All posts by Matthew Merighi

Lessons From History: Themistocles Builds a Navy

This article is part of CIMSEC’s “Forgotten Naval Strategists Week.”

“I never learned how to tune a harp or play upon a lute but I know how to raise a small and obscure city to glory and greatness where to all kindred of the Earth will pilgrim.”

Thus spoke the great warrior politician Themistocles in the 5th Century B.C. Themistocles is famous for a lot of things: his heroic actions at the Battle of Salamis, his secret plot to rebuild Athens’ walls after the Second Persian War, and his six-pack abs in “300: Rise of an Empire” (author’s note: thoroughly underwhelmed by that movie). But his biggest impact on history was his fateful advocacy early in his career for Athens to build a first-rate navy. Themistocles should be recognized as one of the earliest naval theorists because he successfully promulgated a sea-view of the world and brought Athens onto the sea.

Themistocles

Portrait of a naval theorist.

Athens has gone down in history as a naval powerhouse but that was not always the case. The city of Athens is actually a few miles away from the sea, could only offer up fifty ships during the First Persian War, and did not even have a defensible port until Themistocles’ rise to prominence. Athens was a continental city-state and a poor one at that; it had little to offer in terms of natural resources. The striking of silver in the mines of Laurium in 483 B.C. changed this. Athens was faced with a choice of how to divide up the windfall. The prevailing idea was to take the money and divide it equally among the population. Themistocles, apparently alone, proposed to use the funds to finance construction of a 200 ship fleet and managed to win over the population. The rationale behind his advocacy is controversial to this day: he claimed that the navy’s purpose was to challenge Athens’ island rival, Aegina, but others have attributed to him the base motivations of wanting to secure power or the foresight to see the invasion of Xerxes coming three years later.

Regardless of Themistocles’ true motivations, though the high-minded ones seem more plausible, his success is remarkable because it achieved a full reorientation of Athens’ politico-military focus from land to sea. This was all the more surprising because ancient Greek culture gave primacy to the strength and heroism of land combat. Even Plato complained that Themistocles’ actions transformed the army “from steady soldiers… into mariners and seamen tossed about the sea… [Themistocles] took away from the Athenians the spear and the shield, and bound them to the bench and the oar.”

History proved Themistocles right. The 200 Athenian ships, combined with his deft admiralship, were instrumental in defeating the Persians at the Battle of Salamis and, far more than the Battle of Thermopylae, turned the tide of the war in Greece’s favor. Moreover, once the Persians retreated across the Aegean Sea, Athens used its fleet to liberate the occupied islands and Ionian cities in modern Turkey. The new Athenian dependencies evolved into the Athenian Empire whose domination of trade in the Aegean launched Athens’ golden age. Their art and architecture are still the standard by which we judge all others classics. It is difficult to say whether Themistocles foresaw all of these circumstances playing out when he first advocated for the fleet but his strategic argument for the Athenians to take to the sea reflects an appreciation for what dominating the sea could achieve.

Athenian_empire_atheight_450_shepherd1923

The Athenian Empire at its height. If not for Themistocles, they would have had to swim to build it.

Lessons Learned

1) It is never too late to become a sea power.

 History is full of examples of continental powers who failed to embrace the sea to their detriment: the Persians, Ming China, and the Ottomans are but a few. Themistocles’ success demonstrates that states, with proper planning and political determination, can alter policy and project their presence onto the water.

2) States should maintain a military force that augments their commercial interests.

For those following politics in the United States, the parable of the silver mines of Laurium might lead one to assume that Themistocles’ argument supports military spending at the expense of social programs. That is not entirely the case. Blanket military spending does not mean financial stability; the Habsburgs are a great cautionary tale for military spending becoming a money pit. The true reason why the Athenian navy was such a boon to the state was not just its military value but the commercial value in trade that it fostered after the Persian Wars ended. We conclude that the United States should be careful about making budget cuts to military forces that make the global trade system work. In particular, one needs to tread lightly around investments that are meant to counter maritime piracy; it is no accident that shipping insurance rates soar in places where the United States Navy does not patrol.

