Roman–Parthian War of 58–63

Roman–Parthian War of 58–63

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Roman–Parthian war over Armenia

partof=the Roman–Parthian Wars
date= 58–63 AD
territory=minor gains for the Roman client states
result=Arsacids established on Armenian throne as Roman clients
combatant1=Roman Empire and vassals:
Sophene, Lesser Armenia,
Iberia, Commagene, Pontus
combatant2=Kingdom of Armenia,
Parthian Empire
commander1=Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo
Lucius Caesennius Paetus
commander2=Tiridates I of Armenia
Vologases I of Parthia
The Roman–Parthian War of 58–63 was fought between the Roman Empire and Parthia over control of Armenia, a vital buffer state between the two realms. Armenia had been a Roman client state since the days of Emperor Augustus, but the Parthians had succeeded in installing their own candidate, Tiridates, on the Armenian throne.

These events coincided with the ascension of Nero to the imperial throne, and the young emperor decided to react vigorously. The war, which was the only major foreign campaign of Nero's reign, began with rapid success for the Roman forces, led by the able general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo. They overcame the forces loyal to Tiridates, installed their own candidate on the Armenian throne, and left the country. The Romans were aided by the fact that the Parthian king Vologases was embroiled in the suppression of a series of revolts in his own country. As soon as these had been dealt with, however, the Parthians turned their attention to Armenia, and after a couple of years of inconclusive campaigning, inflicted a heavy defeat on the Romans in the Battle of Rhandeia.

The conflict ended soon after, in an effective stalemate and a formal compromise: a Parthian prince of the Arsacid line would henceforth sit on the Armenian throne, but his nomination had to be approved by the Roman emperor.Bivar (1968), p. 85] This conflict was the first direct confrontation of Parthia with the Romans since Crassus' disastrous expedition and Mark Antony's campaigns a century earlier, and would be the first of a long series of wars between Rome and Iranian powers over Armenia (see Roman–Persian Wars).Bivar (1968), p. 80]


Ever since the expanding Roman Republic and the Parthian Empire had come into contact in the mid-1st century BC, there had been friction between the two great powers over the control of the various Middle Eastern states lying between them. The largest and most important of these was the Kingdom of Armenia. In 20 BC, Augustus succeeded in establishing a Roman protectorate over the country, when Tigranes III was enthroned as king of Armenia. Roman influence was secured through a series of Roman-sponsored kings until 37 AD, when a Parthian-supported candidate, Orodes, assumed the throne. The Roman-supported king, Mithridates, recovered his throne with the support of Emperor Claudius in 42,Bivar (1968), p. 76] but was deposed in 51 by his nephew Rhadamistus of Iberia. However, his rule quickly became unpopular, and gave the newly crowned king Vologases I of Parthia the opportunity to intervene.Bivar (1968), p. 79] His forces quickly seized the two capitals of Armenia, Artaxata and Tigranocerta, and put his younger brother Tiridates on the throne. However, his forces were forced to withdraw by the onset of a bitter winter and the outbreak of an epidemic, giving Rhadamistus the opportunity to retake the country.Bivar (1968), p. 79] His behavior towards his subjects was even worse than before, and they rose in rebellion against him. In 54, Rhadamistus fled to his father's court in Iberia, and Tiridates re-established himself in Armenia. [Tacitus, "Annales" ]

At the same time in Rome, Emperor Claudius died and was succeeded by his stepson Nero. The Parthian encroachment in an area regarded as lying within the Roman sphere of influence was widely seen as a major test of the new emperor's ability.Tacitus, "Annales" ] Nero reacted vigorously, appointing Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, a general who had distinguished himself in Germania and now served as governor of Asia, to supreme command in the East. [Tacitus, "Annales" ]

Diplomatic maneuvers and preparations

Corbulo was given control over two provinces, Cappadocia and Galatia (modern-day central Turkey), with propraetorial and later proconsular authority ("imperium"). [Goldsworthy (2007), p. 309] Although Galatia was considered a good recruiting-ground and Cappadocia had a few auxiliary units, the bulk of his army came from Syria, where half the garrison of four legions and their auxiliaries was transferred to his command.Tacitus, "Annales" ]

