Battle of Carrhae, 53 BCE

Battle of Carrhae, 53 BCE

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The Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE was one of the greatest military catastrophes in all of Roman history when a hero of the Spartacus campaign, Marcus Licinius Crassus (115-53 BCE), initiated an unprovoked invasion of Parthian territory (modern Iran). Most of the information concerning the battle and its aftermath comes from two major sources: the 1st-century CE historian Plutarch's biography of Crassus and Roman History by Cassius Dio (c. 155 - c. 235 CE).

Carrhae proved to be a complete disaster from its beginning. Not only were the Romans not used to fighting on the open terrain and in the unbearable heat of Syria but they also had never seen anything like the Parthian cavalry: the cataphracts or armored camels. Iain Dickie, in his article on the battle in Battles of the Ancient World states that Crassus attempted "to score one over his political rivals Pompey and Caesar. He hoped for glory and riches but got tragedy and death" (140). In the end, 20,000 Romans were killed, 10,000 were captured, and only about 5,000 escaped the carnage.

Crassus & the Triumvirate

Marcus Licinius Crassus was not the inept commander that the outcome of the battle exhibits. He had been a capable military leader as well as a successful statesman. Along with Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) and Pompey the Great (106-48 BCE), Crassus formed the First Triumvirate that effectively ruled the Roman Republic from 60 to 53 BCE. An unstable Republic and a near civil war led these three men to set aside their differences and even disdain for one another to join forces and for nearly a decade dominate the Roman government, even controlling elections.

With Caesar's success in Gaul and Pompey's victories against pirates in the Mediterranean Sea, Crassus needed a military conquest to advance his personal and family's political position in Rome. Already one of the richest men in Rome and the money behind the triumvirate, Crassus eyed the east and Parthia in particular. He dreamt of Roman supremacy there and an opportunity for glory. Unfortunately for him, little was known of Parthia except that it was considered extremely wealthy. Other eastern states had been easily captured, so why not Parthia? Although Pompey had signed treaties with the Parthians, Crassus chose to ignore them. This arrogance and greed would spell his eventual doom as well as the demise of the First Triumvirate.

The Romans had never encountered anything like the highly skilled Parthian cavalry who were trained to fight on open terrain.

Campaign Against Parthia

Leaving Rome in November 55 BCE Crassus marched eastward into Asia Minor eventually crossing the Euphrates River and arriving in Parthian territory. Along the way, he looted both towns and temples, increasing his personal wealth. Crassus left 7,000 cavalry and 1,000 infantry to garrison these captured towns. Spending the winter in Syria, he waited for his son Publius and his Gallic cavalry to arrive. In the end, his army consisted of 28,000 infantry, 4,000 light infantry, 1,000 Gallic cavalry, 3,000 Roman cavalry, and 6,000 Arab cavalry. Unfortunately for Crassus, the Arab cavalry would depart before the fighting began. As he waited for the weather to clear, he was met by Parthian envoys inquiring of Rome's purpose and demanding his withdrawal. Was his presence official? Crassus informed them that it was, indeed, official.

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Despite advice from the Armenians who knew the region much better, of course, Crassus and his army marched eastward into Seleucia. The Parthian king Orodes II (r. 57-37 BCE), who had recently defeated the Armenians, led an army into Armenia to prevent them from joining Crassus. Meanwhile, the Parthian regional governor Surena gathered his forces to oppose the Romans. When news arrived that the Parthians were preparing for battle, Crassus quickly organized his men. At first, he formed them into a long line but then, realizing that his flanks would be vulnerable, he re-formed them into a tight square. Each side of the square contained roughly 5,700 infantry or 12 cohorts. Inside the hollow square were not only the light infantry and cavalry but also the baggage and camp followers. Plutarch wrote of Crassus' trepidation:

All were greatly disturbed, of course, but Crassus was altogether frightened out of his senses, and began to draw up his forces in haste and with no great consistency. At first, as Cassius recommended, he extended the line of his men-at-arms as far as possible along the plain, with little depth, to prevent the enemy from surrounding them, and divided all his cavalry between the two wings. Then he changed his mind and concentrated his men, forming them in a hollow square of four fronts, with twelve cohorts on each side. (ch. 25)

Legions vs. Cavalry

The Romans had never encountered anything like the highly skilled Parthian cavalry who were specifically trained to fight on open terrain. First of all, unlike the Roman and Greek armies, there was no Parthian infantry only the infamous lance-carrying cataphracts of armored camels (about 1,000 in total) and lightly-armored mounted archers (around 10,000). They were swift-moving and rapid-firing. They emphasized mobility and expert horsemanship with quick charges and feigned retreats. Lastly, there was the famed Parthian shot when a mounted archer would ride away at full speed from his enemy and, while spinning around in his saddle, he would shoot a barrage of arrows over his horse's rump. The tactic proved almost impossible to counter, and the Parthian arrows could penetrate Roman armor while the lancers even had the capability of impaling two soldiers at once.

On the Roman side of the battle, there was the famed legionary, a soldier proven to be far more adaptable in hand-to-hand combat. He had already proven this against the Greeks. The average legionary was armed with a pilum (a heavy javelin) and a gladius Hispaniensis (a short stabbing sword). He wore a bronze helmet, shield, and mail tunic. He also had to carry entrenching tools, a bedroll, a cloak, cooking utensils, and rations. None of these would help him against the Parthians. His lack of the necessary training and inability to fight in the emptiness of the Syrian Desert would put him at a distinct disadvantage.


The Romans, still neatly arranged in their tight square, waited for a direct Parthian charge that never came. Plutarch wrote that the sound of the Parthians on the battlefield confounded one's soul:

For the Parthians do not incite themselves to battle with horns or trumpets, but they have hollow drums of distended hide, covered with bronze bells, and on these they beat all at one in many quarters, and the instruments give forth a low and dismal tone. (ibid)

Parthian tactics were simple: a continuous volume of fire. The archer-cavalry would ride around the square rapidly firing arrows into the Roman center. Any attempted counterattack failed. Plutarch said,

…when Crassus ordered his light-armed troops to make a charge, they did not advance far, but encountering a multitude of arrows, abandoned their undertaking and ran back for shelter among the men-at-arms, among whom they caused the beginning of disorder and fear, for these now saw the velocity and force of the arrows, which fractured armor, and tore their way through every covering alike, whether hard or soft. (ibid)

The Parthian cavalry could not be stopped, and Crassus realized he had to make a move. Plutarch wrote how the Romans had hoped the Parthians would eventually run out of arrows until they saw the camels heavily loaded with what appeared to be a never-ending supply.

…when they perceived that many camels laden with arrows were at chose quarters, from which the Parthians … took a fresh supply, then Crassus, seeing no end to this, began to lose heart, and sent messengers to his son with orders to force an engagement with the enemy… (Plutarch, ibid)

Crassus ordered Publius to lead his Gallic cavalry of 1,000, who were already suffering from the extreme summer heat, 300 additional cavalry, 500 foot archers and eight cohorts of legionnaires to counter the intense Parthian attack.

Death of Publius

Following the retreating horse archers, Publius was some distance from the square when the Parthians stopped and turned around. The Romans immediately halted, thereby becoming easy targets for the Parthian archers. Plutarch remarked that Publius had truly believed he was victorious in his pursuit of the Parthians until he realized that he had been tricked: "[the] struggle was an unequal one both offensively and defensively, for his [Publius'] thrusting was done with small and feeble spears against breastplates of rawhide and steel…" (Plutarch, ch. 25)

Of Publius' death, Cassius Dio wrote:

When this had taken place, the Roman infantry did not turn back, but valiantly joined the battle with the Parthians to avenge his death. Yet they accomplished nothing worthy of themselves because of the enemy's numbers and tactics… (441)

Of the 5,500 Romans, 500 were captured while the rest were riddled with arrows. Publius' head was carried on a pike in the next assault the cataphracts made on the Roman square. Plutarch wrote of the effect this had on the Romans:

This spectacle shattered and unstrung the spirits of the Romans more than all the rest of their terrible experiences, and they were all filled, not with a passion for revenge, as was to have been expected, but with shuddering and trembling. 26)

The Parthians 'scornfully' inquired of Publius' family, adding that the cowardly Crassus could not be the father of a son of such noble and splendid valor. However, despite their disdain, they did grant Crassus a peaceful evening to mourn his son.

