Parthia (Old Persian: 𐎱𐎼𐎰𐎺, Parθava, Parthian:
𐭐𐭓𐭕𐭅, Parθaw, Middle Persian:
𐭯𐭫𐭮𐭥𐭡𐭥, Pahlaw) is a historical region located in
north-eastern Iran. It was conquered and subjugated by the empire of
Medes during the 7th century BC, was incorporated into the
Achaemenid Empire under
Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great in the 6th century
BC, and formed part of the
Seleucid Empire following the
4th-century-BC conquests of Alexander the Great. The region later
served as the political and cultural base of the Eastern-Iranian Parni
people and Arsacid dynasty, rulers of the
Parthian Empire (247 BC –
224 AD). The Sasanian Empire, the last state of pre-Islamic Persia,
also held the region and maintained the
Seven Parthian clans as part
of their feudal aristocracy.
3.1 Under the Achaemenids
3.2 Under the Seleucids
3.3 Under the Arsacids
3.4 Under the Sasanians
4 Language and literature
6 Parthian cities
7 See also
The name "Parthia" is a continuation from Latin Parthia, from Old
Persian Parthava, which was the
Parthian language self-designator
signifying "of the Parthians" who were an Iranian people. In context
Parthia also appears as Parthyaea.
In Justinus's Epitome of Pompeius Trogus's Philippic Histories it
"The Parthians, in whose hands the empire of the east now is, having
divided the world, as it were, with the Romans, were originally exiles
from Scythia. This is apparent from their very name; for in the
Scythian language exiles are called Parthi." [41.2]
Parthia roughly corresponds to a region in northeastern Iran. It was
bordered by the Karakum desert in the north, included Kopet Dag
mountain range and the
Dasht-e-Kavir desert in the south. It bordered
Media on the west,
Hyrcania on the north west,
Margiana on the north
east, and Aria on the south east.
During Arsacid times,
Parthia was united with
Hyrcania as one
administrative unit, and that region is therefore often (subject to
context) considered a part of
Under the Achaemenids
As the region inhabited by Parthians,
Parthia first appears as a
political entity in
Achaemenid lists of governorates ("satrapies")
under their dominion. Prior to this, the people of the region seem to
have been subjects of the Medes, and 7th century BC Assyrian texts
mention a country named Partakka or Partukka (though this "need not
have coincided topographically with the later Parthia").
A year after Cyrus the Great's defeat of the Median Astyages, Parthia
became one of the first provinces to acknowledge Cyrus as their ruler,
"and this allegiance secured Cyrus' eastern flanks and enabled him to
conduct the first of his imperial campaigns – against Sardis."
According to Greek sources, following the seizure of the Achaemenid
throne by Darius I, the Parthians united with the Median king
Phraortes to revolt against him. Hystaspes, the
Achaemenid governor of
the province (said to be father of Darius I), managed to suppress the
revolt, which seems to have occurred around 522–521 BC.
The first indigenous Iranian mention of
Parthia is in the Behistun
inscription of Darius I, where
Parthia is listed (in the typical
Iranian clockwise order) among the governorates in the vicinity of
Drangiana. The inscription dates to c. 520 BC. The center of
the administration "may have been at [what would later be known as]
Hecatompylus". The Parthians also appear in Herodotus' list of
peoples subject to the Achaemenids; the historiographer treats the
Parthians, Chorasmians, Sogdians and Areioi as peoples of a single
satrapy (the 16th), whose annual tribute to the king he states to be
only 300 talents of silver. This "has rightly caused disquiet to
Battle of Gaugamela
Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC between the forces of Darius
III and those of Alexander the Great, one such Parthian unit was
commanded by Phrataphernes, who was at the time
Achaemenid governor of
Parthia. Following the defeat of Darius III,
his governorate to Alexander when the Macedonian arrived there in the
summer of 330 BC.
Phrataphernes was reappointed governor by Alexander.
Under the Seleucids
Following the death of Alexander, in the
Partition of Babylon
Partition of Babylon in
Parthia became a Seleucid governorate under Nicanor.
