Crassus and the cataphract catastrophe at Carrhae, or why politicians shouldn’t be allowed to lead armies
Ah, Crassus. One of the ten richest men of all time, a man so greedy that his name has come to symbolize ostentatious wealth. He was one of three co-rulers of republican Rome, along with Pompey and future dictator Julius Caesar. One of Crassus’s methods of acquiring wealth was owning his own fire department…and the price for putting out a burning home? Sign the deed over to him. Nice guy eh? Not content with his great wealth and power, and jealous of Pompey and Julius Caesar’s military accomplishments, in 53 BC Crassus set out to win military glories himself. He raised an army, allied himself with the Armenians, and marched on the Parthian Empire, a great nation that encompassed modern Iran and bordering regions from 238 BC until 226 AD.
Crassus was advised by the Armenian King to march through Armenia where Crassus’s troops would be supplied by friendly locals, and they could combine forces to invade Parthia. Crassus ignored this sound advice, in fact ignoring sound advice appears to be a hallmark of his military campaign. He marched straightaways from Syria into Parthia, expecting to meet up with the Armenian army there. Of course the Parthians had no quarrel with the Romans, and they were understandably a bit annoyed by this. Unbeknown to Crassus, the Parthian King led the main part of his army into Armenia, and left a large cavalry force under a general Surena to harass Crassus. There would be no Armenian army marching into Parthia to meet up with Crassus.
So into Parthia Crassus went. His advisers urged him to follow a river, so that his men would have access to water, and one of their flanks would be protected. Crassus would have none of this, and led his army straight across a desert. He had a fine army, maybe four times the size of the Parthian force of 10,000 sent to harass him. The Parthians had 1000 cataphracts (pictured above) and 9,000 horse archers. Yes, the horse archers of “Parthian shot” fame. These superbly trained archers could feint a retreat, then while riding away, turn in their saddles and shoot arrows behind them. Still, one would think that 35,000 armoured legionaries with 8,000 cavalry could deal with a force a quarter their size.
In his defence, Crassus was deceived by a fake turncoat into taking the desert route. Still, it showed poor judgement. After crossing the desert, the Romans spotted the Parthians. His men were tired and needed rest, but Crassus deployed for battle and marched toward the smaller Parthian army. First the Parthians tried to impress the Romans by concealing their cataphract’s armour and revealing it all at once. The Romans were unimpressed. So Surena had his thousands of horse archers start showering the Roman army with arrows. Crassus had his men form up a defence and they waited for the Parthians to run out of arrows.
And waited. And waited some more. When the Romans saw camel trains arriving and unloading vast quantities of arrows, Crassus realized that something must be done. He ordered his son to lead a force of cavalry to drive away the Parthia bowmen. And this they did, chasing them quite a distance from the Roman army. Crassus then ordered his troops to form up into the “turtle formation” and proceed. The turtle formation is where a group of men form a solid square. The men on the outside of the square hold their shields to protect the sides, the men in the middle hold their shields above their heads. Thus a mass of men can move forward and be basically impervious to arrow fire. It’s a neat trick. It’s also exhausting, slow moving, and not a very good way to fight hand-to-hand.
At this point the Parthian horsemen returned and began hammering the Romans again. What had happened to the Roman cavalry and Crassus’s son? Once away from the Roman army, they had been surrounded and killed by the Parthians. Turned out that the Parthian cataphracts made mincemeat of the far more lightly armoured Roman cavalry. The Parthians paraded Crassus son’s head on a pike for Crassus to see. At this point one suspects that Crassus was beginning to doubt the wisdom of his plan, and after the day’s disasters he agreed with his generals that retreat was the only option.
That night the Roman army abandoned its wounded and headed home. The remaining Roman cavalry said “Great idea, we’ll meet you in Rome” and rode off in a cloud of dust. The army managed to make it to the safety of the town of Carrhae. The next morning the Parthians slaughtered the abandoned Roman wounded. And Crassus, one again fooled by a Parthian spy, ordered his army out of the safety of the city. Soon enough the exhausted and demoralized Romans were once again surrounded by skilled horsemen shooting arrows. The Roman legionaries had an idea…Crassus was told to go to Surena and sue for peace…or his own men would kill him.
It’s not exactly established what happened to Crassus at that point. The Parthians may have killed him and sent his head to the Parthian king, who had it used as a drinking cup or a prop in a play. Alternately, knowing his great fondness for gold, the Parthians had molten gold poured into Crassus’s mouth. In either case, Crassus did not survive the parlay. His last words are not recorded, in fact I can’t find any quotes by him, apparently he was not a man of memorable words.
What happened to the rest of the Roman army? About five thousand of them managed to stick together and fight their way free of Parthia. About thirty thousand were killed or captured, including the loss of several legionary battle standards. The Battle of Carrhae was a minor disaster for Rome, it more or less permanently soured relations with Parthia, and was a source of great national shame. It took decades of diplomacy to get the standards back. Another result of the battle was that Romans saw silk for the first time, the Parthians flew silk banners in the battle. Interest in trade with the east was piqued, and this was part of the beginning of the silk road and eventual contact between Rome and China. Many captured Roman soldiers were used by the Parthians to guard their eastern frontier, some may even have been then captured by the Chinese and were some of the first westerners to see China and the Chinese.
And Surena, the brilliant Parthian general who had destroyed Crassus with only a small cavalry army, what was his reward? The Parthian King Orodes II, jealous of Surena’s great victory and fearing he might become a rival…had him executed. Makes swift-boating look downright civilized in comparison.
(The above image of Parthian Cataphract is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. It’s also being legally used in accordance with the terms and conditions set forth by the copyright holder: Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies copyright © 1998~ CAIS. Oddly enough the cataphract idea caught on, was adopted by Rome and other armies, and eventually evolved into the classic medievil mounted knight.)