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Crassus, Carrhae and the beginning of the Roman-Parthian Wars

Updated on August 13, 2015
Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome.
Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome. | Source

Introduction

In 53 BC, the Roman triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus was defeated by a Parthian army near Carrhae in one of the worst defeats in Roman military history after several years of rising tensions between the two empires. The battle set the stage for future Roman wars against Parthia and created in the popular imagination the image of a Parthian Empire on equal footing to Rome, something the Romans could never accept.

By the time Crassus was appointed the governor of Syria in 55 BC, a Parthian war was considered inevitable. A confrontation of some sort had been coming for nearly a century. Both powers considered themselves the legitimate heirs of the Seleucid Empire. Parthia also saw itself as the heir of the Achaemenid Persian legacy but did not build their empire on the Achaemenid model. Rome’s eastern expansion, driven by ambition and the belief that they should rule the world, threatened the Parthians. They gobbled up successive states by military conquest, intrigue and playing the game of brinkmanship to perfection.

When Aulus Gabinius was the governor of Syria between 57 BC and 55 BC he made serious preparations for an invasion of Parthia. He hoped to take advantage of the dynastic struggle between competing kings Mehrdad (Mithridates) III and Orod (Orodes) II. Gabinius went so far as to cross the Euphrates but was persuaded to turn back and intervene in Ptolemaic Egypt instead. Mehrdad returned to Parthia and swiftly defeated in a short civil war. As Crassus prepared to leave Rome in November, 55 BC with 40,000 soldiers his Parthian opponent was the sole ruler of his domain.

Gabinius and Crassus both mistook Parthia as a weak “Asiatic” state that was loaded down with riches and ready to be plundered. Crassus expected an easy victory to compare with Caesar and Pompey, his partners in the triumvirate. He further declared his goal was to conquer as far east as Bactria and India. The undertaking was unpopular in the Roman Senate, but Crassus was able to move forward thanks to the backing of Caesar and Cicero. Caesar took the further measure of sending some of his best Gallic cavalry (numbering 1,000) with Crassus, commanded by the latter’s son Publius. The Romans marched overland via Dyrrachium and reached Syria in April-May, 54 BC. Crassus now had seven legions at his command by combining the troops he brought from Italy with the Syrian garrisons. Additionally Rome’s allies in the region were furnishing him support: Abgar II of Osrhoene and an Arab leader the Romans called Alchaudonius supplied light cavalry. Artavazd (Artavasdes) II of Armenia offered infantry and heavy cavalry to Rome.

By the time Crassus was appointed the governor of Syria in 55 BC, a Parthian war was considered inevitable. A confrontation of some sort had been coming for nearly a century. Both powers considered themselves the legitimate heirs of the Seleucid Empire. Parthia also saw itself as the heir of the Achaemenid Persian legacy but did not build their empire on the Achaemenid model. Rome’s eastern expansion, driven by ambition and the belief that they should rule the world, threatened the Parthians. They gobbled up successive states by military conquest, intrigue and playing the game of brinkmanship to perfection.

When Aulus Gabinius was the governor of Syria between 57 BC and 55 BC he made serious preparations for an invasion of Parthia. He hoped to take advantage of the dynastic struggle between competing kings Mehrdad (Mithridates) III and Orod (Orodes) II. Gabinius went so far as to cross the Euphrates but was persuaded to turn back and intervene in Ptolemaic Egypt instead. Mehrdad returned to Parthia and swiftly defeated in a short civil war. As Crassus prepared to leave Rome in November, 55 BC with 40,000 soldiers his Parthian opponent was the sole ruler of his domain.

