The Battle of Carrhae: A crushing defeat of the unstoppable Roman juggernaut by the Parthian Empire

The Battle of Carrhae: A crushing defeat of the unstoppable Roman juggernaut by the Parthian Empire

Ancient Roman invasion forces were considered to be unstoppable juggernauts, but the tables were turned by a formidable Parthian Empire general and devastating tactics. This clash led to one of the most crushing defeats in Roman history.

Leading the Romans was Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was a member of the First Triumvirate and the wealthiest man in Rome. He, like many before him, had been enticed by the prospect of riches and military glory and so decided to invade Parthia.

Leading the Parthians was Surena. Very little is known of his background. What is known is that was a Parthian general from the House of Suren. The House of Suren was located in Sistan. Sistan, or Sakastan, “land of the Sakas,” located in what is today southeast Iran.

In 56 BC, Julius Caesar invited Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus to Luca in Cisalpine Gaul (Luca is the modern day city of Lucca in Italy). Caesar requested that they meet to repair their strained relationship, which had been established around 60 BC and was kept secret from the Senate for some time. During this event, a crowd of 100 or more senators showed up to petition for their sovereign patronage. The men cast lots and chose which areas to govern. Caesar got what he wanted, Gaul; Pompey obtained Spain; and Crassus received Syria. All of this became official when Pompey and Crassus were elected as consuls in 55 BC.

Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus

Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus. (Public Domain)

Crassus was delighted that his lot fell on Syria. His grand strategy and desire was to make the campaigns of Lucullus against Tigranes and Pompey’s against Mithridates appear mediocre. Crassus’ grand strategy and desire of conquest and confiscation went beyond Parthia, beyond Bactria and India, reaching the Outer Ocean—easier envisioned than orchestrated.

Roman, Seleucid, and Parthian Empires in 200 BC. Roman Republic is shown in Purple. The Blue area represents the Seleucid Empire. The Parthian Empire is shown in Yellow.

Roman, Seleucid, and Parthian Empires in 200 BC. Roman Republic is shown in Purple. The Blue area represents the Seleucid Empire. The Parthian Empire is shown in Yellow. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Psychological Warfare: Masters of Disguise

Crassus, the Roman general, arrived in Syria with seven legions (roughly 35,000 heavy infantry) along with 4,000 lightly armed troops and 4,000 cavalry. Caesar had given Crassus an additional 1,000 Gallic cavalry under the command of Crassus’ son Publius. As Crassus pushed on, the enemy slowly came into sight. Crassus gave the order to halt, and to their eyes the enemy were “neither so numerous nor so splendidly armed as they had expected.” However, looks can be deceiving.

What Crassus and his army saw was the front rank of just 1,000 cavalry who were covered in skins and coats. Surena’s main force was hidden behind the front ranks. While the Romans watched in curiosity, Surena gave the order and a thundering sound proceeded forth from the Parthian cavalry. Many unseen drums covered in stretched animal hide and brass bells roared across the field, vibrating Roman armor as well as their hearts. The use of sound as a psychological weapon manipulated human behavior in both the Roman and Parthian armies. In other words, the home team was pumped up while the away team lost confidence quickly.

Parthian bronze statue, attributed to Surena, Parthian spahbed ("General" or "Commander").

Parthian bronze statue, attributed to Surena, Parthian spahbed ("General" or "Commander").  (Public Domain)

Plutarch mentioned that, “before the Romans had recovered from their consternation at this din, the enemy suddenly dropped the coverings of their armor.” Once the drums were silent, the Roman army, discombobulated by the intense sound of the drums, besides being physically weak, was in for another surprise.

The Parthian heavy cavalry, otherwise known as the cataphract, was charged towards them, with Surena leading the way. As the cataphract thundered across the plain, their coverings dropped from their armor revealing “helmets and breastplates blazing like fire, their Margianian steel glittering keen and bright, their horses armored with plates of bronze and steel.” 

The Parthian cataphract was the main and most important military force. These mailed cavalrymen were the aristocracy, who could afford the expensive armor. In return for their service, they demanded a greater degree of autonomy from the Parthian king at the local level, thus ensuring a king (sub-king) of their own to govern their territory.

The heavily armored horse and rider, a cataphract.

The heavily armored horse and rider, a cataphract. (Creative Commons GFDL)

The Romans, who never had seen well-armored cavalrymen, were in awe, but the veterans who served under Lucullus or Pompey had encountered this type of cavalry during the Mithridatic Wars. As the cataphract closed in, the legionaries locked shields to create a continuous wall. Surena quickly noticed that the Roman line was steady and firm and they were not going to budge. He quickly broke off the charge giving the impression that they lacked confidence in engaging the Romans in a full frontal assault. However, this was just a ruse.

Parthian Horse Archers: Sight, Speed, and Agility

What the Romans saw was Surena retreating, giving the false notion that the cataphract was unable to make a difference and therefore lacked confidence. Unseen were 10,000 Parthian horse archers, who quickly surrounded the Romans, firing on them from all sides. Crassus was stunned. He quickly assessed the situation, seeing that his forces were bogged down by unarmored petty horse archers, who were vulnerable to missile attack, and ordered his light infantry to engage them. As the light infantry left the safety of the hollow square formation to engage the enemy, they were quickly showered with arrows as the Parthian horse archers galloped away, forcing the light infantry to quickly pull back, crashing through the Roman lines seeking safety. The sight, speed, and agility of the Parthian horse archers spooked the Romans. But what really terrified them was the Parthians’ primary weapon, the composite bow.

Relief of Parthian horseman, a highly skilled warrior, performing a Parthian shot.

Relief of Parthian horseman, a highly skilled warrior, performing a Parthian shot. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Historian Dr. Kaveh Farrokh suggests that the average Parthian horse archer, with a quiver of 30 arrows, loosed between eight to ten arrows a minute at Carrhae. It would take two to three minutes to exhaust his arsenal before needing to be resupplied. The amount of Parthian horse archers at the battle is estimated at 10,000. If all 10,000 fired away for 20 minutes, the amount of arrows fired by an individual horse archer would have been between 160-200 arrows. This meant the amount of arrows fired upon the Roman soldiers are estimated to have been an astounding 1.6 million to two million arrows in a 20-minute timeframe.

The Romans soon realized that they could do nothing to alleviate the situation. If they stayed in their rank and file they would be wounded or killed. But if they made an attempt to counter the horse archers they would suffer the same fate. Any attempt to chase after them resulted in the horse archers retreating at a full gallop, while turning around to shoot at the pursuing enemy. This is where the term “Parthian Shot” comes from. The Parthians were literally shooting fish in a barrel.

Moreover, the Parthians were exploiting the Roman ways of warfare. For the Romans, to see the enemy retreat was a sign of defeat. Therefore, the Romans felt that they now had the advantage over their nemeses and pursued them. However, they soon realized the truth, and learned from this mistake that the enemy fought by an entirely different method. The Romans could do nothing as death from above rained down on them.

Crassus’ only hope was that as long as they stood still in their shielded square, the Parthians would soon run out of arrows. Once that happened, Crassus felt that the Parthians would have no choice but to engage the Romans at close quarters. 

Roman Army reenactors in shielded formation, spears at the ready.

Roman Army reenactors in shielded formation, spears at the ready. (yeowatzup/CC BY 2.)

However, that was not the case. To the astonishment of the Romans, a Parthian camel train was standing by with fresh arrows. Surena proved adept at organization and logistics by using trains of camels to keep his horse archers constantly supplied, keeping continual pressure upon the Romans. This is contrary to Cassius Dio’s claim that the Parthians “do not lay in supplies of food or pay.” Cassius Dio may have felt that since the Parthians were not good at sieges, it must have been due to issues of supply.

A Call for Help

Crassus’ confidence was deteriorating quickly. He sent a message to his son Publius to join the battle by taking 1,300 cavalry, 500 archers, and eight cohorts from the infantry. Crassus’ hope was to draw some of the Parthians away from the square, as they were attempting to encircle the Romans. However, two reasons were given for the Parthians to attempt this. The first was to envelop the Romans completely, that in due time the legions would crowd closer as their numbers dwindled. However, Plutarch mentions that the Parthians had trouble enveloping the Roman rear due to marshy terrain, making it difficult for the horses to maneuver. The second reason Plutarch gave seems more plausible, and that was to leave a window open just big enough to make the Romans think that they had found an advantage. Deceiving the Romans into thinking that the Parthians could not surround them, Crassus’ son Publius took the bait and charged ahead. However, it was an old steppe trick. Thinking they were retreating, Publius shouted excitedly, “’They are on the run,’ and charged after them.” The faked retreat worked, Publius was on the move; and the Parthians, stationed farther ahead and well hidden, were awaiting his arrival.

Depiction of a battle scene of Trajan's Column: On the left, Parthian horsemen in armor, fleeing before Roman riders.

