Marcus Licinius Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus
Marcus Licinius Crassus
Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus from The Louvre, Paris
Consul of the Roman Republic
In office
70 BC, 55 BC – 53 BC
Personal details
Born 115 BC
Roman Republic
Died 53 BC (aged 62)
Carrhae, Parthian Empire
Spouse(s) Tertulla
Children Marcus Licinius Crassus, Publius Licinius Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus (Latin: M·LICINIVS·P·F·P·N·CRASSVS[1]) (ca. 115 BC – 53 BC) was a Roman general and politician who commanded the right wing of Sulla's army at the Battle of the Colline Gate, suppressed the slave revolt led by Spartacus, provided political and financial support to Julius Caesar and entered into the political alliance known as the First Triumvirate with Pompey and Caesar. At the height of his fortune he was allegedly worth more than 200,000,000 sestertii. He is considered the wealthiest man in Roman history, and perhaps one of the richest men in all history. Crassus nonetheless desired recognition for his military victories; this ambition for acclaim eventually led him into Syria, where he was defeated and killed in the Roman defeat at Carrhae against a Parthian Spahbod (General) named Surena.



Marcus Licinius Crassus was the third and youngest son of Publius Licinius Crassus Dives, a man who had himself been consul in 97 BC and censor 89 BC. One brother died during the Social War; his father and another brother were killed or committed suicide to evade capture during the Marian purges in December 87 BC.[2]

Crassus' grandfather was Marcus Licinius Crassus Agelastus, of whom little is known. This grandfather was descended from a consul and censor Publius Licinius Crassus Dives, best known for being Pontifex Maximus (from 212 BC to his death 183 BC) and consul (in 205 BC) and political ally of the Roman general and statesman Scipio Africanus. Crassus could therefore claim to be descended from a man who was successively elected Pontifex Maximus, censor, and then consul, in a rather unusual chronological order.

Crassus and his brothers were raised together in a small modest house[3] despite the family's great inherited wealth and his father's immense personal fortune.[citation needed] As was customary, the two elder brothers lived with their parents and youngest brother even after they married and had children.[3]

After the Marian purges and the sudden death subsequently of Gaius Marius, the surviving consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna (better-known as father-in-law of Julius Caesar) imposed proscriptions on those surviving Roman senators and equestrians who had supported Lucius Cornelius Sulla in his 88 BC march on Rome and overthrow of the traditional Roman political arrangements.

Cinna's proscription forced Crassus to flee to Hispania.[2] After Cinna's death in 84 BC, Crassus went to the Roman province of Africa where adherents of Sulla were gathering.[4] When Sulla invaded Italy after returning from partial successes in the inconclusive Second Mithridatic War, Crassus joined Sulla and Metellus Pius, Sulla's closest ally.[4] He was given command of the right wing in the Battle of the Colline Gate when the remaining Marian adherents and the surviving Samnites marched on Rome in a last-ditch bid to oust Sulla from Rome. The Colline Gate was one of the entrances into Rome through the Servian Walls; Crassus and his troops ensured Sulla's victory, including destruction of the surviving Samnite troops and any other military opposition.[citation needed]

Rise to power and wealth

Marcus Licinius Crassus' next concern was to rebuild the fortunes of his family, which had been confiscated during the Marian-Cinnan proscriptions. Sulla's own proscriptions ensured that his survivors would recoup their lost fortunes from the fortunes of wealthy adherents to Gaius Marius or Lucius Cornelius Cinna. Proscriptions meant that their political enemies lost their fortunes and their lives; that their female relatives (notably, widows and widowed daughters) were forbidden to remarry; and that in some cases, their families' hopes of rebuilding their fortunes and political significance were destroyed. Crassus is said to have made part of his money from proscriptions, notably the proscription of one man whose name was not initially on the list of those proscribed but was added by Crassus who coveted the man's fortune.[5] Crassus's wealth is estimated by Pliny at approximately 200 million sestertii.

