Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter 3

Marcus Crassus and the Lure of the East

With the background to the rise of the two great empires dealt with, we must now turn our attention to the man who led the Roman forces at the Battle of Carrhae and who will forever be associated with the battle. His name was Marcus Licinius Crassus and at the time he was one of Rome’s two leading men (the other being Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, more commonly referred to as Pompey the Great). Despite his contemporary status, history mostly remembers Crassus only in clichés; his supposed insatiable greed, his crucifixion of the defeated slaves of Spartacus, his sponsoring of Gaius Julius Caesar and his defeat and death at the hands of the Parthians (which is most commonly attributed to his supposed military inexperience and incompetence). If we are to examine the Parthian campaign and the Battle of Carrhae in detail, we will need to move away from these clichés and gain a clearer picture of the man who was the driving force behind the campaign.

In 55 BC Marcus Licinius Crassus was elected, along with his sometime ally, Pompey, to the consulship. This was the second time that the two men had been paired in this office (the first being in 70 BC) and both were elected unopposed, due to their use of bribery and intimidation to prevent anyone else from standing. Despite their dislike for each other and their long term rivalry, both men had a history of working together when it suited their needs and, when combined, their resources outstripped the rest of the Senate put together. Both men were incredibly wealthy and had scores of magistrates, senators and businessmen in their patronage. This was the third such time that these two men had worked together (the others being in 71–70 and 60–59 BC) and once again they had been brought together by the twin motivations of opportunity and mutual protection (as will be seen later).

Once in the consulship, both men ensured that they received extraordinary five year military commands, with Crassus being awarded Syria as his province. In addition to the extended term of command, he secured a number of additional legions to take with him, as well as the power to make war and peace as he saw fit (without reference to the Senate or people). There can have been little Rome, or amongst the peoples of the east, as to the intentions of such an extra-ordinary command. Parthia was in the grips of a fraternal civil war and Crassus’ predecessor as governor of Syria (Aulus Gabinius) had already accepted an appeal for Roman help from one of the two royal brothers, Mithradates III. What Crassus’ exact aims were in this war will be analysed later. Firstly however, we need to acquaint ourselves with what nature of man Rome had placed in charge of her first war with Parthia and the extension of the Roman imperium in the east. To do this we need to look beyond the traditional stereotypes to see this man who was one half of Rome’s dominant political partnership.

Background and Early Life

Marcus Licinius Crassus was born into one of the two branches of the Licinius Crassus family (or gens), a leading plebeian senatorial family. He was the second or third son of Publius Licinius Crassus, who had been consul in 97 BC and censor in 89 BC. The Licinius Crassus family were descended from the wider Licinius family (which had been involved in Roman politics since the fifth century BC) and had formed their own distinctive branch, shown by the use of the additional name Crassus, in the third century BC. The family emerged and came to prominence during the Second Punic War, when mounting aristocratic casualties allowed for rapid political advancement. From that time onwards, the Licinii Crassi had been a solid aristocratic family, achieving consulships in each of the succeeding generations92. Two distinctive branches of the family had formed, with one branch receiving the additional name of Dives (rich). Ironically Marcus Licinius Crassus belonged to the other branch.

Thus, Marcus was born into a solidly senatorial family that belonged in the upper echelons of the aristocracy, but one that had done little to stand out from the rest of such families. To date they had avoided being closely connected to any of the major military or political events that had shaped the republic in the second century BC. As a second or third son (we are unsure which) Marcus could have looked forward to a good senatorial career, possibly even a consulship (though his elder brother would have taken preference). As it happened, events conspired to advance his career far beyond such uninspiring beginnings.

We have no exact date of birth for Marcus, though Plutarch states that he was sixty when he set out for the Parthian campaign, giving us a rough date of 115 or 114 BC. As we will see later, however, this information is open to question. Despite their senatorial status, his upbringing appears to have been a humble one (for an aristocrat). We have little detail about his early years, but one event that we do know of was the death of one of his brothers (who is unnamed in the sources, but not the eldest one). Marcus then married his brother’s widow, Tetulla. This in itself was a common enough practice within the Roman aristocracy, especially when the family wanted to keep the bride’s dowry, but does indicate one or two useful things. The bride’s name indicates that she was not from the leading aristocracy, which perhaps suggests that the family had chosen a rich provincial bride, making them a typical example of an aristocratic, but relatively cash-strapped, family. It would also indicate that Marcus was the third son, with his two brothers being married, but not him. He remained married to Tertulla for the rest of his life, though, as is typical in our sources, we have no further detail about her. The union produced two sons, Marcus and Publius (the latter would be with his father at Carrhae), both born in the late 80s BC.93

In terms of upbringing, the sources talk of Crassus being well educated with a polite and courteous manner. He also appears to have been an excellent orator which led him to establishing a career as a lawyer of some note.94 Given his age, it is likely that he served on his father’s staff when his father was fighting in Spain as proconsul during 96–93 BC, which was usual for a young aristocrat and for which we have an oblique reference from Plutarch.95 This would have been his first taste of warfare, in a particularly difficult campaign against the peoples of Spain (the Lusitanians in this instance) for which his father was awarded a triumph. When war broke out in 91 BC between Rome and her Italian allies (referred to today as the Social War96), Marcus’ father served as a legate of Lucius Julius Caesar and again it is likely that Marcus was present as a junior officer, again establishing his early military credentials.

This period also produces the first evidence of a link between the Licinii Crassi and Julii families. After serving as a legate of Lucius Julius Caesar (great uncle to the more famous Gaius Julius Caesar), Marcus’ father then held the censorship with him. This gives us a clear indication of the links between the two families, with Marcus later nurturing a young Gaius Julius Caesar. Thus far Marcus’ career had followed the traditional path: military service in his teens and twenties in preparation for a political career in his thirties. However, this was not to be, as in 88 BC Rome’s first civil war broke out.

Marcus Crassus and the First Civil War

In 88 BC, following a dispute over who would command the campaign against Mithridates VI of Pontus, the two consuls of Rome, Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Quintus Pompeius Rufus, marched their army on Rome. The action caught everyone unawares and the city fell with little resistance. The attack on Rome itself was relatively bloodless, with twelve of Sulla’s enemies being outlawed, several of whom were killed. The vast majority of the Senate, including the Licinii Crassi (father and sons) were unaffected. However, when Sulla left Rome for the east to fight Mithridates, his enemies planned their return. In 87 BC the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna copied Sulla’s tactics and also marched his army on Rome, along with Sulla’s leading opponent, Gaius Marius. This time the city was defended and put up a brave, but ultimately one-sided resistance, and when the city was stormed it was accompanied by a vast massacre. Aside from the general slaughter that accompanied the taking of an ancient city, Gaius Marius used this opportunity to rid himself of the many political enemies that he had made in his long career. Most of Rome’s leading senators were butchered along with many of their families; on that list (for reasons we cannot determine) were Publius Licinius Crassus and his eldest son, Publius. At a stroke Marcus became the head of his branch of the family branch. Yet despite his father and eldest brother being murdered, he himself remained untouched and this must be analysed.

