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Acta Ant. Hung.

46, 2006, 239–252
DOI: 10.1556/AAnt.46.2006.3.3
EMMA STRUGNELL

VENTIDIUS’ PARTHIAN WAR:
ROME’S FORGOTTEN EASTERN TRIUMPH

Summary: This article considers the Parthian war of Publius Ventidius in 39/8 BC and its place in the
ancient literary tradition. It is argued that although Ventidius’ Parthian campaign retained its popular
emotive force, it was at first considered unsatisfactory as a model for Eastern triumph; the spoils and standards captured at Carrhae in 53 BC remained in Parthian hands, while the campaign itself was punitive
and limited in objectives. Furthermore, Ventidius’ ‘Parthian’ war could equally be viewed as the final
suppression of elements loyal to Brutus and Cassius. It is peculiar that allusions to Ventidius’ triumph are
entirely absent from literature of the Augustan age. This article argues that it was not until after the
deaths of Gaius and Lucius Caesar, and the renewal of trouble on the Northern frontier that the Parthian
campaign came to be seen as recompense for the disaster of Carrhae in 53 BC.
Key words: Publius Ventidius, Quintus Labienus, Pacorus, Parthia.

P. Ventidius (Bassus),1 who was once paraded as captive in the triumph of
Pompeius Strabo,2 was the first and only Roman of the Republic to celebrate a Parthian triumph. Ventidius routed the Parthians in three decisive engagements; in Cilicia and Mt Amanus in 39 BC, and at Gindarus in the following year. His feat had no
equal until Trajan’s capture of Ctesiphon in AD 116. And yet, Ventidius’ victory is
barely alluded to by authors of the Augustan period. This article attempts to elucidate
the possible reasons for Ventidius’ virtual obscurity. It is suggested that although
Ventidius’ Parthian campaign retained its popular emotive force, it was considered
unsatisfactory as a model for Eastern triumph. More significantly, Ventidius’ success
represented a very real challenge to Augustus’ exclusive claim on the gloria of Par1

No contemporary or official evidence gives Ventidius the cognomen ‘Bassus’, and it occurs
only in Gellius, Eutropius and Rufus Festus. On this point see: SEAVER, J. E.: Publius Ventidius – neglected Roman Military Hero. Classical Journal 47 (1951–2) 275; SYME, R.: Sabinus the Muleteer. Latomus 17 (1958) 73–80; WYLIE, G.: P. Ventidius – From novus homo to ‘military hero’. Acta Classica 36
(1993) 139.
2
Gellius 15. 4; Dio Cassius 43. 51. 5.
0044-5975 / $ 20.00 © 2006 Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest

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EMMA STRUGNELL

thian victory. The first princeps ensured that triumph in Parthia was inextricably
linked with his own restoration of the ‘Parthian standards’.
This paper commences with an analysis of the ancient and modern evidence for
reconstructing the career of Ventidius. I reassess Ventidius’ early career as ‘muleteer,’ and consider the Parthian invasion of 39 BC within the context of the Roman
civil war. The battles of Cicilia, Mt Amanus and Gindarus are discussed, as is Ventidius’ triumph at Rome in 38 BC. I conclude with an assessment of the significance of
Ventidius’ campaign in the ancient historical tradition.
SOURCES – ANCIENT AND MODERN
The most informative account of Ventidius’ campaign against the Parthians
was composed some two hundred years after his death.3 No contemporaneous historical accounts are extant. While historians and geographers of the Augustan period do
refer to Ventidius, they provide scant information on his military strategy, motivations, and indeed about his momentous triumph. By their omission of any reference
to Ventidius’ campaign, the Augustan poets – Horace, Virgil, Propertius and Ovid –
imply that no such victory had taken place.
Dio Cassius’ narrative, while brief, represents our most comprehensive source
of information on the battles themselves. Dio suggests that Mark Antony perceived
Ventidius as a rival to his own military prestige, and jealousy guarded the gloria associated with his successes. Dio’s account may be supplemented by references by
Valerius Maximus, Plutarch, Pliny, Josephus, Appian, Eutropius, and Aulus Gellius.4
The paucity of references to Ventidius in the ancient literature is reflected by
modern scholars. I am aware of only three articles which specifically concern the life
of Ventidius; O. E Schmidt’s P. Ventidius Bassus (1892), J. E. Seaver’s Publius Ventidius – neglected Roman Military Hero (1951–2), and most recently, G. P. Wylie’s
P. Ventidius – From ‘novus homo’ to ‘military hero’ (1997). The insights of Syme,
Badian and Fündling have been invaluable.5 And while Ventidius is mentioned in the
Cambridge Ancient History,6 he fares far better in the standard works on Parthian po-

