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The Battle of Carrhae, fought in 53 BC near the town of Carrhae, was a major battle between Iran's Parthian Empire and the Roman Republic. A Roman invasion force led by Marcus Licinius Crassus was decisively crushed by Parthia's Spahbod Surena. It was the first of many battles between the Roman and Persian empires, and one of the most crushing defeats in Roman history.

Crassus, a member of the First Triumvirate and the wealthiest man in Romemarker, had been enticed by the prospect of military glory and riches and decided to invade Parthia without the official consent of the Senate. Rejecting an offer from the Armenian King Artavasdes II to invade Parthia via Armenia, Crassus marched his army directly through the deserts of Mesopotamia. His army clashed with Surena's force near the town of Carrhae, present day Harranmarker. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Surena's cavalry completely outmaneuvered the Roman heavy infantry, killing or capturing most of the Roman soldiers. Crassus himself was killed when truce negotiations turned violent. His death led to the end of the First Triumvirate and the resulting civil wars between Julius Caesar and Pompey.

Political background in Rome

The war in Parthia resulted from political arrangements intended to be mutually beneficial for Crassus, Pompeius Magnus, and Julius Caesar — the so-called First Triumvirate. In March and April 56 BC, meetings were held at Ravennamarker and Lucamarker, in Caesar's province of Cisalpine Gaul, to reaffirm the weakening alliance formed four years earlier. It was agreed that the triumvirate would marshal their supporters and resources to secure legislation for prolonging Caesar's Gallic command and to influence the upcoming elections for 55 BC, with the objective of a second joint consulship for Crassus and Pompeius. The leaders of the triumvirate aimed to expand their faction's power through traditional means: military commands, placing political allies in office, and advancing legislation to promote their interests. Pressure in various forms was brought to bear on the elections: money, influence through patronage and friendship, and the force of a thousand troopers brought from Gaul by Crassus's son Publius. The faction secured the consulship and most, though not all, of the other offices sought. Legislation passed by the tribune Trebonius (the lex Trebonia) granted extended proconsulships of five years, matching that of Caesar in Gaul, to the two outgoing consuls. The Spanish provinces would go to Pompeius; Crassus arranged to have Syria, with the transparent intention of going to war with Parthia.

The notoriously wealthy Marcus Crassus was around sixty and hearing-impaired when he embarked on the Parthian invasion. Greed is often regarded by the ancient sources, particularly his biographer Plutarch, as his major character fault and also his motive for going to war. Historian of Rome Erich Gruen believed that Crassus's purpose was to enrich the public treasury, since personal wealth was not what Crassus himself most lacked. Other modern historians tend to view envy and rivalry as his motivation, since Crassus’s long-faded military reputation had always been inferior to that of Pompeius, and after five years of war in Gaul, to that of Caesar. His major military achievement had been the defeat of Spartacus nearly 20 years earlier, and before that he had seen limited action, most notably the Battle of the Colline Gate. Plutarch notes that Caesar wrote to Crassus from Gaul, endorsing the plan to invade Parthia — an indication that he regarded Crassus's military campaign as complementary and not merely rivalrous to his own. Another factor in Crassus's decision to invade Parthia was the expected ease of the campaign. The Roman legions had easily crushed the numerically superior armies of other eastern powers such as Pontus and Armenia, and Crassus expected Parthia to be an easy target.

Cicero, however, suggests an additional factor: the ambitions of the talented Publius Crassus, who had commanded successful campaigns in Gaul under Caesar. Upon his return to Rome as a highly decorated officer, Publius took steps to establish his own political career. Roman sources view the Battle of Carrhae not only as a calamity for Rome and a disgrace on the record of Marcus Crassus, but a tragedy of Publius Crassus in cutting short a promising career.

Some Romans objected to the war against Parthia. Cicero calls it a war nulla causa (“with no justification”), on the grounds that Parthia had a treaty with Rome. The tribune Ateius Capito put up strenuous opposition, and infamously conducted a public ritual of execration as Crassus prepared to depart.

Despite protests and dire omens, Marcus Crassus left Rome on November 14, 55 BC. Publius Crassus joined him in Syria during the winter of 54–53 BC, bringing with him the thousand Celtic cavalry troopers from Gaul who remained loyal to their young leader until death.

