Ancient Rome's most powerful man – who'd be worth £12 billion today

How to get really RICH: Form your own army, crucify straggling prisoners and use blackmail to buy homes on the cheap… it worked for Crassus, ancient Rome’s most powerful man — who’d be worth £12 billion today

  • Crassus was most powerful man in ancient Rome and would be a billionaire now
  • Peter Stothard sees Crassus as the first tycoon, a modern man in ancient world
  • Crassus took the view that you weren’t really rich unless you could equip and train your own army 

HISTORY 

Crassus: The First Tycoon 

by Peter Stothard (Yale £18.99, 176pp) 

He was a hard, tough man, Marcus Licinius Crassus, a proper b*****d even by the standards of ancient Rome. Though you had to be tough to survive in those harsh days.

Life could be short. Crassus was famous for putting down the slave revolt — led by Spartacus — with jaw-dropping brutality; he was reputedly the richest man in Rome, which is saying something; and with Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great he was a crucial third of the triumvirate who ruled Rome for a decade in the last days of the Republic.

Everyone has heard of Caesar; many are aware of Pompey and his conquests. But few of us now know much about Crassus. This slim, riveting biography from Peter Stothard, a renowned writer about the classics and a former editor of The Times, should put the record straight.

Stothard sees Crassus as the first tycoon, a modern man in an ancient world, willing to use money, power, property and influence rather than brute military might to get his way.

But like many political leaders, he was burdened by an overreaching ambition, and the sense that some of the glories of ancient Rome were being withheld from him. Above all, he craved a triumphant march through Rome after great military deeds.

Like many before and since, he embarked upon an ultimately catastrophic war in the East, against Parthia (roughly modern Iran). He was in his early 60s, and saw himself emulating Pompey and Caesar, and even Alexander the Great.

His enemy, he assumed, would be typical Eastern degenerates: his young opponent General Surenas was said to travel with 1,000 camels for his baggage and 200 carts for his mistresses.

Everyone has heard of Caesar; many are aware of Pompey and his conquests. But few of us now know much about Crassus. This slim, riveting biography from Peter Stothard, a renowned writer about the classics and a former editor of The Times, should put the record straight

But it cost him his reputation, as well as his life, as Stothard’s gripping narrative — the first biography since Plutarch, nearly 2,000 years ago — details the last battle in the desert sands near the Euphrates.

Parthians mounted on speedy, wheeling ponies showered the legions with incessant arrows and giant armoured horses followed the assault, giving no rest to the Romans. A powerful leader coming a cropper after embarking on a war in the East? Where have we heard that before?

After he was killed, humiliations rained down on him. His open mouth, shrivelled by desert air, was stuffed with molten gold as a symbol of his lifetime of greed, and his head was used as a prop in a production of Euripides’s Bacchae for the watching King of Parthia.

His army — seven legions strong, roughly 50,000 men — was wiped out, and the eagle standards, sacred symbols of Roman power, were captured. It was an ignominious defeat, and Crassus’s legacy scarred the Roman mind for generations.

Thirty years later, the emperor Augustus regarded the return of Crassus’s eagles as one of his greatest achievements, celebrated by the finest Roman poets and sculptors. But how had it come to this? How had a life of considerable success ended in such failure?

Crassus was born in 115 BC to an aristocratic family. Both his father and grandfather had been consuls, heading the governance of Rome. But his upbringing had its ups, and, shall we say, downs.

His last sight of his father was of his head on a spike in the Roman Forum: he had killed himself rather than be dishonoured by defeat in the vicious civil wars scarring Italy in the early years of the last century BC. Crassus himself was forced to flee into hiding in Spain, where he had to hole up in a cave with some followers. Though it couldn’t have been that bad: an ally would send over good meals and a couple of pretty slave girls every evening who were told to enter and say they were ‘in search of a master’. #MeToo this wasn’t.

Still, he will be remembered now as a man who looked like Laurence Olivier, the acting legend who played Crassus in Stanley Kubrick’s epic film, Spartacus.

So that’s a result: Olivier was after all a famously handsome man and if you look at the bust of Crassus in the Glyptotek Museum in the heart of Copenhagen, you see the resemblance. It’s Olivier almost to a T.

Crassus took the view that you weren’t really rich unless you could equip and train your own army.

When the Thracian gladiator Spartacus led an extraordinary revolt against the Roman oppressors from 73 BC to 71 BC, Crassus offered to take the slave leader on and the Senate agreed.

At first, outwitted by Spartacus’s agile army, Crassus found the campaign difficult and his troops fled the battlefield. So he ordered his soldiers to club to death any deserters. One out of every ten men was executed this way and it had, so to speak, a bracing effect on the rest of his army, proving that Crassus was every bit as dangerous to them as the enemy.

He was a hard, tough man, Marcus Licinius Crassus, a proper b*****d even by the standards of ancient Rome. Though you had to be tough to survive in those harsh days. Pictured: Laurence Olivier with fists clenched on table in a scene from the film ‘Spartacus’, 1960

Eventually, Roman might and discipline prevailed as the campaign moved to the toe of Italy. The body of Spartacus was never found.

Some of the captured slaves were put to work in the filthy silver mines that Crassus owned in Spain where the deadly soil and sulphur-filled air were enough to kill them. It was a very Crassus-type bargain — by the time they died they should have mined enough silver to recompense him for the cost of the army which he had to raise to defeat them.

The remaining 6,000 slaves were marched back to Rome along the Appian Way. Every 30 yards the last man was hauled up and crucified. Typical Crassus, efficient and brutal: it meant those at the front could not see what was happening at the back and so would not riot.

Afterwards, he specifically ordered that their bodies should not be taken down: they stayed rotting and decaying along the main route south, a grisly warning to anyone who might think of taking on Rome in the future.

But quite how rich was Crassus? On some estimates he would have been worth around £12 billion. Part of his wealth was acquired conventionally — through slave trading, silver mining and so on.

But most of it came through property. Think of the hardest, meanest estate agent you have ever come across and then double it: Crassus would make them look like a saint.

He owned vast lands in Italy, buying up ruined landholdings from victims of the interminable civil wars. At some point, he owned all of the three square miles or so of the city of Rome. He bought confiscated property and, notoriously, burnt and collapsed buildings.

Fires were frequent in Rome and Crassus’s team, like a burgeoning fire brigade, rushed to a house fire at the first alarm. They would offer to buy the burning building at the cheapest price from the distressed owner. Unless they sold up, his firefighters would do nothing and the buildings would be destroyed.

Many of his slaves were architects and builders, so he was able to buy up wrecked property, do them up with slave labour, and sell them at a big profit. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

He had no desire for palatial dwellings, though many upwardly mobile Romans did: Crassus was able to satisfy their needs, but at a price, and of course he could lend them the money.

It is a remarkable and fascinating story and Stothard has done his subject proud. After all, a man portrayed by Olivier deserves the best.

For an equally scholarly though considerably more raunchy insight into the ancient world, readers need look no further than The Mad Emperor: Heliogabalus And The Decadence Of Rome by Harry Sidebottom (Oneworld £20, 349 pp).

Dr Sidebottom is a lecturer in ancient history at Oxford University and the author of several acclaimed novels set in the ancient world, so he knows of what he speaks.

Heliogabalus was a teenage Syrian boy when he became ruler of Rome in AD 218, the middle years of the Empire.

In his four years in charge he humiliated the senators, married four times, and was said to be a male prostitute. Two of his marriages were to the holy Vestal Virgins and one to a man. The decadence, debauchery and sexual promiscuity that marked the adolescent’s time on the imperial throne make for a rollicking read.

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