Depiction of a battle scene of Trajan's Column: On the left, Parthian horsemen in armor, fleeing before Roman riders. (Public Domain)

Publius and the men were full of joy, thinking that they now had the advantage and victory was surely imminent. But moving farther away from the main body, they soon realized the pursuit was nothing more than a trick when the horse archers wheeled around and were joined by fresh troops. Publius ordered the men to halt where the Parthian cataphract was stationed in front of him. He hoped that they would engage in close combat. Instead, the horse archers in loose order rode around the Romans, kicking up so much sand that a mini-sandstorm fell on top of the Romans and it became nearly impossible to see the enemy.

By using nature as a weapon to disguise their movements, the horse archers were able to engage the Romans safely. Using nature as a force multiplier gave them the advantage of fighting uninhibitedly. Publius and his men could not see or breathe very well, inciting fear, which soon led to panic. The Romans in their disarray tripped, stumbled, and fell in each other’s way. The Parthian horse archers quickly took advantage and the shower of arrows began. Publius did what any commander in the field would do — reestablish order among the men. However, it was too late.

In the convulsion and agony of their pain they writhed as the arrows struck them; the men broke them off in their wounds and then lacerated and disfigured their own bodies by trying to tear out by main force the barbed arrow heads that had pierced through their veins and muscles.

Many of the men died a slow, agonizing death in this fashion. Publius needed to act quickly. The Romans could not engage the horse archers in close combat while the Parthian chain of command, the cataphract, remained nearby. If the Romans could make a break for the cataphract and engage them in close combat, they might have a chance to turn the tide of battle, especially if they could reach the Parthian commander, Surena, and kill him.

Tangling with the Dangerous Cataphract

Publius gave the order to attack the cataphract, but reality set in. The Roman infantrymen who heard Publius showed him that they were unable to go on any further, for their “hands pinioned to their shields, feet nailed through into the ground, so that they were incapable of either running away or defending themselves.”

Roman Army reenactors holding shields in a protective formation.

Roman Army reenactors holding shields in a protective formation. (yeowatzup/CC BY 2.0)

Publius was so in touch with the battle that he was out of touch with his men. He soon realized the carnage that had been inflicted upon his forces. Once Publius assessed the situation, he gathered what remained of his Gallic cavalry and charged toward the cataphract.

Publius’ Gallic cavalry was light, wore little armor, and carried small light spears. One would think Publius would have known better than to charge toward cavalrymen who were better armored than his. They would soon realize this as their light spears broke against the cataphract breastplates. The Gallic cavalry was no match for the armored cataphract, who thrusted their long pikes into the horses or riders. In order to overcome, or at least have a fighting chance, the Gallic cavalryman, if the opportunity presented itself, would grab the pike of the cataphract and hope to use his own weight against him by pulling him off his horse. Many of the cataphract were smart enough to know that being weighed down by their armor made movement cumbersome. Once unseated from his mount, it was best to be on foot or in this case, on his back or knees, as he could get underneath the Gallic cavalryman’s horse and thrust his sword into the animal’s belly. This would cause the horse to rear up, throwing the rider off, and trampling whoever was underneath or nearby before collapsing.

A depiction of Sarmatian cataphracts fleeing from Roman cavalry during the Dacian wars circa 101 AD, at Trajan's Column in Rome (Public Domain). One man has fallen from his horse, the greatest danger for a cataphract.

A depiction of Sarmatian cataphracts fleeing from Roman cavalry during the Dacian wars circa 101 AD, at Trajan's Column in Rome (Public Domain). One man has fallen from his horse, the greatest danger for a cataphract.

Perhaps some cataphract died in this fashion. With so many Gallic cavalry now dead, the only option for the Romans was to retreat. What was left of the Gallic cavalry pulled back, taking a badly wounded Publius and what remained of the infantry to higher ground. This would also prove to be a mistake.

Publius and his men retreated to a nearby sandy hill. However, the sandy hill provided little protection. With the Roman infantry placed in the front, those behind the infantry stuck out like a sore thumb due to the elevation. The horse archers once again pelted the Romans relentlessly with arrows. The Romans could do little more than watch their troops fall.

As the situation quickly deteriorated, two Greeks from the nearby town of Carrhae, Hieronymus and Nicomachus, offered to help Publius escape to a neighboring town, Ichnae, friendly to Rome. Publius refused the offer since so many men were either dead or dying on his account. Like a Roman commander, he attempted to take his own life, but was unable since an arrow had pierced his hand. Thus, he ordered his shield bearer to run him through with his gladius.

The Parthians eventually made it up the hill after the horse archers had softened the Romans a bit more. Once on the hill, the Parthian cataphract charged through the Romans, breaking their bodies and spirits. The remaining Romans surrendered; about five hundred were taken prisoner. As for the body of Publius, the Parthians took the body and severed his head.

