How Horseback Archery Changed the World: Episode 1 – Carrhae

Horseback Archery in History

OK, I know I haven’t finished writing about Hungary yet, but this is a post that I’ve been working on for some time and now it’s ready it just wants to be out there.  I’ll finish Hungary later, I promise.

This is the first in a series of articles that I plan to write about the effect that horseback archery has had on world history. It grows out of the historical articles I have written for the BHAA newsletter and my researches on the history of horseback archery in Britain. This series is intended to take a different approach. I am going to focus on some of the less known (or less appreciated) effects that horseback archery has had on history.

I am not going to offer detailed examination of the battle tactics and techniques. I am going to focus on the build-up, the outcome and the effects. These are not going to be academic articles and my approach is not going to be even vaguely even-handed: I am basically going to try to demonstrate that just about the whole of world history revolves around horseback archery…

I’m going to start with my own personal favourite example: the battle of Carrhae in 53BCE.


The World Scene

The Eurasian land mass was basically divided into a few great empires, of which two are important to our story: Rome (a republic but with a vast territorial empire) ruled from the Atlantic to the Euphrates, Parthia (a monarchy) from the Euphrates to the Indus. Each had vast resources and neither trusted the other.

The empires had very different armies. Rome’s meteoric rise to power had come through her heavy infantry, protected by armour and by large shields and wielding javelins and the gladius, a short stabbing sword that was wickedly effective when deployed by Rome’s tightly-packed legions. The Parthians were a cavalry-based force. Such infantry as they had consisted mainly of ill-equipped peasants conscripted into the ranks with little training. The shock force of cataphracts (heavy cavalry) were clad in mail from head to hoof, man and horse, while the Parthians also deployed huge numbers of horseback archers.


Roman Politics

Rome had been in turmoil for about a century. On several occasions generals or rabble-rousers had seized control of the city. There had been death lists posted in the streets, confiscation of property, rioting and gang warfare, as well as outright civil war, with a Roman army marching on Rome herself. At the same time Rome had come under attack from the Kingdom of Pontus on the Black Sea, her allies in Italy had rebelled and a gladiator named Spartacus had led an uprising that had defeated three Roman armies before finally being destroyed.

Amid this turmoil three men had risen to power. The first was Marcus Licinius Crassus. He had been born wealthy and become far more so by some of the most unscrupulous business practices in history (amongst other things, he owned a private fire brigade that would rush to the scene of any fire in the wood-built city of Rome and then refuse to do anything to help until the owner of the burning building (and any neighbours) had sold their properties to Crassus at knock-down prices. If they didn’t sell then their houses would simply be allowed to burn down). In the civil war he had raised his own army and led it with some distinction and it was Crassus (played with great aplomb by Sir Laurence Olivier in the film “Spartacus”) who eventually defeated the slave revolt and crucified the renegade slaves along the Appian Way. He was, therefore, an accomplished general and a feared politician. But he was ever in the shadow of our next character.

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known to history as Pompey the Great, was the golden boy of Rome. He had eclipsed Crassus’ fame in the civil war as a 17 year-old general who never lost a battle. He had then pacified a rebellion in Spain, returning just in time to wipe out a few stragglers from Spartacus’s army who had escaped their defeat at Crassus’ hands. Pompey wrote to the Roman Senate of how he had finished off Spartacus, stealing Crassus’ glory again. Pompey went on to clear the seas of pirates in a mere 3 months (these pirates having been powerful enough to attack the port of Rome, as well as kidnapping a young Julius Caesar). Pompey then led an expedition to the East that had doubled the size of the empire. He was hailed as the new Alexander the Great and was made consul (the highest rank in the Republic) years before becoming constitutionally eligible. Popular among the common folk, Pompey desperately wanted to be accepted by the patricians of the ruling class, many of whom were deeply suspicious of his fame and unconstitutional rise. Among these patricians could be found Crassus.

Crassus hated Pompey and thwarted him at every opportunity. The feeling had become mutual and the situation had become apparently insoluble: if Pompey backed a measure, Crassus would oppose it and vice versa. Into this inflammatory situation had come a man known as a dandy of dubious morality; a man whose family claimed descent from the goddess Venus but had fallen on hard times and now lived in the red light district. His name was Gaius Julius Caesar.

