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The Parthians

Ancient history, from the beginning of historical information to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire (? B.C. - 476 A.D.). The Great Empires: Eastern Nations.
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Parthia proper, a mountainous but fertile and, in ancient times, well-wooded region, lying south-eastwards from the Gasman Sea from which it was separated by Hyrcama, was part of a satrapy of the Persian empire. The people have been described variously as of Scythian descent; as of the same race as the Persians, who were pure Aryans; and as Turanians - that is, of non-Aryan and non-Semitic race. At any rate, they were immigrants and nomads, who adopted, in time, the Median dress and a partly Aryan speech. During the continuance of the Persian empire, they remained faithful subjects. After the death of Alexander the Great, the Parthians were for a time subject to the Greek monarchs (the Seleucidae) of Syria, and they afterwards founded an independent kingdom which swelled into an empire extending from the Caspian and the Oxus to the Persian Gulf, and from the valley of the Indus to the Euphrates. This empire has scarcely received due notice from historians. Covering almost the same area, in its greatest dominion, as the Persian empire, it was in some respects a successor, with an interval, of the renowned imperial sway ended by Alexander's conquering career. The Parthians had, in addition to their physical appearance - as shown in the sculptures - manners, customs, and mental character which clearly point to Turanian descent. Society consisted of a few hundreds of hereditary nobles who were vassals of the king, and of serfs distributed over the royal domains, and those of the grandees, who were, in fact, great slave-holders. Polygamy and strict seclusion of women were among the national customs of the nobles. Hunting was the chief amusement, and devotion to horse-riding was carried to the extent of transacting on horseback, in the open air, much of the business of life. The soldiers, mostly mounted, riding without saddles, and including heavy cavalry clad in complete scale or plate armour, were truly formidable from their skill in archery and peculiar mode of righting. The enemy found themselves enveloped by men who made desperate charges attended by volleys of javelins and arrows. Then the Parthians would turn in pretended flight, still firing arrows by turning backwards as the horses raced over the plain, and, if pursuit took place, the utmost danger to the pursuers came from the swift wheel of the Parthians and renewal of the fight in direct attack with showers of missiles. Vigour and skill in war and capacity for organisation and government enabled this remarkable people to found and maintain an empire which gave them for nearly four centuries the second position in the world. They thus acted, in the East, as a check to the all-absorbing power of Rome, and rendered service, without any claims to merit in literature and art, to the cause of civilisation by protecting the peoples of a vast territory from the inroads of mere barbarians, by their tolerance in religious matters, and by their liberal treatment of foreigners. The religion seems to have consisted in worship of the Sun and Moon, of ancestral idols carried about on change of habitation, and of certain deities of the royal house. Greek was the official language during the most flourishing period of Parthian history, and in other ways the people were influenced by the Greek civilisation due to Alexander and his successors.

It was about 250 b.c. that a Parthian chief named Arsaces headed an anti-Greek movement of his countrymen and revolted from Antiochus II. of Syria. In this the Parthians were following the successful lead of the province of Bactria. Arsaces I. became firmly seated on the throne of the new kingdom, and under his successor, his brother Tiridates, an able and energetic man, who reigned as Arsaces II. for about 30 years, the Parthian power was fully established. Hyrcania was taken from the Syrian king, who was completely defeated in his attempt to regain his lost province and to subdue Parthia. This victory was for two centuries celebrated by a solemn festival, to whose people it was as Marathon to Greece, or Morgarten to the rising Swiss nation. Tiridates spent the rest of his time in securing the new state by the erection of fortresses and in other labours for his people. His son Artabanus, reigning as Arsaces III., from about 218 to 196 b.c., dared to declare war against Antiochus the Great, but was at first forced back from his conquest of Media, and then, without a battle, lost his own capital Hecatompylos. Pursued into Hyrcania, Artabanus resisted with wonderful courage and tenacity, losing town after town, but at last wearing out his antagonist by guerilla warfare, and compelling the acknowledgment of his independence. The great warlike hero of Parthian history, the man who founded the Parthian empire, was Mithradates I., who reigned from 174 to 136. This ambitious and able monarch, a brave soldier, a good strategist, firm in rule, excellent in administration, made a complete revolution in Asiatic affairs. Syria was declining in power, and Bactria was harassed by Scythian nomads. Mithradates attacked both kingdoms with success. Bactria, Media, Susiana, Babylonia, and Persia were conquered, and the Parthian warrior-king even carried his arms, without permanent results, over the Punjab to the Hydaspes (Jhelum). Reigning now from the Hindu Kush to the Euphrates, Mithradates had to fight hard for the retention of what he had won hut died in full possession of his power. The system of government as now established included a council composed of adult males of the royal house, the Arsacids, and a senate of spiritual leaders, the Magi or priests, and the nobles. This council and senate, not nominated by the king, but made up of persons entitled to the position by birth or office, formed together the Megistanes ("Great Men" or Nobles), exercising a control over the monarch, whom they elected, always from the royal house. The priestly class came at last to number many thousands of men, possessing large lands and commanding popular reverence. The provinces were either governed, on the Persian system, by satraps, or by dependent kings, paying tribute and supplying contingents of troops for the many imperial wars. It is remarkable that the many Greek cities throughout the empire, founded by Alexander or his successors, were allowed to have their own municipal government. Seleucia on the Tigris was the chief place of this class, near the site of the modern Bagdad, commanding the navigation of the Tigris and the Euphrates, and placed at the meeting of all the chief caravan-roads of the traffic between eastern and western Asia. Seleucia was a city of vast population and wealth, inhabited by people from Babylonia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria, and by Syrians and Jews. Ctesiphon, in Assyria, on the eastern bank of the Tigris, opposite to Seleucia, was a capital of the Parthian kings, along with Ecbatana and other places.

Under the successor of the energetic and yet mild and philanthropic Mithradates, who knew how to conciliate as well as to conquer, the Parthian empire, in war with Syria, lost for a time Babylonia, with the three great cities Babylon, Seleucia, and Ctesiphon, and several provinces by subsequent revolt. In the end, however, Phraates II. (136-127), aided by a general rising in the conquered cities, rid Parthia for ever of Syrian interference. His end came in battle with Turanian hordes from the north, who had begun to press severely upon the empire. These peoples were at all times of ancient history a serious danger to the Aryan and Semitic races, threatening to overwhelm with barbarism all the progress made by civilisation. The successor of Phraates fell in like manner, but Mithradates II., who reigned from 124 to 87 b.c., was able to do more for the Parthian empire. He directed the whole military force upon the north-eastern frontier with such vigour that danger from the Scythians came utterly to an end. In his time, the Armenian people, of Aryan race, and probably identical with those who have of late suffered so terribly at the hands of Turkish barbarians, became an independent monarchical power, and held dominion from the Gulf of Issus to the Caspian Sea. At this time also, between 112 and 93 b.c., Mithradates of Pontus created an empire of vast extent and resources, including territory to the east and south of the Black Sea, and in close alliance with Tigranes of Armenia. It was this formidable growth of power in this region that first brought Parthia into connection with Rome. Mithradates II. of Parthia sent an embassy to the famous Roman general Sulla, who was then in Asia Minor, warring successfully with the Armenians, and sought an offensive and defensive alliance with Rome. This did not take place, but a friendly understanding arose. After the death of Mithradates, Parthia suffered from Armenian attacks, losing much of her western territory. The history becomes at this time obscure. There were, it seems, civil wars and a rapid succession of monarchs up to 69 b.c., and then occurred events which ultimately led to war with Rome. In 66 b.c. the great Roman general Pompeius (Pompey), engaged in Asia at once against the two powerful foes Mithradates of Pontus and Tigranes of Armenia, sought to enlist Parthia on the Roman side, promising restitution of her lost provinces. For the first and last time, the Parthians were in alliance with Rome, and their forces engaged the attention of Tigranes while the Roman commander was breaking the power of Mithradates. Pompey, no longer needing Parthian help, did not fulfil his promises, and even sent troops who prevented the Parthian king from repossessing lost territory. This faithless conduct was not forgotten, and when Orodes I. (54-37) was on the Parthian throne, Rome paid the penalty in one of the worst military disasters of her whole conquering career.

