on neglected commanders of the roman world: surena

Sources Plutarch, Life of Crassus (17-33); Cassius Dio (40.14-27)

His time General Surena (we don’t actually know his real name; Surena was the name of his clan) was born in 84BC into an unstable time, and would become one of the most celebrated military commanders of the Parthian Empire. The Parthians had originated as nomadic horsemen from northern Iran, but having fought their way into the Seleucid (Syrian Greek) Empire they gradually replaced it as the major power of the near east. By the early 1st century BC however, Rome’s eastward adventures had brought it into direct contact with Parthia; though relations between the two were initially cordial if cautious, things took a turn for the worse in 69BC, when Roman general Lucullus invaded Armenia (near Parthian territory). This would mark the start of a 300 year-long see-saw struggle as both Parthia and Rome claimed Armenia as their own. It was on the cusp of this interminable war that Surena came of age.

Background Plutarch tells us that Surena was an extraordinary physical specimen, a valorous and powerful man, handsome beyond compare, who in addition enjoyed great wealth and high rank, comparable to that of the King of Parthia himself. He was not a career military man in the way we would understand, but he was a high-ranking nobleman of the Parthian court; as such he probably had considerable military experience growing up. And even at the age of 30 he was known for being wise and shrewd. Plutarch also describes him as dressed in the Median fashion, with facial makeup and parted hair, in contrast to the usual long hair of the Parthian warriors. In the ensuing Battle of Carrhae – possibly the crowning achievement of his career – Surena would also prove himself to be a supremely adaptable and shrewd tactician.

His fight In 54 or 53BC the Roman consul Crassus launched a campaign against the Parthian Empire, motivated perhaps by desire for military glory (he was a rich but ageing ally of Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, both of whose military achievements by this point were the stuff of legend) or wealth (the Parthian Empire had a reputation for riches), or perhaps both. With him marched his son Publius, along with seven Roman legions and thousands more auxiliary troops – between 40 and 50 thousand men all told.

Now Crassus had set out from his base in Syria, and made a beeline toward Parthian-held Mesopotamia. On the way he was approached by a local chieftain, who advised him to attack the Parthians immediately, since his quick advance had thrown them into disarray. Crassus believed him and advanced, little knowing that the chieftain had been sent by the Parthians to spread disinformation. Surena, meanwhile, was sent by Parthian King Orodes II with a force of 9000 horse archers and 1000 armoured knights to delay Crassus.

As Crassus advanced further east he unexpectedly came upon Surena’s forces outside the town of Carrhae. Crassus remained confident enough to advance however, not least because the Romans outnumbered the Parthians four to one. As the legionaries advanced Surena pulled off the first of several stratagems: a dreadful, rumbling noise rippled across the Parthian lines as they beat their massive kettle drums, making a noise that sounded like the growls of a wild beast or roaring of thunder. Though this greatly unnerved the Romans they kept up their advance. And as they neared the Parthian line Surena tried again to frighten them: he had ordered his armoured knights to cover themselves with cloaks and skins, but at the last moment as the legionaries approached, these now as one threw off their coverings, revealing glittering armour covering both man and horse, stout helmets and dread spears.

This psychological barrage however failed to break the Romans, so Surena now sent his horse archers forward, making the most of his superior manoeuvrability to surround the ponderous Roman formations. Plutarch describes how the powerful bowshots pierced shield and armour alike, nailing hands to the shields they held, and driving through sandalled feet straight into the ground. Any attempts to pull out the barbed arrowheads caused terrible agony. Meanwhile the horse archers not only eluded contact but shot their arrows both while charging and retreating – the famed Parthian shot. So the Romans were unable to get to grips with the Parthians, all the while suffering under the relentless fusillade. At this point Surena also showed himself a shrewd logistician, since he’d had the foresight to provide camels laden with bundles of arrows to keep his horse archers continually supplied.

At this point Crassus began to panic, and ordered his son Publius to launch a counterattack. Publius charged with some 5000 men, but was cut off from the main Roman force and surrounded. Publius’ men were cut to pieces by Surena’s armoured knights, while Publius’ head was stuck on a pike and brandished along the Parthian line to taunt Crassus. At this point the Roman force began to crack – Crassus’ nerve gave way at the sight of his son’s head on a spear, while the horse archers kept up their merciless barrage. Surena’s armoured knights charged into the Roman lines again and again, their long spears driven with enough force to skewer two men at once.

Only nightfall brought a merciful close to the fighting, as the two sides withdrew. At this point Crassus decided to retreat to the town of Carrhae, leaving thousands of wounded Romans to be butchered or captured by the waiting enemy. The next day Surena decided to meet Crassus face to face, to discuss a truce. To this the Roman general agreed, and arrived with a force of lictors (his consular bodyguard). The meeting came to a tragic end however when a scuffle broke out, caused by Crassus’ unruly horse. As the scuffle became a confused brawl, Crassus was killed, adding to the 20,000 Romans killed just the day before.

Surena however would not let this rob him of a sense of victory. He cut off Crassus’ head (Dio claims he had molten gold poured down the corpse’s throat) and sent it to King Orodes, then humiliated Crassus’ entourage by organising them into a mock Roman triumph: he took from among the them one Caius Paccianus, who bore a resemblance to the late Crassus, and ‘named’ him the new Crassus, decking him out in a woman’s robe and leading him on a horse. Before him rode the lictors with their fasces (the traditional symbol of the consul’s authority in handing out corporal punishment), sitting atop camels; attached to the fasces were coin bags and decapitated Roman heads. And behind the lictors marched a chorus of local women singing songs to insult the dead Roman general. Surena topped it all off by pointing out how the baggage of one soldier, Roscius, was found to contain erotic literature; how shameful of the Romans, cried Surena, that they could not forego smut even on campaign!

Death and aftermath Executed only a year after Carrhae in 52BC by a suspicious King Orodes. We have no information on Orodes’ motives beyond Plutarch’s mention of jealousy. After his death Orodes launched an invasion of Rome’s eastern possessions, but – one likes to think, without Surena’s leadership – it was easily repulsed. Only in 20BC, a generation after Surena’s death, was a tentative peace made with Rome.

In a word Clever and capable general with a taste for the flamboyant, the first of many ‘decadent orientals’ to give Rome a run for its money.

(As a point of interest, in the 1940s Orientalist scholar HH Dubs put forward a theory that a group of Crassus’ legionaries were able to escape Parthian captivity, and making their way further east, took up service with a Hunnic warlord named Jzh Jzh. Dubs cited several sources, including a Chinese source describing Jzh Jzh’s soldiers using a testudo-like ‘fish-scale formation’. Dubs’ theory then goes that these Roman mercenaries were captured by a Chinese force which defeated Jzh Jzh in battle, and finally settled in the curiously-named city of Liqian (‘legion’?) on China’s western border, where they intermarried with local women. There are several problems with the evidence though, not least the fact that all of Crassus’ legionaries would have been well past fighting age by the time the Chinese defeated Jzh Jzh. Scholars have tried to settle the debate by carrying out DNA tests on the modern inhabitants of Zhelaizhai village, Gansu province – roughly where Liqian once stood – but the tests haven’t yielded much. Some of the tested DNA suggested a Caucasian origin, but given that the area has always been an ethnic melting pot, this is not surprising; and even then, the Caucasian DNA is much more likely to be of Iranian than Italian origin. Dubs’ theory is interesting but still just a theory, taken seriously by few in the academic world.)

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