Parthian Empire (247 B.C. – 226 A.D.)

Tiridates or Arsaces II ( 211–191 BC )

According to Arrian of Nicomedia, Tiridates, the successor of Arsaces, took upon his accession his brother's name, and is known in history as Arsaces II. The practice thus begun passed into a custom, each Parthian monarch from henceforth bearing as king the name of Arsaces in addition to his own real appellation, whatever that might be. Modern historians believe that Arsaces  I lived till 211 B.C. and then was Succeeded by his son

Arsaces II .

If the Parthian monarchy owed its origin to Arsaces I., it owed its consolidation, and settled establishment to Arsaces II., or Tiridates. This prince, who had the good fortune to reign for above thirty years, and who is confused by many writers with the actual founder of the monarchy, having received Parthia from his brother, in the weak and unsettled condition above described, left it a united and powerful kingdom, enlarged in its boundaries, strengthened in its defenses, in alliance with its nearest and most formidable neighbor, and triumphant over the great power of the Seleucids , which had hoped to bring it once more into subjection.

Ptolemy III Euergetes


He ascended the throne, it is probable, early in B.C. 247, and had scarcely been monarch a couple of years when he witnessed one of those vast but transient revolutions to which Asia is subject, but which are of rare occurrence in Europe. Ptolemy III Euergetes, the son of Philadelphus, having succeeded to his father's kingdom in the same year with Tiridates, marched (in B.C. 245) a huge expedition into Asia, defeated Seleucus II. (Callinicus) in Syria, took Antioch, and then, having crossed the Euphrates, proceeded to bring the greater part of Western Asia under his sway. Mesopotamia, Assyria, Babylonia, Susiana, Persia, Media, submitted to him. He went in person as far as Babylon, and, according to his own account, was acknowledged as master by all the Eastern provinces to the very borders of Bactria.

The Parthian and Bactrian kingdoms cannot but have trembled for their newly won independence. Here was a young warrior who, in a single campaign, had marched the distance of a thousand miles, from the banks of the Nile to those of the Lower Euphrates, without so much as receiving a check, and who was threatening to repeat the career of Alexander. What resistance could the little Parthian state hope to offer to such an enemy? It must have rejoiced Tiridates to hear that while the new conqueror was gathering somewhat too hastily the fruits of victory, collecting and dispatching to Egypt the most valuable works of art that he could find in the cities which he had taken, and levying heavy contributions on the submitted countries, a revolt had broken out in his own land, to quell which he was compelled to retire suddenly and to relinquish the greater part of his acquisitions.

The conquest of Hyrcania


Location of Hyrcania



Thus the threatened conquest proved a mere inroad, and instead of a power of greater strength replacing Syria in these regions, Syria practically retained her hold of them, but with enfeebled grasp, her strength crippled, her prestige lost, and her honor tarnished. Ptolemy had, it is probable, not retired very long, when, encouraged by what he had seen of Syria's weakness, Tiridates took the aggressive, and invading the neighboring district of Hyrcania, succeeded in detaching it from the Seleucids, and adding it to his own territory. This was throwing out a challenge which the Seleucid monarch, Callinicus, could scarcely decline to meet, unless he was prepared to lose, one by one, all the outlying provinces of his empire.

The Selucids strike back

Seleucus II Callinicus ( r. 246-225 B.C.)


Accordingly in B.C. 237, having patched up a peace with his brother, Antiochus Hierax, the Seleucid monarch made an expedition against Parthia. Not feeling, however, altogether confident of success if he trusted wholly to his own unaided efforts, he prudently entered into an alliance with Diodotus the Bactrian king, and the two agreed to combine their forces against Arsaces II . Hereupon that monarch, impressed with a deep sense of the impending danger, quitted Parthia, and, proceeding northwards, took refuge with the Aspasiacae, a Scythian tribe which dwelt between the Oxus and the Jaxartes. The Aspasiacae probably lent him troops; at any rate, he did not remain long in retirement, but, hearing that the Bactrian king, whom he especially feared, was dead, he contrived to detach his son and successor from the Syrian alliance, and to draw him over to his own side. Having made this important stroke, he met Callinicus in battle, and completely defeated his army.

This victory was with reason regarded by the Parthians as a sort of second beginning of their independence. Hitherto their kingdom had existed precariously, and as it were by sufferance. It could not but be that the power from which they had revolted would one day seek to reclaim its lost territory; and, until the new monarchy had measured its strength against that of its former mistress, none could feel secure that it would be able to maintain its existence. The victory gained by Arsaces II over Callinicus put an end to these doubts. It proved to the world at large, and also to the Parthians themselves, that they had nothing to fear—that they were strong enough to preserve their freedom.

