Peter Stothard

Talks about his latest book
Crassus, The First Tycoon

Talks about his latest book
Crassus, The First Tycoon

Marcus Licinius Crassus was the Roman financier who defeated Spartacus and bankrolled Julius Caesar. And though he died over two thousand years ago, the arc of his rise and fall feels alarmingly topical. As historian Andrew Roberts observes, it’s the story of “an obscenely wealthy oligarch seeking new prestige by invading a neighbouring country whose resilience he doesn’t appreciate.”

When Peter Stothard sat down to write a short biography of “the world’s first tycoon”, he often found himself reflecting on the Russian businessmen he met during his decade as editor of The Times, from 1992-2002.

“I met quite a few Russian oligarchs after the fall of the Soviet Union,” he says. “And I got to know Boris Berezovsky [who died in 2013] quite well. He used to say: ‘We [oligarchs] are criticised for just being around and picking up the oil wells and aluminium factories. People think what we did was dead easy. But it wasn’t easy. We were taking very big risks. First, the guy who owned the aluminium factory before you might suddenly show up and do you in. Second, you had to borrow money abroad to buy the factory and you might go bust before it became profitable. Third, and mostly likely, the president might decide to squash you because you were getting too big for your boots.”

Peter Stothard

Stothard meets me at a cafe in Great Baddow, the Essex village where he grew up as the son of an electrical engineer working for the local Marconi Research Centre. Dressed in a blue velvet jacket (lovingly crumpled scarf tossed over one shoulder) and sipping a herbal tea, I note that the 71-year-old classicist seems to have very little in common with the ruthless men who fascinate him, and he laughs. “You don’t have to have too much sympathy for the poor old misjudged oligarchs on their yachts,” he says. “But Berezovsky had a point. Anyone who becomes spectacularly rich has usually taken big risks, and if they survive for any length of time then they probably have a good sense of when to take those big risks. Crassus certainly did.”

“You don’t have to have too much sympathy for the poor old misjudged oligarchs on their yachts,”

Born in 115 BCE, Crassus was the son of a Roman aristocrat (and former Governor of Spain) called Publius, who Stothard describes as “a moderate politician who was squeezed between the conservative Roman aristocracy and the reformers. Crassus last saw his father [forced to commit suicide in 87 BCE] as a severed head on a spike, held up in the forum where he had given his speeches.” Crassus fled to Spain and later returned as a young officer supporting Sulla in the Civil War of 83-82 BCE. He seized the opportunity to vastly increase his personal wealth from the confiscation of the assets of declared enemies of the state (known as proscription) which included property, riches and a huge number of slaves.

Stothard describes Sulla as “a bit of a reprobate. His main interest was in righting what he saw as a few wrongs, getting a very conservative government back into power and then having a jolly good time before resigning.” A bit of a Boris? “Yeah. Exactly. After Sulla had gone, Crassus and Pompey realised he had gone too far and had to move the dial back to the centre quite fast. A bit like today with Liz Truss. They changed the rules, undid some of the things that Sulla had done and gave some power back to the people. Then Pompey went off on his conquering leaving Crassus as the main man in Rome pulling the strings quite successfully for quite a long time.”

Stothard’s thesis is that Crassus inherited his financial edge from his mother, Venuleia, who came to Rome from an Etruscan “family of business”. “His father’s choice [of wife] was unusual for an aristocrat of Publius’ type,” says Stothard. “And we don’t know a lot about her. But it’s nice to think that she made the difference, she helped him to think just a little bit further into the future than the people around him. Which is all he really needed to do to succeed in finance. You don’t need to predict the future. You just need to see ever so slightly further around the corner than anyone else.”

Crassus made his pile buying ruined landholdings from victims of the Roman civil war. “He was innovative when understanding human capital,” Stothard writes, “which, in the early first century BCE meant buying and training the smartest of the enslaved to manage the greatest property empire the Romans had ever known.”

