by Cam Rea, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Rome was expecting the Parthian invasion, but it never came. Instead, in the west, the Great Roman Civil War exploded, in the years 49 – 45 BC. It was a politico-military conflict which pitted Pompey against Caesar, each vying for leadership of the Roman state. It was during this time, that Pompey may have sought Parthian assistance, though one would think that Pompey would have wanted to avoid any type of assistance from Rome’s nemesis in the east, which recently had decimated Crassus’ army.
However, Pompey had no choice in the matter for he didn’t have the armies he once possessed. Instead, Pompey had the “senatorial and the equestrian order and from the regularly enrolled troops, and had gathered vast numbers from the subject and allied peoples and kings.” Essentially, Pompey had a quagmire of experienced and inexperienced forces all of which swayed in loyalty. Caesar, on the other hand, had the legions of the state, a battle harden and well armed professional fighting force of uniformity.
The odds were very much against Pompey.
Pompey face

ca. 1st century B.C. Bust of Pompey

Pompey’s military handicap and lack of wealth forced him to look for financial aid elsewhere in order to acquire additional forces. In the words of Plutarch, “Pompey had now to plan and act on the basis of existing circumstances. He sent messengers to the various cities, and sailed to some of them himself, asking for money and for men to serve in his ships” (Plutarch, Pompey, 76).
Of the many messengers Pompey sent, one of them visited Parthia. Pompey’s interest in seeking Parthian help was due to the fact that they were the, “most capable of both receiving and protecting [Pompey] them in their present weakness and later of helping them to build up their strength and sending them out to fight again with a large force.”
Map of Parthia

The region of Parthia within the empire of Medes, c. 600 BC; from a historical atlas illustrated by William Robert Shepherd

Pompey’s advisor Theophanes, however, suggested that Egypt was a safer bet, because the Ptolemies were indebted to Pompey for his kindness. If Pompey chose Parthia over Egypt, he would be playing second fiddle and at their mercy. Pompey likely had already made up his mind that Egypt was a safer bet, but decided to send an envoy to Parthia just to see. This visit to the court of Arsaces caused Julius Caesar to become suspicious, so much so that he mentions that, “it was hotly argued in their discussions whether Lucilius Hirrus, who had been sent by Pompeius to the Parthians”
(Caesar, Civil Wars, 3.82).

Caesar knew that Pompey sent an envoy, but speculated as to who Pompey sent. Cassius Dio provides more detail into the matter:
“I have heard, indeed, that Pompey even thought of fleeing to the Parthians, but I cannot credit the report. For that race so hated the Romans as a people ever since Crassus had made his expedition against them, and Pompey especially, because he was related to Crassus, that they had even imprisoned his envoy who came with a request for aid, though he was a senator.” (Dio, 42,2)
Julius Caesar

Bust of Caesar

What Cassius Dio did not credit is whether or not Pompey considered political asylum if the situation turned bleak. However, even though that can’t be verified, it still does not negate the possibility. Moreover, Cassius was wrong about the Parthians hating the Romans. It is mentioned that King Orodes made it quite clear to Crassus that if this army was sent by the Roman people, it shall be a war to the bitter end. However, the ambassadors were smarter than that. They understood the difference between a nation declaring war and one man’s ambition.
As quoted above, Cassius Dio did mention that Pompey’s envoy, who happened to be a senator, was imprisoned. The unknown envoy may have been Lucilius Hirrus, something that was speculated by Caesar himself. According to Cicero, Hirrus was a lousy politician who spoke with a lisp and was the butt of Cicero’s jokes. He was described by the great man as a “would-be-noble.” Clearly, Cicero didn’t think highly of Hirrus.
Pompey's flight

The Flight of Pompey after Pharsalus, by Jean Fouquet

Additionally, Cassius Dio reports that the Parthians hated Pompey because he was related to Crassus. The fact that Hirrus happened to be a cousin of Pompey, may have been the reason for his imprisonment, but this seems unlikely.
What may have gotten Hirrus imprisoned (and into trouble with Orodes) was his “fatuous conceit.” In other words, once Hirrus arrived at the court of King Orodes, he quickly fell into disfavour. First, he laid out Pompey’s terms. Orodes evidently agreed with the terms and was willing to forgive and “promised to be his ally”… but on one condition. Pompey must hand over Syria.
This did not go over well with Hirrus, who spoke on Pompey’s behalf. Knowing full well that Pompey was not about to let go of his prosperous and strategic province, Hirrus likely insulted Orodes, which, in turn, led to his imprisonment.
Coin depicting king

King Orodes on a coin

However, this is mere speculation as there is no concrete proof Hirrus ever visited the court of Orodes. But one thing is certain; an envoy was imprisoned, not for his relation to Pompey, but likely for his demeanor during negotiations.
The news of the imprisoned envoy probably caused a stir among Pompey’s advisors and it may have prompted Pompey to unanimously choose Egypt as his place of operation. It is also understandable that he would choose Egypt over Parthia due to cultural similarities. Whatever the case may be, Pompey’s refusal was a potential game changer that could have saved his life and secured his place of power in Rome… for once Pompey stepped foot in Egypt, his life ended.
On the other hand, it is possible that had Pompey went to Parthia seeking financial and military assistance, he may very well have gotten what he needed to battle Caesar… or ended up being displayed as a trophy in the court of Orodes. However, Pompey went to Egypt where he was assassinated and Caesar rose to a higher, previously unseen level of power in the Roman Empire. Pompey’s alternative course in history, perhaps with the Parthians, was never realised.