Buildup to war

Crassus arrived in Syriamarker in late 55 BC and immediately set about using his immense wealth to raise an army. He assembled a force of 35,000 heavy infantry, 4,000 light infantry, and 4,000 cavalry, including the 1,000 Gallic cavalry Publius had brought with him. With the aid of Hellenic settlements in Syria and support from Artavasdes, the Armenianmarker king, Crassus marched on Parthia. Artavasdes advised him to take a route through Armenia to avoid the desert and offered him reinforcements of 16,000 cavalry and 30,000 infantry. Crassus refused the offer and decided to take the direct route through Mesopotamia, and capture the great cities in the region. In response, the Parthian king divided his army and he took most of the soldiers, mainly foot archers with a small amount of cavalry, to punish the Armenians and sent the rest of his forces, 9,000 horse archers and 1,000 cataphracts under the command of the general Surena, to scout out and harass Crassus' army. Orodes did not anticipate that Surena's force- outnumbered by over three to one- would be able to defeat Crassus, and merely wanted to delay him.

Crassus received directions from the Arab chieftain Ariamnes, who had previously assisted Pompey in his eastern campaigns.. Crassus trusted Ariamnes, but Ariamnes was in the pay of the Parthians. He urged Crassus to attack at once, falsely stating that the Parthians were weak and disorganized. He then led Crassus's army into the most desolate part of the desert, far from any water. Crassus then received a message from Artavasdes, claiming that the main Parthian army was in Armenia and begging him for help. Crassus ignored the message and continued his advance into Mesopotamia.. He encountered Surena's army near the town of Carrhae.

The battle

After being informed of the presence of the Parthian army, Crassus panicked. His general Cassius recommended that the army be deployed in the traditional Roman fashion, with infantry forming the center and cavalry on the wings. At first Crassus agreed, but he soon changed his mind and redeployed his men into a hollow square, each side formed by twelve cohorts. This formation would protect his forces from being outflanked, but at the cost of mobility. The Roman forces advanced and came to a stream. Crassus' generals advised him to make camp, and attack the next morning in order to give his men a chance to rest. Publius, however, was eager to fight and managed to convince Crassus to confront the Parthians immediately.

The Parthians went to great lengths to intimidate the Romans. First they beat a great number of hollow drums and the Roman troops were unsettled by the loud and cacophonous noise. Surena then ordered his cataphracts to cover their armor in cloths and advance forward. When they were within sight of the Romans, they simultaneously dropped the cloths, revealing their shining armor. The sight was designed to intimidate the Romans, but Surena was impressed by the lack of effect it had. Though he had originally planned to shatter the Roman lines with a charge by his cataphracts, he judged that this would not be enough to break them at this point. Thus, he sent his horse archers to surround the Roman square. Crassus sent his skirmishers to drive the horse archers off, but they retreated under heavy fire. The horse archers then began to shower the legionaries with arrows. The density of the Roman formation practically guaranteed that every shot would hit, and the Parthian's composite bows were powerful enough to pierce the legionary's armor. The legionaries were well protected by their large shields (scuta), though this could not cover the entire body. Therefore the majority of wounds inflicted were nonfatal hits to exposed limbs. The Romans repeatedly advanced towards the Parthians to attempt to engage in close-quarters fighting, but the horse archers were always able to retreat safely, firing parthian shots as they withdrew. The legionaries then formed the testudo formation, in which they locked their shields together to present a nearly impenetrable front to missiles. However, this formation severely restricted their ability to fight in melee combat. The Parthian cataphracts exploited this weakness and repeatedly charged the Roman line, causing panic and inflicting heavy casualties. When the Romans abandoned the formation, the cataphracts withdrew and the horse archers resumed firing.

Crassus now hoped that his legionaries could hold out until the Parthians ran out of arrows. However, Surena used thousands of camels to resupply his horse archers. Upon realizing this, Crassus dispatched his son Publius with 1,300 Gallic cavalry to drive off the horse archers. The horse archers retreated, and after suffering heavy casualties from arrow fire, his cavalry were confronted by the Parthian cataphracts. The horse archers outflanked the Gauls and cut off their retreat. Publius and his men were slaughtered. Crassus, unaware of his son's fate but realizing Publius was in danger, ordered a general advance. He was confronted with the sight of his son's head on a spear. The Parthian horse archers began to surround the Roman infantry, firing on them from all directions, while the cataphracts mounted a series of charges that disorganized the Romans. The Parthian onslaught did not cease until nightfall. Crassus, deeply shaken by his son's death, ordered a retreat the nearby town of Carrhae, leaving behind thousands of wounded, who were captured by the Parthians.

