03/26/2012 09:14 am ET Updated May 26, 2012

Applied Classics: The Roman Romney: Why Rich Guys Fail at Politics

Though I wouldn't bet $10,000 on it, I imagine that sometime in the past decade Mitt Romney spent a few moments perusing Forbes Magazine's list of the 100 wealthiest people in history.

Scanning past the well-known portraits of Carnegie and Rockefeller, Romney may have arched an eyebrow at the image of a 2,000-year-old marble bust, accompanied by an unfamiliar triple-barreled name and, at #8 all-time, a fortune just larger than Henry Ford's.

Marcus Licinius Crassus: ally and bankroller of Julius Caesar, suppressor of Spartacus, sworn enemy of Cicero and Cato, and at an estimated $170 billion in today's dollars, the richest man in Roman history.

What Romney might not have realized, passing over this intriguing but distant-sounding entry, was that "Crassus Dives" ("the Rich," his well-deserved if slightly impolitic nickname) was for the Massachusetts governor the perfect object lesson on a question of pressing, some might say ultimate, personal importance: why the super-rich tend to be political duds.

From his wife's "couple of Cadillacs" to inspiring gems like "corporations are people too" and "I'm not concerned about the very poor," to say nothing of last week's Etch-a-Sketch-Gate, Romney has done everything but tattoo "Wealthy Political Chameleon" under his silver sideburns.

But in this great capitalist nation, the sacred mecca of self-made men, why should wealth be anything but a political asset? America has had its share of well-heeled leaders -- Kennedys, Roosevelts, Bushes -- and these were mostly the lucky inheritors rather than the visionary amassers of great wealth. Romney's millions, in contrast, are the harvest of shrewd business decisions, long hours, and unassailable managerial competence.

How then can someone so successful at making money be so comically unskilled at managing his political brand?

For three potentially revealing answers, consider the case of Marcus Licinius Crassus.

1. Money is neutral; politics isn't.

Like Romney, Marcus Crassus demonstrated personal qualities in his money-making that are indisputably useful to a political career.

In addition to boundless energy and impeccable grooming, the Roman married an uncanny command of details with an unwavering demand for results. Unlike many aristocrats, the Roman biographer Plutarch tells us, Crassus would take the time to personally train all of his slaves, and could whip up massive public works projects with unbelievable speed, including a great earthen wall which trapped Spartacus and his rebel gladiators on a tiny peninsula before they realized what was going on.

Moreover, Crassus the capitalist was as inventive as he was thorough; seeing an opportunity in Rome's crowded, fire-prone neighborhoods and lack of public fire service, Crassus assembled a crack squad of 500 slaves to run to the front door of any house on fire, ready to put it out -- if the owner sold the property to Crassus. And the neighbors too.

Compared to exploitative firefighting and slave trafficking, one might care to note, Mitt Romney's pilotage of Bain Capital looks positively humanitarian. But the creativity, diligence, and shrewdness on display in Romney's consulting career were assisted by -- and some might argue, inextricably linked to -- another Crassian quality, essential for Bain but problematic for voters: profound ideological indifference.

Ever the practical profiteer, Crassus "trimmed between" political alliances with Caesar and Pompey as circumstances shifted, "and changed sides that in short spaces of time the same men and the same measures had him both as their supporter and as their opponent." (Plutarch, 'Life of Crassus')

Likewise, Bain's stockholders didn't pay Romney to buy up distressed companies for the sake of gallantry or fairness. They paid him to find an undervalued economic opportunity and capitalize on it within the bounds of existing law. Romney's millions may not be the fruits of an immoral enterprise, but are certainly the fruits of an amoral one. And as thrice-married Newt Gingrich proved in Bible-thumping South Carolina, voters forgive a candidate's immorality sooner than they forgive his neutrality.

His millions are proof that Mitt Romney mastered the art of making smart economic decisions untainted by emotion and moral value; too bad for him, then, that emotional and value-laden discourse -- not dollars -- is the hard currency of American political life.

2. "Remember Carrhae."

All of us have boxes we hope someday to check. For some, it's grandchildren or a vacation house; for others, the presidency of the United States. For Marcus Crassus, it was a full military triumph. It's hard to overemphasize how climactically cool a Roman triumphal procession was for the very few men who earned them; picture George W. Bush in a ticker-tape parade on Fifth Avenue, adorned with an Oscar and a Nobel Prize, driving Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard in chains toward Times Square, and you have something of the flavor.

Crassus had his millions, but even after serving as consul and censor (the two top offices in the Roman state), still no triumph. So at age sixty, the man who had famously said "no Roman should call himself rich if he can't buy his own army," bought his own army and, over the Senate's protestations, invaded Asia Minor.

Though meeting with some early success over the unoffending and rather-surprised Parthians, Crassus was clearly not a natural military leader (Plutarch notes that he had a habit of rapidly shifting his field tactics à la Etch-a-Sketch). The campaign reached its infamous denouement in 53 BC at the battle of Carrhae, in which 30,000 Romans were killed or captured by the more nimble and seasoned Parthian cavalry. A story later surfaced that after history's 8th-richest man was captured and decapitated, the Parthians poured molten gold into his mouth as punishment for his insatiable avarice.

Romney has done nothing to earn a mouthful of molten gold. Nevertheless, like the majority of presidential candidates, he plainly wants to win badly enough to do or say just about anything, from talking in a forced drawl to offering kooks and fanatics his full-throated tributes.

Like Crassus, Romney's quest has led this otherwise-very-successful man deep into hostile and unfamiliar territory, but, then as now, woe betide the man trying to convince a multi-millionaire he's in over his head. Talent, drivenness, and past success can all be powerful assets, but so too can they blind you to the power of what it is you don't know.

The ancients had a word for this: hubris. And it's a killer.

3. Quod tibi curae est?

Before his final fateful battle, and just after his own son had been captured and killed, Marcus Licinius Crassus assembled his troops and said, from Plutarch's account, all the right things: "Take away their joy, revenge their cruelty, nor be dismayed at what is past...for Rome did not arrive to this height by fortune, but by perseverance and virtue in the face of all dangers."

Despite the pitch-perfect speech, the response from his soldiers was tepid, their confidence in him gone. Deep down, then as now, most Romans knew the difference between a higher cause and a well-paid but barely disguised effort to help a rich guy check his final box.

Even granting to Romney some measure of genuine public spirit, like Marcus, Mitt is learning how hard it is to inspire people when your whole life has set idealism a distant second to ruthless efficiency. What's more, the great irony about political pandering is that the harder you try to do it, the less it generally works.

Crassus' great rival Cato achieved neither his wealth nor his political influence, but his fierce and unwavering moral vision -- as any fellow of the conservative Cato Institute would agree -- have inspired admiration down to our day.

The sad, final truth was that Crassus, even when he had as much political power as anyone in Rome, didn't do all that much with it. He was really, really good at making money; and despite, or because of, all protests to the contrary, that's where his heart finally belonged.

So tell us, Governor Romney, deep down, what is it you truly care about? Quod tibi curae est?