Notebook, 1993- APPROACHES

[From: Colledge, Malcolm A. R. Parthian Art. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 1977.}

Parthian Art

1 The Parthians
South of the dark forests of northern Russia open vast steppe lands, stretching from eastern Europe to Mongolia. Constantly varying in climate, punctuated by giant mountain chains, these steppes may support settled farming or pasturage, or--particularly towards China--degenerate into desert. North of Tibet a complex series of mountain ranges divides the steppes. Westwards lies the broad area inhabited predominantly by white races since time immemorial; to the east, the home terrain of the mongoloids, although each group interpenetrated the other. Southwards again an immense mountain zone shuts off the steppe lands from warmer climes: dividing Greece, ringing Anatolia, surrounding the great, dusty plateau of Iran as the Zagros, Elburz and other ranges, marching further east as the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan and the Himalayas of India, it severely inhibited the passage of commerce and invasion. Great rivers run down from its heights: the flat, alluvial plains of the lower Tigris and Euphrates hold the Syrian desert at bay, the Oxus and Jaxartes meander through central Asia and into the Aral Sea, while the Indus and Ganges water the Indian north [fig. 1].

Against this varied backcloth the patterns of human survival began to evolve. In western Asia particularly, the hunters and fishers began to settle down into communities practicing some agriculture and stockbreeding. Where rich alluvial soil gave abundant crops, as in Babylonia, large and eventually literate urban communities could develop. Knowledge of mixed farming spread outwards, and during the fourth and third millennia B.C. filtered north to the steppes. Here, however, the pasturing of animals tended to become a specialized activity and to involve the movement of the herdsmen from one feeding area to another. Among these wandering bands there must have been speakers of Indo-European languages, for soon after 2000 B.C. groups of these speakers were beginning to move south and west from their homeland, emerging ultimately as, for example, Celts in Europe, Latins and others in Italy, Greeks in Greece, Hittites in Anatolia, and the Aryan ancestors of the Iranians and Indians. The Indic tribes moved on to their subcontinent, to be followed into Iran during the later second millennium B.C. by Iranians. These gradually settled and [p. 1] became known as the Medes and Persians. Meanwhile those tribes, Iranian and others, that had remained on the steppe had been evolving a significantly new way of life, in which the horse was the prime factor. Having gradually learned to ride for warfare, the tribesmen developed their wandering pastoralism towards 1000 B.C. into organized, mounted nomadism. United, a warlike tribe or confederacy could dominate the steppes, threatening and sometimes overwhelming even their settled neighbours. First the Cimmerians, then the Scythians and their kinsmen the Sarmatians fulfilled this role; clad in caps, tunics, trousers and boots and fighting with bows, swords and axes, they expressed their artistic energies in a striking Animal Style [Phillips: 1965].

Similarly, the deserts of Syria and Arabia had been slowly attracting and forming their own tribal wanderers, the Semitic Aramaeans and Arabs. But their neighbours, who dwelt between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, had been permitted by the phenomenal productivity of their alluvial terrain to evolve a highly complex urban and literate society. Here the Sumerian control of the earlier third millennium B.C. was soon replaced by Semitic domination, in various groupings--Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian. So it certainly signified a changing balance of power that the Cimmerians overran the Anatolian kingdom of Urartu and then the Medes of Iran sacked the Assyrian capital Nineveh in 612 B.C., so ending Assyrian rule; still more significant was it that Cyrus the Persian, having conquered the Medes, entered Babylon late in 539 B.C. The way was opening for Indo-European domination of western Asia. With amazing speed this realm of the Achaemenian Persians was extended, westwards to Egypt and Anatolia, north to central Asia where rebellious walled communities in Chorasmia and Saka nomads alike threatened, and east to the Punjab [cf. p. 152; Olmstead: 1948; Culican: 1965]. Iranian religion began to be more clearly defined: the rulers worshipped Ahura Mazda, their subjects this god and other deities; the Magi constituted an influential priesthood, and followers of the prophet Zarathushtra [Zoroaster] proclaimed the conflict of Good and Evil [Frye: 1962]. As focal point Darius I [522-486 B.C.] [This and subsequent dates refer to duration of reign, not life.] began a huge palace complex on the terrace of Persepolis, but in seeking to create a grand architecture and art the Persian kings encountered one enormous difficulty: a total lack of monumental tradition. Of wandering, pastoral origin, the Persians had as yet developed few artistic interests beyond the applied arts of those on the move--fine weaponry, horse-trappings, leatherwork, woven hangings and blankets, and rugs.

