War of Words – ‘Parting Shot’

With Marc DeSantis

The witty, cutting, or devastating remark made on one’s way out of the door that floors an opponent is today known as a ‘parting shot’ – but the term actually has its roots in antiquity. Earlier known in English as the ‘Parthian shot’, it was named after the legendary horse archers of the Parthian Empire that controlled Iran and much else of the Middle East.

Such warriors greatly impressed (and dismayed) their Roman enemies with their ability to loose arrows behind themselves while galloping away: the storied Parthian shot. In time, the phrase became the similar-sounding ‘parting shot’.

The Restoration-era poet Samuel Butler used parting-shot imagery in his poem Hudibras (1663-1678): ‘You wound, like Parthians, while you fly / and kill with a Retreating Eye: / Retire the more, the more we press / To draw us into Ambushes’.

The Parni were the ancestors of the Parthians and were part of the nomadic Dahae people (a branch of the Scythians) who lived on the Central Asian steppe east of the Caspian Sea. In the third century BC, the Parni took over the Seleucid Empire’s province of Parthia, from whence they acquired their historical name of Parthians.

Butler’s poetry encapsulates well the battlecraft of the Parthians, who had not forgotten the war-making traditions of their steppe-dwelling forebears. The tactic of the Parthian shot, and also the feigned flight, a false retreat intended to induce an opponent to leave formation and give chase so as to be more easily attacked, were used to terrible effect against the Romans at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC.

Encircled in the desert by horse archers supported by super-heavy Parthian armoured cavalry, the Romans were pelted by hails of arrows. Unable to reply effectively, the Roman army was crushed.