American Crassus

The potential for Donald Trump to be next American President first brought to mind the last scene in an old, historically inaccurate, and tad overwrought movie, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), whereby the imperial title of Caesar was being auctioned off after the death of Commodus, and closing with this somber warning of Ariel Durant.

This was the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire. A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.

The title had once been auctioned off to a wealthy senator, Didius Julianus, in 193 AD by the Praetorian Guard. But this was one emperor removed and three months after Commodus. Disgust by local Romans to that “election” would thereupon encourage military generals to vie for the throne.

But while culturally, America may be in that interregnum between Marcus Aurelius and the Crisis of the Third Century, the wrong Fall and the wrong plutocrat is being referenced. A more appropriate historical parallel is the fall of the Roman Republic in first century BC. The more appropriate plutocrat was Crassus who, along with Pompey and Julius Caesar, constituted the First Triumvirate.Marcus Licinius Crassus (115–53 BC) is reputed to have been the richest man in Roman history, with an estimated worth of 7,100 talents,[1] (equivalent to about $8.4 billion USD), and notorious for avarice and self-aggrandizement. Like Donald Trump, Crassus was a real estate developer, who often profited from purchasing houses condemned or in the process of being condemned by virtue of oncoming fire. “He would buy houses that were afire, and houses which adjoined those that were afire, and these their owners would let go at a trifling price owing to their fear and uncertainty.[2] Upon quick purchase, he would hiss for his private slave army of firefighters and quickly salvage much of the original value of those properties.

Crassus would also profit from the dictator Sulla’s civic proscriptions, profiting from the purchase of estates of those, who Sulla proscribed as enemies of the . . . state.

However, during the proscriptions and public confiscations which ensued, he got a bad name again, by purchasing great estates at a low price, and asking donations. It is said that in Bruttium he actually proscribed a man without Sulla’s orders, merely to get his property, and that for this reason Sulla, who disapproved of his conduct, never employed him again on public business. And yet Crassus was most expert in winning over all men by his flatteries; on the other hand, he himself was an easy prey to flattery from anybody.[3]

After this “self-made” man had amassed most of his wealth, Crassus sought to convert his private gain into public position and status. He offered to equip, train, and lead troops against Spartacus in the Third Servile War (73–71 BC) at his own expense. (“No one was rich who could not support an army out of his substance.[4]) Initially, Crassus delivered poor results in the campaign, primarily because of his novice understanding and incompetence on military matters. But since many of his trained soldiers were found fleeing from battle, those initial failures could and would be laid upon his underlings, against whom Crassus reinstated the practice of decimation (originally, the summary killing of one of every ten soldiers of any given military cohort regardless of fault, in a form of collective guilt). When Spartacus and his slaves finally were defeated, the 6,000 survivors “were captured and crucified along the whole road from Capua to Rome.[5] Crassus was, by no means, a temperate leader of men.

An uneasy political alliance between Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Crassus would ensue. Crassus became financial benefactor to Caesar, and oft acted to reconcile the periodic tensions between the three.

It was the thoughtful and conservative part of the city which attached itself to Pompey, the violent and volatile part which supported the hopes of Caesar, while Crassus took a middle ground and drew from both. He made very many changes in his political views, and was neither a steadfast friend nor an implacable enemy, but readily abandoned both his favours and his resentments at the dictates of his interests, so that, frequently, within a short space of time, the same men and the same measures found in him both an advocate and an opponent.[6]

The late Roman Republic was another age when most patrician families turned their back on the commonweal and their fellow plebeian neighbors, to exploit the private wealth and cheap labor, in the form of slaves, which was overflowing Rome. It was an age of fabulous wealth, income disparity, and conspicuous consumption. It was an age of plutocratic aristocrats “who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land” (Isaiah 5:8). In a “keep up with the Metullas” mania of piscinae; some plutocrats built sea water fish ponds inland in Campania, cottage country of the ruling elites of Rome, with aqueducts built overland, solely to refresh those ponds with sea water, and stake claim that they were still a people of the land.

Consequently, the plebeian classes would slowly degrade in economic despair, civic inequality, lack of genuine political voice, and in a decline in the life of the mind, morals, and culture. The livelihood of yeoman farmers was undermined by the cheap slave labor on the large and expanding estates and by cheaper imports from lands beyond. These plebeians would eventually need to sell out their means of production to avaricious and opportunistic aristocrats and thereafter swamp the large cities; constituting a permanent underclass, against who that same conservative and aristocratic faction would deride as “bread and circuses” (Juvenal) dysfunctional white trash (Williamson). State donations became a necessity in order to maintain an uneasy social peace.

And just as the patrician families had previously turned their back on plebeian concerns, the people would, in turn, turn their backs on their patrician “betters”; sitting on their hands in schadenfreude glee, as an ever isolated conservative Old Republican Guard faced off against a series of ambitious military upstarts.

However, decades before that final violent decimation of the Republic, the aging Crassus would seek glory in a military campaign against the Parthians, an empire based in present-day Iran. He would suffer a disastrous and ignominious defeat and death at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, located near the border between Turkey and Iraq, between Syria and Iran.

♦                    ♦                    ♦

American Crass

The Latin word crassus literally translates to dense, thick, gross, plump, turbid, murky, and figuratively as rude, coarse, harsh, stupid, gross, dull, and insensitive.[7] In mid-15th century England, the adjective cras would appear, meaning “slow, sluggish, tardy.” And from the 1650s onward, although rarely used, crass would denote “grossly stupid.”[8] Even Republicans, who support Trump acknowledge that “he is an opportunist, a charlatan, that he is stylistically vulgar and garish . . . [an] Archie Bunker.”[9] Considering the eerie parallel in the lives of these two plutocrats; a striking similarity in psychological profile within a striking similarity of sociopolitical milieu; it would not be far-fetched to deem Demagogue Donald as a modern-day American Crassus.

 © Copyright Johnny Hutchinson

 

[1] Plutarch, “Life of Crassus,” in Parallel Lives, ca. 75 AD, Translated by Bernadotte Perrin, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1916, 2.2.
[2] Ibid., 2.4.
[3] Ibid., 6.6–7.
[4] Ibid., 2.7.
[5] Appian, The Civil Wars, ca. 2nd C. AD, Translated by Horace White, London: Macmillan and Co, 1899, 1.14.120.
[6] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 7.7–8.
[7] Latin Dictionary, http://www.latin-dictionary.org/Latin-English-Dictionary/crassus.
[8] Online Eptymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=crass.
[9] Conrad Black, “Trump the Dealmaker: Good Enough to Manage the Mess We’re In,” National Review, January 26, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/430331/donald-trump-good-enough-conservative.
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