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From Ammianus Marcellinus and other historiographers of late antiquity, it appears that 'Surena' was also a title of office. "The highest dignity in the kingdom, next to the Crown, was that of Surena, or 'Field-Marshal', and this position was hereditary in a particular family."
'Surena' remains popular as a name in Iran. 'Surena' is the Greek and Latin form of Sûrên or Sūrēn. As 'Suren', the name remains common in Armenia. 'Suren' means "the heroic one, Avestan sūra (strong, exalted)."[d]
The head of Surena family had the privilege to crown the first Parthian king in the 3rd century BC, which founded a tradition that was continued by his descendants.[a] Following the 3rd century AD defeat of the Arsacids and the subsequent rise of the Sassanids, the Surenas then switched sides and began to serve the Persians, at whose court they were identified as one of the so-called "Parthian clans." The last attested scion of the family was a military commander active in northern China during the 9th century.
It is "probable" that the Surenas were landowners in Sakastan, that is, in the region between Arachosia and Drangiana in present-day southeast Iran. The Surenas appear to have governed Sistan (which derives its name from 'Sakastan' and was once a much larger region than the present day province) as their personal fiefdom.
"Ernst Herzfeld maintained that the dynasty of [the Indo-Parthian emperor] Gondophares represented the House of Suren." Other notable members of the family include the 1st century BC cavalry commander General Surena (see below) and a 6th century AD governor (satrap) of Armenia who attempted to reestablish Zoroastrianism in that province.
In Life of Crassus 21, written c. 225 years after the commander's time, Plutarch described Surena as "an extremely distinguished man. In wealth, birth, and in the honor paid to him, he ranked next after the king; in courage and ability he was the foremost Parthian of his time; and in stature and personal beauty he had no equal."[b] Also according to Plutarch, there were "many slaves" in his army, suggesting the general had great wealth. Plutarch also described him as "the tallest and finest looking man himself, but the delicacy of his looks and effeminacy of his dress did not promise so much manhood as he really was master of; or his face was painted, and his hair parted after the fashion of the Medes."
In 54 BC, Surena commanded troops of Orodes II at the battle for the city of Seleucia. Surena distinguished himself in this battle for dynastic succession (Orodes II had previously been deposed by Mithridates III) and was instrumental in the reinstatement of Orodes upon the Arsacid throne.
In 53 BC, the Romans advanced on the western Arsacid vassalaries. In response, Orodes II sent his cavalry units under Surena to combat them. The two armies subsequently met at Battle of Carrhae (at Harrân in present-day Turkey), where the superior equipment and clever tactics of the Parthians to lure the Romans out into the middle of the desert enabled them to defeat the numerically superior Romans.
Although this feat of arms took a severe toll on the Roman troops (Plutarch speaks of 20,000 dead and 10,000 prisoners), and "produced a mighty echo amongst the peoples of the East," it did not cause "any decisive shift in the balance of power," that is, the Arsacid victory did not gain them territory. For Surena, "it soon cost him his life. Probably fearing that he would constitute a threat to himself, King Orodes II had him executed."
"In some ways, the position of [Surena] in the historical tradition is curiously parallel to that of Rustam in the [Shahnameh]." "Yet despite the predominance of Rustam in the epic tradition, it has never been possible to find him a convincingly historical niche."
The last composition of the 17th century French dramatist Pierre Corneille, a tragedy titled Suréna, is roughly based on the story of General Surena.
|a.^||The right to crown Parthian kings did not specifically denote power over those kings. "The execution of Surena, the victor at Carrhae shows the relatively unlimited power of the supreme monarch in Parthia."|
|b.^||Plutarch's 2nd century AD description of the 1st century BC commander reads: "Surena was no ordinary person; but in fortune, family and honour, the first after the king; and in point of courage and capacity, as well as in size and beauty, superior to the Parthians of his time. If he went only upon an excursion into the country, he had a thousand camels to carry his baggage, and two hundred carriages for his concubines. He was attended by thousand heavy-armed horse, and many more of the light-armed rode before him. Indeed, his vassals and slaves made up a body of cavalry little less than ten thousand."|
|c.^||The other noble family explicitly mentioned is the House of Karen.|
|d.^||Justi 1895, p. 317, col. 2, ¶ 2: "d. i. der heldenhafte, awest. sūra (stark, hehr)."|