Jump to content

Recommended Posts

Probably one most adapted unit.


Peoples and states deploying cataphracts at some point in their history include: the Scythians, Sarmatians, Parthians, Achaemenids, Sakas, Armenians, Seleucids, Pergamenes, the Sassanids, the Romans, the Goths and the Byzantines in Europe and the Mongols, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans in East Asia.

Partisan (more iconic)






Late- Sassanid


Edited by Lion.Kanzen
Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 5 months later...
  • 1 year later...
  • 1 month later...




Inother  words,  the  Parthians  lacked  effective  siege  capability  and  could  not  conduct  their  offensive  wars effectively. They could invade and hope that their show of force would overawe the cities to surrender, but if this  was  not  forthcoming  they  could  achieve very  little.  On  the  other  hand,  if  the  Parthians  were  defeated incombat  they  could  withdraw  easily  and  fight  another  day.  This  meant  that  the  traditional  infantry  based Roman armies could also achieve very little against the Parthian cavalry.

Above:two graffiti of cataphracts found at Dura Europus (probably before 256 AD).Below:A  relief  located  at  Firuzabad  (after  226  AD).  The  Sasanians  (page,  Shapur  I  and  Ardashir  I)  ride  towards theright.  The  Parthians  (page,  Dadhbundah,  Artaban  V)  are  the  ones with  the  segmented  arm-guards  whereas theSasanians use mail to protect their arms. See Mielczarek (66-67). This may imply that the early Sasanians favoured the use of the shower archery  more than the late Parthians (as I have speculated before in 2015) because it is clear that themail  was  less  restrictive  for  movement  than  the  segmented  arm-guards.  Note  that  all  riders  are  equipped  with thebows  and  melee  weapon.  It  is  usually  thought  that  the  horses  were  covered  with  only  decorative  cloth,  but  in  my opinion it is equally possible that these depict only cloth coverings used on top of the armour

Devine 45.1


2) suggests that the Parthian and Armen

ian mounted archers used the rhombus formation

in combat. The common inclination among Classicists and historians would be to claim that the informationin this treatise must be a later incorrect addition to the original interpolation, but the fact that both the Parthians and Armenians are said to have used the rhombus are suggestive of its authenticity, because both

realms were ruled by the same Arsacid dynasty. Plutarch (Antony 50.2) also confirms that the Armenians were equipped and fought like the Parthians. Its veracity is also supported by the fact the original nterpolation was probably already in existence by the third or fourth century AD at a time when there werestill a lot of information about Parthian tactics. On the basis of the Greek militarytreatises (Asclepiodotus,Aelian and Arrian), the advantages of the rhombus formation were its ready manoeuvrability in combat and

the fact that it had leaders placed on all four corners of the formation. It could face threats from any directionand the mounted archers could also easily shoot backwards. It is not known with absolute certainty if the heavy cavalry cataphracts were also deployed as rhomboids, but this is very likely on the basis of

