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Crassus and the Parthian Campaign (53 B.C.)

By Jack Barkstrom

The Rise of Rome...

The superiority of the phalanx and cavalry tactics against the Persians suggested that Macedonia would remain the dominant military power long after Alexander had left the scene. Yet that assumption was tested in 280 B.C., when Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, brought an army to Italy to support Tarentum.  He was successful against the Romans, winning at Heraclea in 280, at Ausculum in 279, and again at Beneventum in 275.  However the Romans inflicted such casualties that he conceded the war to Rome and withdrew after Beneventum. His historic legacy was the Pyrrhic victory, a success so costly that it was essentially meaningless.  Ironically, Pyrrhus' ultimate defeat was not the result of any tactical innovation or improvement on the part of Rome, since the Romans were, in essence, fighting Pyrrhus using the phalanx system perfected by Alexander.  They simply fought with more ferocity.  They dismembered and otherwise mutilated the bodies of their opponents in battle, whether victorious or defeated.  The Roman government also proved tenacious.  Following each defeat it managed to raise a new army.  Apart from tactics, what may have tipped the scale in favor of Rome was its population.  In 225 B.C. it was estimated to have had an army of 700,000 infantry and 70,000 cavalry.  Roman field armies in 190 incorporated some 182,400 men in thirteen legions.  The Macedonians, in 197, had only 2,000 cavalry, 2,000 peltasts, and 16,000 phalangists.   In 171, some twenty-six years later, they had increased their numbers only slightly, to 3,000 cavalry, 5,000 peltasts, and 21,000 phalangists.

Technically, the Romans had either abandoned, or never adopted, the phalanx, characterized by the use of a long spear and a formation with a single long line. Their experience with the Celtic invaders, who were successful enough to sack Rome in 390 B.C., convinced them to place a greater reliance on the sword, rather than the spear, and to move toward a more individual approach to combat. They still incorporated the long spear in their line, but also supplemented it with the pilum or javelin, thrown at the enemy, rather than held for thrusting.  Like Alexander, they relied on specialization to some extent, organizing their infantry into three differently armed lines, the triarii, principes, and hastati, supported by three lightly-armed groups, the rorarii, accensi, and leves.  Together, the principes and hastati, were combined into a maniple, totaling about sixty men.  If their overall battle formations still resembled the continuous line of the phalanx, the maniple subdivision gave them more flexibility.  The Romans were basically an infantry force.  They still incorporated cavalry into their military organization, but it was often supplied by their allies.

The Roman system was severely tested by the losses Hannibal inflicted during the Second Punic War (218 - 202 B.C.)  In 218 he crossed the Alps into northern Italy.  His first victory came at the Trebia River, where he destroyed a Roman army. Only the Roman center, fighting its way through a line of Celts and Spaniards, escaped.  The following year he annihilated another consular army near Lake Trasimene.  On August 2, 216 he defeated still a third Roman army of sixteen legions, numbering about 75,000, at Cannae, leaving an estimated 45 - 50,000 Roman dead on the field.  It was not an easy victory.  The Carthaginians lost an estimated forty percent of their own force to the Roman fighters. While there was no army to prevent Hannibal's advance on Rome, he lacked the forces necessary to conduct a siege.  Rome raised new armies which eventually confined him to the southern tip of Italy.

Publius Cornelius Scipio, later Scipio Africanus, would be chosen to lead Rome's armies in the final battles with Carthage.  Assuming command in Spain in 210, he captured Cartagena, New Carthage, in 209.  By 206 no Carthaginian armies remained in Spain.  Roman armies were landed in Africa and, in 202, at Zama, Scipio was ready to confront Hannibal.  He had made some modifications to Roman formations in preparation for the fight. The normal checkerboard formation of the maniples was organized in columns, in such a way as to allow greater space between the first and supporting lines.  The light infantry, which filled the gaps in the line, was ordered to retreat or seek shelter among the heavy infantry, if Hannibal's war elephants charged. A wide, clear path would be created through which they could escape, in the event that they were stampeded. Scipio's tactics prevented Hannibal's force from moving around and enveloping the Roman lines. What had settled into an infantry fight between the main lines, was decided when the Roman and Numidian cavalry returned to the field, following a chase of the Carthaginian cavalry, and caught the Carthaginian infantry from behind.  The Carthaginians lost 20,000 killed against Roman losses of only 1,500.

In 197 B.C. the Roman legions under Flaminius confronted the Macedonian king, Philip V, at Cynoscephalae in Thessaly.  The Romans managed to get behind the Macedonian forces and in the fighting Philip lost 13,000 men.  He was succeeded by his son Perseus in 179. On June 22, 168 B.C., he began a battle with another Roman army under Lucius Aemilius Paulus at Pydna, close to Mount Olympus.  The Macedonian phalanx managed to push the Romans back, but was itself attacked on its flanks. Macedonian losses were higher than at Cynoscephalae, about 20,000 dead and 11,000 captured, against Roman losses of 100 killed.  Perseus was taken to Rome following his capture.

Crassus and the Triumvirate

Marcus Licinius Crassus, the politician who would lead the disastrous expedition against the Parthians, was not without military experience. He had served under Sulla and was in charge of the force which defeated Spartacus in the slave revolt or Servile War (73 - 71 BC). But he was also optimistic and naïve, as well as ambitious.  He had inherited an experienced military organization which was unchallenged.  

In 60 B.C. Crassus, Julius Caesar, and Pompey formed the First Triumvirate to rule Rome.  Pompey and Crassus, under the agreement, threw their support to Caesar in the July 60 election for consul.  Caesar won one of the positions; Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, the son-in-law of Cato, was elected to the other.  Caesar paid off his political debt to Crassus with a favorable tax law.  For Pompey a bill was introduced approving his actions in the east. A second bill was submitted giving public land in Campania to 20,000 of his veterans.  Before leaving office a bill was introduced designating Caesar as the governor of three provinces, Cisalpine Gaul, Illyrium, and Transalpine Gaul.  His term was to be five years, three years longer than the normal two-year term.  His term began in March 58 B.C.,  and he took just eight days to travel from Rome to Geneva in Transalpine Gaul.  Shortly after arriving he and his legions dealt with the Helvetii, who wanted to cross the province.  Later that year he confronted Germanic invaders, led by Ariovistus.  In 57 B.C. he defeated the Belgae, the Nervii, and the Aduatuci.  For these victories, the Roman Senate voted a fifteen-day public celebration, more than the ten days voted for Pompey in 63 BC.

The three members of the Triumvirate met at Luca, in southern Cisalpine Gaul, in the spring of 56 BC.  The Triumvirate was to be renewed, with Crassus and Pompey running for the two consular positions for 55.  Caesar's troops would go to Rome to vote in the election.  His five-year term as governor of the three provinces was to be renewed for another five years.  When that period was over he would again seek election to another consulship. Once elected to the consulship, Crassus and Pompey would appoint themselves provincial governors following their terms.  Pompey, it was agreed, would be appointed for Spain.  Crassus was to take over in Syria.  In addition to the support of Caesar's troops, Crassus and Pompey relied on street gangs provided by Titus Annius Milo, to ensure their election.  Domitius Ahenobarbus, another candidate for consul was attacked, as was the senator Cato.

Caesar, returning from the Luca meeting, was to face new tribal unrest in 55.  He was forced to construct a fleet to overcome a revolt by the Veneti, a coastal tribe in northwest Gaul.  Another German raid, by the Usipetes and Tencteri tribes, was repulsed, after which Caesar constructed a bridge across the Rhine and advanced into Germany for an eighteen-day raid.  In the late summer he took two legions in eighty ships across the English Channel for a raid on Britain.  A storm destroyed about half the fleet.  Realizing that he lacked the forces necessary for an extended stay, he returned after eighteen days.  Amounting to little more than a demonstration of force, the raid nevertheless impressed the Roman Senate, which voted another celebration, this one twenty days in length.

Caesar made plans for a still larger expedition against Britain, to sail in 54. The fleet size had been increased to 600 transports and warships, augmented by 200 merchant ships.  The  military force consisted of five legions, numbering about 30,000, in total. The invasion force sailed in July. The size of the force was enough to intimidate the local tribes, who were unwilling to confront the legions in a large battle.  Caesar was able to persuade Cassivellaunus, the king, to agree to a peace treaty.  Deciding that little more could be accomplished, Caesar ordered the force home at the end of September.

