Iranian History/The Early Arsacids

With the fall of the Achaemenid Empire in 330 BC, Iran became the target of semi-barbarous hordes and Central Asian adventurers. The Seleucids, the Kushans, the Sakas and the Huns each in turn ruled Persia for a period of time. Eventually, they were all superseded by the Parthians or the Pahlavas a Northern Iranian tribe which had conquered the whole of Persia by the 1st century BC.

The Revolt of Bactria


Origin of the Parthians


Following the death of Alexander, Persia partially recovered her former glory under the Parthians also called Parthva or Pahlava. They were the residents of Parthia a country to the south of Hyrcania and around the present-day Mashhad in the province of Khorasan. Parthia had been one of the satrapies of the Achaemenid Empire and the Greeks.

Arsaces (Arshaka) I 250 - 247 BC


Arcases I was the first major ruler of the Arsacid dynasty of Parthia. He declared his independence from the Seleucids and ruled from 250 BC to 247 BC. He was eventually speared to death in 247 BC and was succeeded by his brother Tiridates who ascended the throne as Arsaces II.

Tiridates 247 - 214 BC


Tiridates succeeded his brother Arsaces I as Arsaces II. He is credited with having consolidated the kingdom established by his brother. However, in 245 BC Ptolemy Euergetes the Ptolemian ruler of Egypt invaded and occupied Syria and proceeded to ravage the Empire upto the frontiers of Parthia. However, fortunately, Parthia was spared as Euergetes had to rush back to quell an insurrection back home. But the invasion of Ptolemy Euergetes have dealt a severe jolt to the crumbling seleucid Empire and Tiridates took advantage of this to liberate Hyrcania. The Seleucid king, Seleucus II responded by invading Parthia in 237 BC in alliance with Diodotus the king of Bactria. Tiridates resorted to strategem and won the king of Bactria to his side. Isolated, Seleucus II was never going to be a formidable force and was defeated by Tiridates in league with Bactria and the Central Asian tribe of the Aspasiacae. Meanwhile, as Selucus II was planning a second invasion of Parthia there arose problems back home due to the insurrection of his brother Antiochus Hierax forcing him to leave for Syria. Tiridates was left unmolested for the rest of his reign and he used this opportunity to consolidate his empire.

Tiridates built a new capital city in the vicinity of the modern-day Mashhad and called it Dara (Dareium to the Greeks). He spent the remained of his reign adorning his new capital and improving it to the state of a world metropolis.

Tiridates died in 214 BC and was succeeded by his son Artabanus I.

Artabanus I 214 - 196 BC


As soon as he ascended the throne, Artabanus I captured the entire tract between Hyrcania and the Zagros Mountains taking advantage of a civil war in Syria. He even took the imperial city of Ecbatana. However, soon after the civil war had concluded, Antiochus III the Great of Syria set out for Parthia at the head of a large army and easily retook Ecbatana which was undefended. He then proceeded all the way north to Parthia and conquered the capital Hecatompylos forcing Artabanus to take shelter in Hyrcania. The Parthian monarch's hopes were dashed when Antiochus III completely surrounded Hyrcania with his troops. Artabanus was forced to surrender and conclude peace with the Seleucids. Artabanus I proceeded further eastward and fought a battle with the Bactrians. Finally, in 206, his eastern campaign having come to a conclusion, he returned unmolested to Antioch.



Phraates I


Priapatius was succeeded by his son Phraates I (Old Persian:Farhaud). During his seven year long reign, Phraates invaded the Mardians and defeated them. He then invaded the western district of Media and conquered it. The conquest of Media brought the Girduni Sudurrah pass under Phraates' control. This pass was of great strategic importance and its conquest by the Parthians brought Persia within Parthia's grasp. Phraates was succeeded by his brother Mithridates.

Mithridates I


Mithridates I (Old Persian: Mithradatha; New Persian:Mehrdad) ruled for thirty-seven years and was singularly responsibl;e for elevating Parhtia from the status of a minor principality to a powerful Empire.

War with Bactria


Eucratidas, the monarch of Bactria and his predecessor Demetrius had expanded the Bactrian kingdom beyond the limits of Afghanistan into North-west India and had added the Punjab to the kingdom. To the south, the kingdom extended almost upto the mouths of the Indus. However, not satisifed, Eucratidas wanted to expand further to the East and conquer the rich plains of India. Hence he was involved in constantr wars with the East. Taking advantage of the king'd eastern campaign the north-western provinces of the Empire began to break off one by one. Mithridates took advantage of the situation prevailing in Bactria and attacked the kingdom annexing the country of the Turanians and that of the Aspasiacae.

