In the wake of Alexander of Macedonia's conquest of Persia in the late 4th century B. C., the Achaemenid dynasty ended. However within a hundred years a new group, the Parthians, were able to re-establish an Iranian empire which rivaled Rome in the Near East. Below is a Roman description of the Parthians, which indicates that the Parthians, like the Shang and Chou in China, were a nomadic people who established an imperial dynasty.


A Roman description of the Parthians or later Persians from Justin's History of the World[1]


Origin and growth of the power of the Parthians, I.-Their manners, mode of fighting, and religion, II., III.-Their history to the death of Alexander the Great, IV.-Nature of their country; reign of Arsaces, his successors, v.-State of the Bactrians under Eucratides: victories of the Parthians. VI.

1. THE Parthians in whose hands the empire of the east now is, having divided the world, as it were, with the Romans, were originally exiles from Scythia. This is apparent from their very name; for in the Scythian language exiles are called Parthi. During the time of the Assyrians and Medes, they were the most obscure of all the people of the east. Subsequently, too, when the empire of the east was transferred from the Medes to the Persians, they were but as a herd without a name, and fell under the power of the stronger. At last they became subject to the Macedonians, w hen they conquered the east; so that it must seem wonderful to every one, that they should have reached such a height of good fortune as to rule over those nations under whose sway they had been merely slaves. Being assailed by the Romans, also, in three wars, under the conduct of the greatest generals, and at the most flourishing period of the republic, they alone, of all nations, were not only a match for them, but came off victorious; though it may have been a greater glory to them, indeed, to have been able to rise amidst the Assyrian, Median, and Persian empires, so celebrated of o]d, and the most powerful dominion of Bactria, peopled with a thousand cities, than to have been victorious in war against a people that came from a distance; especially when they were continually harassed by severe wars with the Scythians and other neighbouring nations, and pressed with various other formidable contests.

The Parthians, being forced to quit Scythia by discord at home, gradually settled in the deserts betwixt Hyrcania, the Dahae, the Arei, the Sparni[2] and Marsiani. They then advanced their borders, though their neighbours, who at first made no opposition, at length endeavoured to prevent them, to such an extent, that they not only got possession of the vast level plains, but also of steep hills, and heights of the mountains; and hence it is that an excess of heat or cold prevails in most parts of the Parthian territories; since the snow is troublesome on the higher grounds, and the heat in the plains.

II. The government of the nation, after their revolt from the Macedonian power, was in the hands of kings. Next to the royal authority is the order of the people,[3] from which they take generals in war and magistrates in peace. Their language is something between those of the Scythians and Medes, being a compound of both. Their dress was formerly of a fashion peculiar to themselves; afterwards, when their power had increased, it was like that of the Medes, light and full flowing. The fashion of their arms is that of their own country and of Scythia.[4] They have an army, not like other nations, of free men, but chiefly consisting of slaves, the members of whom daily increase, the power of manumission being allowed to none, and all their offspring, in consequence, being born slaves. These bondmen they bring up as carefully as their own children, and teach them, with great pains, the arts of riding and shooting with the bow. As any one is eminent in wealth, so he furnishes the king with a proportionate number of horsemen for war. Indeed when fifty thousand cavalry encountered Antony, as he was making war upon Parthia, only four hundred of them were free men.

Of engaging with the enemy in close fight, and of taking cities by siege, they know nothing. They fight on horseback, either galloping forward or turning their backs. Often, too, they counterfeit flight, that they may throw their pursuers off their guard against being wounded by their arrows. The signal for battle among them is given, not by trumpet but by drum. Nor are they able to fight long; but they would be irresistible, if their vigour and perseverance were equal to the fury of their onset. In general they retire before the enemy in the very heat of the engagement, and, soon after their retreat, return to the battle afresh; so that, when you feel most certain that you have conquered them, you have still to meet the greatest danger from them. Their armour, and that of their horses, is formed of plates, lapping over one another like the feathers of a bird, and covers both man and horse entirely.[5] Of gold and silver, except for adorning their arms, they make no use.

