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August 19, 2017

The Battle of Carrhae: Rome’s First Great Defeat in the East


History is full of battles. Some are fought for defense and others for riches. And some battles are fought out of stupidity that stems from vanity. So it was with the Roman Marcus Licinius Crassus and the battle of Carrhae.


In the 1st century BCE, the Roman world was transforming rapidly from a centuries-old republic to the powerful military empire that it would later be remembered as. The somewhat republican form of government that was feasible in a city-state such as Roman power expanded outside the capital and into the greater Mediterranean world. In short, a stronger government than a centralized republic was needed if the Roman state were to hold onto and keep order within their expanding domain.

The further from home that the fearsome Roman soldiers (known as legionnaires) traveled, the more loyalty they had for their commanders than the state. After all, it was their commanders who could reward them with land and the other spoils of warring campaigns and not the state, which mainly offered a salary and in some cases a modest pension. Thus, the power of the army and their commanders (or rather armies as there were several military units that in reality acted like private militias) started to eclipse that of the politicians in Rome. It was into this environment that men of insatiable ambition could take advantage and become extremely powerful. One author describes it as such:

Against this backdrop of instability, brinkmanship, and demographic shirt, men with enormous power and ambition found few obstacles to thwart their abuse of the system. They could mobilize old military connections, buy off or intimidate voting blocs, or threaten subversion to get their way. By the 60s BCE, three such “entrepreneurs” vied for dominance of the Roman republic and its empire: Marcus Licinius Crassus, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (“Pompey”), and Gaius Julius Caesar.” 1

These three men formed what was known as the First Triumvirate. Together, they dominated the Roman political system and used the resources of the state for their own purposes.

Roman Triumvirate

Though all were capable military commanders, in the mid 50s BCE, Caesar was staying in Gaul (Roman France) while Pompey was leading a charmed life in Spain. Crassus thorough his cunning and connections was made governor of the Roman province of Syria. While on the Roman frontier, Syria was becoming increasingly wealthy due to its location as a conduit for trade to the east.

Casear and Pompey were military geniuses whose campaigns and achievements had turned them rockstars of the ancient Roman world. The exploits of Crassus on the other hand were few and not as famous. Besides, at over 60 years old, his military feats were a distant memory in the minds of most people.

Crassus’ real strength was as a real estate developer, an occupation that he was immensely successful at. By the time he was in his 50s, he’d become the richest man in Rome. Money though wasn’t enough. Crassus wanted glory on the same level as Caesar and Pompey. Whether he was bored or simply mad, Crassus decided that the best way to get it at his age was to wage a war of conquest, and what better way to do this than to expand Roman territory further to the east? After all, it wasn’t an impossible goal; Alexander of Macedonia had done it less than 250 years earlier and with far fewer men. Crassus felt that as governor of Roman Syria, it was his destiny to expand Roman influence into Mesopotamia, Persia, India and beyond. He had the money and the soldiers. However, in order to expand eastward, Crassus would have to deal with the only other political entity that was powerful enough to challenge the Romans at that time, the Empire of the Parthians.

The Parthians, Rome’s Eastern Neighbors

The origins of the Parthians, an eastern Iranian people, go back to at least to the 5th or 6th century BCE when they roamed the steppes of Central Asia as a tribe called the Parni. Found in ancient Persian and Greek sources, the Parthians leapt onto the world stage in 245 BCE when they took over what was then the Seleucid province of Parthia. A revolt broke out when the local satrap (governor) Andragoras declared his independence from the Seleucid king Antiochus II Theos. Taking advantage of the situation, the Parni under a man named Arsaces conquered and defeated Andragoras as well as repelled a Seleucid that had arrived to take back the province. Arsaces declared himself king of a new dynasty called the Arsacids, known better in the Greco-Roman world as the Parthians.

Though for a short time the Arsacids served as vassals of the Seleucids, the latter were too far away in Mesopotamia to hold any real power in their eastern provinces. This allowed the Arsacids to expand their political influence and territory until in 141 BCE they took over the Seleucid capital (named Seleucia) and put an end to their empire in the east once and for all. Within a short time, the new Parthian Empire stretched from the borders of India to greater Mesopotamia.

