Arsacid Society and Culture

Trade and Commerce

The position of the Parthian lands, between the economically productive centers of China and the population intensive Mediterranean basin, made it an important center for trade and commerce. Apart from commercial activities, however, the Parthian territories, particularly in the Iranian Lowlands and Mesopotamia, as well as Transoxiana, continued their traditional economic activities, most importantly agriculture.

As mentioned before, irrigation for the sake of agricultural production was an important part of the role of the governments that controlled Mesopotamia and the southwestern lowlands of the Iranian Plateau. The Arsacid government had thus inherited this role from its predecessors and as far as we can find out from archaeology, economic prosperity within the Parthian lands was directly related to the upkeep of these irrigation systems.

Mesopotamia and the Iranian lowlands were the traditional centers of growing wheat, barely, and other cereals, while dates and other fruits were regularly produced and often also imported. Local food processing units, processing fruits as well as meat and fish, were centered in towns and villages and their products were exported sometimes as far west as Rome.

In the highlands, pastoralism and other forms of animal husbandry outweighed farming, although sowing various grains, most importantly wheat, as well as growing fruits, was also common. An earlier presence of rice in West Asia might have also occured through initial farming in eastern Iran and Transoxiana.

An important economic activity, breeding of silk worms, made it to the Parthian territories as early as the first century CE, obviously coming via Transoxiana and transported by the Bactrian and other merchants. Silk worms were produced in the Caspian coastal regions as well as Transoxiana, and might have also been in production in Mesopotamia towards the end of the Parthian era.

Cities were often centers of economic production, consisting of small-scale artisan crafts. Parthian arms production, bows and arrows, light chain-mails, swords, and helmets, were known in the Antique world and were often imitated or occasionally imported from Iran. Other products were agricultural tools, clothing, and pottery, some of which bore signs of particular localities and production centers. In particular, Parthian produced cotton cloths were known and desired in both the Mediterranean lands and China and are mentioned in different accounts.

Other than internal production, a great part of Parthian economy was dependent on commercial activities. Towards the east, Bactrian and other Central Asian mercantile populations with close ties to the Parthians controlled the trade to China over the Takla Makan desert of present day Chinese Turkistan. The use of Bactrian camel during this era was a revolutionary innovation of these Central Asian merchants who opened up the trade route to the east and established the first routes of the “Silk Road”. The actual start of the trade with China can be assigned to 114 BCE, when Mithradates II received an embassy from the Chinese emperor Wu-ti, asking for the opening of an official commercial contact. We can suspect that the state involvement in this trade came sometime after the opening of actual trade routes by the merchants and border populations.

In the west and along the Syrian desert and Anatolia, Syrian, Mesopotamian, Iranian, and Roman merchants were rather active, trading in both local products as well as those coming from distant eastern lands (mostly silk, china wear, and spices) and products such as pearls from the Persian Gulf and Indian produced cloths and spices. The trade in this area was flourishing at the beginning of the Parthian rule due to the unity of lands in Western Asia, but fell to despair when political disagreements, first between the Parthians and Seleucids and then when the latter petered out, conflicts with Rome, broke out. However, the relative calm of the first and second century CE brought the commerce in the area back to life, as is evident from the increasing mention of contacts in written sources. In this area, the port of Spasinu Charax, the capital of the client kingdom of Characene, was an important gateway to the maritime trade that was coming through the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf and provided and alternative to the Silk Road.

In between the Central Asians and Western Asians, the internal trade of the Arsacid Empire was handled by a multitude of people, often those occupying the localities among the various trade routes. However, one particular mercantile community, that of the Armenians, appear to have had an exceptional presence in much of the commercial activity of this area, although the extent of which cannot be known. Nevertheless, Armenian accounts of trade routes such as Parthian Stations of the Isidore of Charax and other mentions in Armenian histories are an indication of the involvement of Armenians in the internal trade of the Arsacid Empire.

Agriculture and the Nomadic Lifestyle

The vast Parthian territories, much like the earlier and later empires of the region, were home to people following many different lifestyles. Mesopotamia and the western sections of the Iranian Plateau, long centers of settled population and agricultural civilizations, continued in the same way, while the traditionally nomadic northeast held on to its pastoral lifestyle.

In Elam and Mesopotamia, human life was concentrated around agricultural villages in irrigated plains, often dotted with large urban centers such as Babylon and Susa. These areas were the most densely populated parts of the empire and were economically most productive, both in agriculture and commerce, the latter concentrated in towns and cities. Agriculture was made possible by complicated irrigation canals that watered the fertile but water-poor soil. Since the ancient times, wheat, barley, fruits, and dates were grown in the area and local food processing made these products available for both internal consumption and commercial trade.

In the highlands, mostly in the central Iranian Plateau, the poor soil was supplemented by a well-organized cattle breeding and occasional nomadic pastoral production. The highland farming yielded more fruits and some grain production, but its major agricultural contribution was in form of animal products of all sorts which often distinguished it in commerce as well.

As the origins of the Parni, the tribe of the Arsacid royal family, was in the semi-nomadic Dahae confederacy, it is only natural that horses were among the most important animals in the Parthian lands. Various species of horses, including Central Asian ponies and larger Arabian horses were used by the Parthians in their battles. Interesting burial evidence from Hecatompylos has revealed the bones of horses, as well as onagers and gazelles.

