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A Passion for Parthia

A meeting with Mr. Farhad Assar, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Head of a bronze statue of a Parthian prince, found at Shami, Khuzistan (SW Iran). Archaeological Museum of Tehran (Iran). Photo Marco Prins.
Head of a bronze statue of a
Parthian prince, found at
Shami, Khuzestan.
(Archaeological Museum,
Meeting someone new is nice. It is even nicer to meet someone you have, until then, only known from discussions on the world wide web. It's like the excitement you experienced on the eve of your birthday when you were a child. Something nice is going to happen, and the anticipation increases the joy. This is how I felt when I travelled to Oxford to meet Mr. Farhad Assar.

But this is England, and I'm from the Continent. Which means that my cell phone doesn't work. To make matters worse, the bell at the gate of Mr. Assar's home is not working as I had expected. So there I stand, on a hazy day at the beginning of spring, in front of a house and unable to announce my arrival.

I know little about the Iranian scholar. According to the member profile of the internet discussion forum he maintains, he is a retired chemical engineer in his mid-fifties and "an avid collector of Parthian coins" who "plays a couple of traditional Iranian musical instruments". I also know that he currently is Sir Harold Bailey Research Associate at St Catherine's College in Oxford. This means that for one year, he can work on his two-volume book on the political and numismatic history of ancient Parthia.

I would never have learned more about him, and would still be standing at the gate, if my friend Annelies, who understands British door bells better than I ever will, had not arrived. Within a minute, the man who had until then only existed virtually, incarnates in the real world. We shake hands, and Farhad accompanies us to his apartment. The small living room is decorated with a large map of Iran, and in the study I notice something that looks like at least half a cubic meter of that indispensable tool for classical scholars, the little green and red books of the Loeb series of translations.

A forgotten kingdom

We drink a cup of coffee and he tells us about his studies. In the history of Iran, the Parthian age is something of an ignored subject. A great number of people have studied the splendour of the Achaemenid age and many scholars have published books on the overthrow of this world empire by Alexander the Great, who died in 323 BCE. After this, it becomes problematic. Alexander's successors, the Seleucid kings, have received some attention in the West, but not in Iran, where the "post-Achaemenid age" was and is sometimes regarded as a precedent of modern Western imperialism. History starts again with the expansion of Iranian power during the Sasanian kings, who started to rule after 224 CE.

So that leaves about five centuries of Iranian history unexplored: the invasion by Parnian nomads and their take-over of the province known as Parthia, the gradual demise of the Seleucid empire, the Parthian conquest of Babylonia in 141 BCE, the raids into the Punjab (where Parthian dynasties were founded), the trade contacts with China, the wars against the Roman empire, the dynastic conflicts in the Arsacid royal family, the religious developments within Zoroastrianism, and the overthrow by the Sasanians - all of this is more or less ignored. Western scholars are not interested in an Iranian empire, and Iranians are not interested in what is assumed to be a period of decline between the Achaemenid and Sasanian periods.

Perhaps ideas about the nature of the state play a role as well. Unlike modern states, the Parthian empire was loosely organized, and scholars have seen this as a return to tribalism after the hierarchical Achaemenid empire. The handbook from which Annelies and I learned ancient history states that the Parthians had "not enough organizational skills to create an administrative machinery", and adds that as a consequence, the Parthian empire collapsed into many vassal kingdoms and quasi-autonomous city-states. Indeed, from a modern western perspective, the Parthian state was not very strong or centralized, but in our postmodern age, other theories of the state have been proposed. Parthia was something of a network state: flexible, cheap, and capable of coping with great adversities. The main capital of the empire, Ctesiphon, was captured by Roman armies in 116, 165, and 198, and at the same time, the Arsacid dynasty was divided - a centralized state would have fallen, but the Parthian empire survived. One can reasonably argue that the Arsacid kings "had great organizational skills and knew better than to create a vulnerable administrative machinery".

Coins, coins, coins

The decentralized unity of the Parthian world has a delightful consequence: the great variety of coins. And if there is someone who can tell a lot about Iranian numismatics, it is our host, who owns one of the largest collections of Parthian coins in the world. With a proud smile he shows us three large books that contain hundreds and hundreds of silver coins. Farhad explains all kinds of things. He mentions the mints of the Parthian empire, which were situated in Seleucia and Hecatompylos, in provincial residences like Susa, Rhagae, and Alexandria in Aria, in the capitals of vassal kingdoms like Edessa, Charax, and Arbela, and quasi-autonomous cities like Ecbatana. The diversity of Parthian coinage is immense.

Farhad also tells about the way to recognize the kings (they are shown with different crowns) and mentions how it is possible to get an idea about the volume of an issue. The dies tended to wear out and were replaced, which means that the number of dies of a particular coin is an indication of the number of coins produced. This offers important information about the volume of precious metal in the Parthian economy. Our host also tells us about mules (coins that have an obverse and reverse from different kings) and about a travelling mint that accompanied the king when he went on campaign. His enthusiasm is contagious and Annelies and I understand how Farhad is a man driven by a passion that is greater than himself.

