Nikolaus Leo Overtoom (Washington State University)
This paper will introduce readers, who perhaps are familiar with the much-discussed militarism and logistical capabilities of the Greeks and Romans, to the underappreciated military and logistical innovations of the Parthians (with a focus on the crucial issue of food and drink organization and supply). The Parthians introduced a new style of warfare and supply to the wider Hellenistic world that reflected their non-traditional, asymmetric approach to warfare (Olbrycht 2016; Overtoom 2017). In so doing they emerged as a major rival to Seleucid power across the Iranian plateau and Mesopotamian basin before reducing the once mighty Seleucid Empire to a minor rump state in western Syria (Overtoom 2020a; Olbrycht 2021a). It was the Parthians, not the Romans who crippled the Seleucids, and it was only the Parthians who successfully resisted the vigorous imperialism of the Romans across the near eastern landscape (Schlude 2020). The Parthians’ military and logistical innovations made their rise to power possible and the position of the Seleucids as hegemons of the Hellenistic Middle East untenable.
Ultimately, the Parthians created a successful empire and efficient military that allowed them to dominate the Middle East for four centuries. Their nomadic roots encouraged them to develop a style of warfare that was unique within the wider Hellenistic world for its maneuverability, flexibility, sustainability, and effectiveness. Their emphasis on smaller, highly mobile, and well-trained cavalry-based armies gave them military and logistical advantages that the Arsacid kings used to conquer much of the Middle East and to resist foreign invasions.
Yet, as this paper discusses, the cavalry-based army of the Parthians also forced them to develop ambitious logistical systems to supply their soldiers with the food, water, and mounts needed to sustain major campaigns of defense and conquest. To address their constant and considerable logistical needs, the Parthians built fortified supply depots, expanded agriculture, developed water management systems, and bred numerous herds of animals for food, mounts, and beasts of burden (Ellerbrock 2021). They became masters of maximizing their resources and navigating the difficult terrain of the Middle East.
Cassius Dio argues that the Parthians were “almost invincible in their own country and in any that has similar characteristics” (40.15.6). Undoubtably, they benefitted greatly from their success in organizing their resources and supplying their army. Their ability to do so supported their unique military and helped them outmaneuver and outlast the typically larger and better resourced armies of the Seleucids and Romans for centuries. Thus, this paper investigates the Parthians’ resources, their diet, and their logistical infrastructure to help explain their military exceptionalism and limitations. No study focused on the logistical capabilities of the Parthians exists, as interest in the Greeks and the Romans dominates the field. Yet this paper sheds light on the advances and accomplishments of the Parthians to emphasize their agency as innovators and imperialists.