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Why, in ancient battles, did being encircled mean defeat?


Why, in ancient battles, did being encircled mean defeat?

The classic example of that is the Battle of Cannae, where 80,000 Roman infantry were surrounded by 40,000 Carthaginian infantry.

Every description of the battle that I've seen talks in detail about how the Romans came to be encircled, but gives a hand-waving argument for why that was bad for them.

Wikipedia and other sources say that the Romans turned around and fought in a circle (It's not like individual Roman soldiers were being attacked from their unprotected sides or back).

Another "disadvantage" that's cited is that they were packed too tight, and didn't have room to wield their weapons. Presumably, they are saying that the Romans interlocked their shields. But couldn't they rotate their shields to create the necessary gaps between them?

Ancient battles are often described as a shield wall pushing against another shield wall. Since the Roman wall had a higher density of soldiers, wouldn't that let them push better, giving them the ability to dictate the position of said wall, expanding the circle?

One potential advantage of the encircled army is that its communication lines are shorter.

Are there any examples of ancient battles where encirclement did not mean defeat, that is, the encircled side broke out and went on to win the battle?


While the tactical factor (not being able to move units around) is important, the main issue is one of soldiers panicking. Remember that it does not matter what the numbers are actually; your soldiers cannot see the lines in the map and are victims of the fog of war.

Soldiers in the battlefield do not get to see a nice map showing the position of the units, how thin the enemy lines are and how many of each side are still fighting. Specifically in the classic massed infantry fights, all that they can see is lots of people around them; particularly you do not see how many lines of enemies are before you even if you are in the front line of your army.

Now, you are doing your part, advancing forward, with your back and your sides protected by your fellow soldiers, so you can concentrate on using your weapon and shield in the front. Life is good.

Suddenly you hear a commotion at your back. The soldiers behind you move forward, pressing against you. You do not know exactly what is happening, but it is something very worrisome. Then word spreads that the enemy is attacking at your back.

You do not know exactly what is happening. Maybe you are not completely encircled and there are still gaps left for you to flee. You know that if the other soldiers try to flee and you stay put you will be slaughtered, because nobody will be defending your back. But maybe - just maybe - if you start fleeing right now you will get an opportunity to make it home. And you fear that all the soldiers around your are thinking the same; maybe the rout has already started and you are just missing your opportunity.

If you are in front of the enemy, you do not want to be the one holding the line while everybody behind you is fleeing, leaving you undefended. You move back. If the soldier behind you does not move, you push with your back, until he leaves you a space to retreat to or everyone is so tightly packed that you cannot move.

So, at some time, the soldiers panic, they stop trying to fight and only think about fleeing, about finding a gap that the enemy still has not closed; the army just stops being an army and the rout happens.

You do not ever need the army to be surrounded, routs happen all the time when the soldiers of one side figured (rightly or not) that they were going to lose. Typically, most of the casualties of the battle would happen as the rout developed.


While the total encirclement might be the most impressive thing about Cannae, remember that it's just a special case of a pincer movement where the pincer goes all the way around the enemy. A pincer is itself just a special case of a flanking manuever in which both flanks are attacked simultaneously. The most important thing about Cannae was that Hannibal was able to flank the Romans; being able to then cut off their retreat thanks to his cavalry quickly driving off the Romans was just the cherry on the top.

Flanking maneuvers were devastating to ancient (and modern) military forces. As you argue, it sounds like a flanked force should be able to reorganize itself, set up a shield wall or otherwise split itself up to take on an enemy attack from two sides. However, human beings can't fight effectively in two directions at once, and the goal of flanking is to force at least one soldier to do this, defeat them, and then move on to the next one. Flanking could also be extremely demoralizing: as long as your enemy was in front of you and allies to your sides, you knew that a path to retreat was open. If enemies began appearing on your side, it may only be a matter of time before they cut you off from retreat entirely. Being flanked was a major worry for ancient militaries, especially after it became clear that this was a major vulnerability for military units that were designed to move forward, such as a phalanx. Military formations were subsequently designed specifically to avoid flanks, such as by placing the strongest troops in the flank positions.

To address the other points you raised:

Wikipedia and other sources say that the Romans turned around and fought in a circle (It's not like individual Roman soldiers were attacked from their unprotected sides or back).

I believe they were in a half circle, not a full circle -- which means that the Roman line ended somewhere, which is where they could be flanked. If you look closely at the image you linked, you can see that most of the soldiers are depicted lined up fighting the Carthaginians -- the flanking is being carried out solely by the African Infantry and the Spanish and Gaulish cavalry, who are maneuvering past the Roman lines and attacking them from behind.

Another "disadvantage" that's cited is that they were packed too tight, and didn't have room to wield their weapons. Presumably, they are saying that the Romans interlocked their shields. But couldn't they rotate their shields to create the necessary gaps between them?

Actually, I think they are literally saying that the Romans couldn't move their arms: I've always imagined the African infantry as pushing inwards into the core of Roman soldiers, causing the Romans to push inwards and back away from the Carthaginians and into other Romans. I can imagine that this would lead to severe overcrowding, where even non-panicking soldiers who knew where they should go and what they should do, couldn't, even as their compatriots died around them.

Ancient battles are often described as a shield wall pushing against another shield wall. Since the Roman wall had a higher density of soldiers, wouldn't that let them push better, giving them the ability to dictate the position of said wall, expanding the circle?

Not if the enemy can get around your wall. At this point in the battle, the Romans had very little maneuverability: they could push forward or to the sides or they could try to run out the back. The Carthaginians, on the other hand, had all the maneuverability: Hannibal could reorganize any forces not actively fighting Romans at his leisure, which is why he placed the cavalry behind the Romans to cut off their retreat.

Are there any examples of ancient battles where encirclement did not mean defeat, that is, the encircled side broke out and went on to win the battle?

Caesar did it, because of course he did. But he was fighting from behind fortifications on (every) side, not in an open field like Cannae. A more apt example might be Pompey's cavalry at Pharsalas: they maneuvered around Caesar's soldiers and tried to flank them, but Caesar anticipated this and had a line of infantry waiting for them, because of course he did.


I just wanted to expand on a comment by armatita and hence address some part of the OP's question more generally. Independent of the specifics of this battle and tactics, it is mathematically disadvantageous to be encircled, even partially. If we assume that each person needs the same amount of space to actively participate in combat (move their weapons effectively, which is usually not an unreasonable assumption), then the outer concave will usually have an advantage in the number of active combat participants. This can lead to a fast loss ratio for the inner circle and significantly smaller forces can best larger ones.

Figure 1: Figure2:

While at first one may be tempted to say that they are fighting on the same curve and should have the same curve length to space out on, the reality is that there is some space between the opposing forces, so the illustration is as shown above (See figure 1) with the curves they stand on shown by the edges of the blue and red circles. The yellow and green circles are the same size, representing the space needed for an active combatant to fight effectively. In this example at any time in this fight is 17 vs. 11. That will make the yellow combatants die at a faster rate, and depending on what that rate turns out to be it can happen that green wins even if outnumbered significantly. In fact, in the above we could fit 8 more active fighters inside the blue circle (see figure 2), but even though they are 19 vs. only 17, they are being force to fight as 11 vs. 17. These ratios skew further as the core is packed closer than the space of an active combatant.

This difference only becomes more extreme when we consider ranged attackers. These are well known and are taken advantage of in games that also use these basic assumptions, e.g. SCII: http://www.teamliquid.net/forum/sc2-strategy/187892-positioning-formations-and-tactics

Suppose that the area needed by an active combatant has a radius of is 0.75 meters. Mathematically, each circumference is 2*Pi*r, here we have r1 and r2, which differ by, suppose 1.5 meters (measured from underneath the center or one soldier to underneath the center of an opposing soldier). (r1-r2)*2*Pi/1.5 gives the number of extra soldiers fighting actively in the surrounding force. So the outside force always has 6 extra fighters. This does not depend on the size of the circle, but on the curvature of the concave. So being surrounded in a circle isn't such a huge disadvantage for large numbers of combatants with large circles, 17 vs. 11 is bad, but 10,000 vs. 10,006 at a given time should be tolerable, that is, it shouldn't give so much higher of a death rate that is is the determining factor when your total numbers are 80000 to 40000. Or even 86000 against 50000 as another answerer suggests.

So, what can we conclude here? Having a concave is always an advantage, but with large circles (which have low curvature) it is not much of one. There are also advantages to being surrounded, such as interior lines as another answerer pointed out, but I think those occur at somewhat larger spacing. So what actually happened in this battle?

I think others have given very good answers that cover this already. I would just also point out that the edges of a forward facing formation are particularly susceptible to high curvature flanking, giving the flankers a significantly greater advantage than the above circular scenario.


tl; dr - encirclement creates a mobility advantage for the encircling forces. Ultimately encirclement permits the encircling commander to choose the location, time, conditions, and duration. The defending/encircled force has no options.

Melee formations are tightly packed - shields overlap. If you want to survive, you want to be as close as possible to the guy on your left and on your right. They are keeping you alive. The opponents will take advantage of every inch of space between you. You have just enough room to thrust your sword (or spear) forward and back. You and your squad have trained for hundreds of hours to be able to walk forward without losing that tight cohesion - without leaving a gap large enough for an enemy sword to get through. Good squads can move forward and sideways. Excellent squads may be able to execute on the diagonal, but remember if your foot moves to the left or right you're stepping in front of a squadmate. You can see forward. Your helm obscures your vision to left and right. Behind you is a mystery. You cannot turn your body and you can only turn your head slightly. In summary, a melee formation is an armored weapon that points forward, moves forward, attacks forward and is defenseless to the rear.

If you enemy can flank you, he can carve you to pieces - if you turn your shield from the front to the side, the front will kill you. If you don't, the side will kill you. There is no option to turn to the rear; people behind you can kill you at no risk to themselves.

OP suggests that the formation could form a square. (Aside: Someone challenged me on the point that OP suggests they form a circle; simple geometry tells us that the circumference of the circle expands with the radius; the shields stay the same size; circle is a suicide formation; what you want and what the video linked to below shows is square.) Squares are not mobile. An excellent squad might be able to march in square, but the encircling forces will always have greater mobility. The force with the greater mobility gets to choose where and when to concentrate forces; the encircled force has no options. Somewhere in that square is the weakest link and the encircling forces can attack it mercilessly; the defending (less mobile) forces cannot adapt. The defender must accept that the attack will occur on the weakest possible location and relentlessly. Attackers can use their strongest, freshest forces against the defenders weakest, wounded, tired, forces.

Encircling forces can compress the defender - squeezing them together so that they cannot use their weapons at all. Merely advance with spears. Once the defender cannot use weapons, they are standing dead men,

Once you're encircled, there is no chance to win, and you know it. The only option is to break out. If you can't break out, you will die when and where your opponent chooses.

At the request of several that I provide sources, I spent 15s searching youtube for video of pre-modern formation melee fighting. The narrator notes the requirement for coordination and teamwork. This is a very loose shield wall.
Example - note that if the formation were encircled, the officer helping them to navigate and move would be inside the wall and blind (or dead). Participants in the turtle formation are effectively blind. It is very difficult to coordinate the activities within the turtle. If you stop to chat about which way you're going to move, you'll die. What they are doing is very difficult; they do have an officer shouting commands. They don't have people hammering weapons on those shields constantly. THey're walking on a flat field with effectively no obstacles. Imagine how that formation adapts to dead bodies, discarded weapons, mud, etc. Any time the formation slips, the encircling opponent will slip a weapon inside the resulting flaw.

Aside: OP asks why encirclement is bad; OP did not ask for an analysis of how Roman forces at Cannae came to be encircled (that is a valid, but distinct question). I'm answering only the question that OP asked.

Aside: I'm also relying on my personal experience in fighting multiple opponents - something I do regularly. Mobility is key. It doesn't work the way it does in the movies where the stuntmen stand in a ring (which is conveniently just on the edge of the camera frame so you can't see how inept they are) and wave their weapons vigorously but politely take turns in attacking the protagonist. The moment the combat starts, the defender needs to be in constant motion; the key to success is to move in such a way that the attackers are hampered by their partners. The specifics don't translate to formation fighting, but the principle of greater mobility = greater probability of survival = does translate.


You are correct that being surrounded isn't necessarily a bad thing, and this question isn't a straightforward one to answer. As Pieter Geerkens noted in a comment, if you do it right then the defender enjoys the advantage of interior lines, and smart commanders throughout history have let themselves be surrounded on purpose to that effect.

To arbitrarily pick an example, this is what the Chinese did during the Battle of Xuzhou (note: Chinese Wikipedia; English does not have this info), where forward elements were pulled back, putting the HQ within the Japanese shelling range, but also allowing the Chinese to move reinforcements between the north and south fronts, and execute feints and flanks against the more mobile Japanese.

But in Cannae, the Romans were packed too tightly together, and the Carthaginians attacked with ranged weapons:

While the front ranks were gradually advancing, the bulk of the Roman troops began to lose their cohesion, as they began crowding themselves into the growing gap. Soon they were compacted together so closely that they had little space to wield their weapons.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cannae

Just as the Romans were on the brink of crushing the enemy center, the Carthaginian flanks were brought to bear and the pressure pinned in the Roman advance. Hasdrubals' cavalry completed the circle by forcing the rear of the Roman line to turn back and form a square. All around, the massive bulk of the Roman army was forced into confined space. Hannibal brought his archers and slingers to bear and the result in the confines was devastating. Unable to continue the original break through against the Celts in the center of Hannibal's lines, the Romans were easy prey for the Carthaginians. Hannibal, with complete fury, encouraged his own men, under fear of the lash, if they weren't zealous enough in the slaughter.

http://www.unrv.com/empire/battle-of-cannae.php


I think there may be a bit of confusion here between "encirclement" and "envelopment" - or a pincer movement. Think of an encirclement being a possible outcome of a double envelopment, with a single envelopment being the flanking of one wing of an enemy army. It is also not clear that the result of encirclement caused Roman soldiers to panic and attempt to run away; rather they were packed like sardines.

Cannae did not begin as an encirclement, but rather as a double envelopment. The Battle of Tannenberg in WW1 is a similar, modern example.

At Cannae, the Romans attacked the Carthaginian center. In Robert L. O'Connell's "The Ghosts of Cannae" he explains that it was actually the Romans' offensive strategy to attack in column and penetrate the Carthaginian line - so they may not have exactly needed luring, but it could be argued that they were given a false impression of early success by their forward movement after contact with the enemy. O'Connell writes "Geometrically this called for a narrow, thick formation", and Polybius describes the Roman formation "placing the maniples closer together than was formerly the usage and making the depth of each many times exceed its front". O'Connell again writes "Long, narrow columns are easier to keep together, and, they therefore move faster and more cohesively on the battlefield. The many lines to the rear also insured an almost inexhaustible supply of fresh fighters to take the place of the fallen and exhausted, a kind of conveyor belt of shark's teeth". He goes on to argue that many of the Romans present were inexperienced, and so close a formation would have allowed them to feel more confident and protected. So the Romans deployed with the intent to go forward, and planned for a potentially long fight - but did not count on the enemy actually acting against them on their flanks.

I had written that the details of the fight in the center were disputed - O'Connell notes that Hannibal seems to have deployed his Libyan infantry in column on the flanks, with the Gauls and Iberians fighting in the center (they would have the responsibility of executing a fighting retreat to pull the Romans in). He has us envisage this as a backwards letter C (or like this "I^I" if viewed from behind the Carthaginian lines, with the "^" turning the other way and moving backward as the battle went on). So it is really the case that the Libyans remained in place until the Romans advanced far enough to double envelop themselves, at which point the ends of the Libyan columns moved forward and sealed the Romans in while the center stopped. So the Romans mostly trapped themselves, although the Gauls and Iberians did advance at first, in a crescent shape. However - and this is what I remember as being a bit of historical guesswork - Polybius claims that the Gauls and Iberians really were forced to retreat for real, and it was not an executed maneuver. But whatever the case, the meat of the Carthaginian casualties were Gallic. The "core" of Hannibals' army was North African and Iberian, so I have read into this as Hannibal having little problem with allowing the Gauls to do the majority of the dying (and the Gauls may have been happy to do it so long as they got to kill some Romans).

So, the Romans pushed the Carthaginian center inward and the Gauls/Iberians collapsed and began to retreat, whether intentional or not. As the Carthaginian center moved back, the Romans were given the impression that they were succeeding - in reality, they were ensuring that the enemy could flank them on both sides.

