Battle of Carrhae and the Parthian archers
Gradual Roman expansion into the region of the Near East from the west and Parthian expansion into the same region from the east brought these two great ancient powers into direct contact in the 1st century B. C. First diplomatic contacts with Parthian envoys were conducted by Sulla. Further diplomatic and even military contacts (although without direct confrontation and major consequences) followed when Lucullus, Pompey and Gabinius operated in Asia Minor, Syria and adjacent territories. A serious conflict was imminent (especially under Gabinius' governorship of Syria), but it was Crassus at last, who initiated the first military encounter between Rome and Parthia in 54–53 B. C. (1)
By then sixty years old Marcus Licinius Crassus was at that time probably the richest and one of the most powerful men in the whole Roman empire. He was a member of the first triumvirate, a political coalition of him, Gaius Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius, that divided their spheres of influence and helped them in reaching their aims. In the last years, however, Crassus was overshadowed by the successes of his colleagues. Pompey had earned glory during his campaigns in the east, Caesar has been winning victory after victory in Gaul. Crassus too had acquired some military reputation before during the so called Social wars and by smashing the dangerous slave revolt led by Spartacus. Nevertheless these merits seemed to be too far in time to be remembered. Therefore Crassus too longed for military glory and ensuing prestige (according to tradition he wanted to imitate Alexander the Great and travel as far as Bactria and India or even farther with his army, but this is certainly exaggerated claim (2). Not unimportant was certainly the loot that could be gained on such a campaign. There is even the opinion that Crassus may have desired to get control over the Silk road and trade with China and India (this, however, does not seem likely). (3) Parthia was more than suitable target for such wishes.
The situation was favourable too. When Crassus worked on his plans a civil war has been raging in Parthia. (4) In 58/57 B. C. the Parthian king Phraates III. was murdered by his two sons, Orodes and Mithridates. A conflict between the brothers arose soon after and Orodes forced Mithridates out into exile. Mithridates subsequently asked Aulus Gabinius, the Roman governor of Syria, for help. Gabinius tried to take advantage of this situation and crossed the Euphrates river with army. In spite of this no fighting followed. Another (and perhaps more profitable) opportunity emerged – installing the Ptolemy XII. Auletes on the Egyptian throne – and Gabinius ended his Parthian campaign to start the Egyptian one. Mithridates was not reconciled with how the situation developed and tried his luck without Roman support. (5) He succeeded in getting Babylon and Seleucia to his side, but at last he was defeated and executed probably at the beginning of 54 B. C., probably before the onset of Crassus' first campaign into Parthia. (6) Nevertheless, even then the position of king Orodes was probably not very secure. Roman generals (whether Crassus or Gabinius before him) had therefore a great opportunity to take advantage of the weakness of the Parthian empire.
Already in 56 B. C. at the conference of Luca it was decided, that the province Syria with an army will be assigned to Crassus for a term of 5 years. The war against Parthia was generally (though quietly) assumed as granted. Nevertheless, many people in Rome opposed this endeavour. They considered Crassus an aggressor and treaty-breaker and sought to stop this war. Of course there were largely also political motives behind the argument about just and unjust war. (7) Crassus ignored any disagreement and set on a journey into his province, where he arrived at the beginning of 54 B. C. (8)
The same year, without unnecessary delays and without a formal declaration of war (there was no legitimate reason for it after all, especially when Mithridates had already been defeated (9)) he invaded Parthian territories. (10) Concretely he attacked Mesopotamia, where since the days of Alexander the Great many Greek towns were present. Their population was not happy with the Parthian rule and was well-disposed towards Rome. After crossing the Euphrates river he headed for Carrhae, left a garrison there and continued further through the valley of the river Balissus (today Balikh). Towns were surrendering to him without fighting and regarded him as their liberator, gladly accepting Roman garrisons. Only at Zenodotium the Romans must have dealt with a small resistance of some locals, who killed a few Roman soldiers. They then made an exemplary case from this event. They captured the town, plundered it and sold the whole population into slavery. After this episode Crassus was greeted as imperator by his soldiers. (11) Near the town Ichnae the Parthian governor Sillaces took his stand against the Roman army with a few quickly mustered cavalry regiments. With such a week force he could not successfully resist the Romans. He was quickly defeated, himself wounded in combat, and fled to the king to inform him about the invasion. (12) It seems that during this campaign (although Plutarch claims it happened first after this first campaign and before the second one in 53 B. C. (13)) Crassus was approached by envoys of king Orodes led by Vagises, who demanded explanation by Crassus of his deeds and tried to change his plans and intentions. Vagises asked if this is a Roman or only Crassus' personal war. He promised that if the latter is true, the Parthians will be merciful. Crassus contemptuously replied that he will answer all their questions in Seleucia and the Parthians left without achieving anything. (14) On the whole Crassus left some 7000 infantry and 1000 cavalry as garrisons in Mesopotamian towns and withdrew back to Syria. The aim of this first campaign was probably to create some kind of bridgehead and supply bases in Mesopotamia, establishing contacts with local chieftains, reconnaissance of the terrain and enemy and accustoming his troops to local conditions and combat. (15)
Crassus spent the winter of 54/53 B. C. in the province by collecting incomes from towns and acquiring money (our sources emphasize the looting of the treasury of the temple in Jerusalem in this regard (16)). This activity has often been criticised. Plutarch wrote that Crassus neglected levies and training of soldiers and acted more like a merchant than a general. (17) It seems, however, that a bias of our sources is shown here, which describe Crassus as a morally flawed (greedy) person, who deserved his fall. If we free ourselves from these prejudices the interpretation would seem quite probable, that the motives behind the money collecting is not just Crassus' greediness, but rather the effort to secure enough resources to supply the army and wage the war with Parthians, which surely must have been very expensive. (18) Nevertheless there is of course no excuse for taking money instead of army reinforcements.
Other winter preparations included acquiring reinforcements. We have already seen before that according to Plutarch's words Crassus rather neglected levies in the province and training of his soldiers. On the other hand at this time his son Publius Crassus joined him with 1000 Gallic horsemen which were sent by Caesar to support his campaign. (19) Crassus then also negotiated with the allied Armenian king Artavasdes about providing army for the campaign. Artavasdes allegedly promised the Roman general 16000 horsemen, 30000 footmen and logistical support, should he march against Parthia through Armenian territory. Crassus was enthusiastic by this offer, but refused, because he intended to invade Parthia through Mesopotamia again. The reason for this decision was on one hand the fact, that he left military garrisons there the last year, on the other hand it was a logical and direct route to Seleucia, Babylon and Ctesiphon. (20) Artavasdes then returned to his kingdom, nevertheless we may suppose that in spite of this Crassus expected his ally to send some reinforcements, although perhaps not as large as if he agreed to proceed through Armenia. (21)
Map of the region. To the west from the Euphrates river are Roman provinces Syria, Cilicia, Bithynia and client states Galatia, Cappadocia
Pontus, Commagene (C.), Judea and at the beginning of the campaign also Armenia. To the east is Parthia.
Of course, the Parthians were not idle during Crassus' first campaign and especially after their delegation had been rejected. They have been trying to muster the army and prepare for defence. Orodes' plan included dividing the army into two parts. First of them (and very probably the main and larger one) was led by the king himself against Armenia. The aim was surely to prevent the cooperation of Armenian king Artavasdes with Rome or at least make it more difficult. King's campaign was successful. It prevented the Armenians from supporting the Roman invasion and approximately at the same time, when Crassus was defeated at Carrhae, Orodes signed peace treaty with Artavasdes, which was confirmed by the marriage of Artavasdes sister with the young Parthian prince Pacorus. Our sources do not inform us, how was this peace accomplished – if fighting between Parthians and Armenians occurred, or if Artavasdes surrendered without fighting – but it is certain that Parthia held the upper hand in this alliance.
The second part of the army was entrusted to the excellent and by civil war battles proven general Surenas. (22) His task was probably to harass Crassus' army, until Orodes finishes the war in Armenia and joins Surenas to defeat the invading Roman army. (23) Already during winter 54/53 B. C. Surenas attacked the garrisons of the towns beyond the Euphrates that were left there by Crassus. Because of the notorious deficiencies of Parthians in siege warfare he could not capture any of them, but he cut them off and made the lives of defenders as hard as possible. Crassus certainly knew that walled towns are safe from the Parthians and had therefore no reason the change his plans for the invasion of Mesopotamia. It was obvious that Surenas will sooner or later have to leave the forts behind to try to thwart the Roman march to the south.
