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IRANIAN HISTORY: ARSACID DYNASTY

Tīrdād and Ardavān

A New Look at the Genealogy of the Early Arsacids


 

 

By: Khodadad Rezakhani

 

Introduction

The universal problem in historiography of the Pre-Islamic Iran is the absence of first- hand accounts of historical events. This is particularly true for the Arsacid period (247 BCE-224 CE) when sources become particularly rare. Traditionally, most of our knowledge from this period comes from the chronicles and narratives written by Greek and Roman historians (and geographers) such as Justin, Ammianus Marcellinus, Arrianus, and Strabo, as well as the accounts by likes of Moses Khorenets’i, the famous Armenian historian.

Needless to say, these accounts leave a lot of details, and even many major events, unmentioned. Major sections of Arsacid history are unknown to us and from many Arsacid kings we have, in the words of Ferdowsi, "only heard names". This lack of information has put a greater emphasis on the interpretation of archaeological discoveries and material culture and has of late brought many of the Arsacid "dark-spots" to light2. Research on Arsacid coinage3, the ostraca from Nisa4, and lately the astronomical tablets from Babylon5, have succeeded in presenting us with a more clear and cohesive picture of the Arsacid history, although by no means can we claim to posses a comprehensive history of this very important era of Iranian history.

Among the most ambiguous details of the Arsacid history is the genealogy of its kings. This problem is rather well-spread throughout the nearly 500 years of Arsacid rule where there are numerous "unknown" kings or rulers without a clear family line6. This problem is particularly evident in the genealogy of the first Arsacid kings, namely from Arsaces I, the founder of the dynasty, to Phriapitus, the supposed third (or fourth) ruler.

The traditional accounts of the foundation of the Arsacid dynasty, largely accepted by modern historians, have been challenged by the archaeological findings in Nisa and the numismatic evidence. New versions of this genealogy have been presented, sometimes eliminating known monarchs and creating new ones7. Of these, the most significant is the elimination of Tīrdād I and his son Ardavān (Artabanus I), the supposed brother and nephew of Arsaces I, respectively. In their place, a new king, called Arsaces II, attested in both sources, has been restored as the successor of Arsaces I and predecessor of Phriapitus8.

This article will try to present some evidence to show that although the restoration of Arsaces II is indisputable given the available sources, the total elimination of Tīrdād and Ardavān in favour of Arsaces II has been rather rushed and unnecessary. While it is certainly true that Arsaces II was the successor of Arsaces I, the problem of the existence of Tīrdād and Ardavān can be solved if we interpret the name Arsaces (Arshak) as a dynastic name and treat Tīrdād and Ardavān as the personal names of the first two monarchs of the dynasty. This proposal will not only solve the above problem, but will present a more logical pattern of succession for Phriapitus whose previous position as the grand-nephew of Arsaces I left a big doubt about his legitimacy. It is hoped that this article is looked at as a proposal for further research and interpretation.

 

Analysis of the Problem

The beginning of the Arsacid dynasty and their origin in the eastern parts of the former Achaemenid lands is covered in a fog of myths and inaccurate historical accounts. Most histories, whether ancient or modern, have concentrated their narrative on the history of the western parts of the Macedonian-Seleucid territories and even in later dates, have only considered the history of the east in relation to their contacts with the west, whether Greece or Rome. Furthermore, the confused state of Seleucid territories during the period of the founding of the Arsacid dynasty and the legends associated with Arsaces I, has helped to make the history of this era even more vague.

Traditional accounts of the beginning of the dynasty, mostly mentioned in Greek and Roman sources who were no doubt taking their evidence from Iranian legends, tell us that Arsaces and Tīrdād, two brothers who lead the Parnii tribe, attacked the Seleucid satrapy of Parthia around 250 BCE9 . In the accounts which were preferred by many historians, mostly trusting the history of Arrianus, Arsaces I was succeeded in 248 by his brother Tiridates who ruled until 217 BCE and was followed by his son Artabanus I (217-191 BCE)10 .

In this version of the foundation of the Arsacid dynasty, most credit for the establishment of the dynasty was given to its second king, Tiridates, the brother of Arsaces I and the rule of Arsaces himself was reduced to two years. This version of history logically contradicts with the historical importance of Arsaces himself, a founder supposedly so well respected that his successors chose his name as their honorific dynastic names11 .

