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Parthia / Persians

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Relief ukazujący Mithridates I.
Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

The name “Parthia” comes from the Parthians, who, along with the Persians and Medes, belonged to Western Iranian peoples. Perhaps it meant “horsemen” and first pointed to the nomads who periodically invaded ancient Iran.

The Parthia is a land in northeastern Iran, inhabited by Parthians. From the sixth century BCE, the Persian province, and 330 BCE conquered by Alexander III the Great. After his death, the Parthia came under Seleucid rule, and from around 238 BCE, the Parthia had its first king Arsakes.

After gaining a superpower position in the East during the rule of Mithridates I (c. 170-138 BCE) and Mithridates II the Great (circa 123-88 BCE), the Parthia was accompanied by territorial development (basing the border on the Euphrates River), political and economic state. Attempts to break his power by the Romans ended in failure.

Roman-Parthian relations

Map showing the Parthian state in the 1st century BCE together with the marked battle site of Carrhae.
On Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

At the beginning it is worth emphasizing that the Parthia (and the Seleucid Monarchy, as a successor) as one of the few countries competed with Rome as an equal and has never been conquered. The turning point in establishing closer (not necessarily positive) relationships was the establishment by the Romans of the province of Syria in 64 BCE. Then the two powers began to border with each other, and a clash between the two major powers of the region became inevitable. In the first war with Rome, the Parthians turned out to be the winners (Roman defeat at Carrhae in 53 BCE) Also a trip Antony against Parthians failed, but internal unrest forced Fraates IV (37-2 BCE) to agree with Rome. Later, however, the war between empires renewed and fought with breaks and changing happiness for many years. The main subject of the dispute was the sovereignty over Armenia, in which from the time of Wonones I (8 / 9-15 CE) the Arsacids ruled alternately with Roman claimants. After another war during the time of Nero (54-68), there was a compromise, as a result of which Armenia was to be ruled by Arsacyda Tiridates I (54-59 CE, 62 – about 72 CE), but as a vassal of Rome. The assassins ruled in Armenia until 428 CE, but this compromise did not prevent further wars.

In 117 CE, the Emperor Trajan took advantage of the breakup of the Parthia between three pretenders, conquered Mesopotamia and placed his client on the Parthia throne, but the uprising soon forced him to withdraw. Subsequent conflicts that broke out in the second century CE usually won the Romans; The Parthians suffered major disasters when fighting the armies of Mark Aurelius and Septimius Severus. Ktezyfon was conquered several times by Roman armies.

Finally, the last Roman-Parthia war ended the peace, based on the earlier findings of Nero and Vologazes I, which he was forced to Emperor Macrinus, beaten by Artabanus IV at Nisibis in 217 CE, Macrinus had to pay the Parthia a contribution, but this success did not stop the progressive decay of the Parthian empire. There was only a 7-year-old Parthia state, which was ended by the Sassanid dynasty.

Organization of the state

The Parthian state was divided into satrapy and vassal kingdoms (Atropatene, Adiabene, Osroene, Hatra, Mesene, Persis, Elymais, Gordiene, Zabdikene, Sofene).

Parthian rulers cultivated both Persian and Greek culture. For the Greeks they wanted to be Hellenistic kings, for the Iranians heirs of the Achaemenid – “Kings of Kings”. They adopted Greek nicknames and beat tetradrachms. Rulers deified after death had despotic authority from the gods. However, they had to reckon with the members of the seven princely Parthia clans (the Arsacid dynasty belonged to one of them), whose representatives sat on the royal council. It was the council that chose the king from among the members of the dynasty (the throne was elective in the Iranian tradition, but under the Achaemenids this custom was blurred). However, there is disagreement among researchers: some believe that the election of the throne has also become a formality for Parthians.

The Parthians built round, fortified cities. They took care of trade development, benefited greatly from the control of the Silk Road, and established contacts with China. Greek cities enjoyed autonomy, but city officials had to obtain confirmation of the king’s choice in order to perform their duties. Arsacids resided in several capitals: (Hekatompylos, Ktezyfon, Seleucia over Tigris, Ragy), moving from one to the other, just like the Achaemenids.