Matthew Merighi is a Masters Degree candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Lessons from History: Carthage & Transport Supremacy

The role of the United States in contingency operations is changing. In all of the large-scale international interventions of the past few years, namely Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic, the United States’ contributions consisted primarily of transport capacity in both the seas and the skies to bring foreign ground forces to the conflict. This trend appears unprecedented for a global power to pursue its interests but, as the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. The ancient maritime power of Carthage utilized the same strategy effectively in the fourth century B.C

For those who are unfamiliar, Carthage was a preeminent maritime power for hundreds of years in the Mediterranean. Pre-saging Alfred Thayer Mahan and 19th century European colonial powers, Carthage embraced an empire not built by massive land holdings but by a disparate collection of trading spheres, ranging from Spain to Sicily, connected by the era’s most powerful navy. There were very few powers that could challenge them on the open seas, making the Western Mediterranean a Carthaginian lake by which it could generate wealth.

Most people know the Carthaginians as the enemies of Rome in the era of Hannibal but that was not always the case. Up until their first dramatic clash in the thirdcentury B.C., the Romans and Carthaginians were allies were allies of convenience. The Carthaginians faced consistent incursions from Numidians in North Africa and colonial wars with the Greeks in Sicily while the Romans had to contend with Greek colonies and restive Samnites to their south. This culminated in the early fourth century B.C. when the Carthaginians used their navy to transport Roman legions to the south to fight their common Greek enemies. Carthage did not have to sacrifice any men to achieve their foreign policy objectives and the Romans, without naval lift, would have spent a much longer time marching their army south through dangerous territory. The Carthaginians were thus able to find manpower to handle operations they could not undertake and the Romans gained rapid mobility. Both sides profited from the arrangement.
  
The United States is in a similar position in the modern as Carthage was in the ancient world. The United States has unmatched transport capacity in both the maritime and air domains, evidenced in all possible measures: numbers of sea/air transport vehicles, total cargo capacity, and experience in deployment logistics. Many other nations have tactical transports but very few others have either the numbers of strategic-level transports or the financial resources necessary to support long deployments. This situation gives the United States a unique position to influence global deployment of forces; it offers a quasi-veto to undesirable deployments and a force-multiplier for operations that it wants to see conducted.
 
While the United States has unmatched transport capacity, there are a host of reasons why the United States cannot project its power simultaneously to tackle every global crisis: ongoing operations in Afghanistan, a lack of popular support for committing troops overseas, and tightening budgets restrict the United States. Carthage had similar limitations, due primarily to budgets and the mercenary make-up of their armed forces, which they circumvented in their wars against the Greeks by leveraging Roman manpower. The United States is already doing the same for France in Mali and the United Nations in the Central African Republic.
 
The story of transport supremacy did not end well for Carthage. In the First Punic War, fought a scant few years after the common war against the Greeks, the Romans raised a substantial navy and challenged Carthage’s dominance on the seas. Defeat in that war, combined with the defeats in the Second and Third Punic wars, would spell the end of Carthage’s empire. While the Carthaginians ushered in their doom by providing transport supremacy to their eventual conquerors, the United States is in no such risk of the same, allowing it to leverage the policy without stoking an existential threat to its existence.
 
The future looks bright for those with transport supremacy.
 
Matthew Merighi is a civilian employee with the United States Air Force. His views do not reflect those of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or Air Force.

Lessons from History: An Ottoman Navy by Any Other Name

This was written as part of our Non-Navies Series AND Matthew Merighi’s “Lessons from History” series.

By Matthew Merighi

In 1538, Christendom assembled one of the largest allied fleets in its history. Called the Holy League to honor its Papal sponsors, it numbered 157 ships and was drawn from many of the strongest maritime powers of the age, including Spain, the Papal States, Venice, and the Maltese Knights of St. John. This motley alliance had one goal: to defeat the fearsome fleet of the Ottoman Empire under the legendary pirate Hayreddin Barbarossa.

Picture - Early Expansion - Wikimedia Commons

The early borders and expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Although a navy would have been useful, it was not necessary as maintaining land-power dominance to control outlying vassal states. As a result, their navy never developed until later years (image from Wikimedia Commons).

