Greeks and Parthians in Mesopotamia and Beyond: 331 BC – 224 AD – Book Review
Greeks and Parthians in Mesopotamia and Beyond: 331 BC – 224 AD. Wolfram Grajetzki. Bristol Classical Press, 2011. 128 pages, $27.95.
Some people’s eyes are drawn to the mysterious blank spaces near the edge of the map. What, they wonder, was going on over there, away from the core territories that most historians tend to focus on. In his book Greeks and Parthians in Mesopotamia and Beyond: 331 BC – 224 AD, Wolfram Grajetzki expresses such a sentiment when he writes:
History is still too often divided into first-level and second-level nations and empires. A visit to any bookshop will yield plenty of publications on the Roman empire, but little on other contemporary kingdoms.”
At the same time that Rome was rising to dominate the Mediterranean world, a great drama was playing out further east. There, the Seleucid empire, which held the bulk of the eastern territories conquered by Alexander the Great, was losing ground to a new Iranian power—that of the Parthians. And the stakes were high: whether or not lands east of the Euphrates would continue under Greek rule, and retain the influence of Greek culture. Grajetzki’s book recounts this topic competently, though the book’s tight focus on a narrow geographical range is a drawback at times.
After defeating the Persian empire and overrunning territory as far east as India, Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 BC. A series of civil wars followed, as Alexander’s subordinates fought for control of the lands he had conquered. When the smoke cleared in 301 BC, the largest chunk of territory had gone to Seleucus I, one of Alexander’s former generals and now the founder of a dynasty.
The Seleucid empire was one of the largest in history. At its peak, it encompassed modern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and part of former Soviet Central Asia. The Seleucid kings encouraged Greek settlement in the east. As Grajetzki points out, numerous inscriptions in the southwestern Iranian city of Susa document the presence of both Greek residents and institutions. In Babylon, archaeologists excavated a house that had been modified to suit Greek tastes: a peristyle (a courtyard surrounded by a colonnade) was installed, as was a bath. Even further afield, two Greek temples have been excavated on the Persian Gulf island of Failaka (part of modern Kuwait).
In Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Greek culture came face-to-face with the centuries-old Babylonian civilization. The Seleucid kings sought to win the support of the influential Babylonian priesthood. In Babylon itself, Antiochus I (ruled 281-261 BC) ordered the reconstruction of Esagila, the main temple of the city. There was some cultural integration at the highest levels of society. In 201 BC, in the Babylonian city of Uruk, the local governor was an individual with a composite Babylonian-Greek name: Anu-uballit Kephalon.
However, the Seleucid empire was too sprawling to hold together for very long. In about 250 BC, Andragoras, the governor of the province of Parthia (east of the Caspian Sea in former Soviet Central Asia) rebelled against the Seleucid throne. However, Andragoras was quickly overthrown by an invading group of Iranian nomads called the Parni, who took Parthia for themselves. The Parni subsequently became known to Greeks and Romans from the name of the province they had seized—hence “Parthians.”
For several decades, Parthia was a minor state, still nominally subject to Seleucid authority. It survived only because the Seleucid kings were preoccupied with wars in the west, first against the rival Hellenistic dynasty of Ptolemaic Egypt, and then against the expanding Roman Republic. In 190 BC, the Seleucid king Antiochus III was defeated by the Romans at the battle of Magnesia in Asia Minor. Seleucid power began to disintegrate. The Seleucids lost most of Asia Minor and were forced to pay heavy indemnities to Rome. Rival claimants to the throne—some with Roman support—began fighting each other.
The Parthian king Mithridates I (ruled c. 171-139/8 BC) established Parthia as a great power. Taking advantage of internal conflicts in the Seleucid empire, he pushed west and seized the central Iranian province of Media (an important source of horses for the Seleucid cavalry) by 147 BC. He then continued further west and south into Mesopotamia: Babylonian cuneiform tablets record that the Parthians controlled the cities of Babylon and Seleucia-on-the-Tigris in 141 BC.
