Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.24

Gareth C. Sampson, The Defeat of Rome: Crassus, Carrhae, and the Invasion of the East.   Barnsley:  Pen & Sword Military, 2008.  Pp. xvi, 224.  ISBN 9781844156764.  £19.99.  

Reviewed by Jason M. Schlude, University of California, Berkeley (
Word count: 2354 words

[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

For those with a taste for military history, Gareth Sampson's study of the clash of Rome and Parthia at the battle of Carrhae will be a welcome addition to the corpus of modern scholarship. Yet Sampson aims to offer more than a merely engaging and lucid reconstruction of the battle itself -- a reconstruction, incidentally, that he brings off to great effect. He seeks to explore and articulate the significance of Carrhae in the broader context of the history of Rome, Parthia, and their relations. Hence a primary argument is that the expansion of the Roman and Parthian empires made conflict between Rome and Parthia inevitable. Their fateful confrontation materialized with Crassus's invasion of the Parthian empire, which resulted in an engagement at Carrhae that would inaugurate a dominant tradition of Romano-Parthian war. In this aim, Sampson also meets with success, providing a sustained, coherent analysis of the growth of and interactions between these empires before, during, and after the battle of Carrhae. Such coherence, however, can also be a liability. Perhaps too often Sampson tends to skip quickly over details indicative less of an inevitability of conflict than of a potentially more progressive streak in Romano-Parthian relations. In addition, it must be pointed out that, in this reading, Sampson strikes notes already struck many times before in previous scholarship. To say that Rome and Parthia were destined to clash is less than innovatory. Even so, Sampson's book fulfills its promise to provide the specialist and non-specialist with a thoughtful, clear account of the battle of Carrhae and its significance for our understanding of the relationship between Rome and Parthia, and it does so while achieving a remarkably good balance in the discussion of the Roman and Parthian perspectives.

Chapters one and two are the first of several chapters designed to provide important background information for the battle of Carrhae. In chapter one, Sampson details in a well-organized and understandable way some of the major features and events of the long and complex history of Rome's imperial expansion in the Mediterranean down to the time of Pompey's settlement of eastern affairs in the late 60s BC. In chapter two he attempts a similar task for the Parthian empire, tracing its ebb-and-flow growth from the foundation of its royal dynasty in the mid-third century BC to the early 50s BC. Such expositions are not only helpful thumbnail sketches for the general reader, but also form a foundation for Sampson's fundamental argument: Romans and Parthians were so relentless in the expansion of their empires that their conflict could be the only result. A weakness in Sampson's discussion, however, is his tendency to use concepts of "empire," "state," "civilisation," and "culture" almost interchangeably and uncritically to articulate the nature of rivalry and conflict between Rome and Parthia (29, 32, 35, 46-7, 52-5; cf. also xv-xvi). Without clearly defining and distinguishing such terms, he builds up the incompatibility of Rome and Parthia on a scale so grand as to be problematic.

In chapter three, Sampson assesses Crassus's early life and political career through his 55 BC consulship, providing an alternative to ancient and modern accounts that emphasize Crassan greed, cruelty, and military ineptitude. He illustrates how Crassus certainly sought to better his financial and political standing and committed offensive acts in the process. Yet Sampson points out that Crassus was anything but untested in the military sphere; he served in Spain, the social war, the first Roman civil war, and the slave revolt of Spartacus, and was pivotal in final victories of the last two major conflicts. Furthermore, Sampson appropriately emphasizes the impressive political ability and pragmatism of Crassus, as he established a formidable network of Romans who owed him favors, i.e., Caesar, and as he often worked with his powerful rival, Pompey, rather than against him, to advance his own political and financial interests. Throughout Sampson effectively avoids the hindsight that has led many others to denigrate Crassan accomplishments and to overemphasize the power and influence of a pre-Gallic Caesar.

Sampson utilizes chapter four to face squarely the dynamics of the Romano-Parthian relationship from the mid-second century BC to the eve of the Crassan campaign so as to better explain the "First Romano-Parthian War." He argues that Rome and Parthia both sought imperial supremacy in the Near East, and that this mutual motivation fueled their conflict and led to the Roman invasion of the Parthian empire, which happened to materialize with Crassus. Hence Crassus himself merits no blame. In Sampson's own words, "the war that broke out in the 50s BC was not due to the actions of any one man, but was the result of the wider forces of history" (83-4).

