But before we delve into this intriguing and intrigue-full dynasty, we must first ask ourselves: what does the word Parthia mean? Well, it is a Latin version of the Old Persian "Parthava" which means "of the Parthians" who were an ancient Iranian people. In other words, Parthia means Parthians (a là Greece means Greeks). Pretty self-reflexive there. What is more interesting is that the Parthian Empire is perhaps the only Persian empire to not be called Persian, making it a unique time in the history of the Persian people.
|Arsaces I, King of the Parthians|
Unlike most modern dynasties, the actual relationships and succession of the Arsacids are rather unclear. Many took on the names of their predecessors with nothing special to distinguish them from each other. Furthermore, few documents of the empire survive from before the 1st century CE, leaving facts regarding the early dynasty in the hands of Parthian and Greek historians whose histories are often dubious at best. What is certain is that the empire was a mixture of Greek, Roman, Persian, and other local traditions, and that the primary enemies of the Parthians were the Seleucid Empire and then the Roman Empire. Over time, the Arsacids set up cadet and, at times, rival dynasties in the Caucasian region north of Persia. The Armenian branch of the family would manage to outlive all the other branches.
|The Parthian Empire, showing the Kingdoms of Armenia, Iberia & Albania in the north-west|
The House of Arsaces in Persia
Arsaces I was followed by his brother, Tiridates I and/or his son Arsaces II. Not much is known about either of them, including how they succeeded to the throne, but during the reign of Arsaces II, the Seleucid Empire managed to become overlords of Parthia before being completely overwhelmed and eventually dissolved by the Roman Republic. By the reign of Phriapatius beginning in 191 BCE, Parthia was a free and independent nation with much Seleucid land to claim. For the majority of the 2nd century BCE, the Arsacids worked on growing in size and influence, using the Silk Road from China to enlarge their pocketbooks while using the failing Greek empires to the west to enlarge their lands. Mithridates I was the man responsible for much of this expansion and growth, using the instability of his neighbors to enlarge Parthia to practically the size of the original Persian Empire, reaching all the way to Syria in the west and the Indus River in the east.
The 1st century BCE prompted a new problem for the Arsacid dynasty. Expansion had led to rivalry between siblings and fractured relationships with the new power in the region: Rome. With Armenia, a Roman client state after the Third Mithridatic War in the 60s BCE, Parthia became direct neighbors with the Roman Republic. Different dynasts in the family had different opinions in how to deal with Rome. The official border between the two empires was set at the Euphrates, but that border disappeared in the mountains of southern Anatolia. It also didn't take into account the Caucasus Mountains to the north. Two brothers, Orodes II and Mithridates III, tried to secure favor in Rome but ended up chasing each other around the Middle East, with Mithridates eventually capturing and ruling in Babylon until being killed by Orodes' men. Soon after, Rome invaded Parthia but Orodes used the confusion to conquer Armenia and set up his son as a potential heir. Unfortunately, that heir died prematurely leaving another son, Phraates IV, to inherit the throne. He killed and exiled all of his siblings to remove any threats to his power.
The majority of Parthian history after this point falls under the sphere of Roman influence. The padishahs increasingly became Romanized, adopting Roman brides and using Roman forms including art, governmental organization, and military tactics. Whenever there was a dispute between rival dynasts, one could be certain that one of those dynasts had the backing of Rome. Much of the warfare between Rome and Parthia occurred through provinces that separated them—namely Armenia and Iberia. For a time, even, Rome and Parthia alternated monarchs in these states, although it was always through assassination and/or exile. Roman invasions into Parthia became a regular occurrence in the 2nd century CE. The historic capitals of Ctesiphon and Seleucia were burned to the ground multiple times, and Parthia slowly but inevitably moved back from the Fertile Crescent into its homeland of Persia. Weakened by centuries of warfare within and without, the Arsacid Empire in Persia fell to one of its own natives: the Iranian ruler of Persis named Ardashir, who founded the Sassanid Empire which ruled Persia until the 600s. The last Parthian Padishah was Artabanus IV who was killed by Ardashir in battle on 28 April 224 CE, although his brother Vologases VI continued to rule in Babylon until around 228.
