Parthian History and Language
By: Dr Hassan Rezaei Baghbidi, July 2004
Parth and Parthian
Parth province also called Parthuh (Pahlu, Pahelh, Falheh) in ancient Persian inscriptions was one of the royal provinces of the Achaemenid dynasty that included today's northern Khorasan and parts of today's Turkmenistan. After Alexandria overthrew the Achaemenid dynasty in 330 BC, Parth went under the control of Selukis until the year 247 BC when Arsac revolted against the Saluki king with the help of his brother, Tirdad, and founded the Arsacide dynasty. The Arsacides were a clan from the Parni or Eprani tribe, a member of Daheh tribe union, which before settling in Parth province lived as nomads in plains between Jeyhoun River and the Caspian Sea. The power and territories of this dynasty increased eventually under the reign of Arsac II )214 or 217-191 BC), Phriapites (191- 176 BC) and Farhad I (176-171 B.C) until one of the kings of this dynasty expanded the territories of the Arsacide dynasty from the east to Central Asia and from the west to the Mesopotamia and conquered Olomais and Parth. Because of the weakness of Mithridates I successors, the Arsacide dynasty lost a lot of its territories and about 15 years after the death of Mithridates, it was about to be overthrown but with the efforts of Mithridates II, a new spirit came to the dynasty. He took back the Mesopotamia and Armenia in the west and heart in the east. He chose Sistan as his assistant and called himself the "Great King". The Arsacide dynasty was able to fight for years with the Roman Empire until 224 AD, when finally the last king of the Arsacide dynasty was killed in a war with Artaxerxes and the Sassanide dynasty replaced the Arsacide dynasty. At the beginning, the Arsacides were so much under the influence of the Greek language and culture that they even printed their names and titles on coins in the Greek language. The Arsacides were so attracted to the Greek culture that after the death of Mithridates I, sometimes they printed the phrase "Devotees of Greece" on their coins. This continued ! until the reign of Belash I. He was the first to regard the Parthian language and the Greek language on the same level.
The Parthian language which is also called Pahlavi, Pahlavani and Parthian Pahlavi, is one of Iran's middle languages (northwestern branch). Iran's middle languages are those languages that were common in Iran after the fall of Achaemenid dynasty and were in fact more developed forms of the same ancient languages. Nothing has been found on the ancient form of the Pahlavi language. Other Iranian middle languages which have the same roots as Parthian include: Saqdi, Kharazmi, Sakai, Balkhi and Middle Persian or Sassanide Pahlavi. The most ancient works in the Parthian language date back to 100 BC. This language was used until about the 4th century or the 6th century AD and was eventually forgotten. The latest works in this language are Manichaean works which were generally written before the 9th century AD. These works were written at a time when the Parthian Language was no longer used. The Manichaean texts were written in Parthian even until the13th century AD. However, one could find mistakes, errors and Middle Persian words in such works.
Works Written in the Parthian Language
Works written in the Parthian language that are still left can be divided into two categories:
A- Works in Parthian handwriting:
A handwriting in which the Parthians chose to write the language, which was written from right to left. In the Parthian handwriting characters are not joined to each other. The main characteristic of this handwriting, like some other Iranian middle handwritings is the presence of writing elements called Hezvarash. Hezvarash are words that are written in the Parthian handwriting, but when reading them, their equivalent words (another word which has the same meaning) are read. For instance, the word "Molka" which has the same meaning as Shah (King) is read as Shah because its equivalent in the Parthian language is Shah. Texts written in the Parthian style can be found on:
B- Works Written in the Manichaean Writing
- Earthenware: In the remains of Nesa city, about 3000 earthenware have been found which in general date back to the first century BC. Such earthenware is in fact the remains of jars of wine and vinegar which were collected from vineyards as taxes. The writings on such earthenware are usually names of people, places, weight of the jar and the date of delivery. Two similar earthenware were also found in Ghoumes (Damghan). Parthian handwriting was also seen on vessels in Nayepour (Iraq), Kousheh Tieh and Marv (Turkmenistan).
- Ouraman leathers: On two of the three pieces of leather found in Ouraman, there are Greek writings. However on one of them there is Parthian writing. These writings date back to the first century AD. Moreover, on the backside of one of the other two leather pieces, Parthian words can be seen. These writings were in fact the selling contract of two vineyards.
- Coins, stamps and jewelry: On coins, stamps and a few pieces of jewelry belonging to the last years of the Arsacide dynasty, short writings can be seen. The most ancient coin with Parthian writings on it is Belash I coin. Also metal coins belonging to local kings of Aloumise, Sistan and parts of India in the first and second century AD, had short Parthian writings on them.
