Rivals, Rebels and the Parthian Empire

Ideological currents on coins from the 1st century BC

By the 1st century BC, the Parthian Empire stretched from Bactria in modern Afghanistan to the River Euphrates in modern Iraq. Over the next three centuries, its kings entered into a formidable rivalry with Rome. Competing ideologies were displayed on coinage and channelled across enemy borders through peaceful trade and armed invasions.

Encounters with Parthia have traditionally been told from the Roman mouthpiece, since their accounts have survived this period largely intact. These ancient authors colour the Parthians as an inferior race. However, new studies on Parthia’s coinage have allowed researchers to examine this ancient Iranian empire from the perspective of its great kings rather than its hostile adversaries.

This image gallery principally explores Parthian-Roman relations during the military confrontations and ideological battles of the 1st century BC. However, contact between the two superpowers was not just played out on a global stage. It seeped into Parthia’s internal power struggles, and rebel claims to the Parthian throne could be built or broken by entanglements with the Roman world. The kingdoms of Armenia and Commagene shared borders with these superpowers and became increasingly draw in to their competing ideological currents. These kingdoms not only border political fault lines, but also religions ones. Across the East Iran’s ancient, monotheistic Zoroastrian religion intertwined with the Greek and Roman pantheons.

After the end of the Parthian Empire in 224 AD, its ideologies on kingship and the divine survived in the cultures of successive powers. These Parthian echoes, though not always conspicuous, became fossilised in the history and mythology of both Rome and Iran.

The AHRC’s 10th anniversary marks a decade of bridging disciplinary gaps, such as showcasing the little-explored coinage alongside literary sources and other material evidence. With this turning-point in Parthian studies, we can better understand this ancient empire and reimagine its captivating culture.

Gallery courtesy of Alexandra Magub, SOAS, University of London/The British Museum

  • Image of The Parthian Empire at its Greatest Extent (c. 96 BC)
    The Parthian Empire at its Greatest Extent (c. 96 BC) about The Parthian Empire at its Greatest Extent (c. 96 BC)
  • Image of The Parthian Shot: silver tetradrachm of an unknown king (c. 80-70 BC).
    The Parthian Shot: silver tetradrachm of an unknown king (c. 80-70 BC). about The Parthian Shot: silver tetradrachm of an unknown king (c. 80-70 BC).
  • Image of Silver denarius of Augustus (63 BC–14 AD).
    Silver denarius of Augustus (63 BC–14 AD). about Silver denarius of Augustus (63 BC–14 AD).
  • Image of Silver drachm of Phraates IV (c. 37-2 BC).
    Silver drachm of Phraates IV (c. 37-2 BC). about Silver drachm of Phraates IV (c. 37-2 BC).
  • Image of Golden necklace, said to be discovered at Deylaman in north-west Iran.
    Golden necklace, said to be discovered at Deylaman in north-west Iran. about Golden necklace, said to be discovered at Deylaman in north-west Iran.
  • Image of Gold aureus of Quintus Labienus Parthicus (died 39 BC).
    Gold aureus of Quintus Labienus Parthicus (died 39 BC). about Gold aureus of Quintus Labienus Parthicus (died 39 BC).
  • Image of Silver drachm of Phraataces (
    Silver drachm of Phraataces ("Little Phraates") and Musa (c. 2 BC-4 AD). about Silver drachm of Phraataces ("Little Phraates") and Musa (c. 2 BC-4 AD).
  • Image of Silver coin of the Armenian king Tigranes (II) the Great (c. 140-55 BC)
    Silver coin of the Armenian king Tigranes (II) the Great (c. 140-55 BC) about Silver coin of the Armenian king Tigranes (II) the Great (c. 140-55 BC)
  • Image of Silver tetradrachm of Phraates III (c. 70-57 BC).
    Silver tetradrachm of Phraates III (c. 70-57 BC). about Silver tetradrachm of Phraates III (c. 70-57 BC).
  • Image of Postcard of the royal tombs at Nimrud Dagh in Commagene (modern south-central Turkey).
    Postcard of the royal tombs at Nimrud Dagh in Commagene (modern south-central Turkey). about Postcard of the royal tombs at Nimrud Dagh in Commagene (modern south-central Turkey).
  • Image of Basalt stela of Antiochus I Theos greeting Verethragna-Herakles-Ares from Nimrud Dagh (1st century BC)
    Basalt stela of Antiochus I Theos greeting Verethragna-Herakles-Ares from Nimrud Dagh (1st century BC) about Basalt stela of Antiochus I Theos greeting Verethragna-Herakles-Ares from Nimrud Dagh (1st century BC)
  • Image of Drawing of Ardashir I's investiture relief at Naqsh-e Rostam in southern Iran (224-242 AD), from R. Ker Porter (1821) Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia... 1817-1820 vol. I, pl.23; Longman & Co., London
    Drawing of Ardashir I's investiture relief at Naqsh-e Rostam in southern Iran (224-242 AD), from R. Ker Porter (1821) Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia... 1817-1820 vol. I, pl.23; Longman & Co., London about Drawing of Ardashir I's investiture relief at Naqsh-e Rostam in southern Iran (224-242 AD), from R. Ker Porter (1821) Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia... 1817-1820 vol. I, pl.23; Longman & Co., London
  • Image of Silver drachm of Hormizd II (303-309 AD).
    Silver drachm of Hormizd II (303-309 AD). about Silver drachm of Hormizd II (303-309 AD).
  • Image of Marble statue of Mithras slaying the bull, found in Rome (2nd century AD)
    Marble statue of Mithras slaying the bull, found in Rome (2nd century AD) about Marble statue of Mithras slaying the bull, found in Rome (2nd century AD)
  • Image of Painted manuscript showing the hero Rostam piercing an enemy, made in Shiraz in southern Iran (1435-1440 AD).
    Painted manuscript showing the hero Rostam piercing an enemy, made in Shiraz in southern Iran (1435-1440 AD). about Painted manuscript showing the hero Rostam piercing an enemy, made in Shiraz in southern Iran (1435-1440 AD).