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The Hellenistic and Parthian periods
Alexander and his successors
Between 336 and 330 BC Alexander completed the conquest of the whole Achaemenid Empire.

Alexander's burning of  the royal palace at Persepolis in 330 symbolized the passing of the old order and the introduction of Greek civilization into western Asia.
Greek and Macedonian soldiers settled in large numbers in Mesopotamia and Iran. Alexander encouraged intermarriage and fostered Greek culture, but he also retained a large part of the Achaemenid administrative structure and introduced Oriental elements and Greek political institutions.

Alexander left no heir. His death in 323 BC signalled the beginning of a period of prolonged internecine warfare among the Macedonian generals for control of his enormous empire.
By the end of the 4th century BC Seleucus I Nicator had consolidated his control over that part of Alexander's territory that had corresponded to the Achaemenid Empire.

Seleucus, who, with his son Antiochus I, assumed supreme power, established a government with two capitals: Antioch on the Orontes River in Syria and Seleucia on the Tigris River in Babylonia.
The greatest part of Asia--from the Aegean to the Punjab--belonged to this vast kingdom, and to its diverse and varied populace must be added several allied Greek cities, both in Greece and in Asia Minor.

The nobles and the nomads

As he was finishing the conquest of eastern Iran--and at a moment when his attention was being drawn toward the conquest of India--Alexander was confronted by two human factors that were of the greatest importance for  the future of his empire.

The first of these was the powerful local aristocracy  of this part of the Achaemenid Empire, an aristocracy that held enormous properties and dominated the indigenous population; the second was the nomad population that for centuries had wandered along the northern and  northeastern frontiers of Iran.

Alexander seems to have admired greatly the barons of eastern Iran; he had taken note of their ardour during the two years of hard and constant fighting in his conquest of northeastern Iran.
Realizing how such a force could benefit the future of his empire, Alexander convoked an assembly of Bactrian nobles.
He ordered 30,000 young men to be chosen for training in the Macedonian military disciplines. He understood the importance and effectiveness of the Iranian light cavalry armed with the bow, and his army would make use of this training in its march toward the plains of India. And finally, Alexander married Roxana of Sogdiana, daughter of a chief of one of the conquered countries, thereby symbolizing the union of the two races.

But Alexander was not unaware that other measures were needed to ensure his control of these vast territories. He founded many new cities, or refounded some that were already in existence.
Many of these were placed strategically along the northern frontiers as protection. Almost half of these new cities were located in the "high (eastern) satrapies." This policy of Alexander was soon abandoned by the Seleucids, whose efforts at city planning were mostly confined to their western possessions.

In contrast with Alexander, the Seleucids were unable to maintain the good rapport with the eastern Iranian nobility that Alexander had believed essential. And this deficiency, a result of the Seleucids' "pro-Macedonian" policies, was one of the principal causes for the progressive decline of the Seleucid Empire.

The second of the human factors was the nomads who inhabited the immense territories beyond the northern frontiers. They fought constantly with the settled populations, but could nevertheless occasionally ally with them in the face of necessity.
When Alexander arrived on the banks of the Jaxartes River, it marked the limit of the "civilized" world; beyond stretched the Eurasian wilderness.

The Roman historian Quintus Curtius recounts Alexander's meeting with a delegation of Scythians who gave him a warning. They told him :
" Just cross the Tanais [properly the Jaxartes] and you will see how far Scythia stretches. You will never conquer the Scythians. Our poverty makes us quicker than your army, which bears plunder from so many nations. Just when you think we are far away, then will you see us in your camp. We know how to pursue and how to flee with the same swiftness. [One recalls here the famous "Parthian  shot."] We seek out those deserts totally devoid of human culture rather than the cities and the rich countryside."
 

These words sum up what the nomad world represented to an empire that stretched several thousand miles from east to west.
The non-nomad population knew the threat only too well.
Alexander was not the first to cross swords with the nomads. Cyrus, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, had paid with his life while fighting them; and Darius, believing he could take them from behind through southern Russia, suffered a crushing defeat in his campaign against the Scythians along the shores of the Black Sea.

If the nomads and the eastern Iranian nobility were the two dominant factors in the decline of the Seleucid kingdom, and if the events they provoked were some of the principal causes for the exhaustion and eventual fall of that state, these same causes played a not inconsiderable role in the collapse of Parthian power.
This power was undermined by an aristocracy that retained its military power and refused to bend before the royal will or to give up its meddling in the country's politics.

In the meantime, the kingdom's unruly neighbours to the north and the northeast, at the cost of the lives of several Parthian sovereigns, weakened the kingdom and sometimes added a complementary element to the often numerous intrigues of the pretenders to supreme power during the course of the almost half a millennium of the existence of the Parthian kingdom.

The Seleucids

In the struggle for power after Alexander's death, Seleucus I brought under his control the whole eastern part of Alexander's empire.
But even before he had consolidated his control over this territory, the eastern provinces on the Indian frontier had begun to revolt.

By about 304 BC Seleucus was forced to abandon these to Candragupta Maurya, the founder of the great Indian Maurya Empire. This was a serious loss to the Seleucids, for they lost not only the Indian territory conquered by Alexander but also frontier districts west of the Indus.
As recompense for his losses, Seleucus received 500 elephants, which he took back with him to Syria.
From this time on, the west was dominant in the Seleucids' politics to the detriment of their eastern possessions.
This near disinterest of the Seleucids in these far-off eastern regions must have alienated the Greeks of these communities who had settled far from their homeland; and the thought of taking back their full independence could not have been far from their minds.
 

