The Seven Great Monarchies Of The Ancient Eastern World, Vol 6. (of 7): Parthia
by George Rawlinson
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The use of the elephant in war was still more rare in Parthia than that of the chariot. While the Seleucid kings employed the animal to a large extent, and its use was also probably known to the Greek princes of Bactria, the Arsacidae appear to have almost entirely neglected it. On one occasion alone do we find their employment of it mentioned, and then we hear of only a single animal, which is ridden by the monarch. Probably the unwieldy creature was regarded by the Parthians as too heavy and clumsy for the light and rapid movements of their armies, and was thus disused during the period of their supremacy, though again employed, after Parthia had fallen, by the Sassanidse.

The Parthians entered into battle with much noise and shouting. They made no use of trumpets or horns, but employed instead the kettledrum, which resounded from all parts of the field when they made their onset. Their attack was furious. The mailed horsemen charged at speed, and often drove their spears through the bodies of two enemies at a blow. The light horse and the foot, when any was present, delivered their arrows with precision and with extraordinary force. But if the assailants were met with a stout resistance, the first vigor of the attack was rarely long maintained. The Parthian warriors grew quickly weary of an equal contest, and, if they could not force their enemy to give way, soon changed their tactics. Pretending panic, dispersing, and beating a hasty retreat, they endeavored to induce their foe to pursue hurriedly and in disorder, being ready at any moment to turn and take advantage of the least appearance of confusion. If these tactics failed, as they commonly did after they came to be known, the simulated flight was generally converted into a real one; further conflict was avoided, or at any rate deferred to another occasion.

When the Parthians wished to parley with an enemy, they unstrung their bows, and advancing with the right hand outstretched, asked for a conference. They are accused by the Romans of sometimes using treachery on such occasions, but, except in the single case of Crassus, the charge of bad faith cannot be sustained against them. On solemn occasions, when the intention was to discuss grounds of complaint or to bring a war to an end by the arrangement of terms of peace, a formal meeting was arranged between their representatives and those of their enemy, generally on neutral ground, as on an island in the Euphrates, or on a bridge constructed across it. Here the chiefs of the respective nations met, accompanied by an equal number of guards, while the remainder of their forces occupied the opposite banks of the river. Matters were discussed in friendly fashion, the Greek language being commonly employed as the vehicle of communication; after which festivities usually took place, the two chiefs mutually entertaining each other, or accepting in common the hospitalities of a third party. The terms of peace agreed upon were reduced to writing; hands were grasped as a sign that faith was pledged; and oaths having been interchanged, the conference broke up, and the chiefs returned to their respective residences.

Besides negotiating by means of conferences, the Parthian monarchs often sent out to neighboring states, and in return received from them formal embassies. The ambassadors in every case conveyed, as a matter of course, gifts to the prince to whom they were accredited, which might consist of articles of value, or of persons. Augustus included an Italian slave-girl among the presents which he transmitted to Phraates IV.; and Artabanus III. sent a Jewish giant to Tiberius. The object of an embassy was sometimes simply to congratulate; but more often the ambassadors were instructed to convey certain demands, or proposals, from their own prince to the head of the other nation, whereto his assent was required, or requested. These proposals were commonly formulated in a letter from the one prince to the other, which it was the chief duty of the ambassadors to convey safely. Free powers to conclude a treaty at their discretion were rarely, or never, entrusted to them. Their task was merely to deliver the royal letter, to explain its terms, if they were ambiguous, and to carry back to their own monarch the reply of the foreign sovereign. The sanctity of the ambassadorial character was invariably respected by the Parthians, who are never even taxed with a violation of it.

As a security for the performance of engagements, or for the permanent maintenance of a friendly attitude, it was usual in the East during the Parthian period to require, and give, hostages. The princes who occupied the position of Parthian feudatories gave hostages to their suzerain, who were frequently their near relations, as sons or brothers. And a practice grew up of the Parthian monarchs themselves depositing their own sons or brothers with the Roman Emperor, at first perhaps merely for their own security, but afterwards as pledges for their good behavior. Such hostages lived at the expense of the Roman court, and were usually treated with distinction. In the event of a rupture between their country and Rome, they had little to fear. Rome found her advantage in employing them as rivals to a monarch with whom she had quarrelled, and did not think it necessary to punish them for his treachery or inconstancy.

