Ep. 15 Fate Meets Folly
Today’s episode is a double-stuffed treat. We’re going to cover 53 BCE as Caesar’s Gallic Wars take a brutal turn. But before that we turn to the oft-neglected Marcus Licinus Crassus. And his attempts at securing eternal glory. While this is not directly related to Gaul, indirectly it will decide the fate of Julius Caesar and all of Rome. Crassus was, after all, the glue that held the First Triumvirate together, while the other two members were voraciously seeking to advance their own power and prestige. Furthermore, since Pompey was an Optimate, while Caesar drew his support from the Populares, they had different political ideologies and different bases of power, which meant that conflict was almost inevitable. What held them together was a mutually beneficial relationship, wherein they each conquered more territory, in different parts of the world, so that way they didn’t bump heads with each other. Crassus, meanwhile served as Rome’s most powerful clerk, keeping both sides in check with his tremendous amounts of cash and generally handling the affairs of running the country while the two generals were off conquering more land.
But Crassus wasn’t content being the world’s most important secretary. People loved Caesar and Pompey. People respected Caesar and Pompey. They didn’t love or respect Crassus, who hadn’t proven his manhood by winning a great war. Pompey had defeated the Mithridates VI, the greatest single enemy Rome had since Hannibal, and conquered Anatolia and Syria. Caesar and his lieutenants conquered Gaul, defeating the perennial boogeyman of Rome, sailed to the edge of the world and got tribute from Britannia, and even crossed the Rhine and harassed Germania. Caesar and Pompey were becoming the greatest heroes of Rome since the mythical Cincinnatus and Romulus. While Crassus did have some wartime experience it was mostly related to putting down slave revolts within Italy and wasn’t nearly as grand as the exploits of the two other Triumvirs. Meanwhile Crassus was known as the great scam artist of Rome. He had gotten much of his wealth when Sulla seized land from his enemies, and redistributed it to his subordinates. Much of the rest of his wealth he got because he operated Rome’s first fire brigade which waited for a house to start burning, arrive at the house and offer to buy it at a rock-bottom price. Some conspiracy theorists even held his men started fires so that he could seize more property. While Caesar and Pompey were regarded as the greatest heroes Rome had since Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal, Crassus was Rome’s most miserable miser.
Crassus wanted to change his image. He decided he was going to play general and engage in the only conquest that would put him on par with the two other Triumvirs: he was going to conquer Persia. At the start of the year Crassus asked his partners for governorship of Syria, which he was given. From here he raised an army around 50,000 strong and marched east. While marching east he was approached by the king of Armenia, Artavasdes II. Armenia was much larger than the small country it is today, and was roughly all the space south of the Caucus Mountains between Anatolia and Persia. While not as populous or important as Persia, it was heavily militarized as it had to be, since Persia was a constant threat to its independence. Seeing Crassus set out to conquer Persia, Artavasdes offered 40,000 of his own troops. Clearly Armenia was looking to deliver an enormous strike to the only empire close enough to threaten it, while getting in the good graces of Rome which was rapidly becoming the great power in the region.
But Artavasdes had a condition, one which was very reasonable. Artavasdes would only offer his troops if the two armies marched through his own territory of Armenia, which would mean the supply lines could be more easily maintained. Despite this sensible request, Crassus refused. Historians have tried to offer other explanations than “he was a colossal moron” for why Crassus refused this offer of troops and safe passage. For one, if half of his troops were Armenian and commanded by a non-Roman king, then he couldn’t claim singular glory for his triumph, unlike Pompey and Caesar. And it wasn’t just his glory; Crassus took his son Publius Crassus with him on the invasions. Remember Publius Crassus? I briefly mentioned a few episodes back that Crassus had served under Caesar and conquered Aquitania while Caesar conquered Gaul. While this was impressive for someone of his age, a victory over the Persians would ensure that the elder Crassus became legendary and his son a hero and one of Rome’s leaders upon his father’s death.