Soon afterward, toward 290-280 BC, the two eastern provinces of Margiana and Aria suffered an invasion by nomads. But the invasion was repelled and the nomads pushed back beyond the Jaxartes.
Demodamas, general to the first two Seleucid kings, crossed the river and even put up altars to Apollo, ancestor of the dynasty. Alexandria of Margiana and Heraclea of Aria, founded by Alexander, were rebuilt by Antiochus I under the names of Antioch and Achaea, and a wall nearly 100 miles (160 kilometres) long was put up to protect the oasis of Merv against future invasions, the menace of which was never far. Patrocles received a commission to explore the Caspian Sea.
 

Seleucus I and his successors hoped to Hellenize Asia and held the conviction that the Greeks and Macedonians were a superior race and the bearers of a superior civilization.
A network of cities and military colonies was built to assure the stability of a state whose inhabitants would be Asians.
The Greek language made deep inroads, especially among the families of those numerous Greeks who married the local women and among those engaged in commerce.
But after the 2nd century BC and the slowing of the Greco-Macedonian immigration, the Greek language lost ground and the local element became dominant.
 

The people of Iran, particularly those in the upper stratum of society, borrowed nothing from Hellenism but its exterior forms. Even the Iranians who lived in such cities as Seleucia or Susa do not seem to have been deeply affected by Greek ideas.

The movement of Iranian peoples

The victories of Alexander had brought the Greeks to the limits of the known world. But less than a century after Alexander's death there began a great  movement back, propelled by stirring of peoples in the Iranian world.
In a  movement westward, and from the 3rd century BC, the Sarmatians occupied the northern shore of the Black Sea.
While driving back their close  relatives, the Scythians, they succeeded in "Sarmatizing" the Greek cities along its shores.
At the end of the 3rd century, there began in Chinese Turkistan a long migration of the Yüeh-chih, an Iranian people who about 130 BC invaded Bactria, putting an end to the Greco-Bactrian kingdom there. (In the 1st century AD they created the Kushan [Kusana] Empire, which extended from Afghanistan to the Ganges and from Russian Turkistan to the estuary of the Indus.)
 

Finally, in the mid-3rd century BC, taking a median direction between the other two movements described, the Parni, a nomadic or seminomadic people from Iran, took over the Seleucid satrapy of Parthia andcreated the Parthian kingdom.
Restoring Achaemenid power for nearly half a millennium, the arrival of the Parthian state coincided with the expansion of Rome and played a significant role in the destinies of the world during the three centuries before and two centuries after Christ.

Revolt of the high satrapies

The empire of the Seleucids, like that of the Achaemenids before them, was shaken by revolts of the satraps.
The difficult situation in the west and the grave reverses suffered by the royal house accelerated the weakening of the Macedonian kingdom.
The loss of its eastern possessions in the 3rd century BC proved fatal to the Seleucid cause. Diodotus, a Greek who found himself at the head of the satrapy of Bactria, led a revolt that brought independence in about 250 BC; at about the same time Arsaces led the Scythian Parni into Parthia and defeated Andragoras, establishing an independent native dynasty.

Parthia was the first province to detach itself from the Seleucid Empire, just as it had been the first to rise up on the occasion of the accession of Darius the Great. Andragoras, although he did not declare himself king, showed his independence by minting his own coins.
At this time Parthia was one of the poorer of the high satrapies, caught between the mountains and the great central desert and without large agricultural resources. This satrapal independence might seem surprising if it were not for the fact that the main route for the silk trade crossed right through Parthia over a distance of more than 100 miles. The tolls the caravans paid must have produced a sizable income.
 

The defection of Diodotus is still easier to understand. Bactria, a vast country of a "thousand cities," was located at the junction of the routes to China and India, and it was rich in cultivable land. The Greco-Bactrian kingdom founded by Diodotus expanded rapidly, embracing Sogdiana and Aria, and extending southward and southeastward.

Being at some distance from the west, Diodotus and his successors adopted little by little the customs and life-styles of their subjects. The closer these ties were drawn, the stronger became the loyalty of the Bactrians.
It is believed that the separation of Diodotus from the Seleucids might, over the long term, have seemed to the Bactrians and Sogdians as the realization of their national destiny, and they might have looked on these satraps as men acting in their interest. For more than a century (230-130 BC) this kingdom held the frontiers and barred the  route to the nomads.

The rise of the Parthians
Invasion of the Parni

Arsaces, who was chief of the Parni, a member tribe of the Dahae confederation, must have begun his struggle against the Seleucids from 247  BC, the year from which the Parthians dated their history.
This does not  necessarily mean that Arsaces was crowned king in 247.

Other Iranian dynasties (e.g., the Sasanids; see below The Sasanian period) dated the beginning of their eras from the time when they began to establish their power rather than from the time of coronation of the first monarch of their line.

Daho-Parno-Parthian tribes "chose chiefs for war and princes for peace" from among the closest circle of the princely family.
They were famous for their breeding of horses, for their combat cavalry, and for their fine archers.

Alexander encountered them during his Bactrian campaign, and the Greek writers who recorded his reign remarked on their agility and effectiveness as horsemen. They were a people who kept the traditions of patriarchal tribal organization.

