Roman tactics against the Persians

One of the enduring myths of the Roman empire (fostered no doubt by Carrahe)is that the Roman legions could not face the Parthian/Sassanid Persian cavalry. The historical record is somewhat different, after Carrahe, the Romans had several centuries of success in what is now Iraq, culmintaing with the capture of the Persian capital of Ctesiphon on no less than 5 occassions.

What were the tactics the Romans used? In Iraq as Alexander the Great showed before the Romand and as Khalid bin Walid showed 600 years later and as 3 Infantry Division did in 2003, it was manoveur (sp?) that mattered, fast dominant manoveur. The legions clearly could not out manoveur the Cataphracts. How did they defeat them then.

Having recently finished Ammianus Marcellinus’ The Later Roman Empire I will venture that Roman success in Persia was highly dependent upon its generally more experienced soldiery, advanced fortification and siege techniques, and its overall persistence in invading Persian territory.

Regardless, IMHO, neither Persia nor Rome can be labeled as the overall victor in the centuries long conflict. Persia should have had the upper-hand, however, considering the battlefields were closer to the center of their empire than Rome. Persia’s problem was that Rome maintained a series of highly fortified cities along the Judean coast (e.g. Antioch) which they could not dislodge.

Essentially the Roman/Persian conflict was a big stalemate. Although both sides won epic victories, neither side could capitalize upon them. Again I am hypothesizing, but Rome could not capitalize on it’s victories due to the geographic distances involved in occupying Persia. As well, I also suspect that ethnic differences between Persians and Romans ensured Persian partisans would never have acquiesced to Roman suzerainty. Likewise, Persia wasn’t able to effectively evict Rome from Judea because of Rome’s collection of fortified strongholds as well as their ability to reinforce those strongholds by drawing upon the empire’s resources.

If you look at the Battle of Dara, Bellesarius lined his men up in front of the city, behind ditches with cavalry to the side and an additional unit of cavalry hidden behind a hill. On the first day of the battle, the Persians tried to attack the flanks, but were driven back. On the second day of the battle, the Persians attacked the center, but but were hit on the flanks and from behind with the cavalry, and they routed.

I don’t know if I’d say the legions couldn’t outmanuver the cataphracts. The Byzantines had their own cataphracts, and the foederati cavalry tended to be lighter and more maneuverable. I would say the two armies were pretty evenly matched, which was one of the reasons neither achieved permanent dominance over the other.

The frontier remained more or less the Euphrates for most of history. But the Romans were able to achieve great success in Persia throughout their history, even when the were on the strategic defensive. Part of the reason would be no doubt the fact that the Persian capital was so exposed and recieved maximum attention from the Romans. But that still dose not explain the success the Romans had.
And incidentally, one of the greatest myths about the Romans; they could not fight in the desert.