Marcus Licinius Crassus – The Richest Man in Rome

Known for his involvement in setting up the First Triumvirate of Rome, Roman general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus was one of the most influential individuals in the decades before Rome changed from a Republic to an Empire. One of Crassus’s greatest achievements came when he gave his unflinching support to Roman general and later dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla during the civil war (83-82 BC) that saw Sulla go against the Marians (followers of Marius and Cinna). Crassus thus helped Sulla seize power in Rome in 82 BC. With Sulla in control of Rome, Crassus was able to acquire an immense amount of wealth, and thus became Rome’s richest man.

And with his enormous wealth, he was able to strike an alliance with two other renowned generals and politicians – Julius Caesar and Pompey – to go against the Roman Senate. Another famous feat of his came when he commanded a Roman army to put down a slave revolt which was orchestrated by the slave-turned-soldier Spartacus. Following Crassus’s death in 53 BC, a severe four-year civil war broke out between Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar.

Who really was Marcus Licinius Crassus? And how did he come by his enormous wealth?

In the article below, WHE presents the life, family history, and major accomplishments of Marcus Licinius Crassus – one of the most known personalities of the Roman Republic era.

Marcus Licinius Crassus: Fast Facts

- Marcus Licinius Crassus

Born: 115 BC

Died: 53 BC

Place of death: near Carrhae in southern Anatolia

Cause of death: Killed during the Battle of Carrhae against the Parthian Kingdom

Aged: 62

Parents: Publius Licinius Crassus Dives and Venuleia

Siblings: Publius Licinius Crassus

Spouse: Tertulla

Children: Marcus Licinius Crassus, Plublius Licinius Crassus

Positions held: Consul (70 BC), Triumvir (60 BC- 53 BC), Consul (55 BC), Governor in Syria (54 BC)

Wars/battles fought in: Sulla’s civil war, Third Servile War (also known as the War of Spartacus), Battle of Carrhae

Most famous for: Setting up the First Triumvirate with politicians Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (also known as Pompey the Great)

Marcus Licinius Crassus

With the help of Roman dictator Sulla, Crassus became infamous for confiscating property that belonged to supporters of Marius and Cinna. He would then invest heavily in the real estate industry of Rome as well as other ventures. By so doing, he became Rome’s wealthiest man.

Birth and family

Born around 115 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus was the second of three children of his parents – Publius Licinius Crassus and Venuleia.

His father was consul in 97 BC, and for his military efforts in Iberia, received a triumph (highest military honor in Rome) from Rome’s Senate in 93 BC. His father was also a recipient of Rome’s highest military honor – a triumph. The award is given to a general who has accomplished great feat in battle, such as ending a war or significantly destroying the forces of an enemy. During the Triumph, the general is given a procession by the Senate.

Death of his father

Roman general and politician Gaius Marius (c. 157-86 BC) captured Rome in 87 BC and set about ruling with an iron fist. Marius’s successor Lucius Cornelius Cinna then embarked on a ruthless campaign against politicians that Sulla’s 88 BC march on Rome. It was around this time that Marcus Licinius Crassus lost both his father and his brother. The two men had given their support to Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a rival of Gaius Marius.

Four-year exile in Spain

In some accounts, his father, influential Roman senator Publius Licinius Crassus, is believed to have committed suicide in 87 BC. It’s said that Crassus senior was on the run from followers of Gaius Marius. With the anti-Sulla campaign by the Marians in full force, Crassus and some members of his family had no option than to go into hiding in Hispania (Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula and its provinces).

In some accounts, Crassus had to hide in a cave in Spain, as Marius’s influence in Spain was palpable. The young Crassus sustained himself by asking for provisions (from his father’s friend Vibius Paciacus) to be delivered to his hideout in the cave. According to first-century AD historian Plutarch, Crassus would live like this for close to one year. All in all, he spent about four years exiled in Spain, treading carefully least he be found by the Marians.

Crassus during Sulla’s Civil War

The young Marcus would not make it back to Rome until after death of Cinna in 84 BC. While in Spain, he had worked very hard to improve his military skills and amass a number of soldiers that would later join forces with Lucius Cornelius Sulla to fight against the leader of the Marian forces, Gnaeus Papirius Carbo.

Crassus is noted for fighting alongside Pompey the Great (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus) in a battle that saw about 3,000 soldiers of Papirius Carbo killed.