With the discovery of a large collection of coins from Nisa that included many coins from Arsaces I and Arsaces II12 , as well as the important discovery of the Aramaic ostraca from the same place13 , historians were prompted to reconsider the above account. To begin with, the sheer number of the coins discovered from the rule of Arsaces I easily dismisses the idea of his short, two year rule, making it necessary to give him a longer reign than previously suggested. Additionally, the existence of the coins of Arsaces II also contradicted greatly with the rule of Tiridates and Ardavan I, suggesting that Arsaces II should be given the credit for the rule after Arsaces I14 .

Additionally, the ostraca discovered in Nisa which are mostly economic documents, also do provide for interesting genealogical conclusions. Their references left no doubt about the existence of Arsaces II, mentioned in previously ignored accounts of Justin, and his relation to Arsaces I. Among these, the ostracon number 1760, obviously from many years later, initiated the idea that Phriapitus was the great-grandnephew of Arsaces I15 .

All of the above evidence has made it necessary to write a new version of the early Arsacid history. A few have tried to reconcile the account of Arrianus and his followers with the new discoveries in material culture, allowing for the existence of Artabanus prior to the rule of Phriapitus16 . Followers of another idea, pioneered by J. Wolski, took the extreme view and denied the existence of Tiridates and Artabanus I and instead proposed that Arsaces II (217/214-191) was followed directly by Phriapitus17 . This version of history, supported by the numismatic finds and taken as the standard by Sellwood in his catalogue of Parthian coins18 , has slowly become the prominent account of the genealogy of early Arsacid rulers.

As reported by Wolski, the rule of Arsaces I started in the spring of 247 BCE, following the revolt of Andragoras against the Seleucid rule19 , although Wolski does suggests that Andragoras might have been a legendary character20 . Arsaces I ruled until 217 or 214 BCE and was succeeded by his son, Arsaces II. It was during the rule of Arsaces II that Antiochos III subdued the eastern satrapies and subjugated the newly found Arsacid dynasty, prompting Arsaces II to take refuge in the steppes21 . Arsaces II was then succeeded in 191 BCE by Phriapitus, a great-grandnephew of his father, who ruled until 176 BCE22 .

The account above completely dismisses the idea of the rule of Tirdates and Artabanus, and consequently Arrianus’ history. Wolski suggests that the rule of these two kings was forged later under the influence of Phriapitus and his successors in order to legitimize the rule of the "younger" branch of the dynasty23 .

 

Proposals and New Discoveries

Wolski himself suggests that a way to find solutions to historical problems is to let the power of imagination and theorising roam freely24 . Although the suggestion might sound rather careless, it can be a useful one in the case at hand. The evidence presented to support the above account of early Arsacid history seems undeniable and even more than that, it provides a more logical version of this history. However, their dismissal of traditional accounts and elimination of Tiridates and Artabanus oppose the same logic as well.

One of the most important problems with Wolski’s account is the matter of the succession of Phriapitus. Logically, there would be no reason for the succession of a second cousin of Arsaces II to his throne, when in all likelihood, Arsaces II might have had a son himself or his first cousin, the unnamed father of Phriapitus, might have been alive.

Indeed, another ostracon (No. 2-L) discovered from Nisa and recently published by V. Livshitz25 suggest that Arsaces II did have issues:

  1. 1. 'ršk MLK' BRY npt

  2. 2. 'ršk Q'YLw

  3. 3. NDBT' ZNH Ś'RN ' 2 x ILP

"Aršak, the king, son of grandson (2) of Aršak. Accounted (3) this offering – 2000 e(phas) of barley".

Here, the king in question is a great-grandson (BRY npt) of Arsaces I, probably the grandson of Arsaces II by extension. If we consider the existence of such a monarch, a direct descendant of Arsaces I and II, from whom we supposedly have no mention before, we will run into problems with the succession pattern of Phriapitus and his issues. This suggests that the succession of Phriapitus to the throne might be as fictional as Wolski proposes the Tiridates and Artabanus to be. As we are almost sure of the succession to Phriapitus, his son Phraates I and his offspirng, we would find the suggestion at odds with the rule of an Arsaces who would have been a grandson of Arsaces I.

