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In 53 B.C., seven Roman legions, some 50,000 men, marched into the searing Mesopotamian desert. They had come to this eastern province of the kingdom of Parthia seeking conquest and plunder but, deceived by a false guide and commanded by an arrogant blunderer, the legions were almost annihilated. Aside from a lucky few, the Romans were either slaughtered and their bodies mutilated, or else were captured and enslaved. Their commander was decapitated, and his head was used as an ornament at the banquet of the Parthian king.

Such was the Battle of Carrhae, a disaster almost unmatched in the otherwise glorious history of Roman arms. It was a battle of shocking brutality, even by ancient standards. It was also an early example of hit-and-run, guerrilla-style warfare, carried out in a manner that would stand up well by 21st century standards. Most of all, it was a monument to the delusions, conceits and military incompetence of the Roman commander, Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Our guide across this ancient battlefield will be the famous 1st-century Greek biographer, Plutarch. Where quotation marks are used in this article, the words are his.

Rome at the time of Carrhae, though still a republic, was ruled by three powerful public figures known as the First Triumvirate: Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus-known to posterity as Pompey the Great-Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus. Pompey was Rome’s most famous general, having earned his honorific title of Magnus for his many victories and conquests. The young aristocrat Caesar had been known mostly for his eloquent speeches in the Senate, but the martial talents he had recently displayed in Gaul and Britannia were fast giving rise to a new legend. Crassus, a nouveau riche entrepreneur, was both a successful politician and the richest man in Rome. For all of his wealth and political power, Crassus, according to the 1st century Greek historian Plutarch, had always envied Pompey’s military fame. When Caesar too began to exhibit military prowess, Crassus, then aged 60, suddenly decided to seek conquests of his own. ‘Being strangely puffed up, and his head heated, Plutarch wrote, he proposed himself in his hopes to pass as far as Bactria and India, and the utmost ocean.

Crassus had some military accomplishments on his resum. He was one of Lucius Cornelius Sulla’s lieutenants during the early civil wars, alongside young Pompey-the future triumvirs’ rivalry dated from that time. Crassus’ first substantial opportunity to show his martial mettle came in 73 BC, when a band of gladiators, armed with cooking knives and led by a Thracian named Spartacus, broke out of their training school in Capua and managed to capture a wagonload of weapons. Before long the breakout snowballed into a full-fledged slave revolt throughout Italy that became known as the Third Servile War. Under Spartacus’ leadership the slaves won several pitched battles over Roman troops, and were soon well on their way to marching out of Italy to freedom. Alarmed, the Roman Senate gave Crassus command of an army. One of his first acts was to revive the ancient practice of decimation: every tenth man in a unit that had been routed by Spartacus was punished with death. Next, in 71 BC Crassus maneuvered Spartacus onto the peninsula of Rhegium, where he bottled up the slave army by building a trench across the isthmus, described by Plutarch as three-hundred furlongs long, fifteen feet broad and as much in depth. Spartacus and one-third of his force managed to break out on a wild, snowy night, however, by filling a section of the trench with earth, thereby making it passable.

Spartacus still hoped to fight his way out of Italy. But after winning another battle over one of Crassus’ lieutenants, the slaves, over-confident and never really disciplined, persuaded him to lead them in a final, decisive battle. This was exactly what Crassus wanted, since Pompey was coming with an army from Iberia, and Crassus desperately needed a quick victory before his old rival arrived. In this final battle the slave army was indeed destroyed and according to Plutarch Spartacus himself, deserted by those that were about him…surrounded by the enemy and bravely defending himself, was cut in pieces.

Pompey arrived in Italy in time to assist Crassus in rounding up the surviving slaves, who were crucified on rows of crosses that lined the Appian Way. For that mopping up operation, coupled with his more significant conquests in Iberia, the Senate awarded him a formal triumph, while Crassus had to settle for a mere ovation. What is more, the Roman citizens, according to Plutarch, thought Crassus petty for accepting even that much-a victory over slaves was not thought to be very heroic. Perhaps Crassus recalled that turn of events 18 years later, when his mind turned once again to thoughts of military glory.

When Crassus revived his army career, the opponent he chose was the Parthian kingdom. The Parthians were Iranian, inheritors of the old Persian Empire that had been destroyed by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. The Parthians were not at war with Rome, and both Sulla and Pompey, on previous tours of duty in the east, had negotiated with them on friendly terms. But Parthia was big enough and close enough to be a potential nuisance to Rome, and Crassus was looking for new worlds to conquer.

