I propose to show that the scholarly consensus on the aims of Antony’s Parthian War of 36 B.C. is mistaken. Antony’s eastern policy was not driven by his desire for a showdown with the Parthians whereby he could achieve glory through avenging the ignominious defeat of the Roman legions commanded by Crassus. Victory in a Parthian war was not the elusive centerpiece of Antony’s eastern policy. Rather Antony sought to contain the Parthian Empire and to secure the cities and kingdoms in the Roman sphere of influence from Parthian meddling. With this aim in mind, the so-called Parthian War of 36 can be rated a success. There is some evidence from antiquity that indicates that it was viewed as such. And yet, the tradition in the sources—unanimously accepted today with only a few reservations—is that Antony was humiliated by the Parthians in a campaign destined for disaster through a combination of poor planning and inept execution on the part of the triumvir. This negative assessment is a product of the historiographical writing of the Augustan period that had to downplay Antony’s achievements in the East even while Augustus himself built on the policy foundations laid by his opponent.
The traditional view that Antony was driven to seek victory over the Parthians in order to secure preeminence over Octavian and that he set out to achieve this in the disastrous expedition of 36 is ubiquitous in modern scholarship—illustrative treatments might be found in Tarn, Debevoise, Syme, Ziegler, Bengtson, Huzar, Sherwin-White (with many reservations), and Pelling. Plutarch’s detailed account of the campaign in his Life of Antony provides the foundation for the narrative. It is, however, precisely in the circumstantial details that questions arise (as noted and mostly explained away by Pelling). I propose to focus on a few key items that call into question the traditional interpretation and point the way to a new one.
First, I shall argue that Antony did not need to defeat Parthia in 36 in order to avenge Crassus, because Ventidius, fighting under Antony’s auspices, had already done so in 39. Secondly, I shall argue that there were ongoing attempts at negotiation between Antony and Phraates (and Herod) both before and during the expedition of 36. In doing this it will be necessary to subject to scrutiny Plutarch’s presentation of the negotiations as ruses and deceptions. Thirdly, I shall argue that Antony’s primary aim was Media itself and that it was Phraates’ half-hearted defense of the kingdom that ultimately drove its king into an alliance with Antony. Fourthly, I shall look at the positive response in Rome to Antony’s war, which is explained away by the sources as a deception on Octavian’s part.
Finally, I shall look at the results of Antony’s campaign in 36 and explore the possibility that they offer better insight into his aims than the confused narrative of the sources. As a result of this expedition Antony recovered the initiative in Roman-Parthian relations. He detached Armenia and Media from Parthian influence, thus allowing him to threaten Parthia’s flank. In doing the latter, he reversed the situation that had confronted Cicero during his governorship of Cilicia when it was the Parthians who had two avenues of attack against the Romans, i.e. into Syria or Cilicia. Now Rome could threaten Parthia with a northern incursion via Media or the traditional one across the Euphrates into Syria. The net effect was to put Parthia on the defensive and to prevent Parthian interference in the Roman sphere of influence in Asia. It was this, rather than head-on confrontation with Parthia, that Antony sought and obtained through the campaign of 36.