The year was 53 BC. It was the first of the battles between the Roman and Persian empires, and one of the most crushing defeats in Roman history.
Bust of Marcus CrassusLeading the Romans was Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was a member of the First Triumvirate and the wealthiest man in Rome (in fact one of the richest men of all time). He, like many before him, had been enticed by the prospect of riches and military glory and so decided to invade Parthia, or modern day north-eastern Iran, despite being sixty years old and hearing impaired.
Additionally, Crassus did not feel obliged to have the official consent of the Senate … and so took his army and marched directly through the deserts of Mesopotamia. It was Carrhae, a small town in modern-day Turkey, where his army clashed with the Parthian opposition, led by Surena. This would be where the famous battle of Carrhae would take place.
Read below to learn about the dramatic and tragic moment in history…
We also have an Aesop’s fable on foolish asses, as well as the next chapter in the Jason and the Argonauts’ myth. He finally retrieves the golden fleece, but how and what agreements does he dangerously make in order for it to happen? Find out below…
The Battle of Carrhae
By Cam Rea
What made matters worse during the march was that Crassus was not wearing the purple robe that Roman generals normally wear. Instead, he wore a black robe, as if he was leading a funeral procession. He quickly changed after he realized the mishap, however, black may have been more appropriate. As Crassus pressed on, pushing his men harder, the cavalry scouts that were sent ahead came back in fewer numbers. Surena, the Parthian general, had set up an ambush killing many of these scouts. This was Surena’s calling card – the land the Romans were advancing would be the preferred battleground.
But this action tells us something else… Surena was able to spread disinformation via Ariamnes, governor of the province Cappadocia. It was Ariamnes who previously told the Roman general Crassus that it was best to avoid Seleucia, a city on the west bank of the Tigris River, but instead head straight into Parthia. The Parthians have not fully mobilized, Ariamnes said, take advantage quickly because only an advanced guard waits and has been placed solely to check your movements under the command of Surena.
However, that was not the case. As the Roman scouts ventured further ahead of the main body, they soon found themselves in a trap. Those who made it back reported that the enemy was great in number and full of confidence.
Ariamnes’ lie seemed to have gone unnoticed by Crassus, who was excited, impatient, and was making inconsistent decisions. Crassus was obviously overwhelmed by the situation until Cassius, a Roman senator and coincidentally a leading instigator of the plot to kill Julius Caesar, gave him some advice. Cassius suggested that they should form the men into one, shallow long line and that the cavalry should be divided between the two wings. Cassius’ plan seemed like the right strategy to choose.
Roman Battle Formations
However, Crassus disagreed. He decided that it would be best to form the men into one huge hollow square with 12 cohorts on each side and a cavalry detachment next to each cohort. By choosing the hollow square strategy, Crassus felt that it would ensure equal balance along with equal protection. Cassius would take command of one of the wings and Publius, Crassus’ son, would command the other wing. Crassus, himself, would command from the middle of the square. They moved forward in this formation until they came to the Balissus stream.
The men were hot, hungry, thirsty, weak and weary and looked upon the stream as a blessing. The officers advised Crassus it was best to stay next to the stream, set up camp, and allow the men to rest, while a new scouting party could be formed and sent out to gather intelligence on the Parthian order of battle.
Unfortunately for the men, Crassus could not make a sound decision. He agreed that the men should eat and drink, but standing up and staying in formation. Then Crassus changed his mind – yes, the men can eat and drink, so long as they march. However, that was about to change as Crassus, yet again, gave a new order – moveout.
Many of the men likely ate and drank on the move, but equally many could not, because Crassus forced them at a quick pace to keep up with the cavalry.
As Crassus pushed on, the enemy slowly came into sight. Crassus commanded his army to halt and to their surprised eyes the enemy were, “neither so numerous nor so splendidly armed as they had expected.”
Bust of SurenaHowever, 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 (read: real) 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 with brass bells roared across the field, vibrating Roman armor as well as their hearts. The use of sound as a psychological weapon before battle manipulated human behavior in both the Romans and Parthians, affecting all senses. In other words, the home team is pumped up while the away team is losing confidence quickly.
Plutarch mentions that, “before the Romans had recovered from their consternation at this din, the enemy suddenly dropped the coverings of their armour.” Essentially once the drums roared no more, the Roman army, already physically weak and now discombobulated by the intense sound, were in for another surprise. The Parthian heavy cavalry, otherwise known as a cataphract, were charging towards them, with Surena leading the way.
And 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.”
Map of MargianaInterestingly, the Margianian steel came from a Parthian province known as Margiana, located in what is today the country of Turkmenistan, northern Afghanistan and southern Uzbekistan. It was in Margiana, rich in metal resources, where the iron ore was mined, and possibly refined, for metal goods, like weapons and armor. Additionally, the Parthian heavy cavalry was armored in bronze plates, most likely refined from the local Margianian tin and copper.
As the awe-inspiring cataphract closed in, the legionaries locked shields to create a continuous wall. Surena quickly noticed that the Roman line was steady and firm… they were not going to budge. Surena promptly broke off the charge, giving the impression that they lacked confidence in engaging the Romans in a full frontal assault.
However, this was just another ruse.
Margianian steelUnseen to the Romans was the 10,000 Parthian horse archers, behind the ‘retreating’ cataphract charge. These archers immediately enveloped the Romans, firing on them from all sides. Crassus was most likely stunned, but he quickly assessed the situation. His forces were bogged down by unarmored petty horse archers, who were vulnerable to missile attack. Crassus ordered his light infantry to engage them.
But as the light infantry left the safety of the hollow square to engage the enemy, they were quickly showered with arrows. Meanwhile the Parthian horse archers galloped away, causing the light infantry to quickly pull back and crash into the Roman lines seeking safety. The sight, speed, and agility of the Parthian horse archers spooked the Romans, but what really terrified the Romans was the Parthians’ primary weapon, the composite bow…
Stay ‘tuned for the continuation of the Battle of Carrhae next week…
[You can now read part two here: ]