Sheep, cows, and goat had been domesticated in the Near East since the Sumerian times and were used widely to yield dairy products, meat, wool and leather. Mesopotamian gray donkey and mules were the major beast of burden in the western parts of the empire, while the Bactrian Camel was used in the eastern trade routes by the merchants to cross the forbidding Takla Makan desert.

Wild animals such as gazelles and the Iranian wild-ass were abounding in the eastern valleys, particularly in Parthia proper. Textual evidence also show the existence of at least one species of lion in Sakistan in the southeastern parts of the empire. Various hunting birds, including falcons, were popular with the nobility and often used for pass-time and recreational hunting.

Our information about Parthian diet is very limited, mostly coming from Roman sources such as Apicius and even Cato. We know that the Parthian diet was very protein rich and at least the nobility enjoyed the meat from game as well as regular domesticated animals. Hunting boars, gazelles, wild-asses and mountain goats were among the popular activities and occasionally recipes involving these animals are mentioned in texts and tales.

Parthians had access to spices coming from India and it is certain that pepper in particular was used in Parthian cuisine. Roman sources often mention a spice called laser parthicum (similar to asafetida) in various recipes attributed to Parthia. This spice, taken from a plant in northeastern Iran, was an important Parthian export to Rome and probably played an important role in Parthian commerce. Garum or fish sauce, used as flavoring, was also prominent in Parthian cuisine and was probably made locally in the Persian Gulf region.

Water Supply

Guarantee of water supply, particularly in the agriculturally active Mesopotamia, was among the most important functions of a successful government in West Asia. From the Sumerian times, the success or failure of each of the empires in Mesopotamia was closely tied to its ability to control the water flow of Tigirs, Euphrates, and their subsidiaries such as Zab or Diyala.

This was also the case under the Parthian rule. Maintenance of already existing canals and digging of new ones was central for the Parthian government in Mesopotamia. As a result, the complicated irrigation system in that region was noted by many sources and was taken as a measure of that empire’s success. Irrigation canals in lower Euphrates valley directed the overflow of the river to the deserted land to the west of the river, as well as connecting it to the Tigris. In upper Mesopotamia, canals directed out of Euphrates and Diyala irrigated the land to the north of the Sangar Mountains and allowed the planting of large and lush fruit gardens in the area.

In the central valleys of the Iranian Plateau and in Transoxiana, an ancient form of underground water canal called Karēz (Ar. Qanat) provided the water supply for agriculture and personal use. Due to hot weather and the soft soil, rain water was often absorbed quickly to the ground, being stored at relatively shallow depths. A series of wells, connected together with steep canals, lead this water to large, stone built water tanks. The maintenance of these canals required more man-power than the Mesopotamian irrigation canals and was thus another important task of the Parthian government, often hinting on the strength or weakness of the government in certain periods of history. It was also often the case that in times of chaos and destabilization, the maintenance of both the Karēz and the irrigation canals were neglected, causing further problems by weakening the agriculture and thus the economy and causing further destabilization.

Labor and Slavery

It is hard to pinpoint the labor situation within the Arsacid territories since very few accounts of the social situation of these lands are available to us. Written sources do not seem to indicate the existence of slavery outside military slavery in the Parthian lands. War captives were often used as free labor and there are several mentions of major construction projects being undertaken using war captives.

In the wars between Rome and Parthia, large scaled forced movement of the border population or the population of conquered territories was standard practice. We have several instances of such activities having taken place in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Armenia by both parties and new settlements having been established by these populations. However, besides normal economic activities, mostly by artisans and other craftsmen, there is no indication of the use of the moved population as slave labor. In general, the populations of the rural and agricultural areas were the semi-land owning or tenant farmers who produced various agricultural products and used them to pay rents while keeping their claims to the land and guaranteeing themselves a freedom of movement and sale of excess products. In the cities, the laborers also paid their head-taxes and other levies from their wage labor while having the freedom to chose alternate occupations and movement within the empire.


Arsacid emperors were rather proactive in founding and establishing cities. The cities of Nisa/Mithradatocarta and Hecatompylos were founded early on by the Parthian kings, while examples of the later foundation or re-foundation of cities (Vologasocerta and Susa) also abound. In dealing with minor, autonomous states under the Parthian rule, the Arsacids seem to have left the autonomy of the polis styled Hellenistic cities intact, in cases such as Susa, providing them with charters as well.

Major Parthian cities were Nisa, Hecatompylos, and Rhagae (Ray) in the north and northeast, Ecbatana and Nihawand in the west, Fraaspa in the northwest, Estakhr and Gay in the central and southern parts and Susa in the southwest. Vologasocerta and Seleucia-on-the-Tigris were also important urban centers and together with the newly founded Ctesiphon formed the winter “capital” of the Arsacid emperors. It seems, however, that the Parthians, much like their Achaemenid predecessors, did not have one single capital and moved from city to city along with their administration. This might have indeed been a contributing factor to their longevity in face of external threats such as the take over of Ctesiphon in three occasions during the second century CE.

Mesopotamia, probably the most densely populated area of the empire, included many other cities, most of them remaining from the more ancient times. Nippur, Uruk, Babylon, Nineveh, and Ashur were prosperous centers of commerce and crafts under the Parthians, each boasting many new Parthian foundations. Further south than Sumer was the newly founded city of Spasinou Charax, the capital of the client kingdom of Characene. Dura-Europus, the Parthian-Hellenistic city on the lower side of Euphrates had a significant role in the Parthian commerce and was home to a sizable Jewish population.

