The Battle of Carrhae, 53BC
This article reproduced from Wargames Journal (posted April 2004)
28mm Parthians from Newline Design: two stands of which make a neat
Vis Bellica Light Cavalry base
In the middle of the first century BC, Rome was ruled by a triumvirate: Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompey and Marcus Crassus.
These three, arguably the most powerful men in the world at that time, split Rome's empire into three. Caesar would conquer Gaul; Pompey would plunder Spain; and Crassus would strike east at Parthia.
Crassus, as the richest, was after more than just gold. His part in the overthrow of Spartacus' rebellion had convinced him that he was a military genius of the highest order, but others made no secret of the fact that they considered his contribution incidental and over blown. Adding a new province to Rome would add to his wealth the prestige and respect he felt he deserved, and prove once and for all that he was Caesar and Pompey's equal on the field of battle. If he could defeat those that had conquered the Seleucids, then perhaps the world would recognise a new Alexander!
Ctesiphon or Bust!
In 53BC, therefore, Crassus, from his position as Proconsul in Syria, gathered together an army for the invasion of Parthia.
The backbone of his force was seven legions, each consisting of about 3,500-4,000 heavy infantry. In support he had about 4,000 light infantry auxiliaries; 3,000 Asian horse; and 1,000 veteran Gallic cavalry borrowed from Caesar.
Also accompanying him was Artabazes, king of Armenia, a client state of Rome, along with 6,000 of his cavalry.
Artabazes wanted Crassus to approach Parthia indirectly through Armenia.
This would ensure that proper supplies were available to the army during the first part of the advance and would also mean that their route would be through mountainous terrain that would protect them from the celebrated Parthian cavalry.
Crassus was having none of it.
Dismissing Artabzes and his men as unworthy of joining the campaign, he decided to march directly through Mesopotamia: aiming his thrust at the important Parthian cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon.
In the Spring of 54BC, he marched down the Euphrates hoover-ing up the various Roman garrisons he encountered on the way and finally crossing into enemy territory at Zeugma.
Once across the river, Crassus' advisors, including Cassius (the same Cassius who would go on to plot the murder of Caesar), counselled him to rest the army before going further, and then to follow an easy route along the Euphrates into Babylonia.
Before any firm decision could be made, however, the Romans were approached by a force of Arab cavalry about 6,000 strong. Their leader, Ariamnes, professing friendship, informed Crassus that the Parthians were in retreat in the face of such a strong Roman force, and convinced him to leave the relative security of the Euphrates and strike directly into the desert. Ariamnes and his men would lead the way.
Unfortunately for Crassus, Ariamnes was in the pay of the Parthians.
Their King, Orodes II, had actually split his army into two parts. One, headed by the king, would strike at the Armenians as a reprisal for their involvement in the campaign. The other, under the great Parthian general Surena (or Suren - from his full name of Eran Spahbodh Rustaham Suren-Pahlav), had been tasked with harassing the Romans until the king returned to lead the combined army against the invaders.
Now convinced that he had to force a retreating enemy into battle before they could disperse into the Parthian hinterland, Crassus ignored the protests of his advisors and hurried the army straight into the desert.
Once away from the river, the Romans quickly found themselves marching through arid terrain devoid of any feature save the distant horizon. Despite the heat and the dust, Crassus forced a fast march: determined to catch the supposedly retreating enemy.
The Plain of Carrhae
Desolate and Unforgiving
At this point, Ariamnes, telling Crassus that he was riding on to harass the Parthian rear, led his men off into the desert. His job was done.
As the now-tired army approached the town of Carrhae (modern day Haran), scouts ahead of the column raced back with the news of a large Parthian army deployed ready to meet them.
Caught with his men spread out in a column of march formation, Crassus panicked. At first he followed Cassius' advice and ordered the army to deploy into a standard line formation. Half way through the required evolutions he changed his mind: now ordering the formation of a huge square, 12 cohorts to each side.
