From Crisis to Collapse

Chapter 3

Coups and Counter-coups in Rome (88 BC)

1. The Marsic and Samnite Campaigns

The reduced nature of the threat posed by the remaining Italian rebels can be seen in the fact that, of the two consuls of 88 BC (L. Cornelius Sulla and Q. Pompeius Rufus), one received an overseas command and one remained in Rome. Sulla received command in Asia against the threat of Mithridates VI (see below), which was a far more ‘honourable’ and financially rewarding campaign. Pompeius Rufus, however, appears to have remained in Rome, at some point being assigned command of Pompeius Strabo’s army in central Italy. Strabo himself seems to have continued in command, mopping up the remaining members of the Marsic alliance, as proconsul, whilst Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius (son of the Metellus who was Marius’ rival), took up a command in Apulia, replacing C. Cosconius.

The final stage of the Marsic campaign was fought either late in 89 BC or early in 88 BC (the sources are not clear), and we have conflicting accounts in Diodorus and Appian as to where the final battle took place and how the war ended. Appian has a brief sentence on the final Marsic campaign, with Metellus defeating the Marsic general Poppaedius Silo in battle and thus ending the war (before swiftly moving on to narrate events in Rome):

Caecilius Metellus, his [Cosconius’] successor in the praetorship, attacked the Apulians and overcame them in battle. Poppaedius, one of the rebel generals, here lost his life. The survivors joined Metellus separately.¹

However, a lengthy fragment of Diodorus paints a completely different picture, and throws into sharp focus the dangers of relying too heavily on brief accounts such as Appian’s. According to Diodorus’ account, the remaining Italian rebels consolidated their remaining forces under the leadership of Poppaedius Silo, the figurehead of the rebellion, which numbered 30,000 strong. They withdrew from Corfinum, the capital of the Italian Federation, and instead choose Aesernia as their new capital, a site in Samnium that had seen much fighting in 90 BC. Poppaedius seems to have supplemented this force by encouraging a large-scale slave insurrection in the region, which allowed him to amass an additional slave army of 20,000 men and 1,000 horse.²

With this newly enlarged army, it seems that Poppaedius went onto the offensive and recaptured the Samnite city of Bovianum, entering it in a triumphal procession.³ Thus Poppaedius appears to have staged a last-gasp campaign that initially met with some success, partially overturning the victories of Sulla in the region the previous year. Faced with this renewed Italian counter-attack, a Roman army, led by a legate named Mam. Aemilianus, was dispatched to the city. The identity of this Roman commander is far from clear, although he is most commonly associated with Mam. Aemilius Lepidus (Cos. 77). The two forces met in battle, with Obsequens placing it shortly after Poppaedius captured Bovianum.

Unnamed Battle

Despite a lengthy build up, we only have a single sentence on Diodorus on the battle itself:

Meeting in battle a Roman force under Mamercus, he [Poppaedius] slew a few Romans, but lost over 6,000 of his own men.

He also mentions Metellus fighting in Apulia, besieging the city of Venusia:

At about the same time Metellus took by siege Venusia in Apulia, an important city with many soldiers, and took more than 3,000 captives.

Both the Periochae of Livy and the de viris illustribus also comment on this campaign:

After the Italians had been defeated again by deputy Aemilius Mamercus, the leader of the Marsi and ringleader of the affair, Poppaedius Silo, fell in battle.

As praetor in the Social War, he killed Q. Poppaedius, the leader of the Marsi.¹⁰

Thus Diodorus has the Marsic campaign ending with the defeat of Poppaedius in Samnium, in a location that must have been near Bovianum, whilst Appian has Poppaedius being defeated and killed in Apulia, most likely at the siege of Venusia. Livy mentions only Lepidus, whilst the de viris illustribus is a much later source and follows Appian. Given the wealth of detail in the Diodorus fragment and the brevity of Appian’s note, and the fact that Diodorus states that the battles fought by Lepidus and Metellus were fought at the same time, it is more than likely that Poppaedius died in battle in Samnium in the battle that defeated the last major Italian army, and that Lepidus ended the Marsic campaign, not Metellus, with Appian mixing the two up.¹¹

The defeat and death of Poppaedius and the victories in Apulia ended the Marsic campaign. However, remnants of the Samnite alliance continued their fighting throughout the year, with Samnite and Sabellian forces holding out at Nola in Campania. To the south the Lucanians also continued to fight on. However, these were just remnants of the Italian Federation, which just two years earlier had inflicted a series of defeats upon Rome that threatened her very existence. Diodorus even records an appeal from the remaining Italian rebels to Mithridates VI of Pontus to invade Italy, but even if such an appeal was made, at this stage it was nothing more than a flight of fancy.¹² At the time though, the outlook for the few remaining Italian forces seemed bleak.