Being ill-equipped for nighttime defense and fearing a Roman assault, the Parthians chose not to continue their attack, instead they made camp far from the Romans. Plutarch wrote that it was a troubling night for the Romans, for they could not bury their dead or care for the wounded. Despite this, that night 300 Romans under a commander named Ignatius made their escape to Carrhae, informed the city of the battle, and then moved on. Plutarch wrote:

Ignatius hailed the sentinels on the walls in the Roman tongue, and when they answered, ordered them to tell Coponius, their commander, that there had been a great battle between Crassus and the Parthians. Then, without another word, and without even telling who he was, he rode off to Zeugma. He saved himself and his men, but got a bad name for deserting his general. 27)

Retreat to Carrhae

Crassus realized that staying was hopeless and he must escape. Leaving the wounded behind, the remainder of the Roman army made their way to the safety of Carrhae, although four cohorts became lost in the night. Crassus understood that he would not be able to remain very long in the city and was already planning to move on.

At the walls of carrhae, the Parthians demanded that Crassus & his second-in-command Cassius be surrendered in chains.

The following morning the Parthians arrived at the Roman camp, slaughtered the 4,000 wounded and abandoned soldiers, found and wiped out the missing four cohorts, and then continued on to Carrhae. At the city walls, the Parthians demanded that Crassus and his second-in-command Cassius be surrendered in chains. According to Plutarch, Surena did not want to lose the 'fruits of his victory,' so he sent a messenger who spoke 'the Roman tongue' to ask for either Crassus or Cassius to meet and have a conference. With limited supplies in the town and a discouraged army, Crassus, not wishing to meet with Surena, saw it was essential to leave the city. In the end, the attempted escape would prove disastrous.

That night Crassus and his army made a failed attempt to flee to Armenia only to return to Carrhae where they became lost in a marsh. Cassius Dio wrote:

For Crassus, in his discouragement, believed he could not hold out safely even in the city any longer, but planned flight at once. And since it was impossible for him to go out by day without being detected, he undertook to escape by night, but failed to secure secrecy, being betrayed by the moon, which was at its full. (441)

Waiting for a moonless night, they again left in darkness but became confused in unfamiliar terrain and became lost. Unfortunately, Crassus had trusted the wrong man to lead him and his men to safety: the traitor Andromachus.

But since it is not the custom, and so not easy, for the Parthians to fight by night, and since Crassus set out by night, Andromachus, by leading the fugitives now by one route and now by another, contrived that the pursuers should not be left far behind, and finally he diverted the march into deep marshes and regions full of ditches, thus making it difficult and circuitous for those who still followed him. (Plutarch, ch. 29)

The Romans took refuge on a large hill. Meanwhile, the Roman commander Octavius made an escape with 5,000 men to Sinnaca, later returning to help drive off the Parthians only to meet his own death at the hands of a Parthian soldier. Finally, terms were again offered. Crassus was reluctant but his men urged him on "…abusing and reviling him for putting them forward to fight men with whom he himself had not the courage to confer even when they came unarmed" (Plutarch, ch. 30).

The results of the meeting and the death of Crassus and Octavius are a matter of conjecture and myth. Supposedly, Surena asked for terms that called for the Romans to abandon all territory east of the Euphrates. Crassus, according to Cassius Dio, was fearful. The meeting did not go as planned, for Crassus would meet his death. Plutarch remarked, "… the Parthians came and said that as for Crassus, he had met with his deserts, but that Surena ordered the rest of the Romans to come down without fear" (ch. 31). Some complied while others tried to escape only to be captured and 'cut to pieces'.

Cassius Dio wrote that Crassus was slain "…either by one of his own men to prevent his capture alive or by the enemy because he was badly wounded" (445). Another story claims that the Parthians poured molten gold into his mouth 'in mockery' of his vast wealth. Crassus' head was sent to the Parthian king where it was used as a prop in a performance of Euripides' play The Bacchae - it became the head of the tragic Pentheus who had been decapitated by his mother.


At Carrhae Crassus' greed and ambition blinded him to the realities of war in the east. Previously, Crassus had had success as a military commander, but Carrhae showed the failure of his normally capable ability to execute a rational plan. It has been suggested that he may have suffered from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Certainly, he seems to have exhibited anger, a lack of concentration, alienation, and depression, especially after the death of his son when he refused to leave his tent.

With the death of Crassus, the triumvirate was doomed. Crassus had been the glue, and soon Caesar and Pompey were at odds - it would finally end with the death of Pompey. Supposedly, as a self-proclaimed dictator-for-life, Julius Caesar had hoped to lead his army eastward to avenge Crassus' death and get back the lost eagle standards of the fallen legions, but his death on the Ides of March 44 BCE would spell the end of any such planned reprisal.

While Rome would occasionally penetrate into Parthian territory - Emperors Trajan and Septimius Severus made progress - war with Parthia never materialized. Parthia proved to be far more defensive than aggressive. The area would always remain a thorn in the side of the empire. However, despite the catastrophic losses at Carrhae, Rome was able to survive, continue to conquer and emerge as an empire. The Battle of Carrhae, along with the battles at Cannae (216 BCE) and Adrianople (378 CE), remain among the worst military disasters in Roman history.

The Disastrous Roman Campaign of Carrhae

In the middle of summer, 53 BCE the Roman Triumvir Crassus was severely defeated in his campaign into the lands of the Parthian Empire. His wish to add the territories captured from Alexander to the Roman Empire led him to a catastrophic end and marked the clash as one of the heaviest losses they ever suffered. It was also the first time a Roman legion had lost their Aquila, an event that brought shame, dishonor, and disgrace.

When the Romans made that attempt and attacked the Eastern Parthian Provinces, their army was smashed by the forces of the Persian general Surena. The event cost the lives of almost the entire Roman army, and whoever was not put to the sword was sold into slavery in the northern provinces of the Persian Empire.

WI Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC a Roman Victory?

if the romans advanced it probably would have been an even more humiliating battle, legionaires are the best infantry at the time in the world but they can't charge cavalry because cavalry are agile enough to escape, even heavily armoured cataphracts. their lines would have been disrupted and the horse archers could have taken down even more of them because they weren't in testudo formation and then the cataphracts could plow through the disrupted lines and potentially wipe them out

if crassus had agreed to go through armernia instead of the desert he could have linked up with the armenians and fought the whole parthian army including infantry on more favourable terrain. the armenians would have had a large cavalry force experienced enough to defeat the parthians own cavalry and the legionaries could have trounced the parthian infantry





Keep in mind, Crassus is 70 years old at the time of Carrhae. I doubt he would have more than 10 years left to live, and even then, he would still have to pacify Parthia. It took Caesar, with greater forces and perhaps more military talent, at least that long to pacify Gaul. Imagine how long Crassus would have to spend to pacify the Parthians enough to be able to make ANY realistic bid for power in Rome. He would have to spend much time on campaign before he has legions that are as loyal to him as Caesar's were to him.

On the other hand, Crassus' son, who was at the time one of Caesar's best lieutenants, could be a real contender down the line. Imagine Crassus dying, say, around 50-49 BC, and the ascention of his son to command being the beginnings of a crisis. He has good military reputation, is respected in the legions, and he might be the guy that "crosses the Rubicon". perhaps even in league with Caesar, given that the two always got along really well, and had much respect for one another.