3

I refer to the account of Dio Cassius 48. 39. 2 – 48. 41. 6. Appian’s Parthica, in which he described the campaign at length is not extant.
4
Val. Max. 6. 9. 9; Plutarch, Antony 34. 5; Pliny, NH 7. 43, 7. 135; Jos. BJ 1. 284f, 309; Appian,
Bell. Civ. 4. 2, 5. 65; Eutropius (Brev. 7. 5). Fronto states that Ventidius borrowed an encomium composed by Sallust for his triumphal address. Fronto, Ad Ver. Imp. 2. 1. 5.
5
SYME, R.: Roman Revolution. Oxford 1939, 223–224 and Sabinus (n. 1) 73–80; BADIAN, E.:
Notes on Senators of the Roman Republic. Historia 12 (1963) 141–142; J. FÜNDLING in PWRE 12/2,
Stuttgart 2002, 14–15. E. MERRILL’s Ventidius and Sabinus (Classical Philology 15 [1920] 298–300) is
concerned only with the identification of Ventidius as Sabinus. D. KENNEDY’s recent article (Parthia and
Rome: Eastern perspectives. In The Roman Army in the East. Ed. D. KENNEDY. Ann Arbor 1996, 68–90)
provides a brief summary of the Parthian campaign.
6
TARN, W. W.: The Triumvirs. In Cambridge Ancient History X. Eds. S. A. COOK – F. E. ADCOCK – M. P. CHARLESWORTH. Cambridge 1934, 47–51; PELLING, C.: The Triumviral period. In Cambridge Ancient History X. Eds. A. K. BOWMAN – E. CHAMPLIN – A. LINTOTT. Cambridge 1996, 21–24.
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litical history; Rawlinson’s Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy (1873), Debevoise’s Political History of Parthia (1938), and Bivar’s Political History of Iran Under the Arsacids (1983).7 The numismatic evidence, in the form of a rare denarius struck by Ventidius, is discussed by Buttrey, Crawford and Grueber.8
EARLY CAREER
The ‘career’ of Ventidius was for the ancients an outstanding example of the
caprice of Fortune.9 Paraded in his mother’s lap (Appian Bell. Civ. 15. 4) or led in
chains (Dio Cassius 43. 51. 5) after Asculum,10 Ventidius is the archetypal novus
homo whose Parthian triumph provides a fitting contrast to his earlier misfortune.11
Thus Valerius Maximus reflects on changes in character and fortune;
Asculo capto Cn. Pompeius Magni pater P. Ventidium aetate in puberem
in triumpho suo populi oculis subiecit. Hic est Ventidius, qui postea Romae ex Parthis et per Parthos de Crassi manibus in hostili solo miserabiliter iacentibus triumphum duxit. Ita qui captivus carcerem exhorruerat, victor Capitolium felicitate celebravit.
“When Asculum was captured, Cn. Pompeius, father of Magnus, subjected P. Ventidius, still a child, to the eyes of the people at his triumph.
This is the Ventidius who later triumphed in Rome over the Parthians,
and through the Parthians, over the shade of Crassus lying miserably on
enemy soil. So, as a captive he had shuddered at the prison, as a victor he
crowned the capital with his felicity.”12
And Juvenal,
Si Fortuna volet, fies de rhetore consul;
Si volet haec eadem, fies de consule rhetor.
Ventidius quid enim? quid Tullius? anne aliud quam
sidus et occulti miranda potentia fati?
Servis regna dabunt, captivis fata triumphum.
————
See also SHERWIN-WHITE, A. N.: Roman Foreign Policy in the East: 168 BC to AD 1. London 1984,
303–304.
17
RAWLINSON, G.: Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy. London 1873, 189, 197; DEBEVOISE, N. C.:
A Political History of Parthia. Chicago 1938, 114–120; BIVAR, A. D. H.: The Political History of Iran
Under the Arsacids. In Cambridge History of Iran 3.1. Ed. E. YARSHATER. Cambridge 1983, 57–58.
18
BUTTREY, T. V.: The denarius of P. Ventidius. American Numismatic Society Museum Notes 9
(1960) 95–108; GRUEBER, H. A.: Coins of the Roman Republic in the British Museum. London 1973,
2.403, no. 73; CRAWFORD, M.: Roman Republican Coinage. Cambridge 1974, 1.533, no. 531 and 2, pl.
LXIII no. 531.
19
Juvenal, Sat. 7. 197; Pliny, NH 7. 43.
10
Gellius 15. 4; Dio Cassius 43. 51. 5.
11
Nihil adeo de quoquam tantae admirationi fuit, quantae fuerunt quae Ventidio Basso scripta
sunt (Gellius 15. 4. 2); Valerius Maximus (6. 9. 9) describes Ventidius as captive.
12
Val. Max. 6. 9. 9.
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“If Fortune so choose, you will become a consul from a rhetor; if again
she wills so, you will become a rhetor from a consul. What of Ventidius
and Tullius? What made their fortunes but the stars and the wondrous
potency of the secret Fate? The Fates will give kingdoms to a slave, triumph to a captive.”13
And Pliny,
[Fortuna] triumphare P. Ventidium de Parthis voluit quidem solum, sed
eundem in triumpho Asculano Cn. Pompei duxit puerum
“It is true that she [Fortune] willed that P. Ventidius alone should win a
triumph from the Parthians, but she also in her boyhood led him captive
in Gnaeus Pompey’s triumph after Asculum.”14
While the ancient sources are unanimous in their assessment of Ventidius’ role
in Strabo’s triumph, modern historians have seen Ventidius as a citizen freed from
enemy oppression,15 or as a slave.16 Nor may Ventidius, as Syme has conclusively
demonstrated, be identified with the Sabinus mentioned by Virgil.17 The circumstances of Ventidius’ birth and appearance in the triumph of Strabo in 89 BC must
remain in the realm of conjecture.
Certainly, Ventidius began his adult life in humble circumstances.18 Both Cicero and Planus suggest he began life as a muleteer.19 Gellius is probably more accurate in describing Ventidius as was a buyer of mules and carriages, a position which
he had contracted from the state to furnish the magistrates who had been allotted
provinces.20 He was later responsible for the baggage train during Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul.21 The appellation thus reflects Ventidius’ known activities in transport and logistics rather than any close association with mules, per se.22
Ventidius rose to political authority under the patronage of two of the late Republic’s leading statesmen; Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Ventidius first came in
contact with Caesar while the latter was preparing his Gallic campaigns,23 and impressed the general with his energy and efficiency.24 He was enrolled in senate under