The standard reason given by scholars is that he was too young (only twenty-eight or nine) and was not politically active, and so had not yet amassed any enemies. Yet the same could be said of his elder brother and that did him little good. Furthermore, given the general slaughter and the fact that he would be honour-bound to seek revenge for the deaths, leaving Marcus alive makes little sense. Plutarch reports that Marcus avoided the immediate slaughter as he was too young and later fled to Spain, along with three friends and ten servants.97 It is far more likely that as a politically inactive young man he would not have been involved in defending the city or attending the Senate and thus had more time to make his escape when the city fell. Perhaps his father had made provision for his youngest son to escape in the event that the city fell, thus ensuring the family’s survival should the situation in Rome turn for the worse.

In any event, Marcus sought refuge from the slaughter by fleeing to Spain. Plutarch tells the story of how Marcus spent eight months hiding in a cave, aided by the generosity of a stranger.98 Whilst not wanting to spoil the romance of such a tale, Plutarch does overlook two major factors. Firstly, Marcus apparently fled Rome with three friends and ten slaves (making it a very crowded cave); secondly, thanks to his father’s efforts in Spain, the Crassi would have had a number of friends and supporters in the region, and possibly even own property out there. Thus Marcus fled Rome to a comfortable exile in Spain, probably on a family estate, surrounded by friends and allies, whilst he waited for the situation in Rome to calm down.

It is apparent that he spent the years 87–84 BC in Spain, during which time Rome was ruled by Lucius Cornelius Cinna. During this time Sulla was in the east fighting Mithridates, but a clash between him and Cinna seemed inevitable. In 84 BC, however, as Cinna was awaiting Sulla’s invasion of Italy, he was murdered by mutinying troops. With Cinna gone, the faction that held Rome began to disintegrate and it was at this point that Marcus Crassus came off the fence and made a crucial decision. Despite having held no political office and having no official mandate, he raised an army of 2,500 men (an understrength legion). He achieved this by recruiting men from amongst his father’s veterans, who had been settled in the area (which was possibly another reason why he fled there in the first place). How quickly he managed to raise a legion without any overt authority merely demonstrates how lawless the Roman Republic had become and how little central authority Rome itself exerted. Crassus then used this army to extort money from the neighbouring Spanish cities to pay for his campaign, one of which, Malaca, he was accused of sacking.99 He was then able to collect enough ships to transfer his men from Spain to Roman North Africa, where one of Sulla’s lieutenants, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius, was stationed.

In his early thirties, then, Crassus had proclaimed himself a general, raised an army and entered into the civil wars, which all demonstrate considerable leadership and ambition. Such actions also mirrored the early career of Pompey who had taken similar actions in Italy. Once in Africa, though, he soon fell out with Metellus, who was there with an official command and was a man of traditional values who would therefore have no time for an upstart commander. Unperturbed, Crassus decided to join Sulla directly and so took his fleet and army to Greece to meet up with him in person. When he arrived in Greece, Sulla did not concern himself with the legality of Crassus’ command, but made him one of his trusted lieutenants, being grateful for the military support and the political message that it sent out, having the scion of a consular family joining his cause. When Sulla invaded Italy in 83 BC Crassus was at his side, unlike Pompey who had remained in Italy awaiting Sulla’s arrival.

Once in Italy, Sulla entrusted Crassus with raising fresh forces from the Italian states, a task which he accomplished with considerable success. By 82 BC, he was operating alongside Metellus and Pompey, successfully campaigning in Northern Italy. Crassus again distinguished himself in battle, successfully besieging the city of Tuder and working in a joint operation with Pompey to defeat the general Carrinas. The outcome of the First Civil War was settled at the Battle of the Colline Gate, just outside of Rome itself, later that year.

It was here that Crassus had his first decisive military victory. Sulla commanded the centre of his army and placed Crassus in charge of the right wing. As the battle progressed, Sulla’s central detachment of soldiers were over-whelmed and the centre of the line collapsed, which left him facing defeat. Crassus however had triumphed on the right wing and succeeded in routing the enemy forces, who then turned and fled back into the rest of their army, causing total mayhem in the enemy’s ranks. This saved Sulla and allowed his army to regain their formation and rout the opposing forces, who were now in disarray. Thus, whilst Sulla is credited with winning the Battle of the Colline Gate and thus ending the war, it was Crassus who had made the telling contribution and brought about the victory.

It is clear that the First Civil War was a key period in Crassus’ life. From being born as a lesser son to an undistinguished senatorial family, he became the head of the household and a key lieutenant of the ruler of Rome. Crassus’ actions during the war showed that he had excellent leadership and martial skills, through raising his own army and equipping it, then raising a fleet and transporting his men by sea (first from Spain to Africa, and then from Africa to Greece). In battle he acquitted himself against the best Roman commanders of the time and made the decisive contribution in the engagement that won the war.

It was following Sulla’s victory, however, that the less savoury aspects of Crassus’ character emerged and he became embroiled in a scandal that forever tainted people’s views of him. Upon his victory, Sulla’s thoughts turned to the elimination of his surviving enemies and planned a purge, known as the proscriptions. This involved the production and publication of a list of his enemies. Anyone whose name appeared on the list could be killed on the spot, with the killer then receiving a reward. The dead man’s property was then confiscated by the state and used to pay off the demobilised soldiers. The man that Sulla turned to in order to implement this bloody programme was Crassus. Despite fulfilling Sulla’s orders and eliminating his enemies, and thus gaining a vast reserve of wealth for Sulla’s demobilisation programme, Crassus himself emerged from the process with a vast personal fortune. Not only was he accused of profiteering by buying up the confiscated property on the cheap, but he was also suspected of adding to the list the names of men whose properties he had his eye on. Not only did this make Crassus a great deal of money, but it also earned him a reputation for greed and avarice which was to remain with him for the rest of his life and even beyond. In the short term his actions also led to an estrangement between him and Sulla.

Crassus’ new fortune was based on a spread of different types of property, ranging from silver mines in Spain, to massive landed estates in the country and a considerable number of properties in Rome itself. The landed estates could be sold off or kept to produce a steady annual income as could the property in Rome. Furthermore, his portfolio of aristocratic properties in Rome presented him with an additional political opportunity. To replenish the numbers of the Senate (most of whom had been killed in the civil war, or the proscriptions that followed), Sulla had created over 450 new senators, many of whom were without a house in Rome itself. This allowed Crassus an excellent opportunity to sell these men some of his recently acquired properties at a knock down rate and thus earn their gratitude, which was an invaluable political commodity.

Despite the unsavoury reputation that this whole episode had given him, and his resulting estrangement from the inner circle of Sulla’s supporters, Crassus himself was one of the new inductees into the Senate, as his birth and rank demanded. By the time that Sulla retired from power in 79 BC, Crassus was in his mid-thirties. Although the civil war had interrupted his normal progression on the political career structure (he had yet to hold a magistracy), and although he was technically just a junior senator, Crassus entered the post-Sullan period with an enviable military reputation, great personal wealth and a growing circle of patronage. On the downside, he had gained an unsavoury reputation for greed and a number of political enemies

Nevertheless, the war had shown Crassus’ considerable military skills, both tactically and logistically. He had raised an army from scratch and transported it across a war-torn Mediterranean. He became one of the first defectors to Sulla’s cause and was at his side on the invasion of Italy. He had established himself as a good field commander in the campaigns of 83/82 BC, despite his youth, and had played a crucial role in the victory at the Colline Gate, turning potential defeat into a war-clinching victory. He then amassed a considerable fortune and gained entry into the Senate, creating a formidable basis for a future political career.

Out of the Shadows: The Spartacus Slave Rebellion

During the period from the retirement of Sulla in 79 BC to the outbreak of the Spartacan Slave Revolt in 73 BC we know little of Crassus’ activities. It is not to say that there was little of importance occurring, it is just that the surviving sources do not mention him in connection with them. Furthermore, the sources all focus on the rise of Pompey. In 78–77 BC, Rome was rocked by the attempted coup of the consul Lepidus, who marched an army on Rome but was stopped by two armies raised by the Senate, one of which was commanded by Pompey. The other major events of this period concerned the Senate’s attempts to re-conquer Spain from a dissident Roman general by the name of Sertorius (who had fled Italy upon Sulla’s invasion) and the third war against Mithridates VI of Pontus. After Lepidus’ attempted coup, the main domestic agenda focussed on the overturning of Sulla’s reforms of the office of tribune.100

We have no detail of Crassus’ role in any of these events, and it is here that we find him being overshadowed in our sources by the figure of Pompey. Crassus was the elder of the two by eight or nine years, but both men had had similar early careers, raising armies without authorisation and joining and fighting for Sulla in the civil wars.101 In 78 BC Crassus was the rich senator, whilst Pompey was still a young man, too junior for political office. Yet whilst Crassus spent the 70s working within the system, Pompey chose to work outside of it. His favourite tactic was to threaten to use military force, or imply the threat, if he did not get what he wanted. It was in this manner that Pompey gained a command against Lepidus and was later sent off to Spain to help fight against Sertorius.

Both men had been given a taste of power during the Sullan period at a very young age. When the Senate attempted to restore the standard model of republican government, both men found themselves potentially deprived of this power and both decided to struggle to keep their previously high position. For Crassus, this could be done within the senatorial system, by using his wealth and guile to build up a political powerbase within Rome. Pompey however was still technically too young to hold anything other than junior positions, in either political or military life, and thus chose the maverick’s route. Both men, however, shared the same problem; they were both considered to be young and dangerous upstarts by the ruling senatorial clique of Sullan supporters, men such as Lucullus, Metellus and the like, on account of their unorthodox methods during the Sullan period.

Although we have no direct account of Crassus’ political activities in these years 79–74 BC, Plutarch does give us one anecdote that may shed some light on his position in these years. In the mid 70s one of the main agitators for the restoration of the powers of the office of tribune was Lucius Sicinius, who led political attacks on a number of leading senators. Plutarch records a story that Sicinius was asked why he did not attack Crassus, to which he replied that Crassus ‘had hay on his horns’.102 Romans used to put hay on the horns of bulls that were dangerous and gored people. We have no way of telling whether the quote is genuine, but it illustrates nicely that in this period Crassus operated in the shadows of Roman politics, steadily building power and influence. One area where we do have evidence for Crassus’ activities lies in the legal field, as we know that he regularly engaged in defence work. This gave him the chance to exercise his powers of oratory and to gain a high profile. Furthermore, it allowed him to build up a network of patronage amongst the men whom he had (successfully) defended.

Crassus is not recorded as having held a political office until his praetorship of 73 BC. Under normal circumstances he would have held the tribunate in the 80s BC followed by the quaestorship (both of which were junior offices), but the war put paid to holding those. The next stage would have been the aedileship, at some point in his mid-thirties. We have no record of him holding this office, which may be an omission, but it could indicate that he did not need to hold such a junior position, given his strong powerbase already. It was only the praetorship and consulship that carried the power of imperium (the right to military command). Under Sulla’s new constitution, no one could hold the office of praetor until they were 39 years old, which Crassus would be in 76 or 75 BC. We do not know why he waited until 73 to hold the office as there is no record of him having any difficulty in being elected (unsurprising given his wealth and influence), but perhaps it indicates that the date of birth we have given him (based on Plutarch’s statement), is wrong. Perhaps this indicates that he was indeed 39 years old in 74/73 BC which gives us a possible date of birth of 113 / 112 BC.

In any event, he passed his year as praetor in Rome quietly enough. Nevertheless, the year was notable for a slave revolt in Capua, not an uncommon occurrence in itself. However, on this occasion the revolt was started by a group of trainee gladiators led by a man known as Spartacus. At first it was assumed that they would either disperse (as revolting slaves usually did) or be swiftly dealt with by the local Capuan militia. The Capuan militia however were soon defeated, and this gave the slave force a supply of real weapons as well as acting as a clarion call to all other slaves in the area, many of whom flocked to join this new slave force. The sources also report that a number of freeborn Italian peasants joined the group, which illustrates how Italy must still have been recovering from the devastation of ten years of warfare during the previous decade.103

It was at this point that the Senate began to take notice and dispatched one of the praetors with a force of 3,000 men to end this rebellion. The sources are confused over his identity; he was either a Claudius Glaber or a Varinius Glaber.104 Either way, he soon had the slaves trapped and surrounded on a hilltop, but was outmanoeuvred when they climbed down the blind side of the hill and launched a surprise attack on the Roman force, defeating them. Once again the slaves gained greater notoriety along with an enhanced arsenal of Roman weapons, both of which in turn led to more recruits joining them as they continued to ravage the countryside.

After the defeat of a praetorian army, the Senate determined to wipe out this rebellion, which threatened to upset the whole economic and social fabric of Italy. Another praetor was sent to deal with them, either a Publius Varinus or a Publius Valerius (again the sources are confused).105Spartacus’ force engaged the praetor’s army on several occasions and ultimately defeated him, killing or capturing his junior officers and forcing him to flee on foot (as the slaves had also captured his horse).

By the beginning of 72 BC the Senate was in a state of panic. Two praetors had been defeated and this slave band had now swelled into a large army capable of defeating major Roman forces. On a personal level, many of the Senators had properties that were being plundered and had slaves absconding. This revolt could not have come at a worse time for Rome. Italy was still recovering from the civil wars and Rome was fighting wars on two other fronts, against Sertorius in Spain and Mithridates VI in the east. Much of Rome’s military manpower, and virtually all of her leading generals, were overseas.

Crassus’ attitude during this year would be interesting to know. Two of his colleagues had been dispatched to deal with an apparently-minor problem, both had been defeated and now this problem was turning into a national emergency. It is unlikely that during 73 BC Crassus would have wanted the task of fighting some runaway slaves, but by 72 BC the situation now presented a remarkable opportunity. At the end of their year in office, the praetors were expected to leave Italy to govern a province. Crassus however stayed in Rome. This has usually been ascribed to the fact that he already had military experience and wealth and therefore did not need, or want, to spend a year away from the centre of politics. There may have been a more powerful motivation for Crassus to stay in Rome, however. Not only were all the choice military commands already taken (in Spain and the east), but the situation in Italy was deteriorating rapidly and would make a wonderful command in its own right. This is more likely to have been the motive that led him to stay in Rome in 72 BC.

