3 – Be Careful What You Wish For: The Death of Crassus
Upon the completion of his year in office, Caesar left Rome for Gaul and did not return until 50 BC. It didn’t take long for Pompey to become jealous of Caesar’s accomplishments but the alliance held together for the time being. Meanwhile, Cicero had returned from exile and aligned himself with Pompey in 57 BC. At this time, there were grave food shortages, and the people threatened to kill senators. Cicero persuaded the Senate to elect Pompey as âprefect of the provisions’ in Italy and other Roman territories for the next five years. Pompey used his contacts and wealth to send ships to Sicily, Sardinia, and Africa to collect food. They returned with so much grain that the markets were filled; this success ensured Pompey earned favor with the Senate.
The First Triumvirate was renewed at Luca in 56 BC as Caesar left his campaign in Gaul to attend. Despite their intense dislike of one another, Pompey and Crassus held things together long enough to rule as joint Consuls in 55 BC. Although Pompey became governor of Spain the following year, he remained in Rome and ruled the province with the aid of trusted deputies.
Crassus yearned for the opportunity to command an army as he knew his achievements at the Battle of the Colline Gate in 82 BC and the war against Spartacus in 71 BC were all but forgotten. He finally got his wish when he undertook his ill-fated campaign against the Parthians. According to Plutarch, Caesar wrote to Crassus and spurred him on in his quest to achieve military greatness. Instead, the greedy alliance member launched a campaign doomed to failure from the outset.
He took Syria as his province in 54 BC and immediately sought to attack the Parthian Empire. Most Senate members opposed this plan of action since Rome and Parthia were not enemies. Crassus arrived in Syria in late 55 BC, and by the end of the following year, he was joined by his son and Gallic cavalry. Things went well for Crassus in 54 BC as he enjoyed a number of successes and extorted money from the local population. In early 53 BC, Crassus crossed the Euphrates with a vast army. He was confident of achieving even more success which would finally give him the military reputation he craved.
However, the campaign came to a disastrous conclusion. At the Battle of Carrhae, his limitations as a commander were brutally exposed. The Romans did not have much idea of how the Parthians fought so he was basically fighting blind. He spotted the Parthian army near Carrhae and moved his 35,000 heavy infantry into a large square to prevent them from getting outflanked and put his 4,000 cavalry inside the square. Then he attacked with his 4,000 light infantry.
Crassus did not plan his campaign well and was unable to cope with the desert terrain nor did he have enough cavalry. The Parthian army was led by Surena who attacked with up to 9,000 archers and forced the Roman light infantry back into the square. Then they fired at the heavy infantry while staying well out of range of a counter attack. Crassus’ son Publius tried to attack the archers with 1,500 cavalry but fell into a trap. They pretended to retreat only to spring forward with 1,000 cataphract which wiped Publius and his men out.
Crassus thought the enemy horse archers were gone from the field and advanced but the archers were waiting and launched a devastating attack. With the aid of the cataphracts, the Parthians whittled down the Roman army. Crassus went to Surena to surrender but was executed after the meeting. The Romans had 43,000 men against just 10,000 Parthians but 20,000 Romans died and 10,000 were captured. Most historians consider it the worst Roman defeat since Cannae. The Parthians apparently poured molten gold down Crassus’ throat as a final punishment for his greed.