The eastern threat to Rome

Having mentioned the accession of Justinian I in my previous post, it might seem reasonable to discuss his reign in depth. However, instead, I wish to go back in time and look at one of Rome’s most ancient and most dangerous foes, the Persians.

Tom Holland, in his excellent book Persian Fire , looked at the struggle between the classical Greeks and the Achaemenids, a series of conflicts that eventually culminated in the triumph of the Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, whose life is dealt with in an excellent book by Robin Lane Fox.

It was the triumph of the Macedonians that led to the rise of the Hellenistic culture that, as I have already discussed, came to dominate the Roman East and, eventually the empire itself.

In the break-up of Alexander’s huge and unwieldy empire following his death, what are now modern day Iraq and Iran came under the control of Seleucus I, one of Alexander’s senior generals, who founded the Seleucid Dynasty which ruled this eastern part of the Hellenistic world, declining in size through wars, until its remains were eventually overthrown by the Romans in 63 BCE.

By around 250 BCE, Seleucia had already lost its easternmost province, Bactria and Parthia, and it is Parthia that forms the first part of this post.

The Parthians were an Iranian people, as were the Medes and Persians, and Parthia had been a satrapy of the Achaemenid empire and later a province under the Seleucids.

During one of the wars between Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucia, Parthia seceded from Seleucia in an uprising led by Arsaces, a warlord of either Bactrian or Scythian origins, who led a tribe known to us as the Parni. These Parni were an eastern Iranian people but, unfortunately, little is known of them apart from Greek and early Roman sources and these sources are vague as to their origins. Like most of the semi-nomadic, horse-riding warlike tribes of west Central Asia, the Parni appear to have been part of the cultural umbrella known by the Greeks as Scythians.

Anyway, Arsaces founded the Arsacid dynasty that was to spread across the region and form an empire that covered most of modern day Iran and Iraq, coming into conflict with the Romans as they themselves progressed eastwards under the Republic and early Empire.

The Parthians were dangerous enemies to Rome and, in 53 BCE, inflicted a major defeat on the army of the Roman Republic at the Battle of Carrhae.

Warfare between Rome and the Parthians continued for the next couple of centuries until the eventual collapse of the Parthian empire in the early part of the 3rd century CE.

However, the Parthians were then succeeded by an even more dangerous foe, the Sassanids.

The Sassanid Empire came into being out of the chaos of the last years of the Parthian dynasty. Attacked from the north by nomadic tribes, from the west by the Romans and riven by dynastic civil wars, the last Arsacid ruler Artabanus IV and his secessionist brother Vologases VI were defeated by the founder of the Sassanid dynasty, Ardashir I.

The Sassanids were to expand to take over most of the former Parthian empire and therefore come up against the eastern boundaries of the Roman world.

Their empire endured for around 400 years, until the rise of Islam, and remained the single largest threat to the Romans in the East until that time.

From around the middle of the 3rd century until nearly the end of the 4th, Rome and the Sassanids clashed regularly, with cities in Mesopotamia and the eastern borders of Syria changing hands on several occasions. After the death of the great Sassanid king Shapur II in 379, there followed a period of comparative peace which lasted, with two short interludes of fighting in 421 and 440, until the beginning of the 6th century.

This period of peace was crucial to the stability of the Eastern Empire at the very period when the West was crumbling into chaos and being dismembered by successor kingdoms.

Because the emperors of the East did not have to guard their eastern borders against invaders from the east, they were able to look to the defence of their western and northern borders. Because tax revenues from the east were not spent on equipping armies against the Persians, this meant that the wealth of the east could be used to pay off the Goths, Alans, Huns and others who threatened to devastate the Balkan provinces of the empire.

When war did come again to the East, the situation in the West was more stable, the Huns had been eliminated and the position of the Roman Emperor Anastasius I, successor to Zeno, was secure.
I may return to the Sassanians at a later date, particularly to discuss their military capabilities, their influences on the West and their religion, Zoroastrianism. However, I wanted to discuss the issue of the Persian empire and Rome, as a way of looking at the context of how the Eastern Empire was able to survive during the decline and collapse of the Western empire in the 4th and 5th centuries.


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