The Parthian Expedition

Pompey and Crassus served their consular terms in 55 BC. Crassus then traveled to Syria to assume the governorship there. He had come to view the position, not as a major political accomplishment, but as a means to achieve further greatness.  He had achieved wealth - he was the richest man in Rome - through land speculation, and then used that wealth to buy political prominence.  Unfortunately, he came to prominence at a time when military leadership was more highly regarded in Rome than the ordinary political skills associated with public office.  Romans bestowed a measure of fame on those who were elected to political office; they genuinely admired those who came home with military victories. It probably was not helpful that, in entering into an alliance with Caesar and Pompey, he had joined forces with two of the greatest military leaders of the day.  The public acclamation which followed both men, reinforced the idea that military conquest, rather than title or electoral achievement, set the standard for greatness.

In Caesar Crassus had a constant reminder of current or recent successes - the crossing of the Rhine and the invasion of Britain.  Crassus' son Publius also served under Caesar.  In Pompey, the reminders were less current, but his early career successes had earned him the sobriquet, "The Great."  In 67 B.C., he had taken just three months to clear the Mediterranean of pirates.  Campaigning between 66 and 62 in the East, he had defeated Mithridates of Pontus and Tigranes of Armenia and had annexed Syria.

Crassus, as he approached sixty, was looking to outdo his rivals in his newly resurrected military career. He dreamed of repeating Alexander's march, privately proposing to his friends a campaign through Bactria and India, which would reach the Indian Ocean. Without the support or resources for such an ambitious plan he had to settle for a war against the Parthians, who had assumed control of the lands between the Euphrates and the Indus.

If Crassus' ambitious dreams assumed that Alexander's feats could be duplicated with little effort, his attitude toward the Parthians was just as unrealistic.  He never really took them seriously.  He also seemed mired in the past, which, for him, was the world of finance. While wintering in Syria he reviewed the revenues of the cities located in the province and conducted a detailed inventory of the treasury of the temple at Hierapolis.  Using the coming campaign to justify a requisition for troops, he then allowed individual cities and kingdoms to avoid the levy by making cash payments.

Crassus tended to dismiss reports of Parthian military capabilities, mostly supplied by Roman soldiers in Mesopotamia, sent or escaping from the garrisons there. One report concerned an improved bow, capable of shooting an arrow with such speed that it could barely be followed in flight, with an unprecedented penetrating power. Similarly, the Parthians were armed with a sword which was effective against most protective gear, along with defensive armor which was impervious to existing offensive weapons.  The garrison reports suggested ominously that the Parthian horsemen could easily ride down those who fled the lines, while being able to retreat out of range before a charging line could reach them.  Crassus may have disbelieved the reports entirely or simply filtered them through the eyes of the Roman general Lucullus, who had experience campaigning in Armenia and Cappadocia. Against feeble opposition, his only problems seemed to be the tediousness of the march and the difficulty of hunting down an enemy which did not want to be drawn into battle.

The Parthians, whatever their military strengths, were hoping to avoid a confrontation.  Believing that Crassus did not have the official backing of Rome for his planned expedition, they first tried negotiation.  They offered to return any Roman hostages they still held, if he would call off the expedition.  Crassus defiantly refused. He would give them a formal answer at Seleusis.  They left to prepare for the invasion.

Crassus received one last offer of help and advice. The king of Armenia, Artabazes, who provided 6,000 horse, advised him to take his army through Armenia, rather than advance directly into Mesopotamia from Syria.  The hills and mountainous countryside of Armenia would at least prevent the Parthians from using their cavalry  The advice was ignored.

The force which left Syria in 53 consisted of seven legions, about 36,000 soldiers - 4,000 of which were cavalry and 4,000 light infantry.  They crossed the Euphrates at Zeugma unopposed. The Roman scouts found some hoof prints on the far shore, but that was the only evidence of any close Parthian presence.  It appeared that they were in flight.  Cassius, the quaestor, nevertheless advised Crassus to keep his army close to the river, where it could be supplied, until there was more definite intelligence about the Parthian force.  A local Arab chief, Ariamnes, appeared at his camp and persuaded him to leave the river and confront the Parthians.  Serving as guide, Ariamnes led the Romans away from the Euphrates.  He persuaded them to continue their advance even as they moved from the green terrain along the river into treeless, sandy desert.  On the pretext of trying to subvert the enemy, Ariamnes slipped away.

