Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


Marcus Crassus lived at the same period with Pompey and Cæsar and Cicero, whose lives follow this, and he was one of the best public speakers in Rome. Often when others refused to undertake a case that seemed unimportant, he would give it so much of his time and attention that his fellow-citizens looked upon him as one who was ever ready to work for them. Besides, he had a pleasant way of greeting even the humblest of his countrymen, and of calling each by name, that added much to his popularity. This was unlike many rich men, and Crassus was enormously rich, for not only was he the owner of several silver-mines, but he had valuable lands and a host of slaves, whom he hired out. They were laborers on his estates, readers, writers, silversmiths, stewards, and household waiters. These he always overlooked himself, for he considered it the duty of a master to see that his servants were properly instructed in their various pursuits.

When Cinna and Marius got the power into their own hands, an account of which has been given in their respective lives, the father and brother of Crassus were killed, but he, being very young, was considered unimportant, and so escaped. But he knew that he was living in dangerous times, and therefore, taking with him three friends and ten servants, he fled to Spain, where he had once been with his father, and hid in a cave by the sea-shore. This cave belonged to a man named Vibius Pacianus, who was so pleased to know that young Crassus was safe that, after inquiring into the number of occupants of the cave, he ordered his steward to take a certain supply of food every day to a rock which he named and there leave it, promising him his liberty if he obeyed, but threatening death if he asked any questions or sought to find out for whom the food was intended.

Crassus lived in that by no means unpleasant dwelling for eight months, abundantly supplied with comforts and luxuries sent regularly by the friendly Pacianus, whose servants never saw him or knew whom they were serving. At last news came of Cinna's death, and then Crassus left his hiding-place and joined Sylla's army, where his services were very valuable. But Crassus had two grave faults: he was avaricious and covetous; so when Pompey was honored with a triumph, it made him very angry because he did not also get one. One day, when a citizen announced that "Pompey the Great was coming," Crassus asked, with a scornful laugh, "How big is he?"

Pompey's ability for war was so great that Crassus soon felt how useless it would be to compete with him: he therefore turned his attention to affairs of state, and became very influential. He was ambitious and covetous, as we have said, but not ill-natured or bad-hearted, and he was always ready to serve those who needed him. When Cæsar was going to Spain as prætor, his creditors wanted to stop him and take his things, but Crassus promised to see that they were all paid at a given time, and this was a noble act of friendship.

Crassus showed himself a good soldier in the war with Spartacus, the gladiator. There was at Capua a man who trained gladiators and kept them in confinement, not because they were criminals, but because they were his slaves, and he was cruel. They were for the most part Gauls and Thracians, and were made to fight merely to amuse their master and his guests. At last they determined to bear the imprisonment no longer, and two hundred of them formed a plot to escape. It was discovered, but not until seventy-eight had got off; these went to a cook's shop and armed themselves with all sorts of knives, hatchets, and spits, with which they marched noisily through Capua until they reached a place where they were able to defend themselves. On the way they came upon a wagon filled with gladiators' arms; they seized these, and then chose three captains, Spartacus being the chief and giving the name to the insurrection.

Spartacus was a brave, high-spirited man, superior to his condition both in intellect and disposition, for, unlike most Thracians, he was humane and gentle. When he first went to Rome to be sold, a snake coiled itself upon his face while he slept, and his wife, who was a kind of prophetess, declared it to be a sign that he would become powerful.

Well, the seventy-eight gladiators routed those Capuans who came out to fight them, and so got hold of all the weapons they required in place of the butcher-knives. Clodius, with a body of three thousand men, was sent from Rome, and he besieged the gladiators on a mountain that could be reached by only one narrow, difficult passage, which he kept guarded. The top of the mountain was covered with wild vines, of which the gladiators made strong ladders long enough to reach down a steep, slippery precipice on the opposite side to where Clodius had posted his army. By means of these ladders they all got down and made their way around to the Romans, who were taken completely by surprise and lost their camp. This gave the gladiators another supply of arms, with which they equipped a number of sturdy herdsmen and shepherds who had joined them.

Other prætors were sent from Rome, but Spartacus defeated them all, and his name began to be a terror in the land. But he was too sensible a man to suppose that his success would long continue against the forces that could easily be raised to oppose him; so he marched his army towards the Alps, intending to send every man to his own home, some to Thrace, others to Gaul. However, with their increase of numbers and repeated successes, they were not willing tamely to disband; they disobeyed their leader and went about ravaging Italy, until the senate, aroused to a sense of the danger that was likely to follow, sent out two consuls, each with a large army. In course of time both were defeated by Spartacus. Then Crassus was appointed general of the war, and a great many of the patrician young men volunteered under his command.

