Parthian Empire (247 B.C. – 226 A.D.)

 The Battle of Carrhae


It was probably on the third or fourth day after he had quitted the Euphrates that Crassus found himself approaching his enemy. After a hasty and hot march he had approached the banks of the Belik, when his scouts brought him word that they had fallen in with the Parthian army, which was advancing in force and seemingly full of confidence. Abgarus had recently quitted him on the plea of doing him some undefined service, but really to range himself on the side of his real friends, the Parthians. His officers now advised Crassus to encamp upon the river, and defer an engagement till the morrow; but he had no fears; his son, Publius, who had lately joined him with a body of Gallic horse sent by Julius Caesar, was anxious for the fray; and accordingly the Roman commander gave the order to his troops to take some refreshment as they stood, and then to push forward rapidly.



Surena, on his side, had taken up a position on wooded and hilly ground, which concealed his numbers, and had even, we are told, made his troops cover their arms with cloths and skins, that the glitter might not betray them. But, as the Romans drew near, all concealment was cast aside; the signal for battle was given; the clang of the kettledrums arose on every side; the squadrons came forward in their brilliant array; and it seemed at first as if the heavy cavalry was about to charge the Roman host, which was formed in a hollow square with the light-armed in the middle, and with supporters of horse along the whole line, as well as upon the flanks.


But, if this intention was ever entertained, it was altered almost as soon as formed, and the better plan was adopted of halting at a convenient distance and assailing the legionaries with flight after flight of arrows, delivered without a pause and with extraordinary force. The Roman endeavored to meet this attack by throwing forward his own skirmishers; but they were quite unable to cope with the numbers and the superior weapons of the enemy, who forced them almost immediately to retreat, and take refuge behind the line of the heavy-armed. These were then once more exposed to the deadly missiles, which pierced alike through shield and breast-plate and greaves, and inflicted the most fearful wounds. More than once the legionaries dashed forward, and sought to close with their assailants, but in vain. The Parthian squadrons retired as the Roman infantry advanced, maintaining the distance which they thought best between themselves and their foe, whom they plied with their shafts as incessantly while they fell back with the Parthian shot as when they rode forward. For a while the Romans entertained the hope that the missiles would at last be all spent; but when they found that each archer constantly obtained a fresh supply from the rear, this expectation deserted them.



Crassus, the Parthians, and the Disastrous Battle of Carrhae


Publius, son of Crassus


It became evident to Crassus that some new movement must be attempted; and, as a last resource, he commanded his son, Publius, whom the Parthians were threatening to outflank, to take such troops as he thought proper, and charge. The gallant youth was only too glad to receive the order. Selecting his Gallic cavalry, who numbered 1000, and adding to them 500 other horsemen, 500 archers, and about 4000 legionaries, he advanced at speed against the nearest squadrons of the enemy. The Parthians pretended to be afraid, and beat a hasty retreat. Publius followed with all the impetuosity of youth, and was soon out of the sight of his friends, pressing the flying foe, whom he believed to be panic-stricken. But when they had drawn him on sufficiently, they suddenly made a stand, brought their heavy cavalry up against his line, and completely enveloped him and his detachment with their light-armed. Publius made a desperate resistance. His Gauls seized the Parthian pikes with their hands and dragged the encumbered horsemen to the ground; or dismounting, slipped beneath the horses of their opponents, and stabbing them in the belly, brought steed and rider down upon themselves. His legionaries occupied a slight hillock, and endeavored to make a wall of their shields, but the Parthian archers closed around them, and slew them almost to a man. Of the whole detachment, nearly six thousand strong, no more than 500 were taken prisoners, and scarcely one escaped. The young Crassus might, possibly, had he chosen to make the attempt, have forced his way through the enemy to Ichnee, a Greek town not far distant; but he preferred to share the fate of his men. Rather than fall into the hands of the enemy, he caused his shield-bearer to dispatch him; and his example was followed by his principal officers. The victors struck off his head, and elevating it on a pike, returned to resume their attack on the main body of the Roman army.


