“So all the wise one day, when fight was fiercest, Asked quarter, and Ardshír charged from the centre; Arose a clashing while the arrows showered. Amidmost of the mellay Ardawán Was ta'en, and for his crown gave up sweet life. The hand of one Kharrád seized on his bridle, And bare him captive to the atheling. Ardshír saw him from far. King Ardawán Lit from his steed, his body arrow-pierced, His soul all gloom, and Sháh Ardshír commanded The deathsman: “Go, seize on the great king's foe, Cleave him asunder with thy sword, and make Our evil-wishers quail.”So did the deathsman:That famous monarch vanished from the world.“
(Ferdowsi “The Shahnameh”)
The Statue of Parthian Nobleman, National Museum of Iran, |
one of the most famous pieces of Parthian art, maybe depicting General Surena,
the victor of the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE (Between 200 BCE and 200 CE)
They were probably a sub-tribe of the Scythians, the antique catchall term for the Indo-Iranian horse nomads of the steppe beyond the Black and the Caspian Sea. Once called the Parni, they became known as Parthians when they were led by their prince Arsaces into Parthia, a region on the border of modern Iran and Turkmenistan around 250 BCE, then a Hellenistic part of one of the successor states of Alexander the Great’s conquest, the Seleucid Empire. Over the next hundred years, the Parthians adopted Hellenistic culture and customs, spoke Greek and took over large parts of Persia between the two poles of the decaying Seleucid Empire in the west and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in the East, located somewhere between the Syr Darya, the Hindu-Kush and the Indus. At least we assume that they did, since there are so few original sources. What we know about the Parthians was more often than not written down by their enemies, chiefly the Romans with whom they clashed for the first time at Carrhae in 53 BCE, where the Parthian General Surenas ended Crassus’ attempt of playing Caesar with a bang. It was the gory prelude of centuries of war along the borders, usually beginning with the Romans crossing the Euphrates, capturing Mesopotamia, spreading themselves too thin, getting their supply lines cut, usually coming to grief in skirmishes with the Parthian horse soldiers, archers and knights, and finally having to abandon their conquest and withdraw back across the river into Roman Syria. Roman accounts of their Parthian enemies depend on the political intention of the respective authors but usually vary between the description of effeminate, over-civilised wastrels and half-wild, horse-loving barbarians. In fact, the Romans met their match beyond the Euphrates and even if the Parthians never abandoned their tribal structure and had organised their empire – probably - in quasi-feudal, quasi-independent and often Greek speaking principalities in contrast to centralised Imperial Rome, their achievements in terms of civilisation as well as warfare were considerable. And by mid-3rd century CE, they were as exhausted as the Romans.
|The Sassanid relief at Naqsh-e Rustam showing the investiture of Ardashir I at the hands of the higher divine spirit of the old Iranian religion, Ahura Mazda, himself (on the right, the rider with the high crown)|
Historical re-enactment of a Sassanid-era cataphract,
complete with a full set of scale armour for the horse.
And more about the Parthian Kingdom and Parthian history and culture, or what we believe we know about it, on: