Rome’s obsession to conquer Persia dates back to around 55 BC when Crassus needed a victory, and the plunder that would come with that victory, for political ends in Rome. He looked to the Persian empire to provide both. Crassus took a Roman army into Persia near the town of Harran and met with a Persian army under the command of Surena. It was at this battle that the Roman army met a new type of soldier, horse archers and heavily armoured cavalry very similar to medieval knights.
The horse archers armed with laminated bows could loose an accurate shot from 300 yards and it would punch through Roman armour from 150 yards away. Another devastating feat these horse troops could perform, was called the Parthian shot. They could fire the bow from behind and whilst being pursued were able to turn in the saddle and loose accurate shots at their pursuers.
Crassus lost the battle of Harran, along with around 30,000 legionnaires, whilst a further 10,000 were captured. Only around 500 soldiers returned home to Rome.
The captured forces were brought into the Persian military within Central Asia. Chinese records state that two generals encountered a strange army in a city 500 miles east of Margiana. They had a fortified position in the form of a double palisade and were being drilled with large rectangular shields to form a defensive screen. The only soldiers during this period who used these tactics, fortifications and large rectangular shields were the Romans.
The frontier with Persia became a constant conflict. Rome’s professional army consumed 80% of revenue gained from taxes. The empire had become a military state whereby the army could appoint or dethrone an emperor. It had reached the point where the only way to feed itself was from plunder gained from military action. By the time of Severus Septimius the most lucrative place to conquer was the vast Persian empire.
Severus managed to capture Ctesiphon and gained two new provinces, Osrhoene and Mesopotamia. The amount of gold, silver and commodities gained from that military operation kept the Roman empire’s treasury from going bankrupt for a couple of decades.
During the third century the border between the Roman empire and Persia’s was in a constant state of conflict and wa, from cross-border raids and skirmishes to small-scale military actions.
In 295 AD Rome was repelled in an attack in Ctesiphon, but they captured the Persian king’s harem. The capture of the harem was a massive coup, not only did it contain thousands of concubines, but it also housed the entire royal family along with the royal children.
Rome returned the harem for control of the Persian lands in the North West which included Northern Mesopotamia. A treaty was brokered. The defence of the border was becoming a massive full-time job that drained the empire of money annually.
In 312 AD, Constantine came to power in Rome after a bitter civil war. He decided to shift the seat of power to Constantinople away from Rome. Another change he implemented was to make the Roman empire Christian, which led to persecution of Christians in the Persian empire. On the death of Constantine, Shapur II moved to retake the lands Rome had previously taken, so from 337 to 350 Rome and Persia were in a state of war for the land of Mesopotamia.
The ongoing conflict against the Persians during the last two centuries had drained both the Roman economy and military. It placed a constant drain on resources of other frontiers within the Roman empire reducing manpower along the Rhine and Danube. This lead to larger incursions by Germanic and Gothic armies. It probably also led to the hiring of Germanic mercenaries in the later stages of the empire and the payment of tributes to the Huns, Goths and Vandals.
At the same time the same was happening to the eastern borders of the Persian empire i.e. the Persian army was also slowly being drained of resources. This led to the Huns on the Kushan frontier being able to move into Persia and across to the Roman empire.
Septimius Severus’s campaign against the Persians had weakened the Romans and this had allowed the Sassanian movement to take power. The old feudal style of government that the Persians employed was obliterated by the Sassanians and replaced by a centralised system of government. This was very similar to the Roman system of government.
Another change they made was to develop a professional army. Troops were placed on salaries, which meant that the Roman army was no longer the only professional standing army in the ancient world.
From the Sassanians, Iran was born, and all non-Iranians were considered to be from the Kingdom of Lies, which generally meant anyone from the Roman Empire.
In 231 AD a Roman army was sent to Antioch under the control of the Emperor Alexander Severus. The aim was to try and start negotiations with the Sassanian emperor Ardashir. Ardashir sent four hundred envoys, who were richly dressed and outfitted, to the negotiations in Antioch. The aim of this was to show the Romans the wealth and power that lay within the Sassanian empire, with a subtle message that the Roman army should leave Syria and hand back all territory in the east.
Alexander sent the troops into what became a stalemate. The Romans lost large quantities of soldiers, whilst the Sassanians lost land in Mesopotamia. Alexander was murdered two years later by his own army.
By 220 AD Persia was now 400 years old and it had been in conflict with Rome for most of those 400 years.
Shapur was crowned in 241 AD following the death of his father. Shapur needed and looked for new conquests to cement his coronation. His first military task was to invade the Kushan Empire and in doing so he destroyed the Kanishka dynasty. Once that campaign was completed, he turned his focus on the Romans by pushing deep into Mesopotamia. Once in Mesopotamia he came up against the Roman Emperor Gordian 3rd (238-244 AD).
Gordian was an inexperienced 17 year old and was no real match for Shapur. Gordian was being advised on military matters by the Praetorian Prefect Gaius Timesitheus. Shapur and his army met the Romans west of the Euphrates near the town of Reshiana. Here Shapur received a setback. Gordian also received a setback when Gaius took ill and died from disease leaving Gordian to campaign without him.