After defeating Marian forces in a different battle, Crassus quickly responded to the call of Sulla for support in fighting against Marian forces at the Battle of the Colline Gate in 82 BC. Operating on the right wing in the battlefield just outside Rome, Crassus helped Sulla secure victory, and thereafter, Sulla went on to seize power in Rome in 82 BC.

How Crassus acquired his immense wealth

All throughout Sulla’s civil war, Crassus’ greed could be seen. Often times, the soldiers under his command got infuriated by Crassus’ refusal to properly share the spoils of the war. On the contrary Roman generals like Metellus Pius and Gnaeus Pompeius (also known as Pompey the Great) shared their spoils of war fairly among the troops.

After the civil war, Crassus invested the money he had inherited from his father in a number of real estate projects. Much of his family’s wealth had been wiped off during the reign of Marius and Cinna. However with the Marians and Cinnans removed from power, Crassus set out to increase his wealth. With the help of General Sulla, Marcus Licinius Crassus took possession of many of his enemies’ (i.e. supporters of Marius and Cinna) properties that were given for peanuts (not literally) at an auction.

Crassus’ wealth would continue to increase at an exponential rate in the years that followed. In addition to building his wealth via those proscriptions that were carried out by Roman dictator Sulla, Crassus made significant percentage of his wealth from his slave trafficking business. He also engaged in mining minerals like silver.

He also setup a fire brigade in Rome to fight fires. He is said to have used unscrupulous tactics in increasing his earnings from the fire brigade business. For example, before putting out a fire, he would first ask the owner of the building to sell the property. If the owner refused, then Crassus’s fire brigade would just let the fire consume the property. More often, he would get those properties at bargain prices, as desperate home owners would take any price Crassus offered rather than see their homes burn down.

Crassus’ real estate business

Marcus Licinius Crassus

Crassus acquired many properties and building, many of which were confiscated during Sulla’s reign, across Rome. He then used slave labor to work on those properties. All in all, he was able to increase his wealth by several folds.

Roman historians like Pliny and Plutarch gave estimations of Marcus Licinius Crassus’ net worth. According to Pliny, the young general had about 200 million sestertii in private wealth. In less than a decade or so, he had successfully acquired a huge market share of the real estate of Rome. Often times, he would buy destroyed and dilapidated buildings and thereafter renovate them.

In renovating the buildings that he acquired, he used the builders and architects that he had among the slaves he owned. Crassus is believed to have owned close to one thousand enslaved workforce, many of whom were skilled laborers, including goldsmiths, engineers, masons, carpenters, stewards, and many others.

It’s also been said that he benefited a great deal from Licinia, a Roman priestess (a Vestal Virgin). It’s said that he coveted Licinia’s property, including her estate in the suburbs. You see, Crassus was very good when it came to smooth talking his way to achieving his goal. Some historians have said that this social skills of his, combined with his sharp business acumen, made him simply unstoppable in Rome. And Rome loved him for his humility, soft-spoken language, and frugal lifestyle, although he was the richest man in city.

Unfortunately, lurking deep within Crassus was one particular vice – the vice of greed. Ultimately, that vice ended up being his undoing.

Philanthropic activities

Crassus may have been known for his greedy nature; however, his philanthropic actions also brought him immense acclaim among some citizens of Rome. According to the historian Plutarch, Crassus donated handsomely on many occasions to the people of Rome, including the grains that he gave the city. He was also very generous to the cult of Hercules in Rome. Much of his donations were used to enhance his reputation in the public eye, as well improve his standing in the political arena.

Crassus and Julius Caesar

By acting as a financial patron to up and coming Roman politicians and generals, including Julius Caesar, Crassus was in a way putting those men in lifelong indebtedness to him. It’s said that his relationship with Julius Caesar started in this manner. Crassus made sure that Caesar did not lack anything, financially. He even paid all of Caesar’s debt. And as expected the bond between the two men became stronger. Crassus then hoped to use Caesar’s rising political and military reputation to aid him in going against Pompey, a man that he had envied since the reign of Sulla.

Conflict between Crassus and Pompey the Great

The conflict between Crassus and Pompey is said to have be born due to Sulla’s preference for Pompey. For almost the entirety of his life, Crassus was driven by his jealousy of Pompey’s successes. Pompey’s three legions played a vital role in Sulla’s victory over the Marians during the civil war. Therefore, it came as no surprise that Sulla favored Pompey a bit more than Crassus. Pompey even received Sulla’s step daughter’s hand in marriage. This obviously made Crassus even bitter.

