The glittering sands of Parthia

53 BC, somewhere near the village of Carrhae

Arrows rain down upon the Roman legionnaires from all directions, pinning hands to shields and feet to the dusty, blood-stained ground. Dying by the dozen, the soldiers’ hope is fading. They are unable to advance or even engage the constantly moving horsemen who pelt arrows their way and then retreat always out of reach. The seven legions of Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome, and one of the city’s three political heavyweights, are surrounded. Not by a superior force, but by a mere ten thousand Parthians. One rider gleefully holds aloft the severed head of Publius, Crassus’ recently deceased son, killed alongside hundreds  of his men after falling for a carefully laid trap. How did it come to this? How did one of Rome’s wealthiest and most illustrious citizens come to lead a force far into the deserts of Mesopotamia to meet their doom?

Rich, but overshadowed

Marcus Licinius Crassus was undoubtedly intelligent. He’d gained his vast wealth through ‘fire and war’. In reality he pounced upon hapless homeowners whose homes had recently been reduced to ash by Rome’s regular fires and bought them for a pittance. In some cases he even did so while they were still burning. ‘In this way, most of Rome came into his possession’, writes Plutarch. With such riches behind him, Crassus managed to accumulate a retinue of educated and able slaves, from architects to scribes, whose training he oversaw personally.

Yes, Crassus was an astute businessman, but for all his wealth and power, he still lived in the shadows of Rome’s military men: Pompey Magnus and Julius Caesar. When one of Crassus’ friends announced that Pompey ‘the Great’ was coming his way, he is said to have scoffed ‘as great as what?’. In a city and society built upon the back of great military prowess, his own exploits were perhaps second-rate at best.

Perhaps it is for this reason that he threw himself into the fight against the slave leader Spartacus. Finally defeating the Thracian rogue, he succeeded where many other Romans had failed. But Crassus’ eventual, and overwhelming, victory against the slaves in 71 BC was met only with an ‘ovation’, a lesser form of triumph. The vanquished were only slaves after all. Pompey, meanwhile, who had returned from Spain to quell the revolt, mopped up some of the remaining resistance and saw his own star rise further still.

For Crassus, it seems that wealth and political power were simply not enough. He needed a military record of his own; the chance to reap any spoils that would come with it wouldn’t hurt either.

If we are to take Plutarch as our guide, around 55 BC, when Crassus became consul for the second time, alongside Pompey, he reacted with almost childish joy at receiving the governorship of Syria. It was the perfect opportunity to gain the military glory he sought.

Syria was a gateway to the great Parthian empire, Rome’s adversary in the East. The Parthian’s lands stretched from Iran to eastern Turkey and it was a kingdom renowned for being ‘fabulously wealthy’. Enriched by its strategic position along the Silk Road that connected ancient Rome to Seres, as the Romans knew the lands to the East, Parthia must have seemed like a ripe fruit that lay a whisker out of reach to Crassus.

In reality, many miles of barren desert and mountainous land lay between his armies in Syria and that of the Parthians. That was not the only concern. The Senate had not authorised any war. But that did not deter Crassus.

He launched his campaign badly. The Armenian king Artavasdes II, to whom the Parthians were no friends, advised him at all costs to avoid the desert road through Mesopotamia, the shortest and most direct route. To follow it, Artavasdes said, would expose him to the Parthian’s dreaded cavalry, the cataphracts. It would be much easier and safer to take the mountain paths through his kingdom. The King even offered him troops to support the imminent war. Crassus refused.

Instead, Crassus marched his seven legions, an estimated 50,000 men alongside thousands of auxiliaries across the Euphrates and into the desert. Along the way either through the trickery of Ariannes, an Arab turncoat who lead the army further into the desert away from water, or due to simple bad leadership, Crassus’ forces soon found themselves confronted by a Parthian force.

Against Crassus’ 50,000 men, the Parthian force of 10,000 must have seemed paltry. Not least because Surena, the Parthian’s general, ordered his cataphracts to cover their shimmering armour with clothes and animal hides to hide them from the enemy’s view. He also ordered his cavalry to charge in a compact unit, blocking them together, thus making them seem a far smaller force than they were. As his horseman advanced and throughout the battle a cacophonous noise disorientated the Romans as the Parthians thumped dozens of hollow drums.

Even against such tricks, with Plutarch still as our guide, it seems as though Crassus was unnerved. First, he ordered his forces into a long line to stop any flanking manoeuvres. But then he changed his mind and instead had his legions form a hollow square.

The Romans, however, were not prepared for the onslaught of arrows that the Parthians had prepared. Time and time again the horsemen evaded direct combat with the legionnaires. While the heavy Parthian cavalry charged in, packing the ranks of infantry together, the horse archers would unleash a hail of arrows as the cataphracts retreated. Legionnaires fell on all sides, unable to engage the enemy in close combat. The battle was a disaster for the Romans, the worst they faced since Cannae during the Second Punic War.

Only nightfall brought any respite for the Romans. Frustratingly for the Parthians, whose losses had been minimal, it came too quickly. Disheartened and ridden with fear Crassus and his officials choose to flee. They took with them several thousand legionnaires but left behind the wounded Roman soldiers. The next day these men were killed where they lay and the Legions’ treasured emblems and eagles, revered with an almost religious reverence, were lost to Serena. It would be three decades before they were returned to Rome after artful negotiating by the future emperor Augustus.

Hounded by the Parthians while retreating, Crassus eventually agreed to meet Serena and come to a truce. But it was never to be. A scuffle ensued, apparently after a Parthian slave seized the reigns of a military tribune’s horse. During the fight that followed Crassus was killed. His head and right hand were severed moments after his blood had stained the ground.

It’s said that afterwards the Parthians poured gold down Crassus’ throat and used it in a grisly rendition of a Greek play, an unveiled mockery of his infamous avarice, if such an event ever did occur. It was an inglorious end to his disastrous campaign. By some accounts as many as 20,000 legionnaires died and a further 10,000 were captured.

Crassus’ resounding defeat echoed through Rome for decades after. Years later, it would push a descendant of his of the same name to pursue the barbarian king Deldo in an attempt to wash his family’s name of the stain of Carrhae. Crassus the Younger eventually defeated Deldo in single combat. But it was the first emperor Augustus who brought real closure when he managed to bring back the lost standards and had them installed them in a temple in Rome.

But immediately after Crassus’ death a political void was opened in the landscape of Rome. One pillar of the three man triumvirate had been unduly removed, leaving Pompey and Caesar on a collision course that would change the face of Rome forever. Meanwhile, Crassus’ skull decorated the Parthian court.

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