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A map of Characene.
A map of Characene.
CapitalCharax Spasinu
Common languagesAramaic (cultural language)[1]
• 141-124 BC
Hyspaosines (first)
• 210–222 AD
Abinergaios III (last)
Historical eraMiddle Ages
• Established
• Sasanian conquest
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Seleucid Empire
Sasanian Empire

Characene (Ancient Greek: Χαρακηνή), also known as Mesene (Μεσσήνη)[2] or Meshan, was a state founded by the Iranian[3][4] Hyspaosines within the Parthian Empire located at the head of the Persian Gulf. Its capital, Charax Spasinou (Χάραξ Σπασινού), was an important port for trade between Mesopotamia and India, and also provided port facilities for the city of Susa further up the Karun River. Characene was mainly populated by Arabs, who spoke Aramaic as their cultural language.[1] All rulers of the principality had Iranian names.[4]


Characene was part of the Sassanid Empire and was located primarily within the southern part of present-day Iraq.[5] At one point Characene included Tylos, the present-day country of Bahrain.


Characene was founded around 127 BC under Aspasine, known in classical writings as Hyspaosines, a former satrap installed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Characene remained intact throughout the Seleucid Empire and continued as an essentially independent kingdom under the Parthians until it was conquered by the Sassanians at the beginning of the third century AD.

After the Parthian conquest, Characene remained a semi-autonomous country with its own kings. Its tenure as a separate kingdom ended with the fall of the Parthian Empire.

The kings of Characene are known mainly by their coins, consisting mainly of silver tetradrachms with Greek and later Aramaic inscriptions. These coins are dated after the Seleucid era, providing a secure framework for chronological succession.

Charax, the capital of Characene, was founded by Alexander the Great. The city was constructed on an artificial mound to protect the site from the floodwaters of the nearby rivers. The new town served as a major commercial port for the eastern capital of Babylon. Charax flourished under the Seleucid Empire, controlling the trade in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. It was also a center for pearl diving.

The town of Charax Spa. on the 4th century Peutinger map

The Roman emperor Trajan visited Charax in 116 AD during his invasion of Parthia, where he saw ships bound for India.

After it was destroyed by a flood, Charax was rebuilt by Seleucid king Antiochus III the Great (222–187 BC) and was briefly called Antiochia. After the Parthian invasion of Mesopotamia in 141 BC, Charax became independent.

The state kept its independence (perhaps as a vassal of the Parthian Empire) and sometimes joined the Romans in their struggle against the common enemy, the Parthian king. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder praises the port of Charax:

The embankments extend in length a distance of nearly 4½ kilometers, in breadth a little less. It stood at first at a distance of 1¾ km from the shore, and even had a harbor of its own. But according to Juba, it is 75 kilometer from the sea; and at the present day, the ambassadors from Arabia, and our own merchants who have visited the place, say that it stands at a distance of one 180 kilometers from the sea-shore. Indeed, in no part of the world have alluvial deposits been formed more rapidly by the rivers, and to a greater extent than here; and it is only a matter of surprise that the tides, which run to a considerable distance beyond this city, do not carry them back again.[6]

Trade continued to be important. A famous Characenian, a man named Isidore, was the author of a treatise on Parthian trade routes, the Mansiones Parthicae. The inhabitants of Palmyra had a permanent trading station in Characene. Many inscriptions mention caravan trade.

In 221-222 AD, an ethnic Persian, Ardašēr, who was King of Persis, led a revolt against the Parthians, establishing the Sassanid Empire. According to later Arab histories, he defeated Characene forces, killed its last ruler, rebuilt the town, and renamed it Astarābād-Ardašīr.[7] The area around Charax that had been the Characene state was thereon known by the Aramaic/Syriac name Maysān, which was later adapted by the Arab conquerors.[8]

Charax continued, under the name Maysān, with Persian texts making various mention of governors throughout the fifth century. A Nestorian Church was mentioned there in the sixth century. The Charax mint appears to have continued throughout the Sassanid empire and into the Umayyad empire, minting coins as late as AD 715.[9]

The earliest references from the first century A.D. indicates that the people of Characene were referred to as Μεσηνός and lived along the Arabian side of the coast at the head of the Persian Gulf.


Hyspaosines (209–124 BC), founder and king of Characene.
Coin of Orabaze II
Tiraios II.


  1. ^ a b Bosworth 1986, pp. 201–203.
  2. ^ Morony, Michael G. (2005). Iraq After The Muslim Conquest. Gorgias Press LLC. p. 155. ISBN 9781593333157.
  3. ^ Hansman 1991, pp. 363–365.
  4. ^ a b Eilers 1983, p. 487.
  5. ^ Bennett D. Hill; Roger B. Beck; Clare Haru Crowston (2008). A History of World Societies, Combined Volume (PDF). p. 165. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-12-03. Centered in the fertile Tigris-Euphrates Valley, but with access to the Persian Gulf and extending south to Meshan (modern Kuwait), the Sassanid Empire's economic prosperity rested on agriculture; its location also proved well suited for commerce.
  6. ^ Pliny the Elder (AD 77). Natural History. Book VI. xxxi. 138-140. Translation by W. H. S. Jones, Loeb Classical Library, London/Cambridge, Massachusetts (1961).
  7. ^ Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Ṭabarī I
  8. ^ Yāqūt, Kitab mu'jam al-buldan IV and III
  9. ^ Characene and Charax, Characene and Charax Encyclopaedia Iranica


Further reading[edit]

  • Gregoratti Leonardo, A Parthian port on the Persian Gulf: Characene and its Trade, "Anabasis, Studia Classica et Orientalia", 2, (2011), 209-229
  • Schuol, Monika (2000) Die Charakene : ein mesopotamisches Königreich in hellenistisch-parthischer Zeit. Stuttgart: F. Steiner. ISBN 3-515-07709-X
  • Sheldon A. Nodelman, A Preliminary History of Charakene, Berytus 13 (1959/60), 83-121, XXVII f.,
  • Hansman, John (1991) Characene and Charax Encyclopedia Iranica (print version Vol. V, Fasc. 4, pp. 363–365). Retrieved 25 April 2016.