Regardless, Crassus continued in full throttle in dominating the business world. He also set his sight on the political arena. In 73 BC, he was elected praetor. He would maintain that position the following year.

Defeated the Spartacus slave rebellion, also known as the Third Servile War (73-71 BC)

Slave turned military general Spartacus began a two-year slave rebellion in 73 BC. The rebellion which started gradually and went on to be a big thorn in the flesh of Rome. Spartacus’ forces destroyed many Roman legions and military commanders.

When all hope seemed lost, Crassus put his name out there, offering to help the Roman Republic deal with Spartacus’ forces. Some say that Crassus was only chosen because Pompey was at time busy with a military campaign in Hispania.

Regardless, Crassus was bent on showing to Rome how skilled a military commander he was. With about 10 legions under his command, he proved himself a no-nonsense military leader, punishing soldiers that refused to fight or soldiers that fled. He instilled the utmost discipline in his forces. By so doing he was able to enhance the fighting prowess of his forces as well as their morale.

At the Battle of the Silver River, Roman soldiers under the leadership of Crassus were able to defeat Spartacus’s forces near the Sele River. The icing on the cake for Crassus were the several thousands of slaves that he captured following the battle.

And to make sure Rome did not have to contend with a future slave rebellion, Crassus ordered the execution of over five thousand slaves to serve as a lesson to all slaves that were contemplating rebelling against the Republic.

Although Pompey, Crassus’s political rival, tried as much as possible to take credit for ending Spartacus’s slave rebellion, many people at time duly praised Crassus for doing all the heavy lifting in the battle against Spartacus.

Read More: Ancient Roman Gladiators: History and Facts

Consul and Censor

Two years later, he and Pompey became co-consuls. Their mutual hatred for each other made their time as co-consul somewhat difficult. They did however succeed in removing some parts of the Sullan constitution. For example, they restored the tribunate, an office that was removed during Sulla’s reign.

Pompey the Great

Marcus Licinius Crassus was annoyed by the fact that Pompey received the Triumph following the Third Servile War, when he, Crassus, did all the heavy lifting during the war. Image: Roman general and statesman Pompey the Great

Crassus’ overwhelming envy of Pompey the Great’s military successes

After serving as co-consuls, it was Pompey who chalked further military victories, and not Crassus. For example, Pompey successfully ended the pirate menace that had upended Rome’s shipping activities in the Mediterranean Sea. Pompey also secured massive military success in the eastern boundaries of the Republic. The rising general had defeated Mithradates of Pontus and thereafter reorganized the provinces in the East in his own image. All of those victories by Pompey caused Crassus to become more envious.

Deep down Crassus wished to emulate the military successes that Pompey had chalked. Sadly for the wealthy businessman, military successes were not easy to come by. He took some bit of consolation when in 65 BC he became censor of the Republic. Combined with his famous victory over Spartacus, Crassus’s reputation in Rome increased a bit. However, he still was not satisfied, as he kept searching for that elusive glory that would guarantee him a Triumph.

Marcus Licinius Crassus helped form the First Triumvirate

In 60 BC, Crassus entered into an informal political alliance with Julius Caesar and Pompey. That alliance came to be known as the First Triumvirate. The alliance allowed all three men to push for laws in the Senate that benefited them.

Not only was Crassus the oldest member of the Triumvirate, but he was also the wealthiest. Many historians have noted that Crassus was the glue that kept the First Triumvirate together. With the alliance proving extremely beneficial, the three men met at Luca, Etruria, in 56 BC to renew their commitments to one another. It was also agreed that Pompey and Crassus serve as co-consuls in 55 BC.

Crassus thus became one of the three most powerful men in Rome. It was also agreed that Pompey and Crassus be co-consuls. Thereafter, the three men divided up the Roman Republic and its territories among themselves. Crassus took command in the eastern provinces of the Rome, i.e. Syria. Pompey was given Spain, and Caesar took command of Gaul, serving as governor of the region for five years.

