Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter 5

The Invasion of the East (55–53 BC)

We must now turn our attention to the war itself, and the events that led up to the Battle of Carrhae, which only occurred after over a year’s worth of campaigning by the two sides. Again we must be aware that both sides were involved in this process and must not limit ourselves to merely analysing the Roman campaign and imagine that the Parthians sat there complacently waiting for Crassus’ army to arrive. In point of fact, as we will see, the Parthians did just the opposite and forced the Romans to alter their plans; an alteration that was to have profound effects on the campaign that followed.

Initial Strategies: Rome

The surviving sources do not provide us with any detail on what Crassus hoped to achieve apart from Plutarch’s grandiose statement that:

he would not consider Syria nor even Parthia as the boundaries of his success, but thought to make the campaigns of Lucullus against Tigranes and those of Pompey against Mithridates seem mere child’s play, and flew on the wings of his hopes as far as Bactria and India and the Outer Sea.143

Again our surviving sources paint us a picture of Crassus as a new Alexander, hoping to bring the whole of the east under Roman control, a fine ambition for a man of near sixty, seeking a legacy. Our sources also appear to be emphasising how out of his depth they considered him to be and how outlandish the whole campaign was. The one factor that they do not mention is the request from Mithradates III to the Romans (accepted by Gabinius, Crassus’ predecessor as governor of Syria) to intervene in the Parthian civil war. Following Gabinius’ withdrawal from Parthia, Mithradates remained with Gabinius during his subsequent invasion of Egypt. This is only recorded by the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus, who provides us with several key and unique aspects of this war. The role of Mithradates here is a highly interesting one and raises a number of important questions.144 Josephus goes on to tell us that in 55 BC, after accompanying Gabinius on his campaigns, Mithradates was sent away when the Romans were in Jerusalem (quelling another civil dispute). Mithradates sub-sequently turned up in Mesopotamia, whereupon he restarted the civil war and seized the cities of Babylonia and Seleucia, which he made his base of operations.

It is interesting that Mithradates went from being a refugee, living on Gabinius’ hospitality, to a returning prince who set up his own kingdom in Mesopotamia, and all in advance of Crassus’ arrival in Syria. It is tempting to speculate that Mithradates was sent back into Parthia to rekindle the civil war and thus destabilise the Parthian empire, and the Mesopotamian region in particular, prior to the arrival of Roman forces. Whilst the Romans did not provide him with any forces, it is more than possible that some of the spoils of Gabinius’ Egyptian campaign accompanied him back to Parthia, to make his triumphant return from exile all the more palatable for the elites of the two great cities of Seleucia and Babylonia.

Thus Rome’s initial strategy (or to be more exact, the triumvirs’ original strategy) appears to have been to use Mithradates as a stalking horse, and inflame Parthia’s civil war to their own ends. Not only did Crassus have an ally in southern Mesopotamia, controlling the major Greek city-states there, but the Parthian military would be split and not able to focus on any impending invasion, which by now was obviously coming.

It is curious that this does not appear to have been picked up in Rome. The surviving sources record hostility from the Senate and the people to this apparently uncalled-for war. Nevertheless, as described elsewhere (see appendix two) the sources are all hostile to the whole campaign based on its outcome. Many of the objections would have been to the triumvirate’s highjacking of Roman foreign policy and the prospect of Crassus being in charge of a victorious campaign in the east furthering his and the triumvirate’s power.

In spite of all this, a law passed by the tribune Gaius Trebonius granted Crassus the province of Syria for five years and seven legions with which to fight any campaign. Furthermore, he was given the power of declaring wars and creating treaties as he saw fit (thus undermining many of the ancient sources who object to there being no formal cause for a war between Rome and Parthia145). However, even the passing of this law did not receive unanimous consent. In particular, one of Trebonius’ colleagues, Gaius Ateius Capito, attempted to block this law, but was overruled. He continued to campaign against Crassus and this command throughout the year, and in particular made a colourful contribution, as will be seen shortly.

With the domestic opposition sidelined, Crassus still faced one important obstacle: namely how to raise seven legions worth of men. It was one thing to be voted seven legions by law; it was another to raise the numbers of men willing to serve. Here Crassus had several problems. Not only had Caesar recruited a large army for his Gallic campaigns from the men of Italy, but Pompey was also recruiting for his Spanish provinces. Furthermore, Pompey could turn to his veterans from his eastern campaigns to bolster his new armies. Crassus had not fought a campaign since the defeat of Spartacus, some fifteen years earlier. Such a timespan would have prevented many of his former troops being capable of fighting a fresh campaign.

However the outlook was not all negative for Crassus, as his projected campaign was against a rich eastern power and held out the prospect of being a repeat of Pompey’s highly successful eastern campaigns of the 60s BC, during which the soldiers reaped handsome rewards. Compared to fighting barbarians in Spain or Gaul, this campaign would have seemed the far more attractive one. We know that Crassus recruited men from Lucania, Apulia and amongst the Marsian regions of Italy.146 The important point here is not the ethnicity of his troops, but their quality. It is likely that the vast majority of his legionaries were young and inexperienced, as opposed to the army he had faced Spartacus with. Such an inexperienced army would require training, not that there was much time to do so in Italy.

Despite all the sources stating that Crassus had difficulty recruiting, Plutarch makes an interesting observation that is not often remarked upon. In a section commenting on Crassus’ dealings with an Arab chieftain, he states that a number of Crassus’ men had served with Pompey in the 60s and had encountered this particular Arab chieftain before.147 The key thing here is that Plutarch appears to tell us that Crassus had managed to recruit an unknown number of veterans from Pompey’s campaign in the 60s. This would suggest that whilst the bulk of his seven legions were inexperienced men, Crassus’ army did posses a core of experienced Roman soldiers, in the form of veterans from the eastern campaign of the previous decade. Not only would these men bring precious fighting experience, but they had been in the region before and would have knowledge of the local conditions. Even though these men were veterans of Pompey, the lure of another lucrative eastern campaign would have been a strong incentive to sign on once again and they may have done so in greater numbers than we previously believed.

