Plutarch’s life of Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 to 53 BC)

Marcus Licinius Crassus was reputed to be the richest man in Rome due to astute property development and loan making. In 73 BC he was given command of the army charged with putting down the Spartacus rebellion. In 70 he served as consul. Well into middle age, he formed the triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey in 60 BC, an uneasy alliance which dominated the 50s. In 54 BC he was tempted to assume leadership of an army sent against the Parthian Empire way out East, where his army was defeated and he met a miserable death.

This is one of the shorter lives, at a mere 33 chapters because we in fact know remarkably little about Crassus and Plutarch, apparently, didn’t either. The account of the Spartacus campaign is far longer than really necessary and a good half of the text deals with his final doomed campaign in Parthia. Of the precise origin of Crassus’s business empire and the complex wheeler-dealing which surrounded the triumvirate, there is disappointingly little. Then again, his grim ending was what Crassus became most famous for and also provided a peg for an orgy of the kind of superstitious omens and finger-wagging moralising that the ancients loved so much. So maybe Plutarch knew his audience.

The life

(Chapter 1) Crassus’s father had been censor and was awarded a triumph for military sucess, giddy heights in Roman society. Yet Marcus was raised in a small house where the family ate meals together. Plutarch thinks this may account for his temperate and moderate behaviour in later life. When one of his older brothers died, Marcus married the widow.

(2) Contrasting with his moderation in all other respects was his greed. Starting with a modest legacy he worked it up into an outrageous fortune: during his consulship he sacrificed the tenth of his goods to Hercules but still had enough left over to feasted the people and then give every Roman enough cash to live on for three months! In 54 BC, before he set out on his ill-fated expedition to Parthia (modern-day Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan), Crassus made an inventory of his property and valued it at 7,100 talents. Compare this with the fine of 20,000 talents which Lucius Cornelius Sulla imposed on all the cities and towns of Asia combined and which they found impossible to pay off.

One of Crassus’s business strategies was to hear about fires in the city, rush to the blaze and make the owners of threatened or burning properties offers they couldn’t refuse. If they sold him their property he promptly deployed his private fire service to save it. ‘In this most of Rome came into his possession’!

Crassus had a number of sayings which have been preserved. He said that people who build houses have no need of enemies since they will ruin themselves by their own efforts. He is also supposed to have said that no-one should be thought rich who couldn’t support an entire army out of their own wealth – a handy definition.

Crassus owned silver mines and much land and the labourers to work it. He owned a huge number of slaves but took care to educate and manage them well.

(3) Crassus’s house was open to all. He gave good dinner parties, not showy, His guests were often ordinary people, not the elite. He lent money without interest, which sounds nice, but demanded it be repaid back at exactly the allotted time. Crassus studied the art of public speaking and was always prepared. Sometimes he was ready to speak when Pompey, Caesar or Cicero were reluctant. He had an open approachable manner and would talk to anyone freely. In this way he cultivated great popularity.

(4) When Lucius Cornelius Cinna and Gaius Marius seized power in 87 BC it quickly became obvious they weren’t seeking what was best for the state but to exterminate their enemies. Among these were Crassus’s father and brother who were both murdered in the Marian purges. Young Marcus fled to Spain with some servants. He found shelter in a cave which Plutarch describes at length, making it sound like a boy’s adventure. A friend living locally, Vibius, tasked a slave with taking Crassus meals every day and leaving them a little distance from the cave.

(5) After a while it occurred to Vibius that young Marcus might want more than just food and so he sent his two prettiest slave women to keep him company.

(6) Marius died soon after regaining power in 87 BC and Rome was ruled for three years by Cinna. When Crassus heard that Cinna was dead (84 BC) he headed back to Italy to join Sulla in his march on Rome. Crassus became jealous of Sulla’s open partiality for young Pompey. This was because the latter had more military experience and also because Sulla disliked Crassus’s obvious greed.

(7) Deciding he couldn’t compete with Pompey, Crassus opted to focus on politics. He ingratiated himself with everyone, had a hand in all business affairs, made himself open and available and friendly and helpful to large numbers of people. It was said that Pompey was most powerful when he was out of Rome on campaign whereas back in Rome he was in Crassus’s shade, because he was aloof and selfish. Pompey was powerful because he had so many contacts, friends and money; but he was inconsistent in his alliances, shifting and switching to whatever suited him.

(8) Description of the Spartacus rebellion. How the gladiators escaped from the training school of Lentulus Batiatus at Capua. 78 gladiators escaped, came across a wagon carrying weapons, raided it and elected three leaders.