Traits of the First Triumvirs

Crassus, Caesar and Pompey formed the First Triumvirate in order to get their policies passed in the Senate. Their secret alliance in effect nullified every form of opposition towards them. Image: First Triumvir (L-R): Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar

In this consulship position, Crassus gave considerable level of support to the young Roman general and politician Julius Caesar. Crassus and Caesar soon realized that their goals and Pompey’s were similar, which is to dominate the Senate. Therefore, the three men decided to leverage their power and resources and form a powerful alliance that came to be known as the First Triumvirate. Pompey was a well-respected general who had the confidence of Roman soldiers. Similarly, Caesar, an astute military mind in all sense, was the savviest politician among the three. And Crassus being the richest man in the Republic used his financial power to ensure that First Triumvirate attained its goal. Initially, the three men were able to work together, having put aside their differing political views.

Crassus’s unprovoked military campaigns in the East

As governor of Roman Syria, Crassus desired military glory more than anything. He had conquered the world of business, therefore, military conquest seemed like the only thing missing in his long and illustrious life. In addition to being envious of Pompey’s military conquest, Crassus was also envious of the magnificent victories that his ally Julius Caesar secured in Gaul. Out of the three Triumvirs, Crassus was the only one without a Triumph honor.

Without any kind of provocation from Rome’s eastern neighbors whatsoever, Crassus decided to invade those territories. He marched his forces beyond the Euphrates and went into the Kingdom of Parthia in 53 BC. Driven by the desire to gain military glory, Crassus embarked on a needless military invasion of the powerful kingdom of Parthia. Some say Crassus was eyeing the vast wealth that was under the rule of Parthian king Orodes II.

The 62-year-old general had gravely underestimated the resolve of the Parthian forces. Also in his attempt to prove himself as an astute military commander, Crassus made some pretty bad military decisions. For example, he chose not to take the Tigris River route; instead he thought it wise to go into the desert and pursue the Parthian general Surenas. Secondly, he alienated many local kings and chiefs in the region that were allied to the Roman Republic. Instead of taking their help, Crassus decided to rely on an associate that advised him to march his troops through the desert.

By the time Crassus had faced the Parthian forces, his men were tired and malnourished. Crassus and his forces were in no state of mind or physique to fight General Surenas of the Parthian Kingdom.

Battle of Carrhae (53 BC)

Desiring nothing than to match the feats achieved by the two other triumvirs – Caesar and Pompey – in their respective provinces, Marcus Licinius Crassus decided to wage war against his neighbors in the east. He moved against the Kingdom of Parthia, a wealthy and powerful region. Unfortunately for Crassus his efforts proved very unsuccessful.

The ultimate showdown in Crassus’s ambitious drive into Parthian territory came at the Battle of Carrhae. His forces came against the very skilled Parthian general Surenas. Realizing how Crassus’s men were weak, Surenas did not allow them to get a breather. In the end, Crassus was handed a humiliating defeat, having succumbed to the military prowess of the enemy’s archers. Surenas ordered that Crassus be captured alive and subsequently executed.

Before invading the Parthian Kingdom, Crassus had made firm vow to a Parthian ambassador that he would capture the Parthian capital of Seleucia. According to Roman historian Cassius Dio, the Parthian envoy laughed and said that the inside of his palm had a better chance of growing hair than Crassus’s chance of conquering Seleucia.

Roman general Crassus gravely underestimated the resolve of the Parthian forces.

And just as the ambassador had predicted, Crassus quickly found out the consequences of his grave military decision. After a disastrous showing on the battlefield, the general and his forces were surrounded by archers, according to first-century AD historian Plutarch. Crassus’s 40,000 or so men could not put up a strong fight as they had pushed themselves into exhaustion by going through the desert.

How did Crassus die?

According to Latin historian Cassius Dio, a hot molten gold was poured down the throat of Rome’s richest man. His enemies saw this as a fitting punishment for him, as many considered him as having an insatiable appetite for more and more wealth. Crassus had been invited to attend a meeting in order to iron out the details of his surrender.

In a different account by Plutarch, Crassus’ captors dismembered the body of Crassus and then sent some of the dismembered parts to Orodes II.

Marcus Licinius Crassus

Death of Marcus Licinius Crassus

Aftermath of Marcus Licinius Crassus’s death

Crassus’s wealth and political influence were the things that counterbalanced the military aspirations of Caesar and Pompey. Therefore with Crassus gone, both men felt no need to remain allies. Both Caesar and Pompey proceeded to fight each other in order to become number one in Rome. And so, just within four years of Crassus’s death, Rome was plunged into a bitter civil war that pitted Pompey the Great against Julius Caesar.

