The Decissive Battles of History: Ancient Battles--Carrhae (53 BC)


Figure 1.--

Pompey had negotiated a treaty with the Parthinians about 73 BC. The treaty set the boundary of Parthia at the Wadi Balik. Crassus was the richest man in Rome, but despite his success against Spartacus did not have the military reputation he craved. He decided to use his position as proconsul to launch an invasion of Parthia with which Rome had a treaty of peace. Victory here would extend the boundaries of Rome away frm the Mediterrean accross western Asia to the border of India. It would in effect recreated Alexander's empire and brought great wealth and the military laurels so important for political power to Crassus. Victory against Parthia in the east would have outshown even Ceasar's spectacular victories in Gaul. Crassus marched directly through Mesopotamia hoping to seize Seleucia and Parthian capital of Ctesiphon (54 BC). Crassus followed the Euphrates River. He crossed into Parthian territory at Zeugma. Crassus' son Publius who had been with Ceasar in Gaul joined his father. Crassus' leiutenant Cassius advised him to rest the army and to continue the attack along the Euphrates where food and water was plentiful. Crassus was fooled into lauching an attack across the desert in the hope of closing with the Parthians. Crassus' exhausted army ecountered the Parthians about 20 miles south of Carrhae (June 53 BC). Crassus was surprised. He encountered the Parthians much sooner than he anticipated and they were not retreating. What followed was one of the greatest disasters in Roman military history.

Parthians

Parthia was an ancient country southeast of the Caspian Sea more or less in the area of what is now Khurasan. The Parhians are believed to be of Scythian origins. We do not yet know much about them. The Parthians served as mounted archers in the armies of first the Assyrians and then the Persians. The Parthians were a largely fedual society based on horsemen. Avoided a head on confrontation. The Parthians were famed archers, able to fire their arows over their backs. This was known as the Parthian shot which is the origin of the term "parting shot". Led by Arsaces, they freed themselves from Seleucid rule and established their own empire (250 BC). The Parthians gradually extended their empire east to India. Rome for its part had wared with all the important powers they confronted, Carthage, Macedonia, and Gaul. The Parthians were after Ceasar's victory in Gaul the next logical outlet to expand Rome's Empire. The peak of the Parthian empire was reached with the defeat of Crassus at Carrhae (53 BC). The Parthians were later defeated by the Romans, but not destroyed (39-38 BC). After this their power gradually declined. Ardashir I overthrew the Parthians and founded the Sassanian Empire (226 AD).

Rome

The impact of Rome on western civilization is incaluable. The Roman legacy in art and sculpture, architecture, literature, philosophy, politi which many aspects of Greek culture were passed on to our modern age. Today the power of media has obscured the great legacy of Rome to that of gladitorial spectacle. Many scholars are convinced that perhaps with the exception of Jesus, the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero is the most important single voice in Western civiliztion. It was Cicero that was a key influence in British political thought and the American and French Revolutions and thus all modern democracies. It was an idealized Roman Republic that inspired the founding fathers. Roman legends like Cicinatus who volutarikly gave up power inspired thge founding fathers. Many of the key Revolutionary leaders had read Cicero's works like De Officius. Even Washington, who unlike many of the other founding fathers had not studied classuical history, acted out a scene in a play about Cato that he had seen to defuse a mutiny of the Continental Army. The American Republic is in large measure a Ciceronian Republic. The legacy of Rome can be found throughout the American Republic. A Senate was created to limit the passions of the majority. Executive authority is limited by checks and ballances. It was Cicero's heroic, but ultimately failed effort to save the Roman Republic that enspired political thinkers of the 18th century to device a system that could prevent despotism. This effort motivated many of the debates over the American Constitution. Rome today is largely thought of an a Mediterrean empire. The reason for this was two massive defeats of the Roman legions. The first was the battle of Carrhae (53 BC) which stoped Crassus' expansion into Asia. The second was the battle of the Teutoberg Forrest which stopped Varus' expansion into Germany (9 AD). These two battles essetially set the eastern boundaries of Rome.