The Ottoman Empire was not always a maritime powerhouse. Until the mid 15th century, the Ottomans were best known for their dominant land forces which they used to counter that landpowers in their neighborhood. This all changed under the Sultan Mehmet II, who intentionally increased the size of the navy to fuel his wars of conquest and, specifically, to go after the greatest city in the medieval world.

Picture - Constantinople - Wikimedia Commons

A map of Constantinople and the infamous anti-access, area-denial (A2AD) chain across the Golden Horn. Mehmet II ordered his army to drag ships across the northern landmass to complete the city’s encirclement and take advantage of the lower walls on the city’s northern expanse (image from Wikimedia Commons).

In 1453, Mehmet II conducted his famous final siege of Constantinople. In order to fully surround the city, he needed to move naval forces into the Golden Horn. Unfortunately for him, the Byzantines used a traditional medieval anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) technology to keep out enemy navies; a massive chain lay across the entire expanse (see map above). To achieve his encirclement, Mehmet ordered his army to physically drag his ships out of the Bosphorus to the east of the city and, using logs as rollers, drag them across the northern landmass and deposit them in the western part of the Horn away from Byzantine forces. The move, though daring, was essential but not sufficient for the defeat of the city. Constantinople fell on 29 May 1453 only after the army breached the supposedly impregnable land walls to the west.[i] Even when it played a crucial role in operations, the Ottoman navy played second fiddle to the army.

Picture - Galley of Barbarossa - Wikimedia Commons

An Ottoman galley. Using sails and oars, the galley could keep moving regardless of weather. The banners with the downward crossed swords at the bow and stern are the colors of Barbarossa while the one depicting three crescent moons is the Ottomans’ imperial flag (image from Wikimedia Commons and the Istanbul Naval Museum).

The mainline in the Ottoman navy for most of its history was the galley. For those unfamiliar, the galley was a warship first devised in the Classical era and first made famous in Greece, particularly in its roles in the Persian and Peloponessian Wars in the 300’s B.C. It had two methods of propulsion: sail-power and oar-power. Sails provided the fastest and most efficient speed but, in times of bad weather or no wind, or when rapid movements were needed in close combat, oars provided a useful alternative. Oar-power, while useful, did have a significant drawback: it required a lot of manpower. The Ottomans, however, possessed the bureaucratic acumen to recruit these rowers through a sophisticated administrative and judicial apparatus that levied paid conscripts from provinces around the empire. They divided up recruitment between coastal and inland provinces, leveraging experienced mariners from the coastal levies for work in rigging and the non-maritime minded levies from the inland provinces as rowers.[ii]

Although the 15th and 16th century century saw the rise of the high-sided, sail-powered galleass as a weapon of war, the galley remained a viable military technology throughout this entire period. The galley’s capabilities were not useful on the Atlantic and other harsh ocean waters but, inside the confines of the Mediterranean, their utility was still as manifest in the 1500’s as it was two thousand years earlier; weather was still unpredictable and the Mediterranean, although dangerous, was still not as violent as the deep ocean. Galleys had similar gunpowder armaments as their galleass competitors during this period, so they retained their lethality as well.

While the Ottomans were causing general mayhem for Christendom in the Eastern Mediterranean through the early sixteen century, including the conquest of Venetian islands and the expulsion of the Knights of St. John from Rhodes, another Islamic force caused similar problems on the Western shores. Piracy was rife across the entire Mediterranean but those in the west were of a particular brutal and effective breed. Chief among these brigands were the forces of the pirate brothers Uruj and Hayreddin.

While these two men were the scourges of the western Mediterranean, they were not natives to the region. The brothers lived and conducted piracy in the Aegean with the tacit backing of the brother of the man who would become Selim I, the ruling Sultan. Selim fought a brutal succession war against his brother but emerged victorious and had his brother executed in 1513. Sensing their mortal peril, the young brothers fled to safer waters in the west[iii]. They made a reputation for themselves there as ruthless raiders but also as folk heroes to the Islamic community when they used their fleets to smuggle Muslim refugees fleeing persecution in Spain. Their efforts were so successful that they amassed enough resources, both money and manpower, to conquer the city of Algiers in 1516, establishing themselves as the Sultans of North Africa and converting one the largest cities in the region into their own private pirate base. It is at this time that Hayreddin acquired his nickname Barbarossa (Red Beard) from European commentators.

Picture - Charles V and Map of Holdings

Charles V of the Habsburg Empire. One of the greatest monarchs in European history, he laid the foundations for the world’s first global empire. A map of his European possessions in 1538 is shown on the right in red with Ottoman holdings in green. His personal motto, “Plus Ultra” (onwards and upwards) still graces the Spanish flag to this day (image of Charles from Wikipedia; map from Griffith University in Australia).

Unfortunately for the brothers, 1516 also marked the accession of a new king in Spain: Charles V. Charles was a young, dynamic leader who wanted nothing more than to establish himself as the universal king of Christendom.[iv] He was expansionist minded and could not tolerate the existence of Barbarossa’s raiding fleets in the south. He organized a counter offensive which, with himself at the head, wrested control of Algiers and other cities from the brothers. Uruj himself died in 1518 while fighting the Spanish, leaving Barbarossa to salvage what he could. Salvation came from an unlikely source: Selim I.

Selim I and Barbarossa both needed each other. Barbarossa was desperate for assistance from whatever source he could find to keep his pirate business turned political empire alive. Selim I, meanwhile, was fighting against the Habsburgs in central Europe and needed to maintain as much pressure on Charles V as he could. Selim I also needed a stronger navy to secure lines of supply and communication between the Ottoman capital and the newly-conquered province of Egypt.[v]

Selim I’s assistance to Barbarossa came with strings attached. Barbarossa lost his political independence but retained control of his territory. While Barbarossa retained OPCON over his forces, they were placed under Ottoman jurisdiction, essentially the medieval equivalent of ADCON.[vi] Imperial inspectors would personally inspect each ship, determine their capabilities, and issue a formal letter authorizing them to operate in certain sectors and solely against targets of states at war with the Empire. [vii] Thus was the transition from pirate to a state-sponsored corsair. For those familiar with navy history at this time, these corsairs were exactly the same as European privateers during this period.

Picture - Raids

A map depicting the locations of major pirate bases (in black and green) and areas that the Ottomans raided once Barbarossa’s forces were incorporated into the Empire (in red). No one was safe.

The benefits of the partnership paid off quickly. With his newfound resources and top-cover, Barbarossa’s forces were able to push back against the Habsburgs. In the East, Selim I died in 1522 and was replaced with his son Suleyman. Later known as “the Magnificent” and “the Lawgiver,” Suleyman proved a valuable partner and patron for Barbarossa. Suleyman’s forces in the East displaced the troublesome Knights of St. John from Rhodes in 1522,[viii] making them homeless for eight years until Charles V gave them the island of Malta in 1530. Recognizing Barbarossa’s talents and feeling the pressure of Charles V and the other naval superpower, Venice, Suleyman elevated Barbarossa to Admiral of the Ottoman Navy in 1533.[ix] In that same year, the Ottomans concluded a formal alliance with the Habsburg’s perennial European opponent, France.

Charles V was in a tough spot in 1537. Ottoman armies were invading through Hungaryhis North Africa campaign was stalling, and he was embroiled in a brutal war against the Ottoman-allied French in Italy. The Reformation was in full swing, undermining his position as the champion of a Christendom united under Catholicism. His Venetian allies were entirely expelled from the Aegean thanks to Barbarossa’s command of the Ottoman fleets in the Eastern Mediterranean. Charles was on the back foot and needed to find a way to put up organized resistance at sea. Using his position as the strongest Catholic monarch and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles leveraged the Papal States to create a Holy League of naval powers to finally defeat the Ottomans once and for all. This League, founded in February 1538, was placed under the command of the Genoese pirate-turned-admiral Andrea Doria. Doria’s forces trapped Barbarossa and his 122 ships in the narrow strip of water between the north and south halves of Greece, near the city of Preveza.  Victory seemed assured.

Picture - Preveza Map - Personal

The straits  of Preveza to the left which were the defining strategic moment in the Mediterranean for three and a half decades .

