Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter 7

Storm Over the East (53–50 BC)

Though the events of 53 BC had seen the comprehensive failure of the Carrhae campaign, the First Romano-Parthian War was far from over. We must therefore look at the aftermath of the campaign and the other years of the war before we can draw any overall conclusions about this period of history.

Rome after Carrhae

For Roman power in the east, the disastrous Carrhae campaign had a number of effects. In the first place, the Roman province of Syria (a long term Parthian target) now lay virtually defenceless. The legions stationed there had been taken by Crassus on his invasion of Parthia and had died along with him. Thus the province of Syria had neither governor, nor garrison. All it did have was around 10,000 legionaries (from across the seven destroyed legions) who had made it back from Carrhae. In terms of officers, the most senior man in Roman Syria was Gaius Cassius Longinus, who only held the rank of pro-quaestor and whose military capabilities had been seriously called into question during the Carrhae campaign.

If this was not enough, then we need to consider the state of the Roman Empire in the east as a whole. The Pompeian settlement which had established Roman hegemony in the east was based on the power, image and threat of Rome, rather than a present physical force. The only territories that were Roman provinces were Asia, Bithynia & Pontus, Cilicia and Syria. Outside of Syria the only one of these with more than garrison strength was Cilicia, and that had less than 15,000 men stationed there. Most of the region was composed of client kingdoms who owed their allegiance to Rome due to a combination of past obligations and Rome’s overwhelming military superiority; and in matters of statecraft, past obligations tended to count for little. These kingdoms remained allied to Rome through the fear and respect that the Roman army had instilled in them. Thus the defeat at Carrhae had done more than simply cost the Romans a commander and his men; it had devastated their military reputation in the region at the expense of their neighbour and rival.

Of these client kingdoms, the greatest of them, Armenia, had already moved from the Roman sphere of influence back into the Parthian one. In the region of the northern Euphrates lay two minor client kingdoms: Osroene and Commagene. Abgarus, the ruler of Osroene, wasted no time in affirming his allegiance to Orodes and dismissing any talk of him aiding Crassus (as seen earlier) as being nothing more than a double bluff. He probably attempted to claim some of the credit for leading Crassus into defeat at Carrhae. The Kingdom of Commagene appears to have remained loyal to Rome in the short term, but could do little about the Parthians crossing the Euphrates and invading them, other than warn the Romans. Should the Parthians do so, then Commagene would have to swear allegiance to Orodes. Cappadocia had just gained a new young king, whose grip on the throne was tenuous at best and so was of little use to Rome and actually gave them another source of concern.261 This left the kingdom of Judea in the south, which had been a perpetual source of revolt for the Seleucids and had already twice required Roman intervention in the past decade (Pompey in 63 and Gabinius in 55). Given their past reputation and perpetual internal chaos, it is not surprising that when the news of the Roman defeat at Carrhae reached them, yet another anti-Roman insurrection broke out.262 Even within Syria itself, anti-Roman elements were agitating against the Romans. All in all, the situation that Rome faced in the east was grave. Leadership and decisive action would be needed by the Senate, and Rome’s two surviving triumvirs, if the situation was to be salvaged.

Unfortunately for the Romans in the east and the Republic as a whole, the Senate and Rome’s leading men were apparently too busy with domestic politics to bother about a catastrophic situation on the edges of their empire. For much of 53 BC the Republic was without formal government. It was not until July that consuls for that year were elected (rather than during the previous year). This situation was symptomatic of the chaos that had broken out in Rome. Following Crassus’ departure for the east, Caesar became bogged down in Gaul and an abortive invasion of Britain, leaving Pompey to manage affairs in Rome. Furthermore, a bribery scandal had broken out during the elections for the consuls of 53 BC, which resulted first in political deadlock and then outright chaos, as the elections were continually prevented from being held. Old political scores were being settled both in the courts (Gabinius was tried twice for his actions in Egypt and finally convicted263) and ultimately on the streets, with Clodius and Milo both re-arming their gangs and bringing armed fighting onto Rome’s thoroughfares once more. Pompey had to absent himself from Rome to see if the chaos died down. By the time he returned and used his authority and political power to get the elections held for the consuls of 53 BC, attention immediately turned to the elections for the consuls of 52 BC, and thus the whole cycle of political chaos was sparked off once more. It was into this chaos that news of the disaster at Carrhae arrived.

It appears that few tears were shed by the Senate and people of Rome over the loss of Crassus. It also appears that both groups failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation in the east. As for Crassus’ former colleagues, Caesar was still fighting for his life suppressing rebellions that had broken out all over Gaul and even striking out across the Rhine to stabilise his new conquests, and Pompey was trying to hold the situation in Rome together and hoping to profit by it. Therefore neither man had time to worry about the eastern frontier.

In the midst of this turmoil we are unsure how the news of the disaster at Carrhae was received. It came on the heels of a reversal for Caesar in Gaul (a rebellion had broken out, which resulted in the loss of a legionary camp and a whole legion with it). Thus it was possible that Carrhae was seen as one disaster amongst many, which could have lessened its impact on the minds of the people in Rome. It was only after the chaos of 53 and 52 BC had subsided that people had time to assess the defeat, and Crassus’ part in it. However the situation in Rome at this time is difficult to judge because there are large gaps in the surviving collections of Cicero’s letters (our best source for the period), which affect 53 BC in particular. There is no doubt that Cicero would have recorded the news of Carrhae, but regrettably those letters have not survived (appendix two will deal with possible other sources for the Battle of Carrhae).

