Parthian Empire (247 B.C. – 226 A.D.)

Artabanus r. 128 - 124 B.C.

Accession of Artabanus I Position of Parthia. Growing pressure upon her, and general advance towards the south, of the Saka or Scyths. Causes and extent of the movement. Character and principal tribes of the Saka. Scythic war of Artabanus. His death.


The successor of Phraates was his uncle, Artabanus, a son of Priapatius. It is probable that the late king had either left no son, or none of sufficient age to be a fit occupant of the throne at a season of difficulty. The "Megistanes," therefore, elected Artabanus in his nephew's place, a man of mature age, and, probably, of some experience in war.


The situation of Parthia, despite her recent triumph over the Syro-Macedonians, was critical; and it was of the greatest importance that the sceptre should be committed to one who would bring to the discharge of his office those qualities of wisdom, promptness, and vigor, which a crisis demands.


The difficulty of the situation was two-fold. In the first place, there was an immediate danger to be escaped. The combined Greeks and Scythians, who had defeated the Parthian army and slain the monarch, might have been expected to push their advantage to the utmost, and seek to establish themselves as conquerors in the country which lay apparently at their mercy. At any rate, the siege and sack of some of the chief towns was a probable contingency, if permanent occupation of the territory did not suit the views of the confederates. The new monarch had to rid Parthia of her invaders at as little cost as possible, before he could allow himself to turn his attention to any other matter whatsoever. Nor did this, under the circumstances, appear to be an easy task.


The flower of the Parthian troops had been destroyed in the late battle, and it was not easy to replace them by another native army. The subject-nations were at no time to be depended upon when Parthia was reduced to straits, and at the present conjecture some of the most important were in a condition bordering upon rebellion. Himerus, the viceroy left by Phraates in Babylonia, had first driven the Babylonians and Seleucians to desperation by his tyranny, and then plunged into a war with the people of Mesene, which must have made it difficult for him to send Artabanus any contingent. Fortunately for the Parthians, the folly or moderation of their enemies rendered any great effort on their part unnecessary.


The Greeks, content with having revenged themselves, gave the new monarch no trouble at all: the Scythians were satisfied with plundering and wasting the open country, after which they returned quietly to their homes. Artabanus found himself quit of the immediate danger which had threatened him almost without exertion of his own, and could now bend his thoughts to the position of his country generally, and the proper policy to pursue under the circumstances.


A new danger



For there was a second and more formidable danger impending over the State—a danger not casual and temporary like the one just escaped, but arising out of a condition of things in neighboring regions which had come about slowly, and which promised to be permanent. To give the reader the means of estimating this danger aright, it will be necessary to take a somewhat wide view of the state of affairs on the northern and north-eastern frontiers of Parthia for some time previously to the accession of Artabanus, to trace out the causes which were at work, producing important changes in these regions, and to indicate the results which threatened, and those which were accomplished. The opportunity will also serve for giving such an account of the chief races which here bordered the empire as will show the nature of the peril to which Parthia was exposed at this period.

a Yue-chi coin, copying the Greek style




In 200 BC tribas called the Xiongnu  fought a nomadic nation called the yue-chi or Yuezhi, the Yuezhi were defeated and migrated torward the east. This migration displaced the Sakae, a Scythian people, who migrated into Bactria areas, breaking up the kingdom.


From about the close of the third century B.C. symptoms of such an accumulation had begun to display themselves in the tract immediately north of the Jaxartes, and the inhabitants of the countries south of that river had suffered from a succession of raids and inroads, which were not regarded as dangerous, but which gave constant annoyance. Crossing the great desert of Kharesm by forced marches, some of the hordes invaded the green valleys of Hyrcania and Parthia, and carried desolation over those fair and flourishing districts.


About the same time other tribes entered the Bactrian territory and caused alarm to the Greek kingdom recently established in that province. It appears that the Parthian monarchs, unable to save their country from incursions, consented to pay a sort of black-mail to their invaders, by allowing them the use of their pasture grounds at certain fixed times—probably during some months of each year. The Bactrian princes had to pay a heavier penalty. Province after province of their kingdom was swallowed up by the northern hordes, who gradually occupied Sogdiana, or the tract between the lower Jaxartes and the lower Oxus, whence they proceeded to make inroads into Bactria itself.


The rich land on the Polytimetus, or Ak Su, the river of Samarkand, and even the highlands between the upper Jaxartes and upper Oxus, were permanently occupied by the invaders; and if the Bactrians had not compensated themselves for their losses by acquisitions of territory in Afghanistan and India, they would soon have had no kingdom left. The hordes were always increasing in strength through the influx of fresh immigrants, and in lieu of Bactria a power now stood arrayed on the north-eastern frontier of the Parthians, which was reasonably regarded with the most serious alarm and suspicion.


The Yue-chi in the neighborhood of the Parthians. On the particulars of this account, which come from the Chinese historians, we cannot perhaps altogether depend; but there is no reason to doubt the main fact, attested by a writer who visited the Yue-chi in B.C. 139, that they had migrated about the period mentioned from the interior of Asia, and had established themselves sixty years later in the Caspian region. Such a movement would necessarily have thrown the entire previous population of those parts into commotion, and would probably have precipitated them upon their neighbors. It accounts satisfactorily for the pressure of the northern hordes at this period on the Parthians, Bactrians, and even the Indians; and it completely explains the crisis in Parthian history, which we have now reached, and the necessity which lay upon the nation of meeting and, if possible, overcoming, an entirely new danger.


Strengthened, probably, by daring spirits from among their conquerors themselves they crossed the rivers and the deserts by which they had been hitherto confined, and advancing against the Parthians, Bactrians, and Arians, threatened to carry all before them. We have seen how successful they were against the Bactrians. In Ariana, they passed the mountains, and, proceeding southwards, occupied the tract below the great lake wherein the Helmend terminates, which took from them the name of Saeastane ("land of the Saka," or Scyths)—a name still to be traced in the modern "Seistan." Further to the east they effected a lodgment in Kabul, and another in the the southern portion of the Indus valley, which for a time bore the name of Indo-Scythia. They even crossed the Indus and attempted to penetrate into the interior of India, but here they we


The general character of the barbarism in which these various races were involved may be best learnt from the description given of one of them, the Massagetae, with but few differences, by Herodotus and Strabo. According to this description, the Massagetse were nomads, who moved about in wagons or carts, accompanied by their flocks and herds, on whose milk they chiefly sustained themselves. Each man had only one wife, but all the wives were held in common. They were good riders and excellent archers, but fought both on horseback and on foot, and used, besides their bows and arrows, lances, knives, and battle-axes. They had little or no iron, but made their spear and arrow-heads, and their other weapons, of bronze. They had also bronze breast-plates; but otherwise the metal with which they adorned and protected their own persons, and the heads of their horses, was gold. To a certain extent they were cannibals. It was their custom not to let the aged among them die a natural death, but, when life seemed approaching its natural term, to offer them up in sacrifice,—and then boil the flesh and feast on it. This mode of ending life was regarded as the best and most honorable; such as died of disease were not eaten but buried, and their friends bewailed their misfortune.


It may be added to this that we have sufficient reason to believe that the Massagetse and the other nomads of these parts regarded the use of poisoned arrows as legitimate in warfare, and employed the venom of serpents, and the corrupted blood of man, to make the wounds which they inflicted more deadly.

Thus, what was threatened was not merely the conquest of one race by another cognate to it, like that of the Medes by the Persians, or of the Greeks by Rome, but the obliteration of such art, civilization, and refinement as Western Asia had attained to in course of ages by the successive efforts of Babylonians, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, and Greeks—the spread over some of the fairest regions of the earth of a low type of savagery—a type which in religion went no further than the worship of the sun; in art knew but the easier forms of metallurgy and the construction of carts; in manners and customs, included cannibalism, the use of poisoned weapons, and a relation between the sexes destructive alike of all delicacy and of all family affection.


The Parthians were, no doubt, rude and coarse in their character as compared with the Persians; but they had been civilized to a certain extent by three centuries of subjection to the Persians and the Greco-Macedonians before they rose to power; they affected Persian manners; they patronized Greek art, they appreciated the advantages of having in their midst a number of Greek states. Had the Massagetse and their kindred tribes of Sakas, Tochari, Dahse, Yue-chi, and Su, which now menaced the Parthian power, succeeded in sweeping it away, the general declension of all which is lovely or excellent in human life would have been marked.


Scythicism would have overspread Western Asia. No doubt the conquerors would have learned something from those whom they subjected; but it cannot be supposed that they would have learned much. The change would have been like that which passed over the Empire of the West, when Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, Alans, Heruli, depopulated its fairest provinces and laid its civilization in the dust. The East would have been barbarized; the gains of centuries would have been lost; the work of Cyrus, Darius, Alexander, and other great benefactors of Asiatic humanity, have been undone; Western Asia would have sunk back into a condition not very much above that from which it was raised two thousand years earlier by the primitive Chaldaeans and the Assyrians.


Parthia goes on the offensive


Artabanus II., the Parthian monarch who succeeded Phraates II., appears to have appreciated aright the perils of his position. He was not content, when the particular body of barbarians which had defeated and slain his predecessor, having ravaged Parthia Proper, returned home, to fold his arms and wait until he was again attacked. According to the brief, but expressive words of Justin, he assumed the aggressive, and invaded the country of the Tochari, one of the most powerful of the Scythic tribes, which was now settled in a portion of the region that had, till lately, belonged to the Bactrian kingdom. Artabanus evidently felt that what was needed was to roll back the flood of invasion which had advanced so near to the sacred home of his nation; that the barbarians required to be taught a lesson; that they must at least be made to understand that Parthia was to be respected; or that, if this could not be done, the fate of the Empire was sealed.


The death of Artabanus


He therefore, with a gallantry and boldness that we cannot sufficiently admire—a boldness that seemed like rashness, but was in reality prudence—without calculating too closely the immediate chances of battle, led his troops against one of the most forward of the advancing tribes. But fortune, unhappily, was adverse. How the battle was progressing we are not told; but it appears that in the thick of an engagement Artabanus received a wound in the forearm, from the effects of which he died almost immediately. The death of the leader decides in the East, almost to a certainty, the issue of a contest. We cannot doubt that the Parthians, having lost their monarch, were repulsed; that the expedition failed; and that the situation of affairs became once more at least as threatening as it had been before Artabanus made his attempt. Two Parthian monarchs had now fallen within the space of a few years in combat with the aggressive Scyths—two Parthian armies had suffered defeat. Was this to be always so? If it was, then Parthia had only to make up her mind to fall, and, like the great Roman, to let it be her care that she should fall grandly and with dignity.



 Phraates II


 Mithridates II