Shapour Suren-Pahlav: General Surena- Hero of Carrhae 53 BCE

The article below is authored by Shapour Suren-Pahlav who first posted this in his CAIS website in December 1998. A number of the illustrations are from the original CAIS articles with a number of others added below for illustration purposes.


Eran Spahbodh Rustaham Suren-Pahlav was born sometime in the late 1st century BCE. The name under which he appears in the western classical sources was no more than his hereditary title, that of ‘Surena’, and he continued to be referred to using this appellation in Iranian records far into Sasanian times.

Plutarch describes General Surena as:

“. . [not] an ordinary person, but in wealth, family, and reputation, the second man in the kingdom, and in courage and prowess the first, and for bodily stature and beauty no man like him. Whenever he travelled privately, he had one thousand camels to carry his baggage, two hundred chariots for his concubines, one thousand completely armed men for life-guards, and a great many more light-armed; and he had at least ten thousand horsemen altogether, of his servants and retinue. The honour had long belonged to his family, that at the king’s coronation he put the crown upon his head, and when this very king Hyrodes had been exiled, he brought him in; it was he, also, that took the great city of Seleucia, was the first man that scaled the walls, and with his own hand beat off the defenders. And though at this time he was not above thirty years old, he had a great name for wisdom and sagacity, and, indeed, by these qualities chiefly, he overthrew Crassus”.

“. . Surena was the tallest and finest looking man himself, but the delicacy of his looks and effeminacy of his dress did not promise so much manhood as he really was master of; or his face was painted, and his hair parted after the fashion of the Medes . .”.

A Bronze statue discovered in Shami, in Bakhtiari mountains denoted to General Surena (Picture Source: CAIS website).

Surena’s victory at Carrhae against the Romans and his personal “feat of arms there was certainly the most celebrated of the whole Arsacid era” (Bivar), but it is not directly attributed to him in the Shahnameh, the Iranian national epic.

In this book, the record of the Arsacids seems to have been suppressed at its true chronological point – for example the story concerning the Arsacid warrior Gotarz / Goudarz was transferred to the later legendary period of Key-Kavous, and incorporated there.

Surena’s historical personality is, however, curiously parallel to the stories about – and attributes of – Rustam, the mightiest of the Shahnameh’s heroes (Bivar). The atmosphere of the episodes in which the latter features is also strongly reminiscent of the Arsacid period.

Surena’s name is therefore preserved indirectly amongst the throng of epic heroes whose deeds are recalled in the Kayanian (Kianian) section of the Shahnameh.

Background to the Battle of Carrhae

The Parthian empire was perpetually menaced by hostile armies both in the east and in the west and was already deeply injured by the encroachments of Pompey. However, its decentralized and feudal structure may help to explain why it never mounted a strong offensive after the days of Emperor Mithradates II. Instead, Iran tended to remain on the defensive. The wars between Iran and Rome therefore were initiated not by the Iranians – but by Rome itself. Rome considered itself obliged to claim the inheritance of Alexander of Macedonia and, from the time of Pompey, continually attempted the subjection of the former Hellenistic countries as far as the Euphrates River. As part of the attempt to extend Roman control further eastward, Marcus Licinius Crassus, the Roman triumvir, took the offensive against Iran in 54 BCE. Such then were the protagonists in the decisive battle that was about to develop.

Map displaying the Romano-Parthian borders and the location of the Battle of Carrhae (54 BC) (Picture Source: CAIS website).

Before the Roman march towards Parthia began, Crassus had been advised by a Roman ally, Artavasdes, king of Armenia, to lead his forces through the mountains of that country, to shelter from the Iranian cavalry. However, Crassus ignored this advice, being anxious to include in his army the substantial Roman garrisons posted during the previous season in the towns of Mesopotamia. Then, after crossing the Euphrates at Zeugma, he also rejected the plan of his legate Cassius, that he should follow the course of the river to Babylon. Instead Crassus followed the guidance of an Arab chief, whose name is given by Plutarch as Ariamnes. This seems improbable, and other sources name the guide as Abcar or Abgar, and identify him as the chief of the city of Edessa. This guide, suspected by historians of collusion with Surena, led the Romans away from the river into the desert, and towards the main Iranian force.

The Strength of the Two Armies

With regard to the size of the two armies, that of the Romans was reportedly greatly superior in numbers. According to the most reliable account, that of Plutarch, Crassus commanded “seven legions, [with] little less than four thousand horse, and as many light-armed soldiers”. A quarter of the latter were Gaulish troops lent by Julius Caesar. Other commentators have given somewhat higher total estimates. At the minimum estimate, the army of Crassus would have numbered thirty-six thousand men.

The Iranian forces under Surena consisted, according to Plutarch, of a thousand fully armored lancers, the cataphracts, who formed the bodyguard of the General. Nine thousand horse-archers formed the main body of the troops, and a baggage-train of a thousand camels was available to bring up extra stocks of arrows. The entire force was mounted, and therefore highly mobile under the desert conditions. However, in numerical terms, the Roman force seemed sufficient for the task in hand.

Events showed, nevertheless, that in two critical respects the Romans had underestimated the Iranian forces. The power of the horse-archers’ arrows to penetrate the legionnaires armour had not been appreciated, perhaps because the Roman commanders were unaware that the compound bow which the Iranians employed was a more powerful weapon than the lighter bows found at that time in Rome. Additionally, the Romans had anticipated that the Iranian cavalry would quickly exhaust their stock of arrows; but the camel train of General Surena made it possible for him to bring up plentiful stocks of arrows as the quivers of his men were emptied.

Additionally, the Romans were also ill-adapted to the open terrain of the battlefield. The vast distances of the Mesopotamian plain, and the heat (for the battle took place in June) put the Roman infantry at a disadvantage. Moreover, the Roman means of retaliation against their adversaries were ineffective, since the range of the Roman javelin was obviously limited, and the Gaulish horsemen relied on for a counter-attack were provided only with short javelins, as well as being lacking in adequate defensive armour.

Map displaying the deployment of Crassus’ forces towards Parthian forces at Carrhae (54 BC) (Picture Source: CAIS website).