13

Juvenal, Sat. 7. 197–201.
Pliny, NH 7. 43.
15
BADIAN (n. 5) 142.
16
H. Gundel s. v. P. Ventidius Bassus in PWRE VIII/A. Stuttgart 1955, 815. His father is listed in
the fasti triumphales as the first in the family to hold office at Rome. Badian (n. 11) 141; Wylie (n. 1)
129.
17
Virgil, Catalepton 10; SYME: Sabinus (n. 1) 80.
18
Gellius, ‘loco humili’ 15. 4. 3;
19
Cicero, cited in Pliny, NH 7. 43. 135; Cicero (Plancus) Ad Fam. 10. 18. 3, where he is described
as ‘mulio’.
20
Gellius 15. 4. 3.
21
Gellius 15. 4. 3.
22
Syme reflects that T. Flavius Vespasianus, a senator of consular rank, was called in derision
‘mulio’ for his activities in transport operations. Suet. Vesp. 4. 3; SYME: Sabinus (n. 1) 77.
23
Gellius 15. 4; Dio Cassius 43. 41. 4.
24
Appian, Bell. Civ. 3. 270 and 3. 393–398; Gellius 15. 4. 3.
14

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Caesar circa 47/6 BC,25 possibly, as Gundel suggests, simply to fill up the numbers.26
Ventidius progressed rapidly through the cursus honorum; in 45 BC he was elected
as tribune of the plebs,27 and held the positions of pontifex, praetor and consul suffectus in 43 BC after Octavian had resigned from the latter.28 Ventidius’ base origins
were recalled in popular voice at the time of his election as consul,
Concurrite omnes augures, haruspices!
Portentum inusitatum conflatum est recens;
Nam mulas qui fricabat, consul factus est.
“Assemble, soothsayers and augurs all!
A portent strange has taken place of late;
For he who curried mules is consul now.”29
In 42 BC, Ventidius acted as Antony’s legate in Gallia Narbonensis and was
present at the siege of Perusia.30 There is, however, no evidence to suggest that Ventidius engaged in any military encounter whilst in Gaul.31 In 39 BC Ventidius was
sent by Antony as proconsul of Asia and Syria to repel the Parthian invasion.
PARTHIAN INVOLVEMENT IN THE CIVIL WARS
Ventidius’ campaign in Parthia was not simply a question of Roman arms
against barbarian foe, but can also be perceived in the context of Roman civil war.
Leading Roman statesmen – Pompey and Cassius Longinus – had negotiated with the
Parthians to ensure their succour against the Caesarian faction; Pompey dispatched
C. Lucilius Hirrus to King Orodes to request aid against Caesar soon after the battle
of Pharsalia on 9 August 48 BC,32 and Cassius Longinus sent Quintus Labienus to
secure their support against Octavian and Antony. Cassius is found in Syria at the
end of 44 BC, and is presumed to have made contact with the Parthian King before
his own arrival.33 A detachment of Parthians composed part of his army at the battle
of Phillipi in 42 BC.34
Labienus remained at the Parthian court after Phillipi and encouraged Orodes
to attacksSyria, believingsit to be an easy target as Roman energies were distracted in
25

Dio Cassius 43. 51. 4f; FÜNDLING (n. 5) 14–15.
GUNDEL (n. 16) 798; WYLIE (n. 1) 131.
BROUGHTON, T. R.: Magistrates of the Roman Republic. New York 1951–2, 2.308.
28
Ventidius became consul suffectus after the 27 November, 43 BC. Cf. Cic. Phil. 13. 26, 14. 21;
Vell. Pat. 2. 65. 3; Val. Max. 6. 9. 9; Appian, Bell. Civ. 4. 2; Dio Cassius 40. 15. 2; DEGRASSI, A. (ed.):
Inscriptiones Italicae. Rome 1931, 13.1.274.
29
Preserved in Gellius 15. 4. 3.
30
Appian, Bell. Civ. 5. 32. As noted by BUTTREY (n. 8) 105, there is no evidence that Ventidius
engaged in any military encounter whilst in Gaul.
31
See SEAVER (n. 1) 277.
32
Caesar, Bell. Civ. 3. 82. 5; Dio Cassius 42. 2. 5; Justin 42. 4. 6.
33
DABROWA, E.: La politique de l’état parthe à l’égard de Rome. Diss. Krakow 1983, 35.
34
Justin 42. 4. 7, Appian, Bell. Civ. 4. 59, 63, 133, 88; Dio Cassius 47. 30. 3.
26
27

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EMMA STRUGNELL

Q. Labienus. Silver Denarius, Antioch. 40 BC. Obv.: Q. LABIENUS PARTHICUS. IMP. Head of
Labienus r. Rev.: Horse facing r., saddled and bridled, with bow case hanging from saddle. (GRUEBER,
H. A.: Coins of the Roman Republic in the British Museum. London 1970, II 500.132; SYDENHAM, E.:
The Coinage of the Roman Republic. London 1952, 1357.) Photo: Classical Numismatic Group.

