How can we sum up the Battle of Carrhae and the whole First Roman-Parthian War? Clearly it was a defining battle in the history of both the late Roman Republic and the Parthian Empire. But, aside from it being the decisive encounter of the First Romano-Parthian War, what was the battle’s wider significance? In order to fully answer this most important question we need to assess the various areas that it impacted on. The most logical place to start is with the Roman Republic, and here we must analyse the effects on both the Republic’s territories in the east and on domestic politics back in Rome.
Consequences for the Roman Republic in the East
In the short term, the most obvious consequence for the Romans was the disastrous loss of life at the Battle of Carrhae. Out of an invading army of over 40,000 men, barely 10,000 managed to return to Roman territory. Of the others, around 20,000 were killed and 10,000 taken captive and held as prisoners for over two decades (see appendix 1). Thus the Romans lost three quarters of their army, along with their commander and most of his aristocratic command staff, nearly all young nobles from senatorial families. In total, seven legions were destroyed and their standards paraded as war trophies by the Parthians; which would remain a contentious issue in Roman minds until their recovery in 20 BC.
The war had been launched as a war of conquest, but had ended with the Romans desperately defending their own territory, shut up in the cities, with the Parthians ravaging their province. Although they had managed to salvage some pride out of their defence of Syria (which came mostly as a result of Parthian failings) and from the fact that the situation did not deteriorate as badly as they had thought it would after Carrhae, there is no hiding from the fact that they had comprehensively lost this first war with Parthia.
We can see that the Battle of Carrhae itself had been won by the better general, but this does not mean that we can perpetuate the blackening of Crassus’ reputation. Crassus was a fine Roman commander, who possessed sound judge-ment, clear tactical planning and the quality of never seeking battle unless he was sure of his own army’s abilities. It could be said that perhaps he lacked the flair of a Pompey or a Caesar, but then few men possessed that. He had earned his place in the pantheon of great Roman commanders on account of his defeat of Spartacus and saving Rome from the slave army, and must be judged as a good, if not a great, Roman general. The spectacular loss at Carrhae was the result of a good Roman general running into a truly great Parthian one. History has been as unkind to Surenas’ reputation as it has to Crassus’ (at least in the Christian West). Surenas turned an almost inevitable defeat into a spectacular victory and his accomplishments must surely rank him as one of history’s great generals.
Nevertheless, Surenas had accomplished this great victory as a result of deficiencies in the Roman method of warfare, namely their reliance on a slow moving infantry-based battle. It is true that they had faced cavalry before, in numerous battles, and been successful, but they had never faced an entirely-mounted army and this was the cause of their undoing. However hard a lesson it was, it was one that could only be taught once, and the Romans never again went into a battle in the East with such a light cavalry contingent.
If the battle was a disaster for the Romans, then the retreat was worse. As we saw earlier the Romans lost as many casualties (dead and captured) on the retreat as they did in the battle. Had the Romans retreated in a more orderly manner from Carrhae, then probably up to 20,000 men would have reached the safety of Syria (twice as many as actually did). Here Crassus does deserve censure for allowing the retreat to turn into a full-blown rout. Just because the battle had been lost, it did not mean that the war would be. His ineffectual leadership during the retreat turned the disaster at Carrhae into a complete catastrophe, though he was greatly aided by the incompetence and poor discipline of many of his officers and men. Thus all sections of the Roman army at Carrhae must stand accused of contributing to such a catastrophic defeat. Even so, in the short term, troops could be replaced, standards could be recovered, properties repaired and crops re-grown. It is the long term factors that reveal the greater impact which the Battle of Carrhae had.