(9) How the gladiators defeated the praetor Marcus Claudius Glabur by escaping from a hill top using vine ropes then attacking the Romans from the rear. Local shepherds and peasants joined them. Subsequent victories against Publius Varinus, Lucius Furius and Lucius Cossinius. Spartacus tries to persuade his men to march north and cross the Alps but many prefer ravaging and looting Italy. The Senate sent both that year’s consuls against them, and Gellius massacred a group of Germans, but then Spartacus’s main force defeated the other consul, Lentulus, and went on to destroy the arms of Cassius, the governor of Cisalpine Gaul.

(10) It was at this point that Crassus was appointed to supreme command of the war. I am puzzled by this as we had established that Crassus forebore the military and had chosen to concentrate on civilian power. Crassus deputed Mummius to tail Spartacus but on no account to engage. Instead Mummius seized an opportunity to attack and was repelled and beaten by the insurgents, the legions turning tail and running. When they had reported back to Crassus he had 500 of the first to run away and had them decimated: every tenth man was chosen by lot and publicly humiliated and executed.

Spartacus marched to the Straits and made a deal with Cilician pirates to carry them to Sicily, where they hoped to revive the recently quelled slave rising, but the pirates took their money and abandoned them. Then they turned for the heel of Italy where Crassus had his men erect a ditch and wall forty miles long.

(11) Crassus fell upon a contingent resting by a lake in Lucania but Spartacus came to their rescue. Then there was a battle near a hill where Crassus massacred 12,500 of the rebels. Spartacus retired to the mountains of Petelia, trailed by Roman forces. Then he turned and engaged them, routing them and nearly killing the quaestor.

But this made the rebels over-confident and they turned to confront Crassus’s main army as it was making camp for the night. This developed into a full battle in which the rebels were comprehensively defeated.

Pompey was approaching with a second army and this engaged the stragglers from Spartacus’s force and wiped them out. To Crassus’s immense chagrin Pompey was awarded a magnificent triumph for his victory in Spain against Sertorius while Crassus was given the much more modest ‘ovation’ for a war which all the nobles thought had been dishonourable from start to finish.

(12) Crassus and Pompey were made consuls for the next year but publicly disagreed about everything. However, at one of their last appearances before the people a man leapt onstage and claimed that Jupiter had appeared to him in a dream and told him the consuls mustn’t part without being friends. Characteristically it was Crassus who made the first move and seized Pompey by the hand and praised him.

(13) In 63 Crassus was elected censor but made none of the reforms expected of the post. His colleague in the post strongly objected to Crassus’s policy that Egypt should be annexed by Rome and so the two men resigned their posts.

At the time of the Cataline conspiracy in 63 BC Crassus was accused of being party to the plot, not least by Cicero. This resulted in Crassus’s enmity towards the latter, until his own son, Publius, a devoted follower of the orator, persuaded him to forgive and forget.

(14) In 60 BC Caesar returned from service in Spain and was lobbying to be elected consul for the following year. He persuaded Crassus and Pompey that their enmity was weakening both and letting the party of Cicero and Cato triumph. He proposed they form an alliance, telling each man they’d be stronger together. In reality the person who benefited most was Caesar who was not only elected consult but awarded command in Gaul.

In the spring of 56 arguments threatened to break the triumvirate but Caesar called Pompey, Crassus and a good number of senators to a conference at Luca in north Italy where agreement was reached and the triumvirate reconfirmed. Caesar’s rule in Gaul was extended and the other two were allotted provinces and armies.

(15) On their return to the capital many opponents, led by Cato, interpreted the deal as establishing a tyranny based on armies not on elected office. Cato persuaded Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus to stand for the consulship but this led to growing violence at the hustings, with Pompey’s supporters attacking Ahenobarbus’s entourage, killing some of them, and then attacking the assembly, manhandling Cato out of the forum and so on.

(16) So all their opponents were intimidated into staying at home and Crassus and Pompey were elected consuls. They drew lots for their spheres of influence and Crassus won the East. He was thrilled as he openly boasted of superseding Lucullus and Pompey’s achievements against the enemy kings, Mithridates and Tigranes, and was desperate to take on the Parthian Empire. Critics tried to talk him out of it and then block his path as he departed Rome.

(17) Crassus sailed with a large army to Galatia and overland to the Euphrates, crossing into Parthian territory. When he discovered old King Deiotarus founding a new city, he joked that he was late in life to do such a thing, but the king joked back that Crassus was pretty long in the tooth to be taking on a massive military mission. He was 60 but looked older.

Another bad omen came. Most of the cities of Mesopotamia went over to him when they saw his army. But at one, Zenodotia, ruled by Apollonius the tyrant, a hundred of his soldiers were slain so Crassus let his forces seize and plunder it and sold its inhabitants into slavery. For this his soldiers hailed him ‘Imperator’ but this wasn’t any kind of military triumph, it was massacring civilians, and the fact Crassus let his soldiers call him Imperator, and was pleased by it, was a worrying indication of his lack of experience or of seriousness, of what Plutarch’s calls ‘a paltry spirit’.

