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Ancient Armies

Parthian's Arrayed
Tom Ryan's Parthian Host

Parthians (250 BC - 225 AD)
(DBA 51)

By Tom Ryan

In 247 BC, Arsaces, a leader of the Aparni, a nomadic people who lived along the Ochus (Tejend or lower Oxus) River, revolted against the Seleucid Empire and established the Parthian Empire. Tiridates succeeded his brother Arsaces and consolidated the Parthian power in the east. In 211 BC, Tiridates was succeeded by Artabanus I. He increased Parthian domains further, including the Iranian Plateau and Tigris/Euphrates River Valley.

Mithridates II ascended to the throne in 130 BC. He expanded the empire westward into present day Armenia and Syria, northward as far as Merv, and eastward, keeping the Sakas under control. Trouble came in 96 BC, when Parthia confronted Rome. In 92 BC, Mithridates II was able to conclude the first treaty between Parthia and Rome establishing the Euphrates as a mutual boundary. Upon his death, external relations remained tense, while rival dynastic claimants began to squabble over major territories. The Suren, a noble Parthian family, reconquered the eastern provinces from the Sakae, and subsequently conquered various Bactrian and Indian territories. In the first century AD Gondophares declared himself king and the Indo-Parthian kingdom survived in defiance of the empire until conquered by the Kushans in 75 AD.

The Emperor Orodes II succeeded Mithridates II. During his reign, problems between the Roman and Parthian Empires reached the point of war. In 54 BC, Roman Emperor Crassus claimed he could conquer Parthian Mesopotamia, but in 53 BC, his army was destroyed and he was killed at Carrhae.

In 36 BC, Phraates IV, son of Orodes II, inherited the empire. During his reign he defeated the Roman forces in Armenia and Media Atropatene, then under Mark Antony's rule. The Romans were unable to claim anything beyond the Euphrates River. A civil war broke out in 35 AD, in which both sides used Sarmatian allies.

The decline of the Parthian Empire was due to a combination of factors. Rome invaded and sacked the empire, while in the east, the rise of the Kushan dynasty came, and in the west, the province of Persia gradually gained more power. In AD 222, Ardashir, the ruler of Persia, successfully revolted against Artabanus V. This ended the Parthian rule over Persia and ushered in the reign of the Sassanians.

Enemies

Enemies of the Parthians in the DBA list include Kushan (21b), Scythian (25), Later Seleucid (41b), Armenian (44), Bactrian and Indo-Greek (50), fellow Parthians (51), Han Chinese (54), Early Rhoxolani Sarmatian (55a), Siracae, Iazyges, or Later Rhoxolani Sarmatian (55c), Pontic (58), Marian Roman (59), Early Imperial Roman (64), Middle Imperial Roman (69), Early Sassanid (73a).

A historical enemy overlooked is Early Indian (21a). From 95 BC to AD 75 the Suren family conquered and ruled areas of northwestern India.

Army Composition

4 x 4Kn These represent fully armoured noble cataphracts on heavy, fully armoured horses, armed with lance and possibly bow. Their thunderous charge, boot to boot, provided the main offensive arm of a Parthian army.
6 x 2LH These were light, unarmoured minor nobility who were mounted and armed primarily with bow. They were used to skirmish and to harass enemy in preparation for the cataphract charge. Their tactic of feigning retreat while shooting behind at pursuing enemies has led to the rather derogatory phrase “Parthian Shot”.
2 x 2LH or 4Kn or 2Ps These are simply more cataphracts or horse archers. They can instead represent city dwellers on foot, armed with javelins, bows or slings, or mountain tribesmen armed with bows.

Tactics

Historical tactics were typically quite simple. Horse archers would harass enemy formations with mounted archery; riding close enough to let loose their arrows and then retreating to resupply with arrows or when charged, sometimes changing to fresh horses. When the enemy was sufficiently disordered or weakened the cataphracts would initiate a thunderous charge of fully armoured men riding similarly armoured horses to smash through and ride down the unfortunate enemy. Parthian defeat often came when the ratio of cataphracts to horse archers was too high or when the charge came before the enemy was sufficiently disordered.

