Bad Decisions in History: featuring Maud de Braose

Maud de Braose was the wife of William de Braose, a powerful Marcher baron who was also one of King John’s favourites at court. Born in France, she married William around 1166 and lived with him in England. A strong-willed and intelligent woman, she seems to have enjoyed a close partnership with her husband. They allegedly had sixteen children, and he trusted her to the degree that he put her in charge of Hay Castle in Wales. Maud also proved her courage when she defended Painscastle against a Welsh attack, holding it for three weeks until English reinforcements arrived.

Her stubbornness and determination didn’t always serve her well, however. When she stood up to King John in 1208, it ultimately led to her gruesome downfall.

Bad decision: Calling King John a murderer

King John hasn’t exactly emerged from history with a shining reputation. Children know him as Robin Hood’s cowardly villain, his contemporaries often compared him to his more heroic brother, Richard the Lionheart, and he probably lost the crown jewels in a river. Plus, there’s the fact that he may have actually been involved in the suspicious and convenient disappearance of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany.

Under Angevin law, Arthur had precedence over John in regards to gaining the throne of England. He was the son of Geoffrey, John’s older brother. After Richard’s death, the throne should have next gone to Geoffrey, but since he’d died in a tournament accident at only twenty-seven years of age, his son Arthur became the next heir. Under Norman law, John took precedence, as the only surviving son of Henry II. He had the support of most of the English and Norman nobility, and took up his reign, in defiance of the contrasting laws, in 1199. His nephew Arthur, however, had the support of most of the Breton, Main, and Anjou nobles, as well as that of the French king.

Parts of modern day France were under English rule during the time

John had no desire to give up his throne, or to see his territory carved in half, if Arthur managed to take over the territories where he had the most support. This is understandable, especially for an ambitious son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Less sympathetic is his decision to murder a child, which is allegedly what John did. This has never been proven, and will probably remain one of those cloudy historical events, but Arthur was brought to Rouen Castle in 1203, and thereafter never seen again. Even at the time, it was generally believed that he was killed on John’s command.

By 1208, Arthur had been gone for five years, and William de Braose still enjoyed the patronage of King John. He owed a large sum of money to the king, however, and could not repay it. In response, John demanded that William and Maud send their son to him as a hostage, proof of their continuing loyalty. Hostages were not uncommon during the time period, and typically they would have been treated well.

Maud wasn’t so sure, however. Whispers of Arthur’s suspicious disappearance were well known. Fearing for his life, she refused to send her son into the care of a man who murdered his own nephew, and didn’t care who knew it.

John was enraged by her open accusations about what was likely his darkest deed. Leading troops, he went to the Welsh border and seized all of Maud and William’s lands. Maud and her eldest son (also called William, who was meant to be the hostage) fled to Ireland. John’s ire did not fade, though, and they were captured there in 1210. Maud and her son William were brought back to England, imprisoned in Corfe Castle, and left there to die by the slow torture of starvation.

The Marcher lords were so outraged by the horrific manner of their deaths that when John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, it included a clause that no man could be imprisoned, outlawed, banished, or destroyed except by the lawful judgement of his peers, which would prevent John having the power to subject his enemies to the punishment of his whim.

Outcome: Loss of legacy and lands, two years of living as a fugitive, eventually a slow and gruesome death.

I realize this tale of King John isn’t exactly uplifting, but I really recommend Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons. This incident is only a small part of the book, which is a really complex portrayal of John, his daughter Joanna, and the Welsh leader Llewelyn Fawr. I may have mentioned this book already in my blog, but I can’t resist a chance to recommend it again. It’s one of my favourites.

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Bad Decisions in History: featuring Olga of Kiev

Olga of Kiev is one of those historical figures whose fascinating legacy almost seems like the stuff of fiction, and while it’s possible that her tales of her exploits have been slightly exaggerated over the centuries, her life was still remarkable and, frankly, crazy. Olga’s ruthless decimation of a rival tribe left her a dark reputation as a vengeful and cunning warrior, but her later strong support of Christianity means that she’s also considered a saint.

