Parthians: Arrian on their Scythian origins (second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Parthians: Arrian on their Scythian origins (second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified December 24, 2022, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=11317.

Ancient authors: Arrian of Nikomedia, Parthian Matters (Parthika), as cited by Photios, Collection of Books (Bibliotheke), codex 58 (link to full Freese translation).

Comments: Beyond his extensive account of Alexander’s expeditions (on which see the discussion of India at this link), Arrian of Nikomedia (second century CE) wrote several other works that are mentioned by Photios in his ninth century notebook on the books he read. Among the works with an ethnographic interest was one on Parthian Matters (Parthika). Photios clarifies that Arrian argued that the Parthians were Scythians by descent, and that he knew of tales regarding Scythian prominence as early as the legendary Egyptian pharaoh Senswosret (i.e. in the early second millenium BCE). The theme of competitive conquest – which we find in many other places with Egyptians, Assyrians, Scythians, Persians, Macedonians, and others as contestants – lurks in the background of Photios’ summary of Arrian. On the age-old competition between Scythians and Egyptians, see also Trogus’ account (link). In Arrian, the Scythians are pictured as one of the most prominent conquering powers ever, in other words, and their Parthian descendents follow suit in offering even the powerful Romans a challenge.

Source of the translation: J.H. Freese, The Library of Photius: Volume 1 (London: SPCK, 1920), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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58 Read Arrian’s Parthian Matters (Parthika) in seventeen books. He has also written the best account of the campaigns of Alexander of Macedon. Another work of his is Bithynian Matters (Bithynika), relating the affairs of his native country. He also wrote on Alanian Matters (Alanika). In Parthian Matters he gives an account of the wars between Parthia and Rome during the reign of Trajan [98-117 CE]. He considers the Parthians to have been a Scythian descent group (genos) which had long been under the yoke of Macedonia and revolted at the time of the Persian rebellion, for the following reason:

Arsakes [I, reigning 247-217 BCE] and Tiridates were two brothers, descendants of Arsakes son of Phriapetes. These two brothers, with five accomplices, slew Pherekles, who had been appointed satrap of Parthia by Antiochos [II, reigning 261-246 BCE] Theos, to avenge an insult offered to one of them. They drove out the Macedonians, set up a government of their own, and became so powerful that they were a match for the Romans in war, and sometimes even were victorious over them. Arrian further relates that during the reign of Sesostris [Greek adaptation of Senwosret, 1900s BCE, combined with other pharaohs], king of Egypt, and landysos, king of Scythia, the Parthians left their own country, Scythia, to the land which they now inhabit. The emperor Trajan reduced them to submission but left them free under a treaty, and appointed a king over them.

[Photios’ assessment of the author]

This Arrian, called the “young Xenophon,” a philosopher and one of the pupils of Epiktetos, flourished during the reigns of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Antoninus. Owing to his remarkable learning he was entrusted with various offices of state, and was finally promoted to the consulship. He was also the author of other works: the Lectures of Epiktetos his master, with eight books of which we are acquainted, and the Conversations of Epiktetos in twelve books. His style is dry, and he is a genuine imitator of Xenophon. It is said that he was also the author of other works, but they have not come into my hands. Certainly he does not lack rhetorical skill and power.

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