Initially, the Romans hoped to resolve the situation by diplomatic means: Corbulo and Ummidius Quadratus, the governor of Syria, both sent embassies to Vologases, proposing that he give up hostages, as was customary during negotiations, to ensure good faith. [Tacitus, "Annales" ] Vologases, himself preoccupied by the revolt of his son Vardanes, which forced him to withdrew his troops from Armenia, readily sent these. [Bivar (1968), p. 81] A period of inactivity ensued, while the Armenian issue remained in limbo. Corbulo used this lull to restore his troops' discipline and combat readiness, which had diminished in the peaceful garrisons of the East. [Goldsworthy (2007), p. 311] According to Tacitus, Corbulo discharged all who were old or in ill-health, kept the entire army under canvas in the harsh winters of the Anatolian plateau to acclimatize them to the snows of Armenia, and enforced a strict discipline, punishing deserters by death. At the same time however, he took care to be present amongst his men, sharing their hardships. [Tacitus, "Annales" ]

In the meantime, Tiridates, backed up by his brother, refused to go to Rome, and even engaged in operations against those Armenians whom he deemed were loyal to Rome.Tacitus, "Annales" ] Tension mounted, and finally, in the early spring of 58, war broke out.

Outbreak of the war — The Roman offensive

Corbulo had placed a large number of his auxiliaries in a line of forts near the Armenian frontier under a former "primus pilus", Paccius Orfitus. Disobeying Corbulo's orders, he used some newly arrived auxiliary cavalry "alae" to stage a raid against the Armenians, who appeared to be unprepared. In the event, his raid failed, and the retreating troops even spread their panic amongst the other garrisons.Tacitus, "Annales" ] It was an inauspicious start for a campaign, and Corbulo severely punished the survivors and their commanders.Tacitus, "Annales" ]

Despite this misadventure, Corbulo was now ready, having drilled his army for two years. He had three legions at his disposal (III "Gallica" and VI "Ferrata" from Syria and IV "Scythica"), [Goldsworthy (2007), p. 312] to which were added a large number of auxiliaries and allied contingents from Eastern client kings like Aristobulus of Lesser Armenia and Polemon II of Pontus. The situation was furthermore favorable to the Romans: Vologases faced a serious revolt by the Hyrcanians in the region of the Caspian Sea as well as incursions of Dahae and Sacae nomads from Central Asia, and was unable to support his brother.

The war thus far had featured mostly skirmishing along the Roman-Armenian border. Corbulo tried to protect the pro-Roman Armenian settlements from attack, and in turn retaliated against the Parthians' supporters. Given that Tiridates avoided confrontation in a pitched battle, Corbulo divided his force, so that they could attack several places simultaneously, and instructed his allies, Kings Antiochus IV of Commagene and Pharasmanes I of Iberia to raid Armenia from their own territories. In addition, an alliance was concluded with the Moschoi, a tribe living in eastern Armenia.Tacitus, "Annales" ]

Tiridates reacted by sending envoys to ask why he was under attack, since hostages had been given. To this, Corbulo reiterated the demand to seek the recognition of his crown from Nero.Tacitus, "Annales" ] Eventually, the two sides agreed on a meeting. Both sides were supposed to bring 1,000 men to the meeting, but Corbulo, not trusting his intentions, decided to take with him not only IV "Ferrata", but also 3,000 men from III "Gallica" plus the auxiliaries. Tiridates also appeared at the agreed site, but, seeing the Romans in full battle array, and in turn distrusting their intentions, did not come closer, and withdrew during the night. [Tacitus, "Annales" ] Tiridates then sent forces to raid the Roman army's supply route, which came from Trapezus in the Black Sea, but they failed, since the Romans had secured the mountain routes by a series of forts. [Goldsworthy (2007), p. 314]

