Marcus Licinius Crassus was one of the most powerful men in Rome during his day, but how did he get this power? Remarked upon as one of the richest men in history, Crassus used events in Rome to his advantage by buying up cheap housing that had been ravaged by fire. Darcy Cowan explains how the particular context of Rome at this time allowed Crassus to become such a wealthy man, as well as a powerful political player.
The breakdown of the alliance between the three most powerful men in Rome would go down in history as the catalyst for Caesar's Civil War. But how did it come to be that Marcus Licinius Crassus -- a man who had neither the military accomplishments, nor the popularity of his rivals Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great -- find himself in a position beside such titans of the Roman world?
The foundations of Crassus' power were built on his immense wealth. Crassus acquired a fortune and catapulted himself to the forefront of the most competitive political arena since golden-age Athens. Through his defeat of Spartacus, he not only provided the material for an excellent movie 2000 years later, but also proved that he could use his wealth to muster a significant fighting force. But the real secret behind Crassus' monetary success lies in real estate.
When discussing Crassus, it's often common to hear claims such as "he's the wealthiest man in history!", or, "he owned one third of Rome's property market". The historical evidence behind these grand claims are tentative at best, but Plutarch tells us that his fortune added up to around 7,100 talents - a number roughly equal to Rome's entire annual revenue (Plutarch 2.2). The ability to amass so much wealth during this time in history was no small feat, which may lend credit to the mythos surrounding Crassus' wealth. Similar to today's mega wealthy, he spread his assets across a variety of portfolios. These included silver mines, slaves, political endeavours - and of course - real estate. The latter is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of how Crassus amounted his fortune, but it was how he became one of the most powerful politicians of his day.
Building the Road to Power
Making Money with Insulae
To understand real estate in Rome, it's essential to understand insulae, a type of residential building which was prominent in late Republican and Imperial Rome. Insulae were introduced in Rome after the Social Wars as a cheap solution to the influx of migrants entering the city (Craver 2010: 136) These buildings were typically made out of stone and were designed to accommodate multiple inhabitants. They were similar to modern day apartment buildings, though they were typically only one or two stories high due to their weak foundations and cheap building materials (Yavetz 1958: 509).
Cheap construction made insulae prone to collapse (Figure 2) and the frequent addition of a second storey made from wood caused them to be susceptible to fires, which often plagued Rome in the times before Nero's building reforms. Due to these fires - especially the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD - no insulae from the Republican period have survived and ancient records regarding them are scarce and lack detail. However, many insulae from the Imperial period have survived, although the building style is different. Two marked changes from the Republic to Imperial period include Nero's building reforms, which implemented regulations to help minimize fires, as well as the invention of clay bricks. These imperial insulae can at least provide a good idea of what insulae might have looked like during the time of Crassus (Figure 1).
The construction of these buildings allowed rich landowners to make a large profit off the desperate need for cheap accommodation. One of these landowners is Cicero, a contemporary of Crassus who owned both high and low quality insulae. The evidence surrounding Cicero's insulae provides an insight into how Crassus would have managed his own property, though on a smaller scale. Estimates of the number of insulae in Rome are inaccurate due to a lack of evidence, however, reasonable calculations based on the demand for housing suggests that up to 46,500 of these buildings may have existed in the city during the late Republican period (Morley 2013: 33).
Evidence from Cicero's letters may help us understand how Crassus was able to acquire so much wealth from real estate. Cicero owned both high and low-quality properties and managed to turn a significant profit from both. In a letter to his friend Atticus, Cicero speaks of two properties collapsing, and several others with cracking walls that are at risk of collapsing. He also mentions a partnership between himself, an architect, and a banker, with the aim of turning dilapidated insulae into profitable housing (Cicero 14.9.1).
In another letter, Cicero speaks about his properties along the Argiletum and Aventine (Cicero 12.32.2). The Argiletum was a main road which lead to the Roman forum. Cicero is confident the rent collected from these two properties alone will be able to fund his son's education, which involved covering the expenses of multiple private tutors. From his confident attitude, it is clear that these properties do not require Cicero's direct attention, as the low-quality ones did, indicating they were likely of better quality.
Insulae: You Get what you Pay For
These contrasting examples provide a significant insight into insulae in Republican Rome. The written evidence shows they varied in quality and were almost always profitable. Landlords and owners paid little attention to building regulations and often prioritized profits over the safety of their tenants (Yavetz 1958: 509) . The tenants had very little power to take legal action, due to the way the Roman legal system favoured the upper class (du Plessis 2006: 48.2). This combination made urban land ownership a hugely profitable affair. In fact, the poor were so badly done by through this system that most high-profile politicians actively avoided the practice, giving Crassus fewer competitors (Craver 2010: 136). Even the crumbling properties inherited by Cicero were turned profitable. Insulae catered for the ever-growing need for accommodation in Rome, including high quality housing for the upper class, and - more commonly - low quality living spaces that rarely met legal standards.