7 CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 33HISTORIA I ŚWIAT, nr 6 (2017)ISSN 2299 -2464Ilkka SYVÄNNE(University of Haifa, Israel)Parthian Cataphract vs. the Roman Army 53 BC-AD 224Keywords:Parthia, Parthian military, cataphracts, Roman military, tactics, Iran, PersiaIntroductionThis article provides a short overview of the Parthian military and its tactics and what  were the Roman responses to that and what were the Parthian countermeasures against the Roman military practices.I have in my previous studies suggested that the entire cavalry force of Parthia proper could be equipped as cataphracts and that the Parthians obtained their more lightly equipped mounted archers mainly from their subject  peoples/tribes  or  allies.1The  usual  mistake  is  to  think  that  most  of  the  Parthian  cavalry  consisted oflightly-equipped  cavalry.  I  have  suggested  that  the  main  reason  for  this  mistake  is  to  see  the  description ofthe battle of Carrhae to reflect the proportion of the different types of cavalry forces of the entire Parthian realm or Parthia proper –and this despite the fact that most historians agree that Suren’s force consisted of his feudal army of Sakastan/Sistan. In short, the principal problem with the current analyses of the Parthian army is that the army that annihilated Crassus’ Roman forces at Carrhae was not the Parthian army, but the personal retinue   of   Suren/Surena/Surenas   which   consisted   of   his   native   Sacae/Sakai/Saka   forces   and   not   of theParthians  proper  (the  Royal  Army),  and  that  this  description  is  then  used  to  dismiss  the  evidence  in theother sources that state that the Parthian army proper consisted mainly or solely of the cataphracts.2The aim of this article is to shed additional light on the problem and to prove that the sources which refer to  the  massive  force  of  cataphract cavalry  wielded  by  the  Parthian  monarchs  really  mean  what  they  state: theentire Parthian cavalry force of Parthia proper could really be encased in armour as cataphracts. Basically, all of the  sources are  unanimous about this. The  only exception to the  rule  is the  description of the  battle  of Carrhae, but, as noted above, it is actually not an exception because it describes the personal retinue of Surena which consisted of the Sacae.The  Parthians  had had a  long string of successes against the  Macedonian combined arms forces before they  came  face-to-face  with  the  Romans  in  the  first  century  BC.  They  could  therefore  expect  to  win  their battles  when  they  faced  forces  that  consisted  of  footmen  (legionaries  armed  with  the  short pila)  even  more poorly  equipped  to  face  the  cataphracts  than  were  the  Macedonian  phalangites.  The  Romans  had  had asimilarly  long  string  of  successes  against  a  vast  range  of  enemies,  which  even  included  armies  (e.g.  the Seleucids,  Armenians  and  Mithridates  of  Pontus)  that  possessed  very  significant  numbers  of  horsemen equipped either as lightly-armed mounted archers or as cataphracts. Consequently, they too could expect to be ilkkasyvanne@yahoo.com1Some  of  these  studies  have  not  yet  been  published  thanks  to  the  long  publishing  processes.  Some  of  the  matters discussed  here  have  also  been  discussed  in  several  separate  research  papers  or  articles  like  e.g. SYVÄNNE (2009), but this article is the only piece of research in  which I draw  all of these together as an overview of the period 53 BC –AD 224. Amore detailed analysis of the tactical and strategic aspects facing the Romans and Parthians at the turn of the third century can be found in SYVÄNNE (2017a). The late Republican and Early imperial matters will be dealt in greater detail in another forthcoming study. 2Solely  of  the  cataphracts:  Justin  41.2.  Mainly  of  the  cataphracts:  Dio  40.15.2,  49.20.2.  According  to  Dio  (40.15.2), theParthians  did  not  use  the  shield,  but  their  forces  consisted  of  the hippotoxotai(mounted  archers)  and kontoforoi (contus-bearers) most of whom were cataphracted (aspidi men ouden nomizousin, hippotoxotai de kai kontoforoi, ta polla katafraktoi,  straeuontai).  They  did  not  use  many  footmen  and  all  of  those  were  archers.  The  soldiers  started  to  train  to shoot  the  bows  and  ride  horses  already  in  boyhood.  They  took  to  their  campaigns  droves  of  horses  so  that  they  could change these regularly and advance and retire fast. They did not campaign during the winters because the moist loosened their composite bows and strings. This gives a relative good summary of the type of army fielded by the Parthians, namely that instead of being mainly a cavalry force of lightly-equipped mounted archers as usually claimed, it was usually a force that  consisted  mainly  of  the  cataphracted  spear-bearers  and  mounted  archers.  However,  the  information  regarding thefootmen is slightly misleading because the Parthians did possess footmen of other types drawn from their subjects and allies, but it is probable that Dio’s description is accurate as far as the Parthians proper are concerned. CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 34able to crush these  kinds of enemy forces, but what the  Romans did not understand was the effectiveness of the Parthian mounted archery, but they soon did. The Roman advance in the east was effectively stopped by the Parthians at the famous battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. This had led some historians to think that in Parthians the  Romans  had  met  their  match.  However,  even if  there  is  a  germ  of  truth  behind  this  claim,  this  is overstating  the  facts  as  already  well  noted  by  Adrian  Goldsworthy.3The  Parthians  were  a  powerful  enemy, but  they  had  serious  weaknesses  that  prevented  them  from  ever  conquering  the  Roman  east.  I  will discuss both sides of the coin in the following overview of the Parthian military system.Organization of the Parthian Realm and its Armed Forces“The whole populace of the Persians, that is, absolutely their entire nation, is accustomed to set out  to  war,  as  the  Romans,  too,  used  to  before  Marius  had  organized  the  so-called  legiones. Accordingly,  they  cut  a  man  in  twain  and  march  their  army  between  two  sections  of  the  cadaver. For it is evident that the Persians maintain no definite nor combat-ready armies, as do the Romans, so as to be prepared for their combats [the only permanent units of the Parthians were the military retinues  of  the  nobles  and  the  garrisons  of  the  cities].  They  need  time,  therefore,  for  preparing anarmy  and  an  expenditure  which  is sufficient  for  war;  consequently,  it  is  expedient,  says  Celsus [2ndcent  AD],  to  attack  them  by  surprise  and  to  initiate  the  attack  especially  through  Colchis (thepeople  of  our  day  call  it  Lazica  after  a  leader),  for  its  rough  terrain  is  inaccessible  to  the Persians  because  they  are  horse-borne.  For  that  reason  Corbulo  in  the  time  of  Nero  became unbearable  to  them;  for,  because  he  had  blocked  off  their  sallies  into  the  wastelands  of  Persia through  Hyrcania,  he  deprived  them  of  victory  by  flight;  so  that,  as  is  usual  with  Persian  masses, they  were  trapped  alive  in  amountain  pass  and  fled  for  refuge  into  Antioch  on  the  Mygdonius (thePersians captured it and renamed it Nisibis), which, and even it, they abandoned at the time that the  Romans  lashed  at  them  after the manner of a blitz.” [John Lydus 1.34, tr. by Bandy, 187 with comments added in square brackets].The Parthian Empire was possibly the first truly feudal society.4The Parthian society was dominated by seven  families  that  had  enriched  themselves  through  military  expeditions,  land  possessions  and  commercial privileges.  These  nobles/magnates  were  so  powerful  as  to  be  able  to  challenge  the  king  of  kings  with  their own personal armies. It was actually Surena’s personal army of 10,000 horsemen retinue that cut Crassus’ army  to  pieces  at  Carrhae.  In  times  of  war,  the  Great  King  appealed  to  his  subordinate  kings,5regional  and tribal  lords  and  garrison  commanders  to  muster  their  followers  and  bring  them  to  the  assembly  point  at anappointed  time.  