As the surviving ancient sources show us, the Battle of Carrhae loomed far larger in the popular consciousness than the rest of the campaign itself (a view which most modern historiography appears to copy). Carrhae must go down as the worst defeat that the Romans suffered in the century and a half since Hannibal had ravaged Italy, defeating Roman armies with impunity. Certainly there had been setbacks in the intervening period, most notably those inflicted upon them by Mithridates of Pontus, and the loss of troops was not the greatest that they ever suffered; but Carrhae was an outright comprehensive defeat, on all scales.315 Previous setbacks in the intervening years had been at the hands of an invading enemy and when the Romans were on the defensive. They had not lost a battle of this nature, when they had been on the offensive, in a very long time (certainly never during their expansion throughout the Mediterranean). That is the reason why this defeat did so much damage to Rome’s military and imperial reputation. Rome had launched an aggressive war of conquest and for the first time had failed, and had done so spectacularly.
This was not a quiet disaster either, for the peoples of the Parthian empire were able to see the captured Roman prisoners in their thousands, along with the captured legionary eagles (which were then placed in Parthian temples). Thousands of Roman corpses must have littered northern Mesopotamia, not only at the battle site, but on the route between there and Syria, where the fleeing Romans had been caught and slaughtered. At the Parthian court, it is likely that the head of Marcus Crassus became a permanent trophy, a witness to the Roman defeat (though the sources do not record any mention of it after its use in the play). All these very public displays of the Roman failure would have been transmitted throughout the East, not just the Parthian territories, by the various economic and social networks that existed between the cities and peoples of the East and which overrode any distinction between Roman and Parthian.
Thus Rome’s military reputation was shattered at Carrhae and the seemingly inexorable annexation of the eastern civilisations was brought to a shuddering halt. Inevitability was replaced by uncertainty as Parthia emerged as a credible threat to Rome’s hegemony in the East, not merely stopping Rome’s progress but raising the possibility that they might even reverse it.
The other major long term consequence was the establishment of a lasting enmity between Rome and Parthia over domination of the East. Although a clash between the two was inevitable, the crushing nature of Rome’s defeat and, as they saw it, humiliation meant that the Romans would never rest until this loss was avenged. This humiliation was worsened by the outcome of the Second Parthian War (40–36 BC) which saw the Parthians invade and temporarily annex all of Rome’s territories in the East. Although the Romans ultimately recovered these lands, a second Roman invasion of Parthia, led by Mark Antony, then the foremost Roman general of his day, met with a similar disaster to the first and again led to a retreat in chaos and ignominy. Thus Rome now had a permanent rival in the East. This permanence was entrenched by Caesar’s son, Octavian (who became the sole ruler of Rome under the name Augustus), when in 20 BC he chose not to confront the Parthians, but to engage them in diplomacy. In return for the Parthians returning Crassus’ and Antony’s captured legionary eagles, a formal peace treaty was drawn up between the two great empires. Thus, for the first time, Rome formally acknowledged the limits of their empire in the East. This treaty was renewed in AD 2 by Augustus’ adoptive son and heir, Gaius.316 Given the end of the republican system and the advent of emperors in Rome, Roman expansion ground to a halt, perpetuated by most subsequent emperors aping Augustus’ passivity in the East (the most notable exception being Trajan).
Thus the spread of Roman civilisation came to a halt in the East, caused bythe failure of the Romans at Carrhae; an outcome that was formalised by Augustus. We will examine the wider implications of the division of the East below. For now, in mentioning Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire, we must examine the contributory role that the Carrhae campaign had in this phenomenon, by assessing its effects on domestic Roman politics.
Domestic Consequences for the Roman Republic
If the consequences of this war for Rome’s empire were bad enough, then the effects back in Rome were even greater. As stated earlier, Crassus’ death did not cause the triumvirate to become a duumvirate, but spelt the end of the alliance altogether. Crassus and Pompey had worked together on several occasions as they were contemporaries, but Pompey and Caesar had not. The only other strong link between the two men was Pompey’s wife, Julia, who was Caesar’s daughter, but she had died in childbirth in 54 BC. Pompey soon found a new wife, the widow of Publius Crassus, who was a Metellus by birth. This new marriage alliance tied Pompey closer to the traditional senatorial families. Not only did Crassus’ death remove the link between Pompey and Caesar, but it also probably left Pompey thinking that he now had no rival, a view which was seemingly confirmed when he was chosen by the Senate to be the sole consul of 52 BC.
