Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Crassus and the cataphract catastrophe at Carrhae, or why politicians shouldn’t be allowed to lead armies

with 9 comments

Parthian cataphract

Ah, Crassus. One of the ten richest men of all time, a man so greedy that his name has come to symbolize ostentatious wealth. He was one of three co-rulers of republican Rome, along with  Pompey and future dictator Julius Caesar.  One of Crassus’s methods of acquiring wealth was owning his own fire department…and the price for putting out a burning home? Sign the deed over to him. Nice guy eh? Not content with his great wealth and power, and jealous of Pompey and Julius Caesar’s military accomplishments, in 53 BC Crassus set out to win military glories himself. He raised an army, allied himself with the Armenians, and marched on the Parthian Empire, a great nation that encompassed modern Iran and bordering regions from 238 BC until 226 AD.

Crassus was advised by the Armenian King to march through Armenia where Crassus’s troops would be supplied by friendly locals, and they could combine forces to invade Parthia. Crassus ignored this sound advice, in fact ignoring sound advice appears to be a hallmark of his military campaign. He marched straightaways from Syria into Parthia, expecting to meet up with the Armenian army there. Of course the Parthians had no quarrel with the Romans, and they were understandably a bit annoyed by this. Unbeknown to Crassus, the Parthian King led the main part of his army into Armenia, and left a large cavalry force under a general Surena to harass Crassus. There would be no Armenian army marching into Parthia to meet up with Crassus.

So into Parthia Crassus went. His advisers urged him to follow a river, so that his men would have access to water, and one of their flanks would be protected. Crassus would have none of this, and led his army straight across a desert. He had a fine army, maybe four times the size of the Parthian force of 10,000 sent to harass him. The Parthians had 1000 cataphracts (pictured above) and 9,000 horse archers. Yes, the horse archers of “Parthian shot” fame. These superbly trained archers could feint a retreat, then while riding away, turn in their saddles and shoot arrows behind them. Still, one would think that 35,000 armoured legionaries with 8,000 cavalry could deal with a force a quarter their size.

In his defence, Crassus was deceived by a fake turncoat into taking the desert route. Still, it showed poor judgement. After crossing the desert, the Romans spotted the Parthians. His men were tired and needed rest, but Crassus deployed for battle and marched toward the smaller Parthian army.  First the Parthians tried to impress the Romans by concealing their cataphract’s armour and revealing it all at once. The Romans were unimpressed. So Surena had his thousands of horse archers start showering the Roman army with arrows. Crassus had his men form up a defence and they waited for the Parthians to run out of arrows.

And waited. And waited some more. When the Romans saw camel trains arriving and unloading vast quantities of arrows, Crassus realized that something must be done. He ordered his son to lead a force of cavalry to drive away the Parthia bowmen. And this they did, chasing them quite a distance from the Roman army. Crassus then ordered his troops to form up into the “turtle formation” and proceed. The turtle formation is where a group of men form a solid square. The men on the outside of the square hold their shields to protect the sides, the men in the middle hold their shields above their heads. Thus a mass of men can move forward and be basically impervious to arrow fire. It’s a neat trick. It’s also exhausting, slow moving, and not a very good way to fight hand-to-hand.

At this point the Parthian horsemen returned and began hammering the Romans again. What had happened to the Roman cavalry and Crassus’s son? Once away from the Roman army, they had been surrounded and killed by the Parthians. Turned out that the Parthian cataphracts made mincemeat of the far more lightly armoured Roman cavalry. The Parthians paraded Crassus son’s head on a pike for Crassus to see. At this point one suspects that Crassus was beginning to doubt the wisdom of his plan, and after the day’s disasters he agreed with his generals that retreat was the only option.

That night the Roman army abandoned its wounded and headed home. The remaining Roman cavalry said “Great idea, we’ll meet you in Rome” and rode off in a cloud of dust. The army managed to make it to the safety of the town of Carrhae. The next morning the Parthians slaughtered the abandoned Roman wounded. And Crassus, one again fooled by a Parthian spy, ordered his army out of the safety of the city. Soon enough the exhausted and demoralized Romans were once again surrounded by skilled horsemen shooting arrows. The Roman legionaries had an idea…Crassus was told to go to Surena and sue for peace…or his own men would kill him.

It’s not exactly established what happened to Crassus at that point. The Parthians may have killed him and sent his head to the Parthian king, who had it used as a drinking cup or a prop in a play. Alternately, knowing his great fondness for gold, the Parthians had molten gold poured into Crassus’s mouth. In either case, Crassus did not survive the parlay. His last words are not recorded, in fact I can’t find any quotes by him, apparently he was not a man of memorable words.

What happened to the rest of the Roman army? About five thousand of them managed to stick together and fight their way free of Parthia. About thirty thousand were killed or captured, including the loss of several legionary battle standards. The Battle of Carrhae was a minor disaster for Rome, it more or less permanently soured relations with Parthia, and was a source of great national shame. It took decades of diplomacy to get the standards back. Another result of the battle was that Romans saw silk for the first time, the Parthians flew silk banners in the battle. Interest in trade with the east was piqued, and this was  part of the beginning of the silk road and eventual contact between Rome and China. Many captured Roman soldiers were used by the Parthians to guard their eastern frontier, some may even have been then captured by the Chinese and were some of the first westerners to see China and the Chinese.