So the new Achaemenid rulers set the talents of western Asia to work, but in a fresh mould. For architectural settings the Persians appropriated the Mesopotamian artificial terraces, mud brick, wall decorations of [p. 2] polychrome glazed tiles and carved stone slabs, and winged demons and human-headed bulls guarding the gates; from their Median predecessors they took and enlarged the great pillared hall [Roaf: 1973]. For statuary they had less use; only a couple of princely [?] heads, and a fine statue of Darius I, from Susa but made in Egypt, survive. Instead, artists were directed more to carving relief, and here again old near eastern tradition was soon transformed. Certainly, the profile convention for figures [except for the occasionally frontal divinity or hero] was retained. But the complex narratives of Egyptian and Assyrian wall reliefs were replaced by a limited, repetitive range: the king enters his palace, gives audience, sits enthroned, is attended by servants or fights a monster; two beasts battle, or endless files of the vanquished bring tribute. This reduced content, and a different positioning, show clearly that relief has been deprived of its old informative purpose and is being used in the applied arts tradition, as decoration. But the most fundamental innovation was stylistic. Whereas under Cyrus relief retained an Assyrian flatness, Darius I boasted how he drafted in sculptors from all over his empire, including Ionian Greeks from western Anatolia; and these helped to introduce formulae and a plastic modelling of figures hitherto unknown in western Asia. So, on the walls of their palaces and the façades of their rock tombs, the Achaemenid rulers could proclaim the message of their proud, centralized monarchy [Frankfort: 1946; Farkas: 1974]. But the reality of that message began to ebb away as the decades passed, and the aristocratic provincial governors, the satraps, became restless. By 336 B.C., with the corpse-strewn accession of Darius III, internal weakness was acute; and the new ruler might well have regarded the military preparations of a growing foreign power with trepidation.

The Greeks, like the Persians, had wandered into their land of adoption from the steppes as one branch of the Indo-European pastoral tribe. Their first, complex Mycenaean culture of petty kingdoms with palaces and accompanying bureaucracies, centered on the mainland, collapsed around 1200-1100 B.C. Subsequently many Greeks crossed to settle in western Asia Minor [Ionia]. Recovery came in the eighth century B.C., when trade with the near east picked up; and eastern ideas helped to stimulate the pot-painters and figurine-makers of the Greek centers. The kings of the period were ousted, except in backward Macedonia to the north, and comparatively democratic city states began to rise, where the trappings of royalty had no place. Instead, artists laboured for gods or private citizens, and from the seventh century learned to work in stones, of which marble was the finest. Their tools for this were iron, and their techniques owed much to Egypt. Old towns grew somewhat haphazardly, but from at least the sixth century B.C. new settlements tended to be laid out on a chequerboard [or Hippodamian] plan with streets crossing at right angles and uniform house plots to facilitate the fair division of space. Temples [p. 3] evolved from a simple mud-brick hall on stone foundations, surrounded sometimes with a verandah held up by wooden posts, into a similar but subtler form in stone. Systems of proportion and decoration, owing much to the preceding wood and mud-brick building, governed the stone temple structures--the Ionic order for the east Greeks, the Doric for their mainland and western cousins. In the later fifth century B.C. a more florid capital of acanthus leaves and volutes, the Corinthian, was invented for internal use with an otherwise Ionic order; already in the fourth it was appearing externally, and was to become enormously popular. Another architectural form, the theatre, held spectators of drama, of relgious origin. Houses were modest, sometimes with columns facing a court; by the late fifth century they might have mosaic floors. An abundant statuary consisted primarily of representations of, or votive offerings to, the deities, and stood mainly in the sanctuaries. Reliefs, too, were mainly religious, enhancing temple pediments and friezes, acting as votive offerings, or marking tombs as gravestones. Thus building forms and artistic purposes differed entirely from those of the autocratic east; and in their figurative arts the Greeks proved nothing less than revolutionary. For they finally forged in the fifth century B.C. their influential Classical style, based on an idealized and dignified naturalism; in relief and painting their mastery of anatomy enabled them to vary the old profile view [Cook: 1972]. The gods for whom these artists so often laboured had scarcely changed for many generations: Zeus was their king, Hera his consort, Apollo an intellectual god of fine arts and music, Artemis a virgin huntress; wine-loving Dionysus represented elemental vitality, Heracles strength and protection, Athena wisdom and Aphrodite sexuality; in the Classical era winged deities became popular--Nike, personification of Victory, and the youthful Eros [Robertson: 1976].

