As a prominent politician and military official within the ancient Roman Republic, Marcus Licinius Crassus led a life of war, spoils and power. Yet in spite of the vast fortune and prestige that he had amassed for himself, he perpetually strived for more. And it was this insatiable greed that led to his downfall – and, ultimately, to his violent and elaborate death.
Sources vary as to the precise year, but broadly speaking Crassus was born between 115 B.C. and 112 B.C. His father, Publius Licinius Crassus, had once been a consul, which was an extremely powerful position within the Roman Republic. Two consuls were elected each year, typically to oversee administrative matters during times of peace and to command the military during times of war.
Thanks in part to his powerful position, Crassus’ father had become relatively wealthy throughout his lifetime. Furthermore, he was once honored by the Republic for his military service with a Roman triumph – a celebration of a military figure’s accomplishments in which they were paraded through the streets.
Crassus’ father then took up the esteemed role of censor. This meant that he was in charge of documenting population data as well as maintaining civil decency. However, Crassus senior then took his own life after losing a battle in 87 B.C. And so Crassus junior was forced run away to Spain, where apparently he concealed himself in a cave for almost five years.
Around this time, a civil war had broken out within the Roman Republic. Known as Sulla’s second civil war, the conflict was just one of many internal struggles which afflicted Ancient Rome. This particular war was fought between factions led by Lucius Cornelius Sulla on one side and Gaius Marius on the other.
Following his emergence from the cave in Spain, Crassus fought on the side of Sulla throughout the civil war. In fact, he developed into one of Sulla’s more capable military officers, significantly aiding the general’s efforts to take over Rome. And in 82 B.C. Sulla won the war and became the dictator of the Roman Republic.
Crassus had been on the victorious side, then, and subsequently he set about establishing his own wealth. By seizing the belongings of adversaries, Crassus acquired a vast portfolio of riches, slaves and property. Indeed, it was around this time that he developed a reputation for “avarice” – or greed, in layman’s terms.
And Crassus’ lust for wealth became very well-known. The Greek writer Plutarch, born in the first century A.D., put together a biography of the prominent Roman, describing his rapacious reputation. “The Romans, it is true, say that the many virtues of Crassus were obscured by his sole vice of avarice,” Plutarch wrote. “And it is likely that the one vice which became stronger than all the others in him weakened the rest.”
Remarkably, Crassus’ reputation for greed even served to help him emerge from a scandal. You see, at one point he was accused of inappropriate behavior with a Vestal Virgin – a female priest bound to chastity. But he was exonerated on the basis that he was pursuing her property, rather than the woman herself. And he even later actually managed to acquire the premises that he sought.
But despite Crassus’ greed helping in that case, it generally made him unpopular within the Republic. Indeed, while other notable figures of the time were known for their leadership and military skills, Crassus was despised for his selfishness. And this notoriety would stay with him until his death and beyond.
What’s more, while Crassus had secured some of his fortune through ordinary means, such as in legitimate real estate transactions and mining, much of it came through unscrupulous methods. And aside from directly seizing enemy holdings, he apparently used to carry out one particularly crooked trick.
That’s right, Crassus was responsible for the formation a fire brigade, which was made up of slaves. And to the wealthy Roman’s credit, this is one of the first cases of a functional fire brigade known to us today. The manner with which the crew conducted itself, however, was not entirely above board.
You see, sometimes the fire brigade would arrive to the scene with Crassus himself in attendance. Standing by the blaze, he would then make an offer for the building at an unfairly low price. And it was only if the owner accepted the measly bid that Crassus would permit the brigade to do their job. Otherwise, the team would simply cheer as the structure burned to the ground.
So having secured his incredible wealth, Crassus turned his focus onto the development of his political life. Given his societal stature and past accomplishments within the military, it seemed certain that Crassus would find success in politics. However, he was always kept in check by his rival, Pompey the Great.
