Plutarch observed that the “many virtues” of the Roman general and triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus “were obscured by one vice, avarice.” Peter Stothard’s life of Crassus is the story of that vice. The book opens by laying bare the contradiction at the heart of the one of the wealthiest men of the ancient world: “The first tycoon of Ancient Rome was also its most famous loser.” What follows is the unravelling of this contradiction, as Crassus moves, inexorably, from the pinnacle of power to his ignominious beheading in the Parthian desert.
Stothard exposes the flaws and the genius in the psychology of Crassus after he defeated the slave revolt led by Spartacus. He marched the survivors of Spartacus’s army along the Appian Way, the busiest road in Italy, stopping every thirty yards to crucify the last man. It was an ostentatious display of power that was, according to Stothard, “an unprecedented act, requiring power of organisation as well as brutal cruelty, perfectly characterising Crassus.” These crucifixions showed Crassus as a cold calculating machine and this quality, combined with his opportunism, defined the business dealings through which he acquired his vast fortune. Wherever fires broke out in Rome, he offered to buy nearby houses at a heavily discounted price, leading Plutarch to comment that “public calamities were his principal source of revenue”.
If Crassus had been nothing but a “calculating machine”, he might have lived to die of old age, but his drive to acquire more, his pride and overconfidence, led to his death. As a young man he had watched his father and brother killed by a Marian mob, their heads displayed on pikes. In 53 BCE, he saw his son Publius suffer the same fate after Crassus ignored all warnings and omens and pursued a Parthian army into the desert. Shortly after his son’s death, Crassus himself was captured, killed and beheaded.
Crassus’s dead mouth was forced open and molten gold poured down his throat. In a passage in The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud saw this as the fulfilment of an unconscious wish and imagined the Parthian queen (in fact, it was a king!) saying, as the gold was poured, “Now you have what you wanted.” After this violation, the head of Crassus was presented to King Orodes II as he watched a performance of the Greek tragedy The Bacchae, a play about the fate of King Pentheus, who was ripped to shreds for his defiance of the god Dionysus. As the play reached its conclusion, the Parthian general Silaces threw the head of Crassus onto the stage where it was used as a prop.
Early in the tragedy, the blind prophet Tiresias warns Pentheus: “You are mad, grievously mad, beyond the power of any drugs to cure, for you are drugged with madness.” The madness of Crassus, the fatal contradiction between the cold, calculating tycoon and the unconscious forces that drive him to his death, is also the eternally recurring madness of money, ambition and power that Stothard captures brilliantly in this riveting book.