What Really Happened at the Battle of Carrhae? | History Hit

What Really Happened at the Battle of Carrhae?

Swiss coin depicting the death of Crassus' son at the hands of the Parthians.
Image Credit: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Marcus Crassus is famed as the richest man in Rome, one of the original Triumvirate with Pompey and Caesar, and also the man who met his end in the Near East while fighting the Parthians in the aftermath of the Battle of Carrhae. Carrhae, likely located near the modern city of Harran, Turkey, was a decisive confrontation between the Roman Republic and the Parthian Empire and one of the costliest defeats in Roman history. It is also one of the most significant, though often overlooked, battles of the 1st century BC.

In Defeat of Rome in the East, author Gareth Sampson provides an in depth account of Marcus Crassus’ disastrous campaign east of the Euphrates River. Sampson sorts the fact from the fiction. He dispels the notion of Crassus’ incompetence and highlighting the integrity of our surviving sources, which are at pains to suggest the campaign was plagued by disastrous omens from start to finish. Rather, it was quite the opposite.

Cassius Dio reported that Crassus was tortured to death by having molten gold poured into his mouth. This 1530s depiction is located at the Louvre, Paris.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Crassus had already saved the Republic by defeating Spartacus‘ slave revolt, which had by that point defeated several armies. And it’s together in 70 BC, that Pompey and Crassus were elected as consuls. They reshaped the Republic and for the next 20 years they dominated Rome. So what made Crassus go east?

Unfinished business

“By the end of 63 [BC],” explains Sampson on The Ancients podcast, “the Seleucid empire has been annexed, the Armenian empire has been destroyed and the Parthian empire has been humbled.” But Parthia was unfinished business for Rome, who believed that civil war meant it was on its last legs. An easy campaign also meant a ready opportunity for glory. While Caesar extended Rome’s frontiers in the north and Pompey recuperated in Rome after his own campaigns, the third triumvir, Crassus, eventually took command of the eastern campaign. The two decades Crassus spent in Rome did not curb his stellar ability to command.

Tristan is joined by Gareth Sampson, author of Rome and Parthia: Empires at War.
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Contrary to a perception of Crassus being out of his depth, Sampson argues that he planned for the eastern campaign exceptionally well. He didn’t rush. He spent over a year training seven legions in Syria in preparation for the campaign. He covered the logistics with sound reasoning. Meanwhile his plan to march along the Euphrates River, at that time dotted with fertile lands and wealthy Hellenistic-style cities, and cut the head off the Parthian snake by going straight for their capital at Ctesiphon, was a commendable strategy.

So where did it all go wrong? As Sampson explains, when considering this we must recognise the problem we have with our surviving sources. They’re all Roman! Through talk of bad omens, they try to cover up the fact that Crassus was simply out-generalled by Surena, his ‘barbarian’ opponent. “Unfortunately for him,” Sampson explains, “he came up against an even better leader in the Parthian general [Surena].”

What happened at Carrhae?

When Surena offered him a pitched battle, Crassus had happily accepted. Past Roman victories in the east against the likes of Armenia and Pontus had convinced him that the Parthians would similarly be overcome in open battle. But he was mistaken. A renowned nobleman, Surena masterminded the Parthian defence against Crassus. He reformed the army by making it almost completely cavalry based. Mounted archers and heavily armoured ‘cataphract’ cavalry dominated its ranks. This was what caught Crassus unawares.

Surena’s thousands-strong cavalry pinned down the Roman infantry with their mounted archers, against whom the Romans had no viable tactics and were easily exhausted. Crassus’ horsemen, commanded by his son Publius, were decimated by the cataphracts. After a hard fight, Publius lay among the dead.

Parthian cataphract fighting a lion.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Crassus was killed in a skirmish that followed the battle as the remnants of his seven legions attempted to retreat to friendly territory. His campaign’s defeat at Carrhae was a crushing disaster. But the Romans would be back. It was the start of seven centuries of animosity between Rome and Parthia and the regimes that succeeded them (the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanians).

Alexander’s shadow 

What’s also fascinating is the strong influence Alexander the Great‘s achievements had to play in the Carrhae campaign. Powerful figures in Rome such as Crassus, Pompey and Caesar idolised Alexander’s achievements in the East. They dreamed of recreating Alexander’s empire, extending Rome’s reach as far as India. With this in mind, Caesar planned a great Parthian campaign in c.45 BC, the pretext being to avenge the Roman demise at Carrhae. His assassination prevented it. Sampson argues that senatorial fears of Caesar’s success in such an expedition factored heavily in his murder.

Following in Alexander’s footsteps was the key to glory. Forget Gaul. Forget Spain. If a Roman general could gain glory in the east and obtain the marvellous riches Babylon, Susa, Seleukeia, Bactra and other wealthy settlements had to offer, their power would be all-but unchallengeable. Crassus tried and failed. Caesar sought to try. His assassination prematurely terminated a potentially extraordinary chapter in Roman history.

The battle at Issus in 333 BC: Alexander the Great of Macedonia is chasing the fleeing Darius III. Detail from coloured etching.

Image Credit: Public Domain / Wellcome Collection

But just as Roman aristocrats seeking military glory idolised Alexander’s eastern achievements and hoped to reforge his empire, a symmetrical desire existed among the Parthian elite. Rather than reforming Alexander’s empire, however, they looked to the Persian Empire. Instead of Alexander, they championed another ‘great’: Darius I. These two visions appeared destined to clash. They finally came to blows with Crassus and Carrhae.

Spare a thought for the Hellenistic kingdoms caught between these two growing superpowers. The once mighty Successor kingdom, the Seleucid Empire, became sandwiched between them – its demise ensued.

Tristan Hughes