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Roman Mesopotamia - BC 68-36 - From Lucullus to Anthony

Mesopotamia is an extensive district of Western Asia, deriving its name from its position between the two great rivers Euphrates and Tigris. It was bounded on the N. by Armenia and the S. branch of the Taurus, on the E. by the Tigris, on the W. by the Euphrates, and by the Median Wall, which separated it from Babylonia. Pliny apparently extends it on the southern side as far as the Persian Gulf; but, like many other ancient provinces, its limits varied much at different periods,— it being sometimes extended so as to comprehend Babylonia, at other times to as to take in parts of Syria.

The subsistence side by side of great states with equal rights was incompatible with the system of Roman policy, even with the policy of antiquity in general. The Roman empire knew as limit, in the strict sense, only the sea or a land-district unarmed. To the weaker but yet warlike commonwealth of the Parthians the Romans always grudged a position of power, and took away from it what these in their turn could not forego; and therefore the relation between Rome and Parthia through the whole imperial period was one of perpetual feud, interrupted only by armistices, concerning the left bank of the Euphrates.

On the death of Alexander the Great Babylonia and Mesopotamia, together with Syria, passed into the hands of the Seleucidze, from whom they were in turn wrested by the Parthian dynasty of the Arsacidae, about the year BC 164. In the possession of these last they remained, until the Mithridatic war led Lucullus in pursuit of Tigranes into Mesopotamia, when he took possession of Nisibis BC 68. This was the first occasion on which a Roman army entered into that remote country. Lucullus proposed to carry the war into Parthia; and, for this purpose, ordered the legions that were stationed in Pontus to march without delay into Armenia. These troops, however, already tired of the service, and suspecting that they were intended for some distant and hazardous enterprise, broke out into open mutiny, and refused to obey their officers. This example was soon afterwards followed by other parts of the army; and the general was obliged to confine his operations to the kingdom of Armenia.

In the year BC 64, Pompey reduced Syria to a Roman province, of which nine years afterwards Marcus Licinius Crassus was made proconsul. Being an avaricious as well as an ambitious man, he regarded with an envious eye the power and supposed riches of the Parthians ; and in spite of the remonstrances of certain tribunes of the people, who represented them as faithful allies of the Roman nation, resolved to invade their country. Accordingly, having arrived at the seat of his government, where one of his first acts was to plunder the temple of Jerusalem, he marched to the Euphrates, which he crossed by a bridge of boats ; and, taking the Parthians at unawares, speedily overran Mesopotamia, then a part of their empire. But, instead of pursuing his success, by making himself master of Babylonia, and penetrating to Seleucia and Ctesiphon, he repassed the river in the beginning of autumn, leaving but 7000 foot and 1000 horse to secure his conquests.

This hasty retreat gave the natives time to recollect themselves ; and Orodes their king, a warlike prince, immediately assembled a numerous army, while he sent ambassadors to Crassus to inquire the reason of his unexpected aggression. This general, who had spent the winter in extol-ting money from the Syrians and shamelessly plundering the temples, but who at the approach of spring assembled his army in order to recommence the war.

In the treaties concluded with the Parthians by Lucullus and Pompey the Euphrates was recognized as the boundary, and so Mesopotamia was ceded to them. But this did not prevent the Romans from receiving the rulers of Edessa among their clients, and from laying claim to a great part of northern Mesopotamia at least for their indirect rule, apparently by extending the limits of Armenia towards the south. On that account, after some delay, the Parthian government began the war against the Romans, in the form of declaring it against the Armenians.

The answer to this was the campaign of Crassus. In BC 54 Crassus began his attack on the Parthians, though he had no instructions and no cause of quarrel with them, but he believed that the Parthian king, Orodes, Arsaces XIV as he is supposed to be, was rich, and, being only newly settled in his kingdom, might be easily overpowered. Crassus crossed the Euphrates and plundered part of the Mesopotamia, or the northern part of the country between the Euphrates and Tigris, which contained Greek settlements made in the time of Alexander's successors, but was now subject to the Parthians. As the Roman came unexpectedly, he met with no opposition.

But at length, in AUC 701 / BC 53 the Roman troops had become exhausted and demoralized under a chief in whom they had no confidence. When they turned back disheartened, the Parthians closed around them with their clouds of light cavalry, and inflicted upon them disastrous losses. At last the Romans sustained a crushing defeat under the walls of Carrhae. The overthrow of Carrhae was one of the gravest disasters ever sustained by the Roman arms. It is said that 20,000 were slain and 10,000 carried into captivity. Taken prisoner, the head of Crassuswas cut off, and molten gold, according to the story, was poured into the mouth of the most avaricious of the Romans.

After the defeat at Carrhae, the bringing back of Armenia under Parthian power; the resumption of their claims on the western half of the Seleucid state, the carrying out of which, it is true, proved at that time unsuccessful. During the whole twenty years of civil war, in which the Roman republic petished and ultimately the principate was established, the state of war between the Romans and Parthians continued, and not seldom the two struggles became intermixed.