Gordian marched his forces to Babylonia. They clashed with Shapur’s forces at Misikhe. It was during this battle that Gordian was killed and the Roman force destroyed. Philip the Arab, who had succeeded Gaius as Gordian’s military advisor, desperately needed to return home to Rome now that the Emperor was dead. He was eager to finish the campaign against Shapur so that he could return without delay. He paid Shapur a large sum of gold to effect a peace treaty.
Philip was succeeded by Decius as the new emperor in 251 AD. He died the same year whilst on campaign against the Goths who had inflicted a terrible defeat against the Roman army. This defeat allowed, or prompted, Shapur to begin a new campaign against Rome. He knew that the Roman army was weak because of defeat at the hands of the Goths. Shapur took his troops along the Euphrates into the province of Syria. At Barbalissos the Roman garrisons stationed there were destroyed, Shapur claimed 60,000 Roman troops were killed, though this is probably a slight exaggeration. This now meant that Shapur had control of Syria and the capitol Antioch. At this period Antioch was one of the largest and most prestigious of the Roman cities within the Empire.
It was because Antioch was such a prestigious and wealthy city that Rome responded immediately by sending troops under the command of Publius Licinius Valerianus (Valerian) to relieve the city. The initial campaign went in favour of the Roman army. They forced Shapur to fall back, though this campaign by Persia was more in keeping with a raid than a serious military campaign.
By 253 AD Valerian managed to win a small victory on the outskirts of Edessa, then bad luck struck in the form of disease and plague breaking out within his army. The disease decimated the army and Valerian was forced to retreat behind the city walls of Edessa. Once inside, Shapur saw an opportunity to exploit and moved to besiege the city. It wasn’t long before Valerian offered terms and decided to negotiate in person alongside his senior officers. This was an unusual tactic, and not one Shapur would have contemplated, even though within military and noble circles in Persia there is a great sense of honour and code. Valerian may have also thought he was safe due to this high honour, but the negotiators and Valerian were taken captive.
It was said that Shapur used Valerian as his mounting block when getting onto his horse. Valerian lived another two years. After he died, Shapur had Valerian’s skin stripped from his body and stuffed with straw to make him look lifelike. He then placed it on display in a Persian temple.
The ruler of Palmyra, Odaenathus, saw an opportunity to make an alliance with Persia and sent envoys to Shapur suggesting such a move. Shapur sent a message back stating that Odaenathus, was a vassal and insolent to suggest an alliance. This insult was a mistake, because Odaenathus was an excellent field commander with a small highly mobile force. Odaenathus attacked the Persians. As they were retreating from recent victories laden with plunder, he managed to send them scattering. He then used his power as a Roman magistrate to command the forces of the East. Suddenly Shapur was on the defensive against a Roman army who were commanded by a competent and experienced general. After five years of campaigning Shapur was driven from the Roman provinces he had conquered. Odaenathus even managed to drive his troops to the outskirts of the Persian city of Ctesiphon.
Shapur remained in a wary stand off with Rome. He had lost as many battles as he had won, though he had gained a vast amount of prestige for capturing the Roman Emperor Valerian. Problems were growing along his own borders. Those with India were now presenting problems he could no longer ignore. He was also having to deal with Nomads from further east who were also proving to be troublesome. So his focus on Rome was switched to internal and eastern borders. Shapur continued to reign until 272 AD when he died from natural causes. This was unusual for a Persian monarch.
Palmyra and Queen Zenobia
Palmyra was part of the Roman province Syria Phoenice. It was a very wealthy trading city with its population dedicated to import-export between East and West. Most of the trade between the Mediterranean, Persia, India and China went through the city, which made its inhabitants extremely wealthy. With its wealth they had street colonnades built and the city had a Romano-Greek style and feel. They trained an army of horse archers to protect their investments and provided a constant supply of troops to the Roman army.
Yet the ongoing conflict between Persia and Rome was having a detrimental effect on trade which meant lower levels of wealth. It became so bad that around 250 AD the ruler of Palmyra sent word to Shapur offering to become an ally. Shapur refused saying he had no allies but subjects.
Emperor Valerian offered the ruler of Palmyra, Odaenathus, the governorship of Syria, in return for troops in Valerian’s campaign against Shapur. When Valerian was captured, the new governor continued a campaign against Shapur. The new emperor Gallienus named him Supervisor of the East.
In 267 AD the governor was assassinated. His wife claimed the title on behalf of her son and became Queen Zenobia. She was an accomplished hunter and fought alongside her husband against the Persians.
Gallienus decided to announce that the authority of Zenobia would be limited and Palmyra would be become a client state. She decided otherwise and set herself up as an independent state. She even went as far to mint her own coins with the term Augusta, mother of the emperor, and gave herself the title Queen of the East.
Aurelian replaced Gallienus as Emperor and set about bringing those provinces who had rebelled, which included Palmyra, back under military and central control. The Roman army fought two battles against Zenobia and her army, winning on both occasions. Zenobia was captured and sent back to Rome, with her reign ending in 272 AD. In 273 AD the city of Palmyra was flattened and its inhabitants were either killed or sent into slavery.