Another reason why Crassus refused Artavesdes aid was that he didn’t want to share the spoils of war. Persia was one of the richest countries on Earth as it sat at the crossroads between Rome in the west and in the east India and China. Victory in Parthia wouldn’t just bring glory to the father and son, but the incredible wealth of Persia would be divided up between the two, and if there is one thing Crassus wanted it was to make sure he was always getting the most money possible. He was a greedy man and he knew wealth was power and the more power he gave his son the more assured he could be of his position vis-à-vis Caesar and Pompey.
One final reason why Crassus refused Artavesdes’ offer was purely tactical: crossing through Armenia would give the Parthians time to assemble, whereas a rapid attack may take them off guard. For all these reasons, Crassus refused the offer to nearly double his forces, crossed the Euphrates and began his invasion of Persia.
Upon arriving on the other side of the Euphrates, Crassus deliberated which course of action to follow to bring about a swift defeat of the Persians. What happened next is told beautifully and hilariously by Plutarch. See if you can tell what he thinks about Arabs in the following passage:
Plutarch recounts: “While Crassus was still investigating and considering these matters, there came an Arab chieftain, Ariamnes by name, a crafty and treacherous man, and one who proved to be, of all the mischiefs which fortune combined for the destruction of the Romans, the greatest and most consummate. Some of the soldiers who had served under Pompey in these parts knew that the fellow had profited by the kindness of that commander and was thought to be a friend of Rome; but now, with the knowledge of the royal generals, he tried to work his way into the confidence of Crassus, to see if he could turn him aside as far as possible from the river and the foothills, and bring him down into a boundless plain where he could be surrounded. For nothing was farther from the thoughts of the Parthians than to attack the Romans in front. Accordingly, coming to Crassus, the Barbarian lauded Pompey as his benefactor, and complimented Crassus on his forces. But then he criticised him for wasting time in delays and preparations, as if it was arms that he needed, and not hands and the swiftest of feet to follow after men who had for some time been trying to snatch up their most valuable goods and slaves and fly with them into Scythia or Hyrcania. “And yet,” said he, “if you intend to fight, you ought to hasten on before all the king’s forces are concentrated and he has regained his courage; since, for the time being, his generals Surena and Sillaces have been thrown forward to sustain your pursuit, but the king is nowhere to be seen.”
“Now this was all false. For Orodes, the Parthian king of Persia, had promptly divided his forces into two parts and was himself devastating Armenia to punish Artavasdes, while he despatched Surena to meet the Romans…and make trial of the enemy in battle and to distract them.”
Not the best depiction of Arabs. Apparently entomologists, who have traditionally studied Latin, dubbed a genus of spider Ariamnes. So, Ariamnes has gotten a bad rap, but in his defense, what would you do if 50,000 foreign soldiers started tramping across your territory claiming they were going to stay there permanently once they took it over? So, Ariamnes that ‘crafty Arab chieftain,’ encouraged Crassus to march headlong into Pesia, engage their consolidated army in a pitched battle and crush them, in true Roman fashion. But the Parthian king Orodes II wasn’t taking the bait. He knew that his greatest weapon wasn’t his soldiers, but the desert. In all the lands under Roman control, Romans were never more than a few miles from fresh water. But in the vast deserts of what is now Iraq and Iran, a person can walk hundreds of miles and if they don’t know where to go, never find potable water. Thus, Orodes sent his main army to attack Armenia, who he suspected of inviting the Romans to invade, while another force consisting of 9,000 horse archers and 1,000 cataphracts, or heavily-armored cavalry, harassed the Roman force, wearing them down so that they would leave Persia, or give Orodes the time to raise another army that could meet Crassus in pitched battle.
Plutarch continues with more ‘kind’ words for our Arab chieftain Ariamnes.
“At this time, accordingly, after the Barbarian had persuaded Crassus, he drew him away from the river and led him through the midst of the plains, by a way that was suitable and easy at first, but soon became troublesome when deep sand succeeded, and plains which had no trees, no water, and no limit anywhere which the eye could reach, so that not only did thirst and the difficulties of the march exhaust the men, but also whatever met their gaze filled them with an obstinate dejection. For they saw no plant, no stream, no projection of sloping hill, and no growing grass, but only sea-like billows of innumerable desert sand-heaps enveloping the army. This of itself was enough to induce suspicion of treachery, and soon messengers came from Artavasdes the Armenian declaring that he was involved in a great war with Orodes, who had attacked him with an overwhelming force, and could not therefore send Crassus aid, but advised him above all things to turn his course thither, join the Armenians, and fight the issue out with Orodes; but if not this, then to march and encamp always where mountains were near and cavalry could not operate. Crassus sent no reply in writing, but answered at once in rage and perversity that for the present he had no time to waste on the Armenians, but that at another time he would come and punish Artavasdes for his treachery.”
