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Parthians and Rome

Sacred Horses: The Memoirs of a Turkmen Cowboy by Jonathan Maslow

Classical sources agree that the Parthian army was a nasty piece of work. Aside from the small aristocracy that formed its elite, the military consisted of slaves captured in war and their offspring, whom the Parthians brought up as their own children, teaching them the arts of riding and shooting a bow from horseback. Justinian says that when Mark Antony faced an army of fifty thousand Parthians, only four hundred of them were free men.

Although the Parthians lived as settled agriculturalists, the Parthian military retained its nomadic roots. Never confronting an enemy army head on, the Parthians would instead appear suddenly, charging full tilt from every direction, cutting the enemy down with devastating volleys of arrows, then turning tail to speed away, firing the infamous "Parthian shot." This phrase, passed down through classical times, eventually was corrupted to become "parting shot." They often faked flight, luring the enemy into thinking they had run away. The Romans were suckers for this trick. Just when they thought themselves out of danger, the Parthians would charge afresh. As Justinian wrote, "When you feel most certain that you have conquered them, you have still to meet the greatest danger."

Using such cunning, the Parthians inflicted the most humiliating defeat the Roman legions ever suffered, at the battle of Carrhae in northern Syria in 53 BC. Plutarch gave the most complete account of this black clay in his life of Crassus. Crassus was sixty years old when he became consul and received the provinces of Syria as part of a power-sharing arrangement among him, Pompey, and Julius Caesar. At that time the Parthians ruled lands up to the Euphrates River bordering Roman Syria. Though they were a small threat to the Romans, Crassus decided he would launch a war against them, then extend Roman rule-past Bactria and India to "the utmost ocean"- in other words, as far as Alexander had ventured. Many Romans objected that the Parthians lived in amity and posed no danger, but as Plutarch says, Crassus was "strangely puffed up and his head heated" for war. Caesar wrote from Gaul inciting him, and Pompey also supported the adventure, probably because he wanted Crassus out of Rome.

Crassus brought his army to Syria, where he built a bridge over the Euphrates and began occupying the cities of Mesopotamia on the Parthian side of the river. He spent an off-season in Syria "more like a usurer than a general," counting up treasures and computing revenues instead of training his troops. When his son joined him from Gaul with a thousand select horse soldiers sent by Caesar, and they were making ready to move against the enemy, a Parthian delegation came to Crassus. They told him it was one thing if the people of Rome sent an army to make mortal war, but another if Crassus had undertaken this military adventure against the consent of his countrymen purely for his own profit. In the latter case, they said he could be forgiven because of his age; the Parthian King Hyrodes would allow the Roman soldiers installed on the Parthian side of the river to retreat and let bygones be bygones.

Crassus boastfully told the delegation he would give his answer at Seleucia, at that time the main city of the Parthian Empire, deep inside-Parthian territory. Upon which the eldest of the Parthian ambassadors laughed and showed Crassus the palm of his hand. "Hair will grow here before you ever see Seleucia," he told him.

So it was war. Up until that time, the Romans considered the Parthians a trifling enemy. The worst aspect of war with them would be the tedious marches to battle, and the difficulty of chasing down an enemy that only retreated and was afraid to fight. However, Roman soldiers who had been stationed in Mesopotamia escaped with scary stories of the Parthians' barbaric manner of fighting. Their horses were so fast that it was impossible to overtake them of they fled, and just as impossible to escape them if you fled

With this new intelligence, some of his officers advised Crassus to reconsider the invasion. His soothsayers told him the signs were adverse. Preternatural thunderstorms fell on the Romans' camp, and a gale-washed away part of the bridge they had built over the Euphrates. As if all this weren't bad enough, when the priest making the last sacrifice-handed the entrails to Crassus, they slipped out of his hands and splat -tered on the ground.

Crassus laughed. "See what it is to be an old man," he said. "But I shall hold my sword fast enough."

Crassus marched seven legions, four thousand cavalry, and about the same number of lightly armed soldiers through the mountains along the Parthian side of the Euphrates River. The Roman scouts didn't see a single enemy soldier, only the tracks of many horses. From this the Romans began to despise the Parthians again as cowards, and Crassus "conceived great hopes" of taking the territory without a fight. In fact, Hyrodes had prudently split his army in two. One part he led north to waste the Romans' ally Armenia, preventing them from sending Crassus supplies or relief troops. The other part was put under the command of Surena, a thirty-year-old hotshot whom Plutarch praised as the first in prowess and courage among the Parthians. Surena's noble family had long held the honor of placing the crown on the king's head at Parthian coronations. Only half Crassus' age, Surena had twice his wisdom and ability.