How to Make a Profit
Wealthy and powerful landowners such as Crassus didn't have the time to collect rent from each and every one of their tenants (du Plessis 2006: 48.2). He had an active political career and was often away from Rome attending to political or military matters. There were two ways in which a landowner could delegate this work.
Property Managed by Slaves
It was not unusual for slaves to have a strong personal connection with their master. Many were given allowances, considered a part of the family, and chose to continue working with their former master if they were freed. It was also possible for a slave to be deeply involved in their master's business dealings. Some landowners chose to give full management responsibility of their properties to a trusted slave, who would assume the role of landlord on their master's behalf.
This method of property management has the most potential for profit, since the slave, at least in theory, will pass on 100% of the profit to the master. However, there are some negative aspects to this style of management:
The landowner must have an educated, trusted slave who is able to carry out all the duties of a landlord.
It is up to the owner to incur all costs of maintaining the property.
The landowner must invest some time managing his slave and weighing in on decisions.
This method would have been more common for landowners who only need to manage a few high-quality properties.
Property Managed by Primary Tenants
Primary Tenants are people who purchase the right to become the landlord of a property. They pay the landowner a fixed, yearly amount and then manage the property independently, trying to make more money from the tenants than they are paying (du Plessis 2006: 48.2). In theory, this method lowers the maximum potential profit for the landowner, but there are several benefits that make it viable:
Day-to-day and incidental expenses are the responsibility of the primary tenant and don't need to be paid by the owner.
Income from the property is a fixed, yearly sum. No variation, even if tenants leave or pay their rent late.
Less direct management. Less time is invested than if a slave was managing the property, the primary tenant handles just about everything.
This is the method that Cicero uses for his high-quality properties, and presumably for all of his other properties too. But what about Crassus?
Crassus: Building a Fortune
Crassus (Figure 4) took advantage of the socio-political state Rome was in during the late Republic. He acquired high quality property when the dictator Sulla sold the property of his deceased rivals, and he acquired low quality property when he systematically bought out fire damaged insulae at extremely low prices (Plutarch, 2.3-6). He repaired these properties with ease using a slave team of at least 500 architects and builders, which he bought over the years as he kept accumulating property. Through this process of buying and repairing damaged insulae, "the largest part of Rome came into [Crassus'] possession" (Plutarch, 2.4). Other ancient sources, such as Suetonius, Appian, and Cassius Dio, acknowledge Crassus' vast wealth and his acquisition of property through Sulla, but don't confirm the other detailed claims made by Plutarch.
As an active politician, Crassus would have likely used primary tenants to manage his real estate assets. However, his use of slaves in the restoration process suggests they too could have taken control of his properties. However, I believe the vast number of insulae he owned would make direct management, even through slave landlords, impossible. The only way Crassus could lead the politically active life he led is by using primary tenants to secure a low-maintenance source of income.
As I've detailed, Crassus abused several facets of Rome's real estate structure:
The lack of a professional fire-fighting service, creating a steady supply of fire-damaged insulae.
Poorly enforced building regulations allowing for Crassus to both build and maintain cheap insulae.
Indirect property management through primary tenants, allowing for limitless assets to be controlled by one individual.
Skilled slave labour to repair damaged insulae.
The negative stigma surrounding the abuse of tenants, leading to reduced competition.
This combination of factors existed almost exclusively in late Republican Rome, which means that Crassus' ruthless money-making strategy would have been impossible in any other period of Roman history, especially for a politician (Yavetz 1958: 510).
Through this money-making strategy, Crassus carved out a name for himself in the history of the Roman republic. Even though he's not as well-known as Caesar, Crassus is still remembered as a skilled orator, a generous patron, and one of the greatest politicians of his era, in a time when skilled politicians were a dime a dozen.
Guide to further reading
Craver, S.E., 2010. Urban Real Estate in Late Republican Rome. Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, 55, pp.135-158.
du Plessis, P.J., 2016. Urban Landlords and Tenants. The Oxford Handbook of Roman Law and Society. Oxford University Press.
Morley, N., 2013. Population Size and Social Structure. The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome. Cambridge University Press.
Yavetz, Z., 1958. The Living Conditions of the Urban Plebs in Republican Rome. Latomus, 17(3), 500-517.
Appian, The Civil Wars
Cassius Dio, Roman History
Cicero, Selected Letters, Letters to Atticus. (Penguin Trans.)
Plutarch, Roman Lives, Life of Crassus (Oxford Trans.)
Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar