Marcus Licinius Crassus: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Wealthiest Man

Marcus Licinius Crassus was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Rome. However, his pursuit of military prestige brought his downfall.

Apr 4, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
marcus licinius crassus
The Death of Marcus Licinius Crassus, Lancelot Blondeel, 16th century, Groeninge Museum, Bruges; with Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus, 1st century AD, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, via ancientrome.ru

 

When he died in 53 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus was one of the most important men in the Roman Republic. His career was nothing short of stellar. Through his military exploits, shrewd and often morally dubious entrepreneurship, and a vast network of patronage Crassus was able to climb to the top of the Roman political hierarchy. His wealth and influence made Crassus one of the three pillars of the First Triumvirate along with Caesar and Pompei. However, his fateful quest for prestige in the East not only resulted in his demise but also undermined the very foundation of the Republic, setting off a chain of events that would eventually result in its collapse. 

 

Marcus Licinius Crassus “Humble” Beginnings

bust of marcus licinius crassus
Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus, 1st century AD, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, via ancientrome.ru

 

Marcus Licinius Crassus was born in 115 BC, in the Roman province of Iberia (modern-day Spain). According to the first-century historian Plutarch, the Crassus family was not excessively wealthy, and the young boy grew up in relatively modest surroundings. Plutarch might be right, as Crassus’ family could not measure up to the prestigious patrician lineages such as gens Julia or Aemilia. Crassus’ father, Publius Licinius Crassus, was of a humble plebeian background. But it would be wrong to consider the future triumvir a simple man with no connections. Crassus senior was a consul in 97 BC, held a military command and in 93 BC was given a rare honor – a triumph.

 

This series of events produced a perfect setting to “nurture” an ambitious Roman aristocrat. Alas, in 83 BC, Crassus senior died during the political struggle that would define the future of the Roman Republic. Publius chose poorly and backed Lucius Cornelius Sulla in his struggle against Gaius Marius. With his political patron defeated, Crassus senior disappeared from history. He was either killed in the purges or committed suicide. Young Crassus’ fate would have been equally grim had he not fled to Spain. 

 

Building A Fortune

insula ostia antica
An insula, late 2nd – early 3rd century, Roman port of Ostia, via Ostia Antica

 

The relative security of Spain, separated by the sea from the battlegrounds of Italy, not only allowed Crassus to survive but to flourish. It was in Spain that Marcus Licinius Crassus would begin his rise to power. Using the wealth of his estate, and the family connections, he started to build an army for Sulla. It was this army that would play a crucial part in bringing the civil war between Marius and Sulla to a close. With Sulla triumphant, Crassus could finally share in his patron’s glory. More importantly, Crassus got an opportunity to vastly increase his personal wealth, being the recipient of the assets taken from the victims of Sulla’s proscriptions

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Those confiscated assets became the core of his real-estate empire, built in the years following the war. High-value properties acquired in the aftermath of the war were sold for a bargain price to Crassus’ allies, solidifying his political ties with the most affluent men of the Republic. It also provided him with a capital, which he invested in one of the most morally dubious enterprises in Rome: real-estate management.

 

By the time of Crassus’s rise, Rome had become the most important city in the Mediterranean. The growth of the Republic’s capital was accompanied by the ever-increasing influx of new inhabitants, coming in search of jobs and a better life. To accommodate all the newcomers, cheap multi-story residential buildings (insulae) were built. As with everything mass-constructed, the insulae were of poor quality, prone to collapse, and more importantly, a fire hazard. According to Plutarch, Crassus paid special attention to fire-damaged buildings that he would buy for a bargain from their terrified owners. Once in possession of the real estate, he would rebuild it using his slave workforce and then rent and sell it for greater profit. In such a way Marcus Licinius Crassus soon acquired a large part of Rome

 

Crassus And Spartacus

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Mosaic showing a fight between the gladiators Astyanax and Kalendio, 3rd century AD, National Archaeological Museum, Madrid

 

Aside from the real-estate business, Crassus enjoyed another valuable commodity of the period – slaves. Considered more valuable than mines or agrarian lands (which he also owned), slaves were the lifeblood that kept the Republic alive. They fulfilled various duties: they could work as hard laborers or be used as teachers, doctors, stewards, or architects. Although certain high-profile individuals were treated rather well (some of them better than low-class freemen), for most of the workforce life was relentlessly harsh. This social injustice led to several slave revolts. But no revolt was as serious and dangerous as the revolt of Spartacus in 73 BC. 

 

A former gladiator, Spartacus was able to exploit the absence of the Roman legions, which were occupied elsewhere. Following a series of Roman defeats at the hands of Spartacus and his growing army, the Senate appointed Marcus Licinius Crassus to tackle this military and political crisis that was spinning out of control. Recognizing this rare opportunity, Crassus amassed a large force of 10 legions, taking personal command. This was a calculated risk, as the victory over Spartacus in 71 BC brought him the much-desired military prestige. Although Crassus defeated Spartacus on the field of battle and saved Italy, he was not awarded a coveted triumph. Instead, the Senate honored him with a lesser celebration – an ovatio. The triumph went to a man who gave the revolt a final blow – Pompey.

 

The Benefactor Of The Republic

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The Rostra, from where orator would address the people, Foro Romano, Rome, via Digitales Forum Romanum

 

For a Roman, to be a wealthy man or a competent general was not enough. Those qualities were more than welcome, but a model Roman aristocrat had to be above all an educated man, and a fine orator. Marcus Licinius Crassus was not an exception. A charismatic speaker, Crassus knew how to approach common people, using a portion of his wealth to improve the lives of Rome’s citizens. Besides providing grain to the citizens of Rome, he funded temples, keeping a good relationship with priests and their gods. This was not done out of sheer generosity. Like any other Roman politician, Crassus depended on the will of the people. If he kept the populus happy and satisfied, in return he could count on their support.

 

The same applied to his fellow aristocrats. Roman political life was a complex labyrinth. To reach the top of this political hierarchy, and to remain in that place, the rich and powerful had to keep a number of clients who depended on their patron. Supporting a promising client and helping him reach a powerful position could enhance a patron’s status and allow him to collect favors later. Sometimes, the result of such a relationship could be a formidable alliance. This is exactly what happened between Crassus and Julius Caesar. Recognizing his potential, Crassus paid Caesar’s debts and took the young man under his wings to groom him. His calculation paid off since Caesar would later use his influence to boost the political career of his mentor.

 

The Road To Triumvirate

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Vignette with profiles of the three Triumvirs, Raphael Morghen after Giovanni Battista Mengardi, 1791-94, The British Museum, London

 

The mentorship of Julius Caesar resulted in a lifelong friendship between the two powerful men. However, in Roman political life, not everyone could be a friend. The roots of Crassus’ rivalry with Pompey went back to the Spartacus’ revolt when it was Pompey, and not Crassus, who was given the honor of a triumph. Determined not to be outmaneuvered again, Crassus used his most important asset, his vast fortune, and hosted several large feasts to win the favor of the populace. Crassus was able to cash in his military victory and, thus, held the consulship together with Pompey in 70 BC. Surprisingly, the two rivals found a common ground and reshaped the political structure of Rome together.

 

Despite his wealth and status, Crassus was unable to impose his will on the Senate. His reforms were rejected, and his attempt to secure the consulship for his protégé, notorious senator Catiline, failed. To make matters worse, while Crassus was suffering political defeats, his rival Pompey was gaining military accolades. Fresh from his spectacular elimination of Mediterranean piracy, Pompey achieved a swift victory over the Pontic kingdom in the East. It would be Crassus erstwhile pupil that would bring two rivals together. Recognizing the potential of pulling their resources, Caesar approached the two men in 60 BC. The result was an open alliance known as the First Triumvirate, which allowed the three grandees to take joint control of the state. The alliance was an uneasy one, but it gave Crassus the much-wanted opportunity to rule. The opportunity that would eventually lead him to his doom.

 

The Fateful Expedition And Crassus’ Death

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Coin issued during the governorship of Marcus Licinius Crassus in Syria, 54 BC, via vcoins.com

 

Through the influence of the Triumvirate, its three members were given three respective commands. While Caesar got Gaul, and Pompey got Spain, Crassus got the most prestigious of them all. In 55 BC, Crassus was sent to the East, to Syria, the freshly annexed province bordering the powerful kingdom of Parthia. From Rome’s perspective, the East was more developed, more prosperous, and thus more attractive than any Western province. The region was filled with cities, linked by a vast road network, and rich in resources. This made it an attractive target for a potential Roman invasion. And starting with Crassus, the vaunted East became a place of doom for many Roman rulers and commanders.

 

For Marcus Licinius Crassus, the first year in Syria proved to be a lucrative one. He was able to acquire the vast wealth of the region and, what is more important, achieved several military victories. It is difficult to say if those initial successes encouraged Crassus to embark on his fateful adventure, or if the powerful Roman planned to cross the Euphrates from the very beginning. In 53 BC, Crassus’ legions crossed into the territory of the Parthian kingdom. 

 

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The Death of Marcus Licinius Crassus, Lancelot Blondeel, 16th century, Groeninge Museum, Bruges

 

Was it hubris, an attempt to secure a rapid victory, or was it a result of a wrong assessment? It is difficult to say. What is known, is that Crassus’ expedition was doomed to failure from the very onset. Lacking the cavalry to counter the mighty Parthian cataphracts and mounted archers, the Roman army found itself under constant attack and with no supplies incoming. Considering the harsh conditions of the desert, the expedition could not stand a chance. 

 

Losing his son in the initial attack, Crassus was forced to give a battle near Carrhae (modern-day Harran in Turkey). His army was encircled, decimated, and forced to surrender. The final blow to the pursuer of military glory was the loss of the eagle standards (they would be retrieved decades later by Augustus). The reckless commander, Marcus Licinius Crassus, fell into captivity and was killed by a Parthian general. The infamous story of Crassus being executed by having molten gold poured down his throat is probably a rumor. But it could have been a fitting end for Rome’s wealthiest man.

 

The Legacy Of Marcus Licinius Crassus

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Crassus sacks the Temple in Jerusalem, Giambattista Pittoni, 1743, Gallerie dell’Academia, Venice

 

Marcus Licinius Crassus was a fascinating man. The chaos that engulfed the Roman Republic, he saw as an opportunity to amass enormous wealth. By using shrewd and often morally dubious practices, Crassus became a master of Rome. A skilled orator and politician, Crassus knew how to approach people, both the populus and the Roman grandees. When he reached the very top of the socio-political ladder of the fledgling Republic, there was one thing that eluded the man who had it all – military prestige. The problem was aggravated by the martial accolades of his main rival Pompey, but also the successes of his erstwhile protégé Caesar. Thus, jealousy put Crassus on a path of no return.

 

The sudden demise of Marcus Licinius Crassus in the East was a blow to Roman prestige. The emerging world power’s ambitions were checked, albeit briefly. Rome could and would retaliate, and this pattern would repeat many times, centuries after the Crassus’ death. What Rome could not do, was to rein in the ambitions of the powerful men. With Crassus removed from the political arena, his two allies were put on a collision course, which would plunge the Republic into a bloody civil war. Its outcome would topple down the old order, and usher in the Imperial era. Instead of being remembered as a successful politician, businessman, and commander, the name of Marcus Licinius Crassus would be immortalized as a synonym for the dangers of unchecked ambition, hubris, and greed.



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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.