Parthian Empire

China Discovers the Ancient Near East

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It was the summer of 326 BC when Alexander the Great reached the banks of the Hyphasis River in India. His army had just won a hard fought battle against a minor local ruler named Porus. On the far side lay the Nanda Empire, armed to the teeth and ready to meet Alexander’s dwindling army with overwhelming force. “It was said,” reported Plutarch, “that the kings of the Gandaridae and the Praesii were waiting for Alexander’s attack with an army of 80,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, 8,000 chariots and 6,000 fighting elephants.”[1] Such stories only made Alexander more eager to take on the challenge of battle, but discontent spread in his camp. To restore his men’s courage, he gave a speech before his army:

For a man who is a man, work, in my belief, if it is directed to noble ends, has no object beyond itself…if any of you wish to know what limit may be set on this particular campaign, let me tell you that the area of the country still ahead of us, from here to the Ganges and the Eastern Ocean, is comparatively small. You will undoubtedly find that this ocean is connected with the Hyrcanian Sea, for the great Stream of Ocean encircles the earth…and to this empire there will be no boundaries but what God Himself has made for the whole world.[2]

Alexander had no way of knowing that there was much more to the east than a “comparatively small” country. The Greeks were only dimly aware of India and were completely unaware of lands beyond it. In reality, past the Ganges lay Burma and Indochina, the Irrawaddy and the Mekong, and then China, a land with resources and population on a scale Greeks had never dreamed existed.

Alexander’s men were unmoved. They refused to go on. Alexander retreated to his tent in rage and did not emerge for three days, believing his troops’ failure of courage the only thing preventing him from becoming master of the entire world.[3]

At that time, China was mired in two hundred years of conflict known as the Warring States Period. By 206 BC, the Han Dynasty was in power and locked in a long brutal war with the nomadic Xiongnu. In 138 BC, Imperial official Zhang Qian was dispatched by the Emperor Wu in search of the Yuezhi, enemies of the Xiongnu with whom the Emperor sought to make an alliance. Not long after departing China, Zhang Qian was captured by the Xiongnu and held a prisoner for ten years before he finally managed to escape. He finally reached the Yuezhi near modern day Bactria, only to find that they were no longer interested in an alliance. On his return to China, he was again captured by the Xiongnu and held prisoner for a year until a palace coup threw their society into chaos and he was able to make another escape.

Zhang Qian's travels.

Zhang Qian’s travels.

Thirteen years after his departure, Zhang Qian returned to great honor at the Imperial court, who one can imagine had likely given up all hope of his survival. Although he never traveled west of Bactria, he spoke with travelers and tradesmen from lands to the west and brought news of these territories back to the Emperor, as recorded in the Han Shu:

Anxi [Parthia] may be several thousand li west of the Yuezhi. The people live in fixed abodes and are give to agriculture; their fields yield rice and wheat; and they make wine of grapes. Their cities and towns are like those of Ta-yuan. Several hundred small and large cities belong to it. The territory is several thousand li square; it is a yery large country and is close to the K’ui-shui [Oxus]. Their market folk and merchants travel in carts and boats to the neighboring countries perhaps several thousand li distant. They make coins of silver; the coins resemble their king’s face. Upon the death of a king the coins are changed for others on which the new king’s face is represented. They paint [rows of characters] running sideways on [stiff] leather, to serve as records.[4]

Coin of Orodes I of Parthia.

“They make coins of silver; the coins resemble their king’s face. Upon the death of a king the coins are changed for others on which the new king’s face is represented.” — Coin of Orodes I of Parthia.