From their size we can estimate the population of some Parthian cities, the largest one of them being the Ctesiphon city complex with approximately one million inhabitants. Hecatompylos, with an area of 28 km2 renders enough space for a population of 200,000 while Nisa was probably home to the same number of people and Rhagae at a slightly higher number.

Parthian cities included palace complexes, fortresses for the military garrison, and temple complexes, as well as markets and residential areas. Other than a few cities in Mesopotamia, Parthian cities seem not to have been surrounded by walls, although some defensive preparations, such as the aforementioned fortresses and moats, have been identified in some sites.


Identifiable examples of Parthian architecture are sometimes hard to locate, since much of their architecture was superseded by the Sasanian architecture that followed. However, some unique examples of Parthian architecture are available, mostly in the north and northwestern Iran, the heartland of Parthia itself and in Mesopotamia, at the sites of Nippur, Uruk, and Ashur.

The palace discovered at Nisa holds many distinct Parthian features, as well as Hellistic decorations which shows the integration of the Hellenistic culture, brought by the settling Macedonian tribes following Alexander. It is significant for displaying the earliest example of the iwān, a vaulted hall with an open front which provided for ventilation and temperature control. One of the earliest examples of an iwān opening to a central courtyard was also found in Ashur. This style was continued in Iran and the rest of West Asia and became the dominant form of architecture, eventually forming the backbone of the Islamic architecture of the east, best displayed in mosques with prominent iwāns.

The excavations at the Parthian Nineveh, in northern Mesopotamia, have revealed several buildings and burial places, including a palace. The general plan of the palace appears to be Neo-Assyrian, while certain features such as the iwān and pitch vaulted brick walls seem to be uniquly Parthian features. Another example of Parthian architecture is found in Hecatompylos, one of the many “capitals” of the Arsacid emperors. Excavators have identified a Parthian era palace as well as a fortress with several courtyard and vaulted halls, as well as many brick tombs belonging to the Parthian period.

The most common building material for the Parthians was stone, cut and used directly in buildings. Baked brick was also common, particularly in Mesopotamia where it was continued from the ancient brick baking model. Despite the fact that examples of Parthian glazed ware have been found in relative abundance, no glazed bricks from the era have yet been identified. Other than the basic material, stucco was used to form the walls which were often covered with various floral and zigzag designs, as well as equestrian and other animal motifs.


Parthian art has survived into our era mainly in the form of rock relieves and statues, with scattered works of jewelry and wall-paintings. Several Parthian statues, including the famous statues of a Parthian man from Shami, Khuzistan (now in the National Museum in Tehran),  reveal a well developed sculpting technique with interest in realistic representation of the subject. This can also be seen in the few surviving Parthian relieves, mainly in southwestern Iran, as well as the images of the king represented on the coins. Both secular and religious subjects were used for sculpting, often showing the lady Anahita, goddess of a popular cult, as the fertile benefactor of agriculture. Secular subjects such as kings, the nobility, or local notables were also prominent in statues as well as bas relieves, often showing scenes of succession or the bestowal of power by an Arsacid emperor to the local king.

Parthian jewels have been regularly excavated at various sites, showing rather sophisticated skills in gold working, possibly in relation to the Saka/Scythian gold works. The jewel pieces usually depict human and animal likeness, crafted into realistic shapes with remarkable skills. Gem stones, in raw and worked forms were commonly used both for decorative and religious purposes, often with the intention of avoiding bad omens.

An interesting example of Parthian art comes from a synagogue in Dura-Europus where many wall-paintings and frescos have been identified. These illustrate various stories from the Old Testament, while the style of the works, including the clothing, is characteristically Parthian. Men and women are depicted with Parthian clothing and hair styles, while horses and other objects are decorated in a style reminiscent of bas relives and statues. An important characteristic of Parthian painting, repeated in rock relieves and coins, is the depiction of subjects in frontal position. This, particularly considering the almost exclusively profile depiction of subjects in the Babylonian and Achaemenid periods, seems to have been a specifically Parthian innovation.

Parthian metal work was also another important component of the art of the period. Rhytons and other vessels, mainly made out of silver as well as gold, were a characteristic product of the Parthian artisans. A rhyton, crafted out of ivory, has been found in Nisa, along with examples of glazed ceramic and glasswork relating to the same period.

Cloth making and carpet weaving were also prominent among the Parthian arts. Although no examples of Parthian carpets or cloth have been recovered, several
textual sources mention the importance of these crafts under the Parthian rule. Iranian sources such as the Shahnameh often date the origins of the art of carpet weaving to the Parthian period and credit the artisans of the period with designing the characteristic patterns.

 Arsacid Society

The traditional Iranian division of the society, originating in the Indo-European tripartite division and best described in the Vedic tradition, formed the idealistic background of the Parthian society. However, this division seems to have been more of an ideal than a reflection of the facts on the ground, as implementation of such a rigid system, particularly across an ethnically diverse region such as the Arsacid Empire, seems almost impossible.

The Parthian society was essentially divided into two division of land-holding and landless population. Large land-owners, usually members of the nobility and the court, controlled most of the productive land in the empire. At least two major families of Suern and Aspahbads are attested under the Parthians, each holding large properties in Sakistan and Media. These noble families and their large land-holdings would thus provide the basis of the later decentralized system under the Parthians.

Small land-owners were consisted of village chiefs and petty farmers. These usually wielded much local power and often acted as agents of the nobility in managing their lands as well. Land was thus rented to the peasants who were entitled to the products of their labor and had to pay a rent for the use of the agricultural land. Local chiefs were also responsible for the collection of taxes, which were often paid in kind, and distribution of supplies. Another class of land-owning gentry, called the Azatan, also existed  who were entitled to royal property in exchange for military service. The Azatan cavalry formed the central part of the Parthian army and was mainly responsible for the Parthian success in external wars and in the quick initial expansion of the empire.
Concentrated in the urban centers were the artisan and craftsmen, as well as merchants. Cities were centers of commerce, frequented by foreign merchants, local farmers, and resident craftsmen who produced items of utility and luxury. There also was a system of autonomous populations within Parthian urban and rural territories. In addition to the aforementioned populations of the Hellinstic city-centers, the Jewish population also appears to have had an autonomous position within the Parthian society. Ruled by their exilarch, the Jews were largely left to manage their own affairs based on their laws, conforming in general sense with the Parthian state laws and often encouraging the Jewish population to follow the local laws as closely as the Old Testament ones. Parthian Empire in particular seems to have become a refuge for the Jews who fled the Roman persecution and brought the fundamental of the rabbinic learning with them, to appear in the form of the Babylonian Talmud a few centuries later.


The climate of the Iranian Plateau during the Parthian period was slightly different than the present, with milder weather and lower temperatures in the agriculturally productive areas in the north and southwest, as well as the Mesopotamian lowlands. Forests often covered large parts of the northwest and the central valleys, particularly around the cities in Persis. The area around Hecatompylos, now part of the great Dasht-e Kavir salt desert, was agriculturally active before succumbing to the expanding desert.

In Mesopotamia, higher annual rainfall made agriculture a very productive industry and guaranteed the basic foodstuff for much of the empire. The heartland of Parthia (conforming to the present Iranian province of Khorasan) was covered with forests in the north and provided a refuge for bands of imagers and gazelles as well as the famous wild-ass (Gōr). In the south, the plains of Persis and Isfahan were watered by several rivers which cut through the forbidding Zagros mountains and provided agriculturally suitable farms.

The area to the west and northwest was covered by the high Zagros Mountains and allowed only marginal agriculture, limiting the population to animal husbandry and sometimes nomadic life style. Southern Caspian coast, as is the case at present, was a prosperous agricultural region which however did not yield enough to feed much beyond its immediate hinterland. Finally, the southern plains, bordering the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman benefited from a warm and moist environment, albeit poor soil, and prospered in agricultural production, as well as favorable winds, making them centers of commerce.


Parthian clothing can be reconstructed from the many frescoes and rocks relieves that have been found around the region, as well as textual sources. Parthian men wore long trousers with many folds which covered down to their ankles. Leather boots covered the feet and provided for horse-riding. The upper body was covered with a long-sleeved shirt with the end of the sleeves tightened around the wrists. A sleeveless vest, made of animal skin, was often worn on top of the shirt, as well as a large cloak that covered the shoulders and the back. Half-spherical wad hats were popular and were worn by private citizens, while the cavalry wore an extra layer of chain-mail and helmets for the battle.

Women were similarly covered with a long trouser and leather boots or shoes, while wearing a long skirt on top of the trousers was customary. The shirt and the vest were completed with a short, cylinder shaped hat with a long vail often covering the back and the shoulders and sometimes providing extra protection for the face.

Other types of clothing were also worn based on the locality, such as local clothing in Mesopotamia and heavier felt and fur clothes popular in the colder regions to the east. The aforementioned frescoes in the synagogue of Dura-Europus show an interesting mixture of what appears to be traditional Jewish clothing with the Parthian fashions mentioned above, thus hinting at either the universal acceptance of the Parthian clothing among the population or the particular integration of the Jewish populous in the Parthian society.

Communication And Transportation

Roads and communication were among the most important elements of a successful government in the empires of the east. Since the Achaemenid times, the vast territories of the empire necessitated the existence of good roads for communication, as well as a network of messengers to keep the control of the central government around the empire.

In their times of peace, the Arsacids succeeded in maintaining this network of roads and expanding it to the north-east to include their major cities of Rhagae and Nisa. This road system itself was connected to the southern branch of the Silk Road which formed the major commercial thoroughfare from China. In the west, several road across the Syrian desert connected the Mesopotamian centers such as Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, Spasinu Charax, Vologasocerta, and Nisibis with Syrian and Palestinian commercial centers of Palmyra, Antioch, and Gaza.

In the Iranian Plateau, roads from Armenia and the Caucasus connection with roads leading from the Persian Gulf which brought commercial items through the marine trade routes. These connection in Rhagae/Ray and Gay/Ispahan with the roads coming from Transoxiana and Bactria and led to Mesopotamia an its centers of commerce. A unique document, The Parthian Stations by the Armenian writer Isidore of Charax, details the roads and commercial stops around the Parthian Empire and provides for interesting itineraries for merchants.

Roads were dotted with resting places or Caravanserais (Per. Karwansara “hall of the Karawan/Travelling Bands”), usually maintained by the local rulers, which provided the merchants and messengers, as well as their animals, an easy access to food, water, and fodder. These stations helped the flow of commerce in the empire and along with the roads and provided for the commercial success of the Parthians.  Horses seem to have been the major means of transportation around the empire, used by royal messengers as well as soldiers. Donkeys and mules were used in Mesopotamia and the Iranian Plateau, with Bactrian Camels shouldering the majority of the trade that came from the east.

Arsacid Culture

Since the Parthian Empire was an essentially multicultural society, identifying a uniform culture in its territories would be a rather impossible task. The decentralized policies of the Arsacids meant that much of the empire was left to keep its own culture, and often even their languages.

The prominent calendar used by the Arsacid government, depicted most characteristically on coins from the first century BCE, was the Seleucid Era. This was a lunar calendar with a month interjection to synchronize it with the Babylonian solar calendar and started in the Autumn of 312 BCE. The beginning of the year was set on first of October, although at times the Babylonian start (April 1st) was also used for coins minted in Babylonia and Seleucia-on-the-Tigris. A Parthian Era, starting at 247 BCE and based on the Macedonian lunar calendar was also occasionally used, although its exact use has not been completely identified. Some ostraca found in Nisa include inscriptions which are dated using Avestan influenced month names, as opposed to the Greek ones used by the Seleucid Era, and might hint on the use of a religious calendar at least on the eastern parts of the empire.

Several feasts and festivals are mentioned in textual sources. Spring equinox or the Norouz seems to have been a prominent festival, although not marking the beginning of the year as in later eras. Other harvest related festivals are always mentioned while the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries mention the continuation of old Babylonian and Mesopotamian celebrations, although these might have had only a local acceptance.

Music was an integral part of the Parthian culture. Many frescoes and even coins depict various musical instruments, including lutes, hand drums, kettle drums, and flutes. Sources such as Greek historians as well as Iranian folk-tales talk about Parthian music and musicians, while scholars have identified various modern local modes to be a combination of local modes and Greek influences. Roman sources, in description of their wars with the Parthians, point to the Parthian use of large kettle drums to instill fear into the enemy. We also know of the presence of wandering singer-musicians in Parthian Armenia who played short-necked lutes which accompanied their singing of epic tales.

At least in one occasion, a Parthian Emperor is said to have enjoyed plays staged in a Greek style amphitheater, while this might have been an isolated event. We can, however, only speculate about the means of entertainment in the Parthian territories, apart from the religious and cultural festivals in areas such as Babylon. Continuation of traditions such as retelling of legendary tales based on a folk history and tales of ancient heroes, often dated back to the Parthian period, can point to a Parthian origin, although aside from the aforementioned Armenian example, no actual examples of this can be identified for certain.

Health and Diseases

Sources tell us very little about the health conditions of the Parthian territories and our knowledge about the subject is rather meager. Nonetheless, we know enough about the life of the Parthians to provide us with some information on the diseases and pandemics that occurred and recurred in their territories. Like neighboring lands to the east and west, Parthians had to deal with recurring waves of pneumonic plague which often caused high numbers of mortality in the Parthian territories, particularly from the more western regions where we have better sources. Various forms of influenza, often brought by traveling caravans from the central Asian steppes are also reported, signs of which could still be seen in the population of the region and their relative immunity from the disease.

Written sources also tell us about the death of Phraates (Farhād) IV and his son from small-pox, and the disease seems to have been another common epidemic in the Parthian lands, often being carried over to Syria and the Mediterranean basin. There are also reports of the ravaging of plagues among the invading Roman army of the second century CE that can point out to the spread of epidemic. Apart from these, we know little about the possible genetic diseases that the Parthian population had to deal with, a knowledge that could possibly be gained from the further advancements in science and archaeology.


The Parthian nobility, much like the noble men of the Achaemenid Empire before them, were educated in practical, warrior arts. A young man was required to go through vigorous training in the arts of war, most importantly archery and riding, while there are no reasons to believe that there was any requirement of learning sciences for the noble youth. In stark similarity with the life of a Medieval knight, the Parthian aristocrat was required to excel at the arts of his class, that of war, while we can imagine that a certain amount of liberal arts was also taught to the noblemen who at any rate were responsible for administering the empire.

The philosophical and liberal learning was left largely to the scribal and priestly class who in continuation of the role of similar classes under the Achaemenids, were responsible for the every day running of the government. Scribes (O.Per. dipi-wara) were skilled in writing (Aramaic and Parthian with the Aramaic/Pahlawig script) and were most likely multi-lingual. They went through scribal training consisting of memorizing endless administrative terms and their logographic rendering, while their practical training as administrators came from their time apprenticing in the royal or provincial courts.

We cannot be certain of the existence of any organized schooling for lower classes and it is likely that the peasant and artisan classes were illiterate. At the same time, the relative spread of mercantile culture might point out to the existence of some sort of schooling, at least in ancient centers of education and learning like Babylonia. The spread of Aramaic influenced Pahlawig writing system in the early Christian era might also point out to a renewed interest in education. At the same time, we have no reasons to believe that Greek education, despite the widespread use of Greek by the royal administrations, ever gained prominence in the Parthian territories.