III. Each man has several wives, for the sake of gratifying desire with different objects. They punish no clime more severely than adultery, and accordingly they not only exclude their women from entertainments, but forbid them the very sight of men. They eat no flesh but that which they take in hunting. They ride on horseback on all occasions; on horses they go to war, and to feasts; on horses they discharge public and private duties; on horses they go abroad, meet together, traffic, and converse. Indeed the difference between slaves and freemen is, that slaves go on foot, but freemen only on horseback. Their general mode of sepulture is dilaniation by birds or dogs, the bare bones they at last bury in the ground.[6] In their superstitions and worship of the gods, the principal veneration is paid to rivers, The disposition of the people is proud, quarrelsome, faithless, and insolent; for a certain roughness of behaviour they think becoming to men, and gentleness only to women. They are always restless, and ready for any commotion, at home or abroad; taciturn by nature; more ready to act than speak, and consequently shrouding both their successes and miscarriages in silence. They obey their princes, not from humility, but from fear. They are libidinous, but frugal in diet. To their word or promise they have no regard, except as far as suits their interest.

IV. After the death of Alexander the Great, when the kingdoms of the east were divided among his successors, the government of Parthia was committed to Stasanor, a foreign ally, because none of the Macedonians would deign to accept it. Subsequently, when the Macedonians were divided into parties by civil discord, the Parthians, with the other people of Upper Asia followed Eumenes, and, when he, was defeated went over to Antigonus. After his death they were under the rule of Seleucus Nicator, and then under Antiochus and his successors, from whose great-grandson Seleucus they first revolted, in the first Punic war, when Lucius Manlius Vulso and Marcus Attilius Regulus were consuls. For their revolt the dispute between the two brothers, Seleucus and Antiochus, procured them impunity; for while they sought to wrest the throne from one another, they neglected to pursue the revolters. At the same period, also, Theodotus, governor of the thou sand cities of Bactria, revolted, and assumed the title of king; and all the other people of the east, influenced by his example, fell away from the Macedonians. One Arsaces, a man of uncertain origin, but of undisputed bravery, happened to arise at this time; and he, who was accustomed to live by plunder and depredations, hearing a report that Seleucus was overcome by the Gauls in Asia, and being consequently freed from dread of that prince, invaded Parthia with a band of marauders overthrew Andragoras his lieutenant, and, after putting him to death, took upon himself the government of the country. Not long after, too, he made himself master of Hyrcania, and thus, invested with authority over two nations, raised a large army, through fear of Seleucus and Theodotus, king of the Bactrians. But being soon relieved of his fears by the death of Theodotus, he made peace and an alliance with his son, who was also named Theodotus; and not long after, engaging with king Seleucus, who came to take vengeance on the revolters, he obtained a victory; and the Parthians observe the day on which it was gained with great solemnity, as the date of the commencement of their liberty.

V. Seleucus being then recalled into Asia by new disturbances, and respite being thus given to Arsaces, he settled the Parthian government, levied soldiers, built fortresses, and strengthened his towns. He founded a city also, called Dara. in Mount Zapaortenon, of which the situation is such, that no place can be more secure or more pleasant, for it is so encircled with steep rocks, that the strength of its position needs no defenders; and such is the fertility of the adjacent soil, that it is stored with its own produce. Such too is the plenty of springs and wood, that it is amply supplied with streams of water, and abounds with all the pleasures of the chase. Thus Arsaces, having at once acquired and established a kingdom, and having become no less memorable among the Parthians than Cyrus among the Persians, Alexander among the Macedonians, or Romulus among the Romans, died at a mature old age; and the Parthians paid this honour to his memory, that they called all their kings thenceforward by the name of Arsaces. His son and successor on the throne, whose name was also Arsaces, fought with the greatest bravery against Antiochus, the son of Seleucus, who v as at the head of a hundred thousand foot and twenty thousand horse, and was at last taken into alliance with him. The third king of the Parthians was Priapatius; but he was also called Arsaces, for, as has just been observed, they distinguished all their kings by that name, as the Romans use the titles of Caesar and Augustus. He, after reigning fifteen years, died, leaving two sons, Mithridates and Phraates, of whom the elder, Phraates, being, according to the custom of the nation, heir to the crown, subdued the Mardi, a strong people, by force of arms, and died not long after, leaving several sons, whom he set aside, and left the throne, in preference, to his brother Mithridates, a man of extraordinary ability, thinking that more was due to the name of king than to that of father, and that he ought to consult the interests of his country rather than those of his children.

VI. Almost at the same time that Mithridates ascended the throne among the Parthians, Eucratides began to reign among the Bactrians; both of them being great men. But the for tune of the Parthians, being the more successful, raised them, under this prince, to the highest degree of power; while the Bactrians, harassed with various wars, lost not only their dominions, but their liberty; for having suffered from contentions with the Sogdians, the Drangians, and the Indians, they were at last overcome, as if exhausted, by the weaker[7] Parthians. Eucratides, however, carried on several wars with great spirit, and though much reduced by his losses in them, yet, when he was besieged by Demetrius king of the Indians, with a garrison of only three hundred soldiers, he repulsed, by continual sallies, a force of sixty thousand enemies.[8] Having accordingly escaped, after a five months' siege, he reduced India under his power. But as he was returning from the country, he was killed on his march by his son, with whom he had shared his throne, and who was so far from concealing the murder, that, as if he had killed an enemy, and not his father, he drove his chariot through his blood, and ordered his body to be cast out unburied.

During the course of these proceedings among the Bactrians, a war arose between the Parthians and Medes, and after fortune on each side had been some time fluctuating, victory at length fell to the Parthians; when Mithridates, enforced with this addition to his power, appointed Bacasis over Media, while he himself marched into Hyrcania. On his return from thence, he went to war with the king of the Elymaeans, and having conquered him, added this nation also to his dominions, and extended the Parthian empire, by reducing many other tribes under his yoke, from Mount Caucasus to the river Euphrates. Being then taken ill, he died in an honourable old age, and not inferior in merit to his great-grandfather Arsaces.


Phraates, king of the Parthians, ii killed by the Greeks in his army, I.ÑThe Parthians make war on Armenia; early history of Armenia, II.-Jason; Armenius; source of the Tigris, III.ÑContinuation of the history of Parthia- reign of Orodes, IV- Phraates; Tiridates; relics of the armies of Crassus and Antony given up to Augustus, V.

1. After the death of Mithridates, king, of the Parthians, Phraates his son was made king, who, having proceeded to make war upon Syria, in revenge for the attempts of Antiochius on the Parthian dominions. was recalled, by hostilities on the part of the Scythians, to defend his own country. For the Scythians having been induced, by the offer of pay, to assist the Parthians against Antiochus king of Syria, and not having arrived till the war was ended, were disappointed of the expected renumeration, and reproached with having brought their aid too late; and when, in discontent at having made so long a march in vain, they demanded that "either some recompence for their trouble, or another enemy to attack, should be assigned them," being offended at the haughty reply which they received, they began to ravage the country of the Parthians. Phraates, in consequence, marching against them, left a certain Himerus, who had gained his favours in the bloom of youth, to take care of his kingdom. But Himerus, unmindful both of his past life, and of the duty with which he was entrusted, miserably harassed the people of Babylon, and many other cities, with tyrannical cruelties. Phraates himself, meanwhile, took with him to the war a body of Greeks, who had been made prisoners in the war against Antiochus, and whom he had treated with great pride and severity. not reflecting that captivity had not lessened their hostile feelings, and that the indignity of the outrages which they had suffered must have exasperated them. As soon therefore as they saw the Persians giving ground, they went over to the enemy, and executed that revenge for their captivity, which they had long desired, by a sanguinary destruction of the Parthian army and of king Phraates himself.

II. In his stead Artabanus, his uncle, was made king The Scythians, content with their victory, and with having laid waste Parthia, returned home. Artabanus, making war upon the Thogarii, received a wound in the arm, of which he immediately died. He was succeeded by his son Mithridates, to whom his achievements procured the surname of Great; for, being fired with a desire to emulate the merit of his ancestors, he was enabled by the vast powers of his mind to surpass their renown. He carried on many wars, with great bravery, against his neighbours, and added many provinces to the Parthian kingdom. He fought successfully, too, several times, against the Scythians, and avenged the injuries received from them by his forefathers, At last he turned his arms against Ortoadistes,[9] king of Armenia. But since we here make a transition to Armenia, we must look a little farther back into its origin; for it is not right that so great a kingdom should be passed in silence, since its territory, next to that of Parthia, is of greater extent than any other kingdom. Armenia, from Cappadocia to the Caspian Sea, stretches over a space of eleven hundred miles, and is seven hundred miles in breadth. It was founded by Armenius, the companion of Jason of Thessaly, whom King Pelias, wishing to procure his death from dread of his extraordinary ability which was dangerous to his throne, despatched on a prescribed expedition to Colchis, to bring home the fleece of the ram so celebrated throughout the world; hoping that the man would lose his life, either in the perils of so long a voyage, or in war with barbarians so remote. But Jason, having spread abroad the report of so glorious an enterprise, at which the chief of the youth from almost all the world[10] came flocking to him, collected a band of heroes, who were called Argonauts. Having brought his troop back safe, and being again driven from Thessaly by the sons of Pelias, he set out on a second voyage for Colchis, accompanied by a numerous train of followers (who, at the fame of his valour, came daily from all parts to join him), by his wife Medea, whom, having previously divorced her, he had now received again from compassion for her exile, and by his step-son Medus, whom she had by Aegeus king of the Athenians; and he re-established his father-in-law Aeetes[11] who had been driven from his throne.

