The horse-based cultures of the northeast had given Alexander problems, and the Achaemenids before him. Tribes like the Dahae and the Sakae, who spoke languages in the Iranian family group, would always be very difficult for any empire to dominate. With their military strength entirely on horseback, they were highly mobile and able, when threatened, to disappear into the great expanses of desert and semi-desert south of the Aral Sea. Within two generations of Seleucus Nicator’s death in 281 bc, one tribe or group of tribes among the Dahae-the Parni-established their supremacy in Parthia and other lands east of the Caspian. They supplanted the local Seleucid satrap, Andragoras-who around 250 bc had rebelled and tried to make himself an independent ruler in Parthia-and began to threaten the remaining territories of the Seleucids in the east. The Parni ruling family named themselves Arsacids after Arshak (Arsaces), the man who had led them to take control of Parthia. But as the Arsacids expanded their dominion, they were careful to preserve the wealth and culture of the Greek colonies in the towns. Parthian kings later used the title philhellenos (friend of the Greeks) on their coinage.
Several Seleucid kings carried out expeditions to the east to restore their authority in Parthia and Bactria, and the Parthian Arsacids occasionally chose to ally with them or even to submit, rather than to confront them. But the Seleucids were always drawn back to the west, and in the reign of the Arsacid Mithradates I (171-138 bc) the Parthians renewed their expansion, taking Sistan, Elam, and Media. Then they captured Babylon in 142 bc and, one year later, Seleuceia itself.
In the decades that followed, the Parthians were attacked by the Sakae in the east and by the Seleucids in the west. Fortunes swung either way. At one point in 128 bc the Parthians defeated a Seleucid army, captured it, and attempted to use the prisoners against the Sakae-only to find that the Seleucid troops had made common cause with the Sakae. Together, they defeated and killed the Parthian king, Phraates. But Mithradates II (Mithradates the Great) was able to consolidate and stabilize Parthian rule in a long reign from about 123 to 87 bc, subduing enemies in both east and west. He also took the title King of Kings, a deliberate reference back to the Achaemenid monarchy. This, along with other indicators, suggests a new Iranian self-confidence.
Concealed behind the long struggle between the Seleucids and the Parthians lie the origins of the silk trade, which was to be of central importance for many Iranian towns and cities for more than a millennium. The initial involvement of Greeks and Greek cities in the silk business may go some way toward explaining both the survival of Greek culture in the Parthian period, and the Parthian kings’ respect for it. They were friends to the Greeks not out of aesthetic sensibility or deference to a superior culture, but because they wanted to protect the goose that laid the golden egg.
Mithradates had diplomatic contacts with both the Chinese Han emperor Wu Ti and with the Roman republic under the dictator Sulla. In order to establish a lasting presence in Mesopotamia, either he or his successor Gotarzes founded a new city at Ctesiphon, near Seleuceia. Ctesiphon was to continue as the capital for more than seven hundred years, though Seleuceia, on the other side of the Tigris, was often used as the center of administration, and Ecbatana/Hamadan as the summer capital. The Parthians established a powerful empire and ruled successfully for several centuries, but they did so with a relatively light touch, assimilating the practices of previous rulers and being content to tolerate the variety of religious, linguistic, and cultural patterns of their subject provinces. A system of devolved power (parakandeh shahi, also called muluk al-tawa’if in later Arab sources) through satraps continued, often keeping in power families that had ruled under the Seleucids. Parthian scribes continued to use Aramaic, as in the time of the Achaemenids, and there appears to have been a continued diversity of religion. Names like Mithradates and Phraates (the latter a name thought to be related to the fravashi of the Avesta) show the Mazdaean allegiances of the Arsacids themselves, but Babylonians, Greeks, Jews, and others were allowed to follow their own religious traditions. As before, Mazdaism itself seems to have encompassed a variety of practices and beliefs. In Jewish tradition, the Parthians are recorded and remembered (with the important exception of the reign of one later king) as tolerant and friendly toward the Jews. This may reflect the fact that the rise of the Parthians in the east was helped by the prolonged struggle between the Maccabean Jews and the Seleucids in Palestine.
The Parthians were not just crude nomads assuming the culture of their subjects for lack of any of their own-or, at least, they did not remain so. Parthian sculpture, with its own particular style that included a strong emphasis on frontality, was different in kind from any predecessor. Parthian architecture-as excavated at Nisa, for example (in what is now Turkmenistan)-shows for the first time the emergence of the audience hall or ivan, a feature to be of great importance later, in Sassanid and Islamic architecture. The Parthians exemplified the best of Iranian genius-the recognition, acceptance, and tolerance of the complexity of the cultures and influences over which they ruled, while retaining a strong central principle of identity and integrity.
Rome’s Great Rival in the East
The Parthians were also masters of the art of war, as they would show in the next period of conflict, with Rome. Driven on to ever-wider conquests by the ambitions of mighty patricians like Pompeii, Lucullus, and Crassus, leaders who saw conquest and military glory as necessary adjuncts to a successful political career, the Roman republic by the first half of the first century bc had taken over the eastern Mediterranean from its previous Hellenistic overlords and had begun to press even farther eastward. The Romans’ main area of conflict with the Parthians was in Armenia, Syria, and northern Mesopotamia.
In 53 bc Marcus Licinius Crassus, a fabulously rich Roman politician who had destroyed the slave revolt of Spartacus in southern Italy in earlier years, became the new governor of Roman Syria. Hoping to make conquests in the east to rival those recently achieved by Caesar in Gaul, Crassus marched an army of some forty thousand men east to Carrhae (modern Harran)-arrogantly rejecting the advice of the king of Armenia to take advantage of his friendship and follow a less exposed northerly route. At Carrhae Crassus’s army was met in the open plain by a smaller but fast-moving force of about ten thousand Parthian horsemen, including large numbers of horse archers, supported by a much smaller force of heavily armored cavalrymen on armored horses, each man wielding a long, heavy lance. The Roman force was composed primarily of armored infantry equipped with swords and heavy throwing spears, along with some Gaulish cavalrymen who were either lightly armored or not armored at all.
The Parthians confronted Crassus with a kind of fighting that the Romans had not previously encountered, and against which they had no answer. The Roman infantry advanced, but the Parthian horse archers withdrew before them, circling around to shoot arrows into the flanks of their column. Hour after hour the arrows rained down on the Romans, and despite their heavy armor the powerful Parthian war bows frequently zinged an arrow past the edge of a shield, found a gap at the neck between body armor and helmet, punched through a weak link in chain mail, or wounded a soldier’s unprotected hands or feet. The Romans grew tired and thirsty in the heat, and their frustration at not being able to get to grips with the Parthians turned to defeatism, especially when they saw the Parthians resupply themselves with arrows from masses of heavily laden pack camels.
At one point Crassus’s son led a detachment, including the Gaulish cavalry, against the Parthians. The Parthians pulled back as if in disorder, but their real intention was to draw the detachment away beyond any possible assistance from the main body. When the Gauls rode ahead to chase off the archers, the Parthian heavy cavalry charged down on them, spearing the lightly armored Gauls and their horses with their long lances. In desperation, the Gauls tried to attack the Parthian horses by dismounting and rolling under them, trying to stab up at their unprotected bellies, but even this desperate tactic could not save them. Then the full strength of the Parthian horse archers turned on the Roman detachment. More and more of them were hit by arrows, while all were disoriented and confused by the clouds of dust thrown up by the Parthians’ horses. Crassus’s son pulled his men back to a small hill-where they were surrounded and eventually killed, with the exception of about five hundred, who were taken prisoner.
The defeat of the detachment and the jubilation of the Parthians further demoralized the main Roman force. Finally, Crassus attempted to negotiate with the Parthian general, Suren, only to be killed in a scuffle and beheaded. The survivors of the Roman army withdrew in disorder back into Roman Syria. Meanwhile, as many as ten thousand Roman prisoners were marched off by the Parthians to the remote northeast of the empire.