Crassus: Financier and War Profiteer

We find that you Romans have not got very good memories about the terms of treaties.

— Parthian general Surena, upon confronting Crassus and his invading legions.[efn_note]Plutarch. “Crassus.” In: Fall of the Roman Republic. Trans. Rex Warner, pps. 113-155, Penguin Classics; p. 153.[/efn_note]

Who was Marcus Licinius Crassus (ca. 112-53 BCE )?  Like a modern-day financier, he was a predatory (usurious) lender; like a modern-day oligarch, he acquired vast real-estate holdings at bargain prices; but ultimately, like a modern-day warmaker, he prospered hugely from the “spoils of war.”  The ugly truth, as the Greek historian Plutarch (ca. 46-120 CE) commented, was that “public calamities [fire and war] were his principal sources of revenue.”   ”No one could be called rich,” Crassus once candidly remarked, “who cannot keep an army out of his own income.”

In the last few decades of the Roman Republic, Crassus gained notoriety as “the most avaricious person in the world.” [efn_note] Ibid., pps. 114, 120.  His first real-estate acquisitions were properties formerly owned by those Romans executed by the dictator Sulla, who ruled 82-79 BCE.[/efn_note]  (One might also consider the patrician moneylender Brutus–later the ringleader behind the dictator Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE–who, during his tenure as governor of Cyprus, swindled the town of Salamis with an immense loan at 48% interest per annum. [efn_note]Kathryn Tempest.  Brutus: the Noble Conspirator, Yale University Press (2017), pps. 46-47.[/efn_note] Crassus’s underhanded financial expropriations included stealing other people’s inheritances: “in such a cause,” Cicero once joked, “Crassus would even have been prepared to dance in the Forum!” [efn_note]“Crassus,” pps. 122-127.[/efn_note] Whenever his agents informed him of a fire or collapse of some ramshackle city tenement, Crassus would order them to race to the scene and quickly offer a lowball deal to the panic-stricken owner.  But his political ambitions were also advanced by the bribery and influence his extreme wealth could buy.  He thus soon emerged as a potential rival to the more popular military commander Pompey “the Great.”

The sudden outbreak of the Third Servile War (73-71 BCE) was ignited by the revolt of gladiator-slaves led by “the most intelligent and cultured” Spartacus, who successively routed every legion sent to quash his rapidly expanding slave army. Crassus, ambitious for the supreme reward of military glory, arranged with the Senate to lead such a large and well-trained force that the complete destruction of the slave-army would be a fait accompli.  Yet, after many months of resistance and retreat, his diminished forces finally trapped and under siege on the Rhegium peninsula, the battle-worn Spartacus ”made straight for Crassus himself…and though he did not reach Crassus…died fighting to the last.” [efn_note]“Crassus,” pps. 122-127..[/efn_note]

In the succeeding decade, as the wealthiest man in Rome, Crassus continued to augment his political advantage and influence.  So much so that, by 59 BCE, he informally joined the military potentates Caesar and Pompey in a power-bloc to force the Senate to pass legislation favorable to their joint interests.  During this five-year period, each was easily able to finance his own election to the supreme office of Consul (a one-year term).  Upon leaving office, General Crassus extracted from the Senate the highly lucrative provincial governorship of Syria (54 BCE).  But this power-base would merely serve as a springboard for another quest for military supremacy: the invasion and subjugation of neighboring Parthia (today the vast borderland regions of far northern Syria and southeastern Turkey).

In the decree which was passed giving him his command there was no reference at all to a war with Parthia.  Yet everyone knew that this was what Crassus’s mind was bent on….There was a considerable party who objected strongly to the idea of a man setting out to make war on people who, so far from having done any harm to the Romans, were bound to them by treaties of friendship…. A large crowd was all prepared to raise a disturbance and try to prevent Crassus from leaving. [efn_note]Ibid., p. 133.[/efn_note]

But his massive legions, including several thousand cavalry, nonetheless marched.  Their trek finally led them to the Euphrates River, which they followed as a geographical reference-point.  Meanwhile, scouts, sent ahead to assess the military situation, returned to report a conspicuous absence of any signs of the enemy.  And Crassus soon met up with the Arab chieftain Ariannes, favorably regarded by Pompey and thought to be a Roman ally.  Claiming familiarity with a clandestine route across the desert for a surprise attack on the Parthian general Surena’s forces, Ariannes, in fact, led Crassus and his legions further and further into the desert until a few exhausted scouts suddenly arrived with the startling news that Surena’s army was, in fact, advancing rapidly toward their position.  “Crassus himself was absolutely thunderstruck.” 

Within a short time their position was surrounded on all sides. An endless shower of arrows descended on them, maiming and killing thousands outright.  After his son Publius’s head was brought to Crassus on a pike, he must have realized that his outsized ambition to surpass the military triumphs of Pompey and Caesar had led to this blood-drenched nemesis.[efn_note]Ibid., pps. 136-146.[/efn_note] Killed and decapitated, Crassus received a final, symbolically mocking tribute to his life’s degraded obsession: the Parthians poured molten gold down his throat.[efn_note]Dio Cassius, Roman History. Trans. E. Cary, vol. III(XL), Harvard University Press (1914); p. 447.[/efn_note]


Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.