Fall of Artaxata

Corbulo now resolved to directly attack Tiridates' fortified strongholds. They were not only instrumental in controlling the surrounding country and sources of revenue and soldiers, but in addition, a threat to them might force Tiridates to risk a pitched battle, since "a king who could not defend communities loyal to him [...] lost prestige." [Goldsworthy (2007), p. 315] Corbulo and his subordinates successfully stormed three of these forts, including Volandum, "the strongest of all in that province", within a day with minimal casualties, massacring their garrisons. Terrified by this, several towns and villages surrendered, and the Romans prepared to move against the Armenian capital, Artaxata. [Tacitus, "Annales" ]

This forced Tiridates to confront the Romans with his army, as they approached Artaxata. The Roman force, reinforced by a "vexillatio" of X "Fretensis", marched in a hollow square, with the legions supported by auxiliary horsemen and foot archers. The Romans were under strict orders not to break formation, and despite repeated probing attacks and feigned retreats by the Parthian horse archers, they held together until nightfall. [Tacitus, "Annales" ] During the night, Tiridates withdrew his army, abandoning his capital; its inhabitants promptly surrendered and were allowed to leave unmolested, but the city was torched, since the Romans could not spare sufficient men for garrisoning it. [Tacitus, "Annales" ]

Fall of Tigranocerta

In 59, the Romans marched towards Tigranocerta, Armenia's second capital city. On their way, Corbulo's men punished those who withstood or hid from them, while leniency was shown to those who surrendered. [Tacitus, "Annales" ] The army suffered from lack of provisions, especially water, in the harsh, dry terrain of northern Mesopotamia, until they reached the more fertile area near Tigranocerta. At the same time, a plot to murder Corbulo was uncovered, in which several Armenian nobles who had joined the Roman camp were implicated. [Tacitus, "Annales" ] According to a story provided by Frontinus, when the Roman army arrived at Tigranocerta, they launched the severed head of one of the conspirators into the city. By chance, it landed right where the city council was assembled; they immediately decided to surrender the city, which was consequently spared. [Frontinus, "Strategemata", [*.html#9 II.9.5] ] Shortly after, an attempt by the Parthian army under king Vologases to enter Armenia was blocked by Verulanus Severus, the commander of the auxiliaries.Tacitus, "Annales" ]

The Romans were now in control of Armenia, and they promptly installed its new king, Tigranes VI, the last descendant of the Cappadocian royal house, at Tigranocerta. Outlying parts of Armenia were also ceded to the Roman vassals. Corbulo left 1,000 legionaries, three auxiliary cohorts and two cavalry "alae" (ca. 3-4,000 men) behind to support the new monarch, and retired with the rest of his army to Syria, whose governorship he now (in 60 AD) assumed as a reward for his success.Tacitus, "Annales" ]

The Parthian counterattack

The Romans were well aware that their victory was still fragile, and that as soon as the Parthian king had dealt with the Hyrcanian rebellion, he would turn his attention to Armenia. Despite Vologases' reluctance to risk an all-out conflict with Rome, in the end, he was forced to act when Tigranes raided the Parthian province of Adiabene in 61. The enraged protests of its governor Monobazus, and his pleas for protection, could not be ignored by Vologases, whose prestige and royal authority were at stake. [Tacitus, "Annales" ] He therefore resolved to conclude a treaty with the Hyrcanians so as to be free to campaign against Rome. In an assembly of grandees, he publicly reaffirmed Tiridates' position as king of Armenia by crowning him with a diadem, and prepared a force of picked cavalry under Monaeses, complemented by infantry from Adiabene, to reinstall his brother on the throne. [Tacitus, "Annales" ]

In response, Corbulo sent the legions IV "Scythica" and XII "Fulminata" to Armenia, while he detailed the three other legions under his command (III "Gallica", VI "Ferrata" and XV "Apollinaris") to fortify the line of the river Euphrates, fearing that the Parthians might invade Syria. At the same time, he petitioned Nero to appoint a separate legate for Cappadocia, with the responsibility to conduct the war in Armenia. [Goldsworthy (2007), pp. 318-319]