The year 52 BC opened up with the by-now-familiar sight of election chaos and no fresh consuls elected. The situation got markedly worse when a battle between the gangs of Clodius and Milo ended with the murder of Clodius. In anger his supporters built a funeral pyre inside the Senate House and set light to it, resulting not only in the cremation of Clodius’ body, but also the destruction of the building. This crisis resulted in a proposal being made for an emergency government in the form of a sole consul. The man proposed was Pompey himself, and with the Senate’s backing the Republic chose to have a sole consul for the first time.264 Pompey cemented his power within Rome and the Senate by hastily arranging to marry the newly-widowed wife of Publius Crassus, which even the Roman elite found somewhat distasteful but which again showed his political acumen by taking advantage of a crisis.265 One of the emergency laws which Pompey passed specified that there should be a five year gap between a consul holding office and gaining a provincial command. Naturally, Pompey himself was exempted from this law. It was only as a consequence of this law, and the resultant shortage of provincial governors that it led to, that finally in 51 BC the Senate turned to the issue of the east and its governance.

In what was little more than a provincial house-keeping exercise, the Senate appointed new governors of Cilicia and Syria. In accordance with this new five year rule, they had to appoint men who had been consuls some years before. For Cilicia they chose Marcus Tullius Cicero himself (the consul of 63 BC), who had spent the years following his consulship in writing numerous legal, political and philosophical tracts and working in the courts. For Syria they chose Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus (the former Consul of 59 BC) who had spent most of his consulate closeted in his own house looking for ill-omens with which to veto the legislation of his colleague, Julius Caesar. Neither man therefore inspired any confidence in their ability to handle a military crisis. To show just how little the Senate understood of the situation in the east, Cicero’s proposal that fresh legions should be levied in Italy in order to strengthen the forces on the borders of Syria and Cilicia was vetoed by the consul Sulpicius.266 Though the Romans may not have thought it, we are fortunate that Cicero was one of the men chosen to go to the east, as his numerous surviving letters give us a first-hand testimony of events there.

Thus the reaction in Rome to the catastrophic Carrhae campaign, and its perilous position in the east as a whole, was one of almost complete disinterest. As always happened in Roman Republican politics, the affairs of Rome itself took precedence over the affairs of their empire. Those men who did realise the threat, and Cicero must count amongst them, especially once he had been sent out to the east, did not have sufficient political weight to do anything about it. The only men with enough political power in the 50s BC were Crassus’ colleagues, Pompey and Caesar, and both men were too busy with their own problems and affairs, and with each other’s, to turn their attention to the crisis in the east. The death of Crassus may have been a disaster for Rome, but it was also an opportunity for Pompey. His old rival of over twenty years had been removed and it is no surprise that Pompey’s third consulship was a sole one (the first two having been with his equal, Crassus, in 70 and 55 BC). Pompey now saw himself as a man without equals.

Thus the Romans showed total disregard for the east and the potential Parthian threat. The defence of Syria, and Rome’s whole position in the east, fell upon the shoulders of one man, Gaius Cassius, who had less than two legions of Carrhae survivors with which to accomplish this.

Parthia after Carrhae

Parthia, however, after the victorious Carrhae campaign, had just the opposite problem: how to build on the successes of 53 BC? Once again we suffer from a lack of non-Roman sources here. For the remainder of 53 BC the Parthians did not appear to cross the Euphrates, and Dio tells us that, quite logically, they spent the rest of the year reasserting control of the territories east of the Euphrates. The Roman garrisons may have fled along with Crassus, but Parthian control needed to be reinforced in these towns considering how easily they had gone over to the Romans. The same would have been true of the cities of Babylon and Seleucia, which were known to harbour pro-Roman sympathies and which had gone over to Mithradates III during the civil war of 55/54 BC.

A full-scale invasion of Syria would take some time to plan, especially since the bulk of the army was with Orodes in Armenia and they had not been expected to mount an offensive operation so soon, if at all. Orodes had another headache: who would lead this invasion? The obvious choice would have been Surenas, but Orodes had already had him murdered to secure his own throne. Whilst this brutal and treacherous action may have been in Orodes’ own best interests, it certainly was not in Parthia’s, for it robbed the Parthians of one of the most talented generals they ever possessed. Not only that, but it is unlikely that the Suren clan (Parthia’s most powerful, after the Arsacids), would have taken the murder of their chief easily. So the murder of Surenas may have stirred up trouble within Parthia, which would need to be dealt with before offensive action could be taken.

Whilst this internal reorganisation was going on, however, there were certain measures the Parthians could take to strengthen their position against Rome. Firstly, the Parthians could secure their alliances with some of the smaller states of the region. Certainly the area of Osroene quickly came back into the Parthian fold, and it is probable that a number of the other semi-autonomous Arab tribes that bordered the Roman and Parthian empires would have switched their loyalties to Parthia. Secondly, Parthia could encourage pro-Parthian elements in both Syria and Judea to overthrow Roman rule and destabilise the region prior to a Parthian invasion; ironically just as Rome had done to the Mesopotamian region in 55 BC (by sending Mithradates III back to stir up a civil war). In Judea, little such encouragement was needed and the result was perfect for Parthia – a full-scale insurrection against Roman rule.

