The Origin of Arsacid Dynasty


By: Prof. A. Shapur Shahbazi


The (Persian Ashkanian), Parthian dynasty which was the third Iranian dynasty, after Medes and Achaemenids ruled Iran from about 250 B.C. to about 226 A. D. 

Our sources on the ancestry of the eponymous founder of the dynasty, Arsaces, vary irreconcilably. He is introduced as a outlaw who seized Parthia by attacking and killing its satrap, Andragoras (Justin 41.4; Ammianus Marcellinus 23.6.2); as a Bactrian who found the rise of Diodotus unbearable, moved to Parthia, and securing the leadership of the province, rose against the Seleucids (Strabo I 1.9.3) invasion of Iran; or as a Parni chief of the Dahae oacians, who conquered Parthia shortly before Diodotus' revolt (ibid., 1 1.9.2). A fourth account alleges that "the Persian" Andragoras whom Alexander left as satrap of Parthia was the ancestor of the subsequent kings of Parthia (Justin 12.4.12). A fifth version had been provided by Arrian in his Parthica, now lost, which was epitomized on this point by Photius (Bibliotlteca 58) and the twelfth-century Syncellus (Corpus scriptorum historiae Byzantinae XIII, ed. W. Dindorf, Bonn, 1829, p.539). Photius' epitome runs as follows: "Arsaces and Tiridates were brothers, descendants of Phriapites, the son of Arsaces [Syncellus: the brothers "were allegedly descendants of the Persian Artaxerxes"]. Pherecles [Syncellus: Agathocles], who had been made satrap of their country by Antiochus Theus, offered a gross insult to one of them, whereupon... they took five men into counsel, and with their aid slew the insolent one. They then induced their nation to revolt from the Macedonians and set up a government of their own." Finally, the Iranian national history traced Arsaces' lineage to Kay Qobad (Ferdowsi, Sah-nama VII, p. 1 16. Tabari, 1, p. 710), or to his son Kay Ara; (Ta'alebi, p.457), or to Dara the son of Homay (Tabari, 1, p.704; Biruni, The Chronology, p. 118), or even to the famous archer, Ârash (Sâh-nâma VII, p.115; anonymous "authorities" apud Biruni, op. cit., p. I 19). 

These reports reflect developments in political ideologies. Humble origin and robbery are folk-stories told also of Cyrus, Sasan, and other dynastic heroes. The association with Ârash the archer was occasioned by similarity in names and the fact that Arsaces is figured on Parthian coins as a bowman (cf. A. v. Gutschmidt in ZDMG 34, 1880, p. 743), although the bow was always regarded as a royal symbol. "The Persian Artaxerxes" in Syncellus has generally been taken to mean Artaxerxes II because Ctesias said (apud Plutarch, Arto.xares 2) that he was called Arsaces prior to his coronation (A. v. Gutschmid, Geschichte Irans and seiner Nachbarldnder, Tubingen, 1888, p. 30, and others). But this ignores the fact that Artaxerxes I also was called Arshak/Arsaces, Babylonian Arshu (A. Sachs, "Achaemenid Royal Names in Babylonian Astronomical Texts," American Journal of Ancient History 4, 1979, pp. 131ff.). 

The tradition that Arsaces was a Parni chief is supported, as R. N. Frye has noticed (The History, of Ancient Iran, Munich, 1983, p.206), by a statement in Bundahishn (35.43f.) according to which Dastân (= Zal), "Prince of the Sacas" and Aparnak, Lord of Aparsgahr (later Nishapur) were descendants of Sam: "Aparsahr is thus named because it is the land of the Aparnak" (corrected translation in Frye, loc. cit., with n. 3). By the middle of the third century B.C., the Parni appear to have been assimilated to the Iranian Parthians: They adopted the latter sh name, bore purely Iranian-even Zoroastrian-names (Lassen, Indische Altertutnskundc II, Bonn, 1847, p.285 n. 3, could connect the name of Arsaces' father, Phriapites, with an Avestan *Friya. pity "father-lover" = Greek Philopalros). On his coins, Arsaces wears Sacian dress but sits on a stool (later ampholas) with a bow in hand, as Achaemenid satraps, such as Datames, had done before. He deliberately diverges from Seleucid coins to emphasize his nationalistic and royal aspirations, and he calls himself Karny/Karny (Greek Autocratos), a title already borne by Achaemenid supreme generals, such as Cyrus the Younger (see for details M. T. Abgarians and D. G. Sellwood, "A Hoard of Early Parthian Drachms," NC, 1971, pp. 103ff.). Later Parthian kings assumed Achaemenid descent, revived Achaemenid protocols (J. Ncusner, "Perthian Political Ideology," Iranica Antigua 3, 1963, pp.45ff.), and Artabanus III, who named one of his sons Darius (Dio Cassius 59.27), laid claim to Cyrus' heritage (Tacitus, Annals 4.31). On the whole, then, onomastic, numismatic, and epigraphic considerations point to the conclusion that the Parthian dynasty was "local. Iranian by origin;" on this ground "the Zoroastrian character of all the names of the Parthian kings, and the fact that some of these names . . . belong to the heroic background' of the Avesta," afford logical explanation (G. V. Lukonin in Camb. Hist. Iran 111/2, 1983, p.-687).



Bibliography given in the text





Source/Extracted From: Encyclopaedia Iranica


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