Battle of Carrhae: Romans Crushed by Parthians

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Battle of Carrhae: Romans Crushed by Parthians

Battle of Carrhae, Parthian cataphracts charge Roman infantry
Image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: June 9, 53 BC

As the Roman Republic stumbled toward its final crisis of the late first century BC, the armies of Rome ran into some powerful antagonists. One of these opponents was the Parthian Empire, whose army was unlike any that Rome's generals had previously encountered. The Roman army would be annihilated, its general executed, and Roman-held territory would be threatened as a result of the outcome of this battle.

Marcus Licinius Crassus "Rich Beyond the Dreams of Avarice"

Born about 115 BC, Crassus came from a wealthy family that had been on the wrong side of a Roman civil war. After much work, he managed to restore both his family's honor and its bank accounts. By about 75 BC, Crassus had become one of the wealthiest men in Rome. He made his fortune through the slave markets, investment in silver mines, and property acquisition of banished citizens. Crassus also had his own personal fire-fighting gangs. When word reached him of a house fire, he would arrive at the scene with his hirelings. He would negotiate with the owner to buy the property, and then have his men put out the fire, mainly by tearing down the house before the conflagration spread to other homes. In this way he acquired large portions of real estate in the city of Rome.

Crassus' nickname was "Dives" (pronounced DEE-vays), which loosely translated means "Moneybags." He is thought to have been one of the richest men in history, with a fortune of 170-200 million sesterces to his credit, which was equal to the entire budget of the Roman Republic. To give some comparison: in the early first century AD, a common legionary was paid 900 sesterces annually. [In the year 70 BC, Crassus conspicuously showed his wealth by laying out a feast of 10,000 tables of food for the citizens of Rome. He then provided each family with sufficient grain supplies to last them for three months.] Crassus is credited with saying, "Greed is but a word that jealous men inflict upon the ambitious."

Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus, sculptor unknown; On display at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France
Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus, sculptor unknown
On display at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France

In 72, Crassus used his vast wealth to outfit and train troops to end the Third Servile War, also known as the War of Spartacus, one of the largest slave revolts in Roman history. At one point during the conflict, an entire legion under his command fled from battle. As punishment, Crassus revived the punishment of decimation. A unit so condemned was divided into groups of ten men, then lots were drawn (usually colored pebbles from a bag). The man who drew the colored stone was then executed by his comrades, usually by clubbing or stoning. Whether this method improved the army's morale is unclear, but it certainly did not endear Crassus to his men.

Crassus' army pursued Spartacus and his men, hoping to trap them in the heel of the Italian boot, but the slaves escaped the encirclement. Finally, in 71 Crassus brought the gladiator army to a final battle, and wiped it out. He did take about 6000 prisoners, and promptly ordered them all crucified along the Appian Way. Crassus also ordered that the rotting bodies be left until they were torn apart by scavengers. However, his rival Pompey the Great claimed the glory which Crassus had earned, and the two men became rivals and tacit enemies.

Between 65 and 55, Crassus became the political and fiscal patron of Julius Caesar, providing most of the funds for Caesar's Gallic conquests. He also helped Caesar acquire some pivotal political positions. By the year 60, Crassus, Pompey and Caesar had formed a political coalition known as the First Triumvirate. It was an unofficial, secret coalition for most of its life. Eventually, the three men pushed through the Senate arrangements for their individual rule of particular provinces. Caesar received Gaul (modern-day France and Belgium) and Illyricum (parts of modern-day Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia); Pompey was made proconsul of Spain; and Crassus was given the province of Syria. This province was one of the richest possessions of Rome, due mainly to its trade connections from Arabia, Mesopotamia, India and Egypt. At that time, it was the perfect choice for a man with the avarice of Crassus.

Background to the Battle

Unfortunately, Crassus also had ambitions for military glory. In 55 BC, Crassus began to make plans for an invasion of the neighboring Parthian Empire. This empire, built on the ruins of the successors of Alexander the Great, the old Achaemenid (Persian) Empire and native Iranian kingdoms, commanded an area that stretched from modern-day eastern Turkey to eastern Iran. Crassus, probably still jealous of Pompey taking credit for ending the Third Servile War twenty years earlier, hoped to take down the neighborhood bully – as it were – and add Parthian territory to his own province. His jealousy probably extended to the military triumphs of Caesar, who was still busily mopping up the last resistance to his conquest of Gaul.

During his preparations, Crassus was contacted by Artavasdes II, the king of the Roman client kingdom of Armenia. [According to the historian Plutarch, Artavasdes was an accomplished scholar, who composed Greek tragedies and histories.] He offered the Roman the use of his army of 40,000 men, if Crassus would agree to use Armenia as his main invasion route, in order that the king could supply his troops. Crassus, whether arrogant or simply wanting all the glory, turned the Armenian monarch down, and launched his invasion across the Euphrates River into the desert.

Roman Army

Crassus led a force of about 43,000 men – 35,000 heavy infantry, 4000 slingers and archers and 4000 cavalry. Included in the cavalry were 1000 Gallic horsemen led by Publius Licinius Crassus, Moneybags' own son, who had distinguished himself as a cavalry commander under Caesar in Gaul.

