Roman-Persian Wars

B.C. 53 to A.D. 627
Rome — versus — Parthian and Sassanid Empires.

Romans vs. Parthians, 53 B.C.-226 A.D. Romans vs. Sassanids, 226 - 321 A.D. Eastern Empire vs. Sassanids, 321-476 A.D. Byzantines vs. Sassanids, 476-627 A.D.

The Persian-Roman Wars refer to a series of battles between the great empires of the east and west with long intermittent periods of peace between them. The antagonists are usually referred to as the Roman vs. the Persian empires, but the 700 years over which the wars spanned, encompassed the late Roman Republic, the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire in the west, and the Parthian and Sassanid Empires in the east. The areas of dispute ranged from the Transcaucus area in the North (Modern day Georgia and Armenia), to the Mesopotamia valley in the east. These territories changed hands many times during the wars, and some cities, such as Ctesiphon were besieged many time times. In spite of years of conflict and dozens of campaigns, nothing of long term significances resulted from these wars. The border between the empires remained roughly the same for most of the 700 year period.

In the early years of the Roman Empire, the disputes were purely territorial and resulted mostly from Roman aggression as it sought to expand the boundaries of its territories. In later years, there came to be a religious aspect to the wars as the Eastern Realm of Christendom confronted the Western bounds of Persian Zoroastrianism. Ironically however, these wars so weakened both the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires that when the Moslem threat arose from Arabia, neither was able to effectively resist it. The same territory that was contested for so many years between Roman Christians and Persian Zoroastrians, fell almost immediately as prey to the Moslem jihadists.

Romans vs. Parthians : 53 B.C. to 226 A.D.

The first Roman contact with the Parthian Empire came during the Mithridatic Wars which lasted from 82 to 63 BC The Kingdom of Pontus was an independent Kingdom that bordered on Parthian territory. By the third Mithidatic War, the Romans pursued Mithridates and his ally, Tigranes, deep into Armenia, and conquered most of the Armenian Empire, including Syria and Judea for Rome. From this point on, the Eastern border of Rome's territory bordered on Parthia. Rome recognized that Parthia, far from being barbaric was a highly civilized country with rich booty. The lure of conquest was behind most of Rome's incursions into Parthian territory in the following centuries. Soon after Pompey had conquered Syria and Judea for Rome, Crassus, already one of the richest men in Rome, launched a campaign against Parthia in Mesopotamia. He was defeated however, with great slaughter at Carrhae (53 BC).

Caesar was planning a campaign of retribution when he was assassinated so the task fell to his successor in the east Mark Antony. He led an army through Armenia to attack Northern Parthia, but did not accomplish much and lost much of his army in the retreat. Octavius (Caesar Augustus) then negotiated a peace with Parthia that lasted until the reign of Nero. In 62 A.D. Nero launched a campaign in Armenia to try to retake that province, but it was inconclusive. Not until the reign of Trajan (107 A.D.) did Rome make aggressive inroads into the area, at which point they captured the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon and made much of Mesopotamia a Roman Province, although not a stable one. Several more campaigns under Marcus Aurelius and Severan emperors were required to hold the area. This successful campaign against Parthia however, only weakened the Parthian government and led to the rise of the Sassanid empire, a far more formidable foe.

