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.