Episode 5 The Parthians
Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)
Dr Kenneth Harl
This lecture concerns the Parthians (Iranian-speaking offshoot of the Scythians*, Sacae (Iranian speakers from the northern steppes) and Kushans (Tocharian* speakers). All three groups began migrating into the western and central steppes after 300 BC owing to pressure the Shiongnu*** were experiencing from the Han dynasty.
The Parthian Empire, extending from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan, ruled the heartland of the former Persian empire from 247-129 BC. Most of their territory consisted of former Persian kingdoms the Parthians wrested from successors of Alexander the Great. This included the former Greek colony of Bactrim, which controlled all the important caravan cities on the trade route (via the Tarim Basin) to China.
Fighting (and winning) their battles as mounted archers, the Parthians eventually took control of Mesopotamia and Babylon. Running their empire via a sophisticated democracy, they issued a large number of silver coins, at a time China was still using copper and bronze coinage. Although the Parthians spoke Iranian, the coins are printed in Greek and carry portraits of Parthian kings, Greek goddesses and pre-Zororastrian gods.
In 100 AD, Eurasia heralded four great empires, (from west to east) the Roman, Parthian, Kushan and Han empires. Between 140-130 BC, the Kushan (along with the Sacae and the Tocharians) migrated from the northern steppes to Central Asia and India.
Roman and Parthian armies engaged in periodic skirmishes for control of Mesopotamia with neither side claiming decisive victory. In 53 BC the Roman generals Brutus and Crassus experienced crushing defeat at the hands of the Parthians. This would establish the Euphrates as the Parthian western border. After assuming power, the emperor Augustus (27BC -14 AD) negotiated a settlement allowing the Parthian elite to intermarry with the emperor’s extended family.
By 227 AD, a renewal of Roman attacks had weaken the Parthians sufficiently they were overthrown by Persia (one of their vassal states).
*See How Scythin Nomads Influenced Early Greek and Persian Civilization
**Tocharian is an extinct language spoken by inhabitants of the Tarim Basin, currently part of northern China.
***See How Steppes Nomads Influenced Early Chinese Civilization