DateBattle Summary
53 BC  
Battle of Carrhae (Parthian War ) Parthians victory
Fought B.C. 53, between the Romans, 52,000 strong, under Publius Crassus, and the Parthians under Sillaces. The Parthians, who were entirely cavalry, adopted their usual tactics of retiring and drawing their foes in pursuit. As the heavily armed legionaries became strung out across the plain, they turned upon them and cut them down in detail. Of the division, 6,000 strong, which actually came into action, 500 were made prisoners, and the rest, including Crassus, slain.
53 BC  
Battle of Sinnaca (Parthian War ) Parthians victory
At this place the remnants of the army of Crassus, after the battle of Carrhae, B.C. 53, surrendered to the Parthians. Only 5,000 men were with the eagles.
36 BC  
Battle of Phraaspa (Parthian War ) drawn battle victory
Fought B.C. 36 between Roman forces under Antony and a Parthian army under Phraates IV. Artavasdes, the king of Armenia had allied himself with Antony in order to revenge himself upon his enemy, the Medes, but he deserted before the battle, leaving the Romans exposed. The battle was drawn, but Antony's army suffered heavy casualties on the retreat
Siege of Ctesiphon (Parthian War ) Romans victory
This city was taken in 116 by a Roman army under Trajan. However, it was returned the following year, when Hadrian needed to withdraw from the territories conquered by his predecessor.
Siege of Hatra (Parthian War ) Parthians victory
This city was besieged in 117 by a Roman army under Trajan. Although he had conquered much of the surrounding territory, he did not take the city. He suffered a heat-stroke and had to return immediately to Rome, in failing health. His successor withdrew from the territory.
Siege of Ctesiphon (Parthian War ) Romans victory
This city was besieged and taken in 164 by a Roman army under Avidius Cassius, but later abandoned.
Siege of Ctesiphon (Parthian War ) Romans victory
This city was taken and sacked in 197 by a Roman army under Septimius Severus. He carried of over 100,000 inhabitants, many of whom were sold into slavery.
Battle of Nisibis (Roman vs. Sassanid ) Parthians victory
The Romans under Macrinus met the Parthians under Artabatus V near Nisibis, but were defeated. The Parthains had over-run Roman controlled territory in Mesopotamia. Macrinus, who had other border troubles to contend with, was forced to pay a large indemnity to keep peace in the region.

Short Biography
Crassus Very wealthy general. Fought Spartacus. Formed triumvirate with Pompey and Caesar.
Antony With Octavius, led empire after Caesar's death. Liaison with Cleopatra caused downfall.
Trajan Second of "Five Good Emperors." Ruled with justice and integrity. Conquered Dacia.
Septimus Severus Seized Imperial throne after the death of Commodus. Put down many rebellions.

Story Links
Book Links
Across the Euphrates  in  Helmet and Spear  by  Alfred J. Church
Man Who Loved Gold  in  Tales of the Romans: The Children's Plutarch  by  F. J. Gould
Crassus  in  Our Young Folks' Plutarch  by  Rosalie Kaufman

Romans vs. Sassanids : 226 to 321

Rome vs. Sassanid
Finally a Persian hero arose in the person of Shapur I, second king of the Sassanid dynasty, whose reign of 241-272 corresponded to a time of upheaval and confusion in the Roman government known as the military anarchy. He retook much of the territory Rome had won in previous wars and even made incursions into Roman territory. Although he was finally driven back at the battle of Resaena in 243, this was only temporary, since the Roman empire fell immediately back into a state of the utmost confusion. After years of anarchy, emperor Valerian led a large army into Persian territory but was beaten and captured at the Battle of Edessa in 259. The capture of their emperor threw the Roman government further into disarray, and it was unable to immediately respond to the crisis. The governor of Palmyra however, took matters into his own hands, using the legions available at his command. In a series of successful campaigns(260-263), he marched into Mesopotamia and recovered much of the territory that was lost for Rome, including Carrhae, Nisibis and Edessa, and regained their territory in Armenia. He was killed in office, and the leadership of Palmyra was taken over by his wife, Zenobia. With her successful legions she continued her conquests, bringing all of Syria, and even Egypt under Palmyrian control.

