Parthian Empire (247 B.C. – 226 A.D.)
The Parthian invasion of Syria 51-50 B.C.
Gaius Cassius Longinus
Orodes sent his son, Pacorus, the young bridegroom, to win his spurs in Syria, at the head of a considerable force, and supported by the experience and authority of an officer of ripe age, named Osaces. The army crossed the Euphrates unresisted, for Gaius Cassius Longinus, the governor, had with him only the broken remains of Crassus's army, consisting of about two legions, and, deeming himself too weak to meet the enemy in the open field, was content to defend the towns. The open country was consequently overrun; and a thrill of mingled alarm and excitement passed through all the Roman provinces in Asia. The provinces were at the time most inadequately supplied with Roman troops, through the desire of Cesar and Pompey to maintain large armies about their own persons. The natives were for the most part disaffected and inclined to hail the Parthians as brethren and deliverers. Excepting Deiotarus of Galatia, and Ariobarzanes of Cappadocia, Rome had, as Cicero (then proconsul of Cilicia) plaintively declared, "not a friend on the Asiatic continent. And Cappadocia was miserably weak," and open to attack on the side of Armenia. Had Orodes and Artavasdes acted in concert, and had the latter, while Orodes sent his armies into Syria, poured the Armenian forces into Cappadocia and then into Cilicia (as it was expected that he would do), there would have been the greatest danger to the Roman possessions. As it was, the excitement in Asia Minor was extreme. Cicero marched into Cappadocia with the bulk of the Roman troops, and summoned to his aid Deiotarus with his Galatians, at the same time writing to the Roman Senate to implore reinforcements. Cassius shut himself up in Antioch, and allowed the Parthian cavalry to pass him by, and even to proceed beyond the bounds of Syria into Cilicia.
But the Parthians seem scarcely to have understood the situation of their adversaries, or to have been aware of their own advantages. Instead of spreading themselves wide, raising the natives, and leaving them to blockade the towns, while with their as yet unconquered squandrons they defied the enemy in the open country, we find them engaging in the siege and blockade of cities, for which they were wholly unfit, and confining themselves almost entirely to the narrow valley of the Orontes. Under these circumstances we are not surprised to learn that Cassius, having first beat them back from Antioch, contrived to lead them into an ambush on the banks of the river, and severely handled their troops, even killing the general Osaces.
The intrigue of Bibulus
The Parthians withdrew from the neighborhood of the Syrian capital after this defeat, which must have taken place about the end of September, and soon afterwards went into winter quarters in Oyrrhestica, or the part of Syria immediately east of Amanus. Here they remained during the winter months under Pacorus, and it was expected that the war would break out again with fresh fury in the spring; but Bibulus, the new proconsul of Syria, conscious of his military deficiencies, contrived to sow dissensions among the Parthians themselves, and to turn the thoughts of Pacorus in another direction. He suggested to Ornodapantes, a Parthian noble, with whom he had managed to open a correspondence, that Pacorus would be a more worthy occupant of the Parthian throne than his father, and that he would consult well for his own interests if he were to proclaim the young prince, and lead the army of Syria against Orodes.
These intrigues seem, to have first caused the war to languish, and then produced the recall of the expedition. Orodes summoned Pacorus to return to Parthia before the plot contrived between him and the Romans was ripe for execution; and Pacorus felt that no course was open to him but to obey. The Parthian legions recrossed the Euphrates in July, B.C. 50; and the First Roman War, which had lasted a little more than four years, terminated without any real recovery by the Romans of the laurels that they had lost at Carrhae.
Relations of Orodes with Pompey, and with Brutus and Cassius. Second
War with Rome. Great Parthian Expedition against Syria, Palestine,
and Asia Minor. Defeat of Saxa. Occupation of Antioch and Jerusalem.
Parthians driven out of Syria by Ventidius. Death of Pacorus. Death of
The civil troubles that had seemed to threaten Parthia from the ambition of the youthful Pacorus passed away without any explosion. The son showed his obedience by returning home submissively when he might have flown to arms; and the father accepted the act of obedience as a sufficient indication that no rebellion had been seriously meant. We find Pacorus not only allowed to live, but again entrusted a few years later with high office by the Parthian monarch; and on this occasion we find him showing no signs of disaffection or discontent.
