Parthia: The Forgotten Empire

A Virtual Exhibition

Phraates II,
138-127 BC.Phraates II, 138-127 BC.

This exhibit takes advantage of the National Numismatic Collection's collection of Parthian drachmas in order to illustrate and illuminate a largely forgotten segment of the history of the Middle East. The topic is approached from several different "angles"- 1) Geographically, 2) Historically, 3) The Ruler List. Each of these are mutually interconnected. Images are primarily drawn from the Numismatic collections, supplemented with maps and images of artwork and sites from various sources.

I. Introduction


Parthian horsearcher making the famous 'Parthian
shot'.Where is Parthia?(1) Who were the Parthians?(2) Why are they interesting?(3) What have they left behind?

The Parthians created an empire which, at its height, presented Rome with a serious challenge for the control of the Middle East west of the Euphrates river. They were the only civilized power to withstand the might of Rome at its height- the same Romans who had conquered Carthage, Macedon, the Seleucids, and the Gauls. So, who were these Parthians, whose empire stretched from the Hindu Kush to Mesopotamia? How is it that a people who created an empire which lasted for almost 500 years have been so nearly forgotten? This presentation will take advantage of the National Numismatic Collection's collection of Parthian coins in order to answer these questions and, hopefully to impart a sense of the important role played by the Parthians in the history of the Middle East.

The Parthian kingdom began with the election of Arsaces I to the kingship of the Parni in 247 BC. Arsaces I was, as far as is known, a leader of the Parni, a branch of the Dahae, one of the tribes of the Scythian confederation, which had moved into the Seleucid province of Parthia from the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea at some point during the first half of the 3rd century BC. The Scythians were nomadic herdsman who occupied much of the region along and between the northern coasts of the Black Sea and the Caspian during most of the Classical and Hellenistic periods, and were famed for their horses and horsemanship. In 238 BC, Arsaces I succeeded in defeating the Seleucid governor of Parthia and establishing the Parthian kingdom. With his accession, the coinage of Parthia begins, and would continue, with only a short break, for the next 500 years. This coinage has proven extremely important for Parthian history for several reasons; primarily because of the scarcity of written records - the Parthians themselves did not leave behind any written legacy, while their successors, the Sassanians, deliberately attempted to eradicate the memory of the Parthians as foreigners and heretics. In many cases the only knowledge we have of certain kings is through their coinage. For the majority of Parthian history we have to rely on a combination of fragmentary literary sources and references (in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Persian, Babylonian, Chinese, etc.), archaeology, and the coinage itself to create a coherent, though incomplete, story.

The Parthian legacy has been remarkable, considering how little they are remembered and the fact that they were quintessentially a nation of horse-warriors separate from their more sedentary subjects, and remained so, right to the end of the kingdom. Their coinage formed the medium through which western, in particular Greek, ideas of coin design were transmitted, and transmuted, in the Middle East from the Euphrates to the Indus and beyond. The Parthians developed one of the first recognizably feudal systems on record- which was transmitted to the Sassanians, and thence to the Arabs. The Persian epic history is now thought to include lengthy portions from the Parthian era - the Parthians had a great oral tradition, in keeping with their nomadic background, and greatly valued bards and story-telling. The Parthians also left a legacy in art and architecture, creating a style that mixed Hellenism with native Persian influences, particularly in ornamental metal work. There is even a small literary legacy with the "Parthian shot" - a phrase taken from Parthian horse-archer tactics in which the archer would feign flight, and, while riding away, fire over the back of their horse as illustrated in the graphic above.

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