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Marcus Licinius Crassus (Latin: M·LICINIVS·P·F·P·N·CRASSVS) (ca. 115 BC – 53 BC) was a Roman general and politician who commanded Sulla's decisive victory at Colline gate, suppressed the slave revolt led by Spartacus and entered into a secret pact, known as the First Triumvirate, with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Gaius Julius Caesar. He allegedly owned more than 200,000,000 sestertii at the height of his fortune. One of the richest men of the era and still ranked in the top 10 List of most wealthy historical figures, Crassus still desired recognition for military victories in the shape of a triumph. This desire for a triumph led him into Syria, where he was defeated and killed in the Roman defeat at Carrhae which was fought with the Parthian Spahbod Surena.

Crassus' significance in world history, however, stems from his financial and political support of the impoverished young Julius Caesar, which allowed Caesar to embark upon his own political career.


Marcus Licinius Crassus was the third and youngest son of Publius Licinius Crassus Dives, a man who had himself been consul in 97 BC and censor 89 BC. One brother died during the Social War; his father and another brother were killed or committed suicide to evade capture during the Marian purges in December 87 BC.

Crassus' grandfather was Marcus Licinius Crassus Agelastus, of whom little is known. This grandfather was descended from a consul and censor Publius Licinius Crassus Dives, best known for being Pontifex Maximus (from 212 BC to his death 183 BC) and consul (in 205 BC) and political ally of the Roman general and statesman Scipio Africanus. Crassus could therefore claim to be descended from a man who was successively elected Pontifex Maximus, censor, and then consul, in a rather unusual chronological order. Crassus' own father was himself consul and censor.

Crassus and his brothers were raised together in a small modest house despite the family's great inherited wealth and his father's immense personal fortune. As was customary, the two elder brothers lived with their parents and youngest brother even after they married and had children.

After the Marian purges and the sudden death subsequently of Gaius Marius, the surviving consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna (better-known as father-in-law of Julius Caesar) imposed proscriptions on those surviving Roman senators and equestrians who had supported Lucius Cornelius Sulla in his 88 BC march on Rome and overthrow of the traditional Roman political arrangements. (In Sulla's defence, he had marched on Rome only when Gaius Marius and a tribune of the plebs removed Sulla, while consul, from his legally granted command of the army designated to attack Mithridates. Some of those Romans, like the elder Publius Licinius Crassus and his sons who had supported Sulla, had done so, believing that they were supporting a restoration of the mos maiorum).

Cinna's proscription forced Crassus to flee to Hispania. After Cinna's death in 84 BC, Crassus went to the Roman province of Africa where adherents of Sulla were gathering. When Sulla invaded Italy after returning from partial successes in the inconclusive Second Mithridatic War, Crassus joined Sulla and Metellus Pius, Sulla's closest ally. He was given command of the right wing in the Battle of the Colline Gate when the remaining Marian adherents and the surviving Samnites marched on Rome in a last-ditch bid to oust Sulla from Rome. The Colline Gate was one of the entrances into Rome through the Servian Walls; Crassus and his troops ensured Sulla's victory including destruction of the surviving Samnite troops and any other military opposition.

Rise to power and wealth

Marcus Licinius Crassus' next concern was to rebuild the fortunes of his family, which had been confiscated during the Marian-Cinnan proscriptions. Sulla's own proscriptions ensured that his survivors would recoup their lost fortunes from the fortunes of wealthy adherents to Gaius Marius or Lucius Cornelius Cinna. Proscriptions meant that their political enemies lost their fortunes and their lives; that their female relatives (notably, widows and widowed daughters) were forbidden to remarry; and that in some cases, their families' hopes of rebuilding their fortunes and political significance were destroyed. Crassus is said to have made part of his money from proscriptions, notably the proscription of one man whose name was not initially on the list of those proscribed but was added by Crassus who coveted the man's fortune.

He was kinsman triumvir to Licinia, a Vestal Virgin who owned a pleasant villa that he wanted to acquire on the cheap. Plutarch says: "And yet when he was further on in years, he was accused of criminal intimacy with Licinia, one of the vestal virgins and Licinia was formally prosecuted by a certain Plotius. Now Licinia was the owner of a pleasant villa in the suburbs which Crassus wished to get at a low price, and it was for this reason that he was forever hovering about the woman and paying his court to her, until he fell under the abominable suspicion. And in a way it was his avarice that absolved him from the charge of corrupting the vestal, and he was acquitted by the judges. But he did not let Licinia go until he had acquired her property."

