Classical Wisdom Weekly / Wednesday July 3rd, 2013
  • Free Video on Euripides,
  • Surena: The general who had it all,
  • The ruse that would ruin Roman warfare…
Quotes of the Day:
“He is a fool who leaves things close at hand to follow what is out of reach.” – Plutarch
“For to err in opinion, though it be not the part of wise men, is at least human.” – Plutarch
“So very difficult a matter is it to trace and find out the truth of anything by history.” –Plutarch
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So who was Surena anyways? 
by Cam Rea
We’re looking at the dramatic and tragic battle of Carrhae. The Roman general, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was the wealthiest man in Rome, decided to wage war on the Persians. Having marched his men into Carrhae, a small town in modern-day Turkey, he quickly found himself under an ambush by the Parthian general Surena.
Bust of SurenaBut before we go any further, it is necessary that we know who Surena was. According to Plutarch, Surena was “an extremely distinguished man. In wealth, birth, and in the honor paid to him, he ranked next after the king; in courage and ability he was the foremost Parthian of his time; and in stature and personal beauty he had no equal.” Plutarch further adds that Surena was “always accompanied by a baggage train of 1,000 camels; 200 wagons carried his harem; 1,000 armored cavalry and still more light armed cavalry acted as his escort.” In total, he had 10,000 at his side.
The first point to make is that Surena is not his real name. His real name is unknown. Plutarch is using the name Surena because the Parthian general comes from the House of Suren, which was located in Sistan. Sistan or Sakastan, “land of the Sakas,” is in what is today southeast Iran, bordering the modern day countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Besides being a ruling house in the region, the House of Suren also “struck silver drachms in the Parthian fashion, with the portrait of the king wearing a bejewelled headdress on the obverse and an enthroned ruler on the reverse.”
This indicates that Surena’s family was in the monetary business and since they struck coins for the Parthian king, they had considerable financial control over the empire. In other words, the power of the purse lies with the House of Suren, granting them, “the ancient privilege of his family, the right to be the first to set the crown on the head of a King of Parthia at the coronation.” This ancient privilege goes back to the 3rd century BC.
The Battle of Carrhae: Shower of Death
By Cam Rea
The bow used by Surena and the Parthians in the battle of Carrhae was no ordinary composite bow.
It was smaller, with a length of approximately 80 cm (2.6 feet), while other bows found in burial mounds at Pazyryk, Russia, measured 127 centimeters (4.2 feet). The arms of the bow curved outward from the handle grip, resembling a “Cupid’s bow”, but the tips lacked ears, giving it more flexibility.  Overall, the Scythian double-curved composite bow was small, stiff, hardy, and powerful.
But how far could the bow deliver an arrow?
As the Parthian horse archers spread out at Carrhae, attempting to attack the Romans from all sides, their bows had to be effective in killing or wounding the Romans at a distance of 160 yards to 200 yards. In addition, the Parthians likely carried anywhere between 30 and 150 arrows, though some estimates say their quivers held up to 200. When engaged in combat, the archer could release up to 12 arrows a minute, while others suggest 20 arrows a minute.
Battle of CarrhaeDr. Kaveh Farrokh suggests that the average Parthian horse archer, with a quiver of 30 arrows, loosed between 8-10 arrows a minute at Carrhae. It would take 2-3 minutes to exhaust his arsenal before needing resupplied. The amount of Parthian horse archers at the battle is estimated at 10,000. Now, 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.
Take 10,000 archers and the amount of arrows fired upon the Roman soldiers are estimated to have been an astounding 1.6-2 million arrows in a 20-minute time frame. The result was very deadly.
But the Parthians were not necessarily looking for one shot, one kill, though I am sure they would have taken the opportunity if it presented itself. The Parthian horse archers at Carrhae likely positioned their bows at a 45-degree angle. From this angle, they could shower the enemy with arrows to kill, if possible, but mutilation would have been the main objective.
Arrows from this distance would fall erratically on top of the enemy. Due to this disadvantage, the intention would have been to demoralize the enemy and hope that their forces would have to withdraw. If this occurred, then the Parthians horse archers could pick apart their enemy with individual kill methods or leave him alone entirely.
However, the rate of death inflicted on the Romans was high. This was the result of the Crassus’ hollow square formation, which made them an easy target, being so densely crowded together. Really, it would have been impossible for a Parthian horse archer to miss.
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, if not worse. Any attempt to chase after them resulted in the horse archers retreating at a full gallop, and in doing so, they would turn their bodies back to shoot at the pursuing enemy. This is where we get the term “Parthian Shot.”
The Parthians were literally shooting fish in a barrel.
Parthian horse archerMoreover, the Parthians were exploiting the Roman way 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 nemesis and pursed them. However, they soon realized and learned from this mistake, the enemy fought by an entirely different method. The Romans could do nothing as death from above poured down on them.
Crassus’ only hope was that, as they stood still in their 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.  However, that would not be 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, and so kept indefinite pressure upon the Romans.
Crassus’ confidence was deteriorating quickly. He sent a message to his son Publius, informing him to join the battle by taking 1,300 cavalry, 500 archers, and eight cohorts from the infantry. His hope was to draw some of the Parthians away from the square as they were attempting to encircle the Romans.
Two reasons are given as to why the Parthians were attempting this. The first reason was to envelop the Romans completely, in due time the legions would crowd in closer as their numbers dwindled. However, Plutarch mentions that the Parthians had trouble enveloping the Romans’ rear because of the marshy terrain where it difficult for horse archers to maneuver.
Scene from the battle of CarrhaeThe second reason Plutarch gives 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. Crassus’ son Publius took the bait and charged ahead. However, it was an old steppe trick. The horse archers quickly deceived Publius into thinking they were retreating and consequently, full of excitement, Publius shouted, “’They are on the run,’ and charged after them.” The feigned retreat worked, Publius was on the move and the Parthians stationed further ahead, well hidden, were awaiting his arrival.
Publius and the men were joyous, they felt that they now had the advantage and victory was surely close at hand.
But as they continued to move further away from the main body, they soon realized the pursuit was nothing more than a trick. The Parthian horse archers wheeled around and were joined by fresh troops. Publius ordered the men to halt as the Parthian cataphract was stationed in front of him. He hoped that they would engage them in close combat, but 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. 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 and fight uninhibited.
Publius and his men could not see or breathe very well. Fear set in 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 of the situation and the arrow shower began once again. Publius did what any commander in the field would do, and tried to reestablish order among the men. However, it was too late.
Read more about the Battle of Carrhae in next week’s edition!