Leaving Parthia

The modern nation of Iraq comprises a substantial portion of the western part of the old Parthian empire. Parthia never truly rivaled its neighbor to the west, Rome, since the backbone of the kingdom’s strength lay to the east, in Persia, but Parthia threatened the easternmost Roman provinces, particularly Syria and Judaea. Parthian armies, employing heavy cavalry and lighter-armed horse archers, annihilated a Roman army at Carrhae under command of the experienced Marcus Licinius Crassus; in the confusion after the assassination of Julius Caesar, Parthians temporarily controlled Syria, Palestine, and large parts of Roman Asia Minor; even the sluggish emperor Nero was compelled to rouse himself sufficiently to send troops to the east under the command of his great general Domitius Corbulo to contain the Parthian threat; that Nero later executed Corbulo was in fact a tribute to Corbulo’s efficiency and success.

The Romans spent considerable sums on the Parthian problem, either sending armies directly against them or propping up a client-kingdom in Armenia as a buffer against Parthian incursions. Finally, after 150 years of such defensive measures, the greatest of Rome’s soldier-emperors, Marcus Ulpius Traianus, known to us as Trajan, decided that enough was enough and led his armies into the heart of the rival empire.

Trajan had reason for optimism: he had subdued the Dacians, a terrifying confederation of tribes across the Danube River, in two brutal campaigns. Trajan memorialized those victories on his famous Column; the spiral frieze still portrays marches, massacres, surrenders, and beheadings. Overtopping the column was the statue of Trajan himself (now replaced by one of St. Peter). In the campaigns he had bridged the Danube; defeated and forced the suicide of the Dacian king, Decebalus, himself a skillful commander who had frustrated the emperor Domitian in an earlier war; brought back millions in gold and silver to Rome; and trained and developed excellent staff officers, the oft-overlooked ingredient that made brilliant generals of great ones.

Trajan’s military policy was frankly expansionistic; he pacified Numidia and completed the conquest of Rome’s eastern frontier by annexing Arabia Petraea; but the Parthians were either undeterred or alarmed at Trajan’s sustained activities and tried to undermine Roman power in the region by overthrowing the Roman-appointed client king of Armenia. Trajan moved east in 113 A.D. and within a year conquered Cappadocia, Armenia, and Upper Mesopotamia. He moved easily and swiftly down the Tigris and in 115 he captured the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon, 60 miles downriver from Babylon. Osroes, the Parthian king, was driven into exile and his throne and his daughter were taken by the Romans.

Trajan wished to enjoy his great victory; he even took time for some sightseeing, traveling all the way down the Tigris to the Persian Gulf and contemplating a trip to India. His joy in conquest proved short-lived, however; revolts erupted in southern Mesopotamia, while still-loyal Parthian troops attacked Roman supply lines and garrisons in Armenia northern Mesopotamia, and Adiabene, beyond the Tigris.

Meanwhile, Trajan’s prolonged absence had provided an opportunity for those discontented with Roman authority. Jews were in open revolt across the east, from Cyrene to the Levant. Trajan found his victory evanescing; he suppressed the rebellion in southern Mesopotamia while sending forces against Parthian troops in the north. Despite his efforts, however, he knew he would have to withdraw from Parthia, so in 116 he set up his own puppet government under Parthamaspates, great-nephew of Osroes, and moved his troops up the Euphrates to prepare for new campaigns against the Jews in the eastern provinces. The following summer he died at Selinus in Cilicia.

Trajan had organized his eastern conquests into three new provinces; Armenia, Assyria, and Parthia. All were gone after his death; his successor, Hadrian, decided that the conquests were untenable, and the empire retained its former eastern frontier, running along the Euphrates in the north and cutting more or less directly south across the desert at Sura, extending from there to Gulf of Aqaba.

Trajan’s judgment and motivation have rightly been questioned. By Roman standards, the assault on Dacia was more than justified; the Dacians had provoked the Romans on more than one occasion and could drive through the Balkans to threaten northern Italy or the wealthy provinces of Macedon and Achaea. Trajan’s victories had added immeasurably to the wealth of the empire; subsequent imperial policy confirmed the soundness of Trajan’s decision to annex Dacia, which remained a province until 270 A.D. Only the need to deal with other problems across the empire compelled Aurelian to abandon the province.

The attack on Mesopotamia, by contrast, puzzled historians modern and ancient. Cassius Dio, whose chronicle provides the only continuous narrative of the period, offers an overreaching love of glory as Trajan’s principal motivation, and even the sage Oxford Classical Dictionary concurs. Trajan achieved nothing lasting and left the rest of the empire in danger. But that was not the worst of it.

Conservatives like to cite the “law of unintended results” as grounds for rejecting bold initiatives; at some point, something that no one has foreseen will ruin, taint, or at least problematize the best-intended action. Trajan could not know it as he lay dying in Selinus, but his effort to emulate Alexander the Great would have lasting consequences. The border conflicts in the east would escalate; Roman armies would enter the kingdom four more times in the next 100 years, until the weakened Parthians were overthrown by their vastly more aggressive, cohesive, and energetic cousins, the Persians.

The Persians would overrun the Roman east, capturing the Roman emperor Valerian in 260 and encouraging the ascendancy of Palmyra; while nominally a Roman ally, the Palmyrenes aimed at replacing Roman rule in the east with their own. To defeat Palmyra, Aurelian would give up Dacia and destabilize the Roman frontier on the Danube, the primary access point for the Gothic invasions of the fourth century. Persia for its part remained a constant threat until its overthrow by the Muslims in the 7th century.

And the neglected wars at home? The Jews, emboldened by the successes of the revolts in Cyrene, Egypt, Cyprus, and Judaea, and equally infuriated with Hadrian’s laws forbidding cirumcision, broke out in open rebellion under Bar-Kochba. Suppressing the Bar-Kochba rebellion took Hadrian four years and cost him thousands of men. He retaliated by razing Jerusalem, replacing it with a new foundation, Aelia Capitolina, and exiling the Jews: an action the consequences of which are still felt.

The lessons of history are paradoxical; tiresome for those who find them stifling, tireless in their efforts to remind us of follies past. Some discount them altogether, noting as Nietzsche might have that history can teach us nothing, since the good win as often as the bad and everyone dies in the end. But if history cannot teach, or if it is used too inelegantly and cumbrously to teach, it can still guide the wise and caution the wary.

The emperor Augustus was no Trajan on the battlefield. Confronted with the recent memory of the humiliation of a Roman army at Carrhae, Augustus settled for a diplomatic triumph by reclaiming the lost standards of Crassus’ armies. Less glory, less risk, less death, less loss, fewer catastrophes, and occasional border wars instead of full-scale invasions followed in the wake of Augustus’ choice of a diplomatic and symbolic solution in preference to a military option.

A lesson for our times.

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