When the Roman Empire withdrew from an impossible war
Ending wars has always been difficult for the great powers. Hadrien knew it. In 117 AD, the new Roman emperor decided to withdraw his forces from an impossible war against the Parthian Empire.
Hadrian inherited the conflict with Parthia – a great empire centered on what is now Iran – from Trajan, his imperial predecessor. Trajan’s generals resisted Hadrian’s withdrawal with such force that the emperor feared he would lose both his crown and his life. Its end to the war has earned it historic condemnation for centuries.
It was also a decision that made Rome stronger.
The war began at the end of AD 113 after Parthian interference in the Armenian kingdom that lay between the two empires gave Trajan a reason to attack. The emperor assembled up to 80,000 troops on a forward base near the Armenian border and they advanced easily through Armenia, assuming complete control of that kingdom at the end of 114.
In 115, Trajan’s forces absorbed many of the smaller kingdoms occupying the highlands of what is now eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Then, in 116, Trajan organized a complete invasion of the towns and agricultural lands between the Tigris and Euphrates.
By the end of 116, the Romans had occupied the famous city of Babylon and captured the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon (the ancient Persian capital, near present-day Baghdad). Trajan even erected a statue of himself in Parthian territory near the Persian Gulf. The Roman Senate voted to give Trajan the honorary title of “Parthicus”, and Trajan celebrated Ctesiphon’s capture by issuing a gold coin that showed two Parthian captives sitting under a victory trophy. The coin bore the caption “PARTHIA CAPTA”: Parthia captured.
But Parthia hadn’t really been captured. Roman forces had quickly occupied much of the territory without facing a large Parthian army. Instead, the Parthian troops had withdrawn from the lowlands of Mesopotamia into the Zagros mountains and there began to organize a strong and effective response to the Roman occupation that would render Trajan’s new conquests ungovernable.
Trajan’s generals resisted Hadrian’s withdrawal with such force that the emperor feared he would lose both his crown and his life. Its end to the war has earned it historic condemnation for centuries. It was also a decision that made Rome stronger.
As Trajan roamed Babylon and reflected on how he might have matched the conquests of Alexander the Great if he was a younger man, the emperor learned that Parthian rebellions had broken out in towns along the Tigris River and of the Euphrates. Trajan had to send three different contingents of troops to fight against these rebels, the emperor himself leading the division around Babylon. Then he learned that a Parthian field army was marching on the new Roman province of Armenia.
Although the Roman armies recaptured most of the rebel towns in early 117, the revolts persuaded Trajan to hand over authority in Armenia to a pro-Roman Armenian king and to place a Roman-backed Parthian suitor on the throne of Ctesiphon. Trajan planned to return to Mesopotamia to campaign more, but suffered a stroke and died in August 117.
Hadrian took over the empire at this time of crisis. It was true that the Roman forces had won almost all of the major engagements in Trajan’s eastern campaigns. But the new emperor realized that Rome’s large and capable army could not constantly respond to local insurgencies in the cities of Mesopotamia, let alone attacks from a Parthian adversary capable of blending into mountainous regions where the Romans did not. dared to follow them.
Thus, the anonymous author of Augusta history wrote, Hadrian “renounced all conquests across the Euphrates and the Tigris”. He later quotes the new emperor as saying that “those areas which cannot be defended must be declared liberated” and made under local control. Hadrian left the defense of these regions to the allied governments that Rome had just installed.
The Roman withdrawal happened very quickly. Hadrian officially took power on August 11. Roman forces left Dura Europos – a base on the Euphrates and possibly one of the last places left by Roman troops – on September 30. In a little over a month and a half,
Hadrian had withdrawn from the two provinces of Armenia and Mesopotamia as well as from the territory of southern Iraq that Trajan had claimed for Rome.
When the Roman troops left, the ally Trajan installed as Parthian king in Ctesiphon saw his regime collapse. Hadrian saved face by placing the fallen monarch at the head of a smaller border kingdom, but it was clear to all that Rome’s post-war settlement in Mesopotamia had failed. “This is how the Romans, in conquering Armenia, most of Mesopotamia and the Parthians, had suffered serious difficulties and dangers for nothing,” said Roman senator and historian Cassius Dio decades later.
Cassius Dio captures a sentiment shared by many of Hadrian’s contemporaries. Hadrian had to remove several of Trajan’s main generals from office after he suspected that their disapproval of his policies might spur them to rebel. Later Roman historians passed an even harsher judgment than Cassius Dio. Writing more than 200 years after Hadrian’s order to withdraw, historian Festus claimed that Hadrian “surrendered Armenia, Mesopotamia and Assyria” because he “envied the glory of Trajan.”
Hadrian’s response to his criticisms remains instructive today. He did not apologize for withdrawing from the lands across the Euphrates. The Augusta history rather suggests that Hadrian chose a strategy of “reinstating the approach of previous emperors” and “devoting himself to actions that keep peace” across the empire. From Hadrian’s perspective, Rome needed to emerge from foreign quagmires and stop waging wars of expansion so that it could focus on improving domestic conditions.
Hadrian devoted much of his 21-year reign to improving the lives of Romans within the borders of the empire. He suppressed internal rebellions that had broken out after Trajan’s foreign wars drained troops and resources from the empire’s central provinces. Hadrian spent much of his reign traveling through the empire, repairing infrastructure and constructing new public buildings. Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, the Pantheon in Rome and the gigantic temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens are among his most famous infrastructure projects. Hadrian then announced his accomplishments with a series of coins depicting his arrival in each province, his recovery to prosperity, and his departure.
It is unlikely that any of these achievements would have been possible had Hadrian decided to continue fighting the costly war he inherited. Hadrian’s retreat was not popular, but the emperor understood that Trajan’s war had to end before his own Roman revival could begin.
Many Romans came to respect Hadrian’s choice to put domestic affairs before foreign conquests. On the death of Hadrian, his successor Antoninus Pius urged the Senate to declare Hadrian god. Then Pius decorated the temple in which this new god was worshiped with sculptures from each Roman province, suggesting the prosperity that Hadrian had restored.
Hadrian probably couldn’t have imagined a better commemoration.