Parthian Empire (247 B.C. – 226 A.D.)

Relations with Bactria


Demetrius with elephant hat

Demetrius I Bactria

With the departure of Antiochus from the East, about B.C. 206, we enter upon a period when Parthian history is, for a quarter of a century, almost a blank. Nothing more is known of Arsaces III. after Antiochus retired; and nothing at all is known of his successor, Priapatius, beyond his name and the length of his reign, which lasted for fifteen years (from about B.C. 196 to 181). The reigns of these princes coincide with those of Euthydemus and his son, Demetrius, in Bactria; and perhaps the most probable solution of the problem of Parthian inactivity at this time is to be found in the great development of Bactrian power which now took place, and the influence which the two neighboring kingdoms naturally exercised upon each other. When Parthia was strong and aggressive, Bactria was, for the most part, quiet; and when Bactria shows signs of vigorous and active life, Parthia languishes and retires into the shade.

The Bactrian Kingdom, founded (as we have seen) a little before the Parthian, sought from the first its aggrandizement in the East rather than in the West. The Empire of Alexander had included all the countries between the Caspian Sea and the Sutlej; and these tracts, which constitute the modern Khorasan, Afghanistan, and Punjaub, had all been to a certain extent Hellenized by means of Greek settlements and Greek government. But Alexander was no sooner dead than a tendency displayed itself in these regions, and particularly in the more eastern ones, towards a relapse into barbarism, or, if this expression be too strong, at any rate towards a rejection of Hellenism. During the early wars of the "Successors" the natives of the Punjaub generally seized the opportunity to revolt; the governors placed over the various districts by Alexander were murdered; and the tribes everywhere declared themselves free. Among the leaders of the revolt was a certain Chandragupta (or Sandracottus), who contrived to turn the circumstances of the time to his own special advantage, and built up a considerable kingdom in the far East out of the fragments which had detached themselves from what was still called the Macedonian Empire. When Seleucus Nicator, about B.C. 305, conducted an expedition across the Indus, he found this monarch established in the tract between the Indus and the Ganges, ruling over extensive dominions and at the head of a vast force. It is uncertain whether the two rivals engaged in hostilities or no. At any rate, a peace was soon made; and Seleucus, in return for five hundred elephants, ceded to Sandracottus certain lands on the west bank of the Indus, which had hitherto been regarded as Macedonian. These probably consisted of the low grounds between the Indus and the foot of the mountains—the districts of Peshawur, Bunnoo, Murwut, Shikarpoor, and Kurrachee—which are now in British occupation. Thus Hellenism in these parts receded more and more, the Sanskritic Indians recovering by degrees the power and independence of which they had been deprived by Alexander.



 Culture of Ancient Bactria

This state of things could not have been pleasing to the Greek princes of Bactria, who must have felt that the reaction towards barbarism in these parts tended to isolate them, and that there was a danger of their being crushed between the Parthians on the one hand and the perpetually advancing Indians on the other. When Antiochus the Great, after concluding his treaty with Euthydemus, marched eastward, the Bactrian monarch probably indulged in hopes that the Indians would receive a check, and that the Greek frontier would be again carried to the Indus, if not to the Sutlej. But, if so, he was disappointed. Antiochus, instead of making war upon the Indians, contented himself with renewing the old alliance of the Seleucidae with the Maurja princes, and obtaining a number of elephants from Sophagesenus, the grandson of Sandracottus. It is even possible that he went further, and made cessions of territory in return for this last gift, which brought the Indian frontier still nearer than before to that of Bactria, At any rate, the result of the Indian expedition of Antiochus seems to have been unsatisfactory to Euthydemus, who shortly afterwards commenced what are called "Indian Wars" on his south-eastern frontier, employing in them chiefly the arms of his son, Demetrius. During the latter years of Euthydemus and the earlier ones of Demetrius, the Bactrian rule was rapidly extended over the greater portion of the modern Afghanistan; nor did it even stop there. The arms of Demetrius were carried across the Indus into the Punjaub region; and the city of Euthymedeia upon the Hydaspes remained to later times an evidence of the extent of his conquests. From B.C. 206 to about B.C. 185 was the most flourishing period of the Bactrian monarchy, which expanded during that space from a small kingdom into a considerable empire.


The power and successes of the Bactrian princes at this time account sufficiently for the fact that the contemporary Parthian monarchs stood upon their guard, and undertook no great expeditions. Arsaces III., who continued on the throne for about ten or twelve years after his peace with Antiochus, and Priapatius, or Arsaces IV., his son, who succeeded him, and had a reign of fifteen years, were content, as already observed, to watch over their own State, husbanding its resources, and living at peace with all their neighbors. It was not till Phraates I. (Arsaces V.), the son of Priapatius, had mounted the throne, B.C. 181, that this policy was departed from, and Parthia, which had remained tranquil for a quarter of a century, once more aroused herself, and assumed an attitude of aggression.