This chapter is a welcome complement to the first two chapters, providing a focused, synthetic analysis of the interactions of the Romans and Parthians. In addition, Sampson's emphasis on the pre-54 BC history of Romano-Parthian relations is right on target; one cannot properly understand the significance of Carrhae by starting with Crassus in 54 BC. Yet an important problem mars the analysis: an unwillingness to appreciate evidence suggestive more of Romano-Parthian diplomatic progress. Two examples must suffice to make the point. Firstly, when commenting on the likelihood of a treaty linked to the initial diplomatic contact of Rome and Parthia in the late 90's BC, Sampson concludes, "none [is] recorded in the sources" (86). The sources, however, are not so silent. Florus at one point has Parthian envoys refer to Parthian "treaties (foederum) with Sulla and Pompey" (1.46.4). And Plutarch, Sulla 5.4, Livy, Periochae 70 and 100, and Festus 15 are all compatible with this testimony, if we consider the flexibility of the diplomatic terminology of "alliance and friendship" in the Graeco-Roman literary tradition, as well as the abbreviated form of Livy here and derivative state of Festus. And, of course, if we accept the existence of this treaty, we have a reason for the failure of the Parthians to assist Pontus and Armenia against Lucullus in the Mithridatic Wars that is at least as strong as Sampson's explanation of Parthian weakness and fear of Rome (87-8). To cite a second example, Sampson rightly notes that Pompey, in the midst of a territorial conflict between his new ally Armenia and supposed enemy Parthia in 64 BC, did not attack the latter, but rather facilitated the arbitration of the dispute (90). At pains to explain this reconciliation, Sampson chalks it up to Pompey's eagerness to return to Rome and perception that the Parthians were not worth the trouble of a war (90). In essence, Sampson's pessimistic reading of Romano-Parthian relations will not allow him to concede an alternative and simpler solution: peace perhaps could also be a priority.

Chapters five and six get to the heart of the conflict. Here Sampson covers Gabinius' abortive attack of Parthia in 55 BC, then Crassus' embarkation for Syria also in 55 BC, initial campaign across the Euphrates in 54 BC, and second campaign that resulted in the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, and finally the devastating Roman retreat. In his treatment, Sampson forcefully argues that the total defeat of the Romans by the Parthians in 53 BC resulted not from the incompetence of Crassus, who consistently made strategic and logical decisions throughout the course of his campaigns, but from the careful, innovatory planning, preparation, and implementation of the Parthian general Surenas. While Crassus prepared a force with sufficient cavalry to handle the anticipated Parthian cataphracts and plenty of infantry to tear up the Parthian ground-troops in close combat, Surenas ensured that the battle would be fought at a distance by using his cataphracts to keep the Romans concentrated in one area and his mounted bowmen, supplied with unlimited arrows via camel train, to obliterate them.

The strengths of these two chapters run deep, despite some potentially misguided speculation. To begin, not only is the writing clear and lively, but also the tendency to provide alternating sections on Roman and Parthian strategies (94-121) is very effective, allowing for a thorough consideration of both perspectives. In addition, the breakdown of the battle into distinct phases and provision of diagrams (124-45) give the reader a good sense for the evolution of the engagement. And Sampson must be praised for his sensitive and critical reading of primary sources when he rightly points out where hindsight led the ancients to inappropriately criticize Crassus and to describe Carrhae as an inevitable Roman defeat. As for the speculation, consider the following. Firstly, Sampson suggests that after Gabinius promised and then postponed aid to Mithradates III, a rival of Orodes II for the throne, he sent him into Mesopotamia to stir up Parthian civil war in preparation for the Roman attack under Crassus (see especially 94-5). But this assumption is based on no evidence. And though he does cite Josephus as a source for the relationship between Gabinius and Mithradates, he fails to note that Josephus suggests the former in fact also postured himself as the captor of the latter (Jewish War 1.178; Jewish Antiquities 14.103; Hegesippus 1.21)! In other words, it may be that this Roman was doing his best to appear to support both Parthian royal candidates at the same time. Gabinius gave Mithradates the impression that he would assist him, but also projected the image of having captured and confined him -- an image Orodes might be expected to receive well. Hence Gabinius' position was not as uncompromisingly pro-Mithradates and anti-Orodes as Sampson supposes. Secondly, Sampson would have it that Surenas was the one to fill Crassus' decapitated head with molten gold (143). Yet Dio 40.27.3 and Servius 7.606 fail to specify the responsible agent, and Florus 1.46.10 and Festus 17 imply, if anything, that this act was carried out under the supervision of the king.

