In an era where power and ambition reigned supreme, a titan of wealth and influence emerged, casting a long shadow across the stage of Roman history. Marcus Crassus, was a military leader, political colossus, and financial mastermind. He stood tall as one of Rome’s most formidable figures. Yet, beneath this dazzling veneer of achievement was a man consumed by avarice and insatiable desire. This tragic flaw would ultimately be his undoing, sealing his catastrophic fate. Behold the gripping tale of Marcus Licinius Crassus, a legend whose monumental rise was matched only by his harrowing fall.
In the late second and early first century BC, life in Rome was a heady mix of economic prosperity, political intrigue, military conquest, and social inequality. The aristocrats held most of the power and money, while the commoners – known as plebeians – made up most of the population.
Political rivalries and the ensuing power struggles were commonplace, and the era saw an increase in territorial expansion which brought with it economic growth via new markets and trade routes. Crassus himself was a major beneficiary of these new opportunities.
It was a period marked by remarkable achievements and significant challenges, which shaped the course of Roman history. At the centre of it all was Marcus Licinius Crassus.
The Early Years of Imperator Crassus
Marcus Licinius Crassus was born in Rome in 115 BC as the middle son of the highly-respected politician and army commander Publius Licinius Crassus. In 87 BC when the armies of Gaius Marius took Rome, Crassus the Elder, a supporter of his rival Sulla, was either killed or committed suicide. His son fled to Hispania, modern-day Spain and Portugal, where he stayed for around four years.
When Sulla marched on Rome to confront the Marians, Marcus Crassus raised a small army of around 2,500 men and joined Sulla. Crassus, by now an effective soldier and tactician, helped to turn the Battle of Colline Gate into a victory for Sulla. It also may have brought Crassus and Pompey into contact for the first time.
The Richest Roman in History
Fresh from his battlefield success, Crassus went about creating a financial empire the likes of which Rome had never seen. Sulla’s policy of proscriptions – seizing the land and property of his enemies and barring the sons and grandsons of the proscribed from running for public office – was too good an opportunity to miss for Marcus Licinius Crassus.
Crassus acquired much of his wealth through the purchase of properties, especially those that were seized or damaged by fires. He would buy them at a low price, restore them, and then rent or sell them at a profit. He also diversified his portfolio into silver mining and slave trafficking. According to Greek philosopher Plutarch, Crassus bought ‘the largest part of Rome.’
He also created Rome’s first private fire brigade of hundreds of slaves who would rush to the scene of a fire. Marcus Crassus would then negotiate with the property owner, offering to put out the fire in exchange for ownership, often at a reduced price on the damaged property. If the owner refused to sell, the firefighters would simply let the building burn.
It is of course almost impossible to put an accurate number on his wealth but Plutarch wrote that he was worth 7,100 talents which equates to roughly 229 tonnes of gold, or 7.4 million troy ounces. At April 2023 prices, this would be worth something in the region of £12 billion.
After success on the battlefield and in business, politics was next.
Crassus & Spartacus
In 73 BC, Crassus was elected praetor and was sent by the Senate to quell a slave rebellion led by legendary Thracian gladiator Spartacus during the Third Servile War. Crassus trained, equipped and commanded an army out of his own pocket and in effect, they became his own private force.
Spartacus’s men, believed to have numbered somewhere between 70,000 and 120,000 had already defeated two entire Roman armies and as they made their way through the Italian countryside, the now Imperator Crassus was tasked with their permanent demise.
After a failed intervention at Bruttium in the far southwest of Italy – modern-day Calabria – Spartacus was finally cornered during the Battle of the Silarius River north of Calabria in modern-day Campania. The legions of Marcus Licinius Crassus won a crucial victory, following which Crassus had 6,000 members of the slave army crucified. It was never known for certain whether Spartacus himself died in the battle or escaped .
While this was seen as a huge victory for Rome, some of the shine was taken off the success by Pompey who claimed some of the success as his own. He arrived right at the very end of the rebellion and dealt with the last few remaining escapees. It was therefore Pompey, rather than Crassus, who was lauded by many back in Rome. Pompey was given the epithet ‘the Great’ to which Crassus reputedly replied with, ‘why, how big is he?’
The First Triumvirate
While Pompey was scoring important military victories overseas, Marcus Crassus spent the late 60s and early 50s building a strong political base and became closely allied with a young man named Gaius Julius Caesar. Indeed it was Caesar who convinced Pompey and Crassus to set aside their differences and form an alliance that would be beneficial to all three men.
Called the First Triumvirate, the purpose of the alliance between Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus – better known as Pompey the Great – was to bypass the Roman Senate’s influence and constitutional obstacles and consolidate power for the three men, advancing their individual political ambitions.
Through this informal arrangement, they aimed to dominate the Roman Republic’s political landscape and control key decisions. The Triumvirate was built on mutual self-interest and played a significant role in shaping Roman history during the late Republic period.
However the relationship, especially between Crassus and Pompey, was uneasy and by 55 BC, the alliance was coming apart. While Caesar was governor in Gaul, Pompey governed the province of Hispania and Crassus governed Syria. This latter command promised Crassus untold riches, but it was in fact to prove his downfall.
How Did Crassus Die?
Initially at least, Syria proved to be very lucrative for Crassus. However in a vain attempt to equal the battlefield successes of Pompey, Crassus embarked on an unnecessary, ill-conceived and ultimately disastrous invasion of Parthia in 53 BC. He was accompanied by his son, the commander Publius Licinius Crassus, and was confident of success at the Battle of Carrhae in modern-day Turkey.
Crassus’ troops outnumbered the Parthians, but their leaders Surena and Silaces were strategically superior. The Roman heavy infantry were lured into the waterless desert and the Parthian forces shocked them with fast and agile cavalry and arrow attacks, with Crassus’ son Publius dying early in the battle.
Devastated by this loss, and with his own soldiers on the brink of mutiny, Crassus was persuaded or forced into meeting with the Parthian leaders to negotiate a peace treaty. However, Crassus was lured into a trap.
The question ‘how did Crassus die’ is one that has been debated for centuries. The most commonly told story is that due to his renowned thirst for riches, he was forced to drink liquid gold, although this is probably apocryphal. He may have been murdered in the desert when the peace negotiations turned violent, or indeed killed after being captured.
Marcus Licinius Crassus was perhaps the last of the old guard. He had undoubted successes as a soldier, businessman and politician and left an indelible mark on Roman history, playing a role in shaping the Roman Republic. Yet his life illustrates the heights of ambition and the perils of unbridled greed.
His contributions to the First Triumvirate and the suppression of the Spartacus-led slave revolt showcased his strategic prowess, even as his catastrophic Parthian campaign underscored the dangers of overreach. Ultimately, Crassus’ complex legacy serves as a cautionary tale for the ages, a testament to the power of wealth and the tragic consequences of hubris.