With all these miscalculations, even the squares of Roman legionnaires could not hold their own against the Iranians.

The Battle

At first the Romans prepared to advance to the encounter in extended line. Then Crassus formed the legions into a square, and so advanced to the River Balissus (Balikh). Contrary to the opinion of his officers, he decided not to camp by the water, but hurried the troops across, and before long came in sight of the advance-guard of the Iranians. The strength of their main body was at first concealed. Then the thunder of the Parthian drums burst on the ears of the Romans. The mailed cavalry of Surena’s bodyguard uncovered their armour, and the sun glittered on their steel helmets.

“When they had sufficiently terrified the Romans with their noise, they threw off the covering of their armour, and shone like lightning in their breastplates and helmets of polished Margianian steel, and with their horses covered with brass and steel trappings . .”.

The first attack was a charge by the lancers of the bodyguard, led in person by the towering figure of General Surena. Then, seeing the steadiness of the Roman legionnaires, the Iranian horse-archers began their work. What followed was more like a massacre than a battle.

Parth-Savar1[Click to Enlarge] Reconstruction by Peter Wilcox and the late historical artist, Angus McBride of Parthian armored knights as they would have appeared in 54 BCE (Picture Source: Osprey Publishing).

The Romans had tried to offset their lack of cavalry by using light infantry mixed with their Gaulish horsemen. But such makeshift tactics were of little avail against the finest cavalry in the world. The legionnaires were soon hard pressed and all but surrounded, so that Crassus was reduced to ordering his son, Publius, who commanded one of the wings, to attempt a diversionary charge with his forces.

Publius led thirteen hundred horse, five hundred archers, and eight cohorts of the infantry, the latter totalling some four thousand men, into the attack. At first the Iranians retired in front of them, but after Publius’ men were separated from the main Roman force they were quickly surrounded, offering an all but helpless mark to the rain of arrows. The threat of a charge by the Cataphracts forced the Romans into close order, thereby reducing their chances of escape. Though the Gauls caught hold of the Iranian lances to pull down the riders, and ran under the horses of their enemies to stab them in the belly, these were no more than tactics of desperation. Soon the young Publius was disabled, and the remnant of his force retired to a mound to make their last stand. The young and naïve commander ordered his Armour-bearer to end his life, although five hundred of his soldiers survived to be taken as slaves.

Horse Arhers at Carrhae[Click to Enlarge] Parthian Horse archers engage the Roman legions of Marcus Lucinius Crassus at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Unlike the Achamenid-Greek wars where Achaemenid arrows were unable to penetrate Hellenic shields and armor, Parthian archery was now able to penetrate the armor and shields of their Roman opponents (Picture Source: Antony Karasulas & Angus McBride).

This agonizing diversion had temporarily relieved pressure on the main Roman force. But the magnitude of the disaster became clear when the Iranians rode back with Publius’ head on a spear. Thereafter the main Roman body had to defend themselves as best they could for the rest of the day under the constant hail of missiles. Only when it grew too dark to shoot did the Iranians draw off, leaving the Romans to pass a melancholy night, encumbered as they were with the many wounded, and anyway anticipating their final destruction on the following morning.

The Roman Retreat

By this time, Crassus himself was prostrate with despair. Octavius and Cassius, his lieutenants, resolved that the only hope was to escape under cover of darkness and seek shelter behind the walls of the city of Carrhae. Thus they slipped away silently from the camp in the darkness. Those of the wounded who could be moved obstructed the march, and the majority, who had to be abandoned, raised the alarm with their cries. Understandably, retreating in the dark, the Romans fell into disorder. A party of three hundred horsemen did reach the city at midnight, and warned Coponius, commander of the garrison there, that Crassus had fought a great battle with the Iranians. They then turned west to make their escape across the Euphrates. Another detachment of two thousand men under the Roman officer Varguntius lost their way in the dark, and were found by the Iranian forces in the morning, marooned on a hill. Of these, only twenty made their escape. At Carrhae, Coponius suspected a mishap, and called his men to arms. Then he marched out, and led Crassus and the main body of the Romans into the city.

Olivier as CrassusThe late exemplary actor Sir Laurence Olivier’s (1907-1989) portrayal of Marcus Lucinius Crassus (115-53 BCE) in the epic movie “Spartacus (1960)” (Picture Source: Murph Place). Crassus’ dreams of conquering Parthian Persia and emulating Alexander ended in disaster at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Several decades after its release of “Spartacus”, Hollywood has yet to produce a “Crassus sequel” epic of the Roman statesman’s failure in Persia.

There were no supplies in Carrhae for a long siege, nor hope of relief from the outside, since Crassus had concentrated all the forces in the Roman East in his army. The Roman commander therefore determined to break out of the city on the second night, and make his way to safety in the shelter of the Armenian hills. Once again, his guide, Andromachus, was a Parthian sympathizer, who was rewarded after the Roman debacle with the governorship of Carrhae. It is said that Andromachus misled the main Roman column in the dark, so that by dawn they were over a mile from the shelter of the hills. Octavius had a reliable guide and took refuge in the mountains. At daybreak, Crassus and his force had occupied a spur connected by a low ridge to the main mountain range. When they came under attack, Octavius and his men moved down from the heights to offer support. At this moment Surena rode forward to offer terms of peace and to spare the Roman’s lives. It is not clear whether Crassus accepted voluntarily, or under pressure from his men, but he and Octavius, with a small group of Romans, went down to meet the Iranians. The latter mounted Crassus upon a horse, to take him away for the signing of the treaty. Octavius, suspecting foul play, seized the bridle of the horse, and, when a scuffle broke out, drew his sword. In the melee that followed, all the Romans in the party were slain and their leaderless troops then either surrendered or scattered. Very few were successful in making good their escape. Of the entire force, twenty thousand are said to have been killed; while ten thousand were captured and deported to distant Margiana as slave labourers. Thus ended the disastrous Roman campaign of Carrhae. The Euphrates was firmly established as the boundary between the two Empires.

Despite the crushing defeat of the Romans, the Iranians made no attempt to follow up their victory or to invade the Roman Empire.  The Romans learned to introduce cavalry into their army, just as nearly a thousand years earlier the Assyrians had learned from the first Iranians arriving on the Plateau.

The Roman defeat won unquestioned recognition for Iran as a military power superior to Rome and the resurrection of Iran as a united nation.

The Death of General Surena

The success had excited the jealousy of Orodes II, the Parthian king, and soon after the battle of Carrhae General Surena was executed. Iran was thus deprived of an exceptional commander.


Plutrach, Crassus, translated by John Dryden.

A. D. H. Bivar, “The Political History of Iran Under the Arsacids” in Ehsan Yarshater (ed.) Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. III, Part I. CUP, 1983.

G. G. Cameron, History of Early Iran 1936, repr. 1969.

G. M. Cohen, The Seleucid Colonies (Historia Einzelschriften 30). Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1978.

V. S. Curtis, “Parthian culture and costume”, in J. Curtis (ed.), Mesopotamia and Iran in the Parthian and Sasanian periods, London, 2000.

M. A. R. Colledge, The Parthians (1967).

N. C. Debevoise, A Political History of Parthia 1938, repr. 1970.

R. Girshman et al., Persia, the Immortal Kingdom 1971.

E. Herzfeld, Archaeological History of Persia 1935.

G. J. P. MacEwan, “A Parthian campaign against Elymais in 77 BC.” Iran 24, 1986.

P. B. Lozinski, The Original Homeland of the Parthians 1959.

A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire 2d ed. 1969.

P. S. R. Payne, The Splendor of Persia 1957.

J. Wolski, L’Empire des Arsacides, Peeters, Gent, 1993

M. L. Chaumont: Greek Historian Arrian (2nd century CE)

The article below by M. L. Chaumont on the Greek historian Arrian (2nd century CE) was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1986 and last updated on August 15, 2011. This article is available in print (Vol. II, Fasc. 5, pp. 523-524).

Kindly note that the pictures and accompanying captions below do not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica publication.


Arrian, L. Flavius Arrianus, Greek historian from Bithynia, born in Nicomedia, whose father had obtained Roman citizenship. He held very high positions. The apex of his career occurred under the emperor Hadrian who appointed him governor of Cappadocia in 131 A.D. His reputation as a historian earned him the name the new Xenophon. Achaemenid and Parthian Iran occupied an important place in Arrian’s historical work, including: (1) the Anabasis, which treats Alexander’s expeditions; its supplement, the History of India; and the History of Events after Alexander; and (2) the Parthica or History of the Parthians.

Arrian-FlaviusPortrait of a bearded man attributed to Flavius Arrianus (Source:

The Anabasis is divided into seven books on the model of the Anabasis of Xenophon. Written in a sober and simple style, it is a mine of information on Iran toward the end of the Achaemenid period. It not only describes the famous battles of the Macedonian forces against the armies of Darius III Codomannus, but it also contains many details about the provinces and peoples of the Persian empire, as well as its leading generals and satraps.

Arrian of NicomediaPhilip A. Stadter’s 2010 book “Arrian of Nicomedia” (University of North Carolina Press; for more information see Amazon…)

The principal sources of the Anabasis are Ptolemy, the son of Lagus, and Aristobulus of Cassandreia; these were the authors who Arrian considered most reliable, as he remarks in his preface. Both of them had taken part in Alexander’s campaigns. The former, of Macedonian nobility, had been a member of the bodyguard and the companion in arms of the conqueror before becoming, after Alexander’s death, satrap, and then king of Egypt (Ptolemy I Soter). The second had also belonged to Alexander’s entourage, but in a more modest position, as an engineer or architect. Not even the titles of the works of Ptolemy and Aristobulus have survived, nor do we know what they covered.

Map of Achaemenid Empire-Kaveh Farrokh-2007Map of the Achaemenid Empire drafted by Kaveh Farrokh on page 87 (2007) for the book Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-; Arrian has provided valuable descriptions of the provinces and peoples od the ancient Persian Empire.

The agreement between Ptolemy and Aristobulus on certain points is underlined by Arrian, e.g., Alexander’s generous treatment of the mother, wife, and children of Darius III, taken prisoner at the battle of Issus in October, 333 (Anabasis 2.12.3-6). Similarly, they are agreed that the battle that decided the fate of the Persian empire took place, not at Arbela, as is the general consensus, but at a small Assyrian village, Gaugamela (now Tell Gōmēl) on the Bumelus river (now Gōmēl-sū), 500 or 600 stades from Arbela (ibid., 6.11.5-6). There are instances where the two authors disagree, which Arrian does not fail to note.

Arrian refers to Ptolemy on several occasions, e.g., regarding the intervention of Darius’ mother in favor of the vanquished Uxii (in Ḵūzestān). They were allowed to keep their possessions in exchange for the payment of an annual tribute (ibid., 3.17.6). Probably from the same source is the passage concerning the submission of this bellicose people, who controlled the passes that gave access to Fārs (the Persian Gates) and the taking of these passes in spite of the resistance of the satrap Ariobarzanes (ibid., 3.17. 6; 3.18, 2; cf. E. Kornemman, Die Alexandergeschichte, pp. 56ff. and now W. Heckel, “Alexander at the Persian Gates,” Athenaeum 58, 1980, pp. 168-74). Another example is the account of Bessus, regicide and usurper, who was captured by the soldiers of Ptolemy himself in a village of Bactriana. Arrian also mentions the different version of this event by Aristobulus (cf. L. Pearson, The Lost Histories, p. 166). Again from Ptolemy’s work is the text of the correspondence exchanged between Darius III (in flight) and Alexander after Issus (Anabasis 2.14.1-9; cf. Kornemann, op. cit., p. 115, defending the authenticity of this correspondence).

Alexander and Darius III-Issus-Pompei MosaicPompeii floor mosaic depicting Alexander and Darius III at the Battle of Issus (November 333 BC) (Source: Public Domain). Known often as the “Mosaico di Alessandro” (Mosaic of Alexander) The above is a Roman copy of its Greek original that had been crafted by Philoxenos of Eretria.

