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Crassus, beyond the one dimensional view,
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This review is from: The Defeat of Rome: Crassus, Carrhae and the Invasion of the East (Hardcover)
In the Kubrick film Spartacus, Laurence Olivier plays the role of Marcus Licinius Crassus. He did a fine job, the veneer of a patrician hiding the ruthlessness of a consummate politician. You want to know more. Yet in Roman history, Crassus tends to be marginalised, merely a man obsessed by wealth brought down by his pursuit of glory. His military incompetence led to one of Rome's worst defeats at the Battle of Carrhae in 53BC. A year later Julius Caesar, whose career Crassus had propelled with money and influence, achieved the astonishing victory at Alesia. Caesar fought and won against a massively larger Gallic army, Crassus's legions were virtually wiped out by a Parthian force a quarter of their size. His reputation has not been flattered by time.
Sampson's pleasing book gives a picture of Crassus. It is not a biography but a background sketch to put the battle in context. He was born to a very wealthy ruling family that held the high offices, and excelled in a world where failure would often result in death. His father and two brothers were killed or committed suicide running foul of political enemies. That would certainly make him a man who took politics seriously. His reputation was tainted by greed, he benefited financially from proscription, and as an unscrupulous property developer. He was an extraordinary manipulator, a breeder of pedigree politicians. He was perhaps Rome's greatest patron. The formation and workings of the triumvirate are largely passed over, the big beasts (he, Pompey and Caesar) found it possible to work together rather than tear each other apart. Why did Crassus go to war having attained hegemony over the Roman republic? The assumption is he wanted a triumph and that required a significant foreign military victory. He had just reached 60 so time was against him.
Sampson traces the origins of Rome as it emerged as an Empire concentrating on the East, the numerous wars; arguably defensive Imperialism propelled Rome as the Hellenic world faded. He compares Rome with the rise of Parthia, boths progress being interrupted by relentless civil wars. A recurrent theme in the book is the imbalance in perception, we know so much more about Rome because they left so much more whereas Parthia was its equal but whose history has been largely eradicated or lost.
Dr Sampson's style is to present the facts, make deductions and produce a logical commentary. His thesis is that Crassus was far from an incompetent general; he had a proven military record saving Sulla and in defeating Spartacus. In his Parthian campaign, his generalship was as good as possible; he did the correct things in the right order. Rather it was the brilliance of his opponent, Surenas, who was meant to be an expendable decoy yet proved a devastating tactician. He used mobile armoured cavalry (with the well planned provision of lethally effective arrows) to engineer a turkey shoot. Simply they neutralised the close quarter fighting superiority of the Roman army. Any commander would have been so exposed. Well, perhaps. In trying to negotiate surrender, on the second day of the battle Crassus was killed. Dr Sampson goes on to analyse the immediate and longer-term consequences of the defeat. Surprisingly relevant to how the West and the East try to co exist today.
If a good book is one that sends you back to the bookshop for more, then this is one. It is certainly time for a new biography of Crassus. Let's hope some commissioning editors are likeminded.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 16 Nov 2008 21:21:43 GMT
Peter J. Holmes says:
An excellent review which encouraged me to buy the book. I am glad I did. It is well written and presents a a carefully argued case for a drastic revision of the simplified historical version of the battle - Crassus was not incompetent, he just had the misfortune to come up against a brilliant opponent.
Posted on 21 Dec 2008 16:14:36 GMT
[Deleted by the author on 21 Feb 2009 11:40:45 GMT]
Posted on 9 Mar 2011 09:05:50 GMT
Je Salter says:
An excellent review Stewart on an interesting book and one to look out for, thank you!
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