2. The Thracian Wars

Rome’s northern borders in Greece were notoriously difficult to defend and subject to frequent tribal incursions from mainland Europe. Little over a decade earlier, Greece and Macedonia had been invaded and devastated by the Scordisci.¹³ The tribes of central Europe had little regard for Roman borders at the best of times. However, the consequences of the wars in Italy were felt throughout Rome’s empire, with the implosion of the Roman system, which if not signalling the end of Roman military might, at least highlighted its weakening. Taken in conjunction with the massive tribal incursions of the Cimbri and Teutones into Roman territory, including Italy itself, just a decade earlier, the might of Rome and her ability to counter any attack must have been in question. Certainly, Rome in the period 89–88 BC suffered two major invasions of its territory, which may have been cases of co-incidental timing, but may equally have been facilitated (if not caused) by apparent Roman military distraction or weakness. The full scale of the war will be discussed later (Chapter 5), but Orosius provides some detail on the early stages:

King Sothimus, accompanied by a large force of Thracian auxiliaries, invaded Greece and ravaged all the territory of Macedonia. The praetor C. Sentius finally defeated him and forced him to return to his own kingdom.¹⁴

The Periochae of Livy records the raids and plundering of the Thracians across several years, though we have no detailed chronology for the campaigns.¹⁵ Dio raises the prospect that these Thracians were allied to Mithridates and following his orders in attacking Macedonia.¹⁶ Though the sources are eager to place Mithridates’ hand behind many events of the period, tribal incursions of Roman territory were a common feature of the period and a result of an ill-defined border and a laissez-faire Roman attitude to defending the European border of her territories. We have no details of Sentius’ campaign against the Thracians, only that it was ultimately successful and that we still find him in Macedonia in 87 BC (see Chapter 4), indicating these tribal incursions continued for the next few years.

3. The First Mithridatic War

In the preceding decade Mithridates VI, the King of Pontus, had been slowly building up his powerbase in the Black Sea region. From his kingdom in Asia Minor he had annexed the Crimea, secured a marriage alliance with King Tigranes of Armenia and had friendly relations with a host of native tribes of mainland Europe and a range of the Hellenistic states in the east, including the Parthian Empire.¹⁷ Such an expansionist policy was always going to make the Romans wary, given that their province of Asia (see Map 1) was a source of vast tax wealth to them. Whilst it would be going too far to speak of the Romans having a strategy for Asia Minor as a whole, their preference was for weak client kingdoms. Whilst Mithridates did not fit well in this mould, we would do well not to overstate his importance at the time. He remained a king of a middle sized Hellenistic kingdom in Asia Minor, but was sandwiched between the two great empires of the age: Rome to the west and Parthia to the east. His friendly relations with the other powers of the region were just that, and would not translate into active support if he took belligerent action against Rome, no matter how much they may have secretly wished for the collapse of Roman power.

Given the weakened state of the other kingdoms of Asia Minor, all with weak kings beholden to Rome, and given his avowed expansionist policies, some move against them was almost inevitable. The key to any policy, under normal circumstances, would have been to placate Rome, which, whilst protective of its province, only ever had limited interest in the events of Asia Minor.

During the 90s, Mithridates VI had, on two occasions, attempted to annex the neighbouring kingdom of Cappodocia, first by allying with Nicomedes III of Bithynia (who subsequently double crossed him), and then with Tigranes of Armenia. On each occasion puppet kings were installed on the Cappodocian throne, and on each occasion Rome intervened to restore a ‘free’ Cappodocia, the latter of which came at the hands of L. Cornelius Sulla himself.¹⁸

Whilst Rome’s attention to the internal politics of Asia Minor was patchy at best, the outbreak of the Italian War and Rome’s battle for her very survival naturally put other matters from her attention. Judging that the time was right to act, and that if Rome recovered it would be faced with a fait accompli, Mithridates, acting in concert with Tigranes, placed puppet rulers on the thrones of both Cappodocia and Bithynia. However, once again, Mithridates had underestimated the Senate, which in 89 BC sent a commission headed by M. Aquilius (Cos. 101), to restore the previous (pro-Roman) rulers. Once again, Mithridates and Tigranes backed down. However, perhaps to teach Mithridates a lesson, or in search of much needed monies for the war in Italy, the commissioners encouraged the newly restored puppet king of Cappodocia to launch raids on Mithridates’ Pontic territories. When his protestations were rebuffed by the Roman commissioners, Mithridates, judging the local and overall Roman position to be weak, launched an invasion of Cappodocia, which was swiftly annexed.

The reaction from the Romans in Asia was swift, despite the fact that they had only one legion in the whole of Asia Minor. Aided by native contingents from the other client kingdoms, the Romans formed two armies, one headed by Aquilius and one by C. Cassius (the governor of Asia), and invaded Bithynia to counter Mithridates’ advance, beginning the First Mithridatic War. Whilst the full scope of the war falls outside the remit of this present work, the consequences of the initial stages of the war were immense for Rome. The armies of both Cassius and Aquilius were crushed, with Aquilius being captured and executed. Mithridates adopted a blitzkrieg tactic and followed up with rapid invasions of the Roman province of Asia, accompanied by a massacre of all Romans and Italians in the province, which some sources say resulted in the murders of between 80,000 to 150,000 civilians.¹⁹

Mithridates then amazingly followed this with an invasion of mainland Greece itself, in many cases heartily welcomed as a liberator, including in Athens itself. Within a year, what had started as a squabble over a kingdom in Asia Minor between the regional Hellenistic kingdoms had resulted in a full-scale invasion of Roman territory and the annexation of her eastern empire. Aside from the startling loss of life and prestige, perhaps the greatest blow came to Rome in the form of lost revenue from her wealthiest province, exactly at a time of greatest financial need.

Nevertheless, once the shock of these invasions had been overcome, Rome found herself in a strong position. The close of 89 BC saw the Marsic and Samnite campaigns drawing to a successful conclusion, and Rome had huge numbers of battle-ready soldiers and battle-tested generals to fight off this invasion, all of whom would be eyeing the chance of a glorious and profitable eastern campaign against a new foe. The only issue was which of Rome’s successful commanders would lead the campaign?

4. The Powderkeg – The Mithridatic and Italian Questions

In prime position for this command were the consuls, L. Cornelius Sulla and Q. Pompeius Rufus, and of the two, the one with the clear military pedigree was Sulla. As discussed earlier, the Samnite War had allowed him to emerge from his mentor’s shadow and be hailed as a commander in his own right. He then strengthened his domestic political position by an alliance with Q. Pompeius Rufus and tied himself to the Metellan faction by marrying Metella, the daughter of L. Caecilius Metellus Dalmaticus (Cos. 119) and the recent widow of M. Aemilius Scaurus (Cos. 115). However, Plutarch (quoting Livy) records that the marriage was the subject of ridicule, given Sulla’s low standing at the time, and having only just hastily divorced his third wife days prior to this marriage.²⁰

Whilst Sulla is well known to us at this point, by contrast, we know little of Pompeius Rufus, which again tilts the narrative of events in Sulla’s favour. Crucially, we do not know whether Sulla and Pompeius became allies only in the consulate or ran as a joint ticket. Certainly, we know that by the time of the events of 88 BC, Pompeius’ son had married Sulla’s daughter. Interestingly, what we do know of Pompeius marks him as more heavily involved in the intrigues of domestic politics in Rome than Sulla had been. Whereas Sulla is absent from the surviving narrative of the key events of the previous decade, notably centred on the tribunates of Saturninus and Livius Drusus, Pompeius’ presence can be detected. In 99 BC he was one of the tribunes who jointly proposed the recall of Marius’ opponent, Q. Caecilius Metellus ‘Numidicus’, from exile, a move that was blocked by pro-Marian tribunes.²¹ In 91 BC we find him as urban praetor during the tribunate of Livius Drusus, though the sources are silent as to his role in or following Drusus’ murder. Cicero goes further and names him as being a close friend of P. Sulpicius, who was part of the circle of Livius Drusus.²² His praetorship was marked by the barring of a Q. Fabius Maximus from inheriting his father’s estate due to a dissolute lifestyle, thus establishing his credentials as a supporter of traditional values.²³ During the Marsic and Samnite campaigns there is no surviving trace of any military activity on the part of Pompeius, but that does not rule out a position as a legate with one of the major commanders.

Therefore, of the two consuls, it is Pompeius who appears to be far more attuned to domestic politics, being involved on the fringes of the Saturnine and Drusan crises and marking himself out as an upholder of Roman traditions during his praetorship. Furthermore, as far as we can tell, he had no major military experience, yet was elected consul for 88 BC alongside Sulla, who had clearly benefited from his recent military record. If anything, the partnership, of a more military minded patrician and a more politically attuned plebeian seems to suggest a pre-planned partnership, borne out by Sulla gaining the overseas command and Pompeius remaining in Italy (although technically decided by lot). Certainly, we must move away from viewing Pompeius as a silent partner for Sulla in the consulship. If nothing else, it seems that the consuls of 88 BC represent a far more rounded partnership than is often portrayed.

Unsurprisingly, we find that of the two consuls the command against Mithridates fell to Sulla.²⁴ This represented the pinnacle of his career: a command against an eastern foe who had invaded Roman territory.

Yet, Roman domestic politics were occupied with a far more pressing issue than the Mithridatic command, namely the integration of the Italian and Latin communities into the Roman citizenship system. As detailed earlier, although offers of citizenship had been made to those Italian peoples who had not rebelled, it is unlikely that there was little detailed planning as to the mechanics of the integration process. Previously, when Rome had integrated new peoples to the citizenship, fresh voting tribes had been created, but no new tribes had been added since 242 BC, leaving the total at thirty-five voting tribes in the tribal assembly. Given the haphazard and piecemeal nature of their creation, these tribes had different numbers of peoples within each, and the existing citizenry were not evenly distributed amongst them. Furthermore, as elections were determined by a simple majority of the tribes, and they voted in order of precedence (creation), once eighteen tribes had voted the same way then the contest was over, regardless of whether the later tribes (those in the twenties and thirties) voted at all.

Thus, if new tribes were added to the thirty-five, their voting power would be severely restricted. The only other alternative was that the new citizens be evenly distributed amongst the existing thirty-five tribes. However, whichever of the two methods was chosen, there was a clear danger of angering a section of the citizenry. If new tribes were created, then the new citizens, especially the elites with the time to participate, would have had their voting power constrained and may have felt themselves designated as second-class once more, an act of perfidy on the part of the Roman oligarchy. However, if even distribution were to take place, the existing citizens, especially the urban ones, may have seen it as a diminution of their voting rights and power. Thus, whichever method was chosen there was a clear danger that sections of either the new or the old citizenry would be angered, with risk of further civil strife.

The exact chronology of the proposals made is now lost to us, but it seems that the Senate opted to restrict the new citizens to newly created tribes and we have several references to new voting tribes being established.²⁵ Velleius refers to the Italians being restricted to eight tribes, though he does not specify if these were new or not. Appian refers to ten new tribes being created, whilst a fragment of Sisenna refers to a Lex Calpurnia, which created two new tribes, around this period.²⁶ Thus it appears that those Italian communities who had chosen to become Roman citizens found themselves restricted to what seems to have been eight or ten new tribes, and thus had their voting power neutered. In terms of Roman domestic politics there was clear capital to be made from such dissent.