Expedition to Palmyra

At first appreciative of the conquests of Palmyra, the Roman Emperor Aurelian at this point became alarmed at the strength and independence of the Eastern Kingdom, and marched on Palmyra. In battles at Antioch and Emesa, Aurelian gained the upper hand over Zenobia and eventually besieged her in Palmyra. Even after her capture, Palmyra rebelled, and was eventually razed to the ground. Once more, Rome held its territories in the east, but not easily. The contested areas of Armenia and Mesopotamia were under constant attack, and several emperors led campaigns in the area until Diocletian negotiated a forty year truce in 297.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Resaena (Roman vs. Sassanid ) Romans victory
Fought 243, between the Romans under Timesitheus, and the Persians under Shapur I. The Romans were victorious in regaining much of the territory lost during their civil wars.
Battle of Edessa (Roman vs. Sassanid ) Persians victory
Fought 259, between the Romans under Valerian, and the Persians under Sapor I. The Romans were totally defeated, and Valerian taken prisoner.
Battle of Antioch (Expedition to Palmyra ) Romans victory
Fought 272, between the Palmyrenians under Zenobia, and the Romans under the Emperor Aurelian. Zenobia's heavy cavalry defeated and drove from the field the Roman horse, but her infantry was unable to withstand the charge of the legionaries, and she was totally defeated.
Battle of Emesa (Expedition to Palmyra ) Romans victory
Fought 272, between the Romans under Aurelian, and the Palmyrenians under Zenobia. Zenobia was completely defeated, and forced to retire within the walls of Palmyra, to which Aurelian at once laid siege.
Siege of Palmyra (Expedition to Palmyra ) Romans victory
This city was besieged by the Romans, under Aurelian, after the defeat of Zenobia at Emesa in 272. An obstinate defense was made by the Queen, but Aurelian being reinforced by Probus early in 273, Zenobia fled from the city and the place was captured. Zenobia failed to escape, and was brought into Aurelian's camp. During his return march, Aurelian learned that the citizens had risen, and massacred the Governor and the garrison he had left in the place. He thereupon retraced his steps, and destroyed the city, sparing neither young nor old.
Battle of Carrhae2 (Roman vs. Sassanid ) Persians victory
In 296, the Persians under Narses won a victory over Romans under Galerius.
Battle of Armenia (Roman vs. Sassanid ) Romans victory
In 297, the Romans under Galerius won a victory over the Persians under Narses. Galerius won a great deal of booty from the Persians, including the Harem of Harses.
Battle of Ctesiphon   Romans victory
This city was taken in 297 by the Romans when Galerius won a major victory outside of its walls. It was returned to the Persian king Narses in exchange for Armenia in a negotiated peace settlement.

Short Biography
Shapur I Sassanid Emperor who campaigned with great success against the Romans.
Valerian Emperor (253-260) who campaigned against Persia, but was captured by the Sassanids.
Zenobia Queen of Palmyra. Attempted to control the eastern empire, only to be crushed by Rome.
Septimius Odenathius King of Palmyra. Warred against Persia while Rome was occupied with civil wars.
Aurelian Emperor who reunited the empire during the Military anarchy. Led campaign in Palmyra against Zenobia.
Galerius Emperor (305-311), who won decisive victories against Narses in Armenia and Mesopotamia.
Diocletian Restored order to the empire after fifty years of chaos. Broke empire into four regions.

Story Links
Book Links
Century of Disgrace  in  Helmet and Spear  by  Alfred J. Church
Invasion of the Goths  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber

Story Links
Book Links
Zenobia of Palmyra  in  Historic Girls  by  E. S. Brooks
Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Zenobia and Longinus  in  Historical Tales: Greek  by  Charles Morris

Eastern Empire vs. Sassanids : 321 to 476

Several major changes came about during the early fourth century. First, the Roman empire split into two regions, and the eastern kingdom was ruled by Constantinople. Second, Christianity had spread throughout the Roman empire and was especially strong in the eastern Kingdoms, and thirdly, Shapur II, a powerful and long-ruling Sassanid King ascended to the throne, aggressively promoted the Zoroastrian religion, and persecuted Christians. This changed the character of the wars, and gave them a religious character, as well as a fight over territory. Shapur II aggressively pushed the boundaries of the Sassanid kingdom in both eastern and western directions, and conducted a long running war with Rome from about 337 to 363 A.D. For the first decade the conflicts did not amount to much, but by 358 the war turned sharply in Shapur II's favor. He conquered much territory, and the Emperor Julian was killed on a campaign against Ctesiphon. His successor then concluded a disgraceful peace, handing over five Rome provinces to Persia.