One li equaled 415.8 meters or approximately 1/4 of a mile. Zhang Qian also heard of lands to the west of Parthia:

Li-kan [Syria] and T’iau-chi [Mesopotamia] are several thousand li west of Anxi and close to the Western Sea. It [referring to T'iau-ch'i] is hot and damp. The inhabitants plow their fields, in which they grow rice. There is a big bird with eggs like jars. The number of its inhabitants very large and they have in many places their own petty chiefs; but Anxi [Parthia], while having added it to its dependencies, considers it a foreign country. They have clever jugglers. Although the old people in Anxi maintain the tradition that the Jo-shui and the Si-wang-mu are in T’iau-chi, they have not been seen there.[5]

These reports set the pattern for much of Han China’s knowledge of the Near East. Explorers visited Central Asia and brought back secondhand but nevertheless accurate information that was equal parts random facts and useful knowledge for merchants and diplomats.

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Parthians at Philippi

The Parthian empire had once been an ally of Rome. Parthians and Romans had fought together to finish off the Seleucid Empire in 63 BC, and enjoyed peaceful relations after. This all changed in 54 BC, when the ambitious Roman Marcus Licinius Crassus launched an unprovoked invasion of Parthian Syria with the intent to march on Seleucia and conquer the Parthian empire. Instead, his army was annihilated in the Syrian desert at the Battle of Carrhae. Of Crassus’ 38,000 men, only 8,000 or so made it back to Roman territory. 20,000 Romans were killed, and 10,000 were prisoners in Parthia.

The immediate result of the campaign was a Parthian invasion of Roman Syria under the command of a general named Osaces and  Pacorus, the son of the Parthian ruler Shah Orodes II. The death of Crassus and many of his officers left Gaius Cassius Longinus as the ranking Roman commander in Syria. While the Parthians besieged Antioch, Pacorus was recalled to Parthia by his father. Cassius rallied the remaining Roman troops in the area and broke the siege, then defeated the Parthians again at Antigonea. In this battle, Osaces was killed and his troops dispersed.[1]

The first round of Roman-Parthian conflict thus ended in a status quo ante bellum. As a result, like the United States and USSR 2000 years later, the two superpowers of the ancient Near East in the 1st century BC saw continued direct war as too risky and destructive when compared to its potential benefits. Therefore, the struggle between them for regional supremacy turned from confrontation to war by proxy. Struggle between armies was replaced by each side meddling in each other’s internal struggles, supporting rebel factions and fighting proxy battles with client states.

Shah Orodes II of Parthia (ruled 57 BC to 38 BC). He meddled in Roman affairs for much of his reign, seeking to prevent factions hostile to Parthian interests from gaining power.

The first shot of the proxy war came from Cassius’ replacement as governor of Syria. Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus arrived in 51 BC to take control of the province from Cassius. He sought to divide the Parthians against each other so as to preclude further invasions of Roman territory. Bibulus befriended a Parthian satrap named Ornodapates, who carried an old grudge against Orodes. Using Ornodapates as a go-between, Bibulus constructed a plot to stage a coup d’etat, overthrow Orodes and install his son Pacorus on the throne in his stead. The plot failed, but the resulting strife temporarily distracted Parthia from any westward expansion.[2]

While the Parthians were otherwise preoccupied, the political situation in Rome was spiraling out of control. Once allies, Julius Caesar and Ganeus Pompey were now enemies. In 49 BC, their rivalry and refusal to disband their armies spilled over into open civil war. Julius Caesar rapidly marched on Rome, forcing Pompey to withdraw to Greece without a fight. Pompey spent the winter of 49-48 BC regrouping in Greece and preparing for a decisive showdown against Caesar.

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The Battle of Carrhae, 53 B.C.

Scarcely had Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire than it began to rise from the ashes. While most former Persian territory was under the control of the Seleucid Empire, in 247 BC, Shah Arsaces I founded the Arsacid Dynasty in Parthia. Parthia had been a minor outlying province in what is now northeastern Iran, but after much hard fighting they seized Iran from the Seleucids, and finally allied with the Roman general Pompey the Great to finish off the Seleucid Empire in 63 BC, leaving Parthia and Rome as the major powers in the Near East. Between them lay minor buffer states and client kingdoms.

At this point, the two sides were at peace. The Parthian king Mithridates III wanted no further territorial expansion, and Rome had its hands full consolidating its newly acquired territory in the East and did not want trouble with another great power.