At the turn of April and May of 53 B. C. Crassus set forth from the winter quarters in Syria, marched to Zeugma, where in a very bad weather he crossed the Euphrates river (24) and proceeded further into Parthia. The strength of his arm,y that crossed the Euphrates river can be decided quite precisely, although we cannot avoid certain problems. Florus writes that 11 legions were slaughtered at Carrhae (without providing number of soldiers). (25) Appian says the Roman army was 100000 strong. (26) Plutarch reports that 7 legions and almost 4000 horsemen and the same number of light armed marched with Crassus. (27) Most reliable is certainly Plutarch's information, (28) which is in accordance with other numerical details we have about the battle. (29) Florus and Appian are surely exaggerating or the numbers became corrupt in the surviving versions of the sources. From Plutarch's information we can count the Roman army to be around 43000 men strong (35000 legionaries, 4000 cavalry, 4000 light infantry), which accords with the report that approximately 10000 men saved themselves, 10000 men were captured and 20000 men were killed at Carrhae (we also know that part of allied contingents – probably those ca. 3000 men – deserted before battle). (30) A problem arises with the information that Crassus left 7000 foot soldiers and 1000 horse (see above) in forts beyond Euphrates during his first campaign in Mesopotamia. (31) We do not know about Crassus acquiring any new legions during the winter of 54/53 B. C. and the levies were allegedly neglected and negligible. (32) It is possible, as some scholars indicated, that these 7000 foot soldiers were taken from the legions, which would mean that in 53 B. C. only about 36000 soldiers marched with Crassus to their doom. (33) Nevertheless it is also possible that 7 legions was not the full strength of Crassus army in Syria and that in fact he disposed with 8 legions. There is also the possibility that these 7000 men were taken mainly from auxiliary units, that Crassus may have had at his disposal, and it would therefore not be needed to deduct them from the invasion army of 53 B. C. The second variant, ie. that those 7000 legionaries were indeed not missing in the battle near Carrhae, is more in agreement with the other numerical details we have about the battle. We can therefore conclude, that some 43000 solders crossed the Euphrates by Zeugma, from which 4000 were cavalry and 4000 light infantry, the rest were legionaries. We also know that from the 4000 cavalry around 1000 were picked Gallic horsemen, that Crassus' son Publius Crassus brought from Caesar. (34) Most probably these were light cavalry. With regard to the light infantry, we know that there were at least 500 archers among them (most probably levied in Syria). (35) Although there was an unknown corps of battle hardened veterans in the army, that served under Pompey in the east before, most of the legionaries were rather inexperienced rookies brought from Italy. (36) All legionaries were protected by helmet, chain mail armour and a large shield. They were equipped with two spears, a sword and a dagger.
With regard to Crassus' officers, first we must mention his son Publius Crassus, who obtained great combat experiences under Gaius Iulius Caesar in Gaul. Then comes Gaius Cassius Longinus, who served as a quaestor in Crassus' army. It is the same man who later led together with Brutus the deadly plot against Caesar. At this time, however, he was still not very known, but certainly promising young aristocrat and, as we know from his later accomplishments, surely also a talented commander. (37) Next we know about the legates Vargunteius and Octavius, military tribune Petronius and then Censorinus, Megabakchos, Egnatius and the Roscii brothers. Another Crassus' officer who, however, did not take part directly in the battle, because he was in charge of the garrison at Carrhae, was Coponius.
After a short rest Crassus proceeded along the river on its left bank to the south. (38) This route had the advantages of a relatively comfortable march and easy supply of the army via the river and the protection of one army's flank. As mentioned before, the aim of the march were the big Mesopotamian cities Seleucia, Ctesiphon, Babylon. During the march, however, the plan changed. Crassus turned left and continued in the eastward direction. The general was, allegedly in spite of Cassius' opposition, persuaded for this move by Abgaros II. Ariamnés, (39) who was the guide and commander of allied scouting troops on this campaign. Abgar, who was allegedly from the beginning secretly in contact with the Parthians, reported traces of fleeing Parthians and urged Crassus to rush after the retreating enemy. (40) According to the tradition Abgar wanted to lure the Romans from the Euphrates into a desert and flat terrains, suitable for cavalry combat. Plutarch claims, that Abgar exhorted Crassus to hurry, before the enemy could carry all valuables away to safety. This is probably a little bit exaggerated invention of the historian, that again points at Crassus' greediness, for which the ancients so castigated him. It seems more probable that Crassus rather wanted to fight the smaller Surenas' force, which he could consider just a small vanguard, before it could join the main army under Orodes. Another possible reason might have been the news about Artavasdes' problems with the main Parthian army, although according to Plutarch Crassus got this information only later during the route to Balissus. (41)
At first the march was quite comfortable and easy, but over time the eastern route brought the Romans into an inhospitable, hot and dry desert. (42) Although the desert strip westwards from Balissus is quite narrow, the march through it was probably quite brief (ca. 1–2 days) and Plutarch's description of the inhospitality of the terrain is a little bit exaggerated, it was certainly a very unpleasant and wearing experience for the legionaries unaccustomed to such conditions, and this applies even though Arabian trade routes crossed these areas (these, however, certainly could not have provided proper comfort for a host of 43000 soldiers). (43) Taking into account the aforementioned trade routes it is only hardly believable to see in this direction an intention of Abgar to lead the Romans into a desert. Our sources, which see the situation from the Roman perspective, are too imaginative here. According to Plutarch's account, messengers from Armenian king Artavasdes reached Crassus on his way east (44) and informed him that a Parthian army led by Orodes invaded their country and he therefore cannot dispatch promised reinforcements to Crassus. The envoys asked the Roman general for help and allegedly urged him (if he cannot come to aid the Armenians) to at least keep his army in mountainous terrains that are not suitable for cavalry. It is difficult to say if Crassus really received such an advice, or if it is just Plutarch's invention. The latter seems more likely. (45) Anyway, angry Crassus supposedly replied that he has currently no time for Armenians, but that he will later come to punish Artavasdes for his betrayal. (46)
When the Romans finally passed the desert region and came to a much more enjoyable valley of the Balissus river, they realised that Abgar with his troops departed. They should soon find out that he in fact deserted them and joined the enemy, who concentrated his army in this area. (47) It was probably morning of the 9th June (V Id. Jun.) year 701 from the foundation of the city (under the consulate of M. Valerius Messala Rufus and Cn. Domitius Calvinus) according to the Roman calendar (= 6. May 53 B. C. according to the Julian calendar) (48) and Crassus accelerated the march to get his men from the desert as soon as possible. At this moment the first contact with the enemy occurred. The reconnaissance patrols sent ahead to explore the area encountered the Parthians and a smaller struggle resulted. Only a few men returned in hurry to the main army and reported that their comrades were killed and they hardly managed to escape. They then spread frightening gossips about an approaching great Parthian army. (49) The impact of them on legionaries was not good.
At first Crassus (reportedly on the advice of his quaestor Cassius) extended his army into a wide line and placed his cavalry on the flanks. But then he changed his mind and created a deep, compact quadrangle with front on both sides whereas each side comprised of twelve cohorts and a cavalry unit was attached to each of these cohorts as a support. One flank was commanded by Cassius, the second one by Publius Crassus and the centre was under the command of the general himself. (50) Given the conditions it was a good decision. Crassus wanted to move further and a compact, narrower formation is much more convenient for marching than a long line. Also with regard to fighting a predominantly cavalry army there is nothing to object. It is possible that at first Crassus responded to confused reports of frightened scouts and thought the Parthian army is already approaching and therefore ordered a wide line of battle. Nevertheless when he realised that the enemy is still far enough, he used a more compact formation, better suited for movement. (51) In this formation legionaries marched to the river Balissus. Although most officers were allegedly of the opinion that the Roman army should camp there, acquire as much information about the enemy as possible, stay in the camp for night and clash with the enemy the next day, Crassus (perhaps influenced by his son) did not agree. The soldiers could only quickly and on their places in formation eat some meal and soon they set on another march southwards to the enemy. (52) They found the enemy soon.
