It will be useful to briefly detail both the existing ancient sources that relate the Battle of Carrhae, as well as the First Romano-Parthian War as a whole, in order to gain a fuller understanding of the campaign. Furthermore we can examine the question of what the original sources were and how this affects our understanding of the events that transpired.
Surviving Original Sources for the Battle
As we have seen, there are two substantive surviving accounts that detail the campaign and the battle itself.
Plutarch – Life of Crassus (first century AD)
The best account comes from the Romano-Greek historian Plutarch, who wrote a series of biographies of the leading Greek and Roman figures of the ancient world. He was born in Boeotia in Greece around AD 45, and grew up under the Roman emperors of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties. He wrote several works, of which his Parallel Lives are the most famous. These are a series of biographies of the most famous Greek and Roman figures, with one Greek and one Roman figure paired together. He wrote them late in his life, either at the end of the first century, or the beginning of the second century AD. We know that he died at some point in the 120s AD.
Plutarch’s biography of Marcus Crassus, paired up with that of Nicias, the Athenian politician and general of the fifth century BC, provides the bulk of the details for Crassus’ life. Out of the thirty-three chapters of Crassus’ biography, chapters sixteen onwards are devoted to his Parthian campaign, and provide a highly detailed narrative of the events. The number of details has led many scholars to accuse him of inventing some of them, such as the story involving Crassus’ severed head.348 We have no direct attestation for his sources for Crassus’ life, but we do know from his Life of Mark Antony that he used Dellius’ history of the Parthian Wars (see below). His version of the Carrhae campaign is highly critical towards Crassus and notably biased in favour of Cassius, suggesting that he used a pro-Cassius source. Nevertheless, Plutarch’s narrative contains the finest second hand eye-witness reports of the battle that we have.
Cassius Dio – History of Rome (third century AD)
Cassius Dio provides us with the second substantive account of the battle and the campaign. Dio was a Roman senator of Greek birth, who served under the Severan dynasty of the late second and early third centuries. He wrote a history of Rome from its origins to AD 229 in eighty books, many of which survive intact, including the period from 68 BC to AD 46. Book thirty-nine deals with the build-up to the campaign, whilst book forty deals with the campaign itself, the battle, and the aftermath.
We have no clear idea of his sources for the period, which probably included Livy, and this is reflected in the briefer narrative and less-detailed account of the battle. Even so, it remains the second-best account we have.
Cicero – letters and other works (106–43 BC)
The works of Marcus Tullius Cicero, whilst not preserving a narrative of the battle itself, do provide us with our main first-hand testimony concerning Marcus Crassus. His letters in particular are important evidence for the build-up to the campaign and its aftermath, in which he was involved. Unfortunately, his surviving letters have a number of gaps in them, and in particular we have no record of how the news of the defeat was broken and received. As a contemporary and sometimes friend, sometimes foe of Crassus, his comments are especially important. Furthermore, it appears that he wrote a secret memoir, only published after his death, in which he wrote what he truly thought about the people and events of his life.349 Apparently Crassus came out of this rather badly, despite their supposed reconciliation.350
Caesar – Civil Wars (100–44 BC)
We have only one other contemporary of Crassus whose writings preserve a mention of the battle. Caesar in his commentary on the Second Civil War has the following brief mention:
leaving in his rear the neighbouring Parthian enemy, who a little before had slain the commander, Marcus Crassus, and had kept Marcus Bibulus closely invested, he [one of Caesar’s Pompeian adversaries] led the legions and cavalry out of Syria.351
This aside was hardly a glowing tribute to his former political sponsor and triumviral partner. Had he lived to conduct his own Parthian campaign then we may have had a more fulsome commentary on Crassus’ campaign and its failure.
Velleius Paterculus – History of Rome (first century A.D.)
