Marcus Licinius Crassus was the richest man in Roman history. Indeed, he is considered one of the richest men who ever lived. He made his fortune as a supporter of the dictator Sulla by confiscating the properties of Sulla’s political enemies. He was also a shrewd acquirer of real estate, especially when it was on fire. Rome had no fire department; fires were left to burn themselves out. Crassus organized some 500 men and, when there was a fire, he would show up and offer to buy the property for a song. After the beleaguered owner sold out the burning buildings, Crassus would call on his fire department to put out the flames and then restore the buildings.
In any case, Crassus was described by Plutarch as the ultimate man of avarice. Crassus never had enough and always wanted more. It was Crassus who, wishing to add glory to his wealth lead the legions which defeated Spartacus in the slave revolt. Several Roman armies were off fighting elsewhere and Crassus offered to personally equip several legions and lead the fight against the slaves. Initially he had trouble. Spartacus consistently outmaneuvered him. Finally Pompey the Great returned to Italy with his legions and Spartacus was forced to fight. Crassus won the victory. He crucified six thousand of the spartacists on the Appian Way and left their bodies to rot – but he got not the glory. Pompey wrote to the Senate that he had really won the war and Crassus had only defeated slaves. Crassus received only an Ovation rather than a Triumph. He wasn’t happy.
Crassus succeeded in becoming a member of the first triumvirate – Julius Caesar, Pompey and himself. He and Pompey were elected Co-Consuls. Rome had a confidence about it; call it exceptionalism. Romans were better than other people. The Roman way was the clearly the better way. Romans were superior. The Roman state was superior. And Crassus was the richest man in the Republic.
Julius Caesar was conquering Gaul, Pompey was now Pompey Magnus and Crassus was feeling like a fifth wheel. He had done nothing but make a lot of money and conquer an army of slaves. He decided to do something worthy. He would conquer the Parthians. Besides, Parthia was extremely wealthy, sitting astride the Silk Road. And he would bring his son, Publius Crassus with him; Publius was with Caesar in Gaul and conquering the Parthians would help pad the family resume as well as add to the riches of the world’s richest man.
Parthia was on the fringe of the Roman world, far in the east – in modern day Iraq and Iran. Crassus got himself appointed Governor of Roman Syria and he planned to use it as a base to attack the Parthians.
Now Parthia had done nothing to justify an attack. Romans viewed the Parthians as a “threat” just as they viewed anyone who could oppose Rome as a threat. Opposition arose in Rome to Crassus’ plans. Cicero rose in the Senate to denounce the planned war – there was “nulla causa” – no justification to attack Parthia. Rome had a treaty with Parthia. The Tribune, Atelias Capito, put up strenuous opposition; to no avail. Besides, Crassus expected a military victory to be easy. Roman legions had easily crushed more numerous eastern armies, such as those of Pontus and Armenia, and Parthia was expected to be easy pickings.
Crassus marched his army of seven legions (around 35,000) heavy infantry and 4,000 light cavalry out of Syria, across the desert toward the Parthian capital Ctesphon, along the Tigris and south of modern Baghdad. The King of the Parthians, Orodes, sent an army to meet him – entirely on horseback, lead by his best general, Surena.
Crassus blundered into the Parthians at Carrhae where, for what may have been the first time, Roman infantry saw warriors and horses in chain mail, armed with lances and thousands of mounted archers with composite bows capable of piercing Roman armor. The Parthians, it seems had regular contact with the Chinese.
Carrhae turned into one of the bloodiest defeats in Roman history. Cassius Longinus, loyal friend and brother-in-law to Brutus and one of the officers in Crassus’ army implored him to redeploy the legions but Crassus refused. He figured the Parthians would run out of arrows. He didn’t know Surena had used thousands of camels to keep the arrows coming across the desert.
The skies were filled with clouds of arrows. The legions took cover under their shields which could not protect the entire body. Thousands were wounded in exposed limbs – and then they were charged by the first “knights” in chain mail the Romans had ever seen, with lances on horseback.
Crassus sent his son and light cavalry to attack the mounted archers, who simply withdrew – Publius learned the hard way they could fire arrows while riding away from him. Crassus next saw his son’s head on a Parthian pike.
Crassus was killed by Surena’s men. His head was cut off and, with his avarice known throughout the world, his mouth was filled with molten gold, his head presented to the King. The Parthians thought it a fitting ending.
Cassius lead the defeated legions back to Syria, fighting Parthians all the way to the Roman border. Twenty thousand infantry had died and ten thousand captured Worse still, the legions had lost their Eagle Standards; each legion had one, to be protected at all cost. Losing a standard to the enemy was the greatest shame a Roman legion could face. Crassus’ army had lost several – a great shame and decidedly evil omen.
The death of Crassus had a profound destabilizing affect on the Roman Republic. Think of it as the unforeseen developments which occur when launching a war of choice. Caesar and Pompey were soon at each other’s throats and in less than four years Caesar would cross the Rubicon beginning civil war against the duly consitituted government. Pompey would die in Egypt after his defeat at Caesar’s hands. Cassius and Brutus and the Senate would strike one last blow for the Republic but could not save it.
The war against the Parthians in the east was a war of choice, waged by a man rich beyond our wildest dreams, waged in a land where empires in the west still wage war, waged by a people who thought they were superior, indeed exceptional, a people with little regard for “the other”, waged by a man who wanted “more” riches, waged by a man who wanted “glory”, waged by a people who underestimated the “lesser peoples”.
Decades later, Augustus would enter negotiations with the Parthians for the return of the precious Standards of Crassus’ legions. Others had wanted war but Augustus would have none of it. He bargained. When the Standards were returned to Rome, both sides claimed “victory”. Seems to me we have much to learn from this tale.
illustration: Roman Legion: http://www.beautifullife.info/art-works/moments-of-war-by-mariusz-kozik/