III. He then carried on great wars with the neighbouring nations; and of the cities which he took, he added part to the kingdom of his father-in-law, to make amends for the injury that he had done him in his former expedition, in which he had carried off his daughter Medea and put to death his son Aegialeus,[12] and part he assigned to the people that he had brought with him; and he is said to have been the first of mankind, after Hercules and Bacchus (whom tradition declares to have been kings of the east), that subdued that quarter of the world. Over some of these nations he appointed Recas and Amphistratus, the charioteers of Castor and Pollux, to be their rulers. With the Albanians he formed an alliance, a people who are said to have followed Hercules out of Italy, from the Alban mount, when, after having killed Geryon, he was driving his herds through Italy, and who, remembering their Italian descent, saluted the soldiers of Pompey in the Mithridatic war as their brothers. Hence almost the whole east appointed divine honours, and erected temples, to Jason, as their founder; temples which Parmenio, one of the generals of Alexander the Great, caused many years after to be pulled down, that no name might be more venerated in the east than that of Alexander. After the death of Jason, Medus, emulous of his virtues, built a city named Medea in honour of his mother, and established the kingdom of the Medes after his own name, under whose do minion the empire of the east afterwards fell. On the Albanian's border the Amazons, whose queen Thalestris, as many authors relate, sought the couch of Alexander. Armenius, too, who was himself a Thessalian, and one of the captains of Jason, having re-assembled a body of men, who, after the death of Jason were wandering about, founded Armenia, from the mountains of which the river Tigris issues, at first with a very small stream, out after running some distance, is lost in the earth, and then, flowing five and twenty miles underground, rises up a great river in the province of Sophene; and thus it is received into the marshes of the Euphrates.

IV. Mithridates king of the Parthians, after his war with Armenia, was banished from his kingdom for his cruelty by the Parthian senate. His brother Orodes, who took possession of the vacant throne, besieged Babylon, whither Mithridates had fled, for some time, and reduced the people, under the influence of famine, to surrender. Mithridates, from confidence in his relationship to Orodes, voluntarily put himself into his hands; but Orodes, contemplating him rather as an enemy than a brother, ordered him to be put to death before his face. After this, he carried on a war with the Romans, and overthrew their general Crassus, together with his son and al] the Roman army His son Pacorus, who was sent to pursue what remained of the Roman forces, after achieving great actions in Syria, incurred some jealousy on the part of his father, and was recalled into Parthia; and during his absence the Parthian army left in Syria was cut off, with all its commanders, by Cassius the quastor of Crassus. Not long after these occurrences the civil war among the Romans, between Caesar and Pompey broke out, in which the Parthians took the side of Pompey, both from the friendship that they had formed with him in the Mithridatic war, and because of the death of Crassus, whose son they understood to be of Caesar's party, and supposed that, if Caesar were victorious, he would avenge his father's fate. When Pompey's party was worsted, they sent assistance to Cassius and Brutus against Augustus and Antony; and, after the war was ended, they made an alliance with Labienus, and, under the leadership of Pacorus, again laid waste Syria and Asia, and assailed, with a vast force, the camp of Ventidius, who, like Cassius before him, had routed the Parthian army in the absence of Pacorus. Ventidius, pretending to be afraid, kept himself a long time in his camp, and suffered the Parthians to insult him. At last, however, when they were full of security and exultation, he sent out part of his legions upon them, and the Parthians, put to flight by their onset, went off in several directions; when Pacorus, supposing that his fugitive troops had drawn off all the Roman forces in pursuit of them, attacked Ventidius's camp, as if it had been left without defenders. Upon this, Ventidius, pouring forth the rest of his troops, put the whole force of the Parthians, with their king Pacorus, to the sword; nor did the Parthians, in any war, ever suffer a greater slaughter.

When the news of this discomfiture reached Parthia, Orodes the father of Pacorus, who had just before heard that Syria had been ravaged, and Asia occupied by his Parthians, and was boasting of his son Pacorus as the conqueror of the Romans, was affected, on hearing of the death of his son and the destruction of his army, at first with grief, and afterwards with disorder of the intellect. For several days he neither spoke to any one, nor took food, nor uttered a sound, so that he seemed to have become dumb. Some time after, when his sorrow found vent in words, he did nothing but call upon Pacorus, Pacorus seemed to be seen and heard by him; Pacorus appeared to talk with him, and stand by him, though at other times he mourned and wept for him as lost. After long indulgence in grief, another cause of concern troubled the unhappy old man, as he had to determine which of his thirty sons he should choose for his successor in the room of Pacorus. His numerous concubines, from whom so large a progeny had sprung, were perpetually working on the old man's feelings, each anxious for her own offspring. But the fate of Parthia, in which it is now, as it were, customary that the princes should be assassins of their kindred, ordained that the most cruel of them all, Phraates by name, should be fixed upon for their king.