DateBattle Summary
Siege of Nisibis (East Empire vs. Sassinid ) Romans victory
This fortress, known as the Bulwark of the East, was thrice besieged in 338, 346 and 350 by Sapor II, King of Persia. In the two former years he was compelled to retire after a siege of 60 and 80 days respectively, In 350 the city was defended by a garrison under Lucilianus, and Sapor, finding the ordinary methods unavailing, diverted the course of the Mygdonius, and by building dams formed a large lake, upon which he placed a fleet of armed vessels, and attacked the city almost from the level of the ramparts. Under pressure of the water a portion of the wall gave way, and the Persians at once delivered an assault, but were repulsed; and by the following day the garrison had rebuilt the wall. At the end of about three months, Sapor, having lost 20,000 men, raised the siege.
Battle of Singara (East Empire vs. Sassinid ) Persians victory
Fought 348, between the Romans, under Constantius, and the Persians, in largely superior force, under Sapor II. The Persian king, having posted the major part of his army on the heights overlooking Singara, engaged the Romans with a comparatively small force of light-armed troops, who were easily routed by the legionaries. The pursuit, however, was carried too far, and when night fell, the Romans, exhausted by their efforts, bivouacked under the heights. During the night, Sapor led his best troops to the attack, and routed the weary Romans, with terrible slaughter.
Siege of Amida (East Empire vs. Sassinid ) Persians victory
This fortress, defended by a Roman garrison, was besieged, and after a vigorous defense taken by storm by the Persians under Sapor II in 359. The garrison and inhabitants were put to the sword. The siege, which lasted 73 days, cost the Persians 30,000 men, and so weakened Sapor that he was compelled to relinquish his designs upon the Eastern Empire.
Siege of Singara (East Empire vs. Sassinid ) Persians victory
This fortress, held by a Roman garrison, was captured, after a brief siege, by the Persians, under Sapor II, in 360. The garrison was sent into captivity and the fortress dismantled.
Battle of Ctesiphon (East Empire vs. Sassinid ) Persians victory
Fought June 28, 363, between the Romans, under Julian, and the Persians, under Sapor II. Julian had advanced against Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, but finding himself too weak to attack it, was retreating along the left bank of the Tigris. In the course of the retreat he was attacked by the Persians, and worsted in an action unimportant in itself, but resulting in the death of Julian, who was mortally wounded in the skirmish. The election of Jovian as Emperor was followed by a peace which restored to Sapor almost all the Roman conquests in Persia.
Siege of Maogamalcha (East Empire vs. Sassinid ) Romans victory
This fortress, defended by a Persian garrison, and considered impregnable, was besieged by the Romans under the Emperor Julian in 363. A mine was carried from the trenches under the ramparts, and three cohorts broke through into the streets, whereupon the garrison deserted the ramparts and the besiegers entered. The place was sacked, and afterwards razed to the ground.
Siege of Perisabor (East Empire vs. Sassinid ) Romans victory
This fortress, defended by an Assyrian and Persian garrison, was captured, May, 363, by the Romans, under Julian. The fortress was dismantled and the town destroyed.
Battle of Tigris (Parthian War ) Romans victory
Fought 363, when the Romans under Julian, crossed the Tigris in the face of a large Persian army, strongly entrenched on the opposite bank. At the first assault, though an attempt at a surprise failed, the Romans stormed the Persian lines, and after 12 hours' fighting, drove them from the field. The Romans only admitted a loss of 75 men, while they claimed that the Persians lost 6,000 killed.

Short Biography
Constantius II Roman emperor (son of Constantine), who wared with the Sassanid Empire.
Julian the Apostate Last emperor of the Constantinian dynasty. Tried to restore paganism.
Shapur II Sassanid Emperor who campaigned against Constantius.
Jovian Succeeded on death of Julian. Concluded a peace with Shapur II which forfeited all newly won regions.