He then ordered an immediate advance towards the enemy, ignoring advice to make camp so that the men could be properly rested before action, and the position of the Parthians properly scouted.
Surena's intial idea was to smash the Roman lines with the 1,000 or so cataphracts that he had at his disposal. Seeking maximum effect from the first charge, he had ordered his men to hide their magnificent armour under cloaks and skins. As the Romans approached, the cataphracts suddenly revealed themselves in all their glory and charged forwards to the "hideous noise and terrible clamour" of their drums.
Surena quickly spotted, however, that the depth of the Roman formation was too great for his cataphracts to smash, and ordered the charge abandoned.
Seeing this, the Romans sent out their light troops to pursue the retiring enemy, but these were quickly forced back into the cover of the square by overwhelming numbers of horse archers.
The Parthian horse archers (Surena is said to have had around 10,000 available) now flowed round the sides of the Roman square and began pouring fire into it, nimbly evading any attempts to bring them to melee.
The Romans stoically waited for the Parthians to run out of arrows, only starting to lose heart when casualties began to mount and Surena's immense camel train, loaded with spares, was spotted re-supplying the first waves of mounted bowmen.
The Parthian horse archers soon began to threaten the rear of the Roman square. Crassus, in a desperate attempt to keep a line of retreat open, ordered his son Publius to take command of the Gallic cavalry, supported by 500 light troops and 8 cohorts of legionaries, and drive off the enemy horse.
At first Crassus' plan seemed to be succeeding: the Parthians melted away in front of Publius. All this was illusion, however. As soon as Publius' men were too far from the square to be supported, the horse archers turned round and, joined by the cataphracts, attacked!
With his foot-soldiers confused and pin-cushioned by enemy bow-fire, Publius led his Gauls into the cataphracts, and a desperate fight ensued. Unable to penetrate the cataphract armour, the Gauls resorted to such tactics as grabbing lances or dismounting to thrust at exposed horse bellies.
It was all to no avail.
Soon the remaining Romans were forced to retreat to a small hillock. There, the already wounded Publius, lifting his cuirass aside, ordered his armour-bearer to run him through. The rest of the Romans were nearly all killed: only 500 taken prisoner.
Meanwhile, back at the square, Crassus had taken advantage of the diversion afforded by his son's sortie, and formed his men back into a proper line of battle.
As he then vacillated between resuming the advance or going to his son's aid, up rode a Parthian with Publius' head on a lance, mockingly asking how so brave a son could have so cowardly a father.
This was the final straw for the Romans. Although Crassus ordered the attack and the army moved forward, the heat and long march, combined with the horrors already encountered, proved too much for the weary legionaries. The Romans were beaten back by the Parthians, only nightfall providing release from the constant arrows and cataphract attacks.
Close-Up of the Terrain
Crassus now fell apart: the loss of his son and the full magnitude of the disaster that faced him proving too much to cope with. Command fell to his lieutenants Octavius and Cassius, who ordered the army to abandon their wounded and retreat, as quietly as possible, to the town of Carrhae.
There they were met by the city governor, Coponius, and the garrison: who had been warned that they were on the way by a party of fleeing Roman cavalry.
At dawn, the Parthians moved into the abandoned Roman position: slaughtering the 4,000 wounded soldiers they found there.
More stragglers were hunted down by the fast-moving horsemen: in particular a detachment of some 2,000 men under Varguntius, caught on a hill having lost their way in the confused night-time retreat. These were attacked again and again until only twenty remained: let live by the Parthians impressed by their bravery and fighting ability.
Carrhae was not ready for a siege, so after a day's rest, Crassus led his men out at night, aiming for the relative safety of the Armenian hills.
He had split his forces into two parts: one under his own and Octavius' command, one under Cassius. Cassius and his men managed to escape to Syria. Crassus, unfortunately, again put his trust in a native guide who turned out to be an Armenian sympathiser.
At dawn, the Romans found themselves out on the open plain.