From Aristobulus, whose witness is often invoked, came the following information: (a) The order of battle of Darius III’s army at Gaugamela: the different peoples composing the left and right wings are enumerated; in the center was the Great King himself with his kinsmen, picked guard, etc. (ibid., 3.11.3ff.). (b) Description of the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae (a description recognized as exact in modern times). Alexander, finding the tomb profaned and damaged, gave the order to Aristobulus to repair everything and to restore the monument (ibid., 6.20.4-8). (c) The account of the weddings at Susa, especially the marriages of Alexander to Barsine, the eldest daughter of Darius III, and to Parysatis, the youngest daughter of Artaxerxes III, when he was already married to Roxane, daughter of the Bactrian Oxyatres (ibid., 7.4.4).

Among Arrian’s other sources was Nearchus of Crete. After the conquest of India Nearchus was assigned the duty of bringing the Greek fleet from the mouth of the Indus to Susa. The work that Nearchus composed describing this long voyage was to furnish Arrian with the essential material for his History of India (Indica), which is, in fact, the history of one of the stages of Alexander’s expedition. (On the facts of the periplus of Nearchus, see W. Capelle, “Nearchus” no. 3, in Pauly-Wissowa, XVI/2, 1935, cols. 2185ff.; Pearson, op. cit., pp. 112-49; W. Spoerri, “Nearchos,” in Der Kleine Pauly IV, 1972, pp. 33-34.) Nearchus described the banks along which his fleet passed, their ports, water courses, and islands, and he cites the distances between points. He discusses the coasts of the “fisheaters” south of Gedrosia (Tūrān and Makurān), of Carmania (Kermān) (chaps. 32-37), of the Persians (Fārs) (chaps. 38-39), and of the Susians (Ḵūzestān). Then followed, after the mouth of the Euphrates, the passage upward from Pasitigris (Kārūn) and the rendezvous of Nearchus’ fleet and Alexander’s army near a bridge of boats (chap. 24) near modern Ahvāz (cf. G. Le Rider, Suse sous les Séleucides et les Parthes, Paris, 1965, p. 264). The itinerary from there to Susa is found in Anabasis 7.7.1-2. This description contains valuable ethnological and climatic details. This History of India also preserves several indigenous place names more or less faithfully: Neoptana, Hormozeia (Hormuz), on the coast of Carmania (chap. 33); the mountain Ochus (Vahuka), Apostana, Gogana, on the coast of the Persians (chap. 38); the island of Margastana, along the littoral of the Susians (chap. 41).

Winged Sphinx of Darius at SusaWinged Sphinx of Darius at Susa (Source: Public Domain).

The History of Events after Alexander (in ten books) has not survived. It is known through a long summary by Photius (Bibliotheca 92; ed. R. Henry, II, pp. 20-33) and through fragments (ed. A. G. Roos and G. Wirth, II, pp. 253-86; F. Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker II, Berlin, 1929, pp. 840-51, 872-73, 874, 881-83. The work in four books of Dexippus of Athens (3rd cent. A.D.) on the same subject seems to have been an epitome of the History of Arrian (see F. Jacoby, op. cit., II C: Kommentar, Berlin, 1926, pp. 306-07; we possess from it a brief summary also by Photius (Bibliotheca 82, ed. R. Henry, I, pp. 188-90). The work, in ten books, is devoted to events from 323 to 321, notably to the two successive partitions of the Achaemenid territories and to their consequences. Most of the actual Iranian satrapies passed into the hands of the Macedonian generals. However, some Persians were among the beneficiaries of these partitions.

The Parthica or History of the Parthians is also lost. Arrian was not ignorant of the Parthians. At the time when he governed Cappadocia, the Alan peril may have brought together briefly Parthians and Romans. But when Dio Cassius (Historia romana 69.15) speaks of the intervention of Vologases in those circumstances, it is not easy to determine whether he is concerned with the king Vologases II (III) of Parthia or rather his parent and homonym, the king of Armenia (for the latter identification, see A. von Gutschmid, Geschichte Irans und seiner Nachbarländer, Tübingen, 1888, p. 147). In writing a History of the Parthians, his essential goal was to set down the different phases of Trajan’s Parthian war (114-17). Of this work, in 17 books, Photius has preserved only a brief notice (Bibliotheca 58; ed. R. Henry, I, Paris, 1959, pp. 51-52). But the important fragments preserved by the Suda (Suidas) and Stephan of Byzantium help to partially reestablish its contents (ed. Roos-Wirth, II, 1968, pp. 223-52). See especially the erudite study of A. G. Roos (Studia), and now C. Coppola, “I Parthica d’Arriano nella biblioteca di Fozio,” Studia in memoria di R. Cantarella, Università di Salerno, 1981, pp. 475-91).

Parthian-1-Parthian NoblemanA reconstruction of the face on the statue of a Parthian nobleman housed at Tehran’s Iran Bastan Museum (Picture Source: Parthian Empire).

The first seven books dealt with the period before Trajan: Book I. Origin and customs of the Parthians; the first Arsacids. Arrian gives as ancestor of this dynasty Arsaces, son of Phriapites (frag. I, Roos-Wirth, p. 225 = Photius, Bibliotheca 58, ed. Henry, I, p. 51). This ancestry seems confirmed, to a certain extent, by some Parthian ostraca recently discovered at Nisa. Indeed in the formula of this document the Arsacid king appears as a grandson or great-grandson of Friyapatak (= Phriapites) (cf. M. L. Chaumont, Syria 48, 1971, pp. 145ff.). Book II. The war of Crassus against the Persians and the battle of Carrhae (53 B.C.). Book IV. Mark Antony’s expedition into Media Atropatene (36 B.C.). Book V. Roman-Parthian relations under Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius. Book VI. Corbulo’s campaign into Armenia. Book VII. Relations of Romans and Parthians under the Flavians; the complaints voiced against Trajan by the Arsacid Pacorus II (frag. 32; Roos-Wirth, p. 235).