Born to a family of Varyag (Viking) origin, Olga of Kiev co-reigned over Kievan Rus (part of modern day Russia, the link has a picture of the map) during the 900s. Her husband, Igor of Kiev, was killed around 945 by the Derevlian tribe, a neighbouring Slavic group who had been forced in the past to pay tribute to the Kievan Rus. When Igor rode out to collect tribute, the Derevlians revolted and instead killed him.

Bad decision: Angering Olga of Kiev

Since Igor and Olga’s son, Svyatoslav, was still a young child, Olga ruled Kievan Rus as regent until the time he would come of age. Though this gave her increased power within her realm, her husband’s death was a personal tragedy, and his murder by the Derevlians threatened the stability of the Kievan Rus rule. Olga plotted revenge.

This icicle isn’t as cold as Olga’s revenge

The perfect opportunity came when Prince Mal of the Derevlians approached Olga with an envoy of matchmakers, proposing an alliance of the two kingdoms through marriage. Feigning interest, Olga insisted upon honouring the envoys through a public ceremony, during which they would be carried in their boats into the city. She also quietly ordered for deep trenches to be dug within Kiev. When the Derevlian envoys were paraded into the city, carried in their boats, she had them thrown into the trench and buried alive.

Next, acting quickly enough that news of the envoys demise had not yet reached him, Olga sent a message to the Prince Mal, requesting a group of his best warriors to escort her back to Dereva. When the Derevlians arrived, they were directed to the bathhouse to clean up from the journey before being invited to meet her. Once they were inside, Olga had the bathhouse locked and burned to the ground.

Next, Olga herself went to Iskorosten, the capital of Dereva, on the pretext of holding a funeral for her late husband before she could consider moving forward with remarriage. Apparently the murder of Derevlian envoys was either still unknown, or explained away as a terrible accident, because she was welcomed with a grand feast that included lots of drinking. Once everyone was good and drunk, Olga ordered everyone killed. Presumably her own men had stayed sober, because around five thousand Derevlians were slaughtered while they slept it off. This scheme is a bit reminiscent of the fall of Troy, isn’t it?

Don’t trust that seemingly innocent face

By now, Olga had exacted a harsh toll of revenge, but she wasn’t finished yet. She declared war the following year, and laid siege on the city of Iskorosten. Eventually, the Derevlians tried to surrender, but Olga was not appeased by the tribute offered, since they were starving by now and had little to offer. As well, it seems tribute was not her ultimate goal, for she had other plans in mind. According to the tales, she asked for three sparrows and three pigeons from each household, which must have seemed like a random but ultimately harmless request.

It wasn’t though, because by now we know that Olga was outrageously cunning and ruthless. She had rags dipped in sulphur, lit on fire, and tied to the birds. Being released back to the skies, the birds flew home to their nests, dragging the burning rags (presumably on long enough strings that they could manage the journey back home) with them. The city burned like tinder under the rain of bird-brought fire, and Olga reckoned her revenge complete.

She continued to hold power even when her son came of age, holding Kiev while he was on military campaigns. She also turned her attentions to spreading Christianity after she converted sometime in the mid-900s. For her efforts, she was eventually canonized as Saint Olga.

Outcome: Revenge involving traps, murder, sieges, the obliteration of a city – and then religion.


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Bad Decisions in History: featuring Alboin, King of the Lombards

Through history, most royal marriages were made for political rather than romantic reasons. Sometimes this worked out well – both halves of the married pair got what they wanted, which was usually strategic alliances, wealth and power. Sometimes it was rather disastrous, especially if it involved a marriage by conquest as was the case for Alboin, King of the Lombards, and Rosamund, daughter of the leader of the Gepids.

Bad decision: Marrying the daughter of one’s conquered rival and treating her as such, like an enemy instead of a new ally, taunting her with the victory.

First of all, ‘who are the Lombards?’ you might be asking. Or, ‘I’ve never heard of the Gepids.’ Honestly, neither had I until started looking into this bad decision in history. Briefly, The Lombards, a Germanic people, ruled most of the Italian Peninsula from about 568 to 774. The Gepids, an East Germanic tribe, were rivals of the Lombards.

Alboin had been king of the Lombards since 560. As kings often did, he liked to conquer territory, and had successfully captured some of the territory that the Gepids previously held. In retaliation, Cunimund, the King of the Gepids, launched an attack to try and take back this land. In the ensuing battles, the Gepids were defeated. Cunimund himself was slain in 567, and his decapitated head taken back to Alboin, along with a high-ranking prisoner –  Cunimund’s daughter, Rosamund.

