Cam Rea (author of “The Rise of Parthia in the East: From the Seleucid Empire to the Arrival of Rome“) has recently published “Leviathan vs. Behemoth: The Roman-Parthian Wars 66 BC-217 AD”:
- Paperback: 450 pages
- Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (July 8, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 150042403X
- ISBN-13: 978-1500424039
- Available at Amazon
Cam Rea has a BA and MA in Military History. He is a regular contributor to Classical Wisdom Weekly. In addition, he is an ancient history enthusiast and a Teaching Assistant at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
The Roman-Parthian Wars were clashes between eastern and western titans over hegemony, territory and political power. Parthia was perhaps one of Rome’s greatest military rivals on the battlefield. As Rome pushed militarily and diplomatically eastward during the 90’s BCE, they eventually arrived near the Upper Euphrates to discover that many of the mini-kingdoms were in fact Parthian client states, especially Armenia.
Once Rome officially discovered and understood the sphere of influence Parthia had over its western neighbors, Rome gradually took that model and began to court the eastern kingdoms subject to Parthian influence. However, before they can accomplish this, they must first meet their equals. Around 92 BCE, their first diplomatic meeting took place.
[Click to Enlarge] Map of the Parthian Empire in 44 BCE to 138 CE (Picture source: Farrokh, page 155, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایههای صحرا-).
The relationship between both empires started peacefully. As time went on, tensions began to grow over the control of the Near East. While Parthia’s sphere of influence dominated the region, Rome’s political push at Parthia’s client states slowly caused a rift between the two powers that eventually led to war when Crassus invaded Parthia and was obliterated with his Roman forces at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE. After Carrhae, their relations would never be the same, as both sides would continue a tug of war with the kingdoms between their borders, at times directly engaging each other.
Roman generals, like Mark Antony, and many of the emperors, who attempted to conquer Parthia underestimated the enemy multiple times, all in hopes that they could imitate their hero Alexander the Great, only to gain incremental victories and nothing more. The various generals and emperors sought glory and riches but remained ignorant of the people they sought to subjugate. So what was Rome’s overall grand strategy when dealing with Parthia? The answer is, there was none.
There was no Roman strategy in how to subjugate the Parthians, and if there was, those emperors who led campaigns had not the means nor the ability to implement their goals fully, as far as totally subjugating Parthia. Another way to look at it is that the Romans had a grand strategy when it came to conquest, but had none for governing after conquest, at least with Parthia.
However, even this became problematic for the Roman emperors. While they had the ability to trample Mesopotamia under, they could not go further than their ability allowed. Unrest in the newly conquered region is one of many reasons why Rome could not hold the region effectively, plague was another, not to mention that overstretched legions and insufficient resources, along with the cost of war limited their ability to penetrate Parthia farther. Roman emperors were smart enough to know that they could not afford to use their legions on a grand scale, for they could not afford to lose them. In this sense, from the campaigns discussed in this book, the Romans, while not as limited as the Parthians, were in many ways just as limited when it came to military campaigning like the Parthians. The only difference is that Rome could go on a bit longer.
Marc Antony (83-30 BC) Roman statesman and military leader. His expedition into ancient Praaspa (near modern Tabriz) ended in disaster in 36 BC mainly at the hands of Iranian Parthian armored knights and horse-archers (Shiva-tir). In one of the engagements, the Mede infantry destroyed 10,000 Roman legionnaires. Marc Antony and his surviving troops fled into Syria and from there to Egypt where Ptolemid Queen Cleopatra provided them sanctuary and shelter (For more details consult Farrokh, 2007, p.144-146).
The same goes for the Parthian kings. Even though the Euphrates represented the border between the two powers in theory, it was just an illusion. Parthian kings, especially during the 50-30’s BCE, took advantage of this and expanded their influence to the south in Judea and to the west into Anatolia before retreating into their dominion. They, unlike Rome, were not centralized and had no standing army.
The Parthian grand strategy was defensive. Unlike Rome, where the best defense is an offense, Parthia had no such ability, at least over the long term. As mentioned, Parthia had no standing army, but a militia, and relied primarily on the satraps to raise forces when in need. Parthia, unlike Rome, was not a centralized state, and if they committed the bulk of their forces to the west, they ran the risk of rebellions rising within Parthia or foreign invasion. Furthermore, they did not have the means to supply the men day in and day out. The militia had homes and families to attend. Therefore, military service was temporary and protracted military campaigns were out of the question.
Parthian Shiva-tir horse archers attack Roman formations at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE (Picture source: Antony Karasulas & Angus McBride, Osprey Publishing).
In the end, with Parthia gone, Rome’s war in the east continued. A new power would emerge due to the vacuum Rome created. This power, unlike Parthia, was a centralized, leviathanic reflection of Rome. They were the Sassanids.