Battle of Carrhae

Battle of Carrhae

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Carrhae
partof=the Roman-Persian Wars

caption=A Parthian returning Legio X standard captured at Carrhae, on a Roman coin struck in 19 BC
date=53 BC
place=Near Carrhae (Harran)
result=Decisive Parthian victory
combatant1=Roman Republic
commander1=Marcus Licinius Crassus †,
Publius Crassus
strength1=35,000 legionaries,
4,000 cavalry,
4,000 light infantry
strength2=9,000 horse archers,
1,000 cataphracts
casualties1=20,000 dead,
10,000 captured,
4,000 wounded
casualties2=Reportedly very light
The Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC was a decisive victory for the Parthian Spahbod Surena over the Roman general Crassus near the town of Carrhae (now the present-day ruins of Harran, Turkey).


At the beginning of 54 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus had just finished serving his joint-consul year with Pompey. In late 60 BC, Crassus, Pompey, and newly elected consul Julius Caesar had formed a powerful triumvirate that all but controlled Rome. As a part of this elite group, Crassus felt a great desire to add new glory to his name. He had seen no action since his defeat of Spartacus nearly 20 years earlier, and almost none before that with the exception of the battle of the Colline Gate. [ RedRampant - The Battle of Carrhae] , Retrieved 10 May 2007] Crassus had been given control of the province of Syria, and felt overshadowed by the conquests of Pompey and Caesar. Caesar reportedly wrote letters to Crassus urging him to go to war. Many members of the Roman Senate tried to dissuade him from this course of action, but Caesar and Pompey stood firmly behind him and the senate relented.

Crassus arrived in Syria in late 55 BC and immediately set about using his immense wealth to raise an army. With the aid of Hellenic settlements in Syria and support from Artavasdes, the Armenian king, Crassus marched on Parthia. Artavasdes advised him to take a route through Armenia to avoid the desert, but Crassus refused. In response, the Parthian king Orodes II 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 other half, which were entirely cavalry units, to scout out, delay, and, if possible, destroy Crassus. This Parthian army was under the command of general Surena. The two armies clashed near the town of Carrhae. Though demoralised by the hot climate, Crassus' troops heavily outnumbered the Parthians.

The battle

A Parthian force of 1,000 cataphracts and 9,000 horse archers under general Surena met the Romans at Carrhae. This was not Parthia's main army, which was campaigning in Armenia under Orodes II, but an advance force sent to scout out and delay the Romans, and only defeat them if they were weak enough. Crassus' cavalry was screening ahead of the main force when they were engaged by the cataphracts, and the weapons his cavalry employed were not capable of piercing the cataphracts' armor. His cavalry was soon surrounded and routed, and his son Publius killed. Crassus had no idea what had happened as this occurred far away from the legionaries. While meanwhile the horse archers surrounded the Roman infantry, taunting them. Crassus immediately formed his legionaries into a large, hollow square to prevent from being outflanked by the more mobile Parthian forces. Surena covered his cataphracts' armor with cloth, marched his army to in front of the Romans. At a prearranged signal, the cataphracts revealed their shining armor. Surena was impressed by what little effect this had on the Roman army, and judged that the cataphract charge would not be enough to break them at this point. Thus, he sent his horse archers to bombard the Roman legionaries with arrows. However, Crassus ordered the legionaries into the testudo formation to prevent being hurt by arrowfire. Most of the shots were non-fatal shots on the arm and leg. However, considering the sheer number of arrows fired, the rapid rate of fire of the horse archers, and finally the fact that the arrows were fired from a composite bow, at the legionaries' armor, the lorica hamata, the barrage eventually wore down the Romans. Crassus's plan: to have his legionaries endure the archer fire until the horse archers ran out of arrows. After several hours, the legionaries began to collapse from heat exhaustion and thirst as well as to the constant stream of missiles. The Romans were completely surrounded. The testudo formations were holding up well though, but the testudo was very poor in hand-to-hand combat. This factor inspired Surena to charge. The cataphracts' charge split the Roman army, and the Roman soldiers began to rout. Crassus was able to withdraw, but he had to leave behind thousands of wounded, who were executed by the Parthians. Surena then offered to have peace negotiations with Crassus. Crassus's men heard of this and threatened to mutiny if Crassus did not accept. Crassus was forced to attend, and he was killed. Molten gold was poured down his throat, and his skull would later be used as a prop in a play. It was one of the greatest defeats Rome would ever suffer, with about 20,000 soldiers dead, and half again as many captured. The Parthians suffered light casualties.


Rome was humiliated by this defeat, and this was made even worse by the fact that the Parthians had captured several Legionary Eagles. [ The Deadly Banners of Carrhae] , Robert Collins, Silkroad Foundation. Retrieved 10 May 2007] 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. Orodes II, 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, Orodes II himself took command of the Parthian army and led an unsuccessful military campaign into Syria. The Battle of Carrhae was one of the first battles between the Romans and Parthians, and essentially destroyed the possibility of the two empires ever having good relations. 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.

Gaius Cassius Longinus, a legatus 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 Orodes II's further attacks. He would eventually defeat the Parthians and receive 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. It required a generation of diplomacy before the Parthians returned them. Their return was considered a great triumph by Augustus, and celebrated like a military victory.

An important and unexpected implication of this battle was that it opened up the European continent to a new and beautiful material: silk. The Romans who managed to survive the battle reported seeing brilliant, shimmering banners (apparently made of silk) used by the Parthians as they slaughtered the fleeing legions. Subsequently, interest in Europe grew for this material and trade routes were extended from China to Western Europe. This effectively marked the beginnings of the Silk Road, one of the greatest and richest trade routes in history.

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 Margiana 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. [ UNRV Roman History - Battle of Carrhae] Retrieved 10 May 2007.]

However, the most immediate effect of the battle was that Carrhae was an indirect cause for the fall of the Republic, and the rise of the Empire.Fact|date=May 2007 The Republic as an institution had really ceased functioning with Sulla's first march on Rome in 88 BC, though the loss of Crassus and his legions at Carrhae certainly sped the final collapse of the Republic.The Romans: From Village to Empire, Mary T. Boatwright] Along with the death of Pompey's wife and Caesar's daughter Julia, Crassus' death left the relationship between Caesar and Pompey as distant and unstable; the first Triumvirate no longer existed. As a result, civil war broke out, Caesar won, and the Republic quickly and became an autocratic dictatorship.

Lastly, when the Roman empire divided into eastern and western, the eastern half adopted the cataphracts into their legions. Later, when the Eastern Roman Empire became the Byzantine empire, the cataphracts that were used later found their way into middle and western Europe. After years of evolution they eventually became the famous Medieval knights. Fact|date=October 2008



*cite book |author=Weir, William |title=50 Battles That Changed the World: The Conflicts That Most Influenced the Course of History |publisher=Barnes and Noble Books |location=Savage, Md |year= |pages= |isbn=0-7607-6609-6 |oclc= |doi=

External links

The only two ancient records of the battle:
*Plutarch's "Life of Crassus", 23–27 ( [*.html#23 Online] )
*Cassius Dio's "Roman History", 40:21–4 ( [*.html#21 Online] )

An in-depth description:
* [ Battle of Carrhae]

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