Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

The Story of Rome From the Earliest Times to the End of the Republic

Home | Prev | Next | Contents


Marius was brave and strong and able to cope with any in the rush of war, but he knew little of the arts of peace and the science of government. Sulla, his enemy, was at Rome, living in quiet, but the same, fiery, ambition that animated Marius, and the same jealousy of all who seemed to be growing in popularity, burned in his bosom and were ready to burst out at any time. The very first attempts of Marius at government ended in shame, and he retired from the city in the year

  1. He had supported two rogations, called the Appuleian laws, from the demagogue who moved them, Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, and they were carried by violence and treachery. They enacted that the lands acquired from the barbarians should be divided among both the Italians and the citizens of Rome, thus affording relief to all Italy; and that corn should be sold to Romans by the state at a nominal price.

When Marius retired, the authority of the senate was restored, but the state was in a deplorable condition, for the violence and bloodshed that had been familiar for the half century since the triumph over Greece and Carthage, were bearing their legitimate fruits. Not only was the separation between the rich and poor constantly growing greater, but the effect of the luxury and license of the wealthy was debauching the public conscience, and faith was everywhere falling away. Impostors and foreign priests had full sway.

Opposed to Saturninus was a noble of the most exalted type of character, Marcus Livius Drusus, son of the Drusus who had opposed the Gracchi. A genuine aristocrat, possessed of a colossal fortune, strict in his morals and trustworthy in every position, he was a man of acknowledged weight in the national councils. In the year 91, he was elected tribune, and endeavored to bring about reform. He obtained the adherence of the people by laws for distributing corn at low prices, and by holding out to the allies hopes of the franchise. The allies had long looked for this, and as their condition had been growing worse year by year, their impatience increased, until at last they were no longer willing to brook delay. The Romans (whose party cry was "Rome for the Romans") ever opposed this measure, and now they stirred up opposition to the conservative Drusus, who paid the penalty of his life to his efforts at civil reform and the alleviation of oppression. Though he tried to please all parties, the senate first rendered his laws nugatory, and their partisans not satisfied with his civil defeat, afterwards caused him to be assassinated. [Footnote: Velleius Paterculus, the historian, relates that as Drusus was dying, he looked upon the crowd of citizens who were lamenting his fortune, and said, in conscious innocence: "My relations and friends, will the commonwealth ever again have a citizen like me?" He adds, as illustrating the purity of his intentions, that when Drusus was building a house on the Palatine, his architect offered to make it so that no observer could see into it, but he said: "Rather, build my house so that whatever I do may be seen by all."] It was then enacted that all who favored the allies should be considered guilty of treason to the state. Many prominent citizens were condemned under this law, and the allies naturally became convinced that there was no hope for them except in revolution.

Rome was in consequence menaced by those who had before been her helpers, and the danger was one of the greatest that she had ever encountered. The Italians were prepared for the contest, but the Romans were not. It was determined by the allies that Rome should be destroyed, and a new capital erected at Corfinum, which was to be known as Italica. On both sides it was a struggle for existence.

The Marsians were the most prominent among the allies in one division, and the Samnites were at the head of another. [Footnote: The Marsians were an ancient people of Central Italy, inhabiting a mountainous district, and had won distinction among the allies for their skill and courage in war. "The Marsic cohorts" was an almost proverbial expression for the bravest troops in the time of Horace and Virgil.] The whole of Central Italy became involved in the desperate struggle. The Etruscans and Umbrians took the part of Rome, being offered the suffrage for their allegiance. At the end of the first campaign this was offered also to those of the other antagonistic allies who would lay down their arms, and by this means discord was thrown into the camp of the enemy. The campaign of 89 was favorable to the Romans, who, led by Sulla, drove the enemy out of Campania, and captured the town of Bovianum. The following year the war was closed, but Rome and Italy had lost more than a quarter of a million of their citizens, while the allies had nominally obtained the concessions that they had fought for.