Parthian siege of Tigranocerta

Monaeses meanwhile entered Armenia and approached Tigranocerta. Tigranes had taken care to gather supplies, and the city was well-fortified and garrisoned with Romans and Armenians alike. The siege was largely undertaken by the Adiabenian contingent, since the Parthians customarily disliked siegework, but it failed, being driven back with loss by a successful Roman sally. [Tacitus, "Annales" ] At this point, Corbulo sent an envoy to Vologases, who had encamped with his court at Nisibis, near Tigranocerta and the Roman-Parthian border. The failed siege and a shortage of fodder for his cavalry forced Vologases to agree to withdraw Monaeses from Armenia. [Tacitus, "Annales" ] At the same time however, the Romans too left Armenia, something that, according to Tacitus, raised suspicions of Corbulo's motives.Tacitus, "Annales" ] At any rate, a truce was arranged and a Parthian embassy was dispatched to Rome. It failed to reach an agreement however, so that war was renewed the spring of 62.Tacitus, "Annales" ]

In the meantime, the asked-for legate for Cappadocia had arrived, in the person of Lucius Caesennius Paetus, the consul of the previous year (61 AD). The army was divided between him and Corbulo, with IV "Scythica", XII "Fulminata", the newly arrived V "Macedonica" and the auxiliaries from Pontus, Galatia and Cappadocia going to Paetus, while Corbulo retained III "Gallica", VI "Ferrata" and X "Fretensis". Because of their antagonism for glory, the relations between the two Roman commanders were strained from the beginning.Tacitus, "Annales" ] It is notable that Corbulo kept the legions he had spent the past few years campaigning with, and gave his colleague, who after all was expected to conduct the main campaign, the more inexperienced ones. [Goldsworthy (2007), p. 320] The Roman force arrayed against the Parthians was now considerable: the six legions alone totaled some 30,000 men. The exact number and disposition of auxiliary units is unclear, but there were seven cavalry "alae" and seven infantry cohorts in Syria alone, comprising a force of 7-9,000 troops. [Sartre (2005), p. 61]

Battle of Rhandeia

Paetus nonetheless appeared confident of victory, and followed the Parthian declaration of war and capture of Tigranocerta with his own invasion of Armenia,Tacitus, "Annales" ] while Corbulo remained at Syria, further strengthening the Euphrates frontier.Tacitus, "Annales" ] Paetus had only two legions with him, IV "Scythica" and XII "Fulminata",Tacitus, "Annales" ] and advanced towards Tigranocerta. A few minor forts were taken, but a lack of supplies forced him to withdraw westwards for the winter.Tacitus, "Annales" ]

The Parthians had originally intended to invade Syria, but Corbulo put on a convincing display of military might, building a strong flotilla of ships equipped with catapults and a bridge over the Euphrates, which allowed him to establish a foothold on the Parthian shore. Therefore the Parthians abandoned their plans for Syria, and turned their attention towards Armenia.Tacitus, "Annales" ] There, Paetus had dispersed his forces and granted extended leaves to his officers, so that he was taken unawares at the Parthian advance. Upon learning of it, he initially advanced to meet Vologases, but after a reconnaissance detachment was defeated, he panicked and withdrew hastily. Paetus sent his wife and son to safety in the fortress of Arsamosata, and tried to block the Parthian advance by occupying the passes of the Taurus mountains with detachments from his army.Tacitus, "Annales" ] In so doing, however, he further dispersed his forces, which were then defeated in detail by the Parthians. Roman morale plunged and panic set in among the army, which was now besieged in a series of hastily erected camps near Rhandeia. Paetus, who appears to have fallen into desperate inactivity, sent urgent messages to Corbulo to come to his rescue.Tacitus, "Annales" ]