In  addition,  the  Parthians  also  sometimes  supplemented  their  numbers  with  mercenaries. However, in practise, the Great King could often rely only on his own clan, vassals and allies. Consequently, Parthian society was not very stable. There were long periods of internal disturbances arising from civil wars that  the  Romans  readily  exploited.  The  position  of  the  king  could  be  challenged  by  the  other  nobles. Inaddition,  Parthia  also  had  long  frontiers  facing  the  Caucasus  and  Central  Asia  with  the  result  that sometimes Parthia had to fight off many simultaneous threats on many frontiers.6Unfortunately,  the  sources  provide  very  few  details  of  the  Parthian  army,  its  tactics  and  organization. However,  we  still  know  that  the  cataphract  cavalry  formed  the  core  of  the  Parthian  army.  On  the  basis  of Lucian’s reference to 1,000 strong cavalry units and numerical information in the other sources it has been conjectured that the Parthian army followed traditional nomadic practises being divided into units of 10, 100, 1,000,  10,000men  each  led  by  its  own  commander  according  to  his  place  in  the  feudal  society.  The  small company  was  called wašt(c.100  men?),  a  regiment drafš(c.1,000  men),  and  a  division gund(c.  10,000). Thewhole  army  (spād)  was  under  the  supreme  commander  (the  Great  King,  his  son,  or  a spādpatchosen 3See Goldsworthy’s excellent analysis in GOLDSWORTHY (1996) 60-8.4FARROKH (2007) 157.5SHAHBAZI (1986)after Pliny’s Natural History(2.26): At one point in time there were 18 subordinate kings.6Justin  41.2; SHAHBAZI (1986)with  FARROKH  (2007)  114ff.  conflicts  with  Rome  131ff.  ;  and  GOLDSWORTHY (1996)  60ff..  For  the  general  and  political  history  of  Parthia,  see  FARROHK  (2007)  114ff.;  DEBEVOISE  (1938) VERSTANDIG (2001) and last but not least WOLSKI (1993). CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 35from one of the seven great families). The largest army mentioned by the sources is the Royal Army of 50,000 cataphracted horsemen that the Parthians used against Mark Antony.7In  practise,  however,  as  I  have  already noted  before,  there  is  every  reason  to  think  that  the  Parthian decimal numbers for their units were similar in concept to the Greek and Roman ones so that these included also  the  servants  and  squires,  which  in  turn  means  that  we  should  not  see  these  decimal  figures  to  be representative of the actual combat strengths of the units in question (Parthians and Armenians) which appear to have followed the concept 32 (rank and file oblong/square order), 64 (wedge order)8, 128 (rhombus), 256 (rank and file oblong order or several of the previous), 512 (could consist of any of the previous unit orders) and  1,024  (the  chiliarchy)  used  by  the  Greeks  and  Romans.  Note,  however,  that  if  the  unit  had  suffered casualties its unit order was adjusted to reflect its actual size so that for example at the battle of al-Qadisiyaah in 636 the Sasanians employed rhomboids that consisted only of 85 horsemen deployed as 13 ranks. There is also  every  reason  to  believe  that  the  Greeks/Macedonians  had  actually  copied  this  unit  organization  from theAchaemenids  and  Iranian  speaking  Scythians  with  the  exception  of  the  rhombus  array  which  had  been invented by the Thessalians. Note, however, that the unit structures and unit orders of the subjects, allies and mercenaries employed by the Parthians did not necessarily follow this same system.9The  army  of  a  magnate  could  be  sizable  as  Suren/Surena’s  10,000  or  11,000  strong  cavalry  army demonstrates.10The  most  sizable  army  recorded  by  the  sources  is  the  one  collected  by  the  king  of  kings Phraates against Mark Antony, but in light of the army sizes recorded for the Sasanians it is likely that even larger  forces  could  be  collected  by  the  king  of  kings  when  the  circumstances  required  and  allowed  this. However,  it  is  still  likely  that  the  size  of  Phraates’ cavalry army should be seen to represent a typical royal cavalry army employed by the  king of  kings  when took to  the  field  in person.  According to Justin (41.2), it contained  50,000  horsemen.  However,  according  to  Plutarch  (Antony  44.2),  the  army  inquestion  had  only 40,000 horsemen.  Consequently, it  is possible  that Justin has included in the  figure  50,000 also the  servants and  footmen  accompanying  the  spare  horses  and  the  camels  of  the  baggage  train,  but  in  light  of  the  other evidence (use of rhomboids) the round figure of 50,000 horsemen is inherently likelier.In fact, Justin’s (41.2) figures can be used to confirm the information given by the so-called Byzantine Interpolation  of  Aelian(Dain  ed.  J1-2;  Devine  ed.  45.1-2),  which  claims  that  the  Armenian  and  Parthian mounted archers used the rhombus cavalry formation. This can be equated with the 128 men formation, which consisted  of  two  64  men  wedges.11Justin  also  claimed  that  Mark  Antony  faced  50,000  Parthian  horsemen commanded  by  400  men.  When  onedivides  the  50,000  with  400  this  gives  each  leader  125  men.  It  is  quite easy to see that 125 men actually mean the 128 men rhomboids and that Justin’s 50,000 is just a good round figure  that  he  has  used.12Justin  also  states  that  all  of  these  men  were  fully  armored  cataphracts,  and  his account is confirmed by Plutarch.13Plutarch implies the same (Antony 45.3) by stating that the Parthians put aside  their  bows  and  then  advanced  to  close  quarters  with  the kontoiwhen  they  mistakenly  thought  that  the Romans  had become fatigued. In other words, Plutarch’s Parthians are equipped with both kontoiand  bows and  are  used  as  close-quarters  fighters –a  role  which  is  always  reserved  for  the  cataphracts  in  the  sources. However,  Plutarch  makes  one  mistake.  He  claims  thatthe  Parthians  had  only  40,000  horsemen,  but  this 7SHAHBAZI (1986).8The likely organization behind this ‘100 men waštunit’ is: 64 horsemen of which eight were front-rankers/leaders of ten. Each of the eight front-rankers had a squire while each of the remaining 56 regular horsemen had one servant/squire per two horsemen. In sum, there would have been eight front-rankers with eight squires plus 56 horsemen with 28 servants for a total of 100 men. These figures (64 warriors with 36 squires) are obviously my learned speculations, but the advantage of this is that these figures explain how it was possible to organize 128 rhomboids while the units were supposedly based on decimal principle.9See SYVÄNNE (2004, 2014, 2015).10It  is  uncertain  whether  we  should  include  the  1,000  cataphracts  among  the  10,000  horsemen  or  whether  they  were separate from it. I have not attempted to analyze the problem here. For a discussion and differences in views consult any text that deals with the battle of Carrhae.11See SYVÄNNE (2014).12Note  also  that  the  8thcentury  fighting  tactic  ofthe  Muslims  in  the  so-called karadis-formation  (plural  for  the  sing. kardusof  128  men)  means  that  they  had  restarted  using  the  old  rhomboid  formation.  The  use  of  the  rhomboids  was particularly useful for the cavalry units deployed on the flanks as it gave them an ability to face attacks from all directions. For earlier use of the rhomboids by the Dahae (Parthians were originally part of the Dahae confederacy) in the Seleucid armies, see SYVÄNNE (2009).13See  also  Dio  (40.15.2,  49.20.2)  who  confirms  that  we  should  always  expect  that  most  of  the  Parthian  cavalry  would have been encased in armour and in the case of Phraates’ army the entire force seems to have been so. CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 36mistake is easy to explain. Plutarch has just assumed that each of the 400 nobles led 100 men. Justin’s figures are  therefore  closer  to  the  truth  in  this  case.  