Then, the Carthaginian center, which had appeared in retreat, refused to budge (this may have been because [I had said veteran, this would actually be the position occupied by the North African light infantry after they had skirmished) light infantry had remained at the stopping point, and blocked the retreat of the Carthaginian center which had been in contact with the Romans, to prevent an actual rout being caused by panicked soldiers running through their ranks [I can't source this, so take it with a grain of salt, but I remember reading an account concerning the stopping of the Gallic/Iberian retreat]. As the battle progressed, the Romans were attacked from behind by cavalry, and the Carthaginian wings attacked forward, turning the pincer into a full circle. O'Connell notes that it may have been the case that the rear of the Roman formation was no longer occupied by the Triarii, who could have dealt with cavalry charges, but by the lightly armed Velites (skirmishers) who had retreated behind the Roman lines.

On a macro scale, being enveloped on both sides means that there is no front line for you, as the victim. If you move forward toward the enemy center, both your friendly flanks encounter enemies adjacent to them as well as in front. To a general, this also means your flanks are being threatened - those enemy soldiers adjacent to your men are at risk of actually moving behind them. In reality a full encirclement is risky for the attackers as well, because enemy reserves or a cavalry force could attack your thin/exposed encircling force.

Now the vital thing to note about Cannae in particular, or any ancient battle, is that men need room to swing a sword and deploy a shield. If you put your arms out in a T-pose, this is about what Roman doctrine declared necessary for a soldier to function. While the double envelopment was bad enough, the Carthaginian wings were able to fold in behind them and fully encircle them.

As the Carthaginian wings folded in and encircled the Romans, the Romans were pressed in against one another. The men at the edge of the encircled force do not have room to properly defend themselves or attack. The men behind them on the inside of that encircled force are also squished, and as you go further back may be unable to even see the enemy at all until it is nearly their turn.

Importantly at Cannae, the Carthaginian cavalry defeated the Roman cavalry first - this was key in ensuring the Carthaginians could safely execute their maneuver. The victorious Carthaginian cavalry actually turned and attacked the Roman rear, causing the Romans to form up more solidly and drive further into the Carthaginian center.

Although the Romans had deployed a gargantuan force [Livy states it was only 10,000 men overstrength, Polybius claims it was the size of eight legions rather than the usual four, or about 90,000 men. If the force were Livy's, the Roman Army at Cannae would have deployed at a strength of at least four legions, maybe five, at around 40-50 thousand], they had lost the initiative and were forced to blindly react as events unfolded. Their numbers advantage was lost because the Carthaginians limited their frontage as they enveloped them, and their advantage as heavily armed and armoured infantry was also negated by being compressed into such a small area.

It took the Carthaginians the entire afternoon to destroy the encircled Romans. In some sense this is the trouble with encirclement - the enemy can't run away, and is forced to fight to the death. Traditionally this is a bad idea, because you want the enemy to rout - many ancient and medieval battles saw the most casualties occur during pursuit of a retreating army - light cavalry was especially adept at this kind of pursuit.

But it should also be noted that about 10,000 Romans actually fought their way out of the encirclement at Cannae and escaped. Even a full encirclement and near-annihilation is not a guarantee that everyone is going to be trapped, although it's still a military victory.

In the modern day you can see this in Mosul, as the original plan called for a "horseshoe" deployment around the city, which would have allowed ISIS fighters to retreat and be attacked in the open. But what ended up happening was a full encirclement of the city, and so you have a pitched battle to the death. In some sense, an encirclement is not unique - it is a common enough goal to force the enemy to retreat into a hidden blocking force, which annihilates the retreating enemy, or keeping a cavalry reserve to ride them down. The big difference is that the event is localized to the encircled area. Or, as at Lake Trasimene or Marathon, terrain is used to block the enemy retreat (a lake and the sea respectively).

So what you see more commonly is in fact the threatening of flanks - single envelopment, or double envelopment, and perhaps a pursuit of a routing army. Instances of entire armies being surrounded are more rare, but the threat of being surrounded is much more common.

I mentioned Tannenberg because the Germans executed a similar maneuver, allowing the Russians to make progress against their center. The Russian general, Samsonov, had initially thought that his being with the main body of his army would allow better situational awareness, but as the battle progressed and he realized what was happening, it was clear to him that he had been mistaken. While being in the rear may have had its own drawbacks, being with the main body meant he was too close to see the bigger picture until it was too late.

The Russian army was surrounded and nearly completely destroyed - actually an anomaly for the era, but presaging the German concept of encirclement warfare that would be used in WW2 and augmented by the use of tanks to poke holes in the enemy line, allowing follow-on troops to roll up the flanks of an enemy, create a ring behind the enemy line, and compress the pocket. Note that in a modern encirclement, the area covered thanks to the range of weapons is much larger, and men are not being packed like sardines.

Of course in reality, full encirclements were tougher to execute than was imagined. During the invasion of Russia in WW2, the Germans found that the creation and compression of pockets created a pattern where their armour was far ahead and exposed, while the main infantry force was engaged in brutally attacking the encircled Russian forces. Then the infantry had to be force-marched to catch up with the tanks, who had to remain idle until the infantry could get to them and relieve them, allowing them to re-deploy. Even when things went well, the encircled pockets were often "leaky", allowing thousands of enemy soldiers to escape at night or through gaps, albeit without much of their equipment.

David Glantz actually theorizes that this encirclement tactic, though successful in one sense, cost the Germans the war in Russia. German armour in Army Group Center was so far ahead of the main infantry force during the approach on Smolensk that they were subject to a huge number of Russian attacks which they had to defend against alone (the infantry were behind them, compressing the pockets they had created, and then trying to force-march to them). Because of this, the German armoured divisions had to deploy along much too thin a frontage, even forcing their engineers and other support units to hold a portion of the front line, and were attacked from multiple directions sometimes simultaneously over an extended period. Because the infantry working with the tanks were not as numerous or as heavily equipped as the regular army units, and because tanks are not especially adept at defensive fighting, Glantz thinks that these spearpoint units took an inordinate number of casualties early on in the operation from which they never fully recovered. They had been blunted, by dint of their own success outrunning their follow-on infantry.

From Glantz's book "Barbarossa Derailed: The Battle for Smolensk" (I don't have page numbers thanks to my Kindle version not displaying them):

"In practice, however, earlier campaigns also demonstrated that some enemy forces could escape from these encirclements if the follow-on German infantry failed to advance quickly enough to keep up with the panzers [armour] and seal the encirclement. This frequently occurred because the German Army never had enough motor vehicles to equip more than a small portion of its infantry troops. Instead, the vast majority of the German Army throughout the Second World War consisted of foot-mobile infantry and horse-drawn artillery and supplies, which often forced the Army's panzer and motorized spearheads to pause while their supporting units caught up by forced marches".

And about Glantz's theory as to the importance of Smolensk:

"… this study argues that the battle for Smolensk was much larger-scale than previously believed, it damaged Army Group Center far more than previously thought, and, ultimately, it contributed significantly to the army group's embarrassing defeat at the gates of Moscow in early December 1941."

And one of the more interesting and damning statements:

"As a result, the spearhead of Hoth's panzer group… had no choice but to defend the 'eastern front' east and northeast of Smolensk and also man the northern half of the inner encirclement line containing and compressing Soviet forces within the Smolensk pocket.

.

… eight motorized battalions of XXXIX Motorized Corps' 12th Panzer and 20th Motorized Divisions had to occupy and defend the almost 80-kilometer-wide northern face of the pocket, with, at best, an average battalion frontage of about 10 kilometers per battalion, from 17 through 24 July. Likewise, the 10 motorized infantry battalions of 18th Motorized and 20th and 7th Panzer Divisions had to defend the 100-kilometer-wide front east and northeast of Smolensk against the assembling forces of four Soviet armies. Although all of these mobile divisions tried to economize forces by assigning their reconnaissance (motorcycle), engineer, and other combat support battalions their own defensive sectors, their battalion frontages were far too wide to be effective either in defense or in the attack. This, in turn, also caused inordinate casualties among the motorized infantry, which only exacerbated the problem of excessive frontages."


There is a big reason and a small reason:

Big reason: There's sampling bias. If encirclement leads to defeat, the result is a wipeout, which is notable. If encirclement doesn't lead to defeat, the result is nowhere near as notable.

Small reason: The outside ring is slightly longer than the inside ring, and allows more layers of reinforcements, so there are more active combatants on the outside against fewer active combatants on the inside, assuming equal equipment and training.

For a force with clearly superior equipment and training, forming a circle can be desirable, because it does limit exposure against flanking attacks by a numerically superior force.


Encirclement means that you cannot retreat. The enemy can evade your blows but you cannot evade theirs.

Given how tightly packed ancient formations were this simple mobility limitation meant death for anyone encircled or somehow constrained by disadvantageous terrain.


As a non-historic answer, I've participated in a number of large (around 2000 participants) live-action roleplaying battles. In all of them, encirclement was a sure sign of imminent defeat.

Two things that I immediately had in my head as answers:

1.) Encirclement very often was a symptom, not a cause of defeat. By the time one side got encircled, the battle was clearly lost already.

2.) An encircled army has no strategic options or maneuvers left. All that's left is to fight to the end. This speeds up the defeat compared to the same battle in battle lines. It's not even that more people get under attack, it's also that very fast after encirclement, everyone is packed in tight and there's not much room left to, for example, move reinforcements to a failing side.

LARP battles do not share all of the strategy and context of roman battles, especially the excellent training and discipline the roman army was known for, but in this particular case the experience seems fitting to me.


This reminds me the battle of Alesia, in 52 BC where Romans set siege to the city to find themselves to be under siege. So I think at the end of the day it depends on the situation and on the commander officer skills. It is not a sure thing that surrounded forces are doomed.


I would not say "in ancient battles, being encircled meant defeat". I would say, "in all battles, being encircled means defeat, unless you have good leadership which is prepared.

In WWII the battle of France the Maginot line fell when it was outflanked and attacked from behind. Just like in the Battle of Cannae(216 BC) when the Romans were outflanked. This is because in almost all cases military formations are designed to attack or defend in one direction.

Encirclement alone wasn't the deciding factor in the Battle of Cannae. It's not like the Romans thew down their arms and surrendered after they were encircled. Encirclement is cited because it was seen as an achievement by a master tactician in general Hannibal of Carthage. Taking 40,000 and encircle the much larger 80,000 Roman army. It is why even to this day we consider Hannibal one of the greatest military tacticians ever.

Hannibal did this because he believed the well disciplined Roman legions were vulnerable to their rear and would panic if encircled. The Romans at Cannae used specific formations to wage war and those formations did not operate well with enemies in their rear. Which wasn't a problem because nobody could image a commander being able to encircle 80,000 Romans. The subsequent slaughter enabled by Hannibal's tactics both proved Hannibal right, and decided the battle.

Contrast this with the Roman battle of Alesia (52 BC). The Romans under Julius Cesar laid siege to the Gallic fortress of Alesia. Alesia's allies arrived and surrounded the Romans who were still surrounding Alesia. (think of a giant donut) Cesar planned for this and had built fortifications in an outer ring to his fortifications besieging Alesia. At one point the Romans were outnumbered by 4 to 1 and surrounded. Yet in the end the Romans won, because they had the superior leader, and had planned well.

Another notable instance where encirclement didn't mean defeat was the battle of the bulge in WWII. The United States sent airborne rangers into the important city of Bastogne to stop the German advance. The town was quickly surrounded. The Germans presented surrender terms to the city under Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe else he risk being wiped out. McAuliffe's response… "Nuts"… McAuliffe had planned for a siege and was able to hold out until releaved.


Soldiers arranged in a circle will need to step backwards when casualties occur, in order to maintain a cohesive circle without gaps.Those encircling will then push forward.

Soldiers were generally trained and experienced in pushing forward against the enemy lines. The idea was to break the enemies shield wall formation to provide you with an advantage.

Walking backwards was unfamiliar, and could lead to soldiers falling over, walking into those behind them, or simply being pushed over by the advancing enemy, who has many rows of men pushing forward.

You can try this at home. Find someone as strong as you, and each try to push each other past a line. Now, have them instead try to push you backwards, and you try to be pushed backwards at a very slow rate. Most likely, you will fall over, or be pushed back much faster than you wanted to be. Now imagine there were an assortment of sharp weapons, friends, and corpses behind you.


Encirclement, by itself, and for ancient armies, with little needed of supply lines, didn't place the encircled in an specially disadvantageous position. The main negative point was the psychological load of being surrounded, with no possible retreat, even if tactical, and a reduction of space to maneuver. Mobility and psychology are very important elements in battle, not rarely decisive…


The Crusades: Battle of Hattin

The Battle of Hattin was fought July 4, 1187, during the Crusades. In 1187, after a series of disputes, the Ayyubid armies of Saladin commenced moving against the Crusader states including the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Meeting the Crusader army west of Tiberias on July 3, Saladin engaged in a running battle as it moved towards the town. Surrounded during the night, the Crusaders, who were short on water, were unable to break out. In the resulting fight, the bulk of their army was destroyed or captured. Saladin's victory opened the way for the recapture of Jerusalem later that year.


Context

In 55 bce the Roman senator Marcus Licinius Crassus was elected to a second consular term alongside Pompey the Great. Crassus and Pompey had previously served as co-consuls with much enmity between them. Crassus resented his colleague for robbing him of a triumph after he successfully quelled Spartacus’s slave revolt in 71 bce . In 60 bce Crassus and Pompey had entered an uneasy alliance brokered by Gaius Julius Caesar, motivated in part by their respective interests in obtaining certain provincial governorships. The consular elections of 55 bce solidified these aims. They engineered the passage of a law that secured for Pompey a multi-year proconsular appointment in Hispania and an appointment in Syria for Crassus. Crassus, it seems, was overjoyed at this legislation: he was an enormously wealthy man, but the historian Plutarch describes him as having been consumed by a lust for gold and glory. Crassus would not be outshined by the military exploits of either Pompey or Caesar, and he saw the Syrian province as a gateway to the riches of the East. Unfortunately for him, those riches were safeguarded by the Parthians, with whom Rome had honoured treaties since Pompey’s ventures into the region a decade earlier.

Early that winter Crassus set out for Syria. He initially hoped to sail from Brundisium at the heel of the Italian Peninsula, but poor conditions wrecked his ships, and he was forced to march overland through Anatolia and into the province. Arriving in the spring of 54 bce , Crassus set out for Mesopotamia and seized several cities along the Euphrates River, leaving garrisons there before returning to Syria for the winter months so his son Publius could join him with cavalry from Gaul. This decision may have been a fatal one, according to Plutarch, for he lost his momentum and gave the Parthians time to prepare.

As the end of winter approached, Crassus received emissaries from Parthia informing him that if this war had been ordained by the Roman state, there would be no truce, but, if it had been the proconsul’s sole doing, then King Orodes II might be lenient on account of his old age. Crassus rejected any proposed terms and began to mobilize his army. About this time Crassus also received a visit from King Artavasdes II of Armenia, a recent ally of Rome who sought to support Crassus’s endeavour by promising to supply him with some 40,000 auxiliaries. Artavasdes suggested that the proconsul cross into Parthia through the hilly lands of Armenia so that the Parthians could not make good use of their superior cavalry. Crassus refused this offer, however, preferring to march through Mesopotamia.

Early in the summer of 53 bce , Crassus crossed into Mesopotamia through Zeugma, a city located on the western bank of the Euphrates (near modern Birecik, Turkey). He commanded seven legions and supported them with 4,000 cavalry and nearly 4,000 light infantry. Assuming that all the legions were at full strength, they together constituted a force of approximately 43,000 men. While advancing along the river, Crassus encountered an Arab chieftain named Ariamnes. Ariamnes was an ally of Pompey, but Plutarch reports that the Parthians had tasked him with diverting the Roman forces away from the river. He successfully persuaded Crassus to do so, and the Romans marched into a plain that grew drier and sandier with each passing day, a demoralizing sight for the legionaries. Ariamnes departed from their camp before his deceit was uncovered. During this time messengers came from Artavasdes to inform Crassus that the Parthians had invaded Armenia. Artavasdes would be unable to send reinforcements. Disgusted but undeterred, Crassus continued to move through the plain until his scouts encountered a large Parthian host not far from the city of Carrhae.


The Battle of the Military Theorists: Clausewitz vs. Sun Tzu

Mark McNeilly is the author of “Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare” (Oxford University Press) , from which this article is derived. The book, recently updated, now includes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. McNeilly has appeared as a guest speaker on the History Channel special on Sun Tzu’s Art of War and has spoken at the US Air Force Air Command and Staff College on the principles of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. He is also the author of “Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Strategic Principles for Managers.” A Lecturer at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and former business executive, he served as a reserve officer in the infantry and artillery in U.S. Army National Guard. You can learn more at suntzustrategies.com.

