By MSW Add a Comment 24 Min Read

Spartacus’ rebellion had lasted three years by the time it finally came to an end. In 71 BC Marcus Licinius Crassus stood for one of the praetorships that year. No one else would stand for fear of the immense task ahead, but Crassus was extremely wealthy and even more ambitious. Appian said that, determined to win at all costs, Crassus raised an army of six legions, to which he added the consular army of two legions. However, he reduced the number of men in two consular legions by decimation as a punishment for their failure to defeat Spartacus in the preceding two years. According to another story that circulated (which Appian quotes), he was in fact defeated himself by Spartacus to begin with and had to decimate his whole army, killing around 4,000 men. In Plutarch’s version Crassus sent Memmius, one of his legates, with two of the legions to fight Spartacus. Memmius was defeated and some of the survivors fled. Crassus regrouped them but took the 500 most cowardly and decimated them. Whatever the truth, it worked. He killed two-thirds of a group of 10,000 of Spartacus’ army who were encamped some way from the main force. With that victory under his belt, Crassus led his men to rout the rest.

Spartacus’ army fled south to the sea, hoping to cross to Sicily, but was trapped by Crassus. Spartacus tried to avoid joining battle after he lost 6,000 men when trying to break out, and instead spent his time trying to harass Crassus’ army. Back in Rome, the thought that the siege might last any longer led the Senate to invite Pompey and his army, which had recently returned to Italy from the war in Spain against the rebel Quintus Sertorius, to head south and help defeat Spartacus. That infuriated Crassus, who believed Pompey would end up with all the glory and was desperate to fight Spartacus before his rival arrived. Spartacus tried to negotiate terms but Crassus refused. Spartacus then broke out and headed for Brindisi in the hope of making his escape by sea. He gave up when he heard that Lucullus, proconsul of Macedonia, had arrived back in Brindisi after defeating Mithridates of Persia. Spartacus now turned to face Crassus in battle and was defeated. He was killed while making his way towards Crassus, killing two centurions as he did so, as were all the rest of his army except 6,000 men whom Crassus crucified along the Via Appia from Capua to Rome. The Spartacus War had put Rome in the most extraordinarily precarious position. Spartacus’ success came close to undermining the military prestige Rome had won over several centuries, and made a mockery of the Roman military system Polybius had so admired only eighty years earlier.


In 53 BC, almost twenty years after he brought the Spartacus War to an end, Marcus Licinius Crassus and a huge Roman army set out to the east to confront the Parthians under their commander Surena, Orodes II’s general. Crassus was a political associate of Caesar and Pompey, and at the time the three men were united in an unofficial alliance known today as the ‘First Triumvirate’. Crassus was moreover the richest man in Rome.

The battle that followed at Carrhae (near present-day Harran, eastern Turkey) was a catastrophe. Most of the Roman force was annihilated. Crassus was killed, as was his son. Even worse, the Roman standards were lost. All the auspices had been bad from the outset. For some reason, Crassus was handed a black cloak instead of the white or purple one a general would normally wear to battle. The soldiers were in a depressed and silent mood instead of being eager to fight. The legionary eagle standards proved to be a problem too. A centurion struggled to pull one of them up out of the ground, while another swivelled round to face the wrong direction. Crassus ‘made light’ of such bad omens, said Plutarch. Valerius Maximus put it all down to the inevitable consequence of human vanity in the face of heaven.

To begin with, Crassus spread his men out on a wide front to stop the Parthians surrounding them. Soon he changed his mind and ordered them to rearrange themselves into a hollow square with 12 cohorts and a cavalry wing on each side. The idea was they would be able to face an attack from any side. Keen to bring the Parthians to battle, he refused to make camp by the river Balissus and allow his parched troops to quench their thirst. They had to eat and drink where they stood before moving on. When they did advance, Crassus marched them into a trap, even though his army was much bigger than Surena’s. Surena had ordered his men to hide their armour behind their clothing and had concealed his main army behind his advance force. With a graphic sense of theatre he then ordered the Parthian soldiers to work up a terrifying and disorienting din using drums and bells, before exposing their armour – an impression amplified by their painted faces and the way they wore their hair over their foreheads in the style of the Scythians to make themselves look as frightening as possible.

The Parthian force surrounded Crassus’ hollow square. He ordered an advance, but it collapsed almost instantly under a hail of arrows. The Romans could not escape. When Crassus realized the Parthians had brought up a supply chain of camels laden with fresh arrows, any hopes that they were about to run out of ammunition evaporated. Crassus told his son, Publius Licinius Crassus, to lead an attack as the Parthians withdrew, before the opportunity disappeared for good. The younger Crassus took eight infantry cohorts, 500 archers and 1,300 cavalry. He raced right into a trap. The Parthians stopped, turned, used their cavalry to kick up dust and embarked on a massacre. Roman infantry troops died or suffered in agony trying to pull out the barbed arrows, which ripped open their wounds even wider. Others had arrows through their feet and hands, pinning them to the ground or fixing their hands to their shields. Young Crassus pressed on, only for his Gaulish cavalry to fall foul of the Parthians’ longer spears and the heat. They fell back, taking over a patch of higher ground to give them a defensive advantage, but only exposed themselves to another hail of arrows. The wounded young Crassus turned down a chance to escape and ordered his shield-bearer to kill him. The Parthians then turned on his father.

