Parthian Empire (247 B.C. – 226 A.D.)

The Battle of Carrhae


Orodes II ( 57 - 38 B.C.  )


Accession of Orodes II. Expedition of Crassus. His fate. Retaliatory inroad of the Parthians into Syria under Pacorus, the son of Orodes. Defeat of Pacorus by Cassius. His recall. End of the first War with Rome.


 Decisive Battles - Carrhae

 In 53BC a Roman army set out to conquer the kingdom of Parthia; the gateway to the riches of the East. This army didn't go into battle for the greater good of the empire, they did it to enhance the reputation and wealth of one man, Marcus Licinius Crassus. The richest man in Rome.  Crassus lead 35,000 Roman's into the Parthian desert. The Parthian general Surena with only 10,000 men met the Roman invaders at Carrhae, the modern day town of Harran in southern Turkey

Crassus vows to invade Parthia

The complete triumph of Orodes over Mithridates, and his full establishment in his kingdom, cannot be placed earlier than B.C. 56, and most probably fell in B.C. 55. In this latter year Crassus obtained the proconsulship , and, being appointed at the same time to the command of the East( proconsulate of Syria ), made no secret of his intention to march the Roman legions across the Euphrates, and engage in hostilities with the great Parthian kingdom. According to some writers, his views extended even further. He spoke of the wars which Lucullus had waged against Tigranes and Pompey against Mithridates of Pontus as mere child's play, and announced his intention of carrying the Roman arms to Bactria, India, and the Eastern Ocean. The Parthian king was thus warned betimes of the impending danger, and enabled to make all such preparations against it as he deemed necessary.


Orodes prepares


More than a year elapsed between the assignment to Crassus of Syria as his province, and his first overt act of hostility against Orodes.

It cannot be doubted that this breathing-time was well spent by the Parthian monarch. Besides forming his general plan of campaign at his leisure, and collecting, arming, and exercising his native forces, he was enabled to gain over certain chiefs upon his borders, who had hitherto held a semi-dependent position, and might have been expected to welcome the Romans. One of these, Abgarus, prince of Osrhoene, or the tract east of the Euphrates about the city of Edessa, had been received into the Roman alliance by Pompey, but, with the fickleness common among Orientals, he now readily changed sides, and undertook to play a double part for the advantage of the Parthians. Another, Alchaudonius, an Arab sheikh of these parts, had made his submission to Rome even earlier; but having become convinced that Parthia was the stronger power of the two, he also went over to Orodes. The importance of these adhesions would depend greatly on the line of march which Crassus might determine to follow in making his attack. Three plans were open to him. He might either throw himself on the support of Artavasdes, the Armenian monarch, who had recently succeeded his father Tigranes, and entering Armenia, take the safe but circuitous route through the mountains into Adiabene, and so by the left bank of the Tigris to Ctesiphon; or he might, like the younger Cyrus, follow the course of the Euphrates to the latitude of Seleucia, and then cross the narrow tract of plain which there separates the two rivers; or, finally, he might attempt the shortest but most dangerous line across the Belik and Khabour, and directly through the Mesopotamian desert. If the Armenian route were preferred, neither Abgarus nor Alchaudonius would be able to do the Parthians much service; but if Crassus resolved on following either of the others, their alliance could not but be most valuable.




Crassus arrives




map: route of Crassus' army


Starting at the beginning of winter from Brindisi, he lost several ships in a storm .He then marched through Macedonia and Thrace to Asia Minor . On his way to Antioch he saw Deiotarus, the aged king of the Galatians, laying out a new city . " You begin to build rather late in the day ," was his remark. Deiotarus' retort was " And you,too, are not beginning very early in the morning to attack the Parthians ."


Crassus in the Euphrates


Crassus, however, on reaching his province, seemed in haste to make a decision. He must have arrived in Syria tolerably early in the spring but his operations during the first year of his proconsulship were unimportant. He seems at once to have made up his mind to attempt nothing more than a reconnaissance. Crossing the Euphrates at Zeugma, the modern Bir or Bireh-jik, he proceeded to ravage the open country, and to receive the submission of the Greek cities, which were numerous throughout the region between the Euphrates and the Belik. The country was defended by the Parthian satrap with a small force; but this was easily defeated, the satrap himself receiving a wound. One Greek city only, Zenodotium, offered resistance to the invader; its inhabitants, having requested and received a Roman garrison of one hundred men, rose upon them and put them barbarously to the sword; whereupon Crassus besieged and took the place, gave it up to his army to plunder, and sold the entire population for slaves. He then, as winter drew near, determined to withdraw into Syria, leaving garrisons in the various towns. The entire force left behind is estimated at eight thousand men.



It is probable that Orodes had expected a more determined attack, and had retained his army near his capital until it should become evident by which route the enemy would advance against him. Acting on an inner circle, he could readily have interposed his forces, on whichever line the assailants threw themselves. But the tardy proceedings of his antagonist made his caution superfluous. The first campaign was over, and there had scarcely been a collision between the troops of the two nations. Parthia had been insulted by a wanton attack, and had lost some disaffected cities; but no attempt had been made to fulfil the grand boasts with which the war had been undertaken.


Parthians taunt Crassus


It may be suspected that the Parthian monarch began now to despise his enemy. He would compare him with Lucullus and Pompey, and understand that a Roman army, like any other, was formidable, or the reverse, according as it was ably or feebly commanded. He would know that Crassus was a sexagenarian, and may have heard that he had never yet shown himself a captain or even a soldier. Perhaps he almost doubted whether the proconsul had any real intention of pressing the contest to a decision, and might not rather be expected, when he had enriched himself and his troops with Mesopotamian plunder, to withdraw his garrisons across the Euphrates. Crassus was at this time showing the worst side of his character in Syria, despoiling temples of their treasures, and accepting money in lieu of contingents of troops from the dynasts of Syria and Palestine. Orodes, under these circumstances, sent an embassy to him, which was well calculated to stir to action the most sluggish and poor-spirited of commanders.


"If the war," said his envoys, "was really waged by Rome, it must be fought out to the bitter end. But if, as they had good reason to believe, Crassus, against the wish of his country, had attacked Parthia and seized her territory for his own private gain, Arsaces would be moderate. He would have pity on the advanced years of the proconsul, and would give the Romans back those men of theirs, who were not so much keeping watch in Mesopotamia as having watch kept on them."


Crassus, stung with the taunt, exclaimed, "He would return the ambassadors an answer at Seleucia."


Wagises, the chief ambassador, prepared for some such exhibition of feeling, and, glad to heap taunt on taunt, replied, striking the palm of one hand with the fingers' of the other: "Hairs will grow here, Crassus, before you see Seleucia."


Still further to quicken the action of the Romans, before the winter was well over, the offensive was taken against their adherents in Mesopotamia. The towns which held Roman garrisons were attacked by the Parthians in force; and, though we do not hear of any being captured, all of them were menaced, and all suffered considerably.


If Crassus needed to be stimulated, these stimulants were effective; and he entered on his second campaign with a full determination to compel the Parthian monarch to an engagement, and, if possible, to dictate peace to him at his capital. He had not, however, in his second campaign, the same freedom with regard to his movements that he had enjoyed the year previous. The occupation of Western Mesopotamia cramped his choice. It had, in fact, compelled him before quitting Syria to decline, definitely and decidedly, the overtures of Artavasdes, who strongly urged on him to advance by way of Armenia, and promised him in that case an important addition to his forces of 16,000 cavalry and 30,000 foot.


Crassus attacks again, his army


Crassus felt himself compelled to support his garrisons, and therefore to make Mesopotamia, and not Armenia, the basis of his operations, He crossed the Euphrates a second time at the same point as before, with an army composed of 35,000 heavy infantry, 4,000 light infantry, and 4,000 horse. There was still open to him a certain choice of routes. The one preferred by his chief officers was the line of the Euphrates, known as that which the Ten Thousand had pursued in an expedition that would have been successful but for the death of its commander. Along this line water would be plentiful; forage and other supplies might be counted on to a certain extent; and the advancing army, resting on the river, could not be surrounded. Another, but one that does not appear to have been suggested till too late, was that which Alexander had taken against Darius; the line along the foot of the Mons Masius, by Edessa, and Nisibis, to Nineveh. Here too waters and supplies would have been readily procurable, and by clinging to the skirts of the hills the Roman infantry would have set the Parthian cavalry at defiance. Between these two extreme courses to the right and to the left were numerous slightly divergent lines across the Mesopotamian plain, all shorter than either of the two above-mentioned, and none offering any great advantage over the remainder.