The plutocrat Crassus, ambitious to attain the military distinction won by his colleagues in the "First Triumvirate," Cassar and Pompey, chose Syria as his sphere of action, and in 53 b.c. invaded Parthia at the head of seven legions, 4,000 cavalry, and an equal number of slingers and archers. The eldest son of Julius Caesar, a brave youth skilled in war, especially sent by his father from Gaul, was on the staff of the Roman general. The Euphrates was crossed at a point north-east from Antioch, and Crassus was craftily persuaded by an Arab chieftain in Parthian pay, who had come into his camp, to follow up the enemy's artful retreat. The Parthian forces were in charge of Surenas (not a personal name, but an official title meaning "commander-in-chief"), a man of the greatest courage, ability, and personal distinction among his countrymen, and consisted entirely of horsemen, mainly light cavalry, ever obtaining fresh supplies of arrows from stores m the rear, carried on the backs of camels. There were also heavy cavalry men and chargers alike mail-clad, the riders having a long and heavy spear or pike. No infantry force could cope with antagonists so mobile, and the Roman cavalry was enormously outnumbered. The invaders were enticed forwards by their treacherous guide to a position (not in a trackless desert, as has been falsely stated by Roman writers) where the troops of Surenas were awaiting them, concealed on wooded and hilly ground. The clang of the Parthian kettle-drums was the first intimation which the hapless Romans received of the deadly trap into which they had fallen. Assailed on all sides with arrows of great penetrating power, shot by sturdy arms from strong bows, the legionaries fell by hundreds at each volley, as they pressed forward unable to close with the foe. Publius, the Roman commander's son, was ordered out with 1,000 Celtic cavalry, sent by Caesar from Gaul, and with archers and other horsemen, and some thousands of legionaries, to charge the nearest squadrons of the Parthians. With their usual tactics, these men hastily retreated, and the pursuing Romans soon found themselves enveloped by a cloud of cavalry both heavy-and light-armed. The legionaries were killed almost to the last man. The young Crassus and his chief officers, by their own order, were slain by their armour-bearers rather than be taken alive. About 500 men were taken prisoners, and scarcely a man escaped. The main army was then again assailed in full force, and Crassus learned the result of his son's movement by seeing his head shown aloft on a Parthian pike. At nightfall, after much more slaughter, the Parthians drew off, and the Romans retired to a town called Carrhse, leaving behind some thousands of wounded men. Instead of trusting to the shelter of the walls, which the Parthians could not assail with any effect, and perhaps induced by lack of supplies, the surviving Romans quitted Carrhse, in different parties and directions, during the night. Some hundreds of horsemen escaped across the Euphrates, and some thousands of infantry got away to the Armenian hills. The hapless Crassus, misled by his guides, had by daybreak only got within a mile of the same place of safety when the relentless Parthian horsemen were again upon him. The Romans in the hills descended to his assistance, and the united body, about 7,000 strong, made a good defence, partly aided by the ground. Surenas was anxious, moreover, to obtain possession of the Roman commander, which would be, with Orientals, the most highly prized proof of success, and would gratify the animosity which the Parthians felt towards Crassus. His greed for gold was well known to them, and they believed it to be his sole motive for his wanton aggression. He had, previous to his invasion, insulted them at a conference with envoys of their king, Orodes, by declaring that "he would give the ambassadors his answer in their capital." They were now in a position to prove the truth of the chief envoy's spirited reply, as he struck the palm of one hand with the fingers of the other, "Hairs will grow here, Crassus, before you see Seleucia." The Parthian general drew off his troops, and then enticed Crassus to a surrender by promise of favourable terms. The Roman general and his staff were being conducted towards the Parthian camp on the pretence of reducing the terms to writing, since "the Romans," as Surenas bitterly said, in allusion to the bad faith of Pompey, "were apt to forget engagements," when a scuffle took place, during which Crassus was killed. The rest of the army then surrendered. Of the 40,000 men that had crossed the Euphrates, one-half died in action, about a quarter returned, and nearly 10,000 prisoners remained in Parthia as virtual slaves, marrying native wives, and serving in the state-armies. The place of their settlement was Margiana, at the north-east of the empire, in the fertile oasis notable in modern days as Merv, now in Russian Turkestan. It was this successful defiance of Roman arms that gave Parthia her recognition from Grseco-Roman writers as the Second Power of the ancient world in those days. The Parthian king, Orodes, then visiting the Armenian monarch, was informed of the result, while he was a spectator of a performance of Euripides' play the Bacchae, by seeing the head of Crassus brought upon the stage by one of the company of Greek strolling actors. Parthian cruelty of derision was shown by the pouring into the head's mouth of a stream of molten gold. No great result, such as might have been'expected, came of this Parthian victory. Mesopotamia was fully recovered, and Armenia was lost to the Roman alliance; but it was only Roman credit for invincibility in war, not the solid fabric of Roman power, which suffered.

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