The  same  campaign  against  Antony  also  shows  that  the  Medes and Parthians employed the same tactical  methods as the  Sacae of Surena did which must have been typical for all of the cavalry based armies of Iran and the steppes The martial equipment of the Parthian cataphracts consisted of the long composite bows, swords, maces, axes,  daggers  and  pikes.  According  to  Dio,  the  Parthian  cavalry  did  not  use  shields,  which  means  that  they used the 3.6-4 m long contus-pike that was held with two hands.14The protective equipment consisted usually of  a  conical  helmet  (usually  the  so-called spangenhelm,  but  other  types  were  also  used)  which  could  have aface  mask, and of armour (could be  mail,  scale, plate  and segmented)  with separate  arm and leg defences. The  arm  and  leg  armour  could  be  made  of  mail,  scale  or  segmented  plate.  The  horses  were  also  fully armoured typically with hide or scale armour (steel or bronze). The light cavalry was equipped with bows and swords  but  did  not  usually  wear  any  armour  or  helmets.  The  subject  peoples,  allies  and  mercenaries  were naturally equipped  with  their  native  equipment  which varied according to the type  of  force.15The  following images give a good overview of the different types of equipment worn by the Parthian cavalry forces.Above  Left:‘Parthian’ light cavalry mounted archer.  These  consisted  usually  of  the  non-Parthian  tribesmen,  but  could also  consist  of  the  native  Parthians  when  they  chose  not  to  wear  armour  (e.g.  because  they  served  in  the  vanguard  or among the scouts) or when they belonged to the poorer families. However, Justin and Dio both make it absolutely certain that the vast majority of the Parthians were always equipped as cataphracts. Note the use of three arrows simultaneously, which was one of the forms of shower shooting (the Sasanians and Muslims considered it the weakest version of shower shooting). See Syvanne, 2015. © Dr. Ilkka Syvanne 2009.Above  Right:  Relief  at  Tang-e  Sarvak  in  Elymais  (without  the  foot  archer  and  footman  throwing  a  rock  that  is  in theoriginal  relief  just  behind  the  cataphract).  Probably  King  of  Elymais  usually  dated  to  the  period  c.  75-200  AD  (but according to Mielczarek, early third century). Drawn after von Gall, 15. © Dr. Ilkka Syvanne 2009.The  information provided by  the  ancient sources regarding  the  Parthian battlefield tactics  make  it clear that  the  Parthian  armies  were  always  accompanied  by  droves  of  horses.  This  allowed  them  to  move  to thebattlefield  on  a  riding  horse,  then  exchange  horses  before  and  during  the  battle  and  then  move  rapidly about on the battlefield and withdraw if necessary. The Parthians did not campaign during the winters because the  moisture  affected  their  bows  adversely  and  because  their  horses  would  have  faced  a  severe  shortage offodder. Being a feudal cavalry army, they did not use large organized baggage trains of the type that would have been needed in siege warfare. The feudal nature also meant that the Parthians were not eager to conduct distant  campaigns  in  far-flung  places  like  in  the  Roman  East  and  that  they  were  prone  to  internal  discord. 14The regular cavalry of the Romans used the Gallic contus, which was used with one hand. The later name of this was the kontarion, the length of which was c.3.74 m.15For  the  Parthian  cavalry  based  tactics,  see:  Dio  40.15.2-6,  24.1-2;  Plutarch  (Crassus, Antony);  Justin.  See  also themodern   studies:   GOLDSWORTHY   (1996),   60-8;   FARROKH   (2007)   113-183;   MIELCZAREK   (1993)   51ff., SHAHBAZI (1986).  All  of  these  are  highly  recommended  reading  for  the  many  insights  they  give.FARROKH, KARAMIAN, DELFAN, ASTARAKI (2016) offer the most recent discussion of the Parthian iconography and weaponry. CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 37Inother  words,  the  Parthians  lacked  effective  siege  capability  and  could  not  conduct  their  offensive  wars effectively. They could invade and hope that their show of force would overawe the cities to surrender, but if this  was  not  forthcoming  they  could  achieve very  little.  On  the  other  hand,  if  the  Parthians  were  defeated incombat  they  could  withdraw  easily  and  fight  another  day.  This  meant  that  the  traditional  infantry  based Roman armies could also achieve very little against the Parthian cavalry.16Above:two graffiti of cataphracts found at Dura Europus (probably before 256 AD).Below:A  relief  located  at  Firuzabad  (after  226  AD).  The  Sasanians  (page,  Shapur  I  and  Ardashir  I)  ride  towards theright.  The  Parthians  (page,  Dadhbundah,  Artaban  V)  are  the  ones with  the  segmented  arm-guards  whereas theSasanians use mail to protect their arms. See Mielczarek (66-67). This may imply that the early Sasanians favoured the use of the shower archery  more than the late Parthians (as I have speculated before in 2015) because it is clear that themail  was  less  restrictive  for  movement  than  the  segmented  arm-guards.  Note  that  all  riders  are  equipped  with thebows  and  melee  weapon.  It  is  usually  thought  that  the  horses  were  covered  with  only  decorative  cloth,  but  in  my opinion it is equally possible that these depict only cloth coverings used on top of the armour.Unit OrdersAs  noted  above, the  Interpolated  Recension  of  Aeliandating  from  the  tenth  century  AD  (Dain  J1-2; Devine  45.1-2)  suggests  that  the  Parthian  and  Armenian  mounted  archers  used  the  rhombus  formation incombat. The  common inclination among Classicists and  historians  would be  to claim that  the  information in  this  treatise  must  be  a  later  incorrect  addition  to  the  original  interpolation,  but  the  fact  that  both theParthians and Armenians are said to have used the rhombus are suggestive of its authenticity, because both realms  were  ruled  by  the  same  Arsacid  dynasty.  Plutarch  (Antony  50.2)  also  confirms  that  the  Armenians were  equipped  and  fought  like  the  Parthians.  Its  veracity  is  also  supported  by  the  fact  the  original Interpolation was probably already in existence by the third or fourth century AD at a time  when there  were still  a  lot  of  information  about  Parthian  tactics.  On  the  basis  of  the  Greek  military treatises  (Asclepiodotus, Aelian and  Arrian), the  advantages of  the rhombus formation  were  its ready  manoeuvrability in combat  and the fact that it had leaders placed on all four corners of the formation. It could face threats from any direction and  the  mounted  archers  could  also  easily  shoot  backwards.  It  is  not  known  with  absolute  certainty  if theheavy  cavalry  cataphracts  were  also  deployed  as  rhomboids,  but  this  is  very  likely  on  the  basis  of 16Tacitus, Annals, 2.2, 11.8-10, 12.50-51; Dio 40.15, 41.24; SHAHBAZI (1986); GOLDSWORTHY (1996) 60ff. CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 38theextant descriptions of combat and because the Iranian andArmenian cataphracts were also simultaneously equipped  with  bows.  However,  it  is  very  likely  that  they  could  also  use  the  traditional  Persian  square  or oblong formation when needed, but the use of the rhombus would seem to have been the preferred array when the cavalry force was deployed as a single line, its main advantages in that case being an ability to penetrate enemy formations while its flanks and rear could also be used to face enemies.17On  the  basis  of  the  military  manuals  (Asclepiodotus,  Aelian,Arrian),  it  is  apparent  that  the  rhombus formation had been invented by the Thessalians with the implication that the Parthians had probably copied it from some Thessalian cavalry units that had been stationed in the east during the Seleucid rule. In contrast to the traditional wedge formation used by all other nomadic “Scythian” neighbours of the Parthians, the use ofthe  rhombus  gave  the  Parthians  the  advantage  of  being  able  to  face  threats  also  arising  from  the  rear  and flanks,  if  their  scattered  units of  mounted  archers  were  suddenly  ambushed  from  behind.  In  addition,  if theParthians  could  induce  their  enemies  to  follow  them,  the  widely  separated  rhombi  could  immediately engage their foes from either the flank or rear




