Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Peoples of the empire: The Hyrcanians

Geographical definition
Hyrcania (O.P. Verkâna or Varkâna, "land of wolves") was the lowland around the southern and southeastern shores of the Caspian, corresponding roughly to the modern Iranian provinces of Gilan, Mazandaran and Golestān and the southwestern corner of Turkmenistan.  It is well-watered and heavily-forested.

Hyrcania was apparently added to the empire very early.  It enters history with the Behistun inscription, where it along with Parthia joined the rebellion of Phraortes, pretender to the throne of Media, during the first half of 521 BC.  Darius' father, Hystaspes, was in Parthia at the time and defeated the Parthians and Hyrcanians at the Parthian city Višpauzâtiš.  Darius sent reinforcements from Rhagae to join Hystaspes and inflict another defeat on the rebels at Patigrabanâ, Parthia.

According to Adrian Bivar (Encyclopaedia Iranica), Hyrcania "seems to have been administered as a sub-province of Parthia and is not named separately in the provincial lists of Darius and Xerxes."  It is certain that their histories overlap heavily and that many Achaemenid satraps of one would also be regarded as satraps of the other.  Herodotus says that Hyrcanians participated in Xerxes' invasion as infantry under Megapanus, separately from the Parthians, though (as is frequently the case) I find no mention of what if any role they played in the campaign.

Later Greek sources mention a Hyrcanian named Artabanus (not to be confused with Xerxes' uncle) as the man who assassinated Xerxes in 465 and either killed or engineered the death of Crown Prince Darius.  He then either ruled as king or as regent for Artaxerxes I, who killed Artabanus in turn.

Artaxerxes died in 424.  Ctesias tells a unique variant of the succession, in which the throne was first held by its lawful heir Xerxes II, who was soon murdered by his half-brother Sogdianus.  A third half-brother, Ochus, was then ruling as satrap of Hyrcania and rebelled against Sogdianus, killed him and declared himself Darius II.

Hyrcania becomes less prominent Classical histories for a long while afterward.  A small number of Hyrcanians are said to have fought at the Battle of Gaugamela, where they formed part of the cavalry under Mazaeus, governor of Babylon.  It was through Hyrcania that Darius III fled in July of 330 and was murdered by his own officers.

It was therefore a transformative period in Alexander's kingship that he passed in Hyrcania; he now sought legitimacy in the eyes of the Iranian aristocracy.  From Zadracarta (modern Gorgan) he pursued a campaign against Bessus, on whom the blame for the Great King's assassination was chiefly laid.  It was also here that he began to take Iranians into his court and wear certain Persian royal vestments.

His generals Craterus and Coenus launched strikes against the Tapurians and Mardians, tribes of the Elburz Mountains overlooking the region.  He reaffirmed Darius' satrap Phrataphernes, who served for most of the 320s, sending Alexander supplies out of Hyrcania to relieve the new Great King during his disastrous crossing of the Gedrosian desert.

Phrataphernes retained his post still during the first partition of the Macedonian empire after Alexander's death, but in 321 the satrapy was given to Philip, formerly of Sogdiana; it is unclear whether Phrataphernes died or was ousted.

In 318, Philip was ousted and executed by Macedonian general Peithon during the Wars of the Diadochi.  After much political bloodshed, Hyrcania and Parthia emerged in the early third century as possessions of the Seleucids.  In the second century, these regions became the homelands of the Parni, who integrated with the Parthians and founded the Arsacid dynasty.  The Sassanid dynasty inherited it as a province, and it became a center of resistance to the Arabs in the post-Sassanid period.

In the ensuing centuries, the name of Hyrcania was discarded as a general name for the region and today it is identified as several distinct provinces populated by the Gilaki and Mazanderani peoples, Persian-speakers in the east and Turkmens who settled during the Safavid period.  The modern form of Verkâna, Gorgān, is retained as the name of the provincial capital of Golestān.

I can discover no evidence regarding the language(s) of Hyrcania for our time, or any pre-Islamic time.  However, as the languages of its immediate neighbors in Achaemenid times, Media and Parthia, and the modern languages of the region, Gilaki and Mazanderani, are all Northwestern Iranian languages, I would suppose Achaemenid Hyrcanian to have been as well.

I have little to go on but would speculate that the names of Artabanus the Hyrcanian and Mithridates (borne by several Arsacid kings) indicate that people in northeastern Iran followed religious traditions not unlike those in Persia.

Hyrcanians don't appear in any ancient art that I've come across (at least clearly differentiated from Parthians), but given their location between Media and Parthia, it seems likely that they dressed in a similar manner.  Both their neighbors wore closed tunics, and the Parthians and many other Iranians wore the tiara.  I'd consider it equally plausible that they wore either fitted or loose trousers and either mid-calf boots like the Parthians or Medo-Persian low shoes.

Herodotus says that Hyrcanian weapons were the same as Persian ones, presumably to include recurved bows carried in gorytoi, spears, akinakes and wicker shields (all the more likely as he lists them among the infantry in Xerxes' army).  As they do not appear under their name in Achaemenid art, there's no way of checking that claim.  Archaeologist Roger Moorey believed that the finds from Deve Hüyük belonged to Hyrcanians; these (including things like the akinakes and round spear butt) are mostly in line with what is seen in Achaemenid portrayals of Medes and Persians.

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