This woodcut of Alboin is from 1493, about 900 years after his death, so who knows if it’s accurate. I imagined him a little less wizened and a little more warrior-like. 

Alboin needed a male heir to succeed his reign, and since he was a widower, he decided to marry the daughter of his vanquished enemy. It was absolutely not a love match. Rosamund hated Alboin, who in turn was known to be cruel to her. Supposedly, Alboin liked to walk around with Cunimund’s skull hanging from his belt for all to see. Seems a bit of a bulky way to taunt someone, but was probably quite effective. During a banquet, Alboin reportedly forced Rosamund to drink from her dead father’s skull. Since skull cups were sometimes used as trophies or ritualistic items through history, it’s quite possible this story is true. If Alboin had the skull at a banquet, evidently worked into a cup form (which would involve removing the lower part of the skull), it seems safe to assume he probably drank from it himself at times.

Rosamund was not entirely without resources, however. As the daughter of the late Gepid king, she undoubtedly had some loyal supporters, even if many of them were prisoners. She took a lover, a man called Helmichis, who was Alboin’s arms bearer, and together they plotted Alboin’s death. As the story goes, they needed a third accomplice, and attempted to enlist the aid of Peredeo, a man known for this strength. Peredeo refused, so Rosamund seduced in him the disguise of a servant. After learning that he had committed adultery, even if unwitting, with Alboin’s wife, Peredeo agreed to help kill the king rather than risk his retribution.

It’s difficult to say if all of these colourful details are true, but if so, they certainly showcase Rosamund’s determination to avenge her father. The plan went forward; Alboin went to bed drunk after a feast, and Helmichis and Peredeo entered his chamber with murderous intent. Alboin sprang out of bed, but since Rosamund had also ensured that his sword was removed (or tied to the bedpost, in some versions of the story), he was forced to defend himself with nothing more than a footstool. It’s unclear if Helmichis or Peredeo struck the killing blow; both have been assigned as the sole murderer in various accounts.

Alboin’s death struck a blow to the new Germanic entity he’d been creating through his consolidating his conquered territory, for he had no fitting successor. I have a feeling this probably would have pleased Rosamund. This is the end of Alboin’s bad decision; he treated his wife so badly that she had him assassinated. The rest of Rosamund’s story is dramatic though, so we’ll cover that, too.

In the aftermath of the assassination, Rosamund and Helmichis married. He most likely planned to succeed Alboin on the Lombard throne, but received little support from the various duchies of the kingdom. Rosamund and Helmichis were forced to flee – but not before collecting most of Alboin’s stash of treasure. Rosamund supposedly took another lover, a man called Longinus, probably in an attempt to secure another powerful ally. Or perhaps she was tiring of Helmichis; considering the arc of their relationship, one has to wonder if there was ever really any affection between them or if they were just using each other for their own goals. Longinus wanted to marry Rosamund, but that pesky Helmichis was in the way, so she decided to poison him.

Here’s a suitably sinister depiction of Rosamund

As a seasoned murderer himself, Helmichis suspected Rosamund’s plan. He forced her to drink the poison first, and then consumed the rest himself afterward. I bet you didn’t see a Romeo and Juliet style double death coming! I certainly didn’t.

I’m starting to wonder if the real bad decision here is getting involved with Rosamund, queen of ruthlessness.

Outcome: Lots of murder, lots of ulterior-motive seductions, a setback to a growing empire.


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Death by Amusement


Whenever I’m doing some historical research, which is pretty much constantly, I’m always on the lookout for suitable topics for Bad Decisions in History. While not a decision, exactly, I’ve come across a strange recurrence of people dying from laughing too hard through history. There’s even a Wikipedia list of historical and fictional deaths caused by laughter. Death by amusement is a real thing, though I’m sure heart attacks and other health issues must be involved.

Our first victim, Chrysippus, followed the stoic school of philosophy, which taught that people should be free of passion and able to submit without complaint to unavoidable necessities, such as the natural order of the world. It sounds a bit grim, to be honest. Logic would be hampered by joy or grief, and therefore such emotions should be kept in check. Chrysippus even earned the title ‘Second Founder of Stoicism’ after he became the third head of the Stoic school. It’s safe to assume that he was a fairly serious man.