Though possessing a formidable military and considerable wealth, the greatest threat to the Parthian Empire was actually from within. Infighting between members of the royal family and the nobility (Parthian society was a feudal one) often led to the assassination of members from both groups. In 57 BCE the Arsacid King Phraates III was killed by his own sons, Mithridates and Orodes. Mithridates established himself as King of Media while his brother took over the lands to the east and declared himself Orodes II. Wanting to get rid of his main rival for the throne, Orodes deposed Mithridates with the latter taking refuge in Roman-controlled Syria. Initially supporting him with an army, the Romans later turned their back on Mithridates in order to focus their resources on more pressing matters at the time in Egypt. Despite this, Mithridates was able to take over the Parthian-controlled city of Babylon with the remaining troops he had and reclaim the throne from Orodes. His reign though was short-lived; not very popular with the ancient Iranian nobility at the time, Mithridates was defeated in a counterattack and eventually captured due to the help of Orodes’ talented general, Surenas.

In 54 BCE, Orodes had Mithridates executed and declared himself the sole ruler of the Parthian Empire once again.

Crassus Invades Parthia

Roman legions

Crassus had been sitting on the sidelines and watching the Parthian war of succession like a hawk. Rome’s “support” for Mithridates was all he needed to cover his invasion of Parthian soil. He conveniently put aside the fact that regardless of who was on the Parthian throne, Rome and the Arsacids had signed a peace treaty. Once he reached Syria to establish himself as governor, Crassus began to put together a moderately large invasion force. Though he was extremely confident that it was his destiny to conquer the Parthians and move Roman borders further eastward, as insurance, Crassus sought the support of the Armenian King Artavasdes I.

The Armenian King was a smart man. Though he possessed a sizable military force, he knew that being a client-state of Rome, the Parthians posed a great long-term threat to him. He offered his aid to Crassus on the condition that the later march into Parthian-controlled Mesopotamia through Armenia. Though it was a longer route vs marching directly into Mesopotamia, it was also the safer route for the Romans to take. It worked to the benefit of Artavasdes as well since having Roman legionnaires passing through his territory would formalize his military ties with Rome and make the Parthians think twice of attacking his kingdom.

Perhaps due to his impatience and hubris, Crassus rejected Artavades’ offer and marched directly into Mesopotamia via Syria. With an army of around 40,000 men, Crassus took over the border areas of Parthian Mesopotamia without much difficulty. The timing also proved to his advantage as winter was coming, a time when battles generally did not take place in the ancient Near East. This gave Crassus’ troops extra time to train and prepare for the Parthian response to their invasion that they knew would eventually come. It also gave time for Crassus’ son Publius to arrive from faraway Gaul with 1,000 of his own personal and veteran cavalry force.


In the months that followed, Crassus received two important visitors. One of these was King Artavasdes I of Armenia who arrived with 6,000 calvary of his own. He again offered his services to the campaign but was rebuffed; Crassus was still annoyed that Artavasdes had given conditions for his help in the first place when asking Crassus to venture through the Armenian hinterlands on his way into Parthia. With Artavasdes not getting what he really wanted (i.e. Roman protection), he returned to Armenia with his calvary.

The second visitor was an ambassador from the court of Orodes II. Though scholars aren’t exactly sure what was discussed, most believe that Orodes’ ambassador was there to negotiate a peace treaty. This would have made sense because although Mithridates execution had taken him out of the picture, Orodes’ position as ruler of the Parthians was still on shaky ground. He needed to consolidate his power and draw support amongst the nobles within his own great empire before going to war with an even greater one. Should he have lost even more territory to Crassus, Orodes knew that his time on the Parthian throne would be short.

Crassus saw Orodes’ desire to negotiate as a sign of weakness and sent the Parthian ambassador packing. He had already made up his mind to go to war.

The Battle of Carrhae

Parthian cataphract
Crassus was extremely confident in the military abilities of his men, but he also knew that he needed to be cautious. While his men were some of the best fighters on foot, the Parthians on the were a quicker, more mobile force. They also had another advantage that would soon become apparent: Surenas.

A member of one of the Persian nobility, Surenas (also known as Surena) was from the Parthian clan known as the Suren. He was also a very capable and influential personage within the Empire. It was Sureanas who had helped to secure the throne for Orodes against his brother Mithridates. The famed Greek historian Plutarch described him as “the foremost Parthian of his time, besides having no equal in stature and personal beauty.” 2 He was also one of the ancient world’s best military strategists.

The Parthians launched a double-pronged offensive in which Orodes II would march northwest with a large army to Armenia in order to prevent King Artavasdes from aiding Crassus. At the same time, Surenas would focus on Crassus’ army in Mesopotamia and Syria. With only 10,000 highly-trained and mobile fighting men, Surenas’ job was only to keep Crassus occupied until Orodes came with an even greater military force to crush the Roman invaders once and for all.

It was the spring of 53 BCE. As usual, Crassus was impatient and instead of conquering the Mesopotamian cities to the south, he made the bold move to face the Parthians head on. He marched towards Surenas with approximately 40,000 men. Though this number greatly outnumbered the men at Surenas’ disposal, only about 5,000 of Crassus’ men were calvary; the rest were Roman legionnaires or infantry soldiers from Italy. Of his calvary, 1,000 or so had just recently arrived from Roman Gaul under the command of Crassus’ son, Publius. As with the year before, Crassus was certain that he would have an easy time taking over the rest of Parthian Mesopotamia and beyond.

Finally on June 9th, 53 BCE, scouts from Crassus’ army clashed with Surenas’ Parthian force. Most of the scouts were killed but the survivors made it back to Crassus and informed that a relatively small Parthian force lay waiting near the town of Carrhae. Though his army had been marching for a while and needed rest, Crassus again was impatient and decided to crush his opponent before they could run away.

Crassus put his legions into a sort of square or box formation with calvary on each side and moved towards the Surenas’ force. Surenas then gave the order for his men to attack with his horsemen galloping towards the Romans with a swirling cloud of dust behind them. At the forefront were a force of heavily armed Parthian calvary known as cataphracts. Dressed in chainmail and armor that gleamed in the hot desert sun, they must have been an impressive sight to see. The cataphracts charged against the invaders, though the Romans held in close formation and were able to repel their initial attack. The cataphracts retreated, giving the Romans a few moments to breathe and assess the situation. Little did they know that Surenas was just warming up.

Of Surenas’ force, only about 1,000 were cataphracts. The rest were mobile archer units. Their main strength was that they they could ride while drawing their large composite bows and firing a hail of arrows crashing down on the much slower Roman infantry force. This tactic worked with devastating effectiveness. Though their shields could withstand the arrows, the Roman armor could not. Crassus heard the cries of his men rapidly being pierced to death by a thunderstorm of arrows. However, he knew that like most armies, the Parthians would eventually run out of arrows and be forced to fight in hand-to-hand combat, something the Romans excelled at.

Or would they?

When it seemed that the Parthian-mounted archers had exhausted their supply of arrows and were in a retreat formation, the Romans spotted something else rather odd. It was a large baggage train of camels following the mounted archers and it soon became apparent to the Romans that these beasts of burden were carrying an entirely new batch of arrows for a another aerial attack. Surenas had planned ahead and brought an almost inexhaustible supply of arrows to the battle with him.

Crassus knew that his forces could no longer just sit there and wait for the enemy’s barrage to stop; he had to take the fight to the Parthians and with his forces fighting man-to-man. He unleashed the might of his cavalry force followed by several legions at the command of his son Publius, who led a new charge against the enemy. The Parthians did the same with a wall of cataphracts leading their charge with their archers providing cover with a renewed hailstorm of arrows. Publius and his men were no match for such an assault and though they fought bravely, could not beat the smaller but more agile Parthian force.

Crassus in the meantime retreated with some men onto a nearby hill for protection. He was unsure how his other soldiers under Publius were faring until he got a heartbreaking package. A Parthian rider had come within earshot of Crassus’ remaining force and dumped a parcel that contained the head of his son Publius.

Crassus’ Defeat and Aftermath

Parthian archer

The grief of losing his son was too much for Crassus to bear, but he had no choice but to fight on. The hours went by and the Parthians continued to assault the Romans with everything they had. The fighting only stopped at nightfall, which Crassus used to his advantage to make a retreat. He left behind approximately 4,000 Roman soldiers who were too injured to move onward. These were slaughtered by Suernas’ forces the next morning as they resumed their advance.

Initially pursuing the Parthians, it was Crassus who was now on the run. The remainder of his men split up and were mercilessly pursued and killed as the Parthians found them. Serenas finally caught up with Crassus and the few his soldiers that had not made it back to Syria and slaughtered them.

Returning back to Orodes, Surenas presented the king with the head of Crassus. This was the end to the first major and humiliating defeat that the Romans had suffered in the lands beyond their established eastern border. It was the first of several conflicts that they would face with the Persians (Parthians and Sassanians) in the centuries that were to follow.

Crassus lost to Surenas not because of any lack of intelligence or cunning but because of his hubris and impatience. He was too arrogant and overconfident to take help from the Armenians and other allies in order to get as speedy a victory as possible. He also marched into a battle setting in which the Parthians had the advantage. Had he waited for more troops (especially calvary) and been just a bit less hasty in his preparations, Crassus likely would have fared much better and not lost in the humiliating fashion that he did.

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