Ancient History & Civilisation

Appendix III

Sources for Parthian History

When dealing with the Parthians, we need to be fully aware of the extent of our ignorance on the subject. Despite the fact that the Parthian empire lasted for over 470 years, was one of the two great civilisations of the ancient world and spanned an area from Syria to India and Central Asia, we have a ridiculously small amount of surviving material about it. A brief survey of the sources will reveal how truly little we know about this fascinating civilisation.

Native Sources

The first and main point to note is the almost total absence of any surviving Parthian documents. Not only was the Parthian civilisation swept away by its successors, the Sassanid Persians, but they too were swept away by the Muslim invasions. This double blow has meant that virtually no literary material survives from Parthian sources. The only historical docu-ments of any note from the Parthian period are the Babylonian astronomical records, which as well as recording astronomical data, record some of the historical actions of that particular year.376 Even in fragmentary form they provide an invaluable record of the Parthian control of Mesopotamia in the period 141 to the 90s BC. They throw fresh light on Parthian command structures in the region, notably the use of four native generals mentioned in chapter two. Nevertheless despite these valuable insights, their narrow remit still leaves us in the dark about wider matters. This lack of native documents means that we are largely reliant upon non-Parthian sources, which leaves large gaps in Parthian internal history (such as their foundation) when these events do not impact upon the external world.

With a lack of written sources, our only remaining native sources come from coins and archaeology. As can be seen from the modern works on the subject, we have a considerable number of Parthian coins which survive and they can help us reconstruct the outline of a number of events, notably those surrounding the reigns of the various Parthian kings.377 However, once again, they are limited in the scope of what they can tell us about the details of Parthian history. Other archaeological finds are another possible source of information, and notable digs have been carried out at Nisa and Dura-Europus.378 However, given the relatively low awareness of the Parthian civilisation, especially in comparison to the earlier Achaemenid Persian empire, and the fact that a number of these sites are all in politically sensitive parts of the world (the former Soviet Union, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan), then we can understand why work on Parthian sites is not as advanced as on those relating to other periods or peoples. Nevertheless, given the poor state of our other sources, archaeology remains the best hope we have for gaining more knowledge on the Parthians.

Surviving Graeco-Roman Sources on Parthian History

As noted above, we are largely reliant on non-Parthian sources for the history of Parthia. As with the previous section on sources for the Battle of Carrhae, we have to acknowledge the difference between those sources that survive and those that were in circulation in the ancient world. Throughout this analysis of the First Romano-Parthian War we have encountered a number of sources which contain sections on Parthian history. Although there were a number of works by Greeks or Romans devoted to Parthian history, none of them survive, which means that we are reliant on later works which incorporate some of their material.

Polybius, Histories (second century BC)

As well as being our earliest surviving source for Roman history, Polybius is our earliest source for Parthian history, with five chapters of book ten (numbers 27–31) devoted to the Eastern campaigns of Antiochus III against the Parthians, a campaign that resulted in the temporary loss of Parthian independence. These chapters are intact in themselves, but we do not have the conclusion of the campaign. Nevertheless, they were written less than seventy years after the events occurred and were likely to have been based on eye-witness accounts.379 Not only does this shed light on the campaign itself, but shows that the Parthians were being dealt with by the Hellenistic historians (who again, unfortunately, do not survive). Furthermore, he shows us that they had entered the consciousness of Rome, well before the two empires eventually clashed, in which he is unique amongst our surviving sources.

Diodorus, Library of History (mid- to late first century BC)

Coming a century after Polybius, we have the history of Diodorus. He was a Greek Sicilian writing in the late Republic and composed a ‘world’ history, which covered a number of different ancient races, from the earliest times to around 60 BC. He made extensive use of a range of Hellenistic historians, all of which are now lost, and has a number of references to early Parthian history, notably their role in the wars of succession following the death of Alexander the Great. Had more of his work survived then we undoubtedly have more detail on Parthian history. By the time he wrote his histories, Rome and Parthia would have just clashed, though the ancient world would not have yet been partitioned between the two.

