The Parthian Shot.

by Daniel Russ on March 23, 2012

The Parthian Shot



The Parthians were a people whose origin began in what is now northwest Iran about 100 BC. They were a subset of the Seleucids, or remnants of the Macedonian empire that rose out of the fall of the Achamenids.  Tiridates, a leader of the Parthis led his band into this Central Asian people into war with other bands and eventually created a kingdom that lasted until 225 and carved out a territory that stretched from modern day Armenia east of the Black Sea all the way to Afghanistan. The Parthians at one time ruled what is now Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkmenistan and Iran. They were at their apex under Mithridates the Great.


They were a nomadic people and like so many warrior tribes from Central Asia they were superlative horsemen who fought almost entirely mounted. The cataphracts, or armored cavalry described by Greek historians originated with Parthians who covered themselves with chain mail and also their horse. Like the Huns, the Tartars, the Mongols, the Scvythians and even the Comanches in North America, they perfected archery from a saddle.


The Parthians used compound bows that were very strong and shot arrows tipped with metal or stone that could easily penetrate Roman armor. Crassus discovered this as he sought military gain and decided to go after the inscrutable Parthians. The Parthians were the thorn in the side of Rome and they fought in ways few Roman commanders ever get their heads around. At Carrhae we saw a Roman square with 25,000 Legionnaires in it surrounded by mobile Parthians who feigned retreat. Once they retreated, Publius and Crassus’s men pursued them and discovered that the Parthians liked to draw off attackers and swiftly turn and surround them.


Romans found at Carrhae in 53 BC that a Parthian arrow could penetrate their scutum and pin their arms to the shield. They also discovered that the Parthians could race in one direction on horseback and fire behind them accurately and at great speed. In fact the steppes of Central Asia were perfect terrain for this type of mounted warfare. Rolling hills and wide open spaces allowed the Parthians to hide great numbers of horsemen and suddenly appear and bare down on attackers Because they were on horseback they could outrun infantry formations and the phalanx was almost worthless against them.


This became known as the Parthian shot, a hostile remark or gesture whilst leaving. The Parthian shot in 100 AD was more than hurtful. It was deadly. Ask Crassus. He ended up with his head on a pike. 20,000 Roman dead and 10,000 captured and made into slaves was the result of the defeat at Carrhae.


The Parthan Shot


Sources: Warfare In The Classical Era John Warry. Hackberry Press, 2001;  and Wikipedia


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis September 12, 2017 at 4:39 am

Yes, I see they ruled Turkmenistan, but they never ruled the eastern seaboard, so Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan are a stretch of the imagination. Also these countries have landscapes that are not suitable for their art of war. Raided by the Parthians, yes, owned by the, no. The more eastern parts of Syria, almost the whole of Iraq and Iran, on the other hand, were ruled by them.
In fact their name is apparantly derived from an old name for Persia.

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