The Battle of Carrhae – When Rome’s Legions Lost to the Parthian Cavalry Archers

  The Battle of Carrhae (Carrrhae) was not only the first collision between the two great powers of the East and the West, the Roman Republic and the Parthian Empire, but also the battle in which the famous Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus was defeated and killed. It was also a famous battle in which the Roman infantry legion lost to the Eastern archer cavalry. Therefore, many military fans are familiar with the place name “Kalay”, but few people know where Kalai is. This is not surprising: this place is a small village called Haran today, located in southeastern Turkey. It is an arid wilderness 40 kilometers south of the ancient cultural city of Shanlurfa, and 20 kilometers further south is the Syrian border. Very few tourists dare to go there.
  In fact, the place name Kalai is only the name of the Roman period. The name of this place before the Roman era was Haran, which is very famous in the “Bible Old Testament”. According to legend, the father of the prophet Abraham established Haran, and Abraham himself lived here. for many years. My original purpose of traveling 40 kilometers south from the city of Urfa in Turkey to the village of Harran was to follow the footsteps of the Prophet Abraham and to visit the local mushroom-shaped houses with Arab ethnic characteristics. After arriving in Urfa, I learned that Harran was Calle during the Roman period, the place where Crassus, one of the famous three giants of ancient Rome, was defeated and died. Naturally, I had to make a special trip to see it.

Harran, not far from the Syrian border, was one of the earliest human settlements and has always been inhabited. Although it seems poor and shabby here, people’s lives are peaceful and peaceful.

Although Crassus was older than his two rivals, Pompey and Caesar, he felt inferior because he had no outstanding military achievements to compare with them.
Go to war for wealth

  At the end of the Roman Republic, Sulla won the civil war and became dictator. Crassus and Pompey were both generals under Sulla. They made great military exploits and also accumulated huge wealth. After Sulla’s death, Crassus and Pompey were both heroes for a while, but their ambitions were different: Pompey was young and brave and obsessed with building military exploits; Crassus was devoted to becoming a rich man and tried every means to make money, becoming the most powerful person in Rome. Rich and wealthy. Not long after, the Spartacus Rebellion broke out in Rome. There was no field army in Rome, and Pompey was suppressing the rebellion in Spain. The Roman government forces suffered repeated defeats. Only then did Crassus, a rich man who was enjoying a happy life in Rome, be invited to wear the uniform again. . Crassus was indeed worthy of being Sulla’s general, and finally suppressed the Spartacus uprising.
  Caesar was still too young at this time, and the political resources he had mainly came from the reputation left by his elder Marius. Later, in order to deal with the Senate, the three giants, Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, firmly held military power in their own hands. According to the secret agreement reached by the three, Caesar’s term as governor of Gaul was extended for another five years, and Pompey and Crassus became consuls in 55 BC. After expiration, Pompey became governor of Spain and Crassus became governor of Syria.
  Crassus was extremely eager for the position of governor of Syria. In addition to controlling the heavy troops of 7 legions, plundering the huge wealth of the East was his most important purpose. Before him, Sulla, Pompey and others had led troops to fight in the east, winning every battle and never losing. Therefore, Crassus believed that his expedition would be smooth. British military scientist Fuller made this comment in his famous book “Military History of the Western World”: “Crasus was already 60 years old at this time. He had a lot of wealth, his ears were deaf, and his spirit was blind.” It was because of the newly rising Parthian Empire in the East. Crassus knew nothing about the size, location, and tactics of the Parthian army, but he went to the battlefield with confidence.
  The Parthian Kingdom, which emerged in the eastern mountains of the Iranian Plateau in the 3rd century BC, first captured the Hellenistic Kingdom of Bactria in Central Asia, and then quickly occupied Persia, and then expanded to the lower reaches of the Mesopotamia and today’s Iraq. The once mighty Hellenistic Seleucid Empire perished under the attack of Rome and Parthia from east to west. When Crassus became the governor of Syria, Rome and Parthia were basically bounded by the western part of the Mesopotamia. There had been no conflict for decades. Both sides were going through civil war at that time, and they had no time to care about each other and lacked understanding of each other.
  The seven Roman heavy infantry legions led by Crassus numbered 35,000, and the auxiliary troops included 4,000 cavalry and 4,000 light infantry who mainly used javelins. Caesar also sent Crassus’ eldest son Publius Crassus from Gaul to lead 1,000 An elite Gallic allied cavalry team came to assist in the battle, so the total force was close to 44,000. This was the largest force ever sent by Rome to the East. In the autumn of 54 BC, Crassus led his army across the upper reaches of the Euphrates River in today’s southeastern Turkey, and occupied a series of fortresses and cities such as Antep, Urfa, and Haran without resistance. When winter came, Crassus left 7,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry to guard the area, while the main force withdrew to the winter camp westward to join the Gallic cavalry brought by his eldest son.
  The reason why the Parthian Empire failed to counterattack in time was that its political and military system was relatively backward, and the process of sending troops was slow and lagging. This is similar to the fact that in the late Roman Republic, three heavy military groups could be mobilized at any time in Gaul, Spain, and Syria. The situation on the battlefield is in sharp contrast to the year-round fighting. But Parthia has its own trump card: the powerful light cavalry riding and shooting ability. The Parthians originated at the junction of the Central Asian plains and grasslands. Their main force was a large number of light cavalry archers and heavy cavalry who used spears to attack. So, is the Parthian mobile legion with light and heavy cavalry definitely better than the Roman heavy infantry phalanx? The course of the Battle of Calais will tell us the answer.
siege and guerrilla

