Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era

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Roman Defeat at Carrhae

Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 – 53 BC) was a leading figure of the late Roman Republic and its richest man. He used his wealth to sponsor politicians, including Julius Caesar, whose political rise he bankrolled, and amassed considerable power. The one thing he lacked, yet craved, was military glory. His pursuit of such glory would end in catastrophe.

Crassus was a shrewd and avaricious businessman. An ally of the dictator Sulla in the 80s BC, he got his start on wealth by bidding on the confiscated properties of those executed as enemies of the state, buying them in rigged auctions for a fraction of their value. He even arranged for the names of those whose properties he coveted to be added to the lists of enemies of the state, slated for execution and confiscation of property.

Crassus leveraged his wealth and power into creating the First Triumvirate, a power sharing agreement by which he, Pompey the Great, and Julius Caesar, effectively divided the Roman Republic amongst themselves. He wanted military glory, though – something his partners had, but he lacked. Unlike Pompey’s and Caesar’s brilliant military records, Crassus’ only military accomplishment had been to crush Spartacus’ slave uprising, which didn’t count for much in Roman eyes. It gnawed at Crassus, so he decided to invade Parthia, a wealthy kingdom comprised of today’s Iraq and Iran, which he assumed would be a pushover. A decade earlier, Pompey had invaded and easily defeated other kingdoms in the east, so hard could Parthia be?

Crassus assembled an army of 50,000, and in 53 BC, marched off to an easy conquest. He trusted a local chieftain to guide him. The guide was in Parthian pay, and led Crassus along an arid route, until, hot and thirsty, they reached the town of Carrhae in today’s Turkey, where they encountered a Parthian force of 9000 horse archers and 1000 armored cataphract heavy cavalry. Although they outnumbered the Parthians 5:1, the Romans were demoralized by the rigors of the march and by Crassus’ uninspiring leadership.

The mounted archers shot up the Romans from a distance, retreating whenever the Romans advanced. As casualties mounted, morale plummeted. Crassus, unable to think of a plan, rested his hopes on the Parthians running out of arrows. The Parthians however had a supply train of thousands of camels loaded with arrows. Finally, Crassus ordered his son to take the Roman cavalry and some infantry, and drive off the horse archers. The Parthians feigned retreat, Crassus’ son rashly pursued, and was slaughtered with all his men. The Parthians rode back to Roman army and taunted Crassus with his son’s head mounted on a spear.

Shaken, Crassus retreated to Carrhae, abandoning thousands of his wounded. The Parthians invited him to negotiate, offering to let his army go in exchange for Roman territorial concessions. Crassus was reluctant to meet the Parthians, but his men threatened to mutiny if he did not, so he went. Things did not go well, violence broke out at the meeting, and ended with Crassus and his generals killed. Mocking his avarice, the Parthians poured molten gold down Crassus’ throat. The surviving Romans fled, but most were hunted down and killed or captured. Out of Crassus’ 50,000, only 10,000 made it back to Roman territory.

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