Crassus tries to take on Parthians

At the beginning of 54 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus had just finished serving his joint-consul year with Pompey. Crassus was a greedy man and felt a great desire to achieve new glory and get even richer. He had seen no action since his defeat of Spartacus nearly 20 years earlier.

He turned to Parthia. Parthia was led by the Arsacid dynasty, which reunited and ruled over the Iranian plateau, after defeating the Seleucids, beginning in the late 3rd century BC and was the latest archenemy of the Roman Empire in the east. Parthia was the hereditary of the ancient Persian civilization and its wealth.

In 53 BC, Artavasdes, the Armenian king and vassal of Crassus, advised him to take a route through Armenia avoiding the desert, but Crassus refused. Parthian army – half of it while the other half was sent against Armenians – that met Crassus was commanded by Surena and consisted entirely of cavalry units, to scout out, delay, and, if possible, destroy Crassus. The two armies clashed near the town of Carrhae. Though demoralised by the hot climate and long route, Crassus’ troops heavily outnumbered the Parthians. The Parthian armies included two types of cavalry, heavily-armed and armoured cataphracts and lightly armed but highly-mobile mounted archers. For the Romans, who relied on heavy infantry, the Parthians were difficult to defeat, as both types of cavalry were much faster and more mobile than foot soldiers.

Furthermore, the Parthians used strategies during warfare unfamiliar to the Romans, such as the famous “Parthian shot“, firing arrows backwards at the gallop. Crassus having never encountered such an army or strategic warfare before was defeated decisively at the Battle of Carrhae. This was the beginning of a series of wars that were to last for almost three centuries.

After the defeat, Crassus was fed molten gold, a symbolic gesture for his greed. On the other hand, the Parthians found it difficult to conquer Roman eastern provinces completely.

While the Roman legions returned a few years later and stemmed the Parthians at the gates of Antioch (Syria), the folly of Crassus and the defeat at Carrhae of Roman’s renowned legions still lives in memory.