Marcus Licinius Crassus Dives

Marcus Licinius Crassus Dives (ca. 115-53 B.C.) was a Roman politician and member of the First Triumvirate, for which he provided financial backing. He spent much of his political career in frustrated rivalry with Pompey.

Crassus was descended from a long line of distinguished senators. When, during the uprising of Cornelius Cinna in 87 B.C., his father committed suicide and his brother was murdered by the forces of Gaius Marius, Crassus fled to Spain. After the death of Cinna he came out of hiding, gathered a small military force, and eventually joined Sulla when he returned to Italy from the East. In command of the right wing at the battle of the Colline Gate in 82, Crassus was mainly responsible for the final victory of Sulla over the Marians. During the subsequent Sullan proscriptions he began to amass his enormous fortune by buying the property of the proscribed. Later he continued his speculations in real estate by buying fire-damaged properties. But in spite of his wealth, which he used for political purposes, he lived modestly, was temperate in his personal habits, and cultivated people in all walks of life. Through careful training he also became one of the most effective orators of his day.


Early Public Career

Praetor in 73, Crassus was chosen by the Senate, after the defeat of both consuls in 72, to take over command in the war against Spartacus although he held no public office at the time. He drove Spartacus into Bruttium and there cut him off by building a wall across the toe of Italy. Although Spartacus broke through the wall during the winter, Crassus defeated him in two decisive engagements, but not until he had asked the Senate to summon for help M. Lucullus from Thrace and Pompey from Spain. Pompey caught a few stragglers from the final battle and characteristically claimed a share of Crassus' victory.

Pompey returned to Rome to run for the consulship of 70 B.C. with a program of reform in mind. Unwilling to be outdone, Crassus decided to run with him, but the rivalry of the two men was so great that they almost came to blows during their year in office, and Pompey captured the support of the people with his legislation to remove the restrictions on the tribunate and to open the jury courts again to the equestrians. As a result, Crassus had to stand by while Pompey was voted his great commands in the 60s.

While Pompey was absent in the East, Crassus sought to outmaneuver him politically in Rome. He used his money and his affability to support candidates for high political office, but apart from Julius Caesar, whom Crassus supported for aedileship in 65, all of his candidates failed because of Pompeian and senatorial opposition. In 65 Crassus was himself elected censor with Q. Lutatius Catulus. But his attempts to purge the Senate and win the support of Cisalpine Gaul with a grant of citizenship were vetoed by his colleague, and both men resigned from office prematurely. There is no concrete evidence that Crassus played an active part in the conspiracies of Autronius and Sulla in 66 or of Catiline in 63, although he may have hoped to profit from the unrest they caused.


First Triumvirate

When Pompey returned and found himself checked politically by Cato and the senatorial leaders, Crassus' maneuvers finally paid off in the formation of the First Triumvirate and the election of Julius Caesar to the consulship of 59 B.C. Pompey had been forced to turn to Crassus and Caesar for help. They tended to cooperate during Caesar's year in office to offset Pompey's enormous prestige and power.

In the years after 59 when Caesar was absent in Gaul, the rivalry between Pompey and Crassus broke out anew as Crassus used P. Clodius to harass Pompey and the two men competed for honors and commands. At one point Pompey complained to the Senate that Crassus was trying to assassinate him. Finally, in 56, the triumvirs met at Luca to compose their differences and make more realistic arrangements for sharing their power. Pompey and Crassus were to hold the consulship together for the second time in 55. Thereafter all three men would have coordinated commands for a period of 5 years, Caesar in Gaul, Pompey in Spain, and Crassus in Syria for a campaign against the Parthians.

As consuls in 55, Crassus and Pompey quelled opposition against the triumvirate. Toward the end of the year Crassus left for the East. In 54 he conducted a successful campaign across the Euphrates and was hailed by his troops. In the following year he again attacked, but he allowed himself to be drawn into the Mesopotamian desert, where his whole army of seven legions and 4,000 cavalry was surrounded and cut off by the Parthian mounted archers near the city of Carrhae. After losing his son, Crassus led the remnants of his legions to the city. To save themselves, his troops then forced Crassus to meet with the Parthian commander Surena. Crassus was treacherously slain at the conference on June 6, 53 B.C.

Plutarch says that in Crassus many virtues were obscured by one vice, avarice. In politics he was the spokesman for Roman financial interests. His failure was that he had no political goals beyond his own personal advancement or protection. The baton he briefly carried rightly passed to Caesar, a man of wider vision.


Further Reading on Marcus Licinius Crassus Dives

The main ancient sources for Crassus are Plutarch's Lives, Cicero's speeches and letters, and Appian's Roman History. See also The Cambridge Ancient History (12 vols., 1922-1939) and H. H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero (1959; 2d ed. 1963).