Iranian Visual Arts

The Art of Parthians
By: Edith Porada, with the collaboration of R. H. Dyson and contributions by C.K. Wilkinson


Parthian Stag Rhyton; Silver with gilding; inlaid glass eyes
circa 50 BCE - 50 CE
Domination of Iran and Mesopotamia was wrested from the Seleucids by the Parthians, a people said to have been originally a Scythian tribe but who obtained the name by which they are known in world history from the eastern Iranian province of Parthava. The province already existed in Achaemenid times and only some time after the middle of the third century BCE was it occupied by this new Central Asiatic people. According to Strabo, the leader of this people was Arsaces, who became the putative ancestor of the Arsacid kings of Parthia. The occupation of Parthava and other more northerly provinces followed by only a few years the revolt of Diodotus, the satrap of Bactria, who made himself independent of the Seleucid Empire, the impending disintegration of which was marked by these events.[1]

The first Parthian ruler of importance was Mithradates I (c. 171-138/7 BCE), who succeeded in establishing his suzerainty over the small principalities which occupied most of Iran and Mesopotamia. The wealthy town of Seleucia on the Tigris, the one-time capital of the Seleucids, seems to have made a deal with the Parthians, because no military garrison was placed inside its walls. Instead the Parthians built opposite her on the left bank of the Tigris a large military camp which was later called Ctesiphon and became the residence of the Parthian court.

Seleucia, however, continued as an important metropolis, a fact well illustrated by the use which Mithradates I made of its formerly Seleucid mint with Greek die-cutters; these the Parthian king employed for a fine series of coins of his own, on which he called himself the Philhellene for the benefit of his Greek subjects, newly incorporated within the expanding frontiers of the Parthian realm. On coins minted earlier in his reign and bearing a more life-like portrait than the idealized version from Seleucia, Mithradates I called himself 'Great King', thereby manifesting the Parthian claim to the heritage of the Achaemenids. Instead of the massive military campaigns of the Achaemenids toward the west, however, the method and direction of Parthian expansion took the form of caravan trade toward the east.

Within the territory of Mithradates II (123-88/87 BCE) --the ablest of the Parthian rulers--caravan trade could proceed unhampered from Dura Europos in Syria to Merv in Turkmenistan. From there the caravans would continue to Central Asia until they reached the place where Chinese merchants or their envoys took over the wares for further transport to the Far East. Tentatively this place has been identified as Tashkurgan on the upper Yarkand river. Riches brought in through trade accumulated in the treasuries of the Parthian empire. Its economic importance in the second century BCE is documented by a delegation sent to the Parthian capital by the Han emperor Wu-ti (141-87 BCE).

The protection of this caravan trade against attacks by predatory mounted nomads required constant vigilance on the part of the Parthian cavalry, whose single-mounted archers probably often had to use their own initiative in a precarious situation. The cavalry could best be maintained by a feudal system in which the army depended on the mobility and valour of the knights and their bowmen. This is the convincing explanation given by Rostovtzeff for the maintenance of a feudal system by the Parthians instead of a centralized autocratic system, such as that of the Achaemenids or Seleucids, which would have seemed more efficient to most modern historians.[2] Apparently some Romans, among them Julius Caesar, took a similarly disparaging view of the Parthian social system and its military strength, because they advocated war against Parthia. For this purpose Crassus was made governor of Syria, in the hope of capturing rich booty in a quick military venture against Iran. In the battle of Carrhae, however, Crassus was decisively beaten by the heavy cavalry of Parthian knights, the Cataphracti, and their light mounted bowmen. No book about the Parthians omits the report of Plutarch according to which the head and hand of Crassus were brought in by messengers while the Parthian king Orodes and his ally, the king of Armenia, were watching a performance of The Bacchantes by Euripides. In announcing the victory, the head of Crassus was thrown on to the stage. The story was meant to reflect the contrast between Hellenistic culture and barbaric military practices in Asia.

The consequences of the battle of Carrhae inside Parthia are equally revealing of conditions in that country. the Victorius general Suren, head of the greatest feudal family in Iran, was executed to forestall a possible bid for the throne by this successful leader. Here the drawbacks of the feudal system become obvious. Lack of a strong central power prevented the Parthian empire from achieving a position of enduring strength in relation to Rome, although wars of greater of less importance were carried on between the two powers until the end of Parthian rule in 244 CE, after which the Sasanians inherited the hostility toward the Roman West.

Little is known about foundations of towns in Iran by the Parthians, since the sources for the internal history of this period are very fragmentary. There are some indications, however, of increased settlement at that time, at least in Khuzistan, where a systematic survey of the settlement pattern has been made.[3] Darabgird, in Fars, and Takht-i Suleiman, the ancient Shiz in Azerbaijan--romantically associated by some with the legend of the Holy Grail--have been considered Parthian foundations, although the first-mentioned site has not been excavated and the latter has not yet yielded any Parthian remains.[4] .... [p. 183]

The Parthian palace at Ashur could be reconstructed and may be discussed in some detail because its façade without doubt influenced that of the later Sasanian palace of Ctesiphon, perhaps indirectly through an earlier Parthian structure which may have been erected at that site. This façade of the palace at Ashur, made of stucco with strips of colonnettes and framed niches, is related to elaborate Roman façades, especially the scenae frontes of a theatre, through the idea for the simulated decorative storeys which characterize some of these [p. 184] scenae frontes may have originated in the Hellenistic architecture of the Near East. The treatment of the Roman architectural elements at Ashur was flat and decorative, thus depriving them of their tectonic significance. In part this development may have been rooted in the traditional façades of ancient Babylonia; for in their decorative scheme semicircular mouldings and channels produced vertical accents while flat horizontal courses divided the surface into a semblance of storeys.

The special charm of the façade at Ashur, however, was surely provided by the friezes cut in gypsum stucco with their backgrounds painted in bright colours in such a way that the geometric patterns, based on square and circle, stood out like lace against he undercut backgrounds of yellow, dark red, black, leaf green and a luminous red. The principal façade of the Parthian palace at Ashur forms one of the four walls of a court, the other walls of which each have small iwans [barrel-vaulted rectangular room closed in the back and completely open in front, usually upon a court of differing sizes]. This plan represents the combination of the iwan with the ancient Near Eastern type of house which is centered on the court. ... [p. 185]

The coins issued by the Arsacid kings provide the only unbroken sequence in a pictorial medium of the Parthian period. The portraits on the obverse and also the representations on the reverse are based on Hellenistic prototypes. In the [p. 187] last century of Parthian rule, however, the fabric and style of the coins disintegrated and the representations were dissolved into lines and dots, so that they are scarcely recognizable. It is interesting to note that a somewhat similar development occurred later within the Sasanian coinage.

The Earliest Arsacid coins, which may probably be assigned to Mithradates I (c. 171-138/7 BCE), show on the obverse a beardless head with 'bold and striking features,' [5] beaked nose, prominent eyebrows, over-sized eye, curved lips and strong chin. He wears a cap of soft material, leather or felt, which comes to a point, here folded over the side. The ends of the cap hang down in front and in the back. This cap is similar to that worn by the Scythians of Achaemenid times and probably also to that of the Medes. It may even be related to the pointed headgear seen on Neo-Elamite reliefs [see the rendering of the Elamite king in the drawing of the relief on p. 67]. Around the cap of the Parthian on the coin lies a diadem, tied at the back with a small bow the ends of which curve down gracefully. Small curls--or, more likely, an ear-ring--are visible below the cap. Hellenistic influence is apparent in the plastic forms of the portrait and in its strong contrasts, as well as in the exaggerated size of the eye.

On the reverse of the coin appears a figure thought to be the deified Arsaces, symbolic hero of the Arsacid race. Dressed in Median costume, he wears the same cap as the personage portrayed on the obverse, is seated on an omphalos, and holds a bow. The prototype of the figure is Apollo, legendary ancestor of the Seleucids, who appeared on the reverse of their coins. It is difficult to decide whether the portrait on the obverse was also meant to render this ancestor, perhaps with the features of Mithradates I, since later coins definitely assignable to that king show his portrait with a similar beaked nose. These coins of Mithradates I initiated a series of remarkably realistic portraits, more sharply characterized in the coins struck in Persian mints, more idealized in mints with a Greek tradition, like Seleucia.