Unfortunately, the Senate turned to the consuls of the year, Gellius Publicola and Cornelius Lentulus, neither of whom had any significant military experience. Both were dispatched against Spartacus, with two legions each. At first it looked as though this plan would work as Publicola cornered a slave army led by Spartacus’ deputy, Crixus, and annihilated it. Spartacus headed north for the Alps and freedom, with both consular armies trailing him. But then, instead of flight, he turned about and in separate battles defeated both consuls. He followed this by defeating the governor of Cisalpine Gaul (Northern Italy) at the Battle of Mutina, destroying an army of 10,000 men. It was at this point that he made a surprise return to central, and then southern, Italy. His motives for this were never known, but having destroyed three Roman armies in the space of a few months, perhaps he now thought of toppling the whole Roman system.

In Rome, the Senate and the people were in full-scale panic. Three armies had been destroyed and both consuls defeated (both of whom had escaped and slunk back to Rome in shame). Italy lay open to Spartacus and there was talk of the city itself being besieged. Publicola and Lentulus had proven themselves to be incapable of defeating Spartacus and established generals such as Lucullus, Metellus and Pompey were all fighting overseas. It was at this point that Crassus made his bid for glory. The exact sequence of events is obscure, but what is clear is that Crassus offered his services to the Senate to take command of the war against Spartacus and put his experience and wealth at their disposal.

It appears that Crassus timed this move to perfection. We have no record of dissenting voices and apparently both the defeated consuls approved, surrendered their military commands and remained in Rome, probably due to a deal having been worked out between themselves and Crassus.106 Given his acknowledged military experience, both on the battlefield and at organisation, such a choice seemed ideal. For those who harboured doubts about his questionable ethics, the crisis was too grave for such concerns to matter. Thus, in his late thirties, Crassus was called upon to save the Roman state and given proconsular authority in Italy. We can see that if both the Senate and the assemblies conferred the command upon Crassus in such an emergency, then there can have been few people who doubted his military capabilities.

Not only had he been called on to save the state (which, if he was successful, would reap massive political rewards), but he had also trumped his rival Pompey. The war in Spain against Sertorius was drawing to a conclusion (following the latter’s assassination) and Pompey’s name was being mentioned in connection with a recall to fight Spartacus and save Rome himself. Crassus’ move would, therefore, not only secure his own success but would deny Pompey the chance of the command and would allow him to match, or even surpass, Pompey’s successes in Spain.

With the command secure, Crassus once again showed that he was a superb military organiser. In addition to the remnants of the two defeated consular armies, he raised six fresh legions, which he financed out of his own pocket. Furthermore, rather than recruit raw and inexperienced men, he recruited men from amongst the veterans of Sulla’s armies from the civil war, many of whom had been settled in Italy. This immediately gave him an army of 40,000–45,000 seasoned soldiers with which to face Spartacus. We are told that he also took with him a number of ambitious young senators on his general staff, thus again not wasting an opportunity for political patronage.107

His initial strategy was to secure the area around central Italy and force Spartacus into battle. This plan appeared to be working, when one of his subordinates, Mummius, rashly attacked Spartacus’s army in a bid to gain glory for himself. He met with the same fate that all previous Roman commanders had and was defeated. It appears that the men he had under his command were from the two defeated consular armies and during the battle had turned and fled. It was at this point that Crassus showed his ruthless side once again. In order to restore discipline in the army, he resurrected the ancient Roman punishment of decimation, where one man in ten of the retreating soldiers was chosen at random and brutally clubbed to death by their fellow soldiers.

With this act fresh in his men’s minds, Crassus attacked Spartacus and defeated him in battle for the first time. Spartacus however, managed to retreat to the south and attempted to leave Italy, either for Sicily, or further afield. Having been betrayed by the Cilician pirates, who had promised to transport his army but then double-crossed him when they had been paid, he found himself trapped in the toe of Italy. Dividing his army into two, Spartacus broke out of the south and made inland, with Crassus in close pursuit. Crassus soon caught up with the lesser of the slave armies, led by Castus and Cannicus, trapped them between the two wings of his own army and slaughtered them. As part of the spoils of victory, Crassus recovered five legionary eagles and twenty-six lesser standards, along with a number of magisterial badges of office, all of which had been taken from defeated Roman armies.

Prior to the battle Crassus had split off a part of his own force in order to shadow Spartacus’ army, led by his officers, Tremellius Scrofa and Quinctius. Once again Spartacus showed that he was still a match for ordinary Roman commanders and defeated this force. Crassus however had marched on immediately after his own victory and caught up with Spartacus’ army before it could retreat. Spartacus gave battle but proved to be no match for Crassus, who annihilated the slave army. Spartacus himself died in battle with his body never being recovered (despite the more famous ending of the film version). As a deterrent to future slave revolts and to show Rome that the danger had passed, Crassus then ordered the now infamous crucifixion of 6,000 of the captured slave army, with their live bodies lining the road from Capua (the origin of the revolt) to the gates of Rome.

Crassus’ achievements in this war cannot be overestimated. As Appian states: ‘Crassus accomplished this in a space of six months and because of it immediately acquired a reputation to match that of Pompeius’.108 He had comprehensively defeated an enemy who, at his peak, had looked capable of attacking Rome itself and was a threat to the Republic’s very existence. As a private citizen, he had come to Rome’s aid, when Rome’s chosen consuls had failed. He raised and paid for a massive veteran army himself and ended the menace of the slave army. In the eyes of the Senate and the people of Rome, he had saved the state from destruction, as he would no doubt remind them any chance he got. In military terms, this was his crowning achievement. Once again he had shown that he possessed considerable ability in raising and equipping armies for the field and that he was a superb battlefield general. His tactical abilities cannot only be seen in comparison to those generals who were defeated before he took command, but also by the two defeats that his officers suffered when they attempted to fight Spartacus on their own. Crassus ended the campaign having three clear victories to his name, two over Spartacus and one over the lesser slave army of Castus and Cannicus.

However, just when it looked like he was on course to reap the benefits of his victories, his old rival and constant shadow, Pompey, once again appeared on the scene. Pompey had been returning from Spain and was making his way back through Italy with his army, obviously hoping to take part in the action against Spartacus. As he came through Northern Italy he ran into a group of slaves fleeing from the defeat, which he easily dispatched. He then sent a message to the Senate stating that although Crassus had defeated the slaves, it was he who had ended the war; a typical piece of Pompeian one-upmanship. Though as Velleius reports, it was clear in Rome where the credit lay: ‘The glory of having ended the war wholly belongs to Marcus Crassus’.109

Even so, for all concerned (the Senate, Pompey and Crassus) victory over Spartacus was quickly overshadowed by a new and potentially far worse situation. Pompey and Crassus were both approaching Rome with their armies. Neither man got on with the other, both would expect to be rewarded for their victories and both would expect further political advancement. In 71 BC the situation in Italy was on a knife-edge. With the bloodshed of the civil wars fresh in everyone’s minds, Sulla’s two most unscrupulous generals, both at the head of loyal armies, were approaching Rome – and each other.

Away from the Abyss: the Rise of the Duumvirate (71–70 BC)

With the stage set for a tense encounter between the two rivals and the Senate and people holding their breath and fearing the worst, the two men did the last thing that anyone expected: they decided to join forces and seize the consulships for the next year (70 BC). We lack the detail of how this deal came about, who made the first move, or what terms they reached, but it was clear that both men had everything to gain from working together and everything to lose from allowing the Senate to set them against each other. This duumvirate (a body of two) presented a formidable unit and was easily more powerful than the Senate itself. Pompey had massive popularity amongst the common people, whilst Crassus had significant backing amongst the equestrian businessmen of Rome. Both had victorious armies and Crassus had his massive wealth and political patronage. The only opposition to this duumvirate came from the Senatorial aristocracy, who had influence but little real power in the face of such opposition.

For Crassus, a consulship was a just and legitimate goal. Under the Sullan constitution he was the correct age (over forty-two) and had had a three year gap between his praetorship and his running for the consulate. For Pompey, however, such a desire was blatantly illegal as he was only thirty-four years old and had never held a political office. So, for Crassus this was an interesting move. He would have almost certainly have gained the consulship for 70 BC without an alliance with Pompey, so we can legitimately ask what he got out of it, especially given that Pompey’s illegal consulship would taint his own. Running on a joint ticket would assure that Crassus tapped into Pompey’s popularity with the common people of Rome, but more importantly it would ensure that neither man would have a colleague who opposed his measures, especially if the Senate had got one of their number elected. We must assume that both men had proposals which they wanted to implement and thus worked out a programme of legislation beforehand, ensuring that both would get what they wanted.

In the build up to the elections, both men refused to disband their armies, with Pompey claiming that he was waiting for the rest of his returning Spanish armies in order to celebrate his triumph and Crassus claiming that he would disband only after Pompey had. It is likely that both men had agreed this ruse in advance and thus appeared to play each other off. Both men presented the Senate with claims for triumphs for their military endeavours and a demand for the consulships of 70 BC. Given the overwhelming power of this joint ticket and the implied threat in the refusal to disband their armies, the Senate gave way on both proposals. Pompey received dispensation from the Sullan laws in order to be eligible to stand as consul and both men were duly elected. We are unaware if anyone else even ran in opposition to them, but such an act would have been extremely foolhardy.

Thus, possessed of an extraordinary mandate, both men entered the consulships of 70 BC. In terms of the victory parades, Pompey celebrated a triumph for his victories in Spain whilst Crassus received an ovation (a lesser triumph). This has often been misinterpreted as a snub to Crassus by the Senate and Pompey, showing his inferior status to latter. In actual fact, Crassus could not have claimed a triumph due to the fact that he was not fighting a foreign enemy, but defeating a rebellion. Nevertheless, Crassus ensured that he was not outshone by Pompey. He received special dispensation to wear a laurel crown on his head during his parade (only ever reserved for triumphs, making him the only man to have this honour during an ovation). Furthermore, Crassus dipped into his own personal fortune to outstrip Pompey, setting up 10,000 tables for the people to feast off during his parade and then giving them each a free gift of three months supply of corn (the staple food of the common people). By such largesse Crassus ensured that he rivalled Pompey in popularity with the people. He went further when, as an act (calculated, no doubt) of piety, he dedicated a tenth of his entire personal fortune in honour of Hercules, when tradition only required that a victorious general dedicated a tenth of his campaign spoils. Again we see Crassus using his wealth to counter Pompey’s popularity.

In political terms, the consulships of Crassus and Pompey are noted for two key constitutional changes, both of which indicate the mindset of the men. Most famously, they passed a law restoring the powers of the tribunate of the plebs (a radical political office), whose powers of legislation were technically unlimited and could be used to undermine the Senate’s decisions (as it had been in the past). Agitation for this restoration had been growing throughout the 70s, and it is clear that Pompey had been claiming that, if he gained the consulship, he would restore them. Though we can see that this measure was inspired by Pompey, the tribunate’s usefulness would not have been lost on Crassus, and both men made use of tribunes in the later decades.

The second major constitutional change was the restoration of the office of censor, which had lapsed under Sulla (if it had not been formally abolished). The choice of the new censors was an interesting and potentially revealing one. The consuls of 72 BC (Cornelius Lentulus and Gellius Publicola) were chosen. Given that both men had suffered defeat at the hands of Spartacus, neither was held in high esteem. As it was these two men whose command Crassus had taken over in 72 BC, then we can perhaps see one of the main reasons that they stood aside so easily (other than not wanting to fight Spartacus again). It is likely that in return for their complicity in Crassus’ command, they would be later honoured by him, in the form of being the first newly restored censors, a distinguished honour in the Republic.

Furthermore, given that the censors controlled the issuing of all building and other economic contracts, we can see why it would have appealed to Crassus. We have no details of any contracts awarded by the censors of this year, but it is a fair assumption that there were a number of them and that Crassus benefited, either directly or indirectly, by them. In addition, the censors enrolled the millions of Italians who had recently gained full Roman citizenship, thus allowing Pompey and Crassus the opportunity to take the credit and the support it brought. The censors also traditionally revised the list of Senators, and now sixty-four were expelled by them for moral or financial irregularities. Clearly these men would have been no friends of either Crassus or Pompey.

Thus this duumvirate consolidated their control over a number of aspects of the Roman Republic, revising the constitution, the citizen list and the Senate. It is clear from the sources that the two men quarrelled a lot, but aside from a natural rivalry, it is unclear how personal this really was.110 During their consulship the sources report a story of the people becoming alarmed at a rift between these two, which led to a very public reconciliation between them.111 Although there was a natural competition between them, you cannot help but wonder whether this was played upon by both men and how far this reconciliation was staged to some degree for political effect. Both men were consummate politicians after all.

With their consulships coming to an end, both men took the unusual step of refusing the customary governorship of a province the following year, and both retired back into normal political life. Certainly they had already achieved spectacular military success and at the time the only ongoing major military campaign was against Mithridates VI of Pontus in the Third Mithridatic War, which was already being commanded by Lucullus. Crassus returned back into the quiet and unseen political machinations that were his forte, whilst it appears that Pompey was biding his time and wished to remain in Rome, awaiting a further military command. Thus the duumvirate, which had been brought together by circumstance and opportunity, was retired and both men returned to their separate political lives.

Rome’s Two Masters (69–62 BC)

Scholars, both ancient and especially modern, have always tried to define Crassus’ actions throughout the decade of the 60s BC in terms of reacting to those of Pompey. In 67 BC Pompey used a tribune to gain an extraordinary military command for himself to dispose of all pirate activity in the Mediterranean. At the successful conclusion to this campaign, he used another tribune to assign him the command of the war against Mithridates VI. Crassus meanwhile spent the decade in Rome (at the heart of domestic events). It can be legitimately asked whether Crassus tried to stop Pompey from gaining his extraordinary commands or whether he wanted his rival out of the way. Thus again Crassus and Pompey reverted to their respective routes to power: Crassus through domestic politics and Pompey through military campaigns. In that respect, the 60s showed them both at the top of their respective fields.

