Chapter 6: A Region Divided

In the last two centuries BC, the Hellenistic kingdoms which had been carved out of the conquests of Alexander the Great were squeezed from both east and west.


In the east, the Parthians, a people closely related to the Persians, rapidly conquered a large empire, seizing Iran and Iraq from the Seleucid kings. In the west, the rising power of Rome[1] gradually expanded into Greece and the Balkans, and then into Asia Minor,[2] Syria,[3] Palestine[4] and finally Egypt. Having swallowed up all the Hellenistic kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean, Roman power faced the Parthians directly. An attempt by the Romans to conquer onwards into Parthia met with disaster at the battle of Carrhae, in 54 BC.

The resulting division of the Middle East between the Roman and Parthian empires set the pattern for the political map of the region which was to persist until the coming of Islam, more than six hundred years later.

The Hellenistic civilization, centred on the numerous cities founded by Alexander the Great and his successors which dotted the Middle East, survived in both portions of the Middle East. The Hellenistic cities of Iran and Iraq continued to flourish under their new Parthian masters, and the Romans, being the inheritors of centuries of Greek influence in their Italian homeland, actively fostered Hellenistic culture.

One partial exception to the prevalence of Hellenistic civilization was the conscious rejection of Hellenism by many Jews. By this date, Jewish communities could be found in many cities throughout the Middle East. Many of the inhabitants of the Jewish homeland of Judaea clung tenaciously to their ancestral ways. They had rebelled against the efforts of the Seleucid kings to Hellenize them, and established an independent Jewish state.[5]

Many high-status Jews continued to embrace Hellenism, however, and as time went by even the elite of the new Jewish state slipped increasingly back into the Hellenistic world.


As well as carving out an empire for themselves in Iran and Iraq, the Parthians performed a valuable service to the civilizations of the Middle East by developing a heavy cavalry which patrolled the borderlands of the steppe. For several centuries this defence would save the lands of the Middle East from being overrun by the turbulent nomads from central Asia, diverting their attention eastward into northern India.


For most of the period, the borders between the Roman and Parthian empires were comparatively peaceful, although heavily defended. Every now and again, wars between the two powers broke out. In these, the Romans on the whole got the better of the fighting, their armies occasionally attacking deep into Parthian territory.

Link: map of the Middle East in 30 BC


These invasions did not have a permanent impact on the geopolitics of the region, as occupying much Parthian territory for any period of time proved too much for them.

Apart from major wars, there was an on-going tussle for control of the strategically valuable kingdom of Armenia, which acted as a buffer between the two empires. This tussle usually took the form of attempts to place a puppet on the Armenian throne, sometimes backed up by military action. By 200 AD, Armenia was firmly in the Roman camp.

Link: map of the Middle East in AD 200



The fact that it was Roman armies who penetrated Parthian territory, and not vice versa, meant that the inhabitants of the Roman empire knew a greater measure of peace and prosperity than those of the Parthian empire.

In the latter, the centres of Hellenistic civilization in Mesopotamia were in the direct path of invading Roman armies, and suffered accordingly. This had the effect of greatly weakening Hellenistic cultural influences in the Parthian empire.

This development was strengthened by an apparently deliberate policy of fostering an Iranian cultural revival by the Parthian aristocracy.


The Middle East at this period was a region of religious change. New mystery religions such as Mithraism were spreading in the region. Above all, Christianity[6] was born in Judaea and Galilee, and began spreading around the Middle East from after AD 30. By AD 200 it was to be found throughout both the Roman and Parthian empires, and even (on a much smaller scale) in India.

Judaea,[7] the small area which gave birth to Christianity, saw disastrous developments for its Jewish inhabitants. It was the scene of two great rebellions against the Roman empire (AD 66-71 and AD 132-36) which ended in the complete destruction of the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem (and its rebuilding as a Roman colony), and the dispersal of the Jewish people from their homeland.


In 224 the Parthians were overthrown by a Persian dynasty called the Sasanians. They tightened the administration of the empire and breathed new life into the struggle with Rome. By this time the Roman empire was facing difficulties[8] on all its frontiers, and so the Sasanians were soon posing a formidable threat to Rome’s eastern provinces. The nadir of Roman fortunes came when their emperor, Valerian, was captured by the Persians in 260. After this they were able to restore their defences and the Sasanians were unable to achieve such a striking success again for centuries. 

The Sassanian Royal Symbol and the Mythology of Persia

The Sassanian Royal Symbol and the Mythology of Persia

Nevertheless, the Persian empire continued to pose a constant threat to the security of Rome’s eastern frontier, and from the late 3rd century onwards, the two empires, both now much more militarized than before, glowered at each other across their heavily armed frontiers. They even employed rival Arab tribes[9] to protect their southern desert frontiers.


Behind these frontiers, the Roman empire was changing almost out of recognition.[10]

The first great change was the adoption of Christianity[11]http://history-later-roman-empire/#christianity as the leading religion of the empire.

In this, Armenia in fact preceded the Romans, their king converting to Christianity in 314.

Another innovation was the installation of a new capital at Constantinople.[12]

Link: map of the Middle East in AD 500


This brought the seat of imperial power much closer to the inhabitants of the Middle East. 

It also hastened a shift towards the use of Greek as the usual, if not as yet the official, language of government in Rome’s eastern provinces.

This process was given added impetus by the loss of the empire’s western (and Latin-speaking) provinces in the 5th century.

Meanwhile, the Persian empire had adopted another monotheistic faith, Zoroastrianism, as its official religion.

The practice of Zoroastrianism was largely confined to the Persian ruling class, the lower classes, especially in the cities, widely embracing Christianity.


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