For most readers of military history two theorists stand out, the Prussian Carl von Clausewitz and the Chinese Sun Tzu. In addition to living in very different times (Clausewitz in the 18th and 19th centuries and Sun Tzu in ancient China) the former hails from the West and the latter from the East. Clausewitz’s book On War (first published in 1832) has had a major influence on Western military thought. The Prussian officer developed his book’s concepts based on observing and participating in the Napoleonic wars. As best we can tell Sun Tzu lived during a time of great conflict in China called The Age of the Warring States in which seven major states vied for control of the country. Sun Tzu served as a general from the state of Ch’i and wrote down his principles for warfare in a book we call The Art of War. He has had great influence on leaders in China and Japan and his ideas on strategy have become popular as well in the West, not only among the military but also business people. While the strategic philosophies of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz align in some areas their ideas are diametrically opposed in other important ones. So which one should military professionals and strategists follow?

Sun Tzu saw the objective of warfare not as the total destruction of the enemy through violent confrontation but “winning-all-without-fighting.” His view was that, “Generally in war, the best policy is to take a state intact to ruin it is inferior to this.” and also, “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” This objective could be achieved not by directly attacking the enemy’s strength but through a deep understanding of his capabilities and focusing the attack on his weakness. “An army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness.”

These attacks would be masked by deception, launched at unexpected places and be delivered with blinding speed. Per The Art of War, “All warfare is based on deception” and “Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness travel by unexpected routes and strike him where has taken no precautions.” The combination of these tactics would unbalance the enemy and make them unable to resist one’s onslaught.

Clausewitz had some very different ideas on warfare but before we discuss them let us look first at the major areas in which I believe (based on the writings in his treatise On War) Clausewitz would agree with Sun Tzu. One crucial point that Clausewitz makes is that war is an extension of national policy and that military goals should aim to achieve and be subordinate to the nation’s goals. Probably the most famous quotation of Clausewitz is that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” Clausewitz elaborates on this, stating that “the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.”

Sun Tzu’s principles are consistent with Clausewitz in this respect. He realized that the national objectives should determine the wisdom of employing military power and then direct and guide its use once the decision has been made to go to war, “Normally, when the army is employed, the general first receives his commands from the sovereign. He assembles the troops and mobilizes the people. He blends the army into a harmonious entity and encamps it.”

Clausewitz would also agree with Sun Tzu on the need for military “genius” in warfare given he devoted an entire chapter early on in his book on the subject. He states that “genius refers to a very highly developed mental aptitude for a particular occupation given the arena we are discussing, a highly developed mental aptitude for conducting war.” As elaborated in the chapter on leadership, Sun Tzu also recognizes the need for military genius.

Finally, Clausewitz coined the term friction.” He developed the viewpoint that friction in combat made the simple, difficult therefore, it was critical to plan for and prepare to overcome friction. This is another example of consistency between the two military theorists.

However, there are a number of concepts Clausewitz puts forth that clearly differ from Sun Tzu and I would assert have had a negative effect on Western warfare. Many are interwoven and are derived first and foremost from Clausewitz’s preference for “total warfare.” Heavily influenced by the success of the French Revolution’s mobilization of France’s entire populace to fight, Clausewitz believed that a nation must mobilize all its resources (military, economic, diplomatic, and social, etc.) to defeat its enemies. Clausewitz then stated that the primary aim of a country’s military leadership was to launch a major attack in which the nation’s main army would fight against the enemy’s main forces in a “decisive battle” that would end the war favorably. The goal in fighting this decisive battle is the destruction of the enemy’s army, preferably through a Cannae-like battle in which heavy fighting would win the day and friendly casualties were of little consequence. A major defeat would then force the loser to sue for peace. To quote Clausewitz in his second chapter titled “Purpose and Means in War”:

“Our discussion has shown that while in war many different roads can lead to the goal, to the attainment of the political object, fighting is the only possible means. Everything is governed by the supreme law, the decision by force of arms. . To sum up: of all the possible aims in war, the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces always appears as the highest.”

And here is Clausewitz from his chapter “The Battle—Continued: The Use of Battle”:

No matter how a particular war is conducted and what aspects of its conduct we subsequently recognize as being essential, the very concept of war will permit us to make the following unequivocal statements:

1. Destruction of the enemy forces is the overriding principle of war, and, so far as positive action is concerned, the principal way to achieve our object.

2. Such destruction of forces can usually be accomplished only by fighting.

3. Only major engagements involving all forces lead to major success.

4. The greatest successes are obtained where all engagements coalesce into one great battle.

5. Only in a great battle does the commander in chief control operations in person it is only natural that he should prefer to entrust the direction of the battle to himself.

It is in these views that Clausewitz and Sun Tzu differ greatly and based on my study of military strategy in history, I adhere much more to Sun Tzu’s views in this area.

First, while it is true that when warfare comes a nation must mobilize its resources to prevail, it is not necessarily the case that a country should seek ‘‘total war” in which the complete destruction of the enemy is the objective and the survival of one’s own nation is put at risk. It was the desire for total war that led to the millions of casualties in the twentieth century’s two world wars. In World War II the idea of total war between “races” led to inhuman warfare on the Eastern front and the enslavement and annihilation of millions of civilians.

Sun Tzu would argue that 1) winning-without-fighting (e.g. resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis through a non-violent naval blockade and diplomacy) is preferable and 2) if war is unavoidable then it is imperative to have a strategy that achieves specific national objectives with the least destruction. Furthermore, even when engaged in a total war, it is important to abide by humanitarian rules that limit human suffering and physical destruction.

The view that one should seek a decisive battle by engaging the main enemy force has also not been borne out by history. Despite the clear victory by Hannibal against the main Roman army at Cannae, the battle was not decisive. In fact, the Carthaginian winner of the battle eventually lost the war. Gettysburg, Stalingrad, Midway, and other major battles have been major turning points in various wars but were not in themselves decisive in terms of leading to an immediate suing for peace by the loser. It was the search for a decisive battle in Southeast Asia that led the French to Dien Bien Phu and the Americans to Khe Sanh, neither of which led to ultimate success. Indeed, Clausewitz’s writings, whether interpreted correctly or not, have led generals to direct attacks on enemy strengths, which in turn have led to huge casualties and limited success.


Disaster at Carrhae (53 BC)

In order to understand the course of the battle and the tactics used by both sides, we need to first analyse the armies and assess their strengths and weaknesses.

The Roman Army at the Battle of Carrhae

The first issue we need to consider is the size of the Roman force, and here the accounts vary. Once again we are faced with the fact that we have no contemporary source for this information. Appian has by far and away the greatest figure when he quotes Crassus&rsquo army as 100,000 strong. 187 Such an army had not been seen since the days of Hannibal and would never have been raised for such a campaign. Again we must turn to Plutarch (and his unknown source) for a more realistic figure. Plutarch informs us that Crassus crossed into Mesopotamia in 53 BC with an army of seven legions of infantry, four thousand horsemen (of which 1,000 were Gallic and the rest native auxiliaries) and an equivalent number of auxiliary troops. 188 If we follow the standard estimates that each of Crassus&rsquo legions was roughly 4,800 men strong, then we have a figure of just under 34,000 legionaries. 189 Add the 4,000 cavalry and 4,000 auxiliary infantry and we have a total of some 42,000 men. 190

There are several problems with taking this figure as an exact one. Prior to the Imperial era, the size of the legion was not an absolute and we know that Crassus had problems recruiting legionaries, so he may not have been able to fill seven whole legions. Added to this is the rough nature of Plutarch&rsquos calculation of the number of auxiliary infantry. Thus we are working with a rough estimate of 38,000 infantry (split between legionaries and auxiliaries a difference which will be explored below) and 3,000&ndash4,000 cavalry (of which only 1,000 were Gallic).

These numbers do not represent a homogeneous body of men. Of this figure, 34,000 were full Roman legionaries. These legionaries were the elite infantry of Crassus&rsquo army, armed with javelins (pila) and short sword (gladius), with shields, helmets and chest armour for protection. In close order combat, the Roman legionary had proved to be superior to any other infantry in the ancient world. As detailed earlier, they had defeated the Macedonian phalanx and the Armenian foot-soldier. However, this did not mean that they were without weaknesses. For the legionaries to be at their most effective, the battle would have to be fought at closequarters, where the short Roman sword would be most effective. Aside from the javelin, the standard Roman legionary had little in the way of distance weaponry. In terms of defence, the helmet, shield and chest armour were again effective defence at close quarters, but this still left much of the body undefended and vulnerable to weapons of range.

Aside from weaponry and armour, we must also examine the nature of their training and ability. On the whole it appears that the bulk of Crassus&rsquo legionaries were raw recruits in 55 BC, along with a smattering of experienced legionaries (most probably distributed in the junior NCO ranks of the legion, such as the centurions). The bulk of the men would not have seen a major battle before. Nevertheless, too much can be made of the supposed inexperience of these men. They had the autumn, winter and spring of 54&ndash53 BC in which to be trained and they had been blooded in battle in 54 BC, when they defeated the Parthian satrap, Silaces. Given Crassus&rsquo previous focus on his men&rsquos training and an unwillingness to give battle unless he had total confidence in their abilities (as seen in the Spartacus campaign), we can safely assume that they were up to the expected Roman standard.

The other section of Crassus&rsquo infantry, however, was composed of native auxiliaries. In the case of auxiliary forces there were no strict rules as to their composition, numbers, or weaponry, as it depended entirely upon where they were raised which in this case we don&rsquot know. It is probable that they were raised from the Roman territories in the east and the Roman allies of the region. This would give them experience of the region and local warfare, but as to their weaponry and armour, we can only speculate. It is likely that they were lightly armoured and possessed a mixture of spears, swords and light bows. We are told at one point that there were at least 500 native archers in the army. 191 Certainly they would not have been able to match the Roman legionaries in either offensive or defensive capabilities. Nevertheless, such a mixture and balance was typical for Roman armies of the period and would have mirrored the armies of Lucullus and Pompey, and thus been more than a match for the armies that they were expecting to encounter in the region.

If there was a weakness in Crassus&rsquo army, then it lay in his cavalry. Roman armies of the period rarely had large numbers of cavalry and Crassus&rsquo army was no exception. It appears that he took no cavalry with him from Italy. Of his 4,000 cavalry, just 1,000 were non-native and these were the Gallic cavalry loaned by Julius Caesar. The Gallic cavalry are described by Plutarch as being lightly equipped with short spears and having little armour. 192 This compared badly to the Parthian heavily-armoured cataphract. Of the remaining 3,000 native cavalry we are not given any detail, but the assumption is that these too were light cavalry rather than heavily-armoured ones, given the criticism of the sources. Of either group&rsquos training or experience we know nothing, though we must again assume that they would have been brought up to scratch by Crassus and his son during the winter months.

This brings us onto another topic that needs examining before we progress, namely the quality of the Roman commanders. We have already looked at Crassus himself, but one aspect that is rarely commented on is the nature and quality of his junior officers. First and foremost were his two deputies, Publius Licinius Crassus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. Publius Crassus (Crassus&rsquo youngest son) appears to us in the sources as being everything that his father was not. Cicero, eight years later, describes him to Julius Caesar thus:

Out of all our nobility, the young man for whom I had the highest regard was Publius Crassus and while I had entertained great hopes of him from his earliest years, I began to have quite a brilliant impression of him when the highly favourable opinions you [Caesar] had formed of him became known to me 193

Publius Crassus, son of Marcus, who at an early age sought the circle of my friendship, and I exhorted him with all my power to follow that straight path to renown which his ancestors had trodden and made smooth for him. For he had enjoyed excellent upbringing and had received a thorough and complete training. His mind was good, if not brilliant, his language choice abundant, and in addition he had dignity without arrogance and modesty without sloth. 194

These refrences of Cicero&rsquos regarding Publius Crassus are two out of just five he makes to the Battle of Carrhae in total, throughout all his extant works (the other three being comments on the supposed ill omens that occurred). As well as impressing Cicero, Publius served under Julius Caesar in Gaul, where in 57&ndash56 BC he distinguished himself as a legionary commander in Aquitania. 195 Thus he appears to us from the sources (most of which are hostile to his father) as being a model Roman aristocrat brave in battle, yet modest about it. In our surviving sources, and amongst the Roman aristocracy, especially Caesar and Cicero, it is his loss at Carrhae that is felt more keenly than that of his father. 196

Yet, Publius Crassus appears to be typical of the type of officer that Marcus Crassus took on this campaign. As he had done all through his political life, and as he clearly showed during his Spartacus campaign, Crassus cultivated the best of the young Roman aristocrats this time by giving them positions on the general staff of this supposedly glorious and profitable campaign. As well as Publius, we are given a host of names of aspiring young Roman aristocrats, such as repre-sentatives of the distinguished families of the Marcii Censorini, Octavii, Petronii, Roscii and the Vargunetii.

Added to these names is that of Gaius Cassius Longinus, who served as Crassus&rsquo quaestor (official deputy) during this campaign. Cassius was later to achieve immortality as one of the two leaders of the conspirators that assassinated Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate house in 44 BC (the other being Brutus). This campaign is the first time that we hear of young Cassius, but his role is a significant one. Plutarch&rsquos account of the whole campaign places Cassius at the centre of events, always urging Crassus not to follow what turns out to be the wrong, and often disastrous, course of action. Given the later blackening of Cassius&rsquo name (due to his role in Caesar&rsquo assassination) this is highly curious (see appendix two on the possible sources for this anomaly). Of the three main commanders, Crassus, his son, and Cassius, only the latter survived to tell the tale, which makes any account he gave, including his heroic role, questionable to say the least. Nevertheless he does appear to have been yet another young and talented Roman commander.

Therefore, we can see that Crassus, regardless of later sources&rsquo views on his own abilities as a commander, undeniably had a talented and energetic command staff surrounding him. Regarding his army, though, a closer examination of their composition does reveal a number of potential flaws and weaknesses. Nevertheless, this was still a powerful Roman army and one which, on past form, was widely expected to replicate the results of the armies of Lucullus and Pompey in fighting the armies of the east. In order to understand the reason that they failed so spectacularly we must now turn our attention to the Parthian army of Surenas.

The Parthian Army at the Battle of Carrhae

Not only do we have fewer descriptions of the Parthian army at Carrhae than of the Romans, but the issue is further clouded by some noticeable differences between Parthian armies in general and the one which Surenas fielded at Carrhae, differences that hold a key significance.

Dio (writing in the third century AD) provides us with our best general description of the Parthian military and it is with him that we should start:

But I will describe their equipment of arms and their method of warfare for the examination of these details properly concerns the present narrative, since it has come to a point where this knowledge is needed. The Parthians make no use of a shield, but their forces consist of mounted archers and lancers, mostly in full armour. Their infantry is small, made up of the weaker men but even these are all archers. They practise from boyhood and the climate and the land combine to aid both the horsemanship and archery. 197

Justin, an even later Roman source, gives us the following description of the composition of the Parthian army:

They have an army, not like other nations, of free men, but chiefly consisting of slaves, the numbers of whom daily increase, the power of manumission [the freeing of slaves] being allowed to none, and all their offspring, in consequence, being born slaves. These bondsmen they bring up as carefully as their own children, and teach them, with great pains, the art of riding and shooting with the bow. 198

He then elaborates upon their tactics:

Of engaging with the enemy in close fight, and of taking cities by siege they know nothing. They fight on horseback, either galloping forward or turning their backs. Often too they counterfeit flight that they may throw their pursuers off their guard against being wounded by their arrows. The signal for battle among them is given, not by trumpet, but by drum. 199

And gives this detail of their armour:

Their armour, and that of their horses, is formed of plates, lapping over one another like the feathers of a bird, and covers both man and horse entirely. 200

Lucian, a second century source tells us that the Parthians fought in units of 1,000 known as &lsquodragons&rsquo, due to the symbol they fought under. 201

From these later descriptions it is possible to create an image of a generic Parthian army from this period, which would be composed of three types of fighting man. The elite of the army, most probably the noble or free men, would be the heavily-armed cavalrymen, known as cataphracts. Then there would be the lightly-armed horse archers and the light infantrymen, armed with bows. Both of the latter two categories would be serfs, taken from the estates of the nobility.

Surenas awaited the Roman army at Carrhae with a force composed of just 10,000 men, which would be ten dragons (if we accept Lucian&rsquos&rsquo definition of a basic Parthian unit). Of these there were apparently 1,000 cataphracts, 9,000 horse archers and no infantry. All of these men came from Surenas&rsquo own estates. In addition, Plutarch furnishes us with one crucial detail, namely that there were 1,000 baggage camels laden with spare arrows. 202 It is these last two facts that mark Surenas&rsquo army out from a standard Parthian army of the era, and we need to understand both their cause and their effect.