Like Crassus, Pompey had been recognized as a strong military leader throughout the course of Sulla’s second civil war. In fact, he probably garnered more recognition than Crassus and earned his epithet – “the Great” – as a result of the conflict. But upon hearing Pompey’s title, Crassus would apparently sarcastically dismiss it by asking, “Why, how big is he?”
Yes, it seems that Crassus was envious of the high regard with which Pompey was held within the Roman Republic. And although the two would at times cooperate for the sake of reaching their own ends, they were generally hostile toward one another. Indeed, this was the case following the Third Servile War – otherwise known as the War of Spartacus.
Today, Spartacus is known as something of a popular icon. The now-famous rebel leader was a gladiator who led an uprising of slaves during the Third Servile War, which began in 73 B.C. But while other slave rebellions had been limited in the threat they posed to Rome, this uprising was considered genuinely dangerous. And so Crassus was sent to crush it.
What’s more, A number of Roman officials had previously attempted to suppress the uprising without success. And upon first assuming control of the Roman military, Crassus himself initially struggled in the war. But he eventually steadied his efforts by demonstrating his more fearsome side.
During a battle in the war, a group of Crassus’ troops deserted the battlefield. And so, in order to reestablish rule within his ranks, Crassus imposed the tradition of decimation. This meant that by Crassus’ order, 10 percent of his own troops were randomly selected and executed.
And this drastic measure instilled such fear within Crassus’ soldiers that they were forced to submit to his authority. Indeed, with the consequences of not fighting now seemingly more perilous than opposing the enemy, the soldiers fought even harder. Eventually, then, the troops forced Spartacus into a final battle.
And so in 71 B.C. the Battle of the Silarius River took place in Italy. During this action, Spartacus himself actually attempted to strike down Crassus. But while the rebel tried to fight his way in the direction of the Roman leader, he could only get so far. Indeed, it is not known exactly what happened to Spartacus, but it is believed that he was killed in the fighting.
There were heavy losses to both sides in the battle, in fact, but ultimately the slaves were defeated. In effect, Crassus had brought the Third Servile War to an end. Yet in spite of his victory, the Roman leader was still moved to demonstrate his ruthlessness once again.
You see, 6,000 slaves had been captured following the Battle of the Silarius River, and Crassus subsequently ordered their crucifixion. Furthermore, he insisted that their remains stay upon their crosses to rot in full sight of onlookers. This brutal visage, then, served as a caution to anyone who considered opposing the Roman Republic in future.
But despite having played a crucial role in winning the war, Crassus didn’t receive the credit that he perhaps deserved. Yes, after Crassus had split the slave forces, his rival Pompey arrived to sure up the win. And although Pompey’s role in defeating the rebellion was comparatively minor to Crassus’, it was the former who received the bulk of the plaudits for his efforts in the conflict. Crassus, meanwhile, had to make do with much lesser acclaim.
Indeed, following the military leaders’ return to Rome, Pompey was honored with a triumph; Crassus, meanwhile, received an inferior tribute. And to rub salt into the wound, Pompey was later asked to act as one of the Roman Republic’s two consuls – a position that Crassus desired for himself.
But despite Crassus’ resentment of Pompey, it’s reported that he requested his rival’s help in securing the second consulship position. And wanting Crassus to be indebted to him, Pompey accepted and helped the general secure the role. So the two great rivals were now serving the Roman Republic as consuls, yet their differences continued to define their relationship.
That’s right, throughout their tenure, the two consuls disagreed over almost everything. In fact, their inability to work together essentially weakened the power of their office. And unable to move forward in agreement with regard most issues, their time as consuls accomplished little.
After his time as a consul, Crassus moved into another position of government when he became a censor in 65 B.C. And it was was around this time that he started financing the political efforts of a younger man; the aspiring statesman was hoping to become the Pontifex Maximus – or high priest – of Rome. So who was the man in question? Well, it was Julius Caesar.
What’s more, Crassus’ support of Caesar would prove to be of significant consequence for the Roman Republic. Indeed, it was on Caesar’s advice that Crassus and Pompey attempted to put aside the animosity that had previous plagued their relationship. And in 59 B.C. the pair successfully backed Caesar to become consul.
