Text #9539"Marcus Licinius Crassus", in .
Marcus Licinius Crassus (c. 115 BC – 53 BC) was a Roman general and politician who played a key role in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. Amassing an enormous fortune during his life, Crassus is considered the wealthiest man in Roman history, and among the richest men in all history, if not the wealthiest.
Crassus began his public career as a military commander under Lucius Cornelius Sulla during his civil war. Following Sulla’s assumption of the dictatorship, Crassus amassed an enormous fortune through real estate speculation. Crassus rose to political prominence following his victory over the slave revolt led by Spartacus, sharing the Consulship with his rival Pompey the Great.
A political and financial patron of Julius Caesar, Crassus joined Caesar and Pompey in the unofficial political alliance known as the First Triumvirate. Together the three men dominated the Roman political system. The alliance would not last indefinitely due to the ambitions, egos, and jealousies of the three men. While Caesar and Crassus were lifelong allies, Crassus and Pompey disliked each other and Pompey grew increasingly envious of Caesar’s spectacular successes in the Gallic Wars. The alliance was re-stabilized at the Lucca Conference in 56 BC, after which Crassus and Pompey again served jointly as Consuls. Following his second Consulship, Crassus was appointed as the Governor of Roman Syria. Crassus used Syria as the launchpad for a military campaign against the Parthian Empire, Rome’s long-time Eastern enemy. Crassus’ campaign was a disastrous failure, resulting in his defeat and death at the Battle of Carrhae.
Crassus’ death permanently unraveled the alliance between Caesar and Pompey. Within four years of Crassus’ death, Caesar would cross the Rubicon and begin a civil war against Pompey and the Optimates.
Marcus Licinius Crassus was the second of three sons born to the eminent senator and vir triumphalis P. Licinius Crassus (consul 97, censor 89 BC). This line was not descended from the Crassi Divites, although often assumed to be. The eldest brother Publius (born c.116 BC) died shortly before the Italic War and Marcus took the brother’s wife as his own. His father and the youngest brother Gaius took their own lives in Rome in winter 87–86 BC to avoid capture when he was being hunted down by the Marians following their victory in the bellum Octavianum.
There were three main branches of the house of Licinii Crassi in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, and many mistakes in identifications and lines have arisen owing to the uniformity of Roman nomenclature, erroneous modern suppositions, and the unevenness of information across the generations. In addition the Dives cognomen of the Crassi Divites means rich or wealthy, and since Marcus Crassus the subject here was renowned for his enormous wealth this has contributed to hasty assumptions that his family belonged to the Divites. But no ancient source accords him or his father the Dives cognomen, while we are explicitly informed that his great wealth was acquired rather than inherited, and that he was raised in modest circumstances.
Crassus’ homonymous grandfather, M. Licinius Crassus (praetor c.126 BC), was facetiously given the Greek nickname Agelastus (the grim) by his contemporary Gaius Lucilius, the famous inventor of Roman satire, who asserted that he smiled once in his whole life. This grandfather was son of P. Licinius Crassus (consul 171 BC). The latter’s brother C. Licinius Crassus (consul 168 BC) produced the third line of Licinia Crassi of the period, the most famous of whom was Lucius Licinius Crassus, the greatest Roman orator before Cicero and the latter’s childhood hero and model. Marcus Crassus was also a talented orator and one of the most energetic and active advocates of his time.
After the Marian purges and the sudden death subsequently of Gaius Marius, the surviving consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna (father-in-law of Julius Caesar) imposed proscriptions on those surviving Roman senators and equestrians who had supported Lucius Cornelius Sulla in his 88 BC march on Rome and overthrow of the traditional Roman political arrangements.
Cinna’s proscription forced Crassus to flee to Hispania. After Cinna’s death in 84 BC, Crassus went to the Roman province of Africa where adherents of Sulla were gathering. When Sulla invaded Italy after returning from partial successes in the inconclusive Second Mithridatic War, Crassus joined Sulla and Metellus Pius, Sulla’s closest ally. He was given command of the right wing in the Battle of the Colline Gate when the remaining Marian adherents and the surviving Samnites marched on Rome in a last-ditch bid to oust Sulla from Rome. The Colline Gate was one of the entrances into Rome through the Servian Walls; Crassus and his troops ensured Sulla’s victory, including destruction of the surviving Samnite troops and any other military opposition.