Phrataphernes, the former governor, became governor of Hyrcania. In
320 BC, at the Partition of Triparadisus,
Parthia was reassigned
to Philip, former governor of Sogdiana. A few years later, the
province was invaded by Peithon, governor of Media Magna, who then
attempted to make his brother Eudamus governor.
Peithon and Eudamus
were driven back, and
Parthia remained a governorate in its own right.
In 316 BC, Stasander, a vassal of
Seleucus I Nicator
Seleucus I Nicator and governor
Bactria (and, it seems, also of Aria and Margiana) was appointed
governor of Parthia. For the next 60 years, various Seleucids would be
appointed governors of the province.
Coin of Andragoras, the last Seleucid satrap of Parthia. He proclaimed
independence around 250 BC.
In 247 BC, following the death of Antiochus II, Ptolemy III
seized control of the Seleucid capital at Antioch, and "so left the
future of the Seleucid dynasty for a moment in question." Taking
advantage of the uncertain political situation, Andragoras, the
Seleucid governor of Parthia, proclaimed his independence and began
minting his own coins.
Meanwhile, "a man called Arsaces, of
Scythian or Bactrian origin,
[was] elected leader of the Parni", an eastern-
Iranian peoples from
the Tajen/Tajend River valley, south-east of the Caspian Sea.
Following the secession of
Parthia from the
Seleucid Empire and the
resultant loss of Seleucid military support, Andragoras had difficulty
in maintaining his borders, and about 238 BC – under the
command of "Arsaces and his brother Tiridates" – the Parni
Parthia and seized control of Astabene (Astawa), the
northern region of that territory, the administrative capital of which
was Kabuchan (
Kuchan in the vulgate).
A short while later the
Parni seized the rest of
Andragoras, killing him in the process. Although an initial punitive
expedition by the Seleucids under
Seleucus II was not successful, the
Antiochus III recaptured Arsacid controlled territory
in 209 BC from Arsaces' (or Tiridates') successor, Arsaces II.
Arsaces II sued for peace and accepted vassal status, and it was
not until Arsaces II's grandson (or grand-nephew) Phraates I, that the
Parni would again begin to assert their independence.
Under the Arsacids
Main article: Parthian Empire
Parthian horseman now on display at the Palazzo Madama, Turin.
Coin of Mithridates I (R. 171–138 BC). The reverse shows
Heracles, and the inscription ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΜΕΓΑΛΟΥ
ΑΡΣΑΚΟΥ ΦΙΛΕΛΛΗΝΟΣ "Great King Arsaces, friend of
Reproduction of a Parthian archer as depicted on Trajan's Column.
A sculpted head (broken off from a larger statue) of a Parthian
soldier wearing a Hellenistic-style helmet, from the Parthian royal
residence and necropolis of Nisa, 2nd century BC
From their base in Parthia, the Arsacid dynasts eventually extended
their dominion to include most of Greater Iran. They also quickly
established several eponymous branches on the thrones of Armenia,
Iberia, and Caucasian Albania. Even though the Arsacids only
sporadically had their capital in Parthia, their power base was there,
among the Parthian feudal families, upon whose military and financial
support the Arsacids depended. In exchange for this support, these
families received large tracts of land among the earliest conquered
territories adjacent to Parthia, which the Parthian nobility then
ruled as provincial rulers. The largest of these city-states were
Kuchan, Semnan, Gorgan, Merv,
Zabol and Yazd.
From about 105 BC onwards, the power and influence of this
handful of Parthian noble families was such that they frequently
opposed the monarch, and would eventually be a "contributory factor in
the downfall" of the dynasty.
From about 130 BC onwards,
Parthia suffered numerous incursions
by various nomadic tribes, including the Sakas, the Yueh-chi, and the
Massagetae. Each time, the Arsacid dynasts responded personally, doing
so even when there were more severe threats from Seleucids or Romans
looming on the western borders of their empire (as was the case for
Mithridates I). Defending the empire against the nomads cost Phraates
II and Artabanus I their lives.
Around 32 BC, civil war broke out when a certain Tiridates
rebelled against Phraates IV, probably with the support of the
nobility that Phraates had previously persecuted. The revolt was
initially successful, but failed by 25 BC. In 9/8, the
Parthian nobility succeeded in putting their preferred king on the
throne, but Vonones proved to have too tight a budgetary control, so
he was usurped in favor of Artabanus II, who seems to have been a
non-Arsacid Parthian nobleman. But when Artabanus attempted to
consolidate his position (at which he was successful in most
instances), he failed to do so in the regions where the Parthian
provincial rulers held sway.