Again the Parthians attacked, but this time, rested by their short stay in Carrhae, the Romans managed to beat them off.
At this point Surena, presumably with his eye on long term relations with Rome, offered Crassus a chance to parley for surrender. Crassus was against this, but his remaining men, not too enthused with the idea of another night-time scramble for safety nor the opportunity to die with their honour, threatened to kill him if he did not go to the Parthian camp and begin negotiations.
During the following talks, however, a scuffle broke out and Crassus, Octavius and all the other Romans were killed. The rest of the Romans were either killed or taken prisoner.
The death of Crassus removed the only thing holding Caesar and Pompey apart: leading indirectly to the civil war between them, and the end of the Roman republic.
Surena was executed by his jealous king shortly after the battle: but his family would eventually contribute to the overthrow of the ruling dynasty and thus to the rise of the Sassanids, also legendary enemies of Rome.
The legionary standards lost at Carrhae were held in the temples of Parthia until 20BC, when Augustus negotiated their return. Neither Caesar nor Pompey were interested in an immediate revenge strike: they had the bigger fish to fry!
There are many ways in which Carrhae can be wargame-d.
Firstly, the relatively small size of the forces involved allows a group of players to re-fight the entire campaign: either from the moment Crassus crosses the border or, perhaps the more immediately playable option, the moment that the Parthians come into sight.
The Parthians should have at their disposal 1,000 cataphracts and 10,000 horse archers. In Vis Bellica terms, this could be represented by three bases of heavy horse and 30 bases of skirmish order light horse. This is the equivalent of about three normal-sized-game horse archer armies, but bases could be re-cycled without much difficulty.
The Romans should have 35 bases of legionaries, organised into seven legions of five bases each. These should be supported by eight bases of Auxilia, two bases of Gallic cavalry, and eight bases of Asiatic light horse. Providing the legionary bases will be the problem here: but every ancient wargamer has a few Romans secreted somewhere in his collection! Generous players might also allow the Romans twelve bases of assorted Armenian horse.
If playing the latter option, i.e. from the moment the main Parthian force is spotted, the Romans should begin the game strung out in a march column and all downgraded by one morale class (Elites become Veterans; Veterans become Average etc) to represent the effects of their forced march and the heat and dust of the desert.
Although technically playable for all, the above obviously represents a significant effort in terms of time, space and figures, and is perhaps really suitable only for those players using small scale figures, or for a huge demonstration game.
Those wanting a game for a typical club evening could, instead, re-fight Publius' attempt to chase away the Parthian horse archers from the rear of the Roman square.
Rather than a straight encounter, this game is best played as the Romans trying to get back to the safety of the square. Assuming a standard rectangular table, the Romans start at one of the short ends, and must get as many of their men off the other as possible.
The Parthians must prevent the Romans moving across the long part of the table and off the other side. Under Vis Bellica, the Romans could be given the special order "Move to the other side of the field". Bases with this order move at least ¾ of their move directly across the table, declaring charges on any enemy bases directly in their path.
As for forces, using Vis Bellica, Publius should have at his disposal two bases of Gallic cavalry; two bases of light Auxilia; and eight bases of Legionaries. The Parthians should be given two bases of cataphracts and twenty bases of horse archers.
This option would work well as a solo game, with the player taking either side.
Those gamers who prefer skirmish gaming might like to consider playing out the fate of Varguntius' force: 2,000 assorted Roman types separated from the main body in the night-time retreat to Carrhae.
This would also work well as a linear game: with the Romans seeking to traverse the battlefield without being picked off by roving bands of Parthians. An umpire could run the Parthians, with several players each controlling a small number of Romans.
The Parthians would enter the table at various points (roll a d6: 1 = 1d6 cataphracts; 2-6 = 2d6 horse archers), and head towards the nearest Romans in sight.
Plutarch: Life of Crassus
Dio: Roman History
Warry, J.: Warfare in the Classical World