the Perusine wars.35 Dabrowa is probably closer to the truth in seeing Labienus as a
mere instrument of Orodes’ Syrian aspirations.36 Labienus is the first Roman to assume the title of ‘Parthicus,’37 and the title ‘Parthicus Imperator’ appears on both
gold aurei and silver denarii minted at Antioch.
Under the joint command of Labienus and the Parthian heir, Pacorus, the Parthians crossed the Euphrates in 39 BC and succeeded in overrunning Syria, much of
Asia and as far south as Jerusalem,38 even killing the Roman governor of Syria, Decidius Saxa. The Roman troops of Syria, many of whom had fought for the Republican
cause, flocked to the Parthian side. The Roman ‘client’ Kings proved either unwilling
or incompetent.39 Munatius Plancus, proconsul of Asia, even fled to refuge on an Aegean island,40 while at Jerusalem, Pacorus set up as king one Antigonus, from a
minor branch of the Royal house.41 Dio’s narrative reveals a split in the invading
army; Pacorus retained the Parthian forces while Labienus depended on Roman deserters and native recruits.42

35
After the battle of Philippi in 42 BC, and learning that those who had supported the Republican
cause were condemned under the proscriptions, Labienus threw in his lot with the Parthian cause. Liv.
Per. 127; Strabo 12. 8. 9, 14. 2. 24; Vell. Pat. 2. 78; Tac. Ann. 2. 62; Plut. Antony 28. 1; Appian, Bell.
Civ. 5. 10; Dio Cassius 48. 24. 3–27; Florus 2. 19; Justin 42. 4. 7; Ruf. Fest. Brev. 18; Zonaras 10. 22;
BIVAR (n. 7) 57. Labienus believed it would not be difficult to conquer Syria given the unstable political
situation of the empire and disorganisation of regiments in the province. Dio Cassius 48. 24. 6–8. Indeed
the last remnants of Brutus and Cassius’ army were in Syria, DABROWA (n. 33) 36. For the Perusine war,
see Appian, Bell. Civ. 5. 32–39.
36
DABROWA (n. 33) 36; KENNEDY (n. 5) 79.
37
Dio Cassius 48. 26. 5; Strabo 14. 2. 24.
38
WYLIE (n. 1) 136. They had killed the governor of Syria, Decidius Saxa.
39
The Roman governors had mistreated their subjects, as noted by Dio Cassius 48. 24; DEBEVOISE (n. 7) 117.
40
Dio Cassius 48. 26. 3 (incorrectly dated); SYME: Roman Revolution (n. 5) 223.
41
For Antigonus’ usurpation of the Judean throne, see Jos. BJ 1. 268–273. Jos. BJ 1. 284 records
that Caesar declared Antigonus guilty of contempt for having accepted the crown from Parthian hands.
42
Jos. BJ 1. 248 and AJ 14. 330; Dio Cassius 48. 39. 3, 48. 40. 5; KENNEDY (n. 5) 80.

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VENTIDIUS’ PARTHIAN CAMPAIGN
The Parthian occupation of Syria did immense damage to Roman regional
prestige, and soon after the treaty of Brundisium in 40 BC, Ventidius was sent as
proconsul of Syria and Asia to restore Roman authority in the East.43 Yet Ventidius’
Parthian campaign was limited both in scope and objectives; it was to be punitive and
face-saving. He aimed only to secure those territories which had been under Roman
rule or protection. This is made clear in the accounts of Josephus (BJ 1. 286) and Plutarch (Ant. 32); Ventidius had been sent from Syria to check the Parthian advance.
The Parthians had assumed that the Romans would adopt a strategy similar to
that of Crassus at Carrhae in 53 BC.44 Ventidius, however, employed a strategy which
demonstrated that he had learnt from triumvir’s mistakes; exploiting the advantages
of surprise, of fighting in small, mobile detachments, and of deception. At the Cilician Gates (39 BC) and Gindarus (38 BC), Ventidius, rather than facing the full onslaught of the Parthian forces, remained on high ground and lured the Parthians to
charge up the incline.45
After recovering Cilicia in 39 BC, Ventidius sent Pompaedius Silo ahead to the
Taurus while he attended to the province’s administration. Ventidius arrived at Mt
Amanus just in time to rescue his subordinate, who faced destruction at the hands of
Phranapates, a legate of Pacorus.46
No ancient authority records the granting of any reward to Ventidius for the
successes in Cilicia and at Mt Amanus. Yet, as Antony assumed the title of imperator
for the second time after these victories, it is likely that Ventidius also received this
acclamation.47 The senate decreed Antony both eulogies and thanksgivings, and he
celebrated with lavish entertainments in Athens, including an athletic contest over
which he himself presided.48

43
The date of Antony’s command is disputed by the ancient authorities. While Appian (5. 65.
276) suggests Ventidius’ command was negotiated soon after Brundisium, Dio Cassius (48. 39. 1–2) and
Plutarch (Antony 32. 1) state that Ventidius was not sent until after the treaty of Misenium in the winter
of 40/39 BC. The later date is favoured by GUNDEL (n. 16) 807, while SYME (Roman Revolution [n. 5]
223) upholds the earlier date. For discussion of the date, see WYLIE (n. 1) 135.
44
Sources for the battle in Cilicia are Dio Cassius 48. 40; Frontinus, Strat. 2. 5. 36 and Florus 2.
20. 6; For Mt Amanus, Strabo 16. 2. 8; Dio Cassius 48. 41 and Frontinus, Strat. 1. 1. 6, 2. 5. 36–37; and
Gindarus, Dio Cassius 49. 19. 2–3 and Frontinus, Strat. 1. 1. 6; DEBEVOISE (n. 7) 115f.
45
Dio Cassius 48. 40. 2, “because they had been victorious once before, [the Parthians] despised
their opponents and rode up the hill at dawn, without even waiting to join forces with Labienus” and 49.
20. 1, “they imputed sloth and weakness to the Romans and therefore marched against their camp, although it was on high ground, expecting to take it without resistance.” It is peculiar that there is no mention of Parthian archers in Dio’s narrative, as observed by TARN (n. 6) 50–51 and SEAVER (n. 1) 278.
This may, however, be a reflection of the poor narrative tradition rather than the actuality of the situation.
Certainly it is inconceivable that the Parthians would commit such a grave tactical blunder so soon after
Carrhae.
46
Dio Cassius 48. 41. 3. Josephus (BJ 1. 245) gives his name as ‘Barzapharnes’.
47
Dio Cassius 48. 41. 6. The numismatic evidence discussed by BUTTREY (n. 8) would suggest
Ventidius was acclaimed as imperator on this occasion.
48
Plut. Antony 32.