The lack of infantry has rarely been commented upon and, when it is, it is usually dismissed as being a side effect of Orodes taking the bulk of the army into Armenia. 203 Yet the Parthians had no single standing army as such. Each landowner was responsible for raising troops and supplying them to the king. In Surenas&rsquo case, he raised and fought with his own army, manned from his own family estates in eastern Parthia. It is unlikely that he would have split this army and even if he had, then why would the king take all of his infantry? To my mind the lack of infantry is not a passing detail or a side effect of the army&rsquos division. It is far more logical to see that the army that Surenas put into the field to fight Crassus in 53 BCwas deliberately created without any role for infantry.

Surenas had a year to study the Roman method of warfare and could consult Silaces, the defeated satrap of Mesopotamia, for first hand experience of how they fought. As the Romans had demonstrated time and again, in close order fighting they were virtually invincible. The Armenians, who fought in a similar style to the standard Parthian manner, had met with heavy defeat in 69 BC. Given everything we know about Surenas, it is clear that he would have been well aware that Orodes was intending to sacrifice him to slow down the Romans by letting him face them first, and it is equally clear that he would not meekly wait for his supposedly &lsquoinevitable&rsquo destruction. It is obvious that Surenas did not meet the Romans in battle blindly, but had worked out a strategy that he hoped would bring him victory. To accomplish this he needed to avoid playing to the Roman strengths, whilst utilising those of his own army. In this case, the Roman strength was close-quarter infantry fighting, whilst his army&rsquos were speed and long-range weapons.

Therefore, it appears that Surenas spent the winter months modifying the standard Parthian army and way of fighting into a force capable of defeating a Roman army. One key element of this plan would be the complete lack of infantry, with his whole army being composed of nothing but cavalry. Thus his army would be able to engage the Romans at speed and avoid getting entangled with the legionaries on the ground.

However, whilst the lack of footsoldiers would allow him to avoid getting entangled in a close-quarter battle, this alone would not bring him victory. Disposing of the infantry element of his army was nothing more than removing a negative aspect from his force. Of his remaining force of 10,000 the majority were lightly-armoured horse archers, who on the face of it would never be able to defeat an infantry army on their own, as they traditionally had one key flaw once they had emptied their quiver of arrows then they would be useless at a distance and would have to attack the Romans at close quarters, for which they were not armed or armoured. It is here that Surenas introduced the key element of his battleplan and one which (as far as we can tell) was unique to him. This is of course the addition of the baggage train of 1,000 camels laden with tens of thousands of additional arrows. In addition, this baggage train would be at the front line, or just behind it, allowing the horse archers to re-arm at the battlefront, rather than having to ride to the back of the army, dismount, re-arm and then return. The whole process could be done whilst still mounted, near the battle-line and would therefore take far less time.

There is one further element that was crucial to the success of this plan, namely the quality of the arrows themselves and the bows used to fire them. Here we are operating in the near-complete absence of any evidence for the type of arrow used at Carrhae. All we know is that they were barbed and completely penetrated the Roman shields and armour. Now this cannot be a coincidence, and raises two interesting aspects. The Parthians and Romans had never fought before, yet Surenas had total faith that his arrows would penetrate Roman armour. Furthermore the Romans had fought eastern armies before (the Seleucids, Pontines and Armenians), and never encountered the same problems with arrows that they did at Carrhae. The first issue can be answered with reference to Surenas&rsquo attacks on the Roman garrisons during the winter of 54&ndash53 BC, which would have had more to do with the Parthians testing of their arrows&rsquo abilities on Roman armour, than a serious attempt to retake the towns. We might recall that Plutarch relayed the Roman soldiers&rsquo claims that &lsquostrange missiles are the precursors of their appearance, which pierce through every obstacle&rsquo. 204 The strangeness of these arrows may be more than Plutarch&rsquos dramatic turn of phrase and may well illustrate that the Romans had never encountered that particular type of arrow before. Certainly Surenas went into the battle well aware of the devastating capabilities of his arrows against Roman armour. However, we must not discount the contribution made by the Parthian compound bows either. As seen in the illustration of the horse archer (figure 15), the Parthians used a short compound bow, which must have given the arrows a tremendous velocity. We have little exact evidence for the bows, other than descriptions, and shorter bows were common throughout eastern armies. Nevertheless, it is clear that the combination of this short compound bow and the barbed arrows produced devastating results on this occasion and may well have been aunique combination.

Surenas&rsquo army was fronted by one thousand cataphracts fully clad in heavy armour and armed with long lances, superficially resembling medieval knights and far superior to the Roman cavalry. These shock troops formed an advance guard for the 9,000 horse archers armed with the armour-penetrating arrows and supported by a thousand baggage camels, allowing for near instantaneous rearming on the move. Therefore, we can see that it was an army designed for fighting a battle at speed and at distance, which was just the type of fighting that did not suit the Romans.

Furthermore, Surenas&rsquo tactics played to the strengths of his men in terms of upbringing. The horse archers were all serfs from his estate and would have all been trained in horseback archery from childhood. They would have been used to following and obeying their feudal lord from birth and would have had the winter to practise the new tactics that they had been given. In short, they were the perfect body of men to learn these new tactics and carry out their master&rsquos modified version of Parthian warfare.

Thus the army that the Romans faced at Carrhae was not there as a consequence of chance, but had been designed with fighting them specifically in mind. It was not designed to fight a long campaign, but to defeat this particular Roman army in a battle. This army reflected the genius of its commander and showed the Parthian system of private armies and devolved commanders at its best. It is clear that Orodes would not have thought out or executed these tactics. The uniqueness of this force and its difference to the standard Parthian method of fighting gave Surenas another major edge in that Crassus was not expecting it. Surenas had taken the opportunity to study the Roman army and how it fought and had been given the time to modify his own force accordingly. As far as Crassus was concerned, the army that he would soon be facing would fight in exactly the same way as had the one the year before, and as the Armenians had a decade before (who after all had comprehensively defeated the Parthians themselves, a generation earlier). What he did not know is that Surenas had created a new and unique method of warfare, designed specifically to win the upcoming battle.

It is highly unlikely that Crassus would have been able to discover Surenas&rsquo new tactics before it was too late. Even his scouts would not have been able to see much difference in Surenas&rsquo army at a glance. They could report seeing little in the way of infantry, but not know that there were in fact none at all. They could report a baggage train, but then such things were common in armies they would not have been able to tell that it contained nothing but arrows. To all intents and purposes it would have looked like the army that Crassus was expecting to face. The only warning sign he had were the soldiers&rsquo stories of strange arrows raining down on them during the winter clashes, but whether he would have given them any greater significance is doubtful. When battle was joined, he would have been unaware of how truly unique a Parthian force he faced. Thus Surenas went into the battle knowing his enemies tactics, but not vice versa.

The Dio Variation of the Battle

Of the battle itself, we have two detailed descriptions from Plutarch and Dio neither is contemporaneous and they differ in some important ways. Of the two, the more detailed and knowledgeable is Plutarch&rsquos (see appendix two for the possible reasons why). In order to gain the full picture of events though, we must look at both accounts and the best place to start is with the shorter variant of Dio.

Dio&rsquos version has Crassus&rsquo army being led directly into the path of Surenas&rsquo by the Arab traitor Abgarus (though Plutarch states that he had left Crassus&rsquo army by this point 205 ). In effect it is a classic ambush, with the Parthian army being concealed, awaiting the arrival of the Romans (though this account ignores any presence of Roman scouts). Dio states that this was accomplished by the Parthians hiding in dips and woods, despite the fact that there was no woodland in this area.

Nonetheless, when the Romans were led into this trap, the Parthian army revealed themselves, at which point Publius Crassus suddenly broke ranks and led his cavalry at the Parthian ranks, which then appeared to break, with Publius giving chase. This however was a feint (which was an old tactic even in this century) and when they had led Publius away from the main army, the Parthians turned, surrounded and annihilated him.

This concluded Dio&rsquos first phase of the battle. The second phase commenced with what is described as an almost suicidal charge by the Roman infantry who did so, according to Dio, &lsquoto avenge his [Publius Crassus&rsquo] death&rsquo. 206 The Roman infantry were then devastated by the Parthian cataphracts, whose heavy lances broke the Roman ranks. Again Dio takes a scathing line on the Roman troops when he states that &lsquomany died from fright at the very charge of the lancers&rsquo. 207 With their lines broken, the Roman soldiers were then slaughtered by the Parthian archers.

The final defeat came in the third phase, which began with the final treachery of Abgarus, who not only led the Romans into this ambush, but at the appropriate point apparently turned his allied forces (which are presumed, but not mentioned prior to this point) against the Roman lines, attacking them from the rear. The Romans, apparently unable to face two enemies at once, then turned their line around and exposed themselves to a Parthian attack from the rear.

for Abgarus did not immediately make his attempt upon them. But when he too attacked, thereupon the Osroeni themselves assailed the Romans on their exposed rear, since they were facing the other way, and also rendered them easier for the others to slaughter. 208

Dio then concludes this brisk battle description with a wonderfully dramatic picture of the Roman plight:

And the Romans would have perished utterly, but for the fact that some of the lances of the barbarians were bent and others were broken, while the bowstrings snapped under the constant shooting, the missiles were exhausted, the swords all blunted and most of all, that the men themselves grew weary of the slaughter. 209

Dio would therefore ask us to believe that the Parthians ran out of weapons and ammunition (in his account there is no mention of Surenas&rsquo ammunition train) and then decided to take it easy and have mercy on the Romans, who they had grown tired of killing. It is not this aspect of his account that we find hard to believe. Dio&rsquos account is a catalogue of staggering incompetence and failures on the Roman part.

Firstly, Marcus Crassus walks the Roman army into an ambush, led along by Abgarus. Then Publius Crassus breaks with all known Roman discipline, not to mention common sense, and races off to attack the Parthians on his own and is slaughtered. Third, we have the Roman infantry rushing headlong into attacking the Parthian army, seemingly for no better reason than revenge. Fourth, we have the Romans being taken completely unawares by the treacherous attack of Abgarus&rsquo allied soldiers. Fifth, the Romans were seemingly unable to fight on two fronts and managed to get themselves twisted and turned around until they did not know which way they were facing. Marcus Crassus&rsquo role in this sequence of errors is unclear, for we hear nothing more of him once he has led his men into the trap.

Aside from the catalogue of Roman failings, Dio&rsquo account is short, devoid of any clear detail, and introduces a number of new elements which we do not find in any earlier source. They range from the significant (the treachery of the Arab allied contingent), to the bizarre (Surenas hiding his army in the woods &ndash on a dusty north Mesopotamian plain). 210 From start to finish, this battle narrative was designed to show the incompetence of the Roman army and especially it&rsquos leadership, in the form of the Crassi. Actually, the Parthians do not come out of this narrative particularly well either. It seems that they won through a mixture of underhand tactics, treachery, ambushes and feints, combined with Roman ineptitude. Given the poor state of the Parthian Empire in his own day (third century AD), this is not perhaps surprising, but as an historical record it leaves much to be desired.

If we are to find out how the Roman Republic met such a catastrophic defeat in the east, then we need to turn to Plutarch, who presents us with a more detailed and logical sequence of events, which appear to have been based on a source with first-hand experience of the battle itself.

The Initial Clash

Throughout his account, Plutarch presents us with a far more realistic depiction of the Battle of Carrhae, and it is this one that we must accept as being the closest to the true sequence of events, as far as can be determined.

Rather than walking into a trap, Plutarch tells us that Crassus had sent his scouts out looking for Surenas&rsquo army. By mid-afternoon, just beyond the river Belikh, they found what they were looking for. Given that Surenas&rsquo battleplan was based on a significant element of misinformation, not in terms of location, but in terms of his army&rsquos unusual formation and potential method of attack, it is no surprise that his own advance guard inflicted heavy casualties on the Roman scouts. 211 The fact that some survived to report their presence is also not a surprise as Surenas&rsquo plan involved the Romans advancing onto his chosen ground.

Here we can see both the brilliance of Surenas as a tactician, and where Dio gets at least one of his oddest pieces of information from. Plutarch reports that Surenas had concealed the bulk of his army behind an advance guard. Therefore, an approaching force would only see the front of the army, in its width, rather than its depth. Thus Surenas concealed the bulk of his army from Crassus until battle was engaged, but not in the bizarre method that Dio states. Plutarch tells us that

the enemy came in sight, who, to the surprise of the Romans, appeared to be neither numerous nor formidable. 212

Furthermore, Surenas had ordered his heavily-armoured cataphracts to wear concealing robes and skins over their armour, in order to disguise their true nature. To an observer they would appear to be ordinary cavalrymen, rather than cataphracts. Surenas&rsquo plan was obviously to lure Crassus into battle before he knew the number and type of force he was truly facing. It is at this point that Crassus made a decision that with hindsight may have proved to be a mistake. Plutarch reports that when the Parthians were located nearby, the Roman officers wanted to camp and give battle at day break. It is possible that this break would have allowed the Romans time to scout out the Parthians more thoroughly and therefore discover that the army which they were about to face was not a typical Parthian one. Crassus, however, wanted to push on immediately and Plutarch states that he was urged on by his son Publius, who was eager for battle. 213 It is obviously this statement that led Dio into making his claim that Publius Crassus broke away from the army at the beginning of the battle and launched himself at the Parthians.

Even if Crassus had camped for the night and attempted to scout the Parthian army, there is nothing to indicate that they would have been any more successful than their predecessors, who had been dispatched with heavy casualties (a process made easier by the massed Parthian archers). All that a further scouting mission would have been able to tell Crassus is a rough estimate of the numbers, which would give the Romans a clear four to one advantage, and that the majority of them were mounted. They would not have been able to tell him how many were cataphracts (he would have been expecting a number of them anyway), nor that the baggage train of camels actually contained a large number of spare arrows, nor that there were no infantry. When Crassus advanced upon the waiting Parthians, he did so in full confidence that his army would easily outmatch the supposedly-inferior Parthian army (both in numbers and type). He had no reason to believe that he was in fact playing right into the hands of Surenas, who had chosen his ground &ndash mostly flat with little cover, ideal for a fully mobile attack &ndash and had concealed his true tactics.

Plutarch also gives us the Roman formation as they advanced upon the Parthians. At first Crassus adopted a linear formation with his army strung out across the plain in a long line and his cavalry divided between the two wings. Crassus commanded this formation from the centre, with the two wings commanded by Cassius and Publius Crassus. Plutarch tells us that he did this in order to avoid being surrounded by the enemy and that it was Cassius&rsquo idea the implication here being that if Crassus had stuck to this formation then the Parthians would not have been able to ride around the army and attack them from many sides. 214 Quite why he was expecting them to do this at such an early stage we are not told.

However, Plutarch then tells us that Crassus altered this formation and advanced upon the Parthians in a square formation:

Then he changed his mind and concentrated his men, forming them in a hollow square of four fronts, with twelve cohorts on each side. 215 With each cohort he placed a squadron of horse, that no part of the line might lack cavalry support, but that the whole body might advance to the attack with equal protection everywhere. 216

Plutarch does not give us the reasons why Crassus changed his tactics. In fact the whole passage is an odd one. Plutarch (or his sources) is attempting to alert us to the fact that he believed that Cassius&rsquo formation was the best one and that by changing it Crassus made a mistake. We are told that Cassius&rsquo formation would have prevented the Parthians from surrounding the army, but given that the Romans only had 4,000 cavalry, compared to the Parthians&rsquo 10,000, this is an ambitious statement to say the least. Furthermore, Plutarch or his source are using hindsight here as prior to the battle no-one knew that the Parthians were going to surround the Roman army, as the Romans did not know the size of Surenas&rsquo cavalry force or his tactics.

In fact there is nothing at all wrong with Crassus&rsquo chosen formation, which as Plutarch states gave the Romans strength on all sides and would prevent an enemy from exploiting a weak area. 217 As for why Crassus chose to ignore the advice of his vastly less-experienced junior officer (Cassius), we will probably never know, but it does perhaps show a greater degree of caution, for which he was known. The battle commenced with a thunderous wall of noise from the Parthians. Plutarch describes the scene well:

the signal was raised by their commander, first of all they filled the plain with the sound of a deep and terrifying roar. For the Parthians do not incite themselves to battle with horns or trumpets, but they have hollow drums of distended hide, covered with bronze bells, and on these they beat all at once in many quarters, and the instruments give forth a low and dismal tone, a blend of wild beast&rsquos roar and harsh thunder peal. They had rightly judged that, of all the senses, hearing is the one most as to confound the soul, soonest rouses its emotions, and most effectively unseats the judgement. 218

Utilising this battle cry to full effect, Surenas opted to begin the battle with a full-scale cavalry charge at the Roman army, with the cataphracts at the front, followed by his archers. Leading the charge himself, he then had his cataphracts remove the coverings which had been hiding their armour as they were galloping. This would have added to the dramatic effect of the charge, as their highly-polished bronze and steel armour would have caught the sun. The Romans would suddenly have realised that they were facing a full charge by heavilyarmoured cavalry. Surenas was clearly using every psychological trick he could to unnerve the enemy.

