Parthians: Strabo on Scythian origins and military success (early first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Parthians: Strabo on Scythian origins and military success (early first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 26, 2024,

Ancient authors: Various authors in Strabo, Geography 11.9.1-3 (link)

Comments: Along with the summary of Trogus’ narrative (link), Strabo’s brief and somewhat scattered account of the Parthians (a people located south of the Caspian sea around what is now Tehran in Iran) is among the few substantial ethnographic descriptions we possess. Strabo’s account is much briefer than Justin’s summary of Trogus, but it is worthwhile presenting in full due to the dearth of Greek descriptions of this people. Strabo’s account proposes the close relationship between peoples designated “Scythians” (by Greeks) and the Parthians, as does Trogus’ account. He does not really go into their supposed character beyond mentioning their success in war (which goes along with their supposed Scythian origins in the north). We also encounter interactions between Greco-Baktrians (further northeast near the Hindu Kush mountains) and Parthians in this material. Various other peoples are mentioned in the process.

Works consulted: Duane W. Roller, A Historical and Topographical Guide to the Geography of Strabo (Cambridge: CUP, 2018).


[For Strabo’s preceding discussion on peoples east of the Caspian Sea, go to this link].

[Peoples in Parthian territory]

9 (1) As for the Parthian country [south of the Caspian Sea], it is not large. At any rate, it paid its tribute along with the Hyrkanians in Persian times and also after this, when for a long time the Macedonians were in control. In addition to its smallness, it is thickly wooded and mountainous. It is also poverty-stricken, so that on this account the [foreign] kings send their own armies through it in a great hurry, since the country is unable to support them even for a short time.

At present, however, it has increased in extent. Parts of the Parthian country are Komisene and Chorene, and, one may almost say, the whole region that extends as far as the Kaspian gates and Rhagians and the Tapyrians, which formerly belonged to Media. And in the neighbourhood of Rhagai (or: Rhagae) [now Tehran, Iran] are the cities Apameia and Heracleia. The distance from the Kaspian gates to Rhagai is five hundred stadia, as Apollodoros says, and to Hekatompylos [now Qumis, Iran], the royal seat of the Parthians, one thousand two hundred and sixty. Rhagai is said to have got its name from the earthquakes that took place in that country, by which numerous cities and two thousand villages, as Poseidonios says, were destroyed.

The Tapyrians are said to live between the Derbikians and the Hyrkanians. It is reported of the Tapyrians that it was a custom of theirs to give their wives in marriage to other husbands as soon as they had had two or three children by them. Just as in our times, in accordance with an ancient custom of the Romans, Cato gave Marcia in marriage to Hortensius [consul in 69 BCE] at the request of the latter.

[Baktrians and Daans conquer Parthia]

(2) But when revolutions were attempted by the countries outside the area of the Tauros mountains (because of the fact that the kings of Syria and Media, who were in possession also of these countries, were busily engaged with others), those who had been entrusted with their government first caused the revolt of Baktriana and of all the country near it. I mean Euthydemos [Greco-Baktrian king, ca. 230-195 BCE] and his followers.

[Parthians under Arsakes I and following]

Then Arsakes (or: Arsaces) [I, Parthian king reigning ca, 247-217 BCE], a Scythian along with some of the Daans (I mean the Aparnians, as they were called, nomads who lived along the Ochos) invaded Parthia and conquered it. Now at the outset Arsakes was weak, being continually at war with those who had been deprived by him of their territory, both he himself and his successors. However, later they grew so strong, always taking the neighbouring territory, through successes in warfare, that finally they established themselves as lords of the whole country inside the Euphrates. And they also took a part of Baktriana, having forced the Scythians, and still earlier Eucratides and his followers, to yield to them.

[Parthian empire as rival to the Roman empire and Parthian customs]

At present, the Parthians rule over so much land and so many peoples that in the size of their empire they have become, in a way, rivals of the Romans [cf. Pompeius Trogus at this link]. The cause of this is their mode of life, and also their customs, which contain much that is barbarian and Scythian in character, though more that is conducive to hegemony and success in war.

[Aparnian Daans]

(3) They say that the Aparnian Daans were emigrants from the Daan above lake Maiotis [Sea of Azov], who are called Xandians or Parians. But the view is not altogether accepted that the Daans are a part of the Scythians who live around lake Maiotis.

[Arsakes’ origins as Baktrian or Scythian]

At any rate, some say that Arsakes derives his origin from the Scythians, whereas others say that he was a Baktrian, and that when in flight from the enlarged power of Diodotos and his followers he caused Parthia to revolt. But since I have said much about the Parthian usages in the sixth book of my Historical Sketches and in the second book of my History of events after Polybios, I will omit discussion of that subject here, in case I seem to be repeating what I have already said. Nonetheless, I will mention just this: the Council of the Parthians, according to Poseidonios, consists of two groups, one that of kinsmen, and the other that of wise men and Magians (magoi), from both of which groups the kings were appointed.

[For Strabo’s subsequent discussion of Baktrians, Sogdians and others, go to this link].


Source: H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932)

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