For all the preparations he made in mobilizing a mighty invasion force, Crassus’ first mistake was his failure to acquaint himself with the tactics of the Parthian army. This was a significant error, because the Parthians waged war like no nation Rome had ever faced.

The Parthians occasionally employed mercenaries or raised militia to serve as infantry, but very often-including at Carrhae-their forces were entirely mounted. Their heavy cavalrymen were called cataphracts, from the Greek word cataphractoi, which means covered over. The cataphract wore scale body armor, articulated plating on his arms and greaves on his legs. With a long lance as his primary weapon, he looked like a forerunner of the medieval knight, differing only in the absence of stirrups hanging from his saddle.

More important to the Parthians than their armored cataphracts were their light cavalry, the horse-archers. These used a very short composite bow, stiff to pull but accurate and with tremendous firepower. Horse-archers would ride swiftly at the enemy, loose an arrow at the enemy and then wheel around and retreat short range. This, the proverbial Parthian shot, was the sort of tactic that the Romans were apt to regard with disdain, as being cowardly.

Crassus nearly failed to launch his campaign at all. Public opinion at Rome, led by a tribune named Ateius, was for calling off the whole expedition, on the grounds that the war he sought was arbitrary and immoral. Pompey and Caesar had at least conquered enemies that were perceived as a threat to Rome. As to this Parthian war, though, Plutarch wrote that Ateius and many others murmured that one man should undertake a war against a people that had done them no injury, and were at amity with them.

Ateius went so far as to have Crassus arrested. Crassus was forced to call for help from, of all people, his bitter rival Pompey, who was popular among both the senators and the citizens. Pompey appeared with a pleasing countenance, interceded for Crassus and escorted him out of Rome unmolested.

Before Crassus departed Rome, however, Ateius publicly cursed him, setting down a chafing-dish with lighted fire in it, pouring incense and burning libations on it, Plutarch reported, and calling upon and naming several strange and horrible deities. So terrible were these curses, according to Plutarch, that they doomed the utterer as well as the person he cursed.

Crassus next went to the port of Brundusium (now Brindisi in southern Italy). He decided to sail immediately, despite the appearance of a storm, and so began his campaign by losing a number of ships. Arriving in Syria in the autumn of 54, Crassus relieved the local commander and set about some minor conquests before next year’s major campaign. Crossing the Euphrates, he occupied and garrisoned a few Mesopotamian towns. All surrendered to the Romans voluntarily, except for Zenodotia. Plutarch reported Crassus took it by storm, plundered the goods, and sold the inhabitants. He then required his army to salute him as Imperator (or field marshal) for what he regarded as a great victory. What he failed to do, though, was continue on to occupy the cities of Babylon and Seleucia, which had large Greek-speaking populations and were not friendly to their Parthian occupiers.

Before withdrawing into winter quarters, Crassus was joined in Syria by his son, Publius, who had been serving with distinction under Caesar in Gaul. He brought with him 1,000 Gallic cavalry, who would play an important part at the battle to come.

Crassus spent his time in Syria during the winter of 54-53, more like an userer than a general, Plutarch wrote, noting that it pleased him to weigh, by scale and balance, all the treasures in the local temples he had captured. He accepted cash payments from the native citizens, in lieu of levies of militia for the coming campaign.

Emerging from winter quarters in 53 BC, the Romans were met by an embassy from King Orodes II of Parthia. The king’s message was that if Crassus’ army was sent by the people of Rome, Parthia would have no mercy; but if the invasion was Crassus’ private adventure, for his own profit, Orodes would take pity on Crassus’ dotage, and allow the army to depart. Crassus replied scornfully that he would give his answer at Seleucia. The Parthian ambassador laughed and showed Crassus the palm of his hand, saying, hair will grow there before you see Seleucia.

Crassus next received word from his ally, King Artavasdes of Armenia, along with 6,000 Armenian cavalry. The king advised Crassus to invade Parthia by way of his realm-the Romans would then be provisioned by the Armenians, and the hilly country of that land would be unfavorable to Parthian cavalry. Inexplicably, Plutarch wrote, Crassus refused that offer, and returned the king but cold thanks.

