Parthians (250 BC - 225 AD)
(DBA II/37)

By Tom Ryan

In 247 BCE, Arsaces, a leader of the Aparni, a nomadic people who lived along the Ochus (Tejend or lower Oxus) River, revolted against the Seleucid Empire and established the Parthian Empire. Tiridates succeeded his brother Arsaces as regent and consolidated the Parthian power in the east. Arsaces' son Artabanus (aka Arsaces II), was forced to submit to Seleucid overlordship. but was able to expand Parthian domains into the Iranian Plateau and Tigris/Euphrates River Valley. The Parthians were able to breakaway again in 189 BCE after the Roman defeat of Antiochus III in 189 BCE.

Under Mithradates I, Parthia expanded westward into Mesopotamia and eastward in Bactria.  Mithradates actively promoted Hellenism, casting coinage with the title "philhellene" (friend of the Greeks).  His son and successor, Phraates II was killed in a battle again the Sakas.  Artabanus II emerged as the new king, but lost Babylonia to the Characene before also falling in battle with the Sakas.

His son Mithridates II ascended to the throne in 124 BC. He expanded the empire westward into present day Armenia and Syria, northward as far as Merv, and eastward, keeping the Sakas under control. Having consolidated the empire, Mithridates II assumed the Achaemenid title "king of kings".

Trouble came in 96 BC, when Parthia confronted Rome. In 92 BC, Mithridates II was able to conclude the first treaty between Parthia and Rome establishing the Euphrates as a mutual boundary. Upon his death, external relations remained tense, while rival dynastic claimants began to squabble over major territories. The Suren, a noble Parthian family, reconquered the eastern provinces from the Sakae, and subsequently conquered various Bactrian and Indian territories. In the first century AD Gondophares declared himself king and the Indo-Parthian kingdom survived in defiance of the empire until conquered by the Kushans in 75 AD.

The Emperor Orodes II succeeded Mithridates II. During his reign, problems between the Roman and Parthian Empires reached the point of war. In 54 BC, Crassus led an Roman army eastward to conquer Parthian Mesopotamia, but in 53 BC, his army was destroyed and he was killed at Carrhae.

In 36 BC, Phraates IV, son of Orodes II, inherited the empire. During his reign he defeated the Roman forces in Armenia and Media Atropatene, then under Mark Antony's rule. The Romans were unable to claim anything beyond the Euphrates River. A civil war broke out in 35 AD, in which both sides used Sarmatian allies.

The decline of the Parthian Empire was due to a combination of factors. Rome invaded and sacked the empire, while in the east, the rise of the Kushan dynasty came, and in the west, the province of Persia gradually gained more power. In AD 222, Ardashir, the ruler of Persia, successfully revolted against Artabanus V. This ended the Parthian rule over Persia and ushered in the reign of the Sassanians.

Enemies and Allies

The Parthian's enemies list is extensive and includes the Saka (I/43b), Classical Indians (II/3), Seleucids (II/19cd), Arabo-Arameans (II/22abcdf), Pre-Islamic Nomadic Arabs (23a), Sarmatians (II/24 & 26), Armenians and Gordyene (II/28abd), Graeco-Bactrians (II/36a), themselves (II/37), Commagene (II/44), Kushan (II/46ab), Mithridatic (II/48), Romans (II/49, II/56, II/64b), Judeans (II/51), Alans (II/58), and Sassanians (II/69).

Parthia can boasts an extensive list of potential Big Battle allies, including the Skythians, Arabo-Arameans (II/22ce), Nomadic Arabs (II/23a), Sarmatians (II/26), Armenians (II/28b) and Commagene (II/44). Missing from the list (despite being allowed in DBM) are Seleucids (II/19d)

Army Composition

1x 4Kn (Gen) Parthian King/Prince with Retainers
1x 4Kn Parthian Nobles (Cataphracts)
2x 4Kn or 2Lh or 2Ps Parthian Cataphracts, Horse Archers or city dwellers (w/javelins, bows and/or slings)
1x 4Kn or 2Lh or 3Ax Parthian Cataphracts or Horse Archers. The Auxilia option represents Bactrian Greek civic militia, Elymaian theureophoroi (147-205 AD only) or mountain tribesmen.
7 x 2LH Parthian horse archers,

Parthian Cataphracts represent fully armoured nobles mounted on heavy, fully armoured horses, armed with lance and possibly bow. Their thunderous charge, boot to boot, provided the main offensive arm of a Parthian army.

Parthian horse archers were minor nobles and slave soldiers who were mounted on unarmored horses and armed primarily with bow. They were used to skirmish and to harass enemy in preparation for the cataphract charge. Their tactic of feigning retreat while shooting behind at pursuing enemies coined the phrase "Parthian shot."

Missing from the DBA list are the cataphract camels used by Parthians after 216 AD and the Indian levies and elephants found in the armies of the Suren Indo-Parthian.

