The "Parthwa," or Parthians, who are early met with as one of the numerous peoples merged in the great Persian empire, at first in the modern Khorasan to the south-east of the Caspian sea, appear after 500 under the Scythian, i. e. Turanian, princely race of the Arsacids as an independent state; which, however, only emerged from its obscurity about a century afterwards. The sixth Arsaces, Mithradates I (579?-618?), was the real founder of the Parthian as a great power. To him succumbed the Bactrian empire, in itself far more powerful, but already shaken to the very foundation partly by hostilities with the hordes of Scythian horsemen from Turan and with the states of the Indus, partly by internal disorders. He achieved almost equal successes in the countries to the west of the great desert. The Syrian empire was just then in the utmost disorganization, partly through the failure of the Hellenizing attempts of Antiochus Epiphanes, partly through the troubles as to the succession that occurred after his death; and the provinces of the interior were in full course of breaking off from Antioch and the region of the coast. In Commagene for instance, the most northerly province of Syria on the Cappadocian frontier, the satrap Ptolemaeus asserted his independence, as did also on the opposite bank of the Euphrates the prince of Edessa in northern Mesopotamia or the province of Osrhoene, and the satrap Timarchus in the important province of Media; in fact the latter got his independence confirmed by the Roman senate, and, supported by Armenia as his ally, ruled as far down as Seleucia on the Tigris. Disorders of this sort were permanent features of the Asiatic empire: the provinces under their partially or wholly independent satraps were in continual revolt, as was also the capital with its unruly and refractory populace resembling that of Rome or Alexandria. The whole pack of neighbouring kings--those of Egypt, Armenia, Cappadocia, Pergamus-- incessantly interfered in the affairs of Syria and fostered disputes as to the succession, so that civil war and the division of the sovereignty de facto among two or more pretenders became almost standing calamities of the country. The Roman protecting power, if it did not instigate these neighbours, was an inactive spectator. In addition to all this the new Parthian empire from the eastward pressed hard on the aliens not merely with its material power, but with the whole superiority of its national language and religion and of its national military and political organization. This is not yet the place for a description of this regenerated empire of Cyrus; it is sufficient to mention generally the fact that powerful as was the influence of Hellenism in its composition, the Parthian state, as compared with that of the Seleucids, was based on a national and religious reaction, and that the old Iranian language, the order of the Magi and the worship of Mithra, the Oriental feudatory system, the cavalry of the desert and the bow and arrow, first emerged there in renewed and superior opposition to Hellenism. The position of the imperial kings in presence of all this was really pitiable. The family of the Seleucids was by no means so enervated as that of the Lagids for instance, and individuals among them were not deficient in valour and ability; they reduced, it may be, one or another of those numerous rebels, pretenders, and intermeddlers to due bounds; but their dominion was so lacking in a firm foundation, that they were unable to impose even a temporary check on anarchy. The result was inevitable. The eastern provinces of Syria under their unprotected or even insurgent satraps fell into subjection to the Parthians; Persia, Babylonia, Media were for ever severed from the Syrian empire; the new state of the Parthians reached on both sides of the great desert from the Oxus and the Hindoo Coosh to the Tigris and the Arabian desert--once more, like the Persian empire and all the older great states of Asia, a pure continental monarchy, and once more, just like the Persian empire, engaged in perpetual feud on the one side with the peoples of Turan, on the other with the Occidentals. The Syrian state embraced at the most Mesopotamia in addition to the region of the coast, and disappeared, more in consequence of its internal disorganization than of its diminished size, for ever from the ranks of the great states. If the danger-- which was repeatedly imminent--of a total subjugation of the land by the Parthians was averted, that result must be ascribed not to the resistance of the last Seleucids and still less to the influence of Rome, but rather to the manifold internal disturbances in the Parthian empire itself, and above all to the incursions of the peoples of the Turanian steppes into its eastern provinces.

Reaction Of The East Against The West

This revolution in the relations of the peoples in the interior of Asia is the turning-point in the history of antiquity. The tide of national movement, which had hitherto poured from the west to the east and had found in Alexander the Great its last and highest expression, was followed by the ebb. On the establishment of the Parthian state not only were such Hellenic elements, as may still perhaps have been preserved in Bactria and on the Indus, lost, but western Iran also relapsed into the track which had been abandoned for centuries but was not yet obliterated. The Roman senate sacrificed the first essential result of the policy of Alexander, and thereby paved the way for that retrograde movement, whose last offshoots ended in the Alhambra of Granada and in the great Mosque of Constantinople. So long as the country from Ragae and Persepolis to the Mediterranean obeyed the king of Antioch, the power of Rome extended to the border of the great desert; the Parthian state could never take its place among the dependencies of the Mediterranean empire, not because it was so very powerful, but because it had its centre far from the coast, in the interior of Asia.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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