Sometimes greed can blind us and make us look ridiculous. Take a look at the ancient Romans for example. Greed, in large part, is what motivated their growing empire. Roman generals looking for spoils and honor waged tireless campaigns to get as much as they could out of the people and land they conquered. This was especially true for gold and silver. The Romans, like almost every other civilization, prized these precious metals for coinage, jewelry, and decoration. Roman generals knew that if they acquired enough of it while out on campaign, it could bring them honor, buy them power and luxury, and pay off any debts they might have accrued.
Once the empire was created it was mostly up to the decision of the Emperor where and who the generals should fight, but during the period of the Roman Republic, it was only through a declaration of war by the Senate that a general could legally attack. However, generals often found ways around this rule or simply ignored it.
In 151BC a general and consul by the name of Lucius Licinus Lucullus was waging war against the people of what we would call Spain. He was the grandfather to the much more famous Lucullus who would fight Mithradates and become a rival of Pompey the Great. The grandfather Lucullus is not so well remembered to history and, in fact, little is known about him except that according to Appian of Alexandria, writing over a hundred years after the facts, he was engaged in a bloody war with the Celtiberians, native peoples of the Iberian peninsula. Appian’s description of what the consul Lucullus did there is important to note for two reasons- firstly, it shows how blind greed can easily be seen as foolish; and secondly, that the ancient Romans, in the voice of Appian, agreed that Lucullus was a giant idiot.
One tribe of Celtiberians that Lucullus attacked was the Vaccei. The Senate had not declared war on these people and they had never attacked Romans, but as Appian says- Lucullus was “greedy of fame and needing money.” In the first city Lucullus came to the fighting was fierce, but the Romans eventually had the upper hand. When the city elders came out to establish peace, Lucullus demanded that they give him hostages, silver, horses, and allow a garrison of Roman troops to occupy the city. They agreed to his terms. Once the troops were in the city, Lucullus ordered them to slaughter everyone.
The next city he came to had heard of the fate of the previous city, so when Lucullus offered them a treaty, they rejected it. Infuriated, he ordered his troops to surround the city and begin a siege. The residents in the city suffered greatly from famine and disease, but Lucullus’ troops suffered as well. Lacking their native food and subsisting on bread and unfamiliar wild game, many died of dysentery as well as famine. According to Appian, this was the moment when a cooler head prevailed. One of Lucullus’s officers, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, was able to get the city to surrender and Lucullus agreed to not violate the treaty and massacre the city’s population, apparently through sheer charm and rationality.
The natives gave Lucullus cattle, cloaks, and hostages. “As for the gold and silver that Lucullus was after,” Appian explains, “he got nothing. Not only did they have none, but these particular Celtiberians did not set any value on those metals.” History doesn’t record Lucullus’ reaction to this information, but the Roman equivalent of a smack to the forehead might have been appropriate. We do know that ultimately Lucullus wasn’t punished for his deeds and went back to Rome as a victorious hero.
History of Rome, Appian of Alexandria, circa 165 C.E., http://www.livius.org, accessed 11/9/2012
“Beyond Romans and Natives”, Greg Woolf, World Archaeology, Vol. 28, No. 3, Culture Contact and Colonialism (Feb., 1997), pp. 339-350
“The Alleged Inimicitiae of Pompeius and Lucullus: 78-74”, Thomas P. Hillman, Classical Philology, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Oct., 1991), pp. 315-318