The magnificence of the Parthian court is celebrated in general terms by various writers, but not very many particulars have come down to us respecting it. We know that it was migratory, moving from one of the chief cities of the empire to another at different seasons of the year, and that owing to the vast number of the persons composing it, there was a difficulty sometimes in providing for their subsistence upon the road. The court comprised the usual extensive harem of an Oriental prince, consisting of a single recognized queen, and a multitude of secondary wives or concubines. The legitimate wife of the prince was commonly a native, and in most cases was selected from the royal race of the Arsacidae but sometimes she was the daughter of a dependent monarch, and she might even be a slave raised by royal favor from that humble position. The concubines were frequently Greeks. Both wives and concubines remained ordinarily in close seclusion, and we have little mention of them, in the Parthian annals. But in one instance, at any rate, a queen, brought up in the notions of the West, succeeded in setting Oriental etiquette at defiance, took the direction of affairs out of the hands of her husband, and subsequently ruled the empire in conjunction with her son. Generally, however, the Parthian kings were remarkably free from the weakness of subservience to women, and managed their kingdom with a firm hand, without allowing either wives or ministers to obtain any undue ascendency over them. In particular, we may note that they never, so far as appears, fell under the baleful influence of eunuchs, who, from first to last, play a very subordinate part in the Parthian history.

The dress of the monarch was commonly the loose Median robe, which had been adopted from the Medes by the Persians. This flowed down to the feet in numerous folds, enveloping and concealing the entire figure. Trousers and a tunic were probably worn beneath it, the latter of linen, the former of silk or wool. As head-dress, the king wore either the mere diadem, which was a band or ribbon, passed once or oftener round the head, and terminating in two long ends which fell down behind, or else a more pretentious cap, which in the earlier times was a sort of Scythian pointed helmet, and in the later a rounded tiara, sometimes adorned with pearls or gems. His neck appears to have been generally encircled with two or three collars or necklaces, and he frequently wore ear-rings in his ears. The beard was almost always cultivated, and, with the hair, was worn variously. Generally both hair and beard were carefully curled; but sometimes they depended in long straight locks, Mostly the beard was pointed, but occasionally it was worn square. In later times a fashion arose of puffing out the hair at either side extravagantly, so as to give it the appearance of a large bushy wig.

In war the monarch seems to have exchanged his Median robe for a short cloak, reaching half way down the thigh. His head was protected by a helmet, and he carried the national arm of offence, the bow. He usually took the field on horseback, but was sometimes mounted on an elephant, trained to encounter the shock of battle. Gold and silver were abundantly used in the trappings of his steed and in his arms. He generally took the command, and mingled freely in the fight, though he might sometimes shrink without reproach from adventuring his own person. His guards fought about him; and he was accompanied by attendants, whose duty it was to assist him in mounting on horseback and dismounting.

The status of the queen was not much below that of her royal consort. She wore a tiara far more elaborate than his, and, like him, exhibited the diadem. Her neck was encircled with several necklaces. As the title of Theos, "God," was often assumed by her husband, so she was allowed the title of "Goddess", or "Heavenly Goddess".

Separate apartments were of course assigned to the queen, and to the royal concubines in the various palaces. These were buildings on a magnificent scale, and adorned with the utmost richness. Philostratus, who wrote in Parthian times, thus describes the royal palace at Babylon. "The palace is roofed with brass, and a bright light flashes from it. It has chambers for the women, and chambers for the men, and porticos, partly glittering with silver, partly with cloth-of-gold embroideries, partly with solid slabs of gold, let into the walls, like pictures. The subjects of the embroideries are taken from the Greek mythology, and include representations of Andromeda, of Amymone, and of Orpheus, who is frequently repeated.... Datis is moreover represented, destroying Naxos with his fleet, and Artaphernes besieging Eretria, and Xerxes gaining his famous victories. You behold the occupation of Athens, and the battle of Thermopylae, and other points still more characteristic of the great Persian war, rivers drunk up and disappearing from the face of the earth, and a bridge stretched across the sea, and a canal cut through Athos.... One chamber for the men has a roof fashioned into a vault like the heaven, composed entirely of sapphires, which are the bluest of stones, and resemble the sky in color. Golden images of the gods whom they worship, are set up about the vault, and show like stars in the firmament. This is the chamber in which the king delivers his judgments. Four golden magic-wheels hang from its roof, and threaten the monarch with the Divine Nemesis, if he exalts himself above the condition of man. These wheels are called 'the tongues of the gods,' and are set in their places by the Magi who frequent the palace."

