Dura Europos: Its’ Archaeology & History

The article “Dura Europos: Its’ Archaeology & History” by Pierre Leriche was originally published in the CAIS venue hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav in London.



Dura Europos ruined city on the right bank of the Euphrates between Antioch and Seleucia on the Tigris, founded in 303 B.C.E. by Nicanor, a general of Seleucus I. It flourished under Parthian rule. The site is in modern Syria, on a plateau protected on the east by a citadel built on bluffs overlooking the river, on the north and south by wadis, and on the west by a strong rampart with powerful defensive towers. Its military function of the Greek period was abandoned under the Parthians, but at that time it was the administrative and economic center of the plain extending 100 km between the confluence of the Khâbûr and Euphrates rivers and the Abû Kamâl gorge to the south.


Initial archeological exploration of the city took place in 1920-22, under the direction of Franz Cumont and the sponsorship of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. From 1929 to 1937 Yale University and the Acade‚mie sponsored excavations under the initiative of M. I. Rostovtzeff, who published Dura-Europos and Its Art, a synthesis of the history of the town and of its civilization, formed from Greek, Semitic, and Iranian components. This work has served as the basis for all subsequent studies of the site. In fact, however, understanding of Dura Europos depended mainly on written materials (parchments, papyri, inscriptions, and grafitti; see ii, below), paintings, tombs, and portable objects (e.g., coins, bronzes, and lamps) from the excavations, and very little attention has been paid to the architectural remains. Although nearly a third of the town has been excavated, a large number of buildings have been published only summarily or not at all. It therefore became necessary to resume the work of publication, and for this reason the Mission Franco-Syrienne de Doura-Europos was formed in 1986 under the joint direction of the author and Assad Al-Mahmoud; the major objectives are to reexamine the archeological data, to make available the entire mass of documentation from previous excavations, as well as to save the monuments from destruction.

Fresco at Dura Europos (Source: CAIS).

Dura Europos was brought into the Iranian cultural sphere after the Parthian conquest in about 113 B.C.E. (Bellinger; Welles). This domination lasted three centuries, interrupted by a Roman occupation in 115-17 C.E., during Trajan’s expedition to Ctesiphon (q.v.). In 165 Dura was conquered by Avidius Cassius and became a stronghold in the Roman defensive system along the eastern frontier of the empire. Nevertheless, despite an impressive effort to reinforce its defenses, the town was unable to withstand the great offensive launched by the Sasanian Šâpûr I (240-70) in 256; it was taken after a bitter siege, and the population was deported, thus putting an end to the town’s existence.

The Parthian period

According to recent discoveries, Dura Europos, originally a fortress, was constituted as a city only in the late Hellenistic period and had been only sparsely populated throughout the Greek period. It was under the Parthians, however, that the city assumed its essential aspect, as revealed by the excavations, a configuration only partly modified by the Roman occupation, except for transformation of the northern sector into a Roman camp. Recent work by the Mission Franco-Syrienne has permitted some refinement of this picture; certain buildings that had formerly been attributed to the Parthians can now be dated to the Hellenistic period. For example, according to Armin von Gerkan, the cut-stone fortifications of Dura Europos had been built by the Parthians, fearful that the Greek wall of unbaked bricks would be insufficient against a Roman attack. Only the northern section of the original western wall survived, which he took as proof that the project had been rendered unnecessary by the peace concluded between the Parthians and Augustus in 20 B.C.E. (pp. 4-51). This conclusion was based more on probabilities extrapolated from the reports of ancient historians than on archeological discoveries and has been contradicted by the results of recent soundings and clearing of earlier trenches. It is now clear that it was the Greeks themselves who built the stone fortifications, in the second half of the 2nd century B.C.E., and that the use of mud bricks resulted from the imminent threat from the Parthians, which forced the builders to finish the wall with more easily obtained material (Leriche and Mahmoud, l990). Similarly, the reconstruction of the palace of the strategus (the redoubt palace; Figure 30/24) and its extension to the north, as well as construction of the second palace in the citadel, which shows a number of similarities, had been attributed to the Parthian period, but recent excavations in the interior and at the base of the facade of the former building have revealed that it belongs to the 2nd century B.C.E., that is, the Greek period. In a recent study Susan Downey (1988) has also called into question the restoration of one palace with an ayvân (q.v.), which was suggested in the Yale publications and would imply a Parthian construction.

Mithraic temple at Dura Europos (Source: CAIS).

The Parthian period thus appears to have been primarily a phase of expansion at Dura Europos, an expansion favored by abandonment of the town’s military function. All the space enclosed by the walls gradually became occupied, and the installation of new inhabitants with Semitic and Iranian names alongside descendants of the original Macedonian colonists contributed to an increase in the population (Welles et al.). In his celebrated Caravan Cities Rostovtzeff had argued that this prosperity could have resulted from the town’s position as a trading center and caravan halt, but this hypothesis has been abandoned, for nothing uncovered by the excavations has confirmed it. Instead, Dura Europos owed its development to its role as a regional capital, amply illustrated by the contents of inscriptions, parchments, and papyri.

In the Parthian period Greek institutions remained in place (Arnaud), and the property-zoning scheme established in the Hellenistic period was respected in new construction; that is, buildings were kept within the limits of pre-existing blocks 35 x 70 m laid out uniformly over the entire surface of the plateau, even to a large extent in the interior wadis. The only exceptions were the quarter of the town southeast of the citadel, which had apparently already been occupied before the division into lots, and a sector of the agora that had been invaded by domestic buildings. The ramparts were neglected: Domestic trash accumulated along the periphery, finally forming a mass so thick that it prevented access to certain towers on the western wall.

The architecture of the Parthian period was characterized by a progressive evolution of Greek concepts toward new formulas in which regional traditions, particularly those derived from Babylonia, played an increasing role. These innovations affected both religious and domestic buildings. No secular public building is known to have been built during the Parthian period, with the possible exception of a bath constructed of cut stone in the northeast sector of the town. The evolved Parthian forms generally persisted into the Roman period, except for buildings in the Roman camp in the northern third of the town, for example, the palace of the Dux Ripae and the praetorium.

Depiction of Iranian god Mithras slaying the sacred bull (Source: CAIS).

The architecture of private dwellings varied in detail according to the wealth of the owner. The systematic layout of the Greek city, in which each house was supposed to cover one-eighth of a block (ca. 300 m2), was abandoned or modified through subdivision and consolidation resulting from sales or inheritance (Saliou). The smallest houses covered one quarter or even less of a Greek lot, whereas other, more luxurious examples might cover up to half a block. But the organizing principle of the house remained fundamentally the same: The street door, often situated at a corner of the house, opened onto a corridor leading into a central courtyard, which provided access and light to the various rooms of the house. The principal room, the andro‚n, was usually situated on the south side, opening to the north, and was surrounded on all four walls by a masonry bench; it served as a reception room (Allara). Some houses incorporated columns, but gabled roofs disappeared in favor of terraces, rooms became irregular in shape, and several houses had second stories.

Religious architecture underwent a comparable evolution, traceable through numerous excavated buildings: the temples of Artemis Nanaïa II and Zeus Megistos II, the necropolis temple, and the temples of Artemis Azzanathkona, Zeus Kyrios, Atargatis, Bel, Aphlad, Zeus Theos, Gad, and Adonis. This architecture diverged more and more from the hypothetical Greek model, if in fact such a model had ever been introduced at Dura Europos (Downey, 1988, p. 176). All the temples of the Parthian period have the same basic plan, with variations in detail. A generally square temenos is enclosed by a blank wall; the naos stands at the back of the interior courtyard facing the entrance. Against the interior face of the enclosure wall are a series of rooms for service or secondary cults, usually built by donors. When the naos is set against the back wall of the temenos, a narrow space is left between them to provide a separation of the cella from the exterior world. The building is small, usually square in plan, and raised on a podium of two or three steps, with one or more altars in front. The interior is divided in two: the pronaos, which occupies the full width of the building and is sometimes furnished with tiers of benches on either side of the entrance, and the cella, usually flanked by two chapels or lateral sacristies. The cult image on the wall opposite the entrance, either mounted on a pedestal or painted directly on the surface. All that remains from the Greek tradition is the occasional presence of a columned facade in front of the temple or porticoes along the sides of the courtyard, as at the temple of Bel.

The undermined defenses at Tower 19 (background), where many of the finest military artefacts were preserved (Source: CAIS).

It is thus clear that at Dura Europos entirely original architectural formulas were perfected during the Parthian period, in both religious and domestic constructions; the Babylonian element predominated, though with a certain Greek dressing, but no unequivocal Iranian influence appears. The formula for religious buildings was followed in all temples, whatever the form of worship to which they were consecrated, Greek or Semitic.

The only Iranian cult known at Dura Europos was that of Mithra, which paradoxically had been introduced into the city by Roman troops in 168. The mithraeum, located near the western wall in the Roman camp (Figure 307), belongs to the type dedicated to the cult throughout the Roman world and has no features in common with the other religious buildings at Dura Europos, except that it stands on a podium. It appears to have been a single room of modest dimensions with a bench on each of the longer sides; above the central aisle there was a raised ceiling with a clerestory. At the end of the room was a niche containing two cultic bas-reliefs with an altar before them. The entire surface of the room was covered with painted decoration: scenes from the life of Mithra, representations of magi and the zodiac around the bas-reliefs in the niche, and mounted hunting scenes on the side walls.

Although Iranian influence is difficult to find in the architecture of Dura Europos, in figurative art it is much more pronounced. In fact, owing to landfill that preserved religious buildings along the western wall (see below), Dura has provided the main evidence of a decorative art that seems to have developed in Parthian domains, reflecting a synthesis of the traditions of the ancient Near East (linear drawing, two-dimensional forms, stiff poses) and the Hellenic world (the use of architectural decoration and friezes, types of dress). Furthermore, in religious settings, those most fully represented, the principle of “Parthian frontality” prevailed. This convention, according to which all figures, human or divine, face directly forward, with eyes fixed on the spectator, made its appearance at Dura very early, in the oldest painting, of the sacrifice of Conon, in the temple of Bel (probably 1st century C.E.; Figure 30/8). It persisted until the destruction of the city, as attested in the frescoes of the synagogue, dating from 245 (Figure 30/5). It was equally apparent in sculpture and terra-cottas (except for a statue of Artemis with the tortoise, which comes from a Hellenistic center) and, for example, in two reliefs of the Gads of Dura and Palmyra. On the other hand, in frequent narrative scenes of combat and hunting on horseback, like those in the mithraeum (Figure 30/7), the horses and wild beasts are portrayed in a flying gallop, a characteristic that was to be developed in Sasanian art.

The Siege of Dura Europos

The Sasanian siege of Dura Europos in 256 brought an end to the town’s existence and immobilized Šâpûr’s army for several months. The determined resistance put up by the inhabitants forced the assailants to adopt various siege tactics, which eventually resulted in conquest of the city; the defensive system, the mines, and the assault ramp were left in place after the deportation of the population, which permits modern investigators to gain an exact idea of the military techniques of the Sasanians and the Romans in the mid-3rd century.

A Sasanian helmet from the siege mines beneath Tower 19, Dura-Europos. It is a rare find of Sasanian military archaeology, and also clearly a prototype for Roman helmets of the 3rd century CE (Source: CAIS).

It is not known where the Sasanians located their camp, but traces of their operations against the city wall still survive (du Mesnil du Buisson). To guard against the attack, which was clearly expected from the time that the Sasanian empire was established, the Romans had heightened and reinforced the external faces of the western and northern ramparts by masking them with thick layers of fill covered by a mud-brick glacis and thus burying the buildings along the inside of the wall. The Persians undermined towers 19 and 14 (Figure 30) on the western wall in order to bring them down, but, owing to the filling and the glacis, the towers were not really destroyed. At the southeast corner of the town they built an assault ramp 40 m long and 10 m high against the wall to permit troops to enter; it consisted of a mass of fill packed between two walls of brick and paved with baked bricks, which made it possible to move a siege machine close to the wall. Two tunnels, each wide enough to permit several men to advance abreast, were dug near the body of the ramp. There is no surviving textual description of the siege of Dura Europos, but Ammianus Marcellinus’ account of the siege of Amida (q.v.) a century later, in which the same techniques were used, permits reconstruction of the operations at Dura; the main siege weapons were catapults, movable towers, and even elephants. Clearly the Sasanian armies had a sophisticated knowledge of siege techniques.

The discovery of the body of a Sasanian soldier in one of the trenches has also yielded precious information. He was equipped with a coat of mail, a sword ornamented with a jade disk of Central Asian type, and an iron helmet (left figure) made in two halves with an iron crest running vertically down the center of the front, of clearly Mesopotamian and Iranian origin. This type of helmet served as a model for those adopted in the Roman empire in the 3rd century (James).

The chronology of the siege operations has given rise to a debate that is still far from having been resolved. The discovery of Pahlavi inscriptions on the frescoes of the synagogue does not prove that the town had first been occupied by the Sasanians during a campaign in 253, three years before the final siege. It is also improbable that a house near the triumphal arch on the main street, in which there was a fresco of Sasanian type showing a fight between cavalrymen, belongs to this putative first occupation. It seems now that this fresco, several ostraca in Pahlavi found in the palace of the Dux Ripae (Figure 30/13), and the tombs discovered in the town and along the river resulted from temporary installation of a small Persian detachment in the town after the victory of 256 (MacDonald; Leriche and Al Mahmoud, 1994).


he results of the French-Syrian campaigns have been published in P. Leriche, ed., Doura-Europos. Études I-III (DEE), published in Syria, 1986, 1988, 1992. The fourth volume is forthcoming in the series Bibliotheàque Arche‚o-logique et Historique, Beirut.

A. Allara, “Les maisons de Doura-Europos. Questions de typologie,” in DEE I, pp. 39-60.
P. Arnaud, “Doura-Europos. Microcosme grec ou rouage de l’administration arsacide?” in DEE I, pp. 135-55.

A. R. Bellinger, “The Evidence of the Coins,” Berytus 9, 1948, pp. 51-67.
A. Bounni, “Un nouveau bas-relief palmyrênien de Doura-Europos,” Comptes Rendus de l’Acade‚mie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 1994, pp. 11-18.

F. Cumont, Fouilles de Doura-Europos (1922-1926), Paris, 1926. S. B. Downey, “The Citadel Palace at Dura-Europos,” in DEE I, pp. 28-37.
Idem, Mesopotamian Religious Architecture. Alexander through the Parthians, Princeton, N.J., 1988.
A. von Gerkan, “The Fortifications,” in M. I. Rostovtzeff, ed., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Preliminary Reports VII-VIII, New Haven, Conn., 1939, pp. 4-61.

R. Ghirshman, Iran. Parthians and Sasanians, tr. S. Gilbert and J. Emmons, London, 1962 (for illustrations).
C. Hopkins, The Discovery of Dura-Europos, New Haven, Conn., 1979 (with an almost complete bibliography on the site up to that time).
S. James, “Evidence from Dura Europos for the Origins of Late Roman Helmets,” in DEE I, pp. 107-34.
P. Leriche, “Chronologie du rempart de briques crues,” in DEE I, pp. 61-82. Idem, “Techniques de guerre sassanides et romaines aà Doura-Europos,” in F. Vallet and M. Kazanski eds., L’arme‚e romaine et les Barbares du IIIe au VIIIe sieàcle, Paris, 1993, pp. 83-100.
Idem and A. Al Mahmoud, “Bilan des campagnes de 1986 et 1987 de la mission franco-syrienne aà Doura-Europos,” in DEE II, 1988, pp. 3-24.
Idem, “Bilan des campagnes de 1989 et 1990 à Doura-Europos,” in DEE III, pp. 3-28.
Idem, “Doura-Europos. Bilan des recherches re‚centes,” Comptes- Rendus de l’Acade‚mie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 1994, pp. 395-420.
D. MacDonald, “Dating the Fall of Dura-Europos,” Historia 35, 1986, pp. 45-68.
S. Matheson, Dura Europos, New Haven, Conn., 1982.
R. du Mesnil du Buisson, “Les ouvrages du sieàge de Doura- Europos,” Me‚moires de la Socie‚te‚ nationale des antiquaires de France 81, 1944, pp. 5-60.
A. Perkins, The Art of Dura-Europos. Oxford, 1973.
M. I. Rostovtzeff, ed., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Preliminary Reports, 9 vols., New Haven, Conn., 1929-52.
Idem, Caravan Cities, Oxford, 1932.
Idem, “Dura and the Problem of Parthian Art,” Yale Classical Studies 5, 1935, pp. 157-304.
Idem, Dura-Europos and Its Art, Oxford, 1938.
Idem, and A. Perkins, eds., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Reports,, 11 vols., New Haven, Conn., 1943-77.
C. Saliou, “Les quatre fils de Pole‚mocrateàs,” in DEE III, Paris, 1990, pp. 65-100.
D. Schlumberger, L’Orient helle‚nise‚, Paris, 1970.
C. B. Welles, “The Chronology of Dura-Europos,” Eos 48, 1957, pp. 467-74.
Idem, The Parchments and Papyri, The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report 5/1. New Haven, Conn., 1959.

Giusto Traina: Carrhes-Anatomie d’une Défaite (Carrhae-Anatomy of a Defeat)

Italian historian and professor Dr. Giusto Traina has written a seminal academic textbook entitled:

Carrhes-Anatomie d’une Défaite: Quand L’Orient humilia Rome (Carrhae-Anatomy of a Defeat: When the Orient humiliates Rome)

This book was published September 15th 2011 by Les Belles Lettres (first published 2010); the Preface of the book by Giovanni Brizzi.

