Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

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

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Rome was now ruled by an oligarchy,--that is, the control of public affairs fell into the hands of a few persons. There was an evident tendency, however, towards the union of all the functions of governmental authority in the person of a single man, whenever one should be found of sufficient strength to grasp them. The younger Gracchus had exercised almost supreme control, and Marius, Cinna, and Sulla had followed him; but their power had perished with them, leaving no relics in the fundamental principles of the government, except as it marked stages in the general progress. Now other strong men arise who pursue the same course, and lead directly up to the concentration of supreme authority in the hands of one man, and he not a consul, nor a tribune, nor a dictator, but an emperor, a titled personage never before known in Rome. With this culmination the life of the populus Romanus was destined to end.

A dramatist endeavoring to depict public life at Rome during the period following the death of Sulla, would find himself embarrassed by the multitude of men of note crowding upon his attention. One of the eldest of these was Quintus Sertorius, a soldier of chivalric bravery, who had come into prominence during the Marian wars in Gaul. He had at that time won distinction by boldly entering the camp of the Teutones disguised as a spy, and bringing away valuable information, before the battle at Aix. When Sulla was fighting Mithridates, Sertorius was on the side of Cinna, and had to flee from the city with him. When the battle was fought at the Colline gate, Sertorius served with his old comrade Marius, whom he did not admire, and with Cinna, but we do not know that he shared the guilt of the massacre that followed. Certainly he punished the slaves that surrounded Marius for their cruel excesses. When Sulla returned, Sertorius escaped to Spain, where he raised an army, and achieved so much popularity that the Romans at home grew very jealous of him. [Footnote: Sertorius is almost the only one among the statesmen of antiquity who seems to have recognized the modern truth, that education is a valuable aid in making a government firm. He established a school in Spain in which boys of high rank, dressed in the garb of Romans, learned the languages that still form the basis of a classical education, while they were also held as hostages for the good behavior of their elders. He was not a philanthropist, but a sagacious ruler, and the author of Latin colonies in the West. He was for a time accompanied by a white fawn, which he encouraged the superstitious barbarians to believe was a familiar spirit, by means of which he communicated with the unseen powers and ensured his success.] He did not intentionally go to live in Spain, but having heard that there were certain islands out in the Atlantic celebrated since the days of Plato as the abode of the blest; where gentle breezes brought soft dews to enrich the fertile soil; where delicate fruits grew to feed the inhabitants without their trouble or labor; where the yellow- haired Rhadamanthus was refreshed by the whistling breezes of Zephyrus; he longed to find them and live in peace and quiet, far from the rush of war and the groans of the oppressed. From this bright vision he was turned, but perhaps his efforts to establish a merciful government in Spain may be traced to its influence.

Another prominent man on the stage at this time was a leader of the aristocratic party, Marcus Crassus, who lived in a house that is estimated to have cost more than a quarter of a million dollars. Probably he would not have been very prominent if his father had not left him a small fortune, to which he had added very largely by methods that we can hardly consider noble. It is said that when the Sullan proscription was going on, he obtained at ruinously low prices the estates that the proscribed had to give up, and, whenever there was a fire, he would be on the spot ready to buy the burning or ruined buildings for little or nothing. He owned many slaves who were accomplished as writers, silversmiths, stewards, and table-waiters, whom he let out to those who wished their services, and thus added largely to his income. He did not build any houses, except the one in which he lived, for he agreed with the proverb which says that fools build houses for wise men to live in, though "the greatest part of Rome sooner or later came into his hands," as Plutarch observes. He was of that sordid, avaricious character which covets wealth merely for the desire to be considered rich, for the vulgar popularity that accompanies that reputation, and not for ambition or enjoyment. He was said to be uninfluenced by the love of luxury or by the other passions of humanity. He was not a man of extensive learning, though he was pretty well versed in philosophy and in history, and by pains and industry had made himself an accomplished orator. He could thus wield a great influence by his speeches to the people from the rostra.

