“It was one man’s quest for glory and riches that doomed the lives of five legions. It would not be the last war Rome would fight against the Parthians but it was one that was surely the most tragic.”
By Ron Singerton
May 6, 53 BCE: General Marcus Crassus stood watching in horror as the unbelievable was happening.
Soldiers from seven Roman legions totaling 50,000 men were being cut down by the hundreds beneath a withering rain of enemy arrows. He’d led them to this searing desert plain more than 2,000 miles from Rome in hopes of defeating the Parthian Empire. Now it was his army that was being vanquished – bogged down in the sand by a much smaller force of just 10,000 mounted archers. Such was the Battle of Carrhae, one of the worst defeats for Rome since Cannae, hundreds of years earlier.
As the fighting raged before Crassus and his retinue, a Parthian horseman trotted towards the commander. Impaled on the tip of the enemy’s spear was the head of a Roman: Publius, Crassus’ own son.
“From what family is this brave man?” he shouted as he brandished the head. “And where is that coward Marcus Crassus?”
The 62-year-old general and governor of Roman Syria was desperate to restore his nobility in the eyes of his men. Choking back is sorrow and rage, he pleaded with his forlorn legions.
“Countrymen, the loss of my son is mine alone,” he shouted. “We will fight on as Publius would have us do. Take away their joy. Do not dismay, for whoever tries for great things must suffer something.”
Crassus’ words, dramatic as they were, did little to turn the tide; Rome’s defeat was inevitable.
The fiasco at Carrhae marked the end of a ruinous campaign for the Republic. After trekking deep into the heart of the Mesopotamia, Crassus would lose more than 20,000 Roman soldiers in a single ambush. Ten thousand more would be captured and enslaved.
The survivors, led by Gaius Cassius Longinus — the future senator who would help assassinate Julius Caesar, fled back to Roman Syria with fewer than two legions. Some 400 others hastened north to Armenia and then marched east beyond the Taklamakan Desert. These resolute few crossed the treacherous Pamir Mountains on the Great Silk Road seeking some sort of passage back to Rome.
In Search of Glory
For years, Marcus Lucinius Crassus desperately wanted a triumph, a military parade through the streets of Rome. Any general who killed the requisite 5,000 enemies in battle was entitled to such an honour, which saw the victor, his face painted red, ride through Rome’s streets in a golden chariot with his swaggering legions strutting behind. He would hear the adulation of thousands as he proceeded to the Field of Mars to be awarded the vaunted laurel wreath.
As a member of the First Triumvirate, the famed three-man political alliance that also included Gnaeus Pompey and Julius Caesar, Crassus had already missed out on one triumph, having come late to assist in the defeat of Spartacus. Undeterred, he convinced Caesar at the conqueror’s palace in Cisalpine Gaul that the Parthians must be defeated for bleeding Rome dry over the price of silk, one of the Republic’s most sought-after commodities. Although traders from the west were allowed to cross Parthian lands to reach the “Silk People” in China, the Romans had no idea whether the luxurious cloth derived from a plant or an animal, much less a worm.
Of course, Caesar and Pompey both knew the real reason behind Crassus’ desire to invade Parthia; an empire with which Rome already had a treaties. The capture of sacking of the Parthian capitol of Ctesiphon would increase his political power. And Crassus needed the boost.
Though he liked to claim that he was a person of simple tastes, the people disliked Crassus, derisively dubbing him Dives, Latin for “wealthy man.” He was famously unscrupulous too. Part realtor, part arsonist, he made a fortune by secretly burning down properties, buying them up for a few denarii and then building upscale apartments for wealthy clients atop of the ashes.
A successful campaign in Mesopotamia would surely cleanse his dubious reputation.
Crassus’ Parthian Gamble
Unfortunately for the scheming Crassus, his invasion of Parthia was plagued with misfortune from the very beginning. Aging, rotund, and having not set foot on a battlefield for over 20 years, the general’s plan faced political condemnation. Prior to embarking, he was confronted in Rome by the tribune Fabius Ateius.
“I curse you in the name of Great Jupiter and all the gods,” raged Ateius. “You and your men will perish and bring shame to Rome. You defy the Fates and will die in agony.”