From 69 to 66 BC we can again find little direct evidence of Crassus’ activities. In general we can see that Crassus pursued two quiet and consistent policies in this period. Firstly he had his legal work as a defence advocate, at which he is portrayed as being quite accomplished. This is not a case of Crassus needing the money, but more a case of him building up a system of politicians who would owe him and whom he could call upon in the future to repay the favour. Secondly there was his sponsorship of young, rising noblemen. The two essentials that every aspiring young politician in Rome needed were money and contacts; Crassus had both in ample supply and was only too willing to lend his support to young aristocrats embarking on a political future. A number of these young men had started out serving under Crassus in the Spartacan campaign. This policy would again lead to a network of men in important positions upon whom he could call to repay a favour. The most famous of all of these protégés was a certain Gaius Julius Caesar, who fell under Crassus’ wing in the mid-60s. Thus Crassus continued the expansion of his network of political influence.

In terms of more concrete actions, the revival of the censorship in 70 BC meant that the next censors would be elected for the period 65–64 BC (as it was held only once every five years). Unsurprisingly, Crassus stood for and was elected as censor, along with a Quintus Lutatius Catulus, a staunch senatorial man. We must assume that Crassus had his own appointment in mind when he had the office resurrected five years earlier. During his censorship Crassus proposed two major policies. The first was the granting of citizenship to the area of northern Italy known as Transalpine Gaul. The second was that Rome should annex Egypt (which had been willed to Rome by Ptolemy X, an act which had never been taken up by Rome until this point). On both points, however, Crassus was opposed by his colleague Catulus. The relationship between the two men deteriorated to such a point that both resigned before their term of office had ended. Again the sources do not record the issuing of any building or other economic contracts, but it is entirely possible.

Crassus’ Egyptian proposals are an interesting topic and one that bears further consideration. Certainly Crassus used a tribune to propose the Roman acceptance of King Ptolemy’s will, showing that Crassus too could benefit from a restored tribunate.

It has been suggested that Crassus was actually proposing a commission to determine who the rightful heir to the Egyptian throne was, an issue that had been continually in dispute for the whole of the first century BC. As was later shown (in the 50s) when another such dispute was settled by Rome, whoever was responsible for the winning claimant being put on the throne could hope to profit from it handsomely. It is more than likely that Crassus had himself in mind to command the expedition that went to Egypt. This would have been especially attractive to him given Pompey’s campaigning in the east and would have allowed Crassus to keep pace with his rival nicely. In any event, the plans were opposed not only by Catulus, but by the renowned orator Cicero and many in the Senate112.

Crassus next became embroiled in the series of events known as the Catilinarian Conspiracies, in 66 and 63 BC. In both cases the events were centred on Lucius Sergius Catiline and his attempts to gain the consulship. In 66 BC he attempted to stand for the Consulship of 65 BC, but was barred by the Senate as he had a pending corruption charge to face. Sources report that he then attempted a coup, which came to nothing.113

Suetonius reports that the real instigator of the coup was Crassus, who would have been made dictator, with Caesar as his deputy.114 Apparently, this view was supported by Cicero’s secret memoir, which was only published after his death and used by many later sources, though it does not survive today.115 It must be pointed out, however, that there is no real evidence that there ever was a plot in 66 BC, let alone that Crassus was behind it.

This is typical of the speculation and myth that flourished around Crassus and his political manoeuvrings, most of which were never recorded. It is also typical of the need for scholars, both ancient and modern, to have Crassus as the force behind every major event of the decade, all forming part of some grand scheme to stop Pompey. The truth is likely to be far more mundane. Crassus was by far and away the leading man in Rome (given Pompey’s absence) and operated a network of political patronage for his own ends, rather than some grand anti-Pompeian strategy.

Catiline again stood for the consulship of 63 BC where one of his opponents was the orator Cicero. Cicero came from a non-Roman background, as his family were Italians by ancestry and this put him at a distinct disadvantage to Catiline, who came from old Roman stock. Cicero countered this by spreading rumours about Catiline and the non-plot of 66 BC. Enough mud stuck to ensure that Catiline was defeated and Cicero elected. This time it appears that Catiline did plan on seizing power in a coup as he could not get himself elected. The coup consisted of Catiline raising an army in Italy, supported by a conspiracy in Rome to murder the consults. However the conspiracy was soon revealed and the men involved arrested and executed by the Senate. With the conspiracy in ruins, Catiline’s small force (about 3,000 strong), eventually gave battle at Pistoria (62 BC) and was comprehensively defeated, with Catiline dying in battle.

Crassus’ role was undetermined at the time and has remained so ever since. Certainly he did have links to Catiline, as it appears that he was one of the young men whose political careers Crassus had been underwriting. This did not make him the mastermind of the plot, especially one as incompetent as this one. In the senatorial debate over the fate of the conspirators, Crassus was actually implicated directly by a witness, but this was dismissed by a large number of senators, most of whom were probably in debt (financial or political) to Crassus. If he was involved, then it is likely that he soon realised that Catiline was not competent enough to carry out a coup and manoeuvred Cicero and the Senate into dealing with him.

This last point showed the astuteness of Crassus’ political senses. Catiline, for all his faults, was popular with the people due to a number of promises he had made them and whoever disposed of his allies would be extremely unpopular with them. When the day came for the vote on in the Senate on the conspirator’s sentence, Crassus absented himself and thus avoided any complicity with the quasi-judicial death sentence passed. At the time Cicero took great delight in claiming responsibility for the demise of Catiline’s allies, which was later to cost him dear, when in 58 BC he was tried and exiled for his role in their execution.

Crassus simply returned to his standard policies of political networking and soon secured Caesar’s election to the praetorship for 62 BC, along with a govern-ship of one of the Spanish provinces, where, as we have already seen, Crassus had great influence. Furthermore, he secured Caesar’s election to the post of Rome’s chief priest (the pontifex maximus) through considerable bribery. This paid off in 61/60 BC when Crassus was elected to the College of Pontiffs (an horrific priestly college in Rome).

The Return of the Duumvirate (62–59 BC)

By late 63 BC, all thoughts in Rome turned to Pompey’s triumphant return from his eastern campaigns. The sources record that Pompey sent a legate (Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos) to Rome for various meetings with the Senate, to agree the details. It is more than likely that Pompey used him to act as an emissary to Crassus in some early discussions over his return, though what was discussed was never recorded. Certainly Pompey would have wanted to gauge his possible reception amongst the Senators, after being away for over five years and given the way he usurped the eastern command. Therefore, some line of communication between Rome’s most powerful general and Rome’s most powerful domestic politician would have been essential. All too often the assumption is that these two men were permanently hostile towards each other, but we must never forget that, although they were rivals, they had a record of working together when the need arose. Pompey was guaranteed a hostile reception in the Senate and would need allies in order to get land for his soldiers’ demobilisation and his settlement of the east ratified.

One of the key pieces of information here, and one that is little noted by most commentators, is that early in 62 BC Crassus left Rome (an unusual act in itself) and is reported as reappearing in Asia Minor.116 We are not informed of the purpose of his visit, but given the proximity between himself and Pompey, the most logical assumption is that the two men met, away from Rome, in order to work out a deal that would enable Pompey’s return. Again we do not know what was discussed, but it is possible that the duumvirate was resurrected in some form. Certainly Crassus retuned to Rome and Pompey arrived back soon after and confidently dismissed his armies upon landing.

