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PARTHIANS (par'thĭ-ănz, Gr. Parthoi). Luke’s geographical list of the people who were in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts.2.9) is headed by “Parthians and Medes.” By “Parthians” Luke no doubt meant all the Jews and proselytes who lived in the old Parthian Empire to the east, known today as Iran. The earliest dispersion of the ten tribes took place in the eastern countries. Later they were augmented by immigration and colonization so that by the first century a.d. the number of Jews in the eastern territories ran into millions.

There is only scant information about the early history of Parthia, a small country, 120 by 300 miles (200 by 500 km.), NW of old Persia and south of the Caspian Sea. Alexander subdued the people, and after the breakdown of his far-flung empire they fell under the rule of the Seleucids. After a successful revolt they soon became a rival power of Rome. Proud Roman Crassus was defeated and killed by them in 53 b.c. In 40 they seized Jerusalem. At one time their empire extended from the Tigris to India. Rome and Parthia learned to respect each other’s power and there were many years of somewhat peaceful coexistence extending through the first century a.d. The Parthians’ success was due mainly to their unusual way of fighting. Almost all of their soldiers were mounted on horseback. They were excellent with the bow and arrow so that they have been described as “archers fighting on horseback.” Known for their prowess in war, instead of the arts and sciences, they never developed a literature of their own. But it is certain that the apostles of our Lord preached the gospel among them.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. Country and Early History:

A people mentioned in Ac 2:9 only, in connection with other strangers present at Jerusalem at Pentecost, from which we infer that they were Jews or proselytes from the regions included in the Parthian empire. This empire stretched from the Euphrates to the confines of India and the Oxus, and for centuries was the rival of Rome, and more than once proved her match on the battlefield. The Parthians are not mentioned in the Old Testament, but are frequently in Josephus, and they had an important connection with the history of the Jews, on account of the large colonies of the latter in Mesopotamia, and the interference of the Parthians in the affairs of Judea, once making it a vassal state.

Parthia proper was a small territory to the Southeast of the Caspian Sea, about 300 miles long by 120 wide, a fertile though mountainous region, bordering on the desert tract of Eastern Persia. The origin of the Parthians is rather uncertain, though the prevailing opinion is that they were of Scythic stock or of the great Tartar race. We have no reference to them earlier than the time of Darius the Great, but they were doubtless among the tribes subdued by Cyrus, as they are mentioned by Darius as being in revolt. They seem to have remained faithful to the Persians after that, and submitted to Alexander without resistance.

2. The Seleucid Kings:

Next they came under the rule of the Seleucid kings of Syria, but revolted about 250 BC, in the reign of Antiochus II (Theos), and gained their independence under the lead of Arsaces I who established the dynasty of the Arsacidae, which continued for nearly 5 centuries. His capital was Hecatompylos, but his reign continued only about 3 years, and his brother Tridates succeeded him as Arsaces II and he consolidated the kingdom. The war between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies freed him from interference from that quarter until 237 BC, when Seleucus II (Callinicus) marched against him, but was completely defeated, and Parthian independence was secured. Artabanus I, who followed him, extended his dominions westward to the Zagros Mountains, but Antiochus III would not permit such an encroachment with impunity, and led an expedition against him, driving him back and even invading his ancestral dominion. But after a struggle of some years the Parthians remained still unsubdued, and the difficulties of the contest led Antiochus to conclude peace with him in which he acknowledged the independence of Parthia. For about a quarter of a century the king of Parthia remained quiet, but Phraates I (181-174 BC) recommenced aggressions on the Seleucid empire which Were continued by Mithridates I (174-137), who added to his dominions a part of Bactria, on the East, and Media, Persia and Babylonia on the West. This was a challenge to Demetrius II, of Syria, to whose empire the provinces belonged, and he marched against him with a large force, but was defeated and taken prisoner. He remained in Parthia some years, well treated by Phraates II, whose sister he married, and, when Phraates wished to create a diversion against Antiochus Sidetes, he set Demetrius at liberty and sent him back to Syria. Antiochus was at first successful, as his force of 300,000 men far outnumbered the Parthians, but he was at last defeated and slain in 129 BC and his army destroyed. This was the last attempt of the Seleucid kings to subdue Parthia, and it was acknowledged as the dominant power in Western Asia. But Phraates fell in conflict with the Scyths, whom he called in to aid him in his war with Sidetes, and his successor likewise, and it was only on the accession of Mithridates in 124 BC that these barbarians were checked. The king then turned his attention toward Armenia, which he probably brought under his control, but its king Tigranes recovered its independence and even attacked the Parthians, and took from them two provinces in Mesopotamia.

