For some reason, I’ve been thinking about Crassus the past few days. Crassus, the wealthy, vain Consul of Rome, who took command of a campaign against the Syrians.

It was long odds that Crassus would ever rise up to command Roman legions. After all, despite being generally successful in life, he courted controversy, being accused at one point even of deflowering one of the Vestals. Though lust was hardly the only wickedness in him. Plutarch says of him:

“[Some] say there was but that only vice of covetousness in Crassus, that drowned many other goodly virtues in him; for mine own opinion, methinks he could not be touched with that vice alone without others, since it grew so great as the note of that only did hide and cover all his other vices.”2

As I mentioned, it was highly unexpected that Crassus came to the office of Consul and to lead Roman forces against the Parthians in Syria. After all, his father was only censor of Rome and no doubt left him with only a modest fortune. By the end of his life, however, Crassus’ covetousness and acumen had left him with such great wealth that he didn’t even himself know its magnitude until he ordered it counted shortly before he left on Campaign.

Throughout his life Crassus cleaved himself to those in power. Indeed, he ended up a great booster and ally of Pompey, with whom he was made consul. He curried favor with the great people of Rome and used his access to them to increase not only his wealth, but his power as well.

But the thing that Crassus coveted most of all was the great honors that came to those who brought military victory to Rome. He yearned for a Triumph in honor of a great victory to cement his legacy. Again, from Plutarch:

“…being among his friends and familiars, he would give out such fond boasts of it as no young man could have made… [He], forgetting himself too much, had such fond conceits in his head, as he not only hoped after the conquest of Syria and of the Parthians, but flattered himself that the would should see all that Lucullus had done against King Tigranes and Pompey against King Mithridates, were but trifles…to what he intended.”

And so, he set off on his grand campaign, with little military experience to his name (he’d had a hand in quelling a slave uprising by a hot-headed Socialist firebrand called Spartacus), and nothing but his riches and connections to preserve him.

Finding himself in unfamiliar territory, Crassus enlisted the help of a local mercenary captain named Ariamnes, feeling that an expert guide would help him make his way safely through the unfamiliar territory of the Syrian campaign. Little did he know that Ariamnes was already in the employ of the Parthians. Ariamnes advised Crassus to make haste and rush towards the center of Parthian territory, since surely the enemy armies were in fast retreat in front of the might of Crassus’ legions.

This flattered Crassus’ vanities and notion of how the campaign was meant to play out, and so when Crassus’ commanders urged caution and suspicion he ignored them and marched the armies forward.

And so into the hot, howling Syrian desert Crassus marched his ten legions. Fifty thousand men in full armor, with weapons and supplies. The wind scraped at their faces, and the heat sapped their strength. Ariamnes, still stringing Crassus along by his vanities, lead him further and further into inhospitable territory. Saying to him always, “the Parthians are just ahead, we nearly have them”.

Until, one morning, Ariamnes was gone.

And the Parthians had arrived.

The Parthians arrayed themselves in loose formation and began to harrass the exhausted Romans. The Parthians fought from horseback, armed with powerful bows. Their mobility and long years of training in the saddle allowed them to pick at all parts of the Roman lines without the need even of ever surrounding them. They resupplied themselves from nearby towns and villages in waves, allowing them to wear down the already weary Romans for days at a time, nearly non-stop.

Crassus, out maneuvered by the Parthians, fell back on the one kind of strategy he knew. The rigid, disciplined strategy that had won against an army of rebellious slaves. He arrayed his men in formation, had them form themselves into a tortoise of shields, with javelins thrown occasionally from the rear, and attempted to march on the Parthian lines.

But there were no Parthian lines. Only a swirling stream of skilled horse archers and the hiss of incoming arrows.

In the scorching Syrian sun, with only small respites, the Parthians harried the Romans slowly to death. Their powerful arrows pinning legionnaire’s shields to their arms, the legs of the commanders to their horses.

Crassus continued to mount infantry charges and to refight the battle against Spartacus. His men died slowly, over days. Those not killed by arrows outright, succumbed to their wounds or were baked alive in their armor by the desert sun.

In the end, Crassus was overwhelmed. His troops stood at last on the crest of a narrow hill, and were taken from several sides by a last charge. Crassus was struck down, his troops routed. Tens of thousands of men were butchered. Some smaller number were taken captive and sold as slaves.

Crassus had no Triumph in Rome. His grand achievement ended with a river of blood in the Syrian sand, its wellspring the proud heart of an incompetent man who mistook adoration for honor, wealth for competence, and high office for unstoppable destiny.

1 I have taken liberties with the scholarship in the following piece. This is not a thesis, but a parable.

2 All quotes from Plutarch here are from Sir Thomas North’s translation.