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VENTIDIUS IMPERATOR
While deception is despised in the enemy, Ventidius’ use of guile is upheld as
an exemplar of superior military virtue.49 Perceiving the perfidy of a certain Pharnaeus of Cyrrhestica,50 Ventidius sent out false reports in order to influence the Parthian strategy.
Ventidius Parthos et Labienum, alacres successibus victoriarum, dum
suos ipse per simulationem metus continet, evocavit et in loca iniqua deductos aggressus per obreptionem adeo debellavit, ut destituto Labieno
provincia excederent Parthi.
“Ventidius, keeping his own men in camp on pretence of fear, caused the
Parthians and Labienus, who were elated with victorious successes, to
come out for battle. And having lured them into an unfavourable situation, he attacked them by surprise and so overwhelmed them that the Parthians refused to follow Labienus and evacuated the province.”51
When Pacorus’ forces invaded Syria for a second time, Ventidius expressed a
‘fear’ that the Parthians might abandon the strategic crossing at the Zeugma, in favour of a level crossing downstream. Pacorus, believing the ruse, crossed through a
flat district where the Parthian cavalry were at a distinct disadvantage.
Ventidius had succeeded in manipulating Parthian strategy to Roman advantage, and his accomplishment is unique among Roman emperors and generals; Ventidius alone defeated his opposing Parthian commander in battle. This was a feat which
neither Trajan, Lucius Verus, Septimius Severus nor Caracalla – all emperors who
sacked the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon – could equal.
Pacorus was killed at the battle of Gindarus in 38 BC,52 and his decapitated
head was displayed in the reconquered cities as an admonition to potential traitors.53
It was, however, only after Pacorus’ death that Ventidius could reconquer Syria; the
Syrians had felt unusual respect for the Parthian’s justice and moderation. The death
of Pacorus also proved to be a critical turning point in the history of Parthia, for as
Justin relates, ‘in no other war did the Parthians ever receive a greater blow.’54
Plutarch and Dio Cassius allege that Ventidius refrained from further conquest
in Parthia so as not to provoke the jealousy of Antony.55 Instead, Ventidius satisfied
himself exacting fines56 (or bribes)57 from monarchs who had rebelled against Ro49

Seaver describes it as ‘perhaps the most famous military stratagem of ancient history.’ SEAVER
(n. 1) 279.
50
Strabo 16. 2. 8 has ‘Phranicates,’ Dio Cassius 49. 19f has ‘Channaeus’.
51
Front. Stat. 2. 5. 36.
52
Strabo 16. 2. 8; Dio Cassius 49. 20. 3.
53
Dio Cassius 49. 20. 4; WYLIE (n. 1) 137.
54
Justin 42. 4. 10. For the effect of the death of Pacorus on internal affairs in Parthia, see Justin
42. 4. 11–16; RAWLINSON (n. 7) 195f; DEBEVOISE (n. 7) 120.
55
Plut. Antony 34. 2; Dio Cassius 49. 20. 10.
56
Jos. BJ 1. 316; Dio Cassius 48. 41. 5.
57
Jos. AJ 14. 392 and BJ 1. 288–289; Plut. Antony 34. 2–4.
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man authority. Ventidius also commenced a siege of Samosata in Commagene, ostensibly because its ruler, Antiochus, had not delivered up the Parthian refugees.
Ventidius in fact desired the king’s vast wealth.58
Antony arrived unexpectedly to receive the capitulation of Commagene, perhaps, as Plutarch and Dio suggest, wishing to preserve for himself at least some of
the gloria won by his subordinate.59 Yet the siege of Samosata was hardly a success,
and Antony was ultimately forced to settle for the payment of a sum some seven hundred talents less than what Antiochus had offered Ventidius. Certainly Ventidius had
incurred Antony’s displeasure, for he was dismissed from his command and was not
employed by Antony again.60 The circumstances and reasons for Ventidius’ dismissal, however, must remain conjectural.
Although the siege of Samosata was unsuccessful, and the peace was in fact
concluded on humiliating terms, the senate voted Antony a triumph and thanksgivings, but also extended these honours to Ventidius.61 Antony was not present at the
celebrations, a fact which may suggest a level of hostility between Antony and his
proconsul. Ventidius’ triumph is listed in the Fasti Triumphales for the year A.U.C
715 (38 BC),
P. VENTIDIVS P. F. PRO CO(N)S(ULE) EX TAURO AN DCCX[V]
MONTE E PARTHEIS V K. DECEM.62
Certainly Ventidius had attained a level of extraordinary popularity, and he
was given the exceptional honour of a state funeral soon after his return from the
East.63 His grave has been identified on the Via Appia, and is dated to 35 BC.64
The only numismatic evidence is in the form of a rare denarius struck by Antony which bears the reverse inscription ‘P. VENTIDI PONT. IMP.’ The obverse depicts a bearded head of Antony, while the reverse, Jupiter Victor holding an olive (or
laurel) in his left hand.65 It was most certainly from an Asiatic mint, though found
exclusively in the Chanteney Hoard in France.66 The exact date of issue is, however,
a source of some controversy. Early numismatists such as Lenormant67 and Babelon68 believed this coin was minted after Ventidius’ success at Gindarus in 38 BC.
Grueber believed that the issue dates from during or before the siege of Perusia in 41