The Parthian government consisted of the king and the royal court, in addition to the Council of the Nobles (the Mahistan). The king was traditionally elected by the nobles from the members of the Arsacid family, although the succession of the eldest son was not guaranteed. Below the king were the members of the six noble families, probably modeled after the six noble families of the Achaemenid court and continuing this tradition into the Sasanian period. These families all seem to have had a control of a section of the country where the majority of their land possessions were located. They also held particular positions in the royal court, members of each family having the privilege of crowning the king, serving in his bed-chamber, or serving as the first minister.

Apart from these ceremonial positions, the nobility were members of the occasionally powerful Council of the Nobles, called Mahistan in Parthian. From the meager information that we have about this council, it seems that its role was similar to the Roman Senate, its members being responsible for drawing laws and enacting them. Similar to the Senate under the Principate and Dominate, the Mahistan’s power seemed to fluctuate in an adverse position to the power of the king.

The court system of the Arsacids was copied from the Achaemenid model, being staffed by many offices called Diwāns, responsible for record-keeping, communication, budgeting, and taxation. These were headed by their respective Dibirs who were all responsible to a first-minister, a member of the nobility as mentioned before.

The provincial government was divided into two systems. The first was the system of the client kingdoms and the second, provinces or satrapis ran much like the Achaemenid model. The client kingdoms of the Arsacid Empire, mainly clustered in the western and southern portions of the empire, were ruled by local dynasties and were considered personal clients of the Arsacid king. These had a high degree of internal autonomy and administrative freedom, often being only responsible for paying an annual tribute to the court.

The origin of the client kingdoms lies in the uncertainties and power struggles that followed the collapse of Alexander’s empire and the eventual weakened power of the Seleucid kings. These kingdoms, often ruled by local strong men and almost universally influence by the Hellenistic culture, minted coins, conquered other territories, and established cities such as Spasinu Charax or Susa on the Karkha. At the beginning of the Arsacid rule, kingdoms of Osrhoene, Gordiane, Adiabene in northern Mesopotamia/Assyria, Characene in Babylon, Elymais in Elam, and that of the Frataraka in Persis were identifiable. However, these soon succumbed to the increasing Arsacid power and were reduced to client kingdoms and vassals, preserving their local dynasties as vassals of the Arsacids and subjected to annual tributes.

Different from the client kingdoms were the satrapis, ruled by governors appointed by the central state. We can only guess that initially, these satraps were fully responsible to the Emperor. However, with the increasing decentralization of the Arsacid state and the ever increasing power of the local land-owners and members of the Arsacid nobility, the government of the satrapi was also reduced to a form of vassal rulership, although probably with a more strict taxation system that could be more easily redrawn in compare with that of the client kingdoms. The governor was responsible for the administration of the satrapi as well as the collection of taxes, and he was also the ultimate military ruler of the province. At times of war, the governor, along with his troops, was called upon to serve under the command of a general, while at times of peace he was entrusted with the security of his province.

Language, Literature, And Writing

The Parthian language was a Northwestern Iranian language, part of the Indo-Iranian subgroup of the Indo-European languages. Parthian was closely related to the better known Middle Persian and survived into the Sasanian period. Our major evidence for the Parthian language are the writing of the mid-third century religious reformer, Māni, the founder of Manichaeism, who composed many of his teachings in Parthian, probably due to his own roots as a member of the Parthian nobility. This, however, means that the majority of our knowledge of the Parthian language comes from texts composed after the fall of the Arsacid Empire itself and thus reflects a very late form of this language. Our other evidence for Parthian are inscriptions, often in form of commercial contracts or short genealogical charts, found from Nisa and other Parthian sites. Fragments of Parthian language can also be found in later Middle Persian translations from Parthian texts, as well as names which have survived in the writings of Greek and Roman historians.

At least until the reign of Vologases I, the language and the alphabet used for inscribing coins was Greek, often including short phrases in Greek as well. This was done simultaneously with the use of the Aramaic alphabet for writing both Aramaic (the administrative language of the Achaemenids) as well as an early form of Parthian which made heavy use of Aramaic heterograms. Eventually, Parthian itself developed an alphabet based on Aramaic (Pahlavi/Pahlawig) which was used to inscribe coins as well as rock-relieves, a form of which was used to write Parthian by Māni.

Little is known about the Parthian literature except from its influence in later literature. Several Middle Persian works of literature, most famously Draxt ī Asūrig and Ayādgār ī Zarērān, are speculated to have originally been composed in Parthian and later translated into Middle Persian. A New Persian epic, Vīs u Rāmin, is also considered a new rendition of an originally Parthian story. Most significantly, much of the major themes in the Persian epic of Shahnamah, by Ferdowsi, are attributed to the Parthian influence and the popularization of the themes during the Arsacid times. Other evidence for the existence of rich Parthian literature comes from the mention of Gōsāns or traveling singer-musicians in the Parthian period who probably are responsible for the original popularization of the above mentioned epic stories.


The Parthian period is marked with several major population movements in and around the Parthian territories. Aside from forced population movements, mostly as a result of war conditions, eastern Iran saw several important migration waves. Trans-Caucasia was also a scene of migrations in the early centuries CE, although the scale and the effects of these movements were much smaller than the former.

