In June of 54 BC, the seemingly invincible Roman Republic turned its baleful gaze upon the Parthian-ruled lands of Mesopotamia. The result would shake an empire and change the course of history!
Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome, had long coveted military glory. He had served under the dictator Sulla, and led an army against the slave-rebel Spartacus. But so far military renown had eluded him, and above all else in life he wanted that which every noble Roman dreamed of: a military triumph and his name forever enshrined among Rome’s pantheon of heroes. Now, at last, as Proconsul of Roman Syria and at the head of a mighty army, he seemed poised to see this dream become reality.
Late in his life Crassus had partnered with the skilled political operator, Julius Caesar and the famed military leader Pompeius Magnus in forming a political partnership that dominated Roman politics, and made these three the virtual rulers of the Roman Republic. This political alliance became known as the First Triumvirate. But power and wealth were not enough for the aging Crassus. A true Roman of his class, he hungered for the kind of military glory that Pompey had earned in his youth, against the Pirates and in the east; and which Caesar was even then winning in Gaul.
Following his Consulship in 55 BC, Crassus chose Syria as his Proconsular governorship. Here, in the east, was an opportunity to expand the frontiers of the empire against Rome’s eastern rival: the Arsacid Empire of the Parthians. Here Crassus intended to emulate Alexander the Great, invading Persia at the head of a massive army of legions and auxiliaries.
The Parthians were a conquering race of nomadic horsemen, who, a century earlier, had come off of the Eurasian steppe and seized Persia and Mesopotamia from the decadent and decaying Seleucid Empire, the Graeco-Macedonian realm founded by one of Alexander’s generals (see Armies of the Successors: The Seleucids). The Parthians were still a semi-nomadic people after a century ruling the heartland of the old Persian Empire, living in tent cities along the Tigris river, and practicing the arts of horse archery and cavalry warfare.
Their very formidable army was composed of masses of unarmored horse archers, experts with the powerful re-curved, composite bow. Mounted on small swift horses or ponies, these operated as an amorphous mass in battle, weakening and bewildering their opponents with rapid maneuver and showering them with a blizzard of arrows.
These horse-archers were backed by a small cadre of heavily armored Parthian nobles, called by the Greek and Roman sources “cataphracts”. Recruited from the Parthian aristocracy, these were much like the Medieval European feudal knights: heavily armored (both man and horse), they were armed with a very long and heavy lance, called a kontos (meaning “barge pole”) by the Roman sources. They were the heaviest cavalry in the ancient world, made possible by the breeding in Persia of the largest horses at that time in the world: the eastern Iranian Nisean charger. This was perhaps the first “great warhorse” in history. While the largest Roman (or Greek) cavalry horse was a mere 14-15 hands, these Niseans may have been as large as 17 hands.
Though always a minority of any Parthian army, the cataphracts gave the horse archers a solid force to rally behind when pursued; and gave a Parthian commander a hammer with which to smash an enemy sufficiently weakened by the horse archer’s arrow barrage. This combination of shock-and-missile attack was one of the most potent tactical systems of the ancient world.
With the Roman conquest of Syria by Pompey in 64 BC, the Romans and Parthians now shared a common border. Marcus Crassus saw the Parthian Empire, with its rich ancient cities and fertile valleys, as the perfect target for Roman expansion. Here, following in Alexander’s footsteps, he could expand the Roman Empire to the borders of India.
Crassus brought to Syria seven legions (about 35,000 heavy infantry). The reputation of the legion was at its height. In the previous two centuries they had defeated every enemy, from Hannibal and the Carthaginians to the all-conquering Macedonians; from the savage Germanic Teutons to Mithridates, the eccentric King of Pontus. Though they occasionally lost battles, no enemy in two centuries had triumphed for long against the Roman Republic and its dauntless legions.
The Roman Empire, 54 BC (top), and the Roman east
Along with the heavy infantry legions, Crassus had brought an additional 4,000 light infantry (skirmishers and missile troops), and 4,000 supporting cavalry. Among these were 1,000 Gallic noble cavalry. These Gallic horsemen had served Caesar well, and were highly esteemed as heavy cavalry. They had been sent to join Crassus’, along with his eldest son, Publius Crassus, by Crassus’ collegue Julius Casear. Young Publius had served with great distinction under Caesar in Gaul. Caesar had sent him east with this force of Gallic cavalry to aid in his father’s enterprise.