The Battle of Preveza was a disaster for the Holy League. At the outset of the battle, unfavorable winds kept the League’s fleet divided while the Ottoman galleys were still able to maneuver using oar power. Barbarossa, too, outfoxed Doria and seized the initiative despite the Ottomans’ smaller numbers. In total, the League lost 49 ships while the Ottomans did not lose any. The defeat was so lopsided that the Venetians had to pursue a separate peace with the Ottomans in 1540 in which they had to surrender a number of their islands and pay large war reparations. Barbarossa became a rock-star in the medieval naval community. Suleyman made him a permanent member of the Ottomans’ governing council and received fan mail from across Europe, including from the great English privateer Sir Francis Drake.[x] The Eastern Mediterranean was transformed into the so-called Ottoman Lake which freed up additional resources to fight the Habsburgs in the West. The Ottomans, despite their humble beginnings, truly evolved from dragging ships across the land to become the strongest naval power in the Mediterranean.

Lessons Learned

1)     Be a realist and do not take things personally.

It would have been very easy for Selim I to get hung up on Barbarossa’s connection to Selim’s executed brother and ignore Barbarossa’s plight in 1518; worse yet, Selim might have welcomed Charles’ efforts against Barbarossa. Instead, Selim recognized a win-win opportunity and incorporated them into the Ottoman fold.

The same thinking goes for Suleyman’s cooperation with Christian France. Without the French causing trouble for Charles V, Barbarossa might have faced even more ships at Preveza and failed to triumph. Realism wins the day.

2)   Meritocracy is the best way to select commanders

Just as Selim I could have easily overlooked Barbarossa’s difficult position in 1518, Suleyman could have easily overlooked the corsair for the position of Admiral of the Navy in 1533. The historical precedent was for the governor of the Dardanelles province, with the largest armory and naval base in the Empire, to be the Admiral[xi] but Suleyman took a chance and elevated the former pirate instead. This meant that the brilliant commander was in place for the Battle of Preveza whereas other commander might have failed to deliver a victory.

3)    Technology is not enough to win. Also, old technology does not mean bad technology.

The victory at Preveza was only possible because the Ottomans used galleys rather than galleasses. Even though the initial design was pioneered millennia earlier, galley technology still had utility in the strategic game that the Ottomans played. Also, as Barbarossa’s actions against Andrea Doria at Preveza demonstrated, a good commander plays a greater role in a battle’s outcome than numbers or technology.

Matthew Merighi is a civilian employee with the United States Air Force’s Office of International Affairs (SAF/IA) currently transitioning to pursue a Masters’ Degree at the Fletcher School. His views do not reflect those of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or Air Force but is pretty sure the Navy is glad it does not have to fight Barbarossa in his prime.

References

[i] Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p. 28-29.

[ii] Imber 2009, p. 306.

[iii] Imber 2009, 47.

[iv] Fodor, Pal, Geza David, and Gabor Agoston. Ottomans, Hungarians, and Habsburgs in Central Europe: The Military Confines in the Era of Ottoman Conquest. Netherlands: Brill, 2000, p. 154.

[v] Gürkan, Emreh S. ‘The Centre and the Frontier: Ottoman Cooperation with North African Corsairs in the Sixteenth Century’. Turkish Historical Review, 2010, p.132

[vi] For those unaware of the modern military terms, OPCON stands for “operational control” while ADCON stands for “administrative control.” OPCON is given to a person who ADCON denotes who is responsible for ensuring the administrative functions that support forces at sea. Basically, those with OPCON give people orders and those with ADCON tell people when their paperwork is out of order.

[vii] “Corsairs and the Ottoman Mediterranean,” Emrah Safa Gürkan and Chris Gratien,Ottoman History Podcast, No. 76 (October 26, 2012) http://www.ottomanhistorypodcast.com/2011/04/ottoman-mediterranean-corsairs-with.html

[viii] Imber 2009, 49.

[ix] Imber 2009, 51.

[x] “Corsairs and the Ottoman Mediterranean,” Emrah Safa Gürkan and Chris Gratien,Ottoman History Podcast.

[xi] Imber 2009, 297.

Lessons from History: The Parthian Defeat of Rome

This is the first article of our “Sacking of Rome” week: red-teaming the global order and learning from history. It is also the first of Merighi’s independent “Lessons from History” regular series for CIMSEC.

They poured gold down his throat, cut off his head, and sent it back as a warning to others.

