Last Updated on November 27, 2023 by Vladimir Vulic
Life: 115 – 53 BC
Crassus grew up as the son of a consul and distinguished general.
His career to fame and phenomenal wealth began as he started purchasing the houses of Sulla’s victims. Had Sulla confiscated all their belongings he sold them off cheap. And Crassus bought and made sensational profits when selling them on.
Using his wealth he also kept a troop of 500 slaves, all skilled builders, on stand-by. He would then simply wait for one of Rome’s frequent fires to break out and would then offer to buy the burning properties, as well as the endangered neighbouring buildings. Using his team of builders he would then rebuild the area and keep it to draw income from rent, or sell it on with a large profit. At one point Crassus was said even to own most of the city of Rome. There was no doubt some who wondered, if some of the fires started in Rome might not actually have been his doing.
But Crassus was not a man to be content with being extremely rich. Power was just as desirable to him as money. He used his wealth to raise his own army and supported Sulla on his return from the east.
His money bought him the favour among many political friends and he therefore enjoyed great influence in the senate.
But Crassus would not merely sponsor and entertain well established politicians. So, too, would he be granting funds to promising young firebrands who might just get lucky. And so his money helped build the careers of both Julius Caesar as well as Cataline.
Crassus; problem however was that some of his contemporaries possessed true genius. Cicero was an outstanding public speaker whilst Pompey and Caesar bathed in the glory of the marvellous military achievements. Crassus was a decent both as a speaker and as a commander, but he struggled and failed to live up to comparison with these exceptional individuals. His talent lay in making money, which might have bought him political influence but couldn’t buy him true popularity with the voters.
His money though did open many doors. For his wealth allowed him to raise and maintain an army, at a time when Rome felt its resources stretched. This army was raised, with him as commander in the rank of praetor, to take on the terrifying menace of the the slave revolt of Spartacus in 72 BC. Two specific acts regarding this war made him truly infamous. When his deputy met the enemy and suffered a disastrous defeat, he chose to revive the ancient and gruesome punishment of ‘decimation’. Of the five hundred men, whose unit were deemed most guilty for bringing about defeat, he had every tenth man killed in front of the entire army.
Then, after defeating Spartacus in battle, the 6000 survivor’s of the slave army were crucified along the road from Rome to Capua, where the revolt had first arise.
Despite his evident jealousy towards Pompey he held the consulship with him in 70 BC, the two of them using their term in office to restore the rights of the Tribunes of the People. In 59 BC the two were then joined by Julius Caesar in waht was to become known as the First Triumvirate, a period which saw the three of them cover all bases of Roman power so effectively that they ruled virtually unopposed. In 55 BC he once more shared the consulship with Pompey.
Thereafter he managed to gain for himself the governorship of the province of Syria.
Syria held two promises for its governor-to-be. The prospect of further riches (it was one of the wealthiest provinces of the entire empire) and the possibility of military glory against the Parthians. Had Crassus always jealously looked upon the military achievements of Pompey and Caesar. Now, alas, he sought to equal them. He charged headlong into a war, embarking on a campaign, whilst ignoring advice offered him on how to proceed.
Finally he found himself stranded with little to no cavalry on the plains of Carrhae in Mesopotamia where the Parthian mounted archers shot his armies to pieces (53 BC).
Crassus was killed and it is said that his head as severed and molten gold was poured into his mouth as a mark of his infamous greed.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.