Very little is known as to the religion of the Parthians. It seems probable that during the Persian period they submitted to the Zoroastrian system, which was generally maintained by the Achaemenian kings, acquiescing, like the great bulk of the conquered nations, in the religious views of their conquerors; but as this was not their own religion, we may conclude that they were at no time very zealous followers of the Bactrian prophet, and that as age succeeded age they became continually more lukewarm in their feelings, and more lax in their religious practice. The essence of Zoroastrian belief was dualism—recognition of Ormazd as the great Principle of Good, and of Ahriman as the Principle of Evil. We need not doubt that, in word, the Parthians from first to last admitted this antagonism, and professed a belief in Ormazd as the supreme god, and a dread of Ahriman and his ministers. But practically, their religious aspirations rested, not on these dim abstractions, but on beings whose existence they could better realize, and whom they could feel to be less remote from themselves. The actual devotion of the Parthians was offered to the Sun and Moon, to deities who were supposed to preside over the royal house, and to ancestral idols which each family possessed, and conveyed with it from place to place with every change of habitation. The Sun was saluted at his rising, was worshipped in temples, under the name of Mithra, with sacrifices and offerings; had statues erected in his honor, and was usually associated with the lesser luminary. The deities of the royal house were probably either genii, ministers of Ormazd, to whom was committed the special protection of the monarchs and their families, like the bagaha vithiya of the Persians, or else the ancestors of the reigning monarch, to whom a qualified divinity seems to have been assigned in the later times of the empire. The Parthians kings usually swore by these deities on solemn occasions; and other members of the royal family made use of the same oath. The main worship, however, of the great mass of the people, even when they were of the royal stock, was concentrated upon ancestral images, which had a place sacred to them in each house, and received the constant adoration of the household.
In the early times of the empire the Magi were held in high repute, and most of the peculiar tenets and rites of the Magian religion were professed and followed by the Parthians. Elemental worship was practised. Fire was, no doubt, held sacred, and there was an especial reverence for rivers. Dead bodies were not burned, but were exposed to be devoured by birds and beasts of prey, after which the dry bones were collected and placed in tombs. The Magi formed a large portion of the great national council, which elected and, if need were, deposed the kings. But in course of time much laxity was introduced. The Arsacid monarchs of Armenia allowed the Sacred Fire of Ormazd, which ought to have been kept continually burning, to go out; and we can scarcely suppose but that the Parthian Arsacidae shared their negligence. Respect for the element of fire so entirely passed away, that we hear of the later Parthians burning their dead. The Magi fell into disrepute, and, if not expelled from their place in the council, at any rate found themselves despised and deprived of influence. The later Parthian religion can have been little more than a worship of the Sun and Moon, and of the teraphim, or sacred images, which were the most precious possession of each household.
While thus lax and changeful in their own religious practice, the Parthians were, naturally, tolerant of a variety of creeds among their subjects. Fire altars were maintained, and Zoroastrian zeal was allowed to nourish in the dependent kingdom of Persia. In the Greek cities the Olympian gods were permitted to receive the veneration of thousands, while in Babylon, Nearda, and Nisibis the Jews enjoyed the free exercise of their comparatively pure and elevated religion. No restrictions seem to have been placed on proselytism, and Judaism certainly boasted many converts from the heathen in Adiabene, Charax Spasini, and elsewhere. Christianity also penetrated the Parthian provinces to a considerable extent, and in one Parthian country, at any rate, seems to have become the state religion. The kings of Osrhoene are thought to have been Christians from the time of the Antonines, if not from that of our Lord; and a nourishing church was certainly established at Edessa before the end of the second century. The Parthian Jews who were witnesses of the miraculous events which signalized the day of Pentecost may have, in some cases, taken with them the new religion to the land where they had their residence; or the Apostle, St. Thomas, may (as Eusebius declares) have carried the Gospel into the regions beyond the Euphrates, and have planted the Christian Church in the countries out of which the Jewish Church sprang. Besides the nourishing community of Edessa, which was predominantly, if not wholly, Christian from the middle of the second century, many converts were, we are told, to be found among the inhabitants of Persia, Media, Parthia Proper, and even Bactria. The infusion, however, was not sufficient to leaven to any serious extent the corrupt mass of heathenism into which it was projected; and we cannot say that the general character of the Parthian empire, or of the manners and customs of its subjects, was importantly affected by the new religion, though it had an extraordinary influence over individuals.
