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Dark Age in Parthian History

c. 95 B.C to 57 B.C.

The most confused period of Parthian history is from the late years in the reign of Mithradates II (c. 123 - 88 B.C.) to the establishment of the sole rule of Orodes II (c. 57 - 38 B.C.). The coinage studies by Sellwood and Waggoner indicate it is likely that at least two Parthian kings were issuing coins simultaneously as co-rulers. While Mithradates II was still in power, we have coins from Gotarzes I (c. 95 - 90 B.C.), Orodes I (c. 90 - 80 B.C.). And during the period immediately following the reign of Mithradates II, we see the overlapping coinages of of Orodes I (c. 90 - 80 B.C.), an Unknown King (I) (c. 80 B.C.), another Unknown King (II) (c. 80 - 70 B.C.), Sinatruces (c. 77 - 70 B.C.), and Darius of Media Atropatene (c. 70 B.C.). Phraates III appears to have consolidated control in the years around and following 70 B.C., and Orodes II took firm control c. 57 B.C.

While there is still disagreement, some consensus has emerged. But Mörkholm has levied some heavy criticism of progress to date and maintains that "by concentrating first on the tetradrachms, it is possible to arrive at a firm and certain sequence of all the issues involved. The difficulties arise from the preoccupation of scholars with identifying the issuers with the Parthian kings known from other sources. This other material, literary texts and cuneiform tablets, is simply not good enough to permit this identification. It is bad methodology to confuse the issue by presenting a hypothetical classification, based on the extra-numismatic material, when a direct numismatic approach might solve the problem of the chronological sequence, leaving the question of identification for future research, when more evidence has become available."1

Using numismatic criteria only, Mörkholm reached a different conclusion from A. Simonetta [tr. by Sellwood, QT 7 (1978), 95-119] about the number and sequence of kings at Seleucia on the Tigris during the Parthian "dark age", excluding within his chronological sequence both Vonones and Pacorus. He acknowledges that the attribution of coins to different rulers is still much a matter of speculation, but argues that the written evidence for the period is so fragmentary that the most reliable documents are the coins.2

A hoard of 700 first century B.C. Parthian drachms published by Weiskopf provides evidence permitting a more precise understanding of the political situation in Parthia than has been available from other sources. The new material included no coins which can be assigned to any pretender at this time, and Weiskopf has concluded that less emphasis should be given to the Babylonian documents attesting to their importance. Some dated coins in the hoard provide additional evidence for the co-regencies of father and son during the reigns of Sinatruces and Phraates III.3
1. Mörkholm, Otto. "Greece to India" (1979), p. 92
2. Houghton, "Syria and the East", 1986, p. 194
3. Weiskopf, Michael, "The Kuh Dasht Hoard and the Parthian 'Dark Age' " (1981)

This page last updated 17 Apr 2008

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