The Battle of Carrhae 53 BC. Crassus of Rome vs. Surena of Parthia
- <A HREF="http://www.redrampant.com/roma/carrhae.html">Click here: RedRampant.com</A>
THE BATTLE OF CARRHAE
Based on Plutarch's texts on Crassus. Parthian Illustration © John Horvath.
Hoping to outshine Julius Caesar and Pompey, Marcus Licinius Crassus
used his wealth and Influnece to gain the proconulship of Syria In 53 BC.
Here, he believed, he was in the position to win the greatest glory. The
Roman Senate did not want a war with Parthia. Indeed, there was a neutrality
treaty with the Parthians. But Crassus was intent on taking control of their
After defeating Spartacus' slave revolt, he had developed an over
inflated idea of his own rather meager military ablilities.Crassus began with
7 legions, about 4,000 auxillery light infantry.1,000 crack Gaullic horsemen,
3,000 western Asian horsemen. 6,000 Armenian cavalry arrived with Artabazes,
Artabazes emplored Crassus to take the army through his own country,
which would provide them with ample provisions and suitable terrain as
defense from Parthian cavalry. The priests in Crassus' troupe emplored him
not to go at all. However, Crassus, desiring a more direct route foolishly
choose a path strait through Mesopotamia with Seleucia city and Ctesiphon as
his objectives. At this, the Amrenian and his cavalry returned home.
That spring Crassus took his army across the Euphrates River near the
town of Zeugma during a heavy thunder storm. Scouts found none of the enemy,
but noticed numerous horse tracks. He was then joined by 6,000 Nabataen Arab
cavalry. Their chieftan, Ariamnes, was actualy in the employ of te Parthians.
Ariamnes lied, saying that Parthian forces were currently fleeing the area
and the only resistance might come from an advance guard under the general,
Crassus was convinced of the need for haste and decided to continue
along the less secure desert route. In actuality the Parthian King, Orodes II
(or Hyrodes), had split his army in two. The king led a attack on Amrenia as
punishment for mobilizing with the Romans.
Surena (one of the senior members of the 7 great clans of Parthia) was
sent to attack the Romans. His army was comprised primarily from men from his
own clan. The horse archers were from the Saka and Yue-Chi people. It is
believed this force was only intended to delay the Romans as Orode finished
his punitive attack and returned from Armenia. Ariamnes led the Romans away
from the river. At first the march was pleasant and easy, but they soon were
amidst the featureless desert. They continued through the treeless, waterless
waste. At this point of low morale, they received a messenger from Armenia
informing them that it was impossible for Artabazes to send any help as he
was too busy defending his own country. His advice was for Crassus to turn
back and join forces in Armenia, or at least leave the desert for the
defenses of more mountainous ground.
Crassus, however, was only angered by this and swore to punish Artabazes
for this. A staff officer, Cassius, and other officers suspected Ariamnes'
treachery and began to argue with Crassus, but this only angered him more.
The Arab stayed long enough to convince Crassus to quicken their pace. Then
he and his cavalry left the Romans claiming they intended to find ways to
disrupt the enemy.
As the Romans approached the town of Carrhae (modern-day Haran) their
scouts raced back, saying that most of their felllows had been killed and the
Parthians were at hand in full force and preparing to give battle. Astonished
at this, Crassus scarcely knew what to do. His troops were in disarray as
they had been marching at such a great speed. Cassius advised the panicked
general to open up the ranks and form a line across the plain, placing the
cavalry on each wing to prevent them from being surrounded. As this order was
being carried out, Crassus changed his mind and decided to form a giant
hollow square with 12 cohorts on each side with cavalry and light infantry
support. Cassius commanded one wing, Cassus' son, Publius another and Crassus
himself went to the middle of the square. They marched forward and as they
apporached the Ballisur stream Crassus was advised to make camp, rest his men
and wait till day to assess the strength of the enemy. He would have none of
this, giving his troops only enough time to eat before charging them forward
at the enemy.
When they did see the Parthians they were not impressed. Surena had
ordered his main force of heavy cavalry behind the front ranks and told them
to hide their armor under coats and skins. When the Roamans were about ready
to engage the Parthians gave the signal for battle and the dreaded
cataphracts uncovered their magnificent armor.
Surena's first plan was to break the Roman lines with his 1,000
cataphracts, but when he realized the depth of the Romans he called back the
cavalry. At this the Roman light infantry rushed out only to be chased back
by a hail of arrows. The Parthian horse archers began to suround the square,
pouring a steady stream of arrows into the densely packed ranks. The arrows
were of such strength that they could punch through armor and shields. The
Romans waited for arrow supply to run out. This hope was dashed when they saw
Surena had brought a camel train carrying a great quantity of arrows.Crassus
saw that his rear was about to be attacked. He ordered his son, Publius to
take 1,300 Gaulic horsemen, 500 archers and 8 cohorts to attcak the Parthian
archers. The Parthians galloped away with this Roman attack force in chase.
Once Publius was far enough away from the main body of Romans, the horse
archers wheeled about and were joined by a larger number of Parthians
including the cataphracts. Publius led his Gauls on the cataphracts. Because
their spears could not penetrate the cataphract amor, the frenzied Gauls
grabbed on the enemy lances, pulled them to the ground, and also leapt
underneath the Parthian horses to attack their exposed bellies. They even
drove their own horses onto the lances. Most of the Gauls lost their mounts
and were forced to retreat with Publius to a small hillock where they were
surrounded. Publius ordered his armor-bearer to kill him.
After the fighting the Parthians took Publius' head and 500 prisoners.All
the while Crassus was pleased that the attack on his rear had slackened. He
ordered his men to form up in a conventional battle formation and relocated
his army to sloping ground. He then got word of what was happening to his
son's force. He sent no support, but began to advance.
This was when the Parthians rode in with his son's head on a pike. The
advance was stopped by the archers and cataphracts.
Crassus had completely lost his senses by now. His lieutenants Octavius
and Cassius took over and decided to retreat that night, leaving the wounded
behind. When the cavalry heard this they left imediately, stopping at Carrahe
long enough only to tell the men there that Crassus had fought a great
battle. They then raced on to Zeugma. The Parthians watched the retreat and
waited till daybreak to ride in and slaughter the Roman wounded. Plutarch
wrote that no fewer than 4,000 died in this way. Some time later, A
lieutenant, Varguntinus, and his 4 cohorts had strayed from the main body of
Romans and were surrounded. All were killed with the exception of 20 men who
were allowed to go for showing such courage in tryingf to fight past the
Parthians. Surena soon learned that Crassus and his men had reached the
safety of the Carrhae town walls. The next day when the Parthians arrived
there, Crassus again decided to retreat at night. Again, a spy lead the
Romans through the worst possible route. They were trapped in marsh. Surena
offered peace to the Romans if Crassus came to parlay. Tired and afraid, the
legions demanded Crassus go, threatening his life if he did not. At the
meeting there was a scufle and Crassus was killed. Some of the Romans
surrendered most were hunted down and killed. In the end 20,000 Romans died
and 10,000 were taken prisoner and settled in the territory of Sogdia. The
captured Legionary standards were held as prizes in the temples of Parthia.
Best Regards, John Piscopo
<A HREF="http://forums.swordforum.com/forumdisplay.php?s=&daysprune=&forumid=12">Sword Forum</A> <A HREF="http://forums.swordforum.com/index.php?s=">http://forums.swordforum.com/index.php?s=</A>
PO Box 137
Western Springs, IL 60558
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]