Story Links
Book Links
Century of Disgrace  in  Helmet and Spear  by  Alfred J. Church
Invasion of the Goths  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber

Byzantines vs. Sassanids : 476 to 627

The concession of Roman territories to the Sassanids did conclude a long period of peace however. During the next hundred and fifty years, the Western Empire suffered a series of barbarian invasions from the North and collapsed, and the remaining governments in both Constantinople and Persia were preoccupied with similar issues. Conflict between the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantines, and Persia did not resume until the early sixth Century, when the Sassanid King Kavadh made incursions into Roman territory. But even these early battles, from 502-506 were brought to a close by barbarian invasions rather than a military resolution. The truce held for twenty years until Justinian I came to the imperial throne, along with Belisarius, the most capable General in Byzantine history. The primary military goal of Justinian at this time was to protect the Christian regions of Colchis, Iberia and Armenia so that the Persian Empire would not have a outlet on the Black Sea. Although he won a great victory against Persia at the battle of Dara, Rome could not press its victories, and Belisarius was recalled. The Byzantines were fighting the Vandals and Goths during the same time period, so they paid a tribute to keep peace on their eastern border. In 540 however, Persia broke the truce and attacked Antioch, Mesopotamia and Armenia. Belisarius was recalled, and campaigned against Persia, but negotiated a truce so that he could return to his campaigns against the Goths in Italy.

War did not break out again between the Byzantines and Persia until 572. The war continued on and off, under emperors Tiberius and Maurice, but a break came in 590 when a usurper claimed the Sassanid throne and requested help from Maurice. Maurice agreed to support his cause if he would promise to give up claims to the Transcaucus area. He succeeded in this scheme, and finally brought the war to a close. The Persian king, Chosroes II, did not resume the war with Byzantine again until after Maurice was killed, and even then, his excuse for aggression was he did not consider the murderers of Maurice, his ally, to be legitimate rulers of Byzantine. The Byzantines at this time were preoccupied with Barbarian invasions (Avars and Slavs) in the north and could not respond when Persia over ran Syria, Asia Minor, and even Egypt. A strong response was not forthcoming until the reign of Heraclius (610-641), and even then, it took him ten years to reform the army and put the empire in order, before launching a campaign against Persia in 621. Instead of just disputing old territories, he marched directly into the heart of Persia and won a great battle at Nineveh. After this he continued his march towards the Persian capital and besieged Ctesiphon. At this point, his nemesis Chosroes II was deposed, and he made peace with Persia.