He was kinsman triumvir to Licinia, a Vestal Virgin who owned a pleasant villa that he wanted to acquire on the cheap. Plutarch says: "And yet when he was further on in years, he was accused of criminal intimacy with Licinia, one of the vestal virgins and Licinia was formally prosecuted by a certain Plotius. Now Licinia was the owner of a pleasant villa in the suburbs which Crassus wished to get at a low price, and it was for this reason that he was forever hovering about the woman and paying his court to her, until he fell under the abominable suspicion. And in a way it was his avarice that absolved him from the charge of corrupting the vestal, and he was acquitted by the judges. But he did not let Licinia go until he had acquired her property."[3]

The rest of Crassus' wealth was acquired more conventionally, through traffic in slaves, the working of silver mines, and judicious purchases of land and houses, especially those of proscribed citizens. Most notorious was his acquisition of burning houses: when Crassus received word that a house was on fire, he would arrive and purchase the doomed property along with surrounding buildings for a modest sum, and then employ his army of 500 clients to put the fire out before much damage had been done. Crassus' clients employed the Roman method of firefighting—destroying the burning building to curtail the spread of the flames.[6]

After rebuilding his fortune, Crassus' next concern was his political career. As an adherent of Sulla, and the wealthiest man in Rome, and a man who hailed from a line of consuls and praetors, Crassus' political future was apparently assured. His problem was that despite his military successes, he was eclipsed by his contemporary Pompey the Great who blackmailed the dictator Sulla into granting him a triumph for victory in Africa over a rag-tag group of dissident Romans; a first in Roman history on a couple of counts. First, Pompey was not even a praetor, on which grounds a triumph had been denied in 206 BC to the great Scipio Africanus, who had brought Rome an entire province in Hispania. Second, Pompey had defeated fellow Romans; however, a precedent had been set when the consul Lucius Julius Caesar (a relative of Gaius Julius Caesar) had been granted a triumph for a small victory over Italian peoples in the Social War. Yet, until 82 BC, no triumph had been granted to any Roman for victory over another Roman general. Crassus's rivalry with Pompey and his envy of Pompey's triumph would influence his subsequent career.

Crassus and Spartacus

Crassus was rising steadily up the cursus honorum, the sequence of offices held by Roman citizens seeking political power, when ordinary Roman politics were interrupted by two events – first, the Third Mithridatic War, and second, the Third Servile War, which was the organized two-year rebellion of Roman slaves under the leadership of Spartacus (from summer 73 BC to spring 71 BC).[7] In response to the first threat, Rome's best general, Lucius Licinius Lucullus (consul in 74 BC), was sent to defeat Mithridates, followed shortly by his brother Varro Lucullus (consul in 73 BC). Meanwhile, Pompey was fighting in Hispania against Quintus Sertorius, the last effective Marian general, without notable advantage. Pompey succeeded only when Sertorius was assassinated by one of his own commanders.

The Senate did not initially take the slave rebellion seriously, until it became clear that Rome itself was under threat. Crassus offered to equip, train, and lead new troops, at his own expense, after several legions had been defeated and their commanders killed in battle or taken prisoner. Eventually, Crassus was sent into battle against Spartacus by the Senate. At first he had trouble both in anticipating Spartacus' moves and in inspiring his army and strengthening their morale. When a segment of his army fled from battle, abandoning their weapons, Crassus revived the ancient practice of decimation – i.e., executing one out of every ten men, with the victims selected by drawing lots. Plutarch reports that "many things horrible and dreadful to see" occurred during the infliction of punishment, which was witnessed by the rest of Crassus' army.[8] Nevertheless, according to Appian, the troops' fighting spirit improved dramatically thereafter, since Crassus had demonstrated that "he was more dangerous to them than the enemy."[9]

Afterwards, when Spartacus retreated to the Bruttium peninsula in the southwest of Italy,[7] Crassus tried to pen up his armies by building a ditch and a rampart across an isthmus in Bruttium, "from sea to sea."[8] Despite this remarkable feat, Spartacus and part of his army still managed to break out. On the night of a heavy snowstorm, they sneaked through Crassus' lines and made a bridge of dirt and tree branches over the ditch, thus escaping.[8]

Some time later, when the Roman armies led by Pompey and Varro Lucullus were recalled to Italy in support of Crassus, Spartacus decided to fight rather than find himself and his followers trapped between three armies, two of them returning from overseas action. In this last battle, the Battle of the Siler River, Crassus gained a decisive victory, and captured six thousand slaves alive. During the fighting, Spartacus attempted to kill Crassus personally, slaughtering his way toward the general's position, but he succeeded only in killing two of the centurions guarding Crassus.[10] Spartacus himself is believed to have been killed in the battle, although his body was never recovered. The six thousand captured slaves were crucified along the Via Appia by Crassus' orders. At his command, their bodies were not taken down afterwards but remained rotting along Rome's principal route to the South. This was intended as an object lesson to anyone who might think of defying Rome in the future.

Crassus effectively ended the Third Servile War in 71 BC, but his rival Pompey stole the victory with a letter to the Senate, in which he argued that Crassus had merely defeated some slaves, while Pompey had won the war.[10] This caused much strife between Pompey and Crassus. Crassus was honored only with an ovation (less than a triumph), even though the danger to Rome and the destruction to Roman lives and property merited much more. As a result, Crassus' animosity towards the upstart Pompey increased.

Nevertheless, Crassus was elected consul for 70 BC, alongside Pompey. In that year, he displayed his wealth by entertaining the populace at 10,000 tables and distributing sufficient grain to last each family three months.

Later career

In 65 BC, Crassus was elected censor with another conservative Quintus Lutatius Catulus (Capitolinus), himself son of a consul. During that decade, Crassus was Caesar's patron in all but name, financing Caesar's successful campaign to become Pontifex Maximus, despite all but abandoning his post as the priest of Jupiter or flamen dialis, and his efforts to win command of military campaigns. Caesar's mediation between Crassus and Pompey led to the creation of the coalition between Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar (by now consul), known as the First Triumvirate in 60 BC. This coalition would last until Crassus' own death.

In 55 BC, he was again consul with Pompey, and a law was passed assigning the provinces of the two Hispanias and Syria to Pompey and Crassus respectively for five years.

Syrian governorship and death

Crassus received Syria as his province, which promised to be an inexhaustible source of wealth. It would have been had he not also sought military glory and crossed the Euphrates in an attempt to conquer Parthia. Crassus attacked Parthia not only because of its great source of riches, but because of a desire to match the military victories of his two major rivals, Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. The king of Armenia, Artavazdes II, offered Crassus the aid of nearly forty thousand troops, ten thousand cataphracts and thirty thousand infantrymen, on the condition that Crassus invaded through Armenia so that the king could not only maintain the upkeep of his own troops but also provide a safer route for his men and Crassus'.[11] Crassus refused, and chose the more direct route by crossing the Euphrates. His legions were defeated at Carrhae (modern Harran in Turkey) in 53 BC by a numerically inferior Parthian force. Crassus' legions were mainly infantry men and were not prepared for the type of swift, cavalry-and-arrow, attack that the Parthian troops were particularly adept at; the same type of attack that Genghis Khan later utilised to great effect. The Parthians would get within shooting range, rain a barrage of arrows down upon Crassus's troops, turn, fall back, and charge forth with another attack in the same vein. They were even able to shoot as well backwards as they could forwards, increasing the deadliness of their onslaught.[12] Crassus refused his quaestor Gaius Cassius Longinus's plans to reconstitute the Roman battle line, and remained in the testudo formation thinking that the Parthians would eventually run out of arrows.

Subsequently Crassus' men, being near mutiny, demanded he parley with the Parthians, who had offered to meet with him. Crassus, despondent at the death of his son Publius in the battle, finally agreed to meet the Parthian general. However, when Crassus mounted a horse to ride to the Parthian camp for a peace negotiation, his junior officer Octavius suspected a Parthian trap and grabbed Crassus' horse by the bridle, instigating a sudden fight with the Parthians which left the Roman party dead, including Crassus.[13] A story later emerged that after Crassus' death the Parthians poured molten gold into his mouth as a symbol of his thirst for wealth.[14]

The account given in Plutarch's biography of Crassus also mentions that, during the feasting and revelry in the wedding ceremony of Artavazd's sister to the Parthian king Orodes II's son and heir Pacorus in Artashat, Crassus' head was brought to Orodes II. Both kings were enjoying a performance of Euripides' Greek tragedy The Bacchae and a certain actor of the royal court, named Jason of Tralles, took the head and sang the following verses (also from the Bacchae):

We bring from the mountain
A tendril fresh-cut to the palace
A wonderful prey.[15]

Crassus' head was thus used in place of a prop head representing Pentheus and carried by the heroine of the play, Agave.[16]

