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Revisionist history at its best and worst?
on 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.