At the age of 73, Chrysippus passed away, allegedly after falling into fits of laughter from watching a donkey eat figs. He suggested that someone give the donkey a drink of wine to wash down the figs, so I feel there’s a strong chance Chrysippus had already imbibed some wine because that is not really a sober person’s suggestion.

Bust of Chrysippus

If you’re thinking a Stoic philosopher sounds like the last person to die from laughing too hard, that’s part of the strange charm of this story. However, it should be noted that another account of his death states that he was seized with dizziness after drinking wine at a feast, and died soon after. Either way, I guess we can conclude that he drank some wine and was old enough to likely have heart problems.

Another example of death by laughter in antiquity comes through the story of the death of Zeuxis, a Greek painter said to have been known for his realistic and refreshing paintings. None of them survive today, unfortunately, especially as he’s said to have died laughing at his own painting of Aphrodite, which had been commissioned by an old woman who also insisted on modeling for it. Dying from uncontrollable laughter is one thing, but dying from uncontrollable laughter at your own joke seems like quite another. Still, I wish I could see that painting.

In contrast to Chrysippus and his uncharacteristic laughter, somehow it seems vaguely less surprising that Pietro Aretino may have died of laughter. His Wikipedia page lists him as “an Italian author, playwright, poet, satirist, and blackmailer.” If one’s profession as a blackmailer is so well-known that the reputation lasts five hundred years (Aretino died in 1556), that is certainly some kind of accomplishment. Anyway, since he was a satirist, he must have had a good sense of humour. His satirical pamphlet “The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant Hanno” used the death of Pope Leo X’s pet elephant to poke fun at political and religious leaders. He is said to have died of suffocation while laughing very hard. I’ve been unable to find what he was laughing at, but if he followed a similar path as Chrysippus and Zeuxis, it probably wasn’t actually very funny.

Pietro Aretino

Over in Scotland, Sir Thomas Urquhart of Comarty met a similar fate. The writer was best known for his translation of Rabelais, and for works such as Logopandecteision, and it’s a good thing this is a blog post and not a speech so I don’t have to say that out loud. Perhaps ironically, since I can’t pronounce it, this book was his plan for a universal language by that name. According to some sources, he died in around 1660 from laughing too hard upon hearing of Charles II’s restoration to the throne. The previous monarch, Charles I, had been executed in 1649 at the height of the English Civil War, and the country became a republic, led by Oliver Cromwell. Since Urquhart marched with Charles II against Cromwell in the Battle of Worcester, I must admit I fail to see why it would be so amusing that Charles regained his father’s throne. Perhaps it was just the swaying of the political pendulum Urquhart found so hilarious.

Thomas Urquhart

I don’t want to advocate against laughing at silly jokes (my own affection for puns forbids me) but I think there is a moral here: do your cardio, everyone. And make sure to breathe if you get swept up into that giddy sort of laughter. Bad jokes can be dangerous if caught unprepared.


Bad Decisions in History: featuring Belladonna

We’ve covered one type of deadly makeup before in this series, but ceruse wasn’t the only dangerous cosmetic used in history. This one’s a little scarier, because it involves putting poison directly into one’s eyes.

Bad decision: Using belladonna as a beauty enhancement

By its name, belladonna doesn’t sound like a bad thing. It’s a pleasant-sounding word, translating from the Italian to mean ‘beautiful woman.’ It did add a certain kind of luscious beauty, but at a cost.

Made from an extract of nightshade berries, also called atropa belladonna, the resulting eyedrops dilate the pupils, providing a soft and seductive effect, just like in a romance scene of a novel where someone’s eyes ‘darken with desire.’  In Renaissance Italy, this dusky, lustrous appearance of a lady’s eyes was considered to be the height of beauty. Titian’s painting, “Woman with a Mirror” is thought to depict a lady who has used belladonna to enhance the beauty of her eyes.