58

Dio Cassius 49. 20. 5.
Plut. Antony 34. 4; Dio Cassius 49. 21. 1.
60
Dio Cassius 49. 20. 1–2.
61
Dio Cassius 49. 20. 1.
62
DEGRASSI (n. 28) 13. 1, 87; Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. Eds.: E. BORMANN – G. HEN2
ZEN. Berlin 1869 (2000), I 50, 180.
63
Gellius 15. 4. 4., citing Suet. frag. 210.
64
For the grave identification, see VON SYDOW, W.: Die Grabexedra eines römischen Feldherrin.
Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäeologischen Instituts 89 (1974) 187–216.
65
GRUEBER (n. 8) 403, no. 73; CRAWFORD (n. 8) 533 no. 531, Pl. LXIII no. 531.
66
BUTTREY (n. 8) 99. Only twelve specimens are known.
67
LENORMANT, F.: La monnaie dans l’antiquité. Paris 1878–79, 2. 351.
68
BABELON, E.: Description historique et chronologique des monnaies de la République romaine.
Paris 1885–86, 2. 527.
59

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or 40 BC.69 I must concur, however, with the assessment of Buttrey, who dates the
issue to soon after the battle of the Taurus in 39 BC, after which Ventidius was acclaimed as imperator.70
VENTIDIUS’ TRIUMPH AND THE HISTORICAL TRADITION
The only author of the Augustan period to allude to Ventidius’ successes is
Livy, and the surviving fragments of his history (Per. 126, 128) suggest that he
viewed the invasion in the context of the civil wars. While Livy mentions Ventidius’
defeat of Labienus and erroneously, the ‘Parthian King,’ does not mention the triumph.71 No mention is made of Ventidius by the Augustan poets Virgil, Horace,
Ovid or Propertius,72 and certainly not by Augustus himself.
It is apparent, however, that Ventidius’ victory was remembered well into the
third century. Later generations viewed Ventidius’ defeat of Pacorus as recompense
for the national disgrace of Carrhae.73 This is made abundantly clear in the accounts
of Strabo and Valerius Maximus.74 For Tacitus (Germ. 37) the Parthians provide a
fruitful contrast to the bellicose warriors of Germany, and he asks,
Quid enim aliud nobis quam caedem Crassi, amisso et ipse Pacoro, infra
Ventidium deiectus Oriens obiecerit?
“What taunt, indeed, has the East for us, apart from the overthrow of
Crassus – the East which itself fell at the feet of Ventidius and lost Pacorus?”75

69

GRUEBER (n. 8) 403–404 no. 1.
BUTTREY (n. 8) 107.
71
At Per. 126, P. Ventidius Antonii legatos Parthios proelio victos Syria expulit Labieno eorum
duce occisio. “P. Ventidius, Antony’s deputy, defeated the Parthians in battle and drove them out of
Syria, after Labienus their leader lost his life”, and Per. 128, P. Ventidius legatus M. Antonii Parthos in
Syria proelio vicit regemque eorum occidit. “P. Ventidius, the deputy of Mark Antony, won a battle with
the Parthians in Syria and killed their king.” The ‘Parthian King’ is of course, the Parthian heir, Pacorus.
72
Although Horace (Odes 3. 6. 9–12) and Ovid (Fasti 6. 465–468) have been cited in this context,
I find the lines in question make no reference to Ventidius, his triumph or the death of Pacorus. The lines
of the fasti in question, although describing Crassus’ disaster and predicting Roman vengeance, make no
mention to either Ventidius, his triumph or Pacorus.
73
That it was indeed a national disgrace is emphasised by Ovid, Fasti 5. 587–588. The loss of the
Roman legionary standards is described as ‘dedecus aevi’.
74
Strabo 16. 1. 28, kaˆ aÙtoˆ ¥rxantej tÁj m£chj tîn ‡swn œtucon, ¹n…ka œpemyan ™pˆ t¾n
'As…an P£koron. Val. Max. 6. 9. 9, per Parthos de Crassi minibus in hostili solo miserabiliter iacentibus triumphum duxit.
75
Horace, Odes 3. 6. 9–12 has been cited in this context. Iam bis Monaeses et Pacori manus / non
auspicatos contudit impetus / nostros et adiecisse praedam / torquibus exiguis renidet, “Already twice
Monaeses and Pacorus have crushed our ill-starred onslaughts, and now beam with joy to have added
spoil from us to their paltry necklaces.” The passage in question contains no reference to the Parthian
defeat of Ventidius, either explicit or implicit. Ovid’s Fasti 6. 465–468 (V Ides) has been cited as
evidence that the battle of Gindarus occurred on the same day as the disaster of Crassus fifteen years
70

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Thus for Tacitus, Ventidius’ defeat of Pacorus went some way to avenge Carrhae,
even if this was not the objective of the campaign. Plutarch similarly states,
Toàto tÕ œrgon ™n to‹j ¢oidimwt£toij genÒmenon `Rwma…oij te tîn
kat¦ Kr£sson ¢tuchm£twn œkplew poi¾n p£resce
“This exploit, which became one of the most celebrated, gave the Romans full satisfaction for the disaster under Crassus.”76
And Florus,
Sic Crassianam cladem Pacori caede pensavimus
“Thus we obtained compensation for the disaster of Crassus by the
slaughter of Pacorus.”77
Dio Cassius relates that the Roman senate extended the triumph to Ventidius,
¤te kaˆ t¾n sumfor¦n t¾n ™pˆ toà Kr£ssou sf…si genomšnhn
ƒkanètata to‹j P£rqoij di¦ toà PakÒrou, kaˆ m£lisq' Ôti ™n tÍ
aÙtÍ ¹mšrv ˜katšrou toà œtouj ¢mfÒtera sunhnšcqh
“since they felt that he had fully requited the Parthians, through the death
of Pacorus, for the disaster which had been suffered by the Romans in
the time of Crassus, especially since both events had taken place on the
same day in both years.”78
The association of the deaths of Crassus and Pacorus was strengthened by the
patriotic belief that the battles of Carrhae and Gindarus had occurred on the same
day, fifteen years apart.79
Dio’s account implies that Antony was himself reluctant to confer triumphal
honours on Ventidius, and implies that the senate extended the triumph to Ventidius
for political purposes.80 The honour was not, as Dio suggests, exceptional; Dio
reflects the conditions for receiving a triumph of his own age, and incorrectly states
that Ventidius was not entitled to triumphal honours, ¤te oÙk aÙtokr£twr ín ¥ll'
˜tšrJ Øpostrathgîn.81 This change to the conditions of triumph, which also affected the right to deposit the spolia opima, took place in the early principate of
————
earlier although this passage makes no reference to Ventidius or his triumph but only the foundation of
the temple of Mars Ultor by Augustus.
76
Plut. Antony 34. 2.
77
Florus (2. 19. 7) puts the total Parthian losses at 20,000 lives.
78
Dio Cassius 49. 20. 1; Eut. Brev. 7. 5 Eo tempore m. Agrippa in aquitania rem prospere gessit
et L. Ventidius Bassus inrumpentes in Syriam Persas tribus proeliis vicit. Pacorum, regis Orodis filium,
interfecit eo ipso de, quo olim orodes persarum rex per ducem Surenam Crassum occiderat.
79
Dio Cassius (49. 20. 2) and Rufus Festus (18) suggest that the battles of Carrhae and Gindarus
took place on the same day, although this has been rejected by modern scholars such as GUNDEL (n. 16)
811; SEAVER (n. 1) 279; WYLIE (n. 1) 13.
80
TARN (n. 6) 49–50.
81
Dio Cassius 48. 6. 5; followed by SEAVER (n. 1) 278.
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Augustus.82 The Fasti Triumphales confirm that Ventidius was, in fact, acting with
independent authority as Proconsul.83 Moreover, Antony’s general Gn. Asinius Pollio
had received triumphal honours in reward for the suppression of the Illyrian Parthini
only one year previously.
Certainly Ventidius’ triumph could never be upheld as an example of the hardy
Roman defeating the ‘effeminate’ Parthian, for Livy, Velleius Paterculus, Appian
and Justin emphasise the role played by Labienus in the campaign.84 Ventidius’ expedition could thus be perceived as the final suppression of elements loyal to Brutus
and Cassius.85 Dio’s qualification of Ventidius’ triumph thus reflects a level of popular anxiety about the ‘appropriateness’ of the honours; triumphs were not accorded
for Roman civil wars, or for recovering what had been Roman property.86 Ventidius’
Parthian triumph thus represents a relaxation of triumphal criterion in the late Republic.
VENTIDIUS AND THE AUGUSTAN SETTLEMENT
Ventidius’ triumph was regarded as a temporary measure rather then permanent solution to the metus Parthicus. No territorial acquisitions were made, and
territories formerly under Roman rule were simply re-conquered. Moreover, the standards and prisoners taken at Carrhae remained in Parthian hands. Poets of the Augustan age clamour for a punitive expedition to obliterate the memory of this defeat.87
These authors portray the standards as critical to the restoration of Roman honour; by
their silence, they imply that Ventidius’ campaign did little to restore Rome’s
wounded pride. Thus Ovid decries,
signa, decus belli, Parthus Romana tenebat,
Romanaeque aquilae signifer hostis erat.
isque pudor mansisset adhuc, nisi fortibus armis
Caesaris Ausoniae protegerentur opes.
ille notas veteres et longi deducus aevi
sustulit: agnorunt signa recepta suos.
“The Parthians kept the Roman standards, the glory of war, and a foe
was the standard-bearer of the Roman eagle. That shame would have en82