Crassus’ blunders continued. He advanced to the city of Zeugma on the Euphrates and crossed to the east bank. He was advised by his lieutenant, Gaius Cassius Longinus (better known to history for his role in cutting Julius Caesar’s ambitions down to size on the Ides of March, nine years later) to advance along the Euphrates towards Seleucia, having his flank protected and his water supply guaranteed by proximity to the river. Crassus paid no attention. Instead he was taken with a local Arab chieftain named Ariamnes, who persuaded Crassus that only a token force of Parthians, commanded not by King Orodes but by a General Surena, was nearby to oppose him.

Ariamnes, of course, was a spy, sent to lead Crassus into a trap, but Surena was in fact the Parthian commander-and an interesting character in his own right. Though not yet 30 years old, he was deemed the second man in the kingdom and had had the honor of placing the crown on King Orodes’ head. Wherever he traveled, even to battle, he required 1,000 camels to carry his baggage, 200 wagons to transport his concubines, and was accompanied by 1,000 armed bodyguards. Crassus agreed to engage Ariamnes as a guide through the Mesopotamian desert. Leaving the river, the Arab guided the Romans along a way that was at first pleasant and easy but afterwards very troublesome by reason of the depth of the sand, Plutarch wrote. Indeed, the Romans soon found themselves in a sea of sand with no water in sight. While Crassus was on the march, fresh word arrived from King Atavasdes: He was under attack by a Parthian force under King Orodes himself, and was not able to send the reinforcements he had promised. Once again, the Armenian urged that Crassus withdraw from the desert and renew the attack from Armenia, where their forces could be joined on friendly ground. Plutarch wrote that Crassus, out of anger and perverseness, decided that this was actually treachery on the part of the Armenians. He returned no answer, but promised to revenge himself on Armenia when he was through with Parthia. Things went from bad to worse. Crassus’ Arab guide vanished. The Romans found themselves stranded in the Mesopotamian desert, not far from a little town called Carrhae. Some of the army’s scouts, now battered and bloodied, came in to report that their comrades were dead, and that they themselves had barely escaped. The Parthian army was nearby, they said, and ready to attack.

That revelation, according to Plutarch, left Crassus struck with amazement and initially paralyzed. Then, in something of a panic, he shuffled and re-shuffled his troops, finally settling on a square formation. Each side of the square was manned by 12 heavy cohorts (roughly 6,000 infantry to a side), with a troop of cavalry between each pair of cohorts. The baggage train occupied the interior of the square. The army then blindly and awkwardly marched ahead, and in a rare stroke of good luck stumbled upon the Balissus River. The parched troops were at least able to refresh themselves before the battle.

Most of Crassus’ officers were for staying by the river and awaiting the Parthian attack. But young Publius Crassus persuaded his father to advance toward the enemy. The Romans did so and, eventually confronting the Parthians, were pleasantly surprised to find that the enemy did not appear so numerous as they had feared. Unknown to them, however, Surena hid the main body of his army behind the first rank, and had them conceal the glittering of their armor. Then, at a signal, the Parthians threw off their cloaks and raised a clamor of kettle-drums that Plutarch described as producing a hideous noise that had a psychological impact on the legions.

Surena made the first move, but when a charge by his cataphracts, proved unable to break the Roman line he had them withdraw, feigning disorder and confusion. His cavalrymen then swiftly surrounded the Roman square. With his cumbersome infantry formation unable to counter Surena’s maneuver, Crassus ordered a cavalry charge, but the Romans were met with a shower of arrows that Plutarch said passed through every kind of covering, hard and soft alike. Once they had broken and repulsed the Roman cavalry, the Parthians were easily able to pour arrows into the infantry square, for, indeed, the order of the Romans was so close, that they could not miss.

To maintain his punishment of the Roman legions, Surena had cleverly arranged for a running supply train of camels to keep his horse archers resupplied with arrows. Seeing no end to the deluge of arrows that assailed his men, Crassus, was compelled to send his son Publius, with 6,500 men, including the Gallic cavalry, on a desperate counterattack. The sally seemed to succeed at first-the Parthians fled and Publius exultantly detached his cavalry in pursuit. But that apparent retreat was just another feint, for when the Romans had been lured a sufficient distance from the square the Parthians suddenly turned and reappeared in force. Plutarch described how they then rode round and round Publius’ force, raising such a cloud of dust that the Romans could neither see nor speak to one another. Isolated and encircled as his father’s square had been, Publius’ men were packed in too close, and were easy pickings for the horse-archers. When Publius tried to rally his troops for a counterattack, they showed him their hands nailed to their shields, and their feet stuck to the ground.