Titian’s “Woman with a Mirror”

Atropa belladonna, also more modernly called atropine, just so we have lots of names for this, is quite a powerful compound. The ratio of atropine to water for the belladonna drops shows how strong it is, for only 1 part atropine is necessary per 130,000 parts water in order to dilate the pupils. One drop per eye would block receptors in the muscles of the eye that constrict pupil size. As one might suspect, this comes at an immediate cost to vision, resulting in blurriness and inability to focus on close objects. Though this would wear off over time, prolonged use of belladonna could cause permanent vision distortion or blindness. It also carried the side effect of increased heart rate because, let’s not forget, this tincture was made of poison.

Belladonna is derived from deadly nightshade, one of the most dangerous herbal poisons, since all parts of the plant are toxic. The oral overdose for belladonna is only 600 milligrams. Ingesting any part of the plant will have poisonous, possibly deadly, effects, and exposure to the leaves can also irritate the skin.

Photo credit: anne arnould via VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

The name of atropa belladonna  derives from the name of one of the Greek fates, Atropos, whose name means inexorable or inevitable. Atropos is the fate who severs the thread of life, and if you’ve been reading my blog for a long time, you might remember that I’ve found Atropos rather frustrating at times. The connection between Atropos and deadly nightshade serves to highlight just how powerful the poison is, suggesting that some kind of fallout is unavoidable through exposure to the plant.

Still, not all members of the nightshade family are deadly. Potatoes and tomatoes are both part of this group, and though the leaves are poisonous, the roots (potatoes) and fruits (tomatoes) are not. In fact, belladonna is still used today. It’s an ingredient in some kinds of eyedrops, particularly the ones used to dilate the pupil during an eye exam. Chances are, you’ve been exposed to belladonna before, but fortunately in a very small amount and controlled circumstances. Repeated use is certainly not advisable.

Outcome: Blurred vision, difficulty focusing on objects, potential blindness – all of which would probably cause squintiness over time instead of wide-eyed beauty. Rather the opposite of the intended effect. Not to mention the issue of heart problems and skin irritations.


Bad Decisions in History: featuring King John

King John is probably one of the most remembered and most vilified kings from English history. He was a complicated monarch, his rule marked by inherited debts and conflicts with rebel barons, which eventually led to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.

John did not support the loss of his feudal privileges, and signed the Magna Carta only to appease the escalating tensions held by the rebel barons. Pope Innocent took John’s side on this, viewing the charter as ‘shameful and demeaning’ and excommunicated the rebel barons.


In this depiction of King John granting the Magna Carta, no one looks happy, so that seems pretty accurate.

This might have been some incentive for John to break his word (or maybe not, since he’d already had papal disagreements of his own and had been excommunicated before), but it’s likely that he never really intended to follow the letter of the peace accord. By October of 1216, John had broken the charter and the ‘First Barons’ War’ had begun.

Bad Decision: Sending the baggage caravan, containing the crown jewels, along a quicker route – a causeway only accessible at low tide.

Since he was travelling all around England, attempting to subdue the rebel forces, John had good cause for his sense of urgency. After directing a two-month siege of Rochester Castle, John travelled to Bishops Lynn (now called Kings Lynn, due to Henry VIII’s intense restructuring of the church), taking care to travel around East Anglia, which was held by the rebels. To do so, he took the safe route around the Wash, a large marshy area along the coast of England, separating East Anglia from Lincolnshire.

The Wash at low tide

The Wash at low tide

The Wash is an estuary, a partially enclosed body of water that has access to the sea, and it’s fed by four rivers. In King John’s time, it was even wider than it is today, but when the tide was out, it was possible to cross it, although the causeway would have been very muddy.

While in Bishops Lynn, John fell ill, most likely with dysentery. He was forced to change his plans, and decided to leave Bishops Lynn via the town of Wisbech. He sent the baggage wagons, which contained the king’s wardrobe and the crown jewels, across the mouth of the Wash, which was a shorter, faster route, since the tide was out.

Unfortunately, the baggage caravan – which may have included up to three thousand members of the King’s entourage – was too slow, and the wagons too heavy, to traverse the muddy terrain of the Wash. The wagons began to sink into the mud, and though the men struggled to pull them free with horses, the incoming tide made it impossible. Soon everything was buried in mud and seawater – including the crown jewels.