However, if he was hoping for the Roman line to break, either in panic or under the force of his heavy cavalry, then he was to be disappointed. For unlike in Dio&rsquos account of the battle, the Roman line held strong. As they had been trained to do, the Romans soldiers locked their shields together and maintained their discipline and composure. We can see that in this respect Crassus had trained his army well. To maintain your discipline in the face of a cavalry charge was one thing, but given the added drama that Surenas had brought to this charge, it is a testament to the Roman discipline that they stood their ground.

This was incidental to Surenas&rsquo plan if the Roman line had broken then all the better, but it is doubtful that he ever believed it would do so. Rather than charge into the Roman line, Surenas actually diverted his cavalry around the Roman square, on both sides, until they had the Romans surrounded, taking the Romans by surprise. Crassus, however, soon recovered from this unusual tactic and, aware that he was being surrounded, ordered his auxiliary troops to charge at the Parthians and break their flanking manoeuvre. But they were met with a hail of arrows that forced them back into the square, taking heavy casualties in the process.

We can see that Surenas&rsquo battleplan had worked beautifully thus far. Rather than attack the Romans head on and get involved in a static mêlée, which would have favoured his enemy, he encircled them at speed and deployed the bulk of his force, his 9,000 horse archers, to devastating effect. Now the Parthian archers began to unleash a barrage of arrows at the Romans from all sides. Given the penetrative capabilities of the arrows the Parthians were using, the Roman army was soon being slaughtered. Plutarch again captures the scene well,

But the Parthians now stood at long intervals from one another and began to shoot their arrows from all sides at once, not with any accurate aim, for the dense formation of the Romans would not suffer an archer to miss his man even if he wished it, but making vigorous and powerful shots from bows which were large and mighty and curved so as to discharge their missiles with great force. At once the plight of the Romans was a grievous one for if they kept their ranks, they were wounded in great numbers, and if they tried to come to close quarters with the enemy they suffered just as much. For the Parthians shot as they fled and it is a very clever thing to seek safety while still fighting and to take away the shame of flight. 219

Thus the Roman army, despite its numerical superiority, was trapped, huddled in a square and coming under a constant barrage of arrows. If the Romans moved to engage the archers, they would turn and retreat whilst still firing. The Roman soldiers could not get near enough to the archers to engage them in close combat. This tactic became known as the &lsquoParthian shot&rsquo, the ability to still attack your opponents whilst retreating. Once Crassus had recovered from the initial shock of the Parthian tactics, however, he still had several reasons to be hopeful. Although his army was taking casualties, he must have sensed that if this was the best the Parthians could do, then he could still carry the day. The Parthian army seemed to be composed of nothing but horse archers, supported by a relatively low number of cataphracts. The Romans had already shown that they could withstand a full cavalry charge, the Parthians had no infantry, and once the archers ran out of arrows then the Romans could advance and force their retreat.

In this regard Crassus would normally have been quite correct. Under the usual terms of battle, the horse archers would soon have emptied their quivers and the Parthian cavalry would then have had to attack the Romans legions at close quarters (or withdraw). However, it is at this point that the true masterstroke of Surenas&rsquo plan was brought into play &ndash namely mobile re-arming. Having surrounded the Romans, Surenas deployed his camel train to replenish the archers. Thus the Parthian archers would only need a short break to ride up to one of the camels, take a fresh quiver of arrows, return to their positions and continue shooting. So long as the archers did this at slightly different times, and as long as the camels were well spaced amongst the surrounding archers, then the barrage would continue indefinitely.

It appears that Crassus soon became aware of this development. Perhaps he observed it actually happening, or he simply deduced that the rain of arrows was not weakening. Once he was aware of it though, he realised that his only hope now lay in breaking the encirclement. To that end, he sent a message to his son, out on one of the wings (we do not know which), ordering him to lead a breakout and engage the enemy at close quarters with his cavalry. If the Roman cavalry could drive off the Parthians, even in one area, then it would give the main army time to regroup. This breakout and the engagement that followed would deter-mine the outcome of the whole battle.

The Breakout and the &lsquoBattle within a Battle&rsquo

Publius Crassus gathered together as many troops as he could muster on his wing. Plutarch tells us that he had 1,300 cavalry (including his own 1,000 Gauls), 500 auxiliary archers and eight cohorts of legionaries (just under 4,000 men). 220 Publius then led this force and charged the Parthian cavalry ahead of him. Plutarch also records that with him leading the charge were two young aristocratic friends of his, Censorinus and Megabacchus. 221 At first it appeared that the plan had worked successfully as the Parthians appeared to break, turn and retreat. Not wanting to lose the initiative and sensing victory, Publius chased after the enemy, with both cavalry and infantry, hoping to finish the Parthians off.

Whether the Parthians on Publius&rsquo wing did genuinely break or not, we will never know. Plutarch certainly raises it as a possibility. 222 Publius&rsquo charge would certainly have taken them by surprise and it was conducted with a large number of Roman and allied cavalry, backed up by archers and legionaries. Such a force was a formidable combination of speed, firepower and close-order infantry. However, the retreating Parthians wheeled their horses away from the main Roman army and towards their cataphracts. At that point the retreating Parthians turned, were joined by the cataphracts and attacked the oncoming Romans.

Whilst it appeared that the Romans still had the numerical advantage, and had a good mix of cavalry and foot, once again the Parthians adhered to the battle-plan of their master and placed the cataphracts between the Romans and their archers. This would have allowed the archers to continue to fire at the Romans as the two cavalry forces engaged each other, in the first, and only, close-order clash of the battle.

Although the Romans had the numerical advantage in this encounter, the Parthians had by far and away the advantage in terms of weaponry. The Roman cavalry were lightly armoured and only had short spears, whilst the Parthian cataphracts were heavily armoured and carried long lances. They were supported by mounted archers, whilst the Roman archers were on foot and would not have been able to keep up with the mounted clash. The same goes for the 4,000 Roman legionaries present. Nevertheless it is said that Publius Crassus led the charge into the Parthian cataphracts with great bravery and determination, backed up by his Gallic cavalry.

Plutarch gives a testimony to the bravery of the Gallic cavalry:

with these [the Gauls] he did indeed work wonders. For they laid hold of the long spears of the Parthians, and grappling with the men, pushed them from their horses, hard as it was to move them owing to the weight of their armour and many of the Gauls forsook their own horses, and crawling under those of the enemy, stabbed them up in the belly. These would rear up in their anguish, and die trampling on riders and enemy indiscriminately mingled. 223

Thus Plutarch paints a harrowing picture of the chaos that was a battle within a battle. Strategy went out of the window, replaced by a mêlée where it came down to hand-to-hand fighting between Gauls and Parthians. When the dust had literally settled, despite their bravery and savagery, it was clear that the Gallic cavalry had been well beaten. Those that remained were all wounded, including Publius Crassus himself, and they retreated to the relative protection of the Roman legionaries that had accompanied them. This force then moved to a nearby hillock to make a determined last stand, with the horses in the centre and a ring of legionaries, with locked shields, on the outside to protect the wounded. This, of course, did not save them from a fresh barrage of arrows from the Parthian horse archers.

Plutarch reports that despite being advised to either flee or surrender, Publius Crassus was determined not to desert his command. 224 Seeing that they were surrounded on that hillock and that defeat was inevitable, and unwilling to be taken alive, he resolved to choose a more dignified exit. Being unable to pick up a sword due to an arrow wound to the hand, he ordered a soldier to strike a sword into his side, killing him instantaneously. Plutarch also tells us that Censorinus did likewise, whilst Megabacchus still had the strength to take his own life, as did the other surviving officers. 225 The rest of the men fought on until the Parthian cataphracts charged the hillock, butchering them with their long lances. Of a force of around 5,500, less than 500 were taken alive 226 . The Romans had lost over a quarter of their cavalry (including all of their best Gallic cavalry), and a good number of their archers, along with a number of the key junior officers. It was a defeat that sounded the end for Roman hopes at Carrhae. With this force defeated, the Parthians chopped off Publius&rsquo head, stuck it on top of a lance, and returned to the main battle. Before we return to the battle though, we need to dwell on this most important encounter within the Battle of Carrhae, as ultimately it decided the fate of the battle.

This episode has often been explained as being nothing more than Publius Crassus falling for one of the oldest traps in existence: a faked retreat to draw him away from the main body of the army, leading him into heavier Parthian forces, which then turned on him and cut him down. Yet this view overlooks a number of key elements. Firstly, the Romans had to attempt a breakout or they would have faced total annihilation. Secondly, the Parthian cavalry surrounding the Roman army was mostly horse archers they had only 1,000 cataphracts to protect 9,000 horse archers from 40,000 Romans. Publius took with him all of Rome&rsquos best cavalry (the Gauls) as well as a number of archers and legionaries in support.

The question of whether it was an intended trap depends on what orders Surenas had given. He must have expected the Romans to attempt to break out of his encirclement and we must ask ourselves what strategy he had prepared for this eventuality. Given the appearance of a large force of cataphracts, it is more than likely that Surenas had held them in reserve, following the initial charge and encirclement, so that they could be deployed against any breakout. With careful observation the cataphracts could be sent to wherever the Romans broke out of. All the horse archers had to then do was retreat, whilst still firing, and lead the Roman force towards where they knew the reserve force of cataphracts would be. The trap would then close in on them.

Again, this shows the brilliance of Surenas. Not only did he have an initial strategy, but he had a counter strategy to deal with any Roman breakout. It also demonstrates the severe threat that the Parthians still faced from the Romans, despite the successful encirclement and the barrage of arrows. Had the Roman cavalry successfully broken out of Surenas&rsquo trap, then they could have put the horse archers to flight and allowed the army to extricate themselves. It is unlikely that it would have brought them victory, but it would have given them time to retreat and regroup.

The aim of Surenas&rsquo plan must have been a clear and total victory on the day. Anything less than the destruction of the Roman army would have allowed them to withdraw and fight another day, and Surenas was only ever going to fool them with his modified way of fighting once. For Surenas it was all or nothing winning the day would not be enough, he had to win the war in one battle. Without total victory at Carrhae, the Romans would return, stronger than before.

Even though the breakout had been planned for, the fighting itself was still going to be close. The Romans broke out with 1,300 cavalry and over 4,000 foot. Given that Surenas only had 1,000 cataphracts in total (and we do not know how many were deployed against Publius) the result was never going to be a foregone conclusion. As it was, the superior Parthian cataphracts carried the day, which meant that the key encounter of the battle was lost due to the poorer quality of the Roman cavalry. For all the tactical planning and innovations, in the end it came down to that one factor. The Romans were not lacking in courage, on the part of Publius or his Gauls they simply were outmatched in terms of weaponry.

The Final Stage

Initially at least, the breakout that Crassus ordered appeared to have worked. A large part of the Parthian army encircling the main Roman force was drawn away, either fleeing from Publius or riding hard to catch up with him. Crassus used this let-up wisely and staged a withdrawal, whilst still under intermittent arrow fire. The Roman army, laden with casualties, regrouped on nearby sloping ground, which would at least give them some protection from the Parthian cavalry. Here Crassus was faced with a difficult decision, exacerbated by a lack of information, as he needed to know how his son was doing. If Publius had routed the Parthians opposed to him, then he could have possibly advanced and cleared the rest of the Parthian cavalry away, or at least retreated back to the safety of one of the garrisoned towns and regrouped. However, he was not able to come to any decision until he had this information, to which ends he sent messengers out, to try to reach Publius&rsquo position.

Plutarch records that the first one was intercepted and killed, but that the second messenger not only reached Publius&rsquo position, but was able to assess thesituation and mange to return to the main army. When he did so, he informed Crassus that his son was surrounded and being cut to pieces. 227 To say that this left Crassus with a dilemma would be an understatement. On a military basis, he knew that the breakout would fail unless he took the main army to link up with Publius. However, this meant gambling with his army and putting them back into the mess that they had only just managed to extricate themselves from. Even if they got there in time, there was no reason to assume that they would be victorious, as the rest of the Parthian army would also converge there.

On the other hand, if he turned and retreated he was not only condemning his son to death &ndash a death that would have been his responsibility &ndash but as the majority of the Roman army was on foot and the Parthians were mounted, there was no reason to believe that they would reach safety in time. Given the number of casualties that they had already sustained, their progress would not have been swift. Furthermore, if the main body of the Parthians did catch them up, they would be strung out in columns and with their backs to them. For whatever reason, military or personal (or both), Crassus resolved that the only move open to them was to advance and meet up with Publius&rsquo beleaguered force.

But, before they had advanced far, they were met with the sight and sound that told them that the encounter between Publius and the Parthians was over. Coming towards them was a cloud of dust accompanied by the beating of war drums. When the Parthians did come into view, they were preceded by the severed head of Publius Crassus. Plutarch tells us that Roman morale sank. 228 Not only had a large number of their colleagues been slaughtered, depriving them of most of their cavalry support, but they knew that the battle was about to be rejoined. Despite his grief, it was at this point that Crassus showed his qualities as a general and tried to rouse his men with an impassioned speech:

Mine, O Romans, is the sorrow, and mine alone but the great fortune and glory of Rome abide unbroken and unconquered in you who are alive and safe. And now if you have any pity for me, thus bereft of the noblest of sons, show it by your wrath against the enemy. Rob them of their joy avenge their cruelty be not cast down at what has happened, for it must needs be that those whose aim at great deeds should also suffer greatly. It was not without bloody losses that even Lucullus overthrew Tigranes, or Scipio overthrew Antiochus and our fathers of old lost a thousand ships off Sicily and in Italy many imperators and generals, not one of whom, by his defeat, prevented them from afterwards mastering his conquerors. For it was not by good fortune merely that the Roman state reached its present position of power, but by patient endurance and the valour of those who faced dangers on its behalf. 229

Now, whilst we have to admit that it is highly unlikely that anyone had the time or the materials to note the speech down word for word, there were enough survivors to have noted the general contents of the speech. Furthermore, as it is reported by Plutarch, who takes a fairly hostile line on Crassus over Carrhae, we can have some confidence that the speech is a fairly accurate representation of what Crassus said.

Nevertheless it was going to take something greater than a stirring speech to save the Romans from the impending slaughter. True to his plan, Surenas (and we are not told whether he was directly involved in the defeat of Publius) employed his tried and tested tactics. The cataphracts again charged the Roman army, forcing them to form closely together, and then the horse archers were brought back into the fray. The Roman army was subject to a constant barrage of arrows and lances, slowly whittling down their numbers.

Only one thing saved the Roman army from total annihilation that day at Carrhae, and that was the arrival of dusk, whereupon the Parthians withdrew for the night. Even though they had the Romans surrounded, the Parthians were unwilling to risk fighting at night. Aside from the traditional reluctance they had of fighting after dark, the conditions made continuing highly risky. They were in the middle of a plain with little natural light and the danger of getting too close to the Romans, or even of friendly fire, was too great.

Thus despite the slaughter and the total defeat they had suffered, the Romans still had a glimmer of hope. The Parthians withdrew and camped nearby, and made no attempt to block their escape. This may seem odd to us today, especially given that the Romans still numbered some 20,000 men (including their wounded) and Crassus himself was still alive and unwounded (in the physical sense anyway). Surenas knew that he had won a spectacular victory, the likes of which no one but he had thought possible, yet he still faced problems. Although the Romans had been comprehensively defeated, a large number of them yet remained, who, if they made for the safety of Roman-held territory, would have been able to recover and regroup. Furthermore, Crassus, the architect and driving force of the Roman invasion, was likely to be more determined than ever to avenge the death of his son. As long as Crassus remained free, the danger to Parthia was not over. Plutarch hints that the Parthians sent an embassy to the Roman army when night fell, to discuss terms of surrender. All he actually says is that:

they would grant Crassus one night in which to bewail his son, unless, with a better regard for his own interests, he should consent to go to Arsaces (Orodes II) instead of being carried there. 230

Taking Crassus alive would have been a major prize for Surenas. Yet, due to the Parthian inability or unwillingness to fight at night, the prize could still have eluded Surenas and if Crassus escaped then it would tarnish the remarkable achievements of that day. Ironically, Crassus&rsquo decision to fight immediately in the afternoon, rather than next morning, actually saved the Roman army from utter annihilation, though the Romans had clearly suffered a devastating defeat. Half of their army was dead, and they had been comprehensively outfought. Yet all was not lost. As Crassus himself had pointed out in his rousing speech, Rome had been defeated many times in battle and yet had always emerged victorious in the end. Half the army lay dead on the field of Carrhae, but half yet remained. If they could get safely back to the series of Roman-controlled Mesopotamian towns and then ultimately back into Syria itself, they could re-group for the winter.

