Rome’s Wars in Parthia: Blood in the Sand – Rose Mary Sheldon

I was interested in this book because the campaigns of Rome in the East are often glossed over in the more general histories of the time.   I’ve also often wondered if these campaigns diverted too much attention away from the Rhine and Danube then they were worth.  I was looking for information to answer these questions.  I’m still looking.  The only thing I learned is that Rose Mary Sheldon doesn’t like George W. Bush.

I’m all for historical parallels, but Sheldon has a particular Procrustean manner of making the man fit the bed. She continually asserts about the peacefulness of the Parthians, who only wanted the Americans – oops – Romans to leave them alone.  Yet in her own text, she reveals that the Parthians started a good fraction of these wars, usually by trying to take the key client state of Armenia.  I prefer a more realistic view of ancient relations where states often seize on a real or perceived opportunity to expand without labelling one side demons or angels.  Maybe that’s just me, and I need to get the program that shows which ancient tribes and nations are nice and which are nasty.

A particularly egregious example is her touting the revolt of Avidius Cassius in Syria as a kind of national uprising against Rome’s “Army of Occupation”.  This is a farcical portrayal of the situation, and actually contradicts her own summary of the revolt in the main text.  Cassius was a Roman officer who declared himself Emperor when he heard the rumor that Emperor Marcus Aurelius had died.  In no way can this analagous to an aspiration of the Syrians to be free of Rome.

It is also disturbing that about the only Roman act that meets with unqualified approval is Emperor Caracalla inviting Parthian notables and officers to a wedding, then executing them all an ravaging the countryside.  Way to stay classy, Rose!

There are a number of these distortions and  contradictions.  Sheldon is a professor of Military Intelligence, and you can tell because the word “Intelligence” is sprinkled through the text randomly to prove it.  The summary of Roman intelligence failures is almost amusing.  After trashing Rome for not having a general staff (something that wasn’t invented until about 1700 more years), there’s the amusing labeling of Rome’s use of non-professional generals as “Intelligence Failure”.  Sure, this trait caused problems through Rome’s history, but you can’t make it an intelligence issue just by throwing the word in front.

Even viewing this book as an indictment of US policy, it is a bad book.  The history is distorted and the parallels forced.  As a history of Rome or Parthia, it is worthless.  In places you can see a normal historical narrative peeking through the modern slant, but there’s too much chaff and too little wheat to make the effort.

Anyone know of a good book on the Parthian Wars?