Return to Gold

Marcus Licinius Crassus

At age sixty, Marcus Licinius Crassus was the oldest member of the first triumvirate and the wealthiest, having made his fortune in slaves and the acquisition of property, either from proscribed citizens or, owning a brigade to fight fires, distraught owners whose houses were burning. Yet, his vexation that he was less esteemed than his rivals Pompey and Caesar was mollified only when the governorship of Syria fell to him in 55 BC. Now, relates Plutarch in his Life of Crassus, "he would not consider Syria nor even Parthia as the boundaries of his success" (XVI.2).

In 53 BC, Crassus bridged the Euphrates and attacked the Parthians, even though "He had no complaint to bring against them nor had the war been assigned to him; but he heard that they were exceedingly wealthy and expected that Orodes would be easy to capture" (Dio, XL.12). But then, after this initial foray, he withdrew to winter quarters in Syria in preparation for the next campaign. Asked by the Parthian ambassador the reason for this unprovoked war, Crassus boasted that he would tell him in Seleucia, the western capital of the empire, to which the envoy "burst out laughing and said, pointing to the palm of his upturned hand: 'O Crassus, hair will grow there before thou shalt see Seleucia'" (Plutarch, Life of Crassus, XVIII.2; Dio, XL.16).

Instead of approaching Seleucia by way of the Tigris river, where supplies could be provided by boat, Crassus allowed himself to be treacherously guided into the desert in pursuit of the Parthian general Surenas and was surrounded by his cavalry at the Battle of Carrhae. The confined soldiers were showered with volleys of arrows "which fractured armour, and tore their way through every covering alike, whether hard or soft" (Plutarch, XXIV.4).

Crassus, himself, was killed when he was enticed to parlay with Surenas, his head and hand sent to Orodes II, where, relates Plutarch (XXXIII), the head was held up by an actor as Euripedes' Bacchae was being performed before the king. Dio relates a different end, although equally inglorious. "And the Parthians, as some say, poured molten gold into his mouth in mockery; for though a man of vast wealth, he had set so great store by money as to pity those who could not support an enrolled legion from their own means, regarding them as poor men" (XL.27).


In the Attic Nights (III.9), Aulus Gellius relates the curious story of the Seian Horse, which signified a possession that invariably brings bad luck.

"Thus, to begin with, that Gnaeus Seius who owned him was condemned and suffered a cruel death at the hands of Marcus Antonius, aftewards one of the triumvirs for setting the State in order. At that same time Cornelius Dolabella, the consul, on his way to Syria, attracted by the renown of this horse, turned aside to Argos, was fired with a desire to own the animal, and bought it for a hundred thousand sesterces; but Dolabella in his turn was besieged in Syria during the civil war, and slain. And soon afterwards Gaius Cassius, who had besieged Dolabella, carried off this same horse, which had beeen Dolabella's. It is notorius too that this Cassius, after his party had been vanquished and his army routed, met a wretched end. Then later, after the death of Cassius, Antonius, who had defeated him, sought for this famous horse of Cassius, and after getting possession of it was himself afterwards defeated and deserted in his turn, and died an ignominious death. Hence the proverb, applied to unfortunate men, arose and is current: 'That man has the horse of Seius.'"


References: Plutarch: Parallel Lives (1916) translated by Bernadotte Perrin (Loeb Classical Library); Dio Cassius: Roman History (1914) translated by Earnest Cary and Herbert B. Foster (Loeb Classical Library).

Return to Top of Page

 

Email