Parthians: Dio Cassius on their empire and military customs (early third century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Parthians: Dio Cassius on their empire and military customs (early third century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 26, 2024,

Ancient author: Dio Cassius, Roman History 40.14-15 (link).

Comments: In the midst of discussing the earliest tensions between Romans and Parthians, Dio Cassius goes on a digression into the origins and military customs of the Parthians. He expressly wants to avoid getting into their other customs, however, and suggests that many other authors have covered that.


[Parthian origins]

(14) This was the beginning of the war of the Romans against the Parthians (ca. 54 BCE). These people live beyond the Tigris river, for the most part in forts and garrisons, but also in a few cities, among them is Ktesiphon where they have a royal residence. Their descent group (genos) was in existence among the ancient barbarians and they had this same name even under the Persian kingdom. However, at that time they inhabited only a small portion of the country and had acquired no dominion beyond their own borders.

[Parthian expansion]

But when the Persian rule had been overthrown and that of the Macedonians was at its height, and when the successors of Alexander had quarrelled with one another, cutting off separate portions for themselves and setting up individual monarchies, the Parthians then first attained prominence under a certain Arsakes, from whom their succeeding rulers received the title of Arsakids. By good fortune they acquired all the neighbouring territory, occupied Mesopotamia by means of satrapies.

[Parthians and Romans as two imperial superpowers]

Finally they advanced to so great glory and power as to wage war even against the Romans at that time, and ever afterward down to the present day to be considered a match for them. They are really formidable in warfare, but nevertheless they have a reputation greater than their achievements because, in spite of their not having gained anything from the Romans, and having, besides, given up certain portions of their own domain, they have not yet been enslaved. Instead, even to this day they hold their own in the wars they wage against us, whenever they become involved in them.

[Military customs and environment]

(15) Now about their descent group, their country, and their peculiar customs many have written, and I have no intention of describing them. However, I will describe their military equipment and their method of warfare because the examination of these details is important to the present narrative, since it has come to a point where this knowledge is needed. The Parthians make no use of a shield, but their forces consist of mounted archers and pikesmen, mostly in full armour. Their foot-soldiers makes up a small portion of the army, consisting of the weaker men.  Even then all of these foot-soldiers are archers. They practise from boyhood, and the climate and the land combine to aid both horseman­ship and archery.

The land, being for the most part level, is excellent for raising horses and very suitable for riding about on horse-back; at any rate, even in war they lead about whole droves of horses, so that they can use different ones at different times, can ride up suddenly from a distance and also quickly retreat to a distance. The atmosphere there, which is very dry and does not contain the least moisture, keeps their bowstrings tense, except in the dead of winter. For that reason they make no campaigns anywhere during that season. But the rest of the year they are almost invincible in their own country and in any that has similar characteristics. For by long experience they can endure the sun’s heat, which is very scorching, and they have discovered many remedies for the lack of drinking-water and the difficulty of securing it, so that for this reason also they can easily repel the invaders of their land.

Outside of this district beyond the Euphrates they have once or twice gained some success in pitched battles and in sudden incursions. But they cannot wage an offensive war with any people continuously and without pause, both because they encounter an entirely different condition of land and sky and because they do not lay in supplies of food or pay. That is the Parthians.


Source of translation: E. Cary and H.B. Foster, Dio’s Roman History, 9 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914-27), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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