Persian Regime-Change Follies

Shapour II

by John Limbert

History teaches that outside efforts at regime change in Iran rarely end well for the changer. Nor do invaders face an easy road to conquest.

The fate of the Roman leader Marcus Licinius Crassus in 53 BCE should be a lesson today. Crassus became fabulously rich through buying burnt-out Rome properties at a fraction of their value and then selling them for a large profit after his crews of foreign, unpaid (slave) laborers had restored them.

Not satisfied with being a real estate mogul, he went after political power and military glory to satisfy his own vanity. In 59 BCE, Crassus, Pompey, and Julius Caesar formed the First Triumvirate—a secret ruling cabal to dominate nominally republican Rome. The arrangement must have been extremely profitable for Crassus. The historian Plutarch estimates that his wealth reached the equivalent of $9 billion before his death.

With all his money Crassus still lacked the military credentials of his fellow triumvirs.   Caesar was earning martial glory in Gaul, and Pompey (known as Magnus or “the Great”) had won significant victories in the 60s BCE during the difficult wars against Mithradates of Pontus. Crassus’s military credentials were of a lower order: suppressing Spartacus’s slave rebellion in 71 BCE. Plutarch writes, “Crassus, for all his self-approval, did not venture to ask for the major triumph [i.e. military parade], and it was thought ignoble and mean in him to celebrate even the minor triumph on foot, called the ovation.” Reportedly, Crassus winced every time he heard Pompey referred to as “the Great.”

Pompey annexed the province of Syria to the Roman state in 63 BCE, thus bringing Rome in direct contact with the Persian (Parthian) Empire. Eight years later the Triumvirate made Crassus governor of that frontier province. Despite his great wealth, he decided to take on the neighboring Parthians in order to match the military achievements of his colleagues and rivals, Caesar and Pompey. In his vanity, he ignored the advice of Rome’s ally, Artavazdes (Artavazd) II of Armenia who offered the aid of 40,000 troops if Crassus invaded Persia on a northern route through the mountains of Armenia, where Parthian cavalry would be at a disadvantage.

For whatever reason—vanity, mistrust, ignorance, or a fear of diluting his accomplishment—Crassus rejected his ally’s offer and chose to attack the Parthians without Armenian help, directly across the plains of North Syria. Artavazdes, rejected by Crassus, switched sides and joined the Parthians against Rome.

The result was a catastrophe at Carrhae (today’s Harran), where Parthian mounted archers caught a numerically superior Roman army in the open and destroyed it. During the encounter Crassus was beheaded, and a messenger carried his head to the Armenian capital, where Artavazdes and the Parthian ruler Orodes were celebrating a marriage alliance between the two kingdoms. At the wedding, as the two rulers watched a performance of Euripides’s The Bacchae, in the climactic scene the actor playing Agave used Crassus’s head for the head of the murdered Pentheus.

Thus ended Crassus’ life and his aspirations to military glory. He fell victim to his own vanity, stubbornness, inferiority complex, and refusal to listen to good advice. The wealthiest man in Rome had become an object of ridicule: a prop in a Greek tragedy at the court of Rome’s triumphant enemies.

Some Romans learned their lesson. Others did not. Four hundred years after the disaster at Carrhae the now Christian Roman Empire faced the formidable Persian Sassanian Empire, successors to the Parthians.

The balance of power between the Roman (Byzantine) and Sassanian empires remained stable for centuries as long as the two sides confined their battles to the border region. Frontier towns like Amida (Diyarbakr), Nisibis (Nusaybin), and Sangara (Sinjar) might change hands, but neither side would go far beyond them.

In the fourth century CE, the Emperor Julian (Flavius Claudius Julianus “The Apostate”, 361-363) changed the terms of the relationship and mounted a major offensive against his Persian counterpart Shapour II (309-379).

Although the two empires were probably condemned to wage war, Julian’s predecessor, Constantius II (337-361 CE) adopted a sensible strategy that stabilized the frontier and avoided unnecessary risk. John Harrell, author of The Nisibis War writes:

…the Emperor Constantius II adopted a defensive strategy and conducted a mobile defence based upon small frontier (limitanei) forces defending fortified cities, supported by limited counteroffensives by the Field Army of the East. These methods successfully checked Persian assaults for 24 years.

He describes Julian’s disastrous new policy of regime change for Persia as follows:

However, when Julian became emperor his access to greater resources tempted him to abandon mobile defence in favour of a major invasion aimed at regime change in Persia [my emphasis]. Although he reached the Persian capital, Ctesiphon, he failed to take it, was decisively defeated in battle and killed.

Julian sought to replace the hostile Shapour with a Roman client, his brother Hormisdas (Hormozd). Hormisdas had lived in Constantinople for decades and had adopted Western ways—something that made him attractive to the Romans and repulsive to the Persians.