It was at Rhegium that he came upon the gladiators, and the first thing he did was to build a wall across the isthmus. This was a most difficult undertaking, but it kept the soldiers busy and the enemy from foraging; so when Spartacus, who had not considered the importance of this great undertaking, suddenly found his provisions failing and himself walled in, he spent the whole of one snowy, stormy night filling up a ditch with earth and boughs of trees, and so passed over a third of his army.

Crassus now began to fear that the gladiators would march straight to Rome; but his mind was soon relieved when they separated, for some reason or other, and part of them encamped on the Lucanian lake. He fell upon them without delay, drove them off, and would have put an end to them had not Spartacus come up just in time to rally them.

Meanwhile, Crassus had written to the senate to send Lucullus from Thrace and Pompey from Spain to his assistance. He now began to repent that he had done so, for he was always jealous of Pompey, who was a greater commander than he, and feared that he might arrive in time to carry off the honors. He therefore followed up Spartacus and his army with all speed, and gave them battle as soon as they made a stand.

When they brought Spartacus his horse, he drew his sword and killed him, saying, "If I am victorious, I shall get many better horses from the enemy; if I am defeated, I shall have no need of this one." Then, through showers of darts and heaps of slain, he made straight for Crassus, but did not reach him, though he killed two centurions that fell upon him together. He stood his ground, bravely defending himself, until he was surrounded by the enemy and cut to pieces.

Although Crassus had shown himself a good general and had gallantly exposed his person, he was only wreathing a laurel for the brow of Pompey, who met those that were escaping from the field, put them to the sword, and wrote to the senate, "Crassus has indeed beaten the gladiators in a pitched battle, but I have put an end to the war."

On his return to Rome, Pompey had a magnificent triumph for his conquest over Sertorius in Spain, but Crassus could not even accept an ovation, because it would have been undignified, seeing that he had defeated only fugitive slaves. The difference between a triumph and an ovation is explained in the life of Marcellus.

Pompey and Crassus were both made consuls. They seemed pleased at first, but it was not long before they began to quarrel to such an extent that they could accomplish nothing of importance to the country. But Crassus, in order to increase his popularity, offered a great sacrifice to Hercules, entertained people at ten thousand tables, and gave them a supply of corn for three months. At the close of their consulship a Roman knight who was much respected mounted the rostrum and announced that he had had a vision, in which, he said, "Jupiter appeared to me and commanded me to tell you that you should not permit your consuls to go out of office until they are friends." The people cried out that they must become reconciled to each other. Pompey stood perfectly still and said nothing; but Crassus advanced towards him, and, holding out his hand, said, "I am not ashamed, fellow-citizens, nor do I think it beneath me, to make the first advances to Pompey, whom you called Great  while he was but a beardless youth, and whom you honored with a triumph before he was even senator."

Somewhat later, Crassus was accused of being mixed up in the conspiracy of Catiline, but he was tried and acquitted by the whole senate. This was a plot to burn the city, and when the senate investigated it they naturally could not believe that a man who owned such an amount of property as Crassus did could desire to destroy it.

Now we come to the closing scene in the life of Crassus. He and Pompey were not really friends, although they had shaken hands to gratify an assembly of the people; so when Cæsar returned and desired to stand for the consulship he managed to reconcile the two, because he knew the importance of their influence. Having accomplished that, he formed the well-known league commonly called the First Triumvirate; and that was a sad day for the liberty of the Roman people.

Cæsar gained most by this league, for it helped him to the very top of the ladder of fame. Pompey agreed to it because he loved power, Crassus because he worshipped gold and saw a way to increase the millions he already had. So Cæsar was elected consul, and by means of persuasion and force the other two were associated with him. Pompey was appointed to the government of Spain, and Crassus to that of Syria, but he expected to extend it to India and the very shores of the Eastern Ocean,—not for fame, but for riches.

He first proposed to attack the Parthians, but they had been friendly to Rome; consequently the people opposed it, and would not let him depart until Pompey, whose influence was great, acted as escort. Even then Ateius, the tribune, met him at the gate, and tried to stop him by force, but, failing in that, he ran and got a pan of burning coals, on which he sprinkled incense, and called down the most horrible curses of certain strange and dreadful gods on the heads of the army. An imprecation of this kind was seldom used, because it was said that not only the person who used it, but his country, was sure to be unhappy. Therefore Ateius was much blamed for his rashness.