The next day Surena sent a message to the Romans, offering to negotiate with Crassus. Surena proposed a truce, allowing the Roman army to return to Syria safely, in exchange for Rome giving up all territory east of the Euphrates. Crassus was reluctant to meet with the Parthians, but his troops threatened to mutiny if he did not. The meeting turned violent, and Crassus was killed. After his death, allegedly the Parthians poured molten gold down his throat, which would have been a symbolic gesture mocking Crassus' renowned greed. The remaining Romans at Carrhae attempted to flee, but most were captured or killed. Roman casualties amounted to about 20,000 killed and 10,000 captured, making the battle one of the costliest defeats in Roman history. Parthian casualties were minimal.


Rome was humiliated by this defeat, and this was made even worse by the fact that the Parthians had captured several Legionary Eagles. It is also mentioned by Plutarch that the Parthians found the Roman prisoner of war that resembled Crassus the most, dressed him as a woman and paraded him through Parthia for all to see. This, however, could easily be Roman propaganda. , with the rest of the Parthian Army, defeated the Armenians and captured their country. However, Surena's victory invoked the jealousy of the Parthian king, and he ordered Surena's execution. Following Surena's death, himself took command of the Parthian army and led an unsuccessful military campaign into Syria. The Battle of Carrhae was one of the first major battles between the Romans and Parthians. This battle also created the myth—both in Rome, Parthia, and today—that Rome's legions could not combat the Parthian army. This myth was not dispelled even when the Parthian capital was sacked twice. It was this belief that led Parthia to invade Syria and Armenia several times, usually unsuccessfully.

For several centuries previous to this battle - in fact, ever since winning the Second Punic War - the Romans had seemed, to themselves as to others, unstoppable. They had defeated, and eventually conquered and absorbed, every country which they encountered. At least in the eastward direction, this centuries-long march of conquest came to an end with the Battle of Carrhae; though the Romans would continue fighting with Parthia and later with its Sassanid successor for hundreds of years, they would never either aim at or achieve their eastern rival's conquest and subjugation.

Gaius Cassius Longinus, a quaestor under Crassus, led approximately 10,000 surviving soldiers from the battlefield back to Syria, where he governed as a proquaestor for two years, defending Syria from further attacks. He received praise from Cicero for his victory. Cassius later played a key role in the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.


The capture of the golden aquilae (legionary battle standards) by the Parthians was considered a grave moral defeat and evil omen for the Romans. At the time of his assassination, Caesar was planning a retaliatory war. The Parthians are said to have feared especially harsh retribution if Caesar won, because the surviving son of Crassus would be among the Roman forces. Marcus Antonius made an attempt, but suffered another defeat by the Parthians. It required a generation of diplomacy before the golden eagles were returned. Their restoration was considered a great triumph by Augustus, and celebrated like a military victory.

The battle is also believed to have eventually led to the first Sino-Roman relations. According to Pliny, in 53 BC, after losing at the battle of Carrhae, 10,000 Roman prisoners were sent by the Parthians to Margianamarker to help guard the eastern frontier of the Parthian Empire. The Han Chinese later captured this area and the Roman prisoners were likely among the first Europeans to meet the Chinese directly.

However, the most immediate effect of the battle was that Carrhae was an indirect cause for the fall of the Republic, and thus the beginning of imperial monarchy at Rome. Sulla's first march on Rome in 88 BC had begun the collapse of the republican form of government, but the death of Crassus and the loss of his legions utterly destabilized the balance of power at Rome. Along with the death of Pompey's wife and Caesar's daughter Julia, Crassus' death severed the ties between Caesar and Pompey; the first Triumvirate no longer existed. As a result, civil war broke out, Caesar won, and the Republic quickly became an autocratic dictatorship.

Lastly, when the Roman empire divided into eastern and western, the eastern half adopted the cataphracts into their legions. Later, as the Eastern Roman Empire became dependent on western mercenaries, the cataphracts that were used later found their way into middle and western Europe. Of the nine cataphract cavalry units listed in the late antique Notitia Dignitatum, two have a Gallic civitas affiliation. After years of evolution they eventually became the famous Medieval knights.