Paterculus was a Roman historian who wrote a short Roman history in two books, circa AD 30, which made mention of the Carrhae campaign. He deals with it briefly and has little detail, mistakenly claiming that it was King Orodes who faced Crassus at Carrhae. His brief account contains a number of the standard clichés that had grown around the campaign, namely Crassus’ lust for money as a cause of the war and the tribunes casting curses on Crassus as he left. He also devotes a few words to the role of Cassius, and again portrays his actions in a positive light;
Remnants of the legions were saved by Gaius Cassius, who not only retained Syria in its allegiance to the Roman people, but succeeded, by a fortunate turn of events, in defeating and putting to rout the Parthians when they crossed its borders352
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews and History of the Jewish War (first century AD)
Josephus preserves a few important details concerning the overall campaign, particularly concerning Gabinius’ and Crassus’ activities in the East and gives us an invaluable non-Roman perspective to the details; one that is free from having to conform to the expected narrative. He was a Jewish commander during the great Jewish Revolt against Rome (AD 66–73), who changed sides and became a Roman ally.
Appian’s histories of the Syrian War, Mithridatic Wars & Civil Wars – and the Parthian Wars? (second century AD)
Appian was a Greek from Alexandria who wrote extensively on the history of Rome, with an interlinking series of works on the various Roman wars. He wrote in the mid-second century AD and used a wide range of sources, which gives his work a good level of detail. His history of the Syrian wars provides us with details of the Roman expansion in the East, as does his work on the Mithridatic wars. His work on the civil wars preserves a great deal of information about Crassus and the build up to the Carrhae campaign. On several occasions throughout his works he states that he would write a history of the Parthian wars, but no trace of it remains, if indeed he ever got around to writing it.353
Lost Original Sources for the Battle
Having covered in brief the few surviving sources that provide us with details of the First Romano-Parthian War and the Battle of Carrhae, we can now turn our attention to the possible original sources, which the later writers used but now no longer survive.
Livy, History of Rome (late first century BC)
Of all the historians of Rome, Livy is generally considered to have been the greatest. Living under the reign of Augustus, he wrote a history of Rome from its foundation to 9 BC that encompassed some 142 books. Unfortunately for us, nothing after book forty-five, which stops at 167 BC, survives intact. Nevertheless many modern scholars insist that virtually every account on Roman history written after Livy was based upon him, including all the details we have for the Carrhae campaign. In truth we have no clear idea which of our later sources used him and to what degree. There are several compilations of the later Livy books still in existence, notably the Periochae and Obsequens, but they do nothing more than précis his work.
Nicolas of Damascus, Universal History (first century BC)
Nicholas of Damascus is the other great lost historian from whom many scholars believe that many of the later accounts of Carrhae derive. He was a Hellenised Syrian born in 64 BC and served at the court of Herod the Great. He wrote a universal history of the East in 144 books, but nothing remains aside from a few fragments. He certainly would have provided an authoritative account of the war and not purely from a Roman perspective, but the almost total absence of any surviving material makes any judgements over who used his material useless.
Quintus Dellius’ history of the Parthian Wars (first century BC)
Quintus Dellius is widely considered to be the main source for the account of Carrhae, which we find in Plutarch.354 During the Second Roman Civil War, he was a follower of Cassius. He then served under Mark Antony and accompanied him on his invasion of Parthia during the second Romano-Parthian War, of which he wrote an account.355 We know that Plutarch used him as a source for his life of Mark Antony, but we do not know whether his history encompassed the first war, and it does not explain the seemingly first-hand account of Carrhae given by Plutarch. By the time Dellius came to write his history, Cassius was long dead.
Apollonius’ history of the Carrhae campaign (first century BC)
Apollonius is introduced to us by Cicero (in a letter to Julius Caesar, in 45 BC):
His [Publius Crassus’] freedman Apollonius I used to esteem highly and think well of, even when Crassus was alive; for he was devoted to Crassus, and adopted himself extremely well to his highest pursuits, and was therefore much beloved by him. After Crassus’ death, however, he struck me as being all the more worthy of friendship, inasmuch as heconsidered it incumbent upon him to pay respect and attention to those whom Crassus had been fond of, and who won his affection.356
A little later in the same letter we have notice of Appollonius’ credentials as a historian:
At the present moment, however, fired with enthusiastic admiration of your [Caesar’s] exploits, he desires to record them in the Greek language. I think he is competent to do so, he has great ability, he has the experience, he has been engaged for some time past in that kind of literary effort357
Here we have an ideal candidate for a history of the Carrhae campaign. He was a slave of Publius Crassus, which meant that he may have accompanied his master to the East, he was devoted to the memory of his master and the Crassi as a whole and he had just finished a work of history: ‘that kind of literary effort’. Can we assume that this ‘literary effort’ was a work on the Carrhae campaign and one that vindicated and glorified both Crassus and his son Publius? Certainly this is the view some modern scholars have supported.358 Thus in the period after Carrhae, there is a strong possibility that a pro-Crassus history of the Carrhae campaign was written, which most probably included eye-witness accounts of the battle itself, to show off Publius’ bravery. This was written by a man who was either there personally or who would have interviewed survivors of the battle. Certainly the surviving son, Marcus Crassus junior, would have had an interest in exonerating the memories of both his father and younger brother. The only drawback of such an account is that it would not be pro-Cassius and would not have painted Crassus in such a poor light as the one in Plutarch does. Nevertheless it is likely that this history was written and would have been available to later writers.