The account of Trajan’s expedition is contained in books VIII-XVII: Book VIII. Armenian campaign of 114; the attitude of the Roman emperor toward the Arsacid aspirants to the throne of Armenia, Parthamasiris and Axidares (frags. 37-40; Roos, p. 237). Book IX. Mesopotamian campaign (114-l5); many village names mark Trajan’s itinerary from Edessa to Babylonia. In Books XI-XVI he includes, in chronological order: the taking of Ctesiphon, the voyage down the Tigris by the Roman fleet in the direction of the Persian Gulf, the short-lived success in Mesene and Characene, the return to Ctesiphon and Babylonia (116). An interesting fragment survives from the history of the revolt of the Parthian and Armenian princes, concerning the Armenian king, Sanatruces (Sanatruk) (frag. 59; Roos-Wirth, p. 247). In the last book (XVII) were described the siege of Hatra and subsequent events up to the return to Syria.

Roman Emperor TrajanRoman Emperor Trajan as depicted in a marble bust (r. 98-117 CE) (Source: Public Domain).

Although the History of the Parthians probably reflected only the Roman point of view, nevertheless its loss is regrettable. Everything indeed inclines us to believe that Arrian, thanks to his high connections, would have had first-hand access to official and private documents. The few fragments that remain from the original work have been put to good use by modern historians. See N. C. Debevoise, A Political History of Parthia, Chicago, 1936, p. 278 (index); J. Guey, Essai sur la guerre parthique de Trajan, Bibliothèque d’Istros II, Bucarest, 1937, p. 153 (index); G. Wirth, “Zur Tigrisfahrt des Kaisers Trajan,” Philologus 102, 1963, pp. 288-300.

32-Partho-Sassanian belt buckle 2nd or 3rd century CEPartho-Sassanian belt buckle dated to the 2nd or 3rd century CE (Picture source: Farrokh, page 143, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا).  


Editions of Arrian’s work: Arriani Anabasis et Indica, ed. F. Dübner, Paris, 1848.

Flavii Arriani quae existant omnia (Teubner ed.), ed. A. G. Roos and G. Wirth, Leipzig, 1968, I: Alexandri Anabasis; II: Scripta minora et fragmenta (contains the History of India, the fragments of the History of the Parthians). Anabasis Alexandri, with an English translation by E. Iliff Robson (Loeb Class. Library), 2 vols., Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1958-61.

Secondary sources: E. Kornemann, Die Alexandergeschichte des Königs Ptolemaios von Ägypten, Berlin, 1935.

M. Luedeke, De fontibus quibus usus Arrianus composuit (Leipziger Studien II), 1882.

L. Pearson, The Lost Histories of Alexander the Great (Philological Monographs XX), New York, 1960.

A Robinson, The History of Alexander the Great (Brown University Studies 16), Providence, 1953.

A. G. Roos, Studia Arriania, Leipzig, 1912.

E. Schwartz, “Arrianus” no. 9, in Pauly-Wissowa, I, 1894, cols. 1230-47; “Aristobolus” no. 4, ibid., cols. 911-18.

W. Vincent, The Voyage of Nearchus, Oxford, 1809.

F. Wenger, Die Alexandergeschichte des Aristobulos von Kassandreia, Würzburg, 1914.

G. Wirth, “Arrianus,” in Der kleine Pauly I, 1964, pp. 605-06.

Idem, “Ptolemaios I als Historiker,” in Pauly-Wissowa, XXIII, 1959, cols. 2467ff.; Der kleine Pauly IV, 1972, col. 1228.

A. B. Bosworth, A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander (Books I-III) I, Oxford, 1980.

R. Syme, “The Career of Arrian,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 86, 1982, pp. 181-211.

Second Farrokh Book translated by Taghe Bostan Publishers into Persian

Kaveh Farrokh’s second text, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایههای صحرا (April 2007; 320 pages; ISBN: 9781846031083; Osprey Publishing) is the first text to specifically outline the military history of ancient Iran from the bronze age to the end of the Sassanian era. This book was recently translated for the second time into Persian by Taghe Bostan publishing which is affiliated with The University of Kermanshah:

Shadows in the Desert-Taghe Bostan Publishers-3

Farrokh’s second text translated into Persian for the second time. This version was translated by Bahram Khozai and published in Iran by the -طاق بستان- Taghe-Bastan company on January 21, 2012 (01 بهمن، 1390).

The second translation of the book into Persian cited above is independent of the first Persian translation by Shahrbanu Saremi (entitled -سایههایی در بیابان: ایران باستان در زمان جنگ-) which appeared through  Qoqnoos Publishers in 2011.


Shadows in the Desert Ancient Persia at War – The first Persian translation by Qoqnoos Publishers with the English to Persian translation having been done by Shahrbanu Saremi (LEFT),  The original publication by Osprey Publishing (CENTER) the Farrokh text  translated  into Russian (consult the Russian EXMO Publishers website) (RIGHT).

The Tehran Times on July 4, 2011 as well as The Times of Iran (July 4, 2011) announced the first translation of Farrokh’s book into Persian by Qoqnoos Publishers with the final report on this made by the official Mehr News Agency of Iran on September, 24, 2011 (see also earlier report by Mehr News in Persian –ناگفته‌هایی از قدرت سپاهیان ایران باستان در «سایه‌های صحرا» بازگو شد-). This has also been reported in Press TVKhabar Farsi,  Balatarin and the official Iran Book News Association (IBNA-سايه‌هاي صحرا؛ ايران باستان در جنگ منتشر شد -) on September 28, 2011.

Frye and Farrokh
Meeting his mentors: Farrokh greets the late Professor Emeritus Richard Nelson Frye of Harvard University in march 2008 (shaking hands with Farrokh) and world-renowned Iranologist, Dr. Farhang Mehr (at center), winner of the 2010 Merit and Scholarship award (photo from Persian American Society,March 1, 2008).  As noted by Mafie, Professor Frye of Harvard University wrote the foreword of Farrokh’s text stating that “…Dr. Kaveh Farrokh has given us the Persian side of the picture as opposed to the Greek and Roman viewpoint …it is refreshing to see the other perspective, and Dr. Farrokh sheds light on many Persian institutions in this history…” (consult Mafie, 2010, p.2).

