Marcus Licinius Crassus

1st Century B.C. Roman Businessman and Politician.

93 BC, Roman General Marcus Licinius Crassus (circa 115 - 53 BC). Hulton Archive / Handout/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

Although his father had been a censor and had celebrated a triumph, Crassus grew up in a small house which was home not only to him and his parents but also to his two elder brothers and their families.

When he was in his late twenties, Marius and Cinna captured Rome from Sulla's supporters (87). In the ensuing bloodbath, Crassus' father and one of his brothers were killed, but Crassus himself escaped with three of his friends and ten servants to Spain, where his father had served as praetor. He hid in a seaside cave on land belonging to Vibius Pacacius. Every day Vibius sent him provisions through a slave, who was ordered to leave the food on the beach and then go without looking back. Later Vibius sent two slave girls to live with Crassus in the cave, run errands, and see to his other physical needs.

Eight months later, after the death of Cinna, Crassus came out of hiding, collected an army of 2500 men, and joined Sulla. Crassus won a reputation for himself as a soldier in Sulla's campaigns in Italy (83) but fell out of favor because of his excessive greed in purchasing estates at knock-down prices during Sulla's proscriptions of his political opponents. Another source of his wealth was buying up property at risk from fire very cheaply and only then putting his private fire brigade into action. Other sources of his wealth were mines, and his business buying slaves, training them, and then re-selling them. In these ways, he came to own most of Rome and increased his fortune from 300 talents to 7100 talents. It is difficult to compare the value of money then and now, but Bill Thayer puts the value of an as US$ 20,000 or £14,000 [pounds] in 2003 money.

Crassus saw Pompey as his great rival but knew he could not match Pompey's military achievements. So, he set about winning popularity by acting as an advocate in lawsuits where other advocates refused to act and lending money without charging interest, provided the loan was paid back on time.

In 73 the great slave revolt under Spartacus broke out. The praetor Clodius was sent against Spartacus and was besieging him and his men on a hill with only one way up or down. However, Spartacus' men made ladders out of vines growing on the hill and having got down the cliffs in this way surprised and defeated the besieging army. Another army was sent out from Rome under the praetor Publius Varinus but Spartacus defeated him as well. Spartacus now wanted to escape over the Alps but his troops insisted on staying in Italy to plunder the countryside. One of the consuls, Gellius, defeated a contingent of Germans, but the other consul, Lentulus, was defeated by Spartacus, as was Cassius, the governor of Cisalpine Gaul (Gaul this-side-of-the-Alps, i.e., Northern Italy).

Crassus was then given the command against Spartacus (71). Crassus' legate, Mummius, engaged Spartacus in the battle against Crassus' orders and was defeated. Out of Mummius' men, 500 were considered to have shown cowardice in battle, and so they were divided into groups of ten, and one from each group of ten was killed: the standard punishment for cowardice and the origin of our word decimate.

Spartacus attempted to sail for Sicily, but the pirates he hired to take his forces over the sea cheated him and sailed off with the payment he'd given them, leaving Spartacus' forces still in Italy. Spartacus established a camp for his men in the peninsula of Rhegium, whereupon Crassus built a wall across the neck of the peninsula, trapping them. However, taking advantage of a snowy night, Spartacus managed to get a third of his troops across the wall.

Crassus had written to the Senate to ask for help, but now regretted it since whoever the Senate sent would get the credit for defeating Spartacus and they sent Pompey. Crassus inflicted a crushing defeat on Spartacus' troops and Spartacus himself was killed in the battle. Spartacus' men fled and were captured and killed by Pompey, who, as Crassus had predicted, claimed the credit for putting an end to the war. The magnificent scene from Stanley Kubrick's film "Spartacus", where, after the battle, one by one Spartacus' men claim to be Spartacus himself in a futile bid to save Spartacus, is, alas, pure fiction. It is true, however, that Crassus had 6000 recaptured slaves crucified along the Appian Way. Crassus was awarded an ovation -- a kind of lesser triumph (see the entry for Ovatio from Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities) -- for putting down the revolt, but Pompey was awarded a triumph for his victories in Spain.

Ongoing Rivalry Between Crassus and Pompey

Crassus and Pompey's rivalry continued into their consulship (70) when they're being perpetually at loggerheads meant little could get done. In 65 Crassus served as a censor but again could get nothing done because of the opposition of his colleague, Lutatius Catulus.

There were rumors that Crassus was involved in the Catiline conspiracy (63-62), and Plutarch (Crassus 13:3) says that Cicero specifically stated after their deaths that Crassus and Julius Caesar were both involved in the conspiracy. Unfortunately, that speech has not survived, so we don't know what exactly Cicero said.

Julius Caesar persuaded Pompey and Crassus to settle their differences, and the three of them together formed the informal association which is often referred to as the first triumvirate (although, unlike Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus, they were never officially appointed as a triumvirate) (60).

In elections disturbed by serious rioting, Pompey and Crassus were elected consuls again for 55. In the distribution of provinces, Crassus was appointed to govern Syria. It was widely known that he intended to use Syria as a base for operations against Parthia, something which aroused considerable opposition since Parthia had never done the Romans any harm. Ateius, one of the tribunes, tried to stop Crassus from leaving Rome. When the other tribunes did not allow Ateius to detain Crassus, he called down a formal curse on Crassus as he left the city (54).