52 BC – The Calm before the Storm

The year following Carrhae was an unusually quite one in terms of the war between Rome and Parthia. Rome was still too busy with domestic politics to bother about the east and Parthia was still going through an internal reorganisation. For one man, however, it was a year that would be a highly active one, and one that would go some way to restoring his reputation. That man was Gaius Cassius Longinus. We know little of Cassius prior to the Carrhae campaign. He came from a consular family which had a steady, but unspectacular, lineage in Republican terms.267 Given the later offices which he held, we can estimate a date of birth of somewhere in the late 80s BC for Cassius.268 Thus he was still a young man in his late twenties or early thirties when he was taken under Marcus Crassus’ wing, as had been done with many young ambitious aristocrats (including Julius Caesar). By the autumn of 53 BC he found himself, by process of elimination, as the governor of Syria and the man in charge of defending Roman interests in the whole region in the face of an impending Parthian invasion. Given his track record during the Carrhae campaign (he had fallen for Surenas’ ruse and deserted his commander), the omens were not looking good. However, when put in this high pressure situation at such a young age, he appears to have come into his own.

For the events of 52 BC, Josephus is again our best source; Cicero had not yet been appointed and thus he largely ignored the situation. Josephus states that the Parthians pursued the Romans across the Euphrates, which does contradict Dio’s account 269. However, it would have been a good Parthian tactic to send raiding parties across the Euphrates whilst they were preparing for a full scale invasion. Meanwhile, Cassius formed the survivors of Carrhae, including at least 800 cavalry, into two legions and set about repelling the incursions, which he did with some considerable success.270 Once the Parthian raids of early 52 BC had been repulsed, Cassius set about securing the region by tackling the growing problem of the Jewish insurrection. This rebellion was led by a man called Peitholaus, who was attempting to revive the rebellion led by King Aristobulus, which had been crushed by Pompey in 63 BC. Cassius dealt with this fresh rebellion in similarly brutal fashion. With only two legions he stormed the city of Taricheae and enslaved over thirty thousand inhabitants who had been supporting the rebellion; Peitholaus was executed. In crushing this rebellion, Cassius had the friendship and support of an influential Judean Arab by the name of Antipater, who was to become the father of the infamous King Herod the Great. When he was confident that Judea had been pacified, Cassius returned to the Euphrates region to deal with further Parthian incursions. Once again it is reported that he did so successfully.271

Thus for Cassius and ultimately Rome, 52 BC had brought some much-needed stability and some limited successes. Roman Syria was no longer leaderless or undefended. Cassius had formed the survivors of Carrhae into two efficient legions, had routed a number of Parthian border incursions and had successfully crushed an insurrection in Judea. He had done so with a ferocity that would have made any other anti-Roman elements in the region think twice. All in all it had been a good year for Cassius, who had restored both his own and Rome’s reputation. Even so, some of the responsibility for these Roman successes must be laid at the door of the Parthians, who wasted a whole year’s campaigning in internal re-organisation and planning. This year-long respite allowed Cassius to regroup and forge an effective defence force in Syria to secure the border and restore Roman authority over the region. Again we can see the indecisive hand of Orodes behind this delay. Had Surenas still been alive then it is highly unlikely that the Romans would have had the luxury of eighteen months to await the Parthian invasion. Nevertheless, repulsing border raids was one thing, repulsing a full-scale invasion was another.

51 BC – The Parthian Invasion of Roman Syria

On 14 June 51 BC, as he was on his way from Italy to take up his command in Cilicia, Cicero wrote to his friend Atticus expressing the sentiment ‘Only let the Parthians keep quiet and luck be on my side’.272 He was soon to be disappointed.

At some point during 52 BC, Orodes finally made the decision to invade and conquer Roman Syria. He also came to a decision on who was to lead the expedition, naturally not wanting to take the risk himself. He opted for a joint command and a blend of youth and experience. Nominally in command of the invasion was one of his own sons, Pacorus, who appears to have been Orodes’ favourite son and his heir. Aiding him was a veteran Parthian noble general, Osaces.273 Thus Orodes appears to have opted for a ‘safety first’ mentality to the campaign. Clearly he did not want another Surenas, but recognised the need to temper his son’s youthfulness with an experienced soldier.

We can track the prelude to the first Parthian invasion of the Roman Empire through Cicero’s letters as he crossed the Mediterranean en route to Cilicia. From Athens on 6 July 51 BC he wrote:

Of the Parthian, there is no whisper. As for the future, heaven be my help.274

Then on 27 July, from Asia Minor:

Meanwhile certain welcome reports are coming in, first of quiet from the Parthian region.275

Having reached Cilicia he wrote on 3rd August:

I reached Laodicea on 31st July. My arrival was most eagerly anticipated and widely acclaimed.276

We can also see how little Cicero was looking forward to his military duties from this:

Contrary to my inclination and quite unexpectedly, I find myself under the necessity of setting out to govern a province.277

And, with growing desperation, this:

For mercy’s sake, as you are staying in Rome, do pray first and foremost build up a powerful defensive position to ensure that my term remains only one year.278

How inadequate he thought his resources is also made plain:

And to think that while our friend [Pompey] has his huge army, I have a nominal force of two skeleton legions. But I’ll stick it out as best I can so long as it’s only for a year.279

By 14 August, rumours were beginning to reach Cicero which made him think that it was not going to be his year:

Of the Parthian there is no whisper, but travellers say that some of our cavalry have been cut to pieces by the barbarians. Bibulus [the new governor of Syria] is not so much thinking of getting to his province even now.280

By 28 August Cicero received the news that he had been dreading:

Ambassadors sent to me by Antiochus of Commagene have arrived at my camp near Iconium on the 28th August, and having reported to me that the son of the Parthian King, whom the sister of the Armenian King had married, had reached the banks of the Euphrates with a large Parthian force and a large army of many other nations besides, and that it was said that the Armenian King intended an attack upon Cappadocia.281

By 20 September Cicero gave a further grim assessment of the situation:

the Parthians have crossed the Euphrates under Pacorus, son of King Orodes of Parthia, with almost their entire force. There is no word of Bibulus being in Syria. Cassius is in the town of Antioch with his entire army282.