21 CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 44spears  of  the  Parthians,  and  grappling  with  the  men,  pushed  them  from  their  horses  [i.e.  the  two cavalry formations had come to halt just in front of each other after their charge], hard as it was to move them owing to the weight of their armor; and many of the Gauls forsook their own horses, andcrawling under those of the enemy, stabbed them in the belly. These would rear up in their anguish, and  die  trampling  on  riders  and  foemen  indiscriminately  mingled.  But  the  Gauls  were  distressed above  all  things  by  the  heat  and  their  thirst,  to  both  of  which  they  were  unused;  and  most  of  their horses had perished by being driven against the long spears [the standard un-heroic cavalry tactic of all times was to kill the enemy horses]. They were therefore compelled to retire upon the legionaries [hoplites], taking  with  them  Publius,  who  was  severely  wounded.  And  seeing  a  sandy  hillock nearby,  they  all  retired  to  it,  and  fastened  their  horses  in  the  center;  then  locking  their  shields together   on   the   outside,   they   thought   they   could   more   easily   defend   themselves   against theBarbarians. But it turned out just the other way. For on level ground, the front ranks do, to some extent, afford relief to those who were behind them. But there, where inequality of the ground raised one  man  above  another,  and  lifted  every  man  who  was  behind  another  into  greater  prominence, there  was  no  such  escape,  but  they  were  all  alike  hit  with  arrows,  bewailing  their  inglorious  and ineffectual death... Publius... presented his side to his shield-bearer and ordered him to strike home with  sword. ... The survivors fought on until the Parthians mounted the hill and transfixed them with  their  long  spears,  and  they  say  that  not  more  than  five  hundred  were  taken  alive.  Then theParthians cut off the head of Publius, and rode off at once to attack Crassus.” [Plutarch, Crassus, 25.2-12, tr. by Perrin, 391-397 with comments added in square brackets].The above quote shows how the Parthians used the tactic of feigned flight to induce the enemy to follow. It also shows well how at least the elite portionsof the Parthian cavalries, the personal retinues of the feudal magnates, could react to the commands given to them on a moment’s notice –this must have been the result of  rigorous  training  such  as  could  have  resulted  from  the  use  of  hunting,  cavalry  games  or  herding  to  train thecavalry.  This  shows  that  the  Parthian  commanders  could  expect  to  be  able  to  exercise  very  effective command  and  control  over  their  feudal  forces –in  fact  one  may  assume  that  their  forces  were  able  to  react tothe  commands  faster than  the  Roman  forces  thanks  to  the  fact  that  the  Parthian  forces  consisted  mostly ofcavalry that  did not require  similarly  well-ordered ranks  and files to operate  effectively as did the  Roman infantry. The quote shows well how Surenas was able to order his cavalry to break up contact with the enemy and  then  set  up  an  ambush  for  the  foolish  Publius.  The  commanders  of  the  units  feigning  flight  were  also clearly superb officers. On a moment’s notice, they were able to lead the pursuers to the place of ambushwithout them having the slightest idea of what  was about to happen. It is therefore  very likely that the place ofambush had been agreed in advance. The Sacae battle formation (and hence the Parthian with light cavalry) appears to have consisted of the cataphract centre and mounted archer wings. The quote also shows what must have been the standard tactic of the cataphracts against unarmoured cavalry, namely the use of the long kontoiagainst  the  breasts  of  the  charging  enemy  horses.  Basically,  therefore  the  cataphracts  had  already  won thecavalry  encounter  at  the  very  outset.  It  is  no  wonder  that  by  the  time  Arrian  wrote  his  treatises,27theRomans  had  adopted  the  use  of  chamfrons  for  their  mounts.  It  was  an  absolute  necessity  for  the  Roman cavalry, armed with only short spears and sword, if they entertained any hope of being able to come to close quarters with the kontoforoi and katafraktoiof the Sarmatians and Parthians.“Antony, ..., took ten legions and three praetorian cohorts of men-at-arms, together with all his cavalry,  and  led  them  to  forage,  thinking  that  in  this  way  the  enemy  would  best  be  drawn  into apitched battle. After advancing a single day’s march, he saw that the Parthians were enveloping him and seeking to attack him on the march. He therefore displayed the signal for battle in his camp, and after taking down his tents, as though his purpose was not to fight but to withdraw [according to the  Roman  military  doctrine  the  marching  camp  would  have  served  as  a  place  of  refuge  if  battle went  badly],  he  marched  along  past  the  line  of  the  Barbarians,  which  was  crescent-shaped.  But  he had  given  orders  that  when  the  first  ranks  of  the  enemy  should  appear  to  be  within  reach  of  his legionaries, the cavalry should charge upon them. ... when the signal was given,  and  the  Roman horsemen wheeled about and rode down upon them with loud shouts, they did indeed receive their onset and repel them, although their foes were at once too close for them to use their arrows; when, 27SYVÄNNE(2013). CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 45however,  the  legionaries  joined  in  the charge,  with  shouts  and  clashing  of  weapons,  the  horses  of theParthians took fright and gave way, and the Parthians fled without coming to close quarters.Antony pressed hard  upon them in pursuit,  and had great  hopes that  he  had  finished the  whole war, orthe greater part of it, in that one battle. His infantry kept up the pursuit for fifty furlongs, and his cavalry for thrice that distance; and yet when he took count of those of the enemy who had fallen or  had  been  captured,  he  found  only  thirty  prisonersand  eighty  dead  bodies.  Despondency  and despair therefore fell upon all; they thought it a terrible thing that when victorious they had killed so few, and when vanquished they were to be robbed of so many men as they lost at the wagons.” [Plutarch, Antony39.5-6, tr. by Perrin, 227].The  above  quote  also  shows  that  the  Parthians  favoured  a  loose  crescent-shaped  battle  array  and  that theParthians were easily able to receive the Roman cavalry charge. It also shows that, just like the Caucasians (see  below),  the  Romans  tried  to  tie  up  the  Parthians  with  their  cavalry  so  that  their  infantry  could  come  to grips  with their elusive  enemy. It  was their only  way to take  the  offensive, but the  quote  also makes it clear that it was very difficult for the Romans to catch the Parthian cavalry even with a cavalry attack of their own. It  is  also  clear  that  the  Roman  use  of  the  hollow  square  array  meant  the  use  of  passive  tactics  that  gave theenemy  the  initiative  when  and  where  to  attack.  On  the  other  hand,  this  was  the only  formation  that theRomans could use in a situation in which the enemy could outflank them at their will.Roman countermeasures against the ParthiansThe  Roman  countermeasures  against  the  Parthians  can  be  divided  into  two  categories:  strategic  and tactical. The  former  consisted  of:  1)  the  exploitation  of  an  ongoing  civil  war  in  Parthia  or  the  encouragement ofsuch (e.g. Caracalla claimed to have induced civil war between brothers) when the intention was to invade; 2)  the  use  of  ruses  and  stratagems  to  divide  the  opposition  such  as  were  used  for  example  by  Trajan  and Caracalla  when  they  invaded  Parthian  territory;  3)  the  conclusion  of  alliances  with  the  enemies  of  Parthia; 4)the  use  of  fortifications  in  defence  to  outlast  the  Parthian  supplies  and  thefeudalrequirements  to  stay  in thefield.28The  latter  consisted  of:  1)  the  use  of  the  hollow  square/oblong  formation  with  infantry  to  negate themobility  advantage  of  the  Parthian  cavalry;  2)  the  increasing  of  the  numbers  of  cavalry  (especially thenumbers  of  lancers  equipped  with  3.74  m contus-spear29)  and  light  infantry  with  the  addition  of  regular units, auxiliary units and allies (e.g. Armenians, Oshroenians, Goths); 3) the changing of equipment to counter the  Parthian  cavalry  (this  included  the  experiments  with  Macedonian  phalanx  by  Nero  and  Caracalla;  and theintroduction  flat  shields  also  for  the  legionaries  in  the  course  of  the  second  century  AD  that  enabled theRomans to use tighter formation with overlapping shields; the use of club-bearers) and the introduction of the long composite bow and field artillery; 4) the use of the rough terrain to negate advantages of cavalry.30The first real full-scale encounter between the Parthians and Romans took place when Crassus launched an  unprovoked  invasion  ofParthian  lands  in  order  to  gain  military  glory.31His  campaign  shows  well  how inadequately  the  Romans  understood  what  they  faced.  Crassus  clearly  underestimated  the  effectiveness  of theenemy  force  and  banked  on  exploiting  the  civil  war  that  the  Parthians were  fighting.  At  this  stage theRomans  appear  to  have  been  unaware  of  the  effectiveness  of  the  long  composite  bow   used  by theParthians and Sacae. The  only correct thing Crassus  made  during  his campaign  was to array his infantry 28Dio’s  treatment  of  Trajan’s  Parthian  War  (68.17.1ff.);  Parthian  brothers  incited  to  fight  against  each  other  in Dio (78.12.1-3,  esp.  2a-3).Caracalla’s  Parthian  war  with  ruses:  Herodian  4.9.8-11.2;  Dio  79.1.1-5.5;  HA Car.  6.4ff.; SYVÄNNEI. (2017a).The exploitation of Parthian troubles with supplies also noted by COWAN (2009) 30.29This  was  the  Galliccontusthat  was  used  in  conjunction  with  a  shield.  The  Sarmatian contus that  was  used  with  two hands was used by far fewer units.30Dio 78.7.1-4 (esp. 78.7.1-2); HA Car. 5.4-8; Herodian 4.8.2-3, 4.9.4-5. The use of field artillery against heavy cavalry is clear from the descriptions of its use against the Alans in Arrian’s Ektaxis kata Alanôn, but its inclusion in Trajan’s Column  (see  the  accompanying  illustrations)  and  in  Vegetius  suggest  that  the  useof  the  field  artillery  became  one  of thestandard  methods  employed  by  the  Romans.  