Old enemies battled in the ancient Middle East.
Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (reigned A.D. 138-161) made sure his heirs stayed in Rome under his watchful eye. Thus both of his adoptive sons, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, achieved middle age without traveling the provinces and without gaining military experience. Marcus Aurelius pursued the consolations of philosophy and self-discipline. Lucius Verus partied.
Within six months of Marcus and Lucius becoming co-emperors upon Antoninus’ death in 161, Parthian ruler Vologases IV decided that Rome’s new emperors were weak and could be bullied. The rivalry between the two great empires of Rome and Parthia had existed for several hundred years when Vologases initiated a new challenge by seizing Rome’s client state Armenia and installing a new king. Rome’s response was to send a legion – it was massacred. Vologases then invaded the Roman province of Syria and defeated its governor. Things were heating up in the ancient Middle East.
There was no question of which of Rome’s two new emperors was senior. Lucius obeyed Marcus in all things, as it left him more time for his amusements. Nevertheless, Marcus realized that the war against Parthia required the presence of an emperor, yet he could not leave Rome while their new reign was being consolidated. He therefore dispatched Lucius to the Middle East hot spot hoping that responsibility would strengthen his character.
Marcus did not stint in providing resources for the war. He sent three crack legions from the Rhine and Danube frontiers, part of the Praetorian Guard and thousands of auxiliaries east to reinforce the legions in Syria, which had a reputation for slackness. He also sent a very able team of staff officers and generals, chief among them Statius Priscus. Lucius followed in summer of 162 in what amounted to a leisurely, nonstop party. The journey may have lasted a year as he visited every tourist site and resort between Rome and Antioch. He finally arrived in Syria, where he promptly set up at the famous resort of Daphne. His army, meanwhile, spent the year building roads and intensively training. The Romans had long since devised tactics to deal with the Parthian horse archers and cataphracts (heavily armored cavalry) that destroyed the armies of Marcus Crassus (53 B.C.) and Mark Antony (37 B.C.).
At the beginning of the A.D. 163 campaign season (March-June), General Priscus led two legions on a 20-day march over 300 miles to recapture Armenia and its capital of Artaxata by bloody storm. Although Lucius never set foot in Armenia, he awarded himself the honorific title of Armeniacus. That summer, more legions arrived to reinforce the army in the Middle East since the Parthians had overrun the Roman client kingdom of Osroene in upper Mesopotamia. In eastern Syria a large Roman force under C. Avidius Cassius fought a hard-won battle at Sura on the Roman side of the Euphrates. Roman forces coming down from Armenia then drove the Parthians out of Osroene. Lucius was surprised that Vologases rejected his peace feelers after these reverses. The war would then be carried into Parthia, and the next year was spent in preparation. Unfortunately, the able Priscus died in late 163; however, an even more able man succeeded him.
Lucius split his time between Laodicea on the Orontes River and Daphne, while his interest was devoted to a particularly beautiful Greek woman named Panthea. He had little time for the war, which was all for the good, for his talented generals were doing just fine without him. Lucius’ only evident skill, upon which all were agreed, was that of a good delegator. He was to visit the Euphrates front only once during the war and then only at the insistence of his generals, who stated his military credibility was at stake.
The senior command was now in the hands of Cassius, described as a “ferocious martinet” whose draconian measures were needed to whip the slack Syrian legions into shape and keep the others up to the mark. Early in 165, two Roman armies marched into the Parthian Empire. The northern force, under Marcus Claudius Fronto, secured northern Mesopotamia after winning a battle at Edessa and chasing the Parthians eastward until their general, Chosroes, had to flee across the Tigris and hide in a cave.
The main army, under Cassius, crossed the Euphrates on a bridge of boats and brought the Parthians to battle at Dura-Europas, where it won a stunning victory. Cassius then moved down the Euphrates to its junction with the Tigris, where lay Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital, and Seleucia, a great commercial city whose population approached that of Rome. The latter opened its gates, but conflict between its Greek and Semitic communities somehow sparked a vicious and bloody sack by the Romans. The famous statue from the Temple of Apollo was taken back to Rome and installed in the god’s temple on the Palatine Hill. It was said at the time that the plague (thought to be smallpox) that followed the army’s return to ravage the Roman Empire was the god’s punishment for the sacrilege of his shrine.
The Romans then marched to the Persian Gulf, which the Roman emperor Trajan had reached almost 50 years before. With the victory over Parthia, Verus assumed the title of Parthicus. Attempting to do one better than Trajan, Cassius the next year invaded Media, the heart of the Parthian Empire. The expedition was a failure (sources are silent as to why), although that did not stop Lucius from adopting the title of Medicus.
Most of the Roman conquests proved ephemeral, reflecting the accepted wisdom of experience that what the Romans could conquer in the vastness of Parthia they did not have the manpower to hold. Lucius, however, carefully instructed his chroniclers on how to make history interpret these events. He wrote, “I am ready to fall in with any suggestions as long as my exploits are set in a bright light” and “the magnitude of my exploits [is] made manifest.” Although Lucius could not claim to have commanded in battle, he spun the story to show that he was the organizer of victory. His sycophantic chroniclers more than rose to the challenge, earning the derision of the poet Lucan to the point where they were laughed out of the history books.
Peter Tsouras is the author of 26 books on military history. He served in the Army and Army Reserve and worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency until retiring in 2010 to devote himself to writing, his roses, and his grandchildren.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Armchair General.