We know that Crassus left Rome to meet up with his army in late 55 BC. We have a letter of Cicero from what now equates to 14 November 55 BC, which states that Crassus had left the city recently.148 His term of office as consul was coming to an end and he was eager to reach his province before the campaigning of 54 BC could begin. This was quite the normal practice in Rome, especially given the distance he had to travel.

Crassus’ departure from Rome is a story in itself. When the day came, Crassus made a public show of it, accompanied to the city gates by Pompey. We hear that Caesar also sent a letter wishing him good fortune. As he approached the city gates, the tribune Gaius Ateius Capito once again attempted to scupper the whole proceedings by ordering his attendants to arrest Crassus. This failed when Capito’s tribunician colleagues blocked him. Not to be thwarted quietly, Capito then went onto curse Crassus and his whole campaign. Plutarch provides us with the most dramatic description of this:

but Ateius ran on ahead to the city gate, placed there a blazing brazier, and when Crassus came up, cast incense and libations upon it, and invoked curses which were dreadful and terrifying in themselves, and were reinforced by sundry strange and dreadful gods whom he summoned and called by name.

The Romans say that these mysterious and ancient curses have such power that no-one involved in them ever escapes, and misfortune falls also upon the one who utters them, which means that they are not employed at random, nor by many. And accordingly at this time they found fault with Ateius because it was for the city’s sake that he was angered at Crassus, and yet he had involved the city in curses which awakened much superstitious terror.149

This wonderfully dramatic story suffers only from the fact that it is not mentioned by any contemporary source, most notably Cicero. Cicero’s letter which talks of Crassus’ departure fails to mention any of these events and a later work of his, which harks back to Crassus’ departure, only talks about Ateius reporting bad omens for Crassus’ departure, which Crassus ignored.150 Ateius was actually prosecuted for reporting these omens, but acquitted on the count that the result of the battle showed them to be true. Nowhere is there any mention of a ‘dreadful and terrifying curse’. It has been argued that Plutarch and perhaps his source have mixed up this event with one that occurred in 131 BC when a tribune did use this type of curse in an incident in which an ancestor of Crassus’ was involved.151 Again we can see that the later ancient sources were all too eager to add dramatic elements to the story, especially one that made the defeat seem inevitable.

Nevertheless, despite the stories of ancient curses and domestic opposition, Crassus had much to look forward to. The Parthian empire was engulfed in a civil war, with the pro-Roman Mithradates III holding the key Mesopotamian cities of Babylon and Seleucia (which had control over the Parthian winter capital of Ctesiphon). The cities of Mesopotamia still had a large Hellenistic Greek population and, as discussed previously, had only a nominal level of Parthian loyalty or control. To the north of Parthia lay Armenia, which was allied to Rome and would be obliged by treaty to provide additional forces for any Roman campaign. To the southwest of Parthia lay various Arab territories that, whilst not part of the Roman empire, were nominally allied to Rome and would render assistance when called on.

Thus Crassus’ position in 55 BC was a strong one, but we still are unclear as to his ultimate aims. One possibility was the complete annexation of Parthia, right up to the Indian frontier, as Plutarch described.152 Yet Roman policy in relation to the states in this region had been a mixture of annexation (such as Pontus and Syria) and tributary status, such as Armenia, Judea and Egypt.

Therefore we can legitimately ask ourselves whether Crassus intended to annex the whole of the Parthian empire. Given the mixed nature of Roman policy in the region and the relatively modest Roman force at Crassus’ command, it is far more reasonable to speculate that Crassus would have been aiming for the same mixed policy in relation to Parthia. Certainly, as Rome’s remaining undefeated enemy and rival in this region, a clear defeat of Parthia was necessary. Following that, it made perfect sense on strategic, commercial and even ethnic grounds, for the Romans to annex Mesopotamia to their empire, giving them access to the Persian Gulf and the overseas trade routes. The rest of the Parthian empire would then remain a tributary ally of Rome, probably with a pliant client king (Mithradates III, or even a defeated Orodes II) on the throne. Thus Rome intended to defeat the Parthians, eliminating their last regional rival and annexing substantial territories to their physical empire, whilst adding the rest of Parthia to their outer ring of client states. This forms the most likely objective for Rome in their first Parthian war.

Initial Strategies: Parthia

Before we turn our attention to the first year of campaigning in 54 BC, we must first consider the issue from the Parthian perspective. All of our surviving sources and most modern commentators blindly seem to assume that the Parthians just sat there, waiting for the Roman armies to invade. In point of fact ,given that Gabinius had already invaded Parthia in 55 BC in support of Mithradates III, and given that the build up and transportation of a large Roman army would have been hard to conceal, we can rightly suppose the Parthians to have been expecting a Roman attack. However, the question of just what they could do about it is a different matter.

With regard to the Romans, it was clear that the Parthians could not go on the offensive and invade Syria. A clear violation of the terms of friendship and an invasion of Roman territory would have united all of Rome behind Crassus and made invasion a certainty. What they could do, however, was to fully mobilise their armed forces and make certain preparations. Theirs would have to be a responsive war, waiting for Rome to make the first move and then countering it.