Considering the enormous disproportion between the military strength and resources of the narrow Parthian State and the vast Seleucid Empire—considering that the one comprised about fifty thousand and the other above a million of square miles; that the one had inherited the wealth of ages and the other was probably as poor as any province in Asia; that the one possessed the Macedonian arms, training, and tactics, while the other knew only the rude warfare of the Steppes—the result of the struggle cannot but be regarded as surprising. It reminds us of Marathon, of Bannock-burn, of Morgarten. We may not sympathize wholly with the victors, for Greek civilization, even of the type introduced by Alexander into Asia, was ill replaced by Tatar coarseness and barbarism; but we cannot refuse our admiration to the spectacle of a handful of gallant men determinedly resisting in the fastness of their native land a host of aliens, and triumphing over their would-be oppressors.

The Parthians themselves, deeply impressed with the importance of the contest, preserved the memory of it by a solemn festival on the anniversary of their victory, which they still celebrated in the time of Trogus.

Seleucus might perhaps not have accepted his defeat as final had he been altogether free to choose whether he would continue the Parthian war or no. The resources of his Empire were so vast, his command of men and money so unbounded, that he could easily have replaced one army by another, and so have prolonged the struggle. But renewed troubles had broken out in the western portion of his dominions, where his brother, Antiochus Hierax, was still in arms against his authority. Seleucus felt it necessary to turn his attention to this quarter, and having once retired from the Parthian contest, he never afterwards renewed it.

Dara, the new capital

Arsaces II was left unmolested, to act as he thought fit, and either to attempt further conquests, or to devote himself to securing those which he had effected. He chose the latter course, and during the remainder of his reign—a space of above twenty years—he employed himself wholly in strengthening and adorning his small kingdom. Having built a number of forts in various strong positions, and placed garrisons in them, he carefully selected a site for a new city, which he probably intended to make his capital. The spot chosen combined the advantages of being at once delightful and easily defensible. It was surrounded with precipitous rocks, which enclosed a plain of extraordinary fertility. Abundant wood and copious streams of water were in the neighborhood. The soil was so rich that it scarcely required cultivation, and the woods were so full of game as to afford endless amusement to hunters. To the town which he built in this locality Arsaces II gave the name of Dara, a word which the Greeks and Romans elongated into Dareium. Unfortunately, modern travellers have not yet succeeded in identifying the site, which should, however, lie towards the East, perhaps in the vicinity of Meshed.

We may presume that Arsaces II , when he built this remarkable city, intended to make it the seat of government. Hecatompylos, as a Greek town, had the same disadvantages, which were considered in later times to render Seleucia unfit for the residence of the Parthian Court and monarch. Dara, like Ctesiphon, was to be wholly Parthian. Its strong situation would render it easy of defence; its vicinity to forests abounding in game would give it special charms in the eyes of persons so much devoted, as the Parthian princes were, to the chase. But the intention of Tiridates, if we have truly defined it, failed of taking permanent effect. He may himself have fixed his abode at Dara, but his successors did not inherit his predilections; and Hecatompylos remained, after his reign, as before it, the head-quarters of the government, and the recognized metropolis of Parthia Proper.

Antiochus III the Great (241-187 B.C.) Seleucid king


Arsaces II took advantage of the war raging between Antiochus III., the second son of Seleucus Callinicus, and Achseus, one of his rebel satraps, to advance into Media, and to add to his dominions the entire tract between Hyrcania and the Zagros mountains. Of the manner in which he effected his conquests we have no account; but they seem to have been the fruit of a single campaign, which must have been conducted with great vigor and military skill. The Parthian prince appears to have occupied Ecbatana, the ancient capital of the Median Empire, and to have thence threatened the Mesopotamian countries.

Upon receiving intelligence of his invasion, Antiochus levied a vast army, and set out towards the East, with a determination to subjugate all the revolted provinces, and to recover the limits of the old Empire of Nicator. Passing the Zagros chain, probably by way of Behistun and Kermanshaw, he easily retook Ecbatana, which was an open town, and undefended by the Parthians, and proceeded to prepare for a further advance eastward. The route from Ecbatana to the Caspian Gates crosses, of necessity, unless a considerable circuit be taken, some large tracts of barren ground, inlets or bays of the Great Salt Desert of Iran. Arsaces II cherished the hope that here the difficulties of the way would effectually bar his enemy's progress, more especially as his troops were so numerous, and as water was scanty throughout the whole region. The streams which flow from Zagros towards the East are few and scanty; they mostly fail in summer, which, even in Asia, is the campaigning season; and those who cross the desert at this time must depend on the wells wherewith the more western part of the region is supplied by means of kanats or underground conduits, which are sometimes carried many miles from the foot of the mountains.