The Parthians were essentially a warlike people; and the chief interest which attaches to them is connected with their military vigor and ability. It is worth while to consider at some length the peculiarities of that military system which proved itself superior to the organization of the Macedonians, and able to maintain for nearly three hundred years a doubtful contest with the otherwise irresistible Romans.
We are told that the Parthians had no standing army. When war was proclaimed and the monarch needed a force, he made his immediate vassals acquainted with the fact, and requested each of them to marshal their troops, and bring them to a fixed rendezvous by a certain day. The troops thus summoned were of two kinds, Parthian and foreign. The governors of the provinces, whether tributary kings or satraps, called out the military strength of their respective districts, saw to their arming and provisioning, and, marching each at the head of his contingent, brought a foreign auxiliary force to the assistance of the Great King. But the back-bone of the army, its main strength, the portion on which alone much reliance was placed, consisted of Parthians. Each Parthian noble was bound to call out his slaves and his retainers, to arm and equip them at his own expense, and bring them to the rendezvous by the time named. The number of troops furnished by each noble varied according to his position and his means; we bear in one instance of their amounting to as many as 10,000, while in another recorded case the average number which each furnished was no more than 125. The various contingents had their own baggage-trains, consisting ordinarily of camels, in the proportion (as it would seem) of one to every ten fighting-men.
A Parthian army consisted usually of both horse and foot, but in proportions unusual elsewhere. The foot soldiers were comparatively few in number, and were regarded as of small account. Every effort was made to increase the amount and improve the equipment of the horsemen, who bore the brunt of every fight, and from whose exertions alone victory was hoped. Sometimes armies consisted of horsemen only, or rather of horsemen followed by a baggage train composed of camels and chariots.
The horse were of two kinds, heavy and light. The heavy horsemen wore coats of mail, reaching to their knees, composed of rawhide covered with scales of iron or steel, very bright, and capable of resisting a strong blow. They had on their heads burnished helmets of Margian steel, whose glitter dazzled the spectator. Their legs seem not to have been greaved, but encased in a loose trouser, which hung about the ankles and embarrassed the feet, if by any chance the horseman was forced to dismount. They carried no shield, being sufficiently defended by their coats of mail. Their offensive arms were a long spear, which was of great strength and thickness, and a bow and arrows of unusual size. They likewise carried in their girdle a short sword or knife, which might be used in close combat. Their horses were, like themselves, protected by a defence of scale armor, which was either of steel or bronze.
The light horse was armed with the same sort of bows and arrows as the heavy, but carried no spear and wore no armor. It was carefully trained to the management of the horse and the bow, and was unequalled in the rapidity and dexterity of its movements. The archer delivered his arrows with as much precision and force in retreat as in advance, and was almost more feared when he retired than when he charged his foe. Besides his arrows, the light horseman seems to have carried a sword, and he no doubt wore also the customary knife in his belt.
We are told by one writer that it was a practice of the Parthians to bring into battle a number of led horses, and that the riders from time to time exchanged their tired steeds for fresh ones, thus obtaining a great advantage over enemies who had no such practice. But the accounts which we have of Parthian engagements make no reference to this usage, which we can therefore scarcely suppose to have been adopted to any large extent. It may be doubted, also, if the practice could ever be one of much value, since the difficulty of managing led horses amid the tumult of a battle would probably more than counterbalance the advantage derivable from relays of fresh steeds.
During the later period of the monarchy, the Parthians, who had always employed camels largely in the conveyance of stores and baggage, are said to have introduced a camel corps into the army itself, and to have derived considerable advantage from the new arm. The camels could bear the weight of the mailed warrior and of their own armor better than horses, and their riders were at once more safe in their elevated position and more capable of dealing effective blows upon the enemy. As a set-off, however, against those advantages, the spongy feet of the camel were found to be more readily injured by the tribulus, or caltrop, than the harder feet of the horse, and the corps was thus more easily disabled than an equal force of cavalry, if it could be tempted to pass over ground on which caltrops had been previously scattered.
