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Hellenistic Period

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In 250 BC a new Iranian people, the Parthians, proclaimed their independence from the Seleucids, and went on to re-establish an Oriental Empire which extended to the Euphrates.

The re-conquest of the country by the Parthians brought a slow return to Iranian traditionalism. Its technique marked the disappearance of the plastic form. Stiff figures, often heavily bejeweled, wearing Iranian dress with its drapery emphasized mechanically and monotonously, were now shown systematically facing to the front, staring straight at the spectator. This was a device used in ancient Mesopotamian art only for figures of exceptional importance. The Parthians however, made it the rule for most figures, and from them it passed into Byzantine art. A fine bronze portrait statue (from Shami) and some reliefs (at Tang-i-Sarwak and Bisutun) highlight these features.

Bronze head of a 
Parthian prince

Head of a bronze statue of a Parthian prince

During the Parthian period the iwan became a widespread architectural form. This was a great hall, open on one side with a high barrel-vaulted roof. Particularly fine examples have been found at Ashur and Hatra. In the construction of these grandiose halls, fast setting gypsum mortar was used.

Perhaps allied to the increasing use of gypsum mortar was the development of gypsum stucco decoration. Iran was unfamiliar with stucco decoration before the Parthians, among whom it was in vogue for interior decoration together with mural painting. The mural at Dura-Europos, on the Euphrates, represents Mithras hunting a variety of animals.

In the Zagros area of western Iran many examples of Parthian 'clinky' ware, a hard red pottery which makes a clinky noise when tapped, can be found. Glazed pottery with a pleasing bluish or greenish lead glaze, painted on shapes of Hellenistic inspiration, are also frequently found.

Ornate jewelry with large inlaid stones or glass gems made its appearance during this period.

Parthian Necklace

Necklace consisting of three oval plaques, fixed to a chain. Two plaques show eagles with turquoise and garnet inserts.
Eagles holding rings in their beaks as symbols of kingship are common features on both Parthian coins and rock reliefs.

Unfortunately, practically nothing that the Parthians may have written has survived, apart from some inscriptions on coins and accounts from Greek and Latin authors; however these accounts were far from objective.

Parthian coins are helpful in establishing the succession of kings, they referred to themselves on these coins as "Hellenophiles", but this was only true in that they were anti Roman.

Parthian coins

Silver coins of the Parthian period.
(Top) Tetradrachm of Mithradates (c. 171-138BC)
(Bottom) Tetradrachm of Vologases VI (c. AD208-28)

The Parthian period was the start of a renewal in the Iranian national spirit. Their art forms an important transitional stepping-stone; which led on the one hand to the art of Byzantium, and on the other to that of the Sassanians, and India.


Persian Art Through The Centuries

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Persian History

Persian Art
Through The Centuries

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Persian History
The Parthian Empire

Copyright © 1999 K. Kianush, Art Arena