The Parthian Empire

The Roman Empire > Ancient Civilizations > Parthian Empire


Constitution of the Parthians

System of government established by Mithridates I. Constitution of the Parthians. Government of the Provinces. Laws and Institutions. Character of Mithridates I.

The Parthian institutions possessed great simplicity; and it is probable that they took a shape in the reign of Arsaces I., or, at any rate, of Tiridates, which was not greatly altered afterwards. Permanency is the law of Oriental governments; and in a monarchy which lasted less than five hundred years, it is not likely that many changes occurred. The Parthian institutions are referred to Mithridates I., rather than to Tiridates, because in the reign of Mithridates Parthia entered upon a new phase of her existence—became an empire instead of a mere monarchy; and the sovereign of the time could not but have reviewed the circumstances of his State, and have determined either to adopt the previous institutions of his country, or to reject them. Mithridates I. had attained a position which entitled and enabled him to settle the Parthian constitution as he thought best; and, if he maintained an earlier arrangement, which is uncertain, he must have done so of his own free will, simply because he preferred the existing Parthian institutions to any other. Thus the institutions may be regarded as starting from him, since he approved them, and made them those of the Parthian EMPIRE.

Like most sovereignties which have arisen out of an association of chiefs banding themselves together for warlike purposes under a single head, the Parthian monarchy was limited. The king was permanently advised by two councils, consisting of persons not of his own nomination, whom rights, conferred by birth or office, entitled to their seats. One of these was a family conclave (concilium domesticum), or assembly of the full-grown males of the Royal House; the other was a Senate comprising both the spiritual and the temporal chiefs of the nation, the Sophi, or "Wise Men," and the Magi, or "Priests." Together these two bodies constituted the Megistanes, the "Nobles" or "Great Men"—the privileged class which to a considerable extent checked and controlled the monarch. The monarchy was elective, but only in the house of the Arsacidae; and the concurrent vote of both councils was necessary in the appointment of a new king. Practically, the ordinary law of hereditary descent appears to have been followed, unless in the case where a king left no son of sufficient age to exercise the royal office. Under such circumstances, the Megistanes usually nominated the late king's next brother to succeed him, or, if he had left behind him no brother, went back to an uncle. When the line of succession had once been changed, the right of the elder branch was lost, and did not revive unless the branch preferred died out or possessed no member qualified to rule. When a king had been duly nominated by the two councils, the right of placing the diadem upon his head belonged to the Surena, the "Field-Marshal," or "Commander in Chief of the Parthian armies." The Megistanes further claimed and sometimes exercised the right of deposing a monarch whose conduct displeased them; but an attempt to exercise this privilege was sure to be followed by a civil war, no monarch accepting his deposition without a struggle; and force, not right, practically determining whether he should remain king or no.

After a king was once elected and firmly fixed upon the throne, his power appears to have been nearly despotic. At any rate he could put to death without trial whomsoever he chose; and adult members of the Royal House, who provoked the reigning monarch's jealousy, were constantly so treated. Probably it would have been more dangerous to arouse the fears of the "Sophi" and "Magi." The latter especially were a powerful body, consisting of an organized hierarchy, which had come down from ancient times, and was feared and venerated by all classes of the people. Their numbers at the close of the Empire, counting adult males only, are reckoned at eighty thousand;' they possessed considerable tracts of fertile land, and were the sole inhabitants of many large towns or villages, which they were permitted to govern as they pleased. The arbitrary power of the monarchs must, in practice, have been largely checked by the privileges of this numerous priestly caste, of which it would seem that in later times they became jealous, thereby preparing the way for their own downfall.

The dominion of the Parthians over the conquered provinces was maintained by reverting to the system which had prevailed generally through the East before the accession of the Persians to power, and establishing in the various countries either viceroys, holding office for life, or sometimes dependent dynasties of kings. In either case, the rulers, so long as they paid tribute regularly to the Parthian monarchs and aided them in their wars, were allowed to govern the people beneath their sway at their pleasure. Among monarchs, in the higher sense of the term, may be enumerated the kings of Persia, Elymaiis, Adiabene, Osrhoene, and of Armenia and Media Atropatene, when they formed, as they sometimes did, portions of the Parthian Empire. The viceroys, who governed the other provinces, bore the title of Vitaxae, and were fourteen or fifteen in number. The remark has been made by the historian Gibbon that the system thus established "exhibited under other names a lively image of the feudal system which has since prevailed in Europe." The comparison is of some value, but, like most historical parallels, it is inexact, the points of difference between the Parthian and the feudal system being probably more numerous than those of resemblance, but the points of resemblance being very main points, not fewer in number, and striking.

