Sultan Palace Merv

Who were the Parni and How they became the Parthians?

Parthian Empire (Start – Arsaces I 248-247 – 211 B.C. and the last Artabanus IV until 224 A.D). Part 1

From the Parni Scythian tribe to the Parthia region of the Seleucid Empire (in Iran), and the foundation of Parthian Empire.

The start date of Parthian period foundation is the subject of discussions between the scholars. Some refer that the Parthian state started circa 248-247 B.C with Arsacid (Parthian) era beginning. Jeffrey Lerner argues convincingly that the Parthian era corresponds to the Parni's seizure of the Seleucid satrapy of Parthia in northeastern Iran (originally, Parthians were an ancient Iranian people, speaking the Parthian language who were different from Parni nomadic people). Instead, he uses coinage and Justin's account of events to establish the independent reign of a rebellious Seleucid satrap named Andragoras over Parthia from circa 245-238 B.C, at which point Parni invaded and claimed the region. Thus, Lerner maintains that Parthian era established 10 years prior to the invasion of Parthia, with the coronation of Arsaces I as king of the Parni. With this new understanding, the expansion of the Parni into Parthia occurred after the Third Syrian War and during the first phase of the civil war of Seleucus II and Antiochus Hierax, and it corresponds directly with the power transition crisis of the 240- 230s in the Hellenistic Midlle East.

The ancient Central Asia nomadic people were the continual threat to the stability and security of polities in the Middle East throughout the pre-modern period, making incursions into Persia and Bactria. The Parni had been one of the many aggressive tribes in the region, in the Hellenistic period. The military and violent lifestyles of the tribes were a product of the environment in the region and systemic dangers where the life was implacable and tribal warfare endemic. Justin records the precariousness of life in the steppe and the long history of the tribe. He states: the Parni, being forced to quit Scythia by discord at home, gradually settled in the desert between Hyrcania (east from Caspian) and the lands of the Dahae, the Arei, the Sparni and the Margiani. They advanced their borders, through their neighbors, who at first made no opposition, at length endeavored to prevent them, to such extent, that they not only got possession of the vast levels plains, but also steep hills, and heights of the mountains.

Here, he show the volatility of life in the steppe. Thus sometimes led to the organization of the tribal unions – confederations like the Dahae confederacy (Parni, Xanthii, Pissuri), in an attempt to create greater strength and security against neighboring tribes in the steppe and against the Persian and Hellenistic kingdoms on the Iranian plateau. The Parni established the secure power base despite the growing opposition of their competing neighbors, what was their political and military success. The Parni came to live directly on the periphery of the Seleucid Empire. This led to the mounting tension along the frontier and made conflict between the Parni and the Seleucids inevitable.

Alexander the Great had left a large force to occupy Bactria and the surrounding territories, the restlessness of these Greek solders and Alexander's sudden death in 323 severely disrupted the region, forcing Seleucus I to campaign there between 308 – 305. In the middle 290- 280, Seleucus commited himself to establishing Bactria as a strong frontier region, appointing his son – Antiochus I, as viceroy in the east to supervise the development of firm Seleucid control over the new frontier. The efforts of Seleucus and Antiochus had been considerable and created a prosperous and strong eastern frontier, but the defensive stance of these efforts encouraged aggression from the Central Asian tribes, especially the Parni. First, because attacking these prosperous frontier regions gave opportunities to gain important status and wealth. Secondly, the increasingly defensive stance of the Seleucus in the east generated doubt about their might and intentions in these regions. The Parni tribe in the region, after settling in the area, looked for the options and their subsequent invasion of neighboring Seleucid held Margiana was a result of the opportunities and uncertainties of the moment.

Margiana was a wealthy and urbanized region – present day eastern Turkmenistan. Alexander the Great had settled the region with Greek colonies and fortification, including the prosperous oasis city of Alexandria-in-Margiana (later known as Merv – Maru- Mary, an important eastern city until Mongol invasion in the 13th century CE). The gain of Margiana to the holdings of the Parni would be a great boon to their regional power and security. Meanwhile, the loss of Margiana would have undermined Seleucid authority in the region severely and compromised the eastern frontier of the Seleucids.

The Parni attacked on Margiana in the late 280 and challenged the regional standing of the Seleucid state and the integrity of its border. The Seleucids quickly dispatched an army to neutralize the Parni threat. This was the most noticeable difference in the capabilities of the Seleucid state between the 280 and 240s, when the Seleucids still had the ability to respond to eastern threat to their hegemony with decisive force. The Parni invasion failed this time and the Seleucid general – Demodamas counterattacked against the Parni in around 280. This campaign have been successful enough to tamper the expansion capabilities of the Parni for a few decades. However, the domination of the tribes of the Central Asia steppe was not a strategic goal for Seleucids. Once Demodamas had retaliated against the Parni and restored the strength of the Seleucid frontier, he ended his campaign abruptly. He did not completely remove the threat of the Parni and therefore by 248-247 a new king – Arsaces I, came to lead a resurgent Parni tribe, introducing the Parthian era.

The first three years of his reign, Arsaces I appears to have led a new Parni invasion of Margiana, fighting unsuccessful campaign against the Seleucid satrap of Bactria, Diodotus. At this time Diodotus's responsibilities have included administrative and military command over Bactria, Sogdiana, Margiana and Aria. This was an enormous command with wide ranging responsibilities, and threats to the northeastern frontier of the Seleucid Empire were considerable. This showed Diodotus isolation from central government and their distraction with the western wars. Although Diodotus was successful in repulsing Arsaces invasion of Margiana in around 256-245 BC, this time Seleucus II did not send an army to punish the Parni and quash their military ambitions as his predecessors had done. Seleucus II was too involved in the dynastic conflicts of the west.

The Third Syrian War had begun because of these conflicts in 246, initiating the power transition crisis of the 240-230 throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, and the subsequent civil war between Seleucus II and Antiochus Hierax perpetuated that crisis. The eastern satraps of the Seleucid Empire had already endured years of neglect and isolation. This lack of support from the central government, along with Seleucus contested succession to the throne, the destructive war against Ptolemy III, and the growing threat of Arsaces I, led the two major satraps along the eastern frontier of the Seleucid Empire, Diodotus and Andragoras, to rebel in 245 BC.

Ptolemy III invaded Syria and advanced as far as Babylon. The people of the satrapy of Parthia under Andragoras began their revolt, taking advantage of the confusion in the house of the Seleucid. The dispute between the brothers Seleucus II and Antiochus Hierax procured Parthians impunity. While the brothers sought to wrest the throne from one another, they neglected to suppress the rebellion. At the same period, also, Diodotus, governor of the thousand cities of Bactria revolted and assumed the title of king and all the other people of the east, influenced by his example, fell away from the Seleucids.

After the secession of Parthia from Seleucid Empire and as result, the loss of military support, Andragoras had difficulty in protecting his borders. About, in 238 BC the Arsaces I took this opportunity and invaded the Parthia, starting the Parthian era in the region. The Parni took control of Astabene (Astawa), the northern region of Parthia – present day Kuchan area. Continued successful expansion for all Parthia, eliminated Andragoras. Supported by local nobles Parni became Parthians, and started a long journey to create the Parthian Empire.

From Parthia, Arsacid dynasty started the extension to Eastern Europe, South Caucasus, Western Asia, Central Asia and South Asia. Soon, they started to establish the branches of Parthian thrones of Armenia, Iberia (eastern Georgia), Caucasian Albania (western Azerbaijan and southern Dagestan) what lasted even after their fall.