Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic's Most Influential Leaders
Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders

Khalid Elhassan - October 29, 2017

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
Marcus Licinius Crassus. Ancient History Encyclopedia

Marcus Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 – 53 BC) was the late Roman Republic’s wealthiest man and one of its leading figures. He used his wealth to amass power, sponsoring politicians, including Julius Caesar whose political rise he financed, and with Caesar and Pompey the Great, entered into a power-sharing agreement known as “The First Triumvirate“, which effectively made the trio the masters of the Roman Republic.

As an ally of Sulla, Crassus started on the road to fabulous wealth by buying the confiscated properties of executed enemies of the state in rigged auctions for a fraction of their value, even arranging to have the names of those whose property he coveted added to the lists of the proscribed, slated for execution and confiscation of property.

By the 70s BC, Crassus was Rome’s richest man, and he leveraged his wealth into power by entering a power-sharing agreement with Caesar and Pompey. However, Crassus also craved military glory such as that enjoyed by his partners – unlike them, Crassus’ main military accomplishment had been to defeat Spartacus’ slave rebellion, which paled in comparison to Pompey’s and Caesar’s deeds.

To win glory of his own, Crassus decided to invade Parthia, a newly established wealthy kingdom encompassing Persia and Mesopotamia, which did not seem a difficult nut to crack: a decade earlier, Pompey had easily defeated other eastern kingdoms, other kingdoms in the east, and there was little reason to assume the Parthians would be any tougher.

With an army of 50,000, he went to war against Parthia in 53 BC, but things went wrong from the start when his guide, secretly in Parthian pay, took Crassus on an arid route that left his army parched and exhausted by the time they reached the town of Carrhae in today’s Turkey, where they encountered a Parthian army of 1000 armored heavy cavalry and 9000 horse archers. Although they greatly outnumbered the Parthians, the Romans were demoralized by the rigors of the march and by Crassus’ uninspiring leadership.

Archers whittled the Romans with arrows from a safe standoff distance, retreating whenever the Romans advanced. Morale plummeted as casualties mounted, and Crassus finally ordered his son to drive off the horse archers with the Roman cavalry and an infantry detachment. The Parthians feigned retreat, Crassus’ son rashly pursued, and was slaughtered with all his men. The Parthians returned, taunting the Roman army and Crassus with his son’s head mounted on a spear.

Crassus retreated, abandoning thousands of his wounded. The Parthians invited him to parley, offering safe retreat in exchange for Roman territorial concessions. Crassus was reluctant, but his army threatened to mutiny if he did not negotiate. The parley went badly, violence broke out, and Crassus was killed. To mock his greed, the Parthians poured molten gold down his throat. Out of his 50,000 man army, only 10,000 made it back to Roman territory.

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
Pompey the Great. Pintrest

Pompey the Great

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known as Pompey or Pompey the Great (106 – 48 BC) was one of the greatest statesmen and generals of the Roman Republic’s final decades, who was first Julius Caesar’s son in law and partner in the First Triumvirate, then his rival, and finally enemy, during the civil war that followed Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon into Italy in 49 BC.

Pompey was born into a family that had only recently joined the senatorial ranks, but that was nonetheless powerful and incredibly wealthy, with vast holdings in Picenum in central Italy. Pompey’s father was a general who became consul in 89 BC and had a reputation for double-dealing, greed, and ruthlessness. An ally of Sulla, he was killed during the civil war against the Marians in 87 BC, and 19-year-old Pompey inherited his vast wealth and, more importantly, his legions.

Upon Sulla’s return to Italy from the war against Pontus, Pompey joined him with 3 legions in his march on and seizure of Rome. Sulla then sent him to recapture Sicily and Africa from the Marians, which he accomplished in two lightning campaigns by 81 BC, after which he executed the captured Marians and was named Magnus, or “the Great” by his troops.

After Sulla’s retirement, Pompey menaced the Senate into appointing him commander of the war against the final Marian remnants in Hispania, which he eventually won after considerable effort by 71 BC. He took his army back to Italy with him, ostensibly to help put down Spartacus slave revolt, but in reality to guarantee his election to the consulship in 70 BC.

