What was it like being Rome’s richest man?

In this biography of Marcus Licinius Crassus, the first in nearly fifty years, Peter Stothard avoids getting bogged down in the tortuous politics of Late Republican Rome and instead provides a pacy, lyrical overview of the life of the first tycoon.

Laurence Olivier plays Marcus Licinius Crassus in the film Spartacus.
Laurence Olivier plays Marcus Licinius Crassus in the film Spartacus. Credit: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Crassus: The First Tycoon, by Peter Stothard, Yale University Press, 2022, 184 pp

As the man who bankrolled Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus really ought to be better known. A constant, though often insidious, influence on Roman politics for almost thirty years, he was, says Peter Stothard, ‘a man whose life as businessman and politician posed both immediate and lasting questions about the intertwining of money, ambition, and power.’

The first biography of Crassus in nearly fifty years, it is a cautionary tale told masterfully by Stothard, which has a notorious ending. As governor of Syria, Crassus picked a fight with the Parthians, a people who ruled a swathe of territory which ran from the Euphrates to the Hindu Kush. In 53 BC, however, he was defeated in battle by a Parthian army somewhere near Harran, in what is now south-eastern Turkey. His severed head was delivered to the Parthian royal court, where it was reputedly then used as a prop in a performance of Euripides’s nightmarish play, The Bacchae, before the king. Roman complacency about Parthia evaporated. Caesar, incidentally, was three days away from setting out to avenge Crassus when he was murdered, nearly a decade later.

Crassus was born around 115 BC, into a modestly rich family at a time when Roman society was struggling to digest the loot and slaves won during the Punic Wars. His father, who served as consul at the beginning of the first century BC, was best known for laws outlawing magicians and ending human sacrifice. But he also – in a sign of the tensions new money was causing in a desperately crowded city – tried to regulate luxury dining and expensive perfume, and to ban foreign wines. He committed suicide to avoid a worse fate when the tyrannical Cinna took power, while Crassus fled to Spain, where the family had property and mines, living in a cave to which supporters despatched food and slave girls.

Cinna’s death encouraged Crassus to venture home. He raised a legion and enlisted with Cinna’s old enemy Sulla, who was fighting his way towards Rome. So too did Pompey, a bumptious young man who was to become Crassus’s lifelong rival. It was Pompey who famously told Sulla – just over thirty years his senior – that more men worshipped the rising than the setting sun.

Crassus was irritated by the way in which Pompey stole the limelight but he half-preferred the shadows. In Rome, where fire was a constant danger, he made a fortune buying up burning buildings, and adjacent tenement blocks at knockdown prices, and then selling them off. ‘The best tactic was always to stop short of pure intimidation: the seller ought to feel grateful that Crassus had allowed him to save something from otherwise certain ruin.’ Controversially he also bought the estates of some of the hundreds of men Sulla purged, possibly while sitting on the panel that decreed who went on this list.

A skim of fresh plaster here, a new mosaic there, made Crassus rich. He bought Greek sculpture and ‘much of Aristotle’s library’ but, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, did not flaunt his wealth. Instead he used his profits to buy influence. His approach was to dine his clients regularly, not lavishly; his skill a rather solicitous politeness that made lesser men feel good about themselves. He created obligations that, more than once, enabled him to escape serious trouble. His problem was the perennial one for the super-rich: wealth alone did not buy respect. Exactly what put people off Crassus remains slightly unclear. But put off they were. ‘Avarice’, says Stothard, ‘adhered to his reputation like a leech on the skin. Much that Crassus did was for money, but everything that he did was interpreted as done for money.’

This was not quite the whole story. For what Crassus craved was esteem. Only a military victory would win him the recognition he felt he deserved. Although he was a very competent commander, the sorts of victories he won were of the kind that Rome preferred not to dwell on. In the late 70s he played the major role in crushing Spartacus’s revolt, which culminated in his crucifixion of as many as six thousand rebels along the Appian Way. But at the same time Pompey had scored a major success in Spain and while he earned a triumph, Crassus was only accorded a much lesser celebration – an ovation. His purchase on the Senate, however, ensured that he processed through the city crowned with the laurels that were usually only granted to a triumphator: ‘Laurel purified a man against revenge by the spirits of those he had killed.’

