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What if the Roman Empire spread from the forests of Caledonia, in Scotland, to the blazing sands of the Parthian deserts in Iran?

What if Roman traders managed to do commerce from the Iberian peninsula to the Chinese Han Empire?

What if Roman legions managed to conquer the unconquerable lands of the Parthian Empire?

Introduction: Trajan’s Rome.

These ideas might not be as far fetched as we might think. In the year 98 A.D. the Roman throne was claimed and taken by the first foreign emperor in Roman History: Marcus Ulpius Traianus, conqueror of Dacia (Romania), Arabia and Nabatea (Jordan). Born in Italica (Seville), the new emperor started his reign by rebuilding an Empire that crumbled under the rule of the mad and power-hungry Domitian, last undignified representative of the Flavian dynasty, who was soundly defeated by the Dacians. After his death, the rather short reign of Nerva followed, which could have been labelled as uneventful except for the fact he adopted Trajan to solidify the latter’s claim to the throne.

After ascending to the throne and appeasing the people of Rome, Trajan turned his attention to the conflictive Dacians. King Decebalus victories over Domitian’s legions bolstered his confidence and made him disregard the new leader of the Roman Empire. After two campaigns and the building of the largest bridge known to man (Dismantled under the reign of Hadrian), Trajan paid Dacia’s ambition with Roman steel, annexing the entire kingdom and expanding Rome’s borders in Europe. With all the gold and silver obtained in the Dacian campaigns, Trajan managed to reinforce the frontiers against the barbarians in Europe whilst securing the loyalty of both the legions and the Praetorian Guard with the payment of vast amounts of money.

The Parthian Question

Emperor Trajan Article Map 1
Roman Empire before the reign of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty (Trajan is its second emperor)

With the knowledge that he needed to secure the trade routes with the Indian kingdoms and with China (Who the Romans knew as Xeres), Trajan realized that he had to eliminate the middle player who was stuck in the middle of the Silk Road: The Parthian Empire. The šāhān šāh‘s (King of Kings) of Parthia had always impeded access to the Silk Road to all Roman traders, forcing them to undertake dangerous naval expeditions around the Horn of Africa (Known by the Romans as Elephant’s Cape).

This meant that the Romans had to create an improvised canal in Egypt, linking the Mare Nostrum (Mediterranean Sea) with the Eritrean Sea ( Red Sea), and their ships had to border the hostile Arabian peninsula and face pirates every nautical step of the way. A fact that is not known for many people is that the other great empires that divided the world in this time period all knew each other, and where (West to East): Roman Empire, Parthian Empire, Kushan Empire (Middle and northwest of the Indian Peninsula) and Han Empire (China).

Hypothetically, if you were a II century A.D. citizen, you could walk from Lisbon to Beijing without ever leaving these empires. This meant that commerce was a reality (Chinese silk is said to used to make the finest clothes for the upper class of the Roman Empire) and also a necessity for peacetime prosperity. One of the main reasons that the Romans had to go to war was the fact that their economy wasn’t able to sustain itself, a problem that was resolved by invading other lands, taking slaves, spoils of war, and most importantly, having several thousands of new citizens to draw taxes from.

Trajan was aware that the Dacian gold and silver would only last for a short period, and he was also aware that the lands that bordered his Empire (Germania, Sarmatia, Scythia, Caledonia, etc) where a wasteland (in comparison to the rest of Europe he already owned) without riches and populated by peoples who had hated Rome for centuries.

This meant that Trajan had to look East, to the plentiful and rich lands that belonged to the Parthian Empire. The Parthians had always been a thorn on the Roman side, defeating their legions time and time again, and meddling in the internal politics of the client kingdoms closest to their land, who pledged allegiance to Rome (Armenia and Edesa were the kingdoms that caused the Roman-Parthian war during Trajan’s time).

