs and state building

The military power of the Parthians lay in the massive use of mounted archers (see also Parthian maneuvers ) and in their heavy cavalry , the Kataphraktoi and Klibanophoroi . However, no detailed accounts of the Parthian military system have survived. At Carrhae , 10,000 horsemen are said to have fought on the Parthian side (there were also numerous foot soldiers). 50,000 riders are said to have fought against Marcus Antonius , which was possibly the maximum strength.

Domestically, the Parthian Empire was a feudal state, in which dynastic lower principalities (e.g. Armenia , Charakene , Elymais , Atropatene Media ) developed. The central government was evidently very weak (in spite of a royal council), and the power of the great noble houses was considerable, even at the king's court; the eternal battles between king and nobility may also have been one of the reasons for the ultimate decline of the Parthian Empire. However, the question of the structure of the Parthian state and the relationship between the great king and the nobility is the subject of research discussions; much is still unclear.

Culturally and religiously, the Parthians showed great tolerance, even if the kings showed a particular closeness to Zoroastrianism , and were especially very open to Hellenistic culture . Western influence can be seen in many areas, and coins with Greek legends were minted for a long time; Greek also served as an administrative language. However, after the turn of the century, the Iranian element was emphasized again - perhaps in a deliberate differentiation from the Romans. The Parthian kings partly adopted the Achaemenid titulature of Great King and King of Kings - there may also be a political, perhaps even national, concept behind it.


The economic basis in large parts of the Parthian Empire was agriculture, while nomadism and animal husbandry played an important role in many parts of the empire, especially where the soil was not suitable for arable farming. In addition to the grains grown in the areas of the empire for a long time, rice appears on a large scale for the first time. Viticulture is also well documented. Pearl fishing played an important role in the Persian Gulf. Cotton was also grown here. In Babylonia in particular, a high number of villages and smaller towns can be documented in the first century AD, which was neither surpassed before nor after and which testify to a broad prosperity under Parthian rule. The network of irrigation canals that had existed there for a long time was retained and maintained. In addition to agriculture, trade played an important role. In the reign of Mithridates II. The first official contacts with China. This event is considered the opening of the Silk Road . Other important trade routes ran across the Persian Gulf to India. Charax Spasinu was considered an important port city between India and the Mediterranean world.


The art of the Parthians has long been dismissed as an art of decay and decadence , as older research took the Greek art of the classical period as a model. Only recently has the independence and originality of Parthian art been recognized.

The Parthian art of the pre-Christian centuries was strongly influenced by the Hellenistic. In Nisa , the first Parthian royal city, there were Greek marble sculptures, Rhyta with scenes from Greek mythology and Greek architectural decorations. Even the coins of this period, albeit stylistically a bit clumsy, are based on Greek models. The coins of Mithridates I, who conquered large parts of the Seleucid Empire, can hardly be distinguished stylistically from those of Hellenistic rulers. In contrast to the Sassanids , for example , the Parthians only minted silver and copper coins.

Coin of Mithridates I.

From the turn of the time, however, a specifically Parthian style can be observed (although works in the Greek style were probably produced on the side until the end of the Parthian period). A clear trend can be observed, especially in flat panels, such as painting and bas-relief, but also in sculpture, to depict figures exclusively frontally. During this time, the Parthians broke away from the Greek style and developed their own style, which had Greek roots but is still oriental. The frontal display in the flat screen is hardly known from oriental art, but it was one of many display options in Hellenistic art. It now became the dominant style element . The figures shown are completely related to the viewer and even in narrative representations there seems to be hardly any interaction between the individual figures. Space and perspective are reduced. The figures usually do not even stand on a stand, but seem to float freely in space. The sculpture is also strongly frontal. The figures appear static, but they also appear transfigured and transcendent. A special trait of plastic is the love of detail. Weapons, jewelry and even fabric samples are shown in detail.

Wall painting from the synagogue of Dura Europos

In architecture there is an alienation of Greek forms of construction. A special innovation is the Iwan , which is a vaulted hall that is open on one side. The Ivan was supposed to be perfected by the Sassanids and also to play a special role in Islamic architecture.

Parthian art is known not only from the Parthian Empire, but also from neighboring areas such as Syria. On the territory of the Parthian Empire it disappeared with the arrival of the Sassanids. Their strict frontality and transcendence were to have a significant impact on Byzantine and medieval art .


