Narrative history at its best, Adrian Goldsworthy’s Rome and Persia is informative, readable, carefully sourced, and cautious in its judgments about events that occurred between 90 BCE and the 600s CE in the Mediterranean world, north Africa, and western Asia. It is also instructive about imperial rivalries, geopolitical competition, and human nature across the ages—including our present one.
After Carthage, Rome’s most lasting rival was Parthian and later Sasanian Persia—based in what today we call the Middle East and portions of central Asia. Rome and Persia were the superpowers of their day, but as Goldsworthy notes, there were other, smaller powers situated nearby who were recruited as allies by both empires, and central Asian nomadic peoples—Huns, Goths, Visigoths, Turks, Avars—who periodically raided the borderlands of both Rome and Persia. Both empires suffered from internal political squabbles and at times civil war. And both empires had contact, including trade, with China.
The two imperial rivals gradually, if grudgingly, “became willing to see each other as equals, or almost equals.”
Goldsworthy’s history is a story of wars and geopolitical confrontation between Rome and Persia, but also of peaceful relations and diplomacy. And most of the wars between the two empires were limited in means and goals. Throughout most of the long rivalry, Rome and Persia were not existential enemies. Only rarely, Goldsworthy notes, did either empire bring “all of its resources to bear in a life-and-death struggle against the other.”
Goldsworthy writes about familiar Roman historical figures such as Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Augustus, Nero, Trajan, Hadrian, Constantine, Julian and Justinian, but also lesser known Persian historical figures such as Orodes II, Phraates IV, Ardashir I, Shapur I, Shapur II, and Khusro II. He writes about battles at Carrhae (a Parthian victory over Rome), fighting over control of Armenia (situated between Rome and the Parthian empire), battles in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), Mesopotamia (now Iraq and Syria), and Jerusalem, and the rise of Christianity and Zoroastrianism. After Rome’s western empire fell to the “barbarians” in the late 5th century, Rome’s empire in the east—based in Constantinople—continued the rivalry with Persia.
The two imperial rivals, Goldsworthy notes, gradually, if grudgingly, “became willing to see each other as equals, or almost equals.” And even as the “superpowers” of that age, Rome and Persia had limited ambitions and limited means. The many wars throughout the long rivalry eventually took their toll on both empires.
The 600s witnessed the most intense fighting between the empires, including an attempt by the Persians to bring about the end of the Roman Empire. “For more than twenty-five years,” Goldsworthy writes, “the two empires fought with an intensity that had no precedent, in campaigns covering a wider area than ever before.” The Persians allied with the Avars, while Rome allied with the Turks. Khusro II’s Persians had the most success early on, including conquering Jerusalem and Egypt, but in the end Rome led by Heraclius emerged victorious using deception and surprise to fight and win “battle after battle” against Sasanian armies, and the peace that followed restored the status quo ante. But both empires were exhausted and a new rival—the Saracens fueled by intense Islamic faith—took over Persia and much of Rome’s eastern empire. For Persia and Rome, it was decline and fall.
These two empires, Goldsworthy notes, “survived and prospered for centuries [and] … the willingness of both sides to accept restraints on their competition surely made a significant contribution to their success.” American and Chinese leaders should take note.