Hypothesis about Parthian captives from Crassus' army

There has been speculation that seventeen years after the defeat of Crassus's forces by the Parthians, a detachment of troops, which was said to have used a typically Roman military tactic, had been captured by Chinese forces.[17] In this account, during the Battle of Zhizhi in 36 BC, a Han Dynasty army led by General Chen Tang encountered troops of Zhizhi Chanyu that were using "a fish-scale formation" – which was hypothesized to mean the testudo formation. It has also been argued that the account of the Chinese historian Ban Gu, who lived during that time, implies that there were troops of Caucasian appearance fighting alongside Zhizhi Chanyu. In this account, the Chinese took these soldiers prisoner, but were so impressed by their courage and fighting abilities that they incorporated them into their army to defend the province of Gansu, calling them Li-Jien.[citation needed]

In examining this hypothesis, researchers had taken DNA samples to try to determine if the people in Liqian village did have some European ancestry, even as they acknowledged that there would be little way of knowing whether the ancestors would have in fact been from Crassus's troops. Although they confirmed the DNA as being of "European origins," narrowing it down further than that was impossible, based on the available supporting evidence.[18] The results of the DNA test did not support the hypothesis that the inhabitants of Liqian were related to the Romans; instead the authors concluded "the current Liqian population is more likely to be a subgroup of the Chinese majority Han".[19] And while Roman coins have been found in excavations of the area (as well as one helmet with the engraving, written in Chinese, saying "one of the prisoners") the artifacts were found in a village along the Silk Road, so their discovery was unsurprising.[citation needed]


  • 117 BC – Crassus born, the second of three sons of P. Licinius Crassus (cos.97, cens.89)
  • 97 BC – Father is Consul of Rome
  • 87 BC – Crassus flees to Hispania from Marian forces
  • 84 BC – Joins Sulla against Marians
  • 82 BC – Commanded the victorious right wing of Sulla's army at the Colline Gate, the decisive battle of the civil war, fought Kalends of November
  • 78 BC – Sulla died in the spring
  • 73 BC – Revolt of Spartacus, probable year Crassus was praetor (75, 74, 73 all possible)
  • 72 BC – Crassus given special command of the war against Spartacus following the ignominious defeats of both consuls
  • 71 BC – Crassus destroys the remaining slave armies in the spring, elected consul in the summer
  • 70 BC – Consulship of Crassus and Pompey
  • 65 BC – Crassus Censor with Quintus Lutatius Catulus
  • 63 BC – Catiline Conspiracy
  • 59 BC – First Triumvirate formed. Caesar is Consul
  • 56 BC – Conference at Luca
  • 55 BC – Second consulship of Crassus and Pompey. In November, Crassus leaves for Syria
  • 54 BC – Campaign against the Parthians
  • 53 BC – Crassus dies in the Battle of Carrhae

Fictional depictions

  • Marcus Licinius Crassus is a major character in the 1956 Alfred Duggan novel, Winter Quarters. The novel follows two fictional Gallic nobles who join Julius Caesar's cavalry then find their way into the service of Marcus' son, Publius Licinius Crassus, in Gaul. The characters eventually become clients of Publius Crassus and by extension, his father Marcus. The second half of the novel is related by its Gallic narrator from within the ranks of Crassus' doomed army en route to do battle with Parthia. The book depicts an over-confident and militarily incompetent Crassus up to the moment of his death.
  • Marcus Licinius Crassus is a principal character in the 1960 film Spartacus, played by actor Laurence Olivier.[20] The film is based on Howard Fast's 1951 novel of the same name.
  • Marcus Crassus, along with Palene, is one of the two narrators in Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of Spartacus. He is played by Anthony Hopkins.
  • Marcus Licinius Crassus is a principal character in the 2004 TV film, Spartacus, played by actor Angus Macfadyen.
  • Crassus is a major character in the novels Fortune's Favourites and Caesar's Women by Colleen McCullough. He is portrayed as a brave but mediocre general, a brilliant financier, and a true friend of Caesar.
  • Crassus is a major character in the 1992 novel Arms of Nemesis by Steven Saylor. He is portrayed as the cousin and patron of Lucius Licinius, the investigation of whose murder forms the basis of the novel.
  • He also appeared in the video game Spartan: Total Warrior, as one of the villains. In this interpretation, he has supernatural powers.
  • In David Drake's Ranks of Bronze, the Lost Legion is the major participant, although Crassus himself has been killed before the book begins.
  • Crassus is a major character in Conn Iggulden's Emperor series
  • The story of the Battle of Carrhae is the centrepiece of Ben Kane's novel The Forgotten Legion (2008). Crassus is depicted as a vain man with poor military judgement.
  • Crassus is a major character in Robert Harris's novel "Lustrum" (published as "Conspirata" in the USA), the sequel to "Imperium", which both chronicle the career of Marcus Tullius Cicero.
  • Crassus appears in a third season episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, where he is beheaded in the Colosseum.