The state and pomp which surrounded the monarch seem scarcely to have fallen short of the Achaemenian standard. Regarded as in some sort divine during his life, and always an object of national worship after his death, the "Brother of the Sun and Moon" occupied a position far above that of the most exalted of his subjects. Tributary monarchs were shocked, when, in times of misfortune, the "Great King" stooped to solicit their aid, and appeared before them in the character of a suppliant, shorn of his customary splendor. Nobles coveted the dignity of "King's Friend," and were content to submit to blows and buffets at the caprice of their royal master, before whom they prostrated themselves in adoration after each castigation. The Parthian monarch dined in solitary grandeur, extended on his own special couch, and eating from his own special table, which was placed at a greater elevation than those of his guests. His "friend" sat on the ground at his feet, and was fed like a dog by scraps from his master's board. Guards, ministers, and attendants of various kinds surrounded him, and were ready at the slightest sign to do his bidding. Throughout the country he had numerous "Eyes" and "Ears"—officers who watched his interests and sent him word of whatever touched his safety. The bed on which the monarch slept was of gold, and subjects were forbidden to take their repose on couches of this rich material. No stranger could obtain access to him unless introduced by the proper officer; and it was expected that all who asked an audience would be prepared with some present of high value. For the gifts received the monarch made a suitable return, allowing those whom he especially favored to choose the presents that they preferred.

The power and dignity of the Parthian nobles was greater than that usually enjoyed by any subjects of an Oriental king. Rank in Parthia being hereditary and not simply official, the "megistanes" were no mere creatures of the monarch, but a class which stood upon its own indefeasible rights. As they had the privilege of electing to the throne upon a vacancy, and even that of deposing a duly elected monarch, the king could not but stand in wholesome awe of them, and feel compelled to treat them with considerable respect and deference. Moreover, they were not without a material force calculated to give powerful support to their constitutional privileges. Each stood at the head of a body of retainers accustomed to bear arms and to serve in the wars of the Empire. Together these bodies constituted the strength of the army; and though the royal bodyguard might perhaps have been capable of dealing successfully with each group of retainers separately, yet such an esprit de corps was sure to animate the nobles generally, that they would make common cause in case one of their number were attacked, and would support him against the crown with the zeal inspired by self-interest. Thus the Parthian nobility were far more powerful and independent than any similar class under the Achaemenian, Sassanian, Modern Persian, or Turkish sovereigns. They exercised a real control over the monarch, and had a voice in the direction of the Empire. Like the great feudal vassals of the Middle Ages, they from time to time quarrelled with their liege lord, and disturbed the tranquillity of the kingdom by prolonged and dangerous civil wars; but these contentions served to keep alive a vigor, a life, and a spirit of sturdy independence very unusual in the East, and gave a stubborn strength to the Parthian monarchy, in which Oriental governments have for the most part been wanting.

There were probably several grades of rank among the nobles. The highest dignity in the kingdom, next to the Crown, was that of Surena, or "Field-Marshal;" and this position was hereditary in a particular family, which can have stood but a little below the royal house in wealth and consequence. The head of this noble house is stated to have at one time brought into the field as many as 10,000 retainers and slaves, of whom a thousand were heavy-armed. It was his right to place the diadem on the king's brow at his coronation. The other nobles lived for the most part on their domains, but took the field at the head of their retainers in case of war, and in peace sometimes served the offices of satrap, vizier, or royal councillor. The wealth of the class was great; its members were inclined to be turbulent, and, like the barons of the European kingdoms, acted as a constant check and counterpoise to the royal dignity.

Next to war, the favorite employment of the king and of the nobles was hunting. The lion continued in the wild state an occupant of the Mesopotamian river-banks and marshes; and in other parts of the empire bears, leopards, and even tigers abounded. Thus the higher kinds of sport were readily obtainable. The ordinary practice, however, of the monarch and his courtiers seems to have fallen short of the true sportsman's ideal. Instead of seeking the more dangerous kinds of wild beasts in their native haunts, and engaging with them under the conditions designed by nature, the Parthians were generally content with a poorer and tamer method. They kept lions, leopards, and bears in enclosed parks, or "paradises," and found pleasure in the pursuit and slaughter of these denaturalized and half-domesticated animals. The employment may still, even under these circumstances, have contained an element of danger which rendered it exciting; but it was a poor substitute for the true sport which the "mighty Hunter before the Lord" had first practised in these regions.

