Marble statue of the great orator Lucius Licinius Crassus in front of the Old Palace of Justice in Rome
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The fatal hubris of a ruthless fixer

Peter Stothard’s penetrating biography could not be more apposite in this age of political turmoil

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If you are feeling despondent about the dismal quality of the current generation of politicians, it may be some comfort to remember that even in the golden age of Rome such complaints were legion.

Crassus: The First Tycoon, Peter Stothard (Yale University Press, £18.99)

The poet Horace wrote at length about how the ruling class had gone downhill. Once, there had been paragons of virtue such as Cincinnatus, who after saving Rome as dictator laid down his power without demur and returned to live on his humble farm; or the consul Regulus, who refused to make any concessions after being captured by the Carthaginians, although he knew they would torture him to death. Instead of these titans, the modern age had brought forth a base generation. Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome and subject of this new biography, was foremost among them.

The formidable influence wielded by Crassus in the final years of the Roman Republic — he was an ally, and rival, of Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great — came not by way of old-fashioned heroics and victories on the battlefield. His methods were recognisably modern. Peter Stothard characterises him as a “disrupter of old rules, fixer and puller of the puppet strings of power”. His tools were money and the economy of favours. He employed them with a coldness, ruthlessness and level of calculation that makes him unappetising, but deeply compelling. Stothard’s description of him as “The First Tycoon” is apt. He is the sort of character one might expect to find wearing red braces in a New York boardroom, rather than a brocaded toga in the Roman Forum.

By origin, Crassus was a member of one of Rome’s blue-blooded families. His pursuit of political influence by means of business rather than military prowess would seem at first sight unexpected, given the traditional prohibition against the senatorial aristocracy engaging in trade. Yet, the turmoil of Crassus’s formative years overturned these niceties. The last sight he had of his father, who had served as a consul, was of his head on a spike in the Forum.

Crassus had to hide in a cave for eight months in Spain

He was a victim of the perennial strife that plagued Rome at the beginning of the 1st century BC, caused by imbalances in wealth and tensions between Rome and wider Italy, not to mention discord over land, military and constitutional reforms. With the death of his father and two of his brothers, Crassus had to flee Rome and hide in a cave for eight months in Spain, where his family still had allies. It is doubtless these upheavals — similar to those of Julius Caesar, who lost his father young and had to go into hiding during this chaos — led Crassus to seek an inviolable security, regardless of whether he trampled on old Roman conventions and upset others to do so.

When the aristocratic faction seized power in the late 80s BC, Crassus was able to return to Rome. There, he pursued every commercial method, no matter how disreputable, to accumulate wealth. It satisfied not only his needs for security but, as Stothard argues, it was also a way of seeking revenge for the death of his father. He bought up the properties of those families allied to the earlier populist regime which had just been displaced.

These came at a knock-down price, as the families had been outlawed, with some executed and others sent into exile. Crassus appears to have been on a committee which determined the loyalty of citizens to the new government and appears not to have scrupled to condemn those whose property he coveted. His other prime method for enlarging his portfolio was to buy up cheaply buildings that were on fire, or else in the path of a fire. He organised his slaves along military lines, using them with relentless efficiency to acquire, rebuild and sell on property for a huge profit.

Stothard observes that Crassus’s greatest mastery was in the management of risk. Acquisition of property by these means carried the threat of perpetual enmity from the dispossessed families, or suspicion from others at the scale of his gains. Crassus was able not only to balance these dangers against the available profits, but also to translate this new wealth into unassailable influence. Crassus was indefatigable in doing favours for others who might be in a position to assist him, often by way of interest-free loans.

These might be made to protégés, such as the young Julius Caesar, whose advancement up the ladder of political office was owed to the bribes Crassus paid to the Roman electorate. Crassus used the political skills of these allies to advance his own interests, maintaining all the while the threat of calling in their debts to maintain their fealty to him.

His mouth was filled with molten gold as a rebuke for his covetousness

By the mid-50s BC, Crassus’s machinations had made him, along with Caesar and Pompey, one of the three most powerful people in Rome. This was not, however, enough for him. In his rise, he had by calculation eschewed admiration in return for power. He was content to let people think that he had attempted to seduce his cousin, a Vestal Virgin, for the sake of buying her property, and he just about forbore Cicero’s jibe that he would dance the length of the Forum if it improved his chances of being mentioned in a will. Yet, as Pompey gloried in his Levantine campaigns and Caesar was hailed for conquest of Gaul, Crassus wanted now to equal them in martial glory.

Crassus was not without military experience; he had been for the most part responsible for putting down the slave uprising of Spartacus in the late 70s BC. The campaign was a stark demonstration of his pitiless logistical efficiency, shown by his methodical crucifixion of 6,000 prisoners at regular intervals along the Appian Way between Capua and Rome.

Yet, this experience did not serve him well as a basis for his later exploits. In 54 BC, now over the age of 60, Crassus set out eastwards in an attempt to conquer the Parthian Empire and rival the achievements of Caesar and Pompey. Surprisingly, Crassus did not trouble properly to understand the nature of the country and the threat posed by the mounted Parthian archers.

His hubristic attack led to the notorious Roman defeat at Carrhae in 53 BC, where thousands of Roman troops and several legionary standards were captured. Crassus himself was killed in the aftermath, and, according to one story, his mouth was filled with molten gold as a rebuke for his covetousness.

Stothard’s elegant and penetrating biography could not be more apposite in this age of political turmoil. As Stothard himself says, Crassus’s life “as businessman and politician” poses “both immediate and lasting questions about the intertwining of money, ambition, and power”. Whether one thinks of recent events in the US, Europe, Russia or China (President Xi, indeed, also spent his earliest years living in a cave after his father was purged), the trends of contemporary politics find dark echoes in the story that Stothard retells.

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