Acknowledging Crassus’ backing in becoming consul, Caesar saw to it that a vast chunk of public debt – some of which was Crassus’ – was written off. The introduction of this new law, then, directly added to Crassus’ incredible riches. In fact, today it is thought that Crassus is among the wealthiest people ever to have graced the earth. And while it’s difficult to illustrate the extent of Crassus’ prosperity, one Roman writer once estimated the statesman’s worth to be equivalent to that of the entire Roman Republic.
But Crassus still had aspirations aside from wealth – as did Pompey and Caesar for that matter. And while each had their own ambitions, the three men realized they could be most effective working together. As a result, they established an alliance known as the First Triumvirate. Significantly, this coalition meant that they were powerful enough to challenge the Roman Senate – essentially allowing the trio to rule the Republic.
Yes, the First Triumvirate was a powerful force, and three leaders dominated Roman politics for all of seven years. Of course, each of the men harbored their own ideologies and desires in contrary to the other two. But so long as the three members remained a part of it, the arrangement stayed balanced.
In order to strengthen their affiliation, the Triumvirate convened in the town of Luca, in what today is central Italy. Here, it was agreed that Crassus and Pompey would once again become consuls – Crassus taking over the rule of Syria and Pompey taking Spain. And so in 55 B.C. the Roman leader set out to the Middle East, with the promise of acquiring yet greater riches.
But Crassus, of course, was already very financially wealthy. It was military prestige – for which Caesar and Pompey were revered – that he felt that he was lacking. So, in 53 B.C. he set out on an ill-fated invasion of the Parthian Empire of ancient Iran. This reckless endeavor was not taken for any logical reason, though – well, other than to bring him personal glory. And it was an act of folly that would cost him his life.
Upon arriving in Parthia, the extent of Crassus’ lack of planning swiftly became evident. Having shunned the help of the local monarchs, the Roman leader was betrayed by an unscrupulous guide who led his men through a desert to the point of exhaustion. From here, the Parthians attacked and overwhelmed the Romans, surrounding them and forcing them to surrender. Indeed, legend has it that the Parthians caught Crassus himself. And they were apparently no strangers to irony in dealing with the man, either.
You see, it seems that Crassus’ reputation for greed had extended far beyond Rome – even the Parthians knew of his avarice. And so, having captured the Roman alive, they decided to execute him in a fitting manner. Yes, reflecting Crassus’ ruthless pursuit for wealth, the Parthians are said to have poured liquid gold into his throat.
And so, in the manner of true tragedy, Crassus’ most prominent personal fault ensured his own demise. His insatiable greed and need for greatness led him undertake a pointless invasion, which ultimately cost him his life. What’s more, such was the extent of his failure that even today certain Mediterranean dialects still refer to a particularly idiotic error as a “crassus.”
Regardless of the manner of Crassus’ death, though, his downfall had an immense impact on the course of Roman history. You see, without the third member of their Triumvirate to provide equilibrium, Caesar and Pompey’s relationship broke down. And with their break-up came a brutal civil war.
Moreover, the Great Roman Civil War would prove to be one of the final battle of the Roman Republic. But after four years of bitter conflict, Caesar emerged as the victor in 45 B.C. Pompey, meanwhile, was forced to flee to Egypt, where he was subsequently assassinated. And the following year, Caesar became the dictator of Rome.
But any hopes for peace in Rome didn’t last long. You see, on March 15, 44 B.C., Caesar was assassinated, and a civil war broke out yet again. This time Augustus emerged as the victor, becoming the first Emperor of Rome. The Roman Republic ceased to exist, and the Roman Empire came to be – with democracy existing only in memory. And, of course, one might trace this course of events back to a certain Marcus Licinius Crassus. Yes, it seems that the statesman’s love riches and glory played a crucial part in reshaping Roman history – and in turn, that of the world.