But he was not a banker in the modern sense of the word. “He didn’t make long-term loans,” says Stothard. “Even countries didn’t make long-term loans at that time. Their sense of the future was very poor. The Romans in particular. Their sense of the past and of their heritage was strong, but they didn’t think much further ahead. Most of the men of Crassus’ class were trying to keep the past going. Most of the trouble in Crassus’ lifetime came from the clash between those who wanted to keep the past going and those – particularly those outside of Rome – who didn’t want the past to be kept going thank you very much. It was one long battle between the haves and the have-nots.”

I’m interested in Stothard’s use of the word “tycoon” to describe Crassus. Stothard says: “Tycoon isn’t a word used of all rich people. It’s reserved for somebody who is much more powerful than he looks. Like when the Americans turned up in Japan in 1853 and their naval commander said: Take me to your emperor. And he had to be told, ‘No: the emperor only talks to God.’ The person in charge is the Shogun. Somebody with a finger in every pie. Bit of mild intimidation here, bit of bribery there. Someone who controls the world not just through military force but through what we’d now call soft power.” Like the power a newspaper editor holds?  “Well… yeah. The media today.”

“Tycoon isn’t a word used of all rich people. It’s reserved for somebody who is much more powerful than he looks”

As Stothard makes clear in his book, Crassus would not have gained the respect he craved for his financial acumen. “Men of his class would have despised those who put money first. People like Plutarch criticised greed. But you notice that nobody ever suggested that he lived like Laurence Olivier [who played Crassus in the 1960 film, Spartacus]. He was a builder who built showy houses on land he may well have been responsible for burning down. He sold them to people like Cicero. But he didn’t live in a showy house himself. He lived quite modestly.”

But he could be brutal. During Spartacus’ slave rebellion in 71 [of the early 70s] BCE he punished his own forces with “decimation”, where one in ten legionaries were killed by their fellows in full view of the whole army. When he finally defeated the slave armies Crassus crucified 6,000 of the survivors along the Appian Way. Stothard says: “they must have taken the captives from the back of the line, so they didn’t see what was coming.”

By 54 BCE, Crassus was part of the Three-Headed Monster running Rome. He shared power with Pompey (the great conqueror of the Near East) and Caesar (who was five years into his conquest of Gaul). Crassus was in his early 60s by then and felt the time had come for him to cement his legacy (and build family credibility for his two sons) with a little land grabbing of his own.

In 53 BCE he led an army (including his cavalry commander son, Publius) across the Euphrates to conquer Parthia. But, as Stothard explains: “He just didn’t know very much about Parthia. A simple parallel with Putin would be foolish. But there are similarities with a man who thinks: Ukraine is next door, it’s run by a lot of old communist guys. I can take their stuff and do a bit of a deal with very little risk to me. Suddenly you’ve got a Zelenksy and it’s all very different.” Stothard shrugs. “In the end, Crassus met a Zelensky of the desert.” Shortly before he was killed himself, Crassus saw the head of his son, severed like that of his father.

Crassus’ own severed head is believed to have ended up in Seleucia (near modern day Baghdad) where – according to popular myth – molten gold was poured into his dry, gaping mouth to mock his avarice. In a neat parallel, Stothard drains his lemon and ginger tea. Then he reminisces about learning Latin here in Essex as a boy. “One of the strange things about being a classicist is that when you’re learning the language as a child, the themes of the histories and the poetry are beyond your understanding. They require you to know much more of life. By the time I was old enough to understand what Catullus and Thucydides were on about, the language skills had decayed a little!”

But he remains enthralled by a world that’s half familiar and half alien. “Most people don’t get that,” he says. “It’s like walking along a wall. You look down on one side and see people who were falling in love, cheating on their partners, drinking, eating… feeling ambitious for their children. They look quite cosily like us. But then you look down on the other side and you see them doing things that are completely alien and brutal. Too many people make the mistake of thinking the Romans were just like us, in togas.”

Peter Stothard is a classicist, author and critic. He is a former Editor of The Times and of the TLS. His books include “The Last Assassin”, “The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar”, and “Alexandria, The Last Nights of Cleopatra”. He was Chair of the Booker Prize judges in 2012 and is a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

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