IRANIAN HISTORY: ARSACID DYNASTY (248 BCE-224 CE)
The Beginnings of the Arsacids
By: Elias J. Bickerman
Ancient accounts of the beginnings of the Parthian Empire, as given by Strabo, Justin and Arrian, are in substantial agreement and go back, probably, to a common source which may be the Parthica, of Apollodorus of Artemita, written about 100 B.C. in Parthia. According to this unknown Greek author, under Antiochus II (plus 246 B.C.) a "Scythian" tribe of Parni settled in the valley of Ochus (Arius, now Tedjen), in the Seleucid satrapy of Bactria, rose in revolt, under the leadership of two brothers, Arsaces and Tiridates. When, two years later, Arsaces lost his life, the brother succeeded to him as the chieftain of the tribe. In the fashion of all Nomades, the Parni used from time to time to overrun the satrapy of Hyrcania and Bactria and exact tribute. Then, under Seleucus II (246-223), when Diodotus, the satrap of Bactria seceded from the Seleucid Empire and proclaimed himself Basileus, Tiridates with his tribe, under pressure of Diodotus' power, left Bactria, invaded Parthia and then Hyrcania, and established a new domination destined to become "the rival of the Romans."
The original account suffered from the combined errors of
the authors transmitting it to us. Arrian, for example, interpolates the
fable that the Arsacids descend from Artaxerxes II of Persia.
Justin telescopes together the date of the insurrection of Parni and
that of the conquest of Parthia.
Modern scholars find this narrative confused and untrustworthy,
and are inclined to distinguish between two strata of the tradition: the
earlier, represented by Justin and Strabo, which assigns the formation
of the Arsacid power to the time of Seleucus II, and the latter one,
repeated by Arrian, which places the beginnings of the Parthian dynasty
under Antiochus II.
As a matter of fact, there are no conflicting traditions. Justin and
Strabo, in their general works, speaking of the Parthian Empire
cursorily, simply omit to narrate the humble origins of the royal house,
while Arrian, writing a special work on the Parthian history, goes back
to the beginnings of the Arsacids. A confusion arises only when you mix
up, as Justin and some modem historians do, the Parni and the Parthi.
As a matter of fact, local defections from the Empire, such as that of Parni, were a common occurrence in the immense monarchy of the Seleucids, and often led to temporary establishment of petty "dynasts," like that of Arsaces. and Tiridates. Nothing, then, is more likely than that Diodotus, satrap of Bactria, who, as his coins show, prepared his secession methodically, left undisturbed the rebel tribe, settled at the frontier next the satrapy of Parthia and raiding the latter. But after his secession, during the war of Laodice, Diodotus, quite naturally, drove out the Parni from his new kingdom. Diodotus' defection and the fraternal war between Seleucus II and Antiochus Hierax crumbled the Seleucid authority in the East and so Tiridates was able to override Parthia and then Hyrcania and plant his domination there. In fact, we are told that Tiridates invaded Parthia when he had heard of Seleucus II's defeat by the Gauls, This fateful battle at Ancyra occurred, probably in 239 (see above paragraph). The occupation of Parthia by the Parni and the establishment of the Parthian Empire, then, took place about 238 B.C. But the earliest evidence referring to the Arsacids assigns their beginnings to the reign of Antiochus 11. The so-called Arsacid Era, attested as in use before 141 B.C. has as its starting point the year 247-6 B.C. How to explain this apparent divergence between literary tradition and the chronological statement? The Arsacid Era was the dating "as the king reckons." The kings of Parthia, like those of Pontus, of Bithynia, etc., imitated the Seleucid computation with one of their own. These reckonings were not calculated from a fixed event (as the eras are in the proper sense of the term) but by numbered regnal years. Only this numbering was continuous without breaks at each succession. But if the Arsacid Era is the counting of regnal years of the Parthian dynasty, how could it start in 247-6? At this date, Antiochus II, victorious in the war against Ptolemaios II, ruled without competitors, from. Samarkand to Damascus. No prince in the sphere of his influence dared yet to assume the royal title: neither the Achaemenidae ruling in Persis nor Attalus of Pergamum nor Ariaramnes of Tyana, nor Diodotus of Bactria, to which province the Parni belonged. But the official date is not necessarily the authentic one. When a Hellenistic ruler succeeded in gaining the sovereignty, the symbol of which was the royal title, he often antedated the initial year of his kingship. For instance, in the second century B.C. the kings of Pontus computed their regnal years from 336 B.C., when their reputed ancestor Mithridates was established as governor of Cius, although the dynasty had not assumed the royal title before Mithridates III, brother-in-law of Seleucus II. The Arsacids followed the same patterns. But when and why did they choose 247-6 as the initial year? The Arsacids used the Babylonian form of the calendar, the year starting in spring (Nisanu I), while the Seleucid administration and Greek cities began the civil year in the fall. The fact shows that the Arsacids initiated the counting of their regnal years very early, before they came under the influence of Macedonian colonies, in a native environment where the months had been counted in the Babylonian manner since the introduction of the standard calendar by the Persians. In fact, we are told that "Arsaces was proclaimed first king" in the city of Asaac, an obscure road station in Astauene, in the upper Atrek valley, that is, in Hyrcania. Now, the capital of the Arsacids, before the expansion under Mithridates I, was Hecatompylos in Parthia. Still earlier, in the latter part of the reign of Tiridates I, his residence was Dara in Apavarktikene; the royal tombs were at Nysa. Why, then, the assumption of the title in Asaac?