Hormisdas proved a poor choice of ally. He had probably convinced Julian—who made him co-commander of his left wing—that the Persians would welcome him after his harsh brother’s rule. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus and others, however, report that the Persian defenders of forts and towns on the invasion route insulted him as a traitor. Hormisdas escaped a Persian ambush, thanks only to the flooding of the Euphrates River.

What are the lessons in these events? First, regime change in Iran—by invasion or other means—is much harder than you think. Second, listen to your allies. They probably understand more than you do about local conditions. Third, be wary of diaspora Persians who speak perfect Greek and claim to be popular at home. Julian foolishly believed he could make Hormisdas a client king after an easy march through today’s Iraq. The client, however, turned out to be both unpopular and incompetent. Finally, beware of real-estate moguls with pretensions to political and military glory.

John Limbert is a retired Foreign Service Officer. A former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iranian affairs, he also served at the US Embassy in Tehran where was held hostage for 14 months.

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  1. Actually, most of the Iranian diaspora population was initially formed after the Arabs, with the help of Salman Parsi, invaded Iran, and did create regime change. Iran was lost to Islam. The diaspora, including the Princes all went to China.

    We all know the devastating impact of Salman’s policies. To instigate his regime change thoroughly, he burnt all our libraries, in particular the main one in Cteisphun. Much of human knowledge all went up in smoke, as he said that the Koran is all you need. All art was banished.

    Does it sound familiar? It should. That is what the Ayatollahs have tried to do.

  2. Dear Ali, Your grade in history seems to be around F. Please read some history before commenting on a historic article. Did Salman burnt libraries?! Even in case of the other person that is suspected to have done so, it remains as an unproved myth.

    The fact through history has been that Iranians have remained loyal religion fans through different era. Islam with a tiny force but a new and vibrant religious Ideology against a highly religious (of course a deteriorated version of once a vibrant religion) government could find its way easily.
    The current regime is comparable to Sassanians as a religious regime and it will loose only to a new Ideology but not any foreign invasion. Of course the Ideology is already deteriorated like that of Sassanian but this time the world seems to be void of such Ideology so the only way is by a new Ideology that is already shaping in Iranian culture sphere. And however, this would not be that kind of regime change that makes Iran weaker as the invaders hope.

  3. This is a nice tribute to the Persian people’s perseverance, thanks. Let’s ignore the ignorant and their own made up history of Persia!
    It is interesting that the US is acting like Julian which is being deceived by the MEK leader and her followers who acting as Hormozides and as traitors! The Persians are well aware Hormozides like people (MEK) and waiting for them and their supporters to make any attempt against the country! Can’t wait to see that battle!

  4. Whether religious or not, most Iranians (inside or outside of the country) are likely to take a very dim view of a foreign invasion of their land of birth. Most Iranians are primarily patriotic and since the 1950s when the US (and the UK) killed off the shoots of democracy in that country, they haven’t forgotten. When the chips are down, the Islamic Republic is probably also banking on this latent and shared national feeling for it’s continued existence.

  5. Mr. Lambert, a few points from a proud Iranian American

    I was wondering why you left out the Roman Emperor Valerian, a regime changer who was captured by Shahpour I and held in Iran (maybe you didn’t appreciate the resemblance). As I am sure you know, there is a carved relief of valerian in Iran, showing him bowing to Shahpour on horse.

    There is another relief carved in every Iranian’ mind, that relief shows western invaders lost, and are losing and will recede back to the west, only because they don’t belong there, they never belong there. In these past decades, we witnessed how this country admitted losing the wars she started and unlashed on poor unprotected people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen all ever since the Iranian Revolution. One wonders why, is this really a value loss for a receding empire?
    Contrary to the title of your article, there is no Persian regime there never was, Persian regime just exist in the west and not in Iran. Persia and Persian is used by westerners instead of Iran and Iranian to saw rift within the Iranian ethnicities, implying a Fars minority is ruling over the majority (this last five centuries Iran has been mostly ruled by Azri Iranians and not Persians). Fortunately, this western used terminology has never worked or will ever work, this is only because Iranians collectively have never used this term to identify there multi ethnic country, simply they have no ethnic or religious problem. FYI even Sassanid Called Iran “Iranshahr” meaning the entire Iran and not just one central province of Pers. As I am very sure you are handedly familiar, ever since the Iranian revolution multiple US regimes regardless of the occupying party, have tried and will try to overthrow post revolution Iranian Government, by any mean they have at their disposal. Mr. Obama as soon as he took office tried and he failed, as I am sure Mr. Trump will need to experience his own failure on this, and next US regime even if it is B. Sanders will have to try and fail.

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