Despite this, his major concern is still for his own governorship:

but first and foremost (ensure) that nothing is added to my responsibilities or my tenure twixt the slaughter and the offering [twixt cup and lip] as they say283

He then gives a brutally honest summary of his own position:

For with an army as feeble as mine and so little in the way of allies, loyal ones particularly, my best resource is winter. If that comes without the enemy invading my province first, my only fear is that the Senate will not want to let Pompey go in view of the dangers at home. But if they send someone else by the spring I shall not worry, as long as my own term is not extended.284

Thus we have Cicero’s strategy for dealing with the first full-blown Parthian invasion of the Roman empire: pray winter arrives before the Parthians do and hope that the Senate either sends Pompey out to deal with the Parthians, or a replacement for Cicero as governor of Cilicia. Fortunately for the Romans, the Parthians did not invade Cilicia, but made straight for the jugular of Roman Syria.

Cicero’s letter of 28 August gives us a fair idea of the Parthian plan and the nature of their attack, though he does not provide us with an overall figure for the Parthian numbers, which he probably did not have himself at the time. Fortunately, we do possess Cicero’s report to the Senate, sent at some point in the autumn of 51 BC, which outlines the whole situation and provides us with invaluable information:

I received a dispatch from Tarcondimotus, who is regarded as our most loyal ally, beyond Mount Taurus, and the best friend of the Roman people. He reported that Pacorus, son of Orodes, the Parthian king, had crossed the Euphrates with a very large force of Parthian cavalry, and pitched his camp at Tyba, and that a serious uprising had been stirred up in the province of Syria. On the same day I received a dispatch dealing with the same incidents from Jamblichus, the leading tribesman of the Arabs, a man who is generally considered to be loyally disposed and friendly to our Republic. On the receipt of this information, I fully understood that our allies had no firmly established opinions, and were wavering in their expectation of a revolution.285

From these two pieces of testimony we are able to piece together the Parthian battleplan for their invasion of Syria. Pacorus and Osaces crossed the Euphrates and headed deep into Syria with a large army. This force was mostly composed of cavalry, thus copying Surenas’ tactics, as well a large contingent of allied forces, most likely to be from the tributary Arab territories. Some commentators have criticised this force as being nothing more than a large raid, rather than an army of conquest, because of the preponderance of cavalry.286However, this view fails to understand the subtle nature of the Parthian plan. The invasion force was not there to take every city in the province by storm, but to defeat the remaining Roman forces, and then be invited in by the inhabitants of the Syrian cities, who would want to overthrow Roman rule. In many ways this appears to have been a copy of their highly successful invasion of Mesopotamia in the 140s BC, where, after the Seleucid forces were defeated, the Parthians appear to have been welcomed into the cities by the inhabitants.

To ensure the success of this strategy, the Parthians had engineered a general uprising throughout Syria, through use of agents and pro-Parthian forces. There would have been many inhabitants of Syria, who believed that they had more in common with Mesopotamia and the east than with the inhabitants of Italy, and would have seen their being part of an eastern empire as the more logical. If nothing else, the defeat of Rome at Carrhae had shown that it was Parthia, rather than Rome, which appeared to be the ascendant power. This plan also explains the predominant cavalry element of the Parthian army; they were copying Surenas’ tactics and had designed this force not to storm cities, but simply to defeat and destroy the remaining Roman forces in the region.

It remains to be seen whether the second arm of this invasion, a full-scale attack by Armenia on the Roman ally of Cappadocia was ever a real possibility, or merely wild rumour. Certainly in his report to the Senate, Cicero at one point states that ‘there were certain persons who did not consider the king altogether to be trusted’.287 Therefore the impending Armenian invasion may have been nothing more than worried speculation. Given the vacillating nature of King Artavasdes of Armenia and his desire to keep on the good side of both Rome and Parthia, such a rash move on his part would have been out of character. It is possible that he promised Orodes that he would invade Cappadocia (to keep the Romans in Cilicia occupied), and then stalled to see how the invasion of Syria went. In either event, Cicero’s dithering more than kept the Cilician legions out of the war, without Armenian intervention.

Despite our focus on Cicero’s testimony we must not forget that it was Cassius who was at the centre stage of this war; in command of two under-strength legions in Syria and expected to deal with a full-blown Parthian invasion at the same time as a full-scale Syrian revolt. Cassius was left with an unenviable choice of actions. He had less than 10,000 men, which must have been outnumbered by the Parthian cavalry under Pacorus and Osaces. If seven legions could not deal with the Parthian cavalry at Carrhae, then it was unlikely that two legions would fare any better in open battle. It was at this point that Cassius appeared to look back into Roman history and come up with a tactic that a Roman general had not had to use in over one hundred and sixty years; that is, when faced with an undefeatable enemy, don’t fight them. Thus ‘Fabian strategy’ was re-introduced into Roman warfare (so named after Quintus Fabius Maximus, the Roman general who so successfully negated Hannibal after his victory at the Battle of Cannae by refusing to fight him, allowing Rome vital time to rebuild her shattered armies).

Thus Cassius retreated to the heavily fortified port of Antioch with his two legions and waited for the Parthians. Incidentally, given that Cassius was able to do this, it provides us with evidence that the Syrian revolt was not as widespread as Cicero and his sources had assumed. It appears that the Parthians soon discovered Cassius’ location and brought their whole force to bear on the city, ravaging the suburbs, but failing to trouble the Romans protected behind the city walls. Despite the usual charge thrown at the Parthians (about them not being able to lay siege to a city), the Parthian army under Pacorus and Osaces was designed to fight the Romans in open battle as they had done at Carrhae.

