Western statesmen have sought war with Iran often informed by their personal interest, with devastating results.
The problem appears intractable: a western superpower wrestling with Iran, each state seeking to shape the future of the Middle East to its own liking. The former attempts to neutralize Iranian statesmen perceived as a threat. At times the conflict leads both sides to take and hold hostages or captives. There is a battle, too, for public opinion; image matters. Always looming large are figures that come to embody their nations, with or without the widespread endorsement of their peoples, figures who care about national interests, but also immediate personal interests and the legacies they will leave behind.
This is the history of ancient Rome and Parthia. Parthia was an imperial power that came to dominate the Iranian plateau c. 247 BCE-224 CE. Between 96 BCE and 224 CE, it entered into a relationship with Rome that enjoyed lengthy periods of peace, but also suffered fierce episodes of conflict as the Roman empire swallowed the territories of modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Armenia, Jordan, and portions of Iraq.
It is perhaps the least appreciated—and understood—period in the history of the ancient Middle East. This is due to the fact that most of our historical sources come from the Roman side of the divide: authors like Plutarch, Cassius Dio, Pompeius Trogus, Tacitus, and Josephus Flavius who periodically comment on Roman-Parthian affairs. There is no comparable Parthian literature to speak of. Yet it also has the potential to provide perspective on our modern predicament, particularly for the western participants.
Oversimplified one-to-one correspondences must be avoided. No single ancient figure corresponds to President Trump. But it is worth considering when the President’s policies are reminiscent of the specters of antiquity who remain an important resource in our self-understanding.
To what extent, for example, is there resemblance to the decisions of the Roman statesman Crassus?
Here was a politician and commander willing to break with the past to make a mark. Before Crassus, Rome avoided military conflict with Parthia. By the late 60s BCE, after several Roman wars in eastern Mediterranean and Middle East (with the Seleucid, Pontic, and Armenian Empires), and despite territorial ambitions inviting conflict, Rome and Parthia maintained peace and developed a treaty of friendship and alliance that articulated spheres of influence demarcated by a working boundary at the Euphrates River.
Crassus, the Roman governor of Syria in 54 BCE, driven by the opportunity to enhance his reputation in Rome vis-à-vis rivals, Caesar and Pompey, abandoned the settlement and embarked on an unprecedented act of war: the invasion of the Parthian Empire.
Some fellow Romans apparently spotted the self-promotion and protested—but with no effect. In 54 BCE, Crassus crossed the Euphrates, establishing positions in the Iranian sphere. The Parthians, too, protested, questioning the mental competence of aging Crassus—which only compelled Crassus to boast of future targets: the famous cities of Babylonia.
It all ended poorly for Rome. Crassus crossed the Euphrates again in 53 BCE, suffered defeat at the Battle of Carrhae before reaching Babylonia, and lost his own life in a scuffle that broke out as the Parthians dragged him off to the banks of the Euphrates to finalize a surrender. They hoped the Euphrates’ currents might stir the memory of a partner who had forgotten their previous treaty.
Caesar is worth consideration, too. He brought an often-polarized Roman government to new levels of dysfunction. After his own political agenda, at the center of which was his personal political advancement and survival, he abandoned conventional Roman political wisdom. This allowed Roman elites to aggressively build their political careers, but it also asked them to ultimately respect the key policy-making body of the senate, however partisan they may interpret its decisions to be.
Caesar refused. When faced with the senate’s decision to recall him from command in Gaul, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River and marched on Rome with his army, initiating a civil war. Upon his victory, and facing a broken Roman society, he decided a war of revenge on Parthia was an attractive idea. Whatever the original merits of Crassus’s acts of war, many Romans were willing to forget their own responsibility for conflict with Parthia. Their defeat remained an open wound.
Caesar wished to address this issue. He would unite Romans in a conflict with Parthia, give ambitious fellow Romans positions of authority in the campaign (and at home when he was abroad), and elevate his own reputation all the while. Once again, it did not go well. Roman aristocrats wanted more than Caesar’s scraps. On the eve of the campaign in 44 BCE, he was assassinated.
More successful was Octavian, later known as Augustus, arguably the first emperor of Rome. Caesar’s death did not end the conflict with Parthia. First, it led to another round of Roman civil war as Octavian (Caesar’s great nephew and adopted son) and Mark Antony championed the cause of Caesar against his assassins. And then when the latter were defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, the Parthians assumed that Caesar’s planned expedition would be executed anew.
Cornered now, and without other options for a resolution with Rome, they desperately invaded the Roman Empire west of the Euphrates in 40 BCE. While initially successful, the Parthians were expelled in 38 BCE and found themselves the target of another invasion under Antony’s leadership. This invasion, too, proved a disaster. Antony returned to Roman Syria with an army significantly reduced in size. Before he could try a second campaign, Antony faced another civil war, this time against former ally Octavian. By 30 BCE, Octavian had won, and Antony had committed suicide.
With this, Octavian took over eastern affairs for Rome—and he knew better than to fight a direct war with Parthia. Instead, he opted once again for peace with Parthia. He worked out a modus vivendi with the Parthian king Phraates IV, in which he returned a royal Parthian youth that had fallen into his hands as a captive, and Phraates in the momentous year of 20 BCE returned the military standards and surviving captives taken more than thirty years before in the campaign of Crassus.
Equally important, however, was Augustus’s determination to present any settlement with Parthia as if it had been won by a Roman military victory. In the emperor’s own words, “I forced the Parthians to return to me the spoils and standards … and to seek as suppliants the friendship of the Roman people” (Res Gestae 5.29). It was a strategy that embellished Augustus’s accomplishment and that subsequent emperors like Nero would replicate in some form. But it also opened the door to future opportunists, since it conditioned the Roman public to assume and expect conflict with Iran.
All that was necessary was the emperor Trajan, who preferred the fact of conquest to the mere image of military victory. Unlike Crassus, Trajan managed to march Roman armies all the way to Babylonia in 115-117 BCE. This forever soured Roman-Parthian relations, leading to later wars under Lucius Verus and Septimius Severus, who weakened the Parthian Empire, speeding its demise in 224 CE at the hands of a new Iranian empire, the Sasasians. But the Sasanians proved an even more difficult opponent for Rome.
There are many lessons to be teased from these specters. Three are most timely. Western statesmen have sought war with Iran often informed by their personal interest, with devastating results. While some citizens may remember their government’s part in the resulting conflict, this memory is lost for many in retaliation by the other side. And the insistence that a settlement appear as the result of one’s military power will only encourage real conflict. Aware of these tendencies, we should forge new paths of political behavior. We should reject harmful self-interest by leaders, remember and acknowledge our government’s antagonism, and take actions to redress it through an honest (if difficult) compromise and a more durable peace that resists the temptation of triumphalism.