Below are a number of reviews of the text:

The Persian translation has been very well-received in Iran as indicated by the November 2011 newspaper clip below:

Page 52 of hashahri javan vol 335-2011
 [CLICK TO ENLARGE] Page 52 of Hamshahri newspaper, volume 335, November 17, 2011. The article in Persian by Ehsan Rezai reads “History as narrated by the Sword”.
Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War has been awarded with the Persian Golden Lioness Award by the WAALM Society in London as the “Best History Book of 2008” on October 31st 2008. This was reported by major media outlets such as the BBC, Iran’s equivalent of the New York Times, The Kayhan Newspaper (the Iranian equivalent of the New York Times) and the widely The Farrokh text was also nominated as one of three finalists for the 2008 Benjamin Franklin Awards by the Independent Book Publisher’s Association.

Fezana Journal article on Ancient Iranian Women

The Fezana Journal has published an article by Kaveh Farrokh on the ancient women of Iran:

Farrokh, K. (2014). Gender Equality in Ancient Iran (Persia). Fezana Journal (Publication of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America), Vol. 28, No.1, March/Spring, pp. 105-107.

female-scythian-warriorA reconstruction by Cernenko and Gorelik of the north-Iranian Saka or Scythians in battle (Cernenko & Gorelik, 1989, Plate F). The ancient Iranians (those in ancient Persia and the ones in ancient Eastern Europe) often had women warriors and chieftains, a practice not unlike those of the contemporary ancient Celts in ancient Central and Western Europe. What is also notable is the costume of the Iranian female warrior – this type of dress continues to appear in parts of Luristan in Western Iran. 

As noted in the beginning of the article: “One topic that has received little attention in academia is ancient Iranian warrior women. There are in fact numerous references to ancient Iranian female warriors, from classical sources to post-Islamic Iranian literature.”

Amazon-3-AchaemenidsA reconstruction of a female Achaemenid cavalry unit by Shapur Suren-Pahlav.

It is further averred in the article that: “The rights of women in Achaemenid Persia were remarkably “modern” by today’s standards: women worked in many “male” professions (e.g. carpentry, masonry, treasury clerks, artisans, winery working), enjoyed payment equity with men, attained high-level management positions supervising male and female teams, owned and controlled property, were eligible for “maternity leave,” and received equitable treatment relative to men in inheritance“.

Gun-totting Iranian women-MalayerIranian women from Malayer (near Hamedan in the northwest) engaged in target practice in the Malayer city limits in the late 1950s.  The association between weapons and women is nothing new in Iran; Roman references for example note of Iranian women armed as regular troops in the armies of the Sassanians (224-651 AD).

The legacy of the status of the women of Iran is emphasized in the article as thus: “To this day, women in Iran’s tribal regions continue to be seen wielding their weapons“.

Amazon-7-FereydanshahrIranian tribal woman in shooting competition on horseback at the 2011 Fereydanshahr Olympiad in Iran.

Parthian horses and Parthian Horse Archers

The article on Parthian horses and Parthian (horse) archers below was originally posted in and was written by Beverly Burris-Davis. Readers interested in the military history of Parthia may wish to click the picture below:


Before reading the article below, readers are referred to Pete Darmon’s most recent historical novel on the Parthians entitled Carrhae (for acquisition of this book consult Amazon):


When Arsaces I overthrew the Seleucid governor of Parthia and made himself king in 247 B.C., he set into motion a number of events that would literally change the world, providing he could keep Antiochus III from reclaiming his lost territories, territories conquered in the days of Alexander the Great. The Seleucids as a whole were not a pleasant people and antagonized many of their conquered subjects in the few hundred years that they ruled the Middle East. More interested in breeding war elephants than horses, they influenced the likes of Pyrrhus of Macedonia and Hannibal, who both overestimated the effectiveness of battle elephants in Europe.

The Parthians never took an interest in elephants and instead focused on the one successful means of warfare that worked, the cavalry. Alexander the Great’s cavalry was the decisive factor in many of his battles against the Persians and their allies. And the Scythians, the great horsemen of the Steppes, were responsible for more than their fair share of Persian casualties. Mounted archers on swift horses originally stolen from the Medes, the Scythians and their related tribes were responsible for the deaths and defeats of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, and King Darius, who learned the hard way what a frog, arrow and bird represented to King Idymanthrus of Scythia.

The Parthians also adopted the Scythian bow, a double curve weapon ideal for horseback. The original Persian bow was a single curved weapon that was used by footmen. The Persians themselves seemed to prefer using spears when mounted since it did not require as much skill to kill a lion.

 1-Parthian Coin-Bow-Calgary

Single curve bow on silver tetradrachm of Artaxerxes III Ochus, ca. 333 B.C., 21.7 mm, 15.1 gm (Photo by permission Calgary Coin

One thing the Parthians did not adopt from the Scythians was their horse. The Scythians used several breeds of horse with the golden Akhal-Teke being their preferred mount. Their obsession with golden colored horses resulted in a large number of golden chestnuts and golden bays being found among the tribes and in the Scythian ice tombs. The Russian Don, now inhabiting the region once ruled by the Scythians, comes predominantly in golden chestnut and bay.

The Medes, a relative of the Parthians, raised this animal. But the Akhal-Teke, while possessing great endurance and some speed, was not as fast as the Parthians wanted. The Great Horse of the Persians was the mount they chose. A magnificent animal that came in all colors, including the highly desired palomino and appaloosa, was fast and strong and beautiful. He was also the ultimate riding horse, occasionally producing gaited animals that were highly sought after by everybody from China to Roman Spain.