The war, unfortunately exhausted the Sassanid empire to such a degree that within a few years after the defeat at Heraclea, it fell entirely into the hands of the Moslem Caliphs in 634. A few years after, Heraclius lost the hard fought battle of Yermuk against the Moslem Arabs, and Syria and Palestine also fell. The net result of the long lasting wars between the two empires in the east was the collapse of one empire, and the loss of a great deal of area of the other.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Avarayr (Bahram's Revolt ) Persians victory
Fought May 26, 451 between 66,000 Armenians, under Saint Vartan, and 200,000 Sassanids under Yazdegerd. The Armenians were Christians and the battle came about when Yazdegerd II, the Sassanid king declared that the Armenians would have to adopt Zorastrianism, the state religion of the Sassanid Empire. The Armenians applied to the Byzantine Empire for help but aid did not arrive in time, and the Sassanids won a commanding victory against the rebels. Nevertheless, the Armenian cause was ultimately won, and the Christians were allowed to continue to practice their religion. Saint Vartan and many of the other Armenian leaders were killed in the conflict.
Siege of Amida (Byzantine vs. Sassinid ) Persians victory
The fortress was again besieged by the Persians under Kobad in 503, being defended as before by a Roman garrison. After a defense of three months, which cost the besiegers 50,000 men, a weakly defended tower was surprised at night, and on the following day the Persians, headed by their King, scaled the walls, and massacred 80,000 of the garrison and inhabitants.
Battle of Daras (Byzantine vs. Sassinid ) Byzantines victory
Fought 530, between 25,000 Byzantines, Heruli and Huns under Belisarius, and about 40,000 Persians under Baresmanes. The fighting on the first day was inconclusive, and 10,000 more Persians arrived during the next day. Belisarius hid part of his cavalry and split the Persians in two, trapping half of them. He won a decisive victory, but most of the Persians escaped from the field.
Battle of Callinicum (Byzantine vs. Sassinid ) Persians victory
Fought April 19, 531 between 25,000 Byzantines and Arabs under Belisarius, and 15,000 Persians under Sepahbod Azarethes. The Persians broke through the Roman flank but were too weak to follow up their victory, and withdrew.
Siege of Petra (Byzantine vs. Sassinid ) Byzantines victory
This strong fortress, garrisoned by 1,500 Persians, was besieged by the Romans, 8,000 strong, under Dagisteus, in 549. After a series of unsuccessful assaults the Romans succeeded in bringing down a large portion of the outer wall by mining. By this time the garrison was reduced to 400, but Dagisteus, delaying to storm the fortress, the Persians succeeded in throwing in reinforcements, which brought the garrison up to 3,000. Meanwhile all the breaches had been repaired, and the Romans had to undertake a second siege. At last a breach was effected, and after very severe fighting the besiegers effected a lodgment. Of the defenders 700 fell in the second siege, and 1,070 in the storm, while of 700 prisoners, only 18 were unwounded. Five hundred retreated to the citadel, and held out to the last, perishing in the flames when it was fired by the Romans.
Battle of Melitene (Byzantine vs. Sassinid ) Byzantines victory
Fought 578, between the Imperial troops, under Tiberius, and the Persians, under Chosroes. After a somewhat indecisive battle, at the end of which each side had held its ground, Chosroes, owing to his heavy losses, found it necessary to retire during the night. The battle was, however, signalized by an exploit of a Scythian chief, in command of the Roman left wing, who at the head of his cavalry charged through the Persian ranks, plundered the royal tent, and then cut his way out through the opposing hosts.
Battle of Solachon (Byzantine vs. Sassinid ) Byzantines victory
Fought 586, near Dara, Syria, between the Byzantines, led by Philippicus (brother-in-law of Emperor Maurice), and the Persians. The Persians were defeated.
Battle of the Zab (Byzantine vs. Sassinid ) Byzantines victory
Fought 590, between the troops of the Persian usurper Bahram, and the army of the Emperor Maurice, under Narses. The usurper's forces were totally routed, and Chosroes II restored to the throne of Persia.
Battle of Nineveh (East Empire vs. Sassinid ) Byzantines victory
Fought December 1, 627, between the Imperial troops, under the Emperor Heraclius, and the Persians, under Rhazates, the general of Chosroes II. The Persians stood their ground manfully throughout the day and far into the night, and were almost annihilated before the surviving remnant retreated in good order to their camp. The Romans also lost heavily, but the victory opened the way to the royal city of Destigerd, which fell into the hands of Heraclius, and peace was made the following year.

Short Biography
Maurice Byzantine Emperor who made an alliance with Persia. Eventually deposed and murdered.
Justinian the Great Ruled Byzantine Empire for 40 years. Well known for legal reforms known as Code of Justinian.
Belisarius General associated with Julian the Great, reconquered much of lost Roman territory.
Heraclius Eastern Emperor during a critical period. Fought Goths in the west, Persian and Moslems in the east.
Chosroes II Sassanid Emperor who was an ally of Maurice, but warred against Heraclius

Story Links
Book Links

Image Links

Antony Crossing the Desert.
 in Cleopatra

Crassus defeated by the Parthians
 in Helmet and Spear

Marcus Aurelius receiving the homage of the Parthians
 in Famous Men of Rome

Valerian before Sapor (rock carving near Persepolis)
 in Greatest Nations - Greece