The Growth of a Republic: 6 Battles that Shaped Early Rome
The Growth of a Republic: 6 Battles that Shaped Early Rome

The Growth of a Republic: 6 Battles that Shaped Early Rome

Patrick Lynch - December 6, 2016

The Growth of a Republic: 6 Battles that Shaped Early Rome
TV.com (Simon Merrells as Crassus)

5 – Battle of Carrhae (53 BC)

The Battle of Carrhae resulted in one of the most embarrassing defeats in Roman history; the humiliation was down to the arrogance of one man, Marcus Licinius Crassus. He was a member of the First Triumvirate along with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) and Julius Caesar and was among the wealthiest men in Rome. Not satisfied with his already lofty status, Crassus wanted to match the military triumphs of Caesar and Pompey, so he embarked on an ill-advised invasion of Parthia.

Perhaps he was still angry at the events of 71 BC when Pompey swooped in at the last minute to take the glory for putting down the slave rebellion led by Spartacus. Whatever the reason, he decided to take on the Parthian Empire even though it was not an enemy of Rome. In fact, Sulla and Pompey had negotiated with them on relatively friendly terms in the past. In the mind of Crassus, Parthia was near enough and large enough to be a future threat, so he launched his invasion against public opinion and the wishes of the Senate. In the end, he needed Pompey to fight his corner and support from his rival allowed him to get the campaign off the ground.

He landed in Syria in 54 BC and expected help from Armenian King Artavasdes, but no reinforcements arrived. Crassus and his army were stranded; worse still, he received word that a Parthian army was ready to attack. Near the town of Carrhae in 53 BC, Crassus’ army of around 40,000 men met the enemy with consisted of 10,000 horse archers and 1,000 heavy cavalry.

Despite the numerical advantage, Crassus had no knowledge of how the Parthians fought and ended up using a basic formation which was completely annihilated by the enemy’s incessant arrows. The Parthian general, Surena, cleverly brought 1,000 camels with his army which were used to provide his archers with a steady supply of missiles. Crassus ordered a cavalry charge which was quickly halted by thousands of arrows, and the Parthians continued to fire on the exposed Roman infantry. By now, the Romans were so close that it was almost impossible for the skilled archers to miss.

Crassus sent his son Publius on a desperate counterattack with 6,500 men. They initially had success as the Parthians retreated; unfortunately for the Romans, it was just a trick as the enemy countered with a larger force that surrounded and destroyed the Romans. Crassus retreated to the town of Carrhae, and the Parthians laid siege. Crassus managed to escape but knowing all was lost, he went to Surena’s camp and surrendered. The Parthian general was in no mood for mercy and reportedly had Crassus killed on the spot. With one of the First Triumvirate out of the picture, there were only two men left. That proved to be one too many as the Roman Republic came close to the end.

The Growth of a Republic: 6 Battles that Shaped Early Rome
Flickr (Statue of Julius Caesar at the Louvre)

6 – Battle of Pharsalus (48 BC)

The Battle of Pharsalus took place between the two remaining members of the First Triumvirate, Julius Caesar, and Pompey. In 49 BC, Julius Caesar engaged in a Civil War against the Roman Senate after it refused to allow him to run for consul. It began on 10 January when Caesar crossed the Rubicon River which was an action forbidden to a general. Even today, the phrase ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ means going past the point of no return.

Pompey fought for the Senate against his rival and 18 months into the war; Caesar was in a desperate situation. After suffering defeat at the Battle of Dyrrhachium in July 48 BC, Caesar had to march inland in an attempt to find suitable ground to beat his rival. Pompey failed to capitalize on his victory and allowed his opponent to escape. Caesar ended up in Pharsalus, Greece where one of the most famous battles in Roman history took place.

Pompey finally caught up with Caesar and the two armies were on opposite sides of the river. Caesar had 22,000 men and was short on provisions whereas Pompey had a strong army of approximately 45,000. Even so, Pompey wanted to wait because he knew the enemy army would eventually starve. However, he foolishly listened to his officers and senators who pressurized him into destroying Caesar once and for all.

When Pompey attacked, he focused on his rival’s right wing yet Caesar anticipated this tactic and fortified this part of his army with 2,000 of his best legionnaires. When Pompey’s men broke through the first line, they were stunned to find more enemies waiting for them. They panicked and retreated; the Legionnaires then outflanked Pompey’s left wing and Caesar’s Third Division attacked. This onslaught caused Pompey’s forces to disperse, and he fled to Larissa. Approximately 24,000 men surrendered, and Caesar’s army reportedly lost just 250 men in the battle.

Pompey was murdered in Egypt by an officer of King Ptolemy XIII. The Civil War raged on for three more years, and Caesar emerged victorious after the Battle of Munda in 45 BC. He didn’t live long to enjoy his triumph as he was murdered on 15th March 44 BC, the Ides of March. The Roman Republic didn’t last much longer, and a couple of years after the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian became the first leader of the Roman Empire.

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