Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.03.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.03.23

Josef Wiesehöfer​, Sabine Müller​ (ed.), Parthika: Greek and Roman Authors' Views of the Arsacid Empire = Griechisch-römische Bilder des Arsakidenreiches. Classica et Orientalia, 15​.   Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz Verlag, 2017.  Pp. xiii, 312.  ISBN 9783447107648.  €78,00.  

Reviewed by Leonardo Gregoratti, Durham University (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Twenty years ago, in 1998, J. Wiesehöfer published the fundamental book Das Partherreich und seine Zeugnisse. At that time, most scholars working on the Parthian Empire agreed on the idea that the Arsacid state, one of the most important political powers of Western Asia that managed to challenge Rome’s dominion over all the civilized lands, was still shrouded in the shadows of history. Since then, remarkable work has been undertaken by the many researchers who were inspired by Wiesehöfer and all the specialists who contributed to that book.

The lesson of Das Partherreich has been understood and positively welcomed. Scholarly approaches towards the Parthians changed radically due to the now evident need of finding and interrogating all the sources at our disposal beyond the Classical ones. Nowadays, though still providing most of the information on the Arsacids, Greek and Latin authors are seen as just one group of the sources that should be taken into account in order to provide a reliable representation of the Parthians and their historical role.

With this collected volume, Parthika, Greek and Roman Author’s Views of the Arsacid Empire, after twenty years of progress and transformation in the field of Arsacid studies, Josef Wiesehöfer and Sabine Müller go back to the origins of the discussion on the Parthians: the Greek and Roman authors and the information they provide. The volume presents papers that discuss well-known authors like Flavius Josephus, Trogus, Tacitus and Arrian, but its original contribution consists of the attention given to local Parthian historians, more obscure and lesser known intellectuals like Isidoros of Charax and Apollodoros of Artemita. The work of these two Greek authors, subjects of the Parthian Great King, would be entirely lost if it was not for the few and scanty references by later authors.

M. Olbrycht’s contribution, Greeks in the Arsacid Empire, functions as a remarkable introduction to the whole topic. Through a detailed and comprehensive investigation concerning the presence of Greeks and Greek cultural elements in Parthian society, culture and art in the cities and satrapies of the empire, the author warns about the risks of overrating the importance of Greek culture for the Parthians. Many Greeks lived under the Great King’s rule while preserving their culture and lifestyle. They did not live in isolated communities, but played a relevant role in Parthian society and administration, becoming a fundamental component of the Arsacid state. On the other hand, the Arsacids had a genuine interest in Hellenic culture, an interest that resulted in the adoption of various Greek cultural elements, but never lead to a Hellenization of Parthian leadership.

A series of connected contributions follows. They all focus on the few extant fragments from the work of the historian Apollodoros of Artemita. Artemita was a city under Parthian rule located east of Seleucia on the Tigris. J. Engels, Strabon aus Amaseia und Apollodoros of Artemita, discusses Strabo’s interest in Parthian history and territory and the possible use of Apollodoros’ information in his lost monumental historical work. The author notes that most of Strabo’s references to Apollodoros’ work refer to the history and geography of eastern regions well beyond the Mesopotamian area. Apollodoros thus was an important source for what concerned the peripheral satrapies of the Parthian empire, Caucasus as well as Central Asia. K. Nawotka, Apollodoros of Artemita: beyond New Jacoby, discusses the possibility of identifying other fragments of Apollodoros’ work elsewhere in Strabo’s Geography. According to his opinion, the geographer’s description of Margiana and the passages where he expresses a balanced point of view between Rome and Parthia as universal superpowers denote the influence of the Greek author from Artemita, an assumption that according to Nawotka can shed light on the chronology of Apollodoros’ life and work. S. Müller’s contribution, Apollodoros als Historiograph parthischer Geschichte brings us back to the sad reality. The scanty information on Apollodoros and his cultural identity does not allow going beyond the level of speculation concerning the role he played in other authors’ works (in particular Pompeius Trogus) and his reputation and value among those who followed.

M. Schuol’s contribution, Isidor von Charax und die literarische Gattung der stathmoi, opens the section dedicated to the Parthian Stations by Isidoros of Charax. Enlarging the scope of investigation through analysing the tradition of stathmoi and itineraria within Greek and Roman literary culture, she situates Isidoros’ work in the more general context of the ancient geographical descriptions. Drawing a geographical space indicating routes and distances can of course be useful in order to plan military operations, but this does not exclude other purposes like trade, communication and travel. Considering the Parthian Stations only as a sort of invasion plan would mean limiting the function of the work and reducing the influence it had on later,comparable works of the imperial period.

U. Hartmann’s contribution discusses the same topic, Die Parthischen Stationen des Isidor von Charax: eine Handelsroute, eine Militärkarte oder ein Werk geographischer Gelehrsamkeit?. The scholar provides an extraordinarily comprehensive overview of Isidorus’ work and its main problems, including an excellent and detailed bibliography. The contribution, which constitutes a small treatise on Isidorus in itself, analyses the work and the information available on the author in detail to conclude that nothing seems to suggest a main commercial purpose for the Characenian geographer. Hartmann also questions the identification of Isidorus with another geographer, and fellow citizen, mentioned by Pliny: Dionysius of Charax, whose work constituted a source of information on Parthia for Augustus’ oriental policy and for the activity of C. Caesar on the eastern frontier (Plin., N.H., VI, 141). This identification has in fact lead to the characterization of Isidorus’ Parthian Stations as a sort of military vademecum in case of a conflict with the Arsacids or, as has been proposed, a practical guide to invade Parthia. According to Hartmann, the simplest and most probable solution consists in situating Isidorus (and Dionysius as well) among the Hellenic authors inspired by a genuine interest in the geographical exploration and the promotion of knowledge about Eastern lands, an interest largely shared by the Roman audience after Carrhae.

