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Carrhae 53 BC – Roman–Parthian War DOCUMENTARY

August 13, 2019


Rome’s wars against the Empires of Ancient
Persia began almost immediately after the two civilisations came into direct contact,
and would continue for half a millennium after. The first century BC was a time during which
the newly reformed Roman legions reigned supreme on the battlefield, suffering only a few defeats.
However, in 53 BC the Romans met a completely new army at the battle of Carrhae. In the aftermath of the Diadochi Wars, Seleucus’
new empire reigned over the vast Asian territories of the former Achaemenid Empire. Among those
were the regions of Bactria and Parthia, which quickly sought to assert their own autonomy
and revolted in 247 BC. During this time, Parthia was receiving wave after wave of nomadic
migration from Central Asia, so in the same year one of these tribal leaders – Arsaces
of the Parni tribe – managed to depose the rebellious governor Andragoras, and occupied
the region for himself. This marked the beginning of the Arsacid dynasty in Parthia.
After achieving a tentative peace with the newly independent Bactrian kings and weathering
a series of attempted reconquests by Seleucus II and Antiochus III, the Parthians began
to gradually increase their territory at the expense of the waning Seleucids.
This process accelerated during the reign of Mithridates I. Ruling from 171-132 BC,
Mithridates oversaw the transformation of the Parthian state into a mighty empire. He
embarked on a series of conquests, first seizing parts of Bactria upon the death of Diodotus
II during the 150s. Media, Atropatene and parts of Mesopotamia soon followed. Most critical
was the annexation of Seleucia and Babylon, where the Parthian ruler was first crowned
‘King of Kings’, symbolically inheriting the ancient Achaemenid title.
Upon Mithridates’ death, a number of crises began at once – nomadic invasions from the
east, internal strife and a resurgent Seleucid rump state. However, Mithridates II ascended
to the throne in 124 BC and managed to stabilise the rising empire. Whilst reconquering lost
territories, this king also established firm trading relations with the Han Chinese, and
gained suzerainty over the Kingdom of Armenia. By his death in 87BC, Mesopotamia was firmly
under Parthian control, with a new capital city known as Ctesiphon. This good fortune did not last long, and when
Mithridates perished, a period of civil strife began. Seeing his western and eastern rivals
weakened like this, the King of Armenia Tigranes broke his vassalage with Parthia and invaded
both the Parthian realm and the Seleucid remnant. Northern Mesopotamia fell to the Armenians,
and the once great Seleucid Empire was finally extinguished forever.
When Roman armies ended this threat at the Battle of Tigranocerta, their success led
to Roman and Parthian borders meeting for the first time. Parthian king Sinatruces declined
the attempts of Mithridates of Pontus to form an anti-Roman alliance. This policy of non-intervention
continued during the reign of his son Phraates III, who also refused Roman requests to support
their campaigns against Pontus. Nevertheless, informal arrangements between Rome and Parthia
led to the drawing of a border between the two sides at the Euphrates River. With the
Pontic kingdom and its Armenian ally subjugated, it was clear that Roman-Parthian interactions
would inevitably lead to border conflicts. With the context for future antagonism between
the two empires established, we must now turn to Rome. After the horrors of Sulla’s civil
wars, Roman politics were dominated in the 50s by three statesmen – Pompey, Crassus and
Caesar. 59 BC saw the duumvirate succeed in backing
Caesar’s bid for the consulship. He managed to dominate his co-consul during the year,
and accomplished what his partners needed of him, receiving a command in Gaul as a proconsul.
Three years later, prompted by Caesar, the three men met at Luca in order to organise
what would become the first triumvirate. They had a bill passed through the senate, essentially
partitioning the Roman state between them. Caesar was given a five year extension to
his command in Gaul in order to complete the conquest, while Pompey received the two Spanish
provinces, which he was permitted to govern in absentia. Finally, and most importantly
for us, Crassus was granted the province of Syria, and legal authority to raise 7 legions.
In addition, he also had the power to make war and peace without consulting the Roman
senate, a fact that would set the stage for the war to come.
Ever since the borders of Rome and Parthia met, tensions between the two had predictably
skyrocketed, but both states knew that ultimately, Rome was nominally more powerful. With this
in mind, it is crucial that we detail events within Parthia which led up to the clash. In 57 BC, the weak Parthian king Phraates
III was murdered by two of his sons, igniting a period of unrest within the country. The
elder of the two, yet another Mithridates, quickly took the throne as Mithridates III.
This was not to last long, as he was even more swiftly dethroned by a group of nobles
led by the aristocratic Surena clan, who subsequently installed the younger brother, Orodes, on
the throne. Instead of being executed, Mithridates was
relegated to being governor of Media. This proved to be an unwise move however, because
he soon contacted the Romans to gain assistance in restoring him to the throne. He fled west
into the arms of his would-be benefactors, but was then sent back into the Parthian capital
to undermine the monarchy’s stability. Another Parthian Civil War had begun, and Rome hungrily
eyed the rich eastern territories, looking to absorb them like it had many others.