The Parthian army awaited the Romans on the fringe of a slightly undulated plain approximately 30–35 km to the south from the town Carrhae (gr. Karrhai; today Harran, Turkey). (53) The majority of them was hidden behind one of small hills and behind the vanguard. Surenas also ordered his soldiers to cover their weapons and armour with clothes so that the glittering of the weapons would not reveal them. (54) Consequently it seemed to the Romans, that there are just a few Parthians. But when they came closer, Surenas ordered the clothes to be removed and the soldiers to come forward in their full strength and with battle cries, thundering drumming and sounding of their trumpets and horns. The weapons shined in the sun and the Parthians had their hairs combed up in the Scythian manner to appear higher and more frightening. (55) We do not actually know the strength of the Parthian army. Many scholars indicate 10000 horsemen, from which 1000 was heavy cavalry and remaining 9000 was light cavalry equipped with bows and arrows for a battle fought at a distance. (56) This opinion is based on Plutarch mentioning, that Surenas was usually accompanied on his travels by thousand armoured cavalrymen and even more light cavalrymen and all of his horsemen, vassals and slaves counted at least 10000 men. (57) However, these numbers, that inform us about his personal army and retinue, cannot be simply applied on the army that was at Carrhae. They may serve us only as a guide, because we cannot know if the whole retinue or only a part of it was with Surenas at Carrhae, neither do we know if Orodes had not placed additional troops from the Parthian army at Surenas disposal. Moreover there was another prominent Parthian noble with Surenas – Sillaces – who probably also brought some troops with him. (58) Surenas would certainly want to have as many men as possible to counter the Roman invasion, that means his whole retinue, and with regard to the presence of Sillaces and the possibility of additional reinforcements from Orodes, the Parthian army at Carrhae was probably bigger than the indicated 10000 men. A better estimate is impossible though. (59)
What we can say with certainty is that in Surenas' army there was heavy cavalry and light horse archers. The heavy cavalrymen (katafraktoi) recruited from Parthian aristocracy were usually very well protected by scale or lamellar armour, that covered their whole body and reached to their knees, conical iron or bronze helmet (may be even with a face protection) and by arm and leg protection. The helmets, scales, lamellae and other iron parts were manufactured from a very high quality iron from Margiana and sewn onto a leather background. The katafraktoi were armed with a long pike (kontos) with a large spearheads and with backup weapons – a sword, a dagger, and perhaps sometimes also a mace or axe. (60) They did not use shields, because they held the pike with both hands. Their horses were protected by a special scale armour as well. It reached probably just under the belly. On the contrary the horse archers had only light equipment. They did not use any armour or just a very light one. Their greatest strength was in speed and mobility. Their main weapon was composite, reflex bow, although they probably carried also swords, daggers or other weapons. The Parthians were famous for their excellent archery, which they trained together with horse riding from youth. On these skills their battle tactics was largely based. Parthians usually avoided direct contact with the enemy and rather showered him from a distance with volleys of arrows and tried to envelop him or lure him into a trap by feigned fleeing. Armoured cavalrymen served as a back-up at this stage of battle to prevent enemy's attacks against archers and sometimes they could disrupt enemy lines by their assaults or on the contrary take advantage of distruptions of the enemy formation caused by the archers. When the enemy was weakened and demoralised by such a tactics a hard, uncompromising attack of the heavy cavalry followed, which routed the opposing army. (61) The whole Parthian army at Carrhae was mounted and Surenas based his brilliant and elaborated tactics against the Romans on this. (62) Indeed all the Parthians were excellent horsemen. Like for other steppe peoples, horse riding was a second nature for them. The Roman historian Justin wrote about the Parthians, that they ride on horseback on all occasions, on horses they go to war, and to feasts, on horses they discharge public and private duties, on horses they go abroad, meet together, traffic and converse. (63) It seems quite probable that the soldiers of Surenas retinue came from Margiana and it is possible that they were recruited from the Scythian tribe of Sakas. (64)
In any case the appearance of the Parthians allegedly impressed the legionaries and sowed fear into their minds already at this moment. At first Surenas wanted to take advantage of the psychological effect the Parthians made and ordered a direct attack of heavy cavalry on the Roman battle line. But when the Parthians saw that the closely packed Roman formation stays firmly and the legionaries are ready to resist, the raid was cancelled and the heavy cavalry dispersed and fell back. At the same time the Parthians started to shoot their arrows on the Roman quadrangle and surround it. (65) Crassus gave a command to his light infantry to engage, but the sortie was unsuccessful. The Parthians retreated and released a shower of arrows on them. The infantrymen had to withdraw with many wounds and take shelter behind the legionaries. (66)
The Parthian army now divided into smaller units and began to shoot on the Roman army from a distance. The Romans found themselves in an unpleasant situation. They were plagued by salvos of missiles from Parthian bows, some of which may have sometimes even pierced Roman armours (more on that below). The Roman battle line was densely packed and therefore almost every arrow found its man. The Romans tried to extricate themselves from this unpleasant position and attempted several charges. All of them ended in the same way. The Parthian horsemen always fell back and concentrated their fire on the attackers. They were splendid riders and were able to shoot backwards on their opponents even while retreating. The so called "Parthian shot" has become proverbial, although the Parthians were neither the first nor the last to practice this kind of shooting. (67) The legionaries on foot could not, of course, catch mounted enemy troops and harm them in any way. Moreover there was still the Parthian heavy cavalry that could join the fighting when the archers were driven back by the Romans. A desperate struggle resulted, in which the mighty Roman legions were unable to inflict any damage on their mobile enemies and on the contrary their casualties were increasing. (68) Initially the Romans hoped that the Parthians will sooner or later deplete their arrows and then fighting at close quarters will have to take place, in which the legions excelled. Now, however, Surenas' foresight and genius proved again. The Romans later realised that not far away there were many camels laden with spare missiles and the Parthians were regularly replenishing their ammunition from them. (69) It became apparent that the missiles will not run out soon, the Parthians were more and more successful with their attempts of encirclement, thereby getting the opportunity to shoot from more angles, and the situation was therefore very serious for the Romans.
Crassus had not much to choose from. In another desperate attempt to change the course of battle he sent his son Publius with a strong force to attack the enemy and compel him to fight at close quarters. The young Crassus mustered 1300 cavalrymen, among them 1000 Gauls he brought by Caesar, 500 archers and 8 legionary cohorts (around 3800 men) and charged the enemy fiercely in the south-western direction. (70) The Parthians retreated again and tried their favourite tactics of a feigned flight. And they were successful. Crassus let himself to be fooled and believed he is pressing his opponents who are escaping. He pushed the tempo and rushed on and on following the withdrawing horsemen. Soon he got far from the main battle line, out of reach and sight. Suddenly the retreating soldiers turned back and took their stand against the Romans. Meanwhile other units cut their way back and were approaching from the other side. The heavy cavalry also joined in and the archers started to dispatch their deadly volleys again. Publius' situation was even worse, because his troops were from a larger part surrounded. Messengers dispatched to the main army were mostly caught by the enemy. (71) Missiles flew from all sides and angles and were taking heavy toll among legionaries. Plutarch vividly describes their suffering:
"...being crowded into a narrow compass and falling one upon another, [the Romans] were shot, and died no easy nor even speedey death. For, in the agonies of convulsive pain, and writhing about the arrows, they would break them off in their wounds, and then in trying to pull out by force the barbed heads which had pierced their veins and sinews, they tore and disfigured themselves the more. Thus many died, and the survivors also were incapacitated for fighting. And when Publius urged them to charge the enemy's mail clad horsemen, they showed him that their hands were riveted to their shields and their feet nailed through and through to the ground, so that they were helpless either for flight or for self defence." (72)
Aggravating dust, which was stirred by the hooves of Parthian horses, made the agony of soldiers even worse. By a bold charge the young Crassus with his Gallic horsemen managed to engage the Parthian heavy cavalry. But the fight was not like he imagined it. Light armed Gauls fought with short spears and only light protection. On the contrary the Parthians were heavily armoured and armed with long pikes. It was an uneven struggle. The Gauls were not able to penetrate the protection of the cataphracts and on the other hand they were butchered by their weapons. Yet they performed admirable deeds of bravery. They were throwing themselves on enemies and with bare hands were catching their pikes and tearing horsemen from their mounts, they were jumping down from their own horses, sneaking under enemies' horses to reach and stab the unprotected parts of their bodies. They were trying everything, but to no avail. Moreover their commander was wounded in the fight. The Gauls surrounded Publius Crassus and withdrew to the infantry. They all then retreated on a near sand dune, placed the horses in the middle of their formation and created a shield wall. Even then, however, they failed to defend themselves against the Parthian arrows.
Two local Greeks participating in the battle supposedly offered Crassus to escape secretly to the town Ichnae, but he refused to flee and leave his men. In this desperate situation he decided to take his own life. However, as he could not move his right hand due to the injury, he asked one of the soldiers to stab him with his sword. Some other high officers died in a similar manner. The Parthians then attacked the dune and finished the remaining Roman soldiers off. Only about 500 of them were taken prisoners. They then cut off Publius' head, impaled it on a spear and rode back to the main army. (73)
Marcus Crassus and the main army were somewhat relieved by the departure of a large part of the Parthian army against the sortie of Publius. Crassus regrouped his troops slightly and took a new and more favourable position on a higher ground a little bit farther away. Although most messengers from his son were intercepted, a few of them later managed to cut their way back to the main battle line. Their reports were gloomy: Publius Crassus and his soldiers are in a difficult situation and they will be lost unless help comes. The general now faced a dilemma whether to stay in current position or to move with the whole army and help his son. Eventually he made his mind and started to advance with the whole army in the direction of the scene of the second conflict. (74) This decision was certainly right. Crassus would gain nothing by staying where he was. He would just wait until the Parthians are finished with his son and return to renew attacks on his formation. By moving towards his son he abandoned a slightly better position and during the march his army became a little bit more vulnerable than in a static dense formation, but this does not need to prove problematic when we take into account that a large part of the smaller Parthian army focused on Publius. The prospect was of course saving a strong unit sent before to charge. But it was too late.
The Parthians were just riding back with the head of Publius Crassus impaled on a spear and with victorious shouting. The morale of the Romans dropped to zero. Marcus Crassus himself, however, showed at this moment, that he also possesses some of the qualities of great generals. Despite his personal tragedy he did not give up. He walked among the soldiers and exhorted them to fight. He talked to them and tried to excite the will to fight in them again. He urged them not to mourn his son, but on the contrary to do their best to avenge him. But his effort was futile, only a few were impressed by his words. (75)
It did not take the Parthians long to renew intense attacks. Horse archers again started showering the Roman line of battle by arrows and the heavy cavalry with their long pikes with wide spearheads which were capable to pierce a man now fully joined the fighting. Cassius Dio informs us that at this moment the true intentions of Abgar showed, he treacherously deserted the Romans and attacked their rear. (76) From Plutarch we know, however, that at this time Abgar's contingent was no longer with the Romans, because they disappeared already before the battle (see above). This does not need to mean that Dio's account is almost wholly fabricated. (77) Abgar with his troops probably joined the Parthians and took part in the battle on their side. (78) It is therefore possible that just a misunderstanding of the whole situation by Dio or some of his sources occurred. In this phase of the battle the Parthian army presumably succeeded in enveloping the Romans, which they had been trying to do from the beginning, and it is possible that Abgar's group was among those, who managed to attack the Roman battle line from the rear. Then the otherwise inaccurate and incorrect description of Cassius Dio would have real grounds.
Parthian heavy cavalryman on a graffito from Dura Europos.