Whilst the Parthians were attempting to lure Cassius out, a detachment of Parthians and their Arab allies had made an exploratory raid into Cilicia, where they were promptly slaughtered by a detachment of Roman cavalry, technically under the command of Cicero. He reports it with some surprise:

Meanwhile I was informed by written and oral messages from many quarters that strong forces of Parthians and Arabs had approached the town of Antioch, and that a large body of their cavalry, which had crossed into Cilicia, had been cut to pieces by some squadrons of my horse and a praetorian cohort, which was on garrison duty at Epiphanea.288

Thus for the Parthians things were not going according to plan. The Roman legions of Syria refused to give battle and were happy to allow the Parthians to ravage the countryside. This, incidentally, would not have helped the Parthian cause with the rebels and the rebellion itself seemed to have run out of steam. Aside from Cicero’s reports there are no further mentions of it, and it certainly did not seem to be affecting Cassius’ control of Antioch. Added to that, a raid into Cilicia had been destroyed and there was no sign of any of the other client kings throwing their lot in with Parthia, or of an army from Armenia. As Cicero quite rightly surmised earlier, the majority of the semi-autonomous kingdoms in the region were waiting to see which way events turned.289The victory at Carrhae may have been a spectacular one, but the Parthians were now on Roman territory and would need to repeat the feat if the locals were going to throw their lot in with them, especially given Rome’s brutal record at repaying treachery (of which Cassius’ handling of the Judean insurrection was an apt reminder).

Cassius handling of the situation, however, seems to have been perfect. The Parthian wave crashed into Syria, but then broke on the walls of Antioch. Whilst a strong Roman presence remained in Syria, the bulk of the region would not turn to Parthia. After a short period of time, the Parthian army abandoned the attack on Antioch and moved further into Syria. Cicero, with typical modesty attempts to claim the credit for this when he boldly asserted that ‘the rumour of my advent encouraged Cassius’.290 However, once the Parthians had moved away from Antioch, heading towards the town of Antigonea, Cassius and his legions left the safety of Antioch and followed them, hoping to inflict some damage on them as they went, but without engaging in a set piece battle.291The Parthian army made its way through Syria, with Cassius’ legions harrying them as they went.

The decisive encounter came on 7 October as the Parthians turned away from the city of Antigonea, apparently due to the city’s heavily-forested environs making it impossible for their cavalry to operate with any cohesion. As they set about their return journey, Cassius gambled everything on an ambush. He confronted the Parthians with just a small part of his army and, eager for the battle which had been denied them so far, the Parthians took the bait. In a move reminiscent of the one that had been used against him at Carrhae, Cassius had his men fake a retreat, which led the Parthians into an ambush (the exact nature of which is not detailed). The Parthians were then surrounded suddenly by the emergence of the main Roman force and defeated.

Cicero mentions the encounter, but gives us no details, beyond the extraordinary claim that as a result of this battle ‘My name stood high in Syria’, which amply shows just how self-aggrandising he could be at times. Though the details are hazy, the result was not. The Parthian army was heavily defeated and forced to retreat and the Parthian general Osaces was killed as a result of the battle. Dio states that he was killed in the battle itself, whilst Cicero, with the advantage of being contemporary, reports that he died during the retreat of a wound he received during the battle.292Neither source records any wider casualty figures.293 Pacorus and the rest of the Parthian army retreated back across the Euphrates to spend the winter regrouping for a fresh campaign in 50 BC, whilst maintaining a bridgehead over the Euphrates, as can be seen from Cicero’s letters of 14 November 51 BC:

our friend Cassius had driven the enemy back from Antioch in a successful action.294

And 17 November:

Cassius has written announcing that the Parthian forces are this side of the Euphrates295

For the Parthians, the campaign of 51 BC, which everyone had been expecting for the two years following their stunning victory at Carrhae, turned into a spectacular anti-climax. The first Parthian army to invade the Roman empire arrived in a flourish, wandered about a bit, walked into a basic trap, and limped back into Mesopotamia with its tail between its legs. For the Parthians, the whole sorry episode could be put down to one factor: abysmal leadership. Not only did it take the Parthians two years to invade Syria, thus allowing the Romans time to regroup, but the invasion was led by a joint command, designed more to negate any threat to Orodes than to defeat the Romans. The Parthian army arrived with only one plan in mind and when that failed (due to the Roman unwillingness to oblige them with a fresh victory) they lost impetus and walked into an ambush. By any standard of military conduct, this campaign was a shambles, especially given such a stunning springboard.

For the Romans, however, the campaign of 51 BC had shown them at their best. Despite the total indifference of the Republic’s leadership back in Rome, Cassius had forged the wretched survivors of Carrhae into a force that was able to defeat the Parthians and rout their invasion of that year. Cassius had obviously learnt the lessons of the Carrhae campaign well; in particular that it was up to the invading army to force the pace. In 53 BC the Parthians defeated the Roman invader because Surenas was confident that he could defeat the Romans in battle. In 51 BC, the Romans defeated the Parthian invader because they knew that they could not. By adopting the old Roman ‘Fabian tactics’, Cassius denied the Parthians the crucial victory in Syria that they needed to conquer the province. He frustrated and totally disrupted their plans, forced them into making mistakes and then led them into an ambush. What had worked against Hannibal, now worked against the Parthians. By the end of 51 BC, the whole momentum of the First Parthian War had swung back in Rome’s favour.