 

Tīrdād Aršak and Ardavān Aršak?

Almost all accounts written by Greek and Roman historian about the founding of the Arsacid dynasty are written much later than the date of the actual events. Sources closer to the date, such as Apollodorus of Artemita, have also lived at least 100 years after the real events26 . Also, these sources have not been from the "inside circle" of the Parthian court and thus could have only known the events from second hand sources.

It is easy to imagine that these sources, as well as their references inside the Parthian society, could have confused the order and players of the events. Both sets of accounts, those of "Justinians" and those of "Arrians"27 , seem to report the events from independent sources, probably various legends inside the Parthian society.

On the other hand, Strabo’s famous statement that "all of them were called Arsaces…"28 has added to the confusion of naming the Parthian kings. While everyone agrees that the rest of the Arsacids possessed individual names as well as the title of Arsaces, historians seem not to doubt that the first two rulers’ personal name was "Aršak"29 , a name that was supposedly chosen by later Arsacids as an honorific title30 .

However, other than writings of Greek and Roman historians, we have no reason to completely accept the "honorific" status of the name Arsaces. We can as easily theorise that the name was a family or branch name of the rulers of the Parnii tribe from whom Arsaces I originated. As we see in later Parthian times, the tradition of having a "family" or tribe name was quite common among the Parthian nobles. Families of Sūren, Kāren, Espahbaδ, Nauδar, and other Parthian noble families all carried their personal names as well as the above family names. Additionally, the tradition of having a regal name was also common from the Achaemenid times, as almost all Achamenid emperors after Darius II seem to have chosen a dynastic name upon their accession31 .

Additionally, in the matter of the succession of Phriapitus, we run into the problem of his unusual succession following the death of Arsaces II, supposedly a grand-cousin of Phriapitus. It is often suggested that Arsacid succession was not based on sons following the father, rather it was left to a council of nobles to decide the future king. However, we have no reason to believe that this pattern was established in the early Arsacid times. It seems that the above system was recognised when the Arsacid noble families were well established in the court system of the country, probably sometimes after the rise of the Scythian family of Sūren32 to prominence in the second century BCE33 . We can see that the preferred pattern of succession during the earlier times was indeed the succession of the son to the father, as seen in the case of Arsaces I and II and Phriapitus and Phraates I.

By taking the above suggestion as a base and using the "traditional" genealogies of the Arsacid kings and adding the ostracon No.2-L, drawing a conclusion will not be hard. After accepting J. Wolski’s chronology of the beginning of the Arsacid dynasty34 , we can see that the first king (Arsaces I) was ruling from 247-217/214 BCE, the time assigned to the rule of Tiridates by Arrianus35 . This would mean that the rule of Arsaces according to Arrian (250-247 BCE) is legendary. Consequently, we can suggest that Arsaces I and Tiridates are indeed one and the same person!

Meaning that Arsaces, being a family name, was the official title of the ruler who was personally called "Tīrdād", quite similar to a later famous Arsacid commander, Suren, the commander of the Parthian army in the Battle of Carrhae, who was known by his family name. Following the same pattern, Arsaces II was the ruling title of the son of Tīrdād/Arsaces I, the king that was traditionally called Artabanus (Ardavān).

To further clarify, it is suggested in this paper that adding the title "Arsaces" (APΣAKOY) to the names of kings from Phriapitus to Artabanus V (IV in Sellwood36 ) is only a tradition starting from the first king himself and not an "honorific" act by the successors. Furthermore, the matter of the succession of Phriapitus, an oddity for the beginning of the dynasty, will be solved since in the revised genealogy given above, he would be the son of Artabanus/Arsaces II and not a great-grandnephew of Arsaces I. This can be further strengthened by the Ostracon 2-L above that mentions a great-grandson of Arsaces I (a son of Phriapitus?) which probably is Phraates I.

 

Conclusion

The traditional account of the founding of the Parthian dynasty has been dismissed by the historians who have suggested a new genealogy for the early Arsacid rulers. While presenting a believable and logical chronology of the early Arsacid history, these accounts create a new confusion regarding the names and succession patterns of these rulers.