Gabinius and Crassus both mistook Parthia as a weak “Asiatic” state that was loaded down with riches and ready to be plundered. Crassus expected an easy victory to compare with Caesar and Pompey, his partners in the triumvirate. He further declared his goal was to conquer as far east as Bactria and India. The undertaking was unpopular in the Roman Senate, but Crassus was able to move forward thanks to the backing of Caesar and Cicero. Caesar took the further measure of sending some of his best Gallic cavalry (numbering 1,000) with Crassus, commanded by the latter’s son Publius. The Romans marched overland via Dyrrachium and reached Syria in April-May, 54 BC. Crassus now had seven legions at his command by combining the troops he brought from Italy with the Syrian garrisons. Additionally Rome’s allies in the region were furnishing him support: Abgar II of Osrhoene and an Arab leader the Romans called Alchaudonius supplied light cavalry. Artavazd (Artavasdes) II of Armenia offered infantry and heavy cavalry to Rome.

Crassus Invades

Crassus soon crossed the Euphrates to begin his invasion. He limited his actions to minor operations; the exact reasons are unclear. A combination of waiting for the arrival of Publius and the Gallic cavalry, troop training, and establishing supply bases on the far side of the Euphrates likely account for the delay. The local Parthian garrison and its governor, Silaces, were quickly swept aside by the Roman advance and with one exception (Zendotia/Zendotium) the Mesopotamian Greek cities did not resist. Happy with his gains, Crassus garrisoned the towns with two cohorts from each legion and a thousand cavalry and retired for the winter in Syria. During the winter, he took the opportunity to expand his war chest by plundering the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the temple of Atargatis in Hierapolis-Bambyce (modern Manbij) and recruit some more soldiers.

The Parthians, meanwhile, had not been still. Silaces warned Great King Orod of the Roman attack, but the Parthian monarch was already aware of the invasion. With this confirmation, he dispatched two generals to harass the new Roman garrisons. At the same time, the great king sent an embassy to Crassus to demand to know if his war was being waged with the consent of the Senate, as he suspected, or not. Orod’s message demonstrates the depth and extent of Parthian knowledge about events in Rome. Crassus does not appear to have gathered any intelligence about the Parthians at all. The Roman governor found the question infuriating and replied he would answer the question in Seleucia-Ctesiphon. The oldest Parthian envoy retorted that hair would grow in the palm of his hand before the Romans reached the city.

Coin of Orod II of Parthia
Coin of Orod II of Parthia | Source

The Carrhae Campaign

In spring, 53 BC Crassus and his son crossed the Euphrates at Zeugma with 42,000 heavy infantry, 4,000 cavalry, and 4,000 light infantry. He did this on the advice of Abgar and Alchaudonius, who suggested the Romans follow a desert trade route out of Hierapolis-Bambyce. From there it passed southwest to cross the Balicha and Kabur rivers between Carrhae and Ichnae, giving the invaders a straight shot into Babylonia. Allowing the Romans to reach Ctesiphon quickly. Artavazd suggested the Romans march from the northwestern route into Parthia instead. By following this course they would pass through the Armenian hill country, neutralizing the Parthian cavalry, down into Adiabene and the west bank of the Tigris straight to Ctesiphon. However, Crassus was already committed to the desert shortcut by his initial strike the previous summer and could not abandon his garrisons. With his advice and support spurned, Artavazd left Crassus and returned home. Meanwhile, Orod expected Crassus take the northwestern route and brought the majority of his army into Armenia to wait for him. In a precautionary measure, he entrusted his best commander, the hero of the civil war against Mehrdad III, with the defense of Mesopotamia. This individual, supposedly not quite 30 years old at the time, has come down to us under the various names Surenas, Surena, Suren, and Surena Suren-Pahlav. We will call him Suren. To deal with the Romans, Suren had 1,000 household retainers, the famous cataphracts, and 10,000 levy horse archers. For support, Surena had the former governor, Silaces, as his second-in-command.

Realizing that Iranian armies had fared poorly in past battles against opponents fielding well-trained heavy infantry such as Alexander's Macedonians, Suren came up with an innovative solution. He had raised a cavalry army in the belief it was the best choice for the flat Mesopotamian plain. He also realized that archers were useless without a steady supply of arrows, but they could only carry a limited number. So Suren organized a baggage train of 1,000 camels loaded down with arrows to provide his horse archers with a virtually bottomless supply.