The Parni, with Arsaces at their head, took the province of Parthia after having beaten Andragoras; soon, neighbouring Hyrcania was annexed and the Caspian reached.
 

Arsaces had himself crowned in the city of Asaak, and the tribe took the name of the Parthians, their close relatives, a name that meant "exiled." Their language was closely related to Scythian and Median.
The dynasty these people produced never broke its links with the people, and rare was the Arsacid dynastic sovereign who did not turn to his people in time of danger.


Formation of the Parthian state

The two new kingdoms, that of Arsaces I's Parthians and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom of Diodotus, sprang up almost simultaneously and very near each other; there were, however, notable differences between them.
The motivating force behind the rebellion in Bactria was an association--or perhaps even a collaboration--between the local nobility (large landholders who dominated the whole indigenous population) and the local Greek community.

Both groups were opposed to the Macedonian domination represented by the Seleucid dynasty.

The makeup of the Parthian kingdom seems to have been different. It was essentially built on the relationship of the inhabitants of Parthia to the neighbouring tribes outside the static frontiers, an ethnic mass, half nomad, half settled, that inhabited the north of Iran.

The success of Arsaces and his men was based on their strength, their spirit, and the weakness of their enemies. The Greek element present in Parthia does not seem to have played a role similar to that played by their counterparts in Bactria. In fact the Parthians, at least initially, may have been hostile to the local Greek populations. During their war with the Seleucid king Antiochus III , they massacred all the Greek inhabitants of the city of Syrinx in Hyrcania.

Arsaces

Arsaces seems to have enjoyed great fame among the tribes. His name  remained linked with the names of the sovereigns of this dynasty, who succeeded each other for the four and a half centuries of the Parthian state.
His image regularly appeared on the obverse of Parthian coins right down to the end of the period.

The rupture of the communications link between the Seleucid capitals and  the east caused by Arsaces' success placed Diodotus in a difficult situation.
He seems to have wanted to collaborate with Seleucus II in a campaign he was preparing against the Parthians. The death of Diodotus (c. 234 BC) and the succession of his son, Diodotus II, reversed matters, for the young successor changed his father's policy and joined with Arsaces.
It was not until 232 or 231 BC that Seleucus arrived in the east to put down the rebellion. Arsaces, who had remained closely allied with the nomads to the north, sensing his own weakness in the face of Seleucus' army, fled to the home of the Apasiacae, or "Scythians of the Waters." Seleucus II tried to cross the Jaxartes but, having suffered losses at the hands of the nomads, decided to return to Syria after receiving alarming news from the west.
He made peace with Arsaces, who recognized his suzerainty.
 

From this time on, Arsaces changed his policy: he no longer acted as a nomad but rather as a chief of state, a worthy successor to the Seleucids, whose example he followed.
He had himself crowned; besides Asaak and Dara (an impregnable fortress), he founded such cities as Nisa, where he would be buried. These new cities were usually named after the king or the dynasty.
Arsaces seems not to have infringed upon the rights of the Greeks and Macedonians living in these cities, perhaps hoping to win their support. From the beginning, while maintaining the autonomy of the cities, he made use of propaganda to ensure their continuing obedience. He installed his capital at Hecatompylos, on the Silk Road. His death is dated between 217 and 211 BC.

Artabanus

His successor, Artabanus I (sometimes known as Arsaces II, reigned c. 211-191), continued the work of consolidation. Being already solidly established in Parthia and Hyrcania, Artabanus tried to extend his possessions toward Media. But events in the neighbouring Greco-Bactrian kingdom worked against him: Diodotus II lost his throne, accused, it is thought, of treason to Hellenism through his alliance with the nomads. His throne had passed to Euthydemus when the Syrian army of Antiochus III arrived in Hyrcania.

The wave of revolts by the eastern satraps, which began a movement away from unity in the state, also affected western Iran.

The beginning of the reign of the young Antiochus III the Great (223-187 BC) was marked by the dissidence of Molon and his brother Alexander, satraps of Media and Persis. Antiochus III did not undertake his campaign for recovery of the high  satrapies--a project his father had planned and never carried out--until 212 BC.

It is admitted that at this time his kingdom in the east did not stretch farther than Media, Persis, Susiana, and Carmania. His operations against Artabanus I were successful; he took Hecatompylos and crossed the mountains separating that province from Parthia, which he occupied. Artabanus fled and took refuge with the friendly Apasiacae, as had his father, Arsaces I.

The conflict between the Seleucids and Parthia, however, was ended by a compromise, just as it had been at the time of the invasion of Seleucus II. A much more important struggle against the Bactrian kingdom of Euthydemus awaited Antiochus III. He preferred to make peace with Artabanus, to whom he accorded the title of king in exchange for recognition of his fealty, and obliged the Parthian to send troops to reinforce the Syrian army.

The rear of the Seleucid king was safeguarded, but the two provinces held by Artabanus were definitively lost by the Macedonians.

The period following Antiochus' campaign was marked by a strong resistance by the Bactrian cavalry at the frontier and by the siege of Bactra, for two years the capital (208-207 BC).
There, too, the Seleucid king made peace with Euthydemus, who, like Artabanus, kept his title of king. Demetrius, son of Euthydemus, married a daughter of Antiochus the Great, thus preserving his political prestige.
 

Having acquired war elephants and provisions for his army in Bactria, Antiochus crossed the Hindu Kush into the Kabul Valley, where he concluded a pact with the Indian king Sophagasenos, secured still more elephants, and returned by way of southern Iran.
The results of this long campaign were meagre. Antiochus recognized the independence of two kingdoms, that of the Parthians and that of Euthydemus, which had been no more than satrapies. The struggle must have weakened these two, but after receiving legalization of their status, the two states proceeded to the reestablishment of their material and military resources.

Phraates I

Precise information is not available concerning the reign of Priapatius (c. 191-176 BC), who succeeded Artabanus and whose name appears in documents found in excavations at Nisa. Under his son Phraates I (c.176-171 BC), the young Parthian kingdom seems to have recuperated sufficiently to have taken up once again its expansionist activities.
It  attacked Media and was successful in the conquest of the Mardi tribe near  the Caspian and set up a defense of the "Caspian Gates," an important  strategic point of penetration in Phraates' possessions. Overturning tribal tradition, which reserved the succession to the throne to the eldest son, he designated as a successor--even though he had several sons--his brother Mithradates. His choice was no mistake.

The "phil-Hellenistic" period (c. 171 BC-AD 10)

The accession of Mithradates I opened a new period in the destinies of the kingdom, which historians call "phil-Hellenistic" and which lasted from the accession of this prince (c. 171 BC) until c. AD 10. This period was characterized by a strong Hellenistic cultural influence, manifested in the use of the Greek language and in particular in the arts, where, however, national traditions were not completely abandoned.

Mithradates I

From the accession of Mithradates I an expansion of Parthian power in the military, political, and economic domains was manifest. The king began with an attack on the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, which was going through a period of weakness; then he turned against the west and declared himself independent of the Seleucids.
To show his complete independence--the first of the Parthian sovereigns to do so--he began issuing coins bearing his likeness, wearing a royal diadem like the Seleucid kings.

On the reverse side was a representation of Arsaces, ancestor of the dynasty, seated on an omphalos (hemispheric altar) and holding a bow, in imitation of Seleucid coins that showed Apollo in the same way, as the ancestor of the Seleucids.

The action Antiochus IV Epiphanes undertook against Mithradates ended with the death of Antiochus at Tabae (or Gabae, probably present Esfahan). His death brought a widespread dislocation of the Macedonian kingdom, which crumbled into several smaller states.

Toward 160 BC most of the "high satrapies" and the eastern satrapies were apparently lost to the Seleucids.
The power that could unite them into one could only be that of the Parthians, who, under Mithradates I, began the assault. In 155 BC Media was occupied, which opened the route to Mesopotamia. In 148-147 BC Mithradates reached Ecbatana, where he moved his capital.

 Rhagae was "refounded" and given the dynastic name of Arsacia. In 141 BC Mithradates took Seleucia on the Tigris and was recognized king of Babylonia. His forces conquered Susiana and Elymais, either at this time or after 139.

In the same year (141), he was obliged to leave Hyrcania for his eastern possessions, which were evidently being menaced by hostile movements of the nomads. There he spent the remainder of his reign.

Demetrius II, probably acquainted with Mithradates' difficulties in the east, undertook an effort to retrieve the situation and recover Mesopotamia, but after a few successes he suffered defeat and was taken prisoner (139 BC).
Sent to Hyrcania, he was married there to a daughter of Mithradates, who, by this union, became related to the house of Seleucus. The army of Demetrius included Greco-Bactrian and Elymaian troops--which is understandable--as well as men from Persis, or Persians, who by their cooperation with the Macedonians seem to indicate their opposition to the expansionism of the Parthians, whom they considered foreigners and conquerors. Persia under the Parthians was an empire, but not yet a nation.

Phraates II

Like his father, Mithradates I, Phraates was to remain for some time in the eastern provinces. He was also to endure a last Macedonian attempt to  break the Parthian advance.
Antiochus VII Sidetes, brother of Demetrius II,  who had been taken prisoner, assembled a powerful army, which once more  included men of Persis and Elymais.

The strength in numbers and the wealth of this army made an impression on contemporaries, who reported that even the simple soldiers wore shoes cobbled with gold. Phraates was beaten in several battles, but time worked on his side. With the arrival of winter, Antiochus quartered his troops in several localities in Media.
 

The local population, exasperated by the undisciplined Syrian soldiery, rose up in revolt. Antiochus was killed and his son taken prisoner (129 BC).
Thanks to the loyalty of the Medians, whose sentiments contrasted with those of the Persians, Phraates was victorious. The year 129 BC was a turning point in the history of the eastern Mediterranean: Greco-Macedonian domination received a decisive blow, which it would survive for only 46 years.
 

The route to great acquisitions in the west seemed to open before Phraates, if the nomads did not stop him. Weakened in his struggle against Antiochus VII, he called upon the Saka nomads to the north of his frontiers for aid, promising them payment.

The reinforcements arrived too late to be of use; he sent them back, which provoked them to revolt and pillage the countryside.
The Greek prisoners drafted by Phraates into his army participated in the pillage, and Phraates lost his life fighting them. The same fate was reserved for his successor and uncle, Artabanus II (c. 128-124/123).