Many coins have survived from the time of Mithradates II (c. 123-88/87 BCE), during which Parthian power was at its height. The obverse of these coins shows the great king with a distinctive profile and long beard; from the middle of his reign he was shown with a tall cap decorated with rows of pearls and jewels, which formed a large star on the side. Henceforth this cap became almost a royal insigne and was worn by many rulers portrayed on Arsacid coins. Of the various inscriptions which Mithradates II caused to have arranged in the form of a square on the reverse of his coins the most characteristic is the one which calls him Arsaces, King of Kings (like the Achaemenid rulers), the Just, the Beneficent and the Philhellene.

From this period onward the images on the coins begin to be schematized, especially the figure on the reverse, but some interesting types were still being developed. A coin of Phraates III (70 or 69-58/57 BCE) shows the king of Parthian costume seated on a throne facing toward the left. Upon his extended hand perches an eagle, while he grasps a long sceptre with the other hand. Behind the king stands a female figure in a Greek garment, characterized as a Hellenistic city goddess by her mural crown and a tall sceptre. With her right hand she places a diadem or wreath upon the head of the king. The representation celebrates a victory of Phraates, perhaps over Seleucia. This type is the first of a considerable number of coins representing important historical and religious events in the reigns of Parthian rulers.

In striking contrast to the Hellenistic style of these narrative scenes is the frontal [p. 187] portrait of Mithradates III [58/57-55 BCE], which seems to be the earliest such representation of a ruler who was still living at the time when the coin was designed.[6] The change from profile to frontal view implies a change from an image which is merely meant to be viewed to one which is meant to exert some influence on the beholder, even to dominate him. Although the frontal view was not often used on coins of the following kings, it appeared extensively in other media of Parthian art, in painting and sculpture.[7]

Little has come down through the ages of [8] wall-paintings of the Parthian period, though painting surely was the major art of the age. If the site of Kuh-i Kwadja, mentioned above for the resemblance of its ground-plan to Buddhist monasteries is really Parthian and not already Sasanian, and if one may draw conclusions from Herzfeld's renderings of the fragmentary paintings, they manifest a provincial Graeco-Roman style, hardened and simplified but with a certain competence in the grouping and the rendering of the human figures. Certain features, however, such as a frontally rendered eye and probably also the strong colours bespeak Eastern heritage. Similar statements can also be made about the wall-paintings of Dura Europos on the upper Euphrates, [9] especially about the two paintings in the Mithraic 'cave', which show the god Mithra as a mounted huntsman in the parade dress of the nobles of the rich desert town of Palmyra. Hence the paintings were probably copied from Palmyrene prototypes. Mithra's head and upper body are seen in frontal view. This may be a return to ancient Near Eastern traditions from Hellenistic conventions which had favoured a three-quarter view suggestive of depth and corporeality. In the hunting scenes depth and movement are only suggested by the arrangement in diagonal rows of the sharply outlined fleeing animals. Similar pictures probably served as models for the hunting scenes of the following Sasanian period.

In striking contrast to these paintings are the crude,[10] flat rock reliefs of the Parthian period in Iran with their awkwardly arranged, usually frontal figures. Only the reliefs of Mithradates II [c. 123-88/87 BCE] [p. 188] and Gotarzes II (c. CE 38-51) may have been more competently carved, although one cannot really judge their quality in their present fragmentary and disintegrated state.[11]

It seems likely that the rock reliefs and other relief work were produced by relatively untutored local stone-carvers. Similarities which exist between these carvings of Iran and graffiti scratched upon the walls of houses at Dura Europos probably indicate that throughout the Parthian empire interest was centered on certain scenes and their principal features, on sacrifices before a fine altar, on the king surrounded by dignitaries, on scenes of battle and of the hunt. The factual information conveyed pictorially by these scenes is probably quite correct and makes them at least historically interesting; furthermore, they already contain many themes of later Sasanian art.

The most important [12] free-standing sculpture of the Parthian period is a male figure of bronze, slightly more than life-sized, which was found in the ruins of a temple at Shami on the plateau of Malamire in the mountain region of the Elymais [ancient Elamite territory]. The broad-shouldered Parthian wearing an Iranian costume faces the beholder in a frontal posture which seems both powerful and almost immovable. The figure stands with legs slightly spread. The feet, clad in boots of felt or leather, act as a base for the columnar legs, which are broadened by wide and loose leggings. The rest of the body is proportionately heavy. The man wears a jacket with smooth borders, probably of leather. These borders lead the eye around the hips and diagonally across the thorax. A belt accentuates the thick waist. The neck is equally thick and columnar. In comparison the head, which was separately and probably not locally cast, is small for the body. Only the main features of the head were formed in the casting. Details such as the eyes, eyebrows, moustache, short beard and hair were subsequently engraved. The date of the sculpture is indicated both by the posture and by the style of the figure. The frontal pose, here mitigated only very slightly by one foot, appears in the second century CE in sculpture of the [p. 189] Kushana rulers of India, where frontality is complete, in a fragmentary statue from Surkh Kotal in Afghanistan, and in somewhat less rigid manner in the sculptures of Hatra and Palmyra.[13] It almost seems as if the effectiveness of this pose for the representation of a powerful personage had been recognized only at this time. Seyig pointed out that the severe style of the sculpture was not found in related statuary from Palmyra after the first half of the second century, so that the first half of that century seems to be a likely date for the forceful statue from Shami.

Parthian Bowl with Tendril Frieze; Silver with gilding;
circa 150-50 BCE
Nothing in the simplified and somewhat hard stylization of the face is comparable to the soft and plastic quality of the Seleucid head which was found at the same place, nor does the style of the figure as a whole resemble closely that of the other sculptural fragments found at the site. Greater similarity, however, can be noted with the head of a ruler from Hatra [14] which belongs approximately to the same period. The head is shown here because it also resembles in its tall jeweled cap the one worn by Mithradates II and many of his successors on their coin portraits.

Among the works of minor art which seem most characteristic of the Parthian period should be mentioned the handles in the shape of an extended feline animal, a panther or leopard. Several stylistic trends which were operative in the Parthian period are noticeable in these small works of art: the naturalism of Graeco-Roman art, expressed especially in the heads of the feline creatures and in the sinuous grace of their bodies, the tendency of the peoples to the north of Iran to attenuate the bodies of animals for formal reasons, and the tendency [p. 190] of the ancient Near East, especially of Iran, to combine in one object animal and vessel for decoration.

Other works of Parthian minor art are small clay figures and plaques of horsemen, of which only the plaques really deserve to be classed as art because the three-dimensional clay figures of riders--of Achaemenid derivation--are usually too crude to be considered in a book devoted to the art of Iran. The plaques, on the other hand, are strongly influenced by Graeco-Roman art and therefore belong more definitely in a work on Hellenism in Asia [15] than in the present volume.

Bone figurines of nude females, descendants of the prehistoric figurines, vary from some fairly naturalistic and even elegant examples to others of complete and crude schematization.

Little is known as yet about glyptic art in the Parthian period. Much that is called Parthian was actually Sasanian and vice versa. The impressions of Parthian seals from Nisa show that Seleucid tradition continued both in the repertory of symbolic animals of ancient Near Eastern derivation and in the delicately engraved motifs of Hellenistic origin. Motifs derived from both styles appear to be rendered also in a schematic manner with mechanical tools like cutting wheels.[16] The full development of such a glyptic style, however, was only to come in the Sasanian period.[p. 191]


Notes:
  1. For conflicting views concerning the events at the beginning of the Parthian Dynasty, see E. J. Bickermann, 'Notes on Seleucid and Parthian Chronology,' Berytus VIII/II [1944], pp. 73-83; J. Wolski, 'The Decay of the Iranian Empire of the Seleucids and the Chronology of the Parthian Beginnings,' Berytus XII [1956-7], pp. 35-52; by the same author, 'L'historicité d'Arsace Ier,' Historia VIII [1959], pp. 222-238.
  2. M. I. Rostovzeff took issue with these views of modern historians in 'Dura and the Problem of Parthian Art,' Yale Classical Studies V [1935]; see especially pp. 159-164. This general viewpoint, however, is implied by N. C. Debevoise in A Political History of Parthia, from which is derived much of the historical information here given.
  3. Adams in Early South-western Iran, p. 116, stated that the remains of Parthian towns located during the archaeoological reconnaissance suggested a substantial increase in the extent and density of settlement, although their full area is often masked by the masive Sasanian ruins which overlie them.
  4. The asociation of Shiz with the Holy Grail was made by L. I. Ringbom, Graltempel und Paradies [Stockholm, 1951], p. 416 and pp. 510 ff. Excavations of the site, now called Takht-i Suleiman, have been summarized by R. Naumann et al., 'Takht-i-Suleiman und Zendan-i-Suleiman,... die Ausgrabungen im Jahre 1960,' Archäologischer Anzeiger 1961, col. 28-68; 'Takht-i-Suleiman und Zendan-i-Suleiman, Grabungsbericht 1961,' Archäologischer Anzeiger 1962, col. 633-693.
  5. This was the view of Ghirshman, who compared the condition of the Parthian empire with those of medieval Europe in Iran, p. 2273. The houses in Seistan are described by Fairservis, Archaeological Studies . . . [op. cit. in note I/5], p. 28.
  6. The suggestion to associate these huts with the origin of the iwan was made by Von der Osten, Welt der Perser, p. 120. H. J. Lenzen, from w hose article 'Architektur der Partherzeit...,' Festschrift für Carl Weickert [Berlin, 1955], pp. 121-136, much of the architectural information in this chapter is derived, thought that the originators of the iwan, whom he supposes to have once been nomads, used to living in tents, had devised it to retain even in their permanent dwellings the openness and airiness of their former abodes [Ibid., p. 124].
  7. R. Ghirshman drew attention in Persian Art [1962], p. 29, to the structure at Nisa, the 'Square House' with four iwans. Unfortunately, he did not give a reference to the plan of the 'Square House' which he had in mind and which, according to him, contained the famous ivory rhytons of Nisa. For this reason I have been unable to identify the iwans in the plan of the court building described by M .-E. Masson as having contained the rhytons. See Trudy Iuzhno-Turkemenistanskoi Arkheologicheskoi Kompleksnoi Expeditisii V, p. 19, Fig. 3.
  8. This is the wording of E. T. Newell, Survey I, p. 475, whose article on 'The Coinage of the Parthians,' Survey I, pp. 475-492, has been used extensively for this section.
  9. Ghirshmann reproduced a strange coin ascribed to Artabanus II and dated 88-77 BCE in Persian Art [1962], p. 114, No. 138, which shows that ruler in frontal view. Before accepting the evidence of that coin, however, one would want to see it more extensively discussed.
  10. Deborah Thompson gives a summary of the problem of frontality in Partian art in her review of Ghirshman, Persain art [1962], published in the Art Bulletin XLVI [1964], pp. 95-97.
  11. For a thorough discussion of these paintings, see Rostovzeff's article mentioned in note XIV/2.
  12. For reproductions of the reliefs of Mithradates II and Gotarzes, see Ghirshman, Persian Art [1962], p. 52, Figs. 64, 65; Von der Osten, Welt der Perser, Pl. 79, above, and Herzfeld, Iran, Pl. CVII, middle and below.
  13. The comparable statues in frontal pose from India, Afghanistan, Hatra and Palmyra are conveniently reproduced by Ghirshman, Persian Art [1962], p. 269, Figs. 349, 350; p. 279, Fig. 361; p. 89, Fig. 100; p. 94, Fig. 105; p. 71, Fig. 84. Some are also reproduced by D. Schlumberger, 'Descendants non-méditerranéens de l'art grec,' Syria XXXVII [1960], Pl. VII, opposite p. 160. An arresting photograph of the head of the figure from Shami is given in the book by Godard, L'art de l'Iran, Pl. 95. On p. 180 of that book he makes the suggestion that the building in which this statue and fragments of five others were found was a mausoleum. H. Seyrig's remarks about the date of the statue from Shami are found in Syria XX [1939], p. 179.
  14. The head of that ruler is that of King Uthal, now joined to the body and exhibited in the Museum in Mosul. See S. Fukai, 'The Atifacts of Hatra and Parthian Art,' East and West 11/23 [June-Sept, 1960], p. 142, for the statement that the head and body of this marble statue were discovered separately. See also D. Homès-Fredericq, Hatra et ses sculptures parthes . . . [Uitgaven van het Nederlands Historisch-Arch. Instituut, Istanbul, XV, 1963], p. 53, no. 17: roi Uthal.
  15. Among the forthcoming volumes in Art of the World is D. Schlumberger's work on Hellenism in Asia, which may be preseumed to include these plaques.
  16. This opinion concerning Parthian glyptic art is mainly based on the drawings of seal impressions from Old Nisa published by G. A. Pugachenkova in Vestnik Drevnei Istorii [1953], pp. 159-169. A selection of drawings was given by Ghirsman in Persian Art [1962], p. 30, Fig. 39.