Crassus went into an alliance with Julius Caesar and Pompey (also known as Pompey the Great) to form the First Triumvirate in order to dominate the political landscape of the Republic.

According to Latin historian Cassius Dio, a hot molten gold was poured down the throat of Marcus Licinius Crassus. | Image: The Death of Crassus, by Pierre Cousteau, 1555

Lasting for about seven years, the First Triumvirate (60-53 BC) collapsed after the death of Crassus. This was due to the big egos and differing political goals of Caesar and Pompey. The death of Julia, Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife, further caused a big rift between this two titans of the Republic. Their clash caused a four-year civil war (Caesar’s Civil War) to break out. In the end, Caesar secured victory over Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Pompey, who was seeking help in Ptolemaic Egypt, was assassinated, and Caesar went on to become dictator of Rome.

Perhaps wanting to outshine Caesar, who had tremendous success in the Gallic Wars (58-50 BC), Crassus marched on the Parthian Empire, but was met with a humiliating defeat. Crassus died in 53 BC at the Battle of Carrhae. His death put a huge strain on the Triumvirate, which was still reeling from the death of Julia in 54 BC. Image (L-R): Pompey and Caesar

How important was Crassus?

Some historians, particularly Plutarch, noted that the only thing that kept the Triumvirate from breaking apart was the presence of Crassus, who was feared by both Pompey and Caesar. With Crassus gone, the First Triumvirate collapsed. Pompey became envious of Caesar and his heroics in Gaul. And as Caesar’s influence increased in the Republic, Pompey’s waned.

Those tensions between Caesar and Pompey rapidly escalated into an all-out civil war – Caesar’s Civil War – between Caesar and Pompey. The four-year civil war would propel Caesar to the status of dictator of Rome, and thereafter, the Roman Republic and whatever democratic institutions that it once had steadily made way for Imperial Rome. And this all happened because Crassus simply wanted to be acknowledged as one of the greatest Roman generals ever.

Net worth of Marcus Licinius Crassus

If Roman historian Pliny’s estimation of Crassus’s wealth to be around 200 million sestertii (sesterces – the monetary unit of coins in ancient Rome) is true, then Crassus would be worth around 14 billion in today’s dollar equivalent. There are some historians and modern economists that put his net worth at around a trillion dollars. The Roman general and statesman was undoubtedly the richest man in the world at the time.

As stated above, a big chunk of Crassus’ wealth came from the unscrupulous resale of seized properties that belonged to the Marians and Cinnans. It must be noted that this made him very unpopular for a time being.

More on Marcus Licinius Crassus

With Crassus gone, there was no one to counterbalance the lofty and opposing ambitions of Caesar and Pompey. Those tensions quickly escalated into an all-out civil war – Caesar’s Civil War – between Caesar and Pompey.

Crassus married his brother’s widowed wife, Tertulla. By her, Crassus fathered two children – Marcus Licinius Crassus and Publius Licinius Crassus. Tertulla was said to be the daughter of Roman general Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus. There were rumors that Tertulla was Julius Caesar’s mistress. Crassus’s close association with Caesar meant that he did not bother too much about the affair, if there was any in the first place.

Crassus was named after his grandfather, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was the praetor around 126 BC.

While governor of Roman Syria, Crassus looked for every avenue to acquire more wealth. He once ransacked the Temple of Jerusalem, which obviously came much to the displeasure of the locals in Syria.

Marcus Licinius Crassus was exonerated of the charge of impious conduct with one of the Vestel Virgins (an ancient Roman priestess) after he was able to prove that he did not have any romantic affair with the said priestess. Crassus successfully convinced the judge that he only befriended the priestess because he had wanted to acquire a number of her properties.

Owing to his disastrous campaign and blunder in Parthia some people have drawn parallels between his name and the English phrase “crassus mistake”. The phrase refers to a stupid mistake. Some scholars even go as far as to say that the English word, crass, which means dense, thick or in some cases stupid and tactless, likely came from this Roman general’s name.

Crassus’ fire brigade was far from free, as he extorted monies and concessions from owners of the burning buildings. The first free brigade, however, was set up by a man called Marcus Egnatius Rufus during the era of Emperor Augustus. After Augustus had Rufus executed, Rome’s first emperor set up the first public fire brigade in Rome.

 

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