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VINE VOICEon 23 June 2008
In the Kubrick film Spartacus, Laurence Olivier plays the role of Marcus Licinius Crassus. He did a fine job, the veneer of a patrician hiding the ruthlessness of a consummate politician. You want to know more. Yet in Roman history, Crassus tends to be marginalised, merely a man obsessed by wealth brought down by his pursuit of glory. His military incompetence led to one of Rome's worst defeats at the Battle of Carrhae in 53BC. A year later Julius Caesar, whose career Crassus had propelled with money and influence, achieved the astonishing victory at Alesia. Caesar fought and won against a massively larger Gallic army, Crassus's legions were virtually wiped out by a Parthian force a quarter of their size. His reputation has not been flattered by time.

Sampson's pleasing book gives a picture of Crassus. It is not a biography but a background sketch to put the battle in context. He was born to a very wealthy ruling family that held the high offices, and excelled in a world where failure would often result in death. His father and two brothers were killed or committed suicide running foul of political enemies. That would certainly make him a man who took politics seriously. His reputation was tainted by greed, he benefited financially from proscription, and as an unscrupulous property developer. He was an extraordinary manipulator, a breeder of pedigree politicians. He was perhaps Rome's greatest patron. The formation and workings of the triumvirate are largely passed over, the big beasts (he, Pompey and Caesar) found it possible to work together rather than tear each other apart. Why did Crassus go to war having attained hegemony over the Roman republic? The assumption is he wanted a triumph and that required a significant foreign military victory. He had just reached 60 so time was against him.

Sampson traces the origins of Rome as it emerged as an Empire concentrating on the East, the numerous wars; arguably defensive Imperialism propelled Rome as the Hellenic world faded. He compares Rome with the rise of Parthia, boths progress being interrupted by relentless civil wars. A recurrent theme in the book is the imbalance in perception, we know so much more about Rome because they left so much more whereas Parthia was its equal but whose history has been largely eradicated or lost.

Dr Sampson's style is to present the facts, make deductions and produce a logical commentary. His thesis is that Crassus was far from an incompetent general; he had a proven military record saving Sulla and in defeating Spartacus. In his Parthian campaign, his generalship was as good as possible; he did the correct things in the right order. Rather it was the brilliance of his opponent, Surenas, who was meant to be an expendable decoy yet proved a devastating tactician. He used mobile armoured cavalry (with the well planned provision of lethally effective arrows) to engineer a turkey shoot. Simply they neutralised the close quarter fighting superiority of the Roman army. Any commander would have been so exposed. Well, perhaps. In trying to negotiate surrender, on the second day of the battle Crassus was killed. Dr Sampson goes on to analyse the immediate and longer-term consequences of the defeat. Surprisingly relevant to how the West and the East try to co exist today.

If a good book is one that sends you back to the bookshop for more, then this is one. It is certainly time for a new biography of Crassus. Let's hope some commissioning editors are likeminded.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 May 2013
This is a very interesting, and at times fascinating book about the Roman disaster at Carrhae and the death of Crassus, arguably the most powerful member of the first triumvirate (the other two being Pompey and Caesar) in 53 BC at the hands of the Parthians commanded by Surena.

To begin with (and although most of the source discussion is pushed back into an appendix), the author has definitely studied and well-researched his subject. He has also identified the rather negative - and often implausible - biases contained in these sources, in particular in Plutarch, whose moralising agenda seems, once again, to have been privileged over historical accuracy.

The main interest of the book lies in the portray that it paints of Crassus, and the explanations that the author provides with the awful reputation that this "loser" acquired in Roman literature, a reputation that has mostly prevailed to this day. Gareth Sampson strenuously and valiantly attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of the vanquished Roman warlord who paid the disaster with his life. In particular, he makes a number of convincing points showing that Crassus was a highly efficient, successful and experienced Roman senator with a colossal fortune, huge political experience, vast political connections and significantly more military experience that he is usually credited for. Moreover, although about sixty years old when he left on his Parthian campaign, he was far from senile and very much at the top of his campaign.

Regarding his military experience, he was the real victor of Spartacus' slave rebellion, although Pompey managed to get some of the credit for it, in one of his usual exercises of one-upmanship. As the author shows, this was no mean feat in itself, even if the Romans did not consider that military victories over slaves were worthy of triumphs. He was also Sylla's right hand man and he had saved the day for his boss, almost a decade before, as Sylla and his army fought the faction of Marius at the gates of Rome.

As the author admits, he also had some more unsavoury sides which gave him a reputation for avarice and greed. This, however, may have been at least in part the result of defamation by his enemies because he seems to have used money as a weapon to bride, but also as a means to increase his political influence and to extract favours from those who owed him. Among other uses, his huge fortune attracted to him a clientele of young, ambitious, competitive and ruthless scions of senatorial families, of which Julius Caesar was but one. This feature, as shown in the book, meant that he could select the senior officers for his Parthian campaign from among the best of the competitive and aggressive young senators.

The author also does a good job when explaining the reasons that Crassus had to go on such a campaign: military glory was a key element in becoming, or, in Crassus' case, in maintaining his position among the top men in Rome. He needed it, especially since Caesar was acquiring masses of it in Gaul. Moreover, he also needed to trump Pompey, who had acquired his glory and fame in the very same place (Syria) a decade before and was highly popular in Rome, unlike Crassus. Sampson also does, in my view, mostly a good job in showing that, contrary to what the main sources imply or sometimes state, Crassus' preparations were thorough and meticulous. He was known for his prudence and organisation and he recruited a vast army which he thoroughly trained to the extent that it was largely (but not only) made up of recruits.

This is, however, the point where the author starts going too far, in my view. First he attempts to find all sorts of excuses for Crassus and tries to exonerate him from any responsibility in the disaster, including an attempt to shift the blame on Cassius Longinus (one of Caesar's future assassins), one of his lieutenants and the only one who survived whom he accuses of cowardice and of abandoning Crassus in particular. He also attempts to justify each and every of Crassus' decisions and tries to show that, under the circumstances, it was the best option. Some choices may be debatable. One can argue as to whether choosing a different route would have been preferable, bearing in mind that less than twenty years later Marc Antony chose to invade through Armenia with an even larger force and barely avoided a disaster of even greater proportions.

In other cases, however, exonerating Crassus seems much more difficult. These include, in particular, the inability of his forces to cope with Parthian cavalry and the mistakes made in offering to his enemy exactly the kind of terrain and battle which maximised their advantages while cancelling those of the Roman legionaries. As another reviewer has noted, this is where Gareth Sampson is forced to resort to speculation and attempts to make Surenas, the Parthian commander, into some kind of military genius. Allegedly, he carefully analysed the Roman army, planned a brilliant strategy accordingly and build up his own force accordingly in order to overwhelm it.

As this reviewer noted, this is very unlikely and I would add that it is largely incorrect. There was simply nothing original in Surenas' all-cavalry force made up of horse archers and heavy lance cavalry. All Scythe and Sarmatian tribes had been organized in such armies for centuries from the Danube and the Black Sea and Central Asia. Moreover, such forces were not exactly new either. The Parthians conquered Mesopotamia and defeated the Seleucid armies almost a century before using the very same tactics. These tactics were typical of the Scythes (to which the Parthians were related), and of steppe nomads more generally. They had been used for hundreds of years.

In reality, the author's attempt to make Surenas into a "military genius" seems to be an attempt to cover-up Crassus' dismal intelligence failures and the fact that he grossly underestimated and possibly even despised his enemy. He was aware of the need for him to have some good and reliable cavalry but started off with too few of them (the 1000 Gallic cavalry who were massacred with his son, the light troops and several cohorts of legionaries when attempting to break the encirclement and come to grips with the Parthians). Moreover, he started the campaign with almost no missile infantry capable of shooting back at the Parthian horse archers without being outranged (only 500 foot archers) or able to inflict any significant damage on the cataphracts (no slingers).

Finally, his mixture of typically Roman overconfidence and arrogance, built from constant victories against very different foes, played straight into the Parthians hands. Perhaps in part because of his overwhelming numbers, and because his previous military experiences had been in close contact fighting, he offered the enemy - an all-cavalry force - exactly the kind of battle that they excelled at. At the very least, and as another author mentioned, there was from the Roman side a complete breakdown in military intelligence for Crassus quite obviously did not even know who he was fighting.
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on 9 August 2015
This is a fascinating book. Anyone interested in Roman history has probably heard of the battle of Carrhae; it was, after all, one of the greatest defeats the Roman Army ever suffered, and it was also the end of Crassus, one of the Triumverate with Pompey and Caeser. And frankly, that's all I really knew before reading this book.
The first thing to say is that we have very little hard evidence about the campaign, the battle and its aftermath. The author is very honest about this, but makes excellent use of what we do have. The Parthians - Rome's adversary - are an enigma to modern historians: no Parthian documents have come down to us, for reasons the author describes, so everything has to be examined from the viewpoint of other, mostly later, works, which are often biased. The author is very clear about what are facts, what are logical conclusions and what are suppositions.
The book starts off with an excellent introduction to Roman politics in the time leading up to the campaign, and a refreshing outline of the life and career of Crassus. Much maligned by all since his death, it is shown that he must have been a much more substantial figure than widely believed, and his career, and particularly his relationship with Pompey, is well described. It also gives as much detail as possible about the rise of the Parthian state.
All this leads to the campaign, and the battle itself. Sampson does not dawdle or over-dramatise. The battle was not that long, and he gives the known facts, and then moves on to the aftermath, which actually, in many ways, was worse for Rome.
He finally relates the longer term effects on both Parthia and Rome, and the Middle East as a whole.
Overall, this is excellent history. Balanced, clear about fact and supposition, and thought-provoking. It has very good appendices, and a useful bibliography. If you are interested in Roman history, I would thoroughly recommend it.
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on 13 February 2015
As a keen reader of roman fiction and also fact I found this book interesting and informative. As the author states, there is a great deal of text published on the lives of Ceaser and Pompey with Crassus being a little side lined by history. This book resolves this and explains Crassus but also the Roman expansion to the eastern Med. Worth a read.
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on 18 August 2010
For many years I have been puzzled by the fate of Marcus Licinius Crassus. Reading the many historical treaties concerning the fall of the Roman Republic you might have been forgiven for believing that there were two men called Marcus Licinius Crassus. The first was the hugely successful political operator who rose from relative obscurity to become the richest man in Rome, a man who forged a highly successful alliance with two of the most powerful men Rome ever produced - Caesar and Pompey - and the man who comprehensively defeated one of Rome's most dangerous enemies - Spartacus. Then there is the other Crassus - the militarily incompetant who managed to be defeated by a Parthian army half the size of his own forces and who then managed to lose his own life in an obvious trap. The question has always been how can these two different images of one man ever be reconciled. The answer, it turns out, is relatively simple but I won't steal Mr. Sampson's thunder by revealing it here. If you are reading this review then I presume you have more than a passing interest in this subject and my advice would be read this book - you won't be disappointed. This is historical analysis at it's very best written by an historian whose logical approach brooks little argument.
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on 9 August 2009
The Defeat of Rome has several good parts. Sampson's coverage of the rise and history of the Parthian Empire on its on would provide a sound reason to recommend this book. The addition of the overview of the Roman Republic, and the useful reminder that when the First Triumvirate was formed Julius Caesar was the junior partner, together with a clear summary of events in the East up until 53BC makes the first 5 chapters a good, solid, read. And the Appendices are very useful.

Unfortunately, from chapter 6 on, Sampson dissolves into hero worship for the Parthian commander, Surenas. This then leads to mistakes, distortions and wild guesses and assumptions presented as fact. Examples include describing Centurions as junior NCOs (pg 115, ignoring Plutarch's clear description of Crasuss's failure to train the men over the winter of 54/53BC in favour of his own assumption that they spent the autumn, winter and spring training (pg 115) or believing that a fully armoured cataphract could long outrun a man under the mid-day sun (not for nothing did the Romans refer to such equipment as "ovens").

Sampson sees Surenas as a military genius who, based on a line in Plutarch, appears to have developed a missile weapon capable of punching through Roman shields and armour (but which never seems to have been used again) and developed a cunning plan that offered Crassus no chance of escape. Although I have doubts about any commander being that able if they can lose touch overnight with 2,00 slower moving troops leaving a trail of dead and wounded behind them. Crassus on the other hand is depicted as doing no wrong, despite marching out into the plain that suited the Parthians the best and not letting his troops properly prepare before pushing them ahead at high speed.

An alternative reading fits the sources just as well. And that is that Surenas thought his cataphracts might over awe the tired and thirsty legionaries (showing the usual mounted nobility disregard for infantry) and when that failed settled for a running fight, looking to wear down the Romans until either they retired or the main army came up. Crassus was bereft of ideas on how to respond, and shattered by the death of his son (and with him the majority of his cavalry). The raw legionaries then panic, and lacking strong leadership, begin to fall apart. Surenas then hounds them from Parthia, killing Crassus by subterfuge as he is unable to do so otherwise.

Sampson wants Carrhae to be a Blenheim, a mighty power out thought and out fought by a power of equal or greater might, thrown away only due to the ruler's paranoia. But as far as Rome was concerned, it was never more than a Majuba or an Isandlwana, an embarrassing defeat at the edge of the empire of a previously reliable general who was searching for glory.

Despite Sampson's efforts, it is still Rome's Defeat rather than Parthia's Victory.
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on 31 July 2013
I've been driven to write this review by the poor 'review' left by 'bskeptic'. I say review, when in fact it's not. Mr Bruce (bskeptic's name) wrote his piece because he was annoyed that this volume was a textbook, not a novel. D'oh! If he'd bothered reading the description, he would have noted that it was not a work of fiction. I wonder if he's even actually read it. In any event, it's entirely unfair to leave a poor 'review' on this basis.

I have read Sampson's text, and it's excellent. I'm just sorry that it didn't come out sooner than it did, because by the time it was published, I'd already written my first novel, The Forgotten Legion, which concerns Crassus' disastrous campaign into Parthia. If I'd had this book to hand as a textbook, my life would have been made far easier than it was.

There is precious little information on what happened to Crassus' army at Carrhae in 53 BC, but Sampson does a very good job in setting the scene, describing the ancient world at the time, and Crassus' reasons for wanting to lead an invasion in his 60s. His descriptions of the campaign, and the battle itself are evocative and well-written, and his epilogue - about what happened afterwards, and the consequences of Carrhae - is also good. In short, if you are interested in the Roman Republic of the mid-first century BC, and in Crassus, who was a co-ruler with Julius Caesar until his death, you need to read this text.

Ben Kane, author of The Forgotten Legion and Spartacus.
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on 28 October 2011
I enjoy reading popular history titles on ancient Greece and Rome, especially when written about the turbulent last days of the Republic. This title is definitely a keeper for my library.

Of all the snippets on the 'battle of Carrhae' I've read to date, this gives the most balanced account. The author is careful with the sources, noting the discrepancies in their account of the same incident and yet still managing to maintain an enjoyable narrative. In my experience, when writers place too much emphasis on the veracity of their sources, their is a tendency for the book to morph into an academic treatise.

The book is repetitive in some areas but still enjoyable; leaving you with an undestanding of the motivations of both the Roman and Parthian empires over Syria. The author also argues against the unfair negative legacy attached to Crassus as result of the loss of the battle: highlighting his achievements during the Spartacus wars and his support of Sulla at the battle of the Colline Gate. All of which show Crassus as a capable commander and shrewd operator. Instead he makes a good case that Crassus was up against an extraordinary and masterful Parthian opponent - Surenas. Be advised though, there is a hint of hero worship of Surenas by Gareth.

Well worth a read, enjoy!
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on 26 September 2013
Read the book on holiday and couldn't put in down a very good and informative read. Crassus wasn't the bad guy he was made out to be.
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on 20 May 2013
I Expected this to be a novel not a text book a very poor read. The constant refereals to other texts and eariler/later passages made it virtualy imposible to get into.

John Bruce
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