See also

  • Licinia (gens)


  1. ^ In English: "Marcus Licinius Crassus, son of Publius, grandson of Publius"
  2. ^ a b Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 4.
  3. ^ a b c Plutarch Life of Crassus Ch. 1
  4. ^ a b Plutarch Life of Crassus Ch. 6
  5. ^ (Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 6 (trans. Perrin, 1916). "It is said that in Bruttium he actually proscribed a man without Sulla's orders, merely to get his property, and that for this reason Sulla, who disapproved of his conduct, never employed him again on public business.")
  6. ^ Plutarch Life of Crassus Ch. 2
  7. ^ a b Shaw, Brent D. Spartacus and the Slave Wars. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. Pages 178–179.
  8. ^ a b c Plutarch, Life of Crassus, Chapter X. Translated by Aubrey Stewart & George Long. London: George Bell & Sons, 1892.
  9. ^ Appian, The Civil Wars, I.18–19. Loeb Classics Edition, 1913.
  10. ^ a b Plutarch, Life of Crassus, Chapter XI. Translated by Aubrey Stewart & George Long. London: George Bell & Sons, 1892.
  11. ^ Plutarch. Life of Crassus. 19.1–3.
  12. ^ Richard Bulliet, Professor of Middle Eastern History, Columbia University
  13. ^ Bivar (1983), p. 55.
  14. ^ Cassius Dio 40.27
  15. ^ Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 33.2–3.
  16. ^ Bivar (1983), p. 56.
  17. ^ "DNA tests for China's legionary lore". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2007-02-03. 
  18. ^ Spencer, Richard (2007-02-02). "Roman descendants found in China?". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 2010-05-12. 
  19. ^ Zhou R, An L, Wang X, Shao W, Lin G, Yu W, Yi L, Xu S, Xu J, Xie X, Testing the hypothesis of an ancient Roman soldier origin of the Liqian people in northwest China: a Y-chromosome perspective. J Hum Genet. 2007; 52(7): 584–91.
  20. ^ Spartacus, 1960:


Primary sources

Modern works

  • Bivar, A.D.H. (1983). "The Political History of Iran Under the Arsacids," in The Cambridge History of Iran (Vol 3:1), 21–99. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater. London, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne, and Sydney: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-20092-X.
  • Marshall, B A: Crassus: A Political Biography (Adolf M Hakkert, Amsterdam, 1976)
  • Ward, Allen Mason: Marcus Crassus and the Late Roman Republic (University of Missouri Press, 1977)
  • Twyman, Briggs L: critical review of Marshall 1976 and Ward 1977, Classical Philology 74 (1979), 356–61
  • Hennessy, Dianne. (1990). Studies in Ancient Rome. Thomas Nelson Australia. ISBN 0-17-007413-7. 
  • Holland, Tom. (2003). Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic. Little,Brown. 
  • Sampson, Gareth C: The defeat of Rome: Crassus, Carrhae & the invasion of the east (Pen & Sword Books, 2008) ISBN 978-1-84415-676-4.
  • Marcus Licinius Crassus
  • Lang, David Marshall: Armenia: cradle of civilization (Allen & Unwin, 1970)

External links

  • Crassus entry in historical sourcebook by Mahlon H. Smith
Political offices
Preceded by
Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura and Gnaeus Aufidius Orestes
Consul of the Roman Republic
with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus
70 BC
Succeeded by
Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus and Quintus Hortensius
Preceded by
Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus and Lucius Marcius Philippus
Consul of the Roman Republic
with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus
55 BC
Succeeded by
Appius Claudius Pulcher and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus

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