The ordinary dress of the Parthian noble was a long loose robe reaching to the feet, under which he wore a vest and trousers. Bright and varied colors were affected, and sometimes dresses were interwoven or embroidered with gold. In seasons of festivity garlands of fresh flowers were worn upon the head. A long knife or dagger was carried at all times, which might be used either as an implement or as a weapon.

In the earlier period of the empire the Parthian was noted as a spare liver; but, as time went on, he aped the vices of more civilized peoples, and became an indiscriminate eater and a hard drinker. Game formed a main portion of his diet; but he occasionally indulged in pork, and probably in other sorts of butcher's meat. He ate leavened bread, with his meat, and various kinds of vegetables. The bread, which was particularly light and porous, seems to have been imported sometimes by the Romans, who knew it as panis aquaticus or panis Parthicus. Dates were also consumed largely by the Parthians, and in some parts of the country grew to an extraordinary size. A kind of wine was made from them; and this seems to have been the intoxicating drink in which the nation generally indulged too freely. That made from the dates of Babylon was the most highly esteemed, and was reserved for the use of the king and the higher order of satraps.

Of the Parthian feasts, music was commonly an accompaniment. The flute, the pipe, the drum, and the instrument called eambuca, appear to have been known to them; and they understood how to combine these instruments in concerted harmony. They are said to have closed their feasts with dancing—an amusement of which they were inordinately fond—but this was probably the case only with the lower class of people. Dancing in the East, if not associated with religion, is viewed as degrading, and, except as a religious exercise, is not indulged in by respectable persons.

The separation of the sexes was very decided in Parthia. The women took their meals, and passed the greater portion of their life, apart from the men. Veils were commonly worn, as in modern Mohammedan countries; and it was regarded as essential to female delicacy that women, whether married or single, should converse freely with no males but either their near relations or eunuchs. Adultery was punished with great severity; but divorce was not difficult, and women of rank released themselves from the nuptial bond on light grounds of complaint, without much trouble. Polygamy was the established law; and every Parthian was entitled, besides his chief wife, to maintain as many concubines as he thought desirable. Some of the nobles supported an excessive number; but the expenses of the seraglio prevented the generality from taking much advantage of the indulgence which the law permitted.

The degree of refinement and civilization which the Parthians reached is difficult to determine with accuracy. In mimetic art their remains certainly do not show much taste or sense of beauty. There is some ground to believe that their architecture had merit; but the existing monuments can scarcely be taken as representations of pure Parthian work, and may have owed their excellence (in some measure, at any rate) to foreign influence. Still, the following particulars, for which there is good evidence, seem to imply that the nation had risen in reality far above that "barbarism" which it was the fashion of the Greek and Roman writers to ascribe to it. In the first place, the Parthians had a considerable knowledge of foreign languages. Plutarch tells us that Orodes, the opponent of Crassus, was acquainted with the Greek language and literature, and could enjoy the representation of a play of Euripides. The general possession of such knowledge, at any rate by the kings and the upper classes, seems to be implied by the use of the Greek letters and language in the legends upon coins and in inscriptions. Other languages were also to some extent cultivated. The later kings almost invariably placed a Semitic legend upon their coins; and there is one instance of a Parthian prince adopting an Aryan legend of the type known as Bactrian. Josephus, moreover, regarded the Parthians as familiar with Hebrew, or Syro-Chaldaic, and wrote his history of the Jewish War in his own native tongue, before he put out his Greek version, for the benefit especially of the Parthians, among whom he declares that he had many readers.

Though the Parthians had, so far as we can tell, no native literature, yet writing was familiar to them, and was widely used in matters of business. Not only were negotiations carried on with foreign powers by means of despatches, but the affairs of the empire generally were conducted by writing. A custom-house system was established along the frontier, and all commodities liable to duty that entered the country were registered in a book at the time of entry by the custom-house officer. In the great cities where the Court passed a portion of the year, account was kept of the arrival of strangers, whose names and descriptions were placed upon record by the keepers of the gates. The orders of the Crown were signified in writing to the satraps; and they doubtless corresponded with the Court in the same way. In the earlier times the writing material commonly used was linen; but shortly before the time of Pliny, the Parthians began to make paper from the papyrus, which grew in the neighborhood of Babylon, though they still employed in preference the old material.

