Parthians: Trogus on the origins and developments of an empire (first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Parthians: Trogus on the origins and developments of an empire (first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 20, 2023,

Ancient authors: Pompeius Trogus (first century BCE), as cited by Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus 41-42 (link; link to Latin)..

Comments: We know very little about Pompeius Trogus (first century BCE) beyond what his abbreviator (Justin) summarizes at the end of book 43: Trogus was a Gaul (or Celt) of the Vocontian tribe whose grandfather had been granted Roman citizenship and whose father served under Gaius Caesar. So Trogus would be a “barbarian” from the perspective of some, even if a Roman citizen. Trogus’ work only survives in abbreviated form thanks to Justin, about whom we know even less.

Trogus’ work is one of a handful of works to give any substantial attention to the Parthians as a people (on which compare Strabo at this link [coming soon] and Josephos at this link [coming soon]). Trogus outlines Parthian origins, linking them with Scythians, before going on to some of their customs and a brief history of Parthians’ relations with other peoples and powers. He also engages in a brief digression on Armenian origins, drawing on the story of Jason and the Argonauts.

Source of the translation: J.S. Watson, Justin, Cornelius Nepos, and Eutropius (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853), public domain, thoroughly adapted by Harland.



Book 41

[Origins of the Parthians]

(1) Today the Parthians rule the east, with the world being divided between them and the Romans, so to speak. But originally they were exiles from Scythia. This is apparent from their very name because in the Scythian language exiles are called “parthi.” During the time of the Assyrians and Medes, they were the most obscure of all peoples of the east. Subsequently, too, when the empire of the east was transferred from the Medes to the Persians, they were merely a large population without a name, and fell under the power of whoever was stronger at the time. Finally they became subject to the Macedonians, when they conquered the east. So it must seem amazing to everyone that the Parthians would have reached such a height of good fortune as to rule over those peoples (gentes) under whose control they had merely been slaves.

Being assailed by the Romans, also, in three wars, under the conduct of the greatest generals, and at the most flourishing period of the republic, they alone, of all peoples, were not only a match for the Romans, but came out victorious. Though it may in fact have been a greater glory to them if they had been able to rise to power during the Assyrian, Median, and Persian empires, so celebrated of old, and during the most powerful dominion of Baktria (Bactria), populated with a thousand cities, than to have been victorious in war against a people that came from a distance. This is especially the case when they were continually harassed by severe wars with the Scythians and other neighbouring peoples, and pressed with various other formidable contests.

The Parthians, being forced to leave Scythia by discord at home, gradually settled in the deserts between Hyrkania, the Daans, the Arians, the Sparnians and Marsianians. They then advanced their borders even though their neighbours, who presented no opposition at first, continually tried to prevent them. The Parthians expanded to such an extent that they not only gained possession of the vast level plains, but also of steep hills and mountain heights. So conditions there are such that an excess of heat or cold prevails in most parts of the Parthian territories since the snow is troublesome on the higher grounds and the heat in the plains.

[Parthian customs]

(2) The administration of this descent group, after their revolt from the Macedonian power, was in the hands of kings. Next to the royal authority is the order of the people, from which they take generals in war and magistrates in peace. Their language is something between those of the Scythians and Medes, being a compound of both. Their dress was formerly of a fashion peculiar to themselves. After their power had increased, they dressed like Medes, light and full flowing.

[Military customs]

Their military fashion is that of their own country and of Scythia. They have an army that does not consist of free men like other peoples. Rather, their army consists mainly of slaves whose numbers daily increase, because manumission is not allowed and all their offspring, in consequence, are born slaves. These bondmen they bring up as carefully as their own children and they teach them, with great pains, the arts of riding and shooting with the bow. If anyone is wealthy, he furnishes the king with a proportionate number of horsemen for war. Indeed when fifty thousand cavalry encountered [Mark] Antony, as he was making war upon Parthia, only four hundred of them were free men.

They know nothing about engaging with the enemy in hand-to-hand combat or of taking cities by siege. They fight on horseback, either galloping forward or turning their backs. Often, too, they pretend to retreat in order to throw their pursuers off their guard against being wounded by their arrows. The signal for battle among them is given, not by trumpet, but by drum. Nor are they able to fight long. They would be irresistible if their vigour and perseverance were equal to the fury of their onset. In general they retreat before the enemy in the very heat of the engagement. Soon after their retreat, they return to the battle again. For this reason, when you feel most certain that you have conquered them, you have still to meet the greatest danger from them. Their armour and that of their horses is formed with overlapping plates like the feathers of a bird, and this covers both man and horse entirely. They make no use of gold and silver, except for their military equipment.

