History of Iran
(part of Iranologie.com)
Part IV: The Arsacid Empire
Chapter II: From Arsaces to Mithradates II
The Foundations of the Arsacid Rule
Arsaces I (Parth. Arshak) was the ruler of the Parni tribe, part of the Dahae tribal confederation of Central Asia, probably themselves part of the various Eastern Iranian nomadic tribes which also included the Sakas mentioned in the Inscription of Behistun. We know little about Arsaces' background, but we are told by various sources that sometimes between 247-239 BCE, he was crowned the king of Parthia, probably as a successor to Andragoras who has previously raised in rebellion against Antiochos II Theos. The circumstances surrounding these events are also quite confusing themselves, our sources often being from centuries later and written by Greek or Roman historians. Initially, it was believed, based on Arian's account of Alexander's life and the fragments of his lost Parthica that Arsaces rose in rebellion with the help of his brother Tirdat (Gk. Tirdates). However, newer research suggests that the existence of this brother, who supposedly also succeeds Arsaces I, is doubtful. Information gained from previously ignored sources (Justin) and newly discovered primary material (the Nisa ostraca) now lead us to believe that Arsaces was crowned king of Parthia and ruled in that region for about two decades, probably taking time to establish his rule over this vast satrapy.
Sometimes around 213 BCE, Arsaces I was succeeded by his son Arsaces II. Shortly afterwards, the Seleucid king Antiochos III (the Great) who had become aware of the Parthian threat, along with the quick rise of Bactria, decided to re-establish his rule over his eastern satrapies. Thus, in 209 Arsaces II was defeated by Antiochos and had to flee to Transoxiana, probably taking refuge with his native Parni tribe. Soon afterwards, however, Arsaces successfully sued for peace and managed to regain his throne in Parthia. At that time, Antiochos' involvement with the Mediterrnean politics and his support for Hannibal against the Romans left the field peaceful enough for the Parthians to establish and strengthen their rule in the East.
From the rule of Arsaces II's successor, Phriapatius, we don't know much. A few ostraca found in a wine storage from Nisa (near present day Ashkhabad in Turkmenistan) give us his name, mostly by mentioning him as the ancestor of the kings who ruled at the time when the ostraca were written. It has often been alleged that Phriapatius was a nephew of Arsaces I and the son of the aforementioned Tirdat. However, with the new research showing that Arian's account about Tirdat as a brother of Arsaces I was probably fictional, the issue of the relationship of this king to those before him has been thrown into the dark. The present author, however, believes that Phriapatius was indeed the son and successor of Arsaces II and proposes that the name Tirdat should be given to Arsaces I as his personal name, while Ardawan (Lat. Artabanus) should be used for Arsaces II. In any case, after this point, all Arsacid kings took the honorary, or family, name of Arsaces and used it on their coins as well, a fact that makes their identification and relationship quite difficult. Other than this, we know that it was during the rule of Phriapatius that the Arsacid rule also extended to Hyrcania (mod. Gorgan) to the east of the Caspian Sea and the first steps in Arsacid expansion were taken.
Phriapatius was followed in 176 BCE (or as it is sometimes alleged, 170 BCE) by his son, Phraates I (Path. Farhad). Not much is known about the reign of this king other than his subjugation of the Mardi tribe in central Alburz range. If accurate, this would mean that the Arsacids by this time had managed to enter eastern Media, still firmly in the hand of the Seleucids. Reportedly, however, their campaigns in Media proper were not successful as a confederation lead by the Sakas defeated their advances in that region. Phraates died in the battle at Media and was succeeded by his brother, Mithradates I (ca. 165 BCE).
Coin of Arsaces I
From Mithradates I to Mithradates II
As an empire, we can date the foundation of the Arsacid rule to the succession of Mithradates I (Parth. Mithra-dhat). Prior to his rule, the Arsacid rule in Parthia was only one of the many autonomous kingdoms in the territories of the Seleucid Empire. However, with the succession of Mithradates I, we have the beginnings of a true empire, one that consciously or unconsciously was trying to recreate the empire of the Achaemenids and Alexander.
The early reign of Mithradates probably was spent in Parthia proper, re-establishing his rule over his core territories, securing it against the nomadic tribes of Central Asia, and making sure of the safety from the Bactrian side by effectively blocking off the Greco-Bactrian kingdom of Diodotos' successors. Part of his time was also occupied by having to deal with the claims of his brother's child who might have had designs for their own place on the throne of the Arsacids.
