Iranian History - The Parthians (170BC - AD226)
By the first half of the 3rd century BC, the Parni, a nomadic Aryan tribe from the steppes of Central Asia, had migrated into the Achaemenid/Seleucid satrapy of Parthia. In 238 BC a tribal leader of the Parni named Arsaces overthrew the Seleucid satrap of Parthia and began the dynasty of the Arsacid Parthians in the district of Astavene.
At around 235BC the brother of Arsaces, Tiridates (meaning "great archer" in the Parthian language) led an army south and conquered the rest of Parthia. Seleucus II attempted to check the Parthian advance but he was defeated and Hyrcania also fell.
The young Parthian nation paid tribute to the Seleucids until the 2nd century BC when Seleucid power began to fade. The provinces of the Seleucid Empire gradually began to fall to the Parthians and in 139BC, Mithradates I (r. 171-138 BC) captured the Seleucid king, Demetrius Nicator, who was held captive for ten years while the Parthians conquered Mesopotamia and Media.
In the west, the Parthians were now in contact with the Roman Empire and they proved to be a thorn in their side for over three centuries. Parthian cataphracts (heavily armoured cavalry) backed by brigades of mounted archers were well suited to disrupting the tight organisation of Roman foot soldiers and defeats such as that of an army of 40,000 under Crassus in 53BC gave the Romans much to think about and forced many changes in Roman methods of waging war.
Bust of Crassus, the Roman general defeated by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC
A bronze statue of a Parthian nobleman, from Shami, Iran, at the National Museum of Iran in Tehran.
By 129BC, Parthian rule extended as far as the banks of the Tigris where they established a winter encampment at Ctesiphon (modern Tisfun) directly opposite Seleucia, the Hellenisitic capital of Western Asia.
They did not take the city however, being reliant on its wealth and trade. During the summer, the Parthians would retire from the sun-baked Mesopotamian plain to the ancient Persian capitals of Susa and Ecbatana.
With an empire spread now spreading from Armenia to India, King Mithradates II (r. 123-88BC) consolidated Parthian power and wealth. He established caravan routes across his united realm linking trade routes already existing to the east and west of Iran. Silk Road trade spanning the Asian continent from China to the Mediterranean served to enrich the empire.
However, it was the feudal organisation of the Parthian Empire, once the source of its great strength, that eventually led to its downfall. The regional nobilities that had grown both in wealth and military power through concessions granted to them for their constant campaigning against the Romans and other enemies gradually became less inclined to obey central authority.
Their refusal to pay levies and, importantly, to raise armies for the king, led to disorganisation and fragmentation. Arguments over succession to the throne sowed further disarray. The Romans were quick to take advantage of this internal weakness and, in addition, had clearly adapted to Parthian tactics, capturing Ctesiphon in AD116 and 198. Parthia, now impoverished and demoralised, was in terminal decline.
A Parthian soldier in chains captured by the Romans from the Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome
Will Yong and Kazem Vafadari