Worse, instead of reaching out to Babylon and Seleucia for alliance against Parthia, he spent all his time in the cities which had come over to him in Syria in mercenary not military activity. Thus instead of reviewing his troops and setting up athletic contests for them, he spent his time counting the money and weighing the treasure he’d acquired. He demanded soldiers and supplies from ‘districts and dynasts’ only to change his mind if they paid him off, thus losing their respect.

As they were leaving the temple of Venus, Crassus’s son (who accompanied him on the campaign) stumbled and fell at the gate, and then his father fell over him.

(18) Men come to the camp from the occupied cities and bring eye witness accounts of the strong armour and warlike temper of the Parthians. Word spreads among the troops who become demoralised. Many, including Caius Cassius Longinus, advise calling a halt and reconsidering the entire campaign. The seers keep seeing bad omens.

(19) Artabazes the king of Armenia arrived to ally with Crassus, bringing 6,000 horsemen and promising an additional 10,000 mail-clad horsemen and 30,000 footmen. He advised Crassus to approach Parthia from Armenia, which is hilly so the cavalry, which were Parthia’s sole military strength, would be disadvantaged. But Crassus preferred to march across flat Mesopotamia. Then Plutarch gives an impressive list of bad omens:

  • as the army crossed the Euphrates at Zeugma it was daunted by peals of thunder and flashes of lightning; a strong wind destroyed the raft Crassus was crossing on
  • the place he intended to camp was hit by two thunderbolts
  • one of the general’s horses violently dragged its groom down to the river and disappeared beneath the waves
  • the first eagle which was raised aloft, faced about of its own accord
  • when the rations were distributed after the crossing of the river, lentils and salt came first, which are traditional Roman signs of mourning
  • while addressing his men Crassus made a bad slip, telling them he would destroy the bridge over the river so that none of could return, when he meant there would be no going back – instead of inspiring it demoralised his men
  • when he was making the customary sacrifice of purification for the army, and the seer placed the viscera in his hands, Crassus clumsily let them fall to the ground, at which all the bystanders were appalled

It’s impossible to tell whether any of this actually happened or whether, as in Cicero’s definition of inventio as explained in the introduction to Sallust, this is the kind of thing which ought to have happened. In other words, these incidents which read to us like fairy stories and folk tales and tend to undermine Plutarch’s veracity, to the ancient mind did just the opposite, piling up all kinds of appropriate details and omens which made the events more plausible.

(20) Crassus advanced with seven legions of men-at‑arms, nearly 4,000 horsemen and about as many light-armed troops. Scouts reported the land was empty of men but they’d seen the tracks of horsemen who had approached the army but wheeled about and left. Cassius advised caution and recuperating the men in one of the garrison cities while he found out more about the enemy.

You can see how the cumulative effect of the bad omens and the persistent advice Crassus receives, from both Romans and allies, creates a very ominous and dramatic tension in the narrative.

(21) Now aan Osroene chieftain named Ariamnes arrived in the Roman camp who set about deceiving Crassus. He had helped Pompey in his campaigns and now tried to persuade Crassus to abandon the river and venture into the flat plain (best fighting ground for the Parthian cavalry). And encourages him to do it soon before the king’s forces are united.

This was all a lie for the king was at that moment ravaging Armenia for its offers of friendship to Crassus, while he sent Surena forward to make trial of the enemy in battle and to distract them. There follows a brief and preposterously inflated description of Surena, presumably to big him up into a worthy opponent of Crassus. ‘He used to travel on private business with a baggage train of a thousand camels, and was followed by two hundred wagons for his concubine’. 200 wagons for his concubines!

(22) Thus Plutarch claims it was Ariamnes who persuaded Crassus to abandon the river and led him out into a plain which was flat at first but then turned into undulating sand, no trees, no water. Messengers came from Artavasdes II, king of Armenia, saying a) he is being attacked by Hyrodes the Parthian b) for Crassus to come and join him in a united war or c) to make sure he stuck near mountains and hills where the feared cavalry couldn’t operate. [The name Hyrodes is nowadays given as Orodes and he was the second Parthian king of that name, Orodes II.]

Cassius has given up trying to warn Crassus, who was angry with him, and reserved his scorn for the joking joshing Arab who led the army into the wilderness.

(23) In keeping with the steady ratcheting up of tension, Plutarch says that on the fateful day of the disastrous battle, Crassus by mistake didn’t dress in a purple robe but in a black one (which seems wildly unlikely) and that the standard-bearers had great difficulty raising their standards, which seemed to be embedded in the earth. Scouts return to announce that the enemy is coming up in great numbers.