Further reading

  • A.D.H. Bivar, "The Campaign of Carrhae," in The Cambridge History of Iran (Cambridge University Press, 1983) vol. 3, pp. 48–56, limited preview online.
  • Martin Sicker, "Carrhae," in The Pre-Islamic Middle East (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000), pp. 149–151 online.
  • Philip Sidnell, Warhorse: Cavalry in Ancient Warfare (Continuum, 2006), pp. 237–242, detailed discussion of the battle from a cavalry perspective, limited preview online.


  1. Both Pompeius and Crassus held their first consulship in 70 BC, fifteen years earlier.
  2. This political overview primarily derives from Erich S. Gruen, "Pompey, the Roman Aristocracy, and the Conference of Luca," Historia 18 (1969) 71–108, especially 107–108. The literature on the triumvirate's political deal-making in 56 BC is vast. Other works consulted include Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1939, reissued 2002), limited preview online, particularly Chapter 3, "The Domination of Pompeius"; J.P.V.D. Balsdon, "Consular Provinces under the Late Republic, II," Journal of Roman Studies 29 (1939) 167–183; G.R. Elton, "The Terminal Date of Caesar's Gallic Proconsulate," Journal of Roman Studies 36 (1946) 18–42; Thomas N. Mitchell, "Cicero before Luca (September 57–April 56 BC)," Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 100 (1969) 295–320; Colm Luibheid, "The Luca Conference," Classical Philology 65 (1970) 88–94; Anthony J. Marshall, review of Crassus: A Political Biography by B.A. Marshall (Amsterdam 1976) and Marcus Crassus and the Late Roman Republic by A.M. Ward (University of Missouri Press, 1977), Phoenix 32 (1978) 261–266; Christian Meier, Caesar, translated by David McLintock (BasicBooks, 1982), pp. 270–273. To balance an historical tradition generally hostile toward Crassus, see T.J. Cadoux, "Marcus Crassus: A Revaluation," Greece & Rome 3 (1956) 153–161.
  3. Plutarch, Crassus 2 on greed, 14.4 on greed and envy, 16 on Crassus's eagerness for the Parthian campaign; see Bill Thayer's edition of the Loeb Classical Library translation at LacusCurtius online.
  4. Erich S. Gruen, "M. Licinius Crassus: A Review Article," American Journal of Ancient History 2 (1977), p. 125.
  5. RedRampant - The Battle of Carrhae, Retrieved 10 May 2007
  6. Plutarch, Crassus 16.3.
  7. Plutarch, Crassus 18.4.
  8. Elizabeth Rawson, “Crassorum funera,” Latomus 41 (1982) 540–549. See also Ronald Syme, "The Sons of Crassus," Latomus 39 (1980) 403–408, and article on Publius Licinius Crassus .
  9. Cicero, De finibus 3.75.
  10. F.E. Adcock, "The Legal Term of Caesar's Governorship in Gaul," Classical Quarterly 26 (1932), pp. 23–24; on omens and curses, see article Gaius Ateius Capito .
  11. Date based on Cicero, Ad Atticum 4.13.2.
  12. Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 20.1
  13. Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 19.1
  14. Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 21.2
  15. Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 22.3
  16. Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 23.3
  17. Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 23.5.
  18. Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 24.3.
  19. Goldsworthy, Adrian. The Roman Army at War 100 BC-200 AD.
  20. Dio, Cassius. Roman History: Book 40, 22.2.
  21. Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 25.1.
  22. Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 28.1.
  23. Dio, Cassius. Roman History: Book 40, 26.1.
  24. Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 30.5.
  25. Dio, Cassius. Roman History: Book 40, 26.3.
  26. Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 31.7.
  27. The Deadly Banners of Carrhae, Robert Collins, Silkroad Foundation. Retrieved 10 May 2007
  28. Pompeius Trogus, in the epitome of Justin, 42.4.6.
  29. UNRV Roman History - Battle of Carrhae Retrieved 10 May 2007.
  30. The Romans: From Village to Empire, Mary T. Boatwright
  31. The two Gallic cataphract unit designations refer to the Ambiani (present-day Amiens in France) and the Bituriges; The Notitia Dignitatum: Catafractarii.


External links

The only two ancient records of the battle:

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