The Seleucids made two attempts to retake their lost territories, both unsuccessful. In 140–139 BC, the Parthians defeated a belated counterattack by the Seleucid king Demetrius II. A decade later, the Seleucid king Antiochus VII assembled a large army in Syria and pushed east. He retook Mesopotamia from the Parthians and advanced into central Iran. In the winter of 130/129 BC, he dispersed his army into winter quarters. The local people were required to house and feed the Seleucid troops; when the soldiers acted abusively toward the locals, they turned to the Parthians for assistance.
In February/March 129 BC, the local populace cooperated with the Parthians in attacking the dispersed and vulnerable Seleucid army. Antiochus VII himself was killed in the fighting and his army was destroyed. It was the effective end of the Seleucid empire, which was reduced to a pathetic mini-state in Syria. The Parthians had erased Alexander’s conquests east of the Euphrates.
Books on the Seleucids are rare; books on the Parthians are even rarer. Grajetzki thus gains points at the outset for tackling such an important but little-known topic. He emphasizes material culture and presents it well—the book contains plenty of illustrations of building plans and artifacts from archaeological excavations. Furthermore, Greeks and Parthians is equipped with a glossary and a dated list of kings from the Seleucid and Parthian eras, as well as from contemporary lesser states.
However, Grajetzki has chosen to cover a very limited geographical range, centering on Babylonia and the Persian Gulf. Doing so leaves out a fair amount of important source material. By a near-miracle, a few Greek-language documents (on parchment) from the Parthian era have survived. Grajetzki might usefully have examined these, but since they come from outside his range (from Dura-Europos in Syria and Avroman in northern Iran) they are passed over. The book also contains a couple of geographical errors. Grajetzki places an important sculpture of Herakles (Hercules to the Romans—a fine photograph of the statue graces the book’s cover) in Elymais in southwestern Iran. In fact, the sculpture is from Behistun in Media, hundreds of miles to the north. In an apparent typo, the Iranian province of Fars is said to be in “north-west Iran”; in fact, Fars lies in the south, adjacent to the body of water to which it gives its name: the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, once these limitations are kept in mind, the book remains very much worth reading.
Even though the Parthians had defeated the Greeks militarily, they showed no hostility to Greek culture—to the contrary, they valued it. The royal art of the Parthian court shows strong Hellenic influence. Parthian coins featured Greek inscriptions and royal portraits skillfully executed by Greek engravers. Mithridates I referred to himself as “philhellene” (“friend of Greeks”) on his coins, angling for the support of the Greek population in his newly conquered territories.
Greek-language inscriptions from the city of Susa (in southwestern Iran) show that local political institutions continued to function. A letter (dated 21 AD) from the Parthian king Artabanus II to the populace of Susa was inscribed on stone and found by archaeologists centuries later. The letter is addressed to two individuals holding the traditional Greek office of archon (magistrate—Ed.). Another inscription from Susa (not mentioned by Grajetzki) indicates that even military administrative practices continued under the Parthians. The Seleucids had attracted military settlers to the east by giving them land grants. An inscription dated AD 2 mentions “resident guardians of the great citadel,” who were holders of land grants—these may have been the descendants of the Seleucid-era military settlers.
In the meantime, the Parthians became the obstacle to Roman eastward expansionism. In 53 BC, Parthian mounted archers and cataphracts (armored heavy cavalry) soundly defeated an invading Roman army at the Battle of Carrhae. The Parthian empire remained a firm barrier against Rome until the 2nd century AD, when its power waned and the Romans made repeated forays into Mesopotamia. But the final downfall of Parthia came not at the hands of the Romans, but from another eastern power. In the 220s AD, a rebellious chieftain from Fars in southern Iran defeated the Parthians and established the new regime of the Sassanian Persians. Fars had also been the homeland of the Persians defeated by Alexander the Great—so the wheel had turned full circle.
Richard Tada holds a graduate degree in ancient history from the University of Washington. He has previously had articles published in MHQ and Military History magazine and here on ArmchairGeneral.com.