The House of Arsaces in Iberia & Albania
The Arsacids, after gaining a base in the Persian Empire, moved to neighboring lands and established cadet dynasties that at times rivaled with the primary line. In Iberia, an ancient predecessor state of modern-day Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains, the Arsacids established a short-lived state cadet dynasty that ruled from 189 until 284 CE. The Iberian Arsacids were themselves a cadet branch of the Armenian Arsacids, and began with a son of the Armenian king Vologases II named Rev I. Vologases had married the sister of the king of Iberia, and when the Iberian nobles rebelled against his brother-in-law, Vologases stepped in and deposed the king, installing his son as a replacement. When the Parthian Empire fell to the Sassanids in 224, Iberia became a prime new target. The Sassanids began to elect rival kings to the Arsacid heirs and, in 284, were finally able to topple the dynasty entirely, replacing it with Mirian III of the Chosroid Dynasty. The last king, Aspacures I, fled to Roman lands but his daughter was married to Mirian III and birthed his heir, marking a continuity of rule after the Sassanid conquest.
The Arsacid rulers of Caucasian Albania, located in present-day Azerbaijan, are less known. Only ten monarchs of the dynasty are mentioned anywhere in history and further details concerning them are scarce. What is interesting to note is that the kingdom survived the Sassanid conquest in the 200s to become a vassal state of them. The known Arsacid monarchs ruled in the 3rd through 5th centuries, which makes them the longest surviving branch of the family, even though they were rulers of a conquered nation. It is unclear how they relate to the senior Parthian and Armenian Arsacid lines, but it can be assumed that they were a cadet branch of one of them.
|The Antique Kingdom of Armenia|
The House of Arsaces in Armenia
Armenia became the strongest refuge of Arsacid support after the fall of the Parthian Empire, but the Arsacids were there for many centuries before that time. Beginning in the early 1st century CE, Rome and Parthia used the kingdom of Armenia (which was about three times its modern-day size) as a staging ground for conflicts between the two states. Nominally, it was a Roman vassal state until 54 CE when the Arsacids claimed it completely. Before that time, Rome and Parthia would alternate electing kings, often deposing their rival's candidate and installing their own. Somewhat ironically, Rome's candidates generally heralded from the kingdom of Iberia, which was eventually conquered by the Armenian Arsacids in the 2nd century. Revenge is sweet.
|Tiridates I, King of Armenia|
|Tiridates the Great, King of Armenia|
Unfortunately, Armenia's regional power was short-lived. Soon after Tiridates's death, the Sassanids invaded again and began to put significant pressure on Armenia's borders. By the 340s, kings were being captured and blinded by Sassanid invaders, and in the 360s Armenia was completely occupied. King Pap was the first native king of Armenia in a decade and he had to fight off Sassanid incursions and Roman interference throughout his reign. He tried to curry favor with the Persians by murdering prominent Christians (Persians were Zoroastrians at the time) including the Catholicos, but the populous turned against him and he was murdered.
Armenia fell into shambles by the end of the century, with the Arsacid kings clients of Rome and the true rulers of Armenia the Mamikonian family, which would remain prominent in Armenian politics for many more generations. Meanwhile, the Arsacids fell into obscurity, with rival branches of the Armenian family attempting to claim a remaining slice of the quickly shrinking Armenian state. The last Arsacid ruler, Artaxes IV, is hardly known and it is perhaps telling that his name derived from the preceding dynasty rather than the Arsacids. Indeed, the Artaxiads of the 1st and 2nd century BCE certainly were more capable rulers. In 428, the Armenian kingdom dissolved completely and became a Marzpanate, or marcher state of the Persian Empire. It would not arise again until the 9th century, when the Bagratuni Dynasty restored the monarchy at last.
And so ends the long and sorrowful story of the Arsacid Dynasty, one of the best known ancient dynasties outside of Rome. For most of their existence, they fought against Rome and its neighbors for a slice of the pie, but they never were able to hold on to that power for long. Their last legacy, fortunately, is their marriages into so many families, from Rome to Armenia to Sassanid Persia, and more. Those marriages provide genealogists with the most likely descent from antiquity in the western world. Through the Arsacids, genealogists may someday be able to trace medieval royalty into classical antiquity. Too bad the dynasts never understood how important they would one day be.