What was the impact of the Battle of Carrhae (53BC) on Rome?

Warfare defined the final century of the Roman Republic. Battle of Carrhae (53 BC) was one of the most important because it had profound implications for both Rome and for the eastern provinces of its Empire. At this battle, for the first real time, the Empires of Rome and Parthia clashed. Carrhae was one of the greatest and most decisive Roman defeats in its thousand year history.

This article will examine the impact of the defeat at Carrhae on Rome. The defeat resulted in the fall of Crassus, which hastened the start of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. The outcome of which was the end of the Roman Republic and the introduction of an imperial system in Rome. Carrhae also meant that Roman expansion in the east was contained and that for several decades the Parthians were a grave threat in the Roman East. The Roman defeat left a legacy of enmity between Rome and Parthia that led to many more wars in the region.


Roman had annexed Asia Minor and the truncated Seleucid Empire in the 1st century AD. This was to have far-reaching strategic repercussions for the Romans. For the first time, they came into contact with the Parthian Empire. The Parthians were an Iranian people who carved out an extensive Empire out of the Seleucid Empire. Their empire stretched from modern Iraq to Pakistan. Rome in the 1st century AD had greatly expanded its Empire and many of its leaders believed that the Republic was invincible. [1]

Rome by the 50s BCE was ruled by a ‘Triumvirate’ of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus. This, known as the ‘First Triumvirate’ was an informal political alliance between the three most important men in Rome. Caesar who had been the leader of the popular party was in Gaul conquering that vast area. Pompey had won many victories in the East and was commonly referred to as Pompey the Great. Crassus' (115-53 BCE) power rested on his fabulous wealth and his ability as a political operator.

In this period success in battle was a requisite for political power. Crassus was very aware that he did not have any great military victories. He had played a leading role in the suppression of the Revolt of Spartacus, but this was not considered glorious enough for him. He needed a victory for his and his son’s career. Parthia was largely an unknown entity, but the Romans had heard that it had lately been weakened, because of a succession crisis. This and his political ambition persuaded Crassus to invade the Empire with the belief that he could conquer it. He had himself appointed the governor of Syria and made preparations to invade Parthia. This was contrary to the Senate's policy which had not sought conflict with the Parthian monarchs.

The Battle

Crassus landed in Asia Minor with a large army, some estimate it to be 50,000 strong. The Roman commander had little military experience, but his son was a seasoned and respected campaigner. The Romans knew little about the lands that they were going to invade. [2] The king of Armenia offered to allow the invading army to enter Parthia via his kingdom. This would have allowed the Roman legions to march down into modern Iraq and on to the capital of Parthia, Ctesiphon. Instead, Crassus invaded by way of Turkey. This was an area largely of plains and it was ideal for cavalry. Several Roman commanders including Cassius tried to dissuade him from this course.

However, Crassus was overconfident and believed that his army was invincible. The Romans outnumbered the Parthians and their allies by up to four to one. The Parthians were mainly cavalry and they had little infantry. They were led by a general of genius Surena, who came from Central Asia. Suren adopted guerrilla tactics at first and used his superior cavalry to harass and inflict casualties on the Romans. [3] . Surena decided to confront the advancing Crassus at the small town of Carrhae in modern Turkey. The Parthians used their cavalry archers to launch hit and runs attacks on the Romans who were in tight formations. Crassus hoped that the Parthians would run out of arrows, but Suren used Bactrian camels to re-supply his forces with arrows. Under the relentless showers of arrows, the Roman legionnaires could not move, and their supplies ran low. [4]

According to Plutarch "Now if they had hopes that the enemy would exhaust their missiles and desist from battle or fight at close quarters, the Romans held out but when they perceived that many camels laden with arrows were at hand, from which the Parthians who first encircled them took a fresh supply.’ [5] The Roman commander repeatedly ordered that his army move forward and engage with the enemy. However, each time the legions advanced the Parthian cavalry retreated and firing arrows as they did. This caused many casualties among the Romans and their morale began to collapse. [6] It is claimed that many of the Parthian arrows could pierce armor and pinned Romans to the ground. After several days, the army of Crassus was on the verge of mutiny. They forced Crassus to negotiate with Suren. At these negotiations a tenative agreement was reached which could have have allowed the Romans to withdraw safely from Parthian territory in return for the evacuation of several Roman garrisons from east of the Euphrates (in modern Iraq).

However, during the meeting between the Roman and the Parthian commanders one of the soldiers of Suren seized the reins of Crassus horse and this lead to a skirmish. [7] In this Crassus and his son were killed, leaving the Romans leaderless and they were effectively cut off in enemy territory. [8] Surena then ordered his heavy cavalry the cataphracts (the forerunners of the medieval knight) to charge into the Roman lines. They were ineffective, but they caused panic among the legionnaires. The Romans began a disorganized retreat and they came under constant attack from the forces of Suren. Many Romans made it back safely to Syria, but it is estimated that some 20,000 legionnaires were killed and another 10,000 captured during the chaotic retreat. Those captured were paraded through the Parthian Capital and later made to work as slaves in Central Asia. [9]

Immediate aftermath

The victors at Carrhae attempted to seize Roman territory in Syria but they were beaten back by the remaining Roman forces under Cassius, who was later one of the ringleaders in the assassination of Julius Caesar regrouped in Syria. Suren despite his victory was later executed by the Parthian monarch Odores II who feared his power and popularity. This may have been a blessing for the Romans as, without the leadership and strategic vision of Surena, they failed to secure their objectives. Cassius proved to be a very capable general. The Parthian Crown Prince invaded Syria but was ambushed by Cassius, defeated and killed.

However, the Parthians were able to conquer the strategic kingdom of Armenia in the Caucuses. From here they were able to threaten the Roman possessions in Asia Minor, a situation that was to last for many decades. Carrhae left the Roman East exposed and it was to be invaded several times in the next decades by Parthia. Syria was occupied twice by the Parthians and on one occasion they installed a puppet king in Judea. For several decades until the reign of Augustus, the Roman East was left exposed to regular Parthian incursions and interference, by the defeat of Crassus in 53 BC.

Roman and Parthian Wars

Prior to Carrhae, Rome had expanded rapidly and almost at will. However, the defeat at Carrhae and ended this seemingly remorseless expansion in the Middle East. In the aftermath of the defeat, Rome withdrew some garrisons from the eastern side of the Euphrates River. However, the defeat was a national humiliation and especially the legionary eagles that were seized by the Parthians at Carrhae. Caesar swore revenge, and many believe that he was going to invade Parthia before his assassination. The defeat at Carrhae, was something that the Romans had to be avenged. During the civil wars the Parthians supported the enemies of Caesar. During the Roman civil wars in the 40s BCE the Parthians were able to occupy much of the Roman East. [10]

The end of the second Roman Civil War allowed the Romans to retake their possessions. Mark Anthony later launched an invasion of Parthia to punish the victors of Carrhae, but this too ended in a disaster. The lessons from the defeat were not learned. It was up to Augustus to develop a strategy that led to a period of peace. He was later able to negotiate to have the legionary standards that were captured at the defeat to be returned to Rome. However, the defeat continued to haunt Rome and many emperors dreamt of avenging that most calamitous defeat. There were persistent tensions between Rome and Parthia. The two countries were strategic rivals after the battle and each vied for influence in the strategically important kingdom of Armenia. [11] The relative calm of the 1st century was ended by the invasion of Trajan of Parthia and the next few decades saw many wars between the two great powers in the Ancient Near. Carrhae was the beginning of some two centuries of mistrust and occasionally war between Rome and Parthia.