During the reign of Mithradates II (c. 123 – 88 B.C.), one of the greatest kings of Parthia, Han Wu Ti (156-87 B.C.) of China was looking for an ally against the Xiongnu, a tribe of people who were raising general havoc in China. In 138 B.C., an envoy under the leadership of Zhang Qian was sent west to look for allies among the Yuezhi, a group of people who had once inhabited China. On his first outing Zhang Qian brought news back to the court of a people farther west, a people who raised a breed of horse that would be ideal for the Han cavalry. Sent out again, Zhang Qian suffered captured by the dreaded Xiongnu and didn’t get back home until 125, still without any horses. Determined, Han sent him out again and this time they reached the region of Ferghana, an area famous for its Akhal-Teke horses. According to The Chronicles of Three Kingdoms, Qian (sometime between 105-115 B.C.) found Parthian horses at Erhshih castle, which he had to lay siege to. When Qian eventually returned to China with a dozen Parthian horses and two thousand others, many of these Akhal-Teke types, Wu Ti was so impressed with the Parthian horses that he gave them the name of Heavenly Horses. Over the years, a legend grew up that these horses were descendents of dragons. In fact the Chinese name for the Parthian horse is Soulun, the vegetarian dragon. It was also claimed that the Soulun sweated blood, which may have been caused by a parasite, an interesting parasite that infected no other breed of horse.

 2-Parthian Coin-Tetra

Bronze tetrachalkous of Mithradates II (c. 123 – 88 B.C.), 21 mm, 6.6 gm (Photo by permission Doug Smith’s Ancient Greek & Roman

Reproductions of the Heavenly Horse abound in China. One of the greatest painters was Han Gan of the later Tang dynasty, whose most famous painting is of a groom and two horses. The animals are spirited with strong necks and powerful haunches. Another artist from the Tang (618-906 A.D.) dynasty captured forever a beautiful palomino in ceramic. This very well could be the same horse immortalized on a Tang emperor’s tomb.

 3-Parthian-Hang Gan

Han Gan, Tang Dynasty. Groom and Two Horses (Photo by

We do know that by 386 A.D. (Northern Wei Dynasty) the Chinese were riding Parthian horses and performing their own variation of the Parthian shot. A fresco on the ceiling of Cave 249, Chien-Fo-Tung shows a Chinese horseman using the traditional single curve bow against a lion like creature. The Asiatic lion, while now extinct in most of its former range, was once found from Eastern Europe to China. Hunting this great cat with horses goes as far back as the Assyrians who used chariots. With the arrival of the Great horse, lion hunts became more interesting. Mounted men would attack these magnificent cats with spears and bows, wiping out entire prides on a single hunt.

 Parthian influnece on China

Northern Wei Dynasty. Fresco on Ceiling, Cave 249 (Photo by permission in

But the loss of a dozen horses had no effect on Mithradates’ II reign, although the contact between his empire and China did create the Silk Road, one of the most important trade routes in ancient history. Silks and spices from China went west while horses and military styles went east. Even Yabusame, the Japanese form of archery on horseback, traces back to the Parthian archers, although the Japanese long bow has its traditions in Bushido, the way of the warrior.

 5-Parthian Archer-BM

Ceramic plaque of a mounted archer (British Museum, London (WA 1972-2-29,1 /135684), Photo by Chris

 Assuming the title King of Kings, an Old Persian title, Mithradates II stretched the Parthian empire to its farthest corners. He conquered Characene and recaptured Babylon and Mesopotamia from the Seleucids. He defeated the western Saka, a Scythian tribe related to the old Massagatae, freeing the empire from their depredations. An encounter between the Sakas and Parthians must have been a truly terrible fight, and one can only assume that the presence of the Parthian horse was the deciding factor in the outcome of the battle since both sides fought alike. They were both mounted horseman charging each other in the heat of battle, firing rapidly, deadly and effectively. Both the Sakas and Parthians used chain mail protection on their horses, and Parthian armor was very similar to Scythian armor with plaited rings laced together. The only major difference between the two combatants was the size of their horses. The Sakas on their sleek Akhal-Tekes or sturdy Mongolian-type ponies were a fierce determined people, but the Parthians on their stronger, faster horses were equally determined. The Parthian army proved itself superior to the Sakas, who never really threatened Parthia again.

In 96 B.C., during the reign Mithradates II, the Parthians came into contact with Rome, which was challenging the Seleucid dynasty for control of the Middle East. Seeking an ally against the Seleucids, Rome signed its first treaty with Parthia in 92 B.C., but Rome was an untrustworthy ally. Craving the old kingdom of Alexander the Great, it initiated several wars in the region, as war was a way for Romans to become famous, wealthy, and powerful. Pompey came to fame conquering Asia Minor and Syria in 64 B.C., while Julius Caesar fancied himself ruler of Rome after destroying the mighty Gauls and starting Rome’s campaign in Great Britain.

In 53 B.C., Marcus Licinius Crassus decided to add Parthia to the Roman Empire. His opponent was Surena, one of King Orodes’ II best generals. Surena was a student of Roman tactics and had trained his cavalry well. This cavalry was interesting in that it consisted of a heavy cavalry and a light cavalry. The heavy cavalry, the forerunner of the cataphract, wore steel armor and carried lances and swords. Chain mail protected the horses from their chests to their knees. A small animal would not have been able to carry this and a rider. The Romans had not seen the likes of it before. The light cavalry, on the other hand, was designed for speed with no heavy armor weighing the horses down. The Parthian archers, already gaining fame for their tactics, were ready.

6-Parthian Horseman-Dura

Parthian Light Horse Cavalryman, Graffiti from private houses, Dura Europos. Earlier third century A.D. (After M. Rostovzeff, Caravan Cities, figs. 2 –

Crassus could see the light cavalry, but Surena, who was personally commanding the cataphract, had his equine tanks in hiding. Galloping wildly, the Parthian light cavalry circled the Roman troops and fired ruthlessly into their ranks. Playing a suicidal waiting game, Crassus believed the Parthians would run out of arrows before he ran out of troops, but that was before he spotted Surena riding out of the woods with his heavy cavalry.

Foolishly Crassus sent his son with a 6,000 man mixed force of infantry and cavalry against Surena. Relying on an old Scytho-Parthian trick, Surena retreated, leading the younger Crassus away from the support of his father and the bulk of the Roman troops. At the precise moment, Surena wheeled about and attacked the surprised Romans, who broke before the onslaught of hoof, armor and lance. The Parthian light cavalry swarmed in and picked off the fleeing Romans, although legend says the younger Crassus had his shieldbearer kill him.