5. The Spark – Sulpicius, Marius and the Mithridatic and Italian Questions.

It was during the tribunate of a certain P. Sulpicius that these two major issues (of Mithridates and the Italians) became entangled, leading to bloodshed on the streets of Rome and ultimately military intervention. Cicero, who was a young man during this period, portrays Sulpicius as one of the finest orators of his age, a former ally of M. Livius Drusus and a close friend of the consul Q. Pompeius Rufus.²⁷ His early actions seemed to confirm this political affiliation when he proposed a law recalling the Varian political exiles back to Rome, many of whom were his friends and allies.²⁸

Another incident of interest came when he and a colleague (P. Antistius) prevented C. Iulius Caesar Strabo from standing as consul (for either 88 or 87 BC), due to his lack of prior office, having only held the aedileship and not the praetorship. The details of this incident are far from clear, but such a clear proposed breach of the cursus honorum showed the interest that the Mithridatic command had generated and the lengths some aspiring aristocrats would go to.²⁹ Despite the apparent obscurity of the issue, Asconius labels Sulpicius’ clash with Caesar as one of the causes of the civil war, on account of the fact that both men started their dispute with legal means but soon moved on to violence, though we have no clear details.³⁰ In any event, Caesar was prevented from standing and fell the next year during the capture of Rome.

Sulpicius then moved on to proposing a series of laws. We do not have a clear picture of the chronology for all of the proposed laws, scattered as they are across a range of surviving sources, nor do we know whether they represent his sole thinking or the cumulative work of his affiliated faction. What is clear is that he proposed two laws, both involving key issues raised by the Marsic and Samnite campaigns. The lesser of the two was a law limiting senatorial debt to 2,000 denarii, which would not have gone down well with the senators. Whether this was a measure to gain popular acclaim in a credit crisis, or an attempt to reduce monies being spent in the pursuit of political office, we will never know.

The second was far more radical and far more in the mould of Livius Drusus, as Sulpicius proposed a measure to tackle the new ‘Italian Problem’ concerning the distribution of new citizens. This law proposed that all newly enfranchised citizens, and freedmen (who were now liable to military service, see Chapter 2), be distributed throughout all the pre-existing thirty-five tribes, thus giving them a theoretical majority in the Roman voting system.³¹ Such a proposal disadvantaged the existing and long-established Roman citizens, at least in their own eyes, especially those in Rome itself, and it is not hard to see how antagonism between the two groups could soon flare up. This is especially the case given that it could also affect the existing patronage system that allowed the Roman nobles to win favour with the electorate. This is not to say that the nobles would not have adapted to the new situation and extended their circles of patronage, especially given their existing connections throughout Italy. Nonetheless, the proposal seems to have created resentment and tension amongst the existing Roman urban citizenry, who, rightly or wrongly, believed that they would lose out under the new system. Thus a fresh dimension was added to Roman politics: conflict between new and existing citizens.

Naturally enough, tensions rose as the vote on the law drew closer, with the inevitable clashes between groups, probably with fists at first and then sticks and stones. To date there was nothing unusual about this situation, especially given the background tensions. Yet the issues involved the very nature of the Roman voting system, and the last great unanswered question raised by the Italian rebellion seems to have raised the stakes. To reduce tension, the consuls suspended public business, postponing the key vote. Yet, the supporters of the proposed law, including all the new citizens could easily see this as something more sinister: another attempt to prevent them receiving full citizen rights. It is reported that Sulpicius took with him an armed mob (which in Plutarch’s biography of Sulla, became a 3,000-strong body and went under the name of the ‘Anti-Senate’) and confronted the consuls to force them to rescind their suspension.³² The confrontation soon turned violent with Q. Pompeius, the son of the consul (and son-in-law of Sulla), being murdered. The irony being that prior to them both winning office this year Pompeius and Sulpicius had been close friends. The consuls then fled for their lives, with Pompeius Rufus going into hiding, most probably in the city. Sulla interestingly ended up seeking refuge at the house of his old mentor; C. Marius.³³

This is a highly interesting event and one that is only mentioned in Plutarch’s biography of Sulla (which interestingly drew heavily on Sulla’s own autobiography). For some commentators, this was due to Sulla being driven there by a mob under Marius’ orders, while others suggest that Sulla sought out Marius as the shadowy mastermind behind Sulpicius, yet in most surviving narratives Marius is absent from these events until this point. Among the key questions to be asked are why Sulla went to Marius and what they discussed? Did Sulla go there to deal with the mastermind behind the events, as many would have us believe, or did he go to seek safety with his old mentor, the most prominent Italian-Roman citizen of the day, and seeking advice on defusing the situation? One thing is clear: he did defuse the situation, perhaps with Marius’ help. The crowds were clearly quelled, and Sulla, with Pompeius Rufus still apparently in hiding, returned to the Forum and rescinded the suspension, allowing Sulpicius to call an assembly and vote on his proposal. Sulla then retired from Rome and joined his army of six legions at Nola, which was still continuing the siege (see above), prior to embarking for Greece.

6. The Marian-Sulpician ‘Coup’

At this point, Sulpicius made two key decisions. With complete control of the assembly, he proposed two fresh laws: one deposing Pompeius Rufus of his consulship, the other transferring command of the Mithridatic campaign from Sulla to Marius. The deposition of Pompeius is a highly interesting one, as Sulla’s consulship was left untouched. As noted above, of the two consuls, it was Pompeius who seemed to have the greater powerbase in domestic politics and it seems that he led the opposition to Sulpicius rather than Sulla, who, after meeting Marius, seemed in haste to abandon Rome to take up his provincial command and presumably leave Marius, Sulpicius and Pompeius to fight it out. Presumably his former mentor advised him to leave Rome and domestic politics behind and concentrate on the forthcoming campaign. Once again, this forces us to question just how much enmity there was between Marius and Sulla at this point.

However, with Sulla out of the way, Marius and Sulpicius appeared to pass radical measures, which when examined from one perspective could look like an attempted coup, albeit temporarily. With these two pieces of legislation, the only remaining consul in Rome would be deposed, whilst command of Rome’s largest army, currently stationed in Italy, would be transferred to Marius himself.

An interesting question is whether, following the deposition of Pompeius, a suffect consul would have been elected? Whilst none of our surviving sources comment on this, it is interesting to speculate as to whether Marius had his own name in mind, chasing his prophesised seventh consulship, but this remains speculation only.³⁴ The act of a tribune deposing a consul was unheard of, although opposing the will of the people had been used as an argument in 133 BC for a tribune deposing another tribune.³⁵ As the will of the people via the assembly was sovereign, such a vote was technically legal, but was a major step in the use, or abuse, of tribunician power.³⁶

That Marius coveted the Mithridatic command is hardly surprising. He was approaching his seventieth year and would have wanted one final glorious campaign to end his career on, especially following his decade of inactivity, albeit punctuated by an impressive cameo in the Marsic campaign in 90 BC. Furthermore, he seems to have been working towards a Mithridatic command since the late 90s (see Chapter 1). Whatever Marius and Sulla discussed in his home, it is inconceivable that it was these two pieces of legislation. At the very least it seems that Marius guaranteed Sulla his command, and Sulla seems not to have been unduly bothered about abandoning Pompeius to face Sulpicius and Marius alone.

However, once at Nola, Sulla found himself thoroughly betrayed by his old mentor and comprehensively outmanoeuvred. His colleague had been deposed and he had lost his command to Marius himself. His crowning achievement had ended in ignominy and all he could look forward to was a command finishing the Samnite War. The situation Pompeius faced was worse; his son had been murdered, his colleague had abandoned him and his consulship had been taken from him, all orchestrated by someone who had been a friend.

7. The Consular ‘Counter-coup’

Whilst it is clear that Sulla and Pompeius grossly underestimated the ambition of Marius and Sulpicius and the lengths that they would go to, the same could be said in reverse. Faced with total humiliation and ruin, the consuls, denied a political solution through Sulpicius’ control of the streets and the assembly, had violence as their only option and one that had precedents. In 133, 121 and 100 BC, tumultuous political situations had been ended through state-sponsored violence, whether legally sanctioned beforehand or not. However, on this occasion, it seems that Marius and Sulpicius had complete control of the city of Rome, though what the Senate made of this we are not told. Of the two consuls, Pompeius appears to have been in hiding in Rome and rendered powerless. Sulla, however, was at Nola with his six legions.

