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Battle of Carrhae (53 BC)

By Chris Jones

The Roman Republic was undergoing the power throes that would soon lead to the foundation of the Empire under Augustus. The power of individual men was becoming greater than that of the Senate and the system whereby the consuls were agents of the Senate and people was no more. Three men, Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, held the reins of power in Rome, and, for the moment at least, held each other in check through a loose alliance. Of the three, Crassus was the richer and debatably the most influential and so it was almost certainly his choice that he led an army to conquer eastern lands of the Parthians, whereas Caesar chose Gaul and Pompey tapped the riches of Spain.

Having played a minor but over-inflated part in putting down Spartacus' slave rebellion, Crassus had a grossly exaggerated opinion of his own military ability. His aim was a triumph and greater power for himself and he saw the means to achieve this by invading the lands of the inheritors of the Seleucid Empire in Asia. The fact that the Parthians were noted warriors who waged war with fully armoured nobles on armoured horses supported by swarms of horse archers did not worry him in the least. The Roman army was the finest in the world and would be more than capable of dealing with them. So he marched east to his destiny.

Crassus was joined by 6,000 Arab light cavalry whose leader, Ariamnes was secretly in Parthian pay. He convinced Crassus to leave the security of the river Euphrates and to take instead a desert route in his advance on the Parthians. Finally, when the Parthian forces were discovered ahead of the Roman force, Ariamnes told Crassus that his Arabs would ride ahead to distract the Parthian cavalry and then simply rode away! Crassus advanced his forces rapidly in the heat and the dust until the Parthian force came into view. Crassus had around 30,000 men, mostly heavy foot with about 1,000 Gallic cavalry while the Parthian army was much smaller - maybe 1000 Cataphracts and 10,000 Horse archers.

At first the Romans could see only horse archers as the Cataphracts had covered their armour but suddenly there was a sound of trumpets and the Parthian host was visible in all its glory, shining in their steel armor. The battle was about to commence.

<>Crassus formed up his troops in a large hollow square against the advice of senior officers. The Cataphracts initially stayed away allowing the horse archers to shoot at the Romans without hindrance. Their fire was so heavy that the Roman light troops sent out to drive them off were forced back into the cover of the Roman ranks. Roman casualties mounted without reply. A force of Gallic cavalry, light troops and eight cohorts of legionaries under Crassusı son, Publius, sallied out and initially succeeded in driving the horse archers back. During the pursuit, they lost touch with the main body, were surrounded by horse archers and cataphracts and effectively wiped out. Crassus saw the Parthian forces advance displaying his sonıs head on a spear. From that moment his military judgment, never exactly brilliant, appears to have completely left him. Holding off Parthian attacks until nightfall, he then abandoned his wounded and withdrew his forces toward the town of Carrhae.

By morning the straggling Roman column had arrived at the town of Carrhae. The surviving cavalry rode past the town calling out that all was lost and headed for Syria. Another 5,000 Roman foot by-passed the town and took a strong position in the mountains. Cassius quickly realized the town lacked sufficient provisions to withstand a seige. He lead his forces on a night march toward the mountains, but due to the darkness and the efforts of a disloyal guide in Parthian pay, they ended up well scattered. The Parthian general Surena offered a parlay, but when Crassus and his officers arrived to negotiate peace, they were seized and killed. In all about 20,000 Romans were killed and 10,000 taken prisoner. The Parthians settled many of their captives in their Eastern territory of Sogdia. In an interesting footnote, Sogdia was later captured by the Han Chinese and so these Romans may have been amongst the first to meet the Chinese - not much of a consolation for living the rest of your life amongst foreigners.

Simulating Carrhae in DBA

The Opposing Forces:

  • Marian Roman (#59) - 2 x Cv, 8 x Bd, 2 x Ps

  • Parthian (#51) - 4 x Kn, 8 x Lh

Terrain

The terrain should be mainly open ground with a BUA in the centre - the town of Carrhae.

Deployment

Normal DBA. The Romans have one element of camp followers in the BUA.

Special Rules

The BUA in this case is able to take all the Roman army - although only 4 elements can actually defend it - one in each direction.

Victory conditions

Normal DBA except that the Parthians win if the Romans end the game with more than one element in the BUA.


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Last Update: Feb. 21, 2000

My thanks to Chris Jones for this scenario. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome. Send them to Chris Brantley at IamFanaticus@gmail.com.