© M. C. Bishop
It is surprising, that even at this moment of the highest despair the legions did not break completely and managed to resist the Parthians, even though they could not harm them. (79) Cassius Dio writes, that eventually the Parthians became tired of killing the Romans, they depleted their missiles, broke their pikes, their swords became blunted and the battle gradually ended. Such a claim is hardly believable. It is just an excessively exaggerated punchline about the helplessness of the legions. Therefore we will again believe the more probable Plutarch's version, that informs us that the battle ended first with the arrival of the night, because the Parthians did not want to fight in dark (after all Cassius Dio also mentions problems, that would darkness bring to the archers, who would not be able to aim properly). With mockery the Parthians shouted, that they will give Crassus one more night, then they withdrew and camped a bit farther away. The Parthians did not build fortified camps and feared possible night attacks, therefore they used to camp in sufficient distance from the enemy. (80)
The night did not bring peace to the Romans. There were no thoughts on continuing the campaign or fighting with Surenas' army. Everybody thought only of his own ruined fate. A war council of higher officers was held under the leadership of the quaestor Cassius and legate Octavius and it was decided to try a night escape. Crassus allegedly did not attend the council, because all the hard events of the day finally fell upon him and he collapsed. (81) Everything was quickly prepared and the army set out on the night march to Carrhae. The wounded would only be an obstruction and restraint on the way and therefore they were left in the camp on the battlefield. When they found out that they are being abandoned by their comrades, they began to lament loudly. The retreat certainly could not remain unnoticed by the Parthians, but they did not care at all.
The journey through the night was not easy. Nervous soldiers were terrified by every rustle. The terrain was complicated and many of them diverted from the path and became lost. Around midnight a cavalry unit of 300 men under the command of Egnatius was first to reach Carrhae. He just shouted to the men on the walls that there was a great battle and continued to Zeugma and his salvation. Such was the morale of the fleeing troops then, with officers and soldiers leaving their general and other fellows without hesitation. The commander of Carrhae, Coponius, sensed a disaster from the short report. He alarmed the town and went out with his men to meet Crassus and help his soldiers to get into the town. (82)
In the morning the Parthians stormed the camp and slew all the wounded (according to Cassius Dio some of them ware taken into captivity), who had been left in the camp. Reportedly there were about 4000 men. (83) Then they were riding through the plains and slaughtering or capturing scattered smaller or larger bands of desperate Romans. On one of the hills they encountered four cohorts under the command of the legate Vargunteius. The Parthians surrounded them, but the Romans offered a stubborn resistance. Yet almost all of them were killed. Only twenty soldiers so impressed their opponents by their fighting skills and bravery, that they allegedly withdrew and left a free path to Carrhae for them. (84) The main target for the moment, however, was Crassus himself. It was apparent, that should the triumvir manage to escape, another campaign will be almost inevitable. Contrary to all expectations Surenas caught him still in Carrhae. The Parthians came to this town and called at the Romans to hand over Crassus and Cassius to them. They were, of course, not given over and with regard to Parthian poor besieging skills, there was no way how to enforce it. The Romans could feel quite safe in Carrhae. (85) There was another problem though. Such a situation was not expected and the town was not prepared to supply such a large army. There was also no hope for the arrival of a rescue force. Crassus and his men therefore could not stay in the safety of the fortifications for too long.
Crassus apparently stayed for a few days in Carrhae (86) and then set forth with his army for another night escape march. The route to Syria was out of consideration, because it runs across wide plains, where would the Roman army hardly resist the Parthians. He therefore headed north to Armenia (87) with its mountainous landscape, where would the Parthian horse army be quite easily kept at bay. First hilly areas could have been reached by only one night march. (88) Also on this route the army scattered to many smaller groups and also this time many of them found it difficult to follow the right path. And also this time the Parthians were pursuing and systematically slaughtering or capturing these smaller bands. (89) Crassus' contingent was guided by a certain Andromachus on the route. He was allegedly on the side of the Parthians (in reward he was subsequently installed as a new ruler of Carrhae) and deliberately led the Romans in rounds and through difficult terrain to slow down their advance and grant more time to the Parthians (who again started their pursuit only in the morning) for catching up with them. (90) On the way Cassius departed, returned to Carrhae and then went with five hundred horsemen back to Syria, which he also safely reached (unlike for the infantry it was not much of a problem for the cavalry). (91)
Crassus fared worse. Due to straying and perhaps because of the treacherous Andromachus, he was intercepted together with four legionary cohorts, a few cavalrymen and five lictors by the Parthian army shortly before reaching the desired hills. When the Parthians began to attack them, they withdrew to a nearby hill named Sinnaka, where they defended themselves. Only about 12 stades (ca. 2.2 km) away on another hill and already in the safety of the mountains there was another group of some 5000 soldiers under the command of Octavius. Octavius did not hesitate and immediately went with the soldiers to help the general. They charged and drove the Parthians from Crassus' hill. Then they surrounded him with their bodies and shields. (92)
Now Surenas found himself in a difficult situation. It seemed that the Parthians will not be able to defeat the Romans in their quite advantageous position, they will manage to wait till dark and with just another night march reach the safety of the mountains. That would mean Crassus' survival and subsequently a very probable next invasion, for which the Romans would prepare much better. Surenas therefore send envoys to the Romans with the message, that he does not want hostility with Rome and desires to negotiate peace and friendship. He asked Crassus for a parley and promised the Romans subsequent safe departure.
Cassius Dio claims that Crassus believed Surenas and accepted the parley. Nevertheless according to Plutarch and Polyaenus the general assumed a trap, but was compelled to the parley by his soldiers, who were afraid of the Parthians, did not want to face their arrows any more and desired a safe passage back to Syria. (93) Crassus therefore went with a few men (among them was Octavius) on the meeting. The Parthians showed friendly and honourable treatment of the Roman imperator and offered a horse to Crassus, who came on foot. The Roman general mounted the horse and a Parthian groom tried to spur the horse faster in the direction of Parthian soldiers. Octavius and the tribune Petronius feared treachery and attempted to prevent this. Some shoving and pushing followed and then a fight in which Octavius and Crassus were killed by more numerous Parthians. It is possible that Crassus was killed by a Parthian named Exathres or Promaxathres, although some say, that he actually did not kill him, but only cut of the head and the hand from a dead body, and there is also a version, that Crassus was in fact killed by Roman soldiers, who accompanied him on the parley and did not want their general to be captured alive. (94) Remaining Romans who attended the negotiations were either also killed or saved themselves by fleeing to the other men on the hill. From these soldiers then part of them surrendered and the remainder dispersed into the country at night. But only a few of them survived, because the Arabs in Parthian service chased them and caught or killed most of them. (95)
Of approximately 40000 troops only 10000 saved themselves, 10000 were captured and 20000 killed. The initiator and leader of the whole campaign died as well. The Parthians cut off Crassus' head and hand and sent them to king Orodes to Armenia, where it was reportedly used in the performance of Euripides' tragedy Baccchae. Allegedly they also poured melted gold into Crassus' mouth as a reminder of the motives of the war. Rest of the body was left to the beasts. (96) Different fate waited for the Roman prisoners. They first marched to Seleucia, where they were led in Surenas victorious procession, some kind of a grotesque parody of a Roman triumphal march. Plutarch wrote the following about it:
" Surenas now took the head and hand of Crassus and sent them to Orodes in Armenia, but he himself sent word by messengers to Seleucia that he was bringing Crassus there alive, and prepared a laughable sort of procession which he insultingly called a triumph. That one of his captives who bore the greatest likeness to Crassus, Caius Paccianus, put on a woman's royal robe, and under instructions to answer to the name of Crassus and the title of Imperator when so addressed, was conducted along on horseback. Before him rode trumpeters and a few lictors borne on camels; from the fasces of the lictors purses were suspended, and to their axes were fastened Roman heads newly cut off; behind these followed courtezans of Seleucia, musicians, who sang many scurrilous and ridiculous songs about the effeminacy and cowardice of Crassus; and these things were for all to see." (97)
Then the prisoners underwent a long march to the oasis Margiana (today Merv, Turkmenistan), at the north-eastern outpost of Parthia, where they were settled and where they intermingled with local population and it even seems that some of them later served the Parthians. (98) Many legionary standards were captured as well, which was another huge disgrace for the Romans.
Surenas also took back the towns on Balissus and Euphrates, that were occupied by the Romans the previous year. He himself, however, did not enjoy his glory for too long. Already before the battle of Carrhae he was a very powerful and influential man and after the battle his glory and dignity increased even more. As it happens, king Orodes began to feel, that his position might be in danger, and so he had his vassal executed. (99)
The battle of Carrhae was first of all the triumph of brilliant tactics of the Parthian general Surenas. The Parthians perfectly surprised the Romans and caught them off guard. First they managed to lure them into terrains, that were suitable for their way of fighting, and then they took advantage of their greatest strength – fight on horseback. The whole Parthian army was mounted. Its tactics was based on avoiding of direct combat at close quarters, in which the Roman legions excelled and were hard to be beaten. Instead they chose prolonged missile fight at a distance, that was very physically and especially mentally exhausting for the Romans. In the Roman army there was only a small fraction of cavalry and light infantry and the heavy legionaries could hardly chase the light horse. When they tried, the Parthian archers promptly retreated and showered the moving, and therefore more vulnerable attackers with volleys of arrows. Of course the heavy cavalry was immediately ready to cover the archers and posed another big threat for the charging soldiers. In such a constellation the army of Crassus was not able to cause any damage to their enemies. The only strong and vigorous attempt to reverse this situation resulted in the death of general's son Publius Crassus and virtually complete annihilation of troops sent with him.
The Romans could not cause serious damage to their opponent, but despite the totally one-sidedly desperate situation they found themselves in, and despite somewhat exaggerated descriptions of our historians, they too did not suffer really huge losses (although they certainly were serious). Because of the method of fighting at a distance, that Surenas opted for, the Parthians could not easily kill and wound the legionaries, who were well protected by large shields, chain-mail armours and helmets in greater numbers. Actually at the end of the day and the battle apparently some 2/3-3/4 of the army (detailed analysis below (100)) were still capable to fight, which was still a strong force (probably still greater than the strength of the Parthian army). We know that in the final phase of fighting the legionaries were despite their losses and dramatic drop of morale able to successfully fend off an intensive attack of the Parthians, which included charges of heavy cavalry. Apparently Roman casualties were not that dramatic (and a great part of them was caused by the large assault of Publius Crassus). Much worse were the problems with soldiers' psyche. Long-lasting presence in the extremely stressful environment of direct combat, horror from never ending rain of Parthian arrows, exposure to cries and screams of the wounded, very hot weather to which they were not accustomed, and sheer helplessness in the face of the Parthians firing with impunity – that all destroyed the morale of Roman soldiers. After a few hours of fighting none of them believed in victory any more. Everybody thought on his rescue only and perhaps only a few of them really believed in it.
The course of the battle was bad for the Romans. But the real disaster happened only after the battle, during the retreat to Carrhae and then to Armenia/Syria. Night marches in unknown terrains and perhaps sometimes also unreliable guides resulted in disintegration of the marching column into smaller bands and their scattering and stumbling through the country. If the whole Roman army was still quite strong and able to resist the Parthians even after the defeat, small, lost and demoralized groups of foot soldiers were an easy prey for them. It was at this time, that the Romans suffered most sever losses. (101) Only 10000 men somehow escaped from this deadly trap at last.
Already our ancient sources attributed almost all the blame for this defeat to Marcus Crassus, the initiator and general of the whole campaign. After them modern scholars largely repeated this view for a long time. Crassus was in one way or another reproached for almost all decisions that he did in his Parthian wars. Plutarch often gives in contrast Crassus' "bad" decisions and "good" advices of Cassius. It is very probable that this tendency of describing the battle is related to the fact that Cassius (unlike Crassus) survived the battle and had the opportunity to explain his role in this disastrous endeavour as best for himself as possible. It is also truth, that Cassius was partly rehabilitated by his later deeds during the defence of Syria against the subsequent Parthian invasion. However, it is striking that the ancient authors for example do not mention the fact, that Cassius actually deserted, left the army and his general, and with some cavalrymen used his mobility and speed to escape to Syria. Instead they gladly point out to Crassus' shortcomings and write with great delight for example about the negative oracles, which reportedly accompanied the endeavour and which were ignored by Crassus. (102)
Objective look, however, shows, that Crassus did not perform that bad, although we cannot exonerate him of all the blame completely. Generally the only clear and significant errors he undoubtedly did, was underestimating of the enemy and related neglect of tactical intelligence gathering in the field. (103) Especially the decision by Balissus to continue quickly to the enemy and undertake the battle as soon as possible, instead of stopping to give some rest to his soldiers after the hard march through the desert, and above all instead of obtaining more information about the enemy was critical in this respect. The result was, that his soldiers entered the battle tired from the march and not very refreshed by water and food and that Crassus did not have much information about the nature of the enemy army and let himself get surprised by its tactics. Especially the killing and repelling of most of his scouts near Balissus should have led to increased vigilance and caution. Should Crassus have listened to the advices of his officers at this moment, and should he have stopped and built a marching camp, he would gain not only more time and opportunities to learn about the enemy by reconnaissance, but also a refuge, where he could withdraw in case of unfavourable course of the battle. A fortified camp could have made the difference between a mere defeat or a real disaster. (104)
Even with regard to the above mentioned underestimation of the Parthians we can only partly blame Crassus, that he did not adapt his army to the nature of the enemy army already at the beginning and did not take more cavalry and light infantry on the campaign. The Romans had never before encountered the Parthians and therefore have not had precise information about their way of fighting. Nonetheless, they had fought other regional powers and Crassus could therefore expect the Parthian armies to be similar to for example those of the Armenians (which is to a certain degree true). In preceding years Pompey and Lucullus had encountered heavy cavalry of the eastern type as well as horse archers during their wars with Mithridates of Pontus and Armenians, and they had been able to beat them quite easily and convincingly. (105) Crassus was surely well informed about these encounters and apparently thought that the Parthian armies will be to a certain degree similar to those of Armenia. (106) Generally it seems that Crassus did not neglect obtaining intelligence on the strategic level, although some scholars think otherwise. (107) One of the basic pillars of acquiring strategic intelligence in war was (not only) then the help of local allies. (108) We know that Crassus was very active in this regard. During the first campaign and the winter pause on the turn of 54/53 B. C. he came into contact with many smaller local chieftains and with local population. We have seen that local chiefs like Abgar, Andromachus or Alchaudonius served as Roman guides on the campaign. Local Greeks, who advised Publius Crassus to flee to Ichnae in his desperate situation (109) prove, that Crassus got assistants and informants also from the friendly Greek population. The problem was not lack of effort in this regard, but rather the fact that he was not able to asses the trustworthiness of his allies and information provided by them. (110) Also we must not forget that Crassus had some information also from the Armenians (Roman allies at that time), with whom he negotiated help, and probably also from other friendly local rulers. (111)
Nevertheless Crassus did not rely on the reports of his allies alone. The first, less intensive and quickly ended campaign in Mesopotamia in 54 B. C. surely provided not only contacts with the locals but certainly also details about the geography and other conditions in the area and direct experience from the encounter with a smaller Parthian regiment. It seems therefore that Crassus had quite good information about the topography of the war zone and about the Parthians and generally about the basics of their warfare. However, he had incorrect and insufficient information about the particular Parthian army, that opposed him, because of bad reconnaissance during the campaign and perhaps because of disinformation by Abgar.
From previous experience of Lucullus and Pompey, from his own experience with Sillaces and from information he acquired from his allies Crassus probably got the impression, that there are no reasons to worry much about the Parthians, and he adapted his conduct accordingly. Unfortunately he did not realise (or he deliberately ignored) the fact, that previous victories over the Armenians were gained mostly in a mountainous terrain, which is less suitable for cavalry than the open plains around Carrhae, that the victory over Sillaces could hardly test the abilities of his army and that one should trust his allies, but always verify their reports and motives. This underestimation played a role in the fatal outcome of the battle.
Another question is to what extent was it usual for the Parthians to go to battle with cavalry only. Although infantry had certainly a secondary role in the Parthian warfare and probably was not very numerous, we know that it was used. (112) May be Surenas planned the exclusive use of cavalry just for this specific occasion and the Romans could therefore have expected, that they will meet also infantry. It is also quite probable, that Crassus counted with the support of his ally Artavasdes on this campaign and it is possible, that he should have provided the cavalry troops, which could complement the army in this respect and allow it to fight the mobile Parthian threat. But the invasion of Orodes to Armenia prevented the reinforcements to come.
Turning from the Euphrates to the east should not be seen as a mistake, as our sources claim. Given the situation, the decision to find and destroy the nearby smaller Parthian army before it joins the larger one under Orodes and then to continue the advance into Mesopotamia was quite logical and reasonable. It is questionable if we should take seriously the information, that the Armenians warned Crassus not to march through plains, which are suitable for Parthian horsemen. Very probably it is rather an invention our ancient authors, which were not very well-disposed to Crassus. After all the old proverb says, it is easy to be wise after the event (more fitting for this situation is the Czech version: after the battle everybody is a general). Anyway, even if Crassus would march to Seleucia alongside the Euphrates river (or if he invaded Mesopotamia through Armenia), earlier or later he would have to get into open terrains, and Surenas would wait for him there (because of the high mobility of their army and good knowledge of the region the Parthians could choose, where they want to clash with the Romans).
As mentioned above, the creation of deep quadrangle formation was a good choice. The enemy was not in contact distance yet, and it was necessary to march to him. Long-stretched formation would be unsuitable for further march to Surenas' army. At this time the scouts surely informed Crassus, that the enemy army is mostly on horseback. So a battle line, in which the army could easily march and at the same time be protected against possible raids of the highly mobile opponent was needed. The deep quadrangle formation protected on all sides meets both requirements well enough.
In the battle itself the general could have done just a little. On the contrary Crassus showed himself in a good light, when he did not break even after the great personal tragedy after the loss of his son, and actively tried to exhort the troops and raise their ardour for battle. The withdrawal from the battlefield was certainly a failure of Roman officers. On the other hand, night marches in little known terrains, with unreliable guides and utterly demoralized army would probably prove too hard even for most of others as well. Clearly negative is, of course, the fact, that Crassus closed himself after the battle and the initiative in further decision-making and leaving of the battlefield fell to his subordinate officers.