The Parthian tactics were of a simple kind, and differed little from those of other nations in the same region, which have depended mainly on their cavalry. To surround their foe, to involve him in difficulties, to cut off: his supplies and his stragglers, and ultimately to bring him into a position where he might be overwhelmed by missiles, was the aim of all Parthian commanders of any military capacity. Their warfare was suited for defence rather than for attack, unless against contemptible enemies. They were bad hands at sieges, and seldom ventured to engage in them, though they would do so if circumstances required it. They wearied of long campaigns, and if they did not find victory tolerably easy, were apt to retire and allow their foe to escape, or baffle him by withdrawing their forces into a distant and inaccessible region. After their early victories over Crassus and Antony, they never succeeded in preventing the steady advance of a Roman army into their territory, or in repulsing a determined attack upon their capital. Still they generally had their revenge after a short time. It was easy for the Romans to overrun Mesopotamia, but it was not so easy for them to hold it; and it was scarcely possible for them to retire from it after an occupation without disaster. The clouds of Parthian horse hung upon their retreating columns, straitened them for provisions, galled them with missiles, and destroyed those who could not keep up with the main body. The towns upon the line of their retreat revolted and shut their gates, defying even such commanders as Severus and Trajan. Of the six great expeditions of Rome against Parthia, one only, that of Avidius Cassius, was entirely successful. In every other case either the failure of the expedition was complete, or the glory of the advance was tarnished by disaster and suffering during the retreat.
The results of invading Parthia would have been even more calamitous to an assailant but for one weak point in the military system of the Parthians. They were excessively unwilling to venture near an enemy at night, and as a general rule abstained from all military movements during the hours of darkness. As evening approached, they drew off to a considerable distance from their foe, and left him unmolested to retreat in any direction that he pleased. The reason of this probably was, not merely that they did not fortify their camps; but that, depending wholly on their horses, and being forced to hobble or tether them at night, they could not readily get into fighting order on a sudden during darkness. Once or twice in the course of their history, we find them departing from their policy of extreme precaution, and recommencing the pursuit of a flying foe before dawn; but it is noted as an unusual occurrence.
It was also a general principle of Parthian warfare to abstain from campaigning during the winter. So much depended upon the tension of their bow-strings, which any dampness relaxed, that their rule was to make all their expeditions in the dry time of their year, which lasted from early in the spring until late in the autumn. The rule was, however, transgressed upon occasions. Phraates II. made his attack upon Antiochus Sidetes, while the snow was still upon the ground; and Volagases I. fell upon Paetus after the latter had sent his troops into winter quarters. The Parthians could bear cold no less than heat; though it was perhaps rather in the endurance of the latter than of the former that they surpassed the Romans. The sun's rays were never too hot for them; and they did not need water frequently or in large quantities. The Romans believed that they increased their ability of bearing thirst by means of certain drugs which they consumed; but it may be questioned whether they really employed any other remedies than habit and resolution.
We find no use of chariots among the Parthians, except for the conveyance of the females, who accompanied the nobles upon their expeditions. The wives and concubines of the chiefs followed the camp in great numbers; and women of a less reputable class, singers, dancers, and musicians, swelled the ranks of the supernumeraries. Many of these were Greeks from Seleucia and other Macedonian towns. The commissariat and transport departments are said to have been badly organized; but some thousands of baggage camels always accompanied an army, carrying stores and provisions. Of these a considerable portion were laden with arrows, of which the supply was in this way rendered inexhaustible.
The use of the elephant in war was still more rare in Parthia than that of the chariot. While the Seleucid kings employed the animal to a large extent, and its use was also probably known to the Greek princes of Bactria, the Arsacidae appear to have almost entirely neglected it. On one occasion alone do we find their employment of it mentioned, and then we hear of only a single animal, which is ridden by the monarch. Probably the unwieldy creature was regarded by the Parthians as too heavy and clumsy for the light and rapid movements of their armies, and was thus disused during the period of their supremacy, though again employed, after Parthia had fallen, by the Sassanidse.