S. Hauser, Isidor von Charax Σταϑμοὶ Παρϑικοί – Annäherungen an den Autor, den Routenverlauf und die Bedeutung des Werkes reaches a similar conclusion on Isidorus’ work. Hauser’s contribution questions the route traditionally accepted as the access point to upper Mesopotamia basing his considerations and corrections on the actual distances given in the text. Due to the fact that Isidorus’ text is probably a summary of a larger work by one or more different hands, a strictly philological investigation of the codices available and their lectiones would be necessary to estimate the reliability of Isidorus distances’ and therefore of Hauser’s contribution.

R. Schmitt’ linguistic remarks on Isidorus’ place names, Isidors Stathmoi Parthikoi aus Sicht der Iranischen Toponomastik, provide interesting elements able to shed new light on the eastern portion of the itinerary. An example is the name Βαζιγράβαν, where according to the text there was a Parthian “customs station”. Schmitt proposes to interpret the Greek term τελώνιον as an incorrect attempt to translate the Iranic original name that indicated more generally a place where tributes where collected.

E.S. Gruen’s contribution on Flavius Josephus, Josephus’ Image of the Parthians, opens the section of the volume dedicated to the perception and the role of the Parthians in authors whose historical works are better known and better preserved. In Josephus’ narration, the Parthians remain a secondary historical entity: they come into the scene only when the Arsacids play a role in the history of Jewish communities. Sometimes Arsacid kings are portrayed as positive rulers, sometimes as despotic tyrants. The Parthians are seen at the same time with sympathy or contempt. Gruen concludes that this dual characterization is the result of Josephus’ lack of interest in the Eastern empire. Pompeius Trogus/Justin’s dichotomy concerning the Parthians, culturally connected to the Scythians, but also victim of tyranny and corruption, according to S. Müller, Das Bild der Parther bei Trogus-Justin, fits well with the authors’ idea of the inevitable decadence of empires. M. Heil deals with Tacitus, Die Parther bei Tacitus. Unlike the Romans, Tacitus never sees the Parthians as a people. The Parthian empire is a composite structure where different political entities co-exist under Arsacid rule, therefore, Heil observes, it would be better to speak of an Arsacid empire. Finally, C. Lerouge-Cohen, L’image des Parthes chez Arrien. Réflexions sur quelques fragments attribués aux Parthika, discusses some of the fragments that Roos attributed to Arrian’s Parthikà. Fragment no. 1 on the origins of the Parthians and the Arsacids clearly reveals, according to the author, a Greek Mesopotamian origin. The story of the two brothers, Arsaces and Tiridates, who rebelled against a Seleucid despotic master, was conceived among those “Arsacid” Greeks who were in good terms with the Crown for an audience that shared similar cultural characteristics and political sympathies. Lerouge-Cohen then discusses fragment no. 20 about Parthian armour and weapons. The author convincingly suggests that it should not be attributed to Arrian, but to a later author, possibly Eunapius, a source the Suida often uses and who wrote about the Sassanids referring to themselves as Parthians.

In conclusion Parthikà is a volume of great interest for any scholar of the ancient world and for those working on Parthia and on the sources about the Parthian world in particular. The most interesting element is the serious debate among scholars concerning the two lesser known authors: Apollodorus of Artemita and Isidorus of Charax, whose works, though in large part lost, still play a relevant role in our knowledge of the Parhian world.

Table of Contents

I Überlegungen zu Apollodoros von Artemita und Isidoros von Charax
Marek Jan Olbrycht , Greeks in the Arsacid Empire
Johannes Engels, Strabon aus Amaseia und Apollodoros aus Artemita
Krzysztof Nawotka, Apollodorus of Artemita: Beyond New Jacoby
Sabine Müller, Apollodoros als Historiograph parthischer Geschichte
Monika Schuol, Isidor von Charax und die literarische Gattung der stathmoi
Udo Hartmann, Die Parthischen Stationen des Isidor von Charax: eine Handelsroute, eine Militärkarte oder ein Werk geographischer Gelehrsamkeit?
Stefan Hauser, Isidor von Charax Σταϑμοὶ Παρϑικοί – Annäherungen an den Autor, den Routenverlauf und die Bedeutung des Werkes
Rüdiger Schmitt, Isidors Stathmoi Parthikoi aus Sicht der Iranischen Toponomastik

II Bilder der Parther bei Josephus, Trogus-Justin, Tacitus und Arrian
Erich S. Gruen, Josephus’ Image of the Parthians
Sabine Müller, Das Bild der Parther bei Trogus-Justin
Matthäus Heil, Die Parther bei Tacitus
Charlotte Lerouge-Cohen, L’image des Parthes chez Arrien. Réflexions sur quelques fragments attribués aux Parthika
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