When Crassus crossed the Euphrates into Mesopotamia, many cities with Greek populations came over to his side. He garrisoned them and then withdrew back to Syria for the winter, where he waited for his son, who had been serving with Julius Caesar in Gaul, to join him. Rather than spending the time training his troops, Crassus pretended that he was going to levy troops from the local rulers so that they would bribe him not to.

The Parthians attacked the garrisons Crassus had installed the previous year, and stories came back of their devastating archery and impenetrable armour. The Parthians had perfected the art of shooting arrows backward off a galloping horse, and this is the origin of the English expression, Parthian shot. Although his men were dismayed by these stories, Crassus left his winter quarters for Mesopotamia (53), encouraged by the support of King Artabazes (otherwise known as Artavasdes) of Armenia, who brought 6000 horsemen, and promised a further 10,000 horsemen and 30,000-foot soldiers. Artabazes tried to persuade Crassus to invade Parthia via Armenia, where he could provision the army, but Crassus insisted on going through Mesopotamia. His own army consisted of seven legions, plus nearly 4000 cavalries and about the same number of light-armed troops.

To start with he proceeded along the Euphrates, towards Seleucia, but he allowed himself to be persuaded by an Arab called Ariamnes or Abgarus, who was secretly working for the Parthians, to cut across country to attack the Parthians under Surena. (Surena was one of the most powerful men in Parthia: his family had the hereditary right to crown the kings, and he himself had helped restore the reigning Parthian king, Hyrodes or Orodes, to his throne.) Meanwhile, Hyrodes had invaded Armenia and was fighting Artabazes.

Ariamnes led Crassus into the desert, where Crassus received pleas from Artabazes for him to come and help fight off the Parthians there, or at least keep to mountainous areas where the Parthian cavalry would be useless. Crassus took no notice but continued to follow Ariamnes.

The Death of Crassus Among the Parthians

Battle of Carrhae

After Ariamnes had left, giving the excuse that he was going to join the Parthians and spy on them for the Romans, some of Crassus' scouts returned saying that they had been attacked and the enemy was on their way. Crassus continued his march, with himself commanding the center and one wing commanded by his son, Publius, and the other by Cassius. They came to a stream, and although Crassus was advised to let the men rest and make camp for the night, he was persuaded by his son to continue at a rapid pace.

On the march, the Romans had been drawn up in a hollow square formation with each cohort allotted cavalry as protection. When they met the enemy they were soon surrounded and the Parthians started shooting them with their arrows, which smashed the Roman armor and pierced lesser coverings.

On his father's orders, Publius Crassus attacked the Parthians with a detachment of 1300 cavalry (1000 of whom were the Gauls he had brought with him from Caesar), 500 archers, and eight cohorts of infantry. When the Parthians withdrew, the younger Crassus followed them for a long way, but then the detachment was surrounded and subjected to the devastating archery attacks of the Parthians. Realizing there was no escape for his men, Publius Crassus and some of the other leading Romans with him committed suicide rather than fight on hopelessly. Of the forces with him, only 500 survived. The Parthians cut off Publius' head and took it back with them to taunt his father.

It was not the Parthian custom to fight at night, but at first, the Romans were too demoralized to take advantage of this. They did at last set off in great disorder. A band of 300 horsemen reached the town of Carrhae and told the Roman garrison there that there had been a battle between Crassus and the Parthians, before galloping off to Zeugma. The commander of the garrison, Coponius, marched out to meet the Roman forces and brought them back to the city.

Many of the wounded had been left behind, and there were parties of stragglers who had got separated from the main group. When the Parthians resumed their attacks at daybreak, the wounded and stragglers were killed or captured.

Surena sent a party to Carrhae to offer the Romans a truce and safe conduct out of Mesopotamia, provided Crassus and Cassius were handed over to him. Crassus and the Romans tried to escape from the city by night, but their guide betrayed them to the Parthians. Cassius distrusted the guide because of the circuitous route he was following and went back to the city and managed to get away with 500 horsemen.

When Surena found Crassus and his men the next day, he again offered a truce, saying the king had ordered it. Surena supplied Crassus with a horse, but as Surena's men tried to make the horse go faster, a scuffle developed between the Romans, who were unwilling for Crassus to go unaccompanied, and the Parthians. Crassus was killed in the fighting. Surena ordered the rest of the Romans to surrender, and some did. Others who tried to get away by night were hunted down and killed the next day. Altogether, 20,000 Romans were killed in the campaign and 10,000 captured.

The historian Dio Cassius, writing in the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD, reports a story that after Crassus' death the Parthians poured molten gold into his mouth as punishment for his greed (Cassius Dio 40.27).

Primary Sources: Plutarch's Life of Crassus (the Perrin translation) Plutarch paired Crassus with Nicias, and the Comparison between the two is online in the Dryden translation.
For the war against Spartacus, see also Appian's account in his The Civil Wars.
For the campaign in Parthia, see also Dio Cassius' History of Rome, Book 40: 12-27

Secondary Sources: For the war against Spartacus, see Jona Lendering's two-part article, which has links to the original sources and some good illustrations, including a bust of Crassus.
The Internet Movie Database has details of the film Spartacus, while History in Film discusses the film's historical accuracy.
Parthian records of the battle of Carrhae have not survived, but Iran chamber has articles on the Parthian Army and Surena.
Note: The above is a slightly adapted version of two articles that previously appeared at