Nine years, however, elapsed between the recall of the young prince and his reappointment to the supreme command against the Romans. Of the internal condition of Parthia during this interval we have no account. Apparently, Orodes ruled quietly and peaceably, contenting himself with the glory which he had gained, and not anxious to tempt fortune by engaging in any fresh enterprise. It was no doubt a satisfaction to him to see the arms of the Romans, instead of being directed upon Asia, employed in intestine strife; and we can well understand that he might even deem it for his interest to foment and encourage the quarrels which, at any rate for the time, secured his own empire from attack.
It appears that communications took place in the year B.C. 49 or 48 between him and Pompey, a request for alliance being made by the latter, and an answer being sent by Orodes, containing the terms upon which he would consent to give Pompey effective aid in the war. If the Roman leader would deliver into his hands the province of Syria and make it wholly over to the Parthians, Orodes would conclude an alliance with him and send help; but not otherwise. It is to the credit of Pompey that he rejected these terms, and declined to secure his own private gain by depriving his country of a province. Notwithstanding the failure of these negotiations and the imprisonment of his envoy Hirrus, when a few months later, having lost the battle of Pharsalia, the unhappy Roman was in need of a refuge from his great enemy, he is said to have proposed throwing himself on the friendship, or mercy, of Orodes. He had hopes, perhaps, of enlisting the Parthian battalions in his cause, and of recovering power by means of this foreign aid. But his friends combated his design, and persuaded him that the risk, both to himself and to his wife, Cornelia, was too great to be compatible with prudence. Pompey yielded to their representations; and Orodes escaped the difficulty of having to elect between repulsing a suppliant, and provoking the hostility of the most powerful chieftain and the greatest general of the age.
The plans of Caesar
Caesar quitted the East in B.C. 47 without entering into any communication with Orodes. He had plenty of work upon his hands; and whatever designs he may have even then entertained of punishing the Parthian inroad into Syria, or avenging the defeat of Carrhae, he was wise enough to keep his projects to himself and to leave Asia without exasperating by threats or hostile movements the Power on which the peace of the East principally depended. It was not until he had brought the African and Spanish wars to an end that he allowed his intention of leading an expedition against Parthia to be openly talked about. In B.C. 34, four years after Pharsalia, having put down all his domestic enemies, and arranged matters, as he thought, satisfactorily at Rome, he let a decree be passed formally assigning to him "the Parthian War," and sent the legions across the Adriatic on their way to Asia. What plan of campaign he may have contemplated is uncertain; but there cannot be a doubt that an expedition under his auspices would have been a most serious danger to Parthia, and might have terminated in her subjection. The military talents of the Great Dictator were of the most splendid description; his powers of organization and consolidation enormous; his prudence and caution equal to his ambition and his courage. Once launched on a career of conquest in the East, it is impossible to say whither he might not have carried the Roman eagles, or what countries he might not have added to the Empire. But Parthia was saved from the imminent peril without any effort of her own. The daggers of "the Liberators" struck down on the 15th of March, B.C. 44, the only man whom she had seriously to fear; and with the removal of Julius passed away even from Roman thought for many a years the design which he had entertained, and which he alone could have accomplished.
The Roman Civil war
It is 60 BC. Over-powerful generals and money corrupts the Roman Republic. The empire churns with civil war, and violence and murder run rampant in the streets. Julius Caesar, desperate for fame and honor, embarks on a brutal decade long campaign to annex Gaul and build his own reputation. His aristocratic rivals try to stop him, but he is an expert manipulator. His propaganda and extravagant victories against bloodthirsty barbarians thrill the public.
In the civil war that followed on the murder of Julius the Parthians are declared to have actually taken a part. It appears that—about B.C. 46—a small body of Parthian horse-archers had been sent to the assistance of a certain Bassus, a Roman who amid the troubles of the times was seeking to obtain for himself something like an independent principality in Syria. The soldiers of Bassus, after a while (B.C. 43), went over in a body to Cassius, who was in the East collecting troops for his great struggle with Antony and Octavian; and thus a handful of Parthians came into his power. Of this circumstance he determined to take advantage, in order to obtain, if possible, a considerable body of troops from Orodes. He presented each of the Parthian soldiers with a sum of money, and dismissed them all to their homes, at the same time seizing the opportunity to send some of his own officers, as ambassadors, to Orodes, with a request for substantial aid. On receiving this application the Parthian monarch appears to have come to the conclusion that it was to his interest to comply with it. Whether he made conditions, or no, is uncertain; but he seems to have sent a pretty numerous body of horse to the support of the "Liberators" against their antagonists. Perhaps he trusted to obtain from the gratitude of Cassius what he had failed to extort from the fears of Pompey. Or, perhaps, he was only anxious to prolong the period of civil disturbance in the Roman State, which secured his own territory from attack, and might ultimately give him an opportunity of helping himself to some portion of the Roman dominions in Asia.
The opportunity seemed to him to have arrived in B.C. 40. Philippi had been fought and lost. The "Liberators" were crushed. The struggle between the Republicans and the Monarchists had come to an end. But, instead of being united, the Roman world was more than ever divided; and the chance of making an actual territorial gain at the expense of the tryant power appeared fairer than it had ever been before. Three rivals now held divided sway in the Roman State; each of them jealous of the other two, and anxious for his own aggrandizement. The two chief pretenders to the first place were bitterly hostile; and while the one was detained in Italy by insurrection against his authority, the other was plunged in luxury and dissipation, enjoying the first delights of a lawless passion, at the Egyptian capital. The nations of the East were, moreover, alienated by the recent exactions of the profligate Triumvir, who, to reward his parasites and favorites, had laid upon them a burden that they were scarcely able to bear. Further, the Parthians enjoyed at this time the advantage of having a Roman officer of good position in their service, whose knowledge of the Roman tactics, and influence in Roman provinces, might be expected to turn to their advantage.
The Parthians invade Syria Phoenicia, and Palestine: Pharnapates and Pacorus
Under these circumstances, when the spring of the year arrived, Antony being still in Egypt, and Octavian (as far as was known) occupied in the siege of Perusia, the Parthian hordes, under Labienus and Pacorus, burst upon Syria in greater force than on any previous occasion. Overrunning with their numerous cavalry the country between the Euphrates and Antioch, and thence the valley of the Orontes, they had (as usual) some difficulty with the towns. From Apamaea, placed (like Durham) on a rocky peninsula almost surrounded by the river, they were at first repulsed; but, having shortly afterwards defeated Decidius Saxa, the governor of Syria, in the open field, they received the submission of Apamaea and Antioch, which latter city Saxa abandoned at their approach, flying precipitately into Cilicia.
Encouraged by these successes, Labienus and Pacorus agreed to divide their troops, and to engage simultaneously in two great expeditions. Pacorus undertook to carry the Parthian standard throughout the entire extent of Syria, Phoenicia, and Palestine, while Labienus determined to invade Asia Minor, and to see if he could not wrest some of its more fertile regions from the Romans. Both expeditions were crowned with success.
Pacorus in Palestine
Pacorus reduced all Syria, and all Phoenicia, except the single city of Tyre, which he was unable to capture for want of a naval force. He then advanced into Palestine, which he found in its normal condition of intestine commotion. Hyrcanus and Antigonus, two princes of the Asmonsean house, were rivals for the Jewish crown; and the latter, whom Hyrcanus had expelled, was content to make common cause with the invader, and to be indebted to a rude foreigner for the possession of the kingdom whereto he aspired. He offered Pacorus a thousand talents, and five hundred Jewish women, if he would espouse his cause and seat him upon his uncle's throne. The offer was readily embraced, and by the irresistible help of the Parthians a revolution was effected at Jerusalem. Hyrcanus was deposed and mutilated. A new priest-king was set up in the person of Antigonus, the last Asmonsean prince, who held the capital for three years—B.C. 40-37—as a Parthian satrap, the creature and dependant of the great monarchy on the further side of the Euphrates. Meanwhile in Asia Minor Labienus carried all before him. Decidius Saxa, having once more (in Cilicia) ventured upon a battle, was not only defeated, but slain. Pamphylia, Lycia, and Caria were overrun. Stratonicea was besieged; Mylasa and Alabanda were taken. According to some writers the Parthians even pillaged Lydia and Ionia, and were in possession of Asia to the shores of the Hellespont.
The Romans return, Publius Ventidius
It may be said that for a full year Western Asia changed masters; the rule and authority of Rome disappeared; and the Parthians were recognized as the dominant power. But the fortune of war now began to turn. In the autumn of B.C. 39 Antony, having set out from Italy to resume his command in the East, despatched his lieutenant, Publius Ventidius, into Asia, with orders to act against Labienus and the triumphant Parthians. Ventidius landed unexpectedly on the coast of Asia Minor, and so alarmed Labienus, who had no Parthian troops with him, that the latter fell back hurriedly towards Cilicia, evacuating all the more western provinces, and at the same time sending urgent messages to Pacorus to implore succor. Pacorus sent a body of horse to his aid; but these troops, instead of putting themselves under his command, acted independently, and, in a rash attempt to surprise the Roman camp, were defeated by Ventidius, whereupon they fled hastily into Cilicia, leaving Labienus to his fate. The self-styled "Imperator," upon this, deserted his men, and sought safety in flight; but his retreat was soon discovered, and he was pursued, captured, and put to death.
Parthian defeats in Syria, Romans recover Syria 38 B.C., death of Pharnapates
The Parthians, meanwhile, alarmed at the turn which affairs had taken, left Antigonus to maintain their interests in Palestine, and concentrated themselves in Northern Syria and Commagene, where they awaited the advance of the Romans. A strong detachment, under Pharnapates, was appointed to guard the Syrian Gates, or narrow pass over Mount Amanus, leading from Cilicia into Syria. Here Ventidius gained another victory. He had sent forward an officer named Pompsedius Silo with some cavalry to endeavor to seize this post, and Pompaedius had found himself compelled to an engagement with Pharnapates, in which he was on the point of suffering defeat, when Ventidius himself, who had probably feared for his subordinate's safety, appeared on the scene, and turned the scale in favor of the Romans. The detachment under Pharnapates was overpowered, and Pharnapates himself was among the slain. When news of this defeat reached Pacorus, he resolved to retreat, and withdrew his troops across the Euphrates. This movement he appears to have executed without being molested by Ventidius, who thus recovered Syria to the Romans towards the close of B.C. 39, or early in B.C. 38.
The intrigue of Publius Ventidius, death of Pacorus
But Pacorus was far from intending to relinquish the contest. He had made himself popular among the Syrians by his mild and just administration, and knew that they preferred his government to that of the Romans. He had many allies among the petty princes and dynasts, who occupied a semi-independent position on the borders of the Parthian and Roman empires. Antigonus, whom he had established as king of the Jews, still maintained himself in Judaea against the efforts of Herod, to whom Augustus and Antony had assigned the throne. Pacorus therefore arranged during the remainder of the winter for a fresh invasion of Syria in the spring, and, taking the field earlier than his adversary expected, made ready to recross the Euphrates. We are told that if he had crossed at the usual point, he would have found the Romans unprepared, the legions being still in their winter quarters, some north and some south of the range of Taurus.
