A man and his fire brigade

birds sitting on a rock

So you’ve heard of the Roman Empire, of Rome itself and you also know the name of Julius Caesar. Probably you know the name of Spartacus but have you heard of Crassus, a man with a nose for a real fire sale – and who knew how to get rich?

Marcus Licinius Crassus was one of the three men to become The First Triumvirate that saw him effectively rule Rome and its empire along with Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, the latter being the military minds behind the rule while Crassus was the “money man”. This particular alliance was fraught with difficulty and extremely fragile, at least between Crassus and Pompey because the pair were wildly ambitious and didn’t get along.

Still, Crassus moved in the circles of power thanks to two things. Firstly, it was thanks to him that the slave revolt led by Spartacus was foiled and this endeared him to the ruling classes. The second was because he was an astute speculator in Rome’s real estate market.

Did I mention the fire bit yet? This is where we find out quite how interesting … and unlikeable this Crassus chap must have been. He created Rome’s first fire department. Unlike the firefighters we have today, there were two things to know about this group.

The first is that they were a firefighting force that were 500-strong. This is a significant number of people turning up to every fire and not something we would manage today. The second is that they would pitch up at the scene of a fire (a common, effectively daily, occurrence back in Rome’s past) and do absolutely nothing.

While this group of men would stand around, Crassus himself would be there in negotiation with the building’s owner. He would offer to purchase the building at an uncomfortably low price. If the owner refused, they let it burn. If Crassus bought the building, the firefighters would put the fire out. Once this was all done, Crassus would then have the building repaired … and lease it back to the original owner.

This technique saw him eventually buy up a significant portion of the city, helping him amass a fortune equal to some US$11 billion today. That’s quite a tidy sum for a man described as growing up in a “modest” family and being forced to flee to Hispania to escape the proscriptions of Lucius Cornelius Cinna where he raised a small army and used it to extort money for his military campaigns from cities in the region.

Certain to be described in modern circles as an “operator”, Crassus clearly had much to recommend him to the leaders of the time and not much to the general public. That’s my opinion, at any rate.

On a final note, if you want to read something interesting every time you open your browser, then set the home page to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:RandomInCategory/Good_articles and every time you open it, it will load a new article from the created set in this category. You never know what will pop up, but in each case it should be enlightening.

Author: Morné Condon

Automotive journalist in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, following new models, old cars, car clubs and motorsport. My interests are not restricted to the automotive environment, although this is where I am mostly to be found.

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