Christopher Jones: The Battle of Carrhae, 53 BCE

The article below “The Battle of Carrhae, 53 B.C.” was originally written by Christopher Jones on the Gates of Nineveh website.

Kindly note that a number of images and accompanying captions inserted in the article version below do not appear in the original posting by Christopher Jones.


Scarcely had Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire than it began to rise from the ashes. While most former Persian territory was under the control of the Seleucid Empire, in 247 BC, Shah Arsaces I founded the Arsacid Dynasty in Parthia. Parthia had been a minor outlying province in what is now northeastern Iran, but after much hard fighting they seized Iran from the Seleucids, and finally allied with the Roman general Pompey the Great to finish off the Seleucid Empire in 63 BC, leaving Parthia and Rome as the major powers in the Near East. Between them lay minor buffer states and client kingdoms.

1-Map of Parthian Empire 44 BC to 138 AD

[Click to Enlarge] Map of the Parthian Empire in 44 BCE to 138 CE (Picture source: Farrokh, page 155, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا).  

At this point, the two sides were at peace. The Parthian king Mithridates III wanted no further territorial expansion, and Rome had its hands full consolidating its newly acquired territory in the East and did not want trouble with another great power.

Coin of Mithridates iii

Coin (front and reverse) of Parthian king Mithridates III (reign in c. 57-54 BCE) (Source: Classical Numismatic Group in Public Domain).

Yet by the 50’s B.C., Rome’s internal political machinations spilled over into Parthia. In 59 BC, Julius Caesar, Pompey Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus formed a powerful but informal political alliance known as the First Triumvirate. Crassus and Pompey were both elected consuls in 55 BC after instigating mob violence against their opponents on election day. Their first acts were to extend Caesar’s term as governor of Gaul (which he was still in the process of conquering), and make themselves the governors of Spain and Syria once their term in office expired. They cast lots to see who would govern which territory. Pompey won Spain, and Crassus won Syria.[1]


Marcus Licinius Crassus (c. 115-53 BCE) (Source: Gates of Nineveh).

Crassus was fabulously wealthy, with a net worth in 54 B.C. of an estimated 7,100 talents or about $142 million. He made much of his fortune through seizing the property of those murdered in Sulla’s purges of 88 BC. Other sources of income included his ownership of silver mines as well as a profitable business in real estate development.[2] Crassus was fond of saying that no man was truly wealthy unless he could buy his own army.[3]

Crassus was also brazenly ambitious. Plutarch would later condemn this as:

“…foolish ambition, which would not let him rest satisfied to be first and greatest among many myriads of men, but made him think, because he was judged inferior to two men only, that he lacked everything.”

After he was assigned the governorship of Syria, he immediately began laying plans for the conquest not only of Parthia, but of Bactria and India as well until Rome’s borders stretched all the way to the “Outer Sea.” Crassus was exceeding his authority here, as the law making him governor of Syria carried with it no authorization for war with Parthia. What’s more, his plans were highly unpopular with the Roman public. Many people viewed Crassus’ plan to launch an unprovoked surprise attack on a Roman ally who presented no immediate threat to Rome’s interests as both dishonorable and unwise. The anti-war faction was led by the tribune Ateius Capito, who tried to have Crassus arrested to prevent him from leaving Rome for Syria. He was dissuaded by the other nine tribunes, and had to content himself with placing a ritual curse on Crassus as he passed through the city gates.[4]

In Parthia, on the other hand, in 54 BC Mithridates III was overthrown in a coup d’etat and fled from the capital of Ctesiphon across the river to Seleucia. His brother Orodes seized the throne and besieged Mithridates III in Seleucia with the aid of his brilliant general Surena, finally forcing the city’s surrender and seizing full control of the throne of Parthia. He was still in a shaky position, which led Crassus to think that victory would be easy and that many Parthian cities needed only a little prodding to revolt and side with Rome.[5]

Lead-up to Battle – The Syrian Campaign of 54-53 BC

Crassus arrived in Syria in 54 B.C. with seven legions. He immediately crossed the Euphrates River. The Parthians were taken completely by surprise, and Crassus easily defeated the Parthian forces under the command of the local satrap Silaces at Ichnae. Silaces himself barely escaped to Ctesiphon while dodging Roman cavalry patrols to warn Orodes of the invasion.[6]


Parthian king Orodes II (reign 57-37 BCE) (Source: Gates of Nineveh).

Most of the formerly Seleucid, Greek-inhabited cities in Parthian Syria were weary of oppressive Parthian feudal rule and were quick to switch sides and ally themselves with Crassus. The city of Zenodotium was an exception. The inhabitants asked for aid in revolting and received a detachment of 100 Roman troops. They then ambushed and killed these troops. As a result, Crassus sacked Zenodotium and sold its inhabitants as slaves. The other rebel cities received Roman garrisons for the winter to protect them from Parthian attempts to re-take their lost cities. In addition, the Arab king Abgar II of Osroene (whose capital was at Edessa) declared allegiance to Crassus.[7]

Carrhae Map 1

Map of the general campaign geography (Source: Gates of Nineveh).

Crassus spent the winter in Roman Syria preparing his forces for the coming spring. However, training and discipline began to slip as his forces remained in static garrison duty. He spent most of his energy trying to raise local levies, but was only able to raise 4,000 men before the spring campaign began. Sometimes, a bribe was enough to get him to let a city off the hook for providing troops.[8]

Orodes responded to the invasion slowly. Parthia did not have a large standing army, so it took time for nobles to gather their forces for a major campaign. Orodes’ major concern was the possibility of Crassus making an alliance with Artabazes of Armenia and launching a two-front attack on Parthian territory. As a result, Orodes dispatched his chief subordinate and general Surenas to delay Crassus’ army in Syria, while he personally gathered an army to invade Armenia and keep Armenia from aiding Crassus.[9]

Orodes’ fear was well founded, for that winter Artabazes arrived at Crassus’ headquarters with 6,000 cavalry. He promised that he could provide Crassus with 30,000 infantry and 16,000 cavalry for the upcoming campaign, effectively doubling Crassus’ force. Artabazes advised Crassus to advance through the mountains of southeastern Anatolia in order to avoid fighting the Parthian cavalry on a flat plain. Crassus declined, saying that he intended to march directly into Mesopotamia. Artabazes then decided to withdraw his forces from what was becoming apparent to him as a suicide mission, and returned to Armenia.[10]

30-Parthian Cavalry officers and banners

Parthian cavalry and banners (Picture source: Farrokh, page 130, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا– these drawings originally appeared by Zoka in the 2,500 Year Celebrations of the Persian Empire in 1971).  

Orodes then sent a peace delegation to Crassus. The delegates asked if he was invading Parthia with the full backing of the Roman people or on his own initiative. If he was invading on his own initiative, they would show mercy, but if it was with the backing of the Roman people they pledged total war “without truce and without treaty.” The very idea of asking such an odd question seems to indicate that Orodes was aware of Roman domestic opposition to the war and sought to give Crassus a way to make a face-saving exit from the conflict. Crassus replied that he would dictate his answer to the question after he captured Seleucia. Vagises, one of the Parthian envoys, pointed to his palm and replied “Crassus, hair will grow there before you see Seleucia.”[11]

Parthian-1-Parthian Nobleman

A reconstruction of the face on the statue of a Parthian nobleman housed at Tehran’s Iran Bastan Museum (Picture Source: Parthian Empire).