Publius was able to rally some of his Gallic cavalry, though, and they managed the closest thing to a genuine Roman success in the whole sorry campaign. The fierce Celts were able to seize the cataphracts’ lances and drag them to the ground, where the Parthians’ heavy armor rendered them helpless. Some Gauls dismounted and crept under the Parthian horses, which they disemboweled, unhorsing the riders. Those tactics, however, could only delay the inevitable. Publius was severely wounded and was dragged away by some survivors to a nearby hill for a last stand. Two of Publius’ friends urged him to flee with them to Carrhae, but he courageously decided to stay and die with his troops. When the hill was finally overrun, Publius ordered his armor-bearer to run him through.

Back at the square, Marcus Licinius Crassus had received no word from Publius, because all of the latter’s messengers were slain. Then the horrifying drumming began again, and Crassus finally learned his son’s fate. The Parthians rode forward with Publius’ head on the point of a spear, and, Plutarch wrote, scoffingly inquired where his parents were, and what family he was of, because it was impossible that so brave and gallant a warrior should be the son of so pitiful a coward as Crassus.

Crassus for once kept himself together, and made no outward show of dismay. He even tried to exhort his men with a patriotic speech, but Plutarch claimed that he saw but few who gave much heed to him. When he ordered a cheer, the army only made a faint and unsteady noise.

Whether Crassus knew it or not, the battle of Carrhae was lost, but his legions, seeing no better option, fought on, suffering heavy losses, until nightfall. At that point, Plutarch wrote, Crassus wrapped his cloak around him, and hid himself.

That night, Cassius and some other officers who saw that he had suffered a complete breakdown, took upon themselves the decision to withdraw all the able-bodied troops they could to the town of Carrhae, leaving their wounded behind. When the retirement began, however, and the wounded realized they were being abandoned, Plutarch noted that a strange confusion and disorder, with an outcry and lamentation, seized the camp. This dreadful wailing of the wounded seems to have horrified the escaping legionaries, so that instead of slipping away quietly they simply ran, as if the enemy were at their heels. In the confusion and the dark the fleeing columns became separated, with the result that some groups never made it to Carrhae, and those that did wandered in throughout the long night.

The Parthians, though aware of the Romans’ escape that night, made no effort to pursue them. The next morning they entered the abandoned camp and slaughtered the surviving wounded, to the number of 4,000. They also picked off a number of stragglers who got lost on the night march to Carrhae. Four companies were surrounded on a nearby hill and all but 20 killed-the survivors escaping with their lives only because the Parthians let them go, out of admiration for their bravery.

While that slaughter went on, the main Parthian force was laying siege to Crassus and the surviving Romans in Carrhae. Surena himself rode to the city gate and demanded the delivery of Crassus in chains as a precondition of any negotiations. Incredibly, Crassus at first entertained the fantastic hope that the Armenians would come to his rescue, until his officers brought him to his senses. The Romans ultimately decided to split divide their army into small groups and go their separate ways under different commanders, again under cover of darkness.

The final pathetic phase of Crassus’ campaign began when he opted once again to hire a local guide to lead him and his 1,500-man contingent in their breakout. Not surprisingly, that guide also turned out to be a spy. That night, Plutarch wrote, he led Crassus out of Carrhae and into the midst of morasses and places full of ditches, so that the Romans were hopelessly lost as morning broke, then disappeared. Crassus’ band did find their way to a road, but were immediately forced to retreat back into the thickets when the Parthians discovered them. The Parthians attacked, but Crassus was momentarily saved when another band of wandering Romans, also misled, spotted his position and came to his rescue.

By then the spy had informed Surena of Crassus’ position and the Parthian general treacherously offered the Romans a truce, claiming that he intended to let them go home under honorable terms. Crassus reluctantly went to Surena’s camp to discuss the terms and was promptly murdered. The rest of the Romans in Crassus’ contingent either surrendered or were hunted down and killed.