Thus Crassus made his second enormous blunder. If he had said ‘yes’ to Atravasdes the first time he would be marching through the most fertile lands in the Middle East outside Egypt, loaded with food and water with nearly 100,000 troops to conquer Persia and become the greatest hero Rome had ever seen. Instead, he was lost in the desert, rationing what little water was left, his men literally dying in the heat, while Rome’s Armenian ally was getting pummeled. Now, if Crassus had heeded Atravasdes advice the second time, at least the part about sticking to mountains where cavalry couldn’t move easily, he may have avoided what was coming next. The Parthian horse archers were truly incredible fighters because they had perfected a revolutionary technique called the Parthian shot, which meant they could fire backwards. This meant that they could run up to an enemy, rain death upon them, then when the enemy cavalry pursued they could run away while firing backwards at them, effectively protecting themselves and killing off cavalry, to add to the dead infantry.
A demoralized Roman army finally met the Parthian cavalry at Carrhae, today located in the southeastern corner of Turkey. Crassus’ men held a hollow formation as they were pelted with arrows by the 9,000 horse archers. While his subcommanders told Crassus to change formation, Crassus stubbornly held, hoping to sit and wait until the enemy ran out of arrows. But they never did, because 1,000 camels repeatedly brought in more arrows for the cavalry. Seeing there was no end to these waves of death, Crassus ordered his son to attack the enemy cavalry with his own cavalry of 1,300 Gauls, because by this point many Gauls, particularly skilled horsemen, were making their way into the Roman army’s ranks. But the Gauls were no match for the enemy cavalry who simply ran away while firing backwards before the cataphracts finished off what little remained of them. Thus the Gauls, who for the first time were serving in large numbers in a Roman army in a faraway war, were brutally cut down, alongside Crassus’ son Publius who committed suicide upon seeing the ruin around him.
His son dead, his forces decimated, Crassus ordered a retreat, leaving behind 4,000 wounded who were executed by the advancing Parthians. With his remaining men dying of thirst and his subordinates ready to kill Crassus, he was forced to sue for peace. After brief negotiations Crassus went out with some of his men to meet the Parthians and finalize an armistice. What happened next remains a matter of debate. Some sources say one of Crassus’ own men got spooked and believing there was a trap, pulled on his horse’s reins sending both sides parties into a panic and leading to a fight. Other sources say the Parthians had ill intentions all along and goaded the Romans into drawing their swords. Either way, Crassus and his band of officers were killed, and his death was one of the bitterest defeats in Roman history.
In many ways Crassus was the opposite of Julius Caesar, which is why this episode’s title ‘Fate Meets Folly’ is a play on our episode introducing Caesar ‘Destiny Meets Opportunity.’ Caesar was a man who always took whatever destiny offered him and exploited it to maximum advantage. Meanwhile Crassus was someone who demanded that things be his way and if fate dealt him cards he didn’t like he would demand a better hand. But fate doesn’t work like that, and the world doesn’t change just because Crassus wanted it to. While we can never know what Caesar would have done in Crassus’ position there are quite a few Caesar-esque things I imagine him doing. First, he could have marched alongside Artavesdes, then ordered him away to take lesser cities while Caesar took the capital himself. Or, Caesar could have marched alongside the Armenians and when he returned to Rome he could, I dunno, write a book about how genius he was and how he faced down overwhelming numbers and brought eternal glory to Rome? Either way, Caesar would turn any small opportunity given to him into great advantage, while Crassus’ stubbornness meant that he brought ruin on himself, his son, his men and began a centuries-long conflict between Rome and Persia.
What is important for us is not the damage it did to Rome, because this is not The History Of Rome podcast. What matters is what this meant for Gaul. With Crassus out of the way there was no intermediary force between the two great generals, each of which wanted to make themselves the sole ruler of Rome. With Crassus out of the way, Roman civil war was inevitable, something which Caesar and Pompey well understood. But just because war was inevitable does not mean it would happen any time soon, which is strange because in some ways, Pompey was in a prime position to defeat his rival. Crassus was killed on the 6th of May, and Pompey, who resided in Rome, would receive this news within weeks, while Caesar was then occupied in Gaul. In theory, Pompey could have used his leverage in Rome to declare Caesar an enemy of the republic, raised an army and marched out to meet him. So why didn’t Pompey seize this obvious advantage?
It seems that Pompey was taking lessons from history. If you want to learn more I suggest the classic History of Rome podcast but in brief, Pompey’s calculations regarding Caesar stemmed from his own experience in Sulla’s First Civil War. Around 90 BCE Gaius Marius was riding high as the hero of Rome, due to his role in stopping the Cimbri Invasion, which we covered in Episode 9. Marius was the clear ruler of Rome for a decade, much to the chagrin of his political opponents who looked for a way to oust him from his permanent position of power. Their opportunity came in the form of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a general whose war with the Kingdom of Pontus made him the only Roman capable of rivaling Marius’ popularity and power. In 88 BCE while Sulla was fighting Mithridates VI, Marius had Sulla declared an enemy of the Republic and raised an army to fight him. While Marius himself died, his supporters were left to continue the war.
This decision to declare war on Sulla while he was off fighting a war was an enormous tactical victory but a strategic catastrophe. Tactically, Marius’ supporters had better supplies, better access to troops and better positioning since Sulla was in hostile land. But Sulla was fighting to defend Rome from a foreign menace that had slaughtered innocent Roman civilians and threatened their interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. For Marius to declare war on Sulla while he was defending Rome turned Sulla into a martyr and hero who exemplified all the virtues of an ideal Roman man. He was a strong leader, doing what was best for his country even though it meant risking his life. Meanwhile Marius and his supporters exemplified everything Romans hated: corrupt bureaucrats who were too afraid to face their enemies in open combat and ruled through bribery and conniving. In the end, Sulla turned his forces around and rode back to Rome, gathering supporters as he did and crushing the Marian faction, establishing himself as dictator of Rome. Two of Sulla’s earliest supporters were in fact Pompey and Crassus who allied with him to promote themselves.
As one of Sulla’s earliest admirers, it’s clear that Pompey wouldn’t make the same mistake. Pompey could declare war on Caesar while he was occupied in Gaul, but just as Marius did with Sulla, that would turn Caesar into a hero and make Pompey look like a weak, corrupt politician too afraid to face his rival in a fair fight. With Crassus dead Pompey knew that war was inevitable, but he wouldn’t be the one to strike first. Instead, he would either let Caesar do something rash and turn the Senate against him, or he would let Caesar return to Rome and have him assassinated in the streets. You know; standard Italian politics. Either way, Pompey decided he would not be the one to start the war.
Now we return to Caesar and his far more successful year in Gaul. At the beginning of the year Caesar asked Pompey for troops, which was the last major favor Pompey granted his rival, as this was a few months before the death of Crassus and they were still nominally allies. As you will recall our last episode ended with the Treveri leader Indutiomarus performing victory parades in front of enemy Roman soldiers, only for them to burst out and kill him. While Indutiomarus was dead, his relatives were none too happy about his head being used as a Roman trophy and Ambiotorix led the Treveri in another revolt. This time the Treveri roused the Nervii, the Aduataci and the Menapii to join them. Finally, they bribed a number of German tribes to join them.
Hearing this, Caesar did a forced march into the Nervii territory, catching them off guard and capturing much of their men and cattle forcing them to surrender. Then Caesar called a council of all the tribal leaders. Everyone came except the Senones, the Carnutes, and the Treveri, which for Caesar, meant they were in revolt. Before marching off he transferred government operations to the Roman city of Lutetia in the Parisii tribe. At the time, Lutetia was a small fortified village on an island in the middle of the Seine river. It would take centuries for it to become the important city of Paris, after it abandoned the Latin name. However, ‘Lutetia’ hasn’t completely disappeared from the map, as there is a Roman arena in Paris to this day named Les Arenes de Lutece.
