How Dazzling Chinese Silk Defeated the Roman Army

Vintage engraving "Death of Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae."

Source Getty

Why you should care

If you’re outnumbered in a battle, remember that you can always turn to showmanship. 

In the battle that would end his life and eventually plunge his country into civil war, Marcus Licinius Crassus was sure he had the upper hand. It was 53 B.C., and Crassus was one of the most powerful men in the world: With Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompey, he was a member of Rome’s First Triumvirate, an alliance that allowed the three men to strong-arm the powerful Roman Senate. 

But Crassus was about to be defeated by a clever general. And some special effects.

Crassus, whose name translates as “coarse” or “gross,” was up against the Parthian empire. For the 62-year-old, victory at the Battle of Carrhae — located in modern Turkey — meant more money for Rome and more personal glory. While not a career general, Crassus had crushed the slave revolt led by Spartacus. The Battle of Carrhae would finally settle whether he was the real deal, a great general like Pompey or Caesar, and not just a moneyman. The Parthians, led by Gen. Surena, were outnumbered 4 to 1fighting for their survival against the most formidable military force on earth. “Many Roman nobles wanted to imitate Alexander the Great with campaigns to defeat Persia,” explains University of Richmond associate professor of classical studies Walter Stevenson. “So we don’t need to look too deep for [Crassus’] motivation.”

Crassus’ son Publius, wounded, fell on his own sword — and his head was then displayed on the end of a spear by the Parthian army.

Crassus was one of the richest men in Rome, a period Rockefeller. The ambitious property tycoon had made his fortune by buying up, on the spot, Roman houses that were on fire. In each case, Crassus’ fire brigade staffed by slaves snuffed the blaze, after which Crassus would renovate and sell at a profit. But his invasion of Parthia was marked by missteps: He ignored advice from both the king of Armenia and Gen. Gaius Cassius Longinus, choosing instead to plow his 50,000 men straight through Mesopotamia. Even Parthian King Orodes II didn’t expect Surena to be able to defeat Crassus outright and sent him with just 10,000 soldiers, 90 percent of whom were mounted archers. 

Those 10,000 soldiers were all Surena needed. That and a little razzle-dazzle, courtesy of Silk Road trade whose taxation had enriched the Parthian empire. The Parthians and Romans fought for hours on a May morning, and both leaders appeared to be holding their own. But then the Parthians charged again. 


This time, they went for shock and awe. The Parthians had donned animal skins and bunched their hair over their foreheads. They wailed and banged on hollow drums covered in bells, creating what historian Plutarch describes as “a low and dismal tone, a mixture of a wild beast’s roar and a harsh thunder peal.” This understandably freaked out the Roman soldiers. And then the Parthians dropped the animal skins to reveal bright armor and unfurled dazzling banners of silk — something East Asian civilization expert Craig Benjamin, author of Empires of Ancient Eurasia: The First Silk Roads Era, 100 BCE–250 CE, says might have been the first Chinese silk the Romans had ever seen. 

Benjamin admits that the story may be “somewhat apocryphal,” though it is described by first-century historian Lucius Annaeus Florus. “Florus just says it unnerved the soldiers, who were probably already unnerved anyway,” Benjamin says. “And so wave after wave of mounted archers came at them with the banners flying — and you’d imagine the drums beating, the trumpets, you know.” He adds that the banners may have served to inspire the Parthians.

After the theatrics came the arrows, discharged by what were at the time high-tech compound bows. Surena used his surfeit of archers to his advantage: They let loose a veritable rain of arrows, not aiming for particular soldiers but instead making it impossible for the Romans, who stood in a traditional square formation, to move without getting hit. Historian Cassius Dio describes a melee, in which some Roman soldiers survived only because the Parthians grew tired of killing them. Crassus’ son Publius, wounded, fell on his own sword — and his head was then displayed on the end of a spear by the Parthian army. An estimated 20,000 Romans were killed, and another 10,000 captured. 

The Parthian appetite for the theatrical didn’t end there. Roman historians — who are notorious for relating the most lurid version of events, so take all of this with a grain of salt — disagree on how Crassus died, whether by falling on his own sword or during a post-battle meeting with the Parthians. Afterward, according to Cassius Dio, the Parthians poured molten gold into the corpse’s mouth so that, as Florus puts it, “the dead and bloodless flesh of one whose heart had burned with lust for gold was itself burnt with gold.” They mailed Crassus’ head and right hand to King Orodes II. According to historian A.D.H. Bivar in The Political History of Iran Under the Arsacids, the head was immediately used as a prop in a performance of Euripides’ The Bacchae.

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