published on 28 April 2011
The Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 AD), also known as the Arsacid Empire (Persian: اشکانیان) after the eponymous founder, was a major Iranian political and cultural power in the Ancient Near East. It was founded in the mid-3rd century BC by Arsaces I of Parthia, leader of the Parni tribe, when he conquered the Parthia region ("roughly western Khurasan" in Iran's northeast), then a satrapy (province) in rebellion against the Greek Seleucid Empire. Mithridates I of Parthia (r. c. 171–138 BC) greatly expanded the empire by seizing Media and Mesopotamia from the Seleucids.
At its height, the Parthian Empire stretched from the northern reaches of the Euphrates, in what is now eastern Turkey, to eastern Iran. The empire, located on the Silk Road trade route between the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Basin and the Han Dynasty in China, quickly became a center of trade and commerce. The Parthians largely adopted the art, architecture, religious beliefs, and royal insignia of their culturally heterogeneous empire, which encompassed Hellenistic, Persian, and regional cultures.
For about the first half of its existence, the Arsacid court adopted Greek culture, though it eventually saw a gradual revival of Iranian traditions. The Arsacid rulers were titled the 'King of Kings', as a claim to be the heirs to the Achaemenid Empire; indeed, they accepted many local kings as vassals where the Achaemenids would have had centrally appointed, albeit largely autonomous, satraps. The court did appoint a small number of satraps, largely outside Iran, but these satrapies were smaller and less powerful than the Achaemenid potentates. With the expansion of Arsacid power, the seat of central government shifted from Nisa, Turkmenistan to Ctesiphon along the Tigris (south of modern Baghdad, Iraq), although several other sites also served as capitals.
The earliest enemies of the Parthians were the Seleucids in the west and the Scythians in the east. However, as Parthia expanded westward, they came into conflict with the Kingdom of Armenia, and eventually the late Roman Republic. Rome and Parthia competed with each other to establish the kings of Armenia as their subordinate clients. The Parthians soundly defeated Marcus Licinius Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, and in 40–39 BC, Parthian forces captured the whole of the Levant, excepting Tyre, from the Romans.
However, Mark Antony led a counterattack against Parthia and several Roman emperors invaded Mesopotamia during the Roman-Parthian Wars. The Romans captured the cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon on multiple occasions during these conflicts. Frequent civil war between Parthian contenders to the throne proved more dangerous than foreign invasion, and Parthian power evaporated when Ardashir I, ruler of Estakhr in Fars, revolted against the Arsacids and killed their last ruler, Artabanus IV, in 224 AD. Ardashir established the Sassanid Empire, which ruled Iran and much of the Near East until the Muslim conquests of the 7th century AD, although the Arsacid dynasty lived on through the Arsacid Dynasty of Armenia.
Native Parthian sources, written in Parthian, Greek and other languages, are scarce when compared to Sassanid and even earlier Achaemenid sources. Aside from scattered cuneiform tablets, fragmentary ostraca, rock inscriptions, drachma coins, and the chance survival of some parchment documents, much of Parthian history is only known through external sources. These include mainly Greek and Roman histories, but also Chinese histories prompted by the market for Chinese goods in Parthia. Parthian artwork is viewed by historians as a valid source for understanding aspects of society and culture that are otherwise absent in textual sources.
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