The Romans, who shined in battle thanks to their indestructible infantry, found themselves bitting more than they could chew fighting against Parthian’s elite cavalry and camel units. Even in those unfavourable circumstances, the Parthians made great use of their most deadly weapon: the blazing sands of the desert. The šāhān šāh’s used all of these weapons to great effect: they managed to stop every Roman invasion (when they didn’t launch invasions of their own), and most importantly, the made sure that their eternal enemy never had direct contact with the riches of the Silk Road, firmly in their control.

Trajan found that the conquest of Parthia would give him great benefits: It would solidify his image as a conquering Emperor in the eyes of the people; It would avenge the embarrassing defeats suffered by the Romans in previous times (specially the devastating defeat of Marcus Crassus and the extermination of his six legions); It would eliminate the constant threat of invasion that the Parthians posed (forcing the Romans to have many legions placed in the defence of the Eastern Empire, when they were needed in the Western front against the barbarians).

Diplomatic contact between the Romans and the Kushan Empire was said to be made on several occasions (At the very least the voyage of the Roman trader Maes Titianus shows that the Romans had set foot on India more than once). Being that has it may, the fact is that Trajan seized the change to strike at the Parthians whilst their guard was down. Tensions between the Kushan Empire and the Parthian Empire were at an all-time high, and the Parthians were also dealing with civil war (the east of their Empire supported Vologases III in his fight for the throne against the šāh Osroes I) that severely weakened them. Trajan would not let this perfect chance to strike pass.

Trajan’s Parthian War. The impossible becomes possible?

After gathering his legions and resources in Syria for a year, Trajan set march on Armenia in the year 114 A.D. at the head of eight legions and multiple “vexillationes”, smaller units formed by one or more cohorts from other legions. In total, he commanded an army of over 80,000 thousand men, the biggest army ever to be assembled in Rome’s history. He used the pretext that the Parthians had elected an Armenian king without consulting him as a pretext to start a war against the latter, knowing full well that the Parthians would intervene to defend their puppet king. After a rather easy campaign, the Armenian capital surrendered that same year, and its king killed on Roman orders. 

Emperor Trajan Article Map 2
The Eastern Front

The Parthian Empire was suddenly left alone in the fight, with Trajan securing alliances with the small kingdoms that bordered the frontier between the two empires, and conquering the only kingdom that remained loyal to the Parthians. With only one foe to beat, the Romans marched East once more, hoping to avoid the destiny that the legions of Marcus Crassus and Mark Anthony suffered years before.

Trajan knew very well the reasons why the previous Roman invasions concluded in such a disastrous fashion: the two great rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates, that were always conceived as the natural border between the Empires, were the only safe source of water for the legions, and they also posed a natural barrier against invasions and the building of a supply route.

Trajan knew that winning the battle for the rivers would gain him access to the heart of the Parthian Empire: Ctesiphon (very close to Baghdad), built close to the river Tigris and deemed as unconquerable. He quickly advanced into Northern Mesopotamia from his new province of Osroene, whose King accepted Roman rule in exchange for a semi-autonomous status. After a brutal siege, the city of “Nisibis” (today’s Nusaybin, Turkey) fell, which was important for many reasons. Firstly, the Romans had to cross the Euphrates river to get to the city, an act that never before ended in victory. Secondly, the city allowed Roman control of the land set in between the two great Mesopotamian rivers, which meant that the river Tigris now stood alone in its efforts to stop the Roman wave from crashing into the Parthian forces. 

Parthian cavalry, alongside troops from the Kingdom of Adiabene (One of the last Parthian vassals to answer the šāhān šāh‘s) now stood guard over the river Tigris, preventing the Romans from crossing it without having to get bloody. Trajan left three legions facing the Parthians across the river, leaving both of them on a standstill, and left for Edessa with the rest of his army to consolidate his new conquered land and spend the autumn and winter there. The first phase of the campaign was now finished. 

