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Rivals, Rebels and the Parthian Empire
Ideological currents on coins from the 1st century BC
By the 1st century BC, the Parthian Empire stretched from Bactria in modern Afghanistan to the River Euphrates in modern Iraq. Over the next three centuries, its kings entered into a formidable rivalry with Rome. Competing ideologies were displayed on coinage and channelled across enemy borders through peaceful trade and armed invasions.
Encounters with Parthia have traditionally been told from the Roman mouthpiece, since their accounts have survived this period largely intact. These ancient authors colour the Parthians as an inferior race. However, new studies on Parthia’s coinage have allowed researchers to examine this ancient Iranian empire from the perspective of its great kings rather than its hostile adversaries.
This image gallery principally explores Parthian-Roman relations during the military confrontations and ideological battles of the 1st century BC. However, contact between the two superpowers was not just played out on a global stage. It seeped into Parthia’s internal power struggles, and rebel claims to the Parthian throne could be built or broken by entanglements with the Roman world. The kingdoms of Armenia and Commagene shared borders with these superpowers and became increasingly draw in to their competing ideological currents. These kingdoms not only border political fault lines, but also religions ones. Across the East Iran’s ancient, monotheistic Zoroastrian religion intertwined with the Greek and Roman pantheons.
After the end of the Parthian Empire in 224 AD, its ideologies on kingship and the divine survived in the cultures of successive powers. These Parthian echoes, though not always conspicuous, became fossilised in the history and mythology of both Rome and Iran.
The AHRC’s 10th anniversary marks a decade of bridging disciplinary gaps, such as showcasing the little-explored coinage alongside literary sources and other material evidence. With this turning-point in Parthian studies, we can better understand this ancient empire and reimagine its captivating culture.
Gallery courtesy of Alexandra Magub, SOAS, University of London/The British Museum
The Parthian Empire at its Greatest Extent (c. 96 BC)
about 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).
about The Parthian Shot: silver tetradrachm of an unknown king (c. 80-70 BC).
Basalt stela of Antiochus I Theos greeting Verethragna-Herakles-Ares from Nimrud Dagh (1st century BC)
about Basalt stela of Antiochus I Theos greeting Verethragna-Herakles-Ares from Nimrud Dagh (1st century BC)
Drawing of Ardashir I's investiture relief at Naqsh-e Rostam in southern Iran (224-242 AD), from R. Ker Porter (1821) Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia... 1817-1820 vol. I, pl.23; Longman & Co., London
about Drawing of Ardashir I's investiture relief at Naqsh-e Rostam in southern Iran (224-242 AD), from R. Ker Porter (1821) Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia... 1817-1820 vol. I, pl.23; Longman & Co., London
The rise of the Sasanians in southern Iran brought the Parthian Empire to an end in 224 AD. On this rock relief, the royal crown is passed from the supreme Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda (right) to the new king Ardashir I (left). While the God’s horse treads on Ahriman (the embodiment of Evil), Ardashir’s tramples his defeated Parthian opponent. The horses touch poignantly. The relief establishes which king has been granted the khvarnah and is favoured by the divine world.
Silver drachm of Hormizd II (303-309 AD).
about Silver drachm of Hormizd II (303-309 AD).
Painted manuscript showing the hero Rostam piercing an enemy, made in Shiraz in southern Iran (1435-1440 AD).
about Painted manuscript showing the hero Rostam piercing an enemy, made in Shiraz in southern Iran (1435-1440 AD).