Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.06.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.06.19

Uwe Ellerbrock, Sylvia Winkelmann, Die Parther: die vergessene Großmacht​.   Darmstadt:  Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2012.  Pp. 287.  ISBN 9783805344548.  €29.99.  

Reviewed by Everett L. Wheeler, Duke University (

Table of Contents

Has the longest lasting Iranian empire of the ancient world, the Parthian, fallen into oblivion? Have the Sasanids finally succeeded in obliterating their memory? Restoring the “forgotten” Parthians to their proper place in history and touting their cultural achievements provide this book’s premise, inspired by such trendy (if exaggerated) themes as globalization and cultural transfer. The authors, a numismatist (Ellerbrock) and an archaeologist (Winkelmann), well display their respective specialties in this splendidly produced book with remarkable color photographs—traits characteristic of the von Zabern Verlag. Surprisingly, for those who know Parthians only as the victors at Carrhae (53 B.C.) or Rome’s opponents in numerous poorly-reported wars, material culture, not political or military events, is the book’s thrust, with minimal attention to literary sources.1 Aimed at a general (non-Anglophone) European audience, as the relative neglect of Anglophone scholarship indicates, the work lacks (regrettably) notes and an index. A collection of “Internetseiten” supplements a perfunctory bibliography, omitting even some authors cited by name in the text.2 The alleged Parthian oblivion of the subtitle—perhaps a publisher’s ploy—hardly reflects reality, as the authors minimally concede (p. 17). If for decades the late Jozef Wolski (1910-2008) almost singlehandedly kept Parthian studies alive, Parthians have shared in the recent renaissance of Near Eastern and Iranian studies and have had their own scholarly journal since 1999.3

This overview of Parthian civilization is divided into fourteen (unnumbered) chapters, of which Ellerbrock produced five (1, 3, 7, 9, 13: the reviewer’s numbering), Winkelmann five (5-6, 11-12, 14), and four are joint efforts (2, 4, 8, 10). After a brief introduction (ch. 1) on the problems of Parthian studies (lack of sources both literary and material) and a quick glance (ch. 2) at the Near East from the Bronze Age to the Seleucids, the tortuous course of Parthian political history (ch. 3) is reduced to twenty-one pages (pp. 46-67), followed by a survey (ch. 4) of states under Parthian cultural influence in Mesopotamia, southwestern Iran, and even Anatolian Commagene west of the Euphrates (erroneously labeled northern Mesopotamia and a Parthian vassal: pp. 71-72). Discussion of architecture (ch. 5), with emphasis on the Parthians’ creating the forms of the iwan and the dome and circular-shaped cities (e.g., Ctesiphon), precedes a useful survey updating the state of knowledge about urban sites, grouped into Central Asian and Iranian, then Syrian and Mesopotamian sectors. Treatment of frontier problems in the northeast and the east (ch. 6) concludes the geographically inspired “Part I” in addressing Parthian relations with their Iranian cousins, the Sarmatians and the Sacae, to the north and the vicissitudes of Parthian control (or lack thereof) in areas of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan, where a succession of independent kingdoms (Indo-Greek, Indo-Parthian, and the Kushan) ensued.

A “Part II” of nine chapters, over half the book, turns to structural and cultural topics. Political organization, kingship, propaganda and investiture scenes on coins, the nobility, and the role of queens (e.g., Musa) appear under “Herrschaftsstruktur” (ch. 7). Here Ellerbrock (p. 128) curiously rehearses material from an Armenian monograph on Parthian and Sasanid administrative organization without endorsing its accuracy,4 and asserts (p.134) that a supposed Roman veneration of monogamy and disdain of barbarian Parthians account for the absence of Roman- Parthian unions. He seems unaware of Augustus’ prohibiting his family members from marrying non-Romans. The tale of Caracalla’s bid to wed a daughter of Artabanus IV also escaped notice.5 In contrast, Ellerbrock insightfully discusses the changing headgear of the kings on the coins (from satrapic leather cap to Macedonian diadem to nomadic tiara) beyond the evolutions of the legends and appreciates the subtle changes in royal propaganda.

A hodge-podge chapter (8) on social life, to which a brief discussion of the calendar (ch. 9) forms an appendix, combines the topics of gender equality, slaves, education, medicine, cooking, Parthian script, and literature. Surviving documents, overwhelmingly in Aramaic and Greek and usually dated by the Seleucid era, may be misleading about the extent to which Parthian script and the Parthian era (dated from 247 B.C.) were used. A royal central bureaucracy using an official form of Parthian can be inferred (p. 131).

Discussions of trade and the economy (ch. 10) and the army (ch. 11) furnish hits and misses. Parthians maintained relations with Han China, imported Chinese iron, exported the prized Nisian horses, and initiated (to their great profit) the Mediterranean world’s trade with China, although the fanciful contention (p. 173) that eastern trade motivated Roman lust for Mesopotamia ignores Armenia as the chief cause of Roman-Parthian wars. Viticulture flourished, as c.2000 ostraca (first c. B.C.) from Nisa in Turkmenistan (the original Parthian capital) attest. Extensive underground irrigation systems facilitated fertility, such as in the well-watered domain of the Suren family, Seistan in eastern Iran, today arid from the Mongols’ destruction of the underground installations. The military chapter offers little new. Details about the Parthian army of horsearchers and cataphracts continue to be based almost exclusively on Graeco-Roman accounts of Carrhae. Yet Vologaeses I, atop an elephant at Caesennius Paetus’ surrender (62 A.D.) at Rhandeia, finds confirmation in other pachyderm-mounted Parthian kings seen on coins, perhaps reflecting warfare on the Indian front. Winkelmann (p. 187) rightly questions the accuracy of Vologaeses III’s 20,000 infantry assembled against the Alans in 135 (not 136)—perhaps another fantasy of the controversial Chronicle of Arbela, probably a modern forgery. A view (p. 281) that Parthian cataphracts spurred Roman imitation should be dismounted from consideration, as such Roman units first appear on the Danube against Sarmatian armored cavalry.

The longest chapter (12), reserved for Parthian art, includes every conceivable genre from rock-cut reliefs, wall paintings, and sculpture to textiles and jewelry. Parthian seals, once doubted, are now well attested. Winkelmann argues (against some skeptics) for the emergence of a distinct Parthian art. To mention only a few topics, life-size and monumental statues (in clay, bronze and later stone) followed a tradition already found at Nisa and inspired the statues of notables in the central temenos at Hatra and even the gigantic heads at Nemrud Dagh in Commagene, where the veneration of ancestors also has a Parthian precedent in a “hall of ancestors” at Nisa. A Parthian ancestor cult motivated Caracalla’s desecration (216 A.D.) of royal Parthian tombs at Arbela (Dio 79.1.2.), although such tombs remain archaeologically unattested (p. 76). A useful discussion of rock-cut reliefs, Parthian continuation of an Achaemenid tradition further developed under the Sasanids, omits a number of reliefs (some with Aramaic or Parthian inscriptions and still inadequately studied) on the upper Tigris between Silvan (Martyropolis) and Cizre, including some near Fenik, possibly Pinaca, the chief urban site of Gordyene, thus an area not devoid of Parthian material, as asserted (p. 76).6

A penultimate chapter (13), preceding perfunctory conclusions on Parthian contributions to world civilization (ch. 14), treats Parthian religion. As noted (pp. 245-46), Sasanid introduction of Zoroastrianism as a state religion would be unthinkable without prior Parthian groundwork. But like the Achaemenids, the degree of Zoroastrian adherence varied among the Parthian kings. No gods or religious epithets appear on the earliest Parthian coins and as a federate empire the Parthians practiced toleration. Jewish communities flourished under the Parthians. Manichaeism, which the Parthian Mani founded, must surely include some aspects of Parthian religion, but details are elusive, and likewise for the syncretism of Greek and Iranian gods at Commagenean Nemrud Dagh. The absence of major Parthian cemeteries and royal tombs, a considerable obstacle to understanding Parthians, leads to speculation about observance of Zoroastrian exposure of the dead or cremation. Much of this chapter seems to rehearse Ellerbrock’s study of evolution of the Greek Tyche on Parthian coins, although without a key to a Parthian understanding of Tyche. Reproduction of Greek art forms could have a non-Greek meaning for Parthians.7