V. Phraates immediately proceeded to kill his father, as if he would not die, and put to death, also, all his thirty[13] brothers. But his murders did not end with his father's sons; for finding that the nobility began to detest him for his constant barbarities, he caused his own son, who was grown up, to be killed, that there might be no one to be nominated king. On this prince Antony made war, with sixteen effective legions, for having sent troops against him and Caesar; but being severely harassed in several engagements, he was forced to retreat from Parthia. Phraates, upon this success, becoming still more insolent, and being guilty of many fresh acts of cruelty, was driven into exile by his subjects. Having then, for a long time, wearied the neighbouring people, and at last the Scythians, with entreaties for aid, he was at last restored to his throne by a powerful Scythian force. During his absence, the Parthians had made one Tiridates king, who, when he heard of the approach of the Scythians, fled with a great body of his partisans to Caesar,[14] who was then carrying on war in Spain,[15] taking with him, as a hostage for Caesar, the youngest son of Phraates, whom, being but negligently guarded, he had secretly carried off. Phraates, on hearing of his flight, immediately sent ambassadors to Caesar, requesting that "his slave Tiridates, and his son, should be restored to him." Caesar, after listening to the embassy of Phraates, and de liberating on the application of Tiridates (for he also had asked to be restored to his throne, saying that " Parthia would be wholly in the power of the Romans, if he should hold the kingdom as a gift from them"), replied, that "he would neither give up Tiridates to the Parthians, nor give assistance to Tiridates against the Parthians." That it might not appear, however, that nothing had been obtained from Caesar by all their applications, he sent back to Phraates his son without ransom, and ordered a handsome maintenance to be furnished to Tiridates, as long as he chose to continue among, the Romans. Some time after, when Caesar had finished the Spanish war, and had proceeded to Syria to settle the affairs of the east, he caused some alarm to Phraates, who was afraid that he might contemplate an invasion of Parthia. Whatever prisoners, accordingly, remained of the army of Crassus or Antony throughout, Parthia, were collected together, and sent, with the military standards that had been taken, to Augustus. In addition to this, the sons and grandsons of Phraates were delivered to Augustus as hostages; and thus Caesar effected more by the power of his name, than any other general could have done by his arms

1. Justin's History of the World extracted from Trogus Pompeius, in Justin, Cornelius Nepos and Eutropius, John Selby Watson, tr. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1876), pp. 272-283

2. Wetzel has Spartanos in his text, but observed in his note, that the right reading is unquestionably Sparnos, the Sparni being mentioned by Strabo in conjunction with the Dahae.

3. Populorum. This word is undoubtedly corrupt. J. F Gronovius would alter it to optimatum. Procerum would perhaps be better.

4. Patrius et Scythicus mos. He seems to mean that their arms were partly of their own contrivance, and partly adopted from the Scythians.

5. Credas simulacra moveri; Ferrea, cognatoque viros spirare metallo; Par vestitus equius. Claudian, In Ruf. ii. 35.

6. I think that this custom is erroneously attributed to the Parthians by Justin, being rather that of the Hyrcanians. Herodotus also, as I am aware, attributes it to the Persians i. 140. Is. Vossius. See Cic. Tusc. i. 44, 45.

7. Not weaker with respect to the particular time at which the Bactrians were exhausted by wars, but to other times, when the Bactrians had been their superiors in strength.ÑScheffer.

8. Very improbable.

9. Or rather Artoadistes, as the name is written in six of the old editions. He is called Artavasdes by Strabo and Plutarch. Wetzel.

10. A hyperbole for there were none but Greeks. Wetzel. Faber, for totius orbis, would read totius Graeciae.

11. Aeetes is a conjecture of Faber for etiam, which is useless. There is no account of Jason's second voyage to Colchis in any other author.

12. Whom most authors call Absyrtus.

13. Either he killed only twenty-nine, or there were thirty-one survivors of Pacorus.

14. Augustus. Comp. c. 4.

15. All the texts, except that of Dubner's little edition, have in Hispaniam, but the sense, as Faber observes and Wetzel admits, evidently requires in Hispania.


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