The reigns of Phraates II (139-128 BCE) and Artabanus I (128-124 BCE) were marked with the movement of Saka tribes to eastern and northeastern Iran. Both kings were slain in the struggle against these migrating tribes and their defeat and settlement was left to Mithradates II  (124-88 BCE). The settlement of the Saka tribes (possibly from the Tigrakhauda and Massageti tribal confederations) in the Achaemenid satrapi of Drangiana completely changed the face of eastern Iran. The Sakas set-up a semi-autonomous state in eastern Iran, similar to those in Persis, Elymais and Mesopotamia, and might have been responsible for transferring a folk version of ancient Iranian history to the Parthians which formed the basis of later legendary histories.

At the heal of the Sakas were another nomadic tribe called the Yueh-Chi by the Chinese sources (possibly identical with the Tocharians) who removed the last remnants of the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian kingdom and established the famous Kushan Empire in the Pamirs, later to expand to the Indus Valley and northern India. Although outside the immediate territory of the Parthians, the Kushans (as they came to be known) were nonetheless the most formidable political and economic rivals of the Arsacids in the east and helped define much of the Arsacid policy along their eastern borders.

In Trans-Caucasia, the Alans and other remnants of the nomadic Scythian and Sarmatian tribes made frequent incursions into Georgia and Armenia. Their increasing threat to both Iran and the Roman possessions in Asia Minor eventually resulted in a treaty of mutual protection between the Sasanids (the successors of the Arsacids) and the Romans. However, their activities during the Parthians times frequently interrupted Parthian diplomacy in Armenia and eventually gained them a foothold in northern Caucasus, to be named Albania/Alania after them.

Religion, Philosophy, And Intellectual Movements

It is often assumed that the Arsacids, like their successors the Sasanians, were Zoroastrians and it has also been suggested that Zoroastrianism occupied a position close to that of an official religion in their government. There is, however, almost no evidence to suggest as such. Although the prominence of various progressions of an ancient Iranian belief system in the Iranian Plateau and Central Asia cannot be denied, one should be careful when suggesting that this would amount to the prominence of Zoroastrianism.

The Arsacid rulers of the Parthian Empire, being from an Iranian background, seem to have believed in a rather liberal mixture of the ancient Iranian pantheon, honoring various deities and protecting ancient traditions. Names such as Mirhtradates (“Given by Mithra”) or Artabanus (OIr.. *rta-bana– “protector of the Rightness”) suggest a connection to this ancient pantheon, and various archeological sites of temples dedicated to Anahita and other deities show an interest in preserving the established cults.

In the iconographic sense, Parthians often adapted foreign depictions of gods and used them to depict local deities, as might be shown by the discovery of a statue of Hercules in western Iran. Coins of Parthian allies and clients in the east also use Indic and Greek religious imagery to depict elements of the Iranian cult. Outside this pantheon, local and ancient belief systems of Babylon and other parts of the Empire were allowed to survive and flourish, so that they might have eventually contributed to the Gnostic movement of the second and third century CE. Buddhism in the east, coming from India and China, also gained prominence in the eastern parts of the Parthian lands and eventually was adopted by the Kushans.

Cults and religions from further west than Mesopotamia, such as Judaism and early Christianity, also found a momentum in the Parthian lands. The synagogue of Dura Europus and its frescoes are the most prominent examples of presence of a Jewish identity in the Parthian territories. This can also be seen from the accounts of the Babylonian Talmud which was compiled by the Rabbis living under the Arsacid rule. Christianity, in its earlier forms, also had made a presence in the Arsacid Empire in the first two centuries of its existence and was already starting to gain much converts in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Armenia. An early tradition even credits the conversion of the Parthian ruler of Gandhara, a certain Gondopharos (Parth Winda-farna, c.f. Casper) to Apostle Thomas. It was the presence of Christianity and its mixture with the Babylonian cults that eventually gave birth to the Gnostic movements so typical of Late Arsacid period.

Arsacid Emperors, however, seemed to have gained an interest in Zoroastrianism towards the end of their era, probably as a reaction to the rise of Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism in the heart of their territories. This can be seen from an account of the Avesta (the holy book of Zoroastrianism) that credits Vologases I (51-78 CE) with the collection and compiling of the corpus of Avesta itself. Whether true or not, this is an evidence of the interest of later Arsacid Emperors in Zoroastrianism and their possible patronage of its spread.

The most important intellectual movement in the Parthian territories that we know of is the development of a sense of unity and cultural homogeneity under the patronage of the Arsacid Emperors. Partly as a reaction to the excessive Hellenic influence in their early history and partly because of their desire to be known as the successors of the Achaemenids, the Arsacid rulers consciously promoted the creation of a cultural unity within their core-territories. This is best reflected in the foundation and promotion of a mythical history for Iran, possibly based on an Avestan model, and the revival of what was seen as profoundly local in nature, including literature and orthography, best marked by a return to Aramaic alphabet as the main means of communication.

Apart from that, the late Arsacid period is distinguished by the rise of the aforementioned Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism. Famous leaders of Gnosticism like Marcion lived either in the Parthian territories or had a large following within their lands, while the Egyptian philosopher Plotinus made a trip to the Parthian lands alongside the Roman Emperor Caracalla and was much influenced by the intellectual environment of Mesopotamia.


Our knowledge of Parthian taxation comes from various inscriptions, in form of tax decrees, as well as recordings in Babylonian astronomical diaries. The basic tax was a land-tax, imposed on the farmers in form of a rent, payable to the local large or petty land-owners who collected and dispatched the tax to the royal court or the local administration. This tax was almost exclusively extracted in kind and was often redistributed locally as well as being used for provisioning the garrisons.