The Parthians entered into battle with much noise and shouting. They made no use of trumpets or horns, but employed instead the kettledrum, which resounded from all parts of the field when they made their onset. Their attack was furious. The mailed horsemen charged at speed, and often drove their spears through the bodies of two enemies at a blow. The light horse and the foot, when any was present, delivered their arrows with precision and with extraordinary force. But if the assailants were met with a stout resistance, the first vigor of the attack was rarely long maintained. The Parthian warriors grew quickly weary of an equal contest, and, if they could not force their enemy to give way, soon changed their tactics. Pretending panic, dispersing, and beating a hasty retreat, they endeavored to induce their foe to pursue hurriedly and in disorder, being ready at any moment to turn and take advantage of the least appearance of confusion. If these tactics failed, as they commonly did after they came to be known, the simulated flight was generally converted into a real one; further conflict was avoided, or at any rate deferred to another occasion.
When the Parthians wished to parley with an enemy, they unstrung their bows, and advancing with the right hand outstretched, asked for a conference. They are accused by the Romans of sometimes using treachery on such occasions, but, except in the single case of Crassus, the charge of bad faith cannot be sustained against them. On solemn occasions, when the intention was to discuss grounds of complaint or to bring a war to an end by the arrangement of terms of peace, a formal meeting was arranged between their representatives and those of their enemy, generally on neutral ground, as on an island in the Euphrates, or on a bridge constructed across it. Here the chiefs of the respective nations met, accompanied by an equal number of guards, while the remainder of their forces occupied the opposite banks of the river. Matters were discussed in friendly fashion, the Greek language being commonly employed as the vehicle of communication; after which festivities usually took place, the two chiefs mutually entertaining each other, or accepting in common the hospitalities of a third party. The terms of peace agreed upon were reduced to writing; hands were grasped as a sign that faith was pledged; and oaths having been interchanged, the conference broke up, and the chiefs returned to their respective residences.
Besides negotiating by means of conferences, the Parthian monarchs often sent out to neighboring states, and in return received from them formal embassies. The ambassadors in every case conveyed, as a matter of course, gifts to the prince to whom they were accredited, which might consist of articles of value, or of persons. Augustus included an Italian slave-girl among the presents which he transmitted to Phraates IV.; and Artabanus III. sent a Jewish giant to Tiberius. The object of an embassy was sometimes simply to congratulate; but more often the ambassadors were instructed to convey certain demands, or proposals, from their own prince to the head of the other nation, whereto his assent was required, or requested. These proposals were commonly formulated in a letter from the one prince to the other, which it was the chief duty of the ambassadors to convey safely. Free powers to conclude a treaty at their discretion were rarely, or never, entrusted to them. Their task was merely to deliver the royal letter, to explain its terms, if they were ambiguous, and to carry back to their own monarch the reply of the foreign sovereign. The sanctity of the ambassadorial character was invariably respected by the Parthians, who are never even taxed with a violation of it.
As a security for the performance of engagements, or for the permanent maintenance of a friendly attitude, it was usual in the East during the Parthian period to require, and give, hostages. The princes who occupied the position of Parthian feudatories gave hostages to their suzerain, who were frequently their near relations, as sons or brothers. And a practice grew up of the Parthian monarchs themselves depositing their own sons or brothers with the Roman Emperor, at first perhaps merely for their own security, but afterwards as pledges for their good behavior. Such hostages lived at the expense of the Roman court, and were usually treated with distinction. In the event of a rupture between their country and Rome, they had little to fear. Rome found her advantage in employing them as rivals to a monarch with whom she had quarrelled, and did not think it necessary to punish them for his treachery or inconstancy.
The magnificence of the Parthian court is celebrated in general terms by various writers, but not very many particulars have come down to us respecting it. We know that it was migratory, moving from one of the chief cities of the empire to another at different seasons of the year, and that owing to the vast number of the persons composing it, there was a difficulty sometimes in providing for their subsistence upon the road. The court comprised the usual extensive harem of an Oriental prince, consisting of a single recognized queen, and a multitude of secondary wives or concubines. The legitimate wife of the prince was commonly a native, and in most cases was selected from the royal race of the Arsacidae but sometimes she was the daughter of a dependent monarch, and she might even be a slave raised by royal favor from that humble position. The concubines were frequently Greeks. Both wives and concubines remained ordinarily in close seclusion, and we have little mention of them, in the Parthian annals. But in one instance, at any rate, a queen, brought up in the notions of the West, succeeded in setting Oriental etiquette at defiance, took the direction of affairs out of the hands of her husband, and subsequently ruled the empire in conjunction with her son. Generally, however, the Parthian kings were remarkably free from the weakness of subservience to women, and managed their kingdom with a firm hand, without allowing either wives or ministers to obtain any undue ascendency over them. In particular, we may note that they never, so far as appears, fell under the baleful influence of eunuchs, who, from first to last, play a very subordinate part in the Parthian history.
