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  • Martin Boulter

Clash of Empires The Battle of Carrhae 53 BC

In this article I’m going to use the Clash Battle System to recreate the Roman disastrous defeat at the hands of the Parthians at Carrhae in 53 BC. This battle is significant because it demonstrates how vulnerable the Roman Legion could be when fighting in an unfamiliar environment and against an enemy using sound military tactics.


Marcus Licinius Crassus was the richest man in Rome and the third member of an unofficial coalition formed between himself, Caesar and Pompey in 60 BC. Envious of Caesar’s victories in Gaul Crassus wanted to try and make a name for himself as a great military commander. For this reason, he decided to invade Parthia which was Rome’s main rival in the east. At his own expense Crassus raised and equipped an army of 39,000 which was assembled in the Roman province of Syria which he governed as proconsul. From here Crassus planned to take a direct route into Parthia. In so doing he dismissed good advice to take a longer route through the Armenian mountains which would have denied the Parthians the advantage of using their cavalry army to good effect. Instead, Crassus crossed the Euphrates into the vast open expanse of northern Mesopotamia which had been the heartland of the ancient Persian empire. Here the Romans were confronted by a Parthian army under the inspired leadership of Surenas. The size of this army is unclear, but it is generally considered to have consisted of about 10,000 horse archers and fully armoured Cataphract lancers. Upon making contact with the enemy Crassus ordered his legions to form a huge hollow square which provided all round defence against cavalry. In response to this the Parthians surrounded the Romans and subjected them to a sustained and murderous hail of arrows from their horse archers. This was made even more effective by a constant resupply of arrows brought up from the rear in bundles carried by a camel train. Any attempt to come to grips with their elusive tormentors only resulted in more casualties as even when retreating the horse archers were able to turn in the saddle and shoot behind. Hence the famous ‘Parthian Shot’. To extricate himself from an assured defeat Crassus ordered his decimated legions to make a night-time retreat. However, this turned into a disaster when on the next day the Roman general was killed during an attempted negotiation with the enemy. Thereupon, the remainder of the Roman army continued to be harassed by the horse archers and was finally mercilessly ridden down and massacred by the Cataphract lancers. Less than 5,000 Romans returned from the disastrous campaign.   

Clash of Empires

Using the Clash of Empires rules the battle strength and capabilities of the belligerents can be shown as follows: -

Later Republican Roman Army

The Later Republican Roman army consists of 31 units inclusive of cavalry. Following the reforms of Caius Marius, the Roman army is now a professional Standing army which uses 2D10 (highest scoring die only) for its Battle Dice.  A Standing Roman Legionary army has a Combat Rating of and gets +1 to Initiative for Forced March. On the Combat Rating (CR) to Fighting Bonus (FB) Conversion Table in the rulebook a CR of equates to +15 FB for 31 Roman Legionary units. A Standing Roman Legion can save against defeat by rolling 4-6 on 1D6 for Relentless. This can be used for a field battle and once only. If successful, the Roman army can fight again. In this refight any tactical or numerical superiority that either side might have is negated, but the Roman army will get a manipular support bonus of +1D6. If the Romans choose not to refight then they can disengage with 25% losses to the loser and 10% losses to the winner. The Romans also have a Heavy cavalry upgrade which gives them a +1D8 Battle Advantage Die and associated +1 to Initiative for cavalry. The Roman commander Crassus is ranked as competent and rolls 1D6 for Initiative. Therefore, the Later Republican Roman army rolls 1D6 +2 for Initiative. The Roman army outnumbers its opponent by more than 2-1 so gets a +2D6 Battle Advantage Dice.

Parthian Army

The Parthian army consists of 10 units of light horse archers and Cataphract lancers. This cavalry army is classed as a Mounted Feudal Army. For this reason, it uses 2D6 (highest scoring die only) for its Battle Dice and has a normal Combat Rating of . However, the Parthians have a number of Special Abilities. This includes Deadly Shots which gives them a +1D4 Primary Battle Bonus on odds or evens Battle Dice. If they also win Initiative, they can double their Deadly Shots score. In addition to the +1D10 Cataphract Battle Advantage and +1 to Initiative for cavalry the Parthians get Charge Impetus. They roll 1D6 and on the score of 4-5 can convert their Combat Rating of to and on a score of 6 it is increased to . Modify score by +1 for successful Deadly Shots activation and -1 against a Standing army or a Mixed army with a primary Standing element. Therefore, depending upon their score their Combat Rating to Fighting Bonus Conversion will range from +3 FB for CR , +8 FB for CR or +10 FB for CR. The Parthian commander Surenas is ranked as a Great Commander and rolls 2D6 (highest scoring die only) for Initiative. Therefore, the Parthian army rolls 2D6 +1 for Initiative.

