BMCR 2021.07.42

Rome and Parthia: empires at war

, Rome and Parthia: empires at war. Ventidius, Antony and the second Romano-Parthian War, 40-20 BC. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2020. Pp. 224. ISBN 9781526710130. $32.95.


Rome and Parthia: Empires at War. Ventidius, Antony and the second Romano-Parthian War, 40-20 BC is Gareth Sampson’s latest in a string of titles written for Pen & Sword Military, aimed in large part at a more general audience. In a study of what he calls the “Second Romano-Parthian War,” which he dates to 40 to 20 BCE, Sampson highlights the failed expedition of Mark Antony into the northwestern territory of the Parthian Arsacids in 36, rightfully regarded as one of the great military blunders in history. The book aims to chronicle in detail the events of this period and seeks a better understanding of the foreign policies of both the Romans and the Arsacids, noting especially how domestic politics, most dramatically manifesting as civil wars on each side, informed these policies.

One of the strengths of Sampson’s approach is to bring together disparate elements that collectively make up the complicated narrative of Roman-Arsacid relations, rendering a coherent and very readable account that, while offering little new for the specialist, provides a useful framework for the general reader. Sampson combines a gift for presenting ancient evidence clearly, complete with generous quotations from ancient sources, and the ability to render usually cogent interpretations, though occasionally his proposals ascend to uncomfortable heights of conjecture.

Following eleven maps and a timeline of key events, the first two chapters comprise Part I of the book, “The Rise of the New World Order (to 44BC).” In presenting background information, Sampson argues that the “Second Romano-Parthian War was . . . the culmination of a near 300-year process which began with the destruction of the Persian Empire at the hands of Alexander the Great” (3). He goes on to outline the expansions of the Roman and Arsacid states, with a heavy emphasis on the inevitability that these nascent powers should clash. While I am not overly fond of such teleological analyses as they tend to deny the contingent nature of history, there is no doubt that the efforts of the earlier leaders did collectively put the Arsacid empire and the Roman Republic on a path to collision. What remains unclear is whether the later leaders of either side saw the demise of the other as the continuation of that process of expansion. Sampson implies they did, but no one can really say for sure (poetic license and political propaganda of the Augustan era notwithstanding).

Chapter One rounds off the background portion with a brief account of the Battle of Carrhae in 53, the highlight of Sampson’s “First Romano-Parthian War” (55-50 BCE). From there, in Chapter Two, we have a more focused look at the events leading to the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44. As usual, the nature of our surviving sources leaves us far more informed about matters in the Roman world, but Sampson, to his credit, does try to cover the Arsacid as well, even if he must rely heavily on conjecture in finding parallels between the internal antagonisms of Caesarians and Pompeians on one side and the efforts of the Arsacid king Orodes II to consolidate his rule on the other.

Part II is “The Rise and Fall of Parthia (44-38 BC).” This section covers in three chapters the initial engagements of the current war, starting with the Arsacid invasion of Syria in 40, led by Orodes’ son Pacorus and the exiled Roman general Q. Labienus. Then P. Ventidius Bassus takes center stage as the narrative moves on to the Roman counteroffensive, initially in Asia Minor and then in Syria. This is perhaps the strongest section of the book, with a dramatis personae of Antonine generals on the ground dealing with the crisis while Antony himself directed his energies westward and toward the needs of his position in Rome. It is very gratifying to see Ventidius so prominent in this book, as he certainly deserves to be, and Sampson is aware of the tradition that Antony envied Ventidius’ successes on the battlefield (107, 122-24). Sampson not only gives a detailed account of the movements of armies but offers interpretations of strategic plans and contingencies in the minds of the commanders as events in the 40-38 period unfolded.

Part III, “The Rise and Fall of Rome (38-36 BC),” spans Chapters Six through Eight, and therein we come at last to Antony’s invasion of Media, the centerpiece of the book. Sampson provides a great deal of information about tactical and strategic decisions on both sides, leading to Antony’s disastrous move to attack the city of Phraaspa without his siege equipment. He then details the withdrawal of Roman forces from Media, with all the hazards they faced from the elements as well as the Arsacid forces. This day-by-day account is compelling reading indeed.

Part IV is simply called “Stalemate (36-30 BC),” the most problematic part of the book. These two chapters cover the deterioration of Antony’s relationship with Octavian as well as Antony’s invasion of Armenia and removal of its king Artavasdes II. The latter had been part of the Median expedition but then withdrew his forces when the Parthians attacked Antony’s baggage train and showed how dire the situation had become for the Romans (Plut. Ant. 39.2; Dio 49.25.5-26.1). Antony, of course, felt betrayed and, having returned to Roman territory, eventually engineered the capture of Artavasdes. Sampson does not get the basic facts wrong, but he makes no attempt to challenge the traditional scholarship, which has generally taken pro-Antonine propaganda at face value.[1] He refers to Artavasdes’ “treachery” (188, 189) and “betrayal” (213). Moreover, he ascribes to the Armenian king an erroneous motivation: “Artavasdes had clearly hoped that by abandoning Antonius in Media it would lead to his death and defeat” (209). Nothing in the sources, however, suggests anything other than a pragmatic decision to extricate Armenian forces from an impossible situation.