However, Crassus could not be stopped; so he put to sea, and after a stormy and dangerous voyage, and the loss of a number of vessels, reached Brundusium, whence he proceeded to Syria. The Romans met with little resistance, because they were not expected, and overran the greater part of Mesopotamia; but then Crassus committed a fatal error. Instead of following up his success and conquering the great city of Babylon, which he might have done with ease, he merely fortified the towns and returned into Syria to pass the winter. There he was joined by his son, Publius, who was sent from Gaul by Cæsar at the head of a thousand select horsemen.

Instead of devoting the winter to disciplining his army, as a great general ought to have done, Crassus spent his time inquiring into the revenues of the cities and weighing the treasures he found in the temple of Hierapolis, said to have been the richest in the world.

In the spring he took the field again with a splendid army; but part of it, headed by Cassius, the quæstor, tried to dissuade him from going farther, particularly as the soothsayers pronounced all the signs unfavorable. Crassus paid no attention to any of them, but marched straight on to the river Euphrates.

While he was crossing, there was a dreadful storm, accompanied by terrific peals of thunder and fearful flashes of lightning, and part of his bridge was destroyed. The spot he had marked out for his camp was struck twice by lightning; a richly-caparisoned war-horse ridden by one of the generals ran away, jumped into the river, and was drowned with the rider; and when the foremost eagle was moved in order for the march, it turned back of its own accord. These and other bad omens had a very depressing effect on the minds of the superstitious Romans, and it was increased when Crassus let fall the entrails of the animal he was sacrificing. However, his presence of mind did not desert him, and he said, with a smile, "See what it is to be old! but my sword shall not slip out of my hands in this manner, I promise you."

After crossing the river, Crassus was joined by an artful, wicked Arabian chief named Ariamnes, who led him to ruin. This man expressed so much friendship for the Romans, and flattered them to such a degree, that Crassus believed in him, and allowed him to become his guide because he knew the country so well. The traitor led the way along a smooth, easy road at first, but after a while he struck into a sandy desert, where not a drop of water nor a vestige of vegetation was to be seen for miles. No sooner was the imposture discovered than Ariamnes made his escape in the night.

The troops were worn out with their long, fatiguing march, and almost exhausted from thirst, when they were attacked by the Parthian forces under Surena, a man of high position, and one of the most remarkable commanders of his day. Crassus was so dismayed by the suddenness of the enemy's approach that he was scarcely able to draw up his army properly; however, after several changes one wing was at last placed under Cassius, the other under Publius Crassus, the centre being commanded by the general himself.

The Parthians came on, filling the air with a horrible din and loud bellowing, for they had instruments covered with leather and surrounded with brass bells, which they beat continually, because experience had taught them that nothing sooner disturbed the enemy than the dismal sounds they produced. Besides, they had a peculiar way of advancing and retreating as occasion required, firing their formidable arrows all the time, and drawing the enemy after them as they chose.

From the beginning the Romans fought at a disadvantage, and the battle was desperate and bloody. Young Crassus was sent with a detachment against the Parthian cavalry, and, although he showed himself a true hero, he and all his men were slain. The first knowledge the general received of his son's death was when the Parthians advanced again with loud shouts and songs of victory, holding the head of Publius on the point of a spear. "Does anybody know the family and parents of this young man?" they asked, in tones of contempt: "for it is not possible that so brave and gallant a youth can be the son of Crassus, the greatest coward and meanest wretch in the world."

This sight broke the spirit of the Romans more than all they had suffered. Crassus, though bowed down with grief, rode up and down the ranks and cried, "Romans, this loss is mine. The fortunes and glory of Rome stand safe in you. If you have any pity for me, who am bereft of the best of sons, show it in your revenge on the enemy. Put an end to their triumph; avenge their cruelty. Be not astonished at this loss; they who aspire to great things must expect to suffer. Lucullus did not defeat Tigranes, nor Scipio Antiochus, without some bloodshed. Rome has been blessed with great good fortune, but she has also known adversity, and it is through perseverance and fortitude that she has risen to her present height of power."

Thus he spoke, but his troops were not inspirited by his speech, and when he ordered them to shout for battle, although they obeyed, their shouts were feeble and unequal, while those of the enemy were bold and strong.

The fight lasted throughout the day, and the enemy's pikes did great execution; for they were so large and strong, and were pushed with such violence, that they often pierced through two men at once. When night came on, the enemy sent a message that they would give Crassus one night to bewail the loss of his son, if he did not in the mean time decide to go and surrender himself to King Arsaces.

The Romans were in a dreadful condition. Their wounded were lying on all sides, their dying groans and shrieks of agony filling the air, and preventing those who were able from paying proper attention to the burial of the dead. They could not remove the wounded without being observed by the enemy, and they dared not desert them. Flight was thus rendered impossible. They believed Crassus to be the cause of all their miseries, yet they called on him to speak to them; but he had given himself up to despair, and, having sought an obscure corner, had completely enveloped himself in a cloak, and lay stretched upon the ground.