Crassus (and the Romans in general) had little regard for the Parthians as a rival. They had faced horse archers and cataphracts before, and feared neither. Decades earlier both Lucullus and Pompey had defeated the Armenian armies of Tigranes with little effort. These, like the Parthians, were composed of horse archers backed by cataphract cavalry. The horse archer, it was believed, was only formidable if given a wide plain upon which to maneuver and only so long as his quiver was full. Eventually, his quiver emptied, he would be forced to withdraw before the relentless march of the legions. As for the cataphracts, they had been seen in the past to be slow and ponderous; and rapidly attacking Roman infantry had been able to infiltrate their ranks and hamstring their horses.
What the Romans had never faced and were unprepared for was the expert coordination of both these troop-types together; and in the hands of a skilled general who knew both theirs and the Roman’s weaknesses. Unfortunately for the aging would-be-conqueror the Parthians were aware of Crassus’ coming invasion; and their king had placed in commanded just such a general.
Gallic horsemen in Roman service. Crassus had 1,000 of these; sent with his son, Publius, by Julius Caesar.
Known to history as “the Surena” (surely a title rather than his proper name), this otherwise unknown Parthian noble would prove a gifted general and a master of cavalry warfare.
As Crassus’ army advanced east from Antioch he made his first mistake of the campaign, by ignoring the advice of his Armenian allies to march through their mountainous terrain to the north; thus avoiding the blistering summer heat of the north Mesopotamian plain. Instead, Crassus decided to take the direct route east. Crossing the Euphrates, his army marched through the scorching sun and choking dust to the town of Carrhae (modern Harran).
There he found the Surena, waiting to give battle.
The Parthian had but 10,000 horsemen, of which a mere 1,000 were armored cataphracts. With an army a fourth the size of Crassus’, it has been surmised that he was merely expected to reconnoiter and delay Crassus till the Parthian King could muster the main forces of his empire. Whatever his orders, Surena came with a plan for defeating the Romans there-and-now.
To this end he had arranged, through Crassus’ Arab guides secretly in his employ, to lead the Roman to a near-waterless plain with ample room for his cavalry to maneuver. To prevent his horse archers running out of arrows during the battle to come, he’d brought a thousand camels to act as beasts-of-burden, each laden with bundles of arrows to resupply his men throughout the battle.
Nor did he ignore the psychological aspects of battle: to demoralize the Romans, he went to great lengths to intimidate them by the incessant beating of great hollow kettle drums, whose deep and throbbing boom unsettled the Romans, unaccustomed to their sound. Surena also had his cataphracts cover their armor in cloths, to disguise their presence till the last possible moment.
BATTLE IS JOINED
The appearance of a Parthian army so soon into the invasion surprised Crassus and caused consternation among his officers. The Romans had been led to believe (by Surena’s Arab agents, acting as guides) that the Parthian army was yet far away. While his lieutenant, Gaius Cassius Longinus (one of the future assassins of Julius Caesar) suggested a traditional battle deployment and attack, Crassus was (correctly) concerned with being enveloped on the wide plain by the swift-riding Parthians. He therefore deployed his army into a vast, hollow square formation; with each side comprised of twelve cohorts. The cavalry and light troops were deployed within the square of legionaries. But while thus protecting his flanks, Crassus had deprived his army of battle frontage and the ability to maneuver.
The Parthians opened the battle with a relentless barrage of arrows. Their horse archers, galloping forward in wedges, loosened their arrows into the Roman ranks. Though the Romans formed testudo, this usually sound tactic proved ineffective. Riding close to the Roman ranks with impunity, the horsemen’s powerful composite bow pierced shields, pinning hands to scutum; or, falling from the sky, pinned sandaled-feet to the ground. Before the Romans could respond with thrown javelins the Parthian riders would swiftly wheel their mounts and gallop back the way they had come. While doing so the horsemen continued shooting over the rump of their horses, even as they withdrew. (So the phrase “Parthian shot” came into our own language, meaning any damaging departing blow by word or deed.)
The Romans, however, continued to advance, and horse archers alone could not stop them. Surena played the next card in his hand. With the unfurling of shimmering banners of multicolored silk, and accompanied by the thunderous booming of the kettle drums, Surena now ordered his cataphracts, held to that moment in reserve, to throw off the coverings and reveal their polished armor.
The Parthian commander here demonstrated an appreciation of what modern military practice calls “Psi Ops” (Psychological Operations); as the awesome sight of a thousand lancers on massive horses, their armor gleaming in the late afternoon sun, demoralized the tired and dust-choked Romans.
