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Battle of Carrhae

The Battle of Carrhae was fought in June 53 BC. Caught on the open plain, it was the last fatal blunder in a series that began when Marcus Licinius Crassus garrisoned the towns of western Mesopotamia with a fifth of his army but then, rather than advancing directly to Seleucia or the treasures of Ctesiphon, returned to winter quarters in Syria. Advised by his Armenian ally to invade from the mountains to the north, where the terrain would offer safety from the Parthian cavalry, Crassus insisted on crossing the Euphrates at Zeugma to join the Roman garrisons that had been established the previous season. Even then, his quaestor Gaius Cassius Longinus cautioned that he should advance along the river. Instead, Crassus was deceived and, in pursuit of the Parthian army, drawn into the desert, where the Roman army miserably perished at Carrhae. Cassius, himself, together with five hundred cavalry, managed to escape in the night and make his way to Syria. Crassus died as he retreated north toward the Armenian hills, the Romans and Parthians fighting over his body.

He had marched into Parthia with seven legions, says Plutarch, nearly four thousand horsemen and as many light-armed troops. Twenty thousand were said to have died and ten thousand taken prisoner. It was the worst Roman defeat since the disastrous loss to Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BC.

The poignancy of that slaughter can be read in Plutarch and Cassius Dio, who provide virtually all that is known of the battle. Against the Roman infantry were arrayed ten thousand Parthian cavalry, either cataphracts, who wore scaled or mail armor from head to thigh and were armed with a heavy lance, or mounted bowmen, trained to shoot even as they retreated (hence the expression "Parthian shot").

"Now as long as they had hopes that the enemy would exhaust their missiles and desist from battle or fight at close quarters, the Romans held out; but when they perceived that many camels laden with arrows were at hand, from which the Parthians who first encircled them took a fresh supply, then Crassus, seeing no end to this, began to lose heart....Then the Romans halted, supposing that the enemy would come to close quarters with them, since they were so few in number. But the Parthians stationed their mail-clad horsemen in front of the Romans, and then with the rest of their cavalry in loose array rode round them, tearing up the surface of the ground, and raising from the depths great heaps of sand which fell in limitless showers of dust, so that the Romans could neither see clearly nor speak plainly, but, being crowded into a narrow compass and feeling upon one another, were shot, and died no easy nor even speedy death. For, in the agonies of convulsive pain, and writing about the arrows, they would break them off in their wounds, and then in trying to pull out by force the barbed heads which had pierced their veins and sinews, they tore and disfigured themselves the more. Thus many died, and the survivors also were incapacitated for fighting. And when Publius urged them to charge the enemy's mail-clad horsemen, they showed him that their hands were riveted to their shields and their feet nailed through and through to the ground, so that they were helpless either for flight or for self-defence."

Plutarch, Life of Crassus, XXV

"For if they decided to lock shields for the purpose of avoiding the arrows by the closeness of their array, the pikemen were upon them with a rush, striking down some, and at least scattering the others; and if they extended their ranks to avoid this, they would be struck with the arrows. Hereupon many died from fright at the very charge of the pikemen, and many perished hemmed in by the horsemen. Others were knocked over by the pikes or were carried off transfixed. The missiles falling thick upon them from all sides at once struck down many by a mortal blow, rendered many useless for battle, and caused distress to all. They flew into their eyes and pierced their hands and all the other parts of their body and, penetrating their armour, deprived them of their protection and compelled them to expose themselves to each new missile. Thus, while a man was guarding against arrows or pulling out one that had stuck fast he received more wounds, one after another. Consequently it was impracticable for them to move, and impracticable to remain at rest. Neither course afforded them safety but each was fraught with destruction, the one because it was out of their power, and the other because they were then more easily wounded....Finally, as the enemy continually assaulted them from all sides at once, and they were compelled to protect their exposed parts by the shields of those who stood beside them, they were shut up in so narrow a place that they could no longer move. Indeed, they could not even get a sure footing by reason of the number of corpses, but kept falling over them. The heat and thirst (it was midsummer and this action took place at noon) and the dust, of which the barbarians raised as much as possible by all riding around them, told fearfully up the survivors, and many succumbed from these causes, even though unwounded."

Dio, Roman History (XL.22, 23)

The legionary standards lost at Carrhae were not recovered until 20 BC, when Augustus negotiated their return from the Parthians, a diplomatic triumph celebrated the next year by the dedication of the Arch of Augustus.

"Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous."

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (I.ii.193)

The line comes from Plutarch, where Caesar is quoted as saying, "I am not much in fear of these fat, long-haired fellows, but rather of those pale, thin ones" (Life, LXII.10). Cassius survived the battle and stayed to defend Syria against Parthian raids. Eventually, he would lead the conspiracy against Caesar.

References: Plutarch: Parallel Lives (1916) translated by Bernadotte Perrin (Loeb Classical Library); Dio Cassius: Roman History (1914) translated by Earnest Cary and Herbert B. Foster (Loeb Classical Library).

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