The Greeks, however, paid a heavy price for their comparative freedom. By the mid fourth century they were so weakened and disunited by the constant hostilities between their states that they fell into the hands of Philip II, the dynamic ruler of the northern monarchy of Macedonia. Although Philip's subsequent preparations to attack Persia were cut short when a disgruntled officer assassinated him in 336 B.C., he left behind him a quite extraordinary son, the twenty-year-old Alexander, who proved a pivotal figure in the history of Europe and Asia. Having completed his father's military preparations Alexander led the Greeks into Asia and thrice trounced the armies of Darius III. In March, 330 B.C., he burnt Persepolis, thus symbolizing the end of Achaemenid Persian rule. He then pushed on through Iran to Sogdiana, the Punjab, down the Indus and then back to Susa, where his Macedonian soldiers married local woman. His passage through Asia had been punctuated by the foundation of walled colonies of chequerboard plan to control his conquests; here Macedonians and other Greeks usually of unrefined background were settled and for [p. 4] centuries remained a military and administrative élite. In 323 the young king, now thirty-three and at Babylon, went down with a fever and prematurely died [Arrianus]. Even so, he had deliberately set in motion a profound and irreversible intermingling of Greek and Asiatic.

Bereft of a leader and a credible heir, Alexander's generals fought like dogs for the inheritance. Ptolemy clung on to Egypt, and in 312 B.C. helped his friend Seleucus take Babylon; from this event the latter dated a dynastic Seleucid era which long remained in use [p. 150]. Subsequently these generals retitled themselves kings, and after a battle at Ipsus in Phrygia during 301 the new world began to settle down. Ptolemy kept Egypt; the Macedoniain monarchy was confined to Greece, while Seleucus, having ceded the south Afghan and Punjab territories to an Indian prince of the rising Maurya dynasty, Chandragupta, now held an unwieldy empire that stretched from Anatolia and Syria to central Asia and Afghanistan [cf. p. 166].

Unfortunately, the complex history of this colossal area during the following half-millennium has to be wrested from a multitude of unsatisfying documents, as no contemporary Asiatic chronicles have survived. Coins, inscriptions, papyri, parchments and the work of artisans, artists and builders all play their partial roles. Fullest literary accounts occur in works written under the Roman aegis, by men such as Polybius, Strabo, Isidorus of Charax, Josephus, Tacitus, Plutarch, Arrian[us], Philostratus and Cassius Dio; but they tend to re-echo Roman governmental hostility. Jewish, Syriac and Chinese writers have more to add; but later Armenian, Arab, Persian and Indian sources are more imaginative than helpful [Colledge: 1967].

Now in possession of the variegated territories of western Asia, King Seleucus and his early successors balanced tradition with innovation. They themselves cautiously took up the Achaemenid mantle of absolute monarchy and preserved the old boundaries of the provinces [satrapies], which were divided into eparchies, little hyparchies, townships, tribes and vassal kingdoms of differing status. Owning all this land--except that of free cities--ruling through a court and bureaucracy, issuing coins from numerous mints, the Seleucids maintained themselves partly by means of an army whose reliability was often endangered by the inclusion of expensive and self-seeking mercenaries. Following Alexander's policy, they also sought to preserve their far-flung possessions by settling veteran Macedonian and Greek soldiers in colonies of Hippodamian layout at strategic points along the main routes of communication and trade; thus they fostered loyalty to themselves, and spread Greek customs, language and art into the regions around these communities, as far as the normally limited education of the settler would allow. Greek divinities spread with the colonists, and Tyche, goddess of Fortune, now often personified an individual township; the Semitic and Iranian Asiatics gradually adopted [p. 5] the Greek divine names and figures syncretically as western equivalents of their own oriental deities, so that Heracles, for instance, could represent Semitica Nergal or Iranian Verethraghna, or Apollo Nebû or Mithras. But effective Seleucid control was largely restricted to areas bordering on those principal routes that linked northern Syria, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, northern Iran and the Bactrian region [fig. 1]. Here their colonies such as Dura-Europos were founded, and their great capitals: Babylonian Seleucia on the Tigris and Syrian Antioch on the Orontes. But the positions of these capitals illustrated a concentration of interest on their westernmost domains, which hastened the process of disintegration [Tarn: 1952].

For disintegration soon began. During the third century B.C. much of Asia Minor was gradually lost to a host of local monarchs [cf. pp. 154-6], although some areas--especially Armenia--were held with wavering authority; here the Seleucids compensated for the disappearance of direct control by infiltrating subtle dynastic marital alliances. Further east, real danger began to threaten. Coin issues by local Iranian dynasts in Persis indicated a spirit of independence, if not its actuality [pl. 38e-f]. Worse, on the south Russian and central Asian steppes the overlordship of the Scythian nomads was being replaced by Sarmatian domination, which was to last for the next half millennium, and further vast movements of population were impending.