On the wargames table similar tactics should work well, with the LH disrupting the enemy line or enveloping flanks. A Parthian army will find itself disadvantaged in rough terrain, in which case the prudent general will consider taking the Ps option.

Against some enemies, such as those heavy in Bw, Bd (unless and until Kn are given a quick-kill against them) or El, a strategy of delaying the enemy while a group of LH swarms the enemy camp may be a consideration.

Dan Hazelwood on Parthian Tactics: First it is suggested that "some enemies, such as those heavy in Bd (unless and until Kn are given a quick-kill against them) or El, a strategy of delaying the enemy while a group of LH swarms the enemy camp may be a consideration." I disagree. The Cataphracts can go toe-to-toe with Blades particularly. Although the impetuous carries the Cataphracts forward it also breaks up the Blade line. Since blades don't move fast their ability to flank a break through is limited. Of greater concern is that a 3 versus 3 contest of blades versus Knights offers too many uncertainties to victory. Similarly Elephants aren't a scary challenge either the 5 versus 4 does pose a greater threat to the Cataphracts, but the odds are higher of outnumbering and thus overlapping the Elephant.

The great challenge to the Parthian is to not permit your opponent to anchor their line on edges or bad going. The light horse really wants to find that flank. But versus blades the light horse can close straight-in. At 2 versus 3 the light horse is at a disadvantage. But the light horse can't die and should be able to run back into the line before the blades achieve any great gains.

While strong Spear and Pike armies can have high numbers they really need to double up to feel safe. Especially the Pike. So that usually opens up flank opportunities for the light horse.

Now Bow does present a difficult challenge to the Parthians. The risks are greater. The question is can the Parthians find the weak points away from the bow.

The real challenges to the Parthians are cluttered battlefields with bad going and remembering that the Cataphracts trundle into action very slowly. The Cataphracts are able to redeploy the way cavalry or light horse can. So where the Cataphracts start is usually where they are going in. The other annoying thing is if you have to pick you Army make-up before seeing the terrain. If you face a heavy foot or heavy Psiloi/Auxilia opponent you may want to trade the two Cataphracts for Psiloi option. That takes some of the bulk out of your line for certain.

Camp

To follow (currently I use DBM baggage elements)

Miniatures

Here are pictures of my DBA Parthian army.

See my review of Essex Parthian and Armenian Cataphracts.

Peter Pig Parthian CataphractsPeter Pig also offers a small range of 15mm Parthian cataphracts (see left) and horse archers.

Painting

Parthian cataphracts wore iron or bronze armour from head to foot and their horses were covered all around by scale armour of iron, bronze or leather. Horse archers wore brightly coloured clothing with intricate trim. Their pants were decorated with stripes or geometric patterns, but were often covered by plain leather chaps to protect them in combat.

Other Resources


Suren Indo-Parthian (95 BC - 75 AD)
Variant DBA 51a

Left to their own devices during the turmoil of conflict with Rome and the death of Mithrades II in 92 BC, the Suren, a noble Parthian family, reconquered the eastern provinces from the Sakae, and subsequently conquered various Bactrian and Indian territories. In the first century AD Gondophares declared himself king and the Indo-Parthian kingdom survived in defiance of the Parthian empire until conquered by the Kushans in 75 AD.

This list represents the breakaway kingdom of the Suren family with its Indian subject troops. It is based on the DBM Parthian list using the conversion method found on page 22 of the DBA rulebook.

3 x 4Kn Parthian cataphracts
6 x 2LH Lesser Parthian Nobles
1x 3Ax Mountain Indian Tribesman
1 x 4Kn or 2LH or 3 Lb Parthians or subject Indian Bow
1 x 4Kn or 2LH or El Parthians or subject Indian Elephant

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Last Updated: April 6, 1999

My thanks to Tom Ryan for contributing these notes. Comments, questions or suggested additions to this page can be sent to Chris Brantley, IamFanaticus@gmail.com.