Rome and Persia: The Seven Hundred Year Rivalry

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Release Date: 
September 12, 2023
Basic Books
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“Goldsworthy fills a little-known but important gap in the history of the Western World with a history of the lands of Armenia, Iraq, and Syria that, as part of the Parthian Empire, became contentious ground between two empires.”

For 700 years, the Parthian and Roman empires grew and developed as neighbors and sometimes enemies. The two empires usually coexisted peacefully, but their occasional wars potentially affected world history. “Rome and its empire continue to fascinate us” but Western History overlooks Parthia, as shown even in the title of this book: Rome and Persia. Persia, as usually defined, receives almost no mention in this work.

In this work, Adrian Goldsworthy fills a little-known but important gap in the history of the Western World with a history of the lands of Armenia, Iraq, and Syria that, as part of the Parthian Empire, became contentious ground between two empires. The Roman and Parthian worlds became neighbors in the Third Century BCE, but they remained so isolated that the two empires could go for decades without official contact.

The corresponding period of China’s history also appears in this narrative, but that parallel imperial past was too far from these other empires to be affected by them. Rome and China barely knew that each existed. Parthia, however, became the highly lucrative route for trade between Europe and China, which in modern times was named the Silk Road.

The Romans greatly admired the conqueror Alexander the Great, but the little-known world to the East had more to do with the great Macedonian than Rome. The Seleucid Empire had begun under Alexander the Great’s Greek General Seleucus and, at its height, controlled from the Aegean Sea to India. Rome conquered the western lands, and this Parthian Empire grew up to take the rest, from Syria to Persia.

Parthia was a confederation of provinces ruled by a King of Kings, much as it had been in Alexander’s time. Rebellion was common, and the Sasanian dynasty overthrew the Parthian rule during this history. Could Rome have conquered this neighbor, would its empire have survived longer or become greater to have changed world history?

By 160 CE, Rome likely ruled one-fifth of the world’s people, and 1 in 170 of that population was in the imperial military. Its economy depended upon conquest, and it knew of the success of Alexander the Great in conquering the Persian Empire, which later became most of the same territory as Parthia’s empire.

The Roman Empire may have equaled contemporary China's population and exceeded Parthia in numbers and resources. “Some territory was taken and held for a long time,” but the Roman Empire never conquered Parthia, or made serious inroads into it. While Kingdoms rose and fell in the East, in the Roman West, civil wars raged on and off for decades.

Goldsworthy begins this story with the famous saga of the three men who ruled Rome in the 50s BCE, all of whom had connections to Parthia. Pompey the Great expanded Roman power by creating a series of dependent allies in the Middle East, only to much later be beheaded in Egypt. Crassus would lead an army into Parthia to find defeat and death. Julius Caesar planned a campaign against Parthia when members of the Roman Senate assassinated him.

During the Roman civil wars before and after Julius Caesar’s death, Pompey and other Roman leaders appealed without success to the Parthian kings for support. Parthian troops disastrously tried to take advantage of Roman divisiveness, only to fend off spectacularly failed Roman invasions under Anthony.

Caesar Augustus made peace with Parthia, an important part of his centuries-long legacy of the empire-wide Pax Romana. “Both sides realized that waging all-out war against the other was a major enterprise and likely a risky one.”

Decades later, the emperors Trajan, Marcus Aurelias, Verus, and Severus fought wars with Parthia where Roman achievements were too little and too late. Success came at great cost, including the devastating Aurelian Plague. “Gains were only a small part of the Parthian Empire.” “There was still much more to be gained by restraint than all-out conflict.”

Rome always saw those lands east of the Euphrates as too far away. The empire had reached its practical limits. Parthia, including Persia, would eventually fall from the conquests of the Muslim world that grew up in the Middle East and defeated all. The Eastern Roman Empire and North Africa to France would also fall to the armies and fleets of Islam. A territory and people far greater than that of the two once great rival empires.

Goldsworthy offers “a path through some unfamiliar territory and leading to more than a few surprising conclusions.” This work makes a solid beginning for the Roman history enthusiast. The author recognizes the problem of a lack of Parthian historical sources; even some major historical Parthian cities cannot now be located.

What survives of this history is Grecco-Roman, with pro-Roman biases. Consequently, Rome and Persia is more about understanding the Roman world through incidents of contact with the East. Nonetheless, the author writes, “it would be possible to write a book of this length on the theme of any chapter.”

Rome and Persia is annotated, includes a detailed chronology, and has a bibliography. It has lists of rulers to help the reader sort through this history of empires.