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The Parthian Empire at its Greatest Extent (c. 96 BC)

In the early 1st century BC, Parthia’s territory expanded to the River Euphrates. Parthian and Roman envoys met to establish this landmark as the boundary between the two superpowers. At this first meeting, the Roman magistrate reportedly seized the seat of honour, humiliating his Parthian counterpart as the inferior ambassador. In 53 BC, Parthia finally demonstrated its strength by crushing the Roman army at Carrhae. 30,000 soldiers were killed or captured, and several legionary standards were lost to the Parthians.

Alexandra Magub - School of Oriental and African Studies and The British Museum

The Parthian Shot: silver tetradrachm of an unknown king (c. 80-70 BC).

The archer on Parthian coins not only represented the military might of the Parthians, but also their Iranian character. Trousers were considered effeminate clothing in the Roman world; however the folds of material (shown on the coins as horizontal lines) prevented saddle chaffing. These mounted archers were a chilling reminder of Rome’s defeat at Carrhae: the Roman historian Justin recounts how the cavalrymen would gallop in retreat, only to turn in the saddle and fire fatal shots from their bows. 

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Silver denarius of Augustus (63 BC–14 AD).

In 20 BC, Augustus, Emperor of Rome, and Phraates IV, King of Parthia, negotiated the return of Rome’s captured standards. While both sides benefited from this treaty, Augustus was quick to portray the event as a personal victory.  On this coin, a Parthian wearing the characteristic trouser suit returns a standard from his knees. Recounting these events, Augustus published the claim throughout his empire, “I forced the Parthians… as supplicants to accept the friendship of the Roman people“(Res Gestae, 29). 

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Silver drachm of Phraates IV (c. 37-2 BC).

Parthian kings placed greater emphasis on displaying their God-given splendour (Old Persian, khvarnah) rather than circulating propaganda against their enemies. The khvarnah was an important aspect of the Iranian Zoroastrian religion in ancient times, illuminating the king in celestial splendour and granting him invulnerability in battle. In the Zoroastrian hymns, the Veragna bird delivers the khvarnah and this idea can be seen on Phraates IV’s coinage. A star and crescent moon illuminate him as the holder of this divine splendour.

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Golden necklace, said to be discovered at Deylaman in north-west Iran.

This necklace brings to life the magnificent jewellery depicted on Parthian coinage. Made of gold and inlaid with gems, it shows two birds clasping kingship rings in their beaks. They evoke the idea of the Zoroastrian Veragna bird, showing that the khvarnah is firmly held by the wearer. Compared to more austere Roman coin portraits, Parthian kings were depicted with lavish earrings, torques, and richly beaded headdresses. These items also symbolise the exotic wealth held within the King’s vast Empire. 

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Gold aureus of Quintus Labienus Parthicus (died 39 BC).

In 40 BC, this Roman general joined forces with Parthia to fight against a shared enemy: Julius Caesar’s successors. Labienus’ portrait is accompanied by a saddled Parthian horse armed with a bow case- an evocative image for Romans and Parthians alike. Roman accounts claim the Parthians used gold exclusively to adorn their war horses and weapons. Similarly, the Zoroastrian victory deity, Verethragna, is said to have incarnated as a horse with golden adornments, and as a warrior with golden weapons.

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Silver drachm of Phraataces ("Little Phraates") and Musa (c. 2 BC-4 AD).

At the peace negotiations of 20 BC, Phraates IV received the concubine Musa as a gift from Rome. He was eventually murdered by Musa and their son, Phraataces. The mother-son conspirators reportedly married and ruled Parthia jointly, as shown on this coin. Horrified Roman sources assert that the pair was killed because of this marriage; however, this was not unusual amongst Parthian Zoroastrians. More likely, Musa and Phraataces were perceived to have lost the khvarnah following territorial losses to Rome.

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Silver coin of the Armenian king Tigranes (II) the Great (c. 140-55 BC)

Tigranes II was a Parthian hostage until he bought his freedom and took the Armenian throne. Although Armenia was nestled between Roman and Parthian territories, he resisted their encroachments. Tigranes abandoned the Parthian-style domed tiara of his predecessor for a pointed Armenian tiara illustrating the khvarnah with Veragna birds and a star. The Greek city goddess Tyche is shown on the reverse with a river god at her feet. Despite their Greek appearance, they represent the captured city of Antioch-on-the-Orontes.

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Silver tetradrachm of Phraates III (c. 70-57 BC).

In a rare alliance, Rome and Parthia agreed to overthrow the Armenian Tigranes II. Phraates III, wearing an impressive Parthian tiara decorated with beads, stags and a horn, wanted to place an ally on the Armenian throne. The coin’s reverse shows the enthroned king holding a Veragna bird while Tyche (representing the Parthian city Seleucia-on-the-Tigris) crowns him. In the coin’s inscription Phraates III arrogantly claims to be ‘divine’. He was eventually murdered by his sons for the disastrous Roman alliance.

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Postcard of the royal tombs at Nimrud Dagh in Commagene (modern south-central Turkey).

Like Armenia, the kingdom of Commagene bordered both Roman and Parthian territories. In 62 BC, Antiochus I Theos (‘the Divine’) commissioned his royal tomb at Nimrud Dagh. His colossal statue stood alongside figures of lions, Veragna birds, claimed ancestors from both ancient Persian kings and from Alexander the Great, as well as gods fused together from Armenian, Iranian and Greek pantheons. This unique theology placed the king amongst gods of all nations, and sent a strong message to neighbouring superpowers.

© Trustees of the British Museum