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Marc Antony's Parthian War

Posted July 19th, 2014 at 09:43 PM by Salah

The Arsakid Parthian Kingdom could possibly be described as one of the most over-exaggerated threats to the Roman Empire. In 53 BCE the Parthians gained notoriety when they slaughtered the triumvir Crassus' army at Carrhae, capturing legionary standards in the process. Sixteen years later, in march of 37 BCE, Marcus Antonius embarked on a war of revenge against Parthia.

Antony's army was one of the largest that Rome ever gathered. His biographer Plutarch claims that it consisted of 100,000 men. Amongst these were 60,000 Roman legionaries, and numerous allied contingents including Celtic horsemen and Armenian horse-archers. Plutarch goes on to tell us that the peoples of distant Asia, even India, 'trembled' at the approach of this magnificent force.

The Roman army attacked Media Atropatene via the nominal client-kingdom of Armenia. The focal point of the campaign was an unsuccessful, two-month siege of Phraata by Antony. Deciding to withdraw, Antony moved his ponderous army back through Armenia, but the elements, lack of nourishment, and harassing arrows of the Parthian cavalry all inflicted heavy losses. Caesar's famous lieutenant returned to Roman territory with his battered, demoralized army still intact, but his military reputation tarnished.

Antony brought a huge collection of siege weaponry with him on this campaign, and at one point during the offensive he became impatient with its progress. So he marched ahead with the bulk of his army, while leaving the siege train guarded by two inexperienced legions under the command of one Oppius Statianus. Si Sheppard points out that Caesar would have never divided his forces in hostile territory like this; Adrian Goldsworthy suggests that Caesar would have left the train in a fortified place. Either way the result was the massacre of the legions and the capture of the siege train. It stands along with Carrhae and Elegeia as one of the only occasions when Parthians effectively destroyed an element of a Roman army.

Apart from another near-massacre (that of Flavius Gallus, stubbornly commanding a force of isolated cavalry and light infantry), the Parthians did not inflict any outright defeats on Antony. On one occasion, Antony lured his enemy's horse archers into a deadly trap by having his men assume testudo, thus leading the Parthians into a state of false security. Poor leadership, lack of supplies and foraging opportunities, and bitter weather seem to have done far more damage to Antony's army, which had become restless almost to the point of mutiny by the end of the campaign. An estimated 20,000 members of his army died - slightly less than 10,000 would have been killed during the Statianus massacre, most of the rest died of the terrible conditions.
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