The dress of the monarch was commonly the loose Median robe, which had been adopted from the Medes by the Persians. This flowed down to the feet in numerous folds, enveloping and concealing the entire figure. Trousers and a tunic were probably worn beneath it, the latter of linen, the former of silk or wool. As head-dress, the king wore either the mere diadem, which was a band or ribbon, passed once or oftener round the head, and terminating in two long ends which fell down behind, or else a more pretentious cap, which in the earlier times was a sort of Scythian pointed helmet, and in the later a rounded tiara, sometimes adorned with pearls or gems. His neck appears to have been generally encircled with two or three collars or necklaces, and he frequently wore ear-rings in his ears. The beard was almost always cultivated, and, with the hair, was worn variously. Generally both hair and beard were carefully curled; but sometimes they depended in long straight locks, Mostly the beard was pointed, but occasionally it was worn square. In later times a fashion arose of puffing out the hair at either side extravagantly, so as to give it the appearance of a large bushy wig.
In war the monarch seems to have exchanged his Median robe for a short cloak, reaching half way down the thigh. His head was protected by a helmet, and he carried the national arm of offence, the bow. He usually took the field on horseback, but was sometimes mounted on an elephant, trained to encounter the shock of battle. Gold and silver were abundantly used in the trappings of his steed and in his arms. He generally took the command, and mingled freely in the fight, though he might sometimes shrink without reproach from adventuring his own person. His guards fought about him; and he was accompanied by attendants, whose duty it was to assist him in mounting on horseback and dismounting.
The status of the queen was not much below that of her royal consort. She wore a tiara far more elaborate than his, and, like him, exhibited the diadem. Her neck was encircled with several necklaces. As the title of Theos, "God," was often assumed by her husband, so she was allowed the title of "Goddess", or "Heavenly Goddess".
Separate apartments were of course assigned to the queen, and to the royal concubines in the various palaces. These were buildings on a magnificent scale, and adorned with the utmost richness. Philostratus, who wrote in Parthian times, thus describes the royal palace at Babylon. "The palace is roofed with brass, and a bright light flashes from it. It has chambers for the women, and chambers for the men, and porticos, partly glittering with silver, partly with cloth-of-gold embroideries, partly with solid slabs of gold, let into the walls, like pictures. The subjects of the embroideries are taken from the Greek mythology, and include representations of Andromeda, of Amymone, and of Orpheus, who is frequently repeated.... Datis is moreover represented, destroying Naxos with his fleet, and Artaphernes besieging Eretria, and Xerxes gaining his famous victories. You behold the occupation of Athens, and the battle of Thermopylae, and other points still more characteristic of the great Persian war, rivers drunk up and disappearing from the face of the earth, and a bridge stretched across the sea, and a canal cut through Athos.... One chamber for the men has a roof fashioned into a vault like the heaven, composed entirely of sapphires, which are the bluest of stones, and resemble the sky in color. Golden images of the gods whom they worship, are set up about the vault, and show like stars in the firmament. This is the chamber in which the king delivers his judgments. Four golden magic-wheels hang from its roof, and threaten the monarch with the Divine Nemesis, if he exalts himself above the condition of man. These wheels are called 'the tongues of the gods,' and are set in their places by the Magi who frequent the palace."