Pro-Cassius source, history of the Carrhae campaign (first century BC)
There is enough evidence to speculate that there may have been more than just Apollonius’ contemporary history of the Carrhae campaign published in the late Republic. In fact there are three reasons to suspect that a work was published on behalf of Gaius Cassius. Firstly, the account given in Plutarch combines what appears to be an eye-witness account of the battle along with a noticeable pro-Cassius bias. Secondly, Cassius himself would have wanted to distance himself from the disaster at Carrhae and exonerate himself for his actions (which may on occasions be viewed as cowardice), as well as promoting his subsequent defence of Syria. Thirdly, if there was a pro-Crassus version of the battle being published, then he would need to counter any negative coverage that he might receive from it. For all three of these reasons we can speculate that Cassius had commissioned a work on the Carrhae campaign on his return to Rome, which provided an eye-witness account with an anti-Crassus and pro-Cassius slant. It is probably this work that we can see as the basis for Plutarch’s account, either directly, or transmitted through a third party. Several names have been suggested for the author of such a work, but this is taking the speculation too far.359
Testimony of Artavasdes, king of Armenia (first century BC)
It has been mentioned earlier (chapter seven) that King Artavasdes of Armenia, when he saw that Parthia’s victory in the war was not going to be as clear cut as he had thought, began to feed information to the Romans, via a third party:
The son of King Orodes of Parthia is in our province, and Deiotarus, whose son is to marry the daughter of Artavasdes, a good source of information, has no doubt that the King himself will cross the Euphrates with his whole power as soon as summer comes.360
This leads us to the possibility that, as well as telling the Romans what the Parthians were currently up to, he could have informed them of what occurred at Carrhae, as reported to him by the Parthians. He definitely could have informed them of how badly the Parthians treated the remains of Crassus and the whole misuse of the poor man’s head as a theatrical prop. Although this would not have been published directly, there could have been official reports, as well as inclusion in some of Cicero’s’ works (though none of his surviving works indicate this). Nevertheless it is another possible source of information for the campaign.
Survivors’ histories of the Carrhae campaign and later captivity (first century BC)
Taking our speculation to the extreme, it is possible that the return of the Roman prisoners of war in 20 BC sparked a renewed interest in their stories, especially given the general lack of knowledge about the Parthian east. Therefore it is possible that some works were written on the whole Carrhae campaign and its aftermath, using eye-witness accounts from some of the survivors.
Later histories of the Romano-Parthian wars
We know from later surviving sources that whenever there was a Romano-Parthian war, there was a flurry of historical works accompanying them. Lucian, in his work On the Writing of History, written in the second century AD, commented that the Fifth Romano-Parthian War (AD162–165), sparked off a flurry of histories of the Romano-Parthian conflict, all of which he considered to be second rate:
Crepereius Calpurnius of Pompeiopolis wrote the history of the war between the Parthians and the Romans at its very outset . . . Another of them has compiled abare record of the events and set it down on paper, completely prosaic and ordinary, such as a soldier or artisan or peddler following the army might have put together as a diary of daily events.361
This indicates that there was a whole genre of works on the Romano-Parthian wars, many of which could have used aspects of previous works as an introduction, but again this remains nothing more than informed speculation.
We can see, therefore, that the few surviving sources which detail the Battle of Carrhae and the whole Romano-Parthian War are but a poor reflection of the primary sources that were available in the Roman period. There were possibly two eyewitness accounts, if not more, and a whole number of accompanying works that would have utilised them, all produced when the battle was still in living memory. What we have today merely reminds us of how much knowledge has been lost since the fall of the ancient world.
