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What We Learned... from the Battle of Carrhae

By Richard Tada 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: November 16, 2007 
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Marcus Licinius Crassus arrived in Syria in the spring of 54 bc with plans to invade the Parthian Empire, which centered on present-day Iran. Plutarch, who wrote the most detailed account of the campaign, suggests Crassus wanted to match the military exploits of Caesar and Pompey, his partners in the First Triumvirate.

Crassus started slowly. During the latter half of 54 bc, he garrisoned several cities in northern Mesopotamia before wintering in Syria. He was awaiting his son Publius, who was headed east with 1,000 Gallic cavalrymen.

When Crassus finally got moving the next year, subordinates urged him to advance down the Euphrates. Instead, he marched directly into Parthia past the fortified city of Carrhae (present-day Harran in southeastern Turkey). The Roman force consisted of seven legions (roughly 35,000 infantry), accompanied by 4,000 light infantry and a similar number of cavalry. Crassus deployed the army in hollow squares.

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The smaller Parthian force under General Surena consisted entirely of cavalry. There were 9,000 mounted archers and 1,000 cataphracts—armored men with long spears on armored horses.

Battle was joined sometime in June of 53 bc. The cataphracts initially charged, but were frustrated by the Romans' close formation and interlocked shields. Then the Parthian-mounted archers went to work. Their composite bows launched arrows with enormous force, sufficient to penetrate armor.

The Romans expected the Parthians to run out of arrows, after which they could advance to close quarters. It didn't happen. Surena had organized a camel train to resupply his archers. In frustration, Crassus ordered Publius to take a detachment (including the Gallic cavalry) and charge the enemy. The Parthians feigned retreat, and Publius fell for it, pursuing enthusiastically until isolated from the main Roman body. Then the Parthians turned, killing Publius and nearly annihilating his force. With Publius' head mounted on a spear, they rode back to renew the main assault.

By nightfall, the desperate Romans resolved to slip away. The retreating force abandoned 4,000 wounded legionaries, whom the Parthians slaughtered. The Romans first fell back to Carrhae, but lacking provisions, were again forced to withdraw. Surena then arranged to meet Crassus, ostensibly to discuss terms. But it was a trap. In the resulting fight, Crassus was killed, his severed head sent north to Parthian King Orodes II, who was campaigning in Armenia. In the end, the Parthians killed some 20,000 Romans and captured 10,000.

Lessons:

  • l Strike while your political objectives are attainable. In 55 bc Orodes II was facing rebellion by his brother, Mithridates III, who had sought Roman assistance. If Crassus had moved then, he could have helped Mithridates and installed a pro-Roman king on the Parthian throne. But Crassus dawdled, and Mithridates was defeated and killed in 54 bc.
  • Firm up your allies. Artavasdes of Armenia offered to aid Rome if Crassus would agree to swing north and advance through his kingdom. Crassus declined. Later, during the Roman retreat, Crassus hoped to reach the Armenian highlands and the protection of his supposed ally. But by then, Orodes had invaded Armenia and secured Artavasdes' allegiance. In fact, Orodes and Artavasdes were watching a play by Euripides when Crassus' severed head arrived and was tossed onstage.
  • Arms work best in combination. The Parthian cataphracts and mounted archers achieved more together than either could alone.
  • Don't present an obvious target. The cataphracts hovered in front of the Roman line, forcing the Romans to maintain a close formation. This made them an easy target for the Parthian archers, who rode around both flanks and subjected the Romans to a deadly fire.
  • Keep your forces together. Publius rushed out with his Gallic cavalry to an unsupportable position. Once cut off by the cataphracts, they were beyond help.
  • Numbers aren't everything. Superior weapons, superior tactics, superior logistics (that camel train), psyops (Publius' head on a spear) and treachery can carry the day, even against 3-to-1 odds.
  • Watch your back. Surena won great fame for his victory over the Romans at Carrhae. But Orodes II grew to resent this and had him executed.


9 Responses to “What We Learned... from the Battle of Carrhae”


  1. 1
    Xavier Bowie says:

    This article was beautifully written and very informative.

