Who was Plutarch and when and where did he write about Crassus?
Plutarch (45 A.D. to 120 A.D.) was an important figure in ancient Greece, a native of Chaeronea, who would earn his greatest fame as a chronicler of the Roman Empire and biographer of the emperors, but who was also an esteemed philosopher, priest of Apollo at the Oracle of Delphi, and an ambassador for his city. Born to a wealthy family, Plutarch lived his entire life as a respected figure in ancient Greece, with his reputation earning him good standing in the supremely powerful empire that dominated much of the known world at that time. His most well-known work is Parallel Lives (precise publication date unknown, but believed to have been written late in his life), in which he compares twenty-three pairs of prominent figures side-by-side, one-each Greek and Roman, for the purpose of examining contrasting histories, personalities and achievements. One of these biographies was of a Roman general and politician named Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 B.C. to 53 B.C.). Plutarch’s biographies, as can be seen by the one dedicated to Crassus, a link to which is provided below, are straightforward assessments of their subjects, but are clearly skewed towards an emphasis on morality and social propriety. In this respect, Crassus comes across as congenial but greedy, as in the following passage:
“The Romans, it is true, say that the many virtues of Crassus were obscured by his sole vice of avarice; and it is likely that the one vice which became stronger than all the others in him weakened the rest. The chief proofs of his avarice are found in the way he got his property and in the amount of it. . . when he made a private inventory of his property before his Parthian expedition, he found that it had a value of seventy-one hundred talents. The greatest part of this, if one must tell the scandalous truth, he got together out of fire and war, making the public calamities his greatest source of revenue.”
An important component of Plutarch’s examination of Crassus is the latter’s role in the triangular relationship among Caesar, Pompey and himself, with Pompey ultimately emerging as the most malicious of the three and Crassus as the least ambitious, as suggested in this observation from Parallel Lives:
“However, this eager rivalry did not carry Crassus away into anything like hatred or malice; he was merely vexed that Pompey and Caesar should be honoured above himself, but he did not associate this ambition of his with enmity or malevolence.”
Plutarch, as noted, was a highly revered figure in the Roman Empire, which could have, under certain circumstances, have proven fatal had he lived during the rule of the wrong emperor. After all, Greeks served at the pleasure of their Roman masters and one had to watch what one said. As a philosopher, historian and public servant, however, he was able to imbue his writing with a perspective rare among scholars.