History of Iran

Ctesiphon (Parthian: Tyspwn);
The capital of the Parthian and the Sassanid empires
By: Jona Lendering


Ctesiphon (Parthian: Tyspwn), ancient city on the Tigris, founded by the Parthians. The city was the capital of the Parthian and the Sassanid empires.

Ctesiphon was built on the site of an older town, Opis, not far from the confluence of Tigris and Diyala. This city was situated on the so-called Royal Road, which connected Elam's capital Susa with the Assyrian heartland and -later- the Lydian capital Sardes.

At the end of the fourth century, king Seleucus, the successor of Alexander the Great and founder of the Seleucids empire, built Seleucia on the opposite bank of Opis. From now on, Opis was a mere suburb. The Roman historian Tacitus informs us that in the first century, Greek and native inhabitants were still recognizable and had institutions of their own. The Parthians, who took over the country in the second century BCE, had hardly any cultural influence.

Tagh-e Kasra in ancient city of Ctesiphon

However, the Parthians needed a western capital, and therefore, they moved the goverment center from Seleucia to the eastern bank, and renamed ancient Opis Tyspwn or Ctesiphon. The city served as winter residence of the kings after 129 BCE. It is not clear when Ctesiphon became the most important city in the Parthian empire, but what is reasonably clear is that the spoils of a large campaign against the Roman empire in 41 BCE were invested in the new capital, which became one of the greatest cities in the ancient world.

The city became even more important after a rebellion of Seleucia against king Vardanes, which ended in 43 CE. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus calls Vardanes the founder of Ctesiphon, which suggests that he did something to improve the status of this city. A generation later, king Pacorus is said to have increased its inhabitants and built its walls. Ctesiphon measured 30 square kilometers (cf. the 13,7 square kilometers of imperial Rome).

In the second century CE, the large city became the natural target for Roman aggression, because the Romans thought that the capture of the Parthian capital would inevitably result in the fall of the eastern empire. In 116, 165, and 198, the emperors Trajan, Lucius Verus, and Septimius Severus took Seleucia and Ctesiphon. But the Parthian state was organized in a very loose fashion, which gave it a certain resilience.

However, in the long run, the capture by Septimius Severus had a disastrous result. According to a modern estimate, the Romans took away so much gold and silver that they were able to postpone a European economic crisis for three or four decades, and we can imagine the consequences for the Parthians. Their empire was seriously weakened and in 224 CE, the Persian vassal king Ardašir revolted. Two years later, he took Ctesiphon, and this time, it meant the end of Parthia. It also marked the beginning of the second Persian empire, ruled by the Sassanid kings.

Although Ctesiphon was the capital of the Sassanid empire, Seleucia was not forgotten; it was renamed Veh-Ardašir ("the good city of Ardašir"). The cities remained a military target. In 238, he Roman emperor Gordian III wanted to capture Ctesiphon in order to prevent the new Sassanid empire from becoming too powerful, but was murdered before he reached his goal. Odenaethus of Palmyra was more successful in 262 CE, and so was the emperor Carus, who took the city in 283 CE. But when Julian wanted to do the same thing, he was defeated and killed in action (363 CE).

In the fifth century, Ctesiphon became a very important center of Nestorianism, a Christian church that accepts a larger distance between the two natures of Christ than the churches of the West. Missionaries from Ctesiphon christianized many people along the Silk road, e.g., at Rhagae and Maracanda, and in Margiana and Aria. In 635 CE, the first Christians reached China.

In 540 CE, the Sassanid king Khusrau I conquered the capital of Roman Syria, Antioch. The inhabitants were deported and settled in a new city near Ctesiphon and Veh-Ardašir, which was called Khusrau's Antioch. There were perhaps four comparable settlements. As a consequence, the Arabs started to call the place Al-Madain, "the cities".

In 637 CE, the Muslims took and looted Ctesiphon and the other cities. This was the beginning of their conquest of Mesopotamia. In 762 CE, they built a new government center, 35 kilometers upstream: Baghdad.