Persian Empire Tip: Parthia (1?)

English: Coin of Vonones I of Parthia from the mint at Ecbatana. The Greek inscription on the obverse reads ΒΑϹΙΛΕΥϹ (king). The reverse shows Nike with a palm. The inscription reads ΒΑϹΙΛΕΥϹ ΟΝΩΝΗϹ ΝΕΙΚΗϹΑϹ ΑΡΤΑΒΑΝ[ΟΝ]. PD Courtesy of Wikimedia

“Earlier attempts were made to derive the Old Persian name Parsa
‘Persian’ from an original Parthava which would give ‘Persian’, ‘Parthian’ and ‘Pahlavi’ a common origin. These have not received any widespread support.” [Sheldon]

Trying to get more information on the above while striving to be precise about who the Parthians were and verifying across sources is proving challenging, so today I am summarizing sections of John Sheldon’s article on the topic:

Sheldon, John. Routledge; 2006. “The ethnic and linguistic identity of the Parthians : a review of the evidence from Central Asia.”

Sheldon begins by mentioning the defeat of the Romans at Carrhae in 53 B.C. and then mentions that the Parthians are known for their deadly accuracy as archers even when retreating on horseback and that their departing bow shots may or may not be the origin of the term “parting shot”,  but certainly is the origin of the term Parthian Shot.

Sheldon then says that there are references in Babylonian cuneiform to the Parthians and Darius‘s (558? – 486/485 BC) inscription at Behistun refers to the Parthians among the Persians, without placing them geographically. For that, we turn to the Greek historian Herodotus (480-425 BC), who says the Parthians were part of Darius the Great’s 16th satrapy. With this and some later information, Sheldon locates the Parthians:

“between Hyrcania in the northwest, Chorasmia in the north, Sogdia in the northeast, Bactria in the east, Aria in the southeast and Carmania in the south; that is just to the southeast of the Caspian Sea.”

He adds that it was in the territory of the Parthians that the final Achaemenid, Darius III was killed. Parthians took control of the Persian Empire following Alexander the Great and the next administration, the Seleucids, in about 247 BC.

Strabo (c. 63 BC – ?) and Arrian (c. 86-?160) call the land of the Parthians Parthuaia. It could be that the Arsacids were from nomadic people called Parnoi (Parni) or Aparni from the southern Russian steppes who conquered Pathuaia: Northern nomadic Iranians taking over settled southern Iranians, however, the Arsacids adopted Parthian customs and claimed to be heirs to the Achaemenids. The Arsacids are generally called Scythians, and less civilized than the non-nomads, but Sheldon reminds us that the sources are Greco-Roman, and not very knowledgeable about such things.

The primary focus of Sheldon’s article is on language, which is not my main point here. My main point is to locate the Parthians within the Persian Empire. However, it appears to be important in reading about the Sassanians to understand something about the regional languages.

The Parthian language was used for literature and religious texts until the 4th century AD, especially for scripture of the followers of Mani (216 – 74?) (who claimed to be a Parthian), leading to the conjecture that Mazdean religion was less entrenched in Parthia than elsewhere in Iran.

Ferdowsi ” uses the term ‘Pahlavan’ (i.e. ‘Parthian’) for all the heroes of Iranian folk lore.”


Image credit: English: Coin of Vonones I of Parthia from the mint at Ecbatana. The Greek inscription on the obverse reads ΒΑϹΙΛΕΥϹ (king). The reverse shows Nike with a palm. The inscription reads ΒΑϹΙΛΕΥϹ ΟΝΩΝΗϹ ΝΕΙΚΗϹΑϹ ΑΡΤΑΒΑΝ[ΟΝ]. PD Courtesy of Wikimedia

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