Annelies asks him how he started to collect coins, and why he choose Parthia as a specialism, and he tells that as a boy -this must have been in the late 1950's- he visited Mashad, where he saw a big pile of dirty coins that were sold per kilo to silversmiths. When Farhad showed an interest, his father also became interested and bought several coins for his son. Back in Shiraz, they read something about them and discovered what they really were. Ever since, Farhad has had an interest in Parthian numismatics. He's happy to be a friend of David Sellwood, the author of An Introduction to the Coinage of Parthia (1980), which is the handbook on the subject.

We continue to talk about dies and designers, effigies and edges, alloys and assays, until it's time for lunch. Around the corner of Farhad's home is a simple snack bar owned by another Iranian. Farhad orders some kebab and while he and his compatriot enjoy the sugarlike sweetness of  Farsi, Annelies and I look at the way in which the vendor uses a traditional oven to bake bread. We're in Oxford, but it could as well have been a small village in Iran.

Slow progress

Back home, Farhad continues to tell about his research. When a historian starts to investigate a subject, he first tries to get acquainted with the chronological framework. For many nations and periods, this is easy. There is little uncertainty about, for example, the succession and dating of Roman emperors. Iranologists studying Parthia are less fortunate: no Parthian historical accounts survive, and although classical sources sometimes refer to Parthian affairs, these references are fragmentary. It is difficult to write a full-length account of the rise, development, and fall of the Arsacid dynasty.

If you have no historical narratives, coins are the alternative. But although we know the names of the kings and have their coins, it is often difficult to establish the beginning, length, and end of their reign. Things are not made easier by the fact that all Parthian kings called themselves Arsaces: not uncommon (all contemporary kings of Egypt were called Ptolemy) but not very helpful either. It is difficult to make progress. A beginning student will inevitably read the chapter "The Political History of Iran Under the Arsacids" in the 1983 edition of the Cambridge History of Iran, but Farhad tells us that the author, A.D.H. Bivar, once confided that this chapter was nothing but a slightly updated version of Neilson Debevoise's Political History of Parthia, a book that appeared in 1938.

The Sellwood catalog is an important improvement, and it is Farhad's aim to propose a more or less definitive chronology and family tree of the Arsacid dynasty. One of the aspects is reconstructing the Parthian calendar, which resembles the Babylonian one, but has some peculiarities that are only now becoming understood. A very proud Farhad shows us a coin that proves that the month named Gorpaios used to be the intercalary moon. It was purported to have been among some items found during a bombing raid in 1990/1 after the liberation of Kuwait, and Annelies, Farhad, and I share the same mixed feeling of horror about the war and excitement about the discovery, which solves a minor chronological puzzle.

If coins do not solve the problems, ancient letters and administrative documents from Babylonia can help. Farhad is currently studying several potsherds ("ostraca") that contain royal names and hitherto unknown family relations. We also discuss a project of our mutual friend Bert van der Spek, the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period.

Checking the sources

Farhad stresses the importance of checking the sources again and again. An example is the Uruk King List, a cuneiform tablet that used to be in the recently looted National Museum of Baghdad. It mentions the number of regnal years of several kings, and the official publication tells that Seleucus II Callinicus, the Seleucid ruler who had to witness the loss of Parthia to the Parni, ruled for twenty years. This neatly confirms what is known from classical sources, and Farhad was surprised to find evidence for a twenty-first regnal year. Checking photos of the cuneiform document (the tablet itself is now inaccessible), he found out that there was nothing to be read at all, and that the "twenty years" mentioned in the official publication were nothing but a conjecture by the editor, based on the classical sources that the Uruk King List was supposed to confirm.

Not twenty, but twenty-one years: this may seem like an unimportant triviality. To some extent it is. But this is how the study of history starts for any given civilization, and if the historians of Greece and Rome can move on to less trivial questions, it is because the chronological framework has already been established by the great antiquarianists of the Renaissance. (In fact, ancient historians studying Rome no longer need to understand the chronological problems of the Roman republic. On my way to Oxford, I was reading a Dutch book in which a well-known puzzle was given three different solutions in exactly seven lines.)

When Farhad tells that he hopes to start preparing the first volume of his book this summer and adds that it will contain many recently discovered sources, I suddenly remember that -talking about books- I still have something else to do. Oxford boasts one
of the world's best bookshops, Blackwell's, and I am desperately looking for a title. Besides, I also have to pay a very brief visit to the Ashmolean Museum, where I must take one photo. I must leave, and I must hurry.

Fortunately, Farhad understands, and he brings us to the gate. "This is no way of
saying goodbye," I say, and I add that I am sure that we will meet again. It sounds a lot like I feel: silly. Fortunately, it is not an empty promise, because I will certainly return to Oxford - if only because I was too late for the Ashmolean.

Late in the afternoon, I say goodbye to Annelies and catch a coach back to London. Riding along the M40, it occurs to me how strange it is that the five centuries of history of an entire nation are almost completely forgotten, and that the memory is kept alive almost solely by the efforts of one kind man in Oxford.

Thanks... Nathan Ross for checking my English.
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2006
Revision: 10 June 2006
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