Crassus assembles his men in one long line but then changes his mind and makes them form squares, accompanied by a cavalry squad. The army came to a stream but instead of letting them rest and refresh, Crassus insisted on making them continue on a forced march. They come upon Surena’s advance guard who appear to be surprisingly small, until the war drums of the main force behind them boomed out, disheartening the Romans.

(24) Plutarch describes the battle in detail. The Parthians initially planned to charge until they saw the solidity of the Roman squares. Then they sent cavalry to surround the squares. When light troops ran out to skirmish with them, everyone saw how effective the Parthian arrows were at penetrating armour and the army first started to be scared. Then the Parthians started to fire into the densely packed squares of Romans.

(25) At first Crassus thought they would run out of arrows till he realised they had a camel train carrying bags of extra arrows. He lost heart. He ordered his son on the left wing to attack. Publius Crassus led his wing in pursuit of the Parthians who broke and ran, but only to lure them into an ambush where they were surrounded by Parthian horsemen circling round them and stirring up dust.

Publius roused his cavalry to charge again but their spears could do little against the Parthian breastplates of hide and steel whereas the long Parthian pikes did great damage. Publius’s Gauls put up a good fight, crawling under the Parthian horses to stab them and perishing when horse and rider fell on them. They seized Publius who had been injured and took him to a sandy hill to make a last stand but they were surrounded and annihilated by arrows.

Two Greeks tried to persuade Publius to abandon his troops and come with them to a nearby Greek city but he bade them leave, remaining with his troops. Then he turned his side to his shield bearer and told him to stab him to death. Other nobles also committed suicide. The redoubt was massacred and the victorious Parthians cut off Publius’s head.

(26) Meanwhile Crassus initially thought his son’s charge was successful and the main army weakened as some left to deal with it. But then he received messages begging for help. Conflicted, Crassus ordered the whole army to advance. But the enemy rallied and strengthened, started beating their damn war drums and then rode up with Publius’s head on a pike to taunt him. The army is daunted but this is Crassus’s finest hour, and Plutarch has him delivering a stirring speech invoking Rome’s glorious history of victory whatever the cost.

(27) The slaughter continued until night fell and the Parthians backed away and made camp. Crassus lies on the ground in black despair so his lieutenants decide to retreat, rouse the army and back west despite the lamentations of the wounded they leave to die in the desert. An advance guard under Ignatius reached Carrhae at midnight and told the garrison commander, Coponius, to send out reinforcements to help the stricken army, and so the survivors are all brought within the walls of Carrhae.

(28) At daybreak the Parthians slaughtered all the wounded lying about the plain to the number of 4,000, then surrounded and massacred four cohorts who had got separated from the main body of the Roman army.

Surena isn’t sure whether Crassus is in Carrhae or whether his army has fled further west so he sends attendants up to the wall calling for Crassus or Cassius. Crassus comes to the city walls and the ambassadors propose Crassus accept an honourable truce, sign a peace treaty and leave Mesopotamia. They invite him to a conference with Surena. Crassus agrees.

(29) But having confirmed that Crassus was in the city, Surena changed his tune and surrounded it, with men deputed to mock the Romans and telling them to send Crassus and Cassius out in chains.

Morale collapses and his lieutenants suggest Crassus flee the city abandoning his army. But his closest Greek adviser, Andromachus, is a double agent and reports this to Surena. And when this escape party sets out that night in secret from the city Andromachus treacherously leads them a zigzag route through marshes. Cassius left with 500 cavalry by a different route and made it to Syria. Octavius led 5,000 to a hill country named Sinnaca.

[Only now does it become clear that when Plutarch said Crassus left Carrhae, he meant with a significant armed force (four cohorts of men-at‑arms, a few horsemen all told, and five lictors). Add in Octavius’s forces and you can see that a lot of the army got away. This suggests that Surena wasn’t mounting a very effective siege and throws into doubt the whole story about the Roman army taking refuge in the city.]

Anyway, up come the Parthians and surround Crassus’s force on a hill but Octavius fights his way through to join him.

(30) Surena realised that, with night coming on, the Romans were likely to escape into the hills. So he changed his approach and a) released prisoners who had overheard staged conversations between Surena and lieutenants saying it was time for peace, which softened Crassus up for when b) Surena and lieutenants made their way up the hill under truce, symbolically unstrung his bow and held out his hand, offering peace.

Crassus hesitates to accept but the army rebelled, clashed their shields and insist they will fight no longer. So much against his better judgement Crassus is more or less forced to go down the hill to meet with Surena.