Carrhae and the end of the Roman Republic

The disaster at Carrhae was soon followed by a series of civil wars that were only ended by the fall of the Republic. The Republic had been greatly weakened by the March of Sulla on the city and his seizure of power. However, the death of Crassus at Carrhae was a crucial stage in the fall of the Roman Republic. Many historians have linked the death of Crassus at Carrhae with the beginning of the civil wars. Crassus had ensured that Pompey and Caesar continued to cooperate in the First Triumvirate. The death of Crassus and the death of Julia the wife of Pompey and the daughter of Caesar ended the ties that bound Pompey and Caesar.

Without Crassus in the First Triumvirate, it was inevitable that the political alliance would collapse. If Crassus had lived then he could have maintained the balance of power between Pompey and Caesar, which could have prolonged the life of the Republic. Another theory is that Crassus was essential to the relationship between Caesar and the Roman Senators. Without him, the relationship between the conqueror of Gaul and the Senate deteriorated in the wake of Carrhae. [12] After the death of Crassus, the relationship between Caesar and the Senate broke down, irretrievably, over command of the legions on Gaul. Civil War broke out when Caesar crossed the Rubicon. The disaster at Carrhae helped to create a set of circumstances that led to a period of civil wars that ended with an imperial form of government in Rome.


Carrhae was a humiliation for Rome. It also had profound implications for the Republic and later its successor the Empire. The near annihilation of the invasion force of Crassus had profound implications. It meant that the Roman Near East was left very exposed for several decades and it suffered frequent Parthian incursions and interference. It was only with the establishment of the Imperial system that Rome’s eastern provinces could be properly protected. The disaster at Carrhae meant that Rome came to fear and hate Parthia and many, such as Mark Anthony, wanted to avenge the defeat. This all contributed to a series of wars between Parthia and Rome. The death of Crassus helped to destabilize the politics in Rome. He was able to maintain a balance of power between Pompey and Caesar. With his death, it was perhaps inevitable that the two men would fight for supremacy in Rome. The conflict between the Caesar and Pompey led to a series of civil wars, that ultimately resulted in the collapse of the Roman Republic.

A Call for Help

Crassus’ confidence was deteriorating quickly. He sent a message to his son Publius to join the battle by taking 1,300 cavalry, 500 archers, and eight cohorts from the infantry. Crassus’ hope was to draw some of the Parthians away from the square, as they were attempting to encircle the Romans. However, two reasons were given for the Parthians to attempt this. The first was to envelop the Romans completely, that in due time the legions would crowd closer as their numbers dwindled. However, Plutarch mentions that the Parthians had trouble enveloping the Roman rear due to marshy terrain, making it difficult for the horses to maneuver. The second reason Plutarch gave seems more plausible, and that was to leave a window open just big enough to make the Romans think that they had found an advantage. Deceiving the Romans into thinking that the Parthians could not surround them, Crassus’ son Publius took the bait and charged ahead. However, it was an old steppe trick. Thinking they were retreating, Publius shouted excitedly, “’They are on the run,’ and charged after them.” The faked retreat worked, Publius was on the move and the Parthians, stationed farther ahead and well hidden, were awaiting his arrival.

Depiction of a battle scene of Trajan’s Column: On the left, Parthian horsemen in armor, fleeing before Roman riders. (Public Domain)

Publius and the men were full of joy, thinking that they now had the advantage and victory was surely imminent. But moving farther away from the main body, they soon realized the pursuit was nothing more than a trick when the horse archers wheeled around and were joined by fresh troops. Publius ordered the men to halt where the Parthian cataphract was stationed in front of him. He hoped that they would engage in close combat. Instead, the horse archers in loose order rode around the Romans, kicking up so much sand that a mini-sandstorm fell on top of the Romans and it became nearly impossible to see the enemy.

By using nature as a weapon to disguise their movements, the horse archers were able to engage the Romans safely. Using nature as a force multiplier gave them the advantage of fighting uninhibitedly. Publius and his men could not see or breathe very well, inciting fear, which soon led to panic. The Romans in their disarray tripped, stumbled, and fell in each other’s way. The Parthian horse archers quickly took advantage and the shower of arrows began. Publius did what any commander in the field would do — reestablish order among the men. However, it was too late.

In the convulsion and agony of their pain they writhed as the arrows struck them the men broke them off in their wounds and then lacerated and disfigured their own bodies by trying to tear out by main force the barbed arrow heads that had pierced through their veins and muscles.

Many of the men died a slow, agonizing death in this fashion. Publius needed to act quickly. The Romans could not engage the horse archers in close combat while the Parthian chain of command, the cataphract, remained nearby. If the Romans could make a break for the cataphract and engage them in close combat, they might have a chance to turn the tide of battle, especially if they could reach the Parthian commander, Surena, and kill him.

Romans in China: The Lost Legions of Carrhae

The Romans in the first century BCE were perhaps the most growing empires around. Though the civil wars of Caesar and Pompey, and Octavian and Marc Antony dominated the scene a lot more happened around them. In 53 BCE a Roman army under Marcus Licinius Crassus, vanquisher of Spartacus and richest man in Rome, attempted to extend Roman power into Parthia, modern day Iran. He got as far as modern day Harran in southeast Turkey before he was met by a Parthian army under Surena.

Crassus was a little too cocky and pushed forward, thinking victory would be easy against these inferior barbarians. He was sadly mistaken as the Parthians were an efficient semi-professional army with the most elite horse archers the world had ever seen at the time. In a slaughter known as the battle of Carrhae the Romans lost nearly their entire army and Crassus was killed. The remaining 10,000 or so Roman legionaries were captured.

The Parthians had a standard practice of employing captured soldiers as border guards. By transferring the 10,000 legionaries to the eastern boarders they prevented any realistic chance of escape for the Romans who likely would have simply accepted their new lot in life. Record of the soldiers vanish for about 17 years when the battle of Zhizhi was fought as a Chinese army under Chen Tang assaulted a border town known today as Taraz, located in Kazakhstan near the border of Kyrgyzstan. Chinese historians note that the defenders held their shields in a “fish scale” pattern. The fight for the town was intense but the Chinese prevailed. The Chinese, under the Han Dynasty at this point, were near the height of their power this battle represented their greatest Westward expansion and their victory was achieved in part because many of the locals defected to the Chinese out of fear.

The Chinese were so impressed by these foreign warriors that they put them into another border town, this time guarding the border between China and Tibet as Tibetan raids were not uncommon around this time. Anywhere from 100 to 1,000 or more soldiers established themselves in this town that was known by the Chinese as Liqian/Li-Jien, which is pronounced as “legion”. These men were known to use tools such as tree trunk counterweight construction devices, and to reinforce the area into a square fort, a common site in the Mediterranean but quite rare in Asia.

The victorious Surena

It seems these Romans lived peacefully in Liqian, and 2,000 years later we have DNA evidence that over 50% of the villagers in modern day Liqian have Caucasian ancestry including green and blue eyes, increased average height and other distinguishing characteristics such as distinctly Roman noses. The people in the small village are aware of and proud of their ancestry, celebrating the Romans and showing a fond interest in bulls, a heavily worshiped animal of Roman legions.

The long journey of the Roman legion(s) lost at Carrhae, a distance of over 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) and nearly 5,000 miles from Rome itself. By Talessman CC BY 3.0

A great many modern historians absolutely dismiss the story of the legionaries in China as more of a fairytale than truth, though some prominent historians still argue that this sequence of events is quite possible and even the most probable of theories. Just because it is a hard to believe tale does not at all make it untrue. In every reference from the Asian sources the foreigners appear to be none other than the 10,000 legionaries captured at Carrhae. The only gap in knowledge is that the Romans transferred from Parthian control to Mongol control as the Mongols held the town at the battle of Zhizhi. It seems that either the Romans were captured and transported again, or more likely that they were sold as mercenaries.