In the meantime, Surena had been leading a winter campaign against those cities which had revolted and cast their lots in with Crassus. Some members of these garrisons fled to Crassus’ headquarters, bringing dreadful reports of the endurance and speed of the Parthian horse archers, the heavy armor of their cavalry and the armor-piercing capabilities of their arrows. Crassus does not seem to have significantly modified his plans based on this intelligence.[12]

In June 53 BC, Crassus’ army set out towards the Euphrates. He crossed the Euphrates at Zeugma, in a violent thunderstorm which spooked some of the horses and caused them to run into the river. Wind blew some of the legion’s flags off a bridge and into the river. One of the bridges collapsed, dumping more men into the water. Many of his men viewed this as a bad omen of what was to come, and Crassus did not help matters by telling his troops not to worry, “for none of us shall come back this way.”[13]

Opposing Forces

Crassus left Rome with seven legions, which at full strength would have been about 33,040 combat troops and 37,240 men in total. However, he lost a number of men to shipwrecks in a storm while sailing from Italy. He also distributed 7,000 of his infantry on garrison duty in various Mesopotamian cities.[14] Therefore, it seems Crassus’ legions were not full strength. Assuming that he assigned non-combat support troops to garrison duty, he was departing Syria with at most 30,000 legionnaires.

These men were almost all heavy infantry of one type, clothed with chain mail, a helmet and a large shield for protection and armed with a short sword called a gladius and several throwing javelins or pilum. The javelins had a long soft iron head designed to pierce armor, bend after impact and prevent them from being pulled out. What Roman troops lacked was any significant long range weapon for desert fighting. In addition, Crassus’ men were new recruits, who had not seen combat before. They were unfamiliar with eastern ways of fighting.[15]


A modern re-enactor in the gear of a legionnaire of the late Roman Republic. The majority of Crassus’ troops would have looked like this (Source: Christopher Jones & Gates of Nineveh).

In support of the legions, Crassus had 4,000 local infantry levies, including 500 archers. He also had 4,000 cavalry. 3,000 of these were local levies, and 1,000 were Gallic mercenaries. These Gauls were veterans of Julius Caesar’s campaigns and were the most battle-tested and experienced of Crassus’ troops. They were under the command of Crassus’ son Publius, himself a Gallic War veteran. The Gauls wore little armor and carried only short spears, putting them at a disadvantage against Parthian cavalry.[16]

Publius was but one of numerous staff officers in Crassus’ army. Others included Gaius Cassius Longinus and Octavius. These officers provided Crassus with sound tactical advice, most of which he ignored.

Crassus himself was sixty years old at the time of the Parthian campaign. He was fabulously wealthy and very powerful due to his wealth, but had never received a major military command. He had fought in Sulla’s army outside Rome and performed well, but his only campaign and only victory which he had been in supreme command was the suppression of Spartacus’ slave rebellion in 71 BC.  It was partly a yearning for a military victory that sent him to the east.[17]

Olivier as Crassus

The late exemplary actor Sir Laurence Olivier’s (1907-1989) portrayal of Marcus Lucinius Crassus (115-53 BCE) in the epic movie “Spartacus (1960)” (Picture Source: Murph Place). Crassus’ dreams of conquering Parthian Persia and emulating Alexander ended in disaster at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Several decades after its release of “Spartacus”, Hollywood has yet to produce a “Crassus sequel” epic of the Roman statesman’s failure in Persia.

Crassus expected the war with Parthia to be similar to Pompey and Lucullus’ wars in the east against Pontus and Armenia. There, Roman heavy infantry had carried the day against numerically superior but lightly armed and armored forces. But this time Rome was heading to battle with an army of inexperienced soldiers led by an inexperienced commander, and would face new weapons and tactics against which they were unprepared.[18]

Yet, despite all this, Crassus led his 38,000 men into battle against a Parthian force one quarter of his size. Parthia was a feudal-type monarchy, with the king at the top and satraps below him who ruled their own lands and were responsible for raising forces from their own territory for campaigns. Surena’s family estates were in the eastern part of the Parthian Empire. His army consisted entirely of cavalry, with no infantry at all. It is not known if this was all Surena had, or more likely, as Gareth Sampson has suggested, he modified his army based on what tactics he thought would best defeat the Romans.[19]

1-Parthian-Dura Europus

Horse armor (Bargostvan) constructed of metal scales discovered at Dura Europus mounted on leather for a horse (Source:

The core of Surena’s army was made of horse archers. These men were serfs of the lands of their lord who were liable to be called up for military service. Despite this, they were highly trained archers who could attain a high rate of fire. Their bows were small, powerful and their arrows could pierce Roman chain mail. The dry air of summer made their bows even more effective. The men wore little to no armor, so in order to be effective they had to stay on flat ground and avoid fighting at close quarters. Parthian archers were infamous for the “Parthian Shot,” a maneuver in which they would charge an enemy force, then quickly turn and retreat. While galloping away, they would turn in the saddle and shoot their bows backwards over the horses’ hindquarters.

The elite of Surena’s force were 1,000 chosen men called cataphracts. These were the noblemen and aristocrats of Parthian society, mounted warriors similar to a medieval European knight. Cataphracts wore heavy armor, including suit of chain mail and a helmet. Their horses also wore full suits of armor that hung down past their knees. The cataphracts carried long lances as their primary weapon.[20]

The Parthian army traveled light. Each horseman rode with a number of spare horses. In addition, Surena brought up a baggage train of 1,000 camels carrying arrows to resupply his archers. Parthian armies’ lack of a robust supply chain limited their ability to wage offensive war for extended periods or to engage in siege warfare.[21]


Relief showing a Parthian horse archer, Palazzo Madama museum, Turin, Italy (Source: Christopher Jones & Gates of Nineveh).

In total, Surena had 10,000 men at his disposal, including support troops. Given the Parthian army’s light supply chain, it seems that his total number of combatants cannot have been much less than this number.[22]

However, unlike Crassus, Surena was an experienced general. He served as Orodes’ main commander in the Parthian civil war of 54 BC, and brought victory with his successful siege of Seleucia.[23] His orders were simply to delay Crassus with his cavalry force until Orodes was finished with his Armenian campaign, but Surena set his sights on something bigger. Fighting on familiar territory, with a crack force of battle-hardened and highly trained troops at his command, he made plans for the annihilation of Crassus’ army.


Surena’s scouts kept a close eye on Crassus’ force after it crossed the Euphrates. Crassus’ cavalry scouts picked up on the tracks of the Parthian scouts soon after crossing the river. Realizing that the enemy was close, Cassius suggested moving the army within the walls of a friendly city until the scouts could gather more information about the location and numbers of the enemy. Crassus refused, arguing that they needed to press on.[24]


Reconstruction by Peter Wilcox and the late historical artist, Angus McBride of Parthian armored knights as they would have appeared in 54 BCE (Source: Osprey Publishing).

At this time, Abgar II of Osroene arrived with much needed information about Surena’s forces. Abgar II reported that a small Parthian force under Surena was nearby. This force, according to Abgar, was merely a delaying force designed to block Crassus’ advance long enough for Orodes to gather his main force. If Crassus moved quickly, he could scatter Surena’s force and seize a large section of Parthian territory before Orodes could bring his main army to bear.

Strictly speaking, all of this information was true. But Abgar II was in fact acting as a Parthian agent, who was working for Surena to lure Crassus into a trap. Crassus’ previous plan had been to advance down the eastern bank of the Euphrates, capture Seleucia, and then cross the Tigris and attack the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. This was not a bad plan, as the Tigris would protect Crassus’ left flank, the marshy ground between the two rivers would prevent Parthian cavalry from having easy room to maneuver, and the river would supply fresh water to the army during its long march. Abgar II instead pressed Crassus to make a quick strike at Surena’s army by marching away from the Euphrates directly into the desert. Eager to get into combat, Crassus changed his plans and ordered a march into the desert. Abgar II then left the camp and went to Surena’s headquarters. He told Crassus he was leaving to feed Surena false information, but the information that he gave Surena was that Crassus was walking directly into his trap.[25]

Crassus’ troops soon hit heavy sand. There were no trees or water anywhere. While on the march, Crassus received a message from Artabazes that Armenia was being invaded by a large Parthian force and that he could send no aid, but requested that Crassus come to his aid. Crassus exploded into rage, accusing the Armenians of treason and promising vengeance once the campaign was over.[26]


Crassus’ advance in June 53 BCE (Source: Christopher Jones & Gates of Nineveh). 

Surena prepared for his attack by setting an ambush for the Roman scouts. Parthian cavalry ambushed the scouts while they were ahead of the Roman force and killed most of them. The survivors who escaped rode back to report that the enemy was near. In response, Cassius recommended extending the lines as far as possible and positioning cavalry along the flanks to avoid being surrounded. Crassus took this advice, then changed the formation into a hollow square with 12 cohorts on each side and a cavalry detachment next to each cohort. As the Romans were facing a force that was entirely cavalry and could attack from any direction, forming a hollow square was again not the worst possible idea. Unlike a long line, it would prevent his men from being overrun by Parthian cavalry charges.[27]

Shortly before midday, Crassus’ advancing square came to a stream called the Balissus, a tributary of the Euphrates. Here, his men could drink water. They ate a meal in the ranks, while Crassus’ officers advised building a camp for the night until they could gather more information about the enemy, while Publius argued that the enemy was close and they should move on. Crassus was swayed by Publius and ordered the men to cross the Balissus and move forward at an increased pace.

Past the Balissus, Surena had arrayed his troops in an ambush formation. His horse archers formed a wide line to screen the Roman cavalry. Behind the horse archers were the cataphracts, who were wearing camouflage made from rags and animal skins to keep the sun from reflecting off their armor and giving away their position. As the Roman force advanced, the Parthians began to beat drums to signify the advance and terrify the inexperienced Roman troops.[28]

As the drumroll grew to a din, the Parthian cataphracts threw off their camouflage and charged the Roman line. The Roman legionnaires responded by locking their shields together and standing their ground. Seeing that they could not break through the Roman’s square formation, the cataphracts pulled back at the last minute.


The Battle of Carrhae by around noon (Source: Christopher Jones & Gates of Nineveh).

The horse archers moved in to surround the square on all sides. The poured arrows into the mass of Roman troops who were so tightly packed that they “would not suffer an archer to miss even if he wished it.” Crassus ordered his cavalry and lightly armed auxiliaries to charge the horse archers, but the archers turned and galloped away, firing over the backs of their horses. The light troops were vulnerable to the cataphracts on open ground, so they could not move far away from the main force and had to return to the ranks.[29]

At this point, Crassus thought that his men could wait out the arrow shower until the Parthian archers ran out of arrows and were forced to fight hand to hand. However, in the distance they could see the archers replenishing their supply of arrows from their camel train. At this point, Crassus gathered 1,300 cavalry, 8 cohorts of infantry and 500 auxiliary archers in one formation under the command of Publius Crassus and ordered them to charge the Parthian archers in attempt to close the distance between them and bring them to hand to hand combat.

6-Horse Arhers at Carrhae

Parthian Horse archers engage the Roman legions of Marcus Lucinius Crassus at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Unlike the Achamenid-Greek wars where Achaemenid arrows were unable to penetrate Hellenic shields and armor, Parthian archery was now able to penetrate the armor and shields of their Roman opponents (Picture Source: Antony Karasulas & Angus McBride).

The Parthians predictably fell back, drawing Publius’ force away from the main Roman force. Once they were a sufficient distance away, the main Parthian force fell on Publius’ men and surrounded them. Parthian cavalry galloped in a circle around the Roman force to purposely kick dust into the air so they could not see. They then began firing arrows into the mass of men. Many men had their shields pierced by arrows which wounded their arms and hands. Others were pinned to the ground by arrows through their feet. Parthian arrows were barbed, so they could not be removed without tearing backwards through the flesh and causing further injury.


Publius’ charge during the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE (Christopher Jones & Gates of Nineveh).

Publius led his Gallic cavalry in a desperate charge against the Parthian cataphracts and finally succeeded in closing in on them and forcing hand to hand combat. Even here, the Parthians held the advantage. The Gauls were used to fighting in the forests of Europe where long spears would have been unwieldy, so they carried short spears which were inferior to the long lances of Parthian cataphracts. As a result, they were outreached by the Parthians and many had their horses taken out from under them on the first charge. What’s more, their short spears had difficulty penetrating the cataphract’s heavy armor while the Gauls wore almost no armor themselves. The Gauls had to resort to grabbing the spears Parthian horsemen and then wrestling them off their horses. Others dismounted, dove to the ground and reached under the armored skirts of the Parthian horses to stab them in the belly.

Publius fell wounded. The injury of their commander forced the Gauls to dismount and fall back to a small nearby hill, where they formed a shield wall. Here they were surrounded again by the ever-present Parthian horse archers. Heat and thirst took their toll on the Romans, especially the Gauls who were unused to desert conditions. Publius saw the situation was hopeless. He had been shot through the hand with an arrow and was unable to hold a sword, so he ordered his shield-bearer to kill him in order to avoid being captured. The other Roman officers also committed suicide. The remaining troops fought on until a Parthian cataphract charge broke their lines. The five hundred survivors surrendered.[30]


Parthian Shiva-tir (Horse Archers) engaged in discharging their missiles (Source: 

While the main body of the Parthian force had been fighting Publius’ men, Crassus had moved his troops to sloping ground. The first messenger Publius sent to Crassus had been killed, the second told him Publius was doomed without relief. This news was confirmed when a Parthian cataphract rode into view with Publius’ severed head tied to the end of his spear. The ominous drum roll resume, and the Parthian archers returned.


Battle of Carrhae in the afternoon (Source: Christopher Jones & Gates of Nineveh). 


With the Roman cavalry almost eliminated, the Parthian cataphracts edged closer to the Roman infantry, forcing them into a tighter and tighter circle. The Romans locked their sheilds into a testudo formation to protect against the arrows, but this left them vulnerable to the cataphracts, who charged and drove their lances into spaces between the shields, sometimes impaling multiple men at once. Some Romans broke ranks and ran to escape, but they were quickly cut down. The massive amount of dust kicked up by the Parthian horses limited visibility. Thirst and heat started to take their toll on some men, with some Romans dying of heatstroke in the ranks. The corpses began to pile up, preventing the Romans from getting sure footing, [31] Cassius Dio describes the final stages of the battle thus:

“For if they decided to lock shields for the purpose of avoiding the arrows by the closeness of their array, the pikemen were upon them with a rush, striking down some, and at least scattering the others; and if they extended their ranks to avoid this, they would be struck with the arrows. Hereupon many died from fright at the very charge of the pikemen, and many perished hemmed in by the horsemen. Others were knocked over by the pikes or were carried off transfixed. The missiles falling thick upon them from all sides at once struck down many by a mortal blow, rendered many useless for battle, and caused distress to all. They flew into their eyes and pierced their hands and all the other parts of their body and, penetrating their armour, deprived them of their protection and compelled them to expose themselves to each new missile. Thus, while a man was guarding against arrows or pulling out one that had stuck fast he received more wounds, one after another. Consequently it was impracticable for them to move, and impracticable to remain at rest. Neither course afforded them safety but each was fraught with destruction, the one because it was out of their power, and the other because they were then more easily wounded”.[32]

The coming of night saved the remaining Romans. The Parthians could not fight effectively in the dark as they could not precisely coordinate the movements that their fighting style demanded. They were almost out of arrows and many archers’ bows had snapped from excessive use. They fell back for the night and planned to resume the battle in the morning.


The final stages of the Battle of Carrhae (Source: Gates of Nineveh).

The Romans were left to wait in formation in the uncertain darkness. At this point Crassus seems to have suffered a complete mental breakdown and simply lay on the ground motionless. His surviving deputies Cassius and Octavius called the remaining officers together for a council, and took command. They decided to withdraw under cover of darkness before the Parthians could return.

