Rome and Persia: the seven hundred year rivalry


In ancient times, following the fall of Carthage, only Persia on Rome’s eastern frontier would be, to adopt a modern term, her ‘peer adversary’. It was the only state that bore any comparison in power and had to be, however grudgingly, accorded a different status by the Romans to that given to the minor kingdoms and barbarian tribes that abounded on its periphery.

The two empires would uncomfortably abut one another for seven centuries in a fraught relationship filled with numerous wars, but also with long periods of peace and extensive trading contacts. Historian Adrian Goldsworthy examines their hot and cold confrontation over this tremendous span, running from the 1st century BC to the 7th century AD, in his Rome and Persia: the seven hundred year rivalry. Though they would fight often, it was never for mortal stakes, until the final, ruinous decades of their confrontation.

Contrary to the notorious fate they inflicted on Carthage, the Romans were beholden to no need to always fight a war of extinction. ‘Turning an enemy into a suitably humble and subordinate ally,’ notes Goldsworthy, ‘was an entirely acceptable conclusion to a Roman war.’ This meant that a negotiated peace that could be presented to the Roman people as one that was advantageous to Rome, and which also made it appear that an enemy was in an inferior position, was welcome. This was a pragmatic view of war and diplomacy, one that avoided the incalculable dangers of war when taken to the extreme of annihilating an opponent. The Persians themselves, till just before the end of the rivalry, would also refrain from going for the jugular.

Unfortunately, there was certainly much cause for conflict. Each empire was jealous of its honour, sensitive to its perceived image, and ever eager to assert dominance. Client states, such as the strategically located Armenia, were a continuing source of inflammable friction. Just which empire’s influence would predominate over the mountain kingdom led to many wars, and also diplomatic struggles, even when their troops did not directly come to blows.

During these centuries, Persia, with its power base in its Iranian heartlands, would itself be ruled by two distinct groups. In modern historiography, they are distinguished as the Parthians (3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD) and the Sasanian Persians (3rd to the 7th centuries AD). From the perspective of the rivalry, there were more commonalities than differences between them across the run of seven centuries. With the rise of the Sasanian dynasty in the 3rd century AD, the royal family would now come from Persia proper, in Iran’s south-west, rather than Parthia.

The leading clans of Parthia, such as the Suren, Karen, and Mihran, remained powerful under the Sasanians, but there were significant changes in time, particularly to the army. There is much herein of military historical interest, and Goldsworthy has a keen eye for such matters. The Parthians and Sasanians were both feudal states with cavalry-oriented armies. The Parthians made heavy use of swarms of horse archers to soften up an enemy, all the while backed up by a smaller but hard-hitting corps of elite super-heavy armoured cavalry known as cataphracts.

After the Sasanian dynasty came to power, these cataphracts, equipped for shock action as well as archery, increased in prominence among Persian forces. On balance, a Sasanian field army was better able to stand up to a Roman one in pitched battle than had been the case with the earlier Parthians, who nonetheless had inflicted one of Rome’s most stinging defeats, in 53 BC, at the Battle of Carrhae.

But perhaps the most important war-making advance of the Sasanians was the improvement in their siege craft so that it matched that of the Romans. The Sasanians would prove capable, albeit still with much difficulty, of capturing many well-protected Roman cities and fortresses.

The Battle  of Carrhae, 53 BC,  depicted in a copper engraving by Matthäus Merian. The Parthians inflicted a stinging defeat on the Romans. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Enemies of the emperor

A vast geographical spread was a noteworthy similarity between Rome and Persia. Being so large, Persia had to rely on a time-consuming muster of forces drawn from multiple vassals to compose an army fit to take on the Roman army. Considering that it, like Rome, had to defend sprawling territories, it could not devote its full potential might to deal with the Romans.

Persia, too, was troubled by barbarian attacks, notably on its north-eastern frontier where it met the Central Asian steppe. Here dwelled nomads of Scythian, and later of Turkic, stock. The Persians could no more take all of their forces westward than Rome could remove all of its own from Gaul and Germany to bring them east. This made it onerous for either side to contemplate the total destruction of the other.

Within the compass of the rivalry that existed for so long were many victories and defeats for both sides. However, it may be reasonably said that, at times, the rulers of either power had more to worry about from their own people. For example, during the chaos that befell Rome during the 3rd century AD, Goldsworthy observes that the ‘most dangerous enemies for any emperor were other Romans’. Indeed, the majority of 3rd-century emperors would die from the actions of their countrymen, not foreigners. Similarly, the Parthians, at least, had many succession struggles that disrupted their empire.

So wouldn’t each empire have been better off remaining at peace and focussing instead on suppressing their internal struggles, or on fending off barbarian attacks? In theory, yes, but this would have required a modern and thoroughly anachronistic ‘European Union’ sensibility of mutual benefit that didn’t exist in antiquity.

And though they did in fact remain at peace for long periods, wars over prestige, opportunity, and a need for revenge would inevitably arise. As mentioned above, neither empire could think of destroying the other – until, that is, the early 7th century, when, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and civil strife in the Eastern, the Sasanian King of Kings Khusro II attacked and made huge advances never seen before.

Sasanian armies swarmed into Rome’s eastern provinces and were camping on the far side of the Bosporus while an allied Avar army laid siege to Constantinople, the East Roman capital. This was a mortal threat to Rome’s survival. ‘Khusro II broke the rules by refusing to negotiate’ with the Romans, says Goldsworthy, ‘partly because his success revealed that the Romans were much weaker than everyone had believed.’

But it was to no avail. The East Romans would recover, though badly wounded, and defeat Persia. The failed war, and subsequent instability inside Persia, would leave the latter so weakened that it would fall to Arab invasion decades later. The seven-century rivalry was over, and with its end came the end of antiquity itself.

Rome and Persia: the seven hundred year rivalry, Adrian Goldsworthy, Basic Books, hbk (£28.82), ISBN 978-1541619968