[Social customs and character of the people]

(3) Each man has several wives for sexual variety. They punish no crime more severely than adultery, and accordingly they not only exclude their women from entertainments, but forbid them from even seeing other men. They eat no meat except what they take in hunting. They ride on horseback on all occasions: they ride horses to war, to feasts, to discharge communal and individual duties, and to travel abroad, meet together, interact, and converse. Indeed the difference between slaves and freemen is that slaves go on foot, but freemen only on horseback. Their general mode of disposing of the dead is consumption by birds or dogs. Finally, they bury the bare bones in the ground. In their superstition (superstitio) and attention to the gods, the principal veneration is paid to rivers. As a descent group they are inherently proud, seditious, untrustworthy, and shameless because they think a certain roughness of behaviour is appropriate for men and gentleness is only appropriate for women. They are always restless, and ready for any commotion, at home or abroad. They are naturally quiet, more ready to act than speak. Consequently they cover both their successes and mistakes in silence. They obey their princes only out of fear rather than out of humility. They are full of sexual desire but frugal in diet. They are not true to their word or any promise they make, except what suits their own interests.

[Parthia under Macedonian rule]

(4) After the death of Alexander the Great, when the kingdoms of the east were divided among his successors, the administration of Parthia was committed to Stasanor, a foreign ally, because none of the Macedonians would lower themselves to accept it. Subsequently, when the Macedonians were divided into parties by civil discord, the Parthians along with the other people of Upper Asia followed Eumenes and, when Eumenes was defeated, went over to Antigonos. After his death they were under the rule of Seleukos Nikator and then under Antiochos and his successors, from whose great-grandson Seleukos they first revolted (during the first Punic war when Lucius Manlius Vulso and Marcus Attilius Regulus were consuls [ca. 256 BCE]). For the Parthians’ first revolt, the dispute between the two brothers, Seleukos and Antiochos, procured them freedom from punishment because when these two sought to take the throne from one another, they neglected to pursue those who revolted.

[Parthian origins story involving Arsakes as the first king of the Parthians and Hyrkanians, ca. 239-215 BCE]

In the same period, Theodotos, governor of the thousand cities of Baktria, revolted, and assumed the title of king [perhaps reigning in the 250s-230s BCE]. All other populations (populi) of the east, influenced by his example, fell away from the Macedonians. One Arsakes (or: Arsaces), a man of uncertain origin but whose bravery was undisputed, happened to arise at this time. Being accustomed to living by banditry (latrocinia) and robbery, hearing a report that Seleukos [II Kallinikos, reigning 246-225 BCE] was overcome by the Gauls [i.e. Galatians] in Asia, and being consequently freed from dread of that prince, Arsakes invaded Parthia with a band of marauders, overthrew Andragoras his lieutenant, and, after putting him to death, took over command of the country [reigned 238-215 BCE]. Not long after he made himself master of Hyrkania as well. So, invested with authority over two peoples [Parthians and Hyrkanians], raised a large army. He did this due to fear of Seleukos and Theodotos, king of the Baktrians. But being soon relieved of his fears by the death of Theodotos, he made peace and an alliance with his son, who was also named Theodotos. Not long after, Arsakes engaged with king Seleukos, who came to take vengeance on the revolters, and Arsakes won the battle. The Parthians observe the day on which it was gained with great solemnity, as the date of the commencement of their freedom.

(5) Seleukos being then recalled into Asia by new disturbances, and respite being thus given to Arsakes, Arsakes settled the Parthian government, levied soldiers, built fortresses, and strengthened his towns. He founded a city called Dara on mount Zapaortenon. The situation of this site is such that no place can be more secure or more pleasant because it is so encircled with steep rocks that the strength of its position needs no defenders. The soil in the area is so fertile that it is stored with its own produce. Such too is the plenty of springs and wood that it is amply supplied with streams of water and abounds with all the pleasures of hunting.

Thus Arsakes, having at once acquired and established a kingdom, and having become no less memorable among the Parthians than Cyrus among the Persians, Alexander among the Macedonians, or Romulus among the Romans, died at a mature old age. The Parthians paid honour to his memory by calling all their kings by the name of “Arsakes” from then on. His son and successor on the throne was also named Arsakes [died ca. 190 BCE]. He fought with the greatest bravery against Antiochos, the son of Seleukos, who was at the head of a hundred thousand foot and twenty thousand horse, and was at last taken into alliance with him.