If there was any kind of agreement between the two men in the years 61 and 60 BC then it appears that it was not working very well. Pompey easily ensured that he had one of his lieutenants elected as a consul in both years (Marcus Pupius Piso in 61 and Lucius Afranius in 60 BC). However, he soon found that the Senate and the opposing consul managed to frustrate his plans and block his lieutenants. On certain occasions, the sources report that Crassus himself opposed Pompey in the Senate over the ratification of his eastern settlement.117

By 60 BC, however, both Crassus and Pompey threw their weight behind another candidate for the consulship of 59 BC. This time they chose Gaius Julius Caesar, who had already been working with Crassus and had now returned to Rome seeking a consulship and nursing a grudge against the Senate for trying to block his standing for election. With the backing of Crassus and Pompey, Caesar was duly elected consul, but again the Senate ensured that one of their own number (M. Calpurnius Bibulus) was elected as the other consul, which looked as though it would lead to another year of frustration.

Several factors ensured that this would not be the case. We cannot be sure how much support Crassus was actually giving Pompey in the years 61–60 BC and it was most likely that he was playing both sides to ensure that Pompey’s aims would be frustrated. By 59 BC, however, two things had changed. The first factor was that on this occasion the duumvirs had chosen an ambitious and accomplished politician to be consul for the upcoming year, in the form of Gaius Julius Caesar. The second factor was that Crassus found that he now needed measures of his own passed into law. Crassus had always prided himself as being the chief political patron of the equestrian businessmen in Rome and a particularly powerful cartel had overbid for the contract to collect the Roman taxes in Asia but now wanted it renegotiated. They naturally turned to Crassus, who in turn needed the Senate to overturn the contract. It was only now that he threw his full weight behind Caesar.

The dynamics between the three men proved to be interesting. Crassus had been Caesar’s old political patron, but Caesar astutely arranged a marriage alliance with Pompey whereby Pompey married Caesar’s daughter (despite the two men being roughly the same age). Once this marriage alliance had been conducted, the rest of the Roman political elite began to take notice and worried that a new and dangerous alliance had been formed. The Roman writer Varro wrote a political treatise called Tricaranus (‘three-headed monster’).118

This term has led to a number of scholars to misrepresent the balance of power between the three men. Caesar may have been consul, but he was entirely dependant on the backing of Crassus and Pompey, who were Rome’s two most powerful men. Rather than a triumvirate, in reality it was a duumvirate once again. Given the rise to prominence that Caesar achieved later in his life, ancient and modern historians have a tendency to make Caesar’s role in this period far greater than it actually was.

As it happens, Caesar succeeded where his predecessors failed. Through the use of violence and intimidation, his colleague (Bibulus) was virtually reduced to house arrest, leaving Caesar to pass the measures that his two paymasters desired. Crassus got his clients’ tax contract renegotiated, as well as the great honour of being designated as the first man to speak in senatorial debates. Pompey got land for his men and the ratification of his eastern settlement. As a bonus, and showing his own political acumen, Caesar ensured that his own future was taken care of and secured the governorships of both the provinces of Gaul for a five year period, thus setting out on a path that would lead him to his future success.

From Duumvirate to Triumvirate (58–55 BC)

With Crassus and Pompey having achieved what they wanted, the arrangement between the two men came to an end. When Caesar left to take up his governorship of Gaul for five years and then become embroiled in a lengthy campaign of conquest, Rome was faced with the rare and dangerous situation of having both Crassus and Pompey in Rome at the same time, for a lengthy period. Thus it may not have been much of a surprise that Rome, in the years 58–56 BC, descended into a period of turmoil and violence, with armed political gangs controlling the streets of Rome. The chief instigator of this violence was the populist politician Publius Clodius. Clodius used the tribunate, supported by his armed street gangs, to launch attacks on a number of senior targets. High on his list were Cicero, Caesar and Pompey. Cicero was exiled by the people for his role in the execution of Catiline’s allies in 63 BC. Caesar’s actions in passing the legislation as consul in 59 BC were questioned as unconstitutional, as was his five year command in Gaul. Pompey was harassed in the street by Clodius’ gangs and placed under virtual siege. To pay for his populist programmes, Clodius had the assemblies pass a bill annexing the island of Cyprus to Roman rule. At the time, Cyprus was ruled by Egypt, but had technically been bequested to Rome earlier in the century by Ptolemy X. Naturally there was little the Egyptians could do about this annexation.

The only notable figure who seemed to sail through this period unscathed was Crassus. Unsurprisingly we can find close ties between Crassus and Clodius going back into the 60s. In 61 BC Crassus defended Clodius from a sacrilege charge and ensured his acquittal thanks to outrageous (even for those times) amounts of bribery. Now, this is not to say that Crassus was behind every one of Clodius’ actions (Clodius did not have the temperament to take orders in such a manner), but it does appear that Crassus was backing his actions. Again this would keep his political enemies on the backfoot and allow him to go about his political business unimpeded. Such a view was indeed expressed by Cicero himself in several of his letters. In August 59 BC he wrote: ‘I think that Pompey, under pressure from Crassus, may waver’.119 And in a letter to a friend on 5 October 58 BC: ‘but I am still afraid of Crassus’.120 In a letter to his brother Quintus, in February 56 BC, he elaborated:

Pompey replied warmly, making oblique reference to Crassus and assaying plainly that he intended to take better care of his life than [Scipio] Africanus had done, whom Gaius Carbo murdered [in 129 BC ... . Pompey has information, and talks about it to me, that a plot against his life is in progress, that Crassus is backing Gaius Cato and supplying Clodius with funds.121

Again we can see Crassus as the arch manipulator and a man at the centre of the murky world of Roman politics. But by 57 BC Clodius was on the backfoot, with Pompey creating his own armed street gangs under the leadership of Titus Annius Milo and paving the way for Cicero to be recalled from exile. The biggest foreign policy issue at this time was Egypt. In the 60s Crassus had led the attempts to annex Egypt, which had come to nothing. However, in 58 BC a popular revolt had led to the Egyptian king Ptolemy XII being ousted. He promptly fled to Rome and, thanks to significant bribes or the promise thereof, ensured that the Senate confirmed him as the rightful king. The only undecided issue was who should lead the expedition to restore him. The sources tell us that naturally both Crassus and Pompey wanted it for themselves, whereas the Senate was keen to ensure that neither man had access to even more wealth and patronage. The result was deadlock. Ptolemy left Rome disappointed and retired to a villa in Asia.

Indeed, deadlock best describes the situation of Roman politics in this period. Crassus and Pompey were both in competition with each other and with the Senate, and the streets of Rome had been turned into a battlefield between the supporters of Clodius and Milo, fighting a proxy war that neither of their sponsors could afford to lose. Elsewhere, two significant developments occurred that would have a profound effect on the future of Rome and its empire. In Gaul, Caesar was proving to be an inspired military commander and had annexed large amounts of territory, taking Roman rule to the Rhine and the Channel. In the east, the Pompeian-backed governor of Syria, Aulus Gabinius, had accepted an invitation by one of two brothers locked in a civil war over the Parthian throne and was preparing an invasion of Parthia, of which more later.