The Triumverate

The Trimuverae was the alliance of the three most powerful men of Ancient Rome: Gaius Iulius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus ("Pompey the Great"). It was not an official body, but rather an unofficial alliance between the three men in the final years of the Roman Republic so as to avoid civil war. Crassus was the man primarily responsible for defeating Dapartacus. Crassus and Pompey had been colleagues in the consulate (70 BC). At that time they restored the tribunate of the people. The office had been reduced to impotence by dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. After this, however, the two men had moved apart. Caesar mediated between the two older men. Together they helped secure Ceasar's election as consul (59 BC). Ceasar and Crassus were already close and to cement his alliance with Pompey, Caesar arranged for the marriage of his daughter. The lliance rested on Caesar's great popularity among the Roman masses, Crassus's great wealth and influence with the Roman aristocracy, and Pompey's wealth and military influence. The three men secretly agreed to cooperate. Rome first became aware of the Triumviri with the fight in the Senate over a new agrarian law. Subsequently they supported the election of Publius Clodius Pulcher's election as tribune of the people which effectively removed both of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Marcus Porcius Cato from public office. The Triumviri essentially dvided Roman territory. Caesar was awarded the government as proconsul of both Gauls (Gallia Cisalpina and Gallia Transalpina) and of Illyricum, and given charge of four legions for five years. With these legions he would conquer Gaul north of the Alps. Caesar's new father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso, became consul (58 BC). Pompey and Crassus shared a second consulate (55 BC). Pompey and Crassus extended Caesar's proconsular government in the Gauls for an additional 5 years, allowing him to complete the conquest of Gaul. Pompey secured the proconsul Spains (Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior) for 5 years. Spain was Rome's most valuable colony at the time. Crassus became proconsul of Syria, also for 5 years. and of Syria, respectively, for five-year terms. The Triumverate was an alliance that could not lost. Ceasar with his popularity now combined with spectacular success in Gaul and moved from a junior partner to an increasingly powerful force.

Crassus

Crassus was the richest man in Rome, but despite his success against Spartacus did not have the military reputation he craved. He decided to use his position as proconsul to launch an invasion of Parthia with which Rome had a treaty of peace. Victory here would extend the boundaries of Rome away frm the Mediterrean accross western Asia to the border of India. It would in effect recreated Alexander's empire and brought great wealth and the military laurels so important for political power to Crassus. Victory against Parthia in the east would have outshown even Ceasar's spectacular victories in Gaul.

Poltical Situation

Pompey had negotiated a treaty with the Parthinians about 73 BC. The treaty set the boundary of Parthia at the Wadi Balik. This left the small kingdom of Osroene to separate Parthia and the Roman colony of Syria. To the north was the Armenian kingdom which had previously repulsed a Parthinian army (about 62 BC).

Roman Preparations

Crassus's objectives are not precisely known. Certainly he wanted to seize Mesopotamiia. He planned to strike down the Euphrates Valley to seize Ctesiphon and the Greek city of Seleucia. This would extend Rome's empire to the rich Tigris and Euphrates. Whether Crassus planned to press on to India is not known. Crassus had a substantial force. He had seven legions, about 30,000 heavy infantry and an additional 10,000 men cavalry and light troops. Armenia at thetime was a client state of Rome. Armenian King Artabazes planned to accompany Crassus with another 6,000 cavalry. Artabazes objected to Crassus' plan to march straight across the dessert, the most direct route to the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. Artabazes suggested an indirect view throigh his lands to the north. There supplies would be available and the mountaneous terraine would be difficult for the Rathian calvary. When Crassus rejected his advise Artabazes departed. This was a major tactical error by Crassus as it meant that the upcoming battle woukld be fought on flat terraine which was most favorable to the highly mobile Parthians who fielded a mounted force.

Parthian Forces

The Parthian King, Orodes II, had amassed a substantial force, but split his army. He personally commanded one wing of the army and attacked Armenia to punish tem for cooperating with the Romans. The other smaller wing of the Parthian army was led by a Parthian noble of the Suren family. He may be the inspiration for the Persian legend, Rustam. The Suren commanded a force of only about 10,000 cavalrymen--a much smaller than the Roman army. The Parthians were extremly mobile and desciplined horse archers designed to fight in the wide open spaces of the desert. There were two types of Parthian warriors. There were lightly armored mounted archers. In addition there were cataphracts, mailed cavalry armed with long spears. Suren was not meant to attack the Romans. His task was to harass Crassus and delay them until King Orodes II finished his Armenian campaign and returned south to unite the army. In the face of the Roman chsallenge, this seemed a dangerous tactic for the Parthians.

Crassus Invades

Crassus marched directly through Mesopotamia hoping to seize Seleucia and Parthian capital of Ctesiphon (54 BC). Crassus followed the Euphrates River. He crossed into Parthian territory at Zeugma. Crassus' son Publius who had been with Ceasar in Gaul joined his father. Crassus' leiutenant Cassius advised him to rest the army and to continue the attack along the Euphrates where food and water was plentiful. An Arab forced led by Ariamnes, in the pay of the Parthians, tricked Crassus into thinking that the Parthians were in full retreat. Crassus as a result decided to persue the Parthiands through the dessert. Crassus wanted to force what he thought was a retreating army to battle. He rejected the advise of his commanders and rushed his me into the dessert. Once away from the Euphrates the Romans encuntered difficult terraine. It was hard to navigate and water rapidly became scarce. The heat made matters worse. Despite te conditions, Crassus hoping to cath thr Parthians demanded that the army maintain a rapid pace and the men rapidly tired.

The Battle (53 BC)

Crassus' exhausted army countered the Parthians about 20 miles south of Carrhae (June 53 BC). Crassus was surprised. He encountered the Parthians much sooner than he anticipated and they were not retreating. What followed was one of the greatest disasters in Roman military history.

Roman defensive square

Crassus vascilated how to respond to the Parthians. Finally he ordered the formation of a huge defensive square. Suren planned an assault with his body of heavy calavary, about 1,000 cataphracts, but assessing the strengh of the Roman squares changed his mind. Cassius advised caution, suggesting that the men be rested and the Parthian forces scouted. Publius wanted to fight immediately and Crassus orders an attack. The Parthian archers beat back the initial Roman attack.

Parthian archery attacks

Suren then orders his horse archers to attack the Romans. They succeed in inflicting mounting casualties on the Romans who are unable to strike back. Throught the battle, Cssus is frustrated with his inability to close with the smaller, but mobile Parthian force whose archers can inflict casualties from a distance. The Parthians ride around the perimeter of the Roman force and pour thousands of arrows into the densely packed Roman ranks. Parthian shot (paring shot). If the square held, the Parthiansians would run out of arrows. Camels brought forward loaded with water and arrows. The Parthian mobiliity and logistics were the key to the battle. The archers flowed around the Roman permiter firing arrows, but refusing to allow the heavy Roman infantry to engage. Crassus atvforst assumed that the Parthians would soon run out of arrows, but then spotted camel trains to resupply the Parthians. The Parthians at first attacked the front and side of the Roman defensive square. Then they threatened the rear. This unerved Crassus as his army would be quickly destroyed if surounded in the deset.

Publius' sortie

The Romans were tired and thirsty and in no conditin to give battle. Even so, Crassus ordered Publius to take command of the cavalry. His relatively small calvary arm was a Galic force, Publius with the Gauls and light mobil infantry sortied out from the defensive square to drive off the Parthian calvary. This meant leaving the saftey of the main square. The Parthians fell back, encouraging Publius to press the attack. After Publius had moved far enoigh away from the main defensive square to be supported, Suren ordered his mounted archers to counter attack. This time supported by the cataphract heavy calvary, the Parthians did give battle. Publius' light infantry was pinned down. Publius led his Galic calvary, but soon found that they could not penetrate the heavy cataphract armour. The Gauls turned to suicide tactics. The Romans are cut down. Publius and a small group of survivors retreat to a small hill. Publius who is wounded refuses to be taken alive as has himself killed. Most of his firce was killed. About 500 are taken captive.

Roman lines

Crassus after Publius attacked reformed his legions in a proper line of attack. He was undecided as to how to proceed. He considered moving forward to try to support Publius. Then a mounted Parthian rode forward with Publius' head on the tip of his lance. Crassus who was unaware of the defeat of the sortie force was horrified. The Parthian taunted Crassus, asking how so brave a son could have so cowardly a father. Crassus ordered an attack, but the tired and weary legionaries. The Romans were beaten back by the Parthian archers and attacks from the cataphracts and suffered heavy losses. Finally night fell ending the fighting.