3. In Contact with Rome:

Not long after, the power of Rome came into contact with armenia and Parthia. In 66 BC when, after subduing Mithridates of Pontus, Pompey came into Syria, Phraates III made an alliance with him against Armenia, but was offended by the way in which he was treated and thought of turning against his ally, but refrained for the time being. It was only a question of time when the two powers would come to blows, for Parthia had become an empire and could ill brook the intrusion of Rome into Western Asia. It was the ambition and greed of Crassus that brought about the clash of Rome and Parthia. When he took the East as his share of the Roman world as apportioned among the triumvirs, he determined to rival Caesar in fame and wealth by subduing Parthia, and advanced across the Euphrates on his ill-fated expedition in 53 BC. The story of his defeat and death and the destruction of the army and loss of the Roman eagles is familiar to all readers of Roman history. It revealed Parthia to the world as the formidable rival of Rome, which she continued to be for nearly 3 centuries. After the death of Crassus, the Parthians crossed the Euphrates and ravaged Northern Syria, but retired the following year without securing any portion of the country, and thus ended the first war with Rome. In 40 BC, after the battle of Philippi, Pacorus, who was then king, invaded Syria a second time and took possession of it together with all Palestine, Tyre alone escaping subjection. He set Antigonus on the throne of Judea, deposing Hyrcanus for the purpose. Syria and Palestine remained in the hands of Parthia for 3 years, but the coming of Ventidius gave a new turn to affairs. He drove the Parthians out of Syria, and when they returned the following year, he defeated them again and Pacorus was slain. Parthia had to retire within her own borders and remain on the defensive. Antony’s attempt to subdue them proved abortive, and his struggle with Octavian compelled him to relinquish the project. The Parthians were unable to take advantage of the strife in the Roman empire on account of troubles at home. an insurrection led by Tiridates drove the king Phraates IV from the throne, but he recovered it by the aid of the Scyths, and Tiridates took refuge in Syria with the youngest son of the king. Augustus afterward restored him without ransom, and obtained the lost standards of Crassus, and thus peace was established between the rival empires. Each had learned to respect the power of the other, and, although contention arose regarding the suzerainty of armenia, peace was not seriously disturbed between them for about 130 years, or until the reign of Trajan. Parthia was not at peace with herself, however. Dynastic troubles were frequent, and the reigns of the kings short. Artabanus III, who reigned 16-42 AD, was twice expelled from his kingdom and twice recovered his throne. In his days occurred a terrible massacre of Jewish colonists in Mesopotamia, as narrated by Josephus (Ant., XVIII, ix). The contest with Rome over Armenia was settled in the days of Nero in a manner satisfactory to both parties, so that peace was not broken for 50 years. The ambition of Trajan led him to disregard the policy inaugurated by Augustus, adhered to, for the most part, by succeeding emperors, not to extend the limits of the empire. After the conquest of Dacia he turned his attention to the East and resolved on the invasion of Parthia. The Parthian king, Chosroes, endeavored to placate Trajan by an embassy bearing presents and proposals of peace, but Trajan rejected them and carried out his purpose. He subdued armenia, took Upper Mesopotamia, Adiabebe (Assyria), Ctesiphon, the capital, and reached the Pets Gulf, but was obliged to turn back by revolts in his rear and failed to reduce the fortress of Hatra. The conquered provinces were restored, however, by Hadrian, and the Parthians did not retaliate until the reign of Aurelius, when they overran Syria, and in 162 AD Lucius Verus was sent to punish them. In the following year he drove them back and advanced into the heart of the Parthian empire, inflicting the severest blow it had yet received. It was evident that the empire was on the decline, and the Romans did not meet with the resistance they had experienced in former times. Severus and Caracalla both made expeditions into the country, and the latter took the capital and massacred the inhabitants, but after his assassination his successor, Macrinus, fought a three days’ battle with the Parthians at Nisibis in which he was worsted and was glad to conclude a peace by paying an indemnity of some 1,500,000 British pounds (217 AD).

4. Fall of the Empire:

But this was the last achievement of the Parthians. It is evident that Artabanus had suffered severely in his conflict with the Romans, and was unable to put down the revolt of the Persians under the lead of Artaxerxes, who overthrew the Parthian empire and established the dynasty of the Sassanidae in its place (226 AD).

5. Culture:

The Parthians were not a cultured people, but displayed a rude magnificence, making use, to some extent, of remains of Greek culture which they found within the regions they seized from the empire of Alexander. They had no native literature, as far as known, but made use of Greek in writing and on their coins. They were familiar with Hebrew or Syro-Chaldaic, and the later kings had Semitic legends on their coins. Josephus is said to have written his history of the Jewish War in his native tongue for Parthian readers. In their method of government they seem to have left the different provinces pretty much to themselves, so long as they paid tribute and furnished the necessary contingents.

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