It was still possible for Crassus to turn the clock back a year. Rome still held the bridgehead of garrisoned towns in northwestern Mesopotamia. If Crassus wintered in Syria, he could allow his injured soldiers time to heal, raise fresh troops (he was still one of the three men who dominated the Roman Republic after all) and rebuild his army. Certainly his reputation would have taken a battering, but his powerbase was secure. His command extended until 50 BC so there was plenty of time for a fresh campaign in 52 BC. Furthermore, Surenas could only play his masterstroke once. Crassus was not going to fall for that trick twice and could send to Rome for fresh forces, especially additional cavalry. He could plan a new route of invasion, perhaps taking the cities of Babylon, Seleucia and Ctesiphon, which would rebuild shattered Roman morale and then tackle Surenas in his own time and fashion. Thus, as night fell on the battlefield of Carrhae, the Romans had lost the battle, but not the war the whole campaign was still in the balance, dependant upon the Romans making it to safety.

Before we commence an analysis of the Roman retreat we must pause and comment on the one major discrepancy between the accounts of Plutarch and Dio, that is the treacherous attack of the Osroene leader, Abgarus. Plutarch, writing a century earlier than Dio and seemingly using a first hand account of the campaign, had no such attack take place. Crassus was accompanied for a time in Mesopotamia by an Arab chieftain, whom he names as Ariamnes. 231 Even allowing for confusion over names, there is the fundamental point that Plutarch records the Arab chieftain left Crassus&rsquo army before the Battle of Carrhae. 232 Furthermore, in what is a very detailed account of the battle itself, at no point does Plutarch mention that a native allied contingent betrayed the Romans and attacked them, which we must expect to find if it actually happened. Given its absence from this, our best source for the battle, we must assume that this treacherous attack did not occur. Where Dio got this from we will never know, but, as far as is possible to do so when dealing with ancient sources, we must clearly note that this treacherous attack by Abgarus in the Roman rear did not take place and was a later fiction copied by Dio into his account.

The Retreat to Carrhae

Again, Plutarch and Dio disagree on the finer details of the retreat. Nevertheless, the first stage of the Roman retreat was to get safely back to the town of Carrhae itself and the security of its walls and Roman garrison. Plutarch tells us that the Romans looked to Crassus for leadership, but that he was lying on the ground in despair, which meant that the escape had to be organised by the two most senior surviving Roman officers: Cassius and Octavius. 233 Dio omits this and states that Crassus led the survivors on the retreat. 234

It is clear that the journey itself was a perilous one. In the dead of a cold Mesopotamian night, 15,000&ndash20,000 men, a good many of them injured, had to walk the route back to Carrhae. In fact it was no mean feat that they were still able to navigate their way back to the town in darkness and following the hardship of the day&rsquos battle. A hard decision had to be taken that night, in regard to what was to be done with those men who were too seriously wounded to walk. Given that time was of the essence and that they had to be at the walls of Carrhae before dawn, the brutal decision was made to leave the seriously wounded behind. Plutarch provides us with a dramatic description of their journey

Then the sick and wounded perceived that their comrades were abandoning them, and dreadful disorder and confusion, accompanied by groans and shouts filled the camp. And after this, as they tried to advance, disorder and panic seized upon them, for they felt sure that the enemy was coming against them. Frequently they would change their course, frequently they would form in order of battle, some of the wounded who followed them had to be taken up, and others laid down, and so all were delayed 235

Not only were a number of men left behind, numbering some 4,000 it is estimated, but a number would have died on route to Carrhae, from untreated wounds and fatigue. 236 For many it was a march of death. The first Romans to reach the town of Carrhae were the remnants of the Roman auxiliary cavalry, about 300 in number. They were led by a Roman nobleman by the name of Egnatius. However, when they reached the town an event occurred that was to set the tone for the whole Roman retreat. Upon reaching the walls of Carrhae, Egnatius gained the attention of the Roman guards on the walls, shouting to them to tell their commander (a Roman officer by the name of Coponius) that a great battle had taken place between Crassus and the Parthians. At that point he and his men promptly rode off and headed towards Zeugma and the crossing back into Roman Syria, without even identifying who he was.

This was an ominous sign: a Roman officer deserting his commander and the whole campaign and riding as fast as possible for the safety of a Roman province. Plutarch tells us that Egnatius was forever tainted by this act of cowardice and we can find no further trace of him in subsequent Roman political or military life. 237 Nevertheless, despite its brevity, the message actually had the desired effect and Coponius, realising that something catastrophic had occurred, immediately led an expedition out from Carrhae, located the column of Roman survivors and escorted them back into the town.

For Crassus at least, the first stage of the retreat had been accomplished and the bulk of the Roman survivors had reached safety. Exactly how many men reached the relative safety of Carrhae is difficult to estimate, as we are not given a clear figure by Plutarch. However, it does seem, judging from some of the later figures that Plutarch gives us, that between 15,000&ndash20,000 men reached the town. Actually, this raises one of the most surprising and neglected aspects of the whole Carrhae campaign, namely how many Romans were killed during the battle and how many were killed during the aftermath. As we shall see the balance between the two is actually quite surprising.

When dawn broke, the Parthians advanced upon the site of the Roman army&rsquos last stand, and as they expected found that the bulk of the army had fled. What they also found were the 4,000 seriously wounded Roman soldiers, who had been left behind. Surenas, unwilling to show any more mercy to them than their comrades had, promptly had these men slaughtered. He then set upon the task of locating the bulk of the Roman army. During this day his cavalry came across a number of Roman stragglers, who had either been separated from, or fallen behind, the main group (an easy thing to do given the state of the retreat at night). In all but one case they too were easily dispatched.

There was, however, one notable exception, which Plutarch chooses to highlight and so should we. One of Crassus&rsquo legates was an officer by the name of Vargunteius, who hailed from a minor senatorial family. During the retreat he was in command of four cohorts, less than 2,000 men (especially given the losses of the previous day), but became separated from the main group. When day broke and the Parthian cavalry located them, they decided to make a last stand on a small hillock. Given the overwhelming odds there was only ever going to be one outcome, yet they fought and died hard to such an extent that the Parthians noted them for their bravery, not something that had been in great supply from the Romans during the retreat. As they were down to the last twenty men (not including Vargunteius, who had already fallen) they charged the Parthians in a last defiant gesture. So impressed were the Parthians with their defiant stand that they parted and allowed them to continue to Carrhae unmolested. 238 Such tales of heroism in this retreat were few and far between.

As stated earlier, we therefore have recorded incidents of over 6,000 Roman soldiers surviving the battle, but dying the next day. Given that these are only two such incidents (many more not being recorded due to the absence of any surviving witnesses) we can begin to appreciate the scale of the Roman losses that occurred in the days after the battle.

The Retreat to Syria

At this point, both Crassus and Surenas were locked in an odd game of cat and mouse. Surenas was not exactly sure of where Crassus was, whilst Crassus and his army had to evade the Parthians and seek the refuge of either Armenia or Syria. Although Carrhae was the most logical place for Crassus to make for, Surenas could not be certain. Added to this, Plutarch states that Surenas received a report (from whom we are never told, nor are we told how Plutarch&rsquos source got to know of this) that Crassus was not in Carrhae and was in fact heading for the border. 239 This would have left Surenas in something of a dilemma. However, he soon came up with a plan to resolve it by sending a man up to the walls of Carrhae and requesting a peace conference between himself and Crassus, to organise a truce and a safe withdrawal of the Roman forces from the towns and cities of Mesopotamia. Whilst the evacuation of the occupying Roman garrisons was a necessary move for the Parthians, Surenas needed to locate Crassus, dead or alive, even more. Plutarch reports that Cassius took the bait and reported back to Surenas&rsquo emissary that Crassus would be willing to meet with him, which only served to confirm Crassus&rsquo presence within the town. 240 By this simple ruse and by Cassius&rsquo short-sightedness, the Parthians now knew where to end this war and Surenas moved his entire army towards the town of Carrhae.

For Crassus, Cassius&rsquo stupidity had left him with an even bigger headache. Given the strength of the Roman forces in Carrhae (a garrison, plus 15,000&ndash20,000 survivors) he would have been able to resist a Parthian siege, not that Surenas&rsquo army was equipped for storming a city. The problem was that although the Parthians could not get in, soon the Romans would not have been able to get out and they did not know how long the food and water would last, given the size of the Roman forces within. Crassus could have adopted a policy of waiting it out if he knew help was going to arrive to alleviate a siege, but where would this help come from? Assistance would not soon be forthcoming from Roman Syria, given the few forces that remained there, which only left Armenia. However, as Crassus was not able to rely on the Armenians to help him when he was in a position of power, it was highly unlikely that he could do so now in such a weakened one. Although he was never to know it, this assessment proved to be a highly perceptive one, as only a few days later King Artavasdes would meet with King Orodes to discuss a peace treaty between Armenia and Parthia.

This left Crassus with only one viable option he would have to break out of Carrhae, evade the waiting Parthians and make for Syria or the Armenian foothills. It appears that the Roman army was divided up into groups, each led by one of the senior surviving commanders. We know of groups led by Crassus, Octavius and Cassius, but there must have been more. It is probable that each group had a different destination and different route, to divide and distract the Parthian pursuers. The move had to be made at night, so as to slip past the Parthians and had to be done when there was no full moon, in order to keep as much cover as possible.

Although we know what happened next, why it happened is the subject of much conjecture. The facts, ultimately are that whilst Cassius&rsquo group made it to Syria, Octavius&rsquo and Crassus&rsquo did not. Plutarch ascribes this to Crassus once again relying on, and being betrayed by, a native guide, this time a man known as Andromachus. According to Plutarch, Andromachus offered to guide Crassus and Cassius from Carrhae, but planned to lead them on a circuitous route and delay them, so that the Parthians would be able to find them by daybreak. 241

Plutarch&rsquos version of the event also has Cassius realising that they were being led into a trap, then breaking away and returning to Carrhae without telling Crassus 242 . If this was true then it was desertion of the highest order. It would seem to be either a daring double bluff or foolish in the extreme to return to the town of Carrhae, past the Parthians once more and hope that they rode off after the other groups. Dio, naturally, has none of this detail. He has Crassus making for the Armenian foothills and Cassius safely reaching Syria independently. 243 When day broke and the Parthians realised that the Romans had evacuated Carrhae, they set off after them once more. Again Dio reports that many groups did not escape the Parthian cavalry, though it seems that on this day a number of them were taken prisoner (perhaps this was due to Surenas wanting Crassus alive or at least to confirm that they had killed the right man). 244

Of the three main groups, we know that Crassus&rsquo got bogged down in a marsh, whether at the hand of a treacherous guide or by simple misfortune, and thus when day broke he was still out in the open and some way off safety. Octavius and the 5,000 men he commanded had reached the relative safety of the mountains at Sinnaca before daybreak. Cassius it seems disappears from the picture and only turns up again safe and sound in Roman Syria, the only one of the key Roman commanders to do so.

By now the Parthians, led by Surenas, had spotted Crassus&rsquo group and were moving in on them. However, he was saved by the intervention of Octavius, who could see the relative position of both groups from his high position. Unlike many of the Roman officers in that retreat, he appears not to have thought of his own safety, but his duty to his commander and led his force of 5,000 men (some of them unwillingly) to rescue Crassus from the advancing Parthians, who were far less in number than the Romans. Thus Crassus finally reached the safety of the foothills, where the Parthian cavalry were far less potent and where Roman numbers would count.

For Surenas, the situation was serious. Certainly he had defeated the Roman army at Carrhae and he had inflicted further heavy casualties on them during the retreat, but if Crassus should escape, even with a force of 10,000 men back into Syria, then the war would continue. In desperation, he tried one last stratagem. He either sent an embassy to the Romans in the hills, or went himself, stating that he wanted a peace conference to offer the Romans the opportunity to evacuate all territories east of the Euphrates. The details of this treaty were to be worked out at this meeting between the two men, along with a few officers from either side, on neutral ground between the two forces. Plutarch reports that he went and delivered this offer himself and reports his words:

I have put your valour and power to the test against the wishes of the king, who now of his own accord shows you the mildness and friendliness of his feelings by offering to make a truce with you if you will withdraw and by affording you the means of safety. 245

Now, Dio and Plutarch report very different reactions by Crassus to this offer. Dio reports that:

Crassus, without hesitation, trusted him. For he was in the very extremity of fear, and was distraught by the terror of the calamity that had befallen both himself and the state. 246

According to Dio, therefore, Crassus was eager to meet Surenas and accept whatever deal he offered, and so walked right into his trap. Dio&rsquos account would have us believe that the experienced general and the cynical political manipulator that Crassus was, fell for this ruse due to the pressures he had been under during the last few days. Plutarch however reports a very different Crassus and one more in keeping with the man we know. He reports that:

Crassus, who&rsquos every discomfiture at the hands of the barbarians had been due to fraud, and who thought the suddenness of their change a strange thing, would not reply, but took the matter into consideration. 247

This description fits the cunning and cynical Crassus that is more familiar to us. Even after all that had happened to him, he was still very much in control of his faculties. He would have been well aware that he had lost the battle, but not the war. However, he was not prepared for what happened next. Although he and his officers saw through Surenas&rsquo ruse, the surviving legionaries, trapped on a desolate Mesopotamian hilltop, and with the Parthian force below, apparently did not. In yet another example of the lack of discipline that had plagued the retreat from the start, the troops mutinied and demanded that Crassus attend the peace negotiations. They had survived the calamitous day at Carrhae and the two near-disastrous retreats and now it appeared that their officers wanted more hardship for them, rather than a negotiated settlement. Plutarch reports that Crassus once again attempted to reason with them, arguing that they could make good their escape into the hills, but to no avail. 248 In all fairness he had led them on what turned out to be a disastrous campaign and we could hardly blame the legionaries for having little faith left in his abilities or judgement. Thus Crassus was forced to meet Surenas, for what he believed would be his death, rather than his soldiers&rsquo salvation.

Plutarch reports that before he descended to meet Surenas, he made one final and prophetic speech to his two senior surviving commanders:

Octavius and Petronius and you other commanders of Rome here present, you see that I go because I must and you are witnesses of the shameful violence I suffer but tell the world, if you get safely home, that Crassus perished because he was deceived by his enemies, and not because he was delivered up to them by his countrymen. 249

With that he descended to meet Surenas. Once again though, Octavius did not let him down and he and Petronius and some other of the officers went with Crassus, in order to protect him. When Crassus sent two legates ahead of him to meet with Surenas and see what protocol was to be observed, neither returned. Plutarch names them as the two Roscius brothers. 250 Nevertheless, Crassus and his retinue continued onwards. When Surenas and his officers met with Crassus they noted that they were on horses whilst he was on foot and offered him the use of a spare horse, which they had brought along. When Crassus mounted the horse, the Parthian grooms attempted to gallop the horse away towards the Parthian lines, with Crassus still on top of it. At once Octavius stepped in and killed one of the grooms, but was in turn struck down by the other one. Petronius too entered the fight and was killed by his commander&rsquos side. It is reported that Crassus was the last to fall in this unedifying struggle, killed by a Parthian soldier named by the sources as either Promaxathres or Exathres. 251

Upon the death of Crassus and most of his senior officers, Surenas sent word to the Romans up in the hills, who had witnessed this assassination (which they had greatly been responsible for), and called for their surrender, pledging that they would not be ill treated. Amazingly, a number of them actually believed Surenas&rsquo offer, despite what happened to Crassus, and did surrender. They were added to the growing tally of Roman prisoners. Understandably a number of the remaining soldiers did not accept Surenas&rsquo offer and made away under the cover of night. Plutarch reports that the majority of them were hunted down and killed, whilst Dio states that the majority escaped through the mountains and reached safety in Roman territory. 252

Thus died Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the three leading men of Rome assassinated in an ignominious scramble over a horse. Within a decade he was joined by the other two members of the triumvirate: Pompey, assassinated on an Egyptian beach in 48 BC and Caesar, four years later, assassinated in the Roman Senate House by a group of his so-called supporters (who incidentally were jointly led by Cassius, the man who had let Crassus down on so many occasions).

