Paul V. Hartman
Were they the people who lived north of Greece?
The Parthians were a nomadic people of what is now Iran, who came to rule a large empire of the Middle East for over 450 years. (247 BC to 224 AD) You never heard of the Parthians? You are not alone.
They began their empire by conquering the Selucids. (Who?), and the empire came to a close after 450 years when they were conquered by the Sasanians. (Who?) What a way to begin a short narrative on one of the longest running empires in the world.
What we know about them is very scant, since no Parthian-authored histories have yet been recovered. So Greek and Roman sources, presumably biased and written later, are the bulk of it. The portion of Iran - then called Persia - from which they came, was a peripheral part of the Persian Empire, and when Alexander conquered all of it, and then promptly died, his general, Selucid, took that third of Alexander's territory in the Middle East, centered on Babylon. (The other two thirds were Egypt and Anatolia.) The Parthians resisted continued control from Babylon, and, feeling no military reprisal, began gobbling up territory to their West, over a hundred year period. This was lucrative, as it gave them control of the trade routes between Asia and the Greco-Roman world, the wealth from which was used in great building programs and funding for the military.
Click on map to enlarge
The Scythians, seeing an opportunity, began harassing Parthia from the NorthEast, and when the Parthians defeated the Scythians, they were able to turn full attention to marching all the way West to the expanding edge of the Roman Empire. Rome had long felt a need to conquer the territory conquered by Alexander, since Rome envied the accomplishments, sculpture, architecture, literature, and other features of the Greeks, whose language was also widely dispersed.
Roman triumvir Marcus Crassus was the first to take on the Parthians in a major campaign by leading a 40,000 man army against them in 55 BC, and lost. Rome would spend the next 200 years occupying Parthian territory and then losing it.
A new group of people from southern Iran, named the Sasanians #, thought the Parthians were weakened by the efforts from Rome and had become soft from wealth. In 224 AD they overthrew the Parthian princes, which ended the empire, and the history of Parthia.
When the Parthians conquered, they left administration to locals, as a rule, the better to efficiently gather the tribute to be sent, and leave business and finance to function under familiar rules. Also, they demanded that these cities form armies to defend themselves from outside threats. Thus, for the Parthians, to conquer was to provide income, and by not supplying an army for protection, expenses were kept minimal. A good strategy, which Parthia had learned from the Selucids.
According to Pliny the Elder, the Parthian empire, at its height, consisted of 18 kingdoms. The map illustrated here shows the territory controlled. The Parthians rotated their capital city in order to keep an eye on things.
Parthian military success was based on the mounted archer, and other cavalry. Parthian costume, with baggy trousers, became the mode over much of the Middle East, portrayed in painting and sculpture. In architecture the use of arches within porticoes and domed vaults is attributed to the Parthian period.
Parthian was an Iranian language written in the Aramaic alphabet, was difficult to read without vigorous training.
There is quite a bit more to learn about these people. I have left out all the names of kings, various capital cities, other people who tormented them, names and dates of battles, forms of commerce, coinage, and the other things from which extensive histories are formed. This essay is just a peek, but enough that you will not say "Who?" when next you hear the name Parthians.
# Sasanian Empire - the name of the 2nd Persian Empire, 226 AD - 651 AD. (425 years). After this period of artistic and cultural magnificence, it was overthrown by the Muslim conquest. But not before increasing the borders of the Parthian Empire into Central Asia and Arabia.
## You should know about "Parthian shot". Go HERE to read about it.
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