One  of  the  possible  reasons  for  this  would  have  been  to  outrange theenemy  archery  fire.  A  fuller  analysis  of  the  different  tactical  uses  of  the  infantry  against  the Parthian  cavalry  can  be found in SYVÄNNE(2017a).31The principal sources for the war are: Dio 40.12.1-31.1; Justin 41.2, 41.4; Plut. Crassus16.1ff. CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 46force as a hollow square when it was threatened by cavalry. His army consisted of seven legions, 4,000 light-infantry  and  4,000  cavalry.  Therefore,  it  is  quite  clear  that  Crassus  took  with  him  a  relatively  large  force ofheavy infantry but far too few light infantry and cavalry. Ofparticular importance was the small numbers of light-armed infantry in a situation in which the Romans faced an enemy who concentrated on the effective use  of  mounted archery and cataphracts. It is also probable  that  the  Roman light infantry consisted of a  mix ofjaveliners, slingers and archers so that the number of light-armed usable against the Sacae was even fewer than  this.  On  top  of  this,  the  Romans  appear  to  have  been  unaware  that  their  foes  (the  Sacae)  were  using themore powerful long composite bow and/or the so-called Sasanian composite bow both of which had much longer  range  and  better  penetrative  power  than  the  short  Scythian  composite  bow  employed  by  the  Romans and their allies. This means that the only long range weapon in the Roman arsenal able to counter the enemy archery was the sling and as we have seen there were far too few slingers in Crassus’ army to make any difference. The Sacae and Parthians could also use this long range composite bow with the so-called shower archery  technique  so  that  they  could  deliver  far  more  arrows  in  the  same  amount  of  time  as  the  very  few slingers  could  deliver.  The  fact  that  the  Sacae  were  able  to  force  the  light-armed  Romans  back  inside theinfantry  square  immediately  after  they  had  sallied  out  proves  how  ineffective  the  Roman  light-armed were.32The  impact  of  Carrhae  on  the  Romans  was  immediate.  They  realized  that  they  needed  to  increase thenumbers of both cavalry and light infantry in order to succeed,  which is in evidence already in the  plans ofJulius Caesar and Mark Antony both of whom planned or used larger numbers of these in their campaigns. As  we  know  Julius  Caesar  was  murdered  before  he  could  execute  his  plans,  but  we  can  see  Mark  Antony increasing the numbers of both. In practice, however, Antony’s tactical  and  strategic  mistakes  undid  these sensible  pre-cautions.  At  the  time,  the  principal  problems  were  the  lack  of  sufficient  numbers  of  native cavalry and the lack of a long range weapon able to counter the impact of the long composite bows employed by the Parthians. The Romans relied on their allies to provide adequate numbers of horsemen so it  was very important  for  Roman  commanders  to  secure  these.  The  only  weapon,  other  than  the  ballistae,  in  the  Roman arsenal  that  could  be  used  for  the  long  rangecombat  against  the  Parthians  was  the  sling  and  its  effect  on theenemy was weakened by the armour and helmets worn by the Parthian cataphracts and the amount of time it  took  for  the  soldiers  to  learn  to  use  the  sling  effectively  and  accurately.  According to  period  sources, theslings  outranged  the  bow  so  that  it  was  very  advantageous  to  use  these  against  the  Parthians,  but theproblem was that it required really large numbers of professional slingers to be effective in combat at long range and even then the helmets and armour worn by the Parthian cataphracts could negate its effectiveness. Itwas Venditius Bassus who came up with an idea how to rectify the problems. He posted his army on a hill so that the power of the dropping slingshots was proportionallyincreased by the amount that it dropped before hitting  the  cataphract.33This  increased  the  effectiveness  of  the  slingshots  at  long  distance.  The  following diagram of Robert E. Dohrenwend shows this effect quite well.It was also Venditius Bassus who was the first to employ a series of other countermeasures successfully against  the  enemy.  In  the  above-mentioned  instances,  in  which  Venditius  employed  the  slingers  very successfully  from  higher  ground  against  the  Parthian  cataphracts,  he  was  also  wise  enough  to  feign  fear  so that the Parthians were lured to attack uphill against the fortified Roman camps. The use of the fortified camp served as a counter-measure against possible impact of enemy archery. It is also likely that these camps were equipped with ballistae for protection even if this is not mentioned by the sources. Consequently, if Venditius’ plan would have backfired he could still have protected his army against a complete defeat, but in each of the two battles his plan worked like a dream. When theParthians reached the distance of 500 paces, the Romans sallied  out  of  their  camp  with  the  result  that  the  Romans  were  able  to  minimize  the  number  of  casualties suffered  under  Parthian  fire  while  the  use  of  slingers  and  fast  attack  enabled  the  Romans  to  close  into theclose  range  where  they  had  the  advantage  at  the  precise  moment  when  the  Parthians  were  in  complete disorder resulting the effects of the uphill broken terrain, surprise and impact of slingshots. Venditius was also an expert in the use of ruses and feigned flight, which he used to a great effect. Just like Alexander the Great 32Dio 40.12.1-31.1; Justin 41.2, 41.4; Plut. Crassus16.1ff;SYVÄNNE(2015) 123-125. 33Venditius and the Roman counter offensive: Dio 48.39.1-41.6, 49.19-21; Plut. Ant. 33.3-6; Florus 2.19; Frontinus 2.2.5, 2.5.36-7; Justin 41.2, 41.4.The effectiveness of the slingshot has been studied in detail by DOHRENWEND (2002) and by   GABRIEL,   METZ   (1991)   74-75.   However,   I   am inclined   to   agree   with   Dohrenwend   that   the   latter   have underestimated  the  effectiveness  of  the  slingers  in  combat  when  they  claim  that  it  was  not  as  effective  as  the  ancient sources claim. One should always pay more attention to what is in the sources. CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 47before  him, Venditius realized that  he  had to  use ruses, terrain and cavalry if  he  wanted to give  his infantry forces a chance to fight against the Parthian cavalry at close quarters.34Above:Note the use of the ballistae mounted on wagons/carriages, which were called carroballistae. These gave the Romans superior range with superior penetrative power, which is the reason for their continued use at least until the 12thcentury in East Rome.34The  campaign  of  Venditius  Bassus  vs.  Parthians  can  be  found  e.g.  in:Dio  48.39.1-41.6,  49.19-21;  Plut.  Ant.  33.3-6; Florus  2.19;  Frontinus  2.2.5,  2.5.36-7;  Justin  41.2,  41.4.  The  modern  articles  of SEAVER  (1952) and WYLIE  (1993) analyze the career of Venditius Bassus in detail and are highly recommended. CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 48When one analyses the relative strengths and weaknesses of both sides, the Romans appear to have shed their  weakness  in  the  number  of  cavalry  and  archery  already  before  the  birth  of  Christ  with  the  addition ofeastern  mounted  archers  some  of  whom  consisted  actually  of  the  Parthian  horsemen35–and  it  is theParthian horsemen that we find in Augustus’ armies in Germany and Balkans. It is actually no wonder that the  Parthians chose  to return  the  standards they  had captured in order to avoid having to fight a  war against Augustus  at  a  time  when  they  were  fighting  a  civil  war.  This  face  saving  diplomacy  was  beneficial  to  both. Hence it is clear that  the  Romans adopted the  use  of the  long composite  bow really fast at  the  same  time  as they increased the numbers of light infantry and cavalry (including mounted archers) making it unnecessary to train  masses  of  professional  slingers  to  counter  the  enemy  archery –it  sufficed  for  the  Romans  to  possess relatively small numbers of professional slingers and to train the rest of the  men to use these in emergencies and sieges. In addition to this, on the basis of the Column of Trajan it appears very likely that the Romans had adopted   the   use   of   the   club-bearers   or   mace-bearers   against   the   heavily   armoured   cataphracts, theeffectiveness of which is well attested in the wars fought in the third and fourth centuries.36The Roman infantry formation of the late republican and early imperial periods was not tight enough to withstand  the  impact  of  the  arrow  shot  from  the  Parthian  composite  bow.  The  Romans  used  their  shields  in rim-to-rim  formation  giving  each  legionary  only  the  protection  of  a  single  shield  and  his  armour.  It  is probably  because  of  this  that  the  Roman  legionaries  in  the  latter  half  of  the  2ndcentury  AD  discarded  their curved  semi-cylindrical  shields  and  adopted  the  flat  shield  and  tight  phalanx  formation  in  which  the  shields were interlocked rim-to-boss giving each legionary the protection of two shields and his armour. The Romans continued  touse  the  curved  shield  at  least  until  the  5thcentury,  but  it  was  no  longer  the  standard  piece ofequipment  and  one  may  make  the  educated  guess  that  its  use  was  restricted  to  those  situations  in  which thelegionaries were used in more open formations against footmen. One may make the educated guess that it was Trajan’s Parthian war that inspired Hadrian to change the equipment at the same time as he introduced new  training  schemes  and  equipment  for  the  army,  or  as  that  it  was  the  war  fought  under  the  nominal leadership of Lucius Verus against the Parthians that resulted in these changes.37As  noted  above,  the  less  well  armoured  Roman  cavalry  was  usually  at  a  grave  disadvantage  when  it faced  Parthian  cataphracts.  Good  examples  of  this  are  the  problems  that  the  Gallic  cavalry  of  Crassushad when facing Suren’s cavalry and cavalry of Macrinus had at the battle of Nisibis in 217. In the latter instance the  Parthians  aimed  their  arrows  at  the  horses  and  thereby  dismounted  large  numbers  of  Roman  cavalry (included  also  allied  cavalry)  and  used  spears  with  equal  effectiveness.  