  2. 2
    brenda von bvargen says:

    Crassus should have advanced along the river which would have offered a shield against the Parthian cavalry. Forming the army into squares was also not too bright. It merely consolidated his forces and made it an easier target for the archers. His only chance was to try to drive his forces into the center of the enemy and divide them into smaller forces. At least half of the enemy forces would have been cut off from the resupply of arrows.

  3. 3
    Gregory Garduno says:

    We more often hear of the Roman defeat at the Teutoburg Forest which took place a bit later on, but Carrhae had a similar effect in the East. Both had consequences for proposed Roman expansion, though it is said the Romans did have established outposts beyond the Rhine after the Teutoburg defeat. The disaster at Carrhae more or less put an end to Roman dreams of conquering Parthia. In hindsight it is clear that Crassus did not have the skills that Pompey and Caesar so clearly displayed on the battlefield.

    • 3.1
      Hans K says:

      Hmm, I would say that the Romans halting their expansion at the Rhine has more to do with logic and logistics rather than any moral effect of their great defeat. After the disaster of Teotoburg Wald the Romans under Germanicus launched a succesful punitive campaign against the Germans, in fact decisively defeating Arminius and forcing him into exile while installing their own client kings amongst the tribes. Despite these military sucesses, the Romans probably realized that there were little to gain from a permanent occupation of Germania, given the small food surplus and lack of exploitable wealth in the area (which was the reason Germanic tribes were forever raiding Roman territories in the first place). Besides, the Rhine made more sense as a frontier of the Empire rather than the Elbe, given that troops stationed along the former river could be supplied through reliable water routes rather than land ones.

      The Romans' failure to conquer Persia probably also has something to do with logistical limitation, after Carrhae they in fact repeatedly invaded (sacking Ctesiphon five times, three times during the 2nd century alone) but could never make much headway beyond there. This could be explained by the lack of water routes to supply troop advances beyond the Euphrates, plus the Persian overall superiority in cavalry which would make life hard for Roman legions as they went further into the Iranian pleatau. While competently handled Roman armies was essentially immune to cavalry attacks, their supply line would be much more vulnerable, especially combined with Persian scorched earth policy.

  4. 4
    Rob York says:

    The Roman legion was a buzzsaw made to shred enemy formations but really had no answer to horse archers other than the small auxiliary cavalry units they conscripted from regions under their yoke. It would have been nice to see the Gauls, Britons and Germanic tribes make more use of horse archers to fight off Roman domination, though they most probably lacked composite bow technology. It would have been interesting to see a Parthian counterattack into Roman controlled territory following the massacre of Crassus and his army.

  5. 5
    John Manov says:

    Rob York, the Persians did counter attack after Carrhae. It started out with raids and grew into a full invasion of Syria, Palestine and even Asia Minor. Ventidius was given command of the Roman army and decisively defeated the Persians at the Battle of Cicilcian Gates and Amanus Pass. Parthia tried to renew the invasion but were slaughtered at the Battle of Mount Gindarus.

  6. 6
    Dennis Beeson says:

    Very well said, John Manov. Ventidius was even allowed to celebrate a triumph in Rome after his victories over Parthia. Of course, Mark Antony grew jealous and ensured that Ventidius was forcibly retired, so he could complete the conquest of Parthia, which, of course, Antony mismanaged and was ultimately forced into a humiliating (career-ending) retreat.

  7. 7
    Nick says:

    As a non military person I found this article and the subsequent comments very interesting. I was under the impression that cavalry need infantry support to be successful, clearly not. The Romans were so static and had such poor horse that they presented an easy target.

    It was a masterstroke (albeit an unintentional one) to send cavalry against such static targets.

  8. 8
    Ali says:

    "Surena then arranged to meet Crassus, ostensibly to discuss terms. But it was a trap."

    No! As we read in some historical texts there is not any clear evidence to determine what happened before that arranged meetings. Some texts say some of Roman soldiers didn't trust Crassus and thought Surena wants to kill him. Hence, when Crassus was on the way to Surena's camp an unrest happened and turned to dispute. And Crassus got killed amid.



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