Marcus Licinius Crassus: Rome's Wealthiest Man
Marcus Licinius Crassus is considered to be the wealthiest man in Roman history. Extremely adept at making money, he parlayed that success into leading positions in government and the military but was ultimately undone by a series of unwise decisions.
The son of a well-known senator who also served as consul and censor, Crassus began his public life by marrying the wife of his recently dead older brother and allying himself with Sulla, who later ruled Rome as dictator. Crassus led a group of soldiers who won a crucial battle that turned the tide of the civil war.
This alliance proved fruitful for Crassus's ambitions of wealth. As Sulla set about getting rid of his opponents, Crassus followed up by buying their properties at cut-rate prices and then selling them at large profits. He had amassed quite a fortune by this time and had hundreds of slaves at the ready.
Crassus made quite a name for himself by taking advantage of owners whose buildings were burning. Fires were quite common in Rome, yet the city did not have an organized firefighting force. According to several sources, Crassus would rush to a burning building, buy it from the owner, then order his slave-labor firefighters to put out the fire. Crassus would then spruce up the building, using his slave labor, and sell the building at a profit.
He also made quite a bit of money buying and selling slaves and getting the most out of a group of silver mines that his family owned. As a result, he amassed a huge fortune and became powerful and well-known on the strength of his wealth.
Crassus had political and military ambitions and used his wealth to pursue them. He befriended the young, brilliant general Julius Caesar, in part by offering to help finance Caesar's frequent military campaigns. Meanwhile, Crassus was moving up the political ladder. He held the rank of praetor when the Spartacus-led slave revolt broke out, in 73 B.C. After the brilliant slave leader led his men through a series of victories against better-equipped Roman legions, Crassus offered up his own wealth to finance an army to fight Spartacus. Crassus it was who finally defeated Spartacus, ensuring that he was dead and then crucifying 6,000 surviving slaves on the road from Rome to Capua, as a deterrent to future revolt leaders.
Crassus was not the only Roman gaining fame and fortune, however. The aforementioned Caesar was proving his worth in matters military and legal. The greatest general, in terms of field victories, was Pompey, who had secured the ongoing enmity between himself and Crassus by claiming credit for ending the slave revolt by capturing a few thousand slaves in a mop-up operation after Crassus had defeated Spartacus.
Crassus and Pompey were still the two most powerful figures in Rome and still did not trust each other. Caesar, sensing an opportunity, convinced them both to take control of the government together, along with him, in what came to be known as the First Triumvirate, in 60 B.C.
As part of the arrangement, Crassus took control of Syria, a wealthy province that, he hoped, would give him even more wealth and an opportunity for more military triumphs. He hoped to lead forces through Syria to attack the Parthians, at the time harassing Rome's eastern flank.
Crassus and Pompey again served as consuls in 55. That same year, the Triumvirate nearly fell apart. Caesar called the other two together at the Lucca Conference, however, and smoothed things over enough for the arrangement to continue.
While Pompey was solidifying his hold on Spain and Caesar was invading Britain and subduing Gaul, Crassus launched his attack on Parthia. It was not at all a success. He was undone by treachery and impetuosity, being the victim of both a double-cross by a supposed neutral party and his own desire to rush into glory rather than fight on terms more favorable to his troops. Thus it was at Carrhae in 53 that a greater Roman infantry force was defeated by an inferior Parthian force of cavalry and archers and Crassus himself was killed in the fighting. Accounts of the details surrounding his death differ. All agree, however, that he did not return to Rome except to be buried.