Corbulo in the meantime had been aware of the danger faced by his colleague, and put part of his forces on readiness; but he did not march to join Paetus, and some accused him of delaying in order to reap more glory from rescuing him.Tacitus, "Annales" ] Nevertheless, when the calls for assistance arrived, he quickly responded, and marched forth with half of the Syrian army, carrying many provisions laden on camels. He soon met dispersed men of Paetus' army, and managed to rally them around his force. [Tacitus, "Annales" ] But before he could arrive to the rescue, Paetus had capitulated: the Parthians, aware that relief was nearing, increasingly harassed the Romans, until Paetus was forced to send a letter to Vologases to seek terms. [Tacitus, "Annales" ] The subsequent treaty was humiliating: not only would the Romans leave Armenia and surrender all forts they held, but they also agreed to build a bridge over the nearby Arsanias river over which Vologases could pass in triumph, sitting atop an elephant.Cassius Dio, "Historia Romana" [*.html#21 LXII.21] ] In addition, the Roman army was literally plundered by the Armenians, who took weapons and clothes without resistance, and, according to rumors reported by Tacitus, the Romans were even made to , a gesture of ultimate humiliation in Roman eyes. [Tacitus, "Annales" ]

The two Roman forces met on the banks of the Euphrates near Melitene, amidst scenes of mutual grief; [Tacitus, "Annales" ] while Corbulo lamented the undoing of his achievements, Paetus tried to convince him to attempt to reverse the situation by invading Armenia. Corbulo however refused, claiming that he did not have the authority to do so, and that either way the army was too worn out to be able to campaign effectively.Tacitus, "Annales" ] In the end, Paetus retired to Cappadocia and Corbulo to Syria, where he received envoys from Vologases, who demanded that he evacuate the bridgehead over the Euphrates. In turn, Corbulo demanded the evacuation of Armenia. Vologases agreed to this, and both sides withdrew their forces, leaving Armenia once again masterless but "de facto" under Parthian control, until a Parthian delegation could travel to Rome.Tacitus, "Annales" ]

Corbulo's return and peace settlement

Rome, meanwhile, appears to have been largely unaware of the real situation in Armenia. Tacitus acidly records that "trophies for the Parthian war and arches were erected in the center of the Capitoline hill" by decree of the Senate, even while the war was not yet decided. [Tacitus, "Annales" ] Whatever illusions the Roman leadership had, they were shattered by the arrival of the Parthian delegation to Rome in the spring of 63. Their demands, and the subsequent interrogation of the centurion who accompanied them, revealed to Nero and the Senate the true extent of the disaster, which Paetus had concealed in his dispatches.Tacitus, "Annales" ] Nevertheless, the Romans decided to "accept a dangerous war over a disgraceful peace"; Paetus was recalled, and Corbulo placed again in charge of the campaign into Armenia, with extraordinary "imperium" which placed him above all other governors and client rulers in the East. Corbulo's post as governor of Syria was entrusted to Caius Cestius Gallus.Tacitus, "Annales" ]

Corbulo reordered his forces, withdrawing the defeated and demoralized IV "Scythica" and XII "Fulminata" legions to Syria, leaving X "Fretensis" to guard Cappadocia, and leading his veteran III "Gallica" and VI "Ferrata" to Melitene, where the invasion army was to be assembled. To these he also added V "Macedonica", which had remained in Pontus throughout the previous year and not been tainted by the defeat, the newly arrived XV "Apollinaris", and large numbers of auxiliaries and contingents of the client kings. [Tacitus, "Annales" ]

After his army crossed the Euphrates, following the route opened up by Lucullus over a hundred years before, he received envoys from Tiridates and Vologases. At the approach of such a large force, and aware of Corbulo's ability as a general, the two Arsacids were anxious to negotiate. Indeed, Corbulo, no doubt on instructions from Nero, reiterated the old Roman position: if Tiridates would accept his crown from Rome, then renewed war could be averted. [Tacitus, "Annales" ] Tiridates readily agreed to negotiations, and Rhandeia, the scene of last year's Roman defeat, was agreed upon as a meeting place. To the Armenians, this place was intended as a reminder of their strength, while Corbulo agreed to it because there he hoped to expunge the earlier disgrace, by peace or war.Cassius Dio, "Historia Romana" [*.html#22 LXII.22] ] Once there, Corbulo put Paetus' son, who served under him as a legate, in charge of a party that was to gather the remains of the Roman soldiers and ensure them a proper burial. On the agreed day, both Tiridates and Corbulo, each accompanied by 20 horsemen, met between the two camps. [Tacitus, "Annales" ] Tiridates agreed to travel to Rome and seek confirmation of his crown from Nero. A few days later, both armies put on a display, arrayed in full parade gear, and in sign of his agreement, Tiridates approached a statue of the Emperor which stood upon a tribunal and placed his royal diadem at its foot. [Tacitus, "Annales" ]


In 66, Tiridates visited Rome to receive his crown and was lavishly received by Nero, who used the occasion to boost his own popularity. He ordered the gates of the Temple of Janus to be shut, thus declaring that peace reigned throughout the Roman Empire.