It was here, in the hills of Sinnaca, that Surenas finally completed his victory. With Crassus dead the Roman campaign was over and the war had been won. Surenas seized the chance to celebrate and did so in a vindictive style. He had Crassus&rsquo head cut off (as he had done with Publius&rsquo) as well as his hand, and sent Silaces (the satrap of Mesopotamia, whom Crassus had defeated in 54 BC and who was at the Battle of Carrhae) to convey both trophies to King Orodes. Before doing so it is alleged that he poured molten gold into the mouth of Crassus&rsquo head, mocking his great wealth. 253 Crassus&rsquo body was then apparently left to rot on a heap of Roman corpses. 254

Before the head reached the king he arranged a victory parade in the city of Seleucia (which he had retaken the previous year from the rebel Mithradates III and which was known to harbour pro-Roman sympathies). He paraded the Roman captives through the streets of Seleucia in a mockery of a Roman triumph. At the head of the procession he placed a Roman prisoner who was said to resemble Crassus and had him dressed in a woman&rsquos robe and forced him to pretend to be Crassus. 255 Behind him he had men carrying Crassus&rsquo fasces (the ceremonial bundle of rods and axes which symbolised a consul&rsquos authority), but now they were crowned with freshly-severed Roman heads. Next came the captured Roman legionary eagles, the symbol of Roman military might, which were then distributed amongst unnamed Parthian temples and hung there as trophies for the next thirty years. 256 Following the prisoners were a number of Seleucid musicians who sang songs ridiculing Crassus for his cowardice and effeminacy. Surenas even brandished a number of parchments of the Milesiaca, a noted erotic work, found amongst the possessions of one of the Roscius brothers, to ridicule the Romans&rsquo weaknesses.

In Armenia, Silaces arrived with his special delivery just as King Orodes and King Artavasdes of Armenia were conducting a treaty of alliance. There are no reports of whether any fighting actually took place between the Armenians and the Parthians. Given this silence and Artavasdes&rsquo vacillating mood earlier in 53 BC, it is most probable that the Armenians gave in without a fight. It is possible that Artavasdes was hoping that this would only be a temporary treaty and that he could break it when Crassus defeated Orodes and then try to explain away his actions.

As it turned out, both kings at the meeting were in for a shock. Under the terms of the treaty with Parthia, Armenia would return to the vassal status that it occupied in the time of Mithradates II, with Parthia acknowledged as the stronger, but Armenia retaining its territorial integrity. Once again the treaty was sealed with a marriage alliance, with Artavasdes&rsquo sister being married to Orodes&rsquo eldest son, Pacorus. Ultimately Crassus&rsquo invasion had allowed Orodes to turn the clock back on Parthian-Armenian relations and restore the old balance of power. It was at the feast to celebrate this alliance that Silaces arrived with Crassus&rsquo head to be more precise, it was during a theatrical performance of the Bacchae, by the famous Greek playwright Euripides (both the Parthian and Armenian kings had developed a taste for the mainstream Hellenistic culture). During a pause in the singing, it is reported, Silaces entered and, after making his bow to the king, cast Crassus&rsquo head into the space where the singer stood. At which point the singer, named as Jason of Tralles, picked the head up and recited the verse from the play:

We bring from the mountain, a freshly cut twist of ivy to the palace, a prosperous spoil. 257

To the Parthians it seemed fitting for Crassus it was the final humiliation, his head being use as a theatrical prop in a Greek drama. 258 However, when the rejoicing was over, both kings would have realised that they now had growing problems. For Artavasdes, rather than playing the Romans off against the Parthians and thereby maintaining an independent Armenia, now found himself with Rome defeated and Parthia in the ascendant. What he must have hoped would be a temporary treaty to avoid the Parthian army had now turned into a permanent position of vassalage to a resurgent Parthia. The Parthian heir now had a clear claim to his throne and he had clearly miscalculated when he did not provide Crassus with the cavalry he needed.

For Orodes, the utter surprise and joy at the news must have soon soured when he realised just how the invasion had been defeated. On the one hand, not only had Armenia been brought back under the Parthian wing (as it was prior to 87 BC), but the looming threat of Rome had been met and comprehensively defeated, with the ultimate Parthian prize of Syria (which they had quested after for nearly one hundred years) now lying open and defenceless. On the other hand, however, he will have soon realised just how this had been accomplished and that, although he had eliminated one threat to his throne, he had just greatly increased another.

It is probable that Orodes sent Surenas to meet the Roman invasion purely in order to slow it down, and it is highly unlikely that he was expecting Surenas to win such a decisive victory. Prior to Carrhae, Surenas was already the second most powerful man in Parthia his family was the strongest of the noble houses outside of the Arsacids themselves. Furthermore, Surenas had been responsible for putting Orodes on the throne in preference to his brother, and then responsible for ending the ensuing civil war by defeating said brother. Now, if that were not enough, Surenas had actually managed to comprehensively defeat the Romans in battle (in their worst defeat for 150 years), kill one of Rome&rsquos leading men and single-handedly not only end the Roman invasion, but stop the juggernaut that was the Roman Republic. The acclaim that Surenas would receive from all non-Roman quarters, never mind the Parthian people, army and nobility was going to be immense. No king could stand such acclaim for another and certainly not one as weak as Orodes.

For Orodes, if he was to keep his throne and stop the House of Suren replacing the House of Arsaces on the Parthian throne, there was only one possible answer. Within a year, Surenas, the man who had done what no other had done for generations (defeat a Roman invasion), was put to death on the orders of the king. We do not know the details of how he managed to do this, but the charge used was treason. Possibly he lured Surenas away from his forces with the promise of more honours and then had him swiftly executed. In any event, the man who had accomplished so much was murdered by an undeserving monarch who would soon regret the disposal of his best general.

In the end, therefore, there was only one winner to emerge from the Carrhae campaign. It was neither Crassus, nor Surenas both had met ignoble ends, rather than death on the battlefield. The only clear winner was Orodes II, who began this war as a weak monarch in charge of a weak empire and ended it as the unquestioned ruler of the region&rsquos leading superpower. All that lay ahead was the resumption of Parthian westward expansion and the accomplishment of the long term Parthian goal of reaching the Mediterranean.

Summary &ndash The Battle and the Retreat

We can now see the full scale of the disaster that befell Rome during the Carrhae campaign. The Romans had lost battles before, but never one in such a comprehensive manner and followed by such a comprehensive rout. At the end they were literally chased out of Parthian territory in abject disarray, with their vaunted Roman discipline abandoned and with an &lsquoevery man for himself&rsquo attitude being the order of the day. The retreat from Carrhae was as disastrous as the battle itself and must count as one of the great disastrous retreats in history. The only clear estimates we have for Roman casualties are from Plutarch, who puts the Roman dead at 20,000, with 10,000 captured (see appendix one) and Appian, who merely reports that less than 10,000 escaped to Syria. 259

One aspect that is rarely noticed is just how many of these dead and captured resulted from the retreat, rather than the battle itself (at least 6,000 were killed on the day following the battle). This is not as surprising as it sounds, as there was little hand-to-hand fighting during the battle it was mostly a barrage of arrows, most of which disabled rather than killed outright. The only close-quarter fighting occurred during Publius Crassus&rsquo breakout, during which less than 6,000 Romans died. For the rest of the battle, the Roman casualties were from arrow strikes. Given the prolonged nature of the Roman resistance and the random barrage of the Parthian arrows, it appears that a great many of the Roman casualties were not immediate fatalities, but men who suffered multiple wounds of varying degrees. Many of these would have succumbed to their injures after the battle, due to the fatigue and blood loss, rather than during the battle itself.

Of the Parthian casualties we have no word, though again the only close-quarter combat which the Parthians took part in was during Publius&rsquo breakout. Given that the bulk of this fighting was done by the Parthian cataphracts and the ferocious nature of the battle, even with their heavy armour we can expect them to have taken a considerable number of casualties. The difference here is that Surenas would have taken the bulk of his casualties from amongst his 1,000 cataphracts, rather than across the army evenly. This still gave him more than enough horse archers available to hunt down fleeing Romans, but may explain his apparent inability to tackle the force that assembled around Crassus at the end.

What can be learnt from the battle itself? It certainly would appear that whilst the Romans had the overall numbers they lacked depth in certain areas, most notably the cavalry. This, however, was not an intrinsic flaw of Crassus&rsquo preparations. As the wait until 53 BC showed, Crassus knew that his army was weak in cavalry. This shortage only became the crucial issue because Surenas choose to exploit a known Roman weakness. For the battle he was expecting, Crassus had enough cavalry to keep the Parthian cataphracts occupied. Yet for the battle that Surenas engineered a highly mobile and missile-based one, he was hopelessly outclassed.

Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that the Roman loss at Carrhae was down to one man. Unlike traditional views of the battle, it was not lost because of Crassus&rsquo incompetence, but because of Surenas&rsquo brilliance. Surenas realised that he could not defeat Rome over the length of a campaign past history had taught him that. He did realise, however, that Rome could be defeated in a single battle, if he prepared for it properly. If that defeat was a heavy one, both in terms of the psychological damage and the number of casualties, then the war would be over. Added to this was his realisation that the Roman Republican system had mutated to such an extent that it began to resemble Parthia, in so much as the whole campaign was reliant on a single commander. If he captured or killed Crassus then the invasion would be over. Certainly there would be likely to be another dynast along at some point in the future (most likely to be either Pompey or Caesar), but that would be a different war.

Crassus and the Romans were undone at Carrhae by Surenas&rsquo tactics of turning the battle into a fast-paced cavalry engagement, with no infantry and a total reliance on missile fire. Had the Romans got close enough to the Parthians in sufficient numbers, then their numerical and military superiority at close quarters would have shown. Surenas&rsquo genius lay in stopping the Romans from doing this. Nevertheless, for the Romans the battle itself was not as catastrophic as many would believe. This was not a typical Parthian army that they faced, but one that very much reflected the genius of its commander. As Publius&rsquo breakout had shown, at close quarters the Romans were still a force to be reckoned with, and there must have been points when the outcome of the &lsquobattle within a battle&rsquo was still in the balance. Furthermore, Surenas&rsquo tactics could only be used once, after which the Romans would be ready for them. It is interesting to note that when Caesar was preparing for his Parthian campaign (which was abandoned following his assassination) the sources note that his proposed force was heavy in cavalry. 260

What really did the damage for the Romans, and what turned a terrible defeat into a catastrophic one, was the retreat, or as we should say the retreats. These shambolic manoeuvres doubled the numbers of men lost, either killed or captured. The Roman general was killed, along with the majority of his young aristocratic officers. Both retreats were plagued by a complete breakdown of discipline. During the first retreat, to Carrhae, Crassus&rsquo advance guard did not stay to provide cover, which could have allowed the stragglers to catch up, or to find the groups that had become detached from the main force (such as the force led by Vargunteius). Instead, they deserted their post and fled back to Roman Syria. Of the two officers who are known to have survived, both could be, and indeed were, accused of desertion. Furthermore, there are excellent comparisons to their contemporaries who died. Whilst Vargunteius died fighting a brave last stand, Egnatius fled Parthia and survived in ignominy. Whilst Cassius betrayed Crassus and reached Syria safely, Octavius died fighting to defend him, when he too could have put his own life first. On too many occasions the Roman army was beset by indiscipline from both officers and men. This was an ominous sign for the Roman Republic.

The combination of the defeat and the retreat made the Parthian campaign a total disaster for Rome, the likes of which had not been seen since Hannibal crossed the Alps into Italy during the Second Punic War. Of an army of 40,000 plus, barely a quarter of them returned back to Syria. The seemingly unstoppable Roman juggernaut had come off the road altogether. Thus in the first battle and the first war between the two great superpowers of the east, Rome was the clear loser. Given that their rapidly-expanding empire had been built on an almost legendary invincibility, this defeat had serious implications. Not only had the Roman Empire been prevented from advancing, but it was now in clear danger of retreating.


9. It was one of the worst defeat ever suffered by a modern army against a technologically inferior indigenous force

By the end of the day, hundreds of British redcoats lay dead on the slope of Isandlwana – Cetshwayo having ordered his warriors to show them no mercy. The Zulu attackers also suffered – they lost somewhere between 1,000 and 2,500 men.

Today memorials commemorating the fallen on both sides are visible at the site of the battlefield, beneath Isandlwana Hill.


Contents

Ancient charges Edit

It may be assumed that the charge was practiced in prehistoric warfare, but clear evidence only comes with later literate societies. The tactics of the classical Greek phalanx included an ordered approach march, with a final charge to contact. [1]

Highland charge Edit

In response to the introduction of firearms, Irish and Scottish troops at the end of the 16th century developed a tactic that combined a volley of musketry with a transition to rapid hand-to-hand combat using melee weapons. Initially successful, it was countered by effective discipline and the development of defensive bayonet tactics. [2]

Bayonet charge Edit

The development of the bayonet in the late 17th century led to the bayonet charge becoming the main infantry charge tactic through the 18th and 19th centuries and well into the 20th century. As early as the 19th century, tactical scholars were already noting that most bayonet charges did not result in close combat. Instead, one side usually fled before actual bayonet fighting ensued. The act of fixing bayonets has been held to be primarily connected to morale, the making of a clear signal to friend and foe of a willingness to kill at close quarters. [3]

Banzai charge Edit

A term used by the Allied forces to refer to Japanese human wave attacks and swarming staged by infantry units. This term came from the Japanese battle cry "Tennōheika Banzai" (天皇陛下万歳, "Long live His Majesty the Emperor"), shortened to banzai, specifically referring to a tactic used by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Pacific War.

The shock value of a charge attack has been especially exploited in cavalry tactics, both of armored knights and lighter mounted troops of both earlier and later eras. Historians such as John Keegan have shown that when correctly prepared against (such as by improvising fortifications) and, especially, by standing firm in face of the onslaught, cavalry charges often failed against infantry, with horses refusing to gallop into the dense mass of enemies, [4] or the charging unit itself breaking up. However, when cavalry charges succeeded, it was usually due to the defending formation breaking up (often in fear) and scattering, to be hunted down by the enemy. [5] While it was not recommended for a cavalry charge to continue against unbroken infantry, charges were still a viable danger to heavy infantry. Parthian lancers were noted to require significantly dense formations of Roman legionaries to stop, and Frankish knights were reported to be even harder to stop, if the writing of Anna Komnene is to be believed. However, only highly trained horses would voluntarily charge dense, unbroken enemy formations directly, and in order to be effective, a strong formation would have to be kept – such strong formations being the result of efficient training. Heavy cavalry lacking even a single part of this combination – composed of high morale, excellent training, quality equipment, individual prowess, and collective discipline of both the warrior and the mount – would suffer in a charge against unbroken heavy infantry, and only the very best heavy cavalrymen (e.g., knights and cataphracts) throughout history would own these in regards to their era and terrain.

European Middle Ages Edit

The cavalry charge was a significant tactic in the Middle Ages. Although cavalry had charged before, a combination of the adoption of a frame saddle secured in place by a breast-band, stirrups and the technique of couching the lance under the arm delivered a hitherto unachievable ability to utilise the momentum of the horse and rider. These developments began in the 7th century but were not combined to full effect until the 11th century. [6] The Battle of Dyrrhachium (1081) was an early instance of the familiar medieval cavalry charge recorded to have a devastating effect by both Norman and Byzantine chroniclers. By the time of the First Crusade in the 1090s, the cavalry charge was being employed widely by European armies. [7]

However, from the dawn of the Hundred Years' War onward, the use of professional pikemen and longbowmen with high morale and functional tactics meant that a knight would have to be cautious in a cavalry charge. Men wielding either pike or halberd in formation, with high morale, could stave off all but the best cavalry charges, whilst English archers with the longbow could unleash a torrent of arrows capable of wreaking havoc, though not necessarily a massacre, upon the heads of heavy infantry and cavalry in unsuitable terrain. It became increasingly common for knights to dismount and fight as elite heavy infantry, although some continued to stay mounted throughout combat. The use of cavalry for flanking manoeuvres became more useful, although some interpretations of the knightly ideal often led to reckless, undisciplined charges.

Cavalry could still charge dense heavy infantry formations head-on if the cavalrymen had a combination of certain traits. They had a high chance of success if they were in a formation, collectively disciplined, highly skilled, and equipped with the best arms and armour, as well as mounted upon horses trained to endure the physical and mental stresses of such charges. However, the majority of cavalry personnel lacked at least one of these traits, particularly discipline, formations, and horses trained for head-on charges. Thus, the use of the head-on cavalry charge declined, although Polish hussars, French Cuirassiers, and Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores were still capable of succeeding in such charges, often due to their possession of the previously mentioned combination of the traits required for success in such endeavours.

Twentieth century Edit

In the twentieth century, the cavalry charge was seldom used, though it enjoyed sporadic and occasional success.

In what was called the "last true cavalry charge", elements of the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States attacked Villista forces in the Battle of Guerrero on 29 March 1916. The battle was a victory for the Americans, occurring in desert terrain, at the Mexican town of Vicente Guerrero, Chihuahua. [8] [9] [10] [11]

One of the most successful offensive cavalry charges of the 20th century was not conducted by cavalry at all, but rather by mounted infantry, when on 31 October 1917, the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade charged across two miles of open terrain in the face of Ottoman artillery and machine gun fire to successfully capture Beersheba in what would come to be known as the Battle of Beersheba.