One wants to like this book for the valuable updates on numerous topics, but history is not the work’s forte. Conventional exaggerations about the significance of Carrhae from both Roman and (unattested) Parthian perspectives, the fruit of Augustan propaganda, are perhaps to be expected, however inaccurate, and similarly the supposed Roman concession of the Euphrates as a border from 96 B.C. on in various foedera. The emphasis on the spread of Parthian culture bypasses Wolski’s observation on the dynamic of Parthian power: internal troubles began when expansion stopped. Desperation for evidence leads to seeking Parthian culture (no doubt rightly) in such places as Palmyra, Hatra, and Edessa, where locals called themselves “Arabs.”8 Recent scholarly attention to the supposed “Arab” culture of these cities is not addressed. Remarkable self-contradictions also occur. Two different dates and contexts appear for the marriage of Laodice, daughter of Antiochus I of Commagene to Orodes II (pp. 58, 270); the diminishing silver content of coins is first discounted, then noted as a sign of decline (pp. 34, 63). Factual errors, some egregious, abound: (e.g.) Cicero was governor of Cilicia, not Syria in 51 B.C. (p. 58); new information on the paternity of Vologaeses IV and Meherdates of Characene comes not from a “Münzfund” (pp. 64-65), but the Greek-Aramaic bilingual from the now well-known statue of the “weary Heracles” at Seleucia on the Tigris (ISK 65.68; SEG 37.1403, 41.1520). Such errors raise issues about scrupulously vetting the book’s manuscript—unsurprising in the current state of academic publishing. Experts may read it with profit and amusement, but the general public, the intended audience, has been ill-served.


1.   The authors are aware of (p. 20), but do not exploit: U. Hackl et al., edd., Quellen zur Geschichte des Partherreiches. Textsammlung mit Übersetzungen und Kommentaren (Göttingen 2010), 3 vols. Nor are they concerned (pp. 26-27) with sources of extant sources, such as Cassius Dio’s probable use of his fellow Bithynian Arrian’s lost Parthica.
2.   E.g., p. 197: (Maurice?) Pillet, a commentator on Parthian art; pp. 31-32: acknowledgment but tacit rejection of anonymous revisions of chronology—apparently those of G.R. Assar, Parthica 6 (2004) 69-93, 7 (2005) 29-63, 8 (2006) 55-104; Electrum 11 (2006) 87-158. The chronology followed is that of D. Sellwood, An Introduction to the Coinage of Parthia2 (London 1980). The website,, here lauded, can be useful but also frustrating.
3.   Parthica 1- (Pisa: Istituti editoriali e poligrafici internazionali, 1999-); cf. (e.g.) J. Wiesehöfer, ed., Das Partherreich und seine Zeugnisse (Stuttgart 1998); C. Lerouge, L’image des Parthes dans le monde gréco-romain (Stuttgart 2007); M.R. Shayegan, Arsacids and Sasanians (Cambridge 2011); W. Grajetski, Greeks and Parthians in Mesopotamia and Beyond 331 BC-224 AD (London 2011); and my remarks on Wolski and the “dark age” of Parthian scholarship at BMCR 2006.07.55.
4.   E. Khurshudian, Die parthischen und sasanidischen Verwaltungsinstitutionen nach den literarischen und epigraphischen Quellen. 3. Jh v. Chr.-7. Jh. n. Chr. (Yerevan 1998).
5.   Sources and literature at E.L. Wheeler, “Roman Treaties with Parthia: Völkerrecht or Power Politics?” in P. Freeman et al., edd., Limes XVIII (Oxford 2002) I, 288; on Musa see J.M. Bigwood, “Queen Mousa. Mother and Wife (?) of King Phraatakes of Parthia: A Re-evaluation of the Evidence,” Mouseion, Ser. 3, 4.1 (2004) 35-70, rather than E. Strugnell, “Theo Musa, Roman Queen of Parthia,” IA 43 (2008) 275-98.
6.   Details at E.L. Wheeler, “Pityus to Zeugma: The Northern Sector of the Eastern Frontier 1983-1996,” in N. Gudea, ed., Roman Frontier Studies. Proceedings of the XVIIth International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies (Zalau 1999) 221.
7.   See “Religiöse Ikonographie auf parthischen Münzen. Der Einfluss politisch-gesellschaflicher Veränderungen auf das Bild der Göttin Tyche im Parthischen Reich,” IA 48 (2013) 253-311.
8.   On treaties, the Euphrates, and the Augustan Parthian agreement of 20 B.C., see Wheeler (above n.5) 287-92; J. Wolski, “Le role et importance des mercénaires dans l’état parthe,” IA 5 (1965) 103-15; on the spread of Parthian culture, note the discussions: “Le rayonnement oriental de la culture parthe,” Topoi 17.1 (2011) 179-347.

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