The Quick History of Parthia and the Parthians

Nobody seems to care about the Parthians, especially those who study ancient Iranian or Persian history. It’s as if pre-Islamic Iran started with Cyrus the Great, continued with the Achaemenids, got smacked against a brick wall with Alexander and his Macedonian-Greek horde and then miraculously carried on with the Sasanians. The 400 hundred year interlude (not counting the Seleucids) seems to have been fused together or not really have existed at all.

I don’t know why the Parthians, who ruled during the centuries in between, seem to not get a lot of love and attention, both from historians and Iranians alike. I find this a bit strange. Afterall, the Parthians kicked some Roman a$$ for hundreds of years, thawarting their eastward expansion multiple times. They were extremely skilled warriors and possibly the best calvarymen in the ancient world. Why they seem blotted out of most history books is beyound me. The Parthians and Parthia seem like one of those people and places lost to antiquity. Though seemingly remote, Parthia and its people played an important role in ancient history. I think that we should at least show some respect and know at least who they are.

Parthia, land of the Parthians

The “Parthian shot”
The ancient land that we now call Parthia once consisted of parts of modern northeastern Iran and up to the steppes of Central Asia. Before the Russian invasions and annexation of Central Asia, this region was referred to as Greater Khorasan.

The Origins and History of Parthia

The Head of a Parthian statue in the National Museum in Tehran, Iran

The original name of this area in the Persian and Indo-European languages is Parthava. The word “Parthia” is what Greeks and later the Romans called it.

The earliest recorded history of Parthia denotes it as being a land of nomadic tribes. Along with Bactria and Sogdiana, the region of Parthava was most likely annexed around the 550s into the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great. Cyrus’ successor Darius I mentions Parthia as a province that rebelled against him in the famous Bisitun inscription. Darius crushed the rebellion in 521 BCE at the battles of Vishpauzatish and Patigrabana in 521 BCE. 1 After this, Parthia seems to have remained a loyal part of the Persian Empire up until the latter’s end.

In his writings, the Greek historian Herodotus mentions that Parthia was the 16th province, or satrap, of the Persian Empire. He also writes that a contingent of Parthian soldiers under the command of Artabazus was amongst the forces assembled by Darius’ son and successor, Xerxes, when the latter invaded Greece in 481 BCE.

Parthia after the Achaemenids

Parthian Soldiers
After the fall of the Achaemenid Persian Empire to Alexander of Macedonia, Parthia became one of the main provinces of the Seleucid Empire. However in 247 BCE, Arsaces, the leader of a nomadic tribe called the Parni, overthrew the Seleucids. He declared himself emperor and founded what became known in the West as the Parthian or Arascid dynasty. The descendants of Arsaces, who were the great adversaries of the Romans in the East, ruled over an empire that at its height extended from modern Syria and Jordan up to the steppes of Central Asia, the Oxus river and the edges of the Indus Valley.
Parthian Empire

For Centuries, the Parthians were not merely a thorn, but a poisoned piece of shrapnel in the eastern thigh of the Roman Empire. Both empires fought each other for over two centuries, with territories being swapped back and forth, mostly in Mesopotamia and Anatolia. One of the most famous encounters between the two was at the Battle of Carrhae, where the Parthian general Surena (also written Surenas) defeated a large Roman force led by Crassus, then the wealthiest and one of the most powerful men in the Roman Empire. The incredibly accurate Parthian archers, virtually all whom fought on horseback, obliterated Crassus, his son and nearly all of his Roman legions. These deadly cavalry forces would attack with a hail of arrows, feign retreat, thus luring the Roman legions to follow them, and then resupply themselves with a whole new batch of arrows, decimating the Roman advance. This is where the term “Parthian shot” comes from.

However by the 2nd century, the costly wars with Rome in the West and neighboring Rome and nomads in the East greatly weakened the Parthian kings. Their vassals grew restless and in 224 one of them, known as the Sasanians, overthrew the Parthians.

The Sasanians ruled over Parthia much like the Achaemenids before them. After the downfall and defeat of the Sasanians, Parthia was gradually overrun by the Arabs and incorporated into their Islamic Caliphate. Parthia was eventually absorbed into the large swath of territory that eventually became known as Khorasan.

Sources and Further Reading

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