Parthian horseman. notice a drawn bow while the horse is mid jump Parthians were experts at horse archery. Jean Chardin By Jean Chardin – CC BY-SA 3.0

Their “fish scale” formation at the battle is almost certainly the well-known Testudo formation, and the professional practice points to seasoned soldiers. These Romans would have had just each other for company through these many years so it’s understandable to think they had outstanding discipline and kept up their training, which would lead to them having such an impressive showing at Zhizhi that the Chinese used them to guard their own territory.

The modern descendants of the Romans are decent evidence of the Roman’s presence but two other theories are possible. The town of Liqian was near the multicultural Silk Road, therefore the Caucasian DNA could be from travelers along the road. The other possibility is that the soldiers at the battle and settlers of the Chinese town were actually descendants of Alexander the Great’s army, though this seems even more unlikely as the events are multiple generations removed from Alexander’s campaigns and the army at Zhizhi was clearly fighting in a professional and western way.

The only remaining evidence needed to authenticate the story would be Roman coins or other artifacts at Liqian. If the story is true, it is an amazing story of tragic loss followed by strict adherence to professional soldiery. By the time they settled in Liqian these soldiers would be in their forties and fifties and looking forward to retirement. Based off of the DNA of their descendants it does seem like they weren’t subject to many Tibetan raids, or perhaps they were put to the test again and finally held their own ground.

Battle of Carrhae (53 BCE)

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 54–54 BCE, the Triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus let a reckless and unprovoked invasion of Parthia (modern Turkey). The Parthian kings had gone to considerable lengths to avoid a conflict, but political issues in the Roman state forced the issue. Rome was led by three competing dynasts, Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar, and all of them were bent on foreign conquest and military glory.

At Carrhae, the Roman forces were crushed, and Crassus was killed. With the death of Crassus, a final confrontation between Caesar and Pompey became inevitable. It wasn't the crossing of the Rubicon that was the death knell of the Republic, but the death of Crassus at Carrhae.

What if: Battle of Carrhae 53 BCE had been a Roman Victory?

What if instead of pursuit of the Parthians in Mesopotamia Crassus had engaged them in Armenia given word from allied chieftain of the presence of that army?

What would be the effects on Roman politics from Crassus still being alive?

If the Parthian force were defeated could the Romans have hoped for much greater eastern expansion?

Could this victory like the Punic Wars have set precedence for the Roman Republic to swallow up the Parthian Empire?

What would be the effects on the eastern civilizations if Roman expansion reached that far?


Not much. The force led by Surena was not designed to destroy Crassus but delay him. It was a small force of only 10,000 horsemen. The Parthian king was shocked when Surena brought Crassus's head.

Had the Romans won, they would likely face the full blunt of the Parthian army which includes both infantry and cavalry.

Audaces fortuna iuvat

Range cleared thot

Not much. The force led by Surena was not designed to destroy Crassus but delay him. It was a small force of only 10,000 horsemen. The Parthian king was shocked when Surena brought Crassus's head.

Had the Romans won, they would likely face the full blunt of the Parthian army which includes both infantry and cavalry.

Michael Howze

Audaces fortuna iuvat

Range cleared thot


Incompetent Space Tyrant.

In the Middle East not much, Parthia and Rome see-sawed back and forth for centuries it would be just one more period of Rome having the upper hand for however long it lasted. Parthia stretched all the way to the border of India to much territory for Rome to take and hold ending the wars.

In Rome the Triumvirate doesn't collapse as it did in the OTL. Caesar is in real danger when his governorship ends and he is recalled to Rome. The Civil War if it still happens might have three factions. Caesar was the junior partner in the Triumvirate behind the military power of Pompey and the wealth of Crassus. A lot of his actions in Gaul far exceeded the authority granted him by the Senate. Will the Roman Empire still rise or will something else replace the Roman Republic. Ptolemaic Egypt might even last a few more generations or pull off a miracle by surviving.

Audaces fortuna iuvat

Range cleared thot

In the Middle East not much, Parthia and Rome see-sawed back and forth for centuries it would be just one more period of Rome having the upper hand for however long it lasted. Parthia stretched all the way to the border of India to much territory for Rome to take and hold ending the wars.

In Rome the Triumvirate doesn't collapse as it did in the OTL. Caesar is in real danger when his governorship ends and he is recalled to Rome. The Civil War if it still happens might have three factions. Caesar was the junior partner in the Triumvirate behind the military power of Pompey and the wealth of Crassus. A lot of his actions in Gaul far exceeded the authority granted him by the Senate. Will the Roman Empire still rise or will something else replace the Roman Republic. Ptolemaic Egypt might even last a few more generations or pull off a miracle by surviving.

Roman-Persian Wars: Battle of Carrhae

In 53 B.C., seven Roman legions, some 50,000 men, marched into the searing Mesopotamian desert. They had come to this eastern province of the kingdom of Parthia seeking conquest and plunder but, deceived by a false guide and commanded by an arrogant blunderer, the legions were almost annihilated. Aside from a lucky few, the Romans were either slaughtered and their bodies mutilated, or else were captured and enslaved. Their commander was decapitated, and his head was used as an ornament at the banquet of the Parthian king.

Such was the Battle of Carrhae, a disaster almost unmatched in the otherwise glorious history of Roman arms. It was a battle of shocking brutality, even by ancient standards. It was also an early example of hit-and-run, guerrilla-style warfare, carried out in a manner that would stand up well by 21st century standards. Most of all, it was a monument to the delusions, conceits and military incompetence of the Roman commander, Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Our guide across this ancient battlefield will be the famous 1st-century Greek biographer, Plutarch. Where quotation marks are used in this article, the words are his.

Rome at the time of Carrhae, though still a republic, was ruled by three powerful public figures known as the First Triumvirate: Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus-known to posterity as Pompey the Great-Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus. Pompey was Rome’s most famous general, having earned his honorific title of Magnus for his many victories and conquests. The young aristocrat Caesar had been known mostly for his eloquent speeches in the Senate, but the martial talents he had recently displayed in Gaul and Britannia were fast giving rise to a new legend. Crassus, a nouveau riche entrepreneur, was both a successful politician and the richest man in Rome. For all of his wealth and political power, Crassus, according to the 1st century Greek historian Plutarch, had always envied Pompey’s military fame. When Caesar too began to exhibit military prowess, Crassus, then aged 60, suddenly decided to seek conquests of his own. ‘Being strangely puffed up, and his head heated, Plutarch wrote, he proposed himself in his hopes to pass as far as Bactria and India, and the utmost ocean.

Crassus had some military accomplishments on his resum. He was one of Lucius Cornelius Sulla’s lieutenants during the early civil wars, alongside young Pompey-the future triumvirs’ rivalry dated from that time. Crassus’ first substantial opportunity to show his martial mettle came in 73 BC, when a band of gladiators, armed with cooking knives and led by a Thracian named Spartacus, broke out of their training school in Capua and managed to capture a wagonload of weapons. Before long the breakout snowballed into a full-fledged slave revolt throughout Italy that became known as the Third Servile War. Under Spartacus’ leadership the slaves won several pitched battles over Roman troops, and were soon well on their way to marching out of Italy to freedom. Alarmed, the Roman Senate gave Crassus command of an army. One of his first acts was to revive the ancient practice of decimation: every tenth man in a unit that had been routed by Spartacus was punished with death. Next, in 71 BC Crassus maneuvered Spartacus onto the peninsula of Rhegium, where he bottled up the slave army by building a trench across the isthmus, described by Plutarch as three-hundred furlongs long, fifteen feet broad and as much in depth. Spartacus and one-third of his force managed to break out on a wild, snowy night, however, by filling a section of the trench with earth, thereby making it passable.