There was a considerable trade between Parthia and Rome, carried on by means of a class of merchants. Parthia imported from Rome various metals, and numerous manufactured articles of a high class. Her principal exports were textile fabrics and spices. The textile fabrics seem to have been produced chiefly in Babylonia, and to have consisted of silks, carpets, and coverlets. The silks were largely used by the Roman ladies. The coverlets, which were patterned with various colors, fetched enormous prices, and were regarded as fit adornments of the Imperial palace. Among the spices exported, the most celebrated wore bdellium, and the juncus odoratus or odoriferous bulrush.

The Parthians had many liberal usages which imply a fairly advanced civilization. Their tolerance of varieties in religion has been already mentioned. Even in political matters they seem to have been free from the narrowness which generally characterizes barbarous nations. They behaved well to prisoners, admitted foreigners freely to offices of high trust, gave an asylum to refugees, and treated them with respect and kindness, were scrupulous observers of their pledged word, and eminently faithful to their treaty obligations. On the other hand, it must be admitted that they had some customs which indicate a tinge of barbarism. They used torture for the extraction of answers from reluctant persons, employed the scourge to punish trifling offences, and, in certain cases, condescended to mutilate the bodies of their dead enemies. Their addiction to intemperance is also a barbaric trait. They were, no doubt, on the whole, less civilized than either the Greeks or Romans; but the difference does not seem to have been so great as represented by the classical writers.

Speaking broadly, the position that they occupied was somewhat similar to that which the Turks hold in the system of modern Europe. They had a military strength which caused them to be feared and respected, a vigor of administration which was felt to imply many sterling qualities. A certain coarseness and rudeness attached to them which they found it impossible to shake off; and this drawback was exaggerated by their rivals into an indication of irreclaimable barbarity. Except in respect of their military prowess, it may be doubtful if justice is done them by any classical writer. They were not merely the sole rival which dared to stand up against Rome in the interval between B.C. 65 and A.D. 226, but they were a rival falling in many respects very little below the great power whose glories have thrown them so much into the shade. They maintained from first to last a freedom unknown to later Rome; they excelled the Romans in toleration and in liberal treatment of foreigners, they equalled them in manufactures and in material prosperity, and they fell but little short of them in the extent and productiveness of their dominions. They were the second power in the world for nearly three centuries, and formed a counterpoise to Rome which greatly checked Roman decline, and, by forcing the Empire to exert itself, prevented stagnation and corruption.

It must, however, be confessed, that the tendency of the Parthians was to degenerate. Although the final blow was struck in an unexpected quarter, and perhaps surprised the victors as much as the vanquished, still it is apparent that for a considerable space before the revolt of Artaxerxes the Parthian Empire had shown signs of failing strength, and had tended rapidly towards decay and ruin. The constant quarrels among the Arsacidae and the incipient disintegration of the Empire have been noticed. It may be added here that a growing barbarism, a decline in art and letters, is observable in the Parthian remains, such as have usually been found to accompany the decrepitude of a nation. The coinage has from first to last a somewhat rude character, which indicates that it is native, and not the production of Greek artists. But on the earlier coins the type, though not indicative of high art, is respectable, and the legends are, with few exceptions, perfectly correct and classical. Barbarism first creeps in about the reign of Gotarzes, A.D. 42-51. It increases as time goes on, until, from about A.D. 133, the Greek legend upon the coins becomes indistinct and finally unintelligible, the letters being strewn about the surface of the coin, like dead soldiers over a field of battle. It is, clear that the later directors of the mint were completely ignorant of Greek, and merely attempted to reproduce on the coin some semblance of a language which neither they nor their countrymen understood. Such a condition of a coinage is almost without parallel, and indicates a want of truth and honesty in the conduct of affairs which implies deep-seated corruption. The Parthians must have lost the knowledge of Greek about A.D. 130, yet still a pretence of using the language was kept up. On the tetra-drachms—comparatively rare coins—no important mistake was committed; but on the more usual drachm, from the time of Gotarzes, the most absurd errors were introduced, and thenceforth perpetuated. The old inscription was, in a certain sense, imitated, but every word of it ceased to be legible: the old figures disappeared in an indistinct haze, and—if we except the head and name of the king (written now in a Semitic character)—the whole emblazonment of the coin became unmeaning. A degeneracy less marked, but still sufficiently clear to the numismatic critic, is observable in the heads of the kings, which, in the earlier times, if a little coarse, are striking and characteristic; while in the later they sink to a conventional type, rudely and poorly rendered, and so uniform that the power of distinguishing one sovereign from another rests no longer upon feature, but upon mere differences in the arrangement of hair, or beard, or head-dress.


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