Tactics

With aggression of 2, the Parthians must be prepared to fight on unfriendly terrain. Home turf is steppe until 129 BCE, thereafter arable. An open table caters to Parthian mobility, but carefully placed terrain can help the Parthians anchor a flank, force an opponent to break formation, and/or delay an enemy contingent that is threatening to the Parthian horse.

Historical tactics were typically quite simple. Horse archers would harass enemy formations with mounted archery; riding close enough to let loose their arrows and then retreating to resupply with arrows or when charged, sometimes changing to fresh horses. When the enemy was sufficiently disordered or weakened the cataphracts would initiate a thunderous charge of fully armoured men riding similarly armoured horses to smash through and ride down the unfortunate enemy. Parthian defeat often came when the ratio of cataphracts to horse archers was too high or when the charge came before the enemy was sufficiently disordered.

On the wargames table similar tactics should work well, with the LH disrupting the enemy line or enveloping flanks. A Parthian army will find itself disadvantaged in rough terrain, in which case the prudent general will consider taking the Ps or Ax option.

Against enemies with Knight-killers, a strategy of delaying the enemy while a group of LH swarms the enemy camp may be a consideration.

Dan Hazelwood on Parthian Tactics: The great challenge to the Parthian is to not permit your opponent to anchor their line on edges or bad going. The light horse really wants to find that flank. But versus Blades, the Parthian Light Horse can close straight-in. Although at a +2 versus +3 close combat disadvantage, the Light Horse can't die and should be able to run back into the line before the Blades achieve any great gains.

While strong Spear and Pike armies can have high numbers they really need to double up to feel safe. Especially the Pike. So that usually opens up flank opportunities for the Light Horse.

Now Bow does present a difficult challenge to the Parthians. The risks are greater. The question is can the Parthians find the weak points away from the Bow.

The real challenges to the Parthians are cluttered battlefields with bad going and remembering that the Cataphracts trundle into action very slowly. The Cataphracts are able to redeploy the way cavalry or light horse can. So where the Cataphracts start is usually where they are going in. The other annoying thing is if you have to pick your Army make-up before seeing the terrain. If you face a heavy foot or heavy Psiloi/Auxilia opponent you may want to trade the two Cataphracts for Psiloi option. That takes some of the bulk out of your line for certain.

Camp

Camel trains bearing bundles of arrows is a classic concept. Plutarch reported that Prince Surena (of Carrhae fame) was always accompanied by an escort of 1000 cavalry and a baggage train comprised of 1,000 dromedaries and 200 wagons to carry his personal harem. Camp scenes with Persian-style tents make a stationary subject. BUAs can be represented as walled Persian or Central Asian cities like Ctesiphon, Persepolis, Dara, or Merv. Or if fighting Romans, try Harran.

Miniatures

15mm Parthians are available from Donnington, East Riding Miniatures, Essex, Hall of Ancient Warriors, Old Glory, OutPost Wargames Services and Peter Pig.

Painting Tips

Parthian cataphracts wore iron or bronze armour from head to foot and their horses were covered all around by scale armour of iron, bronze or leather. Horse archers wore brightly coloured clothing with intricate trim. Their pants were decorated with stripes or geometric patterns, but were often covered by plain leather chaps to protect them in combat.

Other Resources

Here are pictures of my DBA Parthian army.

See my review of Essex Parthian and Armenian Cataphracts.

Parthia.Com features the history and numismatics of Parthian Empire.

IranChamber.Com offers this history of the Parthian Army.

The best Osprey reference is Peter Wilcox' Rome's Enemies : Parthians and Sassanid Persians (Men-At-Arms 175).


Suren Indo-Parthian (95 BC - 75 AD)

Left to their own devices during the turmoil of conflict with Rome and the death of Mithrades II in 92 BC, the Suren, a noble Parthian family, reconquered the eastern provinces from the Sakae, and subsequently conquered various Bactrian and Indian territories. In the first century AD Gondophares declared himself king and the Indo-Parthian kingdom survived in defiance of the Parthian empire until conquered by the Kushans in 75 AD. This variant list represents the breakaway kingdom of the Suren family with its Indian subject troops. It is based on the DBM Parthian list.

2 x 4Kn (Gen) Parthian cataphracts
5 x 2LH Parthian horse archers
1x 3Ax Indian Hill Tribe spearmen
1x 2Ps Indian Hill Tribal archers
(1x 4Kn and 2x LH) or (1x 7Hd, 1x 2Lh and 1x El) Parthians or Indian levies, Arachosian/Indian Hill Tribe cavalry, and elephants with Indian crews.

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Last Updated:  27 March 2007.

My thanks to Tom Ryan for the essay, which was originally drafted for DBA 1.1. To update it for DBA 2.0, I added historical content, book recommendations, and adjusted the Suren Indo-Parthian variant list.

Comments, questions or suggested additions
can be sent to Chris Brantley, IamFanaticus@gmail.com.