Reading for the Weekend – A Short History of Parthia

a short history of ParthiaThis time is is time to look at a Short History of Parthia by George Rawlinson. As mentioned sometime earlier, I have developed an interest to build Parthian army for Impetus. Initially that idea came to be because of the fascinating subject of all cavalry army that Surena deployed against Grassus in 53BC.

However, because that event was only one of a kind, more interesting aspect of Parthia was it’s relative longevity as powerful neighbor of Rome. So I’ve started to look for Parthian history in greater details. As it happened, I run into this book, which is aptly named as a Short History of Parthia, and in fact covers pretty much the whole existence of the nation until Persian revolt.

While book is quite readable, it is written in a form of chronology which unfortunately is missing something elementary. It is, at times hard to follow. If the king was not Mithridates, then he was Vologasses, Phraates or Tiridates. Nothing one can change there without meddling with history, but at the end of several iterations each, one undoubtedly looses track. While Rawlinson tries his best to connect each ruler to some world event near or far, the connections are very brief until next ruler is listed. For those who did not achieve much, it matters little but for those that did, it is entirely different story.

Of course, fast paced approach means that this way book could have 300 pages and therefore live to it’s name, but downside is that it all becomes a bit confusing at the end. That said, if one looks for specific ruler, then book serves well to put him in very brief historical context. However, there is little trouble with that – to work as reference, book would surely need appendix with chronological list of rulers and dates when named individual was the head of the state.  Another matter that troubles is that author has elected to present the wisdom of known unreliable sources – several times. While use of the references is understandable because scant evidence available, it does set overtone that makes one to question reliability of the book. When Romans are presented as inept and weak in resolve, same is done for Parthia and it almost looks at times that the power struggle was actually contest of ineptitude. This view is somewhat simplistic, like to say that Surena won in Charrae only because Romans blundered instead of counting in other contributing factors such as logistics, preparations and political situation.

However, those concerns aside, a Short History of Parthia is a book that gives decent chronology of kings, pretenders and other historical figures, and it does a good job placing Parthia in the context as Rome’s eastern rival, and answers at least partially to the question why Parthia managed to survive for such a long period of time when all other major powers that threatened Roman hegemony perished.

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2 Responses to Reading for the Weekend – A Short History of Parthia

  1. Thank you fo this review. Do you know the bakcground of the author? is he an acdemic writing for a broader audience? It is sometimes quite a pitty if author don’t approach original sources with some care, accounting for tendency etc. Nevertheless, sounds like a book one could read for a brief overview to then go for more specialised literature.

    • Tichy says:

      Actually, now that you point it out I checked (I have to admit that name Rawlinson sounded vaguely familiar). George Rawlinson is a younger brother of Sir Henry Rawlinson (the East India Company officer and somewhat famous Orientalist).

      Since he was scholar in 19th century, it is clear that his works are product of his own era. Bearing this in mind, and if able to filling gaps, be aware errors and filter some of 19th century thinking, then the book does serve as very brief introduction.

      On the other hand, since resources about Parthia are not exactly abundant, even somewhat outdated research has it’s place.

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