Before Crassus could advance to relieve his son the Parthians returned to face him, started on their drums again and held up his son’s decapitated head. They mocked Crassus for his cowardice compared to his son’s valour. Roman morale plunged further, a speech from Crassus failing to lift their spirits. The first day of the battle ended with the Parthians once more surrounding the Romans and killing many with arrows and spears. Crassus spent the night in despair, so his officers decided to organize a general retreat into the city of Carrhae, abandoning many of their sick and wounded. In the morning the Parthians started the day by killing 4,000 of those left behind. In addition, four cohorts that had become separated from the main Roman column were wiped out after getting lost.

With the remaining Romans stuck in Carrhae, Surena offered a truce if they would leave the region. It was agreed that he and Crassus would hold a conference, but the next day the Parthians told the besieged Romans that if they wanted a truce they would have to hand Crassus over. The meeting, when it took place, was a disaster. Surena offered Crassus a horse but one of his men pulled the animal’s reins while Crassus was seated on it. His officers tried to restrain the horse but violence broke out and Crassus was killed, allegedly by a Parthian named Pomaxathres. That sparked an eruption of killing which started with the deaths of some of Crassus’ party and ended with the slaughter of 20,000 Roman troops and the imprisonment of 10,000 more, and the Roman standards were lost. Led by Cassius Longinus, one of Crassus’ officers, only 10,000 soldiers made their way back to Syria (some of them must have recorded their experiences in accounts later read by Appian and Plutarch). A particularly distasteful account of the aftermath was related by Cassius Dio. He said there was a story that the Parthians had poured molten gold into Crassus’ mouth in mockery of his riches and the way he had pitied those who could not afford to bankroll a whole legion from their personal wealth.

The disaster was an object lesson in what could happen when soldiers, demoralized and far from home in extremely arduous conditions, were confronted with an imaginative and resourceful enemy. Carrhae was a body-blow because a superior Roman force had been destroyed with comparative ease. It was not until the reign of Augustus, when Parthia conceded control of Armenia following a campaign led by the emperor’s stepson Tiberius, that the standards were returned. Tiberius received the standards on 12 May 20 BC, after Tigranes II was restored to the Armenian throne; he also recovered the standards lost by Mark Antony when Orodes II’s son Phraates defeated his army in 36 BC.31 With their return, some Roman dignity had been restored and the shadow of the defeat laid to rest. Over four centuries later, the tale of Crassus’ defeat and how he had been ‘annihilated’ was well remembered in Roman lore.


In 19 BC Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ general, right-hand man and son-in-law, went out to Spain to deal with a rising among the Cantabri. Enslaved after their defeat in a war earlier in Augustus’ reign, the Cantabri had killed their masters, returned to their tribal homelands in northern Spain, and whipped up a rebellion that involved making plans to attack the Roman garrisons. ‘But he had some trouble with his soldiers’, said Cassius Dio of Agrippa. Many were too old and worn out by the continuous wars of recent years; evidently the recruitment of new, younger soldiers had fallen short of requirements.

Once Agrippa had weighed in, telling them off, encouraging them and trying to inject some optimism, eventually they agreed to obey his orders. Agrippa might have thought he had sorted out the problems, but he was soon to discover he had not. The Cantabri proved to be an intractable foe. They had ‘gained practical experience’ of fighting and were highly motivated by the thought that if they were captured they were bound to be killed. Strabo described how the Cantabrians had a ‘ferocity and insensibility’ to suffering that meant when they were captured and crucified they sang ‘their paean of victory’. No wonder then that a large number of Roman soldiers were lost in the fighting, and Agrippa had to punish numerous other men ‘because they kept being defeated’. He even stripped Legio I of its title ‘Augusta’ out of disgust at its failure in the war. Only then did he manage to turn round the fighting, killing many Cantabrian fighters and capturing others.

Agrippa had won a victory, but he turned down the triumph Augustus offered him, perhaps because it had been such a close-run thing. Legio I later redeemed itself in Germany, possibly in the aftermath of the disaster of AD 9 (see below), becoming known as Legio I Germanica. Meanwhile Legio IIII Macedonica and Legio X Gemina had to be stationed in Spain to control the area for several generations to come.


In AD 9 Publius Quinctilius Varus was in his third year as governor of Germania, a region in which the Romans still only held certain districts. Confident that the province was at peace, Varus was managing a programme of urban colonization designed to encourage the locals into Roman ways of life. The Germans had been left in no doubt about Roman military prestige. A magnificent twice life-size bronze equestrian statue, undoubtedly of Augustus, was erected at Waldegrimes, a civilian settlement. The bronze horse’s head survives, decorated with a figure of Mars on the bridle.