In the Hellenistic Age, the title Basileus was
used as a mark of personal supremacy. It passed, so to speak, from the
vanquished king to the victor. Even L. Aemilius Paulus, a Roman, was
indignant when Perseus of Macedonia, after his defeat, still pretended
to keep the name of Basileus.
Still Himerus, Parthian regent in Babylonia, styled himself Basileus
when he retook possession of Babylon, which had been occupied by "King"
Accordingly, we must look for a significant victory won in the
beginnings of the dynasty. Now Seleucus II attempted to recover the lost
provinces in the Far East. His preparations and his first successes are
still reflected in his Eastern coinage.
Before the advancing Seleucid army, Tiridates had to flee, and took
refuge with the tribe of Apasiacae, in the Caspian steppe.
But with the help of Diodotus II of Bactria who, reversing his father's
policy, had allied himself with Tiridates, the latter returned, met
Seleucus II in battle and utterly defeated him. The Parthians thereafter
celebrated the anniversary of victory as the beginning of their
Is it preposterous to suppose that on this occasion Tiridates was
Seleucus II's army must have followed the caravan route which connected
the Far East with Mesopotamia, through Ecbatana (Hamadan), Rhaga (in the
vicinity of Teheran), Nysa (in the vicinity of Nishapur), toward Meshed.
Tiridates overrode the returning army, cut it to pieces, and was crowned
at Asaac, a nearby station on the imperial road. The date of the battle
may be indicated approximately. Seleucus was compelled to withdraw by
new troubles in Asia, that is, Asia Minor.
That can refer only to the new war between Antiochus Hierax and Attalus
I, which began about 231 B.C. Tiridates therefore assumed the royal
title about 231 B.C. But following the august examples of the Seleucids
and the Attalids, the barbarian chief began to reckon his regnal years
from his accession to power. Therefore 247-6 would be the year when he
succeeded to Arsaces as the chieftain of the Parni. Tiridates, we are
told, ruled 37 years." Accordingly, he must have died in 211-0. He was
succeeded by his son, Arsaces II, who successfully resisted Antiochus
informs us that in 209 Antiochus III attacked Arsaces of Parthia,
testimony which confirms the proposed chronology. We have assumed, then,
that for some years, between about 239 and 231, Tiridates ruled in
Parthia and Hyrcania without taking the royal title, and was proclaimed
Basileus about 231. Parthian coinage confirms this historical
The earliest series of Parthian coins, minted in the Far East, is that
of fractional silver and bronze, with the beardless head of a ruler,
wearing an Iranian cap tied with diadem.
The legend is
Let us sum up the chronological results of our
250: Insurrection of Parni in Bactria.
247-6: Tiridates succeeds Arsaces as the head of Parni.
246: War between Syria and Egypt (the war of Laodice). ca.
245: Diodotus, the satrap of Bactria, proclaimed king.
Fall 241: Peace between Syria and Egypt.
240: The war between Seleucus I I and Antiochus Hierax.
239: Seleucus II defeated at Ancyra.
238: Parthia invaded by Parni. Antiochus Hierax defeated by Attalus. Attalus proclaimed king.
Before 236: Peace between Seleucus II and Antiochus Hierax.
231: Seleucus' expedition against the Parthes. Death of Diodotus I. Tiridates defeated Seleucus near Asaac and proclaimed king. Introduction of Arsacid reckoning from 247-6.
230: Second war between Antiochus Hierax and Attalus.
229: Antiochus Hierax defeated at Coloe.
226: Death of Seleucus II.
211: Death of Tiridates I. Accession of Arsaces II.
Strabo XI, 9 (515 C) ; Just. XL1, 4; Arrian, Parth. 1.
Tarn, p. 44.
On the Parni (Aparni, Sparni) cf. Strabo XI, 7,1 ; 8,2; 9,2; just.
XL1, 4,7. The tribe belonged to the group of the Dahae. Cf. Tarn,
Cf. Arrian, Parth. 18 (ed. A. G. Roos) ; A. G. Roos,
Studia Arrianea, 1912, p. 5.
Strabo XI, 9,2 (515 C) ; Just. XLI, i,i ; Dio Cass.
Cf. now H. S. Nyberg,
Die Religionen des Alten Irans (Mitteilungen der
VorderasiatischAegyptischen Gesellschaft, XLII, 1938), p. 482.
Justin calls the Parni "Parthes" (XLI, 1, 1, etc.) and places the
separation of Parthia from the Seleucids under Seleucus II (that is,
after 246) and in the consulship of M. (or C.) Atilius and L.
Manlius, that is, in 256 or 250.
See, e.g., Gutschmid, Geschichte Irans, 1888, p. 30; Bevan,
The House of Seleucus, I, 1902, p. 284; Tarn, CAH, IX,
p. 575; Debevoise, A Political History of Parthia, 1938, p.
The theory has been advanced by Droysen, Geschichte des
Hellenismus, II (1 ed. 1843), 330, often repeated (e.g. Jacoby,
FrGrH II d, 568), and recently developed by Wolski, Eos,
1937, p. 492; 1938, p. 244 (in Polish). The historicity of Arsaces I
has been often denied, e.g. Tarn, CAH, IX, p. 5 7 5. Strabo
(515 C) knows the Bactrian origins of the Arsacids, stated by Arrian,
while Justin's source mentioned the insurrection under Antiochus II
(see n. 43). On the other hand, Arrian (Parth. 1,2b ed. A. G.
Roos) gives the same etymology of the name "Parthi" ("exiles" in
Scythian) as Justin XLI, 1,2. The common source may be Apollodorus
of Artemita or an anonymous writing about 85 B.C., on whose work see
Tarn, p. 50.
The confusion is committed already by the first modern historian of
the Arsacids, J. Foy Vaillant, Arsacidarum Imperium, I, 1725,
Cf. Rostovtzeff (see n. 26), p. 502; Walbank, JHS, 1942, p.
9. Classic is the case of Philetaerus of Pergamum who began to
strike coins in his own name during the Syrian war, about 274. Cf.
Newell, The Pergamene Mint under Philetaerus, 1936.
See now Newell, EM, p. 247; Tarn, p. 72.
See Tarn, p. 82; Sturm, RE s.v. Ochus (XVII, 1770).
Cf. Newell, EM, p. 249, who points out that the royal title
may have been assumed only by Diodotus II.
Strabo XI, 9,2 (515 C) ; Just. XLI, 4, 5.
Just. XLI, 4,8.
Olmstead (see n. 19), p. 13.
Kugler, Sternkunde II, 444; Olmstead, l.c. It is often
stated (e.g. Beloch, Griechische Geschichte, IV, 1, p. 670,
n. 1) that Eusebius' Chronicle gives Olymp. 132, 3 (250-49 B.C.) as
the beginning of the Parthian history. But Eusebius' authentic date
was Olymp. 133 (248-244 B.C.) (Hieronymus; the list of the Olympiads
in the Armenian translation). There was, of course, no era beginning
in 380 B.C. as supposed by Allotte de la Füye, Mission de Perse,
XX, 1928, p. 29. If the bronze coin with the date "191" (121-0 B.C.)
really shows the head of Mithridates I, the piece would only prove
that Mithridates' portrait was still reproduced after his death, as
often happened in Hellenistic numismatics.