It is necessary to mention that Crassus encountered an extraordinary opponent. According to our sources Surenas was the best Parthian general and the course of battle proves this assessment. The Parthian commander was farsighted, clever and very imaginative. It seems that the Parthians were very well informed about their enemy. Probably they knew well the nature and composition of the Roman army and its movements. Surenas could then adjust his army and his tactics accordingly. First he chose terrains which suited his army and then managed compel the Romans to fight him on the chosen place. It is not certain what role played Abgar in this regard. Anyway if the Parthians succeeded to get an agent virtually directly in the staff of the Roman general, it is certainly an impressive feat. On the other hand Surenas was also successful in hiding his own strength, plans, intentions and arrangements from the enemy.
The course of battle shows the qualities of the Parthian general further. Surenas wisely employed only cavalry troops, which got him a significant superiority in mobility. During the first charge he immediately realised that he cannot beat the legionaries just by a direct attack of the heavy cavalry. He quickly ended the onslaught of the heavy cavalry and this was perhaps one of the decisive moments of the whole battle. Should the Romans eliminate the cataphracts already at the beginning, the result of the fight could have been different. (113) Then the Parthians started a combat of attrition. They wisely avoided direct contact with Roman footmen, unless they were in a significantly superior position. With a cunning deceit they lured a strong regiment of Publius Crassus and most of the remaining Roman horse out from the main line of battle and destroyed it. At this moment the battle was decided. The fact that the final aggressive onslaught wasn't able to rout the enemy is just a minor setback. The Parthians perfectly took advantage of the situation and their qualities during the subsequent pursuit of the Romans.
Generally we can say, that although Crassus certainly did not excel in this campaign, he also did not do (in spite of many claims of our sources) exceedingly many errors or fatal errors. If we turn aside the underestimation of the enemy and the neglect proper tactical reconnaissance for a while, his actions were quite standard, comparable with most of other Roman generals (114) and with regard to the circumstances mostly also quite logical. It is therefore not true, that Crassus was the main cause of Roman defeat at Carrhae, although he certainly contributed to it as well. The main reason of the catastrophe was a brilliant tactical thinking of the Parthian general Surenas, for which the Romans were not prepared and which we can boldly place alongside other famous military actions of ancient history, like for example Hannibal's maneuvres at Cannae and Lake Trasimene, Caesar's at Pharsalus and Ruspina or Alexander's at Granicus and Gaugamela.
The battle of Carrhae had quite far-reaching although in the end not very serious consequences. The first and most visible one were the problems, that emerged in the east of the empire. Armenia became a vassal of the Parthians, like some other smaller kingdoms. Others waited, how will this conflict evolve. The always troublesome Judea immediately took advantage of the situation and rose in a revolt, which was, however, swiftly suppressed by Cassius (at that time the highest magistrate in the province). In 52 B. C. smaller Parthian incursions beyond the Euphrates took place, but Cassius was able to cope with them again. A full-scale Parthian invasion under the command of king's son Pacorus and experienced general Osaces into weakly protected Syria followed in 51 B. C. and was accompanied by an uprising of the Syrians. We do not have any detailed descriptions, but we know that the Parthians achieved no significant successes, although there were still only two legions created from the escapees from Carrhae in the province (in Rome they were fully occupied by internal political struggles and had no time and mood to deal with the situation on a remote eastern border and it also seems, that in Rome even after the battle they did not regard the Parthians as a serious threat (115)). The well-known deficiencies of the Parthians in siege tactics limited them to a mere plundering and looting, they were not able to take fortified towns. Cassius wisely kept his army within the fortifications of Antioch and only later and with caution followed the Parthian army, disrupting its lines of supplies. Near the town Antigonea he even succeeded in luring the enemy army into a trap and defeated it whereas the general Osaces died. Remaining Parthians retreated to Cyrrhestica, where they also wintered. The next year another unsuccessful Parthian invasion into Syria ensued and it seems that it followed similar patterns like the first one (inability to take towns, Roman army having its refuge in Antioch). This second invasion has been successfully dealt with by a newly appointed governor of Syria Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus. (116)
Nevertheless, more interesting are the less immediate consequences, which show themselves more in the thinking of the Romans. After almost seamless conquests in the east of Lucullus and Pompey the Romans seemed almost invincible. Apparently it was expected that neither the Parthians will be a major obstacle (especially in a period of internal struggles between Orodes and Mithridates). Crassus' underestimation of the Parthians was tragic and the catastrophic defeat was similarly unexpected severe blow to Roman confidence as it was an encouragement for all eastern peoples, who resented the Roman domination in this region (especially Judea tried to use the situation). The Romans began to realise now, that they have at least an equal opponent in the east. The respect, that the Parthian empire gained thanks to the Carrhae event, is nicely seen in the faint-hearted letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was appointed as governor of Cilicia shortly after the battle (from the year 51 B. C.) and found himself in an area, that could be directly threatened by the expected Parthian invasion (Cicero's troops then really defeated a small raid of part of the Parthian forces into his province). (117)
As mentioned above, at first the Romans cared more about their internal political problems. Many of them regarded the relations to the Parthian empire purely pragmatically and without any negative feelings. Pompey considered asking the Parthians for help in the civil war against Caesar. Cassius (the Cassius, who only barely managed to save his life at Carrhae) and other Republicans later really cooperated with the Parthians and in the battle of Philippy a Parthian regiment fought on their side against Octavian and Marc Antony. Quintus Labienus joined the Parthians after the battle of Philippi and together with the king's son Pacorus invaded Asia Minor and Syria. The invasion was then crushed by Publius Ventidius. Gaius Julius Caesar was the first who planned a large campaign against the Parthians, desiring to atone the loss of prestige of Rome and to avenge Crassus and his men. His death, however, put an end to this plan. (118) It is not surprising, that exactly on this side of Roman political spectrum (ie. on the side of Caesar's supporters) the concept of revenge for Carrhae began to develop and be used in internal political struggles. Marc Antony later attempted an unsuccessful invasion into Parthia and we can also find motives of revenge in the literature of late republic and early empire.
Antony's failure and Parthian incursions into Roman territories (raids shortly after the battle of Carrhae and the large-scale invasion of Pacorus and Labienus), however, gradually led to the recognition of Parthia as the second superpower and counterweight of Rome in the East. It is telling that the first Roman emperor Augustus at last decided against all expectations not to wage war against the Parthians, but instead embarked upon extensive diplomatic negotiations with the Parthian king. He managed to arrange the return of prisoners and military standards from both wars (those of Crassus and Marc Antony), which had until then decorated Parthian sanctuaries. These merits were subsequently portrayed as significant successes of his policy and celeberated as a bloodless victory over the Parthians by Augustus himself and by Roman state propaganda. (119)
In spite of this the defeat near Carrhae evolved during the imperial period in a kind of a smaller national Roman trauma. The motive of Parthian victory over Crassus has been appearing regularly in the works of historians, poets, moralists and rhetors during the whole history of the Roman empire. (120)
Cuirass of the statue of Augustus from Prima Porta in Vatican muzeums in Rome. The central motive depicts a Parthian handing over one of the captured Roman legionary standards to a representative of Rome.
Parthian archers at CarrhaeThe battle of Carrhae is often portrayed as a perfect example of the effectiveness of archers in combat. It is understandable. Surely it was an exemplary use of this weapon, combined with the emphasis on high mobility, which ultimately led to an almost perfect victory. As part of the argumentation the ability of Parthian arrows to penetrate the protective equipment of Roman foot soldiers (chain-mail armour, shields) is often stressed. Indeed, both our main sources specifically mention, that the Parthian arrows pierced the Roman protective gear. Plutarch writes:
"... they caused the beginning of disorder and fear, for these [legionaries] now saw the velocity and force of the arrows, which fractured shields, and tore their way through every covering alike, whether hard or soft." (121)
Cassius Dio adds the following about Parthian arrows:
"They [arrows] flew into their [of the Romans] eyes and pierced their hands and all the other parts of their body and, penetrating their armour, deprived them of their protection and compelled them to expose themselves to each new missile." (122)
Many modern scholars believed these claims and emphasised or at least mentioned the penetrative power of Parthian arrows as one of the important factors of Parthian victory. (123) There is even an opinion, that Surenas improved the design of Parthian arrows (and perhaps bows?) so that they would be able to pierce the armour of legionaries specially for the upcoming conflict with the Romans. (124) But was it really so? Is it not rather a gross exaggeration on the side of our sources to enhance the dramatic effect of their narratives about the Roman tragedy and suffering of Roman soldiers? To recognize where is the truth, we need to analyse some of the aspects of the campaign and the battle itself in detail.
Let us start with weapons, which the Parthians were using in combat. Their horse archers were at that time equipped with powerful (125) composite, reflex bows, whose limbs were bent in the direction of firing when without bowstring, and which were manufactured from wood, horn and sinew. This kind of bow was very widespread in antiquity (especially in the east) and could have had many different forms. We know Parthian bows not only from artistic representations, but fortunately also thanks to a rare, almost complete example, that survived to our times, was found at Yrzi near Baghouz and is dated to the 1. century B. C. – 3. century A. D. (126) The grip and one limb of the bow are preserved. The length in the whole curvature without bowstring was 1.47 m, or 1.275 m from one limb's end to the other. It was made from wood, horn, bone and sinew. A replica of the Yrzi bow produced by Edward McEwen suggests, that the strength of the bow was about 60–70 pounds. (127)
With regard to ammunition, the Parthians at Carrhae used arrows with iron (probably trilobate) barbed heads. (128) This kind of arrow was common, widespread and often used in antiquity. There is no indication, that the elongated, pyramidal, "bodkin" arrowheads, that are supposed to be designed for armour piercing, were used.
Using a reconstruction of a bow similar to that from Yrzi Marcus Junkelmann performed several tests to determine the penetration capabilities of arrows shot by this bow. It was proven that at a short distance arrows are able to go through chain-mail and plate armours and through shields. (129) Unfortunately the tests were not conducted also at a longer distance. With regard to a quick loss of energy of the arrow during the flight it is apparent that at longer distances the penetration results would be significantly worse. (130) A very important factor is also not only the ability to pierce the armour, but the ability to penetrate also deep enough to really harm the enemy. This is all the more important when taking into account, that under the armour the soldiers usually wore various padded jackets, that had also significant impact on reducing the effect of an arrow. Generally it seems that the protective equipment (metal armour, helmet, shield, etc.) was normally capable to resist arrows in antiquity and that the archers were not very efficient against well-armoured infantry. (131)
The main problem of such tests and estimates is, that they are always imprecise and too general. The reconstructions of weapons used for these tests are far from perfect and do not reflect the ancient originals in detail (materials and alloys used for individual components, production processes, etc.). It is obvious that for example an arrowhead made from modern, hard steel would achieve different results than a much less perfect ancient arrowhead. Similar problems apply also for armours and other equipment. (132) Of course there is also a generalization of results, which naturally cannot be avoided due to very limited material for study, which we have from these times. In practice this leads to the situation, that tests of replicas of composite bows and replicas of arrows against steel plates or approximate replicas of chain-mail armours are applied on the ancient weaponry generally, although there were of course different kinds of composite bows, different kinds of chain-mail armours, different kinds of arrows, etc., and it is therefore possible that certain arrows could have been effective against certain kinds of armours and ineffective against others and other combination would give even different results. If we want to evaluate the effectiveness of Parthian archers at Carrhae, we must take the above mentioned information about the penetrating capabilities only as a rough guide and we must return to a careful assessment of the information we have about the battle.
Drawing of the reconstruction of the bow from Yrzi.
Taken from Brown, F. E.: A recently discovered composite bow, Seminarium Kondakovianum 9, 1937, p. 1–10.
General evaluation of the fundamental circumstances of the whole campaign shows, that the Parthians at Carrhae had the best possible conditions for fighting, one could ever wish for. The Romans were not prepared for their way of fighting and were completely surprised by this unexpected situation. It is hard to tell, whether Crassus underestimated the Parthian cavalry, or whether he relied on reinforcements from the Armenian king, which could eliminate the Parthian advantage of mobility. It is quite possible that both is true. Anyway, the composition of the invading army seriously lacked higher numbers of cavalry and light infantry, which could have fought the Parthian horsemen more effectively. As a result, the Romans practically could not harm the Parthians in the combat. Surenas' warriors practised the typical hit and run tactics of eastern/steppe nations. Surenas' way of fighting relied on not coming to close quarters combat, until the enemy is weakened enough to lose even in face to face fighting. Heavy armed legionaries had no chance to come close to the horse archers. Whenever they tried, the Parthians fell back and during retreat they showered the attackers (whose protection was lower when moving) by a concentrated rain of arrows. The Romans had very few cavalry and light infantry troops and therefore the Parthians could easily repulse their charges too. The destruction of a large part of cavalry and light infantry during the big assault of Publius Crassus made the situation even worse.
Subsequently the initiative was entirely with the Parthians. They could choose when, where and how will they attack. The Romans were reduced to the role of passive defenders. Because the legionaries did not have suitable weapons to fight at a distance (pila or other javelins could have been thrown only at quite a short distance), the Parthians did not have to hold back and could ride very close to the Roman battle line. So they could without greater danger shoot at very short distances (even under 40 meters, although with their bows they could reach effective range of about 180 m and the maximum range was even higher (133)), choose individual targets of their shooting and take advantage of a higher piercing power of their missiles at short distance. The closely packed formation of their enemies provided a very good target. Plutarch states, that the Roman ranks were so dense, that even without aiming the Parthians almost could not miss. (134) Moreover, in the course of battle they encircled parts of the Roman battle line. This means that the missiles began to fly from various angles at the same time on Crassus' soldiers, which seriously complicated their defense (they could turn their large shield in one direction only, so against arrows coming from other angles they had to rely only on their armour, which, however, did not protect some part of their bodies – limbs, throat, parts of the face and head). Usually archers could only dream about such favourable circumstances.
As we have seen, the Parthians had therefore optimal conditions for the shooting. It is to be noted, that they had also plenty of time to take advantage of these conditions. The battle of Carrhae was long. Cassius Dio states, that at the time of resuming the fighting after the defeat of the sortie of Publius Crassus it was about noon:
"The heat and thirst (it was midsummer and this action took place at noon) and the dust, of which the barbarians raised as much as possible by all riding around them, told fearfully upon the survivors, and many succumbed from these causes, even though unwounded." (135)
It is hard to say if we can believe Cassius Dio in this detail about the midday fight. The historian writes mainly about the terrible heat, which increased the suffering of soldiers, and it is possible, that the note about noon is rather a kind of support and highlight for this information. In the early morning of that day the soldiers set out for a march to the river Balissus probably from somewhere on the fringe of the desert. We do not know exactly what was the army's location in this morning and therefore we cannot accurately estimate neither the distance, it had to travel, nor the needed time. During the march they were informed about the presence of the Parthians in the region and a somewhat complicated change from the marching to battle formation followed. After the arrival by the river, Crassus allowed a short break, during which the soldiers refreshed a little bit, and then a shorter march to the south and the Parthian army followed. Moving a 40000 strong army is not an easy thing and all these marches and maneuvres must have taken some time (several hours). The charge of Publius Crassus and its annihilation could not have been a question of a few minutes either. Not to say that the sortie took place at a time when the battle has already been proceeding for some time. It is therefore hard to believe, that all these events (both marches, formation changes, short break, initial phases of the battle, annihilation of Publius Crassus and his troops, renewal of full fighting with the main army) could all take place during forenoon. If the time detail by Cassius Dio can be believed and the fighting was in progress at noon, it is more probable, that this applied rather to the beginning of the battle and not its later phases (after all, Cassius Dio places – unlike Plutarch – the charge of the young Crassus to the initial phase of the fighting at Carrhae). (136)
It seems therefore, that the battle could have started approximately around noon. It ended with the coming of darkness. (137) The dark comes in this area and this period roughly around 7 PM local time, which indicates the length of the battle of around 7 hours. Even if we would not believe Cassius Dio, that around noon the fighting was in progress (as we have seen, his information is not completely reliable), the evaluation of individual phases of the battle suggests fights lasting several hours. After the first attempt of a direct attack of heavy cavalry the shooting began together with attempts to outflank the Roman formation. A Roman counterattack performed by light infantry followed, which caused the Parthians to retreat and concentrate their firing at these light infantrymen, which in turn caused their withdrawal. Then the shooting continued and some unsuccessful Roman attempts to attack also took place. Initially the Romans thought, that the Parthians will run out of arrows and so they were patiently waiting for the time of close quarters fighting to come. Later, however, they noticed that the Parthians regularly ride to the supply camels to replenish their ammunition. After this Publius Crassus and his troops charged and were annihilated. Renewed intensive shooting followed and this time the heavy cavalry joined the fighting. If we imagine all these various phases of the battle and their course, it is clear that the fighting surely lasted for several hours. The Parthians were therefore able to shoot at the Roman army under very favourable conditions for several hours.
Now, let us analyse the crucial question, how many soldiers were actually killed or wounded by the Parthian arrows in the main battle. We know that out of some 40000 Roman troops (after the departure of Abgar's contingent, that could have counted some 3000 men, which are missing from the total, that crossed the Euphrates) around 10000 saved themselves, 10000 were captured and 20000 died. (138 We know the following about the casualties inflicted during the retreat to Carrhae and further to Syria: around 1900 men (4 cohorts) were killed together with Vargunteius in the brave fight during their retreat to Carrhae. (139) According to Plutarch with Crassus another 1900 men (4 cohorts of infantry and a very few cavalry) of his group and some 5000 men from Octavius' group, that came to help him, were killed (although Cassius Dio claims, that most of these men escaped). (140) It is certain that during the retreat many more people were killed, but we do not have specific details about them. (141) It is necessary to discount also those men, who took part in the sortie of Publius Crassus, because many of them died on the pikes of the heavy cavalrymen, not only because of the archers, and they died under special circumstances. Around 5600 men (1300 horsemen, 500 archers, 8 cohorts of legionaries) were killed or captured during the attack of Publius Crassus. 142) If we discount these ca. 14400 men, who in fact died during the retreat or in the charge of Publius Crassus from the total of around 20000 soldiers killed in the battle, we realise that in the main battle only some 5500 men died or were seriously wounded as a result of direct, several hours long shooting of the Parthian archers. Of course we can assume, that the cohorts mentioned by Plutarch were not in full strength (whether from the beginning or as a result of the course of battle), on the other hand in the calculation also those solders are included, who were killed during retreat, but there is not a specific mention about it in the sources, and also those soldiers are included, who were killed by the Parthian cataphracts and not by the archers. A possible increase of the resulting number would therefore not be very high. Should we believe rather Cassius Dio than Plutarch in the information, that most of the men besieged on the hill during the events leading to Crassus' death escaped, the maximum number of casualties in the main battle would rise to around 12000.