A number of Romans did manage to escape from Carrhae that night, including the group led by Cassius. Plutarch estimated the final count of Roman casualties to be 20,000 killed and 10,000 captured.

In the aftermath of Carrhae, Surena led his army back to Seleucia in a procession he mockingly called a triumph. A captured Roman soldier who physically resembled his late commander was placed at the head of the army, forced forced to wear women’s clothes and to answer to the name of Crassus. Surena’s soldiers marched behind, each carrying a Roman head. Behind them came Parthian singing women, chanting what Plutarch described as abusive songs on the cowardice and effeminacy of Crassus. Surena delivered Crassus’ head and one of his dismembered hands to King Orodes at a feast, which was held to celebrate the marriage of Orodes’ son to the sister of the Armenian king.

Surena’s reward for his great victory, according to Plutarch, was to be executed, out of mere envy. But Orodes would join the general he betrayed in 38 BC, at the hands of his own son, Phraactes. The young man at first tried to poison his father, but when Orodes began to recover, Phraactes was forced to take the shortest course, and strangled him. As for Rome, the immediate effect of Carrhae, apart from the disgrace, was the upsetting of the political situation caused by the death of a triumvir. With Crassus dead, the rule of three became a rule of two. But even that proved to be one ruler too many. The way was now clear for civil war, as Pompey and Caesar squared off to fight for supremacy in Rome.

Parthian Sequel: Mark Antony in the East
Seventeen years after the Battle of Carrhae, Marcus Antonius, aka Mark Antony, tried to redeem Roman honor by re-invading Parthia. But his campaign fared little better than that of Marcus Licinius Crassus, with the notable exception that Antony came back alive.Antony’s official pretext for the campaign was to recover the standards and prisoners lost by Crassus, but his true motives were remarkably similar to Crassus.’ As a member of the Second Triumvirate, Antony sought military glory to counter-balance the power of his co-ruler, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the future Emperor Augustus. Indeed, only the threat of losing his political prestige could bestir Antony from the bed of his paramour, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra VII.

Antony’s first move upon entering Parthian territory in 36 BC was to lay siege to the city of Phraata. But Antony was in such haste to depart for Phraata (according to Plutarch, to conquer it quickly and return to Cleopatra) that he failed to bring along any siege equipment, including his 80-foot ram. As a result his army was routed and he decided to suspend the campaign.

Antony’s troubles were only beginning. As he tried to march his army back to the safety of Armenia, he was abandoned by his disgusted ally, King Artavasdes-the same Artavasdes who so preoccupied Crassus’ thoughts in 53 BC. Food supplies ran out, and many of the soldiers became sick. Meanwhile, the Parthians, led by King Phraates IV-the regicidal son of the late Orodes II-harassed the column throughout its march.

At least Antony did not repeat the most glaring mistakes of Crassus’ venture. He did not trust Phraates’ offer of safe passage in return for surrender, and refused the services of a guide in a journey across the desert, instead following a course over hilly terrain that was unfavorable to Parthian cavalry. He also made better use of his own cavalry, actually driving the Parthians from the field in several skirmishes. Hunger and disease continued to wrack the army, however, and at one point some of Antony’s troops actually mutinied. Plutarch reported that rioting legionaries stormed into his tent, and broke all his rich tables and cups, dividing the fragments among them. Antony thought that the Parthians were attacking the camp, and ordered his armor-bearer to run him through with his sword if the base should be overrun. Order was finally restored the next morning.

At last, 27 days after the retreat from Phraata, Antony’s ragged troops reached safety, where Plutarch said they kissed the ground for joy, shedding tears and embracing each other in their delight. Twenty-four thousand Romans perished in this ill-starred campaign, half from disease.

Antony next went into winter quarters, where Plutarch wrote that he anxiously awaited Cleopatra’s arrival and passed his time in wine and drunkenness. Blaming Artavasdes for his failure, Antony kidnapped the Armenian king, had him bound and displayed him in Egypt, where the Roman commander awarded himself a triumph for this great victory. But triumph or not, it would be many years before Rome dared venture again into a war with the Parthians or their successors, the Sassanids. B.D.




This article was written by Belleville, Illinois-based contributor Bryan Dent. For further reading, he recommends: Plutarch’s Lives and Warfare in the Classical World by John Warry.

This article was originally published on in June 2005 issue for Military History magazine.

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