The rest of Crassus' wealth was acquired more conventionally, through traffic in slaves, the working of silver mines, and judicious purchases of land and houses, especially those of proscribed citizens. Most notorious was his acquisition of burning houses: when Crassus received word that a house was on fire, he would arrive and purchase the doomed property along with surrounding buildings for a modest sum, and then employ his army of 500 client to put the fire out before much damage had been done. Crassus' clients employed the Roman method of firefighting—destroying the burning building to curtail the spread of the flames.

By Sulla's death in 79 BC or later, Marcus Licinius Crassus had become a powerful figure in Roman politics on account of his great wealth; he was nicknamed Dives, meaning "rich". This cognomen had been also given to his father and to his ancestor, the consul of 205 BC, and to other relatives. Crassus was thus not the first Roman to be nicknamed "Dives".

After rebuilding his fortune, Crassus' next concern was his political career. As an adherent of Sulla, and the wealthiest man in Rome, and a man who hailed from a line of consuls and praetors, Crassus' political future was apparently assured. His problem was that despite his military successes, he was eclipsed by his contemporary Pompey the Great who blackmailed the dictator Sulla into granting him a triumph for victory in Africa over a rag-tag group of dissident Romans; a first in Roman history on a couple of counts. First, Pompey was not even a praetor, on which grounds a triumph had been denied in 206 BC to the great Scipio Africanus, who had brought Rome an entire province in Hispania. Second, Pompey had defeated fellow Romans; however, a precedent had been set when the consul Lucius Julius Caesar (a relative of the Julius Caesar) had been granted a triumph for a small victory over Italian peoples in the Social War. Yet, until 82 BC, no triumph had been granted to any Roman for victory over another Roman general. Crassus's rivalry with Pompey and his envy of Pompey's triumph would influence his subsequent career.

Crassus and Spartacus

Crassus was rising steadily up the political ladder (see cursus honorum) when ordinary Roman politics was interrupted by two events - firstly, the Third Mithridatic War, and secondly, the Third Servile War, which was the organized two-year rebellion of many Roman slaves under the leadership of Spartacus. Rome's best general Lucius Licinius Lucullus (consul in 74 BC) was sent to defeat Mithridates, followed shortly by his brother Varro Lucullus (consul in 73 BC). Pompey had been sent to Hispania to defeat Quintus Sertorius, the last effective Marian general, and had nearly failed in that effort. He succeeded only when and because Sertorius was assassinated by one of his own commanders.

The Senate did not initially take the slave rebellion seriously, until it became clear that Rome itself was under threat. Crassus offered to equip, train, and lead new troops, at his own expense, after several legions had been defeated and their commanders killed in battle or taken prisoner. Finally, Crassus was sent into battle against Spartacus by the Senate. Initially, Crassus had trouble both in anticipating Spartacus's moves and in inspiring his army. For the latter, he employed the tactic of decimation, in a legion that had retreated from battle. This tactic, although effective in inspiring (or persuading) the rest of the men, did not win him love from his soldiers or respect from the Roman populace.

Crassus' order for the decimation of his troops has been wrongly interpreted by moderns (see above). The loyalty of one's legions under the auspices was not only a social and religious matter, but also carried with it political connotations. This wrongly perceived act of 'abject cruelty' might be viewed through the lens of a young aristocrat, embarking on a military campaign to restore both the social and economic order of Roman Italy, empowered from a Senate by which he was formerly estranged. Failure, embarrassment and shame were not options to be considered, especially not to be catalyzed by his treacherous quaestor Mummius, whose ambition exceeded his ability, resulting in the first defeat against Spartacus on the side of Crassus. If such an incursion against the authority of Crassus as general was to go unpunished, then his troops, already demoralized, would have surely been less effective, if not unresponsive to their general and his ambitions. Crassus, ultimately, did not even make the right choice by invoking the ancient penalty of decimation: he made the only choice.

Crassus tried to pen up Spartacus in the extreme south of Italy, by building a wall across the toe of Italy. However, Spartacus and his army broke out, by employing subterfuge (in a tactic borrowed from Hannibal, who had been similarly penned up by Fabius Maximus). Some time later, when Roman armies led by Pompey and Varro Lucullus were recalled to Italy and about to land, Spartacus decided to fight rather than find himself and his army trapped between three Roman armies, two of them blooded overseas. In this last battle, Crassus gained a decisive victory, and captured six thousand slaves alive. Spartacus himself was killed in the battle. The six thousand captured slaves who had rebelled under Spartacus were crucified along the Via Appia by Crassus' orders. Also, under his orders, the bodies of the slaves were not taken down afterwards but remained rotting along Rome's principal route to the South. This was intended as an object lesson to anyone that might think of revolting against Rome in the future.