The state and pomp which surrounded the monarch seem scarcely to have fallen short of the Achaemenian standard. Regarded as in some sort divine during his life, and always an object of national worship after his death, the "Brother of the Sun and Moon" occupied a position far above that of the most exalted of his subjects. Tributary monarchs were shocked, when, in times of misfortune, the "Great King" stooped to solicit their aid, and appeared before them in the character of a suppliant, shorn of his customary splendor. Nobles coveted the dignity of "King's Friend," and were content to submit to blows and buffets at the caprice of their royal master, before whom they prostrated themselves in adoration after each castigation. The Parthian monarch dined in solitary grandeur, extended on his own special couch, and eating from his own special table, which was placed at a greater elevation than those of his guests. His "friend" sat on the ground at his feet, and was fed like a dog by scraps from his master's board. Guards, ministers, and attendants of various kinds surrounded him, and were ready at the slightest sign to do his bidding. Throughout the country he had numerous "Eyes" and "Ears"—officers who watched his interests and sent him word of whatever touched his safety. The bed on which the monarch slept was of gold, and subjects were forbidden to take their repose on couches of this rich material. No stranger could obtain access to him unless introduced by the proper officer; and it was expected that all who asked an audience would be prepared with some present of high value. For the gifts received the monarch made a suitable return, allowing those whom he especially favored to choose the presents that they preferred.
The power and dignity of the Parthian nobles was greater than that usually enjoyed by any subjects of an Oriental king. Rank in Parthia being hereditary and not simply official, the "megistanes" were no mere creatures of the monarch, but a class which stood upon its own indefeasible rights. As they had the privilege of electing to the throne upon a vacancy, and even that of deposing a duly elected monarch, the king could not but stand in wholesome awe of them, and feel compelled to treat them with considerable respect and deference. Moreover, they were not without a material force calculated to give powerful support to their constitutional privileges. Each stood at the head of a body of retainers accustomed to bear arms and to serve in the wars of the Empire. Together these bodies constituted the strength of the army; and though the royal bodyguard might perhaps have been capable of dealing successfully with each group of retainers separately, yet such an esprit de corps was sure to animate the nobles generally, that they would make common cause in case one of their number were attacked, and would support him against the crown with the zeal inspired by self-interest. Thus the Parthian nobility were far more powerful and independent than any similar class under the Achaemenian, Sassanian, Modern Persian, or Turkish sovereigns. They exercised a real control over the monarch, and had a voice in the direction of the Empire. Like the great feudal vassals of the Middle Ages, they from time to time quarrelled with their liege lord, and disturbed the tranquillity of the kingdom by prolonged and dangerous civil wars; but these contentions served to keep alive a vigor, a life, and a spirit of sturdy independence very unusual in the East, and gave a stubborn strength to the Parthian monarchy, in which Oriental governments have for the most part been wanting.
There were probably several grades of rank among the nobles. The highest dignity in the kingdom, next to the Crown, was that of Surena, or "Field-Marshal;" and this position was hereditary in a particular family, which can have stood but a little below the royal house in wealth and consequence. The head of this noble house is stated to have at one time brought into the field as many as 10,000 retainers and slaves, of whom a thousand were heavy-armed. It was his right to place the diadem on the king's brow at his coronation. The other nobles lived for the most part on their domains, but took the field at the head of their retainers in case of war, and in peace sometimes served the offices of satrap, vizier, or royal councillor. The wealth of the class was great; its members were inclined to be turbulent, and, like the barons of the European kingdoms, acted as a constant check and counterpoise to the royal dignity.
Next to war, the favorite employment of the king and of the nobles was hunting. The lion continued in the wild state an occupant of the Mesopotamian river-banks and marshes; and in other parts of the empire bears, leopards, and even tigers abounded. Thus the higher kinds of sport were readily obtainable. The ordinary practice, however, of the monarch and his courtiers seems to have fallen short of the true sportsman's ideal. Instead of seeking the more dangerous kinds of wild beasts in their native haunts, and engaging with them under the conditions designed by nature, the Parthians were generally content with a poorer and tamer method. They kept lions, leopards, and bears in enclosed parks, or "paradises," and found pleasure in the pursuit and slaughter of these denaturalized and half-domesticated animals. The employment may still, even under these circumstances, have contained an element of danger which rendered it exciting; but it was a poor substitute for the true sport which the "mighty Hunter before the Lord" had first practised in these regions.
The ordinary dress of the Parthian noble was a long loose robe reaching to the feet, under which he wore a vest and trousers. Bright and varied colors were affected, and sometimes dresses were interwoven or embroidered with gold. In seasons of festivity garlands of fresh flowers were worn upon the head. A long knife or dagger was carried at all times, which might be used either as an implement or as a weapon.
In the earlier period of the empire the Parthian was noted as a spare liver; but, as time went on, he aped the vices of more civilized peoples, and became an indiscriminate eater and a hard drinker. Game formed a main portion of his diet; but he occasionally indulged in pork, and probably in other sorts of butcher's meat. He ate leavened bread, with his meat, and various kinds of vegetables. The bread, which was particularly light and porous, seems to have been imported sometimes by the Romans, who knew it as panis aquaticus or panis Parthicus. Dates were also consumed largely by the Parthians, and in some parts of the country grew to an extraordinary size. A kind of wine was made from them; and this seems to have been the intoxicating drink in which the nation generally indulged too freely. That made from the dates of Babylon was the most highly esteemed, and was reserved for the use of the king and the higher order of satraps.
Of the Parthian feasts, music was commonly an accompaniment. The flute, the pipe, the drum, and the instrument called eambuca, appear to have been known to them; and they understood how to combine these instruments in concerted harmony. They are said to have closed their feasts with dancing—an amusement of which they were inordinately fond—but this was probably the case only with the lower class of people. Dancing in the East, if not associated with religion, is viewed as degrading, and, except as a religious exercise, is not indulged in by respectable persons.
The separation of the sexes was very decided in Parthia. The women took their meals, and passed the greater portion of their life, apart from the men. Veils were commonly worn, as in modern Mohammedan countries; and it was regarded as essential to female delicacy that women, whether married or single, should converse freely with no males but either their near relations or eunuchs. Adultery was punished with great severity; but divorce was not difficult, and women of rank released themselves from the nuptial bond on light grounds of complaint, without much trouble. Polygamy was the established law; and every Parthian was entitled, besides his chief wife, to maintain as many concubines as he thought desirable. Some of the nobles supported an excessive number; but the expenses of the seraglio prevented the generality from taking much advantage of the indulgence which the law permitted.
The degree of refinement and civilization which the Parthians reached is difficult to determine with accuracy. In mimetic art their remains certainly do not show much taste or sense of beauty. There is some ground to believe that their architecture had merit; but the existing monuments can scarcely be taken as representations of pure Parthian work, and may have owed their excellence (in some measure, at any rate) to foreign influence. Still, the following particulars, for which there is good evidence, seem to imply that the nation had risen in reality far above that "barbarism" which it was the fashion of the Greek and Roman writers to ascribe to it. In the first place, the Parthians had a considerable knowledge of foreign languages. Plutarch tells us that Orodes, the opponent of Crassus, was acquainted with the Greek language and literature, and could enjoy the representation of a play of Euripides. The general possession of such knowledge, at any rate by the kings and the upper classes, seems to be implied by the use of the Greek letters and language in the legends upon coins and in inscriptions. Other languages were also to some extent cultivated. The later kings almost invariably placed a Semitic legend upon their coins; and there is one instance of a Parthian prince adopting an Aryan legend of the type known as Bactrian. Josephus, moreover, regarded the Parthians as familiar with Hebrew, or Syro-Chaldaic, and wrote his history of the Jewish War in his own native tongue, before he put out his Greek version, for the benefit especially of the Parthians, among whom he declares that he had many readers.
Though the Parthians had, so far as we can tell, no native literature, yet writing was familiar to them, and was widely used in matters of business. Not only were negotiations carried on with foreign powers by means of despatches, but the affairs of the empire generally were conducted by writing. A custom-house system was established along the frontier, and all commodities liable to duty that entered the country were registered in a book at the time of entry by the custom-house officer. In the great cities where the Court passed a portion of the year, account was kept of the arrival of strangers, whose names and descriptions were placed upon record by the keepers of the gates. The orders of the Crown were signified in writing to the satraps; and they doubtless corresponded with the Court in the same way. In the earlier times the writing material commonly used was linen; but shortly before the time of Pliny, the Parthians began to make paper from the papyrus, which grew in the neighborhood of Babylon, though they still employed in preference the old material.
There was a considerable trade between Parthia and Rome, carried on by means of a class of merchants. Parthia imported from Rome various metals, and numerous manufactured articles of a high class. Her principal exports were textile fabrics and spices. The textile fabrics seem to have been produced chiefly in Babylonia, and to have consisted of silks, carpets, and coverlets. The silks were largely used by the Roman ladies. The coverlets, which were patterned with various colors, fetched enormous prices, and were regarded as fit adornments of the Imperial palace. Among the spices exported, the most celebrated wore bdellium, and the juncus odoratus or odoriferous bulrush.