By the 2nd century AD, the frequent wars with neighboring Rome and
with the nomads, and the infighting among the Parthian nobility had
weakened the Arsacids to a point where they could no longer defend
their subjugated territories. The empire fractured as vassalaries
increasingly claimed independence or were subjugated by others, and
the Arsacids were themselves finally vanquished by the Persian
Sassanids, a formerly minor vassal from southwestern Iran, in April
Under the Sasanians
Under Sasanian (Sassanid) rule,
Parthia was folded into a newly formed
province, Khorasan, and henceforth ceased to exist as
a political entity. Some of the Parthian nobility continued to resist
Sasanian dominion for some time, but most switched their allegiance to
the Sasanians very early. Several families that claimed descent from
the Parthian noble families became a Sasanian institution known as the
"Seven houses", five of which are "in all probability" not Parthian,
but contrived genealogies "in order to emphasize the antiquity of
Language and literature
Main article: Parthian language
Hercules, Hatra, Iraq, Parthian period, 1st–2nd century AD.
The Parthians spoke Parthian, a north-western Iranian language. No
Parthian literature survives from before the Sassanid period in its
original form, and they seem to have written down only very
little. The Parthians did, however, have a thriving oral minstrel-poet
culture, to the extent that their word for minstrel – gosan –
survives to this day in many Iranian languages as well as especially
in Armenian ("gusan"), on which it practised heavy (especially lexical
and vocabulary) influence,. These professionals were evident in
every facet of Parthian daily life, from cradle to grave, and they
were entertainers of kings and commoners alike, proclaiming the
worthiness of their patrons through association with mythical heroes
and rulers. These Parthian heroic poems, "mainly known through
Persian of the lost
Middle Persian Xwaday-namag, and notably through
Firdausi's Shahnameh, [were] doubtless not yet wholly lost in the
Khurasan of [Firdausi's] day."
Parthia itself, attested use of written Parthian is limited to the
nearly 3,000 ostraca found (in what seems to have been a wine storage)
at Nisa, in present-day Turkmenistan. A handful of other evidence of
written Parthian has also been found outside Parthia; the most
important of these being the part of a land-sale document found at
Avroman (in the
Kermanshah province of Iran), and more ostraca,
graffiti and the fragment of a business letter found at Dura-Europos
in present-day Syria.
The Parthian Arsacids do not seem to have used Parthian until
relatively late, and the language first appears on Arsacid coinage
during the reign of
Vologases I (51–58 AD). Evidence that use of
Parthian was nonetheless widespread comes from early Sassanid times;
the declarations of the early Persian kings were – in addition to
Middle Persian – also inscribed in Parthian.
Parthian waterspout, 1st–2nd century AD.
City-states of "some considerable size" existed in
Parthia as early as
the 1st millennium BC, "and not just from the time of the Achaemenids
or Seleucids." However, for the most part, society was rural, and
dominated by large landholders with large numbers of serfs, slaves,
and other indentured labor at their disposal. Communities with
free peasants also existed.
By Arsacid times, Parthian society was divided into the four classes
(limited to freemen). At the top were the kings and near family
members of the king. These were followed by the lesser nobility and
the general priesthood, followed by the mercantile class and
lower-ranking civil servants, and with farmers and herdsmen at the
Little is known of the Parthian economy, but agriculture must have
played the most important role in it. Significant trade first occurs
with the establishment of the
Silk road in 114 BC, when
Hecatompylos became an important junction.
Nisa (Nissa, Nusay), located on a main trade route, was one of the
earliest capitals of the
Parthian Empire (c. 250 BC). The city is
located in the northern foothills of the Kopetdag mountains, 11 miles
west of present-day Ashgabat city (capital of Turkmenistan). Nisa
had a "soaring two-story hall in the
Hellenistic Greek style" and
temple complexes used by early Arsaces dynasty. During the reign of
Mithridates I of Parthia
Mithridates I of Parthia (c. 171 BC–138 BC) it was renamed
Mithradatkirt ("fortress of Mithradates").
