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Old 11-16-2021, 09:54 AM   #31 (permalink)
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Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 – 53BC)

Known as the richest man in Rome, Crassus (pronounced creases) was no stranger to combat. Born into wealth and power, his father and younger brother had died at the hands of supporters of Gaius Marius (or possibly taken their own lives, but hunted by them anyway), he having to flee to Hispania (Iberian peninsula) to avoid the death squads. Here he built up a small army and began to use his power to extort money from the cities to finance his campaign. In Greece he fought alongside Pompey against the enemies of Lucius Cornelius Sulla in his Second Civil War, eventually laying the groundwork for Sulla to retake Rome and become the first of the new dictators, and the first man in the Roman Republic (not then an empire) to take the city by force of arms. Crassus was rewarded handsomely for his assistance, and was not slow to take his revenge.

Having fallen under proscriptions decreed by Gaius Marius, Crassus was ready to pay him back. By the way, in case you didn't know, a proscription was not what a Roman doctor gave you if you were suffering from the pox, but rather a death list, or at least a list wherein it was declared that those on it had to give up all their wealth (often too their lives), that their female relatives (daughters, wives, aunts) were forbidden to remarry and that basically the position of their family was destroyed with no hope of ever being rebuilt. One of the most powerful men in Rome now, under the patronage of the new dictator, Crassus not only reaped all the wealth from his enemies who were now on the list, but added those whose fortune he fancied making his. Nobody dared to protest, even if they were innocent. In real terms of today, it's estimated that Crassus's net worth exceeded thirteen billion US Dollars.

He also dealt in somewhat less dodgy enterprises, purchasing slaves and buying real estate up cheap and selling it for a profit when renovated by those slaves, and by speculating in mineral acquisition such as silver. He also created the first ever Fire Brigade, though extinguishing of any fire was always made conditional on whether or not the frantic owner would sell him the property at a knockdown price, otherwise his men were instructed to shove their hands in their pockets (did they have pockets back then? Well, whatever the equivalent would be if not) and whistle, leaving the fire to consume the building. Talk about a fire sale! To add insult to injury, having got the property at literally a steal, he would often then lease it back, refurbished and rebuilt, at exorbitant terms to the owner who had jold it to him. Even vestal virgins, the purest and most hands-off women in Rome, could not stand in his way if he wanted their property, and in pursuing one called Licinia he almost overstepped and was accused in court, but as ever, money talks and bull**** walks, and so did he, a free man. He later got the property he had wanted. No idea what happened to the vestal virgin, but consorting with men was a huge no-no back then, so I doubt it was pleasant.

The basis of Crassus's defence seems to have hinged on the rather odd premise that “I was only trying to get her villa, Your Honour, not into her panties.” Apparently this was a much less serious crime (if it was a crime at all) and the judges shrugged and said “Sounds fair,” and let him go. In 73 BC he was elected praetor, which spelled the beginning of the end for our friend Spartacus.

Crassus taking over command of the legions was bad news for them too. He took the word “discipline” to new heights (or at least, revived old ones), re-instigating a practice that had not taken place for two hundred years, called decimation (from which, of course, we get today's word decimate), involving the breaking up of legions or cohorts into groups of ten, each man selecting a straw and the man who got the short straw got beaten to death by his mates. Hardly fair, as the one unlucky enough to draw the short straw (yes, that's where we get that phrase from too probably) might have been courageous and loyal, while one of those selected to kick his head in might be a coward. Didn't matter. Decimation was the utlimate expression of unfair and unbiased punishment, where your luck could just literally run out and you would be the one to die. Presumably, were you to refuse to take part you would either be killed or put in another group to be selected. Either way, it was you or your mate.

Although this was a harsh and very inequitable form of discipline, it did actually work, as nobody in a Crassus legion even thought of running, knowing the fate that might – almost certainly would – befall them if they were to choose the short straw. Better to die in battle, even a hopeless one, than be bludgeoned to death in disgrace by your comrades.

As he progressed towards Spartacus's forces, Crassus detailed two legions to approach from behind but not to attack. Their leader, Mummius, saw an opportunity and thought he'd impress the chief, but had the shit kicked out of him by Spartacus, and later lost more of his men when Crassus decimated his legion. Should have obeyed orders, son! Despite this setback, Crassus pressed his advantage and pushed Spartacus back. On the run, the rebel leader made the fatal mistake of forgetting the old axiom, “never trust a pirate”, and did just that, striking a deal for passage to Sicily, the original scene of the crime and a real hotbed of resentment, just ripe for a new revolt. To nobody's surprise but his, the pirates took his money and then fucked off, leaving his army at the mercy of the advancing Crassus. Retreating to Rhegium in modern Calabria, they prepared for the final battle.

Building fortifications across the isthmus, Crassus effectively cut the rebels off, placing them under siege. As Spartacus tried to broker a truce with Crassus, the Roman realised the rebel was desperate and refused. Spartacus then proved this to be true when he attempted to break out with 50,000 men. Crassus, aware that his hated rival Pompey was on the way back from a successful campaign and had been ordered to lend his assistance, and unwilling to share the glory and look as if he had had to be rescued by his rival, engaged Spartacus in full combat at the River Silarius, and though the battle went this way then that, the discipline of the Roman troops (with no doubt the shadow of decimation foremost in their minds) told, and Spartacus himself was killed while trying in vain to get to where Crassus sat serenely on his horse, overlooking the battle. Though the body of Spartacus was never found, the road did not lack for them, as Crassus ordered the crucifixion of 5,000 while in the north, Pompey, who had run to ground those who had escaped while Spartacus took on Crassus, outdid his fellow general by a thousand, nailing up 6,000.

It had not been by any means a walkover for Rome. Crassus is estimated to have lost in the region of 20,000 men (whether this includes his later decimations or not I don't know) – almost half of those killed in the rebel army, if you take into account all the crucifixions later. In fact, speaking of those, how long and how much wood must it have taken to nail up five thousand (or in Pompey's case, 6,000) men? It must have gone on for days, even weeks! And a line of crucified men that big must have stretched for miles. A deadly warning from the empire (well, at the time it was a republic but you know what I mean) of the folly of rising against its power.

Why will this battle be remembered?

Well, technically it won't. This account doesn't focus on a battle but a war, and a long one (seven years before Spartacus was defeated), but even then it really was forgotten about until 1960, when the movie of the same name was released. Even though this is littered with historical inaccuracies and made-up stuff (Spartacus being crucified, the famous “I'm Spartacus!” scene etc) it awakened both a new interest in the story (coming as it did on the heels of such huge Biblical-era epics as The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur and The Robe, and of course the two giants to come after it, The Greatest Story Ever Told and King of Kings and in the concept of slavery itself.

But perhaps ironically and in some ways sadly, it will be, and is, remembered mostly for the spoof on the life of Jesus by the Monty Python team, when the inimitable phrase becomes “I'm Brian, and so is my wife!” Nonetheless, the idea of a bunch of people all standing up and claiming to be the one sought in order to protect him, or her, has taken root now in film and television, and it happens relatively frequently. All of which, I guess, keeps Spartacus alive in people's memories, even if the larger percentage of the world (including me, till I researched for this article) believe he was crucified along with his men.

On the other hand, the three Servile Wars between them did serve to show the people that the Roman Empire or Republic was not impossible to defeat, or at least stand up to, and though there were no more revolts after the brutal manner in which Spartacus's followers were dealt after their defeat, attitudes did begin – very slowly – to change about the legitimacy of keeping slaves, with certain rights being conferred on them, such as – wow – the right not to be killed out of hand by their owners. This became a punishable offence during the reign of Antoninus Pius, who ruled from 138 – 161 (so it only took, what, another two hundred years?) and slowly, the idea of slavery, while it never truly vanished from Roman life (and was of course taken up by other civilisations after them) became quietly distasteful and less accepted as the empire progressed.
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