There is one more information, which can help us a little bit to ascertain the number of men really killed by the Parthian archers in the battle. Plutarch writes, that at night after the battle the army left the camp and went on a march to Carrhae. About 4000 wounded were left on the site and these were slaughtered by the Parthians in the morning. (143) We know therefore, that in the main battle around 4000 soldiers were more than lightly wounded. What we do not know, is the number of dead. The issue of casualties on ancient battlefields was analysed in detail by K. S. Metz and R. A. Gabriel. Although their analyses are naturally only very rough and approximate, thanks to their research we can estimate, that the number of dead could have been approximately the same or rather lower than the number of wounded. (144) These authors found out, that a victorious army could in the ancient times expect the losses of ca. 5.5% dead and ca. 5.8% wounded in average. To a certain degree we can apply these results on the Roman army at Carrhae, although it lost in the end. The casualties on the side of the defeated began to rise dramatically only when the army collapsed and started to run away. Until both sides remained in direct combat and in unbroken battle formations, their casualties were roughly the same. Crassus' army, although defeated, did not collapse during the battle and did not run away, so there was no opportunity for a significant rise of battle losses during the flight. With regard to the above mentioned calculations, the number of dead could therefore be approximately the same as the number of wounded – that means around 4000 dead and 4000 wounded in the main battle. But with regard to the fact, that in the main battle there was very few of direct fight at close quarters and a fight at a distance with bows and arrows completely dominated, it is very probable, that such a situation produced much higher ratio of wounded to dead, than in conventional battles, because at a distance soldiers cannot finish up their wounded adversaries, who are unable to defend properly due to the wounds. We can therefore expect, that actually the dead were much less at Carrhae. (145) Should we now return to the previously calculated number of around 5500 men killed or seriously wounded in the main battle, it seems that this could roughly correspond also with the information we have about casualties in ancient battles thanks to the research of K. S. Metz and R. A. Gabriel (taking into account the specifics of the conditions at Carrhae).
There is, of course, a relevant objection, that many of the wounded attended the retreat to Syria/Armenia and therefore there could have been more men, with more serious wounds. It is certain that also some wounded tried to go on the night march, (146) however, they were probably only few. Only lightly wounded soldiers were able to try it, and we cannot regard such man as a real casualty, because they were still more or less capable to fight. The group of Vargunteius was able to show a very vigorous and brave resistance to a stronger force of the Parthians and it is therefore highly probable, that most of these soldiers were capable to fight and therefore without serious wounds. With regard to the groups of Crassus and Octavius, it is even less probable, that there were more than lightly wounded soldiers. These men had to undergo, tired from whole-day fighting, approximately 30–35km rush and arduous march in the cold Mesopotamian night, whereas they could only hardly get any proper medical care during and after the battle (there was no opportunity for this and moreover, as we know, the broken and demoralized soldiers cared more about themselves and their own salvation, rather than about the others). The first decent care could have been given to them in Carrhae. Here, however, they stayed only for a short time, without enough time for a proper recovery, and then another difficult night march ended by another fight with the Parthians waited for them. It is not probable, that seriously wounded men could manage this. By some of the wounded the effects of infections of their wounds would also began to appear, which would prevent them from marching further. (147) More or less the same applies also to those 10000 men, who managed after long struggles to escape to Syria.
There is also the possibility, that other wounded soldiers were among those 10000 men, who were captured. Again, however, it is not very probable that seriously wounded were among them. These unfortunate men were later led in Surenas' triumph in Seleucia, then they had to undergo a very long and certainly exhausting march through Parthia and were subsequently settled in the region of Margiana. (148) Given the circumstances, the Parthians certainly had no interest in taking care about wounded Roman soldiers – which is confirmed by the fact, that they slaughtered 4000 wounded Romans left in the camp after the Roman retreat from the battlefield. What to do with men, who had not much chance to survive this demanding program (march to Seleucia, triumphal march and a very long march to Margiana)?
It would be vital for our evaluation of the effectiveness of Parthian archers at Carrhae to know at least an approximate number of arrows, that landed upon Roman legionaries. Unfortunately our sources do not help us much in this respect and it is impossible to find this information out. Even any just a little more accurate estimate is not within our reach. The only thing we can try, is a very rough outline of possibilities, which can help us to get at least an approximate, general idea about what the Romans had to face from the heaven.
Every Parthian archer could have carried probably around 30–40 arrows in his quiver. (149) We know that Surenas' tactics was based on mobility, avoiding close quarters fighting and shooting at the Romans from a distance. With such an intention he had to make sure, that his soldiers will not run out of missiles during a several hours lasting battle, otherwise his plans would fail. Therefore he loaded enough spare ammunition on a multitude of camels, who were positioned on the battlefield, and his archers rode to them to replenish their arrows. It is apparent, that already from the beginning it was envisaged that the archers will exhaust all their arrows and will go to replenish them at least once, but rather more times (a capable archer is theoretically able to shoot 30–40 arrows in ca. 3–5 minutes. (150) So if we count with a minimum number of 9000 Parthian archers, a minimum number of 30 arrows in a quiver and a minimum number of 1 replenishment of ammunition, we can estimate, that at least 270000 arrows were shot at the Roman formation (assuming that not one arrow from the second batch of arrows was used by any of the archers). It must be stressed, that we are counting with minimum numbers and any of the parameters (number of archers, number of arrows in a quiver and number of ammunition replenishments) could in fact be higher. Especially in the case of a very probable higher number of ammunition replenishments the number of arrows shot at the Roman army would increase dramatically. This whole calculation is very speculative, but in spite of this it can provide us with at least a rough outline of possible parameters of Parthian shooting at Carrhae. It is also an outline, that is quite conservative. K. Farrokh calculated (based on the speed the archers were theoretically able to shoot), that 10000 horse archers could theoretically release an almost unbelievable number of 1.6-2 millions of arrows in some 20 minutes at Carrhae. Although his calculation has quite serious shortcomings, it can also provide us with a guide to evaluate the effectiveness of Parthian arrows. (151)
Parthian horse archer on a plaque in the British Museum.
Taken from the website of the British Museum.
All of the above ideas left by themselves are largely speculative. Our extant sources and their nature unfortunately do not allow more. Most of them can be questioned by relevant objections. All together, however, they fit together and create a relatively credible picture of the events of those few days in the vicinity of Carrhae. In a summary we realise, that the Parthians showered a dense Roman formation for many hours (perhaps up to 7) with their arrows. This was happening under extremely favourable conditions for the Parthians. The Romans were not able to endanger the Parthians in any way, even though they tried. They could virtually only stand, suffer and hope for an early arrival of darkness. The Parthians, on the other hand, had the initiative and could choose places, time and methods of their attacks. In the course of battle the Parthians shot a huge number of arrows – very probably several hundred thousands (a very conservative, lowest estimate is above 270000 arrows). They had enough men, arrows, time and skill for it. In spite of all this, the Parthian missiles were able to kill or seriously wound a relatively few enemies with regard to the situation (may be even less than 5500 men; maximally around 12000 men).
From the above analysis it is clear, that the reports of ancient historians about Parthian missiles piercing Roman shields and armours and killing men protected by them are just exaggerated literary instruments to increase the dramatic effect of the whole narrative on the reader and to portray in dark colours the desperate fate of suffering soldiers. In case of a strong, well-aimed and at a close distance fired shot the arrow could penetrate the shield or armour (certainly not both) and mortally or seriously wound the soldier. It is probable, with regard to the excellent conditions the Parthians had for shooting, that at Carrhae such occurrences were more often than in other battles. However, it is clear enough, that even at Carrhae and under such favourable circumstances, these occurrences were not very frequent and in the absolute majority of cases the Roman shields and chain-mail armours withstood the impacts and protected their wearers. Should the Parthian arrows really be regularly able to go through Roman protective equipment, the reports about the battle would have been very different - the Roman battle line would not be able to withstand such terrible volleys of arrows and in the end even repulse attacks of heavy cavalry. We can find support for this claim also in descriptions of the later campaign of Marc Antony against the Parthians. His legionaries were also harassed by great quantities of Parthian arrows, but they formed the testudo formation using their shields, and stayed protected behind them. (152) Also descriptions of other battles of Antony's soldiers with the Parthians suggest, that Roman shields were usually enough to protect them against arrows. (153)
Generally, arrows were not very successful in wounding and killing well-armoured soldiers. Nevertheless this does not diminish their importance in battle. Against soldiers without armour they could be very effective. And they were effective also against well protected soldiers. The effectiveness, however, did not lay in killing and wounding, but exactly in what we have seen on the example of Carrhae battle: in frightening, demoralizing and psychological breakup of the enemy. Especially by less experienced troops the consequences of archery may have been terrible. Archers (whether on foot or mounted) were also very useful as a support for other troops, which were able to prevent the enemy to come closer to vulnerable archery regiments and at the same time benefit from their firing. (154)
The battle of Carrhae has always been portrayed as a perfect example about how effective can archers be in battles, even against well-armoured soldiers. This example is still valid. It is just necessary to realise, that the effectiveness was not much in the penetrative power of the arrows and their ability to kill and wound men, but rather in sowing terror into their minds, demoralizing them and weakening their will to fight.
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Updated 28. 9. 2015 – the image of the Parthian horse archer added
Updated 13. 11. 2011 – some parts added and changed
Released 18. 6. 2011