THE PARTHIANS

Success against the Romans - their heaviest ever defeat.

Pompey "retires"

In 62 BC Pompey, having organised Rome's eastern conquests, returned to Italy,with 40,000 men and 20,000 talents. He immediately disbanded his army, and waited for the senate to invite him to become supreme leader, or dictator, or at least show him some love and gratitude - they didn't. By dismissing his army, he'd broken the first rule of the wannabe dictator, and handed the advantage to his arch rival, Marcus Licinius Crassus - of whom much more quite soon.

Fratricide in Parthia

In 57 BC, Farhad III died, leaving two sons: you don't need the Delphic oracle to foretell what happened. Orodes,the elder, became king - but was soon forcibly deposed by his brother Mehrdad. Orodes (55 BC) went for help to Gabinius, the scoundrel who Pompey had left in charge of Syria. Once again a Roman cheated a Parthian. Gabinius promised to help Orodes - until he got a better offer. The Macedonian pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy XII, had already paid Pompey a lot of money to help him get back the throne of Egypt, which his father had left in his will to Rome. Now he made Gabinius an offer he couldn't refuse: 10,000 talents to get him back to Egypt. Gabinius quickly lost interest in Parthia.

Orodes

Coin of Orodes II

Mehrdad went home to Seleuceia, where he was besieged and then killed by Orodes. Orodes was helped by a significant figure: Suren, a young and extremely wealthy Parthian aristocrat, with his own private army. Suren was training this army to become Parthia's invincible WMD. Plutarch:

Surenas was no ordinary person; but in fortune, family and honour, the first after the king; and in point of courage and capacity, as well as in size and beauty, superior to the Parthians of his time. If he went only upon an excursion into the country, he had a thousand camels to carry his baggage, and two hundred carriages for his concubines. He was attended by a thousand heavy-armed horse, and many more of the light-armed rode before him. Indeed, his vassals and slaves made up a body of cavalry little less than ten thousand.

Suren's new Parthian army

The Parthians had always had two main weapons: the aristocracy fought in heavy armour with lances from well-armoured horses; their retainers fought on horseback, armed with bow and arrow, with no armour. But once they'd shot all their arrows off, they were no use.

Suren was the military genius who revolutionised the way the Parthians fought. His personal 10,000 horse-archers became the striking force, as a result of an obvious innovation: he kept 1000 camels in the rear with a fresh supply of arrows - the horsemen fired off their quiverful, and went back to the camels for re-up. Simple. Unlimited ammunition helped perfect their basic cavalry tactics. They would gallop at speed at the enemy, then turn their horses round. The archers, spinning round in their saddles, fired their arrows as they appeared to retreat. They would be far away by the time the arrows hit their target.

Crassus: an unprovoked attack on Parthia

Crassus

Although he was older than his two Roman rivals, Pompey and Caesar, Crassus felt inferior because he had no outstanding military success to compare with theirs. In 55 BC, he looked to change all that. Target: Parthia! The senate was against him going. One senator admitted:

"We had no reason to go to war"

But Crassus pressed ahead with raising troops, and marched out from Rome in November 55 BC. He ignored all advice, and the many omens which foretold disaster. He arrived in Syria in spring 54 BC to take over from Gabinius. He had a force of about 44,000, including 1000 élite cavalrymen under the command of his son Publius Crassus. He knew he'd need more cavalry - it would be supplied by local Arab allies and (he hoped) by Armenia. He crossed the Euphrates to show his intent, but didn't attack Seleuceia (where Mehrdad was still holding out against his brother Orodes). He went back to Syria for the winter, during which he used his army for some personal plundering raids on temples as far away as Jerusalem. What he didn't do was get any intelligence on Suren's army, or give his men appropriate training. He knew how easily Armenia had crumpled faced with Pompey - no doubt he thought the Parthians too would be a pushover for a Roman army.