Sampson also shows a lack of awareness of Armenian custom by calling Artavasdes’ son Artaxes (i.e., Artaxias) a “pretender” (214). But after the capture of his father, Artaxias was elevated by at least some of the noble families of Armenia before fleeing to the Arsacids during the Roman occupation (Dio 49.39.6-40.1). In Armenia’s political system royal legitimacy was attained through the support of these families. Sampson’s deficiency in accounting for Armenian perspectives is symptomatic of a broader issue addressed below, involving an insufficient engagement of indigenous contexts when dealing with the Roman-Arsacid frontier.

The other oddity in Chapter Ten has to do with Sampson’s treatment of the Donations of Alexandria, a term he does not use. These involved a flamboyant ceremony in Alexandria in which Antony and Cleopatra supposedly distributed territories to their children as well as to Cleopatra’s and Caesar’s son Caesarion—among these were Roman provinces and areas as yet unconquered. Sampson shows little engagement with the vast scholarship that has attempted to make sense of these strange declarations and seems, first, to take them at face value and, second, to assume a reality behind them. He routinely refers to the “Antonine Empire” (e.g., Map 10) as if it were a fait accompli (217-22).

The final section, “Waiting for Augustus (30-20 BC),” contains one chapter, with the same title. This serves almost as a coda to the narrative but also asserts the end of the Second Romano-Parthian War to be the diplomacy of 20 BCE between Augustus and the Arsacid king Phraates IV. This year saw Phraates returning the standards lost by Crassus and Antony to Augustus’ representative, the future emperor Tiberius. This event is certainly considered a major turning point in Roman-Arsacid relations, although its designation as the end of a war that had seen no fighting in over ten years is odd. More problematic is Sampson’s reference to a “de facto treaty” (265). There was, in fact, no treaty at that point, and, even if the phrase “de facto” acknowledges that (it is never clear in the text), to a broader audience such terminology could be misleading.

The book has two appendices. The first lists Arsacid, Seleucid, Armenian, and other rulers. The second discusses the sources for Arsacid history, noting the extreme paucity of native ones. Curiously, despite their importance for Roman-Arsacid relations, Sampson does not list Tacitus, Plutarch, or Cassius Dio, among others. He also lists lost Graeco-Roman sources devoted to or with large sections on the Parthians, e.g., the Parthica of Arrian. Notes, two bibliographies (“Roman and Romano-Parthian” and “Hellenistic and Parthian History”), and a general index round things out.

Without a doubt the book is valuable for making a challenging topic accessible to a wider audience, but some of Sampson’s more questionable assertions could potentially lead an unwary reader astray. For instance, it is not evident that the Arsacids, even with their invasion of Syria in 40, wanted to “recreate the Persian Empire” (73), a recurring faux pas in some of the scholarship based on careless readings of Tacitus (Ann. 6.31.2) and Dio (58.26.1).

I also noted above a deficiency in Sampson’s presentation regarding indigenous contexts. This is connected to another issue: an emphasis on the military aspect of Roman-Arsacid relations. This is, to be sure, what Sampson wishes to focus on, which is fair enough, but here, too, the stated goal is somewhat compromised by failing to account for more nuanced scholarship on peripheral regions of the Roman and Arsacid empires. After all, their shared frontier was the venue for the conflicts Sampson chronicles, but there is at best a superficial treatment of the indigenous states that played a vital role not only in the military conflicts but in the economic and diplomatic interactions of the superpowers, which were already developing by the first century BCE.[2] That is to say, even a purportedly military history seems incomplete without a proper accounting of those non-military factors that informed Roman-Arsacid relations, both directly and through their proxies, and without as full an accounting of the role of indigenous agency in these regions as our sources will permit, as the Armenian example above shows.

However, despite these misgivings, this is still a useful book for a general audience, with excellent narratives of events on the ground and much analysis of evidence that is convincing, to varying degrees. Although more light could have been shed on indigenous experience on the frontier, Sampson does well to highlight the Arsacid side of the story, leaving us wishing all the more that more evidence of their internal politics and culture could have survived to help us better understand the decisions made in their relations with the Romans. For what can be found in Sampson’s book, the audience will certainly come away with a better understanding of the frontier policies and goals of Mark Antony, his allies, his subordinates, and his enemies.[3]


[1] See further L. E. Patterson, “Antony and Armenia,” TAPA 145.1 (2015): 77-105 at 89.

[2] More recent publications perhaps came too late for Sampson to consult, but they build on earlier work that could have helped him offer a fuller picture of the frontier. See, for example, L. Gregoratti, “The Need for a Third Space, Geographical and Political Spaces at the Periphery of the Parthian and Roman Empires: Some Preliminary Remarks,”Methods and Models in Ancient History, Essays in Honor of Jørgen Christian Meyer, Athens, 2020, 221-30.

[3] There are a few typographical errors in the book, including a few more serious ones. In referring to Pharnaces king of Pontus, Sampson repeatedly misspells his name as “Pharances” (45-46), even in the section heading: “The Romano-Pharancean [sic] War”! Additionally, Caesar was not assassinated in the Senate House (59) but in the Theater of Pompey, where the Senate was meeting on that occasion. Finally, at 283n.29, he seems to identify Luis Ballesteros Pastor as two separate people named L. Ballesteros and L. Pastor.