Friday, June 28, 2013

Marcus Crassus finds death in Syria

Marcus Crassus

Without the consent of the Senate, the wealthy and politically powerful Marcus Crassus decided to embark on a war of choice against the little known Parthian Empire (modern day Syria/Iraq/ Iran).  There was nothing the Roman masses loved better than small wars of conquest.  Roman legions had easily crushed armies of other eastern kingdoms such as Pontus and Armenia and Crassus expected a similar result against the Parthians.

Crassus arrived in Syria in late 55 B.C.  He had under his command thirty five thousand heavy infantry (seven Roman legions), four thousand light infantry and four thousand cavalry.  This force was augmented by six thousand cavalry from the king of Armenia, a Roman ally. 

Like many other Roman commanders, Crassus combined over aggressiveness with a penchant for poor reconnaissance. Crassus marched into the desert, guided by an Arab chieftain named Ariamnes who had previously served the Romans.  Ariamnes, however, was now playing a double game.  He was in the pay of the Parthians and led the Roman army on tiring marches far from water.  Ultimately he led the Romans into the trap set by the Parthian general Surena.  The thirsty and exhausted Romans encountered the Parthians near the town of Carrhae (in modern Syria in the year 53 B.C).

Well aware of the strengths of his own troops, but woefully ignorant of the capabilities of the enemy, Crasssus ordered the Roman infantry to form a square to repel a cavalry charge.  The Parthians did not charge.  The Parthian horse archers surrounded the Roman square and began to shower the Roman legionaries with arrows from a safe distance.

Unable to come to grips with the enemy, Crassus now hoped that the Parthians would simply run out of arrows.  The Parthian general Surena had, however, not neglected logistics when laying his trap.  Thousands of camels were resupplying the horse archers with fresh ammunition.  The mathematics of the battle suggested that Crassus would run out of Romans before Surena ran out of arrows. 

The next day Surena offered to negotiate a truce with Crassus.  Crassus was reluctant, but his troops were in a near state of mutiny.  At the meeting Crassus and his accompanying generals were murdered.  The remaining Romans at Carrhae attempted to flee to the relative safety of the Armenian hills where the Parthian cavalry could not operate as easily.  Most were killed or captured.  Of the initial force, some five thousand returned alive, ten thousand were captured and the rest died. 

The head of Crassus was presented to the Parthian king, who is said to have ordered that molten gold be poured into its gaping mouth, in disdain for Crassus’ greed for the possessions of others.

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