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Rome’s Secret Disrupter

Peter Stothard —

Marcus Licinius Crassus was in his early sixties in the summer of 54 BCE, fit but old for a Roman army commander, red-cloaked and almost ready to cross the Euphrates for an unprecedented eastern war. Crassus was a meticulous planner, a master of political and financial risk. In these hottest months before the invasion he was making detail the servant of his grand design, just as he had all his life: the heavy equipment of his men, their means of supply, the guides that he needed for where later commanders would have maps. His war was to be waged at the edges of what he or any Roman properly knew. Before his seven legions could advance against Parthia’s King of Kings, extending Rome’s dominion through the deserts to China, there were humdrum administrative and financial tasks ahead, the kind for which he was already renowned.

Crassus was a Roman who rarely traveled out of Rome, and abroad hardly at all. He owned vast lands in Italy, but unlike other rich Romans, he rarely visited them or drew on them for pleasure or support. His home was Rome, and at different times, he had owned most of its three square miles, selling mansions for the rich and tenement blocks for the poor, lending to those who, unlike himself, wanted more than a single family house, those many Roman politicians with a reach beyond their grasp. He had long been renowned as his city’s richest man, its secret financier, disrupter of old rules, fixer and puller of the puppet strings of power. This campaign was meant to mark a change in how men saw him. It was to be Crassus’s most public act since his defeat of Spartacus more than fifteen years before, as well as Rome’s farthest move into the East in its two hundred years as an empire.

Crassus was not a novice on the battlefield. In what now seemed the distant past, 82 BCE, in his early thirties under the very walls of Rome, he had won a victory that had brought to power the city’s first dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla. In his forties, he had defeated a slave army that had not only destroyed thousands of farms, many of them his own, but had terrified the city too. In the opening battles of this latest campaign against the Parthians he had won easy victories. But the strengths of his character stood elsewhere, in the arts of control and coercion, means that, with tact and skill, would remain hidden. He was a very secret disrupter. His method was to bind his friends and enemies, the fundamental business of politics, by means softer than the sword.

As the rival of Rome’s “first man,” Gnaeus Pompeius, twice his colleague as consul, the city’s highest office, he had preferred lines of credit to legions. Pompey was five years younger but in 54 BCE was the leading man of Rome as Crassus had reluctantly to admit. Romans called Pompey “the Great” and “the New Alexander,” but only ironically if they were looking for Crassus’s favor. As a manager of the fast-rising Julius Caesar, who was fifteen years his junior, Crassus had provided massive loans to buy his man the necessary offices of state; some said that he was almost the manufacturer of Caesar. As a promoter of himself he had less experience. Only late in life, or “not very early in the morning,” as one of the kings along his route had just disrespectfully noted, was he planning to march with fifty thousand men, seven legions with seven of their near sacred legionary eagles, to bring into the empire of Rome the Parthian Empire.

From Crassus: The First Tycoon by Peter Stothard. Published by Yale University Press in 2022. Reproduced with permission.

Peter Stothard is an author, journalist, and critic. He is a former editor of The Times of London and of the Times Literary Supplement. His latest book is The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar.

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