Spartacus still hoped to fight his way out of Italy. But after winning another battle over one of Crassus’ lieutenants, the slaves, over-confident and never really disciplined, persuaded him to lead them in a final, decisive battle. This was exactly what Crassus wanted, since Pompey was coming with an army from Iberia, and Crassus desperately needed a quick victory before his old rival arrived. In this final battle the slave army was indeed destroyed and according to Plutarch Spartacus himself, deserted by those that were about him…surrounded by the enemy and bravely defending himself, was cut in pieces.

Pompey arrived in Italy in time to assist Crassus in rounding up the surviving slaves, who were crucified on rows of crosses that lined the Appian Way. For that mopping up operation, coupled with his more significant conquests in Iberia, the Senate awarded him a formal triumph, while Crassus had to settle for a mere ovation. What is more, the Roman citizens, according to Plutarch, thought Crassus petty for accepting even that much-a victory over slaves was not thought to be very heroic. Perhaps Crassus recalled that turn of events 18 years later, when his mind turned once again to thoughts of military glory.

When Crassus revived his army career, the opponent he chose was the Parthian kingdom. The Parthians were Iranian, inheritors of the old Persian Empire that had been destroyed by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. The Parthians were not at war with Rome, and both Sulla and Pompey, on previous tours of duty in the east, had negotiated with them on friendly terms. But Parthia was big enough and close enough to be a potential nuisance to Rome, and Crassus was looking for new worlds to conquer.

For all the preparations he made in mobilizing a mighty invasion force, Crassus’ first mistake was his failure to acquaint himself with the tactics of the Parthian army. This was a significant error, because the Parthians waged war like no nation Rome had ever faced.

The Parthians occasionally employed mercenaries or raised militia to serve as infantry, but very often-including at Carrhae-their forces were entirely mounted. Their heavy cavalrymen were called cataphracts, from the Greek word cataphractoi, which means covered over. The cataphract wore scale body armor, articulated plating on his arms and greaves on his legs. With a long lance as his primary weapon, he looked like a forerunner of the medieval knight, differing only in the absence of stirrups hanging from his saddle.

More important to the Parthians than their armored cataphracts were their light cavalry, the horse-archers. These used a very short composite bow, stiff to pull but accurate and with tremendous firepower. Horse-archers would ride swiftly at the enemy, loose an arrow at the enemy and then wheel around and retreat short range. This, the proverbial Parthian shot, was the sort of tactic that the Romans were apt to regard with disdain, as being cowardly.

Crassus nearly failed to launch his campaign at all. Public opinion at Rome, led by a tribune named Ateius, was for calling off the whole expedition, on the grounds that the war he sought was arbitrary and immoral. Pompey and Caesar had at least conquered enemies that were perceived as a threat to Rome. As to this Parthian war, though, Plutarch wrote that Ateius and many others murmured that one man should undertake a war against a people that had done them no injury, and were at amity with them.

Ateius went so far as to have Crassus arrested. Crassus was forced to call for help from, of all people, his bitter rival Pompey, who was popular among both the senators and the citizens. Pompey appeared with a pleasing countenance, interceded for Crassus and escorted him out of Rome unmolested.

Before Crassus departed Rome, however, Ateius publicly cursed him, setting down a chafing-dish with lighted fire in it, pouring incense and burning libations on it, Plutarch reported, and calling upon and naming several strange and horrible deities. So terrible were these curses, according to Plutarch, that they doomed the utterer as well as the person he cursed.

Crassus next went to the port of Brundusium (now Brindisi in southern Italy). He decided to sail immediately, despite the appearance of a storm, and so began his campaign by losing a number of ships. Arriving in Syria in the autumn of 54, Crassus relieved the local commander and set about some minor conquests before next year’s major campaign. Crossing the Euphrates, he occupied and garrisoned a few Mesopotamian towns. All surrendered to the Romans voluntarily, except for Zenodotia. Plutarch reported Crassus took it by storm, plundered the goods, and sold the inhabitants. He then required his army to salute him as Imperator (or field marshal) for what he regarded as a great victory. What he failed to do, though, was continue on to occupy the cities of Babylon and Seleucia, which had large Greek-speaking populations and were not friendly to their Parthian occupiers.

Before withdrawing into winter quarters, Crassus was joined in Syria by his son, Publius, who had been serving with distinction under Caesar in Gaul. He brought with him 1,000 Gallic cavalry, who would play an important part at the battle to come.

Crassus spent his time in Syria during the winter of 54-53, more like an userer than a general, Plutarch wrote, noting that it pleased him to weigh, by scale and balance, all the treasures in the local temples he had captured. He accepted cash payments from the native citizens, in lieu of levies of militia for the coming campaign.

Emerging from winter quarters in 53 BC, the Romans were met by an embassy from King Orodes II of Parthia. The king’s message was that if Crassus’ army was sent by the people of Rome, Parthia would have no mercy but if the invasion was Crassus’ private adventure, for his own profit, Orodes would take pity on Crassus’ dotage, and allow the army to depart. Crassus replied scornfully that he would give his answer at Seleucia. The Parthian ambassador laughed and showed Crassus the palm of his hand, saying, hair will grow there before you see Seleucia.

Crassus next received word from his ally, King Artavasdes of Armenia, along with 6,000 Armenian cavalry. The king advised Crassus to invade Parthia by way of his realm-the Romans would then be provisioned by the Armenians, and the hilly country of that land would be unfavorable to Parthian cavalry. Inexplicably, Plutarch wrote, Crassus refused that offer, and returned the king but cold thanks.

Crassus’ blunders continued. He advanced to the city of Zeugma on the Euphrates and crossed to the east bank. He was advised by his lieutenant, Gaius Cassius Longinus (better known to history for his role in cutting Julius Caesar’s ambitions down to size on the Ides of March, nine years later) to advance along the Euphrates towards Seleucia, having his flank protected and his water supply guaranteed by proximity to the river. Crassus paid no attention. Instead he was taken with a local Arab chieftain named Ariamnes, who persuaded Crassus that only a token force of Parthians, commanded not by King Orodes but by a General Surena, was nearby to oppose him.

Ariamnes, of course, was a spy, sent to lead Crassus into a trap, but Surena was in fact the Parthian commander-and an interesting character in his own right. Though not yet 30 years old, he was deemed the second man in the kingdom and had had the honor of placing the crown on King Orodes’ head. Wherever he traveled, even to battle, he required 1,000 camels to carry his baggage, 200 wagons to transport his concubines, and was accompanied by 1,000 armed bodyguards. Crassus agreed to engage Ariamnes as a guide through the Mesopotamian desert. Leaving the river, the Arab guided the Romans along a way that was at first pleasant and easy but afterwards very troublesome by reason of the depth of the sand, Plutarch wrote. Indeed, the Romans soon found themselves in a sea of sand with no water in sight. While Crassus was on the march, fresh word arrived from King Atavasdes: He was under attack by a Parthian force under King Orodes himself, and was not able to send the reinforcements he had promised. Once again, the Armenian urged that Crassus withdraw from the desert and renew the attack from Armenia, where their forces could be joined on friendly ground. Plutarch wrote that Crassus, out of anger and perverseness, decided that this was actually treachery on the part of the Armenians. He returned no answer, but promised to revenge himself on Armenia when he was through with Parthia. Things went from bad to worse. Crassus’ Arab guide vanished. The Romans found themselves stranded in the Mesopotamian desert, not far from a little town called Carrhae. Some of the army’s scouts, now battered and bloodied, came in to report that their comrades were dead, and that they themselves had barely escaped. The Parthian army was nearby, they said, and ready to attack.