Marcus Licinius Crassus’ next concern was to rebuild the fortunes of his family, which had been confiscated during the Marian-Cinnan proscriptions. According to Plutarch’s “Life of Crassus”, Crassus made most of his fortune through “rapine and fire”. Sulla’s proscriptions, in which the property of his victims was cheaply auctioned off, found one of the greatest acquirers of this type of property in Crassus: indeed, Sulla was especially supportive of this because he wished to spread around the blame as much as possible, among those unscrupulous to be glad to do so. Sulla’s proscriptions ensured that his survivors would recoup their lost fortunes from the fortunes of wealthy adherents to Gaius Marius or Lucius Cornelius Cinna. Proscriptions meant that their political enemies lost their fortunes and their lives; that their female relatives (notably, widows and widowed daughters) were forbidden to remarry; and that in some cases, their families’ hopes of rebuilding their fortunes and political significance were destroyed. Crassus is said to have made part of his money from proscriptions, notably the proscription of one man whose name was not initially on the list of those proscribed but was added by Crassus who coveted the man’s fortune. Crassus’s wealth is estimated by Pliny at approximately 200 million sestertii. Plutarch says the wealth of Crassus increased from less than 300 talents at first to 7,100 talents, or close to $8.4 Billion USD today, accounted right before his Parthian expedition, most of which Plutarch declares Crassus got “by fire and rapine, making his advantage of public calamities”.
Some of Crassus’ wealth was acquired conventionally, through traffic in slaves, production from silver mines, and speculative real estate purchases. Crassus tended to specialize in deals involving proscribed citizens and especially and notoriously purchasing during fires or structural collapse of buildings. When buildings were burning, Crassus and his purposely-trained crew would show up, and Crassus would offer to purchase the presumably doomed property and perhaps neighboring endangered properties from their owners for speculatively low sums; if the purchase offer was accepted, Crassus would then use his army of some 500 slaves which he purchased due to their knowledge of architecture and building to put the fire out, sometimes before too much damage had been done: otherwise Crassus would use his crews to rebuild. If his purchase offers were not accepted, then Crassus would not engage in firefighting. Crassus’s slaves employed the Roman method of firefighting—destroying the burning building to curtail the spread of the flames. Similar methods were used by Crassus in the common event of the collapse of the large Roman buildings known as insulae, which were notorious for their poor construction and unsafe conditions. Crassus was happy to cheaply construct new insulae using his slave labour force, in place of the old insulae which had collapsed and/or burned; however, he was known for his raising of rents rather than for his erection of improved residential structures.
Crassus was kinsman to Licinia, a Vestal Virgin, whose valuable property he coveted. Plutarch says: “And yet when he was further on in years, he was accused of criminal intimacy with Licinia, one of the vestal virgins and Licinia was formally prosecuted by a certain Plotius. Now Licinia was the owner of a pleasant villa in the suburbs which Crassus wished to get at a low price, and it was for this reason that he was forever hovering about the woman and paying his court to her, until he fell under the abominable suspicion. And in a way it was his avarice that absolved him from the charge of corrupting the vestal, and he was acquitted by the judges. But he did not let Licinia go until he had acquired her property.”
After rebuilding his fortune, Crassus’ next concern was his political career. As an adherent of Sulla, and the wealthiest man in Rome, and a man who hailed from a line of consuls and praetors, Crassus’ political future was apparently assured. His problem was that despite his military successes, he was eclipsed by his contemporary Pompey the Great who blackmailed the dictator Sulla into granting him a triumph for victory in Africa over a rag-tag group of dissident Romans; a first in Roman history on a couple of counts. First, Pompey was not even a praetor, on which grounds a triumph had been denied in 206 BC to the great Scipio Africanus, who had just defeated Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal in Spain and brought Rome the entire province (Hispania). Second, Pompey had defeated fellow Romans; however, a quasi-precedent had been set when the consul Lucius Julius Caesar (a relative of Gaius Julius Caesar) had been granted a triumph for a small victory over Italian (non-Roman) peoples in the Social War. Pompey’s triumph was the first granted to any Roman for defeating another Roman army. Crassus’ rivalry with Pompey and his envy of Pompey’s triumph would influence his subsequent career.
