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Decisive Battles of History: Carrhae

The Roman Republic before the invasion of Crassus

The Roman Republic before the invasion of Crassus


The Battle of Carrhae was the first confrontation between Parthia and the Romans, the conflict that would engulf the Ancient Middle East for nearly 700 hundred years from 54 BC to 628 AD, during which period the Romans and the Parthians and later the Sassanids were waging war on one another.

The Parthians rose during the 3rd and 2nd century BC when the Arsacid Dynasty overthrew the Seleucid governor of Parthia and rapidly expanded in Iran and later Mesopotamia. By the 1st century BC, the Parthian kings ruled over a territory that was made up of modern-day Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and parts of Azerbaijan and the Turkic republics of Central Asia.

Parthia was not the only rapidly expanding empire of the region either, as the Romans finally reached the Parthians after the eastern campaigns of Lucullus and Pompey.

Still, before 54 BC, the two empires coexisted peacefully near one another, and largescale warfare only began after the arrival of Marcus Licinius Crassus.

As the Roman Republic became the hegemon of the Mediterranean, the elites of Rome became rich beyond any imagination. Such was the wealth of some individuals that they were able to buy up large portions of Senators to support their legislative initiatives, or block the initiatives of others. One such rich man, if not the richest of them, was Marcus Licinius

The Parthian Empire before the invasion of Crassus

The Parthian Empire before the invasion of Crassus

The Ambition of Crassus

Crassus rose to prominence during the Civil War of Sulla, as one of the lieutenants of the victorious Sulla, he became immensely rich by receiving his fair share of the confiscated wealth of Sulla’s enemies. After Sulla’s death, Crassus took up command again when he equipped and raised an army of 35,000 men out of his own pockets to fight the rebelling slaves of Spartacus. Crassus did most of the fighting, and he defeated Spartacus, but to his annoyance, Pompey arrived at the last minute and stole some of the credit Crassus believed belonged to him.

The two became political rivals during the 60s and never missed an opportunity to cross each other. The two of them were the most influential politicians of Rome, but their rivalry hindered the functioning of the Republic. Caesar eventually reconciled them and convinced them to support his campaign to become Consul, in exchange, he offered to push through legislation that would benefit both.

Caesar was elected, and he delivered on his word. Being chased by his creditors, Caesar needed an exit from Rome, which he got when he was named governor of the Gallic provinces with the help of his allies. What followed after was probably not expected by anyone, as Caesar began to conquer Gaul, without the approval of the Senate, and made a name for himself as a great commander, plus by looting his way through Gallic lands, he also became very, very rich.

Historians believe that Crassus was jealous of his two allies, as, despite his victories in Sulla’s Civil War and against Spartacus, he lacked the military reputation of Pompey and now even Caesar.

At the request of Caesar, the three of them met at Lucca and renewed their alliance. Using their influence, they secured a five-year extension for Caesar’s governorship in Gaul, secured two provinces in Hispania for Pompey and got Crassus the rich province of Syria.

Crassus was eyeing up the rich, but what he believed, in hindsight falsely, weak Parthian Empire for conquest to win himself the military reputation he so desired.

The belief of Crassus was not entirely without a base. Parthia at the time, was reaked by internal tensions. The previous king of Parthia was assassinated, and the two sons of the king were fighting one another for the throne. Orodes looked like the one who was winning, while his brother Mithridates was losing. To rectify his situation Mithridates sought help from the neighbouring powers, and that included Roman Syria.

Crassus arrived at his province in late 55 BC and immediately began his preparations for the invasion of Parthia. Before he departed Rome, he received a mandate from the Senate to raise soldiers and make peace and war out of his own accord, without the need to refer the matter back to the Senate.

Crassus used his immense wealth and raised an army of about 35,000 legionaries, 4,000 skirmisher infantry and a few thousand cavalries. Later he was joined by his son Publius, who brought with him cavalry from Gaul.

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Crassus received an offer of help from the King of Armenia, who offered to join Crassus with 40,000 men of his own man if Crassus would invade Parthia from his country. Invading Parthia from Armenia would have helped Crassus avoid the deserts of Mesopotamia, but in the end, the Triumvir declined the offer and marched into Mesopotamia. His initial campaign in 54 BC was successful, and he captured many cities of the region, which he wanted to use as the springboard for a further advance into Mesopotamia.

At around the same time, King Orodes decided to split his army. He took one contingent and marched against the King of Armenia, and succeeded in subduing his neighbour. The second contingent of his army was led by a Parthian nobleman from the Suren noble family. This army was also successful and captured Seleucia, the capital of the empire, from the brother of Orodes, Mithridates. Mithridates was captured and soon executed, and thus the internal troubles of Parthia were gone.

The Battle of Carrhae

The Parthians sent envoys to Crassus, informing him of Mithridates’s demise and demanding him to retreat from their country. Crassus replied to them that he will talk of peace in Seleucia, to which the Parthian envoy supposedly showed his palm, and laughed that hair will grow there before Crassus will see Seleucia.

With the possibility of peace gone, both sides resumed the hostilities. Crassus used the same route he did in 54 BC and marched into Mesopotamia. His scouts ran into the Parthian army led by the noblemen of House Suran and retreated reporting the position of the enemy. Crassus decided to march against them and take the fight to the Parthians.

The Roman army outnumbered the Parthians probably 4-1, as the Parthians only had some 10,000 soldiers, all of these cavalry.

Gaius Cassius advised Crassus to deploy his men in the traditional Roman way, with infantry in the centre and cavalry on the flanks. Crassus initially agreed, but later changed his mind and rather deployed his men into a giant square, with the heavy infantry forming the square and the cavalry and skirmishers inside it.

Surena tried to intimidate the Romans, and to frighten the enemies he used psychological warfare. He made his men play loud drums, and he also ordered his heavy cavalry to disguise themselves initially, only to reveal their true nature when they get close to the Romans.

Surena sent out his horse archers, who made up around 9/10 of his army, to harass the Romans by showering them with arrows. Still, the Romans at that time were probably confident that they can weather the storm and the horse archers will run out of arrows quickly. Crassus sent out his skirmishers to drive off the horse archers, but they were overwhelmed by the arrows and forced to retreat.

To the horror of the Romans, the Parthians also brought camels packed with arrows, and whenever the horse archers ran out of arrows, they were resupplied.

Publius then lead a charge against the Parthians with his cavalry, but he overextended himself. The cavalry of Publius disappeared from sight, but they were lured into a trap and killed nearly to a man.

The charge of Publius won the Romans some time, but the Parthians were soon back, arriving with the head of Publius on a spear. The death of Publius shocked the Romans, and their morale plummeted. The harassing tactics of the Parthians continued until nightfall brought an end to the engagement, and the Parthians retreated.

The Romans left behind those who were immobilized and retreated towards Carrhea. The next day the Parthians returned, massacred the wounded survivors and immediately set off after the army of Crassus.

Crassus was lured into a parlay, during which he and his entourage were killed. According to one version of the story, the Parthians poured melted gold down his throat to mock his greed.

The remnants of the Roman army retreated into Roman Syria under the command of Cassius, but there was no masking the fact that the invasion was a disaster and the Romans suffered a crushing defeat.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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