In chapter seven, Sampson turns to the aftermath of the battle of Carrhae, focusing on the years 53 to 50 BC, when the Parthians set on foot an unsuccessful invasion of Syria. Here Sampson argues that Rome, consumed with problems at home, ignored the precarious condition of their eastern empire after Carrhae, initially leaving one man, Cassius, the highest ranking survivor of that battle, to deal with the Parthian threat. And when Rome finally elected to send governors to Cilicia and Syria, they did so only in 51 BC and sent Cicero and Bibulus, two men who lacked military know-how. As for Parthians, Sampson looks to show that they squandered this opportunity to take Syria, explaining their failure as a result of the smart strategy of Cassius and ineptitude of Orodes. As often, the presentation of the material is finely organized, providing here informative sketches of the Roman and Parthian positions in 53 BC (148-52) to prepare the reader for a review of the complex events of 52 to 50 BC (152-65). Sampson also plausibly attempts to explain the Roman and Parthian motivations and intentions at each step of the way. But some weaknesses in the analysis remain. Perhaps most jarring is Sampson's speculation that Pompey perhaps wished to send Crassus as "an expendable fight the Parthians in order to weaken them and then move in for the kill [him]self" (166). Such a view is entirely inconsistent with the thrust of Sampson's repeated claims that Crassus was a recognizably accomplished military leader and that the Romans thought the Parthians petty foes.

The eighth and final chapter allows Sampson to sum up his understanding of the significance of the battle of Carrhae from several vantage points. It is a sharp review of conclusions that appear throughout the book, and expands on the broader significance of the engagement, especially for the history of the relationship of "East" and "West" (see especially 178-81). Simply put, Sampson's view of Carrhae as "inevitable" and as having kicked off a period of sustained Romano-Parthian enmity affirms a longstanding scholarly tradition that recognizes, only with reluctance, constructive aspects in the interactions between the Romans and Parthians. In this regard, Sampson does not stake out a new trajectory for discussion, but rather entrenches more deeply than ever the idea of fundamental incompatibility between the Roman and Parthian empires.

Only the appendices require further comment. Appendix I details what we know about the subsequent fate of those Roman soldiers who were taken captive at Carrhae. Appendices II and III provide a roster of the most important preserved and unpreserved primary sources for the battle of Carrhae and Parthian history in general. Significantly, they give the reader a good sense for the sources of information that form the basis of our modern understanding of Carrhae and Parthia and successfully orient the reader among these various sources.1 Appendix IV (200-201) consists of useful lists of Parthian kings (up to 38 BC), Macedonian kings, and Seleucid kings. Being that Sampson makes frequent mention of Armenia and Armenian kings in his text, a list of those monarchs would have proven useful as well.

The Defeat of Rome, then, is a vital read for anyone interested in the battle of Carrhae, the career of Crassus, or the (especially early) history of Romano-Parthian relations. The major strength -- and at times weakness -- of the volume is its consistent and persistent argument that Rome and Parthia were forever enemies. This reviewer anticipates that others will benefit as much as him from Sampson's labors over a topic significant for ancient and modern "East-West" relations.2


Chapter 1. "A New World Order -- The Roman Conquest of the East" (3-31).

Chapter 2. "Menace from the East -- The Rise of Parthia" (32-55).

Chapter 3. "Marcus Crassus and the Lure of the East" (56-80).

Chapter 4. "An Unnecessary War? -- The Origins of the First Romano-Parthian War (96-55 BC)" (83-93).

Chapter 5. "The Invasion of the East (55-53 BC)" (94-113).

Chapter 6. "Disaster at Carrhae" (114-47).

Chapter 7. "Storm over the East (53-50 BC)" (148-68).

Chapter 8. "Epilogue -- The Consequences of Carrhae" (169-81).

Appendix I. "The Fate of the Roman Prisoners" (182-5).

Appendix II. "Sources of the Battle of Carrhae" (186-93).

Appendix III. "Sources for Parthian History" (194-9).

Appendix IV. "King Lists" (200-1).


1.   For those eager to use these appendices as a jumping off point for further study, it should be noted that there is a more recent English translation of Justin, our most important source for Parthian history, than Sampson suggests (196): J. C. Yardley and R. Develin, Justin: Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1994).
2.   As for the presentation of the volume, though there are many typographical errors throughout (consider, for example, "peace negations," 25), they do not significantly misguide the reader in the vast majority of cases -- nor do they detract much from the enjoyment of the read. Perhaps a bit more bothersome, however, is Sampson's citation of the sources, which can seem spotty at times. For a book produced "for the general reader as well as the scholar" (xvi), this is slightly problematic. Yet perhaps it is a necessary result of covering so much historical ground.

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