The accident probably took place near Sutton Bridge, which crosses the River Nene, but for most of history, it’s been impossible to ascertain the exact area, especially since the landscape has changed over time. More recently, modern technology such as astronomical photography and laser study has potentially found a way to find the exactly location – and the treasure, if it exists.

Some historical accounts of the loss of the crown jewels are more suspicious, suggesting that John left the jewels behind in Bishops Lynn on purpose and arranged for their “loss” afterward. Since the jewels have never come to light in Bishops Lynn, or anywhere nearby, afterward, it seems more likely that, being ill and harried by the rebels, King John simply made a mistake.

In any case, he wasn’t around to personally witness many consequences of the disaster at the Wash. King John died of his illness about a week later, on October 19th, 1216.

Outcome: A disastrous shortcut, loss of valuable currency, a bit of an embarrassing legacy, although the enthusiasm it provides to modern treasure hunters might overcome that.

king_johns_tombI mentioned at the start of this post that King John was a complicated monarch, and this incident at the Wash really doesn’t do justice to that. I must recommend one of my favourite historical novels of all time to do that, Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman.


Bad Decisions in History: featuring the Battle of Carrhae

In 55 BCE, Marcus Licinius Crassus felt like he had something to prove. He was already widely regarded as one of the richest men in Rome, and had recently been elected consul for the second time. He was also the third man in the political trio now known as the First Triumvirate, which also included Gaius Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. Although the trio had formed an alliance to gain enough power to overcome the senate’s refusal to support some bills they wanted, the Triumvirate is generally not considered to have been a union of true political beliefs. Rather, each of the men, powerful for different reasons, sought further personal advancement.

Bust of Crassus

Bust of Crassus

At 60, Crassus already had plenty of money and land, as well as political office, but he didn’t have the impressive military accolades of his fellow Triumvirs. Caesar was well known for his conquest of Gaul, and was also popular with the people. Pompey had achieved great successes against pirates in the East Mediterranean. To remain a match for the rest of the Triumvirate, Crassus needed a dazzling conquest as well. He decided to invade Parthia.


The Parthian Empire was made of up of much of modern day Iraq and Iran.

Bad Decision: Targeting Parthia for an unprovoked invasion simply because it was known to be wealthy, and other eastern provinces had been successfully conquered by Rome in the past; rushing into war by not taking time to evaluate the military strength of Parthia, or to plan a strong campaign.


Some of Crassus’ contemporaries also saw this as a bad decision, mostly because Parthia had a treaty with Rome. For this reason, Cicero dubbed it a war with no cause. Crassus proceeded with his plan anyway, departing Rome in November of 55 BCE. He first led his forces overland, through modern Turkey. Along the way, several cities in Parthian territory capitulated without a fight. Crassus decided to garrison these cities, which depleted some of his numbers. He wintered in Syria, waiting for both the passing of the rains and the arrival of Gallic cavalry, led by his son Publius Crassus, to strengthen his forces. During this time, the Parthians sent emissaries to inquire if the presence of the legions was an official declaration of war by Rome, or a personal raid initiated by Crassus. Though the latter was technically more correct, Crassus was consul, so he had the power to declare it an official conflict.

Unsurprisingly, the Parthians were not pleased by this, but they didn’t hesitate to take decisive action. The king, Orodes II, led part of his army into Armenia, to prevent the Armenians from joining forces with the Romans. The Armenian king, Artavasdes, had offered Crassus reinforcements, as well as to let him cross through Armenia. Crassus declined the route, choosing a more direct one, and now due to the actions of Orodes II, he was cut off from their aid as well. Artavasdes was experienced and would have been an asset to Crassus.  The Armenian armoured cavalry also would have been a match for that of the Parthians. Aside from limiting Crassus’ reinforcements, and punishing the Armenians, the Parthian king Orodes II also used this move to place his army on the distant flank of the advancing Romans.

At the same time, the Parthian regional governor, the Surena, marched with the remainder of the army to oppose Crassus’ advance. Roman scouts brought news of this back to Crassus, who formed his army into a long, thin line. Since this would have made it impossible to secure his flanks in the open terrain against a mounted army, Crassus changed his mind, instead ordering the men to re-form into a large hollow square. This was not a rehearsed battlefield drill, and would have taken a long time to maneuver, with the troops baking under the sun. They marched in this formation, with the baggage, camp-followers, light infantry and the reserve cavalry in the centre, crossing a stream and continuing until they sighted the Surena’s forces.