On 23 September 1918 the Jodhpur Lancers and Mysore Lancers of the 15th (Imperial Service) Cavalry Brigade charged Turkish positions on horseback at Haifa. Together the two regiments captured 1,350 German and Ottoman prisoners, including two German officers, 35 Ottoman officers, 17 artillery guns including four 4.2 guns, eight 77mm guns and four camel guns as well as a 6-inch naval gun, and 11 machine guns. Their own casualties amounted to eight dead and 34 wounded. 60 horses were killed and another 83 injured.

On 16 May 1919, during the Third Anglo-Afghan War, the 1st King's Dragoon Guards made the last recorded charge by a British horsed cavalry regiment [12] at Dakka, a village in Afghan territory, north west of the Khyber Pass. [13]

During the Spanish Civil War, there was a massive cavalry charge by the Fascist's division during the Battle of Alfambra on 5 February 1938, the last great mounted charge in Western Europe. [14]

Several attempted charges were made in World War II. The Polish cavalry, in spite of being primarily trained to operate as rapid infantry and being better armed than regular Polish infantry (more anti—tank weapons and armored vehicles per capita) did execute up to 15 cavalry charges during the Invasion of Poland. Majority of the charges were successful and none was meant as a charge against armored vehicles. Some of the charges were mutual charges by the Polish and German cavalry such as Battle of Krasnobród (1939) and one time, the German cavalry scouts from 4th Light Division (Germany) charge against Polish infantry from 10th Motorized Cavalry Brigade (Poland) was countered by Polish tankettes moving from concealed positions at Zakliczyn. On November 17, 1941, during the Battle of Moscow, the Soviet 44th Cavalry Division charged the German lines near Musino, west of the capital. The mounted Soviets were ravaged by German artillery, then by machine guns. The charge failed, and the Germans said they killed 2,000 cavalrymen without a single loss to themselves. [15] On 24 August 1942, the defensive charge of the Savoia Cavalleria at Izbushensky against Russian lines near the Don River was successful. British and American cavalry units also made similar cavalry charges during World War II. (See 26th Cavalry Regiment). The last successful cavalry charge, during World War II, was executed during the Battle of Schoenfeld on March 1, 1945. The Polish cavalry, fighting on the Soviet side, overwhelmed the German artillery position and allowed for infantry and tanks to charge into the city. The cavalry suffered only 7 dead, while 26 Polish tankmen and 124 infantrymen as well as around 500 German soldiers ended up dead. [16] [17] [18] )

After World War II, the cavalry charge was clearly outdated and was no longer employed [ citation needed ] this, however, did not stop modern troops from utilising horses for transport, and in countries with mounted police, similar (albeit unarmed) techniques to the cavalry charge are sometimes employed to fend off rioters and large crowds.

In the firearms age, the basic parameters are speed of advance against rate (or effectiveness) of fire. If the attackers advance at a more rapid rate than the defenders can kill or disable them then the attackers will reach the defenders (though not necessarily without being greatly weakened in numbers). There are many modifiers to this simple comparison – timing, covering fire, organization, formation and terrain, among others. A failed charge may leave the would-be attackers vulnerable to a counter-charge.

There has been a constant rise in an army's rate of fire for the last 700 years or so, but while massed charges have been successfully broken they have also been victorious. It is only since the mid-19th century that straight charges have become less successful, especially since the introduction of the repeating rifles, machine guns, and breech-loading artillery. They are often still useful on a far smaller scale in confined areas where the enemy's firepower cannot be brought to bear. Bayonet charges are still seen in the early 20th century, but are often limited to use against adversaries with inferior firepowers, when ammunition supply is scarce, or simply as a form of suicide attack to inflict fear on the enemy.

In modern times, melee charges are practically extinct outside of riot control and street fighting, with a few exceptions such as the bayonet charge at the Battle of Danny Boy, but military charging tactics mainly take place with armored fighting vehicles such as tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored cars. These ground combat vehicles can either advance directly with marching fire, or transport infantry attackers quickly into proximity with the target position in order to assault and capture it. Air assaults are also a frequently used tactic to insert special operation raids against high-value targets.


How did encirclement work in WWII? How can an encircling force prevent itself from being overrun from both sides and at a single point?

I appreciate that from the point of view of the defending force, being encircled means that it is cut off from supply lines and communication. But for the attacking force that is doing the encirclement, it is in enemy territory and is, itself, pretty much surrounded, apart from a single supply line it leaves in its wake.

How does the attacking force prevent itself from being cut off? It would need to defend both sides of a narrow line, in enemy territory.

First, define encirclement. After all, there's encirclement, and then there's encirclement. Different scenarios worked in different ways - Dunkirk was different from the US defense of Bataan and Corregidor, which was different from the ⟊uldron battles' of Barbarossa, which was different from Falaise, which was different from. etc.

Assuming by encirclement you mean the sort deep penetrating drives that led to the rapid German advances in Poland and the huge casualties of Barbarossa, it really comes down to four factors:

High competence on the part of the attackers

Relative incompetence on the part of the defenders

A technological imbalance that favors the attacker

Uneven morale on the part of the defender

A competently-led military attacks a less-capably led military. Often in modern warfare, there is also a technological imbalance, such that the defender is largely relying on older technology, not practiced with the current technology it has, or both. Whether Germany in Poland, the Soviets against the Japanese at Khalkin Gol, the Egyptians and Syrians vs Israel, or the UN coalition in Desert Storm, imbalances in leadership and technology are a consistent factor. In particular, skill with managing combined arms will be highly variable.

The attacking force is generally more mobile, and the defending force is generally less mobile. This can be due to technology, such as the side with trucks being faster than the side with horses, as we saw in the Allied response to the German attack in the Battle of the Bulge, or it can be due to strategic limitations, such as how the French need to fall back on Paris limited their movement relative to the Germans in 1914.

In addition to these imbalances, the defenders also have problems of unequal morale. Some units will fight to the last, some will fight but be willing to retreat, some will fall back at first contact, and others will simply avoid contact altogether. If leadership doesn't take extraordinary efforts to manage and mitigate that, gaps inevitably open in lines that a capable attacker can exploit. This happened to the French in 1940, but didn't happen to the Soviets at Kursk. Everyone makes jokes about the Maginot Line, but it worked - what happened was that the Germans attacked in a sector expected to be quiet, and thus guarded by C-grade units.

It's also important to remember that while YOU know about relative strengths and stuff now, the commanders at the time did not. They're cut off, surrounded, and under constant attack. Breaking out in SOME direction will surely work, but how are they to know which direction? It's not always straight back, and the practical logistics of breaking out are harder than you would think. Once encircled, it's generally more intelligent to fort up and hope the rest of your military can re-establish contact than it is to risk your whole force getting annihilated in a blind break-out attempt. This was standard doctrine in most militaries, and in fact breaking out was so risky that commanders were reluctant to attempt it even when under direct orders to do so.

It's also important to remember that while YOU know about relative strengths and stuff now, the commanders at the time did not. They're cut off, surrounded, and under constant attack. Breaking out in SOME direction will surely work, but how are they to know which direction? It's not always straight back, and the practical logistics of breaking out are harder than you would think. Once encircled, it's generally more intelligent to fort up and hope the rest of your military can re-establish contact than it is to risk your whole force getting annihilated in a blind break-out attempt. This was standard doctrine in most militaries, and in fact breaking out was so risky that commanders were reluctant to attempt it even when under direct orders to do so.

To add onto this answer, if your trying to break out of a encirclement you also have to expose your now newly created flank. So if a break out is attempted you better hope that you are not slowed down while doing so.

Great, concise answer. Supplies come heavily into who ends up being the 'surrounded', and who is the one making the siege. Supplie sbeing either actual, or just in the minds of the commanders.

In 1942-3 the Japanese ran riot in Southeast Asia, typically sending small forces to build roadblocks behind defending British Empire troops. The latter would invariably try to break out to secure their supply lines.

In 194, General William Slim brought about something of a revolution just by convincing the British-led forces to accept being surrounded, to fight it out in place until relieved. By holding their ground, they used fewer supplies than in trying to break out, while they wore down the supplies of the Japanese forces doing the 'surrounding'. At the Admin Box in 1944, a British base that would once have been thrown into a disorderly retreat held out, inflicting a nasty defeat on the Japanese force sent to attack them.

One notices that typically, encirclement battles occur early and late in wars, when logistics become imbalanced either in reality or in perception. Once both sides are experienced and organised, they tend to fight it out until one side or other is failed by its supply chain. One could compare the success of German paratroopers early in World War II with the outcome of Operation Market-Garden, in response to which the Germans refused to panic and the Allies hadn't thought through their supply situation. An army seeking success in an encirclement battle will generally be hoping for a psychological edge to prompt the enemy to surrender without fighting too seriously.

This is an impressive answer. Are you a military officer? You seem very familiar with the concepts.

Great answer thanks a lot.

I am afraid the answer by /u/whistleridge doesn't really address the tactical and strategic aspects of modern encirclements, I will attempt to cover those.

You must understand that modern (not Cannae or anything before the invention of the tank) encirclements are a product of two types of strategies. Strategy of mobility vs a static defense coupled with at least tactical air superiority. The strategy of using tanks to make holes in the enemy line was actually pioneered by the Russians (Deep Battle it was called) and later by the British. The Germans adapted this while the Russians and British dropped it.

What does this mean? Simple, you use your tanks in dedicated Tank divisions and corps. Unlike the early Soviet, French and British armies that dispersed them amongst line infantry formations. Guderian in his memoirs said famously, Klotzen, nicht Kleckern. Loosely translated into boot em don't kick em. Meaning you use all your force for the first blow and don't weaken it in a dispersed manner.

There are a lot of differences in strategies of deep battle, the so called Blitzkrieg or American doctrines post WW2, but I am not going into those here.

The other side, the school of static defense believed that the lessons of WW1 still held. You only needed to mass infantry and armour in the front line with minimal reserves (this is very vital) and enemy offensive would simply waste it's energy on frontal assaults.

The problem with this is, mobility (Tanks, APC's, trucks etc) coupled with greater airpower made this theory positively ancient.

Broadly speaking these encirclements happened when the Germans massed armour in great concentrations in a small theatre. They would then punch through the flanks while German infantry engaged the Frontline of the enemy so they couldn't retreat or hit the German armour in the flanks or rear. This is called "fixing" the position of the enemy. Means they are. fixed? They can't manoeuver, can't retreat and have to stand and fight. All this while the Armour has pierced the strong front and is pushing through to a predetermined meeting point.

This is where your question comes from. Why can't the enemy just attack these units? Well they can't because in this theater, the enemy have very little reserves left, their command and control structure is in disarray. Usually Divisional HQ was some 20-25 kms behind the front. In WW1 terms this would have taken months to cover this distance but in the mobile battles of WW2 it took hours. Even corps HQ used to be some 50-60 kms behind the front, reached in a matter of days in these fast and fluid battles. In a few cases even the HQ's of armies were taken by surprise and these were far far behind the front line.

Command in disarray, no available reinforcements to crack the armour holding the thin end of the encirclement, the infantry would advance on the now cut off troops and smash them in detail.

The Soviets though brilliantly adapted (after the loss of millions though) and by end 42, beginning 43, used military intel, studying artillery patterns to determine when and where an assault was taking place and then rushing local reserves to hold it and by mid 43 had perfected their own version of blitzkrieg (with a lot of differences though but broadly the same).


Italo-Ethiopian War (1935–36, in Ethiopia)

Almost four decades later, the sequel. Italy may have thought that it finally had vengeance when Italian forces invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and annexed the country the following year, but their unwelcomed stay was relatively short-lived, as the World War II Allied powers liberated the country in 1941. This conflict is often considered to be one of the episodes that prepared the way for World War II. It demonstrated the weakness of the reigning international body at the time, the League of Nations, which could do little more than condemn the invasion and impose sanctions on Italy…sanctions that were largely ignored by other countries and therefore ineffectual.


Umma-Lagash Dispute

One of the very first visual representations pertaining to warfare that we have is the Stele of Vultures from the early Sumerian era (Nigro). The actual stele is in seven fragments, which currently reside in the Louvre Museum of France. Six of the fragments were found at the site of Ancient Girsu, a small town in the city-state of Lagash (Winter). The Stele of Vultures was written by Lagash as war propaganda, so when interpreting the Stele, it is important to note that it is one-sided and inherently biased. Scenes are carved on both sides of the stele, with inscriptions filling in the negative space. These inscriptions are what guide us in interpreting and understanding what the depictions mean.

The object of one of the pictures on the Stele is a large male. In one hand, he is holding a mace, and in the other hand, he holds a net full of naked males. Atop the net is an eagle spreading its wings. This insignia can be identified using mythological texts. It represents the “Zu-bird”, which is identified with the god Ningirsu (May). Since the Zu-bird is atop the net which the large figure is holding, it is often assumed that the large male is the god Ningirsu. Ningirsu was the patron deity of Girsu. This is pleasing to our intuition because in early iconography, gods and important leaders are often depicted as being larger than everyone else around them. This depiction may then suggest that going to war was a way to appease the gods. The naked males inside of the net would then be soldiers from the enemy army. It seems as though these men are offerings or sacrifices to Ningirsu. Therefore, we can conclude that the Sumerians would justify going to war by believing that this was a way to keep their gods happy. This shows that warfare was intertwined with their religion.

The issue that arises when interpreting an artifact such as the Stele of Vultures is when a single assumption is removed, the interpretation is forced to be changed dramatically. If we now assume the large male holding the net is not a god, that would make him a man. We would then have to assume this man is a giant or the picture itself is a symbolic representation. If the picture were symbolic, the large man would likely be the king, seizing control of Umma through death. This interpretation now drastically changes the meaning of the picture: the picture now means the Sumerians are fighting because their king is a warmonger rather than the Sumerians are fighting because they believe they are appeasing the gods. Both of these interpretations are reasonable (one has a stronger basis for argument), but only one (or neither) can be the artists original idea.

On the reverse side of the stele, the top of the relief is littered with vultures, giving the stele its modern name. The vultures carry the severed heads of several enemy soldiers. Beneath that panel are armed soldiers who are all similarly equipped and arranged in a complex formation. They are trampling over fallen enemy soldiers while being led by a slightly larger figure, presumably a commander or the king. Underneath that scene are more soldiers, who are not equipped with shields but rather a long spear in one hand and a socket ax in the other. Leading them is a figure in a chariot this is most often interpreted as the king. In the third panel, there is a large figure, however we can only see the foot and part of his garment. It is also likely that this is the king.

This side of the stele has a much darker and “warlike” tone about it. What is stressed in every scene is the fact that the enemy, Umma, is defeated. Vultures are carrying severed heads, Lagash soldiers are trampling over dead enemies, and many more dead bodies lay before the king. This highlights how the Ummites were basically slaughtered by the Lagashite armies. Depicting the defeat this way shows everyone in Sumer how strong and ferocious Lagash is. It sends a message that Lagash is a force to be reckoned with. Again, this is where caution is necessary in interpreting this relief. Because the Stele of Vultures was written to celebrate victory over Umma, the artists would not feel it necessary to mention their own side’s casualties, making the war seem like a once-sided bloodbath.

The Stele of Vultures is an excellent source of information which give us an insight into the Ancient Sumerian world that would be impossible if it never existed. What information the stele is providing is a bit ambiguous, however. The text gives some insight into what the pictures are depicting, but the text is not explicit enough to allow us to make a single definitive theory of what the pictures mean. The monument was created right after the battle, so it should be an accurate source of information, but we do not know how similar or different a monument would be if it were made by an artist from Umma after this war. The stele is also not whole only a few fragments of the entire stele have been found. Some of the pictures and pieces of text are missing. As long as caution is exercised when interpreting the Stele of Vultures and external sources are used to verify interpretations, this artifact is invaluable in our quest to gain a deeper understanding of the role of warfare in Ancient Mesopotamia.

Stele of the Vultures picture:

Lewandowski, Hervé. Victory Stele of Eannatum, King of Lagash, Called the “Vulture Stele” early dynastic period, c. 2450 bc. Louvre, Tello (ancient Girsu).

May, Herbert Gordon. “Pattern and Myth in the Old Testament.” The Journal of Religion (1941): 285-299.

Nigro, Lorenzo. “The two steles of Sargon: Iconology and visual propaganda at the beginning of royal Akkadian relief.” Iraq 60 (1998): 85-102.

Winter, Irene J. “After the Battle Is Over: The” Stele of the Vultures” and the Beginning of Historical Narrative in the Art of the Ancient Near East.” Studies in the History of Art (1985): 11-32.

Yoffee, Norman. “The collapse of ancient Mesopotamian states and civilization.” The collapse of ancient states and civilizations (1988): 44-68.


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