  In the early summer of 53 BC, Crassus led the main force to march eastward again. The route of the march was to cross the Euphrates River eastward. He wanted to find the main force of the enemy army in the plain area of ​​​​the south road (the main force of Parthia was on the north road at this time), hoping to complete his victory in one battle. . In the Parthian South Road plain, there was only Sulenas, a young general from the most powerful Pahlavi family in Parthia. He led his family’s 10,000 private soldiers to fight against Crassus. Sulena’s army had a large number of slaves and non-combatants who took care of the 1,000 camel transport team. The number of capable soldiers may only be about 7,000, which was only one-fifth of Crassus’s (the 7,000 troops left behind in the fortress did not participate in the battle). But the Parthian army was almost entirely a cavalry mobile corps. The main force was 1,000 heavy cavalry, and the rest were all light cavalry with arrows.
  When Crassus marched outside the city of Kalai today, he could already see the billowing smoke and dust raised by the Parthian cavalry from a distance. The Roman legions confidently formed a dense formation on the shield wall. The entire army formed a large hollow square, with baggage, light infantry and cavalry using javelins protected in the middle, and a total reserve of about 3,000 heavy infantry in 8 brigades. The 1,000 heavy cavalry of the Parthian army launched the first round of charge, but they could not charge at all in front of the dense Roman shield wall with a tight lineup.

The famous conical roof is a characteristic of Haran’s houses. This style of house has been continued from 3000 BC to the present day. Now almost no one lives in this kind of house. Some buildings are only used as places to display folk customs for tourists. visit.

  The Roman infantry was frightened when they saw the cavalry rushing towards them. However, as long as the infantry were not frightened into hiding, but formed a firm formation, the horses would not dare to rush into the jungle of swords and guns. Therefore, in an era when stirrups were not invented, heavy cavalry did not have an advantage over well-disciplined, well-trained and well-protected infantry. The Roman legions were such a well-disciplined force, so the first round of charge by the Parthian heavy cavalry was unsurprisingly broken up.
  Sulena, like Crassus, knew neither himself nor the enemy before the war, but he responded quickly to the situation. After the first round of charge failed, he did not let the heavy cavalry charge again, and instead used all the light cavalry to continuously surround the Roman phalanx. Archery. The dense and continuous rain of arrows could sometimes penetrate the shields and armor of the front row soldiers, and most of the time it could damage the limbs of Roman soldiers, but it was not fatal. The Roman infantry could only huddle behind the shield wall for a long time to minimize the exposed area of ​​their bodies. Although their morale was getting lower and lower, they could still maintain their formation. Crassus was not particularly worried. Based on many years of experience, he knew that such a dense rain of arrows would soon be exhausted, and then it would be time for his own light infantry and cavalry to counterattack.

There is no monument on the battlefield of Kalai in 53 BC. We only know from historical books that the main battle took place in the wilderness south of Kalai, about a night’s slow march.

  But this time Sulena made full preparations for the war. His 1,000 camel transport team carried endless arrows and replenished light cavalry at any time. Parthia’s intensive firepower was uninterrupted. This was what shocked the Romans the most. A place of despair. Crassus realized that this was not the way to go, so he ordered his eldest son Publius to lead the cavalry, light infantry, and heavy infantry reserves in the formation to counterattack. The Parthian light cavalry used their mobility to disperse in a flurry, firing deadly horseback arrows as they retreated. The Roman light infantry used throwing spears, which were much more lethal and penetrating at close range than bows and arrows, but the range was not enough. After using up the three javelins they carried with them, they were left with only short weapons, and they soon fell prey to the enemy. The heavy infantry and the elite Gallic cavalry dispersed at inconsistent speeds during the pursuit. The Parthian cavalry feigned defeat. After luring the Roman counterattack forces away from the main position, they suddenly surrounded them from all directions. The Gallic cavalry was defeated by the Parthians. The light and heavy cavalry worked together to encircle and annihilate them.
  The remaining infantry under the command of Publius occupied a small hill and defended it. In the end, they were completely wiped out by the Parthian cavalry archers. Publius committed suicide, and his head was cut off and stuck on the top of a spear. It was brought to the main Roman position for public display to undermine the morale of the Roman army. After that, the Parthian cavalry continued to surround the main Roman force, and the heavy cavalry kept trying to open gaps in the Roman shield wall. As long as a Roman soldier came out to fight or was knocked down by a spear, he would immediately die under the arrows of the Parthians. But during the day’s siege until sunset, the main force of Rome basically kept their formation intact. The Parthian army was also extremely exhausted and almost ran out of arrows, so both sides stopped fighting.
  That night, the Roman army abandoned more than 4,000 wounded and retreated north to the city of Calle. They defended the city wall for another day. The Parthian pursuers massacred the Roman prisoners and surrounded Calle, but they lacked siege equipment. That night, the Roman infantry continued to retreat northward under the cover of darkness, intending to ascend the mountains of the Anatolian Plateau in the north. Once in the mountains, the Parthian cavalry had no use. The remaining Roman troops commanded by Crassus lost their way on the third day before reaching the mountains. They were once again surrounded by the pursuing Parthian cavalry, and this time they were in a desperate situation. Crassus led his entourage to the Sulaina camp to negotiate. Because of the sudden movement of his men to rein in their horses, the Parthians misunderstood it as a use of force. They swarmed up and killed Crassus and all his entourage. The remaining Roman troops surrendered and were sent to Guarded the eastern border of the Parthian Empire.
  Crassus was defeated and killed in the Battle of Calle. There were more than 40,000 troops in total, 20,000 were killed, nearly 10,000 were captured, and the eagle emblems of seven legions were captured. His death shook the stability of the three giants in Rome and turned into a struggle for power between Caesar and Pompey, which led to the resumption of the Roman Civil War, and Caesar finally pacified the world.
The battle between cavalry and infantry

  So does the Battle of Calais prove that cavalry is superior to infantry? Absolutely not. First of all, in the era without stirrups, heavy cavalry had little advantage against the well-trained Phalanx infantry. Secondly, light cavalry that relied solely on mobility and bows and arrows to project firepower would definitely have problems with the continuity of firepower. Sulena won the Battle of Calle mainly because he was better at preparing for battle than Crassus. More importantly, Sulena was well organized in logistics before and after the war. 1,000 camels continuously supplied arrows to the light cavalry, ensuring the battle. The firepower in it is uninterrupted.
  Is it true that as long as the cavalry archers have uninterrupted logistical supplies, they can completely defeat the infantry phalanx with their advantages in mobility and firepower? Neither. Infantry also has many countermeasures against cavalry archers. For example, when the ancient Roman politician and military strategist Mark Antony sent troops from near Calle to conquer Parthia 20 years later, his heavy crossbowmen repeatedly defeated the Parthian light cavalry with arrows. Antony’s eastern expedition was still defeated in the end because Parthia implemented a strategy of fortifying the wall and clearing the country, cutting off the Roman army’s supply line. In a purely tactical battle on the battlefield, the Roman infantry still had the upper hand. By the imperial era in the 2nd century AD, the Roman legions had made three successful expeditions to the Parthian hinterland, and each time they were able to capture the western capital of Parthia, Ctesiphon.
  Today’s Harran is a small village, inhabited by Arab tribes who belong to the Semitic race. Their blood and language are completely different from the Turks. They were the conquerors when the Arab Empire rose in the 7th century AD. Their living habits, architecture, and food It still retains its own tribal and ethnic characteristics. The most famous attraction in Harran is the local-style houses, which are built with mud bricks. The circular walls are topped with bricks to form a conical roof that closes toward the center. From a distance, they look like contiguous barns. The Arabs here are quite poor. In addition to farming and herding sheep, they also work as amateur tour guides for the occasional tourists, showing them their traditional houses and preserving a way of life that has lasted for thousands of years, in order to earn some extra money.
  As for the battlefield of Kalai in 53 BC, there is no monument there. We only know from historical books that the main battle took place in the wilderness south of Kalai, about a night’s slow march. It was probably near the Syrian border. I drove over and took a look. There were no obvious markers, but the local topography was consistent with Plutarch’s “Lives of the Greeks and Romans” and the ancient Roman historian Cassius Dio. It is highly consistent with the description in “Roman History”: arid land, but not a complete desert terrain. There are golden wheat fields on the roadside. Large agricultural machinery is busy harvesting wheat. Local people who herd sheep or ride horses often pass by.
  Not far north from Kale is the geographical dividing line between the Anatolian Plateau and the Mesopotamian Plain. This line can be clearly seen from the west to the east in the series of cities Antep – Urfa – Mardin. This geographical change has been carefully observed: the old city of each city is located on the mountain, overlooking the flat, arid Syrian plain from the cliff edge to the south, with a wide view. The nearest mountain town is Urfa, only 40 kilometers away. In other words, if the remnants of the Roman legions led by Crassus did not go in the wrong direction when they were retreating north, they would have been able to enter the mountains and escape in just two days of marching.

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