However, two other aspects were clear to the Parthians. Firstly, their primary concern must have been to end the civil war and recover Mesopotamia. This would not only remove Rome’s supposed cause for invasion, but would ensure that the Romans had no Parthian allies or bases of operation and that they would meet a united Parthian response.

Secondly, it was clear that Armenia (the third of the region’s three powers) would play a role in the war and would be on Rome’s side. Obviously it was possible that the Parthians would face an attack on two fronts and that preparations would need to be made to knock Armenia out of the war. Therefore, on the Parthian side as well as the Roman, preparations were being made to go to war. What is not clear is to what extent the Parthians believed that they could defeat the Romans. Clearly they were prepared to defend themselves, but we can question whether they believed that they could win a war with Rome.

54 BC – The First Year’s Campaigning: Rome

As stated earlier we know that Crassus left Rome at some point in early November 55 BC. We are also told that his army boarded ship at the port of Brundisium and encountered problems with the wintry seas of the Adriatic, losing many men (a not uncommon occurrence, especially given the time of year). This had supposedly been preceded by yet another unfavourable omen which Crassus ignored, as Cicero reports:

When Marcus Crassus was embarking his army at Brundisium, a man who was selling Caunian Figs at the harbour, repeatedly cried out ‘Cauneas, Cauneas’. Let us say, if you will, that this was a warning to Crassus to tell him ‘Beware of going’ and that if he had obeyed the omen he would not have perished.153

The Latin for ‘beware of going’ is cave ne eas, very similar to Cauneas. How Cicero got this story, so soon after the defeat at Carrhae is unknown, but it shows the mythos that soon built up around this defeat, and the number of tall stories that soon appeared. It is possible that his story was related to Cicero by Crassus himself, as we know that the two men were in communication by letter during 54 BC (though only Cicero’s letters survive). The two men had reconciled their long standing enmity at a meeting in the country a few days before Crassus’ departure.154 They also make clear that Crassus was receiving and sending a number of reports back to his family in Rome.

What also emerges from this correspondence is that the consuls of 54 BC had proposed some form of curtailment of Crassus’ command (though the details are lost). It is apparent that these moves were defeated and that Cicero helped in the matter.155 Given the resources of the triumvirate and that Pompey was still in Rome, such an attempt was always likely to fail.

After disembarkation and recovery from the storm, we know that Crassus marched his army overland to Syria, a common occurrence given the Roman dislike of sea travel. This march took him across Greece and Asia Minor. Plutarch records that he passed through the Roman client kingdom of Galatia and gives us another amusing and pointed anecdote:

Finding that King Deiotarus, who was now a very old man, was founding a new city, he greeted him saying ‘O King, you are beginning to build at the twelfth hour’. The Galatian [Deiotarus] laughed and said: ‘But you yourself, Imperator, as I see, are not marching very early in the day against the Parthians’.156

Plutarch then goes onto remind his readers of Crassus’ age, and by implication, his shortcomings as a commander. Prior to his arrival, Crassus had sent a legate ahead to co-ordinate with Gabinius, who had returned from Egypt and Judea and was awaiting the handover. Dio reports that Gabinius refused to handover power to Crassus’ legate.157 We are not told how this situation was resolved, but by mid 54 BC Crassus and his army had arrived in Syria and were preparing to invade Parthia.

It is here that Crassus faced his first major tactical decision, and it is here that the choices he made begin to come under criticism from our surviving sources. The key question he faced was which route he was going to take to invade Parthia and what campaigning he would undertake once he had invaded. In terms of routes into Parthia, there were only two obvious choices: invade from Syria across the Euphrates and into western Mesopotamia; or invade via Armenia, through the mountains and into northern Mesopotamia. Crassus chose the former and invaded Mesopotamia via the Euphrates, from Roman Syria.

There were several strong reasons for taking this direct course of action. Militarily, it was the direct route and was easier for the army to cross the Euphrates than struggle in the Armenian foothills. Secondly, the Armenian route would have meant an extra delay and given that much of the campaigning season of 54 BC had already been taken up with the journey from Italy, he would have wanted to get the campaign underway as quickly as possible. Thirdly, there was a political element, as Crassus was the governor of Syria and his whole mandate stemmed from that. Moving his army into Armenia, a Roman ally, whilst being governor of Syria, might have jeopardised his authority for a preemptive invasion of Parthia. The nearest Roman provinces to Armenia were Pontus and Cilicia, both with their own governors.

Added to this was the fact that an invasion across the Euphrates put him squarely in Mesopotamia, the province where the civil war was being fought and in a strong strategic position with regard to controlling the southern cities of Seleucia, Babylon and Ctesiphon, or the central routes into the eastern Parthian empire. He also had the support of the Arab rulers in the area, notably Al Chaudonius of the Rhambaei and Akbar of Edessa, securing his flank.

In 54 BC the Roman army crossed the Euphrates and the First Romano-Parthian War proper began. Crassus appears to have adopted a cautious and steady strategy. After crossing the Euphrates he sought out the Parthian satrap of the region, Silaces, and engaged him in battle. This initial encounter occurred near the town of Ichnae and was as one-sided as the Romans had expected. Silaces’ forces were routed, their cavalry scattered and Silaces himself wounded (he fled the battle and made his way to the Parthian court, in order to inform King Orodes II).

With this victory having won him northern Mesopotamia, Crassus set about securing the area by garrisoning the key strategic towns of the region, notably Ichnae, Nicephorium and Carrhae. In all cases bar one, these mostly-Greek cities went over to the Romans voluntarily. Most were founded during the period of Alexander the Great and his successors and had large numbers of peoples of Greek descent, who welcomed Roman rule. Only one town resisted: Zenodotium, ruled by a tyrant named Apollonius. Rather than see his position lost to the Romans, he invited a Roman force within the city and then ambushed and massacred them. The act was a futile one and in retaliation Crassus attacked the city with his whole army. The city was soon taken and sacked, with the inhabitants sold into slavery. All Apollonius had done was to present Crassus with a wonderful opportunity to both train his men in siege tactics, provide them with an early reward for their services through booty, and give a valuable lesson to everyone in the region as to what would happen if they betrayed Rome.

Crassus had defeated the Parthian forces in the region and secured a key strategic position. The territory now under Roman control was an area of fertile land containing many of the Greek-dominated cities and towns and controlling the key communication routes of the region. In total Crassus garrisoned the region with 7,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry and then withdrew back into Syria for the winter.158

This decision is one of the main points that his detractors criticise him on. Both Plutarch and Dio attack him for being too cautious and not pressing on further or remaining in the region for the winter.159 In particular they castigate him for not pushing on to southern Mesopotamia to relieve Mithradates III and take control of the cities of Seleucia, Babylon and Ctesiphon.

For Crassus, however, the campaign of 54 BC had been a total success; northern and western Mesopotamia were firmly under Roman rule and this had been accomplished remarkably easily, as everyone had expected. The first engagement between Roman and Parthian forces had been an undoubted victory, with the Parthians routed. Only one city in the region had not gone over to Rome willingly, and a clear example had been made of it.

Yet Crassus had good reason to be cautious. His army was still composed of mostly inexperienced young recruits. Certainly they had received a taste of battle at Ichnae, but that was against a vastly outnumbered Parthian force. A lot of training was needed before his army was up to scratch, and given Crassus’ experiences in the Spartacan War (see chapter three), this is something that he considered to be crucial to the success of any campaign. Furthermore, Crassus would have known that he lacked one crucial element to his army, namely cavalry. It was not until the winter of 54 BC that his son Publius arrived with a contingent of 1,000 Gallic cavalry loaned to him by Caesar (both Publius and Marcus junior had been serving in Gaul under Caesar).

Crassus would also have been concerned that the Armenian contingent had not arrived, a fact that goes uncommented upon by our surviving sources. Given that the Roman army had set off from Italy in late 55 BC, the arrival of the Armenian military assistance had been remarkably slow, not arriving until the winter of 54 BC (at the same time as the contingent from Gaul, which is interesting considering the respective distances). Therefore, a further reason for caution could have been his wish to ascertain how reliable the Armenians were going to be in this war with their former allies. Given Armenia’s subjugation to Rome, a Parthian victory, or at least a stalemate, would have been in their interests. As events turned out, such a view on Crassus’ part was an extremely wise one.

In addition to these purely military reasons, Crassus would have known that the winters of the region brought about heavy rainfall, which would have rendered the desert roads more treacherous. Furthermore, it appears that the province of Syria and the allied kingdom of Judea were still in some disarray and would have needed the governors’ attention, and Crassus was looking for a further source of additional campaign funds.

It is with all these reasons in mind, most notably an inexperienced army lacking cavalry support, that Crassus did not continue his campaign into the autumn and winter of 54 BC. The initiative and the first blood was his. Given the presence of Surenas’ forces in southern Mesopotamia, he chose not to risk giving battle by heading down the Euphrates and attempting to relieve Mithradates III. That this decision cost Mithradates his life and led to the end of the civil war probably did not disturb the Romans greatly. If he was an ally then he was an expendable one, and one who had already served his purpose, namely distracting the Parthians to allow an untroubled Roman invasion. As could be seen from Mithradates’ original plea, he had no forces of his own and if the Romans had relieved him then they would have gained the headache of having to garrison the cities of the region against an aggressive Parthian force, with little help from Mithradates. His death did not really alter their plans for a Parthian puppet as a defeated Orodes would have been just as useful to them, if not more so, given Mithradates’ unpopularity amongst the Parthian nobility (the reason he was overthrown in the first place).

Both Plutarch and Dio pass over the winter of 54 BC in their haste to reach the events of 53 BC. Both claim that Crassus allowed his men to grow lazy and given to plundering. However, neither source presents Crassus and his campaign in anything other than a negative light and both sources overlook the activities of Crassus in Judea. Only Josephus records the fact that during the winter of 54 BC, Crassus and a large force entered the allied kingdom of Judea and sacked the Great Temple of Jerusalem once again (Pompey had done so a decade earlier).160 This time, there was little clear reason for this expedition, but most commentators put it down to Crassus’ greed. Josephus actually states that Crassus did this in order to gain funds for his campaign. Furthermore, Josephus does not provide any background to Crassus’ intervention, but given the history of Judea in the preceding decade (one of civil turmoil, exacerbated by Gabinius’ intervention) it is likely that the situation called for Roman intervention and Crassus merely utilised it to gain additional funds. In addition, Crassus also confiscated the treasures from the Temple of Venus at Hierapolis.161 He also drew up plans for the winter quartering of his men, paid for by the local rulers.

The situation that faced Crassus at the beginning of 53 BC was actually an extremely positive one. Western Mesopotamia had been secured and the Parthians defeated once already, both of which were accomplished with the minimum of effort. Despite the ease of these accomplishments, Crassus had shown restraint and preferred to winter his army in preparation for what he knew would have been at least one major set-piece battle to decide the war the following year. Over the winter he could train his army, gather additional finances and build up his cavalry contingent. Rather than get carried away with the ease of the early engagements, Crassus once again appeared to show his restraint and methodological approach as a general, ensuring that he went into battle only when it suited him.

