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.
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.
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.
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.
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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