Arsaces I: Biography, Reign, Military Campaigns & Achievements

Arsaces I of the Parthian Empire

During ancient times, the Parthian Empire rose to become one of the most powerful and prominent empires the world had ever seen. As the empire expanded, thanks to its impressive military might, so did its economy. During the empire’s peak, which was around the early part of the first century BC, it controlled most of the trade routes between Asia and the Mediterranean regions.

But Parthia’s rise to becoming a powerful empire was not a smooth journey. Nonetheless, it took one man, Arsaces I – with the support of his people – to ensure that the empire was built on a firm foundation so as to last for several centuries.

It’s said that Arsaces, who was a local governor under the Bactrian Greek rulers, took advantage of the conflict between Seleucids and Andragorus. He subsequently led his army to conquer large parts of the region of Parthia and became its first king. He ruled Parthia from around 248 BC to 217 BC.

The question that begs to be answered is: How did Arsaces manage to go from a mere local governor to a ruler of a mighty empire? And what were his major military and political accomplishments?

Here’s everything you need to know about Arsaces I, the first ruler and founder of the Parthian Empire.

Biography: Arsaces’ Lineage

The name Arsacēs was the Latin version of the Greek name “Arsákēs.” It’s also a modification of the Old Iranian name “Aršan”, which means “hero” or “savior”. It was also a common name during the period of the First Persian Empire, when rulers like King Artaxerxes II used it. It’s even said that Arsaces and many of his descendants in the Arsacid dynasty tried to trace their lineage to Artaxerxes II and other Achaemenid kings.

Not much is known about Arsaces I and his life. He was mentioned in Greek and Roman history but most of the stories and events involving him were negative. This was likely due to the Roman-Parthian Wars that raged for many years.

The Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, described Arsaces as a man of low-ranking status, who used the gained control of the Parthian Empire by killing Andragoras. The latter was a satrap, who was in charge of the Parthia and Hyrcania provinces.

According to the Iranian national history, Arsaces I was believed to be associated with some mythical figures and was likely a descendant of other mythical personalities like the hero archer Arash. This association was mostly due to the similarities in their names, as well as several of Arsaces’ coins depicting the king as an archer.

Touted as a more reliable background story of Arsaces is the account by Greek geographer and author Strabo. In that account, the Parthian ruler was said to be either a Scythian or Bactrian chief. He then rose to become the leader of the Parni tribe. The Parnis were part of the three main tribes under the Dahae confederacy, a group of Eastern Iranian tribes. The confederacy was extremely powerful and strong, as its military relied heavily on horses and expert archers, which was an advantage they had over rival empires attempting to conquer them. They moved faster than their enemies as a result.

The Dahae were a nomadic group and they eventually settled in Parthia (what is today in northeastern Iran and some parts of southern Turkmenistan). During that time, the province was under the control of the Seleucids. The Parni were very influential and by 282/1 BC, the tribe wielded tremendous amount of power and influence in Parthia.

It’s also likely that Arsaces was born in Parthia and might have been a member of Parthia’s elite or noble classes, a stark difference to what Marcellinus described. He was also likely to have been an experienced soldier who served as a mercenary for many Seleucid leaders.

Reign: Arsaces’s Rise to Power

Arsaces was the leader of the Parni, a nomad tribe from the Central-Asian steppe. He would go on to seize large parts of Parthia and thereafter establish the Parthian Empire. He established the city of Asaak (spelled in Latin as Arsacia), which mostly served as capital and the burial grounds (royal necropolis) for rulers of the Parthian Empire. Image: Coin of Arsaces I

Around 250 BC, while leading the Parni tribe, Arsaces managed to invade and capture Astauene. Roughly three years later, he was declared king of Asaak, a city that he established. That city would go on to serve as the political hub of the Parthian empire, as rulers from the Arsacid Dynasty were crowned and buried there.

Some historical accounts also believe that Arsaces’ coronation in Asaak in 247 BC signaled the birth of the Arsacid dynasty. But that wasn’t all. A few years after Arsaces’ rise to power, Andragoras, who was the governor of Parthia, announced the province’s secession from the Seleucid Empire. While the secession eventually took place, Andragoras encountered numerous challenges, particularly in ensuring that the newly found kingdom had secure borders. With that weakness, Arsaces and his brother Tiridates I invaded Parthia, along with other Parni followers around 238 BC.

The Arsaces’s and his Parni tribe managed to take full control of almost all of Parthia, killing Andragoras in the process. And so, Arsaces came to be recognized as the king of Parthia.

Military Campaigns & Notable Accomplishments

Conquering Parthia didn’t mean the end of the road for Arsaces. Throughout his reign, he embarked on many military campaigns and expeditions, including the following:

Seizing Hyrcania

With Parthia now under his control, Arsaces set his sights on Hyrcania, the neighboring province. The Parni successfully claimed the land and expanded their empire. At that time, the Seleucids were a bit distracted as they were fighting against the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

The Seleucid Recovery Expedition

A few years later, the Seleucids attempted to recover the land that Arsaces and his Parthian army had taken. Arsaces felt an extreme amount of pressure, as he was also at war with Diodotus II, the ruler of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. He showed his political brilliance and entered into an alliance with Diodotus so he could gain support against the Seleucids. The Greco-Bactrian Kingdom had also once been a part of the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucid expeditions failed and Parthia continued to remain under the rule of Arsaces.


The following are some of the notable achievements Arsaces I of Parthia chalked during his reign from around 247-217 BC:

Built Cities

During his reign, Arsaces established Dara, a city located in Mount Zapaortenon. He also built Nisa, where members of the Arsacid royal family would live until the 1st century BC.

The “Father of the Nation”

Arsaces was regarded as a successful leader and he earned the title “father of the nation.” Many future Arsacid rulers used his name as a title out of admiration for his achievements. Following his death, his brother, Tiridates, succeeded him. There are some scholars that state that Tiridates was not a real person. As a result, Arsaces II, the son of Arsaces, is often considered as the more likely successor of Arsaces I.

The Arsacid Dynasty: Descendants of Arsaces I

Arsaces and his descendants ruled the Parthian Empire for about 450 years until it was captured by the Sasanian Empire. The fall of the Parthian Empire was the result of the constant conflicts it had with the Roman Empire for many years. For example, in 165 AD, Roman forces, led by co-emperor Lucius Verus, looted many important Parthian cities.

The Parthian empire of the first and second centuries AD was a pale shadow of the heights it reached around 95 BC during the reign of King Mithridates II. After a series of civil wars, Arsaces I’s descendants were dealt a last blow in the 3rd century when King Ardashir overthrow the entire empire and established the Sasanian Empire.

The loss in power, however, didn’t prevent many of Arsaces I’s descendants from holding high-ranking positions. Many other descendants also played critical roles in the histories of other principalities like Armenia and Iberia.

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