Parting shot / Parthian shot

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10 comments on this post.
  1. Types of GPS Tracking:

    […] Parting shot / Parthian shot « The Word Detective […]

  2. Chris Anthony:

    I know I’m long past the freshness date; I’ve fallen behind. Alas!

    My issue with “Parthian shot” being the original is twofold:

    * Spotty 19th-century bookkeeping aside, “parting shot” appears in print nearly a quarter of a century before “Parthian shot”, and
    * The Parthians’ tactic was not to fire arrows behind them while retreating (in other words, a last salvo before leaving the field); it was to feign retreat so that their enemies would follow them (with their defenses lowered, since a retreating enemy couldn’t possibly attack), then shoot behind them, thus not only wounding their enemy but drawing them closer to the main body of the Parthian army.

    Moreover, people have had nearly two millennia to discuss the Parthians. One would assume that “Parthian shot” would have come up sooner had it actually been used in earnest to describe the situation in question.

    It seems far more likely to me that “parting shot” is the original, some 19th-century Classics major saw the opportunity to make a pun, and the “Parthian” joke was repeated until people were confused.

  3. ZZMike:

    I came across it today, in “Structures: or Why Things Don’t Fall Down”, by J. E. Gordon, Penguin books, 1978. He was Professor Emeritus at the University of Reading (Materials Science).

    Along the way he introduces us to Odysseus’ bow (with a quotation from the Odyssey (where Penelope tells the suitors that whoever strings the bow and shoots through 12 axes [that’s important] can carry her away from her home)). [Important because he’d not only have to string the bow to full strength, but draw and loose 12 arrows.]

    From there it’s off to different kinds of bows and how they’re strung, and how much energy they can store (in Odysseus’ case, lots), and the difference between the regular bow and the compound bow, favored by the Parthians.

    “The Parthian bow was handy enough for the cavalrymen to be able to shoot backwards, as they retreated, at their Roman pursuers; from this we get the phrase “Parthian shot”. (p.83)

    The key, of course, is whether the Romans called the Parthians “Parthians”.

    Has anybody checked the OED?

  4. neilsok:

    I understood Penelope to mean to shoot through 12 axes WITH A SINGLE ARROW, not 12. The axes were bronze, of course, not steel. Essentially she was saying, “When pigs have wings.”

  5. Catherine:

    Just to clarify …
    1. The Parthian shot was a tricky strategy by which the Parthians would PRETEND to be retreating. Then, when their enemy rushed after them in some disorganization, the Parthians would turn in their saddles and begin shooting the enemy soldiers down.
    2. Most educated men, who studied the classics, including Roman history, would have been familiar the tactic because it was important in Julius Caesar’s rise to power. One member of Caesar’s first triumvirate (Cassius) was killed by a Parthian shot.

  6. Red Barron:

    Ummm, I have a clarification to the above. The 1st Triumvirate was among Gaius Iulius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus in 59 BCE. Subsequently, after much political intrigue, Crassus (Rome’s richest citizen) trampled minor political opposition, while Caesar was away and engaged in his Gallic Wars, formed an army and set out for the East to make war on the Parthians to gain even more fortune, lands for his veterans and military glory to counter that of Caesar and Pompey. However, at Carrhae in the Turkish portion of the Syrian Desert, Crassus’s army was soundly defeated. Crassus’s son (Publius Crassus) died of a ‘Parthian Shot’. Marcus Crassus died in close quarter fighting at a surrender negotiation gone bad the next day. Gaius Cassius Longinus fought under Marcus Crassus at Carrhae, and managed escape to Syria with 10000 Roman legionnaires. Then, after helping successfully defending Syria against renewed Parthian attack, Cassius returned to Rome ultimately to participate in the assassination of Caesar along with Cassius’s brother-in-law Marcus Junius Brutus. Cassius eventually died as a suicide after losing to Marcus Antonius at the Battle of Phillipi in Macedonia in the Wars of the 2nd Triumvirate in 42 BCE.

  7. phil:

    There is no question that the original phrase was ‘Parthian shot’ which became corrupted to Parting shot. Chris Anthony tells us the Parthians weren’t retreating but were feigning retreat , in a tone as if this is a revelation he is letting us in on. We know that fact already; it is well known. It was a battle tactic. The Romans met their match when they tried to take on the Parthians. I think they had three goes at it and ere well trounced each time. The Parthians would pretend to retreat and then, because of their exceptional training and horsemanship, turn and fire arrows back at the enemy who had given chase—The Parthian shot.

  8. Jo Alex SG:

    Thank you so much for this most interesting and educational article!

  9. D:

    ‘fills the bill’ or ‘fits the bill’?

  10. Wmlbrown:

    The member of Caesar’s first triumvirate killed by Parthians was Marcus Licinius Crassus. There was no member of the first triumvirate named Cassius. One of Caesar’s assassin’s was Gaius Cassius Longinius, however. From the account on Wikipedia, Crassius was killed by Parthians, but not by a Partian shot.

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