Crassus won the Third Servile War, but his rival Pompey would steal his victory with a letter to the Senate claiming credit for ending the war. This caused much strife between Pompey and Crassus, which would later be mended by Caesar. Crassus was only honored with an ovation (lesser than a triumph) although the danger to Rome and the destruction to Roman lives and property merited much greater. Crassus' animosity towards the upstart Pompey increased as a result.

Soon afterwards, Crassus was nevertheless elected consul with Pompey for 70 BC. In that year, he displayed his wealth by entertaining the populace at 10,000 tables and distributing sufficient grain to last each family three months.

Later career

In 65 BC, Crassus was elected censor with another conservative Quintus Lutatius Catulus , himself son of a consul. During that decade, Crassus was Caesar's patron in all but name, financing Caesar's successful campaign to become Pontifex Maximus, despite all but abandoning his post as the priest of Jupiter or flamen dialis, and his efforts to win command of military campaigns. Caesar's mediation between Crassus and Pompey led to the creation of the coalition between Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar (by now consul), known as the First Triumvirate in 60 BC. This coalition would last until Crassus' own death.

In 55 BC, he was again consul with Pompey, and a law was passed assigning the provinces of the two Hispanias and Syriamarker to Pompey and Crassus respectively for five years.

Crassus in Syria, death of Crassus

Crassus received Syria as his province, which promised to be an inexhaustible source of wealth. It would have been had he not also sought military glory and crossed the Euphrates in an attempt to conquer Parthia. Crassus was reportedly the richest man in the world at his time, and attacked Parthia not only because of its great wealth, but because of a desire to match the military exploits of his two major rivals, Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar, and indeed those of Alexander the Great. The king of Armenia, Artavazd II, offered Crassus the aid of nearly fifty-thousand troops on the condition that Crassus invaded through Armenia so that the king could provide for his troops. Crassus refused, and invaded across the Euphrates. His legions were defeated at Carrhae (modern Harranmarker in Turkeymarker) in 53 BC by a numerically inferior Parthian force composed mainly of armoured heavy cavalry and horse archers. Crassus' legions were unable to maneuver as swiftly as their opponents. Crassus refused his quaestor Gaius Cassius Longinus's plans to reconstitute the Roman battle line, and remained in the testudo formation. Subsequently Crassus' men, being near mutiny, demanded he parley with the Parthians, who had offered to meet with him. Crassus, despondent at the death of his son Publius in the battle, finally agreed to meet the Parthian general. Upon his arrival in the Parthian camp he was seized and killed. A story later emerged that after Crassus' death the Parthians poured molten gold into his mouth as a symbol of his thirst for riches .

The account given in Plutarch's biography of Crassus also mentions that, during the feasting and revelry in the wedding ceremony of Artavazd's son and Orodes II's sister in Artashatmarker, Crassus' head was brought to the king, whereupon a certain actor of the royal court named Jason of Tralles took the head, and sang the following verses (from Euripides's Bacchae): "We bring from the mountain/A tendril fresh-cut to the palace/A wonderful prey."

The Parthian captives from Crassus' army

For centuries a legend has persisted that Crassus's legion, defeated by the Parthians, did not all suffer the fate of death, which raised the questions of what did happen to them. In February, 2007, scientists visited the Chinesemarker village of Liqian, near to the Gobi Desert, where it has been suggested that the residents are descendants of Roman Legionaries. The scientists found a number of people there who have blonde hair, green or blue eyes, and noses uncharacteristic of Chinese features. Stories first became public in the 1950s, when Oxford Universitymarker Professor Homer Dubs pieced together stories that the village was founded by Roman Legionaries following their defeat in battle. According to the legends, some 145 Legionaries survived the battle, and for years wandered the region, eventually intermingling with the locals. Professor Dubs claimed that the Legionaries had survived the battle, and possibly fearing retribution for their defeat, made their way eastward, working as a mercenary group, both fighting for and training militaries in the region.

Seventeen years after the defeat of Crassus's forces by the Parthians, a detachment of troops, which was allegedly utilizing the Roman Testudo formation (tortoise), was said to have been captured by Chinese forces. This allegedly occurred when a Chinese Army of the Han Dynasty, led by General Chen Tang, won a victory at the Battle of Zhizhi in 36 BC. During that battle, they encountered troops of European appearance fighting on the side of Zhizhi Chanyu, their opposition, according to a Chinese historian named Ban Gu, who lived during that time. The Chinese took these soldiers prisoner, but were so impressed by their fighting abilities that they incorporated them into their army to defend the province of Gansumarker, calling them Li-Jien, which when pronounced sounds like legion. In excavations of the area, Roman coins have been found, as well as one helmet with the engraving, written in Chinese, saying "one of the prisoners". It should be noted, however, that the artifacts are found in a village along the Silk Road, so their discovery is unsurprising.