The Romans certainly did not hold mounted archers in high regard. Crassus, according to conventional wisdom, had every reason to be confident the Parthians could not sustain a lengthy engagement and would quickly exhaust their arrows. The Roman high command and the troops brought over from Italy were even unaware of the deadliness of Parthian arrows and their penetrating abilities. Cassius Longinus, who was serving as Crassus' quaestor, and a few other officers with experience in Syria were aware and tried to dissuade their commander from his course, but Crassus would not listen.

From Zeugma, the Roman army marched along the Euphrates River down to Hierapolis-Bambyce. Cassius counseled resting there and in the surrounding villages to allow the scouts to perform reconnaissance. He also urged Crassus to continue marching along the river, as that would lead to Seleucia, and Ctesiphon, eventually. At the same time, the scouts reported finding Parthian horse tracks heading east along one of the Arab trade routes. Abgar II of Osrhoene confirmed the report and added he believed the Parthians to be in retreat. Crassus allowed his enthusiasm to get the best of him and followed Abgar onto the trail. News then arrived from Armenia that Orod II had occupied the country, and Artavazd was in dire need of aid. Despite later accusations of treachery and spying for the Parthians, there is little evidence to substantiate such charges against Abgar. This local king as far as we can tell today, was leading the Romans along one of the old desert roads in mid-spring with no malice. In that season, the oases still held water and local settlements along the way would have offered them supplies.

Carrhae: First Phase

On May 6th, 53 BC, the Roman legions reached the Balicha River to the south of Carrhae, near modern Harran, Turkey. Crassus had steadily ignored the complaints of his men that they were tired, hungry, and thirsty. Also, they were becoming increasing apprehensive as rumors flew about the strength of the Parthians and their bows. Cassius and the other officers urged Crassus to stop, set up a fortified camp, and rest while allowing the scouts to confirm the Parthian presence nearby already reported. The governor refused, listening only to his son Publius, and allowed his men enough time to eat in ranks before marching southward. The scouts now reported having sighted the Parthians, riding straight toward them. Abgar and Alchaedonius promptly deserted with their cavalry for reasons unknown.

On the advice of Cassius, Crassus moved forward to confront Surena with his troops drawn out in a broad line without depth, supported by cavalry on the wings. Crassus commanded the center with Cassius and Publius commanding his flank on the left and right respectively. As the Parthians approached the Roman line reformed into a hollow square of 48 cohorts, each cohort supported by a squadron of cavalry. Publius had additional forces under his command: the Gallic veterans, 300 more cavalrymen, 500 light infantry, and eight cohorts for fighting outside the square. Crassus laid out the rest of his light infantry in front of the remainder of the army.

Suren, wanting to keep the Romans in the dark about his numbers, held them back, behind the rising ground in front of the Roman infantry square. It was now afternoon, May 6th. First he sent out his cataphracts, their armor covered by cloaks and jackets. At a pre-arranged signal, Suren's retainers cast off their coverings to reveal their armor, glittering in the sunlight. To the roaring of kettledrums, the cataphracts charged the Roman formation. The light infantry and scouts retreated into the hollow center of the square. The horse archers now rode into range, covering the cataphracts as they disengaged to avoid getting bogged down in hand-to-hand combat.

Carrhae: The Death of Publius

The following phase of the battle was a disaster for the Romans. Parthian compound bows were more powerful than anything the Romans had prior experience fighting. They could outrange Roman missile weapons and fired arrows with such force they could puncture legionary armor. Crassus, perhaps hoping to repeat the tactics that worked against Rome's past Eastern enemies, charged the horse archers with his light infantry. However, the Parthians only needed to withdraw to a safe distance and continued to fire, shooting backward from their horses as they went (the famous "Parthian Shot"). As the battle continued, the Parthian camel train was brought up to resupply the horse archers. When the Romans saw it, they realized their opponents would not be running out of arrows anytime soon.

