Crassus – the very modern tycoon of ancient Rome who met a sticky end

'As rich as Crassus': Laurence Olivier as Marcus Licinius Crassus in Spartacus, 1960 - Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
'As rich as Crassus': Laurence Olivier as Marcus Licinius Crassus in Spartacus, 1960 - Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

In Rome the wealth of Crassus was legendary. Pliny the Elder estimated the value of his estate to be roughly equal to the entire annual budget of the Roman Republic. Comparisons to the ­present are difficult, but for a sense of scale, the UK’s annual budget last year was more than a thousand billion pounds. Yet the expression today is “as rich as Croesus”, a King of Lydia 500 years earlier (and a c­omparative minnow), not “as rich as Crassus”. The latter’s name has faded.

The ancients placed great weight on the verdict of posterity. When life was often short and death ­sudden, one reason to strive for distinction was to live on in the memory of future generations and thus escape oblivion. “Now again fate overtakes me,” says Hector in the Iliad. “Let me not perish without a struggle nor without fame, but doing some great deed for men that are yet to be to hear of.” Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the most prominent political figures of the late Roman Republic, did not secure the place in history he’d hoped for, or that his career seemed to promise. Every schoolchild knows the name Julius Caesar and many that of Pompey; that of Crassus, the third member of the triumvirate that held sway at Rome in the 50s BC, has lapsed into obscurity.

With great persistence and skill Crassus made his way through the danger and treachery of Roman politics to approach its zenith, but then fatally overreached, launching a disastrous military campaign against the Parthians that cost him his life and diminished his stature. In The First Tycoon, Peter Stothard, former editor of the Times and the TLS, tells the fascinating and ultimately tragic story of his life, perhaps for the first time since the Greek historian Plutarch wrote his Life of Crassus in the 1st century AD.

Crassus’s political career did not get off to an easy start. He was born into a patrician family: his father, like his father before him, was consul, the head of Rome’s government (although, idiosyncratically, the Romans elected two consuls at once, to stop one getting overmighty). But Crassus’s father took his own life as an opponent of the populist general Gaius Marius; Marius’s supporters placed his decapitated head on a spike in the forum. Crassus fled into exile in Spain, where he hid in a cave for eight months, surviving on supplies delivered by a friend. (It was a nice dry cave according to Plutarch, so Crassus is not quite The Revenant – but a hardy effort.) Scarcely 30 years old, he raised an army in Spain and went to join Sulla, the leading opponent of Marius, in Greece. The first flavour of his character begins to emerge: resilient, bold, ambitious and enterprising.

One of the strengths of Stothard’s writing is that he shows rather than tells: anecdote is preferred to adjectives. There is a wonderful description of Sulla, soon to become dictator, when Crassus first joins him, that hints at why Crassus never reached the same heights of power: “Sulla was pale and blue-eyed, his red-gold hair falling over a face that was lead-white and marked with blotches of purple. But as a veteran of every recent war, he had gained… a common touch that Crassus never found in his whole career. The stain that ran from Sulla’s forehead to his chin… seemed to have been earned in his life rather than given at birth. His soldiers loved him.”

'A common touch which Crassus never found': Laurence Olivier as Crassus, and John Gavin as Julius Caesar in Spartacus, 1960 - Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
'A common touch which Crassus never found': Laurence Olivier as Crassus, and John Gavin as Julius Caesar in Spartacus, 1960 - Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The years that followed Sulla’s victory over the Marians and his establishment as dictator were the making of Crassus as a political force. In the chaotic and bloody purge that ensued, “proscription” lists of Sulla’s opponents were drawn up, condemning them to death and rendering their property forfeit to the state. Crassus bought enormous quantities of this property for low prices at public auctions. Wealth in ancient Rome came primarily from land ownership because agriculture dominated the economy. As Cicero put it: “Of all the occupations by which gain is secured… none is more becoming to a free man.” Crassus understood this, and set about becoming Rome’s largest landowner.

Unusually, he acquired swaths of urban Rome, too – in property terms, a Roman Duke of Westminster, many times over. His real estate empire encompassed everything from grand houses to slum tenements, and was managed with an unusual degree of professionalism. He assembled teams of specially trained slaves dedicated to specific functions, including what amounted to his own private fire service. Fires broke out regularly among the dense and often poorly built tower blocks, or “insulae”. Crassus’s men would show up and offer to buy burning buildings from their desperate owners (or their neighbours) for next to nothing – before getting to work on putting the fire out. Like Peter Rachman, the notorious slum landlord of 1950s London, Crassus was not a man burdened by delicate scruples. That did not distinguish him in Rome; but his highly ­organised commercial operation did. In this sense he was well ahead of his time.

Via loans and financial favours, Crassus turned his burgeoning wealth into a network of influence, as Stothard illustrates with colourful detail. But he faced the problem that money acquired through business dealings was disdained among the Roman patricians. The singlemindedness with which Crassus pursued his own financial advantage became, in the view of some contemporaries, undignified. ­Cicero said Crassus would dance the full length of the forum to earn a mention in a will.

Land was not the only form of wealth. Gold and silver were also stores of value, as were slaves – and these could most efficiently be acquired through foreign conquest. Pompey did this with great success with his victories in the near east. Such was the haul of booty with which he returned from his ­successful campaign against ­Mithridates of Pontus that “Crassus could not deny that Pompey was the richer man”.

Craving a conquest: Crassus played by Laurence Olivier, with Jean Simmons as his slave Varinia, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 Spartacus
Craving a conquest: Crassus played by Laurence Olivier, with Jean Simmons as his slave Varinia, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 Spartacus

Richer not only in money, but, as Crassus was keenly aware, in honour, too, which only military conquest could bring. Crassus craved the adulation of a triumph – a victory procession through Rome – which he had seen his father win and which had burnished the names of his rivals, Pompey and Caesar, in a way in which no success in business ever could. This is what led him to launch his unnecessary and ill-starred campaign against the Parthian king, a strong and poorly understood adversary.

The pages of this short book turn quickly. The Parthian campaign, in particular, is narrated with a gripping verve and brio. Occasionally one gets the impression that the author could not quite decide on the right genre: biography or Hilary Mantel-esque historically accurate novel. The authorial voice can seem to vacillate between the historian’s, imparting and analysing evidence, and the novelist’s, privy to the thoughts and motivations of his characters. (If Stothard chose to commit fully to the latter, I suspect he would do so with great success.)

Crassus’s story is worth retelling. He was a man who mattered more than almost any other, at a crucial point in Rome’s history, as its power waxed but its old political structures failed and were recast. His world was in some ways utterly alien to ours: life truly was nasty, brutish and short. It was said that the Parthians filled his mouth with molten gold, cut off his head, and later used it as a stage prop in The Bacchae.

But Crassus was at the same time a curiously modern figure. His skill as a networker, investor, financier and organiser would have made him a brilliant entrepreneur or CEO. He used his talents to follow an unconventional course almost to the summit of Roman politics. But he could not escape the constraints of his era: that summit was reserved for conquering heroes, which was not the role allotted to him. The First Tycoon rightly rescues him from oblivion.

The First Tycoon is published by Yale at £18.99. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books