Crassus: The First Tycoon by Peter Stothard - review by Antony Spawforth

Antony Spawforth

Top of the Roman Rich List

Crassus: The First Tycoon


Yale University Press 184pp £18.99

In this slim book aimed at the general reader, Peter Stothard successfully pulls off the challenge of making a compelling subject out of surely one of the most unattractive personalities thrown up by the death agonies of the Roman Republic in the first century BC. Marcus Licinius Crassus (115–53 BC) was a Roman aristocrat born into riches. As a young man he proceeded to multiply his inheritance more than twenty times over, by means more foul than fair. Even in an age when the profits of empire helped many members of Rome’s governing class acquire huge fortunes, Crassus’s avaricious methods raised eyebrows.

They included buying up the property of fellow citizens who had been declared outlaws and hunted to death. He also took advantage of Rome’s frequent fires to purchase buildings when they were still actually alight, at which point desperate owners would sell them at a fraction of their true value. To redevelop these burnt-out buildings, Crassus invested in five hundred or so slaves trained as architects and construction workers. As that familiar figure, an unscrupulous property developer, Crassus may indeed merit the description in the book’s blurb: ‘a modern man in an ancient world’.

Crassus was more than just a Roman moneyman, however. His family background propelled him into public life. One of the obstacles to writing for a general readership about Roman politics of this era is the chaotic mix of personalities, issues and constitutional niceties. Stothard avoids the besetting sin

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