Merv (modern-day Mary) was
another Parthian city.
List of Parthian kings
^ Smith, Andrew. "Justinus: Epitome of Pompeius Trogus (7)".
www.attalus.org. Retrieved 2017-09-07.
^ Diakonoff 1985, p. 127.
^ Diakonoff 1985, p. 104,n.1.
^ Mallowan 1985, p. 406.
Parthia ancient region, Iran". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved
^ Cook 1985, p. 248.
^ Cook 1985, p. 252.
^ Bivar 2003, para. 6.
^ a b Curtis 2007, p. 7.
^ Lecoq 1987, p. 151.
^ a b Bivar 1983, p. 29.
^ Bickerman 1983, p. 19.
Parthian Empire at it's greatest extent.png
^ Bivar 1983, p. 31.
^ a b Schippmann 1987, p. 527.
^ Schippmann 1987, p. 528.
^ Schippmann 1987, p. 529.
^ Lukonin 1983, p. 704.
^ Boyce 1983, p. 1151.
^ ARMENIA AND IRAN iv. Iranian influences in Armenian Language
^ Boyce 1983, p. 1115.
^ Boyce 1983, p. 1157.
^ Boyce 1983, p. 1153.
^ a b Schippmann 1987, p. 532.
^ S. Frederick Starr. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age
from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. Princeton University Press, 2013,
Bickerman, Elias J. (1983), "The Seleucid Period", in Yarshater,
Ehsan, Cambridge History of Iran, 3.1, Cambridge University Press,
pp. 3–20 .
Bivar, A.D.H. (1983), "The Political History of
Iran under the
Arsacids", in Yarshater, Ehsan, Cambridge History of Iran, 3.1,
Cambridge UP, pp. 21–99 .
Bivar, A.D.H. (2003), "
Gorgan v.: Pre-Islamic History", Encyclopaedia
Iranica, 11, New York: iranica.com .
Boyce, Mary (1983), "Parthian writings and literature", in Yarshater,
Ehsan, Cambridge History of Iran, 3.2, Cambridge UP,
pp. 1151–1165 .
Cook, J.M. (1985), "The Rise of the Achaemenids and Establishment of
their Empire", in Gershevitch, Ilya, Cambridge History of Iran, 2,
Cambridge University Press, pp. 200–291 .
Diakonoff, I.M. (1985), "Media I: The
Medes and their Neighbours", in
Gershevitch, Ilya, Cambridge History of Iran, 2, Cambridge University
Press, pp. 36–148 .
Lecoq, Pierre (1987), "Aparna", Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2, New York:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 151 .
Lukonin, Vladimir G. (1983), "Political, Social and Administrative
Institutions", in Yarshater, Ehsan, Cambridge History of Iran, 3.2,
Cambridge University Press, pp. 681–747 .
Mallowan, Max (1985), "Cyrus the Great", in Gershevitch, Ilya,
Cambridge History of Iran, 2, Cambridge University Press,
pp. 392–419 .
Schippmann, Klaus (1987), "Arsacids II: The Arsacid Dynasty",
Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul,
pp. 525–536 .
Verstandig Andre,(2001) Histoire de l'Empire Parthe. Brussels, Le Cri.
Yarshater, Ehsan (2006), "
Iran ii. Iranian History: An Overview",
Encyclopaedia Iranica, 13, New York: iranica.com .
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
Provinces of the
(Behistun / Persepolis / Naqsh-e Rustam / Susa /
1st Egypt / 2nd Egypt
See also Districts of the
Achaemenid Empire (according to Herodotus)
Provinces of the Sasanian Empire
Garamig ud Nodardashiragan
* indicates short living provinces
Parni conquest of Parthia
List of Parthian kings
List of rulers of Parthian sub-kingdoms
Arsacid dynasty of Armenia
Arsacid dynasty of Iberia
Arsacid dynasty of Caucasian Albania
Seven Parthian clans
House of Ispahbudhan
House of Karen
House of Mihran
House of Spandiyadh
House of Suren
House of Varaz
House of Zik
Other related topics