Crassus tried to save his troops by retreating to the city of Carrhae, where he stayed two days and organized his troops for a westward retreat. Leaving under the cover of darkness, hoping to avoid the Parthian cavalry, Crassus did not realize that Surena was keeping a close eye on him. The moment the Romans got into open, the Parthian light cavalry attacked. Crassus tried to mount a counter offense at sunrise but was unable to. The number of Roman dead was estimated at twenty thousand, among them Crassus whose head was presented to Orodes II as a war trophy, or so said Plutarch.

Julius Caesar at the time he was assassinated wanted to raise an army and go after the Parthians, who were proving themselves as difficult as the Germans to conquer. But it would be another 17 years before Caesar’s friend Marc Anthony mounted a campaign against the Parthians, who were in turmoil following the assassination of Orodes by his son Phraates. It didn’t hurt that King Artavasdes of Armenia also wanted a piece of the action and allied himself with Rome.

7-Parthian knight-Dura

Parthian Heavy Horse Cavalryman Graffiti from private houses, Dura Europos. Earlier third century A.D. (After M. Rostovzeff, Caravan Cities, figs. 3 –

In 36 B.C., Anthony ravaged the region of Media Atropatene with 16 legions. At his disposal were 100,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry, most of these from Spain, a region famous for its proto-Arabian horses introduced into the region by the Phoenicians. He also had with him 30,000 shock troops made up of Roman allies who were unaware of Rome’s habit of sacrificing barbarians first in any attack.

Unwisely, Anthony separated himself from his baggage train and moved against Phraata, the capital of Media, which he hoped to take by storm. The Parthians inside refused to surrender, and Anthony began the arduous task of siege warfare. While he was trying to build a ramp to climb the city’s walls, Phraates attacked the baggage train, killing 10,000 men and destroying Anthony’s siege weapons.

Not one to give up, Anthony counterattacked in perfect Roman fashion. All straight and proper, the Romans marched on the Parthians in the field. So stunned by what they saw, the Parthians did not attack until the Romans initiated it with yells and screams. The Parthians gave ground and out ran the Roman cavalry, at a disadvantage on their smaller Iberian horses. When it was over, Anthony had won with 80 Parthians dead and 30 prisoners. Not much of a victory for this vain Roman. He returned to Phraata and found that his troops on guard there had abandoned the big mound of dirt that they had been building. To punish them, he killed every one in ten men left behind. Talk about a morale booster.

With his army on the verge of mutiny and the Parthian cavalry refusing to face the Romans outright, Anthony accepted Phraates’ offer to leave Parthia with his men under a flag of truce. As Anthony learned, the Parthians were not always to be trusted, but their little ambush fell through, and Anthony made it to Syria. The march was horrible for his men with a long month of climbing mountains and crossing rivers, while the Parthians harassed them the entire way and stole what goods they could get their hands on. This was the last major campaign that Rome mounted against the Parthians, and eventually Crassus’ captured eagles were returned to Rome as a sign of peace.

While all this warfare was going on a great Roman writer lived and documented the world around him. Strabo (63-24 B.C.) wrote that the Parthian horse using its Greek name, Niceaen, was the most elegant riding horse in the entire known world. Not a common sight in the Roman Empire until the Byzantine era, the Niceaens were given as gifts to various Roman emperors.


After Ardashir I (224-241 A.D.) overthrew Artabanus V and founded the Sasanian Empire, the Parthian/Niceaen horse fell into Persian hands, along with the Parthian concept of heavy and light cavalry. At its best, the Sasanian heavy cavalry was a mass of efficient chain mail. This may sound like an exaggeration, but the Persian cataphract consisted of a man completely covered in chain mail with only his eyes visible. The face, neck and forequarters of the horse were covered with links of plate metal laced together. Only a strong horse could carry this much weight and still perform the acts necessary of a good war-horse. The Parthian horse had been bred to be fast and strong, and these traits were still favored by the Sasanians.

The Roman emperor Valerian in A.D. 259 learned the hard way at Edessa to leave the Sasanian clibanarius alone when 70,000 men perished before the heavy cavalry of Shapur I, the son of Ardashir. A rock relief from the tomb of Darius at Naqsh-e-Rostam shows Emperor Valerian and one of his allies kneeling before Shapur I on a magnificent Parthian stallion.

8-Shapur I

Victory of Shapur I over Rome, third century A.D., Naqsh-e-Rostam,

 Strabo called the Parthian the most elegant riding horse in the Roman Empire, he was fast enough to beat Spanish horses that were reputed to be the fastest up until that time, and he was strong enough to be the backbone of the cataphract. In addition to this, the Parthian horse was beautiful. Artwork of him from China shows a proud elegant animal, and when Emperor Justinian introduced them to the Spain during the Visigoth Wars, the Parthian horse became the rootstock for the Andalusian and Lusitano. These horses in turn were ancestors to the American Quarterhorse, Appaloosa and Tigerhorse. The use of Spanish racehorses to improve English racehorses prior to the immortal three would also lead this author to believe that the size and strength of the Thoroughbred comes from his Parthian ancestors, not the small desert breeds the English hold in such high esteem.


Detail, sarcophagus of the “Triclinium of Maqqai”, c. A.D. 229, Palmyra,

 The Crusaders also dispersed Byzantine bred Parthian horses throughout Europe, in particular the Normans who destroyed the imperial stud when they sacked Constantinople. Horses were taken to France and Italy, which used the Parthian horse to create the now extinct Neapolitan breed. The Neapolitan had an enormous influence on the Lippizaner, giving the stallions a stronger build and more masculine appearance. It might also be said that the arts that these beautiful animals perform have their roots in the ancient empires of Persia and Parthia. The Greeks wrote about dressage, but it was the Parthian horse that performed it, and whether you call him Niceaen, Soulun, Heavenly Horse or Parthian horse, the loss of this great breed was a tragedy.


Annadale’s Love Story, a Tiger Horse stallion. Photo by permission, The Tiger Horse


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Browning, Robert. Justinian and Theodora (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1971)

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Forte, Nancy. The Warrior in Art. (Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Pub., 1966)

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Hopkins, Edward C. D. The Parthian Empire (web site)

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