The Parthian Empire: An Overview

A bronze statue of Hercules from the Mesopotamian city of Mesene bears witness to the singular character of an understudied ancient empire. Two texts are carved into his thighs. On the right, an inscription in Greek runs for 22 lines, recording the dedication of the statue as a trophy of war in 151 CE. On the left, another inscription conveys the same message, but this time in a different language: these lines are in Parthian, a Middle Iranian dialect spoken by the rulers of the Parthian empire.


The Bronze Hercules of Mesene (ArtStor; Pennacchietti 1987)

These texts, along with a handful of others from Parthian territory, are part of a collection now available for study here at Parthian Sources Online. The site brings together diverse pieces of documentary and literary evidence, most of it epigraphic or papyrological, in order to provide an internal perspective on an empire that for over three centuries was a rival, peer, and eastern counterpart to Rome.

The king who dedicated the Hercules of Mesene was named Vologaeses IV; he was a member of the Arsacid family, the ruling dynasty of the Parthian empire. From humble beginnings in the mid-third century BCE, the Arsacids went on to conquer a vast territory that stretched from the Euphrates river in the west to the steppe of central Asia in the east. To historians of the ancient Mediterranean, they are best known for the crushing defeat they inflicted on the triumvir Marcus Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE – a humiliating loss that long haunted the Romans. By the first century CE, the two powers had established a rough balance of power along the Euphrates river. Their complex relationship saw periods of competition, cooperation, and exchange until the fall of the Arsacids in 224 CE.


The Roman-Parthian frontier in the first century CE (Ancient World Mapping Center)

The Parthians and the Arsacid dynasty that ruled over them were uniquely positioned between the classical Mediterranean and the world of pre-Islamic Iran. As the Hercules of Mesene attests so vividly, they had a foot planted in both places. For centuries, Parthian coins reflected the empire’s origins in a northeastern province of the Seleucid kingdom, a state ruled by the successors of Alexander the Great. Greek legends were paired with familiar Hellenistic iconography, from the club-wielding figure of Hercules to epithets like Philellen, “Lover of Greeks.”


Coin of the Arsacid king Mithradates I, c. 141–138 BCE. On the obverse is a diademed bust of Mithradates; the reverse features Hercules, and describes the king as a “Lover of Greeks.” (Boston MFA)

But the Iranian features of Parthia’s heritage always occupied an important place, and even seem to have strengthened over time. The Arsacids preserved and promulgated the Zoroastrian religion; they told and retold the legendary epic cycles that were the lifeblood of Persia’s oral traditions; and they spoke Parthian, an Iranian language that, over time, supplanted Greek in royal and administrative contexts.

The documents collected at Parthian Sources Online are part of a small but understudied corpus that shed light on the place of the Parthians at the crossroads between the classical and Iranian worlds. Take the Hercules of Mesene, for example. The Greek inscription on the right thigh refers to the object as “a bronze statue of Hercules, the God” (BHM 15–17), a designation that would have been familiar to the millions of Greek-speaking inhabitants throughout the Roman Mediterranean. But the Parthian version of the same text calls him “Verethragna,” a divinity with ancient roots in Zoroastrian scripture. The texts contain one other such syncretism: the “Apollo” of the Greek text is “Tir” in the Parthian.

On Hercules’ bronze limbs, then, features that are normally treated separately by classicists and scholars in Near Eastern Studies come together on the body of one remarkable artifact. The artistry of one of the greatest works of classical sculpture is overlaid by an Iranian language written in Aramaic letters; Greek and Parthian dating formulas coexist, without apparent contradiction, on a single object.

Parthian sources like the Hercules of Mesene supply slim but tantalizing clues to questions of broad importance to the study of the ancient world. What was the legacy of Hellenism in the east? How was it that Rome claimed the mantle of classical Greece for itself, in spite of a robust and long-lasting Parthian engagement with Greek culture? Was the Roman Principate qualitatively different from the empires of ancient Iran, or does this view simply support a Eurocentric charter myth?

The evidence from Parthian territory that speaks to such issues is meager, even by the already modest standards of ancient history. Moreover, it is diverse. Parthia was a vast empire, both multilingual and multiethnic. Internal sources survive only in scraps from sites that range from the sands of southern Iraq to the mountains of Turkmenistan. The ancient empire’s geographic and linguistic diversity means that the modern scholars who study it are divided not only by academic disciplines, but also by political and linguistic boundaries.

Parthian Sources Online represents an effort to harness digital texts in order to help students of Parthian history overcome the challenges posed by a disparate bibliography. Sources in Greek, Latin, and Parthian are available in the original and in English translation, with comprehensive vocabulary glosses provided for ease of reading. For those with an interest in Middle Persian languages, a bibliography offers links to reference grammars and dictionaries. Classicists accustomed to the rigors of Greek and Latin philology will find Parthian and Middle Persian relatively simple to learn, and worth the effort: texts of great historical interest like the inscription of Shapur I can be read in the original relatively quickly. And some sources for the study of the Arsacids can be found on familiar terrain: one Latin inscription from Rome preserves the epitaph of two Parthian princes who went to the court of Augustus as “hostages,” and who died in the city that had served as their prison.


Relief depicting Shapur I with the Roman emperors Philip and Valerian; a trilingual inscription in Middle Persian, Parthian, and Greek survives on the adjacent rock (Wikimedia Commons)

For a long time Parthia was overlooked in scholarship, deemed an “Oriental” foil to Rome or a inferior version of the great Persian empires that came before and after it. That attitude is now changing, and this resource aims to support new interpretations. Whatever the place of the Parthians in the history of the ancient world, we gain a fuller understanding of their empire by examining the fragmentary but rich textual evidence that they left behind.