”Postquam Crassus carbo factus, Carbo crassus factus est”

(When Crassus went to ashes, Carbo became dull. Crassus = fat, dull, carbo = ash)

Grammarian Sacerdos contributes this witticism for Terentius. It even might have been a popular saying in the learned circles. It refers into rivalry between two powerful orators of their time, C. Papirius Carbo Arvina (praetor at 85) and L. Licinius Crassus (consul at 95).

C. Carbo Arvina was a son of consul of 120 C. Carbo. His father during his career switched sides from Gracchian to optimate faction. He went even as far as being involved somehow (we lack details) of the murder of the younger Gracchus. This however, was not enough for the optimate side to trust him fully and it seems he was chosen to be a public scape goat for the murder of popular Gracchus.

From the optimate side the leading speaker was no other than L. Crassus, who was perhaps the most celebrated public speaker of his time. Cicero, who was a student of Crassus as youngster, described Crassus to be the best public speaker of all time in Rome until Cicero himself surpassed him. Even giving a benefit of a doubt, I think we can safely say that Crassus was one of the best speakers in Rome at his time. But also Carbo was a celebrated speaker and is counted also among the best ones ever in Rome.

The clash of the giants never saw outcome as Carbo the elder made suicide before the court process was over. His son, Carbo Arvina, took Crassus as his main enemy and was also a noted public speaker in his attacks against Crassus.

Crassus became censor at year 92, and died next year. This is the turning point the saying refers to. When Crassus died, Carbo Arvina lost his enemy and in years to come was left without burning desire to avange his fathers death. This took away the sharpest edge of his oratory and he became dull instead.

I have also previously written more about Papirii Carbones and Crassus.


Tragedy of Carbones: three consuls, five violent deaths

Papirii Carbones were a group of families at late republican period. They belonged through unknown link into ancient family of Papirius (originally Papisius).

First Papirius Carbo we know of was the praetor of year 168, C. Papirius Carbo. He had three sons, from whom two became consuls, a quite remarkable achievement. So his son C. Paprius Carbo was the first one, at year 120, to achieve consulship from Papirii Carbones. The second son Cn. Papirius Carbo had his turn at 113. Son of this latter was to achieve three consulships, being alone in the Paprii Carbones with more than one consulship.

The family tree of Papirii Carbones.

The family tree of Papirii Carbones.

Some of the Carbones were masterful orators, which was one of the main skills Roman politician should have. Especially noted in this skill were consul of 120 and his son. Also thrice consul Cn. Carbo was one of the leaders of the Marian faction at the Senate.

While the success of the Papirii Carbones from this perspective is undeniable, there is a dark side in it: all the consuls of the family, and their sons, met a violent death.

Consul of 120 was at first a supporter of C. Gracchus, but switched sides into optimate faction of the Senate. However, he was not trusted and was eventually impeached by L. Crassus for murder and felt that he was losing the case, so he committed a suicide.

Son of the consul of 120, C. Paprius Carbo Arvina, was a supporter of optimates and as such was put to death by supporters of Marius at year 82.

During the consulship of Cn. Paprius Carbo, that is at 113, the Gallian tribe of Cimbri attacked Italy and Illyricum. Carbo was sent to fight them, but lost his battle. He was accused in the court (perhaps for cowardism) and decided to commit suicide.

His son, the three-time consul at 85, 84 and 82, was strong supporter of Marian faction. He as consul with Cinna and younger Marius. During his last consulship he lost the battle against Sulla’s ally Q. Metellus Pius and decided to flee for his life. Cn. Pompeius Magnus put him to death after a short while at year 81.

Finally the second son of consul of 113, C. Paprius Carbo, who was praetor at 81, met also violent death at year 80, when he was put to death by Sulla.

During the years of 82-80 a whole generation of Papirii Carbones was put to death, despite their apparent success in politics. The family was continued only through the son of Carbo Arvina, who reached praetorship at 62.

Despite of having been both supporters and adversaries of the Gracchi, and despite being on both Marian and Sullan side during the civil war, the Paprii Carbones met their violent faith. So while it is tempting to think that a family could survive in Roman politics by aligning different lines of family with different political factions, it isn’t a foolproof plan!

What we know very little about, are the marriages of the Carbones. It seems that they had no marriages with high nobility. This isn’t certain, but we can speculate that should there been such, it would have been with consular level of Carbones. As we don’t know of any, perhaps we can think Carbones for some reason wanted to marry with provincial level or with minor families or that they were excluded from the highest circles this way. In any case they lacked key contacts that many other families built through marriages. The question is, were the Carbones therefore more vulnerable as they were relying only factional alliances? This is an intriguing thought!