The Parthians had many liberal usages which imply a fairly advanced civilization. Their tolerance of varieties in religion has been already mentioned. Even in political matters they seem to have been free from the narrowness which generally characterizes barbarous nations. They behaved well to prisoners, admitted foreigners freely to offices of high trust, gave an asylum to refugees, and treated them with respect and kindness, were scrupulous observers of their pledged word, and eminently faithful to their treaty obligations. On the other hand, it must be admitted that they had some customs which indicate a tinge of barbarism. They used torture for the extraction of answers from reluctant persons, employed the scourge to punish trifling offences, and, in certain cases, condescended to mutilate the bodies of their dead enemies. Their addiction to intemperance is also a barbaric trait. They were, no doubt, on the whole, less civilized than either the Greeks or Romans; but the difference does not seem to have been so great as represented by the classical writers.
Speaking broadly, the position that they occupied was somewhat similar to that which the Turks hold in the system of modern Europe. They had a military strength which caused them to be feared and respected, a vigor of administration which was felt to imply many sterling qualities. A certain coarseness and rudeness attached to them which they found it impossible to shake off; and this drawback was exaggerated by their rivals into an indication of irreclaimable barbarity. Except in respect of their military prowess, it may be doubtful if justice is done them by any classical writer. They were not merely the sole rival which dared to stand up against Rome in the interval between B.C. 65 and A.D. 226, but they were a rival falling in many respects very little below the great power whose glories have thrown them so much into the shade. They maintained from first to last a freedom unknown to later Rome; they excelled the Romans in toleration and in liberal treatment of foreigners, they equalled them in manufactures and in material prosperity, and they fell but little short of them in the extent and productiveness of their dominions. They were the second power in the world for nearly three centuries, and formed a counterpoise to Rome which greatly checked Roman decline, and, by forcing the Empire to exert itself, prevented stagnation and corruption.
It must, however, be confessed, that the tendency of the Parthians was to degenerate. Although the final blow was struck in an unexpected quarter, and perhaps surprised the victors as much as the vanquished, still it is apparent that for a considerable space before the revolt of Artaxerxes the Parthian Empire had shown signs of failing strength, and had tended rapidly towards decay and ruin. The constant quarrels among the Arsacidae and the incipient disintegration of the Empire have been noticed. It may be added here that a growing barbarism, a decline in art and letters, is observable in the Parthian remains, such as have usually been found to accompany the decrepitude of a nation. The coinage has from first to last a somewhat rude character, which indicates that it is native, and not the production of Greek artists. But on the earlier coins the type, though not indicative of high art, is respectable, and the legends are, with few exceptions, perfectly correct and classical. Barbarism first creeps in about the reign of Gotarzes, A.D. 42-51. It increases as time goes on, until, from about A.D. 133, the Greek legend upon the coins becomes indistinct and finally unintelligible, the letters being strewn about the surface of the coin, like dead soldiers over a field of battle. It is, clear that the later directors of the mint were completely ignorant of Greek, and merely attempted to reproduce on the coin some semblance of a language which neither they nor their countrymen understood. Such a condition of a coinage is almost without parallel, and indicates a want of truth and honesty in the conduct of affairs which implies deep-seated corruption. The Parthians must have lost the knowledge of Greek about A.D. 130, yet still a pretence of using the language was kept up. On the tetra-drachms—comparatively rare coins—no important mistake was committed; but on the more usual drachm, from the time of Gotarzes, the most absurd errors were introduced, and thenceforth perpetuated. The old inscription was, in a certain sense, imitated, but every word of it ceased to be legible: the old figures disappeared in an indistinct haze, and—if we except the head and name of the king (written now in a Semitic character)—the whole emblazonment of the coin became unmeaning. A degeneracy less marked, but still sufficiently clear to the numismatic critic, is observable in the heads of the kings, which, in the earlier times, if a little coarse, are striking and characteristic; while in the later they sink to a conventional type, rudely and poorly rendered, and so uniform that the power of distinguishing one sovereign from another rests no longer upon feature, but upon mere differences in the arrangement of hair, or beard, or head-dress.
Failure and Grandeur of Roman Civilization