I believe the murder was set in motion far from the scene of the crime, in modern day Turkey, in a patch of desert about ten miles north of the border with Syria. In 53 B.C.E., this spot of emptiness was called Carrhae, and in Roman history that name is synonymous with shame. It was at Carrhae that 20,000 Legionaries died, and worse, 10,000 were captured, and even worse, it was here that the aristocrat’s aristocrat, the greedy Marcus Licinius Crassus (above), was killed. His death should not have been a great tragedy, as not many outside his immediate family had reason to mourn his demise. But within ten years of his death, the Roman Republic would collapse, and the cause of democracy would be set back two thousand years – and all that occurred because Crassus got what he deserved. I would label all that followed his death, the horrible unintended consequences of a good thing.
Crassus, the richest man in Rome, had also once been a hero. He led the right wing at the battle of Coline Gate, which made Sulla dictator of Rome. He had defeated the slave armies of Spartacus, and lined the Appian Way with 6,000 crucified slaves. Then he had turned to running the finances of Sulla' s brutal regime. Now, at 60, he wanted to be a hero again. His plan to achieve this was to invade Parthia, the empire centered upon present day Iran. But age had not made Crassus more intellectually flexible or humble of spirit. When offered assistance from the King of Armenia, Crassus chose to keep all the plunder for himself.
So, in the spring of 53 B.C., at the head of seven veteran legions and 8,000 cavalry commanded by his son, Publius, Crassus crossed the Euphrates river at Zeugma, and almost immediately started making mistakes. He hired a guide who led him deep into a treeless desert near Carrhea (above), and then vanished. And once the legions were ankle deep in sand and desperately short of water, only then did the Parthian army appear - 10,000 cavalry armed with powerful bows.
Arrows showered upon the massed legions, wounding men and sapping moral. The Roman tactical response was to form the infantry into turtles (testudos) (above), closing ranks tightly, with the center ranks marching beneath their shields, and the soldiers on the edges presenting the enemy with a moving wall. But so strong were the Parthian bows that some arrows even penetrated the turtle's shells. It went on for hours. The turtles could only march in a straight line, and not very quickly under a baking desert sun. Eventually, reasoned Crassus, the Parthian bowmen would run out of arrows. But then he spotted large camel trains approaching, each dromedary carrying a fresh supply of arrows.
In desperation Publius's cavalry charged the camels, but the Parthian's proved adept at shooting while retreating - the famous Parthian shot (above), the sting in the scorpion's tail. Publius was killed and his cavalry scattered. The Parthians closed in again and the arrows continued to shower down upon the turtles. The sun continued to beat down. Eventually Crassus was forced to retreat into the village of Carrhea. After a night without water, his officers forced Crassus to parlay with the Parthian commander. The meeting was a disaster. The deaf Crassus perceived an insult in some Parthian translation, and moved to remount his horse. A Parthian officer grabbed the horses' bridle. A proud Roman officer pulled his gladius to defend his commander's honor, and the Parthian generals slaughtered the Roman officers, including Marcus Licinius Crassus. After that, the Parthians fell upon the leaderless legions, and effectively wiped them out.
The legend is that after the slaughter, the Parthians poured molten gold into the severed head of the greedy Crassus. It sounds like a terrible waste of a precious metal, but then the war had been a terrible waste of seven irreplaceable Roman legions. But the two men in all the world who understood intuitively what a disaster Crassus' death really was for Rome, were his two greatest competitors.
The sardonic Sulla had nicknamed Gnaeus Pompeius, as Pompey the Great (above). But Sulla had meant it as a joke - whatever else he was, Sulla was a ruthless judge of character. Sent by Sulla to secure the Roman grain supplies in Sicily, the young Pompey had earned another nickname, 'the adolescent butcher'. When the citizens of one small Sicilian village argued his attack upon them was illegal, Pompey responded bluntly, “Stop quoting laws. We carry weapons!” Returning home, Pompey demanded a triumphal parade, usually reserved for military victories. After Sulla's death, the Senate dispatched Pompey to crush a rebellious general. Pompey bribed one of the rebel officers to kill the general, and then eliminated the traitor. His justification was typically blunt. “A dead man cannot bite”. And he claimed another triumph. Sent to crush pirates who were raiding Roman grain fleets, Pompey bought them off, and again, claimed a triumph - Pompey Maximus, indeed.
As the two richest and most ambitious men in Rome, Pompey and Crassus had initially cooperated to strengthen the tribunes. This was not out of some faith in the Senate, but to use the tribunes as a buffer between them. For four hundred years these 'Tribunes of the Plebs' had been a counter-balance to the aristocrats in the Senate. Elected by the whole male population, tribunes could not make laws, but they could veto any law passed by the Senate (above), and lead soldiers in battle. Sulla had reduced the tribunes to a ceremonial post. But Pompey and Crassus, increasingly driven apart by suspicion, paranoia and envy, used the tribunes to enact their policies. And one of the men supported by Crassus for tribune of the people was Gaius Julius Caesar.
Sulla had taken one look at the smart, ambitious young Caesar (above), and marked him down for elimination. Julius avoided Sulla's assassins by joining the army. Once Sulla died, Julius returned to Rome, where Crassus backed his election as a Tribune and then sent him to Spain. While there Caesar had defeated two small tribes. This earned him the right to a triumph. Instead, Caesar asked Crassus for help, meaning money, to run for Consul of Rome.
A Consulship was the executive position in the Republic, the equivalent of an American President. But Romans were so afraid of someone wanting to rule over them as a king, that the term of office was just one year long, and there were two equal consuls elected each year. Each had the power of veto over any action by the other. This was a system designed to ensure deadlock. As a result of the election of 60 B.C., Caesar (Crassus' man) was elected. But the other consul elected that year, Marcus Bibulus, was Pompey's man, meaning more deadlock. Every law Crassus backed, Bibulus vetoed, ever law Pompey pushed, Caesar vetoed. And it was Caesar’s political genius that he saw the way to use this deadlock to increase his own power.
In 59 B.C., Caesar pushed for a law Pompey had long supported, a land reform act that would give farms to Pompey's veterans. Bibulus, who was an aristocrat and a land owner, tried to veto Caesar’s bill, but thugs hired by Caesar drove Bibulus out of the forum, and even dumped a dung bucket on Bilbulus's head. Caesar’s bill passed, and that quickly power in Rome was changed, from a deadlocked confrontation between two men, into a more balanced government ruled by three - The First Triumvirate. At the end of his term, in exchange for his work bringing peace between Crassus and Pompey, Caesar was appointed Governor of Trans-alpine Gaul, what today is France, for ten years..
Thus the Romans divided their known world between these three men. Caesar went west, to conquer and plunder Gaul with four legions. Pompey, who saw himself as a great general, stayed in Rome, without legions, to guard and plunder the Republic. And the financier Crassus had turned eastward, to conquer and plunder Parthia with seven legions. But in 53 B.C.E. Crassus had gotten himself killed, and the Roman Republic, carefully crafted over 400 years to exist as a balance between opposing forces, was abruptly reduced to a confrontation between two men. It was a contest which must result in the death of one of them.
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