It was with special reference to the system thus established that the Parthian monarchs took the title of "King of Kings", so frequent upon their coins, which seems sometimes to have been exchanged for what was regarded as an equivalent phrase, "Satrap of Satraps". This title seems to appear first on the coins of Mithridates I.

In the Parthian system there was one anomaly of a very curious character. The Greek towns, which were scattered in large numbers throughout the Empire, enjoyed a municipal government of their own, and in some cases were almost independent communities, the Parthian kings exercising over them little or no control. The great city of Seleucia on the Tigris was the most important of all these: its population was estimated in the first century after Christ at six hundred thousand souls; it had strong walls, and was surrounded by a most fertile territory. It had its own senate, or municipal council, of three hundred members, elected by the people to rule them from among the wealthiest and best educated of the citizens. Under ordinary circumstances it enjoyed the blessing of complete self-government, and was entirely free from Parthian interference, paying no doubt its tribute, but otherwise holding the position of a "free city." It was only in the case of internal dissensions that these advantages were lost, and the Parthian soldiery, invited within the walls, arranged the quarrels of parties, and settled the constitution of the State at its pleasure. Privileges of a similar character, though, probably, less extensive, belonged (it would seem) to most of the other Greek cities of the Empire. The Parthian monarchs thought it polite to favor them; and their practice justified the title of "Phil-Hellene," which they were fond of assuming upon their coins. On the whole, the policy may have been wise, but it diminished the unity of the Empire; and there were times when serious danger arose from it. The Syro-Macedonian monarchs could always count with certainty on having powerful friends in Parthia, whatever portion of it they invaded; and even the Romans, though their ethnic connection with the cities was not so close, were sometimes indebted to them for very important assistance.

We are told that Mithridates I., after effecting his conquests, made a collection of the best laws which he found to prevail among the various subject peoples, and imposed them upon the Parthian nation. This statement is, no doubt, an exaggeration; but we may attribute, with some reason, to Mithridates the introduction at this time of various practices and usages, whereby the Parthian Court was assimilated to those of the earlier Great Monarchies of Asia, and became in the eyes of foreigners the successor and representative of the old Assyrian and Persian Kingdoms. The assumption of new titles and of a new state—the organization of the Court on a new plan—the bestowal of a new character on the subordinate officers of the Empire, were suitable to the new phase of its life on which the monarchy had now entered, and may with the highest probability, if not with absolute certainty, be assigned to this period.

It has been already noticed that Mithridates appears to have been the first Parthian sovereign who took the title of "King of Kings." The title had been a favorite one with the old Assyrian and Persian monarchs, but was not adopted either by the Seleucidae or by the Greek kings of Bactria. Its revival implied a distinct pretension to that mastery of Western Asia which had belonged of old to the Assyrians and Persians, and which was, in later times, formally claimed by Artaxerxes, the son of Sassan, the founder of the New Persian Kingdom. Previous Parthian monarchs had been content to call themselves "the King," or "the Great King"—Mithridates is "the King of Kings, the great and illustrious Arsaces."

At the same time Mithridates appears to have assumed the tiara, or tall stiff crown, which, with certain modifications in its shape, had been the mark of sovereignty, both under the Assyrians and under the Persians. Previously the royal headdress had been either a mere cap of a Scythic type, but lower than the Scyths commonly wore it; or the ordinary diadem, which was a band round the head terminating in two long ribbons or ends, that hung down behind the head on the back. According to Herodian, the diadem, in the later times, was double; but the coins of Parthia do not exhibit this peculiarity. [PLATE 1, Fig. 4.]