That revelation, according to Plutarch, left Crassus struck with amazement and initially paralyzed. Then, in something of a panic, he shuffled and re-shuffled his troops, finally settling on a square formation. Each side of the square was manned by 12 heavy cohorts (roughly 6,000 infantry to a side), with a troop of cavalry between each pair of cohorts. The baggage train occupied the interior of the square. The army then blindly and awkwardly marched ahead, and in a rare stroke of good luck stumbled upon the Balissus River. The parched troops were at least able to refresh themselves before the battle.

Most of Crassus’ officers were for staying by the river and awaiting the Parthian attack. But young Publius Crassus persuaded his father to advance toward the enemy. The Romans did so and, eventually confronting the Parthians, were pleasantly surprised to find that the enemy did not appear so numerous as they had feared. Unknown to them, however, Surena hid the main body of his army behind the first rank, and had them conceal the glittering of their armor. Then, at a signal, the Parthians threw off their cloaks and raised a clamor of kettle-drums that Plutarch described as producing a hideous noise that had a psychological impact on the legions.

Surena made the first move, but when a charge by his cataphracts, proved unable to break the Roman line he had them withdraw, feigning disorder and confusion. His cavalrymen then swiftly surrounded the Roman square. With his cumbersome infantry formation unable to counter Surena’s maneuver, Crassus ordered a cavalry charge, but the Romans were met with a shower of arrows that Plutarch said passed through every kind of covering, hard and soft alike. Once they had broken and repulsed the Roman cavalry, the Parthians were easily able to pour arrows into the infantry square, for, indeed, the order of the Romans was so close, that they could not miss.

To maintain his punishment of the Roman legions, Surena had cleverly arranged for a running supply train of camels to keep his horse archers resupplied with arrows. Seeing no end to the deluge of arrows that assailed his men, Crassus, was compelled to send his son Publius, with 6,500 men, including the Gallic cavalry, on a desperate counterattack. The sally seemed to succeed at first-the Parthians fled and Publius exultantly detached his cavalry in pursuit. But that apparent retreat was just another feint, for when the Romans had been lured a sufficient distance from the square the Parthians suddenly turned and reappeared in force. Plutarch described how they then rode round and round Publius’ force, raising such a cloud of dust that the Romans could neither see nor speak to one another. Isolated and encircled as his father’s square had been, Publius’ men were packed in too close, and were easy pickings for the horse-archers. When Publius tried to rally his troops for a counterattack, they showed him their hands nailed to their shields, and their feet stuck to the ground.

Publius was able to rally some of his Gallic cavalry, though, and they managed the closest thing to a genuine Roman success in the whole sorry campaign. The fierce Celts were able to seize the cataphracts’ lances and drag them to the ground, where the Parthians’ heavy armor rendered them helpless. Some Gauls dismounted and crept under the Parthian horses, which they disemboweled, unhorsing the riders. Those tactics, however, could only delay the inevitable. Publius was severely wounded and was dragged away by some survivors to a nearby hill for a last stand. Two of Publius’ friends urged him to flee with them to Carrhae, but he courageously decided to stay and die with his troops. When the hill was finally overrun, Publius ordered his armor-bearer to run him through.

Back at the square, Marcus Licinius Crassus had received no word from Publius, because all of the latter’s messengers were slain. Then the horrifying drumming began again, and Crassus finally learned his son’s fate. The Parthians rode forward with Publius’ head on the point of a spear, and, Plutarch wrote, scoffingly inquired where his parents were, and what family he was of, because it was impossible that so brave and gallant a warrior should be the son of so pitiful a coward as Crassus.

Crassus for once kept himself together, and made no outward show of dismay. He even tried to exhort his men with a patriotic speech, but Plutarch claimed that he saw but few who gave much heed to him. When he ordered a cheer, the army only made a faint and unsteady noise.

Whether Crassus knew it or not, the battle of Carrhae was lost, but his legions, seeing no better option, fought on, suffering heavy losses, until nightfall. At that point, Plutarch wrote, Crassus wrapped his cloak around him, and hid himself.

That night, Cassius and some other officers who saw that he had suffered a complete breakdown, took upon themselves the decision to withdraw all the able-bodied troops they could to the town of Carrhae, leaving their wounded behind. When the retirement began, however, and the wounded realized they were being abandoned, Plutarch noted that a strange confusion and disorder, with an outcry and lamentation, seized the camp. This dreadful wailing of the wounded seems to have horrified the escaping legionaries, so that instead of slipping away quietly they simply ran, as if the enemy were at their heels. In the confusion and the dark the fleeing columns became separated, with the result that some groups never made it to Carrhae, and those that did wandered in throughout the long night.

The Parthians, though aware of the Romans’ escape that night, made no effort to pursue them. The next morning they entered the abandoned camp and slaughtered the surviving wounded, to the number of 4,000. They also picked off a number of stragglers who got lost on the night march to Carrhae. Four companies were surrounded on a nearby hill and all but 20 killed-the survivors escaping with their lives only because the Parthians let them go, out of admiration for their bravery.

While that slaughter went on, the main Parthian force was laying siege to Crassus and the surviving Romans in Carrhae. Surena himself rode to the city gate and demanded the delivery of Crassus in chains as a precondition of any negotiations. Incredibly, Crassus at first entertained the fantastic hope that the Armenians would come to his rescue, until his officers brought him to his senses. The Romans ultimately decided to split divide their army into small groups and go their separate ways under different commanders, again under cover of darkness.

The final pathetic phase of Crassus’ campaign began when he opted once again to hire a local guide to lead him and his 1,500-man contingent in their breakout. Not surprisingly, that guide also turned out to be a spy. That night, Plutarch wrote, he led Crassus out of Carrhae and into the midst of morasses and places full of ditches, so that the Romans were hopelessly lost as morning broke, then disappeared. Crassus’ band did find their way to a road, but were immediately forced to retreat back into the thickets when the Parthians discovered them. The Parthians attacked, but Crassus was momentarily saved when another band of wandering Romans, also misled, spotted his position and came to his rescue.

By then the spy had informed Surena of Crassus’ position and the Parthian general treacherously offered the Romans a truce, claiming that he intended to let them go home under honorable terms. Crassus reluctantly went to Surena’s camp to discuss the terms and was promptly murdered. The rest of the Romans in Crassus’ contingent either surrendered or were hunted down and killed.

A number of Romans did manage to escape from Carrhae that night, including the group led by Cassius. Plutarch estimated the final count of Roman casualties to be 20,000 killed and 10,000 captured.

In the aftermath of Carrhae, Surena led his army back to Seleucia in a procession he mockingly called a triumph. A captured Roman soldier who physically resembled his late commander was placed at the head of the army, forced forced to wear women’s clothes and to answer to the name of Crassus. Surena’s soldiers marched behind, each carrying a Roman head. Behind them came Parthian singing women, chanting what Plutarch described as abusive songs on the cowardice and effeminacy of Crassus. Surena delivered Crassus’ head and one of his dismembered hands to King Orodes at a feast, which was held to celebrate the marriage of Orodes’ son to the sister of the Armenian king.

Surena’s reward for his great victory, according to Plutarch, was to be executed, out of mere envy. But Orodes would join the general he betrayed in 38 BC, at the hands of his own son, Phraactes. The young man at first tried to poison his father, but when Orodes began to recover, Phraactes was forced to take the shortest course, and strangled him. As for Rome, the immediate effect of Carrhae, apart from the disgrace, was the upsetting of the political situation caused by the death of a triumvir. With Crassus dead, the rule of three became a rule of two. But even that proved to be one ruler too many. The way was now clear for civil war, as Pompey and Caesar squared off to fight for supremacy in Rome.