In order to take revenge for Carrhae, Caesar had resolved to go in the next spring personally to Syria and to cross the Euphrates; but his assasination in AUC 710 / BC 44 prevented the execution of this plan. When Cassius thereupon took arms in Syria, he entered into relations with the Parthian king; and in the decisive battle at Philippi (AUC 712) Parthian mounted archers joined in fighting for the freedom of Rome. When the republicans succumbed, the great-king, in the first instance, maintained a quiet attitude.

Marc Anthony [Antonius], whose attention was claimed by the Italian complications, sent no succour to his governors, and for almost two years (from the end of 713 to the spring of AUC 715) Syria and a great part of Asia Minor were commanded by the Parthian generals and by the republican imperator Labienus—Parthicus, as he called himself with shameless irony, not the Roman who vanquished the Parthians, but the Roman who with Parthian aid vanquished his countrymen.

With like good fortune Ventidius gained by fighting the passes of the Amanus on the border of Cilicia and Syria; here Pharnapates, the best of the Parthian generals, fell (715 AUC). Thus was Syria delivered from the enemy. Certainly in the following year Pacorus once more crossed the Euphrates; but only to meet destruction with the greatest part of his army in a decisive engagement at Gindarus, north-east of Antioch (9th June 716 AUC). It was a victory which counterbalanced in some measure the day of Carrhae, and one of permanent effect; for long the Parthians did not again show their troops on the Roman bank of the Euphrates.

If it was in the interest of Rome to extend her Position of conquests towards the East, and to enter on the inherit- Antoniusance of Alexander the Great there in all its extent, the circumstances were never more favorable for doing so than in the year AUC 716. The relations of the two rulers to each other had become re-established seasonably for that purpose, and even Caesar at that time had probably a sincere wish for an earnest and successful conduct of the war by his co-ruler and new son-in-law.

Anthony, while designing probably to execute the plans of the dictator, had at first enough to do with the settlement of the East. The collision could not fail to take place. Never had Rome in the East an army of equal numbers and excellence as at this time: Antonius was able to lead over the Euphrates no fewer than 16 legions, about 70,000 Roman infantry, about 40,000 auxiliaries, 10,000 Spanish and Gallic, and 6,000 Armenian horsemen; at least half of them were veteran troops brought up from the West, all ready to follow anywhere their beloved and honoured leader, the victor of Philippi, and to crown the brilliant victories, which had been already achieved not by but for him over the Parthians, with still greater successes under his own leadership.

Anthony had in view the erection of a great Asiatic kingdom after the model of that of Alexander. As Crassus before his invasion had announced that he would extend the Roman rule as far as Bactria and India, so Antonius named the first son, whom the Egyptian queen bore to him, by the name of Alexander. He appears to have directly intended, on the one hand, to bring—excluding the completely Hellenised provinces of Bithynia and Asia, — the whole imperial territory in the East, so far as it was not already under dependent petty princes, into this form; and on the other hand to make all the regions of the East once occupied by Occidentals subject to himself in the form of satrapies.

But Anthony left the East, in order to negotiate in Italy with his father-in-law as to the future arrangements, or to enjoy life with his young spouse Octavia. The consequences of the victory on Roman territory were thus duly drawn, and the recognition of Roman rule was enforced as far as the Caspian Sea and the Syrian desert. But Anthony had reserved for himself the beginning of the warfare against the Parthians, and he came not.

When at length, in AUC 718 / BC 36, Anthony escaped from the arms, not of Octavia, but of Cleopatra, and set the columns of war of the army in motion, a good part of the appropriate season Antonius of the year had already elapsed. Still more surprising than this delay was the direction which Antonius chose. All aggressive wars of the Romans against the Parthians, earlier and later, took the route for Ctesiphon, the capital of the kingdom and at the same time situated on its western frontier, and so the natural and immediate aim of operations for armies marching downward on the Euphrates or on the Tigris. But instead of this he preferred to go in a northerly direction at first towards Armenia, and from that point, where he united his whole military resources and reinforced himself in particular by the Armenian cavalry, to the table-land of Media Atropatene (Aderbijan).

The whole baggage, a third of the camp-followers, a fourth of the army, 20,000 foot soldiers, and 4000 horsemen perished in this Median campaign, in great part not through the sword, but through famine and disease. Amid constant attacks of the artful enemy, in weather of wintry cold, soon without adequate food and often without water, they in twenty-seven days reached the protecting frontier, where the enemy desisted from following them. The loss was enormous; there were reckoned up in twenty-seven days eighteen larger engagements, and in a single one of them the Romans counted 3000 dead and 5000 wounded. It was the very best and bravest that those constant assaults on the vanguard and on the flanks swept away. No doubt this campaign was a last flash of what was brave and capable in the character of Antonius; but it was politically his overthrow all the more, as at the same time Caesar by the successful termination of the Sicilian war gained the dominion in the West and the confidence of Italy for the present and all the future.

The principal conquests of the Romans were achieved under the republic; and the Emperors, for the most part, were satisfied with preserving those dominions which had been acquired by the policy of the senate, the active emulation of the counsels, and the martial enthusiasm of the people. The seven first centuries were filled with a rapid succession of triumphs; but it was reserved for Augustus, to relinquish the ambitious deaign of subduing the whole earth, and to introduce a spirit of moderation into the public councils.

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Page last modified: 10-01-2012 19:20:53 ZULU