This fractious situation is the state in which Crassus found the Roman east when he received
the Syrian command, and the way was clear for him to gain Alexander-like military glory
by subduing the apparently weak enemy. Small scale Roman military activity in the region
prior to Crassus’ arrival in Antioch had alerted the Parthians to what was soon to
come, and they set about preparing for it accordingly. Full mobilisation of their armed
forces was undertaken as they waited for Rome to make the first move. When they did, the
Parthian forces would shift and counter it. By mid 54 BC everything was prepared and the
legions were ready. The key question Crassus now had to answer was what route his army
would take on their march. He could either invade from Syria and into western Mesopotamia
directly, or take an indirect path through the Armenian mountains and move into Parthia
from the north. Crassus chose the first route, probably due to it being the most direct and
easier to traverse than the alternative. The Romans then crossed the Euphrates, marking
the start of the first Romano-Parthian war. Soon after the war began, Crassus met the
local satrap Silaces in battle, decisively defeating his vastly outnumbered forces near
Ichnae. With his troops scattered, Silaces fled wounded to the court in order to inform
King Orodes. With the region’s local forces trampled
beneath the legionary boot, Crassus garrisoned the region’s key towns such as Ichnae, Nicephorium
and Carrhae. Almost all of the Greek cities went over to the Romans voluntarily, with
one exception. The city of Zenodotium invited a Roman force into the city, but then had
them massacred. Naturally, this act brought the Republic’s wrath down upon the city,
and it was soon viciously sacked. With his gains secured, Crassus withdrew his army back
to Syria for the winter, the campaign of 54 having been a total success. Having raised two armies, the Parthians also
campaigned during 54. Orodes II possessed the bulk of Parthia’s armies in Media, while
his leading noblemen raised a second force from their own estates. The plan was for Orodes
to knock Armenia out of the war, while the aristocratic forces would play a sacrificial
role in buying the king time. The commander of the secondary army is known
to us as ‘Surenas’ – a name which refers to that of his noble family, rather than his
given name, which we do not know. According to Plutarch, this man was the foremost Parthian
of his time, having no equal in stature, talent and personal beauty. The Surena clan also
supposedly possessed the authority to place the crown on the heads of Parthian kings,
indicating their royal importance. Surenas quickly raised a formidable army and
marched with it into southern Mesopotamia, where the rebel Mithridates was fortified.
The Parthian commander assaulted Seleucia, capturing it in short order, before capturing
Mithridates and sending him to Orodes. He was executed not long after, while the key
Mesopotamian cities of Babylon and Ctesiphon also fell to Surenas. So, while Rome was making
gains during 54BC, the Parthians were doing the same.
Back in Syria, the Roman commander’s relatively inexperienced army was also short of cavalry,
as the contingent from Rome’s client of Armenia had not arrived. The situation was
alleviated somewhat when Crassus’ son Publius arrived to reinforce his father with 1,000
Gallic horsemen. These troops had been loaned by Caesar, with whom Publius had been serving
with distinction for years. 54BC’s campaigning ended with the Romans on the front foot, but
with plenty of reason to be cautious. A Parthian ambassador was sent to speak with
Crassus before the campaigns of 53, proclaiming that the king would generously allow him to
retreat. This envoy laughed dismissively upon the Roman’s insistence that he would give
the Parthian envoy a reply in the Parthian capital of Seleucia. In response, the envoy
held out the palm of his hand to Crassus, scornfully stating: “O Crassus, hair will
grow here before you see Seleucia.” After crossing the Euphrates at Zeugma, Crassus
decided against marching towards the Mesopotamian cities, and instead marched east in May. He
knew that his scouts had spotted Parthian forces in the region, and wanted to defeat
them in the field. As Rome’s legions approached the River Belikh, scouts blundered into Surenas’
army and were brushed back, suffering many casualties. Nevertheless they managed to inform
Crassus, who decided it was time to fight. He ordered his troops to freshen up, eat a
quick meal and march. That afternoon, the two armies finally found one another on the
plains near Carrhae. The Roman army lining up for battle at Carrhae comprised of 7 legions
as its core, totalling roughly 34,000 legionaries. Accompanying this significant force were 4,000
native auxilia and 4,000 light cavalry, 1,000 of which were the Gauls brought from Caesar
by Publius. Their Parthian enemy was a completely alien
force from a totally different military tradition. Surenas brought no infantry at all to the
battlefield, constructing his army as a direct counter to Roman strengths in close quarters.
To this end, 9,000 horse archers armed with short compound bows made up the majority of
his army, while 1,000 heavily armoured cataphracts equipped with heavy lances formed the flower
of Parthia’s nobility and freemen. As the Romans caught sight of their adversary,
they would have seen a numerically weak force, barely armoured at all. This was yet another
ingenious ploy by Surenas, who had cleverly concealed his numbers by hiding the depth
of his army behind the width of an advance guard. In addition, he had ordered the army’s
cataphracts to wear robes above their armour, so that any observer would see them as just
regular cavalrymen, rather than the truly lethal heavy ‘knights’ that they were.
Encouraged into battle by his son, Crassus marched to meet Surenas’ army in battle,
thoroughly unaware of the danger he truly faced from the utterly prepared Parthian army.
At first, Crassus arrayed the troops in a long, extended line with cavalry on each wing
to prevent encirclement. However, he changed his mind at the last minute and reformed his
forces into a square formation before advancing, probably in an attempt to give the Roman army
strength on all sides. Now, to the terrifying battle-roar of Parthian
drums and bronze bells, Surenas led a full-scale cavalry charge against the Roman square, with
cataphracts in front and horse archers behind. As they did so, the Parthian general gave
the order for his cataphracts to cast away their concealing robes, simultaneously revealing
their true nature in an attempt to damage the morale of the enemy. Unaffected, and with
their typical iron discipline, the Romans locked their shields and braced for the charge.
However, just before the impact, Surenas’ cavalry peeled around the sides of Crassus’
square, quickly encircling it with a swarm of highly mobile horse archers while the cataphracts
pulled back and regrouped. A short-lived attempt by the Roman light troops
to break the flanking maneuver was immediately met with a storm of arrows, forcing them back
into the square. With their enemy pinned, the mounted archers began unleashing a barrage
of arrows upon the Roman square from all sides. Used to dealing with arrow fire, the legions
employed their famous testudo, confident that their heavy armour and shields could weather
the storm. However, it quickly became clear that the unfamiliar barbed arrows used by
the Parthians, as well as their powerful compound bows, were shockingly capable of penetrating
Roman protection. As the horse archers loosed volley after volley into the enemy square,
the Romans began to suffer losses. Even as this went on, Crassus must have felt
hopeful despite the rain of missiles. Once the horse archers emptied their quivers, he
must have thought, the enemy horsemen would have to attack him close up or withdraw. The
triumvir was in for a nasty surprise. Surenas now revealed the most cunning part of his
plan: a mobile rearming train of 1,000 camels carrying vast stores of arrows was sent out
behind the Parthian cavalry. So long as the mounted archers resupplied at different times
and so long as the camels were evenly spaced, the barrage would continue indefinitely. If
Crassus, having realised what was happening, did not make a move now, the Romans would
be killed where they stood. With a mixed force of 4,000 cavalry and legionaries,
Publius was ordered to lead a breakout. His contingent charged out of the square, causing
the Parthian horsemen in front of it to retreat almost immediately. Not wanting to lose the
momentum his surprise attack had gained, Publius pushed further, right into Surenas’ counter-trap.
As his retreating foe withdrew, they shifted in the direction of their regrouped reserve
of cataphracts, which now charged with their lances. The maneuverable mounted archers now
turned on their pursuers. The impact was devastating. As Surenas’ elite heavy cavalry engaged
the lightly equipped Roman horsemen, the resurgent horse archers fired into their flank and into
the mass of encumbered legionaries. It was all too much for the outgunned Romans, and
they fled defeated to a nearby hill and locked their shields, ready to make a gallant last
stand. Publius, determined not to desert his command, ordered one of his soldiers to kill
him. All resistance on the hill now collapsed, and a final thunderous charge by the Parthian
cataphracts at last destroyed this isolated unit. Back at the main force, Crassus had a decision
to make. He could either retreat and leave his son to certain death, or advance, risk
his whole army and hope to save him. He chose the latter. They had not gotten far when a
cloud of dust and the beating of war drums drew Roman attention, followed by the head
of Publius mounted on a lance. At this horrifying sight, Roman morale finally broke.
Surenas employed his favourite tactic again. The cataphracts charged, the Romans tightened
their formation and the horse archers encircled, showering the square with arrows once again,
slowly bleeding the army to death until dusk ended the assault.
At nightfall, the Parthians withdrew and camped nearby, leaving a devastated army behind it
– only 20,000 of the original 42,000 Roman troops remained to fight, but many were injured.
Crassus was immobilised with grief and loss, so the two surviving senior officers – Cassius
and Octavius, led the survivors in retreat to the town of Carrhae. The men who were too
wounded to walk were ruthlessly left behind. During the march, panic would periodically
take hold and the Romans would form up for battle, before settling down again. Eventually
they reached Carrhae and were brought inside the city, still counting around 15,000 men. When dawn broke, the Parthians slaughtered
the 4,000 injured men who had been left behind and continued on to find Crassus – Surenas
would not let him escape, but did not know where he was. Eventually figuring out he was
in Carrhae, Surenas went there, but realised Crassus had fled into the hills. He subsequently
was found and ignominiously killed by Parthian soldiers, after being tricked into faux peace
negotiations. The death of the triumvir and the destruction
of his army destabilised the political situation in Rome, leading to an eventual fracture between
Pompey and Caesar. The only section of Crassus’ army to return safely to Syria was that led
by one Gaius Cassius Longinus – the man who would eventually conspire against Caesar in
44 BC. Surenas had inflicted the worst defeat on
the Romans in 150 years. As an appropriate reward for this great service, Orodes II had
him put to death for treason. Though Parthia had gained victory in the first war between
them and Rome, conflicts between the two states would last for centuries to come. New videos on Roman and Iranian histories
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