See, e.g. The Excavations at Dura-Europos, Report VII-VIII,
I re-state here these elementary facts (above, pp. 73-74) because
the nature of Arsacid (and Seleucid) computation is mistaken even in
scholarly works. In a recent work on Iranian religions the Arsacid
Era is presented, e.g., as based upon a "zarvanic" theological
Newell, EM, p. 161. According to W. Andreas apud Nyberg (see
n. 42), p. 483 the title of these princes was "fratarata," that is,
"governors." The current translation of the (Aramaic) legend on
their coins is "Fire-Priests."
Zeitschrift für Numismatik, 1930, p. 4.
Cf. V. Latyshev, Inscr. Ponti Euxini 1, (2 ed. 1916), p. 402. On a
fictitious era in Bithynia, Robert, Études Anatoliennes, 1937, p.
Welles, Royal Correspondence, 1934, no. 75: The Parthian
royal letter of 17 Audnaeus 268 is received in Susa in the year 333
of the Seleucid Era. The difference between two datings being 65
years, it is evident that while the Greek city of Susa calculates
from the fall 312, the Parthian chancellery computes from the spring
247. Cf. McDowell, Coins from Seleucia on the Tigris, 1935,
p. 148. The subjects of the Arsacids kept, of course, their
traditional calendars. See, e.g. a Pahlavi document in Aramaic
characters from year 300, that is 53-4 A.D. apud Nyberg, Le Monde
Oriental, 1923, p. 182. This evidence makes somewhat unlikely a
recent hypothesis ascribing to Mithridates II, in 121 B.C. the
introduction of a vague year of 365 days (see H. Lewy, JAOS,
1944, p. 199, n. 27).
Isidorus, Mansiones Parth. II :
Gutschmid (see n. 44), p. 31 has supposed that Arsaces, before his
invasion of Parthia, had established his power in Asaac, in 250 B.C.
But the region of Astauene, with the city of Asaac, was a district
of the (Seleucid) satrapy of Hyrcania. Cf. Ptol. VI, 9; Tarn, pp. 3
and 232. Now, Hyrcania was conquered by Tiridates after the
occupation of Parthia. On the other hand, it is unlikely that under
Antiochus II, a rebel should be able to establish his sovereignty in
a town which was a station of the royal road linking Syria with the
Cf. Debevoise (n. 44),
p. 15. The site is not yet
identified. Cf. Erich F. Schmidt, Flights over Ancient Cities of
Iran, 1940, p. 38.
Just. XLI, 5,1. The town was situated on the mountain Apartenon in
Apavortene (Plin. N.H. VI, 46), that is, it seems,
Apavarktikene, on which district cf. Isid. Mans. Parth. 13.
The site is not yet identified. Various conjectures are quoted by
Debevoise (n. 44), p. 15.
Isid. Mans. Parth. 12. The site is unknown. Cf. now Sturm,
RE., s.v. XVII, 711. But Nisaia formed a district of Hyrcania
under Seleucids. Cf. Kiessling, RE, IX, 482. On the Parthian
burial cf. K. Inostranzev, Journal of the Minist. of Education,
1909, p. 195 (in Russian).
Liv. XLV, 4,4.
Newell, Mithridates of Parthia, 1925.
Newell, EM; Newell, WM, pp. 19, 30.
Strabo XI, 8,8; 513 C.
Just. XLI, 4,10: quem them Parthi exinde solemnem velut initium
Whether he was called "king" or not by the men of his tribe before
this date in Scythian language, we do not know and that is
immaterial for our problem.
Just. XLI, 4.
Just. XLI, 5,7
Pol. X, 28.
It is a fashion now to assign the beginnings of the Parthian coinage
to the reign of Mithridates II, about 16o B.C., following a theory
of J. de Morgan. See now his Mannuel de Numismatique Orientale,
1923, p. 123. His view is accepted by the best authorities on the
subject-as Newell, WM, p. 35; McDowell (n. 60), p. 159. But
while coins of this group were often issued in the second century
B.C. by the same mints in the Parthian East (cf. Newell, EM,
p. 256, n. 14), the type must have been introduced, as the legend
On the form of this bonnet cf. J. de Morgan, loc. cit., p.
133. I note that the diadem itself is worn also by rulers without
royal rank, e.g. Vahuzbert (Oborzus) of Persis, etc.
Cf. coins with legend: