On June 9, 53 BC, hard-riding Parthian horse-archers from the Persian heartland lured a Roman infantry army into open country at Carrhae and surrounded it. Darting swiftly across the plains, the Parthians rained shield-piercing arrows onto the Roman lines. When the one-sided battle was over, 30,000 legionaries had been killed or captured. Among the dead was the Roman commander, Marcus Licinius Crassus.
Rome’s burning desire for revenge against the Persian kingdom had to be postponed while domestic disputes and civil wars were resolved. By 41 BC, Marcus Antonius (known to posterity by the name that William Shakespeare gave him, Mark Antony) was ready to take up the Parthian challenge. In that year Antony assembled an army and started off for the East. As he traveled he summoned Eastern client kings to meet with him and contribute financially and militarily to his cause. One of these was Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt. She was 28 years old at the time — the age, Plutarch assures us, “when a woman’s beauty is at its most superb and her mind at its most mature.” They met at the city of Tarsus in Cilicia, and he famously fell in love with her.
Having fallen under Cleopatra’s spell, Antony accepted an invitation to winter at her palace in Alexandria. For the moment his plans for invading Parthia were put on hold. He left his Syrian garrison in the command of his appointed governor, L. Decidius Saxa, while he set off for Alexandria and the inviting arms of Cleopatra.
While Antony lingered in Egypt, an army led by the Parthian Crown Prince Pacorus and Roman deserter Quintus Labienus made a preemptive strike across the Euphrates River into Syria. Labienus’ father had fought for Gaius Julius Caesar in Gaul, but later backed Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) against him. Labienus the younger had favored Caesar’s Republican enemies, Marcus Junius Brutus and Caius Cassius Longinus, who had sent him to negotiate with the Parthians. With the collapse of the Republican cause, Labienus stayed on in Persia rather than submit to the tender mercies of the victorious Antony and Caesar’s adopted nephew and heir, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian). Now he had returned with a Parthian army at his back. He and Pacorus swept away all resistance before them and soon reached Antioch on the Mediterranean Sea. No Persian had been master of Antioch since Alexander the Great evicted them some 300 years before.
In February or March 40 BC, Antony received word of the Parthian invasion and sailed at once from Egypt to Tyre on the coast of Phoenicia. The news he received at Tyre could not have been worse. The Parthians had rolled over everything in their path. Many of Antony’s troops in Syria had been former Republicans who had once fought against him in the service of Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius. They either had willingly gone over to their fellow Republican Labienus in joining the Persian invaders or had put up only token resistance. The loyal governor Saxa continued his defense of Syria until he was killed. After Syria was taken, the Parthians split their forces. Half the army under Labienus poured into Asia Minor while the other half under Pacorus moved south into a welcoming Judea to install a popular client king, Antigonus, over the Jews.
At the same time Antony was learning about the disaster in the East, he received news of his wife, Fulvia. His principal defender in Rome, she had taken up arms against Antony’s rival, Octavian, who had defeated her. She was forced to flee the city. An ambitious aristocrat, so powerful in her time that she was the first woman ever to be depicted on a Roman coin, Fulvia had sought to obtain even more power and fame through her husband. It must have been humiliating for her to learn during that winter that Antony was preoccupied with his new Egyptian mistress. She hurried east to join her husband, but died on the way.
Too busy to grieve, the widower Antony had two choices: He could stay in the East and fight the rampaging Parthians or return to Rome to shore up his crumbling position. He decided that affairs in Rome had to be dealt with first. While packing for home he appointed an ambitious officer, Publius Ventidius Bassus, as his proconsul in the East. It would turn out to be an inspired choice.
Antony rushed home, but it was October 40 BC before he finally met with Octavian. Blaming everything on Fulvia, he soon patched things up with his former partner, who had a proposition for him: Octavian’s older half-sister had been recently widowed, and since Antony was now a widower, why not accept a marriage to cement their alliance? Antony accepted.
During this time of harmony between the two rivals, Antony sought to make a deal with Octavian to strengthen his hand against the Parthians. He proposed to turn over 120 of his formidable warships to take part in Octavian’s war against Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey the Great, who controlled Sicily and Sardinia as well as the seas of the western Mediterranean. In exchange for the ships, Antony was to receive 20,000 troops recruited in northern Italy to augment his forces in the East. But while Antony kept his part of the bargain, Octavian did not.
Antony was still in Rome when good news came from the East. Ventidius had massed 11 legions, and in 39 BC he challenged Labienus to a fight for control of Asia Minor. The Romans had been brooding over their defeat at the hands of the Parthians ever since Crassus lost his army almost 15 years before. Much thought had gone into how to defeat those formidable horse-archers with their armor-penetrating arrows.
The first step was to strengthen the standard Roman shield, made of wood, which Parthian arrows had so easily pierced. Second, more attention was paid to archery. Auxiliary archers who could use the powerful reflex-composite bow of the Parthians were hired or conscripted to augment every Roman unit.
Another weapon added to the Roman arsenal was the sling. An ancient weapon that predated the biblical tale of David and Goliath, it was nothing more than a leather strap that allowed the slinger to hurl a rock farther and faster than it could be thrown. As young David had demonstrated, an accomplished slinger could kill an opponent with a well-aimed shot, but that was rare. The slinger’s value lay in being used en masse to discomfit enemy bowmen and their mounts. A shower of rocks unsettled horses and spoiled the accurate aim of an unprotected archer. The Romans also turned to a defensive tactic called the testudo, or tortoise. When Parthian archers threatened a Roman line, the Romans bunched together and overlapped their shields to form a protective formation against armor-piercing arrows.
Ventidius assembled his army in Cilicia and immediately sent his cavalry to the mountain passes that bordered Asia Minor. If he could take the passes, he would cut Labienus’ Parthians off from their Eastern home. Unlike the glory-obsessed Crassus, who had let his enemy make that decision, Ventidius — thanks to his speed and keen eye — would choose the ground for the coming battle. He knew that flat ground favored the swifter cavalry of the Parthians over his largely infantry army. Hilly terrain, on the other hand, neutralized that advantage.
Ventidius situated himself on top of a steep, sloping hillside overlooking the mountain pass through which the Parthians would have to ride to return home. The approaching horsemen would need to charge uphill over rising and broken ground to get at him.
Labienus came up with his forces, surveyed the situation and decided on a dawn attack. The Parthian archers, sure of victory, charged upward out of the early morning mists into a Roman wall of massed slingers and bowmen. The charge slowed as each rider negotiated the rocky hillside. While guiding their horses over the unsure ground, they could not fire their arrows effectively.
The Romans held their fire until the horsemen had committed themselves to the uphill climb. At a signal came a volley of stones, arrows and spears. The attacking horse-archers had no shields to fend off the missiles. Their hapless animals bolted at the shock and pain of the hail of innumerable stones and arrows. The Parthians countered by sending in their heavy shock cavalry, called cataphracts. While those heavily armored lancers and horses were good at breaking a Roman line on level ground, they were much less effective struggling uphill against a swarm of eager opponents. Hundreds of Parthians fell, and Ventidius gained a great victory. During the night, Labienus disguised himself and fled. He was later caught and executed.
Having defeated the Parthian threat in Asia Minor, Ventidius learned that Crown Prince Pacorus was leading a new force from Parthia to invade Syria. To gain time, he sent spies to Pacorus to suggest that the Parthians cross the Euphrates River at their usual ford. Pacorus, suspecting a trick, crossed the river much farther downstream. But that was, in fact, exactly what Ventidius wanted him to do. The southern crossing of the river added some days to the Parthians’ march and gained precious time for the Romans to bring up their forces.
Ventidius did not oppose the Parthian crossing to the west bank of the Euphrates. The extra time it took the enemy to get into Syria allowed him to get his army into a position of his own choosing. When the Parthians found no opposition at the riverbank, they advanced confidently to the walled town of Gindarus, which sat upon a small hill. The Parthians could see no activity in the town and, thinking it deserted, approached confidently. When they were within range, the gates were flung open and the Romans came streaming out and charged downhill at them. At that point the Parthians were not using their light horse-archers but were relying on the shock value of the armored cataphracts. The heavily encumbered horses could not maneuver on the hilly slope. The Roman infantry overwhelmed the Parthians and threw them back across the river with heavy losses including Crown Prince Pacorus, who was killed. It was June 9, 38 BC — 15 years to the day of the Roman debacle at Carrhae. Crassus had been avenged. To announce his victories to the doubting East, Ventidius sent Pacorus’ severed head on a tour of Syrian towns to convince the people that they were at last safe from the rampaging enemy.
When news of that victory reached Rome, there was great rejoicing except in the home of Mark Antony. It would not do for his subordinate to gain all the victories and the glory — Antony must be present to claim the prize. He immediately departed for the East.
Ventidius did not pursue the retreating Parthians, possibly on the orders of a jealous Antony. Instead he settled some old scores with desert tribes that had supported the enemy. He was laying siege to the city of Samosata on the upper Euphrates when Antony at last came up. It was rumored that Ventidius had taken a large bribe from the people of Samosata to leave their city unmolested. True or false, the accusation was believed in Rome and tarnished Ventidius’ reputation.
Antony arrived too late to taste the glory of the Roman victories, but he quickly took charge of his army and the siege of Samosata. He showered Ventidius with faint praise and packed him off to Rome, where the happy Senate voted him a well-deserved triumph, the first ever against the Parthians. Settling into a hero’s retirement, Ventidius soon disappeared from history.
Antony quickly tired of the siege of Samosata and accepted 300 gold talents for ending it. Next he dealt with Antigonus, the Parthian-installed Jewish king in Jerusalem. Antony had the usurper arrested, flogged and crucified (a harbinger for a future “king of the Jews”). To fill the kingly role in Jerusalem, Antony installed his friend Herod (the Great).
Antony then returned to Rome, where he found that public opinion had turned against him and in favor of Octavian. He was faulted for his dalliance with Cleopatra while the Parthians launched their invasion.
Only the efforts of Antony’s wife, Octavia, were able to restore a tenuous harmony between him and her brother, Octavian. Antony made plans to rehabilitate his good name by invading Parthia. The omens for a Persian war seemed favorable. News reached Rome that the remaining sons of wily old King Orodes II had assassinated him. Orodes, who had ruled Persia for 20 years after murdering his own father, had been king when Crassus was defeated. Now one of his patricidal sons, Phraates IV (38-2 BC), sat on the bloody Parthian throne.
To consolidate his position, Phraates IV ordered the execution of as many as 30 of his brothers and half-brothers. That brutal action signaled the tenor of his reign. Now more than ever Antony felt the need to achieve greatness. Octavian’s grip on Italy and the West was growing stronger. He had at last defeated Sextus Pompeius using the ships that Antony had loaned him.
Antony’s power base was in the East. If he achieved decisive victory over the Parthians, he could claim to have personally avenged Crassus and gather up untold riches to solidify his position in Rome. Gathering his forces and marching through Cilicia as he had done four years earlier, Antony summoned Cleopatra to join him with their young twins, Cleopatra and Alexander. She was once again pregnant before he sent her back to Egypt.
Before his death Caesar had planned an invasion of Parthia by way of Armenia. Antony now adopted that strategy. From his base in Syria he assembled 60,000 legionaries, along with 10,000 Hispanic and Celtic cavalry. These were joined with an auxiliary force of 30,000 archers, slingers and light infantry from allies and client states. Missing from the ranks were the 20,000 Italian infantry that Octavian had promised. With or without the promised legions, Antony meant to march into Armenia. There, King Artavasdes — who had once encouraged and then betrayed Crassus — anted up 6,000 horses and 7,000 foot soldiers for the common cause.
It was said that the size of Antony’s army put fear into men’s hearts as far away as India. But if Plutarch is to be believed, it was not the Indus River that Antony had on his mind but the Nile. Such was his haste to rush back to Alexandria and his mistress that he hastened the Parthian campaign beyond military prudence. After a march of 1,000 miles from Rome to Armenia, he did not allow his Roman soldiers time to rest and refit, but marched at once into Parthian territory. Advancing as rapidly as he could in order to catch the enemy off guard, he let his baggage train lag far behind. Three hundred wagons filled with provisions, extra weapons and siege engines, including an 80-foot-long battering ram, lumbered slowly along dirt roads under a guard of 10,000 men, among them a large contingent of Armenian cavalry.
The Romans and their allies invaded the Parthian province of Media Atropatene (northwestern Iran) in 36 BC. In the recent past the king of Media — an unwilling vassal to the unstable Phraates — had signaled his displeasure with his servitude to Parthia. With luck, he might become an ally of Rome.
Antony boldly moved into Media and laid siege to the important fortress city of Phraaspa, said to house the treasury as well as the wives and family of the Median king. Perhaps Antony was dreaming of making them captive — imitating Alexander, who had captured the harem and family of Darius III. The king of Media, though unhappy with Parthian rule, did not take kindly to Antony’s invasion of his country and assault upon his treasury and harem.
Meanwhile King Phraates, leading his army of 40,000 (at least a fourth of it cavalry) up from the south, learned that the Roman baggage train trailed far behind Antony’s van. He sent a large detachment of horse-archers to take it. When the Parthians approached the lumbering wagons, the Armenian cavalry bolted and withdrew to safety. The Parthians used their deadly bows to reduce the remaining defenders, then plundered and burned the all-important supply wagons.
When news of the loss reached the main Roman army, the Armenian king slunk out of camp and returned to his own country, partly shamed by his men’s behavior and partly because he could see how the wind was blowing. At first Antony resolved to continue the siege of Phraaspa. He had already started to pile up an earthen ramp at the base of the city wall — a time-consuming, dangerous job because the workers were within range of every sort of missile that could be hurled from the city’s ramparts. By then too the fall equinox had passed and the evening air was chill. Without siege engines or the battering ram, and with an active enemy rapidly joining the fray, the siege proved impossible. Antony was now deep inside enemy territory, his lines of communication had been cut, supplies were lost and winter was on the way. He found himself in the same situation that a later emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, would confront at Moscow in 1812.
Antony decided to sally his cavalry against the gathering Parthians. Seeing his determination, they fled before him, but after a chase of up to six miles he had killed fewer than 100 enemy troops. In the aftermath of a few such indecisive and exhausting battles, he decided that he had no other choice but to retreat. He petitioned Phraates for a parley. When his envoys reached the Parthian camp, they found the king seated on a golden throne, strumming on his bowstring. Phraates promised the Roman envoys that Antony would have safe passage after they dropped his demand for the return of the standards captured from Crassus at Carrhae and the return of the surviving prisoners from that battle. But Phraates lied. A few days after Antony left his protected camp, the Parthians began to harass his columns.
Antony was tempted to take the easier and shorter route home through the flat country of Assyria, but wisely decided to move through the hills toward Armenia instead. The march would be colder and more difficult during that brutal winter, but their route offered some advantage over the hard-hitting Parthian cavalry.
At first the Parthians had some successes against the orderly retreat. On one occasion they nearly cut off the Roman rear guard and inflicted as many as 3,000 casualties. Antony rushed back from the vanguard with his heavy infantry to chase off the mounted archers. Thereafter he placed slingers and spearmen on his flanks and rear to offer a bristly reception to Parthian raids. The Romans often used the testudo to fend off barrages of Parthian arrows. On one occasion the Parthians closed in to try to overwhelm the Roman defensive formation. At a signal the Romans rushed out from behind their protection and killed as many of the enemy as they could catch.
There were 18 running battles and skirmishes between the two armies as Antony hacked his way through the mountain passes back to Armenia and temporary shelter. All the clashes proved indecisive and left both sides cold, exhausted and frustrated.
When Antony reached Armenian territory, the pursuers turned for home. He had lost as many as 20,000 men during the Median invasion. As so often happens in war, more died of disease, cold and despair than in battle. Another 8,000 or more died after Antony reached the borders of Armenia. Even there he did not feel safe. He gave the treacherous Armenian king every sign of friendship but would not dally in his country.
As Antony marched his survivors on to Antioch, his wife Octavia was traveling to meet him with money, supplies and clothing for his soldiers. She also brought an additional 2,000 fully equipped troops, courtesy of her brother Octavian. It was not the 20,000 he had promised, and their arrival came much too late. Octavian also returned 85 battered ships of the 120 that Antony had loaned him to fight Sextus Pompeius.
Defeated by his enemy and betrayed by his brother-in-law, Antony was furious. In Rome, however, Antony was seen as a villain due to his crushing losses at the hands of the barbarians and his ill treatment of Octavia. She was still apparently devoted to him and had done everything in her power to aid him, but when he reached Antioch Antony coldly advised her not to come to him. Upon her return to Rome, Octavian took offense at the insult to his sister, but Octavia refused to be the cause of the next civil war. She loyally continued to live in Antony’s house and raise his children, both hers and Fulvia’s. Roman public opinion turned decidedly against her adulterous husband. Ironically, Octavia’s loyalty to her husband helped to seal his fate.
Meanwhile, civil war broke out in Parthia. The King of Media, so recently besieged by Antony, now appealed to him for support in a dispute with Phraates. Antony promised to come to his aid, but instead of launching a spring campaign, he dallied in Alexandria until the summer of 34 BC.
On his second journey to the East, Antony subjugated Armenia and took King Artavasdes prisoner in revenge for his perfidy. The Armenian king who had betrayed both Crassus and Antony was bundled off to Alexandria, where he was imprisoned until after Antony’s and Cleopatra’s naval defeat at Octavian’s hands at Actium in 31 BC. Then a vindictive Cleopatra had him put to death. Armenia would long remember that insult.
After capturing Artavasdes, Antony traveled again to Media. This time he was well received, although given his diminished army he had no real help to give. Instead he betrothed one of his young sons by Cleopatra to the daughter of the Median king as a way of making an alliance, and then took his leave. Events in the West overtook his dreams of Eastern conquest, as he turned west to meet Octavian.
The Parthian campaign was the turning point in Antony’s fortunes. While he was losing up to 30,000 irreplaceable men and a foreign war, Octavian was consolidating his hold over the Western empire and the hearts of his fellow Romans.
Antony’s invasion of Media was a disaster from which he never recovered. The loss of so many loyal and disciplined troops could not be made up in time for the Battle of Actium. The struggle for the Roman world might have been very different had Antony triumphed against Parthia. But he, like Crassus, had underestimated his enemy. Antony’s fate was sealed in Iran. MH
This article appeared in the November 2006 issue of Military History. Glenn Barnett is an adjunct professor of history at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif. His latest book is The Persian War: The Roman Conflicts With Iraq and Iran.
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