Published on March 20, 2014
ROME The Parthian War Political Developments in the Late Republic
The Story of the Parthian War
The story of the Parthian War Crassus was interested in a war against Parthia because it would prove that he was a military leader like the other two members of the first triumvirate, Pompey and Caesar. The notoriously wealthy Marcus Crassus was around sixty and hearing-impaired when he embarked on the Parthian invasion. Some Romans objected to the war against Parthia. Cicero calls it a war nulla causa (“with no justification”), on the grounds that Parthia had a treaty with Rome. The tribune Ateius Capito put up strenuous opposition, and infamously conducted a public ritual of execration as Crassus prepared to depart. Crassus
Despite protests and dire omens, Marcus Crassus left Rome on November 14, 55 BC. Publius Crassus joined him in Syria during the winter of 54–53 BC, bringing with him the thousand Celtic cavalry troopers from Gaul who remained loyal to their young leader until death. In 54 BC, Crassus invaded Parthia (a region in the modern day middle east) with 35000 men. Bronze statue of a Parthian nobleman believed to be General Surena
In 53BC he invaded again. It did not go to plan. After being informed of the presence of the Parthian army, Crassus panicked. His general Cassius recommended that the army be deployed in the traditional Roman fashion, with infantry forming the centre and cavalry on the wings. At first Crassus agreed, but he soon changed his mind and redeployed his men into a hollow square, each side formed by twelve cohorts. This formation would protect his forces from being outflanked, but at the cost of mobility. The Roman forces advanced and came to a stream. Crassus' generals advised him to make camp, and attack the next morning in order to give his men a chance to rest. Publius, however, was eager to fight and managed to convince Crassus to confront the Parthians immediately.
The Parthians went to great lengths to intimidate the Romans. First they beat a great number of hollow drums and the Roman troops were unsettled by the loud and cacophonous noise. Surena then ordered his cataphracts to cover their armour in cloths and advance. When they were within sight of the Romans, they simultaneously dropped the cloths, revealing their shining armour. The sight was designed to intimidate the Romans, but Surena was impressed by the lack of effect it had. Though he had originally planned to shatter the Roman lines with a charge by his cataphracts, he judged that this would not be enough to break them at this point. Thus, he sent his horse archers to surround the Roman square. Crassus sent his skirmishers to drive the horse archers off, but they were driven back by the latter's arrows. The horse archers then engaged the legionaries. The banquet of Crassus
The legionaries were protected by their large shields (scuta) and armour (re-enactment with composite bows do not answer the question whether arrows can penetrate mail), but these could not cover the entire body. Some historians describe the arrows partially penetrating the Roman shields, and nailing the shields to the limbs of the Roman infantry. Other historians state that the majority of wounds inflicted were nonfatal hits to exposed limbs. The Romans repeatedly advanced towards the Parthians to attempt to engage in close-quarters fighting, but the horse archers were always able to retreat safely, loosing Parthian shots as they withdrew. Coin of Shah Orodes II.
The legionaries then formed the testudo formation, in which they locked their shields together to present a nearly impenetrable front to missiles. However, this formation severely restricted their ability in melee combat. The Parthian cataphracts exploited this weakness and repeatedly charged the Roman line, causing panic and inflicting heavy casualties. When the Romans tried to loosen up their formation in order to repel the cataphracts, the latter rapidly retreated and the horse archers resumed shooting at the now more exposed legionnaires.
Crassus now hoped that his legionaries could hold out until the Parthians ran out of arrows. However, Surena used thousands of camels to resupply his horse archers. Upon realizing this, Crassus dispatched his son Publius with 1,300 Gallic cavalry, 500 archers and eight cohorts of legionnaires to drive off the horse archers. The horse archers feigned retreat, drawing off Publius' force who suffered heavy casualties from arrow fire. Once Publius and his men were sufficiently separated from the rest of the army, the Parthian cataphracts confronted them while the horse archers cut off their retreat. In the ensuing combat the Gauls fought bravely, however their inferiority in weapons and armour was evident and they eventually retreated to a hill, where Publius committed suicide while the rest of his men were slaughtered. Statue of General Surena.
Crassus, unaware of his son's fate but realizing Publius was in danger, ordered a general advance. He was confronted with the sight of his son's head on a spear. The Parthian horse archers began to surround the Roman infantry, shooting at them from all directions, while the cataphracts mounted a series of charges that disorganized the Romans. The Parthian onslaught did not cease until nightfall. Crassus, deeply shaken by his son's death, ordered a retreat to the nearby town of Carrhae, leaving behind thousands of wounded, who were captured by the Parthians. Relief showing a Parthian horse archer, Palazzo Madama museum, Turin, Italy.
The next day, Surena sent a message to the Romans, offering to negotiate with Crassus. Surena proposed a truce, allowing the Roman army to return to Syria safely in exchange for Rome giving up all territory east of the Euphrates. Crassus was reluctant to meet with the Parthians, but his troops threatened to mutiny if he did not. At the meeting, a Parthian pulled at Crassus' reins, sparking violence. Crassus and his generals were killed. After his death, the Parthians allegedly poured molten gold down his throat, in a symbolic gesture mocking Crassus' renowned greed. The remaining Romans at Carrhae attempted to flee, but most were captured or killed. Roman casualties amounted to about 20,000 killed and 10,000 captured making the battle one of the costliest defeats in Roman history. Parthian casualties were minimal. Crassus defeated by the Parthians
Rome was humiliated by this defeat, and this was made even worse by the fact that the Parthians had captured several Legionary Eagles. It is also mentioned by Plutarch that the Parthians found the Roman prisoner of war that resembled Crassus the most, dressed him as a woman and paraded him through Parthia for all to see. This, however, could easily be Roman propaganda The final stages of the Battle of Carrhae.
This wasn’t the end of the Parthian problem. Caesar was about to go to war against the Parthians when he was assassinated. In 41 and 40BC, Mark Antony faced an invasion by Parthia led by Quintus Labienus. In 39BC, Antony’s forces attacked the Parthians in Armenia. During 39-38 BC, the Parthians were cleared out of Syria. In 37BC, Antony invaded Parthia but was forced to retreat after loosing 17000 men. Parthian cataphracts.
Antony needed cash and reinforcements for his Parthian campaigns. His wife, Octavia (the sister of Octavian) offered assistance, as did Cleopatra. He accepted Cleopatra’s help and refused Octavia’s. When Antony had a minor success in Parthia in 34BC he celebrated a splendid triumph in Alexandria not Rome. This was significant as the combined insult of ignoring Octavia’s help and celebrating his triumph in Alexandria resulted in a propaganda campaign against Antony. Octavian made sure that these activities received bad publicity in Rome.
The Parthian War
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