The Battle in History
As well as ancient works detailing the battle or the campaign, there were a large number of works which utilised the Battle of Carrhae for other purposes, whether as an example to learn from, or for dramatic effect. In each case, the battle is used rather than detailed, but many of these references preserve fragments of information which we do not have in our main surviving sources.
The Battle of Carrhae as an exemplar
References to the Battle of Carrhae and the campaign as a whole can be found across a number of other Roman works, held up as an example of what not to do in certain circumstances. Cicero started this process in his work De Divinatione (On Divination), where he used the Carrhae campaign on three occasions to highlight the dangers of ignoring omens362. Similar themes occur during the histories of Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the Memorable Sayings of Valerius Maximus.363 A second theme was for the battle to be used in works on military matters. Both Frontinus’ Stratagems and Polyaenus’ work of the same name refer to the defeat, as does Tacitus’ Germania.364 Various references can also be found in the geographical works of Pliny and Strabo, in connection with various places in the East.365
The Battle of Carrhae as drama
Crassus’ death at Carrhae was a theme soon taken up in Roman drama, especially under the Augustan poets. We have already referred to Horace who made dramatic use of the fate of the Roman prisoners, but the other Augustan poets all made reference to the loss at Carrhae. This is from Ovid’s Fasti:
The pride of the nation had been fostered by the deaths of Crassus and his son, when soldiers general and standards perished together.366
and this from his Ars Amatoria:
Parthian, thou shalt pay the penalty; rejoice you buried Crassi, and your standards that shamefully endured barbarian violence.367
From Propertius we have the following:
No longer does the Euphrates allow Parthian horsemen to glance behind their backs, and regrets keeping possession of the Crassi.368
Rejoice, Crassus, if any consciousness be yours amid the grave’s black sands: now we may cross the Euphrates to your tomb.369
Thus in death, Crassus became what he never managed to in his life: a Roman hero, albeit a tragic one. His death gave the Roman dramatists a wonderfully tragic story with which to work. However we are not aware of any specific drama’s written about the Carrhae campaign.
The Battle of Carrhae as antiquated knowledge
Throughout the centuries that followed, knowledge of the defeat at Carrhae and Crassus’ death became a staple in the works of Roman writers. Historians as varied as Justin, Ammianus Marcellinus, Zosimus, Eutropius, Orosius and Jerome all pass comment on the campaign.370 The standards of the comments vary, with Jerome even claiming Crassus and his son were both captured alive by the Parthians.371
In the fifth century AD, the Romano-Gallic poet and writer Sidonius considered knowledge of the defeat at Carrhae to be important as the following make clear. The first is from the panygeric of Anthemius:
yet that possession was bought by me with the blood of Crassus; at Carrhae I paid down the price; nor did I remain unavenged372
This from a letter to Felix, bishop of Ticinum:
he takes no account of the ruinous attempt on the Euphrates and of Carrhae drenched with the blood of the Crassi373
And this from his panegyric of Avitus:
insomuch as the Parthian Sapor freely restored my standards and laying aside his Royal tiara, wept for the deaths of the Crassi374
Thus, even five hundred years after Carrhae, educated men showed off their knowledge of the battle and its results, assuming, or should we say challenging, their audience to be aware of the battle. Even when the Western Empire had fallen (AD 476) the memory of Carrhae was kept alive by the Byzantine historians of the Eastern Roman Empire. As late as the ninth century, George Synkellos, a historical chronicler, had an entry as follows:
At that time, Crassus succeeded Gabinius and acquired control of the Syrian government. In launching an invasion against the Parthians, he took it upon himself to loot all the furnishings of the Jewish temple, including the 2,000 talents that Pompey had left untouched. Now when he crossed the Euphrates River he was killed with the main body of his army, Crassus’ quaestor Cassius rescuing the survivors and with great carnage driving out the Persians [Parthians] from the whole of Syria. Cassius then moved with haste against Judea, took 30,000 hostages, captured Tarichaiai, and killed Pisailos for collaborating with the partisans of Aristoboulos and his son in their insurrection against Hyrkanos and Antipatros.375
We can see that some eight hundred years later, the Battle of Carrhae was still resounding in the histories of Rome, long after the end of the seven hundred-year conflict that it had created. It is a testament to the importance of the battle and its consequences for the ancient world.