Parthians, Medes, and Babylonians: Pliny the Elder (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Parthians, Medes, and Babylonians: Pliny the Elder (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified July 1, 2023,

Ancient author: Pliny the Elder (first century CE), Natural History, parts of 6.112-134 (link).

Comments: Continuing his survey of Asia and after dealing with peoples on the Persian Gulf, Pliny the Elder moves further north to the Parthians and then down between the two rivers (Euphrates and Tigris). Although his references to peoples in this area are once again piecemeal, there are significant passages that are worthy of inclusion here. He also makes reference to both Magian experts among Medes (remember that Greek and Roman authors often refer to Persians as “Medes” or confuse the two) and Chaldeans among Babylonians. Furthermore, there are references to supposed “bandit” peoples such as the Ouxians and “savages” such as the Mizaians in the area of the Tigris near the Persian Gulf.

Source of the translation: H. Rackham, W.H.S. Jones, and D.E. Eichholz, Pliny: Natural History, 10 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1938-1962), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944, Jones passed away in 1963, copyright not renewed as well), adapted by Harland.



We will now give a brief account of the Parthian empire. The Parthians possess in all eighteen kingdoms, such being the divisions of their provinces on the coasts of two seas, as we have stated, the Red sea [the Erythraian sea more broadly, including the Arabian Sea, rather than our Red Sea] on the south and the Hyrkanian sea [Caspian Sea] on the north. Of these provinces the eleven designated the Upper Kingdoms begin at the frontiers of Armenia and the shores of the Caspian sea, and extend to the Scythians, with whom the Parthiars live on terms of equality. The remaining seven kingdoms are called the Lower Kingdoms. So far as the Parthians are concerned, there has always been a country named “Parthyaia” at the foot of the mountain range [i.e. modern Kopet mountain range], already mentioned more than once, which forms the boundary of all these peoples [in what is now northeastern Iran].

To the east of Parthyaia are the Arians, to the south Karmania and the Arianians, to the west the Pratitians, a Median people, and to the north the Hyrkanians. Parthia is surrounded on all sides by desert. The more remote Parthians are called nomads. Short of the desert on the west side are the Parthian cities mentioned above, Issatis and Kalliope; north-east is Pyropon, south-east Maria, and in the middle Hekatompylos, Arsake, and the fine district of Parthyene, Nisiaia, containing the city named Alexandropolis after its founder.


At this point it is necessary also to indicate the geographical position of the Medes, and to trace the formation of the country round to the Persian sea, in order that the rest of the account that follows may be more easily understood. Media lies crosswise on the west side, meeting Parthia at an angle, and so shutting off both groups of Parthian kingdoms. Consequently it has the Caspian and Parthian people on its east side, Sittakene, Susiana and Persis on the south, Adiabene on the west, and Armenia on the north. The Persians have always lived on the shore of the Red sea [i.e. the modern Persian Gulf], which is the reason why it is called the Persian gulf.


The coastal region there is called Cyropolis, but the Greek name of the place where it runs up towards the Medes is the “Great Staircase,” from a steep gorge ascending the mountain by stages, with a narrow entrance, leading to the former capital of the kingdom, Persepolis, which was destroyed by Alexander. Right on the frontier the region also possesses the city of Laodikeia, founded by Antiochos. To the east of Laodikeia is the fortress of Phrasargis, occupied by the Magians (Magi), which contains the tomb of Cyrus. Another place belonging to the Magians is the town of Ekbatana which king Darius transferred to the mountains. Between the Parthians and the Arianians projects the territory of the Paraitakenians. The Lower Kingdoms are enclosed by these peoples and by the Euphrates. Regarding the remaining kingdoms, we will speak about them after describing Mesopotamia, with the exception of the point of that country and the Arabian peoples mentioned in the preceding volume. . . [omitted discussion of Arabians, on which go to this link (coming soon)].

[Babylonians and Chaldeans]

Babylon, which is the capital of the Chaldean peoples, long held an outstanding celebrity among the cities in the whole of the world, and in consequence of this the remaining part of Mesopotamia and Assyria has received the name of “Babylonia.” It has two walls with a circuit of sixty miles, each wall being two hundred feet high and fifty feet wide (the Assyrian foot measures three inches more than ours). The Euphrates flows through the city, with marvellous embankments on either side. The temple of Jupiter Belos [i.e. Zeus Belos in Greek terms, Lord Marduk in Babylonian terms] in Babylon is still standing. Belos was the discoverer of the study of the stars. However, in every other respect the place has gone back to a desert, having been drained of its population by the proximity of Seleukeia, founded for that purpose by Nikator not quite ninety miles away, at the point where the canalised Euphrates joins the Tigris.

However, Seleukeia is still described as being in the territory of Babylon, although at the present day it is a free and independent city and retains the Macedoman manners. It is said that the population of the city numbers six hundred thousand, that the plan of the walls resembles the shape of an eagle spreading its wings, and that its territory is the most fertile in the whole of the east.

For the purpose of drawing away the population of Seleukeia in its turn, the Parthians founded Ktesiphon, which is about three miles from Seleukeia in the Chalonitis district, and is now the capital of the kingdoms of Parthia. And after it was found that the intended purpose was not being achieved, another town was recently founded in the neighbourhood by king Vologesos, named Vologesokerta. There are in addition the following towns in Mesopotamia: Hippareni [Nippur; now Nufar, Iraq] is also a school of Chaldean learning like Babylon. It is situated on a tributary of the river Narraga, from which the city-state takes its name (the walls of Hippareni were demolished by the Persians). Orcheni, a third seat of Chaldaean learning, is situated in the same neighbourhood towards the south. Next there are Notitae, Orothophanitae and Gnesiochartae. . . [omitted discussion of the measurements of Euphrates].

Where the Euphrates ceases to afford protection by its channel, as it does when its course approaches the boundary of Charax [Spasinou], it immediately begins to be infested by the Attalians, an Arabian people consisting of brigands (latrones), beyond whom are the Skenitians. But the winding course of the Euphrates is occupied by the nomads of Arabia right on to the desert of Syria, where, as we have stated, the river makes a bend to the south, quitting the uninhabited districts of Palmyra. . . [omitted measurements].

[Peoples on the Tigris river]

Moreover there is a town belonging to Mesopotamia on the bank of the Tigris near its confluence with the Euphrates, the name of which is Digba. . . [omitted lengthy discussion of the Tigris, its sources, measurements, and towns on it].

Adjoining the Susianians on the east are the bandit Ouxians and the forty independent and savage peoples of the Mizaians. Above these and subject to the Parthians are the Mardians and Saitians stretching above Elymais [Elam], which we described as adjacent to Persis on the coast. . . [omitted discussion of measurements as well as discussion of Susa and Elymais / Elam, since no peoples are discussed].

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