The Sakas were pushed back with some difficulty toward Drangiana, to which they gave their name, Seistan (Sakastan). Another branch of the vast nomad movement crossed the Oxus and put an end to the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, on the ruins of which the powerful kingdom of the Kushans was to be built.

The second stage of the phil-Hellenistic period extends from the first quarter of the 2nd century until about 30 BC and embraces a period when Parthia reached the apogee of its power and worldwide territorial expansion.

Mithradates II

The reign of this prince constitutes the most glorious chapter of Parthian history. It put an end to the ambitions of Artabanus' son Himerus, left by his father as governor of Mesopotamia, and brought Hyspaosines, king of Characene, who had extended his possessions too far toward the north, back into submission.
In the east, the Sakas were on the move--soon an independent state would be formed there that would push toward eastern Iran and India; in the 1st century BC, two dynasties, the Indo-Scythian and the Indo-Parthian, whose members would remain  closely linked to the Arsacid dynasty, were to reign in this region.
They would disappear after having been absorbed by the kingdom of the Kushans.

The eastern frontiers of Mithradates II incorporated Margiana and Aria. Once order was restored in the east, the King turned toward the west: he placed Tigranes II the Great on the throne of Armenia, and, extending his hegemony over this kingdom and over eastern Asia Minor, he organized pressure on the last Seleucids; among them a pretender, Demetrius III, was taken prisoner.

A meeting with Rome, which had already formed a "Province of Asia" in Asia Minor, became inevitable and took place in 92 BC on the Euphrates between the Roman general Sulla and the Parthian ambassador Orobaze. Mithradates II wisely refused to agree to follow in the Roman path and preferred to retain his neutrality in the struggle between Rome and Mithradates VI of Pontus.

Rome in the west and Parthia in the east met as Alexander's successors and, with a common accord, settled the inheritance. The two parties recognized the Euphrates as a common frontier. It seems there was no longer a question either of an alliance or of a signed convention. Upon his return, Orobaze paid with his head for the lèse majesté he had committed by accepting a seat lower than Sulla's at their meeting.

For the first time, Parthian power entered into direct contact with the Chinese empire and received an embassy from the Han emperor Wu-ti (140-87 BC), who dispatched to meet them an escort of 20,000 men.

The Chinese were particularly interested in the horses raised in Fergana, which they needed to create a cavalry to fight the nomadic Hsiung-nu, or Huns, on their northern border.

At the zenith of his power, Mithradates II took the title of "king of kings"; in the East, as well as in the West, his empire achieved a position of a power and stability previously unknown.
He maintained diplomatic relations with the two greatest world powers, Rome and China.
 

Mithradates I, Phraates II, and Mithradates II were the true creators of the Parthian state, winning for it military and economic victories and raising it to a level comparable to that of the Achaemenid Empire. After the death of Mithradates II, a short period of intrigue and rivalry saw the succession, in turn, of Gotarzes, Orodes I, and Sanatruces.

The latter came to power late in life and was replaced in 70 BC by his son, Phraates III (70-58/57 BC), under whom sustained contacts with Rome took place.

Wars with Rome

The Roman general Lucullus, in charge of looking after Roman interests in  the East (69 BC), hoped to lure Phraates III into an alliance that would help  Rome in its struggle against Pontus and Armenia, but the Parthian king, while still maintaining "friendly" relations with Rome, retained his neutrality.

An agreement with the Romans renewed the Euphrates line as a frontier.
Three years later, in 66 BC, the Roman general Pompey replaced Lucullus  and succeeded in concluding a real alliance with Phraates III.

This proved,  however, to be of short duration, for affairs in Armenia, aggravated by Roman operations on Parthian territory, had brought the two empires to a parting of the ways.
To Phraates' protestations Pompey replied with the occupation of Gordyene, a vassal state of the Parthians, and treated with Phraates using the simple title "king." Pompey did not trouble himself over entering into direct relations with the sovereigns of Media and Elymais, vassals of Phraates. The position taken by the Romans toward the king of kings was rather more like that of conquerors than of allies. Pompey's policy became clear: from the Caucasus to the Persian Gulf, he hoped to create a wall of states friendly to Rome that would encircle Parthia, in preparation for Roman conquest.

That action fell within the jurisdiction of the Roman triumvir Crassus. As early as 57 BC a conflict with Rome broke out over the case of Mithradates III (58/57-55 BC), who, opposing Orodes II (c. 57-37/36 BC), his brother, a parricide like himself of their father, Phraates III, fled to Syria and asked the legate Gabinius for aid and asylum. The Roman Senate forbade Gabinius to involve himself in the dispute over the succession to the Parthian throne.

Three years later the tension between the two powers was settled in bloody fashion, and the rupture consummated in 53 BC. Without provocation, the army of Crassus--the only one of the triumvirs with Caesar without military glory (Caesar was conqueror of Gaul, and Pompey conqueror of the Middle East)--crossed the Euphrates. Orodes II protested and invoked the treaty of friendship in vain. Crassus refused to reply until he arrived at Seleucia on the Tigris.

It was a brutal breaking of all the agreements concluded in 69 and 66 BC.

The battle near Carrhae (53 BC), led by Surenas with his light and heavy cavalry, cost Rome seven legions and the lives of Crassus and his son.
Through Surenas' brilliant victory the routes to Iran and India were closed to Rome, and its ambitions in the Orient were so weakened that the Euphrates became not only a political but also a spiritual frontier; no effort at Latinization was possible any longer.