(31) Octavius insists on joining him with his entourage. Then Plutarch gives a detailed description of the scuffle which leads to the fray in which Crassus is killed. Crassus had walked down on foot while Surena had advanced on horseback. He said it ill befitted his opponent to be on foot and offered a fine horse with gold-studded bridle. Surena’s lifted Crassus onto it then ran alongside slapping it to make it ride faster. But Octavius and a tribune seized the bridle to slow it down and keep Crassus in their protection. A scuffled developed and blows were exchanged. Octavius drew his sword and killed one of the grooms but was himself killed. Crassus was killed by a Parthian named Pomaxathres.

Rumour has it that the Parthians cut off Crassus’s head and right hand. Some of the Roman embassy made it back to the hilltop redoubt. That night they tried to sneak away but very few made it out of the desert alive. Most were hunted down and cut to pieces. ‘In the whole campaign, twenty thousand are said to have been killed, and ten thousand to have been taken alive’ – as usual with ancient accounts, these are suspiciously round figures.

(32) Surena sent the head and hand of Crassus to King Hyrodes in Armenia. Then he organised a mock triumph in the city of Seleucia, with a Roman noble forced to wear a dress being set on a horse backwards and mockingly saluted as ‘Crassus’, with lictors on camels and troupes of actors and musicians mocking the fallen Romans.

Plutarch makes a big deal out of the fact that the Parthians discovered in Crassus’s baggage train a copy of the ‘Milesiaca’ by Aristides, a collection of love stories. These are read out and mocked as inappropriate to take on a military campaign, but Plutarch acidly points out that this was rich coming from a leader (Surena) who himself led wagon-loads of concubines and whose train trailed off in the rear into dances, cymbals, lutes, and nocturnal revels with women. Plutarch quotes Aesop’s fable of the two wallets. He is more interested in literary allusions than history per se.

(33) Meanwhile, in faraway Armenia, King Hyrodes was at last reconciled with king Artavasdes II and agreed to receive the latter’s sister as wife for his son Pacorus. Both kings were (supposedly) well educated in Greek literature and when the head of Crassus arrived at the palace, as part of the wedding feast a performance of Euripides’ Bacchae was underway. The messenger threw Crassus’s head on the stage and the lead actor picked it up and addressed it with Euripides’ lines.

Then the man who had actually killed Crassus, Pomaxathres, stepped forward and claimed the head. King Hyrodes was delighted and gave both men rewards. Plutarch moralises: thus was the tragedy of Crassus, as is traditional, followed by farce.

[The later historian, Cassius Dio, claimed that the Parthians poured molten gold into Crassus’s mouth in symbolic mockery of his thirst for wealth. Thus grotesque gossip and macabre stories accrue around famous men.]

The text contains one last afterthought, presumably designed to ram home the perfidious treachery of the wicked orientals: soon afterwards Hyrodes became jealous of Surena’s fine reputation and had him put to death. Then Hyrodes lost his son Pacorus, defeated in battle by the Romans,​ and became ill, so that another of his sons, Phraates, had his father strangled.

All lives end in death, but this short life feels particularly grim and depressing.

Plutarch’s summary

For Plutarch, Crassus’s fate was:

to the multitude an illustration of the ways of fortune, but to the wise an example of foolish ambition, which would not let him rest satisfied to be first and greatest among many myriads of men, but made him think, because he was judged inferior to two men only, that he lacked everything. (27)

I.e. he was driven to his death because of rivalry with his two partners in the triumvirate, Pompey and Caesar.

Superstitions and omens

It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue. (8)

When Crassus is marching out of Rome for the East his way is blocked by a critic, Ateius:

Ateius ran on ahead to the city gate, placed there a blazing brazier, and when Crassus came up, cast incense and libations upon it, and invoked curses which were dreadful and terrifying in themselves, and were reinforced by sundry strange and dreadful gods whom he summoned and called by name. The Romans say that these mysterious and ancient curses have such power that no one involved in them ever escapes, and misfortune falls also upon the one who utters them, wherefore they are not employed at random nor by many. And accordingly at this time they found fault with Ateius because it was for the city’s sake that he was angered at Crassus, and yet he had involved the city in curses which awakened much superstitious terror.

There follows a steadily increasing crescendo of bad omens as Crassus’s army advanced into the badlands. Surely these are classic examples of Cicero’s inventio. This is what ought to have happened for the gods are just and send us omens and prophecies and so every fraught event must be accompanied by heavenly signs. Precisely what makes this aspect of these ancient texts ludicrous to us, made them plausible and convincing to most of their readers.


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Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus 86 to 35 BC)

Gaius Sallustius Crispus, usually anglicised as Sallust (86 to 35 BC), is the first Roman historian by whom a complete work survives – we know the names of earlier Roman historians but none of their works have come down to us. In fact, we have just two works by Sallust, being his account of the Catiline Conspiracy of 63 BC and the Jugurthine War of 112 to 106 BC.