In 67 BC, he was given authority throughout the Mediterranean to settle a piracy problem that had grown out of control, and he managed to do so in a brilliant campaign that lasted only 3 months. He was then appointed to command a war against Pontus, and granted authority to settle the entire eastern Mediterranean, which he did by annexing some kingdoms into the Roman Republic and reducing others to client state. That settlement was his greatest achievement and one which, with few modifications, lasted for over 500 years.

Returning to Italy in 62 BC, he sought land upon which to settle his veterans and legislation to ratify his settlement of the east, but political chaos in Rome prevented that. He finally accomplished his goals after forming Triumvirate with Caesar and Crassus to divide Rome’s power amongst the trio, sealing the deal by marrying Caesar’s daughter. After Crassus died in 53 BC, followed by Pompey’s wife and Caesar’s daughter soon thereafter, the remaining Triumvirs drifted apart, and finally went to war in 49 BC.

Pompey and the optimates conservative faction fled to Greece, where they raised an army. Caesar followed, and Rome’s two greatest generals finally met at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Caesar proved greater, and Pompey’s army was crushed. Fleeing, he sailed to Egypt, where he was inveigled to come ashore, only to get assassinated and have his head chopped off as soon as his feet touched Egyptian soil.

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
Cicero. Sententiae Antiquae

Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC), considered Rome’s greatest orator, was a statesman, scholar, lawyer, and writer who served as consul in 63 BC. Throughout his career, he tried in vain to uphold republican principles as the Roman Republic tore itself apart in civil wars during its final years. He had much greater impact and success influencing Western thought for centuries, and the rediscovery of his writings more than a millennium after his death is credited with sparking the Renaissance.

Cicero was born into a wealthy equestrian family in Arpinum and was sent to study law in Rome as a youth. His brilliant defense of a Sextus Roscius in 79 BC against trumped-up charges of parricide established his reputation as a lawyer and began his rise in Rome. He became a supporter of Pompey the Great, and as a member of the conservative and pro-aristocratic optimates faction, was elected consul in 63 BC. That year, he suppressed what came to be known as the Catiline Conspiracy to overthrow the government, arresting and ordering the summary execution of its ringleaders captured in Rome.

In 60 BC, he declined an invitation to join Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus in what became known as the First Triumvirate, deeming the arrangement unconstitutional, and doing all he could to undo it by driving wedges between the Triumvirs. Crassus was killed in battle in 53 BC, and when Pompey and Caesar fell out and the latter marched on Italy in 49 BC, Cicero sat out the ensuing civil war, and spent that period in scholarly pursuits and writing books and treatises.

After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Cicero promoted the cause of Gaius Octavius, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, seeking to use the teenager as a cat’s paw during his conflict against Mark Antony, whom Cicero loathed and against whom he penned and orated scathing critiques known as The Philippics. Quipping that he would “praise, raise, and erase” Octavius, Cicero greatly underestimated the youth, who as the future Augustus would end the Roman Republic and replace it with the Roman Empire. Octavius shrewdly reconciled with Mark Antony and cut a deal that divided Rome between the two, who then proceeded to clean house by eliminating all enemies, and potential opponents of the regime in a bloody purge that outdid Sulla’s. Cicero, as an avowed enemy of Mark Antony, was on the new regime’s list of the proscribed.

He fled Rome, but was captured and killed on December 7th, 43 BC. A vindictive Antony then had Cicero’s severed head and hands displayed in the rostra, or speaker’s platform in Rome’s Forum, after Antony’s equally vindictive wife pierced the orator’s tongue with knitting needles.

Defeated politically, Cicero triumphed intellectually. His impact extended far beyond his own days, as he left behind a trove of writings on philosophy, politics, rhetoric, and oratory, whose rediscovery in the 13th century and the keen interest they aroused in scholars, amongst whom Petrarch was most notable, helped jump-start the Renaissance. He influenced European literature and ideas more than any single prose writer before or since, and his impact on the Latin language was such that until the 19th century, all European prose could be viewed as being a return to or a reaction against Cicero’s style.

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