Ten new tribes were formed in which the new citizens were enrolled, thus keeping them in a body by themselves; and it was natural that there should be much discontent among them on account of the manner in which their privileges had been awarded. The franchise could only be obtained by a visit to Rome, which was difficult for the inhabitants of distant regions, and there was besides no place in the city large enough to contain all the citizens, if they had been able to come. The new citizens found, too, that there was still a difference between themselves and those who had before enjoyed the suffrage, something like that which existed between the freedmen and the men who had never been enslaved.

Marius and Sulla, the ever-vigilant rivals, had both been engaged in the Marsic war, but they came out of it in far differing frames of mind. The young aristocrat boasted that fortune had permitted him to strike the last decisive blow; and the old plebeian, now seventy years of age, found his heart swelling with indignation because he received only new mortifications in return for his new services to the state, in whose behalf he had this time fought with reluctance. A spirit of dire vengeance was agitating his heart, the results of which we are soon to observe.

The troubles of the state now seemed to accumulate with terrible rapidity. Two wars broke out immediately upon the close of that which we have just considered, one at home and the other in Asia. The one was the strife of faction, and the other an effort to repel attacks upon allies of the republic. Mithridates the Great, King of Pontus, the sixth of his name, was remarkable for his physical and mental development, no less than for his great ambition and boundless activity. Under his rule his kingdom had reached its greatest power. This monarch had attempted to add to his dominion Cappadocia, the country adjoining Pontus on the south, by placing his nephew on the throne, but Sulla, who was then in Cilicia, prevented it. Mithridates next interfered in the government of Bithynia, to the southwest, expecting that the oppressive rule of the Roman governors would lead the inhabitants to be friendly to him, while the troubles of the Romans at home would make it difficult for them to interfere. The close of the Marsian struggle, however, left Rome free to engage the Eastern conqueror, and war was determined upon.

The success of Sulla in the East made it plain that he was the one to lead the army, but Marius was still ambitious to gain new laurels, and in order to prove that he was not too old to endure the hardships of a campaign, he went daily to the Campus Martius and exercised with the young men. His efforts proved vain, and he determined to take more positive measures. He procured the enactment of a law distributing the new citizens, who far out-numbered the old ones, among the tribes, knowing that they would vote in his favor. It was not without much opposition that this law was enacted, but Marius was then appointed, instead of Sulla, to lead the army against Pontus. Sulla meantime hastened to the army and obtained actual command of the soldiers, who loved him, caused the tribunes of Marius to be murdered, and left the old commander without support. Marius in turn raised another army by offering freedom to slaves, and with it attempted to resist Sulla, but in vain. He was obliged to fly, and a price was placed upon his head. He sailed for Africa, but was thrown back upon the shores of Italy, was cast into prison, and ordered to execution; but the slave commissioned to carry out the judgment was frightened by the flashing eyes of the aged warrior and refused to perform the act, as he heard a voice from the darkness of the cell haughtily asking: "Fellow, darest thou kill Caius Marius?" The magistrates, struck with pity and remorse, as they reflected that Marius was the preserver of Italy, let him go to meet his fate on other shores, and at last he found his way to Africa.

The departure of both Marius and Sulla from Rome left it exposed to a new danger. As soon as Sulla had left for Pontus, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, one of the consuls, began to form a popular party, composed largely of the newly made citizens, for the purpose of overpowering the senate and recalling Marius. A frightful conflict ensued on a day of voting, and thousands were butchered in the struggle. Cinna was driven from the city, but received the support of a vast number of Italians, which enabled him to march again upon Rome.

Meantime Marius returned from Africa, captured Ostia and other places, and joined Cinna. Then, by cutting off its supplies, he caused the city to yield. Marius and Cinna entered the gates, and again the streets ran blood; for every one who had given Marius cause to hate or fear him was hunted to the death without mercy, and with no respect to rank, talent, or former friendship. Cinna and Marius named themselves consuls for the year 86 without the form of election, [Footnote: See note on page 64.] but the firm constitution of the old hero was completely undermined by his sufferings and fatigues, and he succumbed to an attack of pleurisy after a few days, during which, as Plutarch tells us, he was terrified by dreams and by the anticipated return of Sulla. The people rejoiced that they were freed from the cruelty of his ruthless tyranny, little knowing what new horrors the grim future had in store for them.