No, this is not a scene from the latest episode of Game of Thrones; this was the passing of Marcus Licinuis Crassus in 53 BC.[1] Rome’s richest man, a member of the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar, and the man responsible for putting down the pirates that menaced the Mediterranean, met his ignoble end fighting the greatest challenge the Romans ever faced in the east: Parthia.

Map1
Map of the Achaemenid Persian Empire at its height with the region of Parthia marked in a red circle (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Persia was the preeminent military, political, and cultural power in the ancient world from 550 B.C. to 330 B.C. With its heartland in modern day Iran, its empire spanned from Afghanistan to Turkey at its apex. It all came crashing down in spectacular fashion when Alexander of Macedon rose to power and led a ruthlessly efficient military machine on a path of conquest that brought him all the way to the Indus River. He tried his hardest to unify the Persian state with his own but, when he died at the age of 33 in 323 B.C., his empire immediately collapsed into a host of warring factions. Three of his Greek generals went on to found the three largest states in the Eastern Mediterranean by the time Rome rose: the Seleucids in Turkey and Syria, the Antripatrids (later the Antigonids) in Greece, and the Ptolemians in Egypt. In the Persian heartland, however, ethnic Persians waging a proto-nationalist campaign kicked out the remnants of the Greek invaders. Known as Parthians due to the origins from the titular province in north-eastern Iran, they established a small state that expanded outward as the Alexandrian generals quarreled with one another.

For centuries after his death, every Greek warlord in the Western World claimed their legitimacy through Alexander and the desire to rebirth his Empire. Rome, too, took up this mantle as it expanded eastward into the Greek mainland. Beginning first in Greece and Macedonia, they waged a brutal war with the beleaguered Seleucids and conquered all the territory they possessed in the modern Middle East. This brought Rome’s borders right onto those of Parthia. Both were rising states with expansionist ambitions and a border that sat on porous, easily invadable territory. The stage was set for an epic confrontation between the two great powers.

Map2
Map of the Roman-Parthian border with the location of Carrhae shown in a red circle (University of Guelph)

 

Unfortunately for Rome, this manifested in the ill-fated expedition of the afore-mentioned Crassus in 54 BC. The expedition met its unfortunate end on the plains of Carrhae in south-eastern Turkey along the Syrian border.

How did the Parthians manage to resist Rome for so long? Their success rested on three key disparities between them and their Roman opponents:

1)     Assymmetric Military Advantage

romanparthian
A Roman Legionnaire (left) facing his greatest threat since Hannibal: Parthian horse archers using the Parthian Shot (Wikimedia Commons)

The Roman legion was the paragon of military efficiency in its day. The strict discipline, advanced military technology, and sheer numbers were widely feared even before they began leaving the Italian peninsula. It was by no means a perfect force, as its travails against Hannibal in preceding centuries demonstrated, but the system itself was markedly better than any other fielded even with bad generalship. How then was it so ineffective against Parthia?

Unlike the other opponents the Romans fought in the preceding six centuries, the great bulk of the Parthian army were horse archers rather infantry or melee cavalry. Noted for the infamous “Parthian Shot,” their horsemen would rush forward to engage Roman infantry, retreat, then abruptly turn in their saddles to fire a shot directly behind them. The slow, methodical legionnaires were then rendered ineffective since they could not physically reach their assailants. The horse archer can be equated with modern fears about Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs); they were mobile, highly survivable, and could take out slower assets with near impunity.

These techniques were perfect for the open terrain on the Roman-Parthian border. If the topography had been less open, such as the forests of Gaul or Germania, Parthian tactics would have been less effective. The Parthians, though, did not need an army that could fight on different terrain because that is not where they needed to fight nor chose to fight. This brings us to the second advantage Parthia held over the Romans.

2)   Strategic Focus

The Parthians never harbored ambitions to conquer Rome; their strategy consisted of resisting Roman incursions and making their own when Rome was politically weak (see discussion below). Since the Parthians did not commit their resources into futile all-or-nothing fights with Rome or engage them on disadvantageous terrain, they always maintained a strong conventional deterrent that altered Rome’s calculus away from intervention.