Therefore, both Pompey and Crassus were beginning to look increasingly irrelevant, being locked into domestic disputes in Rome, whilst the key events were taking place elsewhere. Both men had built careers on a mixture of political acumen and military success and yet the military glory was now being enjoyed by others. Caesar in particular was proving increasingly successful at using Crassus’ and Pompey’s techniques for his own ends. The people at Rome, faced with political turmoil and battles on the streets, now had a new hero in Caesar, who was engaged in a war of conquest against Rome’s traditional barbarian enemy, the Gauls. Caesar also benefited from his absence from direct involvement in the chaos at Rome and from the glowing reports from Gaul describing his victorious campaigns, which he sent back to Rome to be read to the people.

Nevertheless, Caesar was facing an increasing problem of his own. Despite the positive reports which he sent back to Rome, the conquest of Gaul was proving to be an arduous affair, with rebellions breaking out as soon as he subdued an area and an increasing array of tribes opposing him. Added to this was the approaching termination date of his five year command in Gaul. The campaign would not be finished by the expiry date of his command (54 BC) and it was highly likely that the Senate would not only block any extension to his command, but would appoint another man to finish the campaign off and thus steal his glory. If this wasn’t bad enough there was talk in the Senate of having him prosecuted for his actions as consul in 59 BC (in steamrolling through the laws he passed for Crassus and Pompey). To say that he was in a quandary would be putting it mildly. It was clear that he needed help and thus the idea was born to resurrect the old combination of Crassus and Pompey once more, though this time on a more even footing, as a triumvirate, rather than a duumvirate.

However, this was easier said than done given the political manoeuvrings between the two men and the running battles between their clients. Both men had ties to Caesar, Crassus as his old patron and Pompey as his son-in-law, but neither would be expected to do him any favours for free. Furthermore, given his military success and subsequent rise in popularity, not to mention control of a large army north of Italy, both men had a lot to gain by seeing a rival force eliminated. In 56 BC, however, at two crucial meetings, this situation changed, and it was a change with far-reaching consequences for the future of the Roman Republic.

Whilst most historians focus on the meeting between the three men at Luca, in April 56 BC, the sources record that there was an earlier meeting between Caesar and Crassus in Ravenna.122 We do not know what was discussed at this meeting, but it was likely that Caesar was sounding Crassus out about the renewal of an alliance between the two men. The outcome however was clear: a second meeting was needed between all three men to forge an alliance. This gave Crassus a clear advantage over Pompey, as this first meeting had given him time to work out the terms that he wanted to demand in making this arrangement, which would most likely have been the Egyptian command. Events soon proved that Crassus was using this opportunity to think on a far larger scale.

In April 56 BC, at the town of Luca in Northern Italy (which was the southern most point of Caesar’s province), the three men held a meeting that was to change the direction of the Roman Republic. It was hardly a private affair as the sources report that over two hundred senators also attended, showing the influence of the three men.123 Again we have no direct evidence for what was agreed at this meeting, but subsequent events give us a good idea. What Caesar wanted was clear enough: a significant extension to his command in Gaul, in order to give him enough time to finish his conquests. The key issues here were not just what price Crassus and Pompey would extract from Caesar, but firstly whether the two men would work together once more (this would be their third alliance) and what price they would extract from each other.

Once again it appears that the two men realised that they could accomplish more together than they could apart. They came to the conclusion that this time they would need to push through the measures they needed themselves, as they had done in 70 BC, rather than work through agents, as was done in 61–59 BC with mixed results. Thus both men determined that once again they would hold the consulship, though this was not actually accomplished until early in 55 BC, due to the opposition that the two men faced. Once again Crassus and Pompey, through a mixture of bribery, intimidation and downright open violence stood unopposed and were duly elected consuls.

This time around there appears to have been none of the dissension between the two men that marked their previous term in office together (both older and wiser perhaps). Their first major action was to secure Caesar a five year extension to his command in Gaul, and they then turned their attentions to securing their own futures, which they did with great success. They had a tribune pass a bill through the popular assemblies that effectively partitioned the Roman empire. As well as Caesar having a five year command in Gaul, Crassus and Pompey both received five year commands. Pompey received the two provinces of Spain and the right to rule them in absentia, whilst Crassus received the province of Syria, seven legions and the right to make war and peace as he saw fit (without having to refer his decisions back to the Senate or people for agreement).

Thus, for the first time in its history, the armies and imperial possessions of the Roman Republic were effectively partitioned between three men. Caesar had the armies of Gaul in the north, Pompey those of Spain in the west, and Crassus those of Syria in the east. Furthermore, it is clear that the triumvirs were also determining Rome’s foreign policy, with Gabinius being recalled from Parthia and sent to restore Ptolemy XII to his throne in Egypt.

Of the three men, it can be seen that Crassus emerged as the clear winner out of this deal. Caesar got an extension to his command and Pompey got armies under his control in the west whilst staying in Rome, at the centre of events. In addition, it was his man who got the plum Egyptian command. However, these gains were all overshadowed by Crassus, who negotiated his usurpation of the command to intervene in the Parthian Civil War.

This represents a serious step up for Crassus. Up until 57 BC, he must have been thinking about the Egyptian command. However, when Gabinius, sponsored by Pompey, set about an intervention in Parthia, he saw his chance for an eastern command that would prove to be the culmination of his career (which in a sense it was, though not as he had envisaged it). Rather than another Egyptian intervention, he now commanded Rome’s first war against the Parthians, and whilst Gabinius may have had a limited intervention in mind, the raising of seven legions showed that Crassus was thinking on a far grander scale. Furthermore, he had ensured that it was he, rather than Pompey, who secured this command and had thus stolen a march on his rival. He now had his chance to place him in the shade militarily, whilst Pompey stayed in Rome. In many ways this was a reversal of roles, as traditionally it had been Crassus who stayed at Rome immersed in the politics, whilst Pompey was campaigning in the east.


This analysis of Crassus’ career reveals a completely different picture to the stereotype that is most commonly reported today. For thirty years he had been at the centre of the key events that shaped the Roman Republic in the first century BC, in both the political and the military sphere. He had entered the First Civil War on Sulla’s side, raising an army on his own authority and proving crucial to Sulla’s success in the key battle that ended the war. He had masterminded Sulla’s bloody proscriptions, making himself one of Rome’s richest men in the process. He had been responsible for defeating Spartacus and saving the Republic from the slave rebellion. He had jointly been responsible for overturning the Sullan constitution and had dominated the subsequent fifteen years of Roman politics using his powers of political and financial patronage. He had held the consulship and censorship and, now in his late fifties, had secured a second consulship and the chance to lead Rome into its first war with Parthia, which if successful would push Roman control past Mesopotamia and earn him his place in history.

We can see, therefore, that Marcus Licinius Crassus was a talented politician and general, who at the time of his departure for the east was one of the two leading Romans of his day. History up to now has judged the man for the failure of this subsequent campaign and shrouded his achievements before it, hopefully now we can see otherwise. With the background to the First Romano-Parthian War complete we can now move on to the war itself.

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