Clash Battle System

After rolling for Initiative the Battle Roll for each army consists of the following procedure: -

  1. Roll Battle Dice (highest scoring die only)

  2. Plus, Combat Rating (CR) to Fighting Bonus (FB) (conversion dependent upon number of units)

  3. Plus, Fighting Technique Battle Bonus (activated by odds or evens Battle Dice)

  4. Plus, Advantage Dice (representing a numerical, tactical or other special advantage)

  5. Highest score wins and the difference between the two Battle Rolls determines the number of casualties.

Battle Log

Later Republican Roman


Battle Dice

No. of Units

CR to Fighting Bonus/Battle Bonus if applicable

Battle Advantage Dice

Total Score

1D6 +2 =


3 + 2 = 5




1 and 1

(Highest die only)


(8 Legions)

x 31 = +15 FB



Relentless 4-6

Saving roll = 2

Heavy Cavalry +1D8

Opponent outnumbered more than 2-1 +2D6


3 + 3 + 5 = 11


1 + 15 + 11 = 27

Note: - The Romans only just lose Initiative, but this is still enough to lessen the effect of their numerical advantage. Things go from bad to worse when the Romans roll two 1’s for their Battle Dice. They form square against the Parthian cavalry but are harassed mercilessly by the horse archers whose deadly shots eventually wear the Roman army down. An attempted retreat using their Relentless save fails dismally with a roll of 2 on 1D6 and they are subsequently massacred by the Parthians. The Romans lose 75% of their army which equates to 23 units.



Battle Dice

No. of Units

CR to Fighting Bonus/Battle Bonus if applicable

Battle Advantage Dice

Total Score

2D6 +1

(Highest die only)

5 and 1

5 + 1 = 6



4 and 6

(Highest die only)


x 10 = +3 FB

x 10 = +8 FB

x 10 = +10 FB 

Deadly Shots +1D4

= 4 x 2 =

Charge Impetus 1D6 = 5 =

Cataphract Cavalry +1D10

Tactical Advantage +1D6


9 + 5 = 14

6 + 8 + 8 + 14 = 36

Note: - The Parthians win Initiative by 1 which yields a +1D6 Tactical Advantage. They surround the enemy and subject the Romans to a constant missile barrage. An evens score on the Battle Dice activates their Deadly Shots and a roll 4 on 1D4 is then doubled to 8 because of their Initiative win. The Parthians roll 5 on 1D6 for their Cataphract Charge Impetus (The Deadly Shots and Standing Army modifications cancel each other out). This increases their Combat Rating to which gives a +8 Fighting Bonus. The result of all of this is a Battle Roll of 36 and a difference between the two Battle Rolls of 9. This is a great victory for the Parthians who only lose 2 units.  

Bad omens before the campaign prove prophetic as the supposed invincible Roman legions suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of the formidable Parthians at Carrhae 53 BC. Figures by Essex and Irregular Miniatures from their 25mm Greek & Roman range. Painted by Silurian and from the author’s own collection. The numerical strength of each army is denoted by the coloured plastic counters. Game board from the Clash of Empires: The Hellenistic World Game.

The formidable Parthian Cataphracts stand ready to exploit any weakness in the Roman square created by the deadly shots from their horse archers at the Battle of Carrhae 53 BC. Figures by Essex Miniatures from their 15mm Ancients range. Painted by Silurian and from the authors own collection. Army composition calculated by the Clash Conversion Table for Wargaming.


Boulter, M. L. 2009/2024: Clash of Empires: The Hellenistic World. Silurian War Games Ltd.

Dupuy, R. E. and Dupuy, T. N. 1993: The Collins Encyclopaedia of Military History. Harper Collins Publishers.

Hackett, J. 1989: Warfare in the Ancient World. Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd.

Mellersh, H.E.L. 1995: Chronology of the Ancient World, 10,000 BC – AD 799. Helicon Publishing Ltd.

Wilcox, P.1986: Rome’s Enemies (3): Parthians and Sassanid Persians. Osprey Publishing Ltd.

Article Front Page Picture

Death of Crassus. After Alamy (IY04522604).

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