Isidore of Charax, Parthian Stations (late first century BC)

The ‘Parthian Stations’ of Isidore was a short geographical work which detailed the trade routes across the Parthian Empire. Starting in Syria, the work lists the various towns and cities along the way until it reaches the Parthian eastern borders of China and India. The work only survives in fragments, but is a fascinating account of the origins of the Silk Road.380

Strabo, Geography (early first century AD)

As we have seen throughout this work, the Geography of Strabo provides us with a number of sections on Parthian history, geography and society, especially in book eleven. It is unfortunate that Strabo’s other works do not survive, as at one point he states:

But since I have said much about the Parthians in the sixth book of my historical Sketches and in the second book of my History of events after Polybius, I shall omit discussion of that subject there, lest I may seem to be repeating what I have already said.381

If Strabo had shown less consideration for his reader and actually repeated himself, we would know so much more about Parthia. For his Parthian sections, he referred to the works of Apollodorus and Poseidonius (see below).

Pliny, Natural History (first century AD)

The encyclopaedic Natural History of Pliny preserves a number of notes on aspects of Parthian history, geography and culture. He was a Roman senator who wrote a wide ranging work on various aspects of the ancient world. The sources of his Parthian references are unknown. He was killed whilst observing the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews and History of the Jewish War (first century AD)

Whilst technically Josephus was Jewish, we can place his works in the Graeco-Roman category, as Judea was rarely independent in this period, but fell under either Seleucid or Roman suzerainty. Josephus has a few references to the Parthians in his work and in this respect he is part of a wider Jewish tradition. The cities of Mesopotamia contained a large Jewish population, who had been uprooted from Judea by the Seleucids, due to their various rebellions, and settled elsewhere. When the Parthians took Mesopotamia from the Seleucids, the various Jewish communities maintained their links with Judea, which on occasion were exploited by the Parthians, as we saw during the First Romano-Parthian war. Thus, many Jewish works in this period would have had access to information about the Parthians.

Appian, Syrian Wars (second century AD)

Appian’s Syrian Wars provides us with a few snippets of early Parthian history, but has little detail. This is most probably due to his desire to keep them aside for his work on Parthian history (which, if ever written, does not survive).

Justin’s epitome of Pompeius Trogus (third century AD)

Justin’s epitome of the works of Pompeius Trogus (see below), though brief, provides us with our best source for Parthian history as a whole. His narrative covers the whole period from the foundation to the First Roman-Parthian War and beyond. Despite his importance for Parthian history there has not been an English translation since the mid-nineteenth century, mostly due to his poor reputation as a Roman historian. Nevertheless, the parts on Parthian history (books forty-one and forty-two) form an indispensable starting point for the subject.

Eusebius and Jerome, chronicles (fourth century AD)

The chronicles of Eusebius and Jerome, both of whom were fourth century AD Christian chroniclers, provide us with some interesting nuggets of information concerning Parthia (which by then no longer existed). Eusebius is especially good at detailing the clashes between the Parthians and the Seleucids over Mesopotamia in the second century BC, whilst Jerome confirms the date of the foundation of the Arsacid dynasty to be 248 BC.382

Byzantine Sources

As we have seen previously, there are a number of Byzantine histories and chronicles which preserve fragments of earlier works on Parthian history, notably Arrian’s Parthica. The Byzantine histories are on the whole neglected by ancient historians, but as shown with Synkellos, they can preserve accounts which throw fresh light on the subject. Other goods works include those by Zosimus and Photius.

Lost Graeco-Roman Works on Parthian History

We know that there were a number of specialist histories written about Parthia, which now no longer exist, but were available to the later writers.

Hellenistic Historians

Though we have no clearly-attested fragments it is clear, given the role that Parthia played in eroding the power of the Seleucid empire (including the capture of two kings), that there must have been a significant amount of material written on the Parthians in late-third and second century BC histories. We can see this in Polybius’ account of the Seleucid–Parthian War of c.210 BC, taken from an unnamed Hellenistic source.383

Apollodorus, Parthica (late second or early first century BC)

Apollodorus was a Greek historian who lived in the Mesopotamian city of Artemita. We are told that he wrote a history of the Parthians in four volumes.384 Apart from one fragment the work is totally lost, although we believe that it is the source for virtually all of Strabo’s passages on Parthia. His work would have been an invaluable source, given the fact that it was written by someone who lived under Parthian rule and would therefore have avoided any pro-Roman bias. It has also been suggested that his work informed the histories of Pompeius Trogus (see below), though this is disputed.385

Poseidonius, Histories (early first century BC)

Poseidonius was a philosopher, geographer and historian from Rhodes. He was ambassador to Rome in the late Republican period and counted a number of the leading Romans, such as Pompey and Cicero, amongst his friends. He wrote a history of Rome from 146–88 BC in fifty-two books, continuing from where Polybius left off, which heavily influenced Diodorus. Strabo quotes him on the composition of the Parthian Council of Elders, so we can assume that he had a detailed account of the Parthians in his work at some point.386 Sadly, nothing of substance remains of his work.

Pompeius Trogus, Historiae Philippicae (late first century BC/early 1st century AD)

Pompeius Trogus was a contemporary of Livy who wrote a world history from the time of the Assyrians to AD 9, in forty-four books. The scope of his work complimented that of Livy and his focus was on the East and away from domestic Roman politics. Given that the epitome of this work made by Justin in the third century (see above) is our best source for Parthian history, we can only wonder what level of detail we would get from the original. His forty-first and forty-second books dealt with Parthian history and would have given us a detailed narrative from the foundation onwards.

Arrian, Parthica (second century AD)

Arrian was a Graeco-Roman writer most famous for his work on Alexander the Great (which is our best surviving source for him). He also composed a work on the Fourth Romano-Parthian War, under Emperor Trajan, in seventeen books.387 Arrian’s work digressed onto the subject of Parthian origins and was much used by Byzantine writers (Zosimus, Synkellos and Photius). We do not know what other earlier Parthian topics he touched on, but again little of this work survives.

Appian’s history of the Parthian Wars (2nd century A.D.)

As we have seen, on several occasions throughout his other works Appian stated that he would write a history of the Parthian wars.388Unfortunately, no trace of it remains and many scholars have wondered, given the survival of his other material and the total absence of any of his Parthian fragments, whether it ever existed. We know that he certainly planned it, but whether he ever got around to writing it is another question.

Later histories of Romano-Parthian wars

As noted in appendix two, we know that every Romano-Parthian war was accompanied by a flurry of literary works (not unlike the situation today). Although we have no clear details, it is possible that a number of them touched on Parthian history, though it is likely that if they did, then they would have used one of the above works.

We can clearly see that we only possess a small percentage of the works that were written on Parthian history by Greek and Roman authors.

Histories from other regions

Given the size of the Parthian Empire, it is not surprising that they were written about by a number of the other great ancient civilisations. We have a few reports from Chinese sources referring to the Parthians which date from the late second and early first century BC, when the Parthian and Han Empires established the diplomatic and trade relations which led to the creation of the Silk Road.

This was written around 91 BC.

When the first embassy was sent from China to An-his [Ar-sak or Parthia] the King of Parthia ordered 20,000 cavalry to meet them on the eastern frontier . . . After the Chinese embassy had returned they sent forth an embassy to follow the Chinese embassy, to come and see the extent and greatness of the Chinese empire. They offered to the Chinese court large birds’ eggs and jugglers from Li-kan [Petra].389

These comments tell us a little about the extent and governance of Parthian territory.

The king of the country of Parthia rules at the city of P’an-tu [Hecatompylus].

The country is not subject to a tu-hu [Chinese governor].

They also make coins of silver, which have the king’s face on the obverse and the face of his consort on the reverse. When the king dies, they cast new coins.390

Finally, the following comments were written around AD 90:

Several hundred small and large cities are subject to it, and the country is several thousand li in extent; this is a very large country.

When the Emperor Wu-ti first sent an embassy to Parthia, the King ordered a general to meet him on the eastern front with 20,000 cavalry. The eastern frontier was several thousand li distant from the King’s capital.391.

Clearly the Chinese were greatly impressed by the size and might of the Parthian empire. On the other hand, from the Chinese perspective the Parthians living to their west were naturally not as civilised as themselves. Nevertheless, the two powers traded and exchanged diplomatic courtesies and had a common enemy in the barbarians from Central Asia (be they Scythian, Saka or Hun), who periodically threatened to overrun the northern borders of both empires.

As well Chinese sources, there are various Armenian, Indian and Arabic historical traditions that touch on Parthian history and that are generally ignored by modern Western historians. We lack a comprehensive survey of this material, which shows, once again, the problems faced with studying Parthian history. Whilst the empires of Rome, Persia, China and India have modern inheritors all too willing to associate themselves with a glorious past and thus explore the various historical sources to the full, Parthia stands alone in this respect; civilisation without a clear inheritor. The extent of our ignorance concerning the Parthians is quite alarming. What we do know shows us a magnificent Eastern civilisation, which for over four hundred years was one of the ancient world’s great powers, and was the equal of the might of Rome.

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