54 BC – The First Year’s Campaigning: Parthia

For the Parthians, and Orodes II in particular, it appeared that 54 BC was a year of mixed fortunes. For the first time Parthia had experienced a full-scale Roman invasion, and it appeared to be as one-sided as many expected. The cities of western Mesopotamia, which had been under Parthian control for nearly ninety years, had all defected to the Romans without a fight and his garrison in the region had been routed with apparent ease. Yet the Romans had limited themselves to western Mesopotamia and the invasion was hardly a surprise, which had allowed Orodes the time to raise two armies. He possessed the bulk of the Parthian army in Media whilst his leading nobleman had raised a second army from his own estates.

It is to the man known as Surenas that we should now turn. We know quite a lot about Parthia’s foremost general in this period, with one notable exception – his name. All the surviving sources name him as coming from the noble house of Suren, and only refer to him as ‘the Suren’, or Surenas, with his own personal named being lost to us. Through the Suren we gain a glimpse into how the Parthian nobility had developed over the centuries of the growth of the Parthian empire. Whilst a hereditary, landowning Parthian nobility must have dated back to the creation of the new Parthian ruling order in the 240s/230s BC, it appears that the recent decades had seen them consolidate and expand their power.

It is clear from Parthian history that the absolutist monarchy of the Arsacids would not have encouraged a strong and independent nobility. Yet as the empire grew, more power had to be devolved from the Great King and more men had to be drawn into governing and fighting for the empire. By the time of the conquest of Mesopotamia we hear of generals commanding Parthian armies, most of who seem to be non-Parthian. By the 120s, however, with the death of two kings at the hands of the Saka invaders, the monarchy was in a weakened position. A weakened monarchy always allows for the growth of an ambitious nobility. Under Mithradates II such growth would have been curtailed, but the civil wars of the period 91–70 BC seem to have weakened the central monarchy considerably. We know that Mithradates III was overthrown for his unpopularity with the nobles and replaced by his younger brother. Thus the hereditary monarchy was now under the control of a group of noble families and foremost amongst them was the Suren.

As well as being one of the families on the Council of Elders, which appointed or rather confirmed the choice of king, we are told that the Suren also had the hereditary right of placing the crown on the head of the new monarch, which could easily translate itself into a veto over the choice of monarch.162 As we can see with Orodes II, he owed his crown and his continued occupation of it to the Suren clan. Furthermore, from the events of 54 and 53 BC we know that the Suren could put an army of 10,000 men in the field, drawn from their own lands and financed at their own expenses.163 The head of the clan was a young man in his twenties, but one who already possessed a formidable reputation. Plutarch breaks off his narrative of the campaign to detail the man:

Nor was Surenas an ordinary man at all, but in wealth, birth and consideration, he stood next to the king, while in valour and ability he was the foremost Parthian of his time, besides having no equal in stature and personal beauty. He used to travel on private business with a baggage train of a thousand camels, and was followed by two hundred wagons for his concubines164

Furthermore, Plutarch adds:

Moreover, he enjoyed the ancient and hereditary privilege of being first to set the crown upon the head of the Parthian King; and when this very King was driven out of Parthia, he restored him to the throne. And though at this time he was not yet thirty years of age, he had the highest reputation for prudence and sagacity.165

Thus, in many ways the clash that occurred at Carrhae was a clash between the two richest noblemen of their respective empires (Crassus and Surenas, a wily old dog and an ambitious young one). As usual, we have limited sources for the Parthian campaigning of 54 BC, but what we do know is that whilst Orodes was raising the main Parthian army and adopting a ‘wait and see’ policy, the young head of the Suren clan moved into action. Having played the decisive role in removing Mithradates III and placing Orodes on the throne, he moved decisively to end the civil war before it fatally damaged the campaign against Rome. At some point in 54 BC, Surenas (as we will to refer to him) advanced his army into southern Mesopotamia, where Mithradates was holed up in Seleucia.166 We have no details of what route he took, but it is possible that his operations in southern Mesopotamia coincided with those of Crassus in the northwest of the region. What we do know is that both Seleucia and Babylon were placed under siege, and that both fell quickly to Surenas. Again this is highly unusual given the poor Parthian reputation for laying siege to a city, but it could also illustrate the limited control which Mithradates III had over these cities. Plutarch tells us that Surenas was the first to mount the walls of Seleucia, though this smacks of propaganda.167 Mithradates III surrendered to Surenas, who sent him to his brother, the king, before whom he was promptly executed.

Thus the Parthians ended 54 BC on the back foot, but not without some measure of accomplishment. The civil war had been ended and the cities of Babylon, Seleucia and the winter capital of Ctesiphon had all been secured before the Romans could intervene. Thus the Parthians could face the Roman invader united and with a commander of some ability, apparently unlike Orodes himself.

53 BC – Shadows of Carrhae: Rome

The spring of 53 BC saw two significant developments occur before either army was even in the field. Crassus received two separate but important embassies, which arrived at similar times; one from the Armenian King Artavasdes and one from an emissary of Orodes II. The timing of these two visits may not have been coincidental. It has already been noted that the Armenians had been conspicuous by their absence throughout 54 BC and had taken well over six months to arrive at Crassus’ camp. That they did so at around the same time as the Parthian emissary could strike a suspicious mind as having some connection.

We shall deal with the Parthian arrival first. Both Plutarch and Dio report this embassy, but Plutarch does so in far greater detail.168The embassy was apparently sent by Orodes to enquire about the causes of the war and to inform Crassus that the Romans had no legitimate reason for going to war with them, not that such niceties had ever bothered the Parthians themselves. Plutarch goes on to tell us that the Parthians knew that this was an unpopular war back in Rome and that Crassus was acting against the interests of the Roman people. Orodes was prepared to put this invasion down to Crassus’ old age and allow him to withdraw.

It is with this analysis that we must really start to question Plutarch’s account, as the chances of any Parthian envoy wishing to insult the Roman commander in such a way was remote at the least. The fact that he manages to pick on Crassus’ age and the opposition to the war in Rome, both of which Plutarch has been highlighting, is too great a coincidence. Furthermore, we have to ask whether the Parthians would have thought that insulting one of the two most powerful men in the Roman Republic, and accusing him of being senile, was likely to encourage him to withdraw his invading armies and return to Rome. No Roman commander had ever committed such an act and no Roman Republican commander ever would.

A more likely reason for the embassy was a last ditch attempt by Orodes to avert the war with Rome by bargaining, perhaps with the offer of a hefty bribe. Both main sources report an interesting anecdote about the conversation between Crassus and the chief emissary, a man named Vagises. When Crassus tells them that he will give them his answer to the causes of the war from Seleucia:

Vagises burst out laughing and said, pointing to the palm of his upturned hand: ‘O Crassus, hair will grow there before you will see Seleucia’169

This incident raises two interesting possibilities. Firstly that Crassus is linking the origins of the war to Seleucia, until recently held by Mithradates III, who’s request for assistance in securing the throne the Romans had accepted (which was possibly their ‘casns belli’). Secondly, Crassus could have been indicating his price for ending the campaign, namely Roman suzerainty of Mesopotamia. In any event, the emissaries left Crassus’ camp to return to Orodes to tell him that there could be no negotiation and that a full scale war was certain. The fact that Orodes, despite having his territory occupied and his forces defeated, was still willing to negotiate shows us the relatively weak position that the Parthians, or Orodes in particular, saw themselves in.

The next arrival at Crassus’ door was the king of Armenia, Artavasdes, who arrived with 6,000 armoured cavalrymen. Despite what at first seemed a welcome arrival, Artavasdes’ visit brought more problems than it solved for Crassus. Despite having a year to prepare for Crassus’ arrival, he only brought with him 6,000 cavalrymen, backed up by the pledge of a further 10,000 armoured cavalry and 30,000 infantry, but only on the condition that Crassus invaded Parthia via Armenia. As statements of fidelity to the Roman cause go, we can understand why Crassus was underwhelemd by such ‘generosity’. Despite Plutarch stating that the meeting was a friendly one, it ended with Artavasdes returning to Armenia along with his cavalry.170 Later, when the Armenians were attacked by Orodes, Artavasdes sent Crassus a note apologising for not sending the 40,000 cavalry and infantry and actually asking for Crassus’ help in defeating the Parthians. Plutarch records that this sent Crassus into a rage and led to him promising to pay Artavasdes back for his treachery.171

Many commentators have criticised Crassus for not taking up Artavasdes’ offer of invading Parthia via Armenia, where the foothills would have offered protection from the Parthian cavalry, as would the supporting Armenian cavalry. However, this is using both the benefit of hindsight and rose-tinted glasses at the same time. To Crassus, at the beginning of 54 BC, it seemed perfectly obvious that the Armenians could not be trusted. Artavasdes’ offer was an obvious ploy to save his kingdom from Parthian invasion by having the Romans do all the fighting. In fact, Crassus could not be sure that even if he chose the Armenian route, the Armenians would help in fighting the Parthians. If anything, there was the distinct possibility of a trap, with the Armenians joining the Parthians once battle had been joined.

Given the fact that the Romans had secured a bridgehead in western Mesopotamia and that he had spent the winter training his army and having had them reinforced by Gallic cavalry, the most logical route was still a full-scale invasion through Mesopotamia. Once there he could track down the armies of Surenas and Orodes and defeat them in open battle. The downside was the loss of the Armenian cavalry, but then the Romans had seen little to fear of the Parthian cavalry and had 1,000 Gallic cavalry that they could trust, rather than 6,000 that may melt away at the first sign of trouble.

In spring 53 BC, with both the Parthian and Armenian embassies dealt with, the Roman army mobilised and crossed the Euphrates for a full-scale invasion of the Parthian empire. The place that Crassus chose to ford the Euphrates was Zeugma. Dio states this was the place that Alexander the Great had chosen to cross at, which he believed showed that Crassus was making a bold statement about his intentions.172 Unfortunately, Dio has mixed up two different locations173. The town which Crassus crossed at was a trading town founded by Alexander’s general, Seleucus, and was the main crossing point for the eastern trade route, more commonly known as the Silk Road.174 It has recently been suggested that Crassus made use of the old Persian Royal Road (which ran from Asia Minor through this region) on his journey through Mesopotamia.175 Whilst there is no direct evidence to support this theory, it raises an interesting point about Crassus’ motives for taking this route and shows the accessibility of the area to a large army. Thus Crassus was merely following the most logical route into Parthia.176

It is at this point that Plutarch introduces no fewer than seven separate ill omens that Crassus’ army supposedly encountered.177 As the army crossed the river there was thunder and lightning and heavy winds which destroyed many of the rafts. Then two lightning bolts struck the Roman campsite. Thirdly, one of Crassus’ horses was lost in the river, along with its groom. Next, the first Roman legionary eagle that crossed the river turned round of its own accord. Then came the serving of lentils and salt to his troops (traditionally a sign of mourning), followed by Crassus making a speech about burning the bridges over the river so that they might not return that way. Finally, Crassus apparently let a purificatory sacrifice drop through his hands to the ground.

To this incredible list Dio adds a legionary eagle that sticks in the ground and refuses to move, another falling into the river and, best of all, there was apparently a heavy fog on the river (which was then followed by strong winds).178Thus in both accounts no Roman soldier could have been unaware of the fact that they were all doomed. We should now move away from the rage of the gods and back onto military matters.