No sooner had Cassius written his victorious report to the Senate than the new governor of Syria, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, finally deigned to arrive in his war-torn province, some two months behind Cicero (despite their leaving at similar times). What he would have found was a province that was firmly in Roman hands, that had defeated a Parthian invasion and that had restored some martial pride back into Rome’s reputation in the region. Furthermore, it was clear that the onus had shifted back to the Parthian court, in the form of Orodes II, to respond in order to recover the impetus that had been gained after Carrhae and lost during this year. It had soon become clear that the turning point in the war for the Parthians had been Orodes’ murder of Surenas. With Surenas still leading their armies we can imagine that the two year wait, the aimless wandering around Syria and the walking into an ambush would never have happened. The question that Orodes faced over the winter of 51–50 BC was whether the Parthians could regain their momentum without him.

50 BC – Storm abated

Certainly the Romans thought that the Parthian threat for 50 BC would be a more severe test than that of the previous year. Again we can turn to the letters of Cicero from early 50 BC, which indicated that the Romans were awaiting the Parthian storm. In his letter of 13 February 50 BC he wrote:

The son of King Orodes of Parthia is in our province, and Deiotarus, whose son is to marry the daughter of Artavasdes, a good source of information, has no doubt that the King himself will cross the Euphrates with his whole power as soon as summer comes.296

And in similar vein on 20 February:

A Parthian War is threatening. The Parthians are wintering in our province and Orodes in person is expected.297

Thus Cicero was merely voicing the widely-held view that the Parthian king himself would lead a fresh invasion in 50 BC. In fact, it was hard to see how he could do otherwise. Surenas and Osaces were dead and Pacorus had not only been deemed too young for full command of the campaign of 51 BC, but had made such a mess of it that he was unlikely to be given sole charge any time soon. Yet the Romans were overlooking the fact that Orodes, as far as we can tell, had only limited military experience himself. In the civil war and the Roman invasion it was Surenas who commanded the Parthian armies in battle. All that Orodes had in terms of experience was leading an invasion of Armenia, whose king had promptly capitulated. In fact, we have little evidence for any Parthian king since Mithradates II leading his troops into battle, the practise having seemingly fallen out of favour. The question was whether Orodes felt confident enough in his abilities to fight the Romans, or even had enough confidence in the security of his throne to leave Parthia.

One other interesting aspect that emerges from Cicero’s letters concerns the figure of Deiotarus, whom Cicero mentions. He was the king of the Roman client kingdom of Galatia, whose territories had been enlarged by Pompey the previous decade. During Cicero’s governorship of Cilicia, the two men had become good friends and by early 50 BC he had raised ‘30 cohorts of 400 men armed in the Roman style (equivalent to 12,000 legionaries) and 2,000 horse’, which he placed at Cicero’s disposal for the coming war.298 Not only was this a sign that Rome’s allies were beginning to shift back towards supporting Rome against Parthia, but as Cicero informed us earlier, Deiotarus’ son was to marry the daughter of Artavasdes, the king of Armenia. Such timing cannot have been a coincidence. Not only had Artavasdes surrendered to the Parthians and negotiated a treaty of alliance, but his brother-in-law was the Parthian prince, Pacorus himself. Suddenly it appeared that Artavasdes was attempting to tie himself to a staunch Roman ally. As Cicero’s comment about this alliance being ‘a good source of information’ reveals, it appears that Artavasdes was feeding the Romans information about the coming campaign via the back door, in order to get himself back into Roman good books.299More than anything else, this shows that the kingdoms of the regions believed that Romans had weathered the storm.

At Rome, it appears that both Cassius and Cicero’s reports of the campaigning in 51 BC had galvanised the Senate, as well as Pompey and Caesar.300 In fact, the Senate saw an excellent opportunity to aid the east and defuse the tensions between Pompey and Caesar at the same time. To this end they recommended that both men give up a legion each and send them to reinforce Syria (a proposal that they both agreed on, though Pompey did still try to gain an advantage by nominating a legion that he had already lent to Caesar in Gaul, thus depriving Caesar of two legions in reality).

Thus Rome’s leaders were finally taking the war with Parthia seriously; both the governors of Cilicia (Cicero) and Syria (Bibulus) were ready for the Parthians and had won back a number of their regional allies. The only thing missing was the Parthians, and as we can see from Cicero’s letters, the events of 50 BC are somewhat confusing. In April 50 BC he wrote:

For a major war is threatening with Parthia.301

In late May or early June 50 BC:

There is thought to be a major war in Syria, which looks as though it will erupt into this province302

By mid-June 50 BC his fears seemed confirmed:

There I found much to disquiet me; a great war in Syria303

Yet by 3 August 50 BC he was able to write:

None the less as long as the Parthians appeared to be coming down on us, I had decided to leave my brother, or even for my country’s sake to stay on myself . . . But when by an incredible stroke of luck they disappeared, my doubts were removed.304

In his letter of 1st October 50 BC the danger has clearly passed and Cicero is able to pass judgement on his colleague’s performance:

If it were not that Bibulus is exerting himself to get one [a Triumph], who so long as there were a single Parthian in Syria did not stir a step from the city [Antioch] gates305

This latter point is confirmed by a remark by Julius Caesar in his own civil war commentaries which tells us the following:

[The] Parthian enemy, who a little before had slain the commander Marcus Crassus, and had kept Marcus Bibulus closely invested.306

A surviving précis of Livy also records that Livy’s book 108 (now lost) ‘also includes the achievements of Marcus Bibulus in Syria’.307 Cicero finishes commenting on the Parthian campaign with the following, penned on 25 November 50 BC:

However, when I think of how the Parthians all of a sudden left Bibulus half dead [they did not finish the job].308

What can we conclude from this about the events and the campaign of 50 BC? It is clear that the long-expected second Parthian invasion did indeed take place during the summer of 50 BC, but we are unsure who was leading it. None of our contemporary accounts throws light on this. Given the absence of any named individual, we must assume that Orodes refused the opportunity to lead the invasion himself, and also denied Pacorus the chance as punishment for the debacle of the previous year. We can therefore only assume that Orodes gave the command to either another (unnamed) son, or a noble general (a probability that will be discussed below).

