"That famous monarch vanished from the world.“ The End of the Parthian Empire in 224 CE

28 April 224 CE, halfway between Tehran and Basra, the Parthian Kingdom ended with the defeat and death of its last King Artabanus V in the Battle of Hormozdgān at the hands of Ardashir (Artaxerxes) I, who subsequently founded the Sassanid Empire.
“So all the wise one day, when fight was fiercest, Asked quarter, and Ardshír charged from the centre; Arose a clashing while the arrows showered. Amidmost of the mellay Ardawán Was ta'en, and for his crown gave up sweet life. The hand of one Kharrád seized on his bridle, And bare him captive to the atheling. Ardshír saw him from far. King Ardawán Lit from his steed, his body arrow-pierced, His soul all gloom, and Sháh Ardshír commanded The deathsman: “Go, seize on the great king's foe, Cleave him asunder with thy sword, and make Our evil-wishers quail.”So did the deathsman:That famous monarch vanished from the world.“

(Ferdowsi “The Shahnameh”)

The Statue of Parthian Nobleman, National Museum of Iran,
one of the most famous pieces of Parthian art, maybe depicting General Surena,
the victor of the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE (Between 200 BCE and 200 CE)

They were probably a sub-tribe of the Scythians, the antique catchall term for the Indo-Iranian horse nomads of the steppe beyond the Black and the Caspian Sea. Once called the Parni, they became known as Parthians when they were led by their prince Arsaces into Parthia, a region on the border of modern Iran and Turkmenistan around 250 BCE, then a Hellenistic part of one of the successor states of Alexander the Great’s conquest, the Seleucid Empire. Over the next hundred years, the Parthians adopted Hellenistic culture and customs, spoke Greek and took over large parts of Persia between the two poles of the decaying Seleucid Empire in the west and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in the East, located somewhere between the Syr Darya, the Hindu-Kush and the Indus. At least we assume that they did, since there are so few original sources. What we know about the Parthians was more often than not written down by their enemies, chiefly the Romans with whom they clashed for the first time at Carrhae in 53 BCE, where the Parthian General Surenas ended Crassus’ attempt of playing Caesar with a bang. It was the gory prelude of centuries of war along the borders, almost as a rule beginning with the Romans crossing the Euphrates, capturing Mesopotamia, spreading themselves too thin, getting their supply lines cut, usually coming to grief in skirmishes with the Parthian horse soldiers, archers and knights, and finally having to abandon their conquest and withdraw back across the river into Roman Syria. Roman accounts of their Parthian enemies depend on the political intention of the respective authors but usually vary between the description of effeminate, over-civilised wastrels and half-wild, horse-loving barbarians. In fact, the Romans met their match beyond the Euphrates and even if the Parthians never abandoned their tribal structure and had organised their empire – probably - in quasi-feudal, quasi-independent and often Greek speaking principalities in contrast to centralised Imperial Rome, their achievements in terms of civilisation as well as warfare were considerable. And by mid-3rd century CE, they were as exhausted as the Romans.

The Sassanid relief at Naqsh-e Rustam showing the investiture of Ardashir I at the hands of the higher divine spirit of the old Iranian religion, Ahura Mazda, himself (on the right, the rider with the high crown)

decided disadvantage of decentralised, quasi-feudal structures is that every local princeling at the back of beyond believes himself to be the next king-of-kings or, at the very least, an absolute monarch in his own domain and entitled to revolt against any form of central authority. It happened on a regular basis during the rule of the Parthian Arsacid dynasty, with the House of Suren, the House of Karen, House Mihran and the other four of the Parthian feudal clans, as well as other satraps of less illustrious provenance being in a state of continuous insurgency. Thus, the revolt of Ardahsir of the Bazrangi clan, lord of the Persis in the southwestern part of the modern Iranian Fars province, around Persepolis, the heartland of the ancient Persian Achaemenid dynasty, was nothing extraordinary. When Ardahsir conquered the Kerman province and crowned himself king, Artabanus V, the actual Arsacid ruler of the Parthian Empire, thought that this was going too far, though, and felt that something had to be done. Artabanus was himself an old revolt and campaign hand. He came to power after overthrowing his brother Vologases back in 208 CE and having fought the Romans under Caracalla and then Macrinus to a standstill in 217, enforcing their customary retreat back across the Euphrates. In short: Artabanus was not exactly the useless last scion of a degenerated dynasty. Both factions, the Arsacids and the one that was later known as the Sasanians after Ardashir’s grandfather Sasan, battled in the valleys between the Zagros and the Kuhrud Mountains for almost four years until they met in a place known as Hormozdgān, fielding each about 10,000 horse soldiers, archers and the feared, heavily armoured cataphracts. According to tradition, Ardashir’s son Shapur led these Sasanian knights, Artabanus fell in battle and Ardashir was crowned as the Shahanshah, King of Kings of Iran, of the House of Sasan.

Historical re-enactment of a Sassanid-era cataphract,
complete with a full set of scale armour for the horse. 

, it takes one to know one. The Sasanians did their best to establish something along the lines of a central authority, but experienced more or less the same territorial and dynastic struggles as their Arsacid predecessors. The times were a-changing though, since much of the Hellenistic religious lenience and multi-ethnic pluralism seems to have been substituted already by the early Sasanian kings in favour of a strict monotheistic state religion, Zoroastrianism along the old Achaemenid “ride, shoot the bow and speak the truth” lines and a clear Iranian cultural dominance in their empire. Parthian heritage, though, continued to flourish in obscurity well into the Middle Ages. The intermediary role they played between east and west, with their embassies going far beyond the borders of the Hellenised north of India into China, the opening of the Silk Road in 115 BCE, their favoured blend of Hellenistic and later Roman and oriental architecture that became an essential foundation of Islamic building styles as well as their tradition of minstrels, courtly romance and brave knights, adopted by the Sasanians and later imported to the western Europe in the backwash of the Crusades are only among the most obvious traits and achievements of a half-forgotten people that ruled the Middle East 2,000 years ago.

And more about the Parthian Kingdom and Parthian history and culture, or what we believe we know about it, on: