53 BC - The Battle of Carrhae and the Death of Crassus
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
MAY 24 - May, 53 BC. The corpse of the Roman general is dragged before the Parthian commander, still fresh from his attempt at escape. The Parthian knows this man by reputation and orders molten gold to be poured down his dead throat as a symbol of his insatiable lust for wealth. Thus is the fate of Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome.
Once again, the inevitable comparison has to be Game of Thrones. The infamous scene from Season 1 where Viserys Targaryen is killed with molten gold was undoubtedly inspired by this very real historical anecdote, but Marcus Crassus was no petulant prince. He may have been one of, if not the, richest and most powerful men in the world at the time of his death. His biggest mistake was in thinking he was a great general.
Crassus was born and grew up in a period of great instability within the Roman Republic. As Rome had fought multiple wars against its enemies on every border, the Italian city’s power expanded until she controlled almost the whole Mediterranean, from Spain to Syria, from North Africa to Greece. As the Republic’s power expanded, though, it ran into new and powerful challenges, including economic, demographic and institutional crises.
The increasing inability of the Roman system to cope with imperial responsibilities led to a Civil War in the 80s BC, which resulted in the massacre of many of Rome’s leaders and the institution of a dictatorship under Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla tried and failed to reform the Roman system so that no one could repeat his bloody rise to power – in short, he tried to “Make Rome Great Again” and return things to the way they had been in the Republic’s glory days, before all this turbulence and strife. What Sulla could not grasp was that the cat was out of the bag; there was no going back.
The young Marcus Licinius Crassus came from an old plebeian family in Rome – not a powerful one, but a family of some means. During the Civil War his father and younger brother were both killed at the hands of Sulla’s opponents, so Crassus fled to Spain and aligned himself with Sulla. All his family’s wealth had been confiscated, leaving him possibly destitute after a life of luxury. Crassus recruited a number of men through sheer persuasion, and quickly began shaking down the local Roman cities in Spain for money. This was an early sign of his insatiable desire for wealth, which would only grow with time. Crassus sailed his troops around Spain and Africa, picking up recruits, then made his way to Greece to join Sulla for the final assault on the other Roman faction.
Crassus’s participation in the Civil War marked him as high in Sulla’s books, and he ended the war as one of the new dictator’s chief lieutenants. This left him in a good position to benefit from Sulla’s proscriptions. As a way of exacting revenge on his opponents in the Civil War, Sulla arranged for a devious and ingenious system: proscription. When Sulla proscribed someone, their entire property and fortunes were forfeited to whoever managed to track them down and kill them. Crassus took devious advantage of this system, even arranging for Sulla to proscribe people who had done little to nothing wrong because their properties would complete his dominance of an area. Crassus thus used the ruthlessness of Sulla’s dictatorship for his personal gain.
As Crassus amassed his wealth through these murderous confiscations, he found other avenues as well. Crassus invented Rome’s first fire brigade. A good public service, right? Not exactly. Crassus would send the fire brigade to burning buildings, but then he came himself. While the fire fighters waited, Crassus would offer to buy the burning building from the owner, but at a constantly lowering price as their building burned. If the owner agreed, Crassus’s men would put out the fire; if the owner refused, he would let their building burn. Crassus would then rebuild the property and often charged its original owner rent.
Crassus did make his money in less horrible ways – well, less horrible by normal Roman standards – such as silver mines, real estate speculation, and slave trafficking. (Remember, Roman standards.) Crassus amassed quite an army of slaves, and particularly sought out builders and architects for all those properties he had to restore. Soon Crassus was very obviously the wealthiest man in Rome. His wealth is estimated at about 229 tons of gold before his death, an absolutely staggering sum, making him wealthier proportionally than anyone in the modern world. He was an economy unto himself.
Being almost exponentially rich and an old ally of Sulla, it would seem like Crassus was in a key position to gain political power once Sulla had restored the Roman Republic. And you’d be right, to a point. Crassus was eager to turn his monetary power into political power – it was simply expected of a powerful Roman of a good family to run for and serve in high office, and considered a glory to your house.
There was one problem for Crassus. He had a rival.
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known as Pompey, was the other major war hero from Sulla’s faction in the Civil War. He had been known as the “adulescentulus carnifex” - teenage butcher - during the Civil War for his ruthlessness on the field of battle. While Crassus had been busy building his bank account in Rome, Pompey had been Sulla’s go-to man to crush the remaining rebels in Spain and Africa, which he had done with much gusto. What Crassus had in cash, Pompey had in fame. He had first been called “Pompey the Great” as a sarcastic joke by Sulla, but soon people were calling him that just because.
After Pompey’s victories in Africa, he cajoled Sulla into giving him a grand triumph through Rome, commenting that more people worshiped the rising than the setting sun. Sulla quickly grew leery of the ambitious and arrogant young man, but Pompey’s star was on the rise. He was Rome’s most popular military hero, and the more popular he became the more jealous Crassus grew. Crassus, after all, had never had a triumph – and no amount of wealth or gold could buy him the love of the people.
In 73 BC, the slave leader Spartacus began a massive uprising throughout southern Italy, quickly defeating several Roman armies and generally posing a great danger to the Republic. Crassus leaped at the chance for military glory – maybe he could finally outshine Pompey! He lobbied for and was awarded command of the Roman armies fighting Spartacus, and soon cornered the slave army on the toe of Italy. In 71 BC, Crassus led the final assault that destroyed Spartacus’ uprising, but a number of slaves escaped. To his horror, Crassus learned that Pompey, who had just arrived from Spain with reinforcements, had finished them off, thus earning the claim to be the one who had ended the revolt.
The slave revolt over, Pompey was awarded a second triumph – ostensibly for his victories in Spain, but at least in part for his hand in defeating the slaves. Crassus was now livid at his rival, and the two would remain bitter political enemies for the next decades.
While Pompey’s glory shone brighter with continued military campaigns in the Mediterranean, Turkey and Syria, Crassus continued to glow with jealousy even as he amassed further wealth. As a counterweight to Pompey, Crassus decided to sponsor another up-and-coming Roman who had the street smarts and charisma to gain the support of the masses. This was the last scion of an old Roman family, Gaius Julius Caesar, younger than Crassus or Pompey but the hot new thing on the block. Consider him a combination of Barack Obama and General Mattis for his popularity and eloquence, but his ruthless military ability. This, Crassus realized, would be just the man to equal out Pompey’s popularity.
Crassus may have sponsored Caesar, but it was Caesar who ended up being the one who played both Crassus and Pompey. Caesar wanted his own military campaign to bolster his fame and power, and Pompey had just returned from his eastern expedition with thousands of slaves and fabulous riches. Caesar decided to triangulate the two rivals: Crassus had the support of Sulla’s old faction, Pompey had the support of the army and the foreign service, and Caesar had the support of the people. Forget fighting – what could they accomplish together?
The sources are silent on what Crassus got out of the deal – but my guess is that he got the promise that, when another Eastern war came up, he would get the command. So Caesar, Pompey and Crassus agreed to ally and share political power, forming an unstoppable bloc of interests in the Senate. This was known as the “First Triumvirate.” It would be like Trump, Hillary and Sanders uniting in a coalition. After a radical term in office, Caesar went off to conquer Gaul, Pompey basked in the glow of his glory, and Crassus waited for a war to spring up so he, too, could bask in glory as well as his wealth.
Though Crassus was famously the richest and greediest man in Rome, it was his lust for fame and respect that drove him to destruction.
In 55 BC, Crassus was sent to govern Syria, which lay on the border of the Parthian Empire. A group of central Asian tribesmen, the Parthians ruled over modern-day Iran, Iraq and the Caucasus, functioning as the eastern counterweight to Rome’s influence in Turkey, Syria and Palestine. Crassus stood to gain a lot of money just by governing Syria – it was common for Roman governors to make a killing by skimming off the top of local revenues, and Crassus was no stranger to skeevy money-making. But Crassus did not want more money, oh no – he wanted a triumph. So in 53 BC, Crassus attacked Parthia. Visions of his own parades through Rome, drenched in glory, clothed in purple with the laurel wreath on his head, surely danced through his mind; the best part was probably Pompey’s red face, glowing with jealousy.
Crassus, with his son Publius as one of his chief lieutenants, led 40,000 Roman infantry deep into the desert east of Syria to seek a confrontation with the Parthian army. He expected an easy campaign. Pompey’s legions had easily crushed the eastern powers of Pontus and Armenia a few years earlier, how tough could the Parthians be?
The Parthian military was a light cavalry force, composed of quick-moving skirmish troops armored only in cloth with bows and throwing spears. In the hills or mountains of Europe, the heavily armed and armored Roman infantry would have made short work of the Parthians, but on the dry plains of Syria they were at a terrible disadvantage. The Parthian King only sent 10,000 troops to hold off Crassus, under his general Surena, but these were enough.
As the Romans marched east under the hot sun, they neared the town of Carrhae and came under attack from the Parthian forces. Even though the Romans flashed their swords and shields, the Parthian cavalry always stayed well out of reach, often turning backwards on their horses to loose a last arrow at their Roman foes – the “Parthian shot,” or parting shot as it is known today. The Parthians beat loud drums that never stopped, day or night, leaving the soldiers demoralized and drained as they ventured further east into the desert.
The horse archers swarmed around the Romans, as Surena kept his heavy cavalry close.
Finally, the Romans formed the “testudo” to defend against the arrows, raising their shields above their heads. Surena found his moment and let his heavy cataphract cavalry charge, shattering the Roman ranks and causing heavy casualties. He repeated this cycle over and over. Publius Crassus, getting impatient, charged the horse archers, but they continued to stay out of range with their parting shots until the heavy cavalry ran down the Roman force, killing Publius.
The next day, Surena sent a message offering a truce, allowing the Romans to return safely if they gave up all their territory east of the Euphrates. Crassus was still reluctant, hoping for a victory, but his troops threatened to mutiny if he did not negotiate. Distraught at the death of his son, stuck in the desert far from home, Crassus decided that he had no choice. Even if he couldn’t gain the glory of an easy victory, he would have his wealth to content him.
As Crassus rode into the meeting, one of his officers misunderstood a gesture, thought the meeting was a trap, and pulled on the reins of Crassus’s horse. This caused the meeting to descend into violence, which ended with Crassus and all his officers dead in the ensuing melee. The remainder of the Roman army tried to escape, and some did, but most were killed and captured. A Roman army had been totally destroyed in one of the worst defeats in Roman history.
Surena had the gold poured down Crassus’s throat, cut off his head, and sent it back to the Parthian capital. When the trophy arrived at the city, the Parthian King was enjoying a production of a Greek play, and insisted that the head be used as a prop. The severed head of the richest man in Rome looked on as the Parthian court made mockery of his remains. Such is the reward of arrogance and lust for glory.
With Crassus gone, though, the Triumvirate had lost one of its three legs. Soon Caesar and Pompey would turn on each other in a final bid for power – but that is another story.