Crassus was rising steadily up the cursus honorum, the sequence of offices held by Roman citizens seeking political power, when ordinary Roman politics were interrupted by two events – first, the Third Mithridatic War, and second, the Third Servile War, which was the organized two-year rebellion of Roman slaves under the leadership of Spartacus (from the Summer of 73 BC to the Spring, 71 BC). In response to the first threat, Rome’s best general, Lucius Licinius Lucullus (consul in 74 BC), was sent to defeat Mithridates, followed shortly by his brother Varro Lucullus (consul in 73 BC, whose daughter Tertulla later became his wife). Meanwhile, Pompey was fighting in Hispania against Quintus Sertorius, the last effective Marian general, without notable advantage. Pompey succeeded only when Sertorius was assassinated by one of his own commanders. The only source to mention Crassus holding the office of praetor is Appian, and the date appears to be in 73 or possibly 72 BC.
The Senate did not initially take the slave rebellion seriously, until they believed Rome itself was under threat. Crassus offered to equip, train, and lead new troops, at his own expense, after several legions had been defeated and their commanders killed in battle or taken prisoner. Eventually, Crassus was sent into battle against Spartacus by the Senate. At first he had trouble both in anticipating Spartacus’ moves and in inspiring his army and strengthening their morale. When a segment of his army fled from battle, abandoning their weapons, Crassus revived the ancient practice of decimation – i.e., executing one out of every ten men, with the victims selected by drawing lots. Plutarch reports that “many things horrible and dreadful to see” occurred during the infliction of punishment, which was witnessed by the rest of Crassus’ army. Nevertheless, according to Appian, the troops’ fighting spirit improved dramatically thereafter, since Crassus had demonstrated that “he was more dangerous to them than the enemy.”
Afterwards, when Spartacus retreated to the Bruttium peninsula in the southwest of Italy, Crassus tried to pen up his armies by building a ditch and a rampart across an isthmus in Bruttium, “from sea to sea.” Despite this remarkable feat, Spartacus and part of his army still managed to break out. On the night of a heavy snowstorm, they sneaked through Crassus’ lines and made a bridge of dirt and tree branches over the ditch, thus escaping.
Some time later, when the Roman armies led by Pompey and Varro Lucullus were recalled to Italy in support of Crassus, Spartacus decided to fight rather than find himself and his followers trapped between three armies, two of them returning from overseas action. In this last battle, the Battle of the Siler River, Crassus gained a decisive victory, and captured six thousand slaves alive. During the fighting, Spartacus attempted to kill Crassus personally, slaughtering his way toward the general’s position, but he succeeded only in killing two of the centurions guarding Crassus. Spartacus himself is believed to have been killed in the battle, although his body was never recovered. The six thousand captured slaves were crucified along the Via Appia by Crassus’ orders. At his command, their bodies were not taken down afterwards but remained rotting along Rome’s principal route to the South. This was intended as an object lesson to anyone who might think of rebelling against Rome in the future, particularly of slave insurrections against their owners and masters, the Roman citizens.
**Crassus effectively ended the Third Servile War in 71 BC; however, his political rival, Pompey, who had arrived with his veteran troops from Hispania (Spain) in time merely for a mop up operation against the disorganized and defeated fugitives who had scattered after the final battle, received credit for the final victory, writing a letter to the Senate, in which he argued that Crassus had merely defeated some slaves, while Pompey had won the war (referring also to the successfully concluded Spanish civil war, a success which Pompey also questionably claimed credit for). **This caused much strife between Pompey and Crassus. Crassus was honored only with an Ovation (originally a sheep sacrifice, which was much less an honor than was the Triumph), even though the danger to Rome and the destruction to Roman lives and property merited much more, considered purely from a military viewpoint; however, as Plutarch eagerly and unhesitatingly points out, according to an ancient prejudice against slaves, even an Ovation was unseemly, according to ancient tradition: in Plutarch’s opinion, it was a shameful thing for a free man to claim any honor from battling slaves; instead he retroactively recommended that if Crassus had to sully himself by performing such a duty, he should rather have done his job and then kept quiet about having done his duty, rather than wanting to brag about it, and unreasonably demanding the honor of a Triumph, something which by ancient tradition up to this point been reserved for a general whose military victories had led to significant gains of additional territory for his country. As a result of his thwarted hopes for a Triumph, together with the addition of the humiliating remarks made in the presence of the aristocratic senators, Crassus’ animosity towards his political enemy Pompey increased.