Seeing Caesar march in force the Senones and Carnutes sent hostages and begged for clemency, which Caesar granted. Clearly Caesar’s strategy of overwhelming force and his reputation for constant victory was paying off. With their Gallic allies pacified, Caesar marched against the troublesome Treveri and their handful of remaining Gallic and Belgic allies. These forces retreated before Caesar and his Gallic allies into the woods and morasses, knowing that open battle was pointless. Thus, Caesar, having won so many pitched battles, now faced the problem of fighting a guerilla war. But Caesar was more than willing to use the brutal tactics needed to win it and proceeded to burn the houses and seize the cattle of the Menapii. Facing the possibility of starvation and ruin, the Menapii sued for peace, which Caesar granted while leaving an occupying force in their territory. Then he went off to fight the isolated Treveri.
The Treveri assembled their forces and stalked Labienus, one of Caesar’s lieutenants, and his legion. But when they learned two more legions were coming to support Labienus, the Treveri decided to wait for their German allies. When Labienus realized that a horde of Germans were coming he decided to march upon the Treveri before the German arrival. Labienus marched to within one Roman mile of the enemy and made a camp across a small river. Keep in mind, one Roman mile is 1,481 meters, or 4,860 feet, meaning that these armies were so close they could call out to each other and by all accounts the Romans taunted the Treveri hoping they would charge. Here I cannot help but bring up the running joke of this series, which is the Roman acclimation to Celtic warfare. The sudden charge of a screaming Celtic army was effective in 58 BCE when Caesar first entered Gaul. By 54 BCE the Romans were used to this tactic. By 53 BCE they were openly provoking Gauls into a charge knowing their disciplined line could hold against the sudden onrush.
But if the Romans had acclimated to Celtic warfare the Gauls had also adapted to Roman strategy. By now the Gauls realized that they could not beat the Romans in simple pitched battle as they had tried dozens of times and lost. Only with truly overwhelming forces was there any hope. So they held their ground and waited for that overwhelming force of Germans to arrive.
Dismayed, Labienus told his camp they would depart in the morning. Because there were so many Gauls among his auxiliaries many of which had sympathies with the Treveri, word got out to the enemy that they would be departing. This caused the Treveri leaders to talk amongst themselves. They knew the Romans carried with them many supplies and great wealth in their baggage trains. Furthermore, if they waited for the Germans then they would have to share the supplies. Not only that, but as has been seen before, the Germans were hearty warriors who didn’t like ‘sharing’ with non-Germans. As such the Treveri decided to ambush the Romans when they retreated.
When dawn came, before the sun had crested the eastern horizon, the Romans began to pack up, and the Treveri marched across the river for a colossal ambush; just as Labienus had planned. Their feet still wet from the river, the Romans burst out, throwing their javelins at the Treveri, before charging into them. The result was a slaughter, and the river ran red with Gallic blood. Seeing they had been duped, the Treveri fled into the woods. Labienus pursued them, slaying many with his cavalry. The Germans, hearing the Treveri were defeated, went back to their homes. Meanwhile the leaders of the Treveri fled knowing that if they stayed they would be killed by the Romans or turned over by their own tribe to be killed by the Romans.
When Caesar heard about the German intrusion he decided it was time for another crossing of the Rhine. His forces made another bridge near where the original had been made. He left a small cohort to guard the western side and marched into Germania to threaten those Germans who had aided them. Immediately the nearest tribe, the Ubii, who were already allied to Rome, begged for clemency. Finding they were innocent, Caesar complied, and planned to attack the Suebi, who he believed were responsible for aiding the Treveri. Using Ubii scouts and spies, Caesar learned that the Suebi were assembling all their forces and the forces of the lesser tribes under their control to them, and fleeing to the farthest corner of their territory to await the Romans.
Caesar was then content. The fact that the Germans had fled meant that they knew how powerful Rome was. Furthermore, because they were away from their fields and hunting grounds they must have been low on food, and if Caesar left them alone they would have to till the ground and hunt or otherwise risk starvation. Thus, at least for one year the Germans couldn’t wage war in Gaul. His mission accomplished, Caesar led his army back across the river. But this time he only destroyed half of the bridge, as a reminder to the Germans that he could very easily and quickly return for vengeance if they ever threatened Roman interests again.
