CHAPTER XXV, from the third volume of the Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325

Copyright by Will Durant. See the book at Amazon


BETWEEN Pontus and the Caucasus rose the troubled mountains of Armenia, on whose crest, story told, Noah’s ark had found a mooring. Through the fertile valleys ran the roads that led from Parthia and Mesopotamia to the Black Sea; hence empires competed for Armenia. The people were Indo-European, akin to the Hittites and the Phrygians, but they had never surrendered their sweeping Anatolian nose. They were a vigorous race, patient in agriculture, skilled in handicraft, unequaled in commercial acumen; they made the best of a difficult terrain and raised enough wealth to keep their kings in luxury if not in power. Darius I, in the Behistun inscription (521 B.C.), named Armenia among the satrapies of Persia; later it gave a nominal allegiance to the Seleucids and then alternately to Parthia and Rome; but its remoteness allowed it a practical independence. Its most famous king, Tigranes the Great (94-56 B.C.), conquered Cappadocia, added a second capital, Tigranocerta, to Artaxata, and joined Mithridates’ revolt against Rome. When Pompey accepted his apologies he gave the victorious general 6000 talents ($21,600,000), 10,000 drachmas ($6000) to each centurion, and fifty to each soldier, in the Roman army. Under Caesar, Augustus, and Nero Armenia acknowledged the suzerainty of Rome, and under Trajan it was for a time a Roman province; nevertheless, its culture was Iranian, and its usual orientation was toward Parthia.

The Parthians had for centuries occupied the region south of the Caspian Sea as subjects of the Achaemenid, then of the Seleucid, kings. They were of Scythian-Turanian stock- i.e., they belonged racially with the peoples of southern Russia and Turkestan. About 248 B.C. a Scythian chief, Arsaces, revolted against the Seleucid authority, made Parthia a sovereign state, and established the Arsacid dynasty. The Seleucid kings, weakened by Rome’s defeat of Antiochus III (189 B.C.), were unable to defend their territory against the reckless, half-barbarous Parthians, and by the end of the second century B.C. all Mesopotamia and Persia were absorbed into a new Parthian Empire. Three capitals, according to the season, entertained the new royalty: Hecatompylus in Parthia, Ecbatana in Media, and Ctesiphon on the lower Tigris. Across from Ctesiphon lay the former Seleucid capital Seleucia, which remained for centuries a Greek city in a Parthian realm. The Arsacid rulers kept the administrative structure built up by the Seleucids, but overlaid it with a feudalism derived from the Achaemenid kings. The mass of the population was composed of agricultural serfs and slaves; industry was backward, but the Parthian ironworkers made a fine steel, and “the brewing trade was highly profitable.” The wealth of the state came partly from the trade that passed along the great rivers, partly from the caravans that crossed Parthia on the way between farther Asia and the West. From 53 B.C., when the Parthians defeated Crassus at Carrhae, to A.D. 217, when Macrinus bought peace from Artabanus, Rome fought war after war for the control of these routes and the Red Sea.

The Parthians were too rich or too poor to indulge in literature. The aristocrats, as in all ages, preferred the art of life to the life of art, and the serfs were too illiterate, the artisans too busy, the merchants too commercial, to produce great art or great books. The people spoke Pahlavi and wrote in Aramaic on parchment, which now replaced cuneiform; but not a line of Parthian literature has been preserved. We know that Greek plays were enjoyed in Ctesiphon as well as in Seleucia, for the head of Crassus played a part there in the Bacchae of Euripides. The paintings and sculptures discovered at Palmyra, Dura-Europus, and Ashur were probably the work of Iranian artists; their crude amalgam of Greek and Oriental styles affected later art from China to Byzantium. A vivid relief of a mounted archer has come down to us to suggest that we might have a higher opinion of Parthian art if more of it remained. At Hatra, near Mosul, an Arabian feudatory of the Parthian king built (88 B.C.?) a limestone palace of seven arched and vaulted halls, in a powerful but barbarous style. Good Parthian work has survived in engraved silverware and jewelry.