Ancient History & Civilisation

Appendix I

The Fate of the Roman Prisoners

Some comment must be made upon the fate of the 10,000 Roman soldiers captured at the Battle of Carrhae and during the subsequent retreat. This was unprecedented, as never before had so many Roman soldiers been taken into captivity. Along with the captured legionary standards, these legionaries were a visible symbol of Parthia’s dominance. As was detailed earlier ( chapter six), we know that the prisoners were paraded through the streets of Seleucia by Surenas, in a victory parade that made a mockery of the fabled Roman triumph, but what became of them afterwards?

We only have one explicit testimony as to what happened to these Roman prisoners. Pliny records that these 10,000 men were transported across Parthia into captivity at the city of Merv, which was near to the River Oxus (now the Amu Darya, which forms the Turkmenistan/Afghanistan border), on the easternmost fringes of the Parthian empire. This is a brief note by Pliny, mentioned in passing whilst discussing the geography of the region.335 We have no accounts of the journey, which must have been a harrowing march of some 1,500 miles across the Middle East and Central Asia to their captivity, and thus we have no way of knowing how many of the 10,000 actually made it there alive. We have no details as to what they did during their captivity in Merv (we must remember that a majority of them were young men freshly recruited into Crassus’ legions).

Mark Antony appears to have been the first Roman figure to raise the issue of the Roman prisoners. On two occasions we are told that Antony demanded both the return of Crassus’ legionary eagles and the surviving captives, as part of his conditions for peace with Parthia, during the Second Parthian War, but to no avail.336 The Augustan poet Horace composed a work on ‘martial courage’ and in the second and third stanza’s speculated on the fate of these Roman prisoners:

Did Crassus’ soldiers live in base wedlock with barbarian wives and grow old in the service of the enemies whose daughters they had wedded, alas our sunken Senate and our altered ways.

Marsian and Apulian submissive to a Parthian King, forgetful of the sacred shields, the Roman name, the toga, and eternal Vesta, while Jove’s temples and the city of Rome remained unharmed?337

Here Horace speculated that the Roman captives married into the peoples of the eastern Parthian empire and served in their armies. As the reader may recall, in the 120s BC the Parthian king had incorporated captured Greek soldiers into his army, following his victory over the Seleucids (though they did betray him in battle at the first chance they got). We have one piece of evidence that appears to support this opinion however. Florus, in his work on Roman history, records an incident that occurred during Antony’s invasion of Parthia, during the Second Parthian War:

No disaster had ever occurred comparable with that which threatened the Romans on the following day, if the gods in pity had not intervened. A survivor from the disaster of Crassus dressed in Parthian costume rode up to the camp, and having uttered a salutation in Latin and thus inspired trust by speaking their language, informed them of the danger that was threatening them.338

Thus we have explicit testimony that the Parthian army did indeed contain an element of Roman soldiers from Crassus’ lost legions. However, we must be careful here, as not only is this source not contemporary, but this incident is not recorded in any other source that deals with Antony’s campaign. In fact in other accounts, notably Plutarch, the Romans are indeed warned of an impending trap, but are done so by locals, not by captive Roman soldiers.339 The other question that Florus’ reference raises is why the Parthians would bring the Romans back from the east to fight against their own kind, when they knew that the dangers of betrayal and treachery were high? We must also ask ourselves why, in Florus’ account, did only one former Roman soldier defect back to the Roman side? The balance of the evidence suggests that the Parthians would have kept the survivors of Crassus’ legions on the eastern side of the empire, where they could not return to Roman territory. In the end, Antony’s disastrous invasion of Parthia in 36 BC actually increased the number of Roman prisoners that the Parthians had. We can assume that they too were shipped off to the eastern front.

Nothing more is heard of them until 20 BC when Augustus decided to negotiate with the Parthians, rather than engage them in a third war. Famously, as a result of this peace treaty Augustus recovered the legionary eagles that had been lost during the first two Parthian wars340. He commemorated the event in coins (see figure 21) and with a triumphal arch (more than a little disingenuous given the absence of any fighting).341This is Augustus’ own testimony:

I compelled the Parthians to return to me the spoils and standards of three Roman armies, and as suppliants to seek the friendship of the Roman people. Furthermore I placed those standards in the sanctuary of the temple of Mars Ultor.342

Whilst most attention has been given to the return of the legionary standards, Dio also records the following

Meanwhile Phraates had become anxious that Augustus might lead an expedition against him, because he had not yet fulfilled any of the agreements concluded earlier with Rome. So he now returned the standards and all the prisoners of war, except for a few who had taken their own lives out of shame, or else had managed to escape detection and had hidden in the country. Augustus received them as if he had conquered the Parthian in a war; for he took great pride in the achievement, declaring that he had recovered without a struggle what had formerly been lost in battle. Indeed, in honour of this success he commanded that sacrifices be decreed and likewise a temple to Mars Ultor on the Capitol, in imitation of that of Jupiter Feretrius, in which to dedicate the standards; and he himself carried out both decrees. Moreover he rode into the city on horseback and was honoured with a triumphal arch. [Dio. 54.8]

So, it it appears that the Parthian king sent all of the Roman prisoners (that he could find) back to Rome. For the survivors of Antony’s invasion this would have ended an absence of sixteen years, but for those of Crassus’ legions it would have been thirty-three years. Again we have no testimony of how they fitted back into Roman society, but given Horace’s poem, it is possible that they returned to Rome along with their Parthian wives and it would have been intriguing to see where they settled in Italy. Interestingly there is no mention of Crassus’ head being returned, and it is entirely possible that it was kept in the Parthian court.

This issue does not end here, as a radical theory has sprung up concerning the fate of some of Crassus’ legionaries, who fall into the category of those who ‘managed to escape detection’. This highly unorthodox theory has it that a group of these Roman prisoners ended up creating a settlement in ancient China, the descendants of which are still alive today.

The basis of this seemingly incredible theory lies with the work of Homer Dubs, a scholar of Chinese at Oxford in the 1940s and 1950s.343 Over several works, he advanced the theory that a group of Carrhae survivors fled from the city of Merv and, finding that they could not cross the Parthian Empire westwards, turned east and engaged in mercenary work in Central Asia. By 36 BC they were apparently in the employ of King Jzh-jzh of the Huns, whose empire stretched across Central Asia, and went to battle against the armies of the Han Dynasty of China. The Chinese subsequently defeated the Huns and accepted the surrender of the Roman mercenaries and settled them in the border town of Li-jien, now Liqian, in western China.

This remarkable theory is based on just a few pieces of evidence. Firstly a Chinese Imperial register of AD 5 records a town with the name of Li-jien, which was also one of the words that the Chinese of the period used to describe the Romans.344 From this small piece of evidence Dubs advanced the theory that this must have been a settlement of Romans and then went back through Chinese history to see how this could have occurred. From the chronicles of the battle in 36 BC, between the Chinese and the Huns, the following passage occurs:

More than a hundred foot-soldiers, lined up on either side of the gate in a fish-scale formation, were practising military drill. The men on the wall challenged the Chinese army, saying ‘Come and fight’.345

It is this ‘fish-scale formation’ that Dubs argues must be a Roman legionary testudo, or ‘tortoise’. Apparently Dubs had discounted this theory on the grounds that there could not possibly have been any Roman legionaries in Central Asia, but was informed by William Tarn, the eminent Hellenistic historian of this region, of the survivors of Carrhae in the city of Merv. From this the two of them concluded that some of the survivors from Carrhae fled Merv to take up mercenary work and, seventeen years after Carrhae, found themselves fighting for the Huns against the Chinese.

As can be seen, the gaps in Dub’s evidence and between his leaps of logic are quite large. Firstly, he makes no mention anywhere in his works of the return of Roman prisoners in AD 20, as recorded by Dio. Secondly, not only is there nothing to link the two separate pieces of evidence (the town in AD 5 which may be named similarly to Rome, and the ‘fish-scale’ warriors), but there is nothing to link either of them to the Roman prisoners at Carrhae. As noted in chapter two, the region between Parthia and China had been home to the kingdom of Bactria, which was a Greek/native mixed civil-isation, until its conquest by Asian tribes.346 Therefore, it is perfectly possible that these ‘fish-scale’ soldiers, if they were not Huns, and there is nothing to say that they were Caucasian at all, were some remnant of the Bactrian civilisation. There is absolutely nothing to link them to the Romans; they could have been any body of known or unknown fighting men from the region. As for the name of the town, there is no conclusive proof that it was named after the Romans; it could easily have some other unknown meaning. Furthermore, despite all the contacts Rome had with China, through trade, there is no mention of a Roman colony living in China.

Therefore, there is no real evidence that a contingent of Crassus’ men fled from their captivity, became mercenaries in Central Asia, and settled in western China. Nevertheless that has not stopped the inhabitants of the modern village of Liqian in western China from claiming descent from Crassus’ legionaries. Their claim surfaced as recently as February 2007, when a national newspaper ran their story and Dubs’ theory once again, complete with the claim that scientists are taking blood samples from the inhabitants.347They are apparently intending to check them against the DNA of modern Italians (which after the migrations and ethnic shifts in the last 2,000 years, in both regions, is a mighty tall order). The inhabitants have even built a mock Roman portico, hoping to cash in on their surprise ancestry. This has to be the wildest possible modern consequence of the Battle of Carrhae, but one that in all truth holds little validity.

It is the case that the survivors of Carrhae suffered a horrendous march across the Parthian empire, probably being shown off at every major city along the way, until they reached a city at the edge of the Asian steppes, where they would have spent a wretched thirty-three year existence, until their repatriation. How many of the original 10,000 actually survived the march and this length of captivity are unknown, but in reality it can’t have been many. For these men the consequences of Carrhae were all too real.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!