We return now to Sulla. When he had driven Marius from Rome, he was obliged to hasten away to carry on the war in Asia, though he marched first against Athens, which had become the head-quarters of the allies of Mithridates in Greece. The siege of this city was long and obstinate, and it was not until March I, 86, that it was overcome, when Sulla gave it up to rapine and pillage. He then advanced into Boeotia, and success continued to follow his arms until the year 84, when he crossed the Hellespont to carry the war into Asia. Mithridates had put to death all Roman citizens and allies, wherever found, with all the reckless ferocity of an Asiatic tyrant, but had met many losses and was now anxious to have peace. Sulla settled the terms at a personal interview at Dardanus, in the Troad. Enormous sums (estimated at more than $100,000,000) were exacted from the rich cities, and a single settled government was restored to Greece, Macedonia, and Asia Minor. The soldiers were compensated for their fatigues by a luxurious winter in Asia, and, in the spring of 83, they were transferred, in 1,600 vessels, from Ephesus to the Piraeus, and thence to Brundusium. Sulla carried with him from Athens the valuable library of Apellicon of Teos, which contained the works of Aristotle and his disciple, Theophrastus, then not in general circulation, for he did not forget his interest in literature even in war. Thus it was that the rich thoughts of the great philosopher came to the knowledge of the Roman students. [Footnote: Aristoteles, sometimes called the Stagirite, because he was born in Stagira, in Macedonia, lived at Athens in the fourth century before our era. Theophrastus was his friend and disciple, both at Stagira and Athens.]

Sulla sent a letter to the senate, announcing the close of the war and his intention to return, in the course of which he took occasion to recount his services to the republic, from the time of the war with Jugurtha to the conquest of Mithridates, and announced that he should take vengeance upon his enemies and upon those of the commonwealth. The senate was alarmed, and proposed to treat with him for peace, but Cinna hastened to oppose the arrogant conqueror with force. He was, however, assassinated by his own soldiers.

On the sixth of July, after the arrival of Sulla at Brundusium (B.C.

  1. , Rome was thrown into a state of consternation by the burning of the capitol and the destruction of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, with the Sibylline oracles, those valuable books which had directed the counsels of the nation for ages, and the close of a historic era approached. [Footnote: Ambassadors were afterwards sent to various places in Greece, Asia, and Italy, to make a fresh collection, and when the temple was rebuilt it was put in the place occupied by the lost books.] Sulla easily marched in triumph through lower Italy on his way to Rome, for his opponents were not well organized, but it was not until months had passed that the fierce struggle was decided. He was besieging Præneste, when the Samnites, after finding that they could not relieve it, marched directly upon Rome. Sulla followed them, and a bloody battle was fought at the Colline gate, on the northern side of the city. It was a fight for the very existence of Rome, for Pontius Telesinus, commander of the Samnites, declared that he intended to raze the city to the ground. Fifty thousand are said to have fallen on each side, and most of the leaders of the party of Marius perished or were afterward put to death. All the Samnites (8,000) who were taken were collected by Sulla in the Campus Martius and ruthlessly butchered.