Nevertheless, Crassus was elected consul for 70 BC, alongside Pompey. In that year, Crassus displayed his wealth by public sacrifices to Hercules and entertained the populace at 10,000 tables and distributing sufficient grain to last each family three months, an act which had the additional ends of performing a previously made religious vow of a tithe to the god Hercules and also to gain support among the members of the popular party.
In 65 BC, Crassus was elected censor with another conservative Quintus Lutatius Catulus (Capitolinus), himself son of a consul. During that decade, Crassus was Julius Caesar’s patron in all but name, financing Caesar’s successful election to become Pontifex Maximus, Caesar had formerly held the #2 post as the priest of Jupiter or flamen dialis, but had been deprived of office by Sulla. Crassus also supported Caesar’s efforts to win command of military campaigns. Caesar’s mediation between Crassus and Pompey led to the creation of the First Triumvirate in 60/59 BC, the coalition of Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar (by now consul in 59). This coalition would last until Crassus’ own death.
In 55 BC, after the Triumvirate met at the Lucca Conference, Crassus was again consul with Pompey, and a law was passed assigning the provinces of the two Hispanias and Syria to Pompey and Crassus respectively for five years.
Crassus received Syria as his province, which promised to be an inexhaustible source of wealth. It may have been, had he not also sought military glory and crossed the Euphrates in an attempt to conquer Parthia. **Crassus attacked Parthia not only because of its great source of riches, but because of a desire to match the military victories of his two major rivals, Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. **The king of Armenia, Artavazdes II, offered Crassus the aid of nearly forty thousand troops (ten thousand cataphracts and thirty thousand infantrymen) on the condition that Crassus invaded through Armenia so that the king could not only maintain the upkeep of his own troops but also provide a safer route for his men and Crassus’. Crassus refused, and chose the more direct route by crossing the Euphrates. His legions were defeated at Carrhae (modern Harran in Turkey) in 53 BC by a numerically inferior Parthian force. Crassus’ legions were mainly infantry men and were not prepared for the type of swift, cavalry-and-arrow attack that the Parthian troops were particularly adept at. The Parthians would get within shooting range, rain a barrage of arrows down upon Crassus’s troops, turn, fall back, and charge forth with another attack in the same vein. They were even able to shoot as well backwards as they could forwards, increasing the deadliness of their onslaught. Crassus refused his quaestor Gaius Cassius Longinus’s plans to reconstitute the Roman battle line, and remained in the testudo formation thinking that the Parthians would eventually run out of arrows.
Subsequently Crassus’ men, being near mutiny, demanded he parley with the Parthians, who had offered to meet with him. Crassus, despondent at the death of his son Publius in the battle, finally agreed to meet the Parthian general; however, when Crassus mounted a horse to ride to the Parthian camp for a peace negotiation, his junior officer Octavius suspected a Parthian trap and grabbed Crassus’ horse by the bridle, instigating a sudden fight with the Parthians that left the Roman party dead, including Crassus. A story later emerged that, after Crassus’ death, the Parthians poured molten gold into his mouth as a symbol of his thirst for wealth. Or, according to a popular but historically unreliable account that it was by this means that he was put to death.
The account given in Plutarch’s biography of Crassus also mentions that, during the feasting and revelry in the wedding ceremony of Artavazd’s sister to the Parthian king Orodes II’s son and heir Pacorus in Artashat, Crassus’ head was brought to Orodes II. Both kings were enjoying a performance of Euripides’ Greek tragedy The Bacchae and a certain actor of the royal court, named Jason of Tralles, took the head and sang the following verses (also from the Bacchae):
We bring from the mountain
A tendril fresh-cut to the palace
A wonderful prey.
Crassus’ head was thus used in place of a prop head representing Pentheus and carried by the heroine of the play, Agave.
Also according to Plutarch, a final mockery was made ridiculing the memory of Crassus, by dressing up a Roman prisoner, Caius Paccianus, who resembled him in appearance in women’s clothing, calling him “Crassus” and “Imperator”, and leading him in a spectacular show of a final, mock “triumphal procession”, putting to ridiculous use the traditional symbols of Roman triumph and authority.
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