Plutarch gives us a reliable figure for the Roman army that crossed the Euphrates in such propitious circumstances: seven legions of infantry, four thousand horsemen (including the one thousand Gallic cavalry, the rest being allied horsemen), and an equivalent number of lightly-armed allied troops.179 In total this force would number around 42,000 thousand infantry and 4,000 cavalry. One aspect which is not clear is whether Plutarch is counting the number of men with which Crassus had already garrisoned western Mesopotamia the year previously (some 7,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry). Given the fact that we are told by the sources that these garrison troops came from the legions, then they must surely be deducted from the total.

It was after crossing the Euphrates that Crassus made another key strategic decision. He faced a choice between turning to the south and heading towards the cities of Seleucia, Babylon and Ctesiphon or keeping to an eastern course that would take him into the heart of the Parthian Empire. Crassus chose to keep an easterly course and it is this decision that the sources again castigate him for.

Before we analyse the reasons behind this and the rhetorical devices the sources employ, we should look at this situation logically. Firstly, Crassus had already garrisoned the towns along the eastern route, which was a caravan route and was well known to the Romans. The area had been visited by Roman forces under Afranius during Pompey’s campaigns and would have been well scouted by the Roman garrisons. The region was crossed by many rivers and was a fertile (for the region) plain. Furthermore, Crassus’ intelligence would have alerted him to the fact that the Parthian forces were in the north and the east, not the south. If he was looking for a set-piece victory over Parthian forces he would not find it in the south. Although the key Greek cities of Mesopotamia were there, what exactly would their attack and occupation achieve, aside from trophy value? By this point Mithradates had been defeated, and it was unlikely, even if the cities had gone over to the Romans, that they would have been any material use. In fact the opposite is the case, as they too would have needed garrisoning.

Furthermore, the Euphrates valley itself is fertile, but the surrounding region is not and forty thousand soldiers and four thousand horses would need a lot of provisions to keep them in the field. Added to this would be the ‘bottleneck effect’, funnelling that many men either down or alongside the Euphrates River, stringing them out and leaving them vulnerable, especially when the enemy would have been behind them. For all these reasons, the most logical military position would be to keep to the eastern route, locate and destroy the Parthian armies, and then pick off the trophy cities when the campaign had been won.

Unsurprisingly, however, this is not how it is portrayed in the sources. Plutarch especially introduces two key features to his account: how Crassus is constantly being (mis)led around and influenced by treacherous Arabs; and how Cassius always advises against it.180 As detailed elsewhere (see appendix two), we don’t know the source of Plutarch’s account, but it is certainly biased towards Cassius who always seems to sense the danger, advise Crassus not to do something (which is ignored) and always adopts an ‘I told you so’ stance.

Despite all the sound reasons for choosing the eastern route, Plutarch decides to ascribe Crassus’ decision to the treacherous advice of an Arab chieftain, named Ariamnes, (Dio names him as Abgarus181) who, having been allied to Pompey, now worked his way into Crassus’ confidence with the aim of leading Crassus to his destruction. Plutarch’s account would have us believe that Crassus, a man not noted for trusting other Romans, let alone a dubious ally, now decided to believe everything this Arab chieftain was saying and was totally under his spell. The cunning plan was to apparently lure Crassus into heading directly into the path of the army of Surenas and thus ensure the Roman defeat. There are two basic problems with this view. Firstly the Romans were planning on finding and defeating the Parthians in the first place, and not simply skulking around hiding from the Parthian army, and in particular their cavalry, which seems to be Cassius’ plan.182 Secondly, no one could foresee the outcome of the encounter between the Roman army and the Parthian cavalry and there were no indicators (other than divine ones) that the Romans would be so comprehensively beaten by them.

Thus the Roman army pressed on its northeastward course in search of the Parthian army. Plutarch provides us with a dramatic description of how merciless the conditions were, with Crassus having been led into

the midst of the plains, by a way that was suitable and easy at first, but soon became troublesome when deep sand succeeded, and plains which had no trees, no water and no limit anywhere which the eye could reach . . . For they saw no plant, no stream, no projection of sloping hill, and no growing grass, but only sea-like billows of innumerable desert sand heaps enveloping the army.183

In reality, Crassus and his army were heading along a main caravan route which led towards the Belikh River, a tributary of the Euphrates, which would have been swollen with waters from the Armenian mountains and the winter rains, as would the other rivers of the region. Thus the Roman army was not being misled into heading deep into a waterless desert, as the ancient sources portray. Crassus was sticking close to a major source of water and keeping to the line of fortified towns that had Roman garrisons: Nicephorium, Ichnae, Zenodotium and Carrhae. Once again the surviving sources are looking for reasons for the defeat and a chance to both excuse the disaster and blacken Crassus’ name.

This march took place in May 53 BC, which was the time that Orodes attacked the Armenians and King Artavasdes sent word to Crassus that he was unable to send him any reinforcements. At a similar time the Arab chieftain Ariamnes (or Abgarus) left the Roman camp for reasons we do not know. Plutarch states that it was a desertion before the battle, but perhaps Crassus had simply got tired of him.184 Ahead of them lay the Belikh River and on the other side lay Surenas’ army. It was here that Surenas had decided to make his stand against Crassus’ army. On the 9th June 53 BC Crassus’ scouts ran into Surenas’ force and came off worst. The survivors reported back that contact had been established with the first of the main Parthian armies.