Antiochus occupies Hecatompylos


The position of the wells, which were few in number, was known only to the natives; and Arsaces II hoped that the Seluecid monarch would be afraid to place the lives of his soldiers in such doubtful keeping. When, however, he found that Antiochus was not to be deterred by any fears of this kind, but was bent on crossing the desert, he had recourse to the barbaric expedients of filling in, or poisoning, the wells along the line of route-which the Seluecid prince was likely to follow. But these steps seem to have been taken too late. Antiochus, advancing suddenly, caught some of the Parthian troops at their barbarous work, and dispersed them without difficulty. He then rapidly effected the transit, and, pressing forward, was soon in the enemy's country, where he occupied the chief city, Hecatompylos.

Up to this point the Parthian monarch had declined an engagement. No information has come down to us as to his motives; but they may be readily enough conjectured. To draw an enemy far away from his resources, while retiring upon one's own; to entangle a numerous host among narrow passes and denies; to decline battle when he offers it, and then to set upon him unawares, has always been the practice of weak mountain races when attacked by a more numerous foe. It is often good policy in such a case even to yield the capital without a blow, and to retreat into a more difficult situation. The assailant must follow whithersoever his foe retires, or quit the country, leaving him unsubdued. Antiochus, aware of this necessity, and rendered confident of success by the evacuation of a situation so strong, and so suitable for the Parthian tactics as Hecatompylos, after giving his army a short rest at the captured capital, set out in pursuit of Arsaces II, who had withdrawn his forces towards Hyrcania. To reach the rich Hyrcanian valleys, he was forced to cross the main chain of the Elburz, which here attains an elevation of 7000 or 8000 feet. The route which his army had to follow was the channel of a winter-torrent, obstructed with stones and trunks of trees, partly by nature, partly by the efforts of the inhabitants. The long and difficult ascent was disputed by the enemy the whole way, and something like a pitched battle was fought at the top; but Antiochus persevered, and, though his army must have suffered severely, descended into Hyrcanian and captured several of the towns.

Here our main authority, Polybius, suddenly deserts us, and we can give no further account of the war beyond its general result—Arsaces IIand the Parthians remained unsubdued after a struggle which seems to have lasted some years; Arsaces II himself displayed great valor; and at length the Syrian monarch thought it best to conclude a peace with him, in which he acknowledged the Parthian independence. It is probable that he exacted in return a pledge that the Parthian monarch should lend him his assistance in the expedition which he was bent on conducting against Bactria; but there is no actual proof that the conditions of peace contained this clause. We are left in doubt whether Arsaces II stood aloof in the war which Antiochus waged with Euthydemus of Bactria immediately after the close of his Parthian campaigns, or whether he lent his aid to the attempt made to crush his neighbor. Perhaps, on the whole, it is most probable that, nominally, he was Antiochus's ally in the war, but that, practically, he gave him little help, having no wish to see Syria aggrandized.

At any rate, whether Euthydemus had to meet the attack of Syria only, or of Syria and Parthia in combination, the result was, that Bactria, like Parthia, proved strong enough to maintain her ground, and that the Syrian King, after a while, grew tired of the struggle, and consented to terms of accommodation. The Bactrian monarchy, like the Parthian, came out of the contest unscathed—indeed we may go further, and say that the position of the two kingdoms was improved by the attacks made upon them. If a prince possessing the personal qualities that distinguished the third Antiochus, and justified the title of "Great" which he derived from his oriental expedition—if such a prince, enjoying profound peace at home, and directing the whole force of his empire against them, could not succeed in reducing to subjection the revolted provinces of the northeast, but, whatever military advantages he might gain, found conquest impossible, and returned home, having acknowledged as independent kings those whom he went out to chastise as rebellious satraps, it was evident that the kingdoms might look upon themselves as firmly established, or, at least, as secure from the danger of re-absorption into the Syrian State. The repulse of Callinicus was a probable indication of the fate of all future efforts on the part of Syria to reduce Parthia; the conditions of peace granted by Antiochus to both countries, after a series of military successes, constituted almost a proof that the yoke of Syria would never be re-imposed on either the Parthian or the Bactrian nation.



 Founding of Parthia