Book Review: Rome's Wars in Parthia: Blood in the Sand


by Rose Mary Sheldon

London: Vallentine Mitchell / Portland, Or.: ISBS, 2010. Pp. xxvi, 304. Maps, chron., notes, biblio., index. $34.95 paper. ISBN: 0853039313

Rome’s Wars in Parthia examines one of Rome’s longest running feuds, the nearly 300 year (66 BC-c. AD 225) confrontation with the Parthian kingdom in one of the world’s most fought-over regions, Mesopotamia and its

In this well written, carefully documented, treatment, Prof. Sheldon (VMI), a retired intelligence officer with a sting of books to her credit, takes a rather harsh view of Roman ambitions in the conflict.  But she makes a good case that the Parthians were less inclined toward extending their power into Roman-held territories than vice versa, particularly considering the rather inchoate nature of the Parthian state and society.  Given that, the book devotes more attention to the Roman side than the Parthian, in part because of the nature of our sources, and in part because the Romans were more often the aggressor.  The principal campaigns (Crassus, Marc
Antony, Corbulo, Trajan, and that under the Severans) are covered in some detail, but the periods of “peace” between these receive adequate treatment. 

Of particular value is Sheldon’s analysis of the consequences of the frequent conflicts on the political, economic, and military health of both empires, noting that periods in which diplomatic solutions were employed generally proved more beneficial than any of the wars.  When critiquing the respective military systems, that of the Romans receives more attention, again due largely to the nature of the sources.  Sheldon is, however, perhaps too critical of Roman intelligence and command “failures”, since no ancient state had anything resembling a coherent general staff system, but her criticisms certainly are valuable food for thought.  Her occasional attempts to compare the Roman experience in Mesopotamia with more recent American operations in the region are less useful.

Rome’s Wars in Parthia is an important read for anyone interested in ancient military history, and one than can be enjoyed by the interested layman as well.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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