The most likely course of events is described by the comparatively early western writers Strabo and Trogus [epitomized by Justin], who agreed in contrast with a later and more fanicful group. From 250 B.C., distracted by civil war and fighting with Egypt, the Seleucid government could spare little concern, fatefully, for the eastern territories. Well aware of this, Andragoras, provincial governor of the east Caspian province of Parthia [also called Parthyene], first claimed a cautious independence about 250 B.C., issuing coins bearing his own name [Will: I, 1966]. Diodotus, governor of the neighbouring province of Bactria, and Arshak ['Arsaces' in western documents], leader of a semi-nomadic Iranian tribe [the Parni or Aparni] now in the area, watched with interest. Invasion by Ptolemy III c. 246 and a Seleucid defeat by Celts at Ankara in 240 or 239 B.C. proved decisive. Arsaces saw his change: expelling Andragoras about 247 [239?], he and his followers occupied the province of Parthia: the Iranian recovery of Iran had begun. The [A]parni, probably after some mixing with the local population, came to be called Parthians after the province they had appropriated; later, when their conquests were extended, the term Parthia came also to cover the whole of the area under their control. In time, the Parthians began using an era for counting the years, imitated from the Seleucid but reckoned from 247 B.C.; possibly this marked the accession of their dynamic leader Arsaces, whose name was later used as a kind of title by succeeding monarchs, usually instead of their own personal name, which obscures the identification of individual rulers on coins and other [p. 6] documents [cf. p. 163]. Arsaces' hegemony ended with his death during an attack on the neighbouring province of Hyrcania [Wolski: 1959; 1974]. His brother is said to have succeeded as the second Arsaces, allegedly with the personal name Tiridates. Capitals were founded at Nisa [also called Parthaunisa] in Russian Turkestan, which became a flourishing town, and at Dara near Abivard. A Seleucid reprisal expedition finally arrived about 230-227 B.C., but proved abortive. Later Tiridates extended Arsacid possessions southward to Hyrcania and Comisene, where he established a new capital at Hecatompylus, now Shahr-i Qumis near Damghan [Hansman: 1968]. The Parthians had entered history [Debevoise: 1938; Will: I, 1966; Colledge: 1967; Hambly: 1969].

Diodotus, meanwhile, had issued coins in Bactria revealing a similar attitude to that of Andragoras. Finally, about 239-238, probably uninspired by Arsaces' seizure of Parthia, he declared himself king of Bactria. His son Diodotus II co-operated with the Parthians but was soon murdered by a usurper, Euthydemus, who extended the realm.

A last grand attempt to retrieve the eastern Seleucid possessions was made by King Antiochus III 'the Great'. In 209 B.C. he campaigned against the Parthians, and forced their king, Artabanus I, to enter into an alliance. The fact that for their first century of history the Parthians minted no coins of their own seems to confirm a vassal status throughout this period. His campaign won, Antiochus marched into Bactria. After an epic, but fruitless, two-year siege of the capital Bactra [Balkh], Antiochus perforce recognized Euthydemus as king and ally, and in 206 passed on southwards through the Hindu Kush to regions long since ceded to the Indian emperors of the Maurya Dynasty. Antiochus found the Mauryan empire in decay. It had risen to great heights in the mid third century under its powerful monarch AÇsoka [272-232 B.C.], who had espoused Buddhism and propagated its doctrine from his capital at Pataliputra.

Before the Buddha's earthly life [c. 563-483 B.C.], the paramount Indian religion had been the polytheistic Hinduism, with its various god derived from Aryan and indigenous sources and its ideal of the attainment after death of the changeless, timeless state of nirvana. A heresy, Jainism, had grown up, emphasizing the need to eradicate all earthly passions in pursuing this ideal. Siddharta, surnamed Gautama, a prince of the Sakya clan, was born into this background, but realized through visions that man must be saved from endless reincarnation and suffering; renouncing his position in favour of the ascetic life, he finally succeeded through yoga and meditation under the Bodhi [Wisdom] tree at Gaya in attaining Enlightenment and Buddhahood, cosmic consciousness. The Buddha, also known as Sakyamuni [Sage of Sakyas] spent his remaining years in teaching, and at his end he achieved his final nirvana. By A'soka's time this severe, early [or Hinayana, the 'Lesser Vehicle'] form of Buddhism offering salvation through moral discipline was already taking on more ordinary [p. 7] religious characteristics, such as the worship of its founder's bodily relics, to hold which A'soka built countless mounds or 'stupas', and the association with gods and spirits such as the yakshis [dryads] and nagas [water-spirits]. A'soka, proclaimed his Buddhist edicts on public inscriptions in several languages [including Greek]. Costly stone was now introduced into Indian building and sculpture; lofty pillars stood at key points in A'soka's realm to record his achievements [Rowland: 1952]. But A'soka's successors were feeble, as Antiochus discovered. Antiochus returned west, bringing back great psychological, but little political, advantage; and even this was shattered during the winter of 190-189 B.C., when at Magnesia in Asia Minor Antiochus' enormous forces were crushed by the expanding power of Republican Rome [Will: II, 1967].