Some of the officers tried to console him, but, finding it impossible to do so, they called a council of war and resolved to retire. This was therefore carried into effect as silently as possible, but as soon as the sick and wounded saw that they were to be deserted their doleful cries filled the whole army with confusion. Nevertheless they were left, and at break of day the Parthians fell upon them and killed four thousand. Their cavalry despatched a large number of stragglers on the plain, and then surrounded a hill where one of the Roman officers had stationed himself during the night with four cohorts, and put to death all except twenty, who cut their way through the enemy, sword in hand, and made their escape.

Crassus escaped to Caræ, and as soon as Surena heard where he was he determined to besiege the city; but, not wishing to do so unless he was absolutely certain that the Roman general was there, he sent an interpreter to the walls to summon Crassus or Cassius, and say that Surena desired an interview. When Crassus appeared, the man said that Surena was ready to conclude a peace with him on condition that he would give up Mesopotamia and be upon terms of friendship with the king, his master, for he thought that such a peace would be of advantage to both sides.

Cassius answered for the general, and desired that the time and place might be fixed as soon as possible for the interview. The interpreter, having obtained the information he sought, rode off.

Next day Surena led up his troops and began the siege, telling the Romans that if they wanted peace all they had to do was to deliver up Crassus and Cassius bound. The Romans were very indignant at having been so imposed upon, and at once made arrangements for their general to escape. This ought to have been kept secret, but Crassus told the whole plan to one of his guides, named Andromachus, a perfidious man, who repeated all he heard to the Parthians.

In the night Crassus marched out of Caræ with only four cohorts of foot-soldiers, a small number of cavalry, and five lictors, led by the false Andromachus. They got into some difficult places, and made little progress until day dawned, and then it was discovered that the Parthians were coming up. One of the Roman generals, who, with a small force, had reached a hill not far off, saw the danger Crassus was in, and immediately went to his aid. Then all the soldiers took Crassus in their midst, and, fencing him around with their shields, stoutly declared that no Parthian arrow should touch their general while any of them were left alive.

Fearing that Crassus might escape him after all, Surena resorted to stratagem. He instructed his soldiers to say in the presence of the prisoners that the king did not want to continue the war with the Romans, but meant to treat Crassus generously and to regain his friendship and alliance. These prisoners were soon after dismissed, and of course they reported to their general what the Parthians had said. After drawing back his troops, Surena, with a few of his principal officers, went over to the spot where the Romans were stationed, and, having unstrung his bow, offered his hand to Crassus, and said, "Our king has hitherto, though against his desire, given proofs of his power, but now it would be a pleasure to him to come to terms with the Romans and suffer them to depart in peace."

The troops were delighted, and urged their general to go with Surena to complete the peace, but he felt suspicious of the sudden friendship, and hesitated. Then they began to reproach him. "You are very willing to expose us to the weapons of the Parthians, but you dare not meet them yourself, even though they lay down their arms and ask for a friendly conference." This and other sneering remarks at last decided the fate of Crassus; and as he left he turned back and said, "All you Roman officers that are present will bear witness to the necessity I am under to take this step. When you are safe, pray tell the world that I was deceived by the enemy, and not that I was abandoned by my countrymen."

Octavius and Petronius, two officers, also a few soldiers, went forward with their general. The first persons they met were two of Surena's men, who addressed Crassus in Greek, and bade him send some of his soldiers to make sure that Surena and his company had no weapons concealed about their persons. "That is not necessary," he answered; "for if my life had been of any account I should not thus put myself in your hands."

Just then Surena himself, with half a dozen officers, advanced on horseback. "What is this I behold?" he asked,—"a Roman general on foot, when we are riding?" He then ordered a horse to be brought, and, as soon as Crassus had mounted, the equerries began to urge him forward. Octavius seized the bridle on one side and Petronius on the other, while the rest of the Romans tried to draw off those Parthians who pressed up to Crassus on each side. A scuffle ensued; Octavius drew his sword and killed one of the equerries; another came forward, and was killed also. Petronius received a blow on his breastplate, but was not wounded. Crassus was killed, and his head and right hand were cut off and sent to the Parthian king. The rest of his escort escaped.

Thus ended the tragic expedition that cost the lives of twenty thousand Romans and the imprisonment of ten thousand more. It had been undertaken by Crassus not for the glory of his country, but for the gratification of his ruling passion, love of gold, and he met the fate he deserved.