Gallic cavalryman, c. 53 BC; Image courtesy of
Gallic cavalryman, c. 53 BC
Image courtesy of

One of Crassus' most trusted advisors was an Arab chieftain named Ariamnes, This man had been an invaluable asset to Pompey a decade previously during his eastern campaign (one of the results of which saw Judaea come under Roman rule). Crassus' original plan was to cross the Euphrates, proceed along its northern banks, and then engage the Parthians. Ariamnes urged Crassus to take a direct route to the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon, saying that the Parthians were weak and divided. Unfortunately, Ariamnes was in the pay of the Parthians, and Crassus and his forces were led astray. The Romans traversed the most desolate part of the desert, far from any water.

Parthian Army and Strategy

Shortly after crossing the Euphrates, the Parthian king Orodes II divided his army into two parts. The king took his infantry – mainly foot archers – and a small cavalry contingent north to punish Armenia; the remainder, 9000 horse archers and 1000 cataphracts, were sent to scout out and harass Crassus' force under the command of his general Surena. Orodes apparently only wanted Surena to keep the Romans under surveillance, especially because Surena's force was outnumbered at least three to one by Crassus' invasion army. [Plutarch described Surena as an effeminate fop, but still a power broker in the Parthian kingdom.]

Parthian cataphracts, 1st century BC; Image courtesy of
Parthian cataphracts, 1st century BC
Image courtesy of

Battle of Carrhae

Crassus soon received a frantic message from the Armenian monarch Artavasdes, seeking help from the Romans against the army of Orodes. Ignoring the plea for help, Crassus continued his march through Mesopotamia. On June 9, his army encountered the Parthian horsemen several miles east of the town of Carrhae (modern-day Harran, Turkey).

In the late morning, Roman advance scouts gave the first reports of the approaching Parthians, "in large force and great confidence" according to Plutarch. At first Crassus ordered his men into the standard Roman line formation – heavy infantry in line, auxiliaries in front as skirmishers, and cavalry aligned on each wing – and ordered them to continue marching forward to meet the enemy. Then, as the Parthian archers began harassing the Romans at long distance and did not come to blows with his army, Crassus began to panic. His lieutenants – among them Gaius Cassius Longinus, his financial and military advisor – advised Crassus to make camp, allow his men to rest, then attack the Parthians the next day. Crassus rejected this advice. Instead, he ordered his men to assume a hollow square, with 12 cohorts to a side and a squadron of cavalry with each cohort as support. Crassus assigned one of the wings to his son, another to Cassius, and the leading wing to himself, and continued to slowly advance in this awkward formation.

By this time, the Mesopotamian sun was beating down on the fully equipped Romans. [At this time of the year, daytime temperatures can vary between the high 80's to the low 100's.] Soon, the Roman force came to a small stream. Crassus ordered his soldiers to briefly rest, grab a bite to eat and have some water. No doubt, Roman discipline was already straining due to the lack of water and sufficient rest. After only a short time, the soldiers were ordered to resume their positions and continue to advance.

As the Romans advanced, the vanguard of the Parthian army, the general Surena's bodyguard of cataphracts came into view. Cataphracts were heavily armored, well-trained horsemen armed with lances, bows, and swords or maces. Their horses were also well-protected, and could logically be referred to as the "tanks" of the battlefield of that time period. The Parthians usually fired their bows to disrupt their enemy's formations, then sent the heavy horsemen in deep wedges to pound them into submission.

Parthian Empire at greatest extend, c. 96 BC (Carrhae is in western portion of Parthia); Image courtesy of
Parthian Empire at greatest extend, c. 96 BC (Carrhae is in western portion of Parthia)
Image courtesy of

At that moment, from the surrounding hills, hundreds of Parthian drums began making a cacophony of sound, unsettling the Romans. Then, Surena ordered his bodyguard to take off the robes they were wearing. According to Plutarch, "When [the Parthians] had sufficiently terrified the Romans with their noise, they threw off the covering of their armor, and shone like lightning in their breastplates and helmets of polished…steel, and with their horses covered with brass and steel trappings…"  Surena had hoped that the dazzling sight of his heavily armored lancers would frighten the Romans. When this action apparently did not faze the Romans, the Parthian general was impressed by the Romans' discipline.

Surena then ordered his cataphracts to charge the Roman formation, causing some casualties. Seeing that his lancers would not be able to singlehandedly break the Roman formations, he ordered their withdrawal. Crassus ordered the center of his line to pursue the Parthians, but they were unable to come to grips with the faster enemy. As the Romans returned to their square formation, the Parthian horse archers began a harassing fire once more. With their powerful composite bows – with longer range than the bows the Romans knew – the Parthian archers inflicted long-range losses on their foe. Crassus then ordered his men to form testudoes, a formation of overlapping shields intended to lessen the effect of missile fire. While initially effective, this formation did not lend itself well to hand-to-hand combat. Also, the Parthian bows were powerful enough to penetrate the Romans' body armor and shields.