The men withdrew silently, leaving their wounded who could not walk behind so as not to slow down their flight. The first to reach safety were 300 cavalry under Ignatius, who reached Carrhae at around midnight, alerted the garrison commander to the disaster, and then proceeded to Zeugma. Coponius, the officer in command of the Carrhae garrison, ordered a relief force to be sent out to find the survivors.[33]

The retreat was a disaster. Units became separated in the dark. Crassus reached the city after linking up with Coponius’ relief force, but daybreak found many men and walking wounded still straggling towards Carrhae. Some of the wounded left behind killed themselves to avoid captured. When the Parthians returned to the battlefield, they killed 4,000 of the Roman wounded who had been left behind, and then set off in pursuit of the stragglers. Four cohorts were surrounded on one hill and cut down, with only 20 men escaping to Carrhae. Many others were captured or killed on the plains.[34]


The survivors regrouped in Carrhae. Surena learned from local Arab scouts who had been with Crassus’ army (presumably Abgar’s men) that Crassus and Cassius were in Carrhae. Surena didn’t want them to escape nor did he want to besiege Carrhae, so he sent a messenger seeking a truce. Crassus wished to hold up in Carrhae on the forlorn hope that he would receive aid from the Armenians. Cassius and Octavius ignored him and began plotting to break during the next moonless night and return to Roman Syria.

Crassus hired a local guide named Andromachus, who was in fact a Parthian double agent. He led Crassus’ men into a swamp near the Balissus. As a result, Crassus and four cohorts wandered in circles, losing precious hours. Daybreak found him straggling along a road towards the hills. Octavius had already reached the hills with 5,000 men. Ocatvius saw Crassus’ men struggling toward the hills at daybreak and led his men down to link up with Crassus.[35]

A standoff ensued. Surena did not want to fight the Romans in the hills where his cavalry would be at a disadvantage. He knew the Romans could escape at night. He had some of his men stage a conversation near some Roman prisoners, saying that the Parthians did not wish a war with Rome and were ready to negotiate. The prisoners were then released, and returned to the Roman camp with their stories. Emissaries were then sent to the Romans offering a truce if Crassus withdrew all troops to the west side of the Euphrates. Crassus dithered indecisively for a while, but facing mutiny from his own men, he agreed to meet with Surena between the armies.[36]

Surena and his staff rode out towards the Roman lines, but Crassus had no horse and walked. Surena called for a horse, and sent a number of his men to send the horse to Crassus. When Crassus was reluctant to get on the horse, the Parthian envoys picked him up and threw him on the horse’s back, and began to slap the horse to get it to run faster. Thinking that Crassus was being abducted, Crassus’ staff began fighting with the Parthian envoys. Octavius drew his sword and stabbed a Parthian envoy, and was then cut down from behind. Crassus was killed in the scuffle, and the rest of the Roman delegation fled back to the army. The identity of the person who killed Crassus was in dispute even in ancient times, so we can safely say that we don’t know who it was.

It is not known if Surena’s offer of negotiations was genuine or a trick to capture Crassus. After Crassus’ death, the remaining men of the army scattered. Some surrendered to the Parthians, others fled to the hills. Some escaped to Syria or Armenia. Many of those that fled were hunted down by Surena’s Arab allies and captured or killed.[37]

The Parthians poured molten gold down Crassus’ throat as a symbol of his greed that had caused them to invade his country. They then beheaded his corpse, and messengers brought his head to Orodes, who had just finished concluding peace with the Armenians. Surena had a prisoner dress up as a Crassus look-alike and held a triumphal procession in Seleucia with the prisoner on display.[38]

Roman casualties for the entire campaign, according to Plutarch, ran to 20,000 dead and 10,000 captured, with only small groups of men escaping to Roman territory. Parthian casualties are unknown, but had to have been significantly less.[39]


Cassius successfully escaped to Syria with some of the troops and took command of all Roman forces in the province. In the aftermath of the battle, a small Parthian force invaded Roman Syria and besieged Antioch. Cassius defeated the Parthians at Antioch, and then defeated them again at Antigonea. Learning the lessons of Carrhae, Cassius used small detachments of troops hidden in wooded areas to ambush Parthian forces. The Parthian commander was killed in this battle, ending the Parthian invasion.

Cassius’ interim governorship came to an end quickly and he was replaced by Bibulus. A skilled politician, Bibulus sponsored an attempt by Orodes’ son Pacorus to depose his father, thereby igniting a Parthian civil war. Thus, the Roman-Parthian war triggered by Crassus ended in 50 BC. Conflict would continue sporadically over the next few decades. Julius Caesar’s planned invasion of Parthia was cut short by his assassination. Parthia invaded Syria again in 40 BC, hoping to take advantage of the Roman civil wars to seize Roman territory. They were defeated. Mark Antony’s invasion of Parthia in an attempt to avenge Crassus’ death in 37 BC met with a similar disaster. A formal peace treaty was finally signed in 20 BC. At this time, surviving Roman prisoners taken at Carrhae 33 years earlier were finally released and the captured standards of Crassus’ and Antony’s legions were returned.[40]

In Rome, the death of Crassus had far reaching political effects. Crassus and his supporters had served as a politically moderate buffer between Pompey’s optimates and Julius Caesar’s populares. With Crassus out of the picture, the two were set on a collision course which within a few years would lead to civil war and the collapse of the Roman Republic. Cassius would be caught up in this as well, taking a lead role in the assassination plot against Julius Caesar.

Surena did not live long. After celebrating his triumph in Seleucia, Surena had become too powerful. His reputation for military genius was eclipsing that of the king. Orodes began to view Surena as a potential threat to the throne, and had him murdered.[41]

Crassus’ war of aggression against Parthia was a disaster. Seven Roman legions were lost, annihilated by a force a third of their size. How did such a defeat happen? The defeat was primarily a failure of leadership. Crassus was guilty of a long series of blunders as a commander, failing at politics, intelligence and tactics.

Crassus’ campaign in the fall of 54 successfully exploited anti-Parthian sentiment amongst the Greek population. However, Crassus failed to consolidate these gains and did not get strong commitment from the local Greek population to supply troops for the coming campaign. He also failed to understand that the local Arab kingdoms, like Osroene and Commagene, did not share the Greek’s disdain for Parthian rule. This failure to distinguish the two proved fatal, and led to Crassus misplacing his trust in local leaders such as Abgar who were actually Parthian double agents. His reliance on local guides were were often double agents was compounded by his unfamiliarity with the terrain.

In addition to his failure to understand the local culture and politics, Crassus suffered from a severe case of preparing to fight the last war. He expected fighting the Parthians to be similar to previous wars against Pontus and Armenia. He was prepared to fight large numbers of light infantry, not heavily armored cavalry and thousands of horse archers. His tactics, such as forming a square formation and locking shields, were standard for fighting cavalry in Europe but useless in the desert, where the cavalry had endless room to maneuver and surround the formation.

In addition, the Romans were outclassed technologically. There is no cover to hide behind when fighting in the desert, hence slight technical differences such as the range of weapons and the strength of armor become very important. This has been true from Surena and Crassus’ day all the way to World War II and the Persian Gulf War. The desert magnifies technological advantages. Parthian archers outranged Roman weapons. Parthian armor was sturdier than Roman armor. Parthian lances could outreach Roman spears. Fighting in forests or hills might allow these deficiencies to be overcome using good tactics, but the desert allowed for no such strategies.

In contrast, Surena received regular intelligence about Roman movements from a network of local Arab spies. His small force was well-trained, experienced and highly motivated. His intelligence service not only provided accurate information but planted false or misleading information in Crassus’ headquarters about his strength and movements.

In summation, Crassus was marching blind, into unfamiliar territory, with inexperienced troops, against an enemy whose numbers and capabilities he knew nothing about. His enemy knew his numbers, his movements and was equipped with better weapons and armor. When the battle began, Surena showed much greater tactical imagination that Crassus. While Crassus made decisions strictly “by the book,” Surena was not afraid to throw out the rule book and come up with new tactics such as battlefield resupply of arrows.

Once the big picture is seen, Surena’s victory in spite of being outnumbered should not be that surprising. In the history of desert warfare, time and time again smaller, mobile armies with better equipment and training have defeated larger armies made up primarily of infantry. This has been true from Carrhae, to Edessa in 259, to Sidi Barrani in 1940, to Medina Ridge in 1991. Desert warfare requires mobility, and mobility requires information and technology. Without these three things, an army in the desert is likely to be subject to annihilation.


[1] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, LacusCurtius, trans. by Bernadotte Perrin. 1916,*.html(accessed July 15, 2011), 15.1-5.

[2] Plutarch puts his net worth at 7,100 talents, or according to Thayer at LacusCurtius about $142,000,000.*.html note #1. Crassus made a lot of money by buying fire-damaged properties at discount prices, repairing them using slave labor and then selling them at a profit. Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 2.3-6.

[3] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 2.7-8.

[4] Ibid., 16.1-5, 27.4.

[5] Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, Corpus Scriptorum Latinorum, trans. by John Selby Watson. 1853, (accessed July 15, 2011), 42.4; Cassius Dio, Roman History, LacusCurtius, trans. by Earnest Cary. 1914, July 15, 2011), 40.12; Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 21.7.

[6] Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.12.

[7] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 17.2-4; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.13, 20.

[8] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 17.4-5.

[9] Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.16; Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 21.5; Gareth Simpson, Defeat of Rome in the East: Crassus, the Parthians and the Disastrous Battle of Carrhae, 53 BC (Havertown, PA: Casemate, 2008), 120.

[10] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 19.1-3.

[11] Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.16; Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 18.1-2; Rose Mary Shelton,Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome: Trust the Gods, but Verify (London: Routledge, 2007), 95.

[12] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 18.2-4; Shelton, Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome, 97.

[13] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 19.3-6; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.17-19.

[14] Legions had 9 cohorts of 480 men each, plus a “first cohort” of 400 combat troops plus 600 non-combat support staff, for a total of 4,720 combat troops and 5,320 total men. John Wilkes, The Roman Army (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 33; Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 17.1, 4.

[15] Simpson, Defeat of Rome in the East, 114-115.

[16] Ibid., 115.

[17] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 17.2.

[19] Simpson, Defeat of Rome in the East, 119.

[20] Simpson, Defeat of Rome in the East, 118-119; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.15; Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 21.6.

[21] Simpson, Defeat of Rome in the East, 118-119; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.15.

[22] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 21.6.

[23] Ibid., 21.7.

[24] Ibid., 20.1-2.

[25] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 21.1-22.6; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.19-21.

[26] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 22.1-3.

[27] Ibid., 23.1-4.

[28] Ibid., 23.4-7.

[29] Ibid., 24.3-6.

[30] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 25.1-12; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.21.

[31] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 26.1-27.1; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.22-23.

[32] Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.22.

[33] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 27.2-8; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.24.

[34] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 28.1-2; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.25.

[35] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 29.1-7; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.25.

[36] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 30.1-6; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.26.

[37] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 30.1-31.1-7; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.27.

[38] Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.27-28; Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 32.1-33.5.

[39] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 32.7.

[40] Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.25, 28-30; Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, 40.5.

[41] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 33.5.

Image Source: (Header) (body),, all maps based on free educational maps from the Maps for Students Page at the Ancient World Mapping Center,,,,,

Master Archers of the Achaemenid Empire

The article Master Archers” below written by Ḏḥwty was originally posted on the Ancient Origins website on September 18, 2015.


In the ancient Near East, archery became the predominant means of launching sharp projectiles, replacing spear-throwing. The history of archery, however, may have originated further down south during the Upper Paleolithic period. In South Africa, stone points thought to be arrow heads were discovered by archaeologists dating back 64,000 years old, and are believed to be the earliest evidence of the use of the bow and arrow. Apart from hunting animals for survival, human beings came to use the bow and arrow for a more destructive purpose – warfare. In the history of warfare, warriors of various cultures were renowned for their skill in using the bow and arrow. Of particular note were the soldiers of the Achaemenid Empire. Also known as the first Persian Empire (550 BC – 330 BC), the Achaemenid dynasty was known for its elite force of warriors named by Herodotus – ‘The Immortals’.

 تندیس آرش کمانگیر در مجموعه سعدآباد تهران – Statue of Arash Kamangir (Arash the Archer/Arash who grasps the bow) at Saadabad Palace in Tehran (Source: Drafsh Kaviani [درفش کاویانی] in Public Domain).

The Powerful Achaemenid Composite Bow

The bow used by the archers of the Achaemenid Empire is known as the composite bow. It is said that this weapon was developed by Central Asian nomads during the 2nd millennium BC. The body of this bow was constructed using horn and wood laminated together using animal resin. When the resin dried, a bond would have been formed between the horn and the wood, thus giving the body of the bow enough strength to withstand the immense pressures placed on it when the bow was drawn. To provide the bow with explosive power, sinews from animal tendons were then laminated to the outside face of the bow. It has been speculated that the construction of the composite bow might have taken up to 18 months to complete, and the end product was an immensely powerful weapon.

Early Training Makes a Strong Archer

In addition to such a deadly weapon, the Achaemenids were said to have been trained in archery from a very young age. Regarding the education of Persian boys, the Greek historian, Herodotus, has this to say:

“Their sons are educated from the time they are five years old until they are twenty, but they study only three things: horsemanship, archery, and honesty.”

From this statement, it may be said that archery was one of the skills most highly valued by the Persians of the Achaemenid Empire.

Exhibit of Achaemenid archers (Image Source: Ancient Origins).

Master archers  archers were used extensively by the Achaemenid armies. During battles fought by the Achaemenids, the archers were one of their first lines of attack. They would line up, take cover behind the shield bearers, and release volley upon volley of arrows against their enemies. An anecdote provided by Herodotus about the Battle of Thermopylae serves to illustrate this point:

“Before battle was joined, they say that someone from Trachis warned him [Dianeces] how many Persians there were by saying that when they fired their bows, they hid the sun with the mass of arrows. Dianeces, so the story goes, was so dismissive of the Persian numbers that he calmly replied, ‘All to the good, my friend from Trachis. If the Persians hide the sun, the battle will be in shade rather than sunlight.’”

Painting made in 1814 by French painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) of Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE) currently housed at the Musée du Louvre in Paris (Image Source: Ancient Origins).

This description suggests that the Achaemenid archers were firing from a long range with a high trajectory. Despite the volume of their projectiles, these archers seemed to have had little effect on the defending Spartans. This may be due to the fact that the Spartans were heavily armored. Although modern tests have shown that arrows released from a composite bow could pierce several layers of chain-mail at ranges up to 180 m (590.6 feet), the Achaemenids were using lightweight arrows. These may not have had the force required to penetrate the shields or cuirasses of the Spartans.

Additionally, the Spartans, who were highly trained and disciplined, were able to maintain a tight stationary formation, thus allowing them to withstand the volleys of Achaemenid arrows at the Battle of Thermopylae. Furthermore, by firing their arrows from a long distance, the Achaemenids were reducing the effectiveness of their weapon. Nevertheless, the battle ended in defeat for the Greeks, who were vastly outnumbered by the invading Persians under King Xerxes.

It has been pointed out that when the Achaemenids formed up closer to the Spartan lines, their archers seemed to have been more effective. One such battle was the Battle of Plataea. According to Herodotus’ account,

“They [the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) and Tegeans] proceeded to perform sacrifices, since they were about to join battle with Mardonius and as much of his army as was there, but the omens were unfavorable, and many of their men fell, with many more wounded, while the sacrifices were taking place, because the Persians formed their wickerwork shields into a barricade and continuously rained arrows down on the Greeks.”   


An illustration from the 1854 text “History of Greece and Rome, including Judea, Egypt, and Carthage” (John Russell, page 82) depicting the Battle of Platea (479 BCE) (Image Source: Ancient Origins).

Despite their Talented Archers the Achaemenids Lost…

Despite the effectiveness of their archers, the Battle of Plataea was eventually won by the Greeks. Additionally, history has shown that in the end, the Achaemenids were unable to add the Greek mainland into their empire. Thus, the Greek playwright, Aeschylus, could have written in The Persians:

Wo, wo is me! Then has the iron storm,
That darken’d from the realms of Asia, pour’d
In vain its arrowy shower on sacred Greece.


Potter, R., & Landes, W.A (trans.), 1998. Aeschylus’ The Persians. Players Press.

Potter, R., (trans.), 1833. Aeschylus’ The Persians.

Gill, V., 2010. Oldest evidence of arrows found, BBC News.

Waterfield, R. (trans.), 1998. Herodotus’ The Histories. Oxford University Press.

Legends and Chronicles, 2015. Persian Warriors.

The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, 2015. An Introduction to the Achaemenid Military Equipments., 2015. Iranian Archer – Soldier Profile.

A Stroll Through Isfahan’s Armenian Julfa Quarter

The report “A Stroll Through the Isfahan’s Armenian Julfa Quarter” and the accompanying photos below were originally published in the Real Iran outlet on March 7, 2016.



New Julfa (literally Jolfa quarter of Isfahan) is the Armenian quarter of Isfahan, Iran, located along the south bank of the river Zayandeh River.


Established by Armenians from Julfa, Nakhichevan in the early 17th century, it is still one of the oldest and largest Armenian quarters in the world.


New Julfa was established in 1606 as an Armenian quarter by edict of Shah Abbas I, the influential shah from the Safavid dynasty. Over 150,000 Armenians were moved there from Julfa in Nakhichevan.


All history accounts agree that, as the residents of Julfa were famous for their silk trade, Shah Abbas treated the population well and hoped that their resettlement in Isfahan would be beneficial to Persia.


New Julfa is still an Armenian-populated area with an Armenian school and sixteen churches, including Surp Amenaprgitch Vank, which is a Unesco World Heritage site, and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful churches in Iran.


Armenians in New Julfa observe Iranian law with regard to clothing, but otherwise retain a distinct Armenian language, identity cuisine, and culture.


The policy of the Safavids was very tolerant towards the Armenians as compared to other minorities, such as the Iranian Georgians and Circassians.


According a reference by David Petrosyan of the Institute for Central Asian and Caucasian studies, New Julfa had between 10,000-12,000 Armenian inhabitants in 1998. As of today it is still one of the largest ethnic Armenian quarters in the world.


Popular with young people in Isfahan, it is experiencing considerable growth compared to other districts.

Achaemenid Judicial and Legal Systems

The article below by F. Rachel Magdalene on the Achaemenid judicial and legal systems was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on September 15, 2009 and last updated on April 17, 2012; this article is also available in print (Vol. XV, Fasc. 2, pp. 174-177). Kindly note that the images and accompanying descriptions inserted below do not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica article.


This article will address principally the sources of our knowledge of the judicial and legal system in the Achaemenid period, as well as the nature of the court system, which persons had standing to sue, and legal procedure. Substantive law will be discussed only briefly.

The sources

The legal materials of the Achaemenid period were written primarily in either the Neo-Babylonian [NB] dialect of Akkadian on clay tablets or in Aramaic on perishable materials, although a few extant clay tablets also hold some Aramaic dockets along with the cuneiform. Additional legal materials may be written in the vernacular of a particular colonized region, such as the Demotic legal corpus in Egypt. Because a large quantity of the texts in Aramaic script from the center of the empire has decomposed, we are left chiefly with cuneiform tablets, most of which derive from the archives of the Eanna Temple at Uruk and the Ebabbar Temple from Sippar, as well as from a few private archives of economically important families in southern Mesopotamia (no royal archives have yet been discovered). Fortunately, thousands of such tablets exist from the reign of Cyrus through the revolts of Xerxes’ reign, when these major archives break off (see, e.g., Waerzeggers, pp. 150-73). We do, however, have a small amount of later cuneiform materials from Judahite communities in rural Babylonia (Wunsch and Pearce; Wunsch, forthcoming) and the archive of the wealthy and influential Murašû family (see, e.g., Stolper) that are crucial to understanding later Persian law. These texts record a large range of private legal transactions and material related to litigation.


Inscription of Darius the Great from Susa (Source: Alborzagros in Public Domain).

Other legal materials exist that appear to be from non-private sources

We have discovered one broken tablet of the Neo-Babylonian Law Code, which lists various legal regulations (see, e.g., Borger, pp. 92-95). This particular tablet may be a school tablet that excerpts a larger text. The document addresses claims for compensation, marriage law, and inheritance provisions. Scholars disagree on the nature and legal effect of all the so-called law codes of the ancient Near East and early Greece and Rome (Wells, 2008, pp. 223-43). They may be prescriptive, authoritative statutory law in the modern sense (Ries, pp. 739-43); descriptive legal treatises that pull together and organize real law for pedagogical purposes (Kraus, pp. 283-96; Westbrook, 2000, pp. 33-47); or non-authoritative theoretical treatises more in the nature of wisdom than law (Fitzpatrick-McKinley). This author takes the second position, noting: (1) the close relationship between the literary characteristics of various omen texts and the “law codes” (see, e.g., Bottéro, pp. 409-44; Fincke, pp. 131-47); and (2) the existence of other scholastic documents that concern legal materials (see, e.g., the lexical series ḪAR(UR5).RA and model law suits and contracts written on school tablets; all discussed further in Oelsner et al., p. 914). Moreover, we have records containing royal edicts (dātu ša šarri) (e.g., VAS 6, no. 99 = NRVU, no. 700:10) and administrative orders. The royal edicts were not legislation but a royal decree or command (Oelsner et al., p. 911). We also have letters and a few literary works that reveal legal information.

One must note, however, that a number of factors give rise to the question of whether the cuneiform material is truly representative of the law in all geographic regions of the empire across the entire Persian period. These include: (1) the lack of Aramaic legal materials from the center of the Empire; (2) the Persian administration’s policy to continue, in the periphery, the legal and administrative structures in place, adding only a layer of Persian administration; (3) the possible codification and unification of law by Darius I; (4) the vagaries of archeology; and (5) the fact that large amounts of this legal corpus remains unpublished. Nonetheless, the majority of scholars assert that we do currently have a representative sample of law from the Achaemenid period upon which we may make valid legal historical assertions (e.g., Dandamaev and Lukonin, p. 121).

Legal and judicial structures

All legal authority ultimately derived from the gods, who entrusted it to the king. The king, therefore, established, maintained, and defended justice (Otto, p. 268). He was not above the law but was, rather, an integral part of it. No evidence for a legislative body exists. Judicial administration was ultimately under the authority of the king, and texts document his supervisory role (see, e.g., CT 22, p. 231), although the Achaemenid kings rarely adjudicated individual cases. The courts were sometimes headed by officials, entitled sartennu or sukkallu. A number of texts testify to the existence of a system of court management, all of which contain the phrase ḫīṭu ša X šadādu (zabālulu), where X is the king or other significant royal official (e.g., AnOr 8, no. 45; YOS 6, no. 108; and Magdalene, forthcoming). Violation of orders related to court management would bring upon the offender judicial sanctions.

Courts sat in panels and were derived from various classes of persons, including judges (dayyānu), diverse state officials, temple officials, and various temple and lay assemblies. The courts seemed to be divided into two major divisions, each with different jurisdictional powers, secular courts and temple courts, although their available legal procedures seem to be identical (Holtz, pp. 290-91). Temple courts heard cases where they had subject matter jurisdiction and either in personam or in rem jurisdiction. In such cases, at least one temple official and one royal official had to be on the court. Secular courts had broad power to hear cases, adjudicating all cases that the temple court could not hear. They had, additionally, appellate jurisdiction over temple court decisions (Magdalene, 2007, p. 65). Suits might have been heard in a “house of judgement” (bīt dīni), a “house of judges” (bīt dayyānī), or any number of other settings, including city and temple gates, open public areas, and even storehouses.


