“The Reign of Arrows: the Rise of the Parthian Empire in the Hellenistic Middle East” by Nikolaus Leo Overtoom

Parthian door lintel, 2rd-3rd century (Metropolitan Museum) Parthian door lintel, 2rd-3rd century (Metropolitan Museum)

When the 11th-century poet Ferdowsi reaches the reigns of the Parthian Kings in his epic chronicle of the kings of Iran, he admits,


کزیشان جز از نام نشنیده‌ام
نه در نامه‌ی خسروان دیده‌ام
“About them I heard nothing but their name,
I saw nothing about them in the book of the Khosrows”


Little has changed since Ferdowsi’s times. Professor Overtoom cites his colleagues, one of whom describes the Parthian era as “among the least known in Oriental history and archaeology”, while another notes, “It is this region [Parthia] and ruling power [the Arsacids] that has been missed in the coverage of world history, as Rome and China have been the main focus for world historians.” Aiming to remedy this situation, and as part of a new focus on the Hellenistic Middle East, Overtoom provides a close reading of classical sources and a painstaking evaluation of current research to provide a coherent narrative thread to these shadowy shahs who ruled Iran in the last two centuries BC, and who successfully rivalled the Seleucids and the Romans as the hegemonic power of the region.


Reign of Arrows: The Rise of the Parthian Empire in the Hellenistic Middle East, Nikolaus Leo Overtoom (Oxford University Press, May 2020)
Reign of Arrows: The Rise of the Parthian Empire in the Hellenistic Middle East, Nikolaus Leo Overtoom (Oxford University Press, May 2020)

The interpretive thread in this book is provided by the international relations theory known as Neorealism, taught by Kenneth Waltz at Columbia and Brandeis. According to this theory, states coexist in a Hobbesian, dog-eat-dog condition, where war and conquest are required to survive. Overtoom relies on this theory to explain the endless wars of this period. He discredits other explanations for the Parthian’s expansion, including the traditional view that the Parthians were essentially rapacious and violent. In light of the ubiquitous violence practiced by all the contemporary protagonists, Roman, Seleucid, Jewish and Ptolemaic, one cannot argue against this interpretation.

More debatable is applying this modern theory of state conflict to the violence in this era, which frequently involved brothers (Cleopatra), step-mothers (Berenice) and former brothers-in-arms. Pretenders to these thrones routinely invited rival kings to help them come out on top of family feuds.  There is extensive academic debate about which pre-modern empires can be characterized as states, or which were simply structures for exacting tribute. This book could have benefited from participating more in that debate. (See for example, PF Bang and CA Bayly, the special issue on empires in the Medieval History Journal 6:2 (2003); and Tributary Empires in Global History (Basingstoke, 2011).

Elsewhere Overtoom speaks of an “Iranian interstate system”. This only makes sense as a geographic construct, not a political one, since it is questionable if the Parthians were conscious of  the existence of the land of Iran. It would have been helpful had Overtoom devoted more attention to geography, explaining where and what resources were exploited by his protagonists. He talks about the Parthians breaking into the “rich Iranian Plateau”, certainly an exaggeration, since this plateau was and still is  mostly desert. He does acknowledge the importance of geography when he points out that the Seleucids were almost bound to lose control of Iran to the Parthians when they made Antioch (Antakya in Turkey today) their main capital, preferring the shores of the Mediterranean to the banks of the Tigris.


Overtoom could have developed more insights into the Parthians if he had examined the elements of their regime that reflected their nomad origins. He explicitly rejects one suggestion in this sense, in line with his rejection of essentialism, and in favor of his preferred neorealism explanation.


The arguments of Susan Sherwin-White and Amélie Kuhrt that the Parthians’ expansionism and aggression toward neighbors was endemic and stemmed from their cavalry-based army and their need to find more land for their cavalry-based aristocracy makes Parthian belligerence appear unique and ignores the considerable outside dangers that the Parthians faced from highly militarized and aggressive neighbors.


Yet this rejected argument points to an important aspect of the Parthian regime: their nomadic origin. This explains aspects of their regime better than Overtoom’s general theory of states. The Parthians practiced tanistry, that is the crown passed more often to brothers or uncles than to sons. This was typical of other nomadic states including the Khitans and the Mongols. Cavalry comprised the bulk of their armies. Troops  engaged in constant exercises and with droves of spare mounts that only the steppe can supply. The Parthian kings made regular processions around their realms to maintain direct contact with their followers, as nomad rulers had to do. They conquered the Arid Zone, where nomadic herds could coexist with cities and irrigation-based agriculture, but they could not project their power into lands with rain-fed agriculture, unsuitable for horses. In all these respects the Parthians had much in common with later nomad-based regimes in Iran like the Seljuks or the Timurids. Some comparisons to these better-known polities could provide insights.

Overtoom does not fail to emphasize that Parthian military prowess owes everything to their steppe origins. The title of the book alludes to their fearsome ability to unleash arrows via a Parthian shot backwards over the croup of their horse. He is also correct to reject essentialist descriptions of the Parthians, as when Romans historians describe them as naturally duplicitous, or when contemporary writers depict their rise as a national liberation movement.


For students of this period the two books by Paul Kosmin, Time and its Adversaries and The Land of the Elephant King offer a more lucid and satisfying narrative, in part because we (think we) can get into the heads of the Greek Seleucid rulers of Asia. After Overtoom’s deep dive into the Parthians, one doesn’t really find that one knows them, rather as Ferdowsi complained. But then, there is always so much uncertainty about the motivations behind war and peace. Will we ever understand why the Parthians wanted to invade Babylon? Do we even understand why George W Bush did?

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019)