Although they were of similar age317, Pompey had been a dominant figure in Rome for some three decades, whilst Caesar was a relatively new figure on the scene (he gained the consulship in 59 BC and only did so with the backing of Pompey and Crassus). Thus Pompey dismissed Caesar as a junior, who was not on his level. However, when he and the Senate attempted to deal with Caesar, late in 50 BC (by not renewing his Gallic command, nor allowing him to stand for the consulship in absentia), they fatally underestimated the ambition of the man. Caesar took a huge gamble to save his career by invading Italy, crossing the Rubicon River early in 49 BC (thereby violating the law that forbade him to cross from his province into Italy whilst still at the head of his army). As he is famously reported to have said at the time; ‘alea jacta est’ (let the die be cast).318 For Caesar and the Republic there was no turning back and Rome fell into a second civil war.
The early stages of the war culminated at the Battle of Pharsalus (in Greece) in 48 BC, when Pompey and Caesar met on the battlefield for the first and last time. By the end of the day Pompey had been comprehensively defeated. He fled, vowing to fight on, but was assassinated as he landed in Egypt by the authorities there. Caesar went on to establish a firm control of Rome, finally taking the office of Dictator for Life early in 44 BC. A conspiracy of twenty or more senators determined to ensure that both his life, and thereby his dictatorship, would be short. This culminated in his assassination in the Senate House on the Ides of March 44 BC. One of the two ringleaders was none other than Gaius Cassius (thus betraying a second triumvir).
However, Caesar’s death did not restore the Republic as they hoped and a further war broke out between the ‘Caesarian’ faction, now led by Mark Antony and Octavian, and the ‘Conspirators’ led by Brutus and Cassius. Having won this war, Antony and Octavian inevitably turned on each other, which led to the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra and established himself as princeps of the Roman Republic. More commonly historians label him as the first Roman Emperor and name 31 BC as the date upon which the Roman Republic ended and the Roman Empire began (though this is a simplistic view of events).
Thus we can see that Crassus’ death at Carrhae did more than cost Rome a general. It was a contributing factor leading to the outbreak of the Second Civil War at Rome and the ultimate collapse of the Roman Republic. It can be argued that tensions between Caesar and Pompey could have resulted in open warfare anyway, given that Crassus was out in the East and would have continued to be so had he been successful. We might ask, however, if either man would have gone to war with Crassus still a powerful figure at the head of a large and successful army. Had Crassus lived then it is far more likely that some form of compromise deal would have been worked out between the three men, each with their own spheres of influence. It may have been that Crassus and Pompey would have united to see off Caesar, and they might have been no more successful than Pompey was on his own. In any event, whilst the removal of Crassus at such a key moment in the late Republic did not make civil war inevitable, it certainly made it more likely and for that fact alone, it renders Crassus’ death of even greater importance to history.
Consequences for Marcus Licinius Crassus
This title sounds rather obvious at first, as the immediate consequences for Crassus were the severest possible, namely death and decapitation at the hands of his enemies. However, the abuse of Crassus did not end with his mortal remains, but has continued throughout the centuries. When Crassus fell in the aftermath of Carrhae, he was one of the three leading men in Rome, had rivalled Pompey throughout the latter’s entire career and was a major force in the politics and history of the late Roman Republic. However, as seen throughout this work, upon his death Crassus’ reputation was torn to shreds by his contemporaries and by commentators ever since. Rather than admit that Rome had seemingly met its match in the Parthians, the defeat at Carrhae was all too easily exorcised by blaming it squarely on Crassus’ shoulders. Across the centuries he has been labelled as being too old, too gullible, too easily led or too hasty. As detailed earlier, Crassus was not a member of the triumvirate by accident, or to make up the numbers; he was one of Rome’s two foremost statesmen and generals (at the creation of the triumvirate), a man who had saved his state from the seemingly-invincible Spartacus and who was well versed in the arts of war.
The defeat at Carrhae was indeed the result of one man’s abilities, but that one man was Surenas. On the day, Crassus, as any Roman general could have done, simply ran into a better general and tactician. Some would argue that had it been Pompey or Caesar then they would not have made the same choices and that is certainly possible, but it neglects the genius of the man who crafted the Parthian army into a force capable of beating any Roman army. Carrhae is a testament to Surenas’ genius, rather than to Crassus’ incompetence and his reputation needs to be salvaged and restored to its rightful place as one of the key figures in the history of the Roman Republic.
Plutarch, in his comparison of Crassus and Nicias (the Athenian general with whom he paired Crassus’ biography), actually presented a balanced judgement on Crassus, something he had failed to do in his main biography:319
What then would have been their feelings, and for how many days would they have sacrificed to the gods, if Crassus had written to them from Babylon that he was victorious and had overrun Media, Persia, Hyrcania, Susa and Bactria, and declared them Roman provinces.320
He then concludes:
Those who have praise for Alexander’s expedition, but blame for that of Crassus, unfairly judge of a beginning by its end.321
In the end Crassus’ reputation fell from its deserved heights for committing the ultimate sin in the eyes of the Romans, namely failure on the battlefield. Hopefully we will not fall into the same pitfall and judge him so harshly. Crassus the Roman needs to be judged, rather than Crassus the defeated.
On a wider note, this particular branch of the Licinii Crassi had seen a father and son killed together for the second generation running. The surviving son, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who had been serving with Caesar in Gaul, overnight became Rome’s richest man and sole heir to a great dynasty. His father’s decision to have him serve with Caesar, rather than go with him to the East appears to reflect Crassus’ cautiousness and desire to ensure the dynasty’s survival should anything go wrong. Such caution had served the family well in the previous generation, where one son stayed in Rome and was killed, whilst another went to Spain and survived. Given the wealth and accumulated political power that Marcus received at such a young age, (around thirty years old), he appears to have kept a remarkably low profile during the civil wars that followed.322 Aside from finding him still in Caesar’ army in 49 BC, we hear no more about him.323 It appears that, given the recent history of his family and the tragedies that their prominence had caused them, he kept a deliberately low profile in the wars and slaughter that followed, marking him as a truly insightful Roman aristocrat.324
This low profile appears to have done his family no harm, in fact just the reverse. We find a Marcus Licinius Crassus as consul of 30 BC serving alongside Octavian, who was a late, but welcome supporter of the new order. He had in fact opposed Octavian not once, but twice, by siding first with Sextus Pompeius (son of Pompey the Great) and then with Mark Antony.325Yet, despite this, he became consul (which shows that Octavian was making a clear statement about reconciling Republican nobles to his new regime) and subsequently had an illustrious military career.326Perhaps we can see his father’s hand in the background.
Further generations of the Licinii Crassi were to be found as supporters of the Julio-Claudian emperors, with the grandson of the younger Marcus becoming consul in 14 BC.327 Further consulships can be found in AD 27 (under the emperor Tiberius) and in AD 64 (under Nero), by which time the family had further intermarried with the descendants of Pompey and now posed a credible threat to the throne.328 The last recognisable descendant was executed by the emperor Hadrian, when he came to the throne in AD 117, in order to eliminate a potential rival claimant. Thus, despite the tragedy at Carrhae, the family remained a powerful force in the Roman Empire for the next 150 years.
Consequences for the Parthian Empire
For the Parthian empire, the consequences of Carrhae, and the First Romano-Parthian War in general, were mixed and can again be broken down into short-and long-term effects. In the short term the stunning victory at Carrhae not only propelled the Parthian empire back into the position which it had occupied upon on the death of Mithradates II in 87 BC, but actually seemed to surpass it. For the thirty years prior to Carrhae, Parthia had clearly been on the decline and had been supplanted in the East, not merely by Rome, but by her former vassal Armenia as well. As a result of Carrhae, the Romans had been defeated militarily and the Armenians had been reduced to the status of junior partner once again. It is also probable that the peace treaty which Orodes negotiated with Artavasdes (which in the latter’s case was only ever intended to be temporary) included a return of the Parthian lands taken by Armenia in the 70s BC and not returned when Armenia was defeated by Rome. In 53 BC the Parthian empire was once again the foremost power in the region and looked poised to resume her seemingly unstoppable sweep from the east.
By 50 BC the situation had changed and held out some inkling of Parthia’s long-term future. The invasions of Syria in 51 and 50 BC were not only failures as campaigns in themselves, but undid the wonderful position that the Parthians had found themselves in following Carrhae. The execution of their best commander in 53 BC had led to a delay in the invasion and when it did occur it was marked by dithering and incompetence. The Parthia of old had made spectacular territorial advances when its armies were commanded by kings who possessed tactical brilliance. By the mid 50s BC Parthia looked as though it was evolving into a system where the kings could take a back seat, if they so chose, and allow the growth of professional military commanders from the noble houses, thus separating the military command structure from the monarchy.
This had been the one key weakness of the Parthian Empire in the past, when a monarch with no military ability took the throne. Carrhae should have been a lesson to Parthia that this new system was the way of the future. Instead Orodes’ insecurity over his throne led him to murder his best general and give command of his armies to a hybrid system which saw a noble general partnering a royal prince. This led almost inevitably to the disastrous campaign of 51 BC when, instead of sweeping the last of the Romans out of Syria, the Parthian army wasted its time in attempting to force the Romans into battle, then appeared to wander about the region with no clear strategy (probably the result of a dual command) and finally fell into a Roman ambush. The obvious move for the Parthians would have been for Orodes to take command of the invasion and stamp some royal authority on it. In 50 BC, however, he once again failed to do so and the latest invasion fell to a combination of Roman intrigue and Orodes’ unpopularity, sparking off the second civil war within the decade.
Thus the Parthian Empire had restored its military reputation and its dominance of the east, but its one key flaw remained – the monarchy. A weak monarch could still undermine the empire and in the short term had reduced what should have been a clear victory in the East into an uneasy stalemate. Without a strong monarch on the throne Parthia was vulnerable, unless military command could be safely separated from the monarchy itself (which proved to be the case in the Second Romano-Parthian War).
Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings, Parthia emerged from the First Roman War as the clear victor. The Roman eastward advance had been comprehensively halted and the Romans defeated militarily. As a result Parthia appeared to have overcome her weaknesses of the years 87–55 BC and was once again the dominant non-Roman power of the region. In the long term it was clear that Parthia and Rome were locked into a bitter feud, which would mirror Rome’s rivalry with Carthage for the western Mediterranean during the previous two centuries. Until one of the two powers fell, as had eventually happened to Carthage, neither could claim dominance in the region.
There was one further consequence for the Parthian empire that came about partly as a result of the deadlock with Rome to the west, namely expansion to the east. Following the first two Roman wars, the Parthian empire started making significant inroads in conquering the Afghan and Indus regions, and established what became known as the Indo-Parthian Kingdom.329 This took place late in the first century BC and seems to coincide with the deadlock in the west of the Parthian Empire.
Consequences for Surenas
Again, as with Crassus, this at first appears to be an odd heading. However, Surenas has been neglected for far too long in Western historiography for us to repeat this omission. In the short term, his victory made Surenas a national hero and he became a ‘scourge of Rome’ comparable to Hannibal or Mithridates of Pontus. Unfortunately for Surenas, it also made him a prime target for an extremely insecure king, who promptly had him charged with treason and murdered in a most cowardly, and ultimately costly, act.
In the long term, his stunning victory at Carrhae made him one of the ancient world’s greatest generals. Few men could boast of a decisive battlefield victory against Rome, the most recent of them being Hannibal (Mithridates of Pontus never achieving such a set-piece victory). At Carrhae, we saw a wonderfully conceived and executed battle-strategy. He had analysed the Roman military machine and saw their strength as being close-order combat and engineered his army in such a way that the Romans would never engage in this type of fighting. The twin pillars of this scheme, having a totally mobile army composed of nothing but two complementary types of cavalry (cataphract and archer), combined with a near-endless supply of arrows, were masterstrokes and showed the true genius of the Parthian art of war (when handled well). Such a tactic was the ultimate refinement of Parthian warfare and foreshadowed the devastating Mongol armies of over a thousand years later.
Yet, whilst the exploits of Hannibal are well known and he is deservedly lauded as being one of history’s great generals, Surenas (at least in the Western world), has been largely ignored. There are three clear reasons for this. The first one is that the Battle of Carrhae has always been written off as being a Roman loss (due to Crassus’ incompetence), rather than a Parthian victory.330 The Romans always liked to treat it as such, in order to keep the moral and military high ground. This fits in with the second factor, which is the West’s inheritance of this historical tradition and the ability to see this battle as being a loss for Rome, rather than a victory for the Parthians. At best this is an accidental standpoint that hopefully has been challenged in this work. The third reason is that Surenas, as a figure, is more obscure in the surviving ancient sources; we merely have a few lines here and there and none of the narrative that accompanied the other great ancient generals, such as Hannibal. We do not even know his own name, just that of his family. This was all exacerbated by his sudden execution which robbed him of further campaigns against the Romans, which if Carrhae was anything to go by, would have cemented his reputation once and for all.
Again, we can see that like the Licinii Crassi, the Suren clan survived the loss of their leader and continued to prosper, though given the scarcity of the surviving Parthian sources (see appendix three), this is much harder to document. We find a Suren heavily involved in another Parthian civil war during the 30s AD, crowning one of the claimants to the throne.331 In fact, the Suren continued to be central to the Parthian Empire throughout the next three centuries and we even have inscriptions that record the Suren as one of the leading noble families supporting the new Sassanid Persian dynasty, which displaced Parthian rule in the region, in the 220s AD and beyond. Having outlasted the Arsacids, they clearly remained an important noble family in the region and only lost power when the Muslim invasion of Persia took place, during which it appears the clan became scattered. A funeral inscription of the 9th century AD in China records a member of the Suren clan, so it appears that the clan remained recognisable for many centuries more.332
Consequences for the Ancient World in the East
Having looked at Rome and Parthia individually, we must finally consider the significance of the Battle of Carrhae and the First Romano-Parthian War in the wider context of the history of the ancient world as a whole. The war was the inevitable conclusion of the process that had seen two new powers rise on the fringes of the Hellenistic world. Both Rome and Parthia took advantage of the instabilities amongst the existing Hellenistic kingdoms and created fresh empires that inexorably ate away at the more established states, from both ends (east and west). This process continued until they inevitably met in the middle, in Syria as it turned out. War between the two was expected to determine which civilisation would be the one to reunify what was considered (in the West) to be the known world (from Italy to India) and succeed both the First Persian Empire and that of Alexander the Great. At the outset of the war it was Rome who was considered to be the stronger and thus the more likely to re-unify the ancient world.
In the end, and as a result of this first war (whose result was ratified by Augustus), the states of the ancient world were permanently divided between East and West, with the Euphrates as the dividing line. The Romans, under the Republic, only fought one more war with Parthia (40–36 BC), the eventual outcome of which resulted in the same dividing line as the one established after Carrhae. Augustus’ peace led to the formalisation of the Euphrates as the natural limit to Rome’s empire; something that no Republican general would ever have tolerated. Rome’s relations with Parthia then became subject to the whims of the emperor, much as Parthia’s had done (thus Rome inadvertently appeared to copy a failing system). In the centuries that followed, another five Romano-Parthian wars broke out, many of them centred on the struggle for control of Armenia.
The third war broke out in the reign of Nero and again ended with a dismal stalemate. The fourth war, under the emperor Trajan, broke the mould and resulted in spectacular Roman successes, with Trajan annexing both Armenia and Mesopotamia, and giving Rome access to the Persian Gulf for the first time. However, this lasted only from AD 115 to 117, as on Trajan’s death his successor Hadrian abandoned Mesopotamia to the Parthians and returned to a Euphrates border.333 The fifth war broke out in AD 161 under the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, and saw Rome again successfully defeat the Parthians in Mesopotamia, and resulted in the sacking of the cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon. Once again, however, the Romans withdrew from the majority of Mesopotamia, but they did annex some of the lands on the Euphrates border.
The sixth war broke out in AD 197 and was led by the emperor Septimius Severus, who again successfully overran Mesopotamia, and even burnt Ctesiphon. Ultimately Severus again withdrew from many of the territories which he had conquered, but on this occasion he annexed a large swathe of northern Mesopotamia and turned it into a Roman province. As a consequence, the town and battle site of Carrhae finally became Roman territory, over 140 years after Crassus’ death. A final war broke out under the emperor Caracalla in AD 217, but ended in another stalemate when Caracalla was assassinated and his successor defeated and forced to pay a huge war indemnity.
In AD 224–226 the Arsacid kings were overthrown by a noble revolt led by a man named Ardashir, who founded a new dynasty, the Sassanids. Once in power he attempted to erase the Arsacid and Parthian past by claiming that this new dynasty was a restoration of the old Persian empire, rather than a Scythianoriginated and thoroughly-Hellenised Parthian one. This resulted in a policy of the deliberate destruction of all traces of the Parthian past in an effort to portray this ‘new’ empire as a continuation of the first great Persian empire. This partly accounts for how little original Parthian material we have left today (see appendix three).
In terms of external relations, little had changed, as the new Persian empire had exactly the same boundary with Rome and the two empires continued to struggle for dominance in the East. For the next four hundred years the empires of Rome and Persia continue to war with each other, and for the same period the dividing line between East and West barely moved. During this time the Roman Empire itself became divided in two, between east and west (in AD 395), with the Western Empire and the city of Rome falling to a barbarian invasion less than a hundred years later (in AD 476). Yet throughout these momentous events, the Eastern Roman Empire (usually referred to as the Byzantine Empire by historians) continued its long struggle with Persia.334
We cannot predict how long this war between Rome and Persia would have continued, but by the beginning of the seventh century, when both empires were exhausted from yet another long and brutal war (which lasted from AD 603–630, and during which both capitals of Constantinople and Ctesiphon were attacked), a third force emerged, which was to exploit this centuries long conflict and sweep away the ancient world. Whilst this war devastated the region, a new monotheistic religion had sprung up in Arabia, and used the inattention of the region’s two great powers to gain control of the whole peninsula. Fired up with a religious zeal, this new force swiftly invaded both the Byzantine and Persian empires.
Persia met its first defeat at the hands of the invaders in AD 636 at the Battle of Qadisiyya, and a further defeat at Nihavand in AD 642 ended Persian resistance. By the murder of the last Persian emperor in AD 651, the whole Persian empire was in the hands of this new power. Thus this second Persian empire lasted just under 450 years, which was slightly less than the Parthian empire (c.247 BC to AD 226).
The Byzantine Empire faired little better and by the end of the 640s had lost North Africa, Egypt, Judea and Syria and was left with only Asia Minor in the east. Finally, the eastern ancient world had been united under one empire, but it was neither Roman/Byzantine nor Parthian/Persian; it was the empire of this new religion, Islam.