The third king of the Parthians was Priapatios [reigning ca. 190-176 BCE], but he was also called Arsakes because they distinguished all their kings by that name as I said, just as the Romans use the titles of “Caesar” and “Augustus.” He, after reigning fifteen years, died, leaving two sons, Mithridates and Phrahates. The elder Phrahates was, according to the custom of the descent group, heir to the crown and subdued the Mardians, a strong people, by military might but died not long after, leaving several sons.

[Relations between Parthians and Baktrians under Mithridates]

He set these sons aside and left the throne to his brother Mithridates [reigning ca. 170-139 BCE], a man of extraordinary ability. He thought that more was due to the name of king than to that of father and that he should put the interests of his country ahead of those of his children. (6) Almost at the same time that Mithridates ascended the throne among the Parthians, Eukratides (or: Eucratides) began to reign among the Baktrians [ca. 171-155 BCE]. Both of them were great men. But the fortune of the Parthians, being the more successful, raised the Parthians to the highest degree of power under prince Mithridates. Harassed by various wars, the Baktrians lost not only their dominions but also their freedom. After suffering from contentions with the Sogdians, the Drangians, and the Indians, they were at last overcome, as if exhausted, by the weaker Parthians.

Eukratides, however, carried on several wars with great spirit even though his strength was reduced by his losses in them. Nonetheless, when he was besieged by Demetrios king of the Indians with a garrison of only three hundred soldiers, he repulsed, by continual attacks, a force of sixty thousand enemies. Having accordingly escaped, after a siege of five months, he reduced India under his power. But as he was returning from the country, he was killed on his march by his son, with whom he had shared his throne. His son was so far from concealing the murder, that – as if he had killed an enemy, and not his father – he drove his chariot through his blood, and ordered his body to be cast out unburied.

[Relations between Parthians and Medes]

During the course of these proceedings among the Baktrians, a war arose between the Parthians and Medes, and after fortune on each side had been some time fluctuating, victory  finally fell to the Parthians. When Mithridates, enforced with this addition to his power, appointed Bakasis over Media, while he himself marched into Hyrkania. On his return from there, he went to war with the king of the Elymaians. After he conquered that king, he added this descent group also to his dominions. He extended the Parthian empire, by reducing many other tribes under his yoke, from mount Kaukasos (Caucasus) to the river Euphrates. Being then taken ill, he died in an honourable old age, and not inferior in merit to his great-grandfather Arsakes.

Book 42

[Relations between Parthians and Scythians under Phrahates]

(1) After the death of Mithridates, king of the Parthians, Phrahates [II, ca. 139-129 BCE] his son was made king. Phrahates proceeded to make war on Syria in revenge for Antiochos’ attempts to take Parthian territories. Phrahates was recalled to defend his country by hostilities on the part of the Scythians. The Scythians were induced by money to assist the Parthians against Antiochos, king of Syria. But, because they only arrived after the war was ended, the Scythians were disappointed by the expected remuneration and they were reproached for having helped too late. Discontented with having made such a long march for nothing, the Scythians demanded some recompence for their trouble or for another enemy to attack. As they were offended by the arrogant response which they received, they began to ravage the country of the Parthians. As a result, Phrahates marched against them and left a certain Himeros, who had gained his love in the bloom of youth, to take care of his kingdom. But Himeros, unmindful both of his past life and of the duty with which he was entrusted, miserably harassed the people of Babylon and many other cities with tyrannical cruelties. Phrahates himself, meanwhile, took with him to the war a group of Greeks. These Greeks had been made prisoners in the war against Antiochos. Phrahates had treated them with great pride and severity, not reflecting that captivity had not lessened their hostile feelings and that the indignity of the outrages which they had suffered must have exasperated them. So as soon as they saw the Persians giving ground, the Greeks went over to the enemy and executed that revenge for their captivity, which they had long desired, by a bloody massacre of the Parthian army and of king Phrahates himself.

(2) In his place Artabanus, his uncle, was made king [reigning ca. 129-124 BCE]. The Scythians, content with their victory, and with having laid waste Parthia, returned home. Artabanus, making war upon the Thogarians, received a wound in the arm, of which he immediately died. He was succeeded by his son Mithridates [II, ca. 124-88 BCE], to whom his achievements procured the surname of “Great.” Being fired with a desire to emulate the merit of his ancestors, he was enabled by the vast powers of his mind to surpass their renown. He carried on many wars against his neighbours with great bravery and added many provinces to the Parthian kingdom. He also fought successfully against the Scythians several times and avenged the injuries received from them by his ancestors. At last he turned his arms against Ortoadistes, king of Armenia.