In cities, royal decrees demanded a head-tax extracted from all male, working people and from the heads of families; children, women, and the elderly being exempt. The amount and the collection method of this tax differed greatly based on the locality and was determined by treaties with each individual city. This is best shown by the decrees and treaties with Hellenistic city-states where an effort was often made by the local population to negotiate and fix the amount of tax. From the large number of coins minted by both the Arsacid state and the client kingdoms, we can guess that monetary taxation occupied a position of prominence and might have formed a large part of urban tax extraction.

In the vassal states and client kingdoms such as Elymais or Persis, a certain amount of fixed yearly tribute was paid to the Arsacid court, the amount of which was fixed by the treaties. We do not have conclusive evidence about the possibility of renegotiating these amounts, while the increasing or decreasing number of coins minted in the client kingdoms in a certain period can be indicative of changing tax rates.

War, Weapons, Military, And Diplomacy

The Parni tribe, the tribe of the Arsacid rulers, as made up of highly mobile horsemen armed with short bows. As a result, the core of the Parthian army was made up of mounted archers. Lightly armored and taking advantage of the fast Parthian ponies, these archers also perfected the technique often referred to as the Parthian Shot. This technique consisted of the Parthian mounted archers riding away from the enemy on their horses, giving the impression of retreating. However, the archers would then turn 180 degrees back at the waist, still sitting on the running horse, and shoot arrows at the enemy while constantly getting away from them. This method is reportedly responsible for the Parthian victory over the Roman in Carrhae, as well as numerous other battles.

Apart from the light mounted archers, the Parthian army also included the heavy cavalry, equipped with lances and mace and covered with heavy chain mail and helmets. Horses were also covered with armors and the rider along with the ride most likely resembled a one person tank in the battle. Light cavalry was another part of the Parthian army, equipped with lances and long swords and able to strike the enemy from the safety of a horse.

From Roman sources it seems that most of the Parthian foot soldiery was made up of mercenary forces. It is reported than only 10 per-cent of the average Parthian army were the Azatan, and those more often than not formed the cavalry rather than the infantry. We know that in various battles, Parthians used Saka, Alan, Arab, and Tocharian forces against their enemies. Foot soldiers were often equipped with only long spears and at occasions with short swords and their role were to keep the field open for the maneuvers of the cavalry and mounted archers which formed the elite segments of the Parthian army.

In diplomacy, Parthians progressed through their long history and became more adapt in negotiating their foreign conflicts as time passed. One of the first major Parthian diplomatic negotiations took place in 92 BCE between Mithridates II and the Roman governor of Cilicia, L. Cornelius Sula. The treaty that resulted from these negotiations for the first time established the status of Armenia between Rome and the Arsacid Empire. It seems that the Parthian inexperience in dealing with the expansionist policies of Rome might have forced them to be too abiding by the terms of the treaty and thus losing several political battles to Rome in the same area.

Later Arsacid diplomatic contacts were, however, more successful. In the civil war that broke out in Rome following the assassination of C. Julius Caesar, Parthians supported Cassius and Brutus, although never directly involving themselves in the struggle and later reaping benefits of successful policy change in the aftermath of the Battle of Actium. By the end of their rule, the Arsacids had gained over 300 years of experience with the Romans and were very successful in maintaining their position by a combination of occasional battles and well-times peace negotiations. At times, the relations between the two empires were good enough for the sons of the Arsacid Emperors to be sent to Rome for education or Roman princesses were given in marriage to Arsacid rulers.

Negotiations with the powers in the east and north of the empire were a different matter for the Arsacids. The Parthian territory was often attacked by nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes of the Central Asian and Transcaucasian steppes. Some of these attacks, such as the invasion of the Sakas during the reign of Artabanus I, had for a time threatened the very existence of the empire. The regular method of the Arsacids to deal with these invasions was to drive the invaders back with sheer military power, a tactic that was successful in case of the Saka invasions or the numerous attacks by the Alans. However, in some cases, military power alone could not guarantee a Parthian success and negotiations, as well as land concessions, needed to be made. In case of Sakas, it seems that apart from decisive military successes, a negotiation containing land concessions in the province of Drangiana (henceforth known as Sakistan) was necessary. Similarly, the overwhelming force of the Kushanite (Yueh-Chi) invaders in the first century CE was only manageable or the Arsacids with a combination of land-concessions and peaceful coexistence. In this regard and considering the relative territorial consistency of the Parthian territories throughout the Arsacid period, the Arsacid diplomacy seems to have been successful.

Chapter Bibliography and Reading Suggestions

Dabrowa, Edward. “Les aspects politiques et militaires de la conquete parthe de la Mezopotamie”in Ancient Iran and its Neighbours. Studies in Honour of Prof. Jozef Wolski on Occasion of his 95th Birthday, Electrum10, 2005.

Luther, Andreas “Dura-Europos zwischen Palmyra und den Parthern. Der politische Status der Region am Mittleren Euphrat im 2. Jh. n.Chr. und die Organisation des palmyrenischen Fernhandels” in: Rollinger, Robert & Ulf, Christopher (eds.), Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World, Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2004, p. 327-251.

Sellwood, David. “Trade routes through Parthia” in: Jha, Amal Kumar (ed.), Coinage, trade and economy, Indian Institute of Research in Numismatic Studies,1991, pp. 23-27

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s