The infantry of their feudal state did not display any special value, while the riding modeled on the Scythians and Sarmatians, consisting of horse archers and Parthia knights fighting as armored riders (Cataphracts), it turned out to be a threat to Rome.

The basic monetary unit of the Parthian state was the silver drachma. Tetradrachms and drachmas as well as small bronze coins were also commonly used. The first coins were minted during the reign of Arsakes.

Parthian cataphracts mounted specially bred heavy war horses. Their armor was mostly chain mail or scale armor and a helmet. Heavy armed driving was used by Sarmatians, Parthians, Seleucids, Sassanids, Armenians and, from the middle of the 2nd century CE, Romans.
On Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.


The Sassanid State was the last heir to the Mesopotamian civilization before the arrival of Islam and the rise of the Muslim civilization. The founder of the dynasty can be Ardashir I, who began as a vassal of the Parthian king in Persis (today’s Fars in Iran). He overthrew the Parthia Arsacids, and then began an aggressive policy aimed at the Roman Empire experiencing difficulties. His successor – Szapur I did even more. He managed to defeat two Roman emperors – Gordian and Valerian. The latter, as the only emperor in the history of Rome, was taken prisoner, serving – as it was said in Rome at the time – Szapur’s footstool when he got on the horse. Shapur I’s conquests only hampered the actions of Odenat – Palmyra’s ruler allied with Rome.

Over the next years, both the Romans and the Sassanids waged numerous wars, which, however, did not bring lasting settlement – both sides temporarily gained an advantage, only to lose it soon in favor of a competitor. The Sassanid Persia also expanded its influence on other fronts – the Persians subjugated parts of Central Asia, the coast of Arabia along the Persian Gulf and Yemen. Lakhmidzi were also their vassal – one of the Arab tribes who fiercely fought against pro-Roman Ghassanids. For some time, the Sassanids subjugated the remnants of the Kushan state and the Indus Valley.

The Sassanid state was plagued by similar problems that the Romans had to struggle with – the eastern borders of the state invaded the nomadic tribes of Chionites, Kidarites and Heftalites (also known as the White Huns). Persia was also troubled by religious divisions. Although Zoroastrianism – the national and native religion of the Persians – was recognized as an official state denomination, Christianity was gaining in importance, especially those benefiting from the teachings of Nestorius. Syncretic-Gnostic Manicheism and Mazdakism (a radical trend originating from Zoroastrianism, postulating the abolition of private property – also came after the fall of the Western Roman Empire). In later Persia, there were also daredevils who wanted to overthrow the prevailing chess and take the throne themselves.

Sassanid Empire

The Sassanid Empire retained the former division on the satrapy – these were most often occupied by relatives of the ruling Shah. The dynasty sought to centralize the empire as much as possible, in contrast to the rather loose Parthian state. Nevertheless, many nobles retained their former privileges, such as the most eminent Parthia families, and the feudal system survived the collapse of the state.

Culture during the Sassanid period is primarily the abandonment of Hellenistic models that dominate the Parthian courts in favor of Iranian identity. The Sassanids referred to the traditions of the old Persian Empire, claiming to be the only legitimate heirs of the Achaemenid. Art, science and native Persian culture revived. Trade with China also flourished, new cities emerged, and those that existed became richer.

The Sassanid Army was a development of the Parthian system. The main striking force were still armored Katafrakci and mounted archers. Other types of troops were not neglected. The Sassanid army used war elephants, and a solid infantry appeared – with the Dajlamic warriors from Tabarestan on the Caspian Sea or the Sogds from Transoksiana even able to face Roman legionaries. Siege art was at a high level – the Persians knew and used all the then known machines and methods of conquering cities. An interesting example is the siege of Dura Europos in 256, when the Sassanid army even had to use primitive war gases.


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