Parthian horse archers in action, art by Peter Dennis; Image courtesy of
Parthian horse archers in action, art by Peter Dennis
Image courtesy of

For several hours, the Parthian horse archers kept up a stinging rain of arrows, punctuated by occasional sallies by the cataphracts. Crassus hoped that the archers would soon run out of arrows, but hundreds of pack camels constantly kept the archers supplied while the cataphracts nipped at the edges of the Roman square. Finally, Crassus ordered his son Publius to lead his wing of the army forward as a diversion, hoping to bring the Parthians to battle. As a result, the younger Crassus led eight cohorts of infantry, 500 archers and 1300 cavalry, including his Gallic horsemen, forward to meet the Parthians.

As usual the Parthians refused to come to grips with the Roman attack, peppering them with arrows as they withdrew. The Romans continued to pursue the enemy, but the attack ran out of steam. When the Roman wing was far from the support of the Roman square, the Parthian archers and cataphracts surrounded Publius' men and began to slowly grind them down. Surrounded on a large mound, Publius and his soldiers were nearly all wiped out. Badly wounded and fearing to return in disgrace to his father, Public Licinius Crassus asked his aide to thrust his sword into his heart. Shortly afterwards, a Parthian lancer galloped within sight of the Roman square, and displayed the severed head of Publius Crassus on his lance. Shortly afterwards, the sun set and the Parthians withdrew to their camp.


Now almost fully overcome by fear and grief at the death of his son, Crassus asked his lieutenants for advice. Cassius and the others, fearing they would all be wiped out in the darkness, urged a night retreat back to the town of Carrhae, where a Roman garrison held the town. Subsequently, those Romans who could march began a disorganized retreat back to Carrhae. The large number of Roman wounded were left on the battlefield, where many were slaughtered by the Parthians the next day. Some Roman horsemen rode ahead to Carrhae, hailed the sentinels in Latin and informed them of the great battle. They also said that the remains of the Roman army was headed for the city, after which the horsemen rode off for the city of Zeugma and safety.

The commander of the Carrhae garrison roused his men, and marched them out to meet Crassus and his retreating men. In the morning, the Parthians mounted a pursuit, slaughtering any Romans they found. One group of Romans were being annihilated on a hill, but when the last twenty legionaries charged the Parthians to give up their lives in battle, the Parthians parted ranks and allowed them to escape.

The Parthians, led by Surena, appeared at the gates of Carrhae the next day. After determining that Crassus was still alive, Surena offered a truce to negotiate an end to the hostilities. Crassus was at first unsure of Surena's offer, but the remaining Roman soldiers threatened to mutiny if Crassus did not go to the meeting. As Crassus and an escort were preparing to leave, a Roman officer suddenly grabbed the bridle of Crassus' mount, trying to stop him from leaving. A scuffle broke out, and soon a full-fledged skirmish ensued. In the melee, Crassus was cut down, and his body was taken to Surena. According to one historian, the Parthians poured molten gold down the throat of Crassus' corpse, a symbolic gesture mocking the now-deceased richest man in the world and his renowned greed.

Final casualty figures for the Romans: 20,000 dead, 10,000 captured. Parthian casualties were not recorded, but can surely be characterized as very light.

Footnote #1: In addition to the heavy Roman casualties, the Parthians captured several legionary eagles, the sacred battle-standards of the Romans. This supreme shame was not relieved for another generation, and they were retrieved through diplomacy during the reign of Augustus. The recovery of these standards was celebrated as though it was a military triumph.

Footnote #2: The Parthian victory was followed up, and the territory temporarily taken by the Romans east of the Euphrates was lost. In fact, the Parthians invaded the province of Syria, but were resisted by Cassius Longinus, now the acting governor upon the death of Crassus.

Footnote #3: Despite his great victory, General Surena provoked the jealousy of Orodes, the Parthian king. Taking command of his army himself, Orodes then defeated Armenia and took over the nation, making it a part of his empire. Within a year, he ordered Surena's execution.

Footnote #4: Longinus would return to Rome and become involved in the intrigue after the civil war. He was one of the assassins of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BC, striking Caesar in the face. Cassius would eventually die at the battle of Philippi in 42 BC, the last battle of the Wars of the Second Triumvirate. According to William Shakespeare in the play "Julius Caesar," Caesar spoke of Cassius, saying he had "a lean and hungry look," that he stayed awake nights nursing his envy and hatred of Caesar.

Head of Crassus used as prop in play
Head of Crassus used as prop in play "The Bacchae;" artist unknown
Image courtesy of

Footnote #5: Shortly after the battle, according to the historian Plutarch, Crassus' head was taken to King Orodes. In the court of the defeated Armenian ruler Artavasdes, a play by the Greek playwright Euripides was being performed. One of the actors picked up the head of Crassus, which had been brought to the palace, and used it as a prop in the performance. Plutarch wrote, "With such a farce as this the expedition of Crassus is said to have closed, just like a tragedy."

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