See SYME: Roman Revolution (n. 5) 308; HARRISON, S. J.: Augustus, The Poets, and the
“Spolia Opima”. Classical Quarterly N.S 39/2 (1989) 409–410.
83
DEGRASSI (n. 28) 13. 1, 87; CIL (n. 62) I2 50, 180.
84
Livy, Per. 126; Vell. Pat. 2. 65. 3; Appian, Bell. Civ. 5. 65; Justin 42. 4. 7. On the apparent role
of Labienus in Parthian foreign policy, see DABROWA (n. 33) 35f.
85
This is explicitly cited as a justification of Antony’s later invasion, by Justin (42. 5. 2–3).
86
Val. Max. (2. 8. 1–7) and Gellius (5. 6. 20–21) provide details on the conditions of a Roman
triumph.
87
Poets of the Augustan period clamour for the restitution of Roman honour. See, for example,
Horace, Odes 1. 12. 53, 3. 5. 2 and Carmen Saeculare 3. 5. 2–12; Propertius 2. 10. 13; Ovid, Ars Amat. 1.
198. Carrhae remained the justification for later attempts to invade Parthia. See also BIVAR (n. 7) 66.
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dured till now, had not Ausonia’s empire been guarded by Caesar’s powerful arms. He put an end to the old reproach, to the disgrace of a whole
generation: the recovered standards new their true owners again”88 (my
emphasis – E. S.).
The virtual omission of Ventidius’ narrative from texts of the Augustan period
is perhaps unsurprising. Any reference to the victories of 39–38 BC would necessarily enhance the gloria of Antony, and moreover recall the turbulence and insecurity
of the civil wars at a time when the city craved normalcy.89 Victory in Parthia was to
become exclusively associated with the Augustan settlement of 20 BC.90
Augustus’ restoration of the Parthian standards was too envisaged as a temporary measure, a brief respite before renewed aggression in the East. The task of a
punitive campaign in Parthia was in fact entrusted to Augustus’ grandson, Gaius Caesar, whose departure for the East in 2 BC coincided with the dedication of the temple
of Mars Ultor. Gaius appears specifically as Ultor, the avenger of Crassus’ defeat;
Parthe, dabis poenas: Crassi gaudite sepulti,
signaque barbaricas non bene possa manus
Ultor adest.
“Parthia, thou shalt pay the penalty; Rejoice, ye buried Crassi, and ye
standards that shamefully endured barbarian violence. Your avenger is at
hand.”91
Dio Cassius alone implies that Ventidius’ contemporaries had viewed the defeat of Pacorus as equal recompense for the disaster of Carrhae. As we have seen,
Dio’s narrative reflects the conditions and preoccupations of his own age; there is no
direct evidence that the death of Pacorus was considered just recompense for Crassus’ defeat by his own contemporaries. While his successes were certainly extraordinary and widely celebrated, the death of the Parthian heir and reconquest of Syria
were not considered equal recompense for the humiliation of Carrhae by Ventidius’
contemporaries. Carrhae serves as the justification for Mark Antony’s invasion of
Media Atropatene in 36 BC.92
The equation of Pacorus’ death with that of Crassus appears only in historical
accounts composed after the deaths of Gaius and Lucius Caesar, and the recrudes88

Ovid, Fasti 5. 585–590.
SYME: Roman Revolution (n. 5) 318.
For the return of the Roman military standards, see RGDA 29; Horace, Odes 4. 5. 25–27, 15. 5–
12, 23, Epit. 1. 12. 27–28, 18. 56–57; Virgil, Georg. 3. 30–33, Aen. 7. 601–606, 8. 726–728; Ovid, Fasti
5. 580–598, Trist. 2. 227–228, Ars. Amat. 1. 177f; Prop. 4. 6. 79–84; Strabo 6. 4. 2; Vell. Pat. 2. 91. 1;
Livy, Per. 141; Suet. Aug. 21. 3; Dio Cassius 65. 8. 1–2; Justin 42. 5. 10–11; Oros. 6. 21. 29. The Augustan settlement is most recently discussed by C. BUSTANY (Auguste, les temples des Mars Ultor et les enseignes de Crassus. Rivista storica dell’antica 24 (1994) 93–98); GRUEN, E. S.: Armenia and Parthia.
Cambridge Ancient History X. Eds. BOWMAN, A. K. – CHAMPLIN, E. – LINTOTT, A. Cambridge 1996,
158–162; RIDLEY, R. T.: The Emperor’s Retrospect. Peeters 2003, 219f. For the artistic evidence, see
Rose, C. B.: The Parthians in Augustan Rome. American Journal of Archaeology 109 (2005) 21–75.
91
Ovid, Ars Amat. 1. 179–181.
92
Plut. Anthony 37; Appian, Bell. Civ. 5. 65; Dio Cassius 49. 24. 5.
89
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cence of troubles on the Northern frontier, the earliest evidence being that of Strabo
and Valerius Maximus.93 The crisis in succession and in recruitment forced Rome to
temporarily abandon her aspirations for Eastern conquest. Historians and geographers, I would suggest, sought retrospectively to equate Pacorus’ death with that of
Crassus, so as to preserve some semblance of dignity in her relations with Parthia.
Ventidius’ Parthian war must rank as one of the most significant encounters
between Rome and Parthia in the Late Republican period. It was, for both Ventidius’
contemporaries and for later generations, considered just retribution for the national
disaster which befell Crassus and his legions at Carrhae. Yet Ventidius’ Parthian war
was ultimately unsuitable as a model for Eastern triumph. The Parthians retained the
standards and prisoners captured at Carrhae, pignora nostri pudoris,94 while no territory had been gained. Moreover, Ventidius’ campaign was problematic because of
the Parthian alliance with Labienus and its connotations of Roman civil war. The
most significant factors, however, in the reception of Ventidius campaign are Ventidius’ proximity to Mark Antony, and Augustus’ own desire to avoid derision of his
‘diplomatic’ settlement of 20 BC.
Emma Strugnell
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens
Zacharitsa 17
Koukaki 11741
Athens
Greece

93
94

Strabo 16. 1. 28; Val. Max. 6. 9. 9.
Ovid, Fasti 5. 594.

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