Crassus  [ca. 115 - 53 BCE]

A fabulously wealthy Roman who became one of the most powerful men in the last days of the republic, but whose avarice robbed him of popularity and frustrated his political ambitions. Marcus Licinius Crassus' fortunes began inauspiciously.  To escape the bloodbath that claimed the lives of his father & brother when the populist Marius took Rome (87 BCE) he abandoned everything & fled to Spain.  Four years later he returned to Rome to aid the triumph of the autocrat Sulla. But his blatant capitalizing on the dictator's proscription of Marius' supporters to enrich himself cost him popular support. 

A decade later, however, after Roman forces suffered a series humiliating defeats trying to crush a slave rebellion (73 BCE) led by the Thracian gladiator, Spartacus, a desperate Senate accepted Crassus' offer to equip & command an army (71 BCE). Though the initial engagement was a complete rout for the Romans, Crassus eventually cornered the rebellious slaves at the southern tip of Italy's boot, prevented them from crossing to Sicily, & won a decisive battle in which Spartacus was killed. Yet Romans credited the triumph to Pompey who answered Crassus' call for reinforcements. To advertise his own role in defeating the slaves, Crassus had 6000 of them crucified along the Appian Way.

The two generals were made co-consuls the following year (70 BCE) but their rivalry paralyzed their ability to work together. After a decade of political wrangling, Julius Caesar persuaded Crassus & Pompey to bury their differences & form a three way alliance with him to rule the Roman world (60 BCE). This so-called "first triumvirate" was an informal détente in which old rivals agreed to divide spheres of influence rather than to work together. Mutual distrust rather than co-operation marked Crassus & Pompey's 2nd term as co-consuls (55 BCE).

The next year Crassus claimed governorship of Syria, which he used as a base to launch a campaign against the Parthian empire. With support from many Hellenized centers, Crassus invaded Mesopotamia (54 BCE) but returned to winter quarters in Syria.  Rather than cultivate support from local rulers, he threatened to conscript native troops for the following year's campaign unless they bribed him to refrain. Failing to receive tribute from the Jews, he raided the temple in Jerusalem & confiscated all its gold. Then, ignoring promised support from the Armenian king Artabazes if he came through Armenia, Crassus was misled into taking his seven legions directly through the Syrian desert into Mesopotamia, where they were ambushed by Parthian forces. Crassus' cavalry commander -- his son Publius -- committed suicide rather than face captivity & Crassus himself was killed while trying to escape. After news of his death reached Rome, rumors began to circulate that the Parthians had poured molten gold into the mouth of his corpse to mock his greed.

References: Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Crassus.
                   _____, Caesar
11-14, 21, 28.
                   _____, Pompey
22-23, 43, 51-53.
Cassius Dio, Roman History 37.31, 35, 54-58; 40.12-28.
                    Josephus, Antiquities 14.105-109.

Other online resources:

  • Spartacus: Historical Background - Barbara McManus' annotated chronology sketches the course of the slave revolt & Roman efforts to crush it [posted on VRoma at College of New Rochelle]..

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