The empire established by Seleucus Nicator in 312 BC looked to be the most powerful of the successor states that emerged out of the collection of territories conquered by Alexander. It controlled Syria, Mesopotamia, and the lands of the Iranian plateau—as well as (at least in theory) other territories further east. Initially the capital was established at Babylon, and later at a new site at Seleuceia on the Tigris River. Finally it moved to Antioch on the Mediterranean Sea.
The Seleucid kings pursued the easternizing policy of Alexander. They established Greek military and trading colonies in the east and used Iranian manpower in their armies, but their political attention was on the west—particularly on their rivalry with the other major eastern Macedonian/Greek dynasty, that of the Ptolemies in Egypt. In the east, outlying satrapies like Sogdiana and Bactria gradually became independent princedoms, the latter creating an enduring culture in what is now northern Afghanistan, fusing eastern and Greek cultures under Greek successor dynasties.
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.
Left: East Parthian Cataphract; Middle: Parthian Horse-Archer; Right: Parthian Cataphract from Hatra
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.