When Publius had gone charging off after the Parthian horse archers in an attempt to give the Roman army both breathing room and time to assess the situation, the Parthians attack on the main body slackened. The reason, of course, was that Publius was a high profile target with little protection. Surena understood that if he could get Publius as far away as possible from the main Roman body, he could fix, engage, and defeat the target, which would send shockwaves throughout the Roman army. The Parthian Commander was correct in his judgment.

The Fall of Crassus

As Crassus waited for his son Publius to return from the pursuit, he began to gain confidence that his son was doing all right. Crassus placed his men in regular order and moved them to sloping ground.

During Publius’ engagement, he attempted to send messages to Crassus. The first never made it through, as the messenger was killed, but other messages indicating that Publius needed his help immediately made it through to Crassus. Crassus’ hopes that his son was doing well all came crashing down when it was evident his son needed him. It was at this point that Crassus was unable to make a clear judgment on what to do; either assist his son or stay put. On top of that, he began to lose confidence and feared the worst possible outcome for his army. Crassus waged a tug of war in his head, and finally made the decision to move the Roman army in an attempt to help Publius; Crassus did not know that his son, Publius, was already dead.

Just as Crassus’ army moved forward, the Parthians swooped in again, beating their drums and shouting aloud, but with even greater ferocity than before. As the Roman army prepared for the second wave of attack, some of the Parthian cavalry approached the Roman line. One of the cataphract had a nasty surprise for Crassus; it was the head of Publius on the tip of a spear. But before the battle was to commence again, the cataphract had a message for Crassus saying, “it was impossible, they said, that such a brave and gallant solder could be the son of such a miserable coward as Crassus.” If the Roman army had any confidence left in them, that very moment sucked the life’s blood out of them.

Crassus, who suffered the most from this tragedy, rode up and down the ranks, shouting, “this grief is a private thing of my own. But in you, who are safe and sound, abide the great fortune and the glory of Rome. And now, if you feel any pity for me, who have lost the best son that any father has ever had, show it in the fury with which you face the enemy.” Crassus’ encouraging speech to fight on and think of their ancestors who fought hard battles did little to lift up the men’s spirits, for Plutarch mentions that “while he was speaking these words of encouragement, Crassus could see how few there were who were listening to him with enthusiasm.” When Crassus wanted to hear the war cry of his men, it was a “weak, feeble, and unsteady shout.” The battle was lost.

After Crassus had finished preparing the men for the second wave of battle, the Parthians quickly got to work by surrounding the Romans and showering them with arrows. As the horse archers began to pelt the enemy to death, Surena decided to up the carnage by unleashing the cataphract. The strategy was simple. With Roman confidence withering away, the cataphract would have a much greater chance of driving the Roman infantry closer together and into each other’s way. The strategy paid off! With each charge, the cataphract was successful in penetrating the Roman lines and quickly breaking from engagement, which allowed the horse archers to concentrate their arrows on a compacted target.

The Romans lost men quickly during this second wave of attack as the arrows continually rained down and the cataphract kept crushing and driving back the troops. Crassus had no choice but to retreat; but to do so in the daylight was far more risky, and the night could not come soon enough.

In the end, Crassus made his way down the hill to meet with Surena. The Romans were on foot and the Parthians were on horseback. Surena was so shocked that Crassus, the imperator of Rome was on foot that he quickly offered him a horse, but Crassus declined the offer, saying he was merely following the custom of his own country. Surena quickly went straight to the point and informed Crassus that peace existed between King Orodes and the Romans. In order to make this deal final, an agreement must be signed near the Euphrates River. Surena than spoke to Crassus and said “We find that you Romans have not got very good memories about the terms of treaties.” Afterwards, Crassus called for a horse and suddenly Surena offered him a horse with a golden bridle as a present. The grooms lifted Crassus up onto the saddle and ran alongside the horse, whipping the horse to make the animal go faster. Octavius quickly charged after Crassus and got hold of the bridle. Petronius, along with the men, hurriedly surrounded the horse to slow the animal. It was during this struggle with the horse that a brawl broke out. It seems that the grooms of the horse did little to slow the beast down, so Octavius drew his sword and killed one of the grooms; this in turn caused himself to be killed. Petronius also was struck, but his breastplate saved him.

It was during this struggle that Crassus was killed by a Parthian named Pomaxathres.

The Death of Crassus

“The Death of Crassus” (Public Domain)

However, Cassius Dio expresses that Crassus did not die by the hands of a Parthian, rather a fellow Roman killed him to prevent him from being captured alive.  What is most important and overlooked is that Parthia had a body but no treaty.

Featured image: Deriv; Roman cavalryman (CC BY 3.0) and Cataphracts dueling with lances (Public Domain)


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