The sources regarding the Parthians are not particularly productive, especially since one is usually dependent on Western authors (i.e. mostly hostile to the Parthians). Important sources include Pompeius Trogus (whose work is only preserved in excerpts from Junianus Justinus ), Tacitus (especially his annals ), Strabo and Cassius Dio . There are also inscriptions, coin finds (which are of particular importance) and Chinese sources, among other things (like Sima Qian ). Some sources, such as the Parthian history of Apollodorus von Artemita and Asinius Quadratus , have been completely lost apart from a few quotations from other authors.

Knapp is . The main sources are relatively detailed descriptions of the sources found in Klaus Schippmann Broad Parthian history , as well as:

The previously scattered Greek, Latin, Parthian, Akkadian, Aramaic, Syrian, Armenian, Arabic and Chinese sources were collected in full for the first time in 2010 in a three-volume source edition including translation. Almost all sources can be found on over 1500 pages, apart from Indian, Central and New Persian sources. Archaeological evidence such as the Parthian rock reliefs, however, has not been fully taken into account:

  • Ursula Hackl , Bruno Jacobs , Dieter Weber (eds.): Sources for the history of the Parthian Empire. Text collection with translations and comments. 3 volumes, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2010.


A fairly comprehensive bibliography of over 3454 writings on the Parthian Empire can be found at .

  • Henning Börm : Continuity in Change. Patterns of justification and scope for action of the Iranian monarchy in the Arsakid and Sasanid times. In: Stefan Rebenich (ed.): Monarchical rule in ancient times . Oldenbourg, Munich 2017, pp. 545-564.
  • Malcolm AR Colledge: The Parthians . Praeger, London 1967.
  • Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, Sarah Stewart (Eds.): The Age of the Parthians . IB Tauris, London 2007.
  • Uwe Ellerbrock, Sylvia Winkelmann: The Parthians. The forgotten great power. Revised new edition. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 2015, ISBN 978-3-8053-4828-7 ( specialist reviews of the 2nd edition by M. Wissemann ; the 1st edition has very significant flaws, see the specialist review by Erich Kettenhofen ).
  • David Engels : Cicéron comme proconsul en Cilicie et la guerre contre les Parthes . In: Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire , Volume 86, 2008, pp. 23–45.
  • Jérôme Gaslain: Le bachlik d'Arsace I er ou la représentation du nomade-roi . In: Bulletin of Parthian and Mixed Oriental Studies , Volume 1, 2005, pp. 9-30.
  • Stefan R. Hauser : The eternal nomads? Remarks on the origin, military, state structure and nomadic traditions of the Arsacids . In: Burkhard Meißner u. a. (Ed.): War, Society, Institutions . Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 2005, ISBN 3-05-004097-1 , pp. 163-208 ( online ).
  • Stefan R. Hauser: What is there no paid standing army? A fresh look on military and political institutions in the Arsacid Empire . In: Markus Mode, Jürgen Tubach (Ed.): Arms and Armor as Indicators of Cultural Transfer. The Steppes and the Ancient World from Hellenistic Times to the Early Middle Ages. Reichert, Wiesbaden 2006, ISBN 3-89500-529-0 , pp. 295-319 ( online ).
  • Stefan R. Hauser: The Arsacid (Parthian) Empire . In: Daniel T. Potts (Ed.): A Companion to the Archeology of the Ancient Near East. Oxford 2012, pp. 1001-1020.
  • Stefan R. Hauser: Coins, Media and the Structure of the Arsacid Empire . In: Carsten Binder, Henning Börm, Andreas Luther (eds.): Diwan. Wellem, Duisburg 2016, pp. 433–492.
  • Irene Huber, Udo Hartmann : "Because the king was unable to contradict their dictates ..." The position of women at the court of the Arsacids . In: Antonio Panaino, Andrea Piras (Ed.): Proceedings of the 5th Conference of the Societas Iranologica Europæa. Volume 1: Ancient and Middle Iranian studies . Mimesis, Milan 2006, pp. 485-517.
  • Margarete Karras-Klapproth: Prosopographical studies on the history of the Parthian Empire on the basis of ancient literary tradition . Habelt, Bonn 1988, ISBN 3-7749-2367-1 .
  • Charlotte Lerouge: L'image des Parthes dans le monde gréco-romain. You début du Ier siècle av. J.-C. jusqu'à la fin du Haut-Empire romain (= Oriens et Occidens . Volume 17). Franz Steiner, Stuttgart 2007, ISBN 978-3-515-08530-4 .
  • Marek Jan Olbrycht: Parthia et ulteriores gentes. The political relations between the arsakid Iran and the nomads of the Eurasian steppes (sources and research on the ancient world, vol. 30). Tuduv, Munich 1998, ISBN 9783880735637 .
  • Marek Jan Olbrycht: Parthians, Greek Culture, and Beyond. In: Within the Circle of Ancient Ideas and Virtues. Studies in Honor of Professor Maria Dzielska. Edited by K. Twardowska et alii, Kraków 2014, pp. 129–142. DOI 10.6084 / m9.figshare.10286177
  • Marek Jan Olbrycht: Manpower Resources and Army Organization in Parthia. In: Ancient Society 46, 2016, pp. 291–338. DOI: 10.2143 / AS.46.0.3167457
  • Nikolaus Overtoom: Reign of arrows. The rise of the Parthian Empire in the Hellenistic Middle East. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2020.
  • Parvaneh Pourshariati: The Parthians and the Production of Canonical Shahnames . In: Henning Börm , Josef Wiesehöfer (eds.): Commutatio et Contentio. Studies in the Late Roman, Sasanian, and Early Islamic Near East. Wellem, Düsseldorf 2010, ISBN 978-3-941-82003-6 , pp. 346-392.
  • Klaus Schippmann : Fundamentals of Parthian History . Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1980, ISBN 3-534-07064-X .
  • M. Rahim Shayegan: Arsacids and Sasanians: Political Ideology in Post-Hellenistic and Late Antique Persia . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011, ISBN 978-0-521-76641-8 .
  • Rose M. Sheldon: Rome's was in Parthia . Vallentine Mitchell, London 2010, ISBN 978-0-853-03958-7 .
  • André Verstandig: Histoire de l'Empire parthe . Le Cri, Bruxelles 2001, ISBN 2-871-06279-X .
  • Geo Widengren : Iran, the great opponent of Rome: royal power, feudalism, military affairs . In: Rise and Fall of the Roman World (ANRW). Volume II 9.1, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1979, pp. 219-306.
  • Peter Wick, Markus Zehnder (ed.): The Parthian Empire and its religions. Computus, Gutenberg 2012, ISBN 978-3-940598-13-4 .
  • Josef Wiesehöfer: Ancient Persia . Artemis and Winkler, Munich / Zurich 1994, ISBN 3-7608-1080-2 .
  • Józef Wolski: L'empire des Arsacides (= Acta Iranica. Volume 32 / Series 3: Textes et Mémoires. Volume 18). Peeters, Louvain 1993, ISBN 90-6831-465-3 .
  • Józef Wolski: Iran and Rome. Attempt to evaluate mutual relationships historically . In: Rise and Fall of the Roman World. Volume II 9.1, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1979, pp. 195-214.
  • Karl-Heinz Ziegler : Relations between Rome and the Parthian Empire. A contribution to the history of international law . Franz Steiner, Wiesbaden 1964.