Yet by the 50′s B.C., Rome’s internal political machinations spilled over into Parthia. In 59 BC, Julius Caesar, Pompey Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus formed a powerful but informal political alliance known as the First Triumvirate. Crassus and Pompey were both elected consuls in 55 BC after instigating mob violence against their opponents on election day. Their first acts were to extend Caesar’s term as governor of Gaul (which he was still in the process of conquering), and make themselves the governors of Spain and Syria once their term in office expired. They cast lots to see who would govern which territory. Pompey won Spain, and Crassus won Syria.[1]

Bust of Marcus Crassus.

Crassus was fabulously wealthy, with a net worth in 54 B.C. of an estimated 7,100 talents or about $142 million. He made much of his fortune through seizing the property of those murdered in Sulla’s purges of 88 BC. Other sources of income included his ownership of silver mines as well as a profitable business in real estate development.[2] Crassus was fond of saying that no man was truly wealthy unless he could buy his own army.[3]

Crassus was also brazenly ambitious. Plutarch would later condemn this as “foolish ambition, which would not let him rest satisfied to be first and greatest among many myriads of men, but made him think, because he was judged inferior to two men only, that he lacked everything.” After he was assigned the governorship of Syria, he immediately began laying plans for the conquest not only of Parthia, but of Bactria and India as well until Rome’s borders stretched all the way to the “Outer Sea.” Crassus was exceeding his authority here, as the law making him governor of Syria carried with it no authorization for war with Parthia. What’s more, his plans were highly unpopular with the Roman public. Many people viewed Crassus’ plan to launch an unprovoked surprise attack on a Roman ally who presented no immediate threat to Rome’s interests as both dishonorable and unwise. The anti-war faction was led by the tribune Ateius Capito, who tried to have Crassus arrested to prevent him from leaving Rome for Syria. He was dissuaded by the other nine tribunes, and had to content himself with placing a ritual curse on Crassus as he passed through the city gates.[4]

Coin of Shah Orodes II.

In Parthia, on the other hand, in 54 BC Mithridates III was overthrown in a coup d’etat and fled from the capital of Ctesiphon across the river to Seleucia. His brother Orodes seized the throne and besieged Mithridates III in Seleucia with the aid of his brilliant general Surena, finally forcing the city’s surrender and seizing full control of the throne of Parthia. He was still in a shaky position, which led Crassus to think that victory would be easy and that many Parthian cities needed only a little prodding to revolt and side with Rome.[5]

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Electricity in the Ancient World

Electricity in the ancient world? The idea that generating electricity is a relatively recent invention is taken for granted almost as much as our modern society’s total dependence on it. While lightning, magnetism and static electricity were known in the ancient world, they were not utilized in any way nor was it understood that the phenomena were related. They were curiosities, interesting anomalies to ponder over, sometimes destructive, but not useful.

Yet, we have evidence that in the 1st century AD one ancient culture not only recognized electricity, but harnessed it and learned how to generate it. Yet, this was not done by the Romans, Greeks or Chinese, generally considered the most technologically advanced of ancient civilizations. Instead, this was accomplished in the Parthian Empire, not especially noted for its engineering or technical prowess.

Baghdad battery jar, copper tube and iron electrode.

In 1936, archaeologists working for the Iraqi Antiquities Authority were excavating the Parthian site of Khujut Rabou near Baghdad when they uncovered a strange pot. The jar was 5.5 inches (14 cm) tall. Inside the mouth of the jar a tube of copper was held in place with an asphalt seal, and inside the tube of copper there was an iron rod also held in place by asphalt.

Wilhelm Koenig, an Austrian who served as director of the Baghdad Museum at the time, recognized that the jar and its odd metal attachments were in a configuration that the whole thing could have functioned as a wet-cell battery. All the battery needed was the addition of an acid. Numerous acids would have been available at the time, including citrus juice and vinegar. The artifact was quickly dubbed the “Baghdad Battery.”[1]

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