The Parthian Cataphracts smash through the Testudo of the Roman legion




Roman Testudo

The main body, much relieved by the diminution of the pressure upon them, had waited patiently for Publius to return in triumph, regarding the battle as well-nigh over and success as certain. After a time the prolonged absence of the young captain aroused suspicions, which grew into alarms when messengers arrived telling of his extreme danger. Crassus, almost beside himself with anxiety, had given the word to advance, and the army had moved forward a short distance, when the shouts of the returning enemy were heard, and the head of the unfortunate officer was seen displayed aloft, while the Parthian squadrons, closing in once more, renewed the assault on their remaining foes with increased vigor. The mailed horsemen or Cataphracts approached close to the legionaries and thrust at them with the long pikes while the light-armed, galloping through the Roman front, which was in a Testudo formation, discharged their unerring arrows over the heads of their own men. The Parthians were armers with a composite bows, which could penetrate the Roman armor . The Romans could neither successfully defend themselves nor effectively retaliate. Still time brought some relief. Bowstrings broke, spears were blunted or splintered, arrows began to fail, thews and sinews to relax; and when night closed in both parties were almost equally glad of the cessation of arms which the darkness rendered compulsory. The Parthian losses were light, the Romans lost an estimated 20,000 dead, 10,000 captured , one of the major defeats in Roman history .


Retreat at night


It was the custom of the Parthians, as of the Persians, to bivouac at a considerable distance from an enemy. Accordingly, at nightfall they drew off, having first shouted to the Romans that they would grant the general one night in which to bewail his son; on the morrow they would come and take him prisoner, unless he preferred the better course of surrendering himself to the mercy of Arsaces. A short breathing-space was thus allowed the Romans, who took advantage of it to retire towards Carrhae, leaving behind them the greater part of their wounded, to the number of 4,000. A small body of horse reached Carrhae about midnight, and gave the commandant such information as led him to put his men under arms and issue forth to the succor of the proconsul. The Parthians, though the cries of the wounded made them well aware of the Roman retreat, adhered to their system of avoiding night combats, and attempted no pursuit till morning. Even then they allowed themselves to be delayed by comparatively trivial matters—the capture of the Roman camp, the massacre of the wounded, and the slaughter of the numerous stragglers scattered along the line of march—and made no haste to overtake the retreating army. The bulk of the troops were thus enabled to effect their retreat in safety to Carrhae, where, having the protection of walls, they were, at any rate for a time secure.


It might have been expected that the Romans would here have made a stand. The siege of a fortified place by cavalry is ridiculous, if we understand by siege anything more than a very incomplete blockade. And the Parthians were notoriously inefficient against walls. There was a chance, moreover, that Artavasdes might have been more successful than his ally, and, having repulsed the Parthian monarch, might march his troops to the relief of the Romans. But the soldiers were thoroughly dispirited, and would not listen to these suggestions. Provisions no doubt ran short, since, as there had been no expectation of a disaster, no preparations had been made for standing a siege. The Greek inhabitants of the place could not be trusted to exhibit fidelity to a falling cause. Moreover, Armenia was near; and the Parthian system of abstaining from action during the night seemed to render escape tolerably easy. It was resolved, therefore, instead of clinging to the protection of the walls, to issue forth once more, and to endeavor by a rapid night march to reach the Armenian hills.


The retreat


The various officers seem to have been allowed to arrange matters for themselves. Cassius took his way towards the Euphrates, and succeeded in escaping with 500 horse. Octavius, with a division which is estimated at 5,000 men, reached the outskirts of the the hills at a place called Sinnaca, and found himself in comparative security. Crassus, misled by his guides, made but poor progress during the night; he had, however, arrived within little more than a mile of Octavius before the enemy, who would not stir till daybreak, overtook him. Pressed upon by their advancing squandrons, he, with his small band of 2,000 legionaries and a few horsemen, occupied a low hillock connected by a ridge of rising ground with the position of Sinnaca. Here the Parthian host beset him; and he would infallibly have been slain or captured at once, had not Octavius, deserting his place of safety, descended to the aid of his commander. The united 7,000 held their own against the enemy, having the advantage of the ground, and having perhaps by the experience of some days learnt the weak points of Parthian warfare.


Surena was anxious, above all things, to secure the person of the Roman commander. In the East an excessive importance is attached to this proof of success; and there were reasons which made Crassus particularly obnoxious to his antagonists. He was believed to have originated, and not merely conducted, the war, incited thereto by simple greed of gold. He had refused with the utmost haughtiness all discussion of terms, and had insulted the majesty of the Parthians by the declaration that he would treat nowhere but at their capital. If he escaped, he would be bound at some future time to repeat his attempt; if he were made prisoner, his fate would be a terrible warning to others. But now, as evening approached, it seemed to the Parthian that the prize which he so much desired was about to elude his grasp. The highlands of Armenia would be gained by the fugitives during the night, and further pursuit of them would be hopeless. It remained that he should effect by craft what he could no longer hope to gain by the employment of force; and to this point all his efforts were now directed.


The death of Crassus


Surena drew off his troops and left the Romans without further molestation. He allowed some of his prisoners to escape and rejoin their friends, having first contrived that they should overhear a conversation among his men, of which the theme was the Parthian clemency, and the wish of Orodes to come to terms with the Romans. He then, having allowed time for the report of his pacific intentions to spread, rode with a few chiefs towards the Roman camp, carrying his bow unstrung and his right hand stretched out in token of amity. "Let the Roman General," he said, "come forward with an equal number of attendants, and confer with me in the open space between the armies on terms of peace." The aged proconsul was disinclined to trust these overtures; but his men clamored and threatened, upon which he yielded, and went down into the plain, accompanied by Octavius and a few others. Here he was received with apparent honor, and terms were arranged; but Surena required that they should at once be reduced to writing, "since," he said, with pointed allusion to the bad faith of Pompey, "you Romans are not very apt to remember your engagements." A movement being requisite for the drawing up of the formal instruments, Crassus and his officers were induced to mount upon horses furnished by the Parthians, who had no sooner seated the proconsul on his steed, than he proceeded to hurry him forward, with the evident intention of carrying him off to their camp. The Roman officers took the alarm and resisted. Octavius snatched a sword from a Parthian and killed one of the grooms who was hurrying Crassus away. A blow from behind stretched him on the ground lifeless. A general melee followed, and in the confusion Crassus was killed, whether by one of his own side and with his own consent, or by the hand of a Parthian is uncertain. The army, learning the fate of their general, with but few exceptions, surrendered. Such as sought to escape under cover of the approaching night were hunted down by the Bedouins who served under the Parthian standard, and killed almost to a man. Of the entire army which had crossed the Euphrates, consisting of above 40,000 men, not more than one fourth returned. One half of the whole number perished. Nearly 10,000 prisoners were settled by the victors in the fertile oasis of Margiana, near the northern frontier of the empire, where they intermarried with native wives, and became submissive Parthian subjects.


Aftermath of the defeat


Such was the result of this great expedition, the first attempt of the grasping and ambitious Romans, not so much to conquer Parthia, as to strike terror into the heart of her people, and to degrade them to the condition of obsequious dependants on the will and pleasure of the "world's lords." The expedition failed so utterly, not from any want of bravery on the part of the soldiers employed in it, nor from any absolute superiority of the Parthian over the Roman tactics, but partly from the incompetence of the commander, partly from the inexperience of the Romans, up to this date, in the nature of the Parthian warfare and in the best manner of meeting it.


To attack an enemy whose main arm is the cavalry with a body of foot-soldiers, supported by an insignificant number of horse, must be at all times rash and dangerous. To direct such an attack on the more open part of the country, where cavalry could operate freely, was wantonly to aggravate the peril. After the first disaster, to quit the protection of walls, when it had been obtained, was a piece of reckless folly. Had Crassus taken care to obtain the support of some of the desert tribes, if Armenia could not help him, and had he then advanced either by the way of the Mons Masius and the Tigris, or along the line of the Euphrates, the issue of his attack might have been different. He might have fought his way to Seleucia and Ctesiphon, as did Trajan, Avidius Cassius, and Septimius Severas, and might have taken and plundered those cities. He would no doubt have experienced difficulties in his retreat; but he might have come off no worse than Trajan, whose Parthian expedition has been generally regarded as rather augmenting than detracting from his reputation.


But an ignorant and inexperienced commander, venturing on a trial of arms with an enemy of whom he knew little or nothing, in their own country, without support or allies, and then neglecting every precaution suggested by his officers, allowing himself to be deceived by a pretended friend, and marching straight into a net prepared for him, naturally suffered defeat. The credit of the Roman arms does not greatly suffer by the disaster, nor is that of the Parthians greatly enhanced. The latter showed, as they had shown in their wars against the Syro-Macedonians, that there somewhat loose and irregular array was capable of acting with effect against the solid masses and well-ordered movements of disciplined troops. They acquired by their use of the bow a fame like that which the English archers obtained for the employment of the same weapon at Crecy and Agincourt. They forced the arrogant Romans to respect them, and to allow that there was at least one nation in the world which could meet them on equal terms and not be worsted in the encounter. They henceforth obtained recognition from Graeco-Roman writers—albeit a grudging and covert recognition—as the second Power in the world, the admitted rival of Rome, the only real counterpoise upon the earth to the power which ruled from the Euphrates to the Atlantic Ocean.


