The Parthian Shot

Parting Parthian

Parting Parthian

You’ve heard people talk about a “parting shot”, when, for example, somebody makes a miffed exit and on the way out emits a toxic word or two. Well, that’s wrong. It’s not a “parting” shot. It’s a Parthian shot. Who were the Parthians that we name a shot after them?

I bring this up because I’m still reading about Cleopatra as research for my book. And I’m now approaching the bit where Mark Antony, her second lover (after Julius Caesar, the first), is preparing to head east to conquer those Parthians, even as Cleopatra was four or five months pregnant with their third child.

Those are the same Parthians that had succeeded the mighty Persian empire, and who had only a generation before slaughtered an entire Roman army under Crassus, after presenting him his son’s head on a stake. They were utterly not to be messed with. Indeed, Mark Antony, too, would turn back in disaster, with two-fifths of his army killed. The Parthians would remain invincible for another century and a half.

Now to the point: Their most insidious and effective tactic was the retreat, real or feigned. The mounted Parthian archers would suddenly gallop away, drawing the enemy army after them in hot pursuit. But the archers, in full gallop (no reins or stirrups needed), would turn and shoot back, arrow after arrow.

In short, a great party trick, to this day.


5 thoughts on “The Parthian Shot

  1. As an accomplished archer, previous trial lawyer, and now full-time mediator and arbitrator, I thoroughly enjoyed your clarification of the Parthian Shot. It reminds me of the Hobson’s Choice, which is often misunderstood to be a choice where both options are bad. Actually, in renting horses to the general public, Thomas Hobson required the customer to take the horse closest to the door and did not allow a selection from the many horses in the livery. Thus, a Hobson’s Choice presents a single option and the chooser can exercise it or not.
    As far as the Parthian Shot goes, I have found in my 30 years as a lawyer, in litigation and mediation, that lawyers are masters of the Parthian Shot. However, while adept at firing shots while in full retreat, unlike the Parthians, they usually miss!!
    Congratulations on an excellent blog.

  2. Interesting analogy, Steve.
    So the image is that of a lawyer in a tense litigation session, or during discovery or something of that sort, who finally gets up and leaves, but on the way out mumbles some detail in the hope that it throws the other party off. Right?
    Or perhaps a trial lawyer who makes a fair and reasoned case to the jury, then, sotto voce–“oh, and did I mention?”–drops a bomb on the way back to his bench. The opposing attorney cries foul, but it’s already too late, because the jury heard it…

  3. Two great examples Andreas! In the mediation context, the Parthian shot, by lawyers who are neither Parthain by heritage nor good shots in their own right, is usually a poor choice of tactics. It often results in killing only an opportunity to settle the case on reasonably good terms, and the certainly of trial. Thus in taking what is better characterized as a potshot, with careless and insulting aim, the lawyer has not only lost the battle but may very well lose the war at trial.
    By any measure, the potshot is inconsistent with quality tactics, either in conversation, negotiation, or war. The Art of War, as articulated by the elusive Sun Tzu does not embrace any concept of the potshot as an effective method. Lesson to be learned? Only a Parthian or one otherwise skillfully trained should employ the Parthian Shot and no one should ever use the Pot Shot.

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