Among the aristocrats who composed the oligarchy that ruled at about this time were two men born in the same year (106 B.C.): the egotistic, vain, and irresolute, but personally pure orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero; and the cold and haughty soldier, Cneius Pompeius Magnus, commonly known as Pompey the Great. The philosophical, oratorical, and theological writings of Cicero are still studied in our schools as models in their different classes. Inheriting a love of culture from his father, a member of an ancient family, he was afforded every advantage in becoming acquainted with all branches of a polite education; and travelled to the chief seats of learning in Greece and Asia Minor with this end in view. When he was twenty-six years of age, he made his first appearance as a public pleader, and soon gained the reputation of being the first orator at the Roman bar. Besides these pursuits, Cicero had had a brief military experience, during the war between Sulla and Marius.

Pompey, likewise, began to learn the art of war under his father, in the same struggle, but he continued its exercise until he became a consummate warrior. For his success in pursuing the remains of the Marian faction in Africa and Sicily, Pompey was honored with the name Magnus (the Great), and with a triumph, a distinction that had never before been won by a man of his rank who had not previously held public office.


Older than these men there was one whose character is forever blackened on the pages of history by the relentless pen of Cicero, Caius Licinius Verres, who, if we may believe the only records we have regarding him, was the most phenomenal freebooter of all time. The story of his career is a vivid demonstration of the manner in which the people of the Roman provinces were outraged by the officers sent to rule over them, and we shall anticipate our story a little in tracing it. The provincial governors were, as a class, corrupt, and Verres was as vile as any of them, but he was also brutal in his manners and natural instincts, rapacious, licentious, cruel, and fond of low companions. At first, one of the Marian faction, he betrayed his associates, embezzled the funds that had been entrusted to him, and joined himself to Sulla, who sent him to Brundusium, allowing him a share in the confiscated estates. Thence he was transferred to Cilicia, where again he proved a traitor to his superior officer, and stole from cities, private persons, temples, and public places, every thing that his rapacity coveted. One city offered him a vessel as a loan, and he refused to return it; another had a statue of Diana covered with gold, and he scraped off the precious metal to put it in his pocket. Using the money thus gained to ensure his election to office at Rome, Verres enjoyed a year at the Capitol, and then entered upon a still more outrageous career as governor of the island of Sicily. Taking with him a painter and a sculptor well versed in the values of works of art, he systematically gathered together all that was considered choice in the galleries and temples. Allowing his officers to make exorbitant exactions upon the farmers, he confiscated many estates to his own use, and reaped the crops. Even travellers were attacked to enrich this extraordinary thief, and six vessels were afterward dispatched to Rome with the plunder, which he asserted was sufficient to permit him to revel in opulence the remainder of his life, even if he were obliged to give up two thirds in fines and bribes.

The people Verres had outraged did not, however, suffer in quiet. They engaged Cicero to conduct their case against him, and this the great orator did with overwhelming success. [Footnote: The orations of Cicero against Verres are based upon information which the orator gathered by personally examining witnesses at the scenes of the rascality he unveiled. The orator showed a true Roman lack of appreciation of Greek art, and exercised his own love of puns to a considerable extent, playing a good deal upon the name Verres, which meant a boar. The extreme corpulence of the defendant, too, offered an opportunity for gross personal allusions. Cicero compared him to the Erymanthean boar, and called him the "drag-net" of Sicily, because his name resembled the word everriculum, a drag-net.] Though protected by Hortensius, an older advocate, who, during the absence of Cicero, on his travels, had acquired the highest rank as an orator, so terrible was the arraignment in its beginning that, at the suggestion of Hortensius, Verres did not remain to hear its close, but hastened into voluntary exile. He precipitately took ship for Marseilles, and for twenty-seven years was forced to remain in that city. Would that every misdoer among the provincial governors had thus been followed up by the law!

The representative of the Sullan party at this time was Lucius Sergius Catiline, an aristocrat, who, during the proscription, behaved with fiendish atrocity towards those of the opposite party, torturing and killing men with the utmost recklessness. His early years had been passed in undisguised debaucheries and unrestrained vice, but in spite of all his acts, he made political progress, was prætor, governor of Africa, and candidate for the consulship by turn. Failing in the last effort, however, he entered into a conspiracy to murder the successful candidates, and was only foiled by his own impatience. We shall find that he was encouraged by this failure which so nearly proved a success.