Ventidius, however, contrived by a stratagem to induce him to effect the passage at a different point, considerably lower down the stream, and in this way to waste some valuable time, which he himself employed in collecting his scattered forces. Thus, when the Parthians appeared on the right bank of the Euphrates, the Roman general was prepared to engage them, and was not even loath to decide the fate of the war by a single battle. He had taken care to provide himself with a strong force of slingers, and had entrenched himself in a position on high ground at some distance from the river. The Parthians, finding their passage of the Euphrates unopposed, and, when they fell in with the enemy, seeing him entrenched, as though resolved to act only on the defensive, became overbold; they thought the force opposed to them must be weak or cowardly, and might yield its position without a blow, if briskly attacked. Accordingly, as on a former occasion, they charged up the hill on which the Roman camp was placed, hoping to take it by sheer audacity. But the troops inside were held ready, and at the proper moment issued forth; the assailants found themselves in their turn assailed, and, fighting at a disadvantage on the slope, were soon driven down the declivity. The battle was renewed in plain below, where the mailed horse of the Parthians made a brave resistance; but the slingers galled them severely, and in the midst of the struggle it happened that by ill-fortune Pacorus was slain. The result followed which is almost invariable with an Oriental army: having lost their leader, the soldiers everywhere gave way; flight became universal, and the Romans gained a complete victory. The Parthian army fled in two directions. Part made for the bridge of boats by which it had crossed the Euphrates, but was intercepted by the Romans and destroyed. Part turned northwards into Commagene, and there took refuge with the king, Antiochus, who refused to surrender them to the demand of Ventidius, and no doubt allowed them to return to their own country.
Comparing the Roman and Parthian military
Thus ended the great Parthian invasion of Syria, and with it ended the prospect of any further spread of the Arsacid dominion towards the west. While the Parthian warfare was admirably adapted for the national defence on the broad plains of inner Asia, it was ill suited for conquest, and, comparatively speaking, ineffective in more contracted and difficult regions. The Parthian military system had not the elasticity of the Roman—it did not in the same way adapt itself to circumstances, or admit of the addition of new arms, or the indefinite expansion of an old one. However loose and seemingly flexible, it was rigid in its uniformity; it never altered; it remained under the thirtieth Arsaces such as it had been under the first, improved in details, perhaps, but essentially the same system. The Romans, on the contrary, were ever modifying their system, ever learning new combinations or new manoeuvres or new modes of warfare from their enemies. They met the Parthian tactics of loose array, continuous distant missiles, and almost exclusive employment of cavalry, with an increase in the number of their own horse, a larger employment of auxiliary irregulars, and a greater use of the sling.
At the same time they learnt to take full advantage of the Parthian inefficiency against walls, and to practice against them the arts of pretended retreat and ambush. The result was, that Parthia found she could make no impression upon the dominions of Rome, and, having become persuaded of this by the experience of a decade of years, thenceforth laid aside for ever the idea of attempting Western conquests. She took up, in fact, from this time, a new attitude, Hitherto she had been consistently aggressive. She had labored constantly to extend herself at the expense successively of the Bactrians, the Scythians, the Syro-Macedonians, and the Armenians. She had proceeded from one aggression to another, leaving only short intervals between her wars, and had always been looking out for some fresh enemy. Henceforth she became, comparatively speaking, pacific. She was content for the most part, to maintain her limits. She sought no new foe. Her contest with Rome degenerated into a struggle for influence over the kingdom of Armenia; and her hopes were limited to the reduction of that kingdom into a subject position.
The last years of Orodes, his death
The death of Pacorus is said to have caused Orodes intense grief. For many days he would neither eat nor speak; then his sorrow took another turn. He imagined that his son had returned; he thought continually that he heard or saw him; he could do nothing but repeat his name. Every now and then, however, he awoke to a sense of the actual fact, and mourned the death of his favorite with tears. After a while this extreme grief wore itself out, and the aged king began to direct his attention once more to public affairs. He grew anxious about the succession. Of the thirty sons who still remained to him there was not one who had made himself a name, or was in any way distinguished above the remainder. In the absence of any personal ground of preference, Orodes—who seems to have regarded himself as possessing a right to nominate the son who should succeed him—thought the claims of primogeniture deserved to be considered, and selected as his successor, Phraates, the eldest of the thirty. Not content with nominating him, or perhaps doubtful whether the nomination would be accepted by the Megistanes, he proceeded further to abdicate in his favor, whereupon Phraates became king. The transaction proved a most unhappy one. Phraates, jealous of some of his brothers, who were the sons of a princess married to Orodes, whereas his own mother was only a concubine, removed them by assassination, and when the ex-monarch ventured to express disapproval of the act added the crime of parricide to fratricide by putting to death his aged father. Thus perished Orodes, after a reign of eighteen years—the most memorable in the Parthian annals.
Battle of Carrhae