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.