The Parthian cavalry wore armour of polished metal scales sewn to leather, and had equipped their horses similarly. The armour was both protective and flexible enough not to hinder the movement of the mounted arches. In contrast, the Roman legionaries wore a short-sleeved mail tunic, which reached to mid-thigh. It was a better defense against a cutting sword blow than the penetrating stab of a lance or arrow.

Parthian cataphracts

Parthian cataphracts.  

Of the Surena’s forces, about a thousand of the mounted warriors wore that shining armour. He had another ten thousand or so pony-mounted steppe tribesman, not as heavily armed, but the horses were nimble and the archers accurate. Prior to approaching, the Surena had ordered his cavalry to cover their armour, and then to remove the coverings all at once, in an attempt to intimidate the Romans with the dazzling reflection of the sunlight on the metal. By all accounts, the Romans were not fazed by this, and held their ground admirably, braced for a charge that would never come.

Instead the Parthians employed two main tactics. The first was a ‘scythian’ formation, where a small group would in a circle ride within range of the Roman legionaries, firing when nearest, and then nocking the next arrow in time to rotate back to the front. It was effectively an endless hail of arrows. The archers also employed ‘Parthian shot’, a skillful tactic which involved riding directly away from the enemy. The archer would then skew around in the saddle and shoot straight behind him, over the horse’s hindquarters. Since only about 1,500 of the Roman light troops had bows to counter, and unless they could catch the horses against an impassable terrain, like a river, there wasn’t a lot they could do against these tactics. (In another 150 years, the Romans would have developed mobile bolt throwers with a range of 400 metres).

Trying to avoid arrow damage, the legionaries locked their shields into a ‘testudo formation’, forming a nearly impenetrable wall. At this point, the Parthian Surena ordered his cataphracts to target sections of the Roman line and charge. This caused panic and inflicted heavy casualties. When the Romans tried to loosen their formation in order to regain some ability for melee combat, the cataphracts would simply retreat and leave room for the archers to resume their deadly onslaught.

Crassus sent his son Publius forward, leading the Gallic cavalry to attack the Parthian mounted archers. Publius and his cavalry, 500 foot archers, and eight cohorts of legionaries chased the Parthians (still employing Parthian shot) far away from the main square. At this point, the Parthians turned to face the Romans, and reinforcements joined them from the flanks. At last expecting a charge, the Roman forces under Publius halted. Since this made them a target for the unceasing archers, they retreated to a hillock and formed a shield wall. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop the archers. Of the 5,500 who sallied for under Publius, only 500 survived. They were taken prisoner. Publius was killed, and his head mounted on a spear as the Parthians returned to Crassus’ square formation, resuming attack.

At night, the Parthians withdrew and made camp. The surviving Romans, under Crassus, retreated to the town of Carrhae (modern Harran). They were forced to leave 4,000 wounded men on the field, who were slaughtered or captured by the Parthians in the morning. The Surena arrived at Carrhae and demanded Crassus be handed over. This was refused, but since there were not enough supplies in the city for a siege, Crassus crept out at night with his men, trying to escape north. In a final blow, the Romans either got lost, or were led astray by their Arab guide. Eventually the Parthians found them, and offered terms. Before negotiations could be settled, a brawl broke out among the two sides, and Crassus was killed. The remainder of the Roman army surrendered. Overall, the entire campaign was a devastating defeat for the Romans.

Outcome: Thousands of deaths, thousands of Roman soldiers sold into slavery, a situation of altogether being embarrassingly outclassed and unprepared. The Romans admitted to 20,000 casualties, while 10,000 were captured, and 5,000 – 6,000 fought their way out (including Cassius, who would later have a role in Caesar’s assassination). Crassus and Publius were both killed, and the First Triumvirate broken. Parthian losses were minimal.

Bust of Publius Crassus

Bust of Publius Crassus


My main source for this post was Battles of the Ancient World, which I highly recommend if you enjoy ancient history and are the kind of person who thinks a book of battle tactics and formations is a perfectly acceptable item to keep on your coffee table (like me).


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