There was one man among the host of busy figures on the stage at this eventful period who seems to stalk about like a born master, and the lapse of time since his days has not at all dimmed the fame of his deeds, so deep a mark have they left upon the laws and customs of mankind, and so noteworthy are they in the annals of Rome. Caius Julius Cæsar was six years younger than Pompey and Cicero, and was of the popular or Marian party, both by birth and tastes. His aunt Julia was wife of the great Marius himself, and though he had married a young woman of high birth to please his father, he divorced her as soon as his father died, and married Cornelia, daughter of Cinna, the devoted opponent of Sulla, to please himself.

When Sulla returned to Rome from the East, he ordered Pompey to put away his wife, and he obeyed. He ordered Cæsar, a boy of seventeen, to give up his Cornelia, and he proudly replied that he would not. Of course he could not remain at Rome after that, and he fled to the land of the Sabines until Sulla was induced to grant him a pardon. Still, he did not feel secure at Rome, and a second time he sought safety in expatriation. Upon the death of the dictator, he returned, having gained experience in war, and having developed his talents as an orator by study in a school at Rhodes. He plunged immediately into public life and won great distinction by his effective speaking.

These are enough characters for us to remember at present. They represent four groups, all striving for supreme power. There are the men of the oligarchy, represented by Pompey and Cicero, actually holding the reins of government; and Crassus, standing for the aristocrats, who resent their claims; Cæsar, foremost among the Marians, the former opponents of Sulla and his schemes; and Catiline, at the head of the faction which included the host of warriors that Sulla had settled in peaceful pursuits throughout Italy,--in peaceful pursuits that did not at all suit their impetuous spirits, ever eager as they were for some revolution that would plunge them again into strife, and perchance win for them some spoil.

[Illustration: CAIUS JULIUS CÆSAR.]

The consuls at the time of the death of Sulla were Lepidus and Catulus, who now fell out with one another, Lepidus taking the part of the Marians, and Catulus holding with the aristocrats. This was the same Lepidus who had opposed the burial of the dictator Sulla in the Campus Martius. As soon as the Marians saw that one consul was ready to favor them, there was great excitement among the portion of the community that looked for gain in confusion. Those who had lost their riches and civic rights, hoped to see them restored; young profligates trusted that in some way they might find means to gratify their love of luxury; and the people in general, who had no other reason, thought that after the three years of the calm of despotism, it would be refreshing to see some excitement in the forum. Lepidus was profuse in promises; he told the beggars that he would again distribute free grain; and the families deprived of their estates, that they might soon expect to enjoy them again. Catulus protested in vain, and the civil strife constantly increased, without any apparent probability that the Senate, now weak and inefficient, would or could successfully interfere. Finally it was decreed that Lepidus and Catulus should each be sent to the provinces under oath not to turn their swords against each other.

Lepidus slowly proceeded to carry out his part of this decree, but Catulus remained behind long enough to complete a great temple, which towered above the forum on the Capitoline Hill. The foundations only remain now, but they bear an inscription placed there by order of the senate, testifying that Catulus was the consul under whom the structure was completed. Lepidus did not consider his oath binding long, and the following year (B.C. 77) he marched straight to Rome again, announcing to the senators that he came to re-establish the rights of the people and to assume the dictatorship himself. He was met by an army under Pompey and Catulus, at a spot near the Mulvian bridge and the Campus Martius, almost on the place where the fate of the Roman Empire was to be determined four centuries later by a battle between Maxentius and Constantine (A.D. 312). Lepidus was defeated and forced to flee. Shortly after, he died on the island of Sardinia, overcome by chagrin and sorrow. One would expect to read of a new proscription, after this success, but the victors did not resort to that terrible vengeance. Thus Pompey found himself at the head of Roman affairs.

His first duty was to march against the remnant of the party of the Marians. They had joined Sertorius in Spain. It was the year 76 when Pompey arrived on the scene of his new operations. He found his enemy more formidable than he had supposed, and it was not until five years had passed, and Sertorius had been assassinated, that he was able to achieve the victory and scatter the army of the Marians. Meantime the Romans had been fearing that Sertorius would actually prove strong enough to march upon the capital and perhaps overwhelm it. Hardly had their fears in this respect been quieted than they found themselves menaced by a still more frightful catastrophe.

We remember how, in the year 264 B.C., two young Romans honored the memory of their father by causing men to fight each other to the death with swords to celebrate his funeral, and hints from time to time have shown how the Romans had become more and more fond of seeing human beings hack and hew each other in the amphitheatres. The men who were to be "butchered to make a Roman holiday," as the poet says, were trained for their horrid work with as much system as is now used in our best gymnasiums to fit men to live lives of happy peace, if not with more. They were divided into classes with particular names, according to the arms they wore, the hours at which they fought, and their modes of fighting, and great were the pains that their instructors took to make them perfect in their bloody work. Down at Capua, that celebrated centre of refinement and luxury, there was a school of gladiators, kept by one Lentulus, who hired his fierce pupils out to the nobles to be used at games and festivals.

While Pompey was away engaged with Sertorius, the enemies of Rome everywhere thought it a favorable moment to give her trouble, and these gladiators conspired in the year 73 to escape to freedom, and thus cheat their captors out of their expected pleasures, and give their own wives and children a little more of their lives. So large was the school that two hundred engaged in the plot, though only seventy-eight were successful in escaping. They hurried away to the mountains, armed with knives and spits that they had been able to snatch from the stalls as they fled, and, directed by one Spartacus who had been leader of a band of robbers, found their way to the crater of Mount Vesuvius, not a comfortable resort one would think; but at that time it was quite different in form from what it is now, the volcano being extinct, so that it afforded many of the advantages of a fortified town. From every quarter the hard-worked slaves flocked to the standard of Spartacus, and soon he found himself at the head of a large army. His plan was to cross the Alps, and find a place of refuge in Gaul or in his native Thrace; but his brutalized followers thought only of the present. They were satisfied if they could now and then capture a rich town, and for a while revel in luxuries; if they could wreak their vengeance by forcing the Romans themselves to fight as gladiators; or, if they had the opportunity to kill those to whom they attributed their former distresses. They cared not to follow their leader to the northward, and thus his wiser plans were baffled; but, in spite of all obstacles, he laid the country waste from the foot of the Alps to the most southern extremity of the toe of the Italian boot. For two years he was able to keep up his war against the Roman people, but at last he was driven to the remotest limits of Bruttium, where his only hope was in getting over to Sicily, in the expectation of gaining other followers; but his army was signally defeated by Crassus, a small remnant only escaping to the northward, where they were exterminated by Pompey, then returning from Spain (B.C. 71). From Capua to Rome six thousand crosses, each bearing a captured slave, showed how carefully and ruthlessly the man- hunt had been pursued by the frightened and exasperated Romans. Both Crassus and Pompey claimed the credit of the final victory, Pompey asserting that though Crassus had scotched the serpent, he had himself killed it.

[Illustration: GLADIATORS.]

On the last day of the year 71 Pompey entered Rome with the honor of a triumph, while Crassus received the less important distinction of an ovation, [Footnote: In a triumph in these times, the victorious general, clad in a robe embroidered with gold, and wearing a laurel wreath, solemnly entered the city riding in a chariot drawn by four horses. The captives and spoils went before him, and the army followed. He passed along the Via Sacra on the Forum Romanum, and went up to the Capitol to sacrifice in the temple of Jupiter. In the ovation the general entered the city on foot, wore a simple toga, and a wreath of myrtle, and was in other respects not so conspicuously honored as in the triumph. The two celebrations differed in other respects also.] as it was called, because his success had been obtained over slaves, less honorable adversaries than those whom Pompey had met. Each desired to be consul, but neither was properly qualified for the office, and therefore they agreed to overawe the senate and win the office for both, each probably thinking that at the first good opportunity he would get the better of the other. In this plan they were successful, and thus two aristocrats came to the head of government, and the oligarchy, to which one of them belonged, went out of power, and soon Pompey, who all the time posed as the friend of the people, proceeded to repeal the most important parts of the legislation of Sulla. The tribunes were restored, and Pompey openly broke with the aristocracy to which by birth he belonged, thus beginning a new era, for the social class of a man's family was no longer to indicate the political party to which he should give his adherence.


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