Type of Government
Stretching from what is now eastern Turkey to Afghanistan, the Parthian Empire was a flexible, highly decentralized feudal monarchy. Landowning nobles exerted considerable influence over even the most experienced and able kings; weak kings served at the nobles’ pleasure. The empire’s growing cities enjoyed nearly complete autonomy, as did the many client states on the frontiers, so long as they were loyal.
Around the end of the third century BC a nomadic people of central Asia, the Parni, moved south, skirting the shores of the Caspian Sea. They settled in an area of northeastern Iran called Parthia, where, after overthrowing the local ruler, they urbanized, mixed freely with the native population, and adopted the Parthian name. Their incursion invited the wrath of the regional superpower, the Greek-speaking Seleucid dynasty. The first Parthian king, Arsaces (third century BC), and his successors (called the Arsacids in his honor) fought and refought the Seleucids for territory. A peace treaty finally compelled the newcomers to pay tribute to the Seleucids, but it was soon forgotten as rebellions elsewhere shattered the older regime. The Parthians were quick to take advantage of the resulting chaos. By the death of their great king Mithradates I (d. 138 BC), the empire was firmly established, with a new, centrally located capital at Ctesiphon on the Tigris River, vast stretches of new territory, and control of some of the most lucrative east-west trade routes.
As longtime nomads, the Parthians were accustomed to making decisions—for example, about migration routes—at the family or village level. This tradition persisted after urbanization and the establishment of the monarchy, and was a major factor in the weakness of the king’s position. Unlike many other monarchs in the region, Parthian kings did not claim descent from the gods. On the contrary, the Parthian people seem to have regarded them merely as powerful chieftains, whose authority depended on their personal charisma and the success of their policies.
Few details are known about the government’s organizational structure. According to Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79), Parthia was divided into eighteen separate kingdoms. Many of these kept the leadership they had had before their submersion in the empire. In general, Parthian kings used the structure and personnel of existing institutions whenever they could. Various religious organizations were also important in this regard. A long-standing policy of religious tolerance encouraged the allegiance of the influential priestly caste and attracted merchants from abroad, who soon became another important source of support. Maximizing customs revenue without alienating the merchant class must have required considerable skill, and it is likely that the king placed his most capable administrators in the customs office.
Outside the cities and the customs posts, the power of the nobility quickly became apparent. As members of a feudal society, most Parthians worked for the local landowner, whose privileges were confirmed by the king in exchange for military service. A nobleman’s power in his own domain was almost unlimited.
Political Parties and Factions
Factions among the nobility constantly clashed as they struggled to increase their influence over the king. There is some evidence that Mithradates and other successful kings were able to take advantage of these disputes, playing one group against another to increase their own power. Weak kings stayed on the throne only so long as the nobility remained disunited. In at least one case (Artabanus III in AD 12) the nobles openly selected a new king. The succession procedure in Parthia is not clear, but it is likely that the participation of the nobility was always considerable, if not often so obvious as it was Artabanus.
Parthia’s kings concerned themselves above all with Rome, for the latter was intent on eastward expansion. In the first great clash between the two rivals, at Carrhae (modern-day Haran, Turkey) in 53 BC, the Parthians overwhelmed the Roman army under Marcus Licinius Crassus (115?–53 BC). It was a loss Rome mourned for decades.
By the beginning of the third century AD the endless wars with Rome had exhausted the Parthian people. Parthian kings had responded to several Roman invasions by destroying farms and livestock in an effort to starve the invaders into retreat. This scorched earth policy was successful, but the price of victory was the alienation and impoverishment of the rural population. When Ardashīr I (third century), a noble from the province of Persis (modern Fārs), declared his rebellion, he found many supporters and imitators throughout the empire. When the last Parthian king, Artabanus V (third century), died fighting the rebels in 224, the empire collapsed. Taking its place were the Sasanians, a Persian dynasty that survived until the arrival of Islam four centuries later.
Colledge, Malcolm A. R. The Parthian Period. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1986.
Isidore of Charax, Wilfred H. Schoff, and Barclay Vincent Head. Parthian Stations: An Account of the Overland Trade Route between the Levant and India in the First Century, BC. Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1976.
Lepper, F. A. Trajan’s Parthian War. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979.