It is uncertain what choice the proconsul would have made, had the decision been left simply to his own judgment. Probably the Romans had a most dim and indistinct conception of the geographical character of the Mesopotamian region, and were ignorant of its great difficulties. They remained also, it must be remembered, up to this time, absolutely unacquainted with the Parthian tactics and accustomed as they were to triumph over every enemy against whom they fought, it would scarcely occur to them that in an open field they could suffer defeat. They were ready, like Alexander, to encounter any number of Asiatics, and only asked to be led against the foe as quickly as possible. When, therefore, Abgarus, the Osrhoene prince, soon after Crassus had crossed the Euphrates, rode into his camp, and declared that the Parthians did not intend to make a stand, but were quitting Mesopotamia and flying with their treasure to the remote regions of Hyrcania and Scythia, leaving only a rear guard under a couple of generals to cover the retreat, it is not surprising that the resolution was taken to give up the circuitous route of the Euphrates, and to march directly across Mesopotamia in the hope of crushing the covering detachment, and coming upon the flying multitude encumbered with baggage, which would furnish a rich spoil to the victors. In after times it was said that C. Cassius Longinus and some other officers were opposed to this movement, add foresaw its danger; but it must be questioned whether the whole army did not readily obey its leader's order, and commence without any forebodings its march through Upper Mesopotamia. That region has not really the character which the apologists for Roman disaster in later times gave to it. It is a region of swelling hills, and somewhat dry gravelly plains. It possesses several streams and rivers, besides numerous springs. At intervals of a few miles it was studded with cities and villages; nor did the desert really begin until the Khabour was crossed.


The plans of Orodes


The army of Crassus had traversed it throughout its whole extent during the summer of the preceding year, and must have been well acquainted with both its advantages and drawbacks. But it is time that we should consider what preparations the Parthian monarch had made against the threatened attack. He had, as already stated, come to terms with his outlying vassals, the prince of Osrhoene, and the sheikh of the Scenite Arabs, and had engaged especially the services of the former against his assailant. He had further, on considering the various possibilities of the campaign, come to the conclusion that it would be best to divide his forces, and, while himself attacking Artavasdes of Armenia with the Persian infantry , to prevent the Romans from gaining Armenian cavalry, in which the romans were very weak . To Surena, he gave the whole of his cavalry, which could not be used in mountainous Armenia, but could be well used on the plains where the romans were advancing .


It was of the greatest importance to prevent the Armenians from effecting a junction with the Romans, and strengthening them in that arm in which they were especially deficient, the cavalry. nothing short of an invasion of his country by the Parthian king in person would have prevented Artavasdes from detaching a portion of his troops to act in Mesopotamia.



And no doubt it is also true that Orodes had great confidence in his general, whom he may even have felt to be a better commander than himself.


General Surena (84 - 52 BC)

believed to be a bronze statue of Surena

Surena, as we must call him, since his name has not been preserved to us, was in all respects a person of the highest consideration. He was the second man in the kingdom for birth, wealth, and reputation. In courage and ability he excelled all his countrymen; and he had the physical advantages of commanding height and great personal beauty. When he went to battle, he was accompanied by a train of a thousand camels, which carried his baggage; and the concubines in attendance on him required for their conveyance two hundred chariots. A thousand horseman clad in mail, and a still greater number of light-armed, formed his bodyguard. At the coronation of a Parthian monarch, it was his hereditary right to place the diadem on the brow of the new sovereign. When Orodes was driven into banishment it was he who brought him back to Parthia in triumph. When Seleucia revolted, it was he who at the assault first mounted the breach and, striking terror into the defenders, took the city. Though less than thirty years of age at the time when he was appointed commander, he was believed to possess, besides these various qualifications, consummate prudence and sagacity.


The force which Orodes committed to his brave and skillful lieutenant consisted entirely of horse. This was not the ordinary character of a Parthian army, which often comprised four or five times as many infantry as cavalry. It was, perhaps, rather fortunate accident than profound calculation that caused the sole employment against the Romans of this arm. The foot soldiers were needed for the rough warfare of the Armenian mountains; the horse would, it was known, act with fair effect in the comparatively open and level Mesopotamia. As the king wanted the footmen he took them, and left to his general the troops which were not required for his own operations.