Phraates I ( 176 BC to 171 BC )


Elburz Mountains


The quarter to which Phraates I. directed his arms was the country of the Mardians, a poor but warlike people, who appear to have occupied a portion of the Elburz range, probably that immediately south of Mazanderan and Asterabad. The reduction of these fierce mountaineers is likely to have occupied him for some years, since their country was exceedingly strong and difficult. Though the Mardi were (nominally, at any rate) subjects of the Seleucidae, we do not hear of any assistance being rendered them, or, indeed, of any remonstrance being made against the unprovoked aggression of the Parthian monarch. The reign of Phraates I. in Parthia coincides with that of Seleucus IV. (Philopator) in Syria; and we may account for the inactivity of this prince, in part by his personal character, which was weak and pacific, in part by the exhaustion of Syria at the time, in consequence of his father's great war with Rome (B.C. 197-190), and of the heavy contribution which was imposed upon him at the close of it. Syria may scarcely have yet recovered sufficient strength to enter upon a new struggle, especially one with a distant and powerful enemy. The material interests of the Empire may also have seemed to be but little touched by the war, since the Mardi were too poor to furnish much tribute; and it is possible, if not even probable, that their subjection to Syria had long been rather formal than real. Seleucus therefore allowed the Mardians to be reduced, conceiving, probably, that their transfer to the dominion of the Arsacidse neither increased the Parthian power nor diminished his own.


But the nation which submits to be robbed of a province, however unproductive and valueless, must look to having the process repeated at intervals, until it bestirs itself and offers resistance. There is reason to believe that Phraates had no sooner conquered the Mardians than he cast his eyes on an adjacent district, and resolved to add it to his territories. This was the tract lying immediately to the West of the Caspian Gates ( a legendary barrier supposedly built by Alexander the Great in the Caucasus to keep the uncivilized barbarians of the north (typically associated with Gog and Magog) from invading the land to the south ), which was always reckoned to Media, forming, however, a distinct district, know as Media Rhagiana. It was a region of much natural fertility, being watered by numerous streams from the Elburz range, and possessing a soil of remarkable productiveness.


salt desert


Its breadth was not great, since it consisted of a mere strip between the mountains and the Salt Desert which occupies the whole center of the Iranic tableland; but it extended in length at least a hundred and fifty miles, from the Caspian Gates to the vicinity of Kasvin. Its capital city, from a remote antiquity, was Rbages, situated near the eastern extremity of the strip, probably at the spot now called Kaleh Erij, about twenty-three miles from the "Gates." On this region it is clear that Phraates cast a covetous eye.


How much of it he actually occupied is doubtful; but it is at least certain that he effected a lodgment in its eastern extremity, which must have put the whole region in jeopardy. Nature has set a remarkable barrier between the more eastern and the more western portions of Occidental Asia, about midway in the tract which lies due south of the Caspian Sea. The Elburz range in this part is one of so tremendous a character, and northward abuts so closely on the Caspian, that all communication between the east and the west necessarily passes to the south of it. In this quarter the Great Desert offering an insuperable obstacle to transit, the line of communication has to cling to the flanks of the mountain chain, the narrow strip between the mountains and the desert—rarely ten miles in width—being alone traversable. But about long. 52° 20' this strip itself fails. A rocky spur runs due south from the Elburz into the desert for a distance of some twenty or thirty miles, breaking the line of communication, and seeming at first sight to obstruct it completely.


This, however, is not the case absolutely. The spur itself is penetrable by two passes, one where it joins the Elburz, which is the more difficult of the two, and another, further to the south, which is easier. The latter now known as the Girduni Sudurrah pass, constitutes the famous "Pylae Caspiae." Through this pass alone can armies proceed from Armenia, Media, and Persia eastward, or from Turkestan, Khorasan, and Afghanistan into the more western parts of Asia. The position is therefore one of primary importance. It was to guard it that Rhages was built so near the eastern end of its territory. So long as it remained in the possession of Syria, Parthian aggression was checked. Rhagiana, the rest of Media, and the other provinces were safe, or nearly so. On the other hand, the loss of it to Parthia laid the eastern provinces open to her, and was at once almost equivalent to the loss of all Rhagiana, which had no other natural protection. Now we find that Phraates surmounted the "Gates," and effected a lodgment in the plain country beyond them. He removed a portion of the conquered Mardians from their mountain homes to the city of Charax, which was on the western side of the Gates, probably on the site now occupied by the ruins known as Uewanikif. Their location in this strong post was a menace to the neighboring town of Rhages, which can scarcely have maintained itself long against an enemy encamped at its doors. We are not informed, however, of any results which followed on the occupation of Charax during the lifetime of Phraates. His reign lasted only seven years—from B.C. 181 to B.C. 174—and it is thus probable that he died before there was time for his second important conquest to have any further consequences.


Phraates had sufficient warning of his coming decease to make preparations with respect to a successor. Though he had several sons, some of whom were (we must suppose) of sufficient age to have ascended the throne, he left his crown to his brother, Mithridates. He felt, probably, that the State required the direction of a firm hand, that war might at any time break out with either Syria or Bactria; while, if the career of conquest on which he had made Parthia enter were to be pursued, he could trust his brother better than any of his sons to conduct aggressive expeditions with combined vigor and prudence. We shall see, as the history proceeds, how Mithridates justified his choice. Phraates would also appear to have borne his brother especial affection, since he takes the name of "Philadelphus" (brother-loving) upon his coins. It must have been a satisfaction to him that he was able by his last act at once to consult for the good of his country, and to gratify a sentiment on which it is evident that he prided himself.

 war with Antiochus II


 Mithridates I