By Cam Rea
General Publius Ventidius is probably one of the most overlooked, if not completely forgotten, generals in military history. Maybe it is because Ventidius grew up poor like most Romans… Or perhaps it was due to the reports that he sold mules and wagons before joining the Roman army.
Despite this, Ventidius would go on to have a distinguished military career, accompanying Julius Caesar during his campaign against Gaul and partaking in the Roman Civil War. Then in 45 BCE, Ventidius took up Caesar’s offer and accepted the post of plebeian tribune when the senate was reorganized and expanded.
Finally, on top of everything else, it may have been this forgotten general, with whom we concern ourselves today, that was responsible for reversing the Parthian tide, for changing the course of Roman History.
We will look at the series of battles now, in an effort to amend the marginal position in the history books that has been designated to poor Ventidus.
It was in 39 BCE that Mark Antony assigned Ventidius Bassus the mission to retake Asia-Minor. Reports had reached Antony while he was in Greece that the Parthians were finished with their campaign in Asia-Minor for the year. These intelligence reports most likely came from the province of Asia, which was, at the time, loyal to Rome. From this news, Antony was able to draw up his plans.
He probably was aware that the majority of the Parthian army would retire for the winter and return home to their respected nobles. This would mean that those who remained were local militias, with questionable loyalty to garrison the cities throughout Asia-Minor. In addition, Antony understood the need to attack now to inhibit any further Parthian progress coming next spring.
Antony saw this as a perfect opportunity to surprise the enemy.
And so, once the coast was clear, Antony took a chance and placed a few legions under the command of our dear Ventidius, who subsequently set sail for the province of Asia. Vantidius’ mission was simple; establish a beachhead at the province of Asia and push inland.
Battle of the Cilician Gates
Ventidius’ landing was unexpected. This only goes to show the lack of intelligence gathering on the part of Labienus, head of the Roman-Parthian army. Once the Roman forces were accounted for, Ventidius quickly began to push eastward in a ‘search and destroy’ mission.
Word spread rapidly that the Romans had arrived. When the message reached Labienus, he was startled and terrified for he “was without his Parthians.” The only troops available to him were the neighborhood militia.
Labienus quickly fled the province of Asia and headed east, seeking military support from his co-ruler, Pacorus, a Parthian prince and son of king Orodes II.
Meanwhile, Mark Antony’s man, Ventidius, took a chance of his own and abandoned his heavy troops. He pursued Labienus with his lightest forces.
Eventually, Ventidius caught up with Labienus and cornered him near the Taurus range. He chose the high ground, so he could look down upon Labienus’ encampment. But there was another, more important, reason why Ventidius took the high ground; he feared the Parthian archers.
It was a standoff as both generals encamped for several days, waiting for the arrival of their main forces. As the bulk of the armies finally arrived, the Romans and the Parthians hunkered down for the night.
At daybreak, the Parthians, over-confident with their numbers and past victories, decided to start the battle before joining forces with Labienus. Unfortunately these were not the famous and deadly Parthian horse archers… but the heavy cavalry, or cataphract. Once they were at the length of the slope, the Romans charged down on top of them and repelled the enemy with ease, for the Romans had the momentum.
While the Romans were able to kill and maim many of the cataphract, the cataphract were, in fact, doing a better job at killing and maiming themselves.
See, the cataphract were at the top of slope, where all the fighting took place, but when they retreated, they ran into their own men coming up the hill. Instead of descending in order to rally around Labienus, they bypassed their general and headed straight for Cilicia. It was absolute chaos.
Ventidius, seeing that the Parthians were scattering all about and fleeing, decided to bring his men down from the hill and march on Labienus’ camp.
Both armies were now face to face… But Ventidius decided to stay put.
Why would Ventidius do this? Well, he was informed from deserters that Labienus was going to flee the camp, come nightfall. Therefore, Ventidius decided that it was better to set up ambushes rather than have an all-out pitch battle, which would result in losing many men and resources during the process.
Once nightfall came, the ambushes set in place worked as planned, killing and capturing many… that is, except for Labienus. Labienus was able to escape by changing clothes… His destination was Cilicia.
However, Labienus was not able to hide for long. Demetrius, a former slave, then “freedman” turned bounty hunter, arrested him. After Demetrius turned Labienus over to the Roman authorities, he was quickly executed.
Battle of Amanus Pass
With Labienus dead, Ventidius was able to secure the province of Cilicia. This did not mean they won; in fact, the mission was far from finished. To complete it, Ventidius devised a plan to trick the Parthians.
Ventidius sent a cavalry, headed by the officer Pompaedius Silo, to scout out the Amanus Pass, a strategic mountain path connecting the province of Cilicia and Syria. Not far behind Silo would be Ventidius, along with a small contingent of troops to aid in the fight.
Meanwhile on the Parthian side, Pacorus understood that if the same Amanus pass were not secured, the Romans would march through and invade Syria. Therefore, he felt, the best method was to station a garrison there to bottle up the small mountain road.
So Pacorus stationed Pharnapates, a Parthian lieutenant considered the most capable general of Orodes, to wait for the Romans to come. Once Silo reached the pass, the two sides engaged in battle immediately.
But don’t forget – this was, in fact, an elaborate trick. Silo’s real mission was to lure the Parthians away from their strongest defensive position. In doing so, Ventidius would either attack at the flank or from the rear.
In a sense, the Romans were giving the Parthians a taste of their own medicine by using the same tactic that worked so well against them at the Battle of Carrhae
. With many of Pharnapates’ cataphract lured away, Ventidius fell upon the Parthians unexpectedly. Pharnapates, along with many of his men, perished during the engagement.
With the Amanus Pass now clear, the invasion of Syria was imminent.