According  to  Herodian,  the  Romans defeated easily those who came to the close quarters (probably an exaggeration), which means that they were unable to come to close quarters with the entire enemy line. This in turn suggests that in those cases in which the  Romans  were  unable  to engage  the  enemy at  close  quarters, the  Parthians  were  in fact  able  to put a  stop tothe Roman cavalry attack with very effective archery fire before it had any chance ofreaching the Parthian lines. According to Herodian, when the superior numbers of Parthian cavalry and their camels started to cause trouble, the Roman response  was to retreat back into the safety of their infantry and throw caltrops behind –atactic  which  brought  some  success  as  it  lamed  those  horses  and  camels  that  followed.  In  fact,  the  best cavalry tactic that the Romans ever came up with against the Parthian cavalry was to feign flight with cavalry so  that  the  Parthians  would  follow  them  up  to  the  Roman  infantry.  It  was  this  method  that  was  employed forexample by Venditius when the Parthian cataphracts blocked a mountain pass. This tactic was later refined by Aurelian when he fought against the Palmyrene cataphracts in about 272. His cavalry forces feigned flight until the pursuing Palmyrene horses became tired after which his cavalry turned about and attacked. The other option  was  to  attempt  to  tie  the  Parthian  cavalry  in  place  with  terrain  or  cavalry  attack  so  that  the  Roman infantry would be able toattack it, but as noted above this was always a risky move because it was possible that  the  Parthians  were  able  to  dismount  the  attackers  with  their  effective  archery  before  they  reached theParthian  lines  or  because  the  Roman  cavalry  was  unable  to  catch the  retreating  Parthians.  The  Parthians were  also  in  the  habit  of  attacking  the  Romans  here  and  there  and  then  retreat  before  the  Roman reinforcements  could  arrive  on  the  scene.  In  other  words,  they  used  guerrilla  warfare  to  harass  the  enemy. 35Note the ‘equite sagittario’in the army of Germanicus: Tacitus (Annals, 2.16). It is quite clear that the Parthian exiles served  in  the  Roman  cavalry  as  mounted  archers  (probably  as  cataphracts).  Note  forexample  the  distinguished  service ofOrnospades under Tiberius during the Dalmatian War in 8 to 9 AD (Tacitus, Annals 6.37).36For the use of club-and mace bearers against the cataphracts, see SYVÄNNE(2004, 2015).37See  BISHOP,  COULSTON  (2006)  for  the  so-called  Antonine  revolution  in  equipment.  It  is  the  standard  work  on thesubject. CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 49Corbulo’s reaction to this problem was to divide his forces into several detachments so that his army was able to attack several places simultaneously.38The following quote shows that the Romans were not the only ones whose cavalry forces were at grave disadvantage  when  facing  Parthian  cataphracted  mounted  archers.  The  quote  also  shows  how  the  Parthians, even when cataphracted, always relied on their bows in combat. It was the most powerful bow of its age and had  the  longest  reach.  The  Romans  were  among  the  first  to  copy  their  bow,  but  the  following  quote demonstrates  nicely  that  it  took  much  longer  for  the  Alans  to  copy  it  but  copy  they  did  it  eventually39. Asaresult, even the  famed cavalry of the  Alans was also forced to rely on similar tactics as were employed by the Romans but they did this with better success the reasons of which are explained after the quote:“The  violent  and  treacherous  ...  Mithridates  took  the  initiative  in  persuading  his  brother Pharasmanes  [king  of  Caucasian  Iberia]  to  help  him  recover  the  Armenian  throne.  Agents  were found to induce the Armenians... to murder Arsaces. Simultaneously a strong Iberian force broke into  Armenia  and  seized  the  capital,  Artaxata.  Artabanus  [king  of  Parthia],  learning  the  news, appointed   another   son   Orodes   to   exact   retribution,   gave   him   Parthian   troops,   and   sent representatives to hire auxiliaries.Pharasmanes responded by enlisting the Albani [another Caucasian tribal nation] and calling on the  Sarmatians,  whose  chiefs,  as  is  the  national  custom,  accepted  gifts  from,  and  enlisted  on,  both sides.  But  the  Iberians  controlled  the  strong-points  and  speedily  rushed  their  Sarmatians  over theCaucasian  pass  into  Armenia.  They  easily  blocked  those  of  the  Sarmatians  who  had  joined theother  side  [note  the  importance  of  controlling  the  passes].  For  the  Iberians  closed  every  pass except one, and that one-between the outermost Albanian mountains and the sea –is impassable insummer since the seaboard is flooded by Etesian gales: in winter south winds drive back the water, and the sea’s recession drains the shallows.Orodes, short of allies,  was now challenged to fight by the heavily reinforced Pharasmanes. He refused.  However,  the  enemy  harassed  Orodes,  riding  close  to  the  camp,  plundering  his  sources offorage,  and  often  virtuallyblockading  him  with  a  ring  of  outposts  [the  implication  is  that theParthian camp possessed some kind of fortifications, possibly formed of camels and stakes and possibly of the wagons of the women?].Orodes’ Parthians, unaccustomed to such insolence, pressed round  him  and  demanded  battle.  Their  whole  strength  lay  in  cavalry.  But  Pharasmanes  had  useful infantry  as  well  as  cavalry,  since  the  highland  life  of  the  Iberians  and  Albanians  has  given  them exceptional  toughness  and  endurance.  They  claim  Thessalianorigin,  dating  from  the  time  when Jason,  ...  They  have  many  stories  about  him,  ...  [Are  the  Iberians  and  Albanians  actually theThessalians who invented the rhombus?]When both  sides  had drawn up their battle-line,  Orodes addressed his  men,  glorifying Parthian empire and its royal family’s grandeur, in contrast to the humble Iberians and their mercenaries. Pharasmanes, however, reminded his troops that they had never submitted to Parthia... Contrasting his own formidable warriors with the enemy in their gold embroidered robes, he cried: ‘Men on one side –on the other, loot!’Nevertheless, among the Sarmatians, their Iberian commander’s was not the only voice. This must not be a bowman’s engagement, men shouted; better to rush matters by charge, and then fight hand-to-hand!  So  the  battle  was  confused.  The  Parthian  cavalry,  expert  at  withdrawals  as  well aspursuits,  spread  out  their turmaeto  give  themselves  room  to  shoot  [i.e.  the  rhomboid  arrays spread  out].  But  the  Sarmatian  horsemen  on  the  other  side,  instead  of  shooting  back –their  bows being inferior in range –charged with pikes and swords [contiis gladiisque] At one moment it was like  an  orthodox  cavalry  battle,  with  successive  advances  and  retreats  [i.e.  the  Sarmatian/Alan koursores-skirmishers  advanced  first  and  then  retreated  which  was  followed  by  an  immediate charge of the kontoforoi defensores]. Next the riders, interlocked, shoved and hewed at one another [In  other  words,  the  Sarmatian  kontoforoi  charged  immediately  to  the  contact  in  order  to  avoid theeffects  of  the  Parthian  archery].  At  this  juncture,  the  Albanian  and  Iberian  infantry  struck. Gripping  hold  of  the  Parthian  riders,  they  tried  to  unsaddle  them.  The  Parthians  were  caught 38Tacitus, Annals 13.37;  Dio  79.26.2  (Loeb  ed.);  Herodian  4.14.3ff.  (esp.  14.2ff,  which  describes  the  cavalry  combat); Zosimus 1.50.3ff. ; Frontinus 2.37.39See the discussion of the Alan and Sarmatian tactics in SYVÄNNE(2015). CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 50between  two  fires –infantry  grappling  with  them  at  close  quarters, and  Sarmatian  horsemen attacking them from higher ground [i.e., the fast and lightly armoured Sarmatian kontoforoi cavalry tied  up  the  Parthians  by  front  allowing  the  light  Caucasian  infantry  to  advance  into  contact  with theswift Parthians].Pharasmanes  and  Orodes  were  conspicuous,  supporting  the  staunchest  fighters  and  rescuing those in trouble. They recognized each other and charged [note the culture of single combat, which was  typical  for  the  Iranian  cultural  sphere;  note  also  the  presence  of  the  kings at  the  forefront oftheir units]. Pharesmanes’ onslaught was the more violent, and he pierced the Parthian’s helmet and  wounded  him.  But  he  failed  to  deliver  a  second  blow,  since  his  horse  carried  him  past;  and thewounded man’s bravest bodyguards/followers  protected  him  [note  the  use  of  cavalry  reserves behind  the  battle-line  under  the  commander;  note  also  how  the  events  in  this  account  are  in accordance  with  the  information  that  the  Parthian  mounted  archers  used  the  rhombus-cavalry arrays, in which the commander was in the front allowing him to charge in front of his bodyguards; the  ability  of  the  commanders  to  charge  through  the  lines  together  with  their  retinues  shows  that theParthians  also  used  similarly  widely  separated  units  as  did  their  Iranian  nomadic  cousins theSarmatians/Alans]. Still, false reports of Orodes’ death were believed; the Parthians were panic-stricken, and conceded victory.Artabanus then mobilized his kingdom’s entire resources for retaliation. But the Iberians had thebetter  of  thefighting,  since  they  knew  the  Armenian  terrain.  Nevertheless,  the  Parthians  were only   induced   to   retire  because   Lucius   Vitellius   concentrated   his   legions   in   a   feint   against Mesopotamia.  Artabanus could not  face  war against  Rome, and evacuated  Armenia. Vitellius then secured his downfall by enticing his subjects to abandon him. ...” [Tacitus, Annals,6.33-6,  tr.  by M.Grant, 217-8 with some slight changes and additional commentary in square brackets].The quote demonstrates well that the Alan cavalry was farmore successful in tying up Parthian cavalry in place than for example Mark Antony’s cavalry. The likeliest reason for this was the higher quality of Alan mounts,  which  appear  to  have  been  faster  than  the  Roman  ones  and  which  also  appear  to  have  had  better endurance. It is not a coincidence that the Romans recruited large numbers of Sarmatian and Alan lancers and then later Goths (and other East Germans) who had copied their tactical methods.40The Romans needed these and their horses in particular against the Parthians and then against Sasanians. The fast moving lancer cavalry without  too  much  armour  (with  their  superb  Alano-Sarmatian  horses)  could  be  used  in  like  manner  for afastcharge  with  which  the  faster  moving  attackers  could  tie  up  the  Parthian  cavalry  (especially  its  core, thecataphracts) in place so that the Roman infantry force could attack it. Regardless, the risk was always that the  Parthian archery  would decimate  the  attackers before  they  were  able  to reach the  Parthian lines,  but this was still the only effective offensive tactic that the Romans could use in the open terrain against the Parthian cavalry.  