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Earthdate 2004-01-05

“Horsey” Vikings II — Parthians

Parthian: Dura Europos fresco. Sacrifice of Conon. Temple of the Palmyrene gods. 1st. c. A.D. Graeco-Iranian style. (University of Alabama Birmingham)

The Scythian folk known as the Parni during the 4th century BC was one of three tribes in the Dahae confederacy living east of the Caspian Sea.  Following the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC), the tribe moved south into the area of what is now northeastern Iran.  There they adopted the speech and lifestyle of the settled inhabitants, and around the middle of the 3rd century began a struggle against Alexander's successor state in Asia, the Seleucid Empire.

About 238 BC the Parthians defeated and killed the independent-minded governor of the area, detaching the province from the Seleucid state.  Based on its own resources, Parthia had been one of the poorer regions of the Seleucid realm, but it happened to incorporate a considerable stretch of the rich “Silk Road” caravan route, and lucrative tolls from the caravans passing through allowed the new kingdom to prosper.

The ruling Arsacid dynasty encouraged the idea that the Parthian domain was the inheritor of the earlier Achaemenid Persian Empire (that we in the West remember through its contests with the classical Greeks).  This sentiment was not shared by the Persians themselves (inhabitants of the region of Persis in southern Iran), however, who regarded the Parthians as foreigners and barbarians, and fought alongside the Seleucids and against the Parthians.  (Ultimately, half a millennium later, the Persians would take back “their” empire, when around 224 AD the Parthians were overthrown and the Sasanian Empire installed.)

During the 2nd century BC the Parthians progressively annexed almost all the Seleucid dominion except a remnant of Syria west of the Euphrates (which ultimately went to Rome), producing a realm about equal to modern Iran and Iraq put together.  In the four and a half centuries it endured, Parthia remained a largely decentralized and feudal domain (the Seleucid state had also been quite decentralized with large amounts of local self-government).  Despite hearkening back to the days of the Achaemenids, the Parthians' ruling Arsacids did not despise (until after about the turn of the millennium anyway) the Greek Hellenistic heritage inherited from Alexander.  Whole prosperous Greek cities, autonomous in their governance — such as Seleucia on the Tigris, right across the river from the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon (forming, in fact, a kind of dual capital spanning the Tigris) — flourished within the Parthian domain, while Greek remained one of the official languages of the empire.  An illuminating glimpse of the Parthians' “phil-Hellenism” may be seen in the story from the Greek writer Plutarch that the excised head of invading Roman general Crassus was brought before the Parthian king while he was entertaining a performance of Euripides' play The Bacchae. 6

Assessment:  So how do the Parthians stack up compared with the Rohirrim?  The Parthians used heavy cavalry — their armor was probably heavier than the Rohirrim's, in fact, though I don't have exact details on this.  They certainly occupied territory once “part of the domain of a neighboring culture that is both older and more highly developed.”  Place of origin was to the north: check.  They had extensive fortifications and permanent settlements.  Yes, the Parthians clearly rank highly as possible Rohirrim.



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