If the former scenes had been terrible, much more so were those that now followed. Sulla was made dictator, an officer that had been unknown for a century and a quarter, and proceeded to show his adhesion to the optimates by attempting to blot out the popular party. He announced that he would give a better government to Rome, but he found it necessary to kill all whom he pretended to think her enemies. It was Marius who had brought on the era of carnage by attempting to deprive Sulla of his command in the war against Mithridates, and accordingly the body of the great plebeian was torn from its tomb and cast into the Anio. A list was drawn up of those whose possessions were to be confiscated, and who were themselves to be executed in vengeance. On this the names of the family of Marius came first. Fresh lists were constantly posted in the forum. Each of these was called a tabula proscriptionis, a list of proscription, and it presents the first instance of a proscription in Roman history. [Footnote: A proscription had formerly been an offering for sale of any thing by advertisement; but Sulla gave it a new meaning,--the sale of the property of those unfortunates who were put to death by his orders. The victims were said to be proscribed. The meaning given by Sulla still lives in the English word.] Sulla placed on these lists not only the names of enemies of the state, but his personal opponents, those whose property he coveted, and those who were enemies of friends whom he desired to please. No man was safe, for his name might appear at any time on the terrible lists, and then he would be an outlaw, whom any one might kill with impunity. Especially were the rich and prominent liable to find themselves in this position. Many thousands of unfortunate citizens perished before Sulla was content to put a stop to the horrors. He then celebrated with exceeding magnificence the postponed triumph on account of his victory over Mithridates, and received from a trembling people the title Felix, the lucky.

It has been said that after having killed the men with his sword, Sulla made it his work to kill the party that opposed him, by laws. He wished to have in Rome the silence and the autocracy of a camp. He put some three hundred new members into the senate, and gave that body the power to veto legislative enactments, while at the same time he restricted the authority of the tribunes of the people and of the _comitia tributa,_ the general convention of the tribes. On the other hand, he reduced debts by one fourth, to conciliate the masses, and paid his soldiers for their services in the civil strife with vast amounts of booty and great numbers of slaves. The pomoerium was extended to embrace all Italy, and, as is supposed, the northern boundary of Roman territory was extended to the Rubicon. New courts were established and the judicial system was reorganized; the censors were practically shelved, but sumptuary laws were passed to prevent extravagance and luxury. All of the laws of Sulla were submitted to the people for formal approval; but as no one was hardy enough to differ from the dictator, it mattered little what the people thought.

By the beginning of the year 79, Sulla considered that his reforms were complete, and bethought himself of retiring to see at a little distance the effect of his regulations. He felt that no danger could overtake him, for he had settled his old veterans (called Cornelians), to the number of more than a hundred thousand, in colonies scattered throughout Italy, on the estates and in the cities that he had confiscated, and thought that they would prove his supporters in any event. He boldly summoned the people and, announcing his purpose, offered to render an account of his official conduct. He gave the crowd a congiarium, as it was called--that is, he glutted them with the costliest meats and the richest wines, and so great was his profusion that vast quantities that the gorged multitude were unable to eat were cast into the Tiber. He then discharged his armed attendants, dismissed his lictors, descended from the rostra, and retired on foot to his house, accompanied only by his friends, passing through the midst of the populace which he had given every reason to desire to wreak vengeance upon him. It was audacity of the supremest sort. Sulla afterwards withdrew to his estate at Puteoli, where he spent the brief remainder of his life in the most remarkable alternation of nocturnal orgies and cultured enjoyment, sharing his time with male and female debauchees and learned students of Greek literature, and concluding the memoirs of his life and times, in which, through twenty-two books, he recorded the story of his deeds, colored doubtless to a great extent by his own magnificent self-love. In the last words of his "Memoirs" he characterized himself, with a certain degree of truth from his own point of view, as "fortunate and all-powerful to his last hour."

The senate voted Sulla a gorgeous funeral, in spite of opposition on the part of the consul Lepidus, and his body was carried to the Campus Martius, preceded by the magistrates, the senate, the equites, the vestal virgins, and the veterans. There it was burned, that no future tyrant could treat it as that of Marius had been, though up to that time the Cornelian gens, to which Sulla belonged, had always buried their dead.

Thus lived and thus died the man who, though he relieved Rome of the last of her invaders, infused into her system a malady from which she was to suffer in the future; for the pampered veterans whom he had distributed throughout Italy in scenes of peace, all unwonted to such a life, were to be the ones on which another oppressor was to depend in his efforts to subvert the government.

Prev | Next | Contents

Links: - - - - -