Invasion of the Seleucid Empire


During this time, Syria was ruled by Antiochus Epiphanes who was infamous for his religious fanaticism and intolerance. He fought a three-year long war with the Egypt over the disputed south-western frontiers of the kingdom. He tried to suppress Judaic culture and tried to impose Hellenism and Hellenic Gods upon the Jewish people. This evoked widespread reaction and provoked civil war. He died a few years later and was succeeded by his son Antiochus Eupator a boy of nine who ruled for a short period before being deposed by his cousin and rival claimant to the throne Demetrius. Soon after his accession, he began concentrating his energies on controlling internal rebellion in the kingdom.

Finding the king busy with his campaign in Judea, soon after the successful invasion of Bactria, Mithridates invaded the Seleucid kingdom and occupied Media Magna. However a rebellion in Hyrcania forced Mithridates to return immediately.

Second War with Bactria


In about 150 BC, Eucratidas was succeeded by his son Heliocles who initiated war with Parthia to recover the provinces his father had lost. However, Mithridates easily defeated him and carried the Parthian arms as far as the frontiers of India.

Demetrius' Campaign


In 142 BC, when the civil war in Syria came to an end, Demetrius II invaded the Parthian Empire in order to recover lost territories. His campaign was initially successful as the Greek citizens of the Parthian welcomed him as their deliverer. But Mithridates took recourse to strategem and successfully vanquished him and captured him. The Seleucid Emperor Demetrius II became a hostage of the Parthian king Mithridates I and was allotted a residence in Hyrcania.

Mithridates I died soon after the victory over Demetrius II.

Administration under Mithridates I


The king was assisted in his duties by an advisory body made up of members of the Royal House on one hand and the Magi and the wise men on the other. In the event of a monarch passing away with no rightful heir to succeed him, his successor would be nominated by this assembly. This assembly also held the power to depose monarchs.

The Parthians followed the very system of governance practised by the Achaemenids. The country was divided into satrapies governed by satraps. Besides, there were a number of kingdoms and dependencies which pledged allegiance to the Parthians. They are Persia, Elymaiis, Adiabene, Osrhoene, Armenia and Media Atropatene. The satraps were fourteen or fifteen in number.

The king styled himself "Shahenshah" or "Kings of Kings" and "brother of the sun and the moon".

Character of Mithridates


Though the Parthian kingdom was founded by Arsaces I, Mithridates I is credited with having transformed the kingdom into an Empire. He was brave and fearless and was quick to grab opportunities. At the same time, history describes him as a mild and clement monarch who pardoned defeated monarchs and treated them graciously. He is undoubtedly, one of the greatest monarchs of the Arsacid dynasty.

Phraates II


Mithridates I was succeeded by his son Phraates II in about 134 BC.

War with Syria


After the capture of Demetrius by the Parthians, Antiochus Sidetus had been crowned the Seleucid Emperor at Antioch. Soon afterwards he was locked in a deadly conflict with Tryphon a pretender to the throne whom he defeated and killed. After the death of Tryphon, Antiochus Sidetus ravaged Palestine and forced them to submit to his authority which they did in 133 BC. Following the subjugation of Palestine, he turned his attention towards Parthia and invaded the Parthian Empire in 129 BC.

With a contingent of over 100,000 fighting men, Sidetus conquered Babylonia and Assyria and advanced with great speed upon Parthia. However, just as he approaching the frontiers of Babylonia, winter broke out forcing the Seleucid troops to scatter. Phraates, meanwhile, was actively abetting rebellion in the conquered provinces, inciting the discontented people of Babylonia and Assyria to rebel against Sidetus and his Syrian troops. On an appointed date, insurrection broke out on a massive scale. Local people revolted against the haughtiness and arrogance of Syrian soldiers and fell upon them. They were offered all aid by the Parthian frontier garrisons. Sidetus and his army were eventually cut to pieces before they cross the border into Syria. This would be the last attempt made by the Seleucids to reclaim their lost territory. Never again, would the Seleucids even come close to fighting a war with the powerful Parthian Empire. This war also spelt the end of the Seleucid Empire as a major power in Asia.

Rebellion of the Greeks and Phraates' Death


Soon after the defeat of Antiochus Sidetus, Phraates II desired to invade Syria. However, he had to call off the campaign when the Scythian contingent of the Parthian army rebelled demanding more pay. When Phraates II refused, they ravaged Parthia itself forcing Phraates II to shift the capital to Babylon. Having established his seat at Babylon, Phraates II set out with a Greek contingent to fight the Scythians and drive them off. In the ensuing battle, the Greeks deserted Phraates and joined the Scythians. Phraates and his army suffered a crushing defeat and a large number of them were slaughtered. Phraates himself was among the slain and was succeeded by his uncle Artabanus.

Artabanus II


Phraates was succeeded by his uncle Artabanus, a son of Priapatius who ascended the throne as Artabanus II.