- Short stone manuscripts: Very short stone manuscripts that are usually in two languages (Greek and Parthian) were found in Georgia. Other short manuscripts in the Parthian language include: Two short manuscripts at the entry of Zahab Bridge and two other in Khong Norouzi and Kal Jangal Lakh Mazar, both near Birjand, which probably belong to the first half of the third century AD. A similar manuscript was found in Pakistan.
- Bust of Belash IV: This stony bust which is kept in a private collection has a very short inscription which introduces Belash IV.
- Inscription of Belash IV on Hercules statue: This statue found in Iraq, has an inscription in Greek with a Parthian translation. The subject of the inscription is Belash's war with Mithridates IV which ended with Belash's victory and the conquest of Mishan. This description dates back to the year 150 AD.
- The inscription on the gravestone of Khavasag: This gravestone was made for Khavasag, the governor of Shoush, by the order of Ardavan IV in 215 AD.
- Works from Doaouopus city: On the Euphrates shore in today's Syria. Most of these woks belong to the third century AD when the Sassanide dynasty had this city under its control. Among these works we can refer to earthenware and a letter written on animal skin.
- Two stone manuscripts from Artaxerxes (The First Sassanide king): These manuscripts are written in three languages (Middle Persian, Parthi and Greek) and are engraved on Artaxerxes' horse and Uharmazd's horse in the role of Rustam.
- Petrograph of Shapour I: This long petrograph is written in Middle Persian, Parthi and Pahlavi in which Shapour first introduces himself and his territories and then talks about the three wars he had with Romans.
- Stone manuscript of Shapour I in Haji Abad in Fars province: This bilingual (Middle Persian and Parthi) manuscript describes Shapour's archery. A copy of this writing in 21 lines on a precious tablet was found and is now kept in Britain Museum. Some believe this tablet is not original but McKenzie believes this is the rough draft shown to Shapour before writing the inscription on rock.
- Stone manuscript of Shapour I in Tong Baraq in Fars: This manuscript is also bilingual and just like the previous one it describes Shapour's archery.
- Stone manuscript of Shapour I in Bishapour (Kazeroun): This is a bilingual petrograph dating back to 266 AD.
- Petrograph of Shapour I in the role of Rustam: This stone manuscript engraved near the victory scene of Shapour over the Roman emperor was originally trilingual (Middle Persian, Parthi and Greek) but today only a part of the Greek writing is left.
- Stone manuscript of Shapour I in the role of Rajab: In a picture that shows Shapour with a few of his companions, a short trilingual (Middle Persian, Parthi and Greek) inscription introduces Shapour.
- Stone manuscript of Narseh (A Sassanide king) in Piekouli in Iraq's Soleimanieh: This manuscript was originally engraved on a tower made out of marble but only part of it is left today. This bilingual (Middle Persian and Parthi) inscription introduces Narseh and describes how he became a king.
After the spread of the Manichaean religion in Khorasan and Transoxiana with the efforts of Manichaean missionaries, the Parthian language was used as a tool for promoting the Manichaean religion and hence books were written or translated in this language. Some of these books have been found in northwestern China. The handwriting used for these texts is the same as the Manichaean handwriting said to be invented based on Tadmori handwriting by Mani himself. The Manichaean handwriting goes from right to left and its main characteristic is lack of Hezvarash which makes this writing very easy to read. Also unlike the Parthian writing in which each letter can have different phonetic values, in Manichaean handwriting each letter can only have one phonetic value. Parthian texts written in Manichaean handwriting are:
It was mentioned that by this time, Parthi was a dead language and that is why in many cases the influence of Middle Persian words and grammar is evident. Manichaean texts written in Parthi language include subjects such as: principles of faith, songs praising God and religious leaders, letters of advice, personal letters, charms, prayers, stories and proverbs. A considerable part of these texts are poems.
- Works of Mani and his students: these writings were compiled when the Parthian language was still used (in 3rd or the 4th century AD). The most important work is parts of "Ardahand Vafras" which analyzes Mani's main book, "Arjang".
- Mani's recent work: which are usually about the Dinavarieh sect.
Works that Had Parthian Roots
Two books written in Middle Persian from the Sassanide dynasty are left in which Parthian words are seen. Experts on Iran believe that these books were originally versified and were written in Parthian language. These two books are: "Zariran's Memorial": about the fight which broke between Gashtasb and Arjasb after Gashtasb converted to Zoroastrianism. Zarir who has been mentioned as a brave person in the battlefield was Goshtasb's vizier (minister). "Asouri Tree": This book is a discussion between a tree and a goat to see which one is more useful for human being. Most probably, the Persian poem of Varamin, written by Fakhr Al-Din As'ad Gorgani has Parthian roots. This poem was written in the first century AD. Maybe some love stories of Shahnameh such as Bijan and Manijeh were in fact Parthian legends.