Antony’s first move upon entering Parthian territory in 36 BC was to lay siege to the city of Phraata. But Antony was in such haste to depart for Phraata (according to Plutarch, to conquer it quickly and return to Cleopatra) that he failed to bring along any siege equipment, including his 80-foot ram. As a result his army was routed and he decided to suspend the campaign.

Antony’s troubles were only beginning. As he tried to march his army back to the safety of Armenia, he was abandoned by his disgusted ally, King Artavasdes-the same Artavasdes who so preoccupied Crassus’ thoughts in 53 BC. Food supplies ran out, and many of the soldiers became sick. Meanwhile, the Parthians, led by King Phraates IV-the regicidal son of the late Orodes II-harassed the column throughout its march.

At least Antony did not repeat the most glaring mistakes of Crassus’ venture. He did not trust Phraates’ offer of safe passage in return for surrender, and refused the services of a guide in a journey across the desert, instead following a course over hilly terrain that was unfavorable to Parthian cavalry. He also made better use of his own cavalry, actually driving the Parthians from the field in several skirmishes. Hunger and disease continued to wrack the army, however, and at one point some of Antony’s troops actually mutinied. Plutarch reported that rioting legionaries stormed into his tent, and broke all his rich tables and cups, dividing the fragments among them. Antony thought that the Parthians were attacking the camp, and ordered his armor-bearer to run him through with his sword if the base should be overrun. Order was finally restored the next morning.

At last, 27 days after the retreat from Phraata, Antony’s ragged troops reached safety, where Plutarch said they kissed the ground for joy, shedding tears and embracing each other in their delight. Twenty-four thousand Romans perished in this ill-starred campaign, half from disease.

This article was written by Belleville, Illinois-based contributor Bryan Dent. For further reading, he recommends: Plutarch’s Lives and Warfare in the Classical World by John Warry.

This article was originally published on in June 2005 issue for Military History magazine.

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Roman Empire vs. Parthia

Inconclusive Wars

Under the threat of an impending war between the two powers, Gaius Caesar and Phraataces worked out a rough compromise between the two powers in 1 AD. According to the agreement, Parthia undertook to withdraw its forces from Armenia, and to recognize a de facto Roman protectorate over the country. Nonetheless, Roman-Parthian rivalry over control and influence in Armenia continued unabated for the next several decades. [14]

The decision of the Parthian king Artabanus II to place his son, Arsaces, on the vacant Armenian throne triggered a war with Rome in 36 AD. Artabanus III reached an understanding with the Roman general, Lucius Vitellius, renouncing Parthian claims to a sphere of influence in Armenia. [15] A new crisis was triggered in 58, when the Romans invaded Armenia after the Parthian king Vologases I forcibly installed his brother Tiridates on the throne there. [16] Roman forces under Corbulo overthrew Tiridates and replaced him with a Cappadocian prince. This prompted Parthian retaliation and an inconclusive series of campaigns in Armenia ensued. The war came to an end in 63, when the Romans agreed to allow Tiridates and his descendants to rule Armenia on condition that they received the kingship from the Roman emperor. [17]

Armenia would henceforth be ruled by a Parthian dynasty, and despite its nominal allegiance to Rome, it would come under increasing Parthian influence. In the judgment of later generations, “Romans had lost Armenia”, and although the Peace of Rhandeia ushered in a period of relatively peaceful relations that would last for 50 years, Armenia would continue to be a constant bone of contention between the Romans, the Parthians, and their Sassanid successors.

As for Corbulo, he was honoured by Nero as the man who had brought this “triumph” to be, but his popularity and influence with the army made him a potential rival. Together with the involvement of his son-in-law Lucius Annius Vinicianus in a foiled plot against Nero in 66, Corbulo became suspect in the eyes of the emperor. In 67, while journeying in Greece, Nero ordered him to be executed upon hearing of this, Corbulo committed suicide.

Trajan’s Parthian War

A sestertius issued by the Roman Senate in 116 to commemorate Trajan’s Parthian campaign. / Image via Classical Numismatic Group, Wikimedia Commons

A new series of wars began in the 2nd century, during which the Romans consistently held the upper hand over Parthia. In 113, the Roman Emperor Trajan decided that the moment was ripe to resolve the “eastern question” once and for all time by the decisive defeat of Parthia and the annexation of Armenia his conquests marked a deliberate change of Roman policy towards Parthia, and a shift of emphasis in the “grand strategy” of the empire. [3]

In 114, Trajan invaded Armenia, annexed it as a Roman province, and killed Parthamasiris who was placed on the Armenian throne by his relative, the king of Parthia, Osroes I. [18] In 115, the Roman emperor overran northern Mesopotamia and annexed it to Rome as well its conquest was deemed necessary, since otherwise the Armenian salient could be cut off by the Parthians from the south. [18] The Romans then captured the Parthian capital, Ctesiphon, before sailing downriver to the Persian Gulf. However, in that year revolts erupted in Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and northern Mesopotamia, while a major Jewish revolt broke out in Roman territory, severely stretching Roman military resources. Trajan failed to take Hatra, the capital of the Kingdom of Hatra, which avoided total Parthian defeat. Parthian forces attacked key Roman positions and Roman garrisons at Seleucia, Nisibis and Edessa were evicted by the local populaces. Trajan subdued the rebels in Mesopotamia, installed the Parthian prince Parthamaspates as a client ruler, and withdrew to Syria. Trajan died in 117, before he could renew the war. [19]

Trajan’s Parthian campaign is considered, in different ways, the climax of “two centuries of political posturing and bitter rivalry.” [20] Trajan was the first emperor to carry out a successful invasion of Mesopotamia. His grand scheme for Armenia and Mesopotamia were ultimately “cut short by circumstances created by an incorrect understanding of the strategic realities of eastern conquest and an underestimation of what insurgency can do.” [20]

Hadrian’s Policy and Later Wars

Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, promptly reversed his predecessor’s policy. He decided that it was in Rome’s interest to re-establish the Euphrates as the limit of its direct control, and willingly returned to the status quo ante, surrendering the territories of Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Adiabene back to their previous rulers and client-kings. Once again, at least for another half century, Rome was to avoid active intervention east of the Euphrates. [19]

War over Armenia broke out again in 161, when Vologases IV defeated the Romans there, captured Edessa and ravaged Syria. In 163, a Roman counter-attack under Statius Priscus defeated the Parthians in Armenia and installed a favored candidate on the Armenian throne. The following year Avidius Cassius began an invasion of Mesopotamia, winning battles at Dura-Europos and Seleucia and sacking Ctesiphon in 165. An epidemic, possibly of smallpox, which was sweeping Parthia at the time now spread to the Roman army, leading to their withdrawal. [21]

Relief of the Roman-Parthian wars at the Arch of Septimius Severus, Rome. / Image via Wikimedia Commons

In 195, another Roman invasion of Mesopotamia began under the Emperor Septimius Severus, who occupied Seleucia and Babylon, and then sacked Ctesiphon yet again in 197. These wars led to the Roman acquisition of northern Mesopotamia, as far as the areas around Nisibis and Singara. [22] A final war against the Parthians was launched by the emperor Caracalla, who sacked Arbela in 216, but after his assassination, his successor Macrinus fought an inconclusive battle against the Parthians at Nisibis, the last engagement of the Parthian Wars. [23]

Rise of the Sassanids

Parthia was finally destroyed by Ardashir I when he entered Ctesiphon in 226. The Sassanids were more centralized than the Parthian dynasties. Until the Sassanids came to power, the Romans were mostly the aggressors. However, the Sassanids, being Persians, were determined to reconquer lands that the Achaemenid dynasty had once held and now lost. Their nationalistic zeal made them much more aggressive foes of the Romans than the Parthians ever were. For more information, see Byzantine-Sassanid Wars.

Watch the video: 53 BC. Crassus, The Battle of Carrhae (July 2022).


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