The Battle of Carrhae

By Johndisp

In 55 BC, the renowned General Marcus Licinius Crassus, had just finished serving his joint-consul year with Pompey. At the time, Crassus, Pompey, and Julius Caesar had a powerful triumvirate that all but controlled Rome. Being part of this group, Crassus had a great desire to bring glory to his name. He had seen no action since his defeat of Spartacus nearly 20 years earlier. Crassus drew out the maps of the Roman Empire looking for a target to attack, and he felt that the easiest target would be Parthia. Many members of the Roman Senate tried to dissuade him from this course of action, but Caesar and Pompey stood firmly behind him and the senate relented.

Crassus arrived in Syria in late 55 BC, and immediately began drilling and preparing his troops. Although he had arrived with 36000 troops, he quickly began reinforcing the towns west of Mesopotamia and thus cut his effective force down to 30000 combat ready troops. His army was reinforced when his son, Publius Crassus, arrived with his Gallic cavalry. And so it came to pass that in early 53 BC, Crassus led 28000 Roman legionnaires, 2000 Roman cavalrymen and 1000 Gallic cavalrymen across the Euphrates River into Mesopotamia.

Crassus met many Hellenic settlements, and these quickly offered alliances. Crassus was thus encouraged that his invasion would be a success. Even the king of the Armenians, Artabazes, joined himself with the Romans, although it was no doubt in order to rid himself of his hated enemies, the Parthians. Artabazes encouraged Crassus to use his lands to invade Parthia, in order to set up close supplies bases and to use the territory that would hamper the Parthian cavalry. Crassus, being a "now or never" kind of general wanted to invade directly into the heart of Parthia. His targets were Seleucia and Ctesiphon. Since Crassus failed to take his advice, Artabazes took his 6000 cavalrymen and went home.

As Crassus began to lose heart, a Nabatean chief, Ariamines, appeared with 6000 cavalrymen and joined with Crassus. Although this seemed like a stroke of luck, perhaps Crassus should have taken a better look, for in actuality this force was nothing more than an army of spies sent to lead the Romans to their deaths.

Ariamines advised Crassus that he had made the right choice in crossing the desert. Ariamines told Crassus tales of terrified Parthian cavalry that was running away from the powerful Roman armies. Heartened by this news, Crassus prepared to order a force march into the andy wasteland.

All this was as the Parthian king, Orodes II, had planned. King Orodes divided his army and sent half to punish the Armenians, and sent the other half to kill Crassus. Orodes' plan continued when Ariamines convinced Crassus to leave the security of the Euphrates and instigate a full-blown march towards Seleucia.

While his Roman advisors tried to reason with Crassus about this fool-hearty course of action, Crassus kept faith with Ariamines and was led closer and closer to the Parthian trap. Finally, a messenger from Artabazes arrived to beg the Romans to move to where the Armenians could reinforce them.

That a subordinate would try and tell Crassus what to do only served to anger and blind him. He felt the Armenian was trying to betray him, and lead him away from his prize. Crassus even began to make plans to attack Armenia once his conquest of Parthia was complete. He would never get the chance.

With his men all but running through the intense desert heat, Crassus rapidly approached the town of Carrhae. His legions were exhausted and in complete disarray. He sent his scouts ahead and only a few returned. They told of encountering the Parthians within miles of Crassus' army. The trap was set, whether or not Crassus would stick his head in it was the only question.

Having finally met the enemy that he had chased through the desert, seemed to panic Crassus. Ariamines lied to Crassus and said that he was leaving with his cavalry to harass the Parthians, when in fact his part in the war was over. Rumor has it that Ariamines returned to his village a man loaded down with Parthian gold.

His spies told him that only 10000 Parthians awaited him, and all of these were horse archers. Crassus decided, against the advice of his council, to forgo resting his men and instead to have them form a "Testudo" and to attack.

As the armies closed, some 500 of the "horse archers" threw off their cloaks to reveal gleaming armor from head to thigh. The storied Parthian cataphracts had presented themselves. The horse archers, armed with bows almost twice the size of their Roman cousins, rained massive arrows down upon the Romans. The arrows cut through the shields and pierced the arms of their wielders. Some arrows slipped through the cracks and pinned the feet of the Roman legionnaires to the ground. Crassus ordered his son to lead the Gallic cavalry and attack the horse archers. While it appeared that Publius had initially routed the Parthians, they actually just allowed him to penetrate their lines so that he could be surrounded. Publius found himself cut off and was beheaded. His head was placed up a pike and a Parthian cataphract ran back and forth in front of the Roman lines with the standard". This seemed to sap the morale from Crassus and he ordered his armies to halt.

With the Romans halted, the cataphracts moved from the left and right flanks of the Romans and brought death down upon them. The heavy, hard charging cataphracts would hit the Roman flanks with their lances, and then chop down on them with their swords. When the Roman legionnaires began to surround the cataphracts, they would withdraw, regroup, and then charge back into their lines.

Crassus fled the field and his legates, Cassius and Octavius, ordered their remaining men to retreat, while leaving their wounded comrades on the field. The retreating Romans headed first to Carrhae to advise the garrison of the disaster, and then fled to Zeugma.

In the aftermath of the retreat, 4000 wounded legionnaires would be put to death. The Parthians managed to catch another 4 cohorts that had gotten lost, and killed all but 30 of them that showed remarkable courage. The remaining Romans reached Zeugma, but another Parthian spy convinced Crassus to flee the city with his men and head into an area of "safety". This area was in fact a large bowl shaped valley that proved inescapable for the Romans and the Parthian army arrived just as they realized they were trapped once again. The Parthians offered to discuss peace, but only if Crassus himself would attend the meeting. Although initially resistant, the remaining legionnaires threatened to kill him themselves, and Crassus relented. This "peace" meeting was nothing but a third trap. Crassus and his council were seized and killed. He head was severed and sent to King Orodes II.

In the aftermath, 20000 Roman legionnaires had been slain, and another 10000 captured. Cassius had managed to lead 6000 of the Romans to safety. The 10000 prisoners were sent to the Parthian region of Sogdia in far eastern Parthia. It is rumored that when the Han Chinese captured this area in 36 BC, they might have actually fought the remnants of these prisoners. Taken from Chinese reports of the conflict are tales that their enemies formed a shell with their shields that proved effective against the Chinese arrows. This formation sounds remarkably like a testudo.

The only positive thing to come from the battle, were tales. Tales of bright, flowing cloth that dazzled in the sunlight as gold. It was silk, and this battle led the European nations to prize the fabric. This battle led to the establishing of the Silk Road and caused the start of Europeaninterest in the Far East.