See also

Web links

Commons : Parthian  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. Parvaneh Pourshariati: The Parthians and the Production of Canonical Shahnames . In: Henning Börm, Josef Wiesehöfer (eds.): Commutatio et Contentio. Studies in the Late Roman, Sasanian, and Early Islamic Near East. Düsseldorf 2010, pp. 346-392.
  2. J. Neusner: Iranica Antiqua 3. 1963, p. 40ff .; Józef Wolski: L'empire des Arsacides. Louvain 1993.
  3. RMC Adams: Heartland of Cities. Chicago / London 1981, p. 178.
  4. ^ Wang Tao: Parthia in China: A Re-examination of the Historical Records. In: VS Curtis, S. Stewart: The Age of the Parthians, The Idea of ​​Iran. II, London 2007, pp. 87-104.
  5. a b Udo Hartmann: Review of: Hackl, Ursula; Jacobs, Bruno; Weber, Dieter (Ed.): Sources for the history of the Parthian empire. Text collection with translations and comments . 3 volumes, Göttingen 2010. In: H-Soz-u-Kult. Retrieved March 14, 2011.
  6. ^ Ancient Authors . In: , March 30, 2007, accessed March 14, 2011.
  7. See Google Books and the review by Geoffrey Greatrex in: The Classical Review. New Series. Volume 51, 2001, No. 1, pp. 133-135 ( JSTOR 3065809 ).
  8. Annotated Parthia Bibliography . In: , October 18, 2009, accessed March 14, 2011.

Coordinates: 33 °  N , 45 °  E