“The marble busts that now appear stark, blank stones were once painted in vivid colors that made them seem fully human. The Ancient Lives series is founded on the conviction that what has been lost—the psychological depth of the biographical portrait—can be recovered. Authors draw on both expertise and imagination as they explore the meanings of ancient lives.”—James Romm, Series Editor for Ancient Lives
Ancient Lives unfolds the stories of thinkers, writers, kings, queens, conquerors, and politicians from all parts of the ancient world. In this original piece, Peter Stothard discusses the metallic greed of Marcus Licinius Crassus (115–53 BCE), Rome’s richest man, who died a humiliating desert death in search of military glory.
This week the locals of Caesano on the edge of Rome are hoping for the benefits of a 21st century gold rush, their own Texas oil boom, after the announcement that the ‘rare earth’, lithium, lies in large extractable seams beneath their soil. The metallic white powder that powers electric cars may finally bring the homegrown wealth to Rome that the ancient Romans liked to think was always there—but, curiously, never liked to look for.
Italy is not a land of gold or oil. In the age of the slave-drawn litter and buffalo cart, no ancient miner in Caesano would have known what to do with lithium if he had found it. Even to look under the ground was to break the law. 49ers, Gushers, and Elon Musk’s battery cars were a long way in the future. Romans saw the value of precious metals but also the danger of mining them—for pollution of mind and the land. They preferred to take them from somewhere else.
This, in their view, was a moral choice, an act of virtue. All valuable metals had of course, to be available in Italy if they had really wanted them. Since the Romans were certain that their country was the greatest country of its time, the underground wealth had surely to be somewhere. Their gods would have assured that. The purpose of the silver, the gold (and the lithium if they had recognized it) was to test the national character to leave it alone. As their reward they believed that the taste of buried metal improved the taste of food and wines. For tin and silver that they could use for weapons and money they had to mine the lands of Spain and the legendary Tin Islands, whose location was somewhere near Britain but kept secret to deter exploiters.
The Roman whom I’m now calling ‘the first tycoon’, Marcus Licinius Crassus, was the son of a man who may have first written about these Tin Islands. Certainly the son much expanded the father’s metallic interests. Crassus would have been the man of his time much the most likely to take the cash about to fall soon on Caesano when the battery-makers’ high pressure pumps start to squeeze the ‘rare earth’ from the rest.
First, the Crassus whom most of us know best as the crucifier of Spartacus’s slave army, would probably have owned the lithium fields himself. Rome’s richest man, memorably played by Laurence Olivier in the film of Spartacus, owned most of the city and its surroundings in the first half of the first century BCE. If he hadn’t owned the new mine he would certainly have had the mine’s owner in his debt: almost all the big players of the time, Julius Caesar most of all, owed money to Crassus. That was how a tycoon made his politics happen, then as now.
Crassus was a breaker of conventions. He was impatient with the old aristocratic models for running the Roman economy. He became notorious for greed and he liked best the money that came from close to home. While his rivals, Caesar and Pompey, marched around Europe and the Middle East, murdering, looting and, in their own eyes and those of later writers, civilizing and bringing peace, Crassus spent most of his life pulling strings in Rome. Pompey brought gold home as booty, massive statues of the kings he had defeated, silver beds and ancient bronze. Crassus, by contrast, owned shares in Spanish mines and lent the proceeds to politicians whom he kept as clients, playing one against the other in the hope that none would ever exceed his own influence on events. He owned huge swathes of Italian land but acted as banker to the owners of much more. He bought property cheaply from owners who feared that he might otherwise burn their houses down. He was a builder and a briber, a very modern man in an ancient world.
But Crassus also liked to believe that Rome’s gods blessed his enterprises, just as they blessed the fertility of his unmined fields. He was old-fashioned when he felt the need. He wanted always the appearance of support from heaven. He purchased the election of priests, even investing spectacular sums to make Caesar chief priest, the pontifex maximus, as a counterweight to the power of Pompey. The high priest also had the very useful power of setting election dates.
Only when Crassus changed the home-loving habits of a lifetime and set off on an old-fashioned eastern invasion of his own, did he find that the prophets were suddenly against him. No amount of money could make his unprovoked attack on Parthia in 53 BCE seem a good thing except to the soldiers and officers who wanted to make money out of it. Crassus suffered a rapid catastrophe in the deserts beside the banks of the Euphrates. He lost his army and he lost his head. When later writers wanted to show the perils of greed and the virtues of old Rome, they gleefully told how the Parthians had used Crassus’s head as a stage prop in a Greek tragedy, stuffing his mouth with molten gold.
Peter Stothard is an author, journalist, and critic. He is a former editor of The Times of London and of the Times Literary Supplement. He is the author of The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar and most recently, Crassus: The First Tycoon.