Parthain light cavalry and the ' Parthian Shot '


The Parthian horse, like the Persian, was of two kinds, standing in strong contrast the one to the other. The bulk of their cavalry was of the lightest and most agile description. Fleet and active coursers, with scarcely any caparison but a headstall and a single rein, were mounted by riders clad only in a tunic and trousers, and armed with nothing but a strong bow and a quiver full of arrows. A training begun in early boyhood made the rider almost one with his steed; and he could use his weapons with equal ease and effect whether his horse was stationary or at full gallop, and whether he was advancing towards or hurriedly retreating from his enemy. His supply of missiles was almost inexhaustible, for when he found his quiver empty, he had only to retire a short distance and replenish his stock from magazines, borne on the backs of camels, in the rear. It was his ordinary plan to keep constantly in motion when in the presence of an enemy, to gallop backwards and forwards, or round and round his square or column, never charging it, but at a moderate interval plying it with his keen and barbed shafts which were driven by a practiced hand from a bow of unusual strength. Clouds of this light cavalry enveloped the advancing or the retreating foe, and inflicted grievous damage without, for the most part, suffering anything in return.These horsemen were trained since boyhood to shoot at a full gallop and were masters at shooting to the rear while retreating which bacame known as the 'Parthian shot .'


The Pathian heavy cavalry or Cataphracts


 Cataphract Taq-e Bostan



But this was not the whole. In addition to these light troops, a Parthian army comprised always a body of heavy cavalry, armed on an entirely different system. The strong horses selected for this service were clad almost wholly in mail. Their head, neck, chest, even their sides and flanks, were protected by scale-armor of brass or iron, sewn, probably, upon leather. Their riders had cuirasses and cuisses of the same materials, and helmets of burnished iron. For an offensive weapon they carried a long and strong spear or pike. They formed a serried line in battle, bearing down with great weight on the enemy whom they charged, and standing firm as an iron wall against the charges that were made upon them. A cavalry answering to this in some respects had been employed by the later Persian monarchs, and was in use also among the Armenians at this period; but the Parthian pike was apparently more formidable than the corresponding weapons of those nations, and the light spear carried at this time by the cavalry of a Roman army was no match for it.



 Persian Cataphracts

Surena is estimated to of had about 9,000 ligh cavalry and 1,000 Cataphracts .


The Roman army


the Roman army was composed chiefly of heavilty armoured infantry and trained for close combat. their procedure was to hurl a javelin and then charge sword in hand. But their javelins did not travel as far as the Parthian arrows. the roman cavalry was unable in this campaign to equal the Parthian cavalry.


The traitor Abgarus


Surena crossed the Sinjar range and the river Khabour, and take up his position in the country between that stream and the Belik—instead of merely seeking to cover the capital. The presence of the traitor Abgarus in the camp of Crassus was now of the utmost importance to the Parthian commander. Abgarus, fully trusted, and at the head of a body of light horse, admirably adapted for outpost service, was allowed, upon his own request, to scour the country in front of the advancing Romans, and had thus the means of communicating freely with the Parthian chief.


Thus Abgarus kept Surena informed of all the movements and intentions of Crassus, while at the same time he suggested to Crassus such a line of route as suited the views and designs of his adversary. Our chief authority for the details of the expedition tells us that he led the Roman troops through an arid and trackless desert, across plains without tree, or shrub, or even grass, where the soil was composed of a light shifting sand, which the wind raised into a succession of hillocks that resembled the waves of an interminable sea. The soldiers, he says, fainted with the heat and with the drought, while the audacious Osrhoene scoffed at their complaints and reproaches, asking them whether they expected to find the border-tract between Arabia and Assyria a country of cool streams and shady groves, of baths, and hostelries, like their own delicious Campania. But our knowledge of the geographical character of the region through which the march lay makes it impossible for us to accept this account as true.


The country between the Euphrates and the Belik, as already observed, is one of alternate hill and plain, neither destitute of trees nor ill-provided with water. The march through it could have presented no great difficulties. All that Abgarus could do to serve the Parthian cause was, first, to induce Crassus to trust himself to the open country, without clinging either to a river or to the mountains, and, secondly, to bring him, after a hasty march, and in the full heat of the day, into the presence of the enemy. Both these things he contrived to effect, and Surena was, no doubt, so far beholden to him. But the notion that he enticed the Roman army into a trackless desert, and gave it over, when it was perishing through weariness, hunger, and thirst, into the hands of its enraged enemy, is in contradiction with the topographical facts, and is not even maintained consistently by the classical writers.




 Mithridates III


 The Battle of Carrhae