Gareth C Sampson, Rome & Parthia: Empires at War (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In this military history, Gareth Sampson narrates the story of the Romans and Parthians squeezing the Hellenistic world from west and east until they clashed in what we now call appropriately the Middle East. It is a complex tale with many players, but Sampson’s deft narrative teases out the strands, providing a fascinating insight into an often overlooked period of intense warfare and all the drama that goes with that.
Sampson sets the foundation by bringing the rising new powers of Rome and Parthia down to 50 BCE. It is a story of expansion and civil wars on both sides, but also the almost inevitable wearing down of the Hellenistic powers until Rome and Parthia stood toe to toe and fought it out. The Romans lost at Carrhae in 53 BCE, but the war ended in stalemate, though Parthia held the balance of power, for now.
Internal divisions abated ambition on both sides until 40 BCE when Parthia successfully invaded Roman Syria. This is where the Roman general Ventidius enters the picture as the man who led the Roman recovery. He won a series of battles in one season and recaptured Syria. The Parthians counterattacked, but Ventidius defeated them at Gindarus in 38 BCE using a stratagem lauded by Sampson. For his troubles, Ventidius was sent home, a victim of Roman politics. Meanwhile, Parthia all but collapsed. But then it was Rome’s turn to follow suit.
Sampson sticks to his eastern theatre while Republican Rome went into a tailspin. The Romans, under Antonius, consolidated their hold in the Middle East, then went after the Parthians in 36 BCE. The invasion was a disaster and the Romans found themselves outnumbered and isolated; they had to retreat. It was a retreat to rival the worst in history with the Parthians harassing the Romans all the way. But the stalemate between Parthia and Rome continued through to 30 BCE while Antonius consolidated his position and planned to create his own eastern power base. The rising force of Octavianus had other ideas and defeated Antonius who committed suicide. Parthia pounced, taking the vital Roman client kingdoms of Medea and Armenia. But now Rome was united again under Octavianus and presented a very different foe.
Parthia again fell into civil war. But Octavianus arranged a truce, although he watched on as an ally attacked Parthia and lost. Octavianus, now Augustus, had other wars to fight in the east, most notably against Arabia and Galatia. By 20 BCE, the Roman and Parthian Empires were again in stalemate, and that is where Sampson leaves his story with a summary of the settlement between the two powers. Two appendices round out Sampson’s book: lists of kings and sources
Sampson tells an engaging and balanced story of two major powers slugging it out and the minor powers caught between them; all of which takes place in the chaotic collapse of the Roman Republic and various Parthian civil wars. The narrative is slanted to the Romans because of the lack of sources on the Parthian side, but Sampson winkles out what he can and makes educated guesses where he hits blank spaces. He also incorporates many of the sources into the narrative. My only quibble was on Sampson’s habit of repeating what those sources have just told us. Nevertheless, this is a first rate military history of an often confusing theatre of war.