Pages

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Roman opponents: The Parthians

Yesterday I finished the Great Courses lecture series "Between the Rivers" presented by Professor Alexis Castor, Franklin and Marshall College.  The name of the course refers to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and covers over 3,000 years of history in the region of modern day Iraq.  One of the last lectures focused on the Parthians, originally a nomadic people from modern day Iran, that challenged the Seleucids, Alexander the Great's successors, in the region beginning in the 3rd century BCE.  The Parthians wrested control of the Silk Road from the Seleucids and finally captured their capital, Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, in 129 BCE.  The Parthians built their own capital nearby at Ctesiphon.

Although those of us who study Roman history are well aware of the dramatic Roman defeat of the legions led by Marcus Licinius Crassus at Carrhae, and the famous Parthian archers with their Parthian shot, I was not as familiar with their administration or that their coins featured Greek inscriptions.  The ruling dynasty, called the Arasacids after their first king Arsaces organized their empire rather loosely, allowing local control to remain intact and local economies to operate unmolested except for the payment of tribute, in some ways very similar to the Romans.  But, Parthian kings did not supply royal troops for defense.  Instead, they expected regional leaders to maintain their own armies.  This did result in the occasional attempt of a local leader to occasionally challenge the current king for the throne but it also provided flexibility so the Parthians could recover from military setbacks much more easily, resulting in the Parthian domination of the region for almost 500 years.

Three times in the 2nd century CE, the Romans attacked and captured Ctesiphon and the Parthians survived to fight another day.  It was not until Ctesiphon  was sacked by Septimius Severus in 197 CE who killed or enslaved the entire population of the Parthian capital were the Parthians weakened enough to allow their defeat a few decades later by the Sassanians, another Iranian people from within their own borders.

Artistically, the Parthians were skilled metalworkers and created beautiful objects in silver and gold usually featuring animal or mythological motifs.  I have photographed their artifacts at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art in Washington D.C., at the British Museum, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at the Getty Villa, and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Parthian Belt adornment with an eagle and its prey The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1st-2nd century CE

Parthian buckle bronze 150 BCE to 225 CE photographed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Parthian buckle bronze 150 BCE to 225 CE photographed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Closeup of a Parthian Wine Horn with Lion Protome Iran 1st century BCE - 1st century CE Silver and Gilt photographed at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C.

Closeup of a Parthian Wine Horn with Lynx Protome Iran 1st century BCE - 1st century CE Silver and Gilt photographed at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C.

Statue of a Parthian Prince at the National Museum in Iran courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Dorieo

Parthian frieze from Ephesos 169 CE courtesy of the Ephesos Museum, Vienna.

Parthian gold earring shaped like an amphora 1st - 2nd century CE courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Harness Disk with Lion Attacking a Stag Parthian 225-100 BCE Silver and gold photographed at the Getty Villa.

Parthian Horse headpiece (Prometopidion) with a siren and a sphinx Parthian 200-100 BCE Silver photographed at the Getty Villa.

Closeup of Rhyton with Goat Protome Iran Parthian Period (150 BCE-225 CE) Silver with mercury gilding photographed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Parthian man returning the eagle standards to Augustus after they were lost by Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC

Parthian Wine Horns with animal protomes Iran 1st century BCE - 1st century CE Silver and Gilt photographed at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery

Parthian Rhyton (Drinking horn) with lion Parthian 100-1 BCE Silver Gold and Garnet photographed at the Getty Villa.

Closeup of Rhyton with a Stag Parthian 50 BCE-50 CE Silver gold glass and garnet photographed at the Getty Villa

Rhyton with a Stag Parthian 50 BCE-50 CE Silver gold glass and garnet photographed at the Getty Villa

Parthian Silver Plate showing Dionysos either late Parthian or early Sasanian 2nd - 3rd century CE Afghanistan photographed at the British Museum

Parthian Silver Plate showing Dionysos either late Parthian or early Sasanian 2nd - 3rd century CE Afghanistan photographed at the British Museum


Silver-gilt rhyton for libations or drinking Greco-Parthian Hellenistic 2nd century BCE photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Parthian Vessel 150 BCE to 225 CE bronze photographed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Parthian warrior from Nysa 2nd century BCE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Zereshk

Young Man With Parthian Costume Palmyra 3rd century CE at The Louvre courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor World Imaging

Parthian Mounted archer courtesy of the British Museum


No comments: