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CRASSUS GOES TO SYRIA 195 and his disposition for in general he was far from being either self-assertive or conceited. But now he said that he would make the expedition of Lucullus against Tigranes and that of Pompey against Mithradates appear mere child's play. Yet he now counted sixty years, and looked even older than he really was.”
The renewal of the triumvirate had so cowed the Optimate party that even Cato had to give up his attempt to struggle against the omnipotent three. It is, therefore, all the more curious to find that one man set himself to oppose Crassus's designs, and that from mere personal enmity. This abnormal personage was the tribune C. Ateius Capito, one of those strange characters who move for an instant across the political stage, and are then lost in obscurity. He ventured to place a veto on the levying of legions for Crassus : it was quietly disregarded. Then he announced awful hindrances of portents and prodigies, which were also met with derision rather than attention; indeed, he was fined by the censor Appius for fabricating false omens. But he reserved his great coup for the day on which Crassus passed out of the gates to take command of his army. After one final and futile attempt to interpose his tribunicial veto, he took refuge in strange incantations. “He placed a censer at the gate,” we are told, “and threw incense upon it, uttering the most horrid imprecations and invoking strange and dreadful deities. The Romans say that these mysterious and ancient curses have such power that the man against whom they are directed never escapes ill-luck; nay, more, they add that the person who uses them is sure to bring misfortune on himself also."
Undaunted by these antiquated rites, and regardless of two or three other evil presages which Plutarch has carefully collected, Crassus set forth from Italy and arrived safely in Syria, where he found himself at the
head of an army of seven legions. His first act on taking charge of his province was to plunder ruthlessly the temples of Hierapolis, Emesa, and Jerusalem, and to scrape together all the money that could be raised by taxation. But he was no doubt set on filling his military chest for a war that was certain to prove long and costly, rather than on gratifying the talent for extortion that was such a marked characteristic of all his life. His first strategical move was to bridge the Euphrates, and to establish a new base for himself in the Greek cities of Mesopotamia. This was easily accomplished, but his second advance was a much more serious matter. He had now to prove whether his old martial reputation won in the wars against Carbo and Pontius and Spartacus had been fairly earned.
Quite unconsciously, Crassus was going forth to solve a new and difficult military problem. Unlike Cæsar in Gaul, he had not to deal with an old enemy whose strength and tactics were well known. The Romans had met and defeated many an Asiatic army during the last century, but the Parthians were not like the other inhabitants of the Hellenized East, whom Scipio or Sulla or Pompey had so easily subdued. Their hosts did not consist of clumsy imitations of the Macedonian phalanx, but of masses of horse-bowmen. Some were the lightest of light cavalry; others bore helm and lance and breastplate, as well as the national bow. Of infantry the Parthians had none, save levies raised among their subject-races for operations in mountainous regions. When the fight was to be in the plains, they did not take a single foot-soldier with them. Of all the regions of the border, Mesopotamia, into which Crassus was now advancing, was most suitable for the tactics of the enemy: the battles would be fought among rolling sandy downs, destitute of trees, and crossed by rivers · at very unfrequent intervals.
CRASSUS INVADES MESOPOTAMIA 197 Confident in his seven legions and his 4000 horse, the triumvir marched out from Carrhae and entered the desolate lands that lay between his base and the Parthian capital. He had resolved to take the shortest route to Seleucia, in spite of the advice of his Armenian allies, who had endeavoured to induce him to draw near to the Tigris and the Assyrian mountains, instead of plunging into the Mesopotamian sands, where the Parthians could use their horsemen to the best advantage. Tradition tells that he had been influenced in his resolve by the treacherous advice of an Arab sheikh named Ariamnes (or Abgarus), who had told him that speed was the essential thing in his advance. For, as he alleged, the Parthian king was not intending to fight so near the Roman frontier, and was sending his treasures eastward and preparing to evacuate Seleucia without any serious attempt to make a stand.
If Crassus was gulled by these stories, he was soon undeceived, for on the second day of his march his vedettes were driven in by the Parthian horse, and reported that the vizier Surena was close at hand with a mighty host. Eager to engage, the triumvir pressed on to meet the enemy, in full expectation of a victory that should eclipse all that Pompey had ever accomplished in the East. At first he drew up his men on a very long front, the legions deployed in line, with the cavalry in equal halves at each end of the array. But presently it struck him that this formation did not sufficiently cover his enormous baggage train, which was trailing along for many miles to the rear. Accordingly he changed his order to a great hollow square, and placed all his impedimenta in its centre. This would have been an excellent battle formation had he been about to contend with an enemy who employed “shock tactics,” and intended to charge in upon the legions, but against horse-archers it
was a mistake; it gave them a target which it would be impossible to miss, and at the same time made it hard for the Romans to charge without breaking their order of battle. The square is an essentially defensive formation, and useless against a light and evasive foe who has no wish to close.
When the Parthians appeared, at first in comparatively small numbers, but afterwards in huge hordes that seemed to cover the whole horizon, Crassus (in the usual Roman style) sent out his light troops to skirmish. But his slingers and archers were but a few thousand strong; after a short combat they were flung back upon the legions with heavy loss, absolutely overwhelmed by the concentric arrow-shower which was poured in upon them. The pursuing enemy then began to ride close up to the great square, and to take easy shots into the mass. They kept at a discreet distance, some 200 yards or so, and the legionaries were helpless against them, for the pilum had but a short range, and could not reach the horsemen. Nor was it any use to advance, for the enemy slowly retired, keeping always at the same distance from the legions, and continuing to pour in his long deadly shafts, which “nailed the shield to the arm that bore it, and the helmet to the head.”
Crassus now began to see the difficulties of the situation. Since it was impossible to contend with missile weapons against the Parthians, it was necessary to close at all costs. Accordingly he gave his son Publius charge of 1300 cavalry—all Gallic veterans fresh from Cæsar's wars, 1500 archers, and eight picked cohorts of infantry, and bade him sally out from the square and charge desperately into the enclosing ring of bowmen. Before this sudden onset the Parthians gave way, retiring at full speed, and leaving a moment's respite to the harrassed Jegions. Young Crassus pursued them fiercely, his in
BATTLE OF CARRHAE
199 fantry pushing forward so rapidly that it almost kept pace with the horsemen. Apparently the young commander allowed himself to be carried away by the ardour of the charge, and entertained a vain hope of catching up the enemy, for he chased them for five or six miles, till he had got quite out of touch with his father's legions. Then he suddenly found himself face to face with the solid supports of the elusive horse-bowmen-heavy squadrons of mailed lancers, who met him in orderly array and offered battle. At the same moment the fugitives whom he had been chasing halted, and began to ply their bows from the flanks. Although his troops were much disordered by their long and reckless ride, Publius charged straight at the centre of the enemy. A furious mêlée followed, but the Romans were hopelessly outnumbered, and after a most gallant defence the whole detachment, horse and foot, was exterminated.
The triumvir, advancing slowly in his son's track, was horrified to meet the Parthians returning with shouts of triumph, and displaying the heads of Publius and the other fallen officers fixed on their pikes. But, with a resolution which shows that the old Roman spirit was not dead in him, he addressed his men, crying “ that the loss of his son was his own private concern, and that the main army was intact, and might yet retrieve the day and avenge their fallen comrades. No campaign could be carried to a successful end without some casualties. It was not by her good fortune, but by her perseverance and fortitude in adversity that Rome had risen to be the mistress of the world.” These words were not enough to stir the weary soldiery, who had thoroughly lost heart, and were already cursing the general who had led them into this snare in the desert. It was his ignorance and presumption, they complained, which were the causes of their present desperate condition. They held out sullenly