M. Licinius Crassus. Loser. This Roman general took fifty thousand disciplined, well-equipped troops, marched them into an Oriental desert, and then made every military mistake possible. The result was unprecedented disaster. Maybe a case of rising to the level of one’s incompetence…
Marcus Licinius Crassus was a commander, a politician and a financial virtuoso whose weaknesses, though grave, were anything but idiosyncratic. He was, in his sense, the all-American of his day. De Tocqueville has remarked that, “In democracies men are never stationary; a thousand chances waft them to and fro, and their life is always the sport of unforeseen or (so to speak) extemporaneous circumstances. Thus they are often obliged to do things which they have imperfectly learned, to say things they imperfectly understand, and to devote themselves to work for which they are unprepared by long apprenticeship. In aristocracies every man has one sole object which he unceasingly pursues, but amongst democratic nations the existence of man is more complex; the same mind will almost always embrace several objects at the same time, and these objects are frequently wholly foreign to each other: as it cannot know them all well, the mind is readily satisfied with imperfect notions of each.”
To be fair, the civil wars , in savagery had no parallel in the history of the republic, and with them the last remnants of Roman character seem to have been destroyed. The republic was dead in the sense that few still accepted the principles of mutual respect, compromise, and regard for law upon which its existence had depended. The situation does have some eery connection to today. The deprived majority felt the electoral process was meaningless, leading to failure of the republic. Even as the rapacity of those in power increased,the ordinary voter, instead of seeing the franchise as their last resort, either ceased to use it or put it up for sale. Meanwhile Roman power abroad continued to grow without the majority at home clearly consenting to those distant enterprises or really understanding them. Sounds familiar.
Crassus did have some military success; he forced Sparatacus to flee to the mountains, eventually killing him in a pitched battle. At this point Crassus’s rival Pompey showed up for the mopping up operation, and claimed most of the credit for himself for suppressing the slave rebellion. He was honored with a triumph in the capital while Crassus had to settle for a mere ovation. This turn of events probably ruined Crassus by inflaming wild ambitions he never should have had in the first place. In an age that respected force above all else, he had the extreme bad luck to have as his companions in power the two best military brains of the day in Pompey and Caesar. The top of the pecking order was denied him.
So, now getting on in years, he added to his already heady vice of avarice , the longing for the exploits of Caesar, the passion for the trophies and triumphs. Crassus decided to settle the “Parthian question” , a tricky, elusive and nuisance of a foe that he felt would lead to still grander conquests in the east like Alexander the great. For a sixty year old, it was his last big shot. It was an immoral folly, but too much power had already passed into the hands of too few men. The Parthians had a hit and run style attack based n new types of arrows and lances well equipped to rearguard action but unable to win decisive victories. Like the Viet Cong or the Taliban, the problem would be to pin them down and tap them into a fighting conventionally. Conventional search and destroy was not going to do the trick.
Crassus also refused good advice, and had little grasp of the tactical difficulties he would face on his choice of sandy plains instead of the protection of mountains through Armenia he was counseled to take by King Artavasdes of Armenia. His final mistake was on the field; and he ignored advice , instead heeding the words of a local Arab chief, Ariamnes who urged a quick attack and victory. He was entirely indifferent to the difficulty of forcing a mobile enemy to stand and fight in the open country. Crassus not only trusted the Arab’s word, but engaged him as a guide. After the Romans had gone some distance in the desert, Artavasdes, back in Armenia sent word he had been attacked by Hyrodes and could not provide reinforcements for Crassus. He suggested Crassus turn back and join forces with him and avoid an encounter in the open with the Parthians. Tactless as ever, Crassus declined to join forces and vowed he would make Artavasdes “pay for his treachery.” Having cost himself an ally, Crassus now lost his Arab guide, who abruptly departed. The Roman army, numbering close to fifty thousand, was left stranded in the Mesopotamian desert somewhre east of the Euphrates…
To make a long sad story short, Crassus was killed in a rout. As a commander he is the prototype of the modern general who hopes to bludgeon his way to victory by sheer technical and numeric superiority. General Westmoreland’s “energy of the will” ; pure resolve backed up by material resources, the better anthill theory. Crassus likely paid a fair price for the suffering and disaster he brought upon others. A loser could expect to be left to his fate. But, Western civilization long ago abandoned this elementary system of judgement. Today, the very worst of co
ders is apt to be safe both on the field and in their later career. Our custom is not to cashier or execute generals for their more ghastly mistakes but to promote them to still higher posts where they can do less harm. In the days of the Roman republic, however, this curious solution to the problem of military incompetence had not yet been devised.
That was exactly Crassus’s situation. The Rome in which he grew up was a disintegrating republic in which men were not wafted but hurled to and fro, many thousands being killed in the process. On the whole he met the challenges of his age with phenomenal success. But circumstances, added to his intense natural competitiveness, drove him to undertake too much. At the time, military campaigning was one of the shorter routes to political eminence, and Crassus quite naturally took it. In whatever he did, he showed great drive and tenacity and that combination of expansive optimism and devotion to his own purposes that in America is considered unbeatable. His only major reverse was his last. Like the tycoons of the 1920′s, Crassus went out big. History took note of him.