We stay in the ancient world for our next story, crossing Iraq’s western border into Iran to visit an arid and largely deserted plain not far from the southern shoreline of the Caspian Sea, known locally as Sahr-e Qumis. If a desolate rocky plain doesn’t sound like the most exciting destination, it’s because, at a rough estimate, we’ve arrived here at Qumis around two millennia too late.
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The history of Qumis, like that of Samarra, dates back into antiquity. Known as Hecatompylos, or ‘the city of a hundred gates’ to the Greeks, it was visited by Alexander the Great in 330 bce. Sometime after his death it fell under the control of a local Iranian tribe known as the Parni, who by the end of the third century bce had taken control both of Qumis itself and of much of the entire ancient state in which it stood.
There, the Parni established a new dynasty, known as the Arascids. They transformed the region into a great and powerful empire, with the city of Qumis established as one of its earliest capitals. This grand Parthian Empire, as it became known, maintained control of the region – even managing to hold its own against the Romans – for the next five centuries, before it finally crumbled in the early 200s ce. Its ancient capital city, Qumis, was finally destroyed by one of history’s most devastating earthquakes in 856. All that remains of the city and its empire today is a barren, rocky plain.
The success of the Parthian Empire in part rested on the tremendous prowess of its armies of cavalrymen. The Parthians’ horsemanship was second to none: they were expert riders, both swift and agile, and used their talent to develop an extraordinary array of manoeuvres and tactics that were so skilful they soon became the stuff of legend. One of the most remarkable of these Parthian tactics involved militarising their retreat.
During conflict with an enemy, the Parthians’ horsemen would feign a surrender and begin galloping at speed away from the battlefield, seemingly in retreat from their enemy. Buoyed by the prospect of an easy victory, the Parthians’ enemies in response would chase after them. But at that point the Parthian cavalrymen would turn in their saddles, while still riding at speed away from the battle, and fire their arrows backwards at their enemy – who now found themselves galloping, at speed, into a devastating shower of arrows and missiles.
This remarkable ploy not only earned the Parthian Empire a place in military history, but also a place in our language. As stories of their retreats became the stuff of legend, the adjective Parthian came to be used of battles won in their dying moments, winning decisions made at the eleventh hour, or any actions taken or victories secured at the final opportune time. By the early nineteenth century, the expression Parthian shot had emerged to describe a devastatingly cutting comment or knockout blow, delivered in the very final moments of an argument or skirmish. But unfortunately for the ancient Parthians, their place in the language was not to endure.
The fact that their most famous military tactic was enacted in the final moments of conflict – coupled with their name holding a startling similarity to the word parting – conspired against them. The original Parthian shot quickly became confused with a parting shot, and it’s the latter of these two that has since become the more commonly used term in the language, pushing its etymological connection to ancient Parthia out of the spotlight. Not even a lastminute victory could save them now.
Google Ngrams suggests parting shots are referenced more than 400 times more frequently in written English today than Parthian shots.