The trilingual inscription (Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite) of Xerxes in Van, Eastern Turkey (Source: John Hill in Public Domain).

Standing to sue and legal procedure

The Achaemenid legal system was an inquisitorial system of adjudication as opposed to an adversarial system. Inquisitorial systems are marked by three characteristics: (1) a higher degree of cooperation between the parties than in adversarial systems; (2) judges who are more likely to be involved in developing the evidence at trial; and (3) the requirement of defendant testimony, even where such might incriminate the defendant (Magdalene, 2007, pp. 47-48, n. 70; 65-66, 78; cf. Jackson, pp. 161-62). Litigation in the period had highly sophisticated, but quite flexible, rules of procedure and evidence. The system was not only flexible, but somewhat fluid: one cannot always clearly delineate pre-trial, trial, and (and even in some cases) post-trial phases of litigation from the records, which are often quite brief—sometimes to the point of being cryptic. Various phases of trial could be recorded on different tablets, obscuring our understanding of a given case. Only by reading a large number of tablets does the entire adjudicatory system emerge (Holtz, pp. 27-29).

Royal officials had standing to sue for the king. Temples had standing to sue in the secular courts regarding their interests and were typically represented by senior temple officials. Free men always had standing to sue. Heads of households would typically represent the legal interests of their household members. Women had standing in cases involving significant inner-family disputes, specifically their dowries, where their legal status or rights were at issue (Roth, pp. 387-400), and, when independent, to protect their business interests just like men. Slaves and former-slaves had standing in regard to their status as slave or freeman. In criminal matters, all persons of whatever status could notify the court of alleged criminal activity, lodge an accusation, and testify in the matter.

The basic phases of litigation include, in their typical order of occurrence: (1) the accusation by the plaintiff; (2) a demand upon the defendant, which might be informal (private) or formal (before judicial agents or the assembly); (3) the investigation by the court who would hear the case, other persons with judicial power, or their agents (depositions could be taken during such and shipped to another location for trial); (4) the summons upon the defendant, which might include arrest and seizure of property related to the case, if not done prior to the investigation; (5) the defendant’s declaration or oath regarding the matter (where the defendant claimed that a third-party was actually responsible, he or she might be joined to the case; or a defendant counterclaim against the plaintiff might also be permitted at this time); (6) a second accusation, the testimony of a corroborating third-party witness, or the submission of some documentary or physical evidence; (7) the taking of any additional relevant evidence, including expert witness testimony, circumstantial evidence, and hearsay (Oelsner et al., p. 922); (8) the verdict; (9) an appeal, if taken; and (10) the execution of the verdict.

Judicial relief included: compensation in silver or goods, specific performance, orders of eviction, injunctions (both temporary and permanent), capital punishment, criminal forfeiture of defendants’ property, certain forms of corporal punishment, as well as payments in lieu of corporal punishment. One NB trial record apparently refers to a payment in lieu of blood revenge (Wunsch, 2002, p. 356). In the case of compensation to the victim, we find damage multiples of one, two, three, ten, and thirty. The thirty-fold penalty is clearly used only in the case of theft of, or damage to, temple property (Wells, 2004, p. 114). Penalty assessment or relief granted depended on the nature of the harm, the level of culpability, and the specifics of the matter at hand. Occasionally, the court found for the defendant and assessed a penalty for false suit against the plaintiff. Settlement of the claim, which might be reviewed and sanctioned by either the court or the public assembly where necessary, was possible at any stage of the proceedings. Sometimes verdict or execution documents included a court-ordered prohibition upon one or both of the parties not to sue on the claim again. Releases of liability are observed in execution documents, as well.


Achaemenid Cylinder seal excavated by the expedition of Marcel Dieulafoy in 1885–1886, and now housed at the Louvre Museum (Department of Oriental Antiquities, Sully, ground floor, room 14) (Source: Public Domain).

This system generally continues a long-standing ancient Near Eastern tradition of trial procedure. Only three innovations appear in the NB litigation documents. They are, however, of utmost importance. First, certain procedures are streamlined. For instance, the pre-trial complaint and answer requirement of the Old Babylonian period was eliminated (Magdalene, 2007, pp. 67-68). Second, a significant movement toward rational evidence can be seen in numerous records (Wells, 2004, pp. 108-30). In prior periods, dispositive oaths and ordeals were used to resolve close cases. Typically, the defendant was ordered by the court to submit to the oath or ordeal before the gods. If done, the case was settled in his or her favor. Conditional verdict documents were often issued by the court indicating that, if the defendant did not take the oath, he or she would be guilty. During the NB and Achaemenid periods, oaths were rarely court ordered or taken before the gods. Moreover, when an oath was not so executed, it did not have dispositive effect. Conditional verdicts reflect, instead, the need for additional rational evidence, such as a second accusation or the testimony of a third-party witness. Third, women in earlier periods of ancient Near Eastern history never served as recording witness on legal texts. Scribes in the Achaemenid period, however, recognized the presence of a woman as a recording witness by noting that the legal event took place “in the presence of ” (ina ašābi ša) fPN (Westbrook, 2005, pp. 144-46). Although this change is not as radical as the others, it does point to an increased status for women (contra, Koschaker, pp. 201-9). (For further on standing and litigation procedure in this period, see primarily, Holtz; Magdalene, 2007, pp. 55-94; and Oelsner et al., pp. 911-24.)

Substantive law

The substantive law, that law which determines an individual’s societal status and the rights and duties owed to others within the society, also follows well established ancient Near Eastern traditions, with just a few innovations (Westbrook, 2005, pp. 134-35). The major areas of law, such as contract law, family law, property law, inheritance, torts, criminal law, and so forth, show little philosophical or conceptual innovation in this period. In fact, the major facets of private law are stable from the third millennium onward in the ancient Near East, sharing a common legal tradition much in the manner of modern Common Law systems or Continental systems. Nonetheless, a given society within that shared meta-tradition would shape the particulars of the law in its application. As a modern example, we might take the law regarding driving under the influence of alcohol. The same is true in the ancient world regarding such things as contract law, family law, and criminal law. According to R. Westbrook (2005, pp. 135-45), the Persians applied traditional substantive law in extremely rich, flexible, and innovative ways, particularly in the area of the law related to economic relationships—which seem to be growing in complexity with the financial dealings of these large wealthy families. Another such example can be found in the area of marriage law, where dowries served the same purpose as in other ancient Near Eastern societies, but where we can also observe an increasing tendency to protect the family’s wealth from a potentially financially inept or irresponsible son-in-law in dowry documents. In secured transactions, we no longer see the use of debtor self-pledge or sale, but only the continued use of the pledging and sale of both children and slaves.


The Fravahar symbol depicted at Persepolis (Source: Sahand Ace in Public Domain).

One significant Achaemenid advance in the substantive law seems, according to B. Wells, F. R. Magdalene, and C. Wunsch (Wells et al.), to be in the area of administrative law. The legal documents reflect that the administrative infrastructure was both expanding and organizing throughout the NB and Persian Empires to cope with increased areas of domination, populations, and transactional complexity. This brought with it an awareness of the need to regulate the administrative functions of officials and individuals in service to the king and temple. Not all the known legal documents that contain the phrase ḫīṭu ša X šadādu (zabālulu), as mentioned above, relate to court management. Rather, in total, they address a broad range of administrative responsibilities (see, e.g., British Museum no. 33121; BIN 1, no. 169; YNER 1, no. 2). These texts share two salient features beyond their terminology: (1) a responsibility is owed by PN1 (an assignor) to PN2 (a third-party authority) that is being delegated to PN3 (an assignee); and (2) they indicate that a penalty will be imposed if and when PN3 (the assignee) violates his assumed administrative duty. This may well be the beginnings of administrative law as a substantive area of law. (For further on the substantive law in this period, see primarily, Oelsner et al., pp. 924-74; and Westbrook, 2005, pp. 133-46.)

In sum, the law of the Achaemenid period reflects both continuity with the ancient legal traditions of the greater region, while being both quite creative and flexible in order to attend to changing conditions and new concerns.


Sources. [AnOr 8-9] A. Pohl, Neubabylonische Rechtsurkunden aus den Berliner Staatlichen Museen, 2 vols., Analecta orientalia 8–9, Rome, 1933-34.

[BIN 1] C. E. Keiser, Letters and Contracts from Erech Written in the Neo-Babylonian Period, Babylonian Inscriptions in the Collection of James B. Nies 1, New Haven, 1917.

[CT 22] R. C. Thompson, ed., Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum, Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum 22, London, 1906.

[NRVU] M. San Nicolo and A. Ungnad, Neubabylonische Rechts- und Verwaltungsurkunden: übersetzt und erläutert, vol. 1.

Rechts- und Wirtschaftsurkunden der Berliner Museen aus vorhellenistischer Zeit, Leipzig, 1935.

[VAS 4 and 6] A. Ungnad, Neubabylonische Urkunden, 2 vols. Vorderasiatische Schriftdenkmäler der Koniglichen Museen zu Berlin 4 and 6, Leipzig, 1907–08.

[YNER 1] D. B. Weisberg, Guild Structure and Political Allegiance in Early Achaemenid Mesopotamia, Yale Near Eastern Researches 1, New Haven, 1967.

[YOS 6] R. P. Dougherty, Records from Erech: Time of Nabonidus (555-538 B.C.), Yale Oriental Series, Texts 6, New Haven, 1920.


R. Borger, “Die neubabylonischen Gesetze,” in Texte aus der Umwelt des Alten Testaments, vol. 1/3: Rechtsbücher, ed. O. Kaiser, Gütersloh, 1982, pp. 92-95.

J. Bottéro, “Le ‘Code’ de Hammu-rabi,” Annali della Scola Normale Superiore di Pisa 12, 1982, pp. 409-44; repr. as “The ‘Code’ of Ḫammurabi,” in Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the God, tr. Z. Bahrani and M. Van de Mieroop, Chicago, 1992, pp. 33-47.

M. A. Dandamaev and V. G. Lukonin, The Culture and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran, ed. and tr. P. L. Kohl, Cambridge, 1989.

A. Fitzpatrick-McKinley, The Transformation of Torah from Scribal Advice to Law, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 287, Sheffield, 1999.

J. C. Fincke, “Omina, die göttlichen ‘Gesetze’ der Divination,” Jaarbericht Ex Oriente Lux 40, 2006-2007, pp. 131-47.

S. E. Holtz, “Neo-Babylonian Decision Records and Related Documents: Typological, Procedural and Comparative Aspects,” Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Pennsylvania, 2006, published as Neo-Babylonian Court Procedure, Cuneiform Monographs 38, Leiden, 2009.

B. S. Jackson, “Narrative Models in Legal Proof,” in Narrative and the Legal Discourse: A Reader in Storytelling and the Law, ed. D. R. Papke, Liverpool, 1991, pp. 158-78, 333-35.

M. Jursa, “The Transition of Babylonia from the Neo-Babylonian Empire to Achaemenid Rule,” Proceedings of British Academy 136, 2007, pp. 73-94.

P. Koschaker, Babylonisch-assyrisches Bürgschaftsrecht: Ein Beitrag zur Lehre von Schuld und Haftung, Leipzig, 1911.

F. R. Kraus, “Ein zentrales Problem des altmesopotamiscchen Rechtes: Was ist der Codex Hammu-rabi?” Geneva, N.S. 8, 1960, pp. 283-96.

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Eadem, “Administration of the Judiciary: Managing Local Courts in the Persian Period,” in City Administration during the Neo-Babylonian Empire, ed. C. Wunsch, Babel und Bibel, Winona Lake, Ind., forthcoming. J. Oelsner, B. Wells, and C. Wunsch, “Neo-Babylonian Period,” in A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, ed. R. Westbrook, 2 vols., Handbook of Oriental Studies 72, Leiden, 2003, pp. 2:911-74.

E. Otto, “Neue Aspekte zum keilschriftlichen Prozeßrecht in Babylonien und Assyrien,” Zeitschrift für altorientalische und biblische Rechtsgeschichte 4, 1998, pp. 263-83.

L. Pearce and C. Wunsch, Into the Hands of Nebuchadnezzar: Judean and Other Exiles in Babylonian Texts, Lantham, Md., forthcoming. G. Ries, Review of The Law of Testimony in the Pentateuchal Codes by B. Wells, in Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung fur Rechtsgeschichte (Romanistische Abteilung) 125, 2008, pp. 739-43.

M. T. Roth, “fTašamētu-damqat and Daughters,” in Assyriologica et Semitica: Festschrift für Joachim Oelsner anläßlich seines 65.

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M. W. Stolper, Entrepreneurs and Empire: The Murašû Archive, The Murašû Firm, and Persian Rule in Babylonia, Uitgaven van het Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut te Istanbul 54, Leiden, 1985.

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B. Wells, The Law of Testimony in the Pentateuchal Codes, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für altorientalische und biblische Rechtsgeschichte 4, Wiesbaden, 2004.

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Ancient Dams at Pasargadae

The site of Pasargadae in Iran is host to the tomb of Cyrus the Great and is also the site of the ancient Persian Gardens known as Paridaeza (Paradise). The term “Paridaeza” (which roughly means “enclosed encampment” in ancient Median) has linguistic relations with the Indo-European term “Perimeter“.

There are reports of yet another interesting discovery near the site of Pasargadae dated to the Achaemenid dynasty (550-330 BC): the discovery of at least eight different dams at the Pasargadae locale (see report in CAIS).

achaemenid-dam-at-pasargadaePartial view of the dam excavated by a Franco-Iranian archaeological expedition in February-March 2008. The site is approximately 30 kilometers distant from Pasargadae.

These have been discovered by an archaeological team of Iranian, Belgian and French researchers. The team excavated the Achaemenid dams in the Morghab plain, in southern Iran.

The region of Pasargadae and its environs is one of Iran’s most ancient plateaus with archaeologists having already discovered artifacts dating to several millennia B.C. As noted by a French expert of the archaeological team:

Since recognizing the irrigation system of ancient people, especially those living under the reign of the Achaemenid Empire, is significant, we attempted at discovering archaeological structures with help of the past research projects and newly developed tools

The team discovered 8 ancient mud-brick dams. Aerial photography and other techniques have dated these to the Achaemenid era. Two of those dams were over 20 meters tall with the height of the remainder ranging between 8 to 10 meters. Another expert of the archaeological team stated that these irrigation dams featured stone floodgates.

Gertster-Qanat-1976Excellent aerial photogrpah taken in 1976 by Georg Gerster of an Qanat irrigation system. For more on Qanats consult article by Professor H.E. Wulff. (Picture source: Iranfacts). 

Interestingly, the French archaeologists have also been involved in the excavations of an Achaemenid palace (attributed to Cyrus the Great) in the Tang e Bolaghi Valley.

Iranian archaeologist Hamidreza Karami, who is a specialist of Pasargadae, reported on these findings on April 1, 2008. Karami noted that the team had actually discovered two dams dated to the Achaemenid era: (approximately 2500 years) at Tang-e Hanā (Hana Pass). It is believed that the dams had been constructed during the earlier days of the Achaemenids.

According to Karami the dams were most likely constructed to power some type of industrial projects. One possibility according to Karimi was that the dams were powering mills. This is possible as there were no agricultural works in the area that depended on irrigation 2500 years ago.

Karimi also added that one of the purposes of the dams may have been to prevent floods from the Sivand River from swamping the area. As noted by Karimi, the water channels of the second dam are lower than the first dam. Also, the reservoir that would have been formed by the second dam would have been larger than the first dam.

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