Hungry for power, already overwhelmingly rich and in personal rivalry with the celebrated Caesar and Pompey in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus gathered a large army in 53 BC and led it eastwards deep into Parthia.
His campaign, which terminated at the Battle of Carrhae, would go down in history as one of utter failure. It had been instigated by a power-hungry politician and was plagued by bad omens and poor leadership. Ultimately, it allegedly resulted in the gory execution of its commander. But its fate was arguably sealed by two pivotal and avoidable decisions. If not for these decisions, the campaign and indeed subsequent Roman history may have looked very different.
Crassus and the Late Republic
Crassus is remembered for his greed, dishonourable methods and his miserable ending. Yet this powerful man was a key player in shaping the late Roman Republic. He was renowned for his wealth, gained, according to Plutarch, through “rapine and fire” during the tyranny of Sulla, and had been at the forefront of Roman politics for almost 30 years.
During that time he quashed the revolt of Spartacus, but he was also linked with the two other political giants of the age. One was the prominent Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, or Pompey, and the other was Gaius Julius Caesar.
Crassus’ rivalry with Pompey for power in Rome was profound. Whereas Pompey had acquired power through military successes, Crassus gained his through wealth. With his riches, Crassus loaned money and financed other ambitious individuals, including Caesar. Indeed, the financial security Crassus had given Caesar was critical to the latter’s rise. For a time these men had even been close allies working against Pompey.
Crassus had therefore made himself a key player in the Roman political arena. By 55 BC, he had undoubtedly become one of the three most powerful men in the Republic. In this way, I’d say his rise to power was similar to that of Donald Trump. Both used their own money to help fuel their political ambitions. Crassus’ main aim was to become the most powerful man in Rome.
Why did Crassus go to Parthia?
Following an unprecedented and highly successful campaign in Gaul, Caesar became hugely popular with the Roman people. Crassus knew he needed to win his own glory to secure the same acclaim. His motives for war were therefore undeniably self-serving. As a result, many sources, including both Cicero and Plutarch, ascribe bad omens to the war, to indicate to their readers that it was unjust and disapproved by the gods. One story stated by Plutarch (Crass. 16.5-6) included a tribune publicly putting a curse on Crassus to doom his campaign! These anecdotes were also a clever way for Romans to explain why the campaign was such a catastrophe; Crassus had ignored all these extreme signs of bad fortune.
The Parthians themselves had given no justification for war. There had been no provocation; they lived relatively peacefully on Rome’s eastern border in what is today the Middle East. This did not prevent Crassus from selecting Parthia for his glorious undertaking. To Crassus and indeed other Romans, Parthia was regarded as a relatively backward kingdom. They might have expected such a power to keel over when faced with the professional armies of Rome. They had cause to think this way: Rome had defeated every previous eastern army that had challenged it.
The Parthian campaign
In 53 BC, Crassus gathered his army in Syria and marched eastwards across the River Euphrates. Having met almost no opposition, he advanced deep into Mesopotamia. Everything looked great for Crassus as cities fell to him like flies. The Parthians were powerless, possessing no standing army to call on against the invaders. The rapidity, therefore, with which Crassus advanced had given the Romans a significant early advantage.
Yet that was when Crassus made the first of two critical mistakes. Instead of pressing his advantage by capturing the rich cities of Ctesiphon and Seleucia, Crassus turned back. When he conceivably had the Parthians at their weakest, he returned all the way to Syria. This gave Parthia’s resistance the vital reprieve they needed.
When Crassus returned to the Euphrates following his cosy winter break, he had completely lost the advantage. He still had a professional, well-equipped army under his command, seven legions strong – around 45,000 men in total. This was a formidable Roman force. It was then, however, whilst on the banks of the Euphrates river, that sources argue Crassus’ gruesome fate was decided. Plutarch recalls:
There came to the camp an Arab chief named Ariamnes, a cunning and wily fellow, who, of all the evil chances which combined to lead them on to destruction, was the chief and most fatal […] he [Ariamnes] was now suborned by the king [of Parthia]’s generals and sent to Crassus to entice him […] from the river and hills into the wide open plain, where he might be surrounded.
Plut. Crass. 21.1
Ariamnes was the Parthian mole. His role would be key in defeating Crassus. Crassus fell for Ariamnes’ persuasions hook, line and sinker, leading him to leave the Euphrates and march inland.
Why did Crassus lose at Carrhae?
Following this decision, Crassus’ army would be clearly defeated at Carrhae, torn apart by the Parthian horse archers and heavy cataphracts. The Romans could not effectively contend with the all-cavalry Parthian force in such an open landscape. The Parthian horse troops, with their high mobility, were able to pick off the Romans one by one. Such was the scale of the calamity that Publius, the son of Crassus, perished during the fight. The Parthian general, Surena, praised by Plutarch extensively for his military leadership and persona, had turned the tide of war in one swift action.
Although Plutarch stresses that Ariamnes’ betrayal was a critical moment in this catastrophe, some argue that this was just a story. Its reason? To obscure the fact the Parthian army had simply bested the Romans. It suited their force to fight in hot, dry expansive landscapes; an environment consistent with much of Parthia. The Roman, meanwhile, were not accustomed to fighting in such settings. Rome also saw these people as barbaric. How could they conceive of the possibility that simple barbarians were better prepared for war than civilised Romans? Perhaps this is why the Ariamnes story arose.
Who killed Crassus?
With his remaining army exhausted and his own son dead, Crassus lost all hope. He soon sought peace terms with the Parthian forces. Yet Plutarch and Cassius Dio report that while negotiating with Parthians, he was killed in a scuffle. Moreover, being well-known for his obsession with wealth, Dio claims (Book XL, 27.3) that the Parthians poured molten gold down the dead man’s throat. Not to be beaten, Plutarch (Crass. 33.2) says that the dead general’s head was later presented at a royal Parthian wedding feast. There, the Parthian nobility offered it as a prop for a recital of the Greek play, the Bacchae, by Euripides. As fascinating as these stories may be, they are most likely Roman anecdotes. Their aim being simply to intensify hatred of the Parthians.
Following the crushing disaster at Carrhae, Rome had its military image severely dented. A nation that they viewed as barbaric had annihilated them. They had slain Crassus and his own son, captured the legions’ standards and taken enslaved Roman prisoners deep into the east. Such a dent on their national pride could not go unpunished. Thus, the cries for vengeance against Parthia erupted in Rome.
Julius Caesar, just before his murder in 44 BC, planned a war against Parthia. A decade later, Marc Anthony launched a campaign, though with little success. Both times, the war was justified as revenge for Crassus. It was Augustus who arguably gained some sort of compensation for the disastrous campaign in managing to regain the standards of the lost legions through diplomacy.
Parthian invasions into Roman-controlled Syria and the Near East quickly followed Crassus’ invasion. This nation now became a serious threat to the eastern border of the Roman world. That the Parthians would now become one of Rome’s most powerful enemies stemmed from the avarice of Crassus and the critical decisions that doomed his campaign.