Suren now attempted to outflank Crassus on the right and get into the Roman rear. Understanding this and recognizing the need for swift action, Crassus ordered his son to take his detached troops and make a grand counter-charge against the Parthians. The Parthians feigned retreat, drawing Publius out further and further away from his father. Once he was distant enough from the main body of Roman troops, the Parthians wheeled back around and annihilated Publius' force. The younger Crassus and his officers withdrew to a nearby hill and committed suicide. Before this, a few stragglers had escaped the slaughter to urge the elder Crassus to rescue his son. On the hill, only 500 had survived the final attack and surrendered. Publius' head was cut off and impaled on a lance and brought to Suren. The Roman army, meanwhile, was attempting to move onto the nearby sloping ground and move towards Publius' location. Suren chose this moment to parade Publius' head before the Roman formation. They kept up the attack until nightfall forced them to halt though Suren violated custom by encamping next to the enemy.

A bronze statue of Parthian nobleman found at Shami, modern Khuzestan, Iran. Suren might have looked like this.
A bronze statue of Parthian nobleman found at Shami, modern Khuzestan, Iran. Suren might have looked like this. | Source

Carrhae: The Retreat and Aftermath

In the Roman camp, Crassus suffered a mental breakdown. Cassius and the legates took charge and resolved to withdraw to Carrhae and the protection of its walls. They moved the army north under the cover of darkness, abandoning their 4,000 wounded. The cries of those men alerted the Parthians the Romans were on the move, which they did nothing to hinder as night-fighting was dangerous, especially for cavalry. The following day Suren killed or captured the Roman wounded and any stragglers he could find. Among the latter were four cohorts under the legate Vargunteius, who had gotten lost during the night and did not make it to Carrhae. The day after, on May 8th, the Parthians surrounded the fortress-city after they had confirmed Crassus was there.

In spite of the protection of the walls, the Roman position was tenuous. There were no provisions and Crassus had left no troops in Roman Syria that could come to his rescue. The decision was made to retreat by night to the town of Sinnaca in the Armenian foothills located to the north, which would protect them from the Parthian cavalry. The survivors divided into three groups and fled. 5,000 men under the legate Octavius reached Sinnaca successfully. 500 under Cassius deserted and ran to the Euphrates. Crassus with 2,000 men had been misled by a certain individual named Andromachus and left a mile and a half outside of Sinnaca when dawn arrived, allowing Suren to catch them in the open. Octavius witnessed the attack and swept down to rescue his commander. The united army succeeded in driving off the Parthians temporarily, discovering that slingers were effective against horse archers and cataphracts alike.

Suren now extended an offer of peace and safe conduct to Crassus to discuss terms and to negotiate a new treaty. His reasons for doing so and whether or not the offer was genuine are unclear. It is unlikely he would have wanted to allow the Romans to escape into the hill country, especially the instigator of the entire conflict. In any case, Crassus accepted the offer under pressure from his soldiers (he feared treachery) and the meeting held in the open space between armies. Suren offered his opponent a horse, refusing to discuss terms with an enemy leader on foot and asked for a written agreement signed on the banks of the Euphrates. Octavius and the other officers brought to the meeting saw this abduction and the legate drew his sword and slew the Parthian groom assigned to Crassus. A melee ensued, in which the entire Roman party perished. Crassus's head and one of his hands were cut off, a traditional punishment and sent with Publius's head to the great king.

Out of the 42,000 men that followed Crassus into Mesopotamia 10,000 regrouped in Syria under Cassius to defend against the expected Parthian counterstroke, 10,000 were captured and settled around modern Marv, and the rest perished. The myth of Roman military invincibility was broken but created a new myth of Parthian invincibility and the idea that legionary infantry could not defeat Parthian cavalry. Carrhae also served to elevate Parthia to equal status to Rome, one of the sparks of a rivalry that lasted for centuries.

Was Carrhae Avoidable?

Could the Romans either have avoided a war with Parthia altogether, or have avoided fighting a battle like Carrhae in the case of invasion?

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