The stories of Crassus, Zenobia, and Nero
Many rich and powerful rulers throughout history have lost it all. In some cases, their greed and arrogance were to blame. Other times, conspiracy and intrigue were responsible. Whatever the cause, their stories endure. Let’s examine three famous cases in the ancient world.
Marcus Licinius Crassus (115–53 BCE)
Crassus was a Roman general, politician, and entrepreneur. Often listed today as one of history’s wealthiest individuals, Crassus amassed an enormous estate (estimated between $200 million to $20 billion in today’s dollars) through a wide array of business dealings.
Shrewd and fiercely ambitious, one apocryphal story tells of how Crassus would rush to the scene of fires in Rome with a team of slaves trailing behind him. After locating the property’s distressed owner, he would then offer to buy it at a steep discount. When accepted, he would order his makeshift fire brigade of slaves to put out the blaze. When refused, he would march away with the slaves in tow, allowing the building to burn to the ground.
At the height of his wealth and power, Crassus formed the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Through this three-man political alliance, Crassus shared control of the Roman world for the last 17 years of his life.In 55 BCE, Crassus began a 5-year military command in Syria. Hungry for the military glory that had already been achieved by his erstwhile allies Caesar and Pompey, he crossed the Euphrates river and invaded Parthia in 53 BCE. However, poor logistical planning, the harsh desert terrain, and deceit from local ‘guides’ left his army surrounded and forced to surrender.
Legend has it that Crassus survived for a time. He was kept as a slave by his captors, who, upon learning of his massive greed, killed him by pouring molten gold down his throat.
Septimia Zenobia (240–274 CE)
Zenobia was a queen of the Palmyrene Empire in what is today Syria. At that time, Rome was enduring the Crisis of the Third Century, which began in 235 CE and lasted 50 years. At least 26 claimants to the throne battled for control of an increasingly fractured empire throughout this period. During the crisis, the city of Palmyra came to control the Roman provinces of Egypt, Syria, Arabia, and parts of Asia Minor.
Zenobia was born in Palmyra to a noble family. Around the age of 14, she married Odaenathus, the ras (lord) of Palmyra. When she was about 27, Odaenathus and his eldest son — who was not Zenobia’s — were assassinated returning from a campaign against the Persians. The killing conveniently — quite conveniently — transferred power to Zenobia’s own 10-year old son and elevated her to the position of queen regent.
Over the next five years, Zenobia consolidated her son’s power and increasingly ruled in her own right. Feeling secure in her position, she officially broke with Rome in 271 by naming herself Empress. The Roman Emperor Aurelian rushed east with his army in 272 and defeated Zenobia’s forces in a series of battles.
Reports differ on what happened after her defeat. Most agree that she was displayed in Aurelian’s triumph in 274 (in which the Romans paraded their defeated enemies through the streets of the Capital in a display of humiliation). Following the triumph, she disappeared from the historical record. In all likelihood, she was ritually murdered, as was the custom for defeated enemies of Rome.
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (37–68 CE)
Born during his uncle Caligula’s reign, Nero may not have survived if his uncle had lived. When Nero was only two years old, Caligula exiled Nero’s mother and seized Nero’s inheritance. In 41 BCE, Caligula was killed by his own bodyguards. After Caligula’s death, his great-uncle Claudius became Emperor.
This transfer of power resulted in a change of fortune for Nero and his family. Nero’s mother was returned from exile, and his inheritance was restored.
By 49 AD, Claudius had decided to marry Nero’s mother. The marriage was extremely unpopular in Rome, as it was between an uncle and a niece. Nevertheless, it went ahead, and Claudius adopted Nero. In 54 AD, Claudius died, and Nero became Emperor at 16 years-old.
His tutors and his mother dominated the early years of his reign. The Empire appeared to function well as the Senate, and royal advisers guided Nero. Yet, by 59 AD, Nero’s relationship with his mother had grown strained. For reasons that are not entirely clear, she died by the end of the year — either by suicide or on orders from her own son. Nero became further isolated in 62 AD after the death of a trusted advisor — the Praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus.
The Great Fire of Rome in 66 AD devastated the city. Contrary to the myth, Nero is said to have personally organized a relief effort. However, after the fire, Nero set about reorganizing central Rome. His plan included a new royal palace that was built on land cleared by the fire. Nero spent lavishly on the building projects and raised taxes to fund his vision.
After two years, many nobles had seen enough. The Roman general Galba organized a rebellion and rallied other prominent officers to his cause. By May of 68, Nero’s situation was dire. He no longer trusted his bodyguards and fled the palace. Abandoned by all but a small group of loyal freedmen, Nero asked one of them to kill him to spare him the humiliation of capture and execution. He died at the age of 30. The Julio-Claudian dynasty — which had ruled Rome for a century — was finished.
Featured Image: Queen Zenobia’s Last Look upon Palmyra / Herbert Gustave Schmalz / Public domain