Facing personal ruin and stung by the betrayal of his old mentor, Sulla made one of the most momentous decisions in Roman history: to use his army to restore order in Rome, by marching a Roman army against Rome itself. We must presume that in his own mind the restoration of order was one of his highest duties as a consul, and that as those previous seditions had been crushed by force, he was acting in the interests of the state, and that the ends would justify the means. Whilst we no longer have Sulla’s autobiography, we do know that later sources made use of it. Plutarch has Sulla’s army spontaneously supporting him, whilst Appian refers to Sulla calling his army together and setting out the situation in Rome.³⁷

Appian also makes the point that key in the minds of Sulla’s army was the fact that Marius would more than likely have taken his own army (the one that had possibly murdered the consul Caesar in 89 BC) to Asia to fight Mithridates, leaving Sulla’s men in Italy. Faced with the loss of what promised to be a highly lucrative war, with probably a generous amount of booty for all, Sulla’s army backed its commander. Aside from greed and personal loyalty, Morstein-Marx has recently advanced an important argument, that the army was still a citizen one and that Sulla was still the duly elected representative of the Senate and People of Rome, and thus had legitimacy.³⁸

It was undeniable that the city of Rome was in turmoil and that rioting and deaths had occurred. Thus we must not rule out the argument that the soldiers did believe they were following a legitimate order. Naturally, as Morstein-Marx himself points out, the counter-argument to this is that all of Sulla’s senior officers bar one quaestor (usually identified as L. Licinius Lucullus³⁹) refused to follow his orders, but this does not mean that the men, given to unquestioning obedience of a consul’s orders, simply refused to think about the wider issues and did as ordered in the belief that it was right. Interestingly, we can see this in the Marsic and Samnite campaigns, where neighbours, friends and kinsmen fought each other as ordered.

Thus, when Marius’ military tribunes arrived at Nola to take charge of the army, they were murdered on the spot – another example of a Roman army murdering Roman officers. Of the military tribunes, only M. Gratidius is named.⁴⁰ As mentioned above, all of Sulla’s officers (bar possibly L. Licinius Lucullus) refused to join in his march on Rome and fled to the city. Again Morstein-Marx has argued that this meant senior officers, those of senatorial backgrounds, rather than the junior officers and centurions, allowing Sulla to maintain a disciplined army with a coherent command structure.⁴¹ The arrival of Sulla’s senior officers with news of the march naturally sparked alarm, not only in Marius and Sulpicius, but also the in Senate, which immediately dispatched praetors (M. Iunius Brutus and a Servilius) to stop Sulla from bringing the army to Rome.⁴²Plutarch refers to friends of Sulla being murdered in Rome by supporters of Marius and Sulpicius, which if true added more bloodshed to the situation.⁴³

When the praetors met Sulla, they were attacked by the army and fled back to the city. In Appian, when asked why he was marching his army against Rome, Sulla is purported to have replied ‘to deliver her from tyrants’.⁴⁴ A second and a third embassy from the Senate met with similar responses. Sulla, meanwhile, had been joined by Pompeius Rufus, thus putting both elected consuls at the head of their army and lending the exercise even more legitimacy, as the consuls were now acting in unison rather than Sulla on his own. When they reached Pictae, a few miles to the south of Rome, they were met by a final embassy from the Senate, which according to Plutarch had voted that Sulla be restored to the Mithridatic command and presumably Pompeius to his consulship.⁴⁵However, given that senatorial votes were nought but a professed opinion, no matter how much auctoritas it carried, it could not be passed into law without a vote of the people, and thus was little more than a gesture. With no corresponding movement from Marius and Sulpicius, the consuls ordered the attack on the city.

8. The Battle for Rome 88 BC

Unprepared for an actual attack on the city, the lightly defended walls and gates of Rome fell easily to a Sullan-Pompeian surprise attack. Both Plutarch and Appian provide short but detailed accounts of the assault (see Map 4):

Sulla took possession of the Esquiline Gate and of the adjoining wall with one legion of soldiers, and Pompeius occupied the Colline Gate with another. A third advanced to the Sublician Bridge, and a fourth remained on guard in front of the walls. With the remainder Sulla entered the city, being in appearance and in fact an enemy. The inhabitants round about tried to fight him off by hurling missiles from the roofs until he threatened to burn the houses; then they desisted.⁴⁶

Plutarch has a similar attack in his narrative, but has Sullan legates leading the assault:

But no sooner were they gone than he sent forward Lucius [Minucius] Basillus and Caius Mummius, who seized for him the city-gate and the walls on the Esquiline Hill; then he himself followed hard after them with all speed. Basillus and his men burst into the city and were forcing their way along, when the unarmed multitude pelted them with stones and tiles from the roofs of the houses, stopped their further progress, and crowded them back to the wall. But by this time Sulla was at hand, and seeing what was going on, shouted orders to set fire to the houses, and seizing a blazing torch, led the way himself, and ordered his archers to use their fire-bolts and shoot them up at the roofs.⁴⁷

Battle of the Esquiline

Resistance to the attack was led by Marius and Sulpicius, who rallied what forces they had, which must have been from the armed retinue that Sulpicius had assembled along with any hastily armed supporters they could find.⁴⁸ The two leaders then marched to meet Sulla and Pompeius at the Esquiline, where the first battle in Rome using military forces took place. Appian preserves an account of the battle:

Sulla’s forces were beginning to waver when Sulla seized a standard and exposed himself to danger in the foremost ranks. Out of regard for their general and fear of ignominy if they should abandon their standard, they rallied at once. Sulla ordered up fresh troops from his camp and sent others around by the so-called Suburran road to take the enemy in the rear. The Marians fought feebly against these new-comers, and as they feared lest they should be surrounded they called to their aid the other citizens who were still fighting from the houses, and proclaimed freedom to slaves who would share their labours. As nobody came forward they fell into utter despair and fled at once out of the city, together with those of the nobility who had co-operated with them.’⁴⁹

It is interesting to see that Sulla’s soldiers, who must have outnumbered and outclassed the armed gangs they faced nearly broke, if we are to believe Appian’s account. On the one hand, this may betray some lingering unease about fighting in Rome itself, whilst on the other, it may be that the heavily armed Roman soldiers were not as suited to fighting in street warfare. In the end though, it is clear that the more disciplined Roman soldiers won the day. With their forces scattered, it seems that Sulpicius and Marius fled, Marius to the Temple of Tellus on the Esquiline, where he issued a call for a slave insurrection in Rome itself. Unsurprisingly, given the presence of several Roman legions on the streets, this call fell on deaf ears. Sulpicius seems to have hidden within the city, whilst Marius fled from Rome.

Following their victory at the Esquiline, the consuls then marched up the Via Sacra to the Capitol, which they occupied.⁵⁰ Florus notes the irony of the Capitol, which held out against the Gauls, during the fourth century Gallic Sack, falling to an invading force.⁵¹In one short day, the battle for Rome was over and the consuls were once again in charge of the city, this time militarily.

9. An Uneasy Peace

Upon gaining, or should that be regaining, control of Rome, the consuls then set about solidifying their control and fully legitimizing their actions. Once again, we suffer from a lack of a good narrative source at this point. The Periochae of Livy is limited to a summary of the consuls’ actions as ‘establishing order or reordering the state’ and sending out colonies.⁵²

The most noted of the consuls’ actions (again we must not forget that the consuls were working in concert, despite our sources’ focus on Sulla) was the declaration of Marius and Sulpicius as hostes, or enemies of the people, to be executed upon sight. How exactly this declaration was made is unclear, but Florus, Plutarch and Valerius Maximus all favour a senatorial decree as the instrument.⁵³ Given the popularity of Marius and Sulpicius with the people, and the not-so-small matter of the consuls marching their army into Rome itself, the idea of a senatorial decree (possibly even the senatus consultum ultimum) is the more attractive.⁵⁴

This is not to say that the Senate would have condoned the methods used by Sulla and Pompeius Rufus, and indeed Valerius Maximus preserves a story of the consuls surrounding the Senate house with soldiers to get the decree passed, with only Q. Mucius Scaevola opposing the measure, the adherents of Marius having most likely and sensibly departed Rome.⁵⁵ In any event, Marius, Sulpicius and around ten others were declared enemies of the people, though most had had time to flee Rome.⁵⁶ Once again, exile (this time with a death sentence) had been passed upon members of the Roman elite.

Marius famously was captured at Miturnae, though he escaped and made his way to his old powerbase of Africa, as did his son and a number of the other hostes.⁵⁷ Brutus was able to flee to Spain along with an unknown number of supporters. Sulpicius, however, was not so lucky, being betrayed by a slave, or in one version being hunted down by horsemen.⁵⁸ In any event, his murder added to the infamous list of tribunes murdered whilst in office.⁵⁹

Clearly, the consuls took pains not only to legitimize their actions but to stabilize the situation, both