[Digression on origins of the Armenians]

[Jason, the Kolchians and surrounding peoples, as a lead in to origins of Armenians]

But since we here make a transition to Armenia, we must look a little farther back into its origin, because it would not be right to pass over such a great kingdom in silence. Armenian territory, next to that of Parthia, is of greater extent than any other kingdom. Armenia, from Kappadocia (Cappadocia) to the Caspian sea, stretches over a space of 1,100 miles, and is 700 miles wide. It was founded by Armenios, the companion of Jason of Thessaly. King Pelias wanted to cause Jason’s death because he feared Jason’s extraordinary abilities which were dangerous to his throne. So king Pelias despatched Jason on a prescribed expedition to Kolchis in order to bring home the fleece of the ram so celebrated throughout the world. Pelias was hoping that the man would lose his life either in the perils of so long a voyage or in war with remote barbarians. But Jason, having spread abroad the report of so glorious an enterprise, at which the chief of the youth from almost all the world came flocking to him, collected a band of heroes who were called Argonauts. Having brought his troop back safe, and being again driven from Thesssaly by the sons of Pelias, he set out on a second voyage for Kolchis. On this voyage he was accompanied by a numerous train of followers (who, at the fame of his courage, came daily from all parts to join him), by his wife Medea (whom, having previously divorced her, he had now received again from compassion for her exile), and by his step-son Medos. Medea had Medos by Aigeus, king of the Athenians, and Jason re-established his father-in-law Aietes who had been driven from his throne in Kolchos.

(3) Jason then carried on great wars with the neighbouring peoples. Among the cities which he took, he added part to the kingdom of his father-in-law, to make amends for the injury that he had done him in his former expedition, in which he had carried off his daughter Medea and put to death his son Aigialeus. The other part Jason assigned to the people that he had brought with him. Jason is said to have been the first of humankind, after Hercules and Bacchus (whom tradition declares to have been kings of the east), that subdued that quarter of the world. Over some of these peoples he appointed Rekas and Amphistratos, the charioteers of Castor and Pollux, to be their rulers. With the Albanians he formed an alliance, a people who are said to have followed Hercules from the Alban mountain in Italy. This happened when, after having killed Geryon, Hercules was driving his herds through Italy. Remembering their Italian descent, this people saluted the soldiers of Pompey in the Mithridatic war as their brothers. Hence almost the whole east appointed divine honours and erected temples to Jason, as their founder. Temples which Parmenio, one of the generals of Alexander the Great, caused many years after to be pulled down so that no name might be more venerated in the east than that of Alexander.

[Origins of the Medes]

After the death of Jason, Medos, emulous of his virtues, built a city named Medea in honour of his mother, and established the kingdom of the Medes after his own name, under whose dominion the empire of the east afterwards fell. On the Albanians border the Amazons, whose queen Thalestris, as many authors relate, sought the couch of Alexander.

[Origins of the Armenians]

Armenios, too, was himself a Thessalian, and one of the captains of Jason. Upon re-assembling a body of men after the death of Jason, they were wandering around and founded Armenia. The river Tigris issues from the mountains of Armenia, at first with a very small stream. After some distance, it runs underground for twenty five miles before rising up again as a great river in the province of Sophene. This is the way it enters into the marshes of the Euphrates.

[Relations between Parthians and Romans]

(4) Mithridates king of the Parthians, after his war with Armenia, was banished from his kingdom for his cruelty by the Parthian senate. His brother Orodes, who took possession of the vacant throne, besieged Babylon (from which Mithridates had fled) for some time and he reduced the people to surrender by means of famine. Mithridates, from confidence in his relationship to Orodes, voluntarily put himself into his hands. But Orodes, contemplating him rather as an enemy than a brother, ordered him to be put to death before his face. After this, he carried on a war with the Romans and overthrew their general Crassus together with his son and all the Roman army. His son Pacorus, who was sent to pursue what remained of the Roman forces, after achieving great actions in Syria, incurred some jealousy on the part of his father, and was recalled into Parthia. During his absence the Parthian army left in Syria was cut off, with all its commanders, by Cassius the quaestor of Crassus.

Not long after these occurrences the civil war among the Romans, between Caesar and Pompey, broke out [ca. 49 BCE]. . . [detailed discussion of various turns involving Parthians during the Roman civil war follow].

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