Nevertheless, the simultaneous victories thrust Crassus and Pompey together. They were elected consuls in 70 and used their year to unravel Sulla’s work. ‘In the balance of Senatus Populusque Romanus’, Stothard explains, Sulla had ‘wanted more S and less P.’ Crassus and Pompey restored power to the tribunes who directly represented the people, and broke the Senate’s stranglehold over the courts. But, Stothard adds, the very nature of being Roman was changing. ‘To be Romanus meant increasingly to be ruled by the men – and then the one man – with the most loyal army.’

The two men’s fortunes began to diverge. Pompey gathered more acclaim in a campaign against piracy and then orchestrated a new commission, to go off to fight Mithradates, a gadfly king who had been causing great uncertainty in Rome’s new provinces on the east coast of the Aegean. Crassus, anticipating that his rival would return weighed down with plunder, turned to Julius Caesar in an attempt to rebalance the political scales. With Mithradates dead, and Roman rule extended into Syria and Judaea, Pompey returned home in 62. He had already sent home a sum equivalent to Rome’s annual tax take, as a theatrical demonstration of his achievement. His triumph, which took place the following year, was so magnificent that it was still being talked about a century later.

Crassus could not keep up with this. But Pompey still needed his support. The Senate was alarmed as well as impressed by what Pompey had done, and refused to ratify the results of this latest campaign, nor, crucially, allocate land to Pompey’s soldiers. Caesar, meanwhile, had racked up massive debts with Crassus in his campaign to win the high priesthood while Pompey was abroad. Crassus used his leverage to push Caesar for the consulship in 59, on the understanding Caesar would do his and Pompey’s bidding. Pompey got the land deal he wanted, and his Middle Eastern settlement confirmed. The Three Headed Monster, as this arrangement was known, was given new life in 56. This time Crassus and Pompey stood for the consulship: the deal was that they would extend Caesar’s command in Gaul, and allocate themselves lucrative commands to step into at the end of their term. Crassus chose the governorship of the province his rival had created – Syria.

So began the series of events that led to Crassus’s humiliating end. Caesar and Pompey no longer saw eye to eye, but each was more than happy to see Crassus go. Pompey reckoned the campaign would keep his ageing rival occupied for years; Caesar reckoned that either success or failure would chip away at Pompey: he readily released Crassus’s risk-taking son Publius and a thousand cavalrymen from service in Gaul for the campaign. Though Stothard argues that Crassus had time on his side, the evidence suggests he was in a hurry. Rather than waiting for calmer seas the following year, he set sail in November. Perhaps he had heard news of the instability in Parthia, where the king had been murdered by his sons, one of whom had then imprisoned the other in the Mesopotamian city of Seleuceia.

Crassus was by now in his early sixties, and seemingly somewhat doddery. He fell over his son, who had tripped entering a Syrian temple. When he then dropped the slithery entrails he had been given to hold during a divination, the portent added to his men’s unease. Some early minor successes encouraged him to underestimate the Parthians badly. When, having boasted to some Parthian envoys that he intended to attack Seleuceia, he then crossed the Euphrates in the spring of 53, to find himself confronted by the Parthian army. Though much smaller than his own force – which numbered fifty thousand – the Parthians had a significant advantage: mounted archers. After his army was destroyed by clouds of arrows Crassus was murdered after being lured to the Parthians by an offer of peace talks.

It would have been easy to get bogged down in the tortuous politics of this era, but Stothard never is. This short and rather lyrical book provides a vivid insight into the tawdriness of late Republican Rome and a reminder that the link between money and political power is evergreen.


James Barr