Stationary -- on the move

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The trouble with time, of course, is that it is fugitive. When I first came across this gentleman labeled a "Parthian noble" I had the distinct feeling of having met him somewhere, sometime, before, as if I had seen him walking down the street. And when I tried to pin him down I found him to be most elusive, as befits his reputation. No one seems to know for sure where he came from or who made him when, or why he exists.

I thought at first glance that he might have been part of the Romanesque world of 12th- century France, from the basilica of Vezelay or Saint Trophime in Arcles. So I was surprised to learn he was from a Middle Eastern kingdom instead. Yet, upon investigation, I find it not so surprising after all: ideas and styles persist in spite of geography, history (which is but the recording of events in the slippery medium of time), fads, or other apparent limitations of the human mind.

It turns out that some scholars have been able to trace a Parthian influence through various channels to mediaeval Europe and further into a more recent past , as well as to find some hints of the beginnings of these vagabond people in the area between the Black and the Caspian Seas during the days of the Greek city-states.

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The Western world knew the Parthians as monopolists of the silk trade from China on the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire. Modern enterprise has nothing on them. According to one expert on ancient Central Asian affairs, even the Huns, who were then bothering the Chinese, wore silk underwear! Tacitus, in his Annals for AD 16-19 notes that Parthian kings were crowned in Rome -- rather a comedown, for he quotes the Parthians themselves as moaning, "Where was the glory of the men who slew Crassus, who drove out Antonius, if Ceasar's drudge, after an endurance of so many years' slavery, were to rule over Parthians?" -- and that after the Roman general gained a peculiar sort of fame having been surrounded, I gather, by mounted archers who shot and fled, nomad raider-fashion , instead of slugging it out in serried ranks.

These Central Asians had taken over a huge area between the Euphrates and Oxus rivers, the seas to the north and the ocean to the south; they had embraced the heritage of the Greek Alexander, the Persian Zoroaster, the Babylonians and the Scythians. The Parthians themselves were said to be Aryans, which would account for the non-Eastern features of our noble friend's face.

The style in which they are rendered, though influenced by Hellenistic modes, and Roman too, I think, retains a sharp, rough simplicity that seems to be uniquely Parthian, to judge from other works than can be so identified. The pointed beard and the almost geometric waviness of it and the hair on top of the head, the incised iris and the pupil of the eye combined with an angularity of planes are all typical of the Parthian sculpture, whether found in what is now Iraq or Iran or Mongolia.

Nomads, like time, come and go, and even though there had been a political unit called the Parthian Empire with more or less definite bounds, the people themselves kept moving all over the map beyond for hundreds of years. This man looks to me as if he had his eye fixed on eternity, as if he would keep circling round any attempt to limit him to a particular time and place.

That just suits me. I have a friend from Kentucky who feels likewise and is fond of saying, "What's time to a hog?" Samuel Butler, the early one, the one who wrote Hudibras,m puts it more elegantly in Hudibras To His Lady,m even if I twist his meaning a bit: "You wound, like parthians, while you fly And kill, with a Retreating Eye."

Kill time? Why not! I can think of no better use for a Parthian shaft.

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