Ancient History & Civilisation

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The Ancient World in the 220s BC

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The Ancient World in 55 BC

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The Near East at the Time of the First Romano-Parthian War

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The Carrhae Campaign

Introduction

In the summer of 53 BC on a plain in northern Mesopotamia, one of the most momentous battles of the ancient world took place. On the one side lay the mighty army of the Roman Republic, a force of over 40,000 strong, intent on annexing the region to the growing empire of Rome. They were led by Marcus Crassus, Rome’s richest man and the general who had defeated Spartacus. On the other lay a force of no more than 10,000 cavalrymen from the Parthian Empire, who had been sent to stop them.

This was no random encounter, but was the first battle between the armies of the two superpowers of the age: Rome and Parthia. At stake was the future of the ancient world itself, which for the past two hundred years had been carved up between these civilisations, one from the West and one from the East. This was not just a clash between armies, but between civilisations. As it happened, it was Rome who had made the first move and had invaded Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), intent not just on adding the region to their empire, but on spreading their civilisation across the whole of the eastern world.

Given their seemingly-invincible reputation and massive numerical superiority (over four to one), victory for Rome seemed assured, with the Parthians apparently destined to join the growing list of states that had fallen to Rome: Spain, Africa, Greece, Asia Minor and Syria and Judea. However, on the dusty plains of Carrhae, the near-impossible occurred when a Roman army was comprehensively defeated and slaughtered. Out of 40,000 men, barely a quarter made it back to Roman territory, with over 20,000 dead and 10,000 taken prisoner. For Rome, it was the worst defeat in 150 years (since the time of Hannibal) and was their worst defeat in an offensive war ever.

In just one afternoon’s fighting, the myth of Roman invincibility had been shattered and the seemingly inexorable spread of the Roman empire across the ancient world was halted forever. For the next 700 years, the world was divided between east and west, with the Euphrates and Mesopotamia (Iraq) on the edge of two worlds. Furthermore, amongst the dead was Marcus Crassus himself, who was one of the three Roman generals who dominated the late Republic, in an alliance known as the Triumvirate. Without him, the other two soon fell out. They were Pompey and Julius Caesar and their clash destroyed the Republic and ushered in the Roman Empire.

Therefore, it is clear to all that this battle was, and still is, of paramount importance to the history of the ancient world. Up until now, this area has been largely neglected, for a number of reasons. This study intends to set this balance right and examine not just the battle itself, seeing how the Romans were so comprehensively beaten despite such numerical superiority, but also to assess the whole campaign and war in terms of the clash between these two great empires. Despite defeating the Romans and halting their progress across the eastern world, the Parthians today remain little known. Yet for nearly 500 years they were one of the two great civilisations of the world and the equal of Rome. For this reason, the Parthian civilisation also needs to be examined and highlighted in order to see just who they were and how they managed to defeat Rome.

This study comprises two clear sections. Firstly, it will examine the background to this momentous clash, by looking at the rise of the Roman and Parthian Empires, as well as Marcus Crassus. For too long, the Parthians have been seen as nothing more than a one dimensional enemy whom Crassus lost to through his incompetence, with little wider effect. This, however, is merely the legacy of Roman wounded pride. The Parthians had an empire comparable to Rome and were not merely passive opponents waiting for Roman domination. Likewise, Crassus was no one-dimensional, avaricious bungler whose riches outstripped his military prowess. The defeat was a shocking one and one that exploited flaws in the Roman military and political systems. Only by understanding this background can we appreciate the battle, and the wider war itself.

The second section will examine the campaign in terms of its details and significance, as well as analysing the battle itself in detail before covering the rest of the First Romano-Parthian War. It will then assess the considerable implications that this defeat had, not just for Rome, but for the ancient world in general. By the end the reader should have a clearer impression of why this battle was one of the greatest of the ancient world and how modern-day civilisations have been shaped and affected by it. Given the ongoing military campaigns in that region today, arguably between east and west, it is a timely reminder that, regrettably, little has changed in the past two thousand years.

This work is intended to be accessible for the general reader as well as the scholar. All translations contained within this work are taken from the Loeb Classical Series, unless otherwise stated.

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