With the Germans in check, Caesar’s men chased the Treveri and even encountered Ambiotorix, the leader of the revolt, before he escaped. Despair set in for the Treveri, who fled into the woods, and into the islands off of northern Gaul which are accessible by low tide. Meanwhile king Cativolcus, who led half of the Eburones, grew weary of fighting. Being an old man, and realizing that the campaign was ruinous, he cursed Ambiotorix and drank juice from a yew tree, killing himself.
Caesar then divided up the army into three to scour the Treveri and Eburones’ lands for remaining resisters. Then, Caesar did something truly incredible: he declared that the Eburones’ land and property was forfeit and any Gaul could seize it with his blessing. This had its intended effect and Gauls from the surrounding territory pillaged the Eburones and Treveri land. But then something unexpected happened: two German tribes heard that plundering eastern Gaul was suddenly legal and decided to crash the party. After taking much spoils they learned that Caesar was in the far north, and the Roman fort of Aduataca, the nodal point for Caesar’s supplies and booty, was hardly defended. Can you guess what happens next?
The fort was quickly surrounded by the Germans, and wouldn’t you know it, but Quintus Tullius Cicero, who was surrounded by Gauls last year, was in charge. Thankfully he had learned from last year’s debacle. He knew Caesar probably wouldn’t return when he said he would, because Caesar was in hot pursuit of the Eburones rebels. As such, Cicero kept his troops in the fort, in case of a surprise attack. Despite this, the Germans burst forth from the woods and attacked the fort, panicking the Romans, who struggled to hold them back.
I don’t know if Q. Cicero was a great leader who inspired his troops to heroic feats or if he was such a terrible leader that his soldiers knew they had to do something crazy in order to make it out alive. Either way, just like the year before, a hero emerged. A centurion named P. Sextius Baculus had been injured in prior fighting and was recovering from his wounds. Upon seeing the commotion he got up from his sick bed, took up arms and began to fight. Seeing Baculus’ courage the men around him rallied and redoubled their efforts against the Germans. Meanwhile the Romans who had been sent out to forage returned. Seeing this the Germans initially thought that Caesar and his legions had returned, but seeing how few there were, decide to attack. What ensued was chaos as Romans and Germans fought inside and outside the camp. Officers and soldiers died beside each other.
The Romans eventually repulsed the Germans, who fled across the Rhine with the plunder they originally seized from the Eburones, but they had sustained bitter losses, with dead piled both in and outside the fort. Caesar reprimanded Cicero, for not properly scouting the surrounding territory and thus being taken by surprise. After scolding his subordinate, he gathered numerous Gallic cohorts and sent them all across the Treveri and Eburones territory, allowing them to destroy and pillage. All villages in their path were burned, the food seized or left to rot. Caesar had effectively led the Gauls to destroy their own kinsmen under the orders of a foreign leader. This was a truly incredible achievement. Whether by accident or cunning Caesar managed to divide and conquer Gaul. See, the Romans’ greatest fear were foreign threats such as the Gauls, Carthage and the Germans. Meanwhile the Gauls’ greatest threat was that one of their own tribes would become too powerful and dominate the others. Because of this the Gauls distrusted each other and refused to engage in any large coalitions. Sure a few tribes would get together, but no union was ever large enough to challenge the incoming Romans. With the Gauls divided, Caesar conquered one after the other and imposed a Romanization of the country as tribe after tribe engaged in trade with Rome, adopted their religion, language, law and even political rule.
When Caesar returned to Italy that winter he did so with the satisfaction that he had transformed Gaul to such an extent that when a Gallic tribe revolted against Roman rule he could get the other tribes to suppress them, because the Gauls would never unite as one to oppose Rome. While Caesar was right to think the Gallic Wars were coming to an end, they would end not with a whimper but with a bang. Next year, a warrior-prince named Vercingetorix would unite the Gauls in a war-to-the-death with Rome, and provide Caesar with the greatest challenge he had ever faced.
Commentary on the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar
Plutarch, The Parallel Lives
Various historical critiques of the Commentary on the Gallic Wars.