A third work, the Histories, covered the period from 78 (the year the dictator Sulla died) to 66 BC, taking in the war against Sertorius (72), the campaigns of Lucullus against Mithradates VI of Pontus (75 to 66 BC), and the victories of Pompey in the East (66 to 62). Invaluable as this material would be, nothing of the Histories survives except a fragment of book 5, describing the year 67 BC, and scattered quotes in later works.

His two surviving works are relatively brief – Cataline 44 pages and Jugurtha 86 pages long in the 2007 Penguin paperback edition, edited and translated by A.J Woodman. Throw in a detailed introduction, notes, index and a couple of maps, and it adds up to a tidy little 204 page-long paperback.

In his own time and ever since, Sallust’s brief oeuvre has been famous for two things: a terse style much given to archaic vocabulary and phrasing; and his insistent moralising.

Theories of history

The editor and translator, A.J. Woodman echoes critics quoted on Sallust’s Wikipedia article who all emphasise that Sallust relies on a moralising interpretation of history. He attributes the prolonged failure to end the Jugurthine War on the corruption and willingness to be bribed of numerous Roman officials, and the Catiline conspiracy on the same kind of falling away from Rome’s venerable notions of honour and duty among its ruling class.

Critics point out that Sallust therefore misses the deeper social and economic causes of the events he describes, interpretative paradigms which the last couple of hundred years of economic, sociological, historical and political theorising have elaborated to sophisticated heights.

He doesn’t even take into account the clash of personalities, which was obvious enough to contemporaries (for example, Cicero) and should have informed Sallust’s accounts.

I see what the critics mean but I’m inclined to take Sallust as he is – I mean, to read and enjoy Sallust for what he says rather than what he doesn’t. There’s no shortage of modern histories of the Roman Republic which overflow with economic, sociological, Marxist, feminist or other schools of interpretation. Throw in the findings of modern archaeology, the study of contemporary texts from other cultures, numismatics and so on, and modern scholars often know more about ancient events than contemporaries did – and are certainly able to spin more elaborate and sophisticated analyses of them than the ancients could.

It’s always seemed obvious to me that the value of ancient (so-called) histories is not to reach a ‘true’ account of events because a) they are frequently littered with exaggerations (of casualties in battles), made-up speeches and bizarre omens and b) modern editors routinely point out their factual errors and elisions, to the extent of getting the dates of key events or names of people wrong.

I’ve always read them not for a strictly accurate account of what happened so much as to get a sense of the meaning the events they describe had for their contemporaries – not so much what happened, but how they thought about what happened. What it all meant to them. How they made sense of human existence, human actions, big historical events. They did this in ways very different from us, but it’s precisely those differences which shed light both ways, bringing out the subtly but profoundly different world they lived in, and also helping to understand the (sometimes taken for granted) bases of our own worldview.

Historiographical motifs

There is another factor at play, here. Woodman devotes a section of his introduction to explaining the simple fact that ancient historians often didn’t describe what happened because half the time they didn’t know what happened and went by hearsay and folk tradition.

Instead you often find ancient historians describing what should have happened. When two great generals confronted each other in battle, everyone knows the outcome i.e. who won, but the ancient historian garnished his account with a lengthy set speech from each general setting out their aims and motivation, probably calling on the gods to help him.

To take a well known example. Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 to 120 AD) in his profile of his father-in-law, the general Gnaeus Julius Agricola, describes him leading Roman legions against Caledonian tribes somewhere in Scotland, a long list of places they trudged through and minor skirmishes against tribes whose names Tacitus may or may not have got correct. The campaign leads up to a climactic battle, which, again, he may or may not describe accurately, but either way is a bit boring. What has made the scene live forever is that Tacitus invented a Caledonian chieftain, giving him the name Calgacus and, on the eve of the battle, gives him a great long speech to inspire his troops, which includes vivid accusations against the Romans and their ideology of imperialism. There now! Much more dramatic and satisfying.

Same in Sallust. In the case of the Cataline conspiracy actual speeches were given in the Senate during the days of the crisis (November and December 63 BC) and official records and eye witnesses survived which Sallust could consult. But for the Jugurthine War (112 to 106 BC), by the time Sallust was writing in about 40 BC, all eye witnesses were dead.

To really drill home this point, Woodman quotes Cicero. He summarises Cicero’s description of the central role of what he calls inventio in oratory, particularly in prosecuting a case in the courts. Cicero defines inventio as ‘the devising of matter true or lifelike which will make a case appear convincing‘ (On Invention 1.9, quoted in Woodman’s introduction, page xxiii). Woodman then applies this interpretation to Sallust’s practice, concluding that ‘a significant portion of his narrative was the product of “invention”‘ (p.xxiv).

Sallust wanted his accounts to be powerful, convincing and persuasive – and so it can be shown that he gave protagonists, at key moments, long moralising speeches which a) they probably never gave and b) which echo similar speeches in the works of previous historians (especially the Greek historian, Thucydides, who Sallust borrows from extensively). He is not recording objective history, he is reworking well established literary motifs to make his history more convincing and dramatic.

In other words, Sallust is one of those ancient historians who thought of writing history more as an art form than as an objective attempt to record ‘the truth’.

Moralising

This brings us to Sallust’s moralising. In a nutshell, Sallust took the entirely traditional view that Rome had declined from the former greatness of its glorious past and that the age he lived in was uniquely corrupt, depraved and fallen, a very, very common view of human existence, shared throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages and among pub bores down to the present day.

Like his contemporaries, Sallust had been buffeted by the chaos of the 50s (which happened to be the years when he held political office – quaestor in 55, plebeian tribune in 52, expelled from the Senate by Appius Claudius Pulcher in 50 BC).

With the coming of civil war in 49 Sallust opted, wisely as it turned out, to support Caesar (unlike Cicero who made the mistake of backing Pompey). In fact, in 46 BC Sallust served as a praetor and accompanied Caesar on his African campaign, so he was significantly more than an armchair supporter and actively involved in Caesarian campaigning.

Nonetheless, in the absence of modern sociological theories of historical causation, Sallust’s view of history is cast entirely in terms of personal morality. For Sallust history consists of, and is entirely driven by, the moral or immoral behaviour of great men. His three works can be threaded on this single principle:

  1. The pitiful failure of Rome to end the Jugurthine war was caused by – and symptomatic of – the increasingly venal, selfish and amoral Roman nobles and officials of his day.
  2. The Catiline Conspiracy represented the complete abandonment of the Roman ideals of loyalty, duty and devotion to the state in the shape of the vile traitor Catiline.
  3. The preface to the Histories repeats the accusation of personal irresponsibility, greed and corruption against the Roman nobles, taking an even more pessimistic view of Tome’s moral collapse than the two monographs.

This approach to history was widely shared in the ancient world. The idea was not to present a definitive ‘truth’ about events, but to present them in such a way as to instruct the present. Rather than invoke impersonal forces such as economic or social developments, a historian like Sallust is presenting the good or bad behaviour of high profile individuals from the past as lessons in morality for the present. The aim of this kind of history is to make us behave better, and if that requires colouring and dramatising events, well so be it.

Translating ‘virtus’

By contrast with the decline and fall which he sees everywhere, Sallust posits a quality which stands as polar opposite to the corruption of the Roman ruling class and which he calls virtusVir is the Latin for ‘man’ (hence ‘virile’ meaning ‘manly’) and therefore virtus describes the qualities and attributes of an ideal (Roman) man (loyalty, devotion to family, duty to the state, military ability and so on).

Unhappily, in my view, Woodman translates this key word, virtus, as ‘prowess’. The dictionary definition of ‘prowess’ is ‘skill or expertise in a particular activity or field,’ so I can see what he’s driving at, but I still think it’s too narrow? ‘Prowess’ by itself doesn’t immediately convey all the attributes of the ideal man in the way virtus obviously does for Sallust. Maybe it’s one of those instances in making a translation where leaving the word in the original language might have been best, because its frequent repetition would have allowed the reader to build up multiple meanings accrued from its various contexts. Slowly the reader would have been taught by the text what Sallust’s multiple uses of virtus mean to him.

It’s worth mentioning all this because the word and concept virtus occurs on virtually every page of the Jugurthine War, sometimes multiple times per page. It is an absolutely central theme in Sallust’s discourse, so the reader is reminded several times a page of the shortcomings of Woodman’s preferred term of ‘prowess’.

Woodman makes several other odd lexical decisions which undermine trust in his translation. Sallust repeatedly refers to the lack of action or energy with which the first Roman commanders prosecuted the war against Jugurtha. Woodman translates this quality as ‘apathy’ which, to me, conveys a completely different meaning; someone who is apathetic doesn’t care about anything, whereas someone who is inactive or is guilty of inaction is capable of more but is making a conscious decision not to act, and so is reprehensible. That’s much closer to the sense of what Sallust means.

Another peculiar translation choice is Woodman’s repeated use of the word ‘muscle’, the application of ‘muscle’, the use of ‘muscle’ in political or military situations, which makes his text sound like an American book about the mafia. I’d guess a better or more dignified translation would be ‘might’ or ‘manpower’.

In a nutshell, although I enjoyed Sallust, I came to dislike and distrust Woodman’s translation.

Mind versus body

Both Jugurtha and Catiline open with general remarks about human nature and, above all, how humans are separate from all other species by virtue of having mind, by the ability to think and reason. Here’s the opening of Jugurtha (in the 1896 translation by the Reverend J.S. Watson which is available online and doesn’t use ‘prowess’ to translate virtus):

The ruler and director of the life of man is the mind, which, when it pursues glory in the path of true merit [virtus], is sufficiently powerful, efficient, and worthy of honour, and needs no assistance from fortune, who can neither bestow integrity, industry, or other good qualities, nor can take them away. But if the mind, ensnared by corrupt passions, abandons itself to indolence and sensuality, when it has indulged for a season in pernicious gratifications, and when bodily strength, time, and mental vigour, have been wasted in sloth, the infirmity of nature is accused, and those who are themselves in fault impute their delinquency to circumstances.

If man, however, had as much regard for worthy objects, as he has spirit in the pursuit of what is useless, unprofitable, and even perilous, he would not be governed by circumstances more than he would govern them, and would attain to a point of greatness, at which, instead of being mortal, he would be immortalised by glory. (From the 1896 translation by the Reverend J.S. Watson)

The Catiline also opens with an extended passage explaining how humanity’s possession of reason behoves us to use it. Woodman here again uses ‘prowess’ in a dubious way whereas the Loeb Classical Library translation of 1921 (which can be found on the excellent LacusCurtius website) translates virtus as ‘mental excellence’. Where Woodman has:

The glory of riches and appearance is fleeting and fragile, but to have prowess is something distinguished and everlasting.

The Loeb edition has:

For the renown which riches or beauty confer is fleeting and frail; mental excellence is a splendid and lasting possession.

Which seems to me both more precise and more impressive. Or again, Woodman:

Ploughing, sailing and building are all dependent on prowess.

Loeb:

Success in agriculture, navigation, and architecture depends invariably upon mental excellence.

Woodman’s hangup with the word ‘prowess’, in my opinion, distort Sallust’s meaning on every page. Also, as a general rule. Woodman’s phrasing of English is worse. Woodman:

His eloquence was adequate, scant his wisdom. (5)

Loeb:

He possessed a certain amount of eloquence, but little discretion.

Which is a hundred times better – clearer, more vivid, more precise and also, paradoxically, more modern. ‘Scant his wisdom’ feels Elizabethan. Despite being a hundred years old the Loeb version is much clearer and more attractive and enjoyable, as prose than Woodman which is why I gave up reading the Penguin translation and read both books online.

After Carthage

One last point. Like many later Romans, Sallust thought the collapse in Roman honour, integrity etc set in at one very particular moment – after Carthage was conquered in 146 BC and Rome faced no more great enemies:

Before the destruction of Carthage, the senate and people managed the affairs of the republic with mutual moderation and forbearance; there were no contests among the citizens for honour or ascendency but the dread of an enemy kept the state in order. When that fear, however, was removed from their minds, licentiousness and pride – evils which prosperity loves to foster, –immediately began to prevail and thus peace, which they had so eagerly desired in adversity, proved, when they had obtained it, more grievous and fatal than adversity itself.

The patricians carried their authority, and the people their liberty, to excess; every man took, snatched, and seized what he could. There was a complete division into two factions, and the republic was torn in pieces between them.

Yet the nobility still maintained an ascendency by conspiring together for the strength of the people, being disunited and dispersed among a multitude, was less able to exert itself. Things were accordingly directed, both at home and in the field, by the will of a small number of men, at whose disposal were the treasury, the provinces, offices, honours, and triumphs while the people were oppressed with military service and with poverty, and the generals divided the spoils of war with a few of their friends. The parents and children of the soldiers, meantime, if they chanced to dwell near a powerful neighbour, were driven from their homes.

Thus avarice, leagued with power, disturbed, violated, and wasted every thing, without moderation or restraint, disregarding alike reason and religion and rushing headlong, as it were, to its own destruction. For whenever any arose among the nobility who preferred true glory to unjust power the state was immediately in a tumult and civil discord spread with as much disturbance as attends a convulsion of the earth. (Watson translation)

2,000 years later, many of the contemporary historians I’m reading, despite their use of much more sophisticated theories of history and society, and economic and social evidence, broadly agree. 146 BC, the year when Rome destroyed Carthage in the West and Corinth in the East (thus decisively taking control of all Greece) was the turning point. On this, a soldier who served under Caesar over 2,000 years ago and the most up-to-date scholar in a Cambridge college, agree.

Summary

To summarise, then: Sallust makes up most of his speeches, and maybe even some of the events he describes, in order to:

  • make his account more powerful and convincing
  • further his worldview or ideology – his scathing criticism of Rome’s nobles and senatorial class, his lament at the decline of Rome’s morality and behaviour
  • all with a view of instructing his readers and encouraging them, by showing the bad behaviour of people in the past, to behave better in the future

Roman reviews

  • Sallust
  • The Jugurthine War by Sallust (41 BC)
  • The Catiline Conspiracy by Sallust (42 BC)
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