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Tales Of The Ancient World: Crow's Feast



Khersonez Sewastopol1This tale is set in Rome during brutal reign of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (82-79 B.C.), who rewarded supporters out of the property of proscribed persons. Anyone was permitted to kill the proscribed, and was promised a reward or, if a slave, his freedom. 


This was one more distribution of the property of the proscribed. The witty Romans, who always found cause for jest even at times of disaster called it a crow's feast. After a succession of executions and killings, Sulla had invited those he thought deserving of a reward. 

The guests sat round a table, waiting for the dictator to make his appearance. The lights hanging down from the ceiling illuminated their moist foreheads, the nervous twitching of their lips, their restless hands. They were not afraid of facing Sulla, whose eyes were as sharp as needles. What they feared was his long absence. Chrisogonos, a slave whom Sulla had given his freedom, might appear any moment and say Sulla could not come to greet them or, worse still, Sulla had died. 

But their fears were in vain. A curtain was drawn aside, and Sulla entered with Chrisogonos at his side. The dictator's face was covered with red blotches, showing only a few spots of unnaturally white skin. The light hair falling down his forehead curled slightly. Seemingly, he had just taken a bath, which yielded relief from the ulcers that covered his body and caused an unbearable itch. 

The guests rose, their faces shining with loyalty and compassion. Sulla's glance slid over them. Calmed, he settled in his armchair, signalling for them to sit as well 

"And so," Sulla began after a pause, taking a scroll out of Chrisogonos's hands. 

At that moment, the door opened and a servant announced: 

"Publius Licinius Crassus!" 

"Let him enter," Sulla said. 

The guests turned their heads. A man of about thirty, of medium height and solidly built frame, entered the chamber. His face may have been described as attractive if not for the protruding jaw. 

There was disgust on the faces of the other guests. What had Crassus done to deserve special grace? What did Sulla find in him? The blush on his cheeks? His unimpeachable manners? Having sacked a few cities, Crassus had appropriated the property of their denizens, whom he sold as slaves. Nor had he share the spoils with the dictator. If anyone else had done so, it would have cost him his head. Yet Crassus was merely reprimanded. This time, too, knowing Sulla was fond of him, he had dared to come late. Sulla smiled at Crassus. Affably and mysteriously. 

"You are late, my Publius! You must therefore go to Rhegium." The guests caught the sense of the dictator's jest: he called the far end of the table Rhegium because Rhegium was on the edge of Italy where it bordered on Sicily. Sulla had likened the table round which he had seated his supporters to Italy, and its far end to Italy's farthest city. 

Crassus seated himself between the sickeningly thin Fufidius and the plump Murena. 

The dictator unrolled a scroll: 

"We have the estate of Lucretius Ofella." 

He put down the scroll and fixed his incisive gaze upon the guests. Fufidius stretched his long neck. Catiline sat back, swallowed, and his Adam's apple moved up and down. Ofella's estate! Ten thousand measures of land. Splendid arable land. And the vineyards. To say nothing of the mansion with its Greek statues, Median carpets, the silver, and the teak furniture. And then also the slaves! 

A smile touched Crassus's lips. He was the greediest of the lot, but had the enviable ability to conceal his emotions. 

"I think," Sulla said, stretching out his words, "we shall give the land and mansion to Marcus Tullius Decula who is in Etruria at the moment at my command." 

This evoked a sigh of disappointment. A fine piece of property was gone. 

"As for Ofella's slaves," Sulla continued, "they will be given their freedom."

This announcement was received with indifference. No one cared who got the slaves —Decula or anyone else. They might as well be freed like Chrisogonos, the handsome lad who was that moment whispering in his master's ear. 

"As for the mansion of Ovinius," Sulla said, glancing into the scroll, "on learn- ing he had been proscribed, he set fire to it and committed suicide. All that's left is a plot of scorched earth and a pile of ashes. As for the slaves—" 

"Permit me," a voice said. 

The guests turned their heads indignantly—Crassus had dared interrupt Sulla. 

"What do you wish, my friend?" Sulla said in his velvet voice. 

"Give the empty lot to me," Crassus replied. 

Laughter erupted. Murena's belly heaved like an ironsmith's bellows. Catiline dropped his phial on the snow-white toga of Cecilius Metellis, but the latter, fidget- ing in his seat, did not notice. 

Sulla raised his arm abruptly and a hush fell on the chamber. Murena alone trembled on soundlessly like jelly. 

"Take it, my Publius," the dictator exclaimed. "Put that down, Chrisogonos. I bestow upon Crassus all the empty lots left after my enemies burn down their houses." 

Again the chamber filled with laughter. The guests ridiculed Crassus, who had agreed to accept an empty lot instead of a mansion. They also approved of Sulla: "The dictator is wise and just! He who comes late gets the leftovers!" 


On the following day, Crassus's slaves, taught the art of building, started clearing the empty lot. Then they dug up the ground and laid a foundation. Within six months, the new six-storey house with its countless little rooms was rented out to plebeians. Crassus built houses for rent all over Rome. Soon enough he owned half the city. Tenants who owed the rent, gave him their votes in payment.

While many of those who attended the "crow's feasts" were ruined after Sulla's death, Crassus grew richer and richer. Aside from the houses, he owned silver mines workshops, country estates, and ships. Nothing was unworthy of him if it held promise of a profit. 

And so, instead of saying "rich as Croesus", people began saying "rich as Crassus". (Croesus, last king of Lydia (Asia Minor) whose wealth was proverbial).