The Battle of Carrhae 53 BC

By the spring of 53 BC, Orodes had killed off his brother, and was full of confidence. He decided to invade Armenia himself, while Suren defended Mesopotamia against Crassus. Suren's force was small - just his 10,000 horse-archers, plus 1000 heavily-armed cavalrymen.

Heavy cavalry

Heavily-armed cavalry (cataphracts)

Crassus crossed the Euphrates during a violent storm - not a good omen. His Arab cavalry was with him, but the Armenian force didn't appear - being busy dealing with Orodes' invasion. His target was Seleuceia. The Arabs were taking him there by a less-known route through the desert. His men were soon tired, hungry and thirsty. They camped by the river Belik. Suren had been waiting for them. As soon as Crassus started to move out, he attacked. The Arab cavalry immediately headed for home.

Carrhae

The site of the Battle of Carrhae 53 BC at Harran, Turkey. The ruins are of an 8th century AD mosque built over a Christian church.

Crassus wanted to deploy his army in a hollow square, but the Parthians were too quick for him. Plutarch:

When they got close to the Romans, and their commander gave the signal, first they filled the plain with the sound of a deep and terrifying roar. The Parthians do not stir themselves up for battle with trumpets, but they have large drums with bells attached. The noise of these drums on all sides produces a sound like a combination of animals roaring and thunder.

After a heavy cavalry charge softened them up, the horse archers began their assault.

The Romans now saw the velocity and force of the arrows, which fractured armour, and tore their way through every covering, whether hard or soft... The enemy were so rapid in their movements, it was impossible to overtake them. Their arrows sped faster than light could follow, and penetrated every kind of defence ... For a time, the Romans hoped the enemy would run out of arrows, and have to stop fighting; but when they saw that many camels laden with arrows had arrived, from which the Parthians took a fresh supply ... Crassus began to lose heart.

Parthian horse archer

Parthian horse archer

He told his son to charge the enemy, to give himself a chance to complete the square. But Publius got himself surrounded by the cataphracts, and his men were massacred. The first Crassus knew was when he saw his son's head being paraded on a spear. His army fought on bravely until dark - they left their 4000 wounded and headed for the nearby town of Carrhae. But that wasn't safe. A local man offered to guide them during the night to a better place. But the guide was pro-Parthian, and led them on a wild-goose chase. By dawn the Roman army was a mess. His second-in-command deserted. Morale was rock bottom.

But Suren didn't attack. Instead, he came to Crassus and offered a deal if he left in peace. Crassus was to go off alone with Suren to sign. But as he was getting on to his horse, some of the Romans thought it was a trap. What began as a scuffle turned into a fight. All of them, including Crassus, were killed. The precious eagles, standards of 3 Roman legions, were captured and taken in triumph to Seleuceia. Half the invading force, about 22,000 men, had been killed. Another 10,000 were taken prisoner and taken to the eastern frontier of the Parthian empire to act as frontier guards. The Parthians had been outnumbered four to one - it was a tremendous victory.

Plutarch (whose "orientalism" has already come to our notice) has this bizarre story about the aftermath of the Battle of Carrhae:

Now when the head of Crassus was brought to the palace [at Artaxata in Armenia, where Orodes had patched it up with his old foes], an actor, Jason by name, was performing the part of the "Bacchae" of Euripides where Agave is about to appear. While he was receiving his applause, Sillaces stood at the door of the banqueting-hall, and after bowing to the king, threw the head of Crassus into the centre of the festivities. The Parthians picked it up, clapping their hands and shouting for joy. The king ordered his servants to give Sillaces a seat. Then Jason handed his costume of Pentheus to one of the chorus, seized the head of Crassus, and assuming the role of the crazed Agave, sang her lines through as though inspired:

“We've caught a lion cub today,
And from the hills we bring our glorious prey.”

 And so the tragedy of Crassus ended in farce.

NEXT: THE CONSEQUENCES WERE...