Surena sent a fast-talking Arab chieftain with former ties to tire-Romans named Ariamnes, who convinced Crassus that the Parthians were in full flight toward the Iranian plateau. If the Romans were to engage them at all before they got away, Crassus would have to leave the-river and hills and go onto the open plains. Ariamnes' cunning tongue-worked its wiles, and Crassus was lured to the vast plains and desert of northern Syria. There the Romans found "not a bough, not a stream, not a hillock, not a green herb, but in fact a sea of sand, which encom passed the army with its waves." By the time the Romans realized Ariamnes' treachery, Surena's Parthians were on hand in full force.

Crassus drew his troops into squares of twelve cohorts each, with their fronts facing outward and a troop of cavalry assigned to each square, then rushed forward, convinced his army was facing "neither so many nor so magnificently armed" Parthians as the Romans expected. Surena had actually camouflaged the glittering armor ol his heavy cavalry with cloaks and skins. It is tempting to think he had borrowed a leaf from nature's book, camouflaging his soldiers the way the Parthians' golden horses blended in with the sands of the desert. As soon as the Romans engaged, the Parthians sent up "a hideous noise and terrible clamour. For the Parthians do not encourage themselves to war with cornets and trumpets, but with a kind of kettle drum, which they strike all at once in various quarters." Again, perhaps, imitating the frightening din of horse hooves.

When the Romans were terrified by the noise, the Parthians threw off their camouflage and "shone like lightning in their breastplates and helmets of polished Margianian steel." (My friend Victor Fet raised the interesting question that if the Parthians made steel, how did they fuel their blacksmiths' fires? Animal dung, the common desert fuel, cannot be fired hot enough to make steel. The widespread use in Central Asia of charcoal must mean large supplies of trees, probably saxaul, juniper, and pistachio, the last two of which all but vanished in historical times.)

The Parthians showered arrows on the Romans from all sides. At first Crassus thought they would surely run out of them and have to stop the onslaught. Then came news that the Parthians had thousands of camels in the rear loaded with arrows to resupply them. There was nothing for Crassus to do but try to break the encirclement with a charge. He sent his son, Publius, with thirteen hundred horse, five hundred archers, and eight cohorts, but the Parthians suddenly fled. Young Publius pursued them, thinking the flight was the prelude to Rome's carrying the day.

It was the classic Parthian tactic. As soon as Publius and his troops were sufficiently distanced from the main Roman forces, the Parthians turned around and, aided by fresh troops, galloped around the Romans until the sands stirred up by their horses' hooves blinded them. The Romans could not see or speak to one another. The cavalry then drove the Romans inward upon one another and put them all to slow, painful deaths pierced by their arrows.

The Parthians put the son's head on a spear and rode back to taunt Crassus with it. In spite of being surrounded and losing his son, Crassus rallied himself and made a brave speech about the necessity of personal sacrifice if great deeds are to be accomplished. When he was finished with his oration, however, he saw it was no use; "when he ordered them to shout for battle, he could no longer mistake the despondency of his army." The Parthians began picking them off, and Plutarch describes bow their heavy cavalry started forking two or three Romans at a time with their long, thick spears, as if they were french fries.

At this point, darkness fell, and Surena gave Crassus the night to mourn his son. The Roman soldiers gathered to hear what the old man, who had been the sole instigator of this debacle, would say. But Crassus only wrapped his cloak around his defeated carcass and lay down. Seeing he was past helping, his lieutenants ordered the army to drop their weapons, abandon the wounded, and flee for their lives—-all very un-Roman. Next morning the Parthian light cavalry put the wounded to the sword and massacred the rest in flight.

Rome lost twenty-one thousand men at Carrhae. The Parthians made the defeat all the more humiliating by capturing the standards of the defeated Roman legions, the sacred symbols of Rome's power. As for Crassus, he somehow made it alive to the town of Carrhae, where Surena managed to capture him alive. He put old Crassus on a Parthian horse with a golden bit, but a fight broke out during which the Parthians cut off Crassus' right hand and head. They stuck it on a spear and carried it in a gay procession all the way to Armenia. In this mocking victory parade, they dressed a Roman prisoner who looked something like Crassus in a woman's robe, and displayed the bleeding heads of the slain Romans on the ends of Parthian axes and spears. The "Seleucian singing women" (apparently a popular group at the time) followed the parade singing "scurrilous and abusive songs upon the effeminacy and cowardliness of Crassus."

From that time on, the Romans never again directly confronted the Parthian cavalry. Instead, they conspired, connived, and intrigued to get what they wanted. For thirty years the Romans were haunted by the loss of their legions' standards, until Emperor Augustus engineered their return as part of a peace treaty with the Parthians. Grateful for ending the dishonor, Augustus presented the Parthian monarch Phraates IV with an Italian concubine named Musa. She persuaded the king to have their children educated in Rome, whereupon she murdered him and placed her son, Phraates V, whom she later married, on the Parthian t hrone. The two ruled Parthia together, issuing Roman-style coins with the heads of the happy couple.

Perhaps the Parthians should have stayed in the saddle and left the bed work to the Italians.