Despite being as upper class as it was possible to be, Caesar was loved by the common people and hated by his own class, who felt that he had betrayed them for the mob. His political rise had been tainted by scandal but he had procured himself military commands in Spain and Gaul and had proved himself a superb general, beloved by his troops and capable of extraordinary feats, including landing the first Roman armies on the semi-legendary island of Britannia.

Possibly even more impressive than his military campaigns was the fact that Caesar had somehow managed to broker a deal between Pompey and Crassus. The three men had effectively ruled Rome for years in an informal arrangement known to history as the First Triumvirate. Whenever the hatred between Crassus and Pompey threatened to ruin the arrangement Caesar had managed to smooth things over, securing supreme political office for the two of them while he himself stayed in Gaul conquering. At the end of their terms, Pompey and Crassus would each receive a provincial command, with Caesar’s office in Gaul being extended for a further five years.

Crassus hated Pompey. Pompey hated Crassus. They were both nervous of Caesar, who needed the two of them to work together. Each was immensely powerful but each knew that any attempt at seizing supreme power would unite the other two against him, resulting in certain failure. By this arrangement was the Republic kept safe from the civil wars and power grabs of the previous century.


Crassus’s Command

As was the custom the outgoing consuls drew lots for their provincial commands, which this time would be for extraordinarily long terms. Crassus drew the gem: a command in Syria, which presented opportunities to attack Parthia and, Crassus dreamed, to win the kind of military glory that Pompey and Caesar had earned but that had always eluded him, no matter how well he had fought in the past. The prospect was sweetened by the fabled wealth of the East and by the fact that Pompey’s fabled Eastern campaigns had failed to conquer the Parthians.

No sooner had Crassus taken up his command than he busied himself raising the extra legions and funds that he would need to invade. And across the Euphrates, the Parthians waited.

General Surena

Parthia may have been a monarchy rather than a republic but she had her own politics. The king, Orodes, had attained the throne through a civil war against his brother, the previous king (the two of them having previously murdered their father, the king before that). The civil war against his brother had been won for him by his general, a military genius from a family of generals. His name was Surena. When Crassus crossed the border and invaded Parthia, Orodes again turned to Surena to repel the attack.

Surena deployed an army purely comprised of cavalry. Most were horseback archers, backed up with a powerful force of heavy cavalry. This removed the principle weakness of Parthian armies, allowing complete manoeuvrability and removing the possibility of pinning the infantry down and drawing the cavalry in that way.


The Battle of Carrhae

Much has been written about this battle. Most accounts, based on the writings of Plutarch, portray Crassus as an incompetent blunderer. In fact he was a perfectly capable general whose decisions, while they led to disaster, were perfectly justifiable at the time.

Whether it was Crassus’ fault or not, the Roman army he commanded was destroyed. The Parthian horseback archers rained arrows down on the Roman ranks, which had to stay close-packed for fear of a charge by the Parthian heavy cataphracts. Crassus had a small but experienced cavalry wing of his own, lent to him by Caesar and consisting of veterans of Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul. They were commanded by Crassus’ son, Publius Licinius Crassus, who had commanded them in Gaul under Caesar. When this cavalry attempted to drive the horse archers off they fell victim to the classic Steppe cavalry tactic: the feigned withdrawal and sudden counter. Publius and his men were cut off and slaughtered, his head thrown at his father’s feet by a triumphant Parthian rider.

The Roman infantry withdrew and the next day Crassus and the Parthian commander agreed a parley. Something went wrong and whether through misunderstanding or treachery the Parthians killed Crassus and took his head back to the king (where it was used as an impromptu prop in a play that was being performed as the messenger arrived). Most of the Roman army was either killed or captured, with only a small force under a commander named Gaius Cassius Longinus making it back to Rome. Stories persist about the fate of the Roman captives, including that they were employed as slave labour to build the city of Merv and even (rather fancifully) that some escaped and became mercenaries in China.

Surena became a national hero. However, a successful general, famous and popular and with a history of toppling monarchs, was intolerable to the Parthian king and Surena was assassinated shortly after the battle.

Aftermath and Political Manoeuvring in Rome

Pompey’s glee at his old enemy’s demise can only be guessed at but he also made political hay. He had, years earlier, married Caesar’s daughter as a way of sealing their alliance. She had died the previous year and Pompey lost little time in remarrying. His bride? The widow of Publius Crassus. Quite apart from her marriage into Crassus’ family, she was a high aristocrat in her own right. By this marriage Pompey moved away from Caesar and cemented his ties with the aristocracy whom he had always courted (but who hated Caesar).

Suddenly Rome was no longer ruled by three men under the threat of mutually assured destruction. Now there were two: one in the capital with the Senate and aristocracy behind him; the other in Gaul with a substantial army under his command. The scene was set for civil war.

Pompey had one disadvantage: there was no army in Italy. While there were many veterans who could be called up, that would take time and money. Pompey was confident, stating that he need only stamp his foot and men would spring up all over Italy. In this he underestimated Caesar, whose generalship had always been marked by rapid movement and surprise attacks.

Caesar’s term of office in Gaul came to an end and his political enemies were ready to prosecute him the moment he returned (like all Roman governors, Caesar had been immune from prosecution while he held office but would be vulnerable when he returned, which he would need to do in order to run for further office). Pompey could have prevented this by guaranteeing immunity for Caesar but his move to the aristocratic side was complete and he instead acquiesced in the Senate’s demands that Caesar lay down his arms and return to Rome without immunity from prosecution.

Had Crassus still been alive it is doubtful whether Pompey would have taken this hardline stance against Caesar, fearing that his two rivals would join forces against him. Had he been able to convince Crassus to go against Caesar (which is unlikely) then Caesar would have been forced to surrender, not having a hope of going against both together. With Crassus’ death there was nobody to prevent Pompey from siding against Caesar. There was also nobody to dissuade Caesar from choosing to back himself and his army. He chose to gamble.

Caesar refused the Senate’s demands that he dispand his army. He marched his troops across the obscure little river that marked the edge of Roman Italy: the Rubicon. His customary lightning marching speed allowed him to approach Rome long before Pompey could raise a significant force to oppose him. Pompey and the Senate abandoned Italy and fled to Greece. A vicious civil war followed between the two sides, in which Caesar defeated his enemies. Pompey fled once more, this time to Egypt, where he was murdered. Caesar, following him thence, met the young Queen Cleopatra and was instantly smitten, having a child by here and bringing her to Rome. The war won, Caesar returned to Rome as sole ruler. The Republic, while it continued in name, was dead in fact.

 The Ides of March

Some years later, on the Ides of March (a date in the Roman calendar, not a place) Caesar was assassinated by group of conspirators, led by Brutus, the son of Caesar’s long-time lover (Brutus was rumoured to be Caesar’s child, although this is unlikely to be true). Contrary to popular belief, Caesar was not stabbed in the Senate House. He was stabbed in the building that had for some time been serving the role of temporary Senate House. It was a theatre, built using the spoils of Pompey’s Eastern expeditions and named in honour of Pompey himself. Caesar, the last of the three men who had ruled Rome for so long, died at the feet of a giant statue of Pompey, his great rival and one-time co-ruler.

What few people realise is that the other ringleader of the conspiracy against Caesar was the same Gaius Cassius Longinus who had marched with Crassus to Carrhae and had led the only Roman troops to escape the battle. The assassination took place days before Caesar was due to march away from Rome with his armies, leading them against Parthia to avenge the defeat at Carrhae.

The Fallout from Caesar’s Assassination

Caesar’s followers, led by Mark Anthony (Marcus Antonius) waged civil war against Brutus and Cassius, defeating them at Phillipi in Greece. The return of the Republic was overshadowed by a power struggle that developed between Anthony and Octavian, Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son. This turned into outright war between Rome, under Octavian, and the forces of Egypt and the Eastern provinces under Anthony and Cleopatra. Octavian won and settled down to run the Empire under his newly-granted name: Augustus. He set the tone (as well as the family dynasty) for Imperial rule for centuries to come, so that even the name of Caesar came to mean ruler. It still does, in the German Kaiser and the Russian Czar.



Had Crassus not been defeated (and conventional armies without mounted archers very rarely defeated the Romans in this period) it is likely that the uneasy truce between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus would have continued. There would have been no civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Without this war, Caesar would never have gone to Egypt and Cleopatra would probably be a name known only to historians. There would have been no assassination on the Ides of March, no subsequent civil war between Brutus and Mark Anthony. Caesar’s great-nephew would never have risen to be emperor and Rome may well have continued as a Republic (she had survived dictatorships and tyrannies before). Instead, because of the crushing defeat inflicted by the Parthian mounted archers, the Roman Republic, which covered most of Europe and beyond, was riven by decades of war and the Roman Empire was born from the ashes.