A united Greco-Iranian front protected Asia against the Romanization of Iranianized Hellenism and destroyed the myth of Roman invincibility.

The insignia of the Roman legions fell into Parthian hands, and 10,000 Roman prisoners were sent into captivity in Margiana.
The victory over Crassus had great repercussions among the peoples of the East.
It shook the Roman position in Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine, while it restored the Parthians' confidence in their power and in their ability to resist Rome, promising them a dominant position among the peoples of the East. According to the Greek writer Plutarch, the severed head of Crassus was brought to Orodes like a hunting trophy while he was attending a presentation of Euripides' play The Bacchae.

The Parthian counterthrust in 52-50 BC under the command of Prince Pacorus (Pakores) was not crowned with success. The Arsacid army did not know how to organize long campaigns or how to lay siege to fortified cities. But soon, civil war in Rome reinforced the position of the Parthians, and Pompey, after being defeated by Caesar, thought of taking refuge among them.

It is thought that Orodes, taking advantage of this lull, succeeded in resolving difficulties in the east with the Yüeh-chih, or even perhaps the Kushans.

In 48 BC, with Pompey dead, Caesar was absolute master of the Roman world. He was preparing to revenge Crassus' defeat when he was assassinated in 44 BC.
The duty of following through on Caesar's project fell to Mark Antony. Pacorus, anticipating Antony, crossed into Syria after having concluded an agreement with Quintus Labienus, a Roman commander on the side of Caesar's assassins who had gone over to the Parthians.

The successes of the two armies were startling: Labienus took all of Asia Minor, Pacorus all of Syria and Palestine. For nearly two years all the western provinces of the Achaemenids remained in Parthian hands.
In Rome it was rumoured that the Parthians were planning to invade Italy itself. But the successes of the Arsacid armies were as ephemeral as they were remarkable. Disagreement between the two generals weakened their effect.
In 39 BC Labienus was conquered and slain. Asia Minor was recovered by the Romans, and the following year the same fate struck Pacorus and his conquests.

Under Orodes II the Parthians had reached the zenith of their power: in the west the Arsacids had for a short time reestablished the empire of the Achaemenids almost in its entirety.
Their successes in the east seem to have been equally important. Their capital was moved to Ctesiphon, where the military camp was transformed into a great metropolis, facing Seleucia across the Tigris.
At Nisa the city was expanded, the royal palaces made larger, and the royal hypogea were enriched with precious pieces of fine Greco-Iranian art.

In 37 BC Orodes was assassinated by his son Phraates IV, who also did away with his brothers and his eldest son. In 36 BC Mark Antony began to carry out the revenge Caesar had planned.

He brought his army to Armenia, through which he planned to enter Media and attack Parthia from the north. But cold weather and Phraates' cavalry combined to force Antony to abandon the fight and return to Syria. In 34 BC he launched another campaign and again suffered heavy losses, and his power struggle with Octavian forced him to abandon his plans for war against the Parthians.

Toward 30 BC Tiridates II, a pretender to the throne of Parthia supported by Rome, obliged Phraates IV to leave Mesopotamia and take refuge with his eastern neighbours, the Scythians, who restored him to power.
Driven out, Tiridates took refuge at Rome. He returned again in 28-27 BC, after which Phraates was able to definitively re-establish his power at the same time Octavian was inaugurating the imperial period of Roman history.

Settlement with Rome

 The new stage in the phil-Hellenistic period began toward 31 BC, when, after his victory over Antony, Octavian (now Augustus) was sole master in Rome. Before that, however, he had already proposed to Phraates an alliance and a treaty ending the war.

The Battle of Carrhae and Antony's defeat raised Parthia to a major power in the eyes of Rome.

A renewed "friendship" would permit the return of Roman prisoners and insignia. Augustus put pressure on Phraates through the pretender Tiridates and even tried military intervention.

In the end a pact was signed in 20 BC that allowed the return of Roman prisoners and the insignia of the conquered legions.

A new stage began in relations between the two states, marked by the conclusion of a real peace that recognized the Euphrates as a frontier between them.
Phraates IV was dealt with as the sovereign of a great nation. Rome renounced its ambitions in the east, and Augustus inaugurated a policy of respect.

The two states could do nothing but profit from the agreement, for a defeat would have been fatal to either power, and a victory hazardous.
The caravan route to India and China was opened. Augustus received ambassadors from the many eastern peoples, including the Indo-Scythians and the Sarmatians.
The only country in the east where Rome remained active was Armenia.

All obstacles, however, were not necessarily eliminated. There remained the question of Armenia, which, if controlled by Rome, would be a channel for penetration into Parthia from the north, but if controlled by Parthia would offer an outlet on the Black Sea, over which Rome asserted its authority. The rivalry of the two powers over this country would remain for centuries a stumbling block to peace.

Toward 10 or 9 BC Phraates sent his four sons and grandsons to Rome, a gesture that must be understood as one of confidence in a "friendly" power but also as a guarantee that his throne would pass to his son by Musa, an Italian slave girl given him by Augustus.
This son, Phraates V, would assassinate his father with his mother's help and occupy the throne from 2 BC to AD 4 after having married his mother.

The end of this "phil-Hellenistic" period is marked by the clash of the ruling class with foreign influences that had penetrated life in Parthian society. These influences came from Rome and were often introduced by princes of the Arsacid house returning from stays abroad.

