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Death in Battle?

To the Editors:

May I make a small adjustment to Russell Baker’s excellent comparison between Rome and modern Washington in his fine commentary/review of Losing America by Robert Byrd [NYR, August 12]? According to Plutarch, Crassus was not murdered (as Baker writes) but killed in battle against the Parthians. The victorious general Surena sent the defeated Roman’s head by messenger to the Parthian King Hyrodes. The messenger arrived close to the end of a performance of Euripides’ play The Bacchae, just before the entrance of Agave. The messenger threw the head into the audience; a Greek actor in the role of Agave retrieved it and sang, “We bring this branch to the palace/this fresh-cut spray from the mountains….” The audience went wild.*

Irma B. Jaffe

Professor Emeritus of Art History

Fordham UniversityNew York City

Russell Baker replies:

Both the Dryden and the Rex Warner translations of Plutarch have it that Crassus, having been defeated in battle, hoped to retreat to the mountains, but was forced by his demoralized, outnumbered, and mutinous Roman troops to accept an invitation to palaver with Surena, though he feared Surena’s treachery. A scuffle broke out—something about a horse—after he arrived in Surena’s presence with a few supporters, and Crassus was killed by a Parthian. This does not strike me as death in battle, but that is a small point which does not affect the macabre point of a very good story.

  1. *

    From The Norton Book of Classical Literature, edited by Bernard Knox (Norton, 1993), p. 425.

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