The Romans continued to advance. Even without their guide, they had some sense that the enemy was close.  The first real contact was an ambush sprung on the Roman scouts.  Those who managed to escape hurried back to warn the others. Although the Parthian force had still not been sighted, Crassus ordered the advance to continue. Suffering from the marching and the heat, the soldiers were relieved when they reached a small stream, named the Balissus.  Impatient to catch the Parthians, Crassus would allow only a brief rest.  At a place called Carrhae, near modern Harran, in Turkey, they encountered what they thought was the main force and formed into the Roman defensive square.

The Parthians started the battle with a little psychological warfare. They began beating large, hollow drums, probably intended to frighten an enemy as much as to encourage their own side.  Surena, their commander, then moved the main force, hidden behind a rise, into position.  His heavy cavalry began with a feinting maneuver against the Roman square, then retreated.  They were armed with a heavy lance, so large, by Roman  cavalry standards, that the Romans called it a "barge-pole."  The charge may have been intended as a reconnaissance-in-force, designed both to test the depth of the Roman line and to cover the envelopment by the main body of Parthians. Crassus countered with a light infantry charge. It quickly ran into trouble. The Parthians responded with their mounted archers.  Before the Romans could get close enough to engage, a shower of arrows drove them back.

The abortive charge was enough to confirm the earlier Roman reports of the Parthians for most of the soldiers, although Crassus himself had yet to fully comprehend its import.  The returning infantry found that their armor and clothing was ineffective against the Parthian arrows, which had gone through their shields and into their arms. Thinking that the square offered some protection, the panicky troops instinctively bunched together. The compressed formation offered a better target for the Parthian archers, who were riding along the line and shooting from a distance. Abandoning plans for another futile charge, the defenders hunkered down to wait out the attack. Once the supply of arrows had been used up, they expected to resume the fighting.  When the pace of the attack continued unabated, it began to dawn on the Romans that the enemy archers had a virtually unlimited supply of arrows. What they observed in the Parthian camp was that the bowmen were being re-supplied by camel.

Surena's plan involved more than a long range cavalry harassment. While firing into the square, the Parthians had extended their lines to nearly encircle the Romans.  In desperation, Crassus ordered his son Publius to take the infantry under his command, about 5,000 men, together with 1,300 cavalry and 500 archers, and attack. Initially, the attack seemed successful, since the Parthian horsemen retreated.  The Roman cavalry, in their eagerness to catch the fleeing horsemen, soon left the infantry behind. However, with their confidence restored by the pursuit, the infantry continued their advance behind the faster cavalry force. They had not lost contact with the cavalry entirely, but, when the pursuit slowed, both commands found themselves surrounded by desert and miles away from the main Roman force.

It was probably not the distance from Crassus' force which first alerted the Romans to the danger they now faced, but a change in Parthian tactics. For most of the pursuit they had stayed just ahead of their pursuers - not close enough to be caught, but not far enough away to discourage pursuit.  At some point they slowed somewhat.  The Romans also noticed that the size of the retreating force was increasing. When they finally stopped to set up a defensive position, their problem was not simply the miles they had covered since leaving the main force; it was also the fact that they would have to fight their way through the Parthian reinforcements, which had moved in behind them.  Retreat would be difficult.

The Parthians continued their harassment with small charges in front of the Roman lines.  The effect was to kick up large quantities of dust while driving the Romans into a tighter mass. Blinded and choked by the dust, they endured a continuing barrage of arrows.  Those who were struck and tried to pull the arrows out, found them excruciatingly painful to remove.  The barbs carried veins and nerves with them.  Publius, in desperation, tried to mount a last counter-attack. Those among the light infantry who were still alive were in a pitiable state.  Some held up their arms to show how their hands had been nailed to their shields by the arrows; others displayed their feet, impaled by arrows which had entered through the top of the foot and penetrated through the sole to the ground beneath. They were in no condition to either fight or run.

Publius rallied the Gallic horsemen for a charge.  They scored some successes against the Parthian heavy cavalry. Some they unseated by grabbing the heavy spears; others they brought down by crawling under the horses and thrusting knives or spears at their bellies.  The Gauls suffered especially from the heat and lack of water and finally broke off the attack. Although many of their horses had been killed, they managed to escape to a nearby hillock.  Publius, wounded by an arrow, had to be carried there. The dwindling force tried to shield itself behind a ring of horses, but the protection was ineffective.  Publius finally ordered his armor-bearer to run him through with his sword.  Censorius, a colleague of Crassus, ended his life in the same way.  Megabacchus, another colleague, and many of the other officers, committed suicide.  The Parthians killed most of the rest of the force. Once they found they body of Publius, they cut off his head and carried it away.  There were about 500 who were taken prisoner.