Artabanus ascended the throne when the kingdom was in peril. The Greeks and Scythians were advancing upon Babylon to finish off the Parthian Empire. However, Artabanus II was saved by by the fortunate turn of events. The Greeks had lost interest in invading Parthian territories while the Sakas were satisfied with the plunder they had made. So, the victorious forces dispersed soon after satisfying their thirst for plunder. The Parthian Empire was saved.

Artabanus swore revenge and soon afterwards, attacked the Tochari, one of the Scythian (Saka) tribes. However, in the clash that followed, Artabanus was defeated and killed.

Mithridates II


Artabanus II died in about 124 BC and was succeeded by his son Mithridates II, also known as Mithridates the Great.

Conflict with the Scythians or Sakas


Mithridates fought the Scythians and completely routed them. He even seized portions of Bactria which the Scyths had taken. With this, the Sakas abandoned all plans to invade the Parthian Empire and began to concentrate on Sistan and India.

First Armenian War


Armenia had been first conquered by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC. Since then, it had been a part of sccessive empires which ruled Persia -- the Mede, the Achaemenid, the Greek and the Seleucid. In 190 BC, when Antiochus was defeated by the Romans Armenia declared its independence. Bt it was reconquered by Antiochus Epiphanes in 165 BC and its king Artaxias made prisoner.

During the rule of Mithridates I when Parthian power was established all over Asia, Armenia became independent under an Arsacid prince. When Mithridates II ascended the throne he invaded Armenia. The Armenians pleaded for peace when their defeat became imminent and war came to an end by a treaty advantageous to the Parthians. Ortoadistus, the Parthian king was replaced by his son Tigranes who ceded large chunks of territory to Parthia.

Alliance with Rome and the Second Armenian War


In around 96 BC, Tigranes, the king of Armenia allied with Pontus with the intention of conquering Cappadocia. The Roman republic was alarmed at the rise of a new power along its eastern frontiers and sent Sulla in 92 BC with a large army to fight this emerging power. Sulla invaded Asia Minor and inflicted a crushing defeat on Pontus and Armenia.

At about the same time, Tigranes invaded Parthia in order to break Parthian power and recover lost territories. Tigranes rapidly overran Upper Mesopotamia and threatened Parthia, forcing Mithridates to conclude an alliance with Rome.

Mithridates II died soon afterwards.



Mithridates II was succeeded by Gotarzes. His original name might have been Gudarz which had been Hellenized to Gotarzes.

Orodes I




In around 76 BC, Orodes I was succeeded by Sinatroces a son of Mithridates I and a cousin of Phraates II. He was over eighty years old at the time of his accession.

Meanwhile, Armenia had reached the zenith of its power under its king Tigranes.Even in the reign of Mithridates II, he had waged a successful war against Parthia and conquered Northern Mesopotamia. By 83 BC, he had established his suzerainty all over Syria, Cilicia, Palestine and Sophene. The Armenian kingdom was at its greatest extent when Tigranes shifted the capital to Gordyene in Northern Mesopotamia.

In 72 BC, Rome launched a second war against Armenia. Sinatroces remained neutral and had to face-off the invasion of the Roman general Lucullus which followed. Lucullus invaded the Parthian Empire but faced a determined resistance from the garrison at Nisibis which blocked his advance.

At this juncture, Sinatroces passed away and was succeeded by his son Phraates III.

Phraates III`


Phraates III is notable for his alliance with the Roman general Pompey against Tigranes. To tackle Armenia, he fomented disunity and civil war by aiding Tigranes' son Tigranes against his father. The latter was banished from Armenia and returned with a body of Parthian troops to challenge his father. In the battle that followed, the Parthian troops had to face defeat. However, Armenia submitted to a Roman invasion which had worsted Mithridates of Pontus. Parthia took advantage o this defeat to recover the provinces that it had earlier lost to Armenia.

However, from the very beginning, Pompey was not much inclined towards having an alliance wit Parthia whom he perceived as a potential rival to Rome. He allowed the Parthians to take Adiabene but he handed over Gordyene to Ariobarzanes, the Cappadocian monarch. Soon war broke out between Tigranes and Phraates III over the disputed region of Gordyene. Pompey switched sides and supported the Armenians against the Parthians and drove them off. He even refused to address the Parthian monarch as "king of kings". Peace was however soon concluded between Parthia and Armenia.

Phraates III was assassinated by his two sons Mithridates and Orodes in 62 BC.

Mithridates III


Mithridates III ruled for a short span of three years. During his reign, the Parthians recovered the province of Gordyene which they had lost to Armenia. However, three years after his accession, trouble broke out in the Empire forcing him to flee. He sought the assistance of Rome to recover his throne. But an internal rebellion in Parthia had already placed his younger brother Orodes on the throne. Mithridates was captured and killed and succeeded by Orodes.

Orodes II


Mithridates III was succeeded by his brother Orodes II.

Roman Invasion




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