Rome vs. Parthia

A big debate rages on the message boards of history revisionist websites; who would’ve won had the ancient Roman army faced off against the ancient Chinese in battle?

Anti-Western, Eastern-apologists often make the case that Rome wouldn’t have stood a chance against an Eastern army due to their defeat at the Battle of Carrhae against the Parthians in 53 BC. The Battle of Carrhae took place during the final years of the First Triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey Magnus, and Marcus Licinius Crassus. Crassus was the richest man in Rome, and in effect one of the richest men in world history, but craved the honor of a military triumph over a powerful foreign enemy more than anything. Keep in mind, he was a much better businessman than general. Seeking glory, he went to Syria (a Roman province at the time) and conscripted a massive army of locals, with promises of gold and fortune. In an attempt to annex Parthia to the Roman empire, and gain access to the Parthian gold mines, Crassus invaded the Parthian empire thru the Syrian desert. At the time, the Armenians (an ally of Rome) offered to grant Crassus’ army access thru Armenia so he could invade Parthia from the north, and forego the desert. The Armenians even offered Crassus 30,000 more troops if he accepted the offer, but he refused, due to arrogance. Crassus had it in his mind that he was going to capture some of the gloriously rich Middle-Eastern cities of the desert, such as Babylon. However, the Parthians (i.e. Persians), who controlled much of the region at the time had a different idea.

A Parthian army, at the command of the general Spahbod Surena, largely consisting of cavalry, was dispatched to intercept Crassus’ army. At the same time, the Parthians learned of the Armenians’ offer to Rome, and sent yet another army north to sack the Armenian capital, which they did. The Parthians met Crassus’ army just outside of the ancient city of Carrhae (now known as Harran, located in eastern Turkey), and engaged the Romans in battle. Largely consisting of cataphracts (i.e. heavy cavalry) Crassus’ army was not prepared for such a foe and was wiped out completely by the Parthians. Crassus was either killed in battle, or captured and killed after the battle (at least one account claims he was captured and had molten gold poured down his throat). The Parthian victory was remarkable in the sense that they were outnumbered by the Romans by more than 3-1, and were able to achieve a convincing victory in a rather short period of time.

As it turned out, Crassus was a terrible commander. He arranged his troops into rectangular formation to try to halt the charges of the Persian cataphracts. This gave his troops little to no mobility and opened them up to the Persian horse-archers, who rained arrows down into the rectangular Roman formations, and were all but guaranteed a hit due to the great number of men packed closely together. Once the Romans broke their formation, the Persian cataphracts charged and annihilated the Romans where they stood. It truly was a stunning victory that kept the Romans out of Parthia for over a century… but that century did not last forever.

Eastern-apologists use the Battle of Carrhae as an example (sometimes as their only example) as to why the Romans couldn’t have stood up to an Eastern army. What Eastern-apologists fail to realize is the Romans SACKED the Parthian CAPITAL, Ctesiphon, four times throughout the history of the empire, yet the Parthians never sacked Rome, or even set foot inside of Europe, unless they were commanded to do so by a Roman emperor to pay tribute. So much for Parthian superiority. The emperor Trajan captured the city in 116 CE, the general Avidius Cassius captured the city again in 164 CE, emperor Septimius Severus sacked the city for the third time in 197 CE, and the emperor Galerius sacked Ctesiphon for the fourth and final time in 295 CE.

If Rome didn’t have the skill to stand up to Parthian horse troops, it seems a little odd that they managed to sack the capital of Parthia on multiple occasions. Perhaps Eastern-apologists simply overlooked that part of history?

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