Orodes in Armenia


While the general of King Orodes was thus successful against the Romans in Mesopotamia, the king himself had in Armenia obtained advantages of almost equal value, though of a different kind. Instead of contending with Artavasdes, he had come to terms with him, and had concluded a close alliance, which he had sought to confirm and secure by uniting his son, Pacorus, in marriage with a sister of the Armenian monarch. A series of festivities was being held to celebrate this auspicious event, when news came of Surenas's triumph, and of the fate of Crassus. According to the barbarous customs of the East, the head and hand of the slain proconsul accompanied the intelligence. We are told that at the moment of the messenger's arrival the two sovereigns, with their attendants, were amusing themselves with a dramatic entertainment. Both monarchs had a good knowledge of the Greek literature and language, in which Artavasdes had himself composed historical works and tragedies. The actors were representing the famous scene in the "Bacchae" of Euripides, where Agave and the Bacchanals come upon the stage with the mutilated remains of the murdered Pentheus, when the head of Crassus was thrown in among them. Instantly the player who personated Agave seized the bloody trophy, and placing it on his thyrsus instead of the one he was carrying, paraded it before the delighted spectators, while he chanted the well-known lines:


     From the mountain to the hall
     New-cut tendril, see, we bring—
     Blessed prey!

The horrible spectacle was one well suited to please an Eastern audience: it was followed by a proceeding of equal barbarity and still more thoroughly Oriental. The Parthians, in derision of the motive which was supposed to have led Crassus to make his attack, had a quantity of gold melted and poured it into his mouth.

Meanwhile Surena was amusing his victorious troops, and seeking to annoy the disaffected Seleucians, by the performance of a farcical ceremony. He spread the report that Crassus was not killed but captured; and, selecting from among the prisoners the Roman most like him in appearance, he dressed the man in woman's clothes, mounted him upon a horse, and requiring him to answer to the names of "Crassus" and "Imperator," conducted him in triumph to the Grecian city. Before him went, mounted on camels, a band, arrayed as trumpeters and lictors, the lictors' rods having purses suspended to them, and the axes in their midst being crowned with the bleeding heads of Romans. In the rear followed a train of Seloucian music-girls, who sang songs derisive of the effeminacy and cowardice of the proconsul. After this pretended parade of his prisoner through the streets of the town, Surena called a meeting of the Seleucian senate, and indignantly denounced to them the indecency of the literature which he had found in the Roman tents. The charge, it is said, was true; but the Seleucians were not greatly impressed by the moral lesson read to them, when they remarked the train of concubines that had accompanied Surena himself in the field, and thought of the loose crowd of dancers, singers, and prostitutes, that was commonly to be seen in the rear of a Parthian army.


The political consequences of the great triumph which the Parthians had achieved were less than might have been anticipated. Mesopotamia was, of course, recovered to its extremest limit, the Euphrates; Armenia was lost to the Roman alliance, and thrown for the time into complete dependence upon Parthia. The whole East was, to some extent, excited; and the Jews, always impatient of a foreign yoke, and recently aggrieved by the unprovoked spoliation of their Temple by Crassus, flew to arms. But no general movement of the Oriental races took place. It might have been expected that the Syrians, Phoenicians, Cilicians, Oappadocians, Phrygians, and other Asiatic peoples whose proclivities were altogether Oriental, would have seized the opportunity of rising against their Western lords and driving the Romans back upon Europe.


It might have been thought that Parthia at least would have assumed the offensive in force, and have made a determined effort to rid herself of neighbors who had proved so troublesome. But though the conjuncture of circumstances was most favorable, the man was wanting. Had Mithridates or Tigranes been living, or had Surena been king of Parthia, instead of a mere general, advantage would probably have been taken of the occasion, and Rome might have suffered seriously. But Orodes seems to have been neither ambitious as a prince nor skilful as a commander; he lacked at any rate the keen and all-embracing glance which could sweep the political horizon and, comprehending the exact character of the situation, see at the same time how to make the most of it. He allowed the opportunity to slip by without putting forth his strength or making any considerable effort; and the occasion once lost never returned.


The ruin of Surena


In Parthia itself one immediate result of the expedition seems to have been the ruin of Surena. His services to his sovereign had exceeded the measure which it is safe in the East for a subject to render to the crown. The jealousy of his royal master was aroused, and he had to pay the penalty of over-much success with his life. Parthia was thus left without a general of approved merit, for Sillaces, the second in command during the war with Crassus, had in no way distinguished himself through the campaign. This condition of things may account for the feebleness of the efforts made in B.C. 52 to retaliate on the Romans the damage done by their invasion. A few weak bands only passed the Euphrates, and began the work of plunder and ravage, in which they were speedily disturbed by Cassius, who easily drove them back over the river. The next year, however, a more determined attempt was made.



 Orodes II



 The Parthian

invasion of Syria