The short reign of Orodes III (AD 4-6/7) was followed by that of Vonones (7/8-11), son of Phraates IV, who because of his Roman habits was driven out by the Parthian nobility, whose role at this time became dominant in internal politics and dynastic questions. Vonones' fall brought a change in the destinies of the country.

The "anti-Hellenistic" period (AD 12-162)

The new and very important period in Parthian history, often called  "anti-Hellenistic," embraces a century and a half, from AD 12 to 162.
It is characterized by an expansion of the Parthian national culture and an opposition to all things foreign. The weakness of the reigning dynasty opened wide avenues to the nobility to involve themselves in the official  existence of the state.
They chose the sovereign whose reign opened the first stage in this new period.

Artabanus III

The king chosen by the barons to replace Vonones was Artabanus III (12-38). They were certainly mistaken in believing they would find in him an easy instrument to manipulate.
Artabanus was the son of a viceroy of Hyrcania and was only Arsacid on his mother's side.
Under his rule Parthia entered a brilliant but troubled era, one completely dominated by the personality of this violently anti-Roman sovereign, who was eager to drive Rome out of Asia.

After an abortive attempt to place his son on the throne of Armenia, Artabanus avoided precipitating matters with Rome and dedicated himself to internal reforms, among which centralization occupied the place of first importance.

The humbling of the great nobles, an enterprise in which he was sustained by the lesser nobles, became necessary. He had to reduce the hereditary privileges the barons had carved out for themselves. It was also necessary to reorganize the states that made up the kingdom.
He put princes of his family on the various thrones of these states: Mesene, Persis, Elymais, Atropatene, all little states that were governed by men loyal to the throne. But it proved impossible for him to put down a revolt in the eastern possessions, where the Indo-Parthian king Gondophares declared himself independent (c. 19) and took the title "king of kings."

It is thought that the position taken toward the city-states, about which precise information is lacking, was the reason for the seven-year-long revolt of Seleucia on the Tigris.
The fighting took place there between the Greek and Hellenized elements and the Semites, who demanded their right to participate in the autonomy of the city and who supported pretenders against Artabanus III.

A new attempt to place a son on the throne in Armenia angered Rome, which, with the aid of the nobility, sent for Tiridates III, a pretender the barons had crowned at Ctesiphon, obliging Artabanus III to take refuge with the Dahae, who helped him win back his throne.
In 37 a meeting with a representative of Rome on a bridge in the middle of the Euphrates allowed an agreement to be reached that maintained the status quo in Armenia and recognized the Parthian sovereignty with the river as the frontier.

The strong personality of Artabanus III did not seek to impose his kingdom as a world power, but he did not hesitate to make plans to regain the western province, the former Achaemenid possessions.

Dissolution of the Parthian state

The period from 51 to 122 shows a slow dissolution of the Parthian state and its decomposition into several small countries. This was an inevitable result of the weakness of the central power.
In the 1st century AD the Parthian Empire, according to the Roman historian Pliny, was composed of 18 kingdoms, 11 in the north and seven in the south, some governed by Arsacid princes and others by local dynasties.
In 58 Hyrcania became independent. In the realm of external affairs an effort was made to maintain good relations with Rome, especially because of the new kingdom of the Kushans, which was causing concern on the eastern frontiers.
It might be for this reason that in 87 Parthia sent an embassy to neighbouring China to the east of the Kushans. Internally, the nationalistic upsurge became more accentuated.

After the short reign of Vonones II (51), the throne passed to Vologases I (51-77/78), an ardent anti-Roman. One of his brothers, Vonones, was made king of Media. Vologases I wanted his second brother, Tiridates, to be king of Armenia, which put him in the position of a break with Rome, which opposed him militarily. Upon orders from Nero, Corbulo undertook operations broken off by the exchange of ambassadors.
 

An agreement was finally reached: in 66 Tiridates left for Rome with his whole family surrounded by a retinue of princes and 3,000 Parthian nobles.
He received from Nero the crown of Armenia, and an end to hostilities was announced by the closing of the doors to the Temple of Janus.

Nationalist sentiment, which under Artabanus III had found expression in the invention of a genealogical table proving the Achaemenid descent of the Arsacid house, manifested itself under Vologases I by the compilation of the Avesta, the holy book of the Iranians, and by the issuance of coins on which, for the first time, Pahlavi characters were added to the Greek legend.
 

In 78 Pacorus II came to the throne, to be replaced in 79 by the ephemeral Artabanus IV (80/81), who was then replaced permanently by Pacorus II. During his reign the country showed signs of a profound decomposition.
The barons refused to obey the crown.
In the provinces the army and finances were in the hands of the nobility. Aristocrats occupied the highest positions, and these positions became hereditary. Plots with Rome were hatched, and the nobility felt itself the equal of the dynasty, ready to revolt in defense of their privileges.

Externally, the dynasty was unable to count on Rome, which constantly plotted in support of new pretenders. In 109/110 Pacorus II was replaced by Osroes, his brother or brother-in-law.

In 114 the emperor Trajan invaded Armenia. In vain did the King put his crown at Trajan's feet--he was defeated by the Roman soldiery. With Armenia occupied, the Emperor descended with his army into Mesopotamia.