Ammianus says that among the titles assumed by the Parthian monarchs was that of "Brother of the Sun and Moon." It appears that something of a divine character was regarded as attaching to the race. In the civil contentions, which occur so frequently throughout the later history, combatants abstained from lifting their hands knowingly against an Arsacid, to kill or wound one being looked upon as sacrilege. The name of Deos was occasionally assumed, as it was in Syria; and more frequently kings took the epithet of [Greek], which implied the divinity of their father. After his death a monarch seems generally to have been the object of a qualified worship; statues were erected to him in the temples, where (apparently) they were associated with the images of the great luminaries.

Of the Parthian Court and its customs we have no account that is either complete or trustworthy. Some particulars, however, may be gathered of it on which we may place reliance. The best authorities are agreed that it was not stationary, but migrated at different times of the year to different cities of the Empire, in this resembling the Court of the Achaemenians. It is not quite clear, however, which were the cities thus honored. Ctesiphon was undoubtedly one of them. All writers agree that it was the chief city of the Empire, and the ordinary seat of the government. Here, according to Strabo, the kings passed the winter months, delighting in the excellence of the air. The town was situated on the left bank of the Tigris, opposite to Seleucia, twelve or thirteen miles below the modern Baghdad. Pliny says that it was built by the Parthians in order to reduce Seleucia to insignificance, and that when it failed of its purpose they built another city.

Vologesocerta, in the same neighborhood with the same object; but the account of Strabo is more probable—viz., that it grew up gradually out of the wish of the Parthian kings to spare Seleucia the unpleasantness of having the rude soldiery, which followed the Court from place to place, quartered upon them The remainder of the year, Strabo tells us, was spent by the Parthian kings either at the Median city of Ecbatana, which is the modern Hamadan, or in the province of Hyrca—In Hyrcania, the palace, according to him, was at Tape and between this place and Ecbatana he no doubt regarded the monarchs as spending the time which was not passed at Ctesiphon. Athenaeus, however, declares that Rhages was the spring residence of the Parthian kings; and it seems not unlikely that this famous city, which Isidore, writing in Parthian times, calls "the greatest in Media," was among the occasional residences of the Court. Parthia itself was, it would seem, deserted; but still a city of that region preserved in one respect a royal character, being the place where all the earlier kings were interred.

The pomp and grandeur of the Parthian monarchs are described only in the vaguest terms by the classical writers. No author of repute appears to have visited the Parthian Court. We may perhaps best obtain a true notion of the splendor of the sovereign from the accounts which have reached us of his relations and officers, who can have reflected only faintly the magnificence of the sovereign. Plutarch tells us that the general whom Orodes deputed to conduct the war against Crassus came into the field accompanied by two hundred litters wherein were contained his concubines, and by a thousand camels which carried his baggage. His dress was fashioned after that of the Medes; he wore his hair parted in the middle and had his face painted with cosmetics. A body of ten thousand horse, composed entirely, of his clients and slaves, followed him in battle. We may conclude from this picture, and from the general tenor of the classical notices, that the Arsacidae revived and maintained very much such a Court as that of the old Achaemenian princes, falling probably somewhat below their model in politeness and refinement, but equalling it in luxury, in extravagant expenditure, and in display.

Such seems to have been the general character of those practices and institutions which distinguish the Parthians from the foundation of their Empire by Mithridates, Some of them, it is probable, he rather adopted than invented; but there is no good reason for doubting that of many he was the originator. He appears to have been one of those rare individuals to whom it has been given to unite the powers which form the conqueror with those which constitute the successful organizer of a State. Brave and enterprising in war, prompt to seize an occasion and to turn it to the best advantage, not even averse to severities where they seemed to be required, he yet felt no acrimony towards those who had resisted his arms, but was ready to befriend them so soon as their resistance ceased. Mild, clement, philanthropic, he conciliated those whom he subdued almost more easily than he subdued them, and by the efforts of a few years succeeded in welding together a dominion which lasted without suffering serious mutilation for nearly four centuries. Though not dignified with the epithet of "Great," he was beyond all question the greatest of the Parthian monarchs. Later times did him more justice than his contemporaries, and, when the names of almost all the other kings had sunk into oblivion, retained his in honor, and placed it on a par with that of the original founder of Parthian independence.














ancient civilizations