Thus the failure of Crassus at Carrhae sparked off a near seven hundred year period of warfare between the two great empires for control of the East. Incredibly, after seven hundred years the border between the two, which became the border between the Eastern and Western civilisations in the ancient world, barely moved from the Euphrates. In some wars the Romans/Byzantines advanced to the Persian Gulf, in others the Parthians/Persians advanced into Asia Minor. In the end they so exhausted each other that their armies became easy prey for a third power. Furthermore, after the devastation that the two had caused each other’s territories in these endless years of warfare, the peoples of the region were receptive and eager for a new power to rule and one that would unite them in internal peace. Thus was born the empire of Islam and so ended the ancient world.
Bust of Pyrrhus of Epirus.Pyrrhus was the first enemy from the more advanced states of the eastern Mediterranean that the Romans faced. His invasion from the east in 281 BC helped to set the tone for the next two hundred years of Roman foreign policy.
The Forum in Rome, the heart of the city and of the Republic.
Bust of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus more commonly referred to as Pompey the Great, Crassus' sometime ally and greatest rival.
Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar, the junior member of the Triumvirate.
The need to establish a military reputation to match that of his fellow triumvirs was a powerful motive in Crassus' search for glory in the East.
Probable bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus. The richest man in Rome and a gifted orator, Crassus had also showed military ability, most notably at the Battle of the Colline Gate in 82 BC and his defeat of Spartacus' slave rebellion in 71 BC.By 53 BC, however, these feats had long been overshadowed by Pompey and Caesar.
Bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero,the famous orator and man of letters who was reluctantly sent to the East as governor of Ciliciain 51 BC. His letters are a valuable source for the period.
Statue of a Parthian nobleman, possibly Surenas,architect of the victory at Carrhae; now in the National Archaeological Museum of Tehran. (© Livius.org)
A coin of Publius Crassus minted on the eve of the campaign. Ironically the reverse shows a Roman cavalryman of the type in all too short supply at Carrhae
A coin of Tigranes II whose kingdom of Armenia was one of the first points of friction between the Roman and Parthian empires. His heir, Artavasdes, proved a disappointing ally to Crassus.
Coin of Mithridates II of Parthia, under whose reign (123-88 BC) the first official contact with Rome was made.
Coin of Orodes II, king of Parthia at the time of Crassus' invasion. Facedwith a war on two fronts, he sent Surenas to delay the Romans, probably with little expectation that he would win such a complete victory.
Coin of Pacorus, son of Orodes II. He was nominal commander of the Parthian counter-invasion following Carrhae but later rebelled against his father, possibly encouraged by Roman gold and machinations.
The ruins of Ctesiphon, the Parthian winter capitalsince the reign of Mithradates II.
The ruins of Carrhae (Harran). The town had been captured and garrisoned by Crassus in 54 BC and he and the remnants of his army sought refuge here during the night following the battle.
Scenes from Trajan's column depicting his much later Parthian war and the capture of Ctesiphon.
A Parthian horse archer armed with a short but powerful composite bow.
A Parthian cataphract. Although relatively few in number, such troops played a crucial role in the battle. Even Crassus' best Gallic cavalry, veterans of Caesar's campaigns in Gaul, proved no match for them in close combat.
A Roman legionary infantryman,the backbone of Roman armies for centuries. Such troops were given little chance to fight back against their mobile opponents.
A Roman auxiliary cavalryman. Crassus had too few of these tocounter the all-mounted Parthian force.
Detail of the Prima Porta statue showing Augustus' breastplate with its embossed depiction of the return of the standards lost at Carrhae, which he achieved by diplomacy.
The statue of Augustus found at Prima Porta, nearRome, in 1863 and now inthe Vatican Museum.
A coin of Augustus, also showing the return of the standards, a major propaganda coup.