Map3
Map showing the Parthian Empire in relation to the territory of the Scythian nomads. Without a central government, the Scythian tribes could only pose occasional threats in Parthia’s east (Wikimedia Commons)

The Parthians also had the strategic benefit of having fewer serious external competition; its western border was solely with Rome and the neutral kingdom of Armenia (the site of many proxy wars between Rome and Parthia). To their east were far weaker and divided opponents, namely the Scythians and Bactrians. Rome, on the other hand, was beset by strong enemies on all sides. These included: restive tribes in Gaul and the Danube region, lingering discontent in Numidians North Africa, a still-unitary Egypt, and a vascillating client state in northern Turkey. These challenges both demanded military resources and political attention to effectively control. Even if Rome had more money and soldiers than the Parthians, only so many of them could be dedicated toward fighting the Parthians.

3)   Stronger Political Core

faces
(From the Left) Marcus Licinuis Crassus, Julius Caesar, and Marc Antony. All of the men tried to invade Parthia. The first one actually crossed the border and was killed. The other two were killed by Romans before even getting there (Wikimedia Commons and the Musee Des Augustins)

Parthian politics were cold and brutal. Succession crises were common and factions killed one another as they vied for the Parthian crown. There were even instances of Parthian claimants to the throne finding refuge in Rome, like exiled dictators, waiting for the opportune moment to return.

Roman politics during the late Republic and early Empire made Parthia look like Switzerland. The invasion of Parthia planned by Julius Caesar in 44 BC to avenge the death of Crassus (and punish the Parthians for their support of his rival, Pompey) was cancelled when Caesar fell to assassins’ blades on the Ides of March. The resulting civil war claimed thousands of Roman lives both on the battlefield and during the infamous proscriptions during which whatever faction happened to hold power would murder people and then “nationalize” their assets. After years of civil war, Rome finally found its footing under the Second Triumvirate. Marc Antony amassed his own army to take on the Parthians and managed to expel them from Syria in 33 BC only to have to turn around to fight his political partner Octavian in yet another civil war.

Octavian eventually succeeded in unifying the Roman state under his autocratic rule but, by then, he was in no position to challenge any external power. Crippling debts were poised to ruin the state. Opposing factions, though cowed by Augustus’ power, still opposed him behind the scenes. Octavian was forced to reduce to total number of legions to consolidate his hold on the Empire and reduce the risk of another civil war. Rather than risking another Parthian encounter in his weakened state, Octavian instead signed a landmark peace agreement that designated permanent borders in exchange for the legionary standards lost during Crassus’ expedition 33 years earlier. The Roman-Parthian drama would continue in fits and starts over the remainder of their very existences but, after that fateful treaty signed by Augustus, Rome finally admitted that it would fully never replicate Alexander’s conquest of Persia.

The cruel lesson for the United States to take from the Roman experience with Parthia is that an adversary with technology designed specifically to defeats its army, combined with stronger political will, is bound to come out on top of any conflict. Defeat does not just come on the battlefield. Just like Rome, the United States has a great number of serious threats: a bellicose Russia, an increasingly-assertive China, a still-problematic Iran, and trans-national terrorism. Unlike many of these antagonists (and the Parthians before them), the United States does not have the luxury of dedicating its resources to countering just one of these threats. The United States’ political system, after years of war and deep partisanship that conjures images of Caesar’s Rome, is brittle and unable to tackle any of these challenges. The lesson from Parthia is that to defeat the United States is merely to outlast it and negotiate for what you truly want.

Fortunately, for the United States, the peace under Augustus is not the end of the story. Over the following two centuries, the tables would turn and the Parthians’ political structure collapsed. Years of dynastic feuds and rival claimants to the throne made Parthia vulnerable to strong Roman Emperors such as Trajan (115 A.D.) and Septimus Severus (198 A.D.). The Parthian state was overthrown by internal revolution and a new Persian dynasty took its place. The final lesson for the United States is this: it is never too late to recalibrate and nothing is over until it is over.

Matthew Merighi is a civilian employee with the United States Air Force’s Office of International Affairs (SAF/IA) currently transitioning to pursue a Masters’ Degree at the Fletcher School. His views do not reflect those of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or Air Force but hopes his country can stand up to the Parthians.

[1] There is no concrete proof that the gold-pouring incident is true apart from the reports of the Roman historian Cassius Dio but it definitely gets the point across.