For the next hour, Surena’s horse archers continued showering the Romans with arrows, while the presence of the cataphracts, poised to charge, stopped the Roman advance and kept the legionaries from breaking their tight ranks and pursuing the light horsemen.
These tactics, along with the intense desert heart and lack of water, wore the Romans down, morally and physically. By late afternoon, the troops were loosing confidence in themselves and their commander.
Hitherto, Crassus had waited patiently, confident that in short time the archer’s quivers would empty, and the Parthians would have to withdraw. Unfortunately for the Romans, the Surena’s camels waiting just beyond the battlefield kept the Parthians replenished with fresh sheaths of arrows. Now, as the arrow-storm showed no sign of ending, Crassus began to grow uneasy.
At this moment of uncertainty, Crassus took the advice of his gallant son, Publius; and attempted to drive off the swarms of horse archers by unleashing from within the square a cavalry charge of his Gallic heavy cavalry. Led by Publius, and supported by 500 foot archers and eight cohorts of auxiliary infantry, this mobile strike force charged out, driving the horse archers scurrying away from the Roman main-body.
Parthian cataphracts on the attack
However, once Publius’ force was beyond the support of the legions, the Parthians turned about, swarming about Publius’ force. With combined attack of horse archers and armored cataphracts, they beset Publius’ men from all sides. In the close-quarter fighting that resulted, the Gallic cavalrymen found themselves at great disadvantage against the cataphracts on their much larger horses. Fighting gallantly, Publius Crassus was slain and his force annihilated.
The Parthians then returned in force to once again assault Crassus mainbody. This time, they bore before them the head of Publius Crassus, mounted on a lance.
The site struck Crassus like a thunderbolt. The old man was so overcome by emotion that he was incapable of speech or taking action.
Now, in conjunction with the ceaseless sting of arrows, the cataphracts assaulted the Romans with a series of pulse-charges, striking home and then rapidly pulling back again. This combination of shock-and-missile attack devastated the exhausted and demoralized Romans. Only the fall of night saved Crassus’ army from total defeat that first day. As with all nomadic horse armies the Parthians were forced to withdraw a safe distance from the Romans, to prevent a night attack on their undefended camp and horse-lines.
Deeply distraught at his son’s death, Crassus gave over effective command of the army to his subordinate, Cassius. A soldier of some ability and energy, Cassius ordered a night march, and the army retraced its rout back to Carrhae. The Romans thus managed to put distance between themselves and their Parthian antagonists, gaining Carrhae before dawn. However, the town had insufficient provisions to supply the defeated army. So, assembling after a brief halt, the weary Romans continued their march toward Syria in the morning heat.
Soon, however, galloping messengers from Surena caught up to them; offering to parlay. Crassus unwisely granted this request, halting the army and giving the Parthian forces time to catch-up.
Crassus and his officers met Surena and the Parthians under an awning. During the negotiations a scuffle broke out, either planned or accidental, giving the Parthians cause to treacherously attack and murder Crassus and several of his officers.
Nearly leaderless, the army soon disintegrated, with contingents making off as each saw fit. Few survived the desert march back to Syria; though Cassius earned commendation for his skillful handling of the survivors under his command, defeating a Parthian probe the following year through the passes leading into Cilicia.
Many of the legionaries surrendered to the Parthians in return for their lives. The Parthians appreciated the Roman’s fighting quality, and sent the soldiers to garrison their far eastern border. Some years later, some of these Roman slave-soldiers fought with distinction against invading Han Chinese forces. When their fortress was captured, they surrendered honorably and were taken as mercenaries into Chinese service. They seem to have been settled on the western end of the Great Wall, and genetic testing in recent years has revealed Italian genes among the local Chinese population.
The Surena captured all seven of the Roman eagle standards of each of the legions that had taken the field that fateful day. These would remain trophy’s of the Parthian victory at their capital of Ctesiphon-along-the-Tigris (near modern Baghdad), till returned to the Emperor Augustus over half a century later.
Before his death, Julius Caesar was preparing a second invasion of Parthia to avenge Crassus’ disgrace. Ironically, it was his murder at the hands of Cassius, the one man to come out of Crassus’ disastrous campaign with any measure of distinction, that prevented the Romans reversing the terrible decision of Carrhae.
Surena, whose brilliant handling of combined arms had enabled the Parthian victory, was rewarded by a jealous monarch with murder. Later Roman armies would win victories against the Parthians, who without a Surena in command were never as formidable as they were that terrible day at Carrhae.
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Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.