All Babylonia was taken and Ctesiphon, the capital, fell into the hands of the Romans, who carried off a daughter of Osroes and the golden throne of the Parthian kings. Victorious, Trajan went as far as the Persian Gulf. Iranian reaction was not late in coming.
Faced with the gravity of the Roman offensive, all the princes of the royal house, formerly divided by internal strife, united against the invader. At Ctesiphon Trajan crowned a new vassal king, but revolt was in the wind and attempts to disunite the Parthian chiefs failed.

 The Romans suffered losses, and, after a reverse on the walls of Hatra, Trajan abandoned the campaign and died on his way home. Trajan's successor, Hadrian (117-138), abandoned all pretensions to Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria.

Hadrian's desire for peace seems to have been sincere. He sent back Osroes' daughter,  promised to return the golden throne, and did not try to profit from the long power struggle between Osroes and Vologases II. He even invited Osroes to come to Rome.

Peace with Rome

This was a time of 40 years of peace with Rome. The status quo it  maintained with its western neighbour seems even to have been a necessity for the Parthian kingdom, the expansion of the kingdom of the Kushans on  the eastern frontiers having reached the peak of its power under King  Kaniska (Kanishka).

Accurate information about the relations between the Kushans and the Parthians is not available, but this long peace sought with Rome suggests that certain precautions were necessary for the kingdom of Iran.

The end of the Parthian Empire (AD 162-226)

The 40 years' peace was succeeded by almost uninterrupted hostilities with Rome, with varied success, Iran remaining more vulnerable because of the exposed position of its capital.

The reign of Vologases II (105/106-147?) and especially that of Vologases III (148-192), the latter not having to dispute the throne with a pretender, could by their length be a sign of a certain stability the country might have experienced. But underneath the apparent calm the intrigues continued, with Rome receiving embassies from the Hyrcanians, the Bactrians, and doubtless from the Kushans.

A new clash with Rome came in 161, this time upon the initiative of Vologases III, who considered himself strong enough to attack. He occupied Armenia, crossed the Euphrates, and invaded Syria, which for two centuries had not seen Parthian cavalry. And, although the country had been Roman since the time of Pompey, the Syrian population, which included Jews driven from Palestine by the Romans, received the Iranians as liberators.

The situation became so serious that Lucius Verus, co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius, was dispatched to the east with strong reinforcements taken from the fronts on the Danube and Rhine.
The Romans retook Armenia (163) and succeeded in a campaign similar to Trajan's: Dura-Europus was taken and remained Roman until its destruction by the Sasanids; Seleucia on the Tigris, despite the welcome it reserved for the Romans, was sacked; and in 164 or 165 for the second time Ctesiphon fell into the hands of Romans, who razed the royal palace.

But once more success was not continuous. The Roman army had come from Armenia and had crossed through Azerbaijan, known even today as a country where plague is endemic.
Contaminated, the Roman army was sorely tried by disease and obliged to retreat, but not definitively. Lucius Verus, repeating his campaigns in Armenia and northern Mesopotamia, inflicted heavy losses on the Parthians.

The tensions between the two states did not diminish when Vologases IV (191-208/209) supported a pretender (Niger) against the emperor Septimius Severus. The latter became emperor in 193 and began operations that permitted him to occupy first northern and then southern Mesopotamia and, for the third time in a century, Ctesiphon.

The Parthians in their retreat adopted a scorched-earth policy. As under Trajan, the starving Roman army went back up the Tigris, failed in its attempt to take Hatra, and left the country.

Vologases V, son of the previous king, succeeded him (209-222), and his throne was contested from 213 by another prince, Artabanus V (213-224), who was able to maintain himself thanks to the support of the kingdom of Media (Table 1).

A new invasion of Mesopotamia took place under Caracalla, the casus belli being the refusal of Artabanus V to give Caracalla his daughter in marriage.

The young Roman emperor dreamed of rebuilding Alexander's empire but succeeded  only in the pillage of Media and the destruction at Arbela of the hypogea of the Arsacid kings, whose bones he scattered.
 

The Parthian reply was harsh. Artabanus V avenged himself by invading the Roman provinces and destroying several cities. Rome sued for peace. Artabanus' conditions were too hard and were refused. Hostilities were taken up again and turned in favour of the Parthians, who obtained such a success that the emperor Macrinus paid 200,000,000 sesterces to make peace.

Since 208 Papak (Babak), a lesser prince of Persis, had been preparing a revolt, which his son Ardashir finally declared openly. A battle took place between him and Artabanus V in 224; the Parthian was killed, and the throne of Iran passed into the hands of the Sasanids, a new national dynasty, originally from Fars, cradle of the Achaemenids.

The Iran of the Parthians, a region strategically crucial for international commerce, maintained open roads, created cities, and encouraged exchanges that were the lifeblood of this great nation stretching from the portals of China and India to the Roman Empire.
 

Tolerant in religion, it was Parthia that contributed to the dissemination of Buddhism to China, where a Parthian prince spread the word of Buddha near the middle of the 2nd century AD. For nearly half a millennium Parthia pursued its great ambition to recover the western provinces of the Achaemenids.
An empire of the middle, between Rome on the west and the Kushans on the east, undermined by internal weaknesses, Parthia finally succumbed, leaving its great dreams to its successors, the Sasanids.

Source : Courtesy of "ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA", 2000
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 The Sasanian period

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