In any event, the campaign of 50 BC mirrored that of the previous year. The new governor, Calpurnius Bibulus, still had only the two under-strength legions, and had even less military experience than the young Cassius. Wisely, however, he too decided to emulate Cassius in his Fabian tactics and stayed shut up behind the walls of Antioch, whilst the Parthian army tried in vain to get the Romans out in the open and fight them in battle. After failing once again to take Antioch, however, the Parthians suddenly disappeared and withdrew from Syria altogether, not to return for a decade. This action struck contemporary Romans such as Cicero as mysterious. Fortunately, two later sources give us the reason why the Parthians chose to end the war with a complete withdrawal. Justin presents us with this passage:

His son Pacorus, who was sent to pursue what remained of the Roman forces, after achieving great actions in Syria, incurred some jealousy on the part of his father, and was recalled into Parthia; and during his absence the Parthian army left in Syria was cut off, with all its commanders, by Cassius the quaestor of Crassus.309

Dio tells us that Bibulus

turned the Parthians against one another. For after winning the friendship of Ornodapates, a satrap who had a grudge against Orodes, he persuaded him through messengers to set up Pacorus as king, and with him to conduct a campaign against the other.310

Whilst both sources contain some inaccuracies (Justin, in that this occurred before the defeat at the hands of Cassius, and even before Pacorus’ ‘great actions in Syria’; and Dio with their being no military action that year), both contain the same basic story. This is that during the campaign of 50 BC, Orodes and his eldest son fell out, with Pacorus making a bid for the throne. We have no direct evidence that the Parthians fell into a civil war once more, but there are some interesting indicators. Whilst technically Orodes remained king until his murder in 37 BC (at the hands of another of his sons) there is room to speculate upon the nature of the struggle between him and Pacorus, and upon Pacorus’ constitutional role within Parthia during the next decade.

One implication that arises from reading Dio’s account is that the invading army of 50 BC was used by Ornodapates in an attempt to place Pacorus on the throne. One aspect that has been little commented on before is that Dio’s account surely implies that Ornodapates himself was the commander of the invasion of 50 BC and that he turned his army around and invaded Parthia with it. Justin merely has it as Pacorus being recalled, with no fighting, yet that would not account for the removal of the invading army. If there was an armed conflict, then it is hard to determine the result. Although Orodes retained his throne, we know that coins were minted in the name of Pacorus (see plate 12), an action which was usually only reserved for kings and pretenders.311Yet, within a decade both Pacorus and Orodes were working hand-in-hand during a renewed invasion of Syria, during the Second Romano-Parthian War.

Thus it appears that Parthia did degenerate into another civil war (only four years after the end of the previous one). Given the nature of Orodes’ rule and his actions, this is hardly surprising. He had come to the throne following the usurpation and murder of both his father and brother. He then compounded these actions by murdering the greatest Parthian general of his age, Surenas, the man who had masterminded the stunning victory over the Romans at Carrhae. This action had led to Parthia squandering the considerable advantages that they had over Rome, with two years of dithering and a failed campaign in 51 BC. Therefore, it is no wonder that there were elements within Parthia who wanted rid of this vacillating and murderous monarch, and his replacement by someone more vigorous. Certainly the Suren clan would have had little time for Orodes and would have looked forward to his removal. Whilst we have no account of the ensuing civil war, it is clear that a compromise was reached between father and son and that some form of co-rule was established. Orodes kept his throne, and his life, whilst Pacorus gained control of the armies and most probably possessed the bulk of the power.

It only remains to be determined what role Rome played in this process. Cicero appears to have no knowledge of Roman involvement, but then as the tone of his letters showed, he and Bibulus had little regard for each other. Cicero describes Bibulus’ emulation of Cassius’ Fabian tactics as nothing more than ‘not stirring a step whenever there were Parthians in Syria’, so we cannot read much into his ignorance here. Justin assigns no role for the Romans in the squabble, but Dio clearly believes that Bibulus was at the forefront of this scheme. The epitome of Livy is interesting, as Livy clearly devoted a section to Bibulus’ actions in Syria. We can rightly ask ourselves whether this simply referred to the holding of Antioch, or whether they did include fomenting civil war in Parthia.312

If Bibulus did have a large part to play in this rebellion then he is to be congratulated indeed. Such a policy had overtones of Gabinius’ earlier use of Mithradates III, (including possibly being responsible for sending him back into Parthia armed with Roman gold). It is also possible that Bibulus included a hefty contribution to Pacorus’ campaign; at the very least he could have assured him of Rome’s support against Orodes and their strict neutrality in the affair. Given the testament of Dio and the remarkably fortuitous timing of the Parthian withdrawal, then it is more than likely that the Romans did have a hand in generating this third Parthian civil war, as they had done with the second one. What the Romans could not achieve by force of arms, they managed by cunning. Thus, the First Romano-Parthian war ended in a stalemate, with the Parthian Empire turning in on itself once more, nicely mirroring the prelude to the war. After five long years, peace broke out between the two great empires, though an unofficial and uneasy one at that. From the depths of disaster the Romans had dug deep and managed to hold onto Syria and maintain their empire’s territorial integrity, though, as we have seen, they were greatly aided by Parthian indecisiveness and incompetence, all of which stemmed from the figure of Orodes II.