Scientists had taken DNA samples in the hopes that they can determine if the people in the village did descend from European ancestry. However, they have pointed out that there is little way of knowing whether the ancestors would have in fact been from Crassus's legion. Although they can confirm the DNA as being of European origins, narrowing that down to it being from Crassus's legion is not likely without some concrete supporting evidence. The results of the DNA test does not support the hypothesis that the inhabitants of Liqian are related to the Romans.


  • 115 BC - Crassus born, the second of three sons of P. Licinius Crassus (cos.97, cens.89)
  • 97 BC - Father is Consul of Romemarker
  • 87 BC - Crassus flees to Hispania from Marian forces
  • 84 BC - Joins Sulla against Marians
  • 82 BC - Commanded the victorious right wing of Sulla's army at the Colline Gate, the decisive battle of the civil war, fought Kalends of November
  • 78 BC - Sulla died in the spring
  • 73 BC - Revolt of Spartacus, probable year Crassus was praetor (75, 74, 73 all possible)
  • 72 BC - Crassus given special command of the war against Spartacus following the ignominious defeats of both consuls
  • 71 BC - Crassus destroys the remaining slave armies in the spring, elected consul in the summer
  • 70 BC - Consulship of Crassus and Pompey
  • 65 BC - Crassus Censor with Quintus Lutatius Catulus
  • 63 BC - Catiline Conspiracy
  • 59 BC - First Triumvirate formed. Caesar is Consul
  • 56 BC - Conference at Lucamarker
  • 55 BC - Second consulship of Crassus and Pompey. In November, Crassus leaves for Syria
  • 54 BC - Campaign against the Parthians
  • 53 BC - Crassus dies in the Battle of Carrhae

Fictional depictions

  • Marcus Licinius Crassus is a major character in the 1956 Alfred Duggan novel, Winter Quarters. The novel follows two fictional Gallic nobles who join Julius Caesar's cavalry then find their way into the service of Marcus' son, Publius Licinius Crassus, in Gaul. The characters eventually become clients of Publius Crassus and by extension, his father Marcus. The second half of the novel is related by its Gallic narrator from within the ranks of Crassus' doomed army en route to do battle with Parthia. The book depicts an over-confident and militarily incompetent Crassus up to the moment of his death.
  • Marcus Licinius Crassus is a principal character in the 1960 film Spartacus, played by actor Laurence Olivier. The film is based on Howard Fast's 1951 novel of the same name.
  • Marcus Crassus, along with Palene, is one of the two narrators in Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of Spartacus. He is played by Anthony Hopkins.
  • Marcus Licinius Crassus is a principal character in the 2004 TV film, Spartacus, played by actor Angus Macfadyen.
  • Crassus is a major character in the novels Fortune's Favourites and Caesar's Women by Colleen McCullough. He is portrayed as a brave but mediocre general, a brilliant financier, and a true friend of Caesar's.
  • Crassus is a major character in the 1992 novel Arms of Nemesis by Steven Saylor. He is portrayed as the cousin and patron of Lucius Licinius, the investigation of whose murder forms the basis of the novel.
  • He also appeared in the video game Spartan: Total Warrior, as one of the villains. In this interpretation, he has supernatural powers.
  • In David Drake's Ranks of Bronze, the Lost Legion is the major participant, although Crassus himself has been killed before the book begins.
  • Crassus is a major character in Conn Iggulden's Emperor series
  • The story of the Battle of Carrhae is the centrepiece of Ben Kane's novel The Forgotten Legion (2008). Crassus is depicted as a vain man with poor military judgement.



Primary sources

  • Plutarch's Life of Crassus D G L
  • Cicero's letters G
  • Dio Cassius Book 40, Stanza 26 [7638]

Modern works

  • Marshall, B A: Crassus: A Political Biography (Adolf M Hakkert, Amsterdam, 1976)
  • Ward, Allen Mason: Marcus Crassus and the Late Roman Republic (University of Missouri Press, 1977)
  • Twyman, Briggs L: critical review of Marshall 1976 and Ward 1977, Classical Philology 74 (1979), 356-61
  • Sampson, Gareth C: The defeat of Rome: Crassus, Carrhae & the invasion of the east (Pen & Sword Books, 2008) ISBN 978-1-844156-764.
  • Marcus Licinius Crassus
  • Lang, David Marshall: Armenia: cradle of civilization (Allen & Unwin, 1970)

External links

  • Crassus entry in historical sourcebook by Mahlon H. Smith

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