Rome and Parthia: Power Politics and Diplomacy Across Cultural Frontiers
By R. James Ferguson
The Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies Research Paper No. 12 (2005)
Introduction: Modern international relations, though still focused in part on issues of power and power balance, has in recent years been forced to assess a wide range of religious, economic and cultural factors that cross boundaries and form deep linkages among social systems that are transnational in nature. This problem is prominent where national or imperial frontiers expand across areas still linked by trade, religious affiliation, and migration flows, and where the patterns of diplomacy and war themselves form transboundary linkages. Such frontiers were enduring problems that focused the attentions of major civilisations for centuries, e.g. China with its complex frontier-relations to the west and north-west (followed by a sense of vulnerably to European naval power from the south-east, at first via the South China Sea), Russia’s historical obsession with an expanding eastern frontier, and European concern about the power, influence and later instability of the Ottoman Empire. This problem was also found in the Graeco-Roman world, whose interaction with Persia formed one of the great ‘east-west’ dichotomies in European thought. If not exactly ‘transnational’, since modern nation-states had not yet been formed, such ‘trans-imperial’ patterns complicated the creation of stable borders, undermined power-balancing, and reduced the mutual acceptance of zones for cultural and religious interaction. Indeed, it seems likely that ‘notions of state, territory and boundary’ had developed to a substantial degree in Imperial Rome and Sasanid Persia, shaping complex regional interactions during both war and peace.
Persia and Parthia were two of the great ‘others’ that shaped the limits of the Graeco-Roman world, and were also imagined worlds where European values were explored, excluded, and projected. ‘Persia’ invokes a thousand images derived from school textbooks and old movies, most often the image of a huge, slave-based empire that sought to crush the freedom of Athens and the bravery of Sparta. A corrupt despotism that was overthrown by the heroic (if murderous) Alexander the Great. A medieval court replete with viziers and the pomp and ceremony of the east. A declining power engaged with Russia and England in the Great Game of imperial competition and espionage. More recently, a vital region for later European diplomatic, energy and security interests, including a role in the new ‘Great Game’ based on access to oil and gas, both in the Persian Gulf area and the Caspian Sea.
‘Parthia’ invokes much less: usually a null result from many public databases and one or two dated books in local library catalogues. With the exception of academic writing, mainly on the ‘Roman east’, the memory of this extended empire in the English speaking world is usually encapsulated in one vaguely remembered phrase: ‘the Parthian shot’, the surprise tactic that the fleeing horse-archer makes when he turns and shoots back over his shoulder against an over-confident pursuer. More generally it suggests a strategic retreat followed by a devastating counter-attack. We might replace these images with two themes: Parthian power and Persian elegance. Parthia emerged both as the inheritor of early Middle Eastern influences and as the limit of Roman power in the east. It was a strategic and cultural counterbalance whose significance has been underestimated in the Graeco-Roman-centric tendencies of European historiography.