For more regarding the textbook and means of obtaining this, consult the Les Belles lettres website here …

Dr. Giusto Traina is a professor of Roman history at Sorbonne University in Paris. Dr. Traina is also a senior member of the Institut Universitaire de France. His academic profile also includes authorship of  numerous books and articles.

Dr. Giusto Traina brings to life one of the most important battles in the military history of antiquity, one which marks the beginning of incessant warfare between Rome and Iran. In an alert and exciting narrative, Dr. Traina describes how Rome was blocked by the Parthian army whose competence, power and above all its ability in resisting the formidable military machine of Rome had been greatly underestimated.

In was in the Plains of Carrhae (modern Harran) on June 9, 53 BC, where an all-cavalry Parthian force barred the fifty thousand Roman army led by General Marcus Licinius Crassus to conquer the rival empire of the Parthians. Overwhelmed by the arrows of the Parthians, the Romans were reduced to military impotence: more than half of the legionaries were killed, with many others  captured and deported. The Romans were also subjected to the dishonor of having the Parthians seize their military insignia and place these in their Mithraic temples. It would take many years for Rome to erase the consequences of this defeat.

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).

General Marcus Licinius Crassus, the same man who eighteen years earlier had defeated Spartacus and his six thousand rebellious slaves and gladiators, was to make his final mark with his death at Parthian hands at Carrhae.

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

Carrhae halted Rome’s seemingly unstoppable conquest of the Classical world. Rome had learned that the Parthian Spada (army) of Persia was more than capable of blocking the Romans from expanding eastwards to India and China.

Javier Sánchez Gracia: Roma y Persia Frente a Frente (Rome and Persia Face to Face)

Dr. Javier Sánchez Gracia has written the first ever book in Spanish on the conflicts between Rome and Persia:

Imperios de las Arenas: Roma y Persia Frente a Frente (Empires at the sand: Rome and Persia Face to Face). Readers can obtain a copy by visiting this link here …

Dr. Gracia has a degree in Classical Philology from the University of Zaragoza (Spain) and is a doctor of Sciences of Antiquity from the same university. He has participated in several congresses of Classical Philology in Spain and published scientific papers and articles. His research topics are the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus; the history of pre-Islamic Persia, and the image of Persia among classical Greco-Roman authors. In this endeavor, Dr. Gracia has also recently co-authored an article with Kaveh Farrokh in the Persian Heritage Journal entitled:

Farrokh, K., & Gracia, J.S. (2017). The “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm and the portrayal of the “Other”. Persian Heritage, 85, pp.12-14.

Dr. Javier Sánchez Gracia of the University of Zaragoza (seated) during the book signing of his recent text “Imperios de las Arenas: Roma y Persia Frente a Frente” (Empires at the sand: Rome and Persia Face to Face). The book signing above occurred during the “Feria del Libro de Zaragoza” book fair in Zaragoza, Spain on April 23, 2017. Standing next to Dr. Gracia is his friend and colleague Dr. Manuel Ferrando, also an accomplished historian from the University of Zaragoza, Spain.

Dr. Gracia’s book consists of the following chapters:

  • The Seleucid Empire
  • The Roman Republican Army
  • The Parthian Empire
  • Mithridates
  • The Battle of Carrhae
  • Marcus Antonius
  • The Parthians: from Carrhae to the Sassanian uprising
  • The Sassanian Empire: Rome vs Ctesiphon

Although Gracia’s textbook has a military focus, the rest of the subjects in his work also provide detailed analyses on the political and religious life of both empires. We are provided with exhaustive notes on the religion and the politics of the Parthians and Sassanians, even as the book focuses on an academic military analysis of the Romano-Persian conflicts, with particular attention paid to the structure of the armies of the ancient superpower rivals.

The book has done an excellent work in avoiding the pitfalls of (all too familiar) stereotyping and value judgements. This has resulted in Dr. Gracia’s objective analysis of each empire. Interestingly, Dr. Gracia also works to point out the contradictions, errors and falsehoods created by Greco-Roman authors. For this reason, Gracia has not just relied on classic scholarship (e.g. Polybius, Plutarchus, Tacitus, Ammianus…) but also on archaeology and modern historians.

Gracia’s central chapter is the battle of Carrhae, because it is a turning point for Roman expansionism and, with the defeat of Crassus, the political “propaganda” against Persia takes strength.

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).

After examining the fall of the Parthians and the rise of the Sassanians, the book dedicates its last two chapters to Sassanian Persia. In one of these chapters, the history, politics and economy of Sassanian Persia, the primary “enemy” of Rome, is examined in academic detail. Gracia’s final chapter focuses on the struggles between the Romans and Sassanians, until the death of Julian “The apostate” in his failed invasion of Persia in 363 CE.

Emperor Julian is killed during his failed invasion of Sassanian Persia in June 26, 363 CE. Above is a recreation of Sassanian Persia’s elite cavalry, the Savaran, as they would have appeared during Julian’s failed invasion. Note the heavily armored Sassanian elite guardsman (Pushtighban) whose lance has pierced a Roman infantryman. Further right is a Savaran officer whose sword is drawn in what is now known as the “Italian grip” but Sassanian in origin. To the far right can be seen a Zoroastrian or Mithraist Magus brandishing a Sassanian era symbol. Also of interest are the armored elephants in the background. Armored elephants were especially prized as their cabs afforded very high elevation over the battlefield, which was ideal for Sassanian archery (Picture source: Farrokh, Plate D, Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005).

In summary, Gracia’s book is the first Spanish language academic textbook on the military history of the Romans and Partho-Sassanians. As with a new generation of Western historians, Gracia avoids classical prejudices and clichés to arrive at a balanced and objective standard of scholarship. This sets a new approach in the study of the history of the ancient world beyond Rome: the realm of pre-Islamic Persia.

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: Stlcc.edu).

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: Ancientbattles.com). 

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,http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Crassus*.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.http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Crassus*.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,http://www.forumromanum.org/literature/justin/english/index.html (accessed July 15, 2011), 42.4; Cassius Dio, Roman History, LacusCurtius, trans. by Earnest Cary. 1914, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/home.html(accessed 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)http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/198804/main.street.of.eurasia.htm (body)http://www.boisestate.edu/courses/westciv/romanrev/17.shtml,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Coin_of_Orodes_II_of_Parthia.jpg, all maps based on free educational maps from the Maps for Students Page at the Ancient World Mapping Center,http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/History/ashkanian/surena.htm,http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lorica_Hamata.jpg,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ParthianHorseman.jpg,http://www.iranchamber.com/history/parthians/parthian_army.php,http://www.moddb.com/groups/ancient-weapon-lovers-group/images/late-roman-republic

Parthian artifacts housed in Istanbul’s Archaeological Museums

The Archaeological Museums of Istanbul in Turkey are among the world’s most important sites for the study of world history and civilization, on par with Museums such as the Hermitage (St. Petersburg, Russia), The British Museum (London, England), The Louvre (Paris, France), Iran Bastan Museum موزه ایران باستان (Tehran, Iran), Altes Museum (Berlin, Germany), Museo Nazionale Romano (Rome, Italy) and the Egyptian Museum المتحف المصري (Cairo, Egypt).

The Istanbul Archaeological Museums in Istanbul Turkey; [Top] Archaeological Museum, [Left] Museum of the Ancient Orient, [Right] Tiled Kiosk Museum (Source: VikiPicture in Public Domain).

The source of the information below on three Parthian items housed in Istanbul’s archaeological museums is from an article penned in the BBC on December 6, 2014 is from an article penned in the BBC on December 6, 2014 by Pejman Akbarzadeh entitled “ردپای فرهنگ ایران در موزه‌های استانبول” [The Footprint of Iranian Culture in Istanbul’s Museums]. Below are three Parthian items housed in Istanbul’s Topkapi Museum.

نقش‌های تزیینی معماری در دوره پارتیان – موزه باستان شناسی استانبول-Topkapi

Parthian architecture: decorative designs motifs (Source: BBC Persian & Pejman Akbarzadeh).

مجسمه‌ای از دوره اشکانی، ساخته شده از ماسه – موزه باستان‌شناسی استانبول-Topkapi

Depiction on a slab of a Parthian nobleman or prince with a scabbard slide sword (Source: BBC Persian & Pejman Akbarzadeh).

بخوردان‌های ماسه‌ای از دوران اشکانیان – موزه باستان‌شناسی استانبول-Topkapi

Incense burners  from the Parthian era (Source: BBC Persian & Pejman Akbarzadeh). It is not clear if the burning of incense pertained the Zoroastrian faith of the practitioners or whether these were part of other Iranian cults such as a possible (local) form of Mithraism.