The Parthian plan to draw part of the Roman force into the desert had worked, but, in a way, served to save Crassus' main body of troops.  They had pulled a large portion of their own forces away in order to concentrate on Publius.  Crassus used the reprieve to move to a more defensible position.  He was on the verge of moving again when a group of Parthians approached his lines displaying the head of his son.  The act added to a growing sense of despair among the troops and a paralysis at the command level.  The mood was broken when Octavius, one of the commanders, and Cassius, the quaestor, ordered a mass break-out in the direction of Carrhae during the night.  The wounded were left behind, although the noise they made on learning what was happening alerted the Parthians.  Not wanting to follow at night, they entered the camp in the morning.  The Roman wounded still alive in the camp, perhaps numbering 4,000, were massacred. In their pursuit of the fleeing Romans, they managed to trap four cohorts on a hill.  Of this group, perhaps twenty were able to cut their way through to safety.

Crassus and the survivors reached the garrison at Carrhae.  However, he was lured away by Surena, to what he believed was a negotiation.  He was killed, then beheaded.  His head and hand were presented to Hyrodes, the Parthian king.  In all the Romans had lost 20,000 killed, and another 10,000 captured.

The disaster at Carrhae can be explained by one or all of the tactical errors committed by Crassus, starting with the idea of undertaking a campaign which was unnecessary.  (Julius Caesar, who probably fought a number of unnecessary battles, could more plausibly justify his campaigns with the need to protect Rome from invasion.)  At the same time, Marc Antony, a more experienced Roman general, was also defeated in another disastrous campaign against the Parthians seventeen years later, in what is now northwest Iran in 36 BC.  Antony split his force, attacking the Parthian capital Phraaspa himself. The second force, with the siege engines, under Statianus, was attacked by the Parthian king Phraates IV at Gazaca.  The entire force of 10,000, including Statianus, was annihilated in late August. Without the siege engines, Antony was unable to take the capital.  Abandoning the siege as winter was setting in, he made a forced march to Armenia.  Losses inflicted by the Parthians during the retreat were 20,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, disease doing as much damage as the fighting.

The temptation to enhance a political resume with military victory would not end with Crassus.  Before the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, Custer had refused reinforcements from General Terry.  He did not want to share any of the glory the 7th Cavalry was expected to win.  He boasted that the unit could lick all the Indians on the Plains.  His confidence in the destructive firepower of modern weaponry was misplaced.  Rather than ensuring victory, it merely contributed to a sense of complacency.  Pompey and Caesar, in building their careers, had concentrated on the detailed mechanics of waging war.  Like Alexander, fighting for them was an end in itself; the Triumph was something of an afterthought to be enjoyed.  Custer, like Crassus, was so intent on accomplishing his dream, that he failed to make the connection between adequate planning and strategy and the final result. Military superiority did not necessarily lead to efficient campaigning and better performance, it simply allowed laziness and nonchalance to become the norm.

Suggestions for further reading.

David Eggenberger, "A Dictionary of Battles," Thomas Y. Crowell Company, (New York 1967).

General Sir John Hackett, ed., "Warfare in the Ancient World," Facts on File, (New York 1989).

Archer Jones, "The Art of War in the Western World," University of Illinois Press, (Urbana, IL 1987).

Tom B. Jones, "From the Tigris to the Tiber: An Introduction to Ancient History, 4th ed." Wadsworth Publishing Company, (Belmont, CA 1989).

John Keegan, "A History of Warfare," Alfred A. Knopf, (New York 1993).

Zachary Kent, "Julius Caesar: Ruler of the Roman World," Enslow Publishers, Inc., (Berkeley Heights, NJ 2006).

Plutarch, "Lives: Antony"

Plutarch, "Lives: Crassus"

John Warry, "Warfare in the Classical World," University of Oklahoma Press, (Norman, OK 1995).

Richard Wormser, "The Yellowlegs: The Story of the United States Cavalry," Doubleday & Company, Inc., (Garden City, New York 1966).