Shaken, he and his men proceeded to the Roman province of Syria where he was visited by the Armenian king, Artavasdes, no friend of the Parthians. The beleaguered monarch offered Crassus 50,000 soldiers on top of his seven legions in addition to safe passage through Armenian lands to reach the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. But Crassus mockingly turned down the offer. The insulted Artavasdes hurried back to Armenia fearing the wrath of the vengeful Parthians.
Meanwhile, the Parthian king Orodes II, aware of Crassus’ plans, sent emissaries to negotiate. After having his appeals rudely rebuked, the ruler instructed his finest general, Surena, to delay the Romans using 10,000 Saka horsemen dispatched from the eastern half of the empire. He also sent several hundred of his elite cataphract heavy cavalry. And while Orodes marched against the Armenians himself in search of vengeance, he unleashed his oily sycophant, the Arab Achmed bin Ariamnes upon the easily flattered Crassus in hopes of duping the vainglorious Roman commander.
In a panoply of dazzling horsemanship, the double-dealing Ariamnes paraded his 6,000 cavalry before Crassus, offering the riders as an escort. Having won the confidence of the Roman, Orodes’ agent convinced the invaders that with the building heat of summer, a speedy march across the scorching desert was the very best strategy to bring the Parthians to heel quickly. Moreover, Crassus’ army would require an Arab to show the way.
Normally when marching their legions across deserts, Roman generals sent detachments out in advance of their army to lay down water reserves for the column. But acting on Ariamnes’ advice, Crassus declared there was no time to position the life-sustaining stockpiles – the troops would be moving too quickly to rest and drink. So, 50,000 Roman troops, each lugging a shield, armor and gear, trudged into the desert wasteland with limited water. Wearing iron-studded sandals on their feet, the infantrymen sank into the burning sand while trying to keep up with the cavalry. Crassus, riding beside his Arab guides, chided the men to press on despite their growing thirst.
“Keep up, do you think you are in the vineyards of Campana?” he cried.
From the beginning, the venture was plagued by superstition and despair.
Crossing the Zeugma River into Parthia, a sudden storm and flash floods struck the army. While providing a temporary respite from the heat, the deluge drowned Crassus’ horse handler. The omen was followed by another grim sign: During an animal sacrifice performed by Crassus himself, the putrid entrails slid out of the general’s hands and onto the ground spoiling the ceremony. Later, a meal of salt and lentils was given to the troops; a supper usually served at funerals. Yet despite the many signs of ill-fortune, the Romans were still professional soldiers and remained confident that few of their enemies would survive when set upon by legions’ disciplined formations. Little did the Romans realize the Parthians had no intention of fighting a set-piece battle.
After days of marching and as the parched Romans neared the point of exhaustion, the Parthians sprung their trap. Without warning, the Arab cavalry far ahead of the Roman column suddenly turned about and tore back past the bewildered legionaries disappearing into a desert mirage. Crassus sent scouts ahead to discover what had frightened their guides. The patrol came streaming back terrified, many of them impaled with arrows. The Parthians were approaching.
Soon the enemy’s light cavalry appeared 200 yards from the legions. Almost immediately, the riders parted to reveal the elite cataphracts bringing up the rear. They carried banners of silk that fairly glowed in the blinding sun as kettle drums pounded. Despite the scorching heat, the sights and sounds sent shivers down the Romans’ spines.
Confused by the sudden appearance of the enemy and without the protection of their Arab escorts, Crassus ordered his legions to form a single line of three ranks facing the threat. As the troops scrambled into position, the general had second thoughts and commanded the men to form square instead. Still hoping to meet the Parthians in open battle, the general rode from one legion to the next attempting to reassure skittish troops.
As Crassus struggled to shore up morale, 10,000 Saka horsemen charged in from the desert indiscriminately firing thousands of arrows into Roman ranks. The order, form testudo (turtle), was given in which the first rank of hastali held their shields to the front while the more experienced principes and triarii arranged their shields like roof tile, over their heads. The Saka arrows continued to fall; the archers rode with camels in tow, each of which carried a seemingly endless supply of shafts for their composite bows.
As the Roman’s cowered beneath their impromptu shelter, Crassus ordered his scorpions into action. Each legion carried 64 of the long-range bolt firing catapults. Their volleys felled hundreds of Saka, but the crews were unprotected and the enemy archers slowly picked them off.