Nero celebrated this peace as a major achievement: he was hailed as "imperator" and held a triumph,Cassius Dio, "Historia Romana" [*.html#23.4 LXII.23.4] ] although no new territory had been won, and the peace reflected a compromise rather than a true victory. For although Rome could prevail militarily in Armenia, politically, she had no genuine alternatives to the Arsacid candidacy on offer. [Wheeler (2007), p. 242] Armenia would henceforth be ruled by an Iranian dynasty, and despite its nominal allegiance to Rome, it would come under increasing Parthian influence.Bivar (1968), p. 85] In the judgement of later generations, "Nero had lost Armenia", [Festus, " [ Breviarium] ", XX.1] and although the Peace of Rhandeia ushered in a period of relatively peaceful relations that would last for 50 years, the Armenian question would continue to be a constant bone of contention between the Romans, the Parthians, and their Sassanid successors. [Farrokh (2007), p. 150]

As for Corbulo, he was feted and honoured by Nero as the man who had brought this "triumph" to be, but his popularity and influence with the army made him a potential rival. That is perhaps the reason why, in 67, while journeying in Greece, Nero ordered him to be executed. Upon hearing of this, Corbulo committed suicide.Cassius Dio, "Historia Romana" [*.html#63-17 LXIII.17.5-6] ]

This inconclusive war had also demonstrated to the Romans that the defensive system in the East, as put in place by Augustus, was no longer adequate. Thus the following years saw a major reorganization of the Roman East: the client kingdoms of Pontus and Colchis (in 64 AD), Cilicia, Commagene and Lesser Armenia (in 72 AD) were made into Roman provinces, the number of legions in the area increased, and Roman presence in the client states of Iberia and Albania strengthened, with the aim of strategically encircling Armenia. [Wheeler (2007), p. 243] Direct Roman control was extended to the entire line of the Euphrates, marking the beginning of the Eastern "limes" that would survive until the Muslim conquests of the 7th century.



Primary sources

*Cassius Dio, "Historia Romana". [*.html#23 Loeb Classical Library edition (1925)]

Secondary sources

*cite book |title=The Cambridge History of Iran |last=Bivar|first=H.D.H |editor=William Bayne Fisher, Ilya Gershevitch, Ehsan Yarshater, R. N. Frye, J. A. Boyle, Peter Jackson, Laurence Lockhart, Peter Avery, Gavin Hambly, Charles Melville |year=1968 |publisher=Cambridge University Press|isbn=0-521-20092-X |url=,+Ardashir&ei=_EQTSPaZBJHCyQS03tSBCA&sig=2KtkBSoqidkjzcqEuJRCX_OUl2w#PPR7,M1|chapter=The Political History of Iran under the Arsacids: Continuation of conflict with Rome over Armenia
*cite book |title=Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War |last=Farrokh |first=Kaveh |isbn=1-846-03108-7|year=2007|publisher=Osprey Publishing|url=,+545&source=gbs_summary_s&cad=0|chapter=Parthia from Mark Antony to the Alan Invasions
*cite book |title=In the name of Rome: The men who won the Roman Empire |last=Goldsworthy |first=Adrian |isbn=978-0-7538-1789-6|year=2007|publisher=Phoenix|chapter=Imperial legate: Corbulo and Armenia
*cite book |title=The Middle East Under Rome |last=Sartre |first=Maurice |coauthors=translated by: Porter, Catherine & Rawlings, Elizabeth |isbn=978-0674016835 |year=2005 |publisher=Harvard University Press

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