Antiochus' defeat and subsequent death, and the feeble activity of his son Antiochus IV, provoked a series of rebellions in their remaining Iranian and Anatolian provinces. The kingdoms of Greater and Lesser Armenia, Commagene [in 163 B.C.], Media Atropatene and Persis, as well as other regions, broke away. Emboldened, the Parthians under Phraates I [c. 176-171 B.C.] reoccupied Hyrcania and moved west. And when Phraates' younger brother Mithradates I inherited the kingdom, he rapidly proved a military genius, wresting terrain from the Bactrian Greeks and advancing across Iran. At the same time, he issued the first Parthian coinage, using mints in various cities and thus doubtless signaling complete independence of the Seleucids [pl. 38h, i]. In 141 he swooped on Babylonia and employed the moneyers of Seleucia on the Tigris to produce a fine, dated coinage [pl. 38j]; opposite Seleucia he garrisoned the village Ctesiphon, a future capital, then seized Elymais and Persis. He died about 138 B.C. [Debevoise: 1938; Le Rider: 1965; Colledge: 1967].

The breaking of Antiochus III at Magnesia equally spurred on the Greeks in Bactria. Coins, and a few inscriptions and literary references, alone adumbrate their astonishing subsequent century and a half in central Asia, Afghanistan and north-west India. Although they are intertwined, the fortunes of the Greco-Bactrians of Bactria proper, north of the Hindu Kush, and of the Indo-Greeks, or rather Indo-Bactrians, who launched themselves into the Punjab and beyond, are perhaps best followed separately [cf. pp. 156, 158].

In Bactria the Greco-Bactrian rulers continued to issue coins on the Attic Greek standard employed by the Seleucids [pl. 39h,i]. Euthydemus II apparently extended their possessions into Sogdiana, Aria and Margiana. But Bactria was eventually seized by the usurper Eucratides I [c. 171-150 B.C.?], who pushed south-west in Seistan and east into Gandhara, and issued the largest gold coin of antiquity, a huge victory medallion. He in turn was murdered about 150 B.C. [Bivar: 1970]. Western terrain was lost to Mithradates I of Parthia; Heliocles I took over a shrunken realm north of the Hindu Kush, with areas beyond the Oxus lost to encroaching nomad [p. 10] tribes, who eventually overwhelmed the Greco-Bactrian kingdom and imitated HelioclesÍ coins [Tarn: 1951; Narain: 1957; Bernard: 1974].

These vast movements of steppe peoples have to be pieced together from archaeological finds and jejune Chinese and western sources. Three tribal groupings were paramount: various Saka tribes east of the Caspian [Sacaraucae, Asiani and others] often called 'Scythians' for convenience; the Sai [ further Saka or Scythian tribes] of the upper Ili river; and the still more easterly Yueh-chih [Tochari and others, perhaps including Sarmatians]. The Yueh-chih, under pressure from the Hsiung-nu [Huns?], wandered over to the upper Ili c. 175-160 B.C., pushing the Saka tribes there southwards eventually to Kashmir [?] and Swat [Pulleyblank: 1970]. Soon the Yueh-chih were attached by the pastoral Wu-sun tribes, and moved west to dominate Ta-hsia [Bactria] by c. 135 B.C. When the Chinese official Chang Chien arrived there in 129-128 B.C., he found their court established north of the Oxus, and by c. 100 B.C. they were in occupation south of it. This movement of the Yueh-chih ousted the Greek government of Bactria, and sent Scythian Sakas south to the Parthian frontier, where c. 138-124 B.C. they caused acute disturbances for the Parthian kings, Phraates II and Artabanus II, settling in the east Iranian province of Drangiana, now renamed Sacastene [later, Seistan] after them. Either mingling there with the local Iranians or soon pushed further east by the Parthians, they eventually founded an Indo-Scythian dynasty [otherwise confusingly known as Scytho-Parthian, Pahlava or Indo-Parthian, because of the Parthian names borne by some members], which was later to join the scramble for Indian territory [Rosenfield: 1967; Hambly: 1969].


[Colledge, Malcolm A. R. Parthian Art. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 1977.}



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