As the rain of missiles continued through the day, Roman soldiers’ shields began to crack and splinter under the continuing assault. Arrows burst through the wood and began impaling legionnaires, pinning their feet to the ground. The ranks contracted as thousands fell.
Publius, Crassus’ son, hoped to regain the initiative with a cavalry charge, but of his 6,000 riders, all but 1,500 were cut down. As the Roman horsemen attacked, the Saka simply rode deeper into the desert and launched more arrows at their pursuers. In a desperate bid to turn things around, Publius wheeled his cavalry back and led a last-ditch attack against the cataphracts. Noting the enemy’s long lances, he ordered his men to drop from their horses when their animals were impaled by Parthians. Once on the ground the Romans could slit the bellies of the huge enemy mounts and then the throats of their armored riders.
Publius survived the assault but soon found himself surrounded with a handful of his men. Eager to deprive the enemy of a prisoner, he ordered his comrades to kill him.
As dusk fell, Crassus’ tribunes convened to plead with their general to seek terms before a complete massacre ensued. Recognizing the futility of continued resistance, Crassus, accompanied by his staff, rode forward to parley with Surena. As the negotiations continued, a scuffle broke out in which a Parthian was killed by Crassus’ aide. In turn, the tribune was slain. As the fighting continued, Crassus was pulled from his mount. The Parthians decapitated him on the spot.
With darkness falling, legionnaires who never had a chance to close with the enemy, could only wait for dawn and their own destruction. At sunrise, the killing continued. Within hours, the legions were destroyed. It would be many decades before their vaunted eagles were returned, or the standards holding high the plaque that read, SPQR, the Senate and People of Rome.
Thus, one man’s quest for glory and riches that doomed the lives of five legions. It would not be the last war Rome would fight against the Parthians, but it was one that was surely the most tragic.
For the Parthians, Carrhae was a great victory. But Surena, enjoying fame a bit too much, displeased King Orodes. It was not long before the general was put to death. One must beware of jealous kings.
History sometimes offers us a cautionary tale, for although the times and technology change, manifestations of human avarice rarely do. Leaders’ voracious appetites for fame, diversion and bravado often lead to unforeseen disaster. And Carrhae is a better example than most.
Postscript – The Lost Legionnaires
In the 1940’s Oxford professor Homer H. Dubs, having studied and transliterated ancient Han Dynasty writings, hypothesized that hundreds of legionnaires escaping Carrhae actually marched east for more than a dozen years to a desolate region of Northwest China.
Of course, no Roman before Carrhae had ever visited the “Silk People” nor had they any knowledge of those they would encounter or how long the distance to that mysterious river might be. But according to Dubs (and some scholars have questioned it) the Romans did evade the Parthians, marched through the kingdom of Sogdiana (east of Parthia) and fought the nomadic Xiongnu who took joy in raiding the Celestial Kingdom. Apparently, based on Han records, Roman legionnaires also engaged the Han armies and were taken prisoner.
A hundred 2,000-year-old skeletons, presumably Roman, have been unearthed along with the remnants of ancient bread baked in the shape of a bull’s head, a Roman tradition – the bull was sacred to the Mithrian religion, the pre-Christian faith of the Roman army.
Interestingly enough, the current inhabitants of Zhelaizhai believe that they are the progeny of those long-ago legionnaires. The DNA of 56 per cent percent of the population have European genes and their non-Chinese appearance can be seen on the Web. Of course, over the millennia there may have been other strains that came into the region and some may have pre-dated the Romans. But the concept is an interesting one and perhaps the spirits of those long dead legionnaires would look upon it most kindly.
Ron Singerton’s historical novel, The Silk and the Sword (Penmore Press), thoroughly explores the battle of Carrhae and the historic characters that Plutarch and other Roman historians described so candidly. The book is featured on Amazon as is its prequel, Villa of Deceit. Singerton’s most recent historical novel, A Cherry Blossom in Winter, is also available on Amazon. This fascinating work concerns the Romanov Dynasty, militaristic Japan and the Battle of Tsushima, the naval action that sank the Tsar’s navy. A pilot episode for an eight -part TV series has been written for A Cherry Blossom in Winter and the author is seeking an agent or producer. An article on the battle of Tsushima will soon appear on MilitaryHistoryNow.com.