Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Parthian Empire (247 B.C.–224 A.D.)


When Alexander of Macedon died in 323 B.C., he had conquered the great Achaemenid Persian empire, which stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to India. His successor as ruler of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran was one of his generals, Seleucus I, who established the Seleucid dynasty. Along the trade routes that linked ancient and newly established cities, Hellenistic art and culture, a fusion of the various Near Eastern and classical Greek traditions, permeated the Near Eastern world.

In the west, the Seleucids faced the Ptolemies, Alexander’s successors in Egypt; in the east, a semi-nomadic confederacy, the Parni, were on the move. From the northeast of Iran, the Parni advanced toward the frontier of the Seleucid satrapy (administrative district) of Parthia, near the Caspian Sea. In about 250 B.C., they launched an invasion under their leader Arsaces. Known as the Parthians after their successful conquest of the land, they made their own imperial aspirations clear by instituting a dynastic era in 247 B.C., and subsequent rulers assumed the name Arsaces as a royal title. Under Mithridates I (r. ca. 171–138 B.C.) and his successors, the Parthians grew into the dominant power in the Near East through a series of campaigns against the Seleucids, the Romans, the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms, and the nomads of Central Asia. The Romans, who were ambitious to dominate the Near East in the style of Alexander, underestimated the capabilities of the Parthian kings and had to negotiate peace under Augustus.

Establishing a primary residence at Ctesiphon, on the Tigris River in southern Mesopotamia, Parthian kings ruled for nearly half a millennium and influenced politics from Asia Minor to northern India, until they were overthrown by Sasanian armies from southwest Iran in the early third century A.D.

Parthian Art

Parthian wealth obtained through lucrative trade networks resulted in substantial patronage of the arts, in particular relief sculpture, statuary (large and small scale), architectural sculpture, metalwork, jewelry, and ceramics; coins with images of Parthian rulers form another important category of objects. Most of the extant objects and monuments are from sites at the edges of the Parthian world, in Syria, Mesopotamia, and the Iranian plateau. The art of the Parthian capitals at Hecatompylos (Shahr-e Qumis in northeastern Iran), Ecbatana (Hamadan in west-central Iran) and Ctesiphon (in Iraq) is almost entirely lost. Overall, Parthian art resists a straightforward definition, as it employs styles and motifs from both Hellenistic and earlier Near Eastern traditions that result in innovations in various media.

Parthian stone relief sculpture is characterized by the figures’ frontality and careful attention to linear details, particularly in the depiction of textiles, such as a belted tunic decorated with elaborate geometric motifs worn by a bearded male figure carved in low relief (51.72.1). The figure faces forward, and his enormous upraised right hand with palm upheld in a gesture of reverence identifies him as a votive image of a worshipper. Comparable representations of worshippers adorned the terraces of sanctuary complexes such as those at Bard-e Neshandeh and Masjid-i Sulaiman (both located in Iran’s Khuzestan Province).

Small-scale reclining figurines in Parthian costume also emphasize linear details of dress rather than anatomical form, as evident in a terracotta example that features a person reclining on a couch identifiable as male due to his tunic and trousers (55.162.2). This type of reclining figurine was particularly popular in Babylon, Seleucia, and Uruk. Examples of male figures wearing Parthian dress, however, including horsemen, soldiers, and musicians, are fairly uncommon from Mesopotamia. Figurines of nude reclining females are typical: examples discovered during excavations of Parthian graves and residences have been identified variously as goddesses, fertility amulets, or dolls. Hellenistic influence is clear in the pose and naturalistic body of an alabaster female figurine, in contrast to the neck creases, drilled navel, and voluptuousness, all of which are typical of a local tradition (86.16.3). Figurines of standing females also have similar traits (86.16.1): inlaid eyes, plaster or bitumen wigs, and other details added in paint are common.

Parthian architectural sculpture displays both Greco-Roman and Near Eastern influences, as two diverse examples illustrate. A stone lintel (32.145a,b) features a symmetrical composition with two hybrid winged creatures with feline bodies reminiscent of Near Eastern lion-griffins facing each other on either side of a large vase with a lotus leaf that reflects Roman prototypes. The lintel is from the so-called Main Palace at Hatra, a major Parthian trading city with a diverse population located southwest of modern Mosul, Iraq. On a ceramic spout in the form of a man’s head (56.56), naturalistic facial features and expression draw from Greco-Roman iconography; the inlay of iron pyrites in the mustache and beard, however, reflect a Near Eastern technique, and the centrally parted hair resembles hairstyles found on Parthian coin imagery.

Luxury arts produced for Parthian patrons include finely crafted metal vessels (66.235; 1990.228) and jewelry. Many objects feature imagery associated with the Greek god of wine, Dionysos, whose cult spread eastward after Alexander’s invasion. A gilded silver rhyton with a feline forepart, a grapevine, and an ivy wreath is an outstanding example (1979.447). Grape clusters appear on a pair of gold earrings (35.29.1; 35.29.2), and a trilobed wineskin with the head of an Eros-like figure decorates a gold earring possibly from Nineveh (1995.366). Other earrings incorporate motifs such as pomegranates (X.94) and inlays of semi-precious stones (1984.175.38a,b). A solid gold openwork clasp with turquoise inlay features an eagle and its prey (17.190.2055), a subject that reflects Parthian contacts with nomadic cultures of the Eurasian steppes (the clasp is one of a pair, and its counterpart is in the British Museum, 1927,1117.1).

Ceramic drinking vessels and rhytons with figural subjects produced during the Parthian period vary greatly with respect to design, iconography, and production quality. The female figure on a finely crafted glazed rhyton may represent Nana, a Parthian and Kushan goddess of nature and abundance, as well as the daughter of the moon god (2001.178). Her diadem is decorated with a palmette, a crescent possibly with a star, and a rosette set upon the forehead: she also wears a necklace and drop earrings. The vessel terminates in a horned animal protome (probably a bull) with a small pouring hole in its mouth. Bulls, rams, ducks, and stags are some of the animals that also typically appear on Parthian ceramic rhyta (56.156; 58.31.30; 59.95; 60.61.1).

Coins began to be minted for Parthian rulers after the accession of Mithridates I. Mints were located in over twenty cities: tetradrachms were produced almost exclusively in Seleucia. Most coins feature a Parthian king’s portrait on the obverse facing left and either a seated archer or a standing figure and fire altar on the reverse, surrounded by an inscription (99.35.2953; 99.35.2951). The frequent lack of kings’ personal names in inscriptions in favor of the general term “Arsaces” causes many difficulties in the identification of ruler portraits on Parthian coins and therefore their dating. Conversely, numismatic ruler portraits that are securely identifiable lead to the identification and dating of other royal representations: a cosmetic palette (56.81.56), for example, is dated to the first century A.D. since the features of the male bust resemble those of Gotarzes II (ca. 40–51 A.D.) on his coinage.

Despite Sasanian attempts to forget or destroy Parthian historical records, monuments, and works of art, the Parthian artistic legacy had a significant impact on Sasanian art, in terms of motifs used, and on Roman and Byzantine art, with respect to the use of frontality.