In fact Varus was being willingly lulled into a false sense of security by the German tribes, who helpfully pretended to be acquiescent and peaceful. Two tribal leaders, Arminius and Segimerus, posed as his friends and were allowed to share his tent, even while they plotted against him; so trusted was Arminius that he was made a Roman citizen and an equestrian. As far as the Roman historian Velleius Paterculus was concerned, ‘fate took control of Varus’ plans and blindfolded the eyes of his mind’. Consequently, the foolhardy governor ‘did not keep his legions together’. Instead he gave in to various requests from widely dispersed settlements for the dispatch of soldiers to act as police by guarding locations and supply traffic, and catching thieves. When the Germans instigated an uprising, so that Varus would have to set out to suppress it, Arminius and Segimerus excused themselves, claiming they were heading off to put together units of allied auxiliary soldiers to help out. It was, of course, a lie. They killed the Roman soldiers sent by Varus and then waited for the governor and his army to arrive.

Varus blithely led a Roman army of three legions, XVII, XVIII and XVIIII, from Xanten to Mainz right into the Teutoburg Forest, a dangerous place for soldiers who preferred to fight pitched battles in the open. The force of more than 15,000, together with its baggage train, which included women and children and other followers, swanned into a trap ‘hemmed in by forests and marshes’. The soldiers had been mixed up with the wagon train, an unforgivable lack of planning, so it was impossible to get into any defensive formation when the Germans attacked. When the bewildered Romans counterattacked they found themselves crashing into each other and into the trees. Foul weather hampered their progress as they desperately tried to cut down the trees and build the roads the army so depended on for movement and control of the terrain, while floundering in the mud during constant attacks from the tribesmen.

A bad situation became a great deal worse over the several days it took the disaster to unfold. More torrential rain and a gale on the fourth day meant the Romans became weighed down with equipment that they could not use; their hands were soaked and they could not throw javelins or fire arrows, or even hold their shields. It was a decisive moment. Varus’ surviving men were unable to escape or even effectively defend themselves. They were now besieged in the middle of a forest. More Germans had arrived, ‘largely in the hope of plunder’. The Romans who had survived thus far were starting to run out of food. They decided to show their few German prisoners that they had excellent stocks of food and could hold out. Next, having cut the prisoners’ hands off, they set them free so they could go back to Arminius’ men and tell them there was no chance of starving the Romans into surrendering.

In reality the position was hopeless. One of the camp prefects, Lucius Eggius, surrendered and gave himself up to be tortured to death. A legionary legate, Numonius Vala, fled but was captured and killed. Varus had the presence of mind to fall on his sword, as did his other surviving officers. It was an honourable way out and had the useful bonus of avoiding an agonizing death at the hands of the enemy. The eagle standards were seized by the Germans from the spot where Varus died. When the remaining soldiers realized what had happened, some committed suicide and others gave up, throwing down their weapons and waiting to be killed. Escape was impossible. They were slaughtered to a man ‘like cattle’. The German tribes took delight in mutilating Varus’ body before decapitating it and sending the head to Tiberius, the stepson and heir of Augustus and currently in command in the region. When the news reached Augustus in Rome he was devastated and incredulous.

During his campaign in 15, six years later, Germanicus came across the grisly remains of Varus’ camp. He found the remains of the Roman soldiers’ bodies ‘cut to pieces, in a ditch and on the plain nearby bleached bones either in piles or scattered’, no doubt where wild animals had carried them off to feast on. There was worse to come. Dying in battle was one thing, but those captured had suffered far worse fates. ‘Skulls were impaled on the trunks of trees. In the groves of trees nearby were barbarian altars where the tribunes and the most senior centurions had been slaughtered.’ Even the animals had been butchered. Germanicus found the remains of horses that had been hacked to pieces. The few survivors who escaped to tell the tale had reported how Arminius had made a speech from a tribunal on the spot. They pointed out the gibbets and torture pits his men had specially prepared for the massacre.

Germanicus’ men set about the grim task of gathering up the bones and burying them properly. They had already recaptured the eagle standard of Legio XVIIII when they attacked the Bructeri tribe en route to the site of the disaster. One of the other standards would have to wait until the next year when an informant told Germanicus it was buried in a grove and had only a light guard; the third did not turn up until 41, when Publius Gabinius recovered it after defeating the Chauci.

Miraculously, the tombstone of one of Varus’ men, found at Xanten, has survived. Marcus Caelius, a centurion in Legio XVIII, died in the horror in the Teutoburg Forest along with thousands of others. Of course, in reality his body had never been recovered; if it had been, it was jumbled up among the piles of mutilated and bleached bones found by Germanicus, and could never have been identified. The tombstone was thus really a cenotaph, set up in commemoration by his brother Publius. It also depicted and named Marcus’ freedmen, who must have accompanied their former master and died alongside him. Publius added a note, more in vain than in hope, that their bones could be interred there too if they were ever found and identified. As for the equestrian statue of Augustus erected at Waldegrimes, it was hacked to pieces by tribesmen and the head thrown down a well, ironically ensuring its survival.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version