On the other hand, a newly discovered ostracon from Nisa can help us to read the available sources in a new light and try to bring together the various accounts. Our conclusion from these new sources is that the title "Arsaces", common among all Arsacid kings, was indeed a family name for the rulers of the Parnii tribe and consequently, for the Arsacid Emperors. The tradition of adding the title to the personal name of the king then started from the first ruler, Arsaces I, whose personal name was Tiridates, and continued by his son, Arsaces II whose individual name was Artabanus.

 

Notes


 

1 PhD student of History, UCLA

2 Assar, G.R.F. "Recent Studies in Parthian History II", The Celator, Volume 15, No. 1, Jan 2001

3 Abgarians M.T. and David G. Sellwood. "A Hoard of Early Parthian Drachms", Numismatic Chronicle, Seventh Series, Vol. XI, 1971, 103-118

4 Diakonoff, I. M. & Livshits, V. A. Parthian Documents from Nisa, Moscow, 1976

5 The research done by G.R.F. Assar on this subject is to be published in the near future.

6 Sellwood, David. An Introduction to Coinage of Parthia, London, 1980

7 Wolski, J. L’Empire des Arsacides, Peeters, Gent, 1993

8 Wolski, J."Arsace II et la genealogie des premiers Arsacides", Historia XI, 1962 , 136-145

9 Photius, Bibliotheca, Vol. 58

10 Gultschmidt A. v. Geschichte Irans und seiner Nachbarlaender, Tuebingen, 1888

11 Strabo, XV, 36.

12 Abgariand & Sellwood, op.cit.

13 Diakonoff & Livshitz, op.cit.

14 Wolski, Arsaces II

15 Diakonov I.M. and V.A. Livshitz. Dokumienty iz Nisi do I v.n.e., Moskva, 1960

16 Bivar, A. D. H. "The Political History of Iran Under the Arsacids" in Ehsan Yarshater (ed.) Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. III, Part I. CUP, 1983

17 Wolski, L’Empire

18 Sellwood, Introduction

19 Wolski, J. Arsace Ier, fondateur de l'Etat parthe, Acta Iranica III, 1974, 159-199

20 Wolski, J. "Le probléme d’Andragoras", Serta Kazaroviana, Ephemeridis Instituti Archaeologici Bulgarici, Vol. XVI, 1950, 111-114

21 Wolski, J. "The Decay of the Iranian Empire of the Seleucids and the Chronology of the Parthian Beginnings", Berytus, 12, 1957

22 Wolski, J. Arsaces Ier

23 Wolski, J. l’Empire

24 Wolski, J. L’Empire

25 Livshitz V.A. "Three New Ostraca Documents from Old Nisa", in Erān ud Anīran: Webfestschrift Boris Marshak, www.transoxiana.org

26 Chaumont, M.L. "Apollodorus of Artemita." Encyclopaedia Iranica

27 Wolski, J. L’Empire

28 Quoted in Bivar, A. D. H. "The Political History of Iran Under the Arsacids" in Ehsan Yarshater (ed.) Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. III, Part I. CUP, 1983

29 Shahbazi, A.S. "Arsacids: Origins", Encyclopaedia Iranica

30 Wolski, L’Empire,

31 Olmstead, A. T. History of the Persian Empire, University of Chicago Press, 1970

32 Tacitus, Ann. VI 42.

33 Altheim, F. and R. Stiehl, Geschichte Mittelasiens im Altertum, Berlin, 1970

34 Wolski, J. Arsaces Ier

35 Arrianus, Annabasis, 3.38.8.10

36 Sellwood, An Introduction

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

  • Assar, G.R.F. “Recent Studies in Parthian History II”, The Celator, Volume 15, No. 1, Jan 2001

  • Bivar, A. D. H. "The Political History of Iran Under the Arsacids" in Ehsan Yarshater (ed.) Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. III, Part I. CUP, 1983

  • Cohen, G. M. The Seleucid Colonies (Historia Einzelschriften 30). Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1978

  • Diakonoff, I. M. & Livshits, V. A. Parthian Documents from Nisa, Moscow, 1976

  • Sellwood, David. An Introduction to Coinage of Parthia, London, 1980

  • Wolski, J. L’Empire des Arsacides, Peeters, Gent, 1993

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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