However, Mithradates appears again in the pages of history in 144 BCE when he is reported to have successfully captured Babylonia, well into the Seleucid territory. We should then assume that he had managed to conquer Media before this date, a task which had taken his brother's life when he had attempted to realise it. We know that Mithradates minted coins in his name in 140 BCE in the city of Seleucia-on-Tigris, the eastern capital of the Seleucid empire. If precise, this would mean that Mithradates I had managed to control most of the heartland of the Achaemenid Empire by this time. We are also told that he managed to defeat and capture Demetrius II, the Seleucid king, who was sent into captivity in Mithradatokert (Nisa), one of the capitals of the Arsacids. In this sense, 140 BCE is a good date to assign for the end of the Seleucid rule in Iran and for the establishment of the Arsacid power as an empire in the same territories.
After securing the Arsacid rule over Parthia, Hyrcania, Media, Mesopotamia, and probably even Persis (Per. Pars; the home province of the Achaemenids), Mithradates I appears to have died peacefully sometimes around 132 BCE. He was succeeded by his son Phraates II. The new king had the misfortune of having to face off with Antiochos VII Sidetes, the Seleucid king who initially managed to cut ways into the Arsacid territories. He was, however, successfully defeated at a battle 129 BCE, leaving Phraates free to deal with a new threat, that of the Sakas who had invaded his territory from the northeast and east. He and his uncle and successor, Artabanus I were both quickly defeated and killed by the Sakas who had managed to penetrate the Arsacid lands as far as Media. We don't know much about the next two or three kings of the Arsacid Empire who have left us nothing but their coins showing the short periods of their rule. It is safe to gather that they also perished in the battles against the mounting force of the Sakas.
The empire was however saved from the Sakas with the succession of Mithradates II, the younger son of Artabanus I. The new king was a brilliant organiser and military leader and managed to effectively defeat the Sakas and force them to a peace treaty, beneficial for both sides. By the early 110's BCE, Mithradates II had settled the Sakas in their new homeland in eastern Iran, the later province of Sakestan (modern Iranian Sistan). He then took up the task of re-organising his empire by turning his attention to the west. He seems to have paid much attention to Media and Armenia and sometimes around 100 BCE, defeated and killed king Artavasdes I of Armenia and captured "70 Valleys" of his territory. It has recently been suggested that an uncle of Mithridates (thus the fourth son of Phriapatius) named Vologases (Parth. Valakhsh, Arm. Vagharshak) had been previously appointed as the autonomous king of Media, probably following Mithradates I's conquest of that satrapy. However, the descendants of this Vologases, his son Arshak and grandson Artakhshir, appear to have created much trouble for their cousin Mithradates II, prompting him to invade their territory and annex it to the main Arsacid throne. This might have then be the event that has been interpreted as the Arsacid conquest of the 70 valleys of Armenia (in fact parts of Media Atropatene) and the initial Arsacid conflict with the Armenians. Whatever the case, Mithradates II had managed to subdue and control most of his uncle's territory and leave a strong and centralised empire to his son, Gotarzes I (Parth. Gotarz) who succeeded him in 91 BCE.
General Bibliography and Reading Suggestions
Assar, G.R.F. “Recent Studies in Parthian History II”, The Celator, Volume 15, No. 1, Jan 2001.
Bivar, A. D. H. "The Political History of Iran Under the Arsacids" in Ehsan Yarshater (ed.) Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. III, Part I. CUP, 1983
Briant, P. "The Seleucid Kingdom, the Achaemenid Empire and the History of the Near East in the First Millennium BC," in P. Bilde, ed., Religion and Religious Practice in the Seleucid Kingdom. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1990.
Diakonoff, I. M. & Livshits, V. A. Parthian Documents from Nisa, Moscow, 1976
Livshitz V.A. “Three New Ostraca Documents from Old Nisa”, in Erān ud Anīran: Webfestschrift Boris Marshak, www.transoxiana.org
Wolski, J. The Decay of the Iranian Empire of the Seleucids and the Chronology of the Parthian Beginnings, Berytus, 12, 1957
Wolski, J. L’Empire des Arsacides, Gent: Peeters, 1993
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