The Parthian Empire

The Roman Empire > Ancient Civilizations > Parthian Empire


Early notices of the Parthians

Early notices of the Parthians. Their Ethnic character and connections. Their position under the Persian Monarchs, from Cyrus the Great to Darius III. (Codomannus.)

The Parthians do not appear in history until a comparatively recent period. Their name occurs nowhere in the Old Testament Scriptures. They obtain no mention in the Zendavesta. The Assyrian Inscriptions are wholly silent concerning them. It is not until the time of Darius Hystaspis that we have trustworthy evidence of their existence as a distinct people. In the inscriptions of this king we find their country included under the name of Parthva or Parthwa among the provinces of the Persian Empire, joined in two places with Sarangia, Aria, Chorasmia, Bactria, and Sogdiana, and in a third with these same countries and Sagartia. We find, moreover, an account of a rebellion in which the Parthians took part. In the troubles which broke out upon the death of the Pseudo-Smerdis, B.C. 521, Parthia revolted, in conjunction (as it would seem) with Hyrcania, espousing the cause of that Median pretender, who, declaring himself a descendant of the old Median monarchs, set himself up as a rival to Darius. Hytaspes, the father of Darius, held at this time the Parthian satrapy. In two battles within the limits of his province he defeated the rebels, who must have brought into the field a considerable force, since in one of the two engagements they lost in killed and prisoners between 10,000 and 11,000 men. After their second defeat the Parthians made their submission, and once more acknowledged Darius for their sovereign.

With these earliest Oriental notices of the Parthians agree entirely such passages as contain any mention of them in the more ancient literature of the Greeks. Hecatseus of Miletus, who was contemporary with Darius Hystaspis, made the Parthians adjoin upon the Chorasmians in the account which he gave of the geography of Asia. Herodotus spoke of them as a people subject to the Persians in the reign of Darius, and assigned them to the sixteenth satrapy, which comprised also the Arians, the Sogdians, and the Chorasmians. He said that they took part in the expedition of Xerxes against Greece (B.C. 480), serving in the army on foot under the same commander as the Chorasmians, and equipped like them with bows and arrows, and with spears of no great length. In another passage he mentioned their being compelled to pay the Persian water tax, and spoke of the great need which they had of water for the irrigation of their millet and sesame crops.

It is evident that these notices agree with the Persian accounts, both as to the locality of the Parthians and as to the fact of their subjection to the Persian government. They further agree in assigning to the Parthians a respectable military character, yet one of no very special eminency. On the ethnology of the nation, and the circumstances under which the country became an integral part of the Persian dominions, they throw no light. We have still to seek an answer to the questions, "Who were the Parthians?" and "How did they become Persian subjects?"

Who were the Parthians? It is not until the Parthians have emerged from obscurity and become a great people that ancient authors trouble themselves with inquiries as to their ethnic character and remote antecedents. Of the first writers who take the subject into their consideration, some are content to say that the Parthians were a race of Scyths, who at a remote date had separated from the rest of the nation, and had occupied the southern portion of the Chorasmian desert, whence they had gradually made themselves masters of the mountain region adjoining it. Others added to this that the Scythic tribe to which they belonged was called the Dahse; that their own proper name was Parni, or Aparni; and that they had migrated originally from the country to the north of the Palus Maeotis, where they had left the great mass of their fellow tribesmen. Subsequently, in the time of the Antonines, the theory was started that the Parthians were Scyths, whom Sesostris, on his return from his Scythian expedition, brought into Asia and settled in the mountain-tract lying east of the Caspian.

It can scarcely be thought that these notices have very much historical value. Moderns are generally agreed that the Scythian conquests of Sesostris are an invention of the Egyptian priests, which they palmed on Herodotus and Diodorus. Could they be regarded as having really taken place, still the march back from Scythia to Egypt round the north and east of the Caspian Sea would be in the highest degree improbable. The settlement of the Parthians in Parthia by the returning conqueror is, in fact, a mere duplicate of the tale commonly told of his having settled the Colchians in Colchis, and is equally worthless. The earlier authors, moreover, know nothing of the story, which first appears in the second century after our era, and as time goes on becomes more circumstantial.

Even the special connection of the Parthians with the Dahse, and their migration from the shores of the Palus Mteotis, may be doubted. Strabo admits it to be uncertain whether there were any Dahse at all about the Mseotis; and, if there were, it would be open to question whether they were of the same race with the Dahse of the Caspian. As the settlement of the Parthians in the country called after their name dated from a time anterior to Darius Hystaspis, and the Greeks certainly did not set on foot any inquiries into their origin till at least two centuries later, it would be unlikely that the Parthians could give them a true account. The real groundwork of the stories told seems to have been twofold. First, there was a strong conviction on the part of those who came in contact with the Parthians that they were Scyths; and secondly, it was believed that their name meant "exile." Hence it was necessary to suppose that they had migrated into their country from some portion of the tract known as Scythia to the Greeks, and it was natural to invent stories as to the particular circumstances of the migration.

The residuum of the truth, or at any rate the important conviction of the ancient writers, which remains after their stories are sifted, is the Scythic character of the Parthian people. On this point, Strabo, Justin, and Arrian are agreed. The manners of the Parthians had, they tell us, much that was Scythic in them. Their language was half Scythic, half Median. They armed themselves in the Scythic fashion. They were, in fact, Scyths in descent, in habits, in character.

But what are we to understand by this? May we assume at once that they were a Turanian people, in race, habits, and language akin to the various tribes of Turkomans who are at present dominant over the entire region between the Oxus and the Parthian mountain-tract, and within that tract have many settlements? May we assume that they stood in an attitude of natural hostility to the Arian nations by which they were surrounded, and that their revolt was the assertion of independence by a down-trodden people after centuries of subjection to the yoke of a stranger? Did Turan, in their persons, rise against Iean after perhaps a thousand years of oppression, and renew the struggle for predominance in regions where the war had been waged before, and where it still continues to be waged at the present day?

Such conclusions cannot safely be drawn from the mere fact that the Scythic character of the Parthians is asserted in the strongest terms by the ancient writers. The term "Scythic" is not, strictly speaking, ethnical. It designates a life rather a descent, habits rather than blood. It is applied by the Greeks and Romans to Indo-European and Turanian races indifferently, provided that they are nomads, dwelling in tents or carts, living on the produce of their flocks and herds, uncivilized, and, perhaps it may be added, accustomed to pass their lives on horseback. We cannot, therefore, assume that a nation is Turanian simply because it is pronounced "Scythic." Still, as in fact the bulk of those races which have remained content with the nomadic condition, and which from the earliest times to the present day have led the life above described in the broad steppes of Europe and Asia, appear to have been of the Turian type, a presumption is raised in favor of a people being Turanian by decided and concordant statements that it is Scythic. The presumption may of course be removed by evidence to the contrary; but, until such evidence is produced it has weight, and constitutes an argument, the force of which is considerable.

In the present instance the presumption raised is met by no argument of any great weight; while on the other hand it receives important confirmation from several different quarters. It is said, indeed, that as all, or almost all, the other nations of these parts were confessedly Arians (e.g. the Bactrians, the Sogdians, the Chorasmians, the Margians, the Arians of Herat, the Sagartians, the Sarangians, and the Hyrcanians), it would be strange if the Parthians belonged to a wholly different ethnic family. But, in the first place, the existence of isolated nationalities, detached fragments of some greater ethnic mass, embodied amid alien material, is a fact familiar to ethnologists; and, further, it is not at all certain that there were not other Turanian races in these parts, as, for instance, the Thamanasans. Again, it is said that the Parthians show their Arian extraction by their names; but this argument may be turned against those who adduce it. It is true that among the Parthian names a considerable number are not only Arian, but distinctly Persian—e.g., Mith-ridates, Tiridates, Artabanus, Orobazus, Rhodaspes—but the bulk of the names have an entirely different character. There is nothing Arian in such appellations as Amminapes, Bacasis, Pacorus, Vonones, Sinnaces, Abdus, Abdageses, Gotarzes, Vologeses, Mnasciras, Sanatroeces; nor anything markedly Arian in Priapatius, Himerus, Orodes, Apreetseus, Ornos-pades, Parrhaces, Vasaces, Monesis, Exedares. If the Parthians were Arians, what account is to be given of these words? That they employed a certain number of Persian names is sufficiently explained by their subjection during more than two centuries to the Persian rule. We are also distinctly told that they affected Persian habits, and desired to be looked upon as Persians. The Arian names borne by Parthians no more show them to be Arians in race than the Norman names adopted so widely by the Welsh show them to be Northmen. On the other hand, the non-Arian names in the former case are like the non-Norman names in the latter, and equally indicate a second source of nomenclature, in which should be contained the key to the true ethnology of the people.

The non-Arian character of the Parthians is signified, if not proved, by the absence of their name from the Zendavesta. The Zendavesta enumerates among Arian nations the Bactrians, the Sogdians, the Margians, the Hyrcanians, the Arians of Herat, and the Chorasmians, or all the important nations of these parts except the Parthians. The Parthian country it mentions under the name of Nisaya or Nisaea, implying apparently that the Parthians were not yet settled in it. The only ready way of reconciling the geography of the Zendavesta with that of later ages is to suppose the Parthians a non-Arian nation who intruded themselves among the early Arian settlements, coming probably from the north, the great home of the Turanians.

Some positive arguments in favor of the Turanian origin of the Parthians may be based upon their names. The Parthians affect, in their names, the termination -ac or -ah, as, for instance, in Arsac-es, Sinnac-es, Parrhaces, Vesaces, Sana-trseces, Phraataces, etc.—a termination which characterizes the primitive Babylonian, the Basque, and most of the Turanian tongues. The termination -geses, found in such names as Volo-geses, Abda-geses, and the like, may be compared with the -ghiz of Tenghiz. The Turanian root annap, "God," is perhaps traceable in Amm-inap-es. If the Parthian "Chos-roes" represents the Persian "Kurush" or Cyrus, the corruption which the word has undergone is such as to suggest a Tatar articulation.

The remains of the Parthian language, which we possess, beyond their names, are too scanty and too little to be depended on to afford us any real assistance in settling the question of their ethnic character. Besides the words surena, "Commander-in-chief," and Jcarta or Jcerta, "city," "fort," there is scarcely one of which we can be assured that it was really understood by the Parthians in the sense assigned to it. Of these two, the latter, which is undoubtedly Arian, may have been adopted from the Persians: the former is non-Arian, but has no known Turanian congeners.

If, however, the consideration of the Parthian language does not help us to determine their race, a consideration of their manners and customs strengthens much the presumption that they were Turanians. Like the Turkoman and Tatar tribes generally, they passed almost their whole lives on horseback, conversing, transacting business, buying and selling, even eating on their horses. They practised polygamy, secluded their women from the sight of men, punished unfaithfulness with extreme severity, delighted in hunting, and rarely ate any flesh but that which they obtained in this way, were moderate eaters but great drinkers, did not speak much, but yet were very unquiet, being constantly engaged in stirring up trouble either at home or abroad. A small portion of the nation alone was free; the remainder were the slaves of the privileged few. Nomadic habits continued to prevail among a portion of those who remained in their primitive seats, even in the time of their greatest national prosperity; and a coarse, rude, and semi-barbarous character attached always even to the most advanced part of the nation, to the king, the court, and the nobles generally, a character which, despite a certain varnish of civilization, was constantly showing itself in their dealings with each other and with foreign nations. "The Parthian monarchs," as Gibbon justly observes, "like the Mogul (Mongol) sovereigns of Hindostan, delighted in the pastoral life of their Scythian ancestors, and the imperial camp was frequently pitched in the plain of Ctesiphon, on the eastern bank of the Tigris." Niebuhr seems even to doubt whether the Parthians dwelt in cities at all. He represents them as maintaining from first to last their nomadic habits, and regards the insurrection by which their empire was brought to an end as a rising of the inhabitants of towns—the Tadjiks of those times—against the Ilyats or wanderers, who had oppressed them for centuries. This is, no doubt, an over statement; but it has a foundation in fact, since wandering habits and even tent-life were affected by the Parthians during the most flourishing period of their empire.

On the whole, the Turanian character of the Parthians, though not absolutely proved, appears to be in the highest degree probable. If it be accepted, we must regard them as in race closely allied to the vast hordes which from a remote antiquity have roamed over the steppe region of upper Asia, from time to time bursting upon the south, and harassing or subjugating the comparatively unwarlike inhabitants of the warmer countries. We must view them as the congeners of the Huns, Bulgarians, and Comans of the ancient world; of the Kalmucks, Ouigurs, Usbegs, Eleuts, etc., of the present day. Perhaps their nearest representatives will be, if we look to their primitive condition at the founding of their empire, the modern Turkomans, who occupy nearly the same districts; if we regard them in the period of their great prosperity, the Osmanli Turks. Like the Turks, they combined great military prowess and vigor with a capacity for organization and government not very usual among Asiatics. Like them, they remained at heart barbarians, though they put on an external appearance of civilization and refinement. Like them, they never to any extent amalgamated with the conquered races, but continued for centuries an exclusive dominant race, encamped in the countries which they had overrun.

The circumstances under which the Parthians became subjects of the Persian empire may readily be conjectured, but cannot be laid down positively. According to Diodorus, who probably followed Ctesias, they passed from the dominion of the Assyrians to that of the Medes, and from dependence upon the Medes to a similar position under the Persians. But the balance of evidence is against these views. It is, on the whole, most probable that neither the Assyrian nor the Median empire extended so far eastward as the country of the Parthians. The Parthians probably maintained their independence from the time of their settlement in the district called after their name until the sudden arrival in their country of the great Persian conqueror, Cyrus. This prince, as Herodotus tells us, subdued the whole of Western Asia, proceeding from nation to nation, and subjugating one people after another. The order of his conquests is not traceable; but it is clear that after his conquest of the Lydian empire (about B.C. 554) he proceeded eastward, with the special object of subduing Bactria.43 To reach Bactria, he would have to pass through, or close by, Parthia. Since, as Herodotus says, "he conquered the whole way, as he went," we may fairly conclude that on his road to Bactria he subjugated the Parthians. It was thus, almost certainly, that they lost their independence and became Persian subjects. Competent enough to maintain themselves against the comparatively small tribes in their near neighborhood, the Chorasmians, Hyrcanians, Arians of Herat, Bactrians, and Sagartians, it was not possible for them to make an effectual resistance to a monarch who brought against them the entire force of a mighty empire. Cyrus had, it is probable, little difficulty in obtaining their submission. It is possible that they resisted; but perhaps it is more probable that their course on this occasion was similar to that which they pursued when the Macedonian conqueror swept across these same regions. The Parthians at that period submitted without striking a blow. There is no reason to believe that they caused any greater trouble to Cyrus.

When the Persian empire was organized by Darius Hystaspis into satrapies, Parthia was at first united in the same government with Chorasmia, Sogdiana, and Aria. Subsequently, however, when satrapies were made more numerous, it was detached from these extensive countries and made to form a distinct government, with the mere addition of the comparatively small district of Hyrcania.40 It formed, apparently, one of the most tractable and submissive of the Persian provinces. Except on the single occasion already noticed, when it took part in a revolt that extended to nearly one-half the empire, it gave its rulers no trouble; no second attempt was made to shake off the alien yoke, which may indeed have galled, but which was felt to be inevitable. In the final struggle of Persia against Alexander, the Parthians were faithful to their masters. They fought on the Persian side at Arbela; and though they submitted to Alexander somewhat tamely when he invaded their country, yet, as Darius was then dead, and no successor had declared himself, they cannot be taxed with desertion. Probably they felt little interest in the event of the struggle. Habit and circumstance caused them to send their contingent to Arbela at the call of the Great King; but when the Persian cause was evidently lost, they felt it needless to make further sacrifices. Having no hope of establishing their independence, they thought it unnecessary to prolong the contest. They might not gain, but they could scarcely lose, by a change of masters.














ancient civilizations