And Surena, the brilliant Parthian general who had destroyed Crassus with only a small cavalry army, what was his reward? The Parthian King Orodes II, jealous of Surena’s great victory and fearing he might become a rival…had him executed. Makes swift-boating look downright civilized in comparison.

(The above image of  Parthian Cataphract is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. It’s also being legally used in accordance with the terms and conditions set forth by the copyright holder: Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies copyright © 1998~ CAIS. Oddly enough the cataphract idea caught on, was adopted by Rome and other armies,  and eventually evolved into the classic medievil mounted knight.)


Written by unitedcats

October 7, 2008 at 6:32 am

Posted in History, Politics, War

9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Really cool! Never heard that story before. Thanks for sharing Doug…

    Tim D

    October 7, 2008 at 4:00 pm

  2. Very interesting. New one for me too. Always enjoy your “between the lines” analysis of battles.


    October 7, 2008 at 9:33 pm

  3. The picture (correctly) shows a horseman
    without stirrups; These were invented later.
    But one would think that
    horsemen charging as heavy cavalry would
    without stirrups soon get knocked backwards
    off the horse. I wonder what the tactics were.

    Nick Patterson

    October 8, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    • It is a common misconception that a heavy cavalry charge couldnt be effective without stirrups-which is simply not true. The stirrup helped a rider brace his feet to stabilize his seat in the saddle but there were other methods of making sure a rider stayed seated during the impact-the common four horned saddle was most common but the Persian invented a special saddle that had curved bronze bars that clamped down over the rider’s thighs to keep him firmly seated. Even without the help of a four horned saddle or thigh-clamps, riders were taught to use their thighs and knees to hold them steady-not like modern riding positions and techniques-even in a heavy cavalry charge, because instead of “couching” the lance under the armpit in the medieval fashion, the rider would jab, thrust and slash with one hand or use both hands to drive a long lance through a shield and then two armored men-much of the shock being absorbed by their arms. Every time I hear someone say that one couldn’t fight as well without stirrups, I say “uhh, what about the Comanches! They rode bareback and were some of the finest horsemen on the planet, using both lance and bow and prevailing against US Cavalrymen using stirrups, saddles, swords and firearms”. The second most common misconception is that the stirrup wasn’t invented until the 4th century in China or 5th century in India and didn’t come into widespread use until the Byzantines adopted it from the Avars in the 7th century-however there is a Greek vase dating to around 600 BC that shows a Scythian horseman using stirrups as well as about 3 other sources that definitively state their use long before most historians claim. This is because the stirrup, as well as about every other notable equestrian invention-stirrup, lasso, saddle, horse shoes, etc.-was invented by the nomads of the Central Asian steppe (peoples who passed on their tradition and history orally, and thus left no written records). The lack of archeological evidence is likely because first stirrups were made from solid iron, which breaks down extremely fast and leaves no trace. Outside of these Steppe nomads, the stirrup was indeed scarce, if present at all-which explains why people would think they simply didn’t exist before this-however some of the Huns, their small number of heavy cavalry, used stirrups in their push west in the 4th and 5th centuries. The first stirrups were used one at a time to assist in easy mounting, though soon the nomads realized the benefit of both feet being secured in stirrups. Another thing that contributes to the confusion is the fact that many people of the steppe preferred to fight without stirrups, because though they allowed the user to stand up to fire a bow (thus allowing the use of potentially stronger-larger infantry bows), they limited a riders movement in the saddle and fight in all direction which is essential to light cavalry.

      Jimmy James

      November 30, 2011 at 3:26 am

  4. That’s a very good question, I’ll have to look into it. I’ve hardly even touched upon tactics, but it’s a great topic I will be exploring at some point.


    October 9, 2008 at 9:04 am

  5. […] Space Exploration Crassus and the cataphract catastrophe at Carrhae, or why politicians shouldn’t be allowed to … […]

  6. While well written, I cannot say that it was well researched. Crassus did not just invade Parthia on a whim–The rebel parthian king Mithradates III had actually asked the Romans to invade Parthia and set him on the Throne. The Syrian governer Aulus Gabinius had actually accepted this offer and was poised to invade, but Crassus took up the command after Pompey ordered Gabinius away. Concerning Armenia, before they heard news of the battle, the Armenian king had allied himself with Orodes rather that fight. And for the battle itself, i see you used Dio’s account instead of Plutarch’s. Dio wrote a century after Plutarch. Plutarch may have had survivor interviews. Who are you going to believe? And it was Surenas trying to find Crassus after the battle asking the commander at Carrhae for parley with Crassus. Cassius, Crassus’ second in command, said yes, confirming Surenas’ suspicions. And concerning the title, Crassus was an accoplished general, having quelled Spartacus’ revolt. This is a very under researched peice of work.

    Luke Schlenker

    May 1, 2011 at 4:43 pm

  7. Also, if Crassus had 8000 cavalry, he would not have had a problem breaking the parthian line. It was his lack of cavalry that doomed him. He only had 4000 max, 1000 of which were reliable.

    Luke Schlenker

    May 1, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    • Thanks for the feedback, I make no claim that my historical writing is of a scholarly nature. I’m trying to illustrate points and tell a good story. As my time permits, I may take another look at this story. Thanks and regards. — Doug


      May 1, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: