Children's Plutarch: Tales of the Romans - F. J. Gould
High and rugged cliffs rose above the sea-beach. Amid the rocks could be seen a dark opening, which was the entrance to a cave. The waves rippled up the sand, and splashed about the rocks near the cave's mouth.
A man, carrying a large basket, came along the beach. He looked round to see if he was watched. At the entrance to the cave he laid the basket down. Then he quickly departed. The sun was setting.
A Roman, dressed as a servant, presently appeared at the cave's mouth, picked up the basket, and went in again. If we could have followed him, we should have seen him pass into a large chamber which the sea had formerly worn in the body of the rock; then into a smaller chamber beyond. Here sat his young master, Crassus, who lived from about 105 B.C. to 53 B.C., with about a dozen other Romans. The basket was opened. Provisions were taken out, and the party ate their supper heartily, leaving some of the food for the morrow.
Each evening for eight months the same thing happened. The party in the cave were hiding from the wrath of Cinna, who was putting to death those who opposed his plans. Crassus and his companions had fled from Rome to Spain, and found refuge in the cave. The owner of the land near the cave was his friend, and sent a steward every day with the food. There was plenty of room in the cave, there being several other recesses, or chambers, besides those I have mentioned.
At length, when Cinna was dead, it was safe to come forth from the hiding-place. Crassus belonged to a well-known family in Rome, and he rose to be a leader of the people. There were at this time three notable men in Rome—Pompey, 106-48 B.C.; Julius Cæsar, 100-44 B.C., and Crassus.
Of all things in the world Crassus was most fond of riches. He had an immense number of slaves, and many of them were clever men, able to read, write, and teach; and he sold these teacher-slaves for a much higher price than he gave for them, for such teachers were wanted to give lessons to boys in rich families. He owned very many houses in the narrow streets of Rome, and the rent brought him a large income. Every year he gained more wealth.
Crassus led an army against the slaves who rebelled. Some of the rebels were gladiators—that is, prisoners taken in war, and trained to fight in the circus before a vast crowd of onlookers. In these circus fights the gladiators were often slain. The leader was Spartacus (Spar-ta-kus). He also had herdsmen and shepherds among his followers. In more than one battle the slaves had won, and Spartacus had bright hopes of gaining freedom for his army. Before his last battle, in 71 B.C., he drew his sword and killed his horse, saying:
"If I am victor in this fight, I shall have plenty of horses; if I am defeated, I shall have no need of this."
Through a shower of arrows the captain of the gladiators rushed to find Crassus, the Roman general. Two officers sought to stay his valiant course, but he killed them both. Then he was surrounded by foes, and died. Spartacus was a martyr. He died while trying to obtain liberty for the slaves. So I do not think there was glory for Crassus in this victory.
And still his love for gold increased.
Once, indeed, when he and Pompey were elected consuls of the Roman Republic, Crassus gave a feast to the people of the city. The guests sat at ten thousand tables. You might think from this that he was generous. But his heart was set on getting a great honor, and that honor would lead on to more gain of gold. And he feasted the people in order to win their support.
Cæsar was made governor of the broad land of Gaul for five years. Pompey was put in command of the mountains and fertile fields of Spain. Crassus was chosen chief of the army which was to fight the fierce Parthians on the farther side of the river Euphrates (U-fray-teez), more than a thousand miles from Rome. His heart was glad. This was the honor he had dreamed of. He thought of himself as crowned with victory, and master of the gold and treasure of the East.
"To the East! To the East!" so his heart kept repeating.
A grand army marched with him across Asia Minor. They built a bridge across the stream of the Euphrates. Many castles and towns yielded. One small city closed its gates. The Romans soon captured it. Crassus was overjoyed at winning this little fortress. The soldiers shouted to him:
This is to say, "Great Commander." And the foolish man was flattered and pleased. He sent his officers into all the cities to make notes of the amount of money in the public treasury or the gold in the temples. Already he was reckoning up his profits.
Crassus was now making his way along the high ground near the river. Boats followed to supply his troops with food and other needs.
One day an Arab chief visited the Roman camp, his eyes black, his hair black, his skin bronzed by the sun, a loose cloak hanging over his head, shoulders, and back.
"Sir," he said to Crassus, "I never saw a more splendid army than yours. Why do you wait? The enemy are losing heart. I have seen them in their camp on yonder plain. Your Roman soldiers are now full of spirit. I advise you to descend from the hills and strike the great blow at once. You are sure to win."
Ah, he was a traitor. He had been sent by the Parthians.
When the Arab offered to lead the Romans by an easy path to the plain, Crassus eagerly agreed.
At first the road was easy and smooth for the foot-soldiers and horsemen and camp-followers. After a while they found themselves on a wide desert, and they tramped, weary and thirsty, over hillocks of sand. No brooks gave water; no trees gave shelter. The Arab presently left the Romans to look after themselves.
The Parthian commander was a fine, tall man, with curly hair. He led his army in proud calmness. He was sure of winning.
The Romans were arranged in an immense square. Slowly they moved forward. Many of them murmured: "We ought to have stayed on the hills."
The Parthians advanced, beating their drums. These were made with leather, and were hung with small bells, so that the drums thumped and the bells rattled at the same time. All of a sudden the Parthian warriors threw off their coats and capes, and their armor flashed with a terrible light. They came toward the Romans. Presently they appeared terrified, and ran back. The Romans followed. The Parthians turned, and shot poisoned arrows while they fled. That was the custom of the Parthians—to shoot while flying. Their supply of arrows was enormous. They had camels loaded with these weapons, so that they could keep up a rapid discharge.
Young Crassus, son of the general, pursued a body of the flying foe. They halted and faced him, and threw up a cloud of dust and sand, so as to make it difficult to see them. The young leader was slain, and before long the enemy held up his head in sight of the elder Crassus. The old general walked up and down the ranks, begging the Romans to keep up their courage. All through the day the soldiers of the republic did indeed do their best. They had courage, but they had lost faith in their general.
Night fell. Mournful was the silence in the Roman camp. Crassus had covered his head with a cloak, and lay on the ground without speaking. Some of his captains called a council of war, and determined to break up the camp. Without the signal of trumpets the Romans stole away in the darkness, leaving many of the wounded to their fate.
The sentries at the gates of a city heard in the night a man's voice calling to them in Latin to open. It was the first of the retreating army. The city was held by a Roman garrison. Here for a few days the defeated soldiers rested.
Then they set out again toward the hill-country. A guide led them among bogs, where the Romans and their horses floundered in mud. With much hard labor they struggled through to the rising ground. Soon afterward the Parthians' host came up, and the general invited Crassus to come and talk over terms of peace. Crassus was not willing.
"You must go!" cried his men. "You sent us to fight the Parthians. Are you not ready to meet them when they come to make peace with you?"
He descended the hill, with a few of his attendants. They all went on foot.
"What!" cried the tall leader of the Parthians, "do I see a Roman general on foot? You must have a horse."
A horse with golden harness was led forward, and Crassus mounted, and rode a little way with the Parthians. The army watched from the hillside, and they saw a scuffle begin. Blows were exchanged. The Romans fell. A Parthian presently carried the head of Crassus in his hand.
I need not tell the rest of the sorrowful tale. It is said that in the battle on the plain and during the retreat twenty thousand Romans were killed and ten thousand taken prisoners.
Yes, we should pity the Romans. We should also pity the far larger numbers of people in Asia, Africa, and Europe whom the Romans slew in their conquests.
Crassus also deserves our pity. How he had set his heart on riches! How he had looked forward to being lord of Parthia, and adding its gold and treasure to his store!
In the history-books he is called Crassus the Rich.
But was he really rich?
Do you know what I mean?