In the spring of 116 A.D., Trajan left a devastated Antioch (the city was shaken by a powerful earthquake) to resume the campaign against the Parthians. The two armies were still on a stalemate on both banks of the river Tigris, so Trajan decided to cross the river on two different points.

He knew well that the Parthians didn’t have as many men as he did, so he significantly reduced the expected resistance by dividing their troops. To counteract the enemy archers, Trajan built special transport boats equipped with ballistas and wooden parapets (thus the importance of the forests of Nisibis), behind which Roman archers could support the legionnaires. After an intense exchange of arrows, the first Roman boats unloaded several cohorts on the Parthian bank of the river, but these cohorts were a diversion for the completion of Trajan’s plan.

With the Parthians and the soldiers of Adiabene divided into two fronts, the Romans then deployed two extra legions in the centre of the river, which was left unguarded, and started building a provisional bridge tying the boats together. By the time the enemy realized what was happening, thousands of legionnaires and Praetorian cavalry men stormed the Parthians side of the river and annihilated their army.

With the Parthian army destroyed and the road to Ctesiphon now open, the šāhān šāh Osroes I organized the defence of the city against the advancing legions.

Feeling safe behind his huge walls and the natural barrier that the Tigris posed, blocking the Western side of the city, Osroes I called for the armies he had in the East, who were fighting the Parthian rebels, confident in his ability to defend the city until their arrival. The Romans needed to lay siege to the city from both land and water in order to take the city quickly, but their fleet was in the Euphrates, unable to get to the Tigris. The Parthians had a canal that connected both rivers in Ctesiphon, but Osroes had it destroyed before the arrival of Trajan.

In yet another genius move, the Roman Emperor ordered his engineers to build fifty huge wooden rafts, equipped with countless wheels, and pulled by horses and soldiers. Then the Romans got the warships on the rafts, and after pulling them for a bit over 20 miles, they dropped the ships on the Tigris, much to the horror of Osroes, who then decided to abandon the city. In less than a week, the Romans conquered a city that should have taken months, or even years, to yield. Parthia now kneeled before the might of Rome.

This was the moment that Trajan was dreaming for: his European “limes” (borders) were safe with the inclusion of the newly conquered land of Dacia. His legitimacy as a ruler has solidified thanks to his victorious campaigns. His desire for vengeance against an Empire that repeatedly humiliated Rome in the past was now fulfilled, embodied with the symbolic act of sending the famous Parthian throne, made of solid gold, back to Rome alongside the eagles of the defeated legions of Marcus Crassus. His dream of securing a direct trade route with the powers of the East, with Kushan or Xeres, was one step closer, specially after the conquest of Charax (a city that was built right on the head of the Persian Gulf). The conquering of this city was also symbolic for Trajan because it held the monopoly on maritime trade between East and West for centuries.

The only thing left to do now was to spend the rest of the year solidifying his new conquests. But, as fate would have it, this dream was destined to fade as fast as the crippling health of the Emperor. After fending off the Parthians from his newly conquered land, and putting down a Jewish rebellion, Trajan suffered what appears to be a stroke in late 116 A.D. 

The Romans tried to get their weakened Emperor back to Rome, but during the voyage, his health weakened further, so they decided to stop in the Cilician city of Selinus (nowadays Turkey, near Gazipaşa) in the hope that his health would improve enough to continue the journey, but after a few short days, Trajan breathed no more. His impossible dream died with him, and he was forced to watch, from the afterlife, how his nephew and successor, Emperor Hadrian withdrew from all the land that he had conquered, giving back Ctesiphon to the Parthians. This would be the last time where an ambitious Emperor would sit on the Roman throne, and Dacia and Parthia would become the last land to be conquered by Rome. 

The slow death of Rome had just started.

Emperor Trajan Article Map 3
Map of the Roman Empire at its height, under the rule of Emperor Trajan


Michele Leandro Polacci

History graduate at Málaga University (UMA). Passionate about History since a very early age, and looking forward to sharing that same passion.


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