Roman retreat

At this stage Crassus lost his nerve and defeat combined with the loss of his son seems to have caused a nervous breakdown. After Cassius collapsed, Cassius and another lieutenant, Octavius, took command. They ordered a rapid retreat to Carrhae, abandoning about 4,000 wounded men. The next morning, the Parthians moved forward into the Roman position that had been abandined. The Parthians slaughtered the wounded Romans and with their fast calvary persued stragglers. A Roman commander Varguntius became detached from the main army and got lost in the desert. He was cut off by the Parthians. Almost all of his force was destroyed. The Parthians impressed by their bravery, let the final 20 men live.

Crasus' Death

Carrhae was not strong enough or provisioned for a siege. After resting for a day, Crassus led his men on a nightime retreat. They hoped to reach the Armenian hills where the Parthian calvary would be less effective. He divided his forces into two groups. He with Octavius commanded one group. Cassius commanded the second. While Cassius managed to reach Syria, Crassus, found himself gain surrounded by the Parthians on an open plain. THey managed to beat off the initial attack. What followed is not fully understood. Suren offered to parley for a truce. We are not sure of his motivation. Some authors think that sparing Crasus and perhaps taking hostages would favorably affect future relations with Rome. Other authots suspect treachery. Here it is difficult to know as almost all the surving sources are Roman. Crassus was not in favor of a parley, but his men not esiring another fight threatened mutiny. The parley took place in the Parthian camp. We do not know just what occurred there, but Crassus, Octavius, and the men with him were killed in the Parthian camp. Subsequently Crassus' entire column was either killed or captured.

Aftermath

Carrhae was one of the most decisive battles in history. Although the Romans would eventually push into the Tigris-Euprhates Valley, their hold over regions east of Syria was always tenuous. Carrhae in many ways fixed the eastern limits of the Roman empire. Carrhae was a massive defeat for the Romans. The Romans lost about three-fourths of the nearly 40,000 man army. Tis was a larger army than Ceasar ever commanded in Gaul. Most were killed either during or after the battle. About 10,000 men were captured and sold into slavery in central Asia. Cassius' desire for military glory ended his life and Suren delivered Crassius' severed head to king Orodes II, flinging it on stage at a play. Fearing Suren's power, Orodes later had him killed. Suren's family helped overthrow the dynasty. Internal discensions within Parthia led to future Roman victories. The dynasty was replaced by the Sassanids. Crassus' defeat and death also had a major impact in Rome. Crassus had been a moderating force between Pompey and Ceasar. His death led to civil war. Ceasar's victory and subsequent assasination was to lead to the end of the Roman Republic. The defeat at Carrhae was a humiliation for Roman arms. The eagle standards of all seven legions were captured. The Parthians displayed them in the temples of Parthia. Augustus eventually arranged foir their return (20 BC). There was no immeiate Roman resonse, Both Caesar and Pompey were primarily concerned with the internal struggle for supremecy.

The Parthian Wars

The Battle of Carrhae was the opening engagement in a war that would last two centuries. The Parthian victory over Crassus at Carrhae was massive (53 BC). The Parthias achieved a major victory over Mark Antony's army (36 BC). Parthian power had declined substantially by the second century AD. Trajan succeeded in seizing Mesopotamis (114 AD), but could not hold it. Roman Emoerors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus ruling invaded Mesopotamia again and sacked the Parthiaian stronghold at Ctesiphon. Internal disputes had weakened the Parthians. Septimius Severus seized Nisibis and created the Roman province of Osrhoene. He then sacked Ctesiphon again and created the province of Mesopotamia. Severus's son Caracalla persued the Parthian Wars. He attacked deeper into Parthia than any previous Roman commander (216 BC). He struck at Arbela in Media beyond the River Tigris. Although weakened, the Parithians forced the Romans to seek terms (217 AD). Caracalla himself was murdered on the way from Edessa to Carrhae, the sight of tecearkly Parithian victory.







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Created: 7:41 PM 7/12/2004
Last updated: 1:22 PM 9/4/2004