The  use  of  the  feigned  flight  with  cavalry  in  an  attempt  to  draw  the  enemy  into  contact  with theRoman infantry was essentially a passive tactic that required the enemy’s unwitting cooperation.The Strategic Advantages and DisadvantagesOn  the  strategic  level  the  Romans  had  a  clear  advantages  and  disadvantages.  The  main  advantages  on thedefence were: 1) The Romans used combined/joint armies that could be  used very effectively in defence of fortified places and in difficult terrain; 2) Despite the fact that the Parthians had been able to conquer many large  fortified  cities  in  the  east  they  did  not  possess  similar  expertise  in  siege  warfare  as the  Romans  did; 3)The Parthian military system was based on the feudal concept and it was thanks to this that they could not stay long in the field to besiege Roman cities. In  offense  the  main  disadvantages  the  Romans  faced  were:  1)  In  order  to  advance  deep  into  enemy terrain,  they  needed  to  defeat  the  Parthian  cavalry  army  decisively  which  was  very  difficult  to  do  as thecavalry  force  could  retreat  faster  than  the  infantry  could  follow  on  top  of  which  the  Parthians  possessed ready  reserves  of  cavalry  further  away  in  the  Parthian  heartlands;  2)  In  order  for  the  Romans  to  advance deeper they needed to besiege fortified cities while being harassed by the Parthian cavalry; 3) Unlike during the Republican era, when the Romans possessed vast reserves of conscripts for the conquest of new territory, the  emperors  used  a  relatively  small  professional  forces,  which  did  not  possess  enough  men  to  garrison  all 40See SYVÄNNE (2004, 2015) for examples of the use of the lancers against the Parthians and Sasanians. CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 51ofthe strategic locations needed to conquer the land. 4) If the Romans decided to advance into Mesopotamia oreven  beyond,  the  Romans  also  faced  a  number  of  almost  insurmountable  problems.  The  most  difficult problem  was  the  climate  and  the  diseases  it  fostered  among  the  Romans.  In  addition  to  this  came  the  very serious  problems  of  logistics  and  supply.  The  Romanshad  to  leave  sizable  garrisons  behind  to  protect Armenia,  Asia  Minor and Syria. They  needed to guard their routes of communication  with strong  garrisons. They  also  needed  men  to  garrison  the  captured  strongholds  and  to  protect  their  supply  convoys  from thecontinual harassment of Parthian cavalry. The problems facing the Romans in offensive warfare did not end there. Dr Kaveh Farrokh (2007, 174) has  noted  that  the  Parthians  put  considerable  resources  into  building  of  fortresses,  which  means  that theconquering of the Parthian settlements was not an easy task even for the Romans who possessed the best siege train of the day. According to Farrokh, the Parthians also pioneered many military architectural designs that served as models for the later Sassanian fortress systems. The defensive structure of the Parthian fortress city  was  based  on  tri-partite  system.  In  the  centre,  in  an  elevated  position,  was  the Kohnadezh,  the  quarters ofthe   leadership,   nobility,   and   the   king   that   also   served   as   a   keep/acropolis. The   second   section, theSharestan,  was  the  quarters  of  the  knights,  petty  nobility  and  men  of  learning.  In  the  third  section, theSavad,  were  the  farmers  and  craftsmen.  The  ideal  shape  for  the  city  was  a  circle.  The  concept  had  been copied  from  the  CentralAsian  nomads  and  was  to  serve  as  a  model  for  the  Sasanians  and  Abbasids (Baghdad). As noted by Goldsworthy (1996, 68), the  sheer scale  of the task of conquering Parthia, doubtless  more than anything else, made the conquest of Parthia impracticable –except perhaps to those emperors like Trajan and  Caracalla  who  did  not  really  care  how  costly  the  campaign  would  be.  In  fact,  it  was  largely  thanks  to theconquests  of  Trajan  and  then  later  by  Septimius  Severus  (especially  in  Mesopotamia)  that  the  Romans obtained such territorial gains that they could mount effective invasions and raids deep into Parthian territory, and  these  deep  invasions  of  the  Parthian  territory  did  have  a  strategic  consequences.  The  new  territory inMesopotamia and the subjection of Iberiaand Armenia to Roman influence enabled the Romans to launch attacks  from  these  forward  based  locations  so  fast  that  it  was  difficult  for  the  feudal  forces  to  react  to  these fast  enough.  It  was  because  of  this  and  because  of  the  series  of  civil  wars  and  other  threats  in  the  east (e.g.theKushans)  against  the  Parthian  realm  that  the  Romans  were  able  to  repeat  Trajan’s  attack  against Ctesiphon. The end result of the resulting loss of prestige was the rise of the Sasanian dynasty. This brings up the only realstrategic advantage the Romans had, which was the relative weakness of the position of Parthian ruler vis-à-vis his magnates –he needed to retain his prestige in the eyes of the warrior caste.The Parthian Reaction to the Roman Combined Arms TacticsIt  was  painfully  apparent  for  the  Parthians  that  they  could  not  break  up  the  Roman  infantry  formation with  their  cataphracts  and  archery  as  long  as  the  Roman  close-order  combat  formations  remained  orderly. Typically the Parthians sought to counter this with the above-mentioned use of guerrilla war with hit and run tactics until the  Romans  would become  so exhausted that  they  were  no longer able  to maintain their orderly formations. The  second method employed by the Parthians was above-mentioned fortifying oftheir cities so that  these  could  be  expected  to  defend  themselves  against  the  Romans  when  the  Parthian  cavalry  harassed CEEOL copyright 2019CEEOL copyright 2019Page | 52theRomans  with  guerrilla  warfare.  The  third  reaction  was  the  lengthening  of  the  armour  worn  by  both theriders and horses to enable them to face the Roman infantry better also at close quarters.41Towards  the  very  end  of  the  Parthian  Era,  there  is  also  evidence  for  the  introduction  of  a  new  tactical system, the cataphracted camel forces, which the Parthians employed at the Battle of Nisibis against Macrinus in  217.  These  mail-clad  camel  riders  used  both  bows  and  pikes.  In  other  words,  the  Parthians  tried  to  use cataphracted  camels  to  break  up  the  Roman  phalanx.  See  the  hypothetical  reconstruction  borrowed  from Syvänne (2017a, fig. 118). It is also probable that the camels were meant to scare the Roman mounts through their  unfamiliar  appearance  and  smell  so  that  the  Roman  cavalry  would  not  be  able  to  tie  up  the  Parthian cavalry forces. It is notable that these expedients occurred at a time when the Parthians had been thoroughly humbled by the Romans first under Septimius Severus and then by Caracalla. These expedients also occurred at  a  time  when there  were  increasing amount of discontent  among the  native  Persian population that  did not consider the Parthians, even though they were also speaking an Iranian dialect, as Persians. This also occurred against  the  background  of  religious  upheaval  that  was  exploited  by  the  House  of  Sasan.  In  fact,  the  House ofSasan  portrayed  themselves  simultaneously  as  a  religiously  motivated  Zoroastrian  movement  and  as anAryan/Persian  nationalist  movement  that  sought  to  revive  the  glory  days  of  the  Achaemenids.  The  first Sasanian   King   of   Kings   Ardashir   I   was   well   versed   in   ancient   and   contemporary   military   history. Hethoroughly reformed the Persian military on the models of Achaemenids while retaining the Parthian type of  cavalry.  He  even  reintroduced  the  famous  Immortals,  but  this  time  as  10,000  cataphracted  horsemen. Consequently,  it  is  not  too  farfetched  to  say  that  Ardashir  I,  just  like  the  Parthians  in  their  last  days, experimented  with  obsolete  military  systems  in  their  effort  to  find  a  way  to  defeat  the  Roman  infantry,  and therefore reintroduced the scythed chariots and elephants into the Sasanian military as claimed by the Historia Augusta(Aelius  Lampridius, Alex.  Sev.  54).  However,  these  experiments  also  proved  just  as  ineffective against the Romans as the cataphract camels of the Parthians.42ConclusionsIn terms of strategy, the Romans were just as poorly equipped to conquer Parthia as the Parthians were to conquer the Roman east. The former would have required such expenditure of money and resources that it was  beyond  the  Roman  means  without  the  re-introduction  universal  conscription  of  the  Roman  youth–and this was something that the emperor-dictators were unwilling to do for security reasons. Excluding the reigns of  Trajan  and  Caracalla  the  Romans  simply  lacked  the  will  to  spend  so  much  money  and  energy  on acampaign fraught  with many dangers! It waspractically impossible  for the  Romans to defeat the Parthians decisively  on  the  battlefield.  Excluding  some  very  few  exceptions,  the  Parthian  cavalry  was  almost  always able to flee and fight another day, especially so because the heartland of the Parthianmonarchy lay in the east. In  order  to  win  the  Romans  would  have  needed  to  annihilate  in  their  entirety  at  least  two  massive  Royal Armies  in  succession,  first  the  Royal  Army  that  the  ruler  brought  against  them  and  then  the  reinforcements brought  from  the  east43.  This  did  not  happen,  because  the  Parthians  were  usually  led  by  competentca


Edited by Lion.Kanzen
Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...