Crassus was again faced with a key tactical decision; whether to camp by the river and wait until the following day before trying to give battle, or strike that very day. Crassus chose to strike whilst he could. Orders were given for his men to freshen up by the river and take a quick meal and then it was off in search of Surenas’ army. The two armies found each other on the plains of Carrhae on the afternoon of that day. The first full scale battle between the Romans and the Parthians was about to begin.

53 BC – Shadows of Carrhae: Parthia

With the civil war ended and southern Mesopotamia recovered, the Parthians could now turn their full attention on the Roman invasion. As detailed above, Orodes made a last attempt at seeking a negotiated settlement. Given that no Roman commander had ever turned around and returned home from a campaign without fighting, and that the Romans were occupying much of western Mesopotamia, we have to ask ourselves just what was he hoping to achieve with this embassy? The main conclusion we can draw is that it was a desperate last ditch attempt to avert an outright military confrontation, which the Parthians can have had no confidence in winning. As we have seen, Rome had relentlessly marched eastwards, defeating and subsuming all of the civilisations in her path and now it must have appeared that it was Parthia’s turn. Furthermore, as the Armenian war had shown, the Parthians did not consider themselves strong enough to face up to Rome militarily, added to which was Orodes’ own weak position.

Whatever Orodes’ intention with the embassy, perhaps including a substantial bribe to induce Crassus to withdraw, there can have been no doubt as to the result; military conflict was inevitable if the Parthians were to keep their empire intact. With that in mind, Orodes drew up an ambitious and unusual battleplan. It appears that at the failure of his embassy, Orodes ordered Surenas to attack the towns of western Mesopotamia that were under Roman control. Plutarch reports that a number of Roman soldiers returned to the main army in Syria filled with tales of how devastating the Parthians were:

there was no escaping them, and when they fled there was no taking them; and strange missiles are the precursors of their appearance, which pierce through every obstacle before one sees who sent them.185

For once, even Plutarch has to admit that these men were exaggerating. However, we are not told which cities were attacked or how successful these attacks were. The problem we have with this is that as far as we can tell the Romans were still garrisoning the cities of Mesopotamia when Crassus advanced in the spring of 54 BC (we know that the town of Carrhae was still in Roman hands.) Added to this was the well-known Parthian inability to besiege towns. If attacks were made on the Roman-controlled towns then they cannot have met with much success.

With the opening of the campaigning season, Orodes implemented his battle-plan for the war. Whilst we know the details of his plan, the motivations behind it are still unclear. Despite the Roman presence in Mesopotamia and that the full Roman attack was almost certain to come from this region, Orodes took the bulk of the Parthian army (the size of which is not given) and invaded Armenia. All he left to face the Romans were Surenas’ personal army of 10,000 men, aided by the satrap of the region, Silaces (the man who Crassus had defeated the year previously). Again we must ask ourselves why he did this. On the one hand, he has been accused of wishing to avoid facing the Romans in battle himself and put Surenas in harm’s way, facing what most would have thought to have been certain defeat and death. Yet there is another explanation.

We can best see the design behind this plan with relation to a modern battle-plan. Orodes appears to have implemented an ancient version of the German ‘Schlieffen Plan’ of the First World War period.186 Orodes knew that he not only faced the Roman army, but also that of his neighbour Armenia. It is more than likely that he was also aware that the Armenians were prevaricating and had not yet supplied Crassus with additional forces. If he could knock Armenia out of the war before they had a chance to open up a second front, then he could wheel around and face the Romans on their own. Thus he appeared willing to sacrifice Mesopotamia to the Romans to buy him the time he needed. Surenas was deployed to try and slow the Romans and perhaps inflict heavy casualties on them. It is very unlikely that Orodes was planning on Surenas actually winning the conflict with Crassus; it was more of a case of Surenas being a necessary sacrifice (from Orodes’ point of view at least).

Thus Orodes’ ‘Schlieffen Plan’ played to Parthia’s strengths and put off the moment when the key battle would occur. In Orodes’ timetable, he would face the Romans without the aid of their Armenian allies, and depleted by both time and Surenas’ arrows. As it happens the plan worked to perfection and not only saved Orodes’ throne, but the whole Parthian Empire. We know little about the details of the Armenian campaign, only the result. When the news of Carrhae reached Orodes, he was feasting with the Armenian king, Artavasdes, in Armenia. We do not know whether Artavasdes even gave battle or simply rolled over when the Parthian army appeared. Parthia and Armenia renewed their old alliance, crowned with the marriage between Artavasdes’ sister and Orodes’ son Pacorus. Thus Crassus’ doubts over the Armenians were borne out and they betrayed the Romans whilst Crassus’ army was still in Mesopotamia. Had Crassus been victorious at the field of Carrhae, he would have faced Orodes not only without the Armenians, but with them likely lined up with the Parthians.

Thus, for Orodes the campaigning of 54 BC had been a complete success; the Armenians had been knocked out of the war and were once again under Parthia’s dominance. In terms of foreign policy, Orodes had managed to turn the clock back to the days of Mithradates II, when Armenia came under Parthian suzerainty. How long this reversal would last would be down to the key battle between himself and Crassus; or so he thought. On the plain of Carrhae, the Parthian nobleman Surenas had different ideas and was unwilling to play the sacrificial role in slowing Crassus down. Confident of his own abilities and those of his personal army, he set out to confront Crassus directly. Aware of the Roman advance through western Mesopotamia he set himself in a position to intercept them. He awaited their advance on the far side of the Belikh River, having chosen the battleground. On 9 June 53 BC the Roman scouts located Surenas’ army and were rewarded with a heavy defeat. Surenas now awaited the arrival of the Roman army at Carrhae. By the afternoon, two great armies, representing the superpowers of the ancient world, faced each other across the plain of Carrhae.

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