Whilst the outbreak of yet another Parthian civil war brought the First Romano-Parthian war to a conclusion, many expected that Rome’s retaliation for the setbacks and humiliations which they had suffered would be swift and decisive. Rome still possessed two great generals, in the form of Pompey and Caesar, and now the Parthians had challenged Roman might by inflicting a heavy defeat on them. In fact it looked as though Cicero’s wish was going to come true, when he reported on 20 February 50 BC that Pompey had written to him stating that ‘this [Parthian War] is going to be his concern’.313

It appears that Pompey had decided that the Parthians were fitting opponents for him to campaign against and restore lost Roman pride in the east. A machiavellian mind might argue that the events as they transpired had worked out very well for Pompey in the end. In 56 BC it was difficult to see why Pompey had allowed Crassus the glory of the Parthian war, as opposed to his lieutenant Gabinius, or even himself. Yet in 56 BC there was little appetite amongst the Senate or the Roman people for such a war. However, by 50 BC much had changed. Crassus’ campaign may not have had public support, but no Roman would allow the defeat at Carrhae to stand. Roman honour dictated that the Parthians should be made to pay for their humbling of a Roman army and the invasion of one of their provinces. Thus by 50 BC a Parthian war did have full public support, and it would be to Pompey that the Senate and people would turn.

Furthermore, Crassus had proved to be no match for the Parthians, though as it turned out he was only outwitted by one Parthian of genius, Surenas, who was now dead himself. Parthia had lost their best general and had now collapsed into a civil war and looked weaker than they did in 56 BC. At this point we should remember Orodes’ plan for dealing with the Romans, namely sacrifice Surenas to slow the Romans down, weakening them, and then come in for the kill himself. In what may just be a coincidence, as events turned out, the same plan could be applied to Pompey and Parthia – send an expendable general (who you really want out of the way anyway) to fight the Parthians in order to weaken them and then move in for the kill yourself. No two men knew each other so well as Pompey and Crassus. The two had been rivals for nearly thirty years when Pompey agreed to Crassus leading the Parthian campaign. Certainly Pompey knew that Crassus was a good general, but did he foresee that Crassus would fail but weaken the Parthians in doing so?

By 53 BC, the plan (if there was one), looked like it had misfired. The Parthians had not only defeated Crassus, but seemed to be on the verge of overrunning the Roman East, though this again would only fuel calls for Pompey, as Cicero alludes to on many an occasion. In fact, if we are pursuing a machiavellian line for Pompey here, this would also explain Rome’s apparently blasé approach to defending the East following Carrhae, including the seemingly incredible decision of the consul Sulpicius (in 51 BC) to prevent any fresh troops being sent to the east. It could be argued that the whole scenario looks as though someone wanted the situation to get worse, and who would want that, other than someone hoping to restore his military dominance in Rome by coming to their aid when all others had failed? In the murky world of politics in the late Roman Republic, it is entirely possible.

Yet even the best machiavellian scheme can be undone by circumstance or by another schemer. With the death of Crassus (planned or otherwise), Pompey clearly believed that he had no equal. This position appeared to have been confirmed by the Senate’s decision (in 52 BC), to make him sole consul. There was only one other man left in the Republic who might one day threaten his position: Gaius Julius Caesar, Crassus’ former protégé. At the meeting of the triumvirate in Luca in 56 BC, both Crassus and Caesar had received substantial military commands. Crassus had already fallen, and for much of the years 54–52 BC it looked as though Caesar would join him, with the conquest of Gaul floundering upon reversals and rebellions, perhaps as Pompey had foreseen. What he hadn’t foreseen was that Caesar would come through these reversals and by 50 BC would have added a substantial amount of territory to the Roman empire, taking it up to the German (English) Channel, and enhancing his reputation considerably. By 50 BC, Caesar was looking like he could rival Pompey and that clearly was not in Pompey’s plan. However, help was at hand in the form of the termination date of Caesar’s five year extension to his command in Gaul. All Pompey had to do was ensure that this was not renewed and Caesar would have to return home empty-handed, possibly to prosecution (for real or alleged crimes), whilst Pompey could command a triumphant campaign against the Parthians to avenge Roman honour.

Unfortunately for Pompey, he had not reckoned on Caesar having plans of his own. In an outrageous example of blatant self-interest, Caesar chose not to emulate the generation of Pompey and Crassus, but the one before it. Copying the example of Sulla, he led his army in an invasion of Italy and caused the outbreak of the Second Roman Civil War.314Thus, once again, Rome and Parthia appeared to emulate each other in their rise and fall, with both collapsing into civil war. Pompey was denied his great Parthian war and was defeated by Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. His eastern connections came back to haunt him when he was assassinated on an Egyptian beach by his supposed allies as they attempted to ingratiate themselves with the rising power of Caesar.

By virtue of his victory Caesar inherited the war against Parthia and was in the final preparations for a renewed invasion of the East when, in the Senate House in Rome, he too fell to the knives of assassins, one of which belonged to now betrayed both the master and pupil. Caesar’s death sparked off a fresh round of civil war which spread to the east and even involved Parthia. Whichever empire came out of civil war first would have the initiative, and in Rome’s case all the planning of Pompey and Caesar came to nought when Parthia stabilised first and unleashed a second war on Rome (which at one point found the whole east up to and including Asia Minor under Parthian control). Though the Second Romano-Parthian War was as epic as the first, we must leave our narrative here and look back upon this first momentous clash of ancient civilisations and see what it meant to the development of the ancient world.

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