Marcus Licinius Crassus Dives was an influential Roman politician from the Late Republic. He was renowned for his enormous wealth (“Dives” means “richest”), so much so that a ditty was sung in his honor, “Crassus, Crassus, rich as Croesus” (after the legendary king of Lydia, famed for his wealth). Like many wealthy men, Crassus was also thought to be famously rapacious, but in his case there seems to have been a great deal of truth in the popular view. Crassus was most famous for his part in three great events: His defeat of Spartacus in the Third Servile War, his part in the secret pact known as the First Triumvirate with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Gaius Julius Caesar, and his ignominious death at the Battle of Carrhae. It was the latter that would most mark his reputation in Rome, for the defeat resulted in the devastating loss of three Aquila, the Eagle standard, considered the heart of the legion. The Eagles were not returned for a generation, when the Divine Augustus finally managed to convince the Parthians to release the sacred symbols.
The First Man in Rome
LLittle is known of Crassus’ early life, but it is known that his rise to political prominence was primarily due to his enormous wealth. Crassus’ wealth was acquired through a combination of his silver mines, trafficking in slaves, and the purchasing of land and houses. The latter was the foundation for his reputation for greed, as his real estate acquisitions occurred under unsavory clouds. Under Sulla’s reign of terror, Crassus benefited by purchasing the property of proscribed citizens at cutthroat prices. Even worse, in the eyes of his fellow citizens, was his habit of buying burning homes. Rome had no fire department at the time, and Crassus maintained a personal firefighting force that would rush to the site of a burning building along with Crassus himself. Once there, Crassus would bargain for the fiery structure, as well as for the buildings surrounding it. Once he had made as many deals as he deemed profitable, his army went to work extinguishing the flames.
Cinna’s assumption of power (while Sulla was battling Mithridates in Asia Minor) saw Crassus forced to flee to Hispania in order to escape proscription. Upon Cinna’s death, Crassus passed from Africa back into Italy, where he became a supporter of Sulla.
The early failures in the Third Servile War provided Crassus with his first real opportunity to demonstrate his worthiness. Spartacus and his tiny band of gladiators had defeated increasingly larger legionary forces, and had swiftly grown into an army of more than 120,000 men. With the dashing Pompey in Hispania battling Quintus Sertorius, Rome turned to the unproven Marcus Crassus to defeat the revolting slaves. Crassus utilized harsh discipline to motivate his soldiers, even turning to decimation (the killing of one out of every ten legionaries) for a portion of his army. Under his brutal but effective leadership, Spartacus was driven into the tip of Italy where Crassus walled him in behind fortifications across Rhegium. Spartacus managed one last breakout, fleeing to the north, but Crassus caught him and defeated the rebel forces decisively. Crassus crucified six thousand survivors along the road between Rome and Capua as a warning to any other slaves that might be considering resistance. After more than two years of battles, the Third Servile War was over.
While Crassus had been defeating Spartacus, Pompey, having finally finished Sertorius, had moved his armies back into Italy from Hispania. He was moving south when Crassus finally brought Spartacus to bay, with the result that his legions managed to capture 5,000 terrified slaves fleeing from the massacre. Pompey promptly sent a dispatch to the Senate declaring that, while Crassus had defeated the servile army, it was he, Pompey, who had finished the war—and he thus claimed a significant portion of the glory for the victory. Crassus was infuriated, and he never completely forgave Pompey.
The First Triumvirate
Crassus and Pompey were elected co-consuls the next year, and in 70 BCE Crassus put his immense wealth on display in a lavish celebration with 10,000 tables and so much grain that every family in Rome was fed for three months. He would follow up the consulship in 65 BCE by being elected Censor, an achievement of note that established him as a political stalwart in the Senate. For all his success, however, Crassus was still frustrated by his inability to pass laws that would benefit his equite allies. Even more importantly, he was unable to secure a plum military command that would enable him to achieve the glory and fame he so desperately desired.
In 60 BCE Crassus was approached with an intriguing offer by Julius Caesar: establish a mutually beneficial alliance between Casear, Crassus, and Pompey. Each had a great deal to gain from such an alliance, and each brought enormous power to the table. Caesar was deeply in debt and desperately needed a province that would offer him the chance of wealth and glory. Crassus had already bailed him out several times, but Caesar was under no illusions that Crassus was not awaiting repayment. He was, however, enormously popular amongst the politically influential Populares, a necessary ingredient in passing any laws in Rome. Pompey, of course, had his veterans and enormous gravitas to the alliance. But influential though Pompey was, he had been unable to push through his agrarian laws in order to provide land for his veterans. Crassus, of course, had the merchant equestrian class under this thumb—and he was immensely wealthy. The bargain was sealed and the First Triumvirate was born.
Caesar was elected Consul with the support of Crassus’ wealth in 59 BCE. He promptly proposed a series of laws that benefited the equestrian class and mercantile interests, satisfying Crassus. The conservative Optimates once again fought against them, but this time Pompey moved in support, and the Optimates were defeated. With Crasssus’ goals achieved, Caesar and Crassus supported Pompey in acquiring land for his veterans, and Caesar went on to govern further Gaul and Illyria.
By 55 BCE, Crassus was again Consul with Pompey, followed by five year governorships of the two Spains (Pompey) and Syria (Crassus). Crassus finally had his chance for fame, glory, and even greater wealth. Under the instigation of the King of Armenia, Crassus crossed the Euphrates and invaded Parthia in 53 BCE.
The invasion quickly proved to be a disastrous decision. Although Crassus outnumbered the Parthian forces, he had brought an infantry army into a desert environment against an armoured heavy cavalry force. The Persians had fielded 1,000 heavy cataphracts and more than 9,000 horse archers against the Roman infantry. At the Battle of Carrhae, the Romans were continuously pelted by arrows until, in desperation, Crassus’ son, Publius, urged his men into a charge against the horse archers. The archers simply feigned retreat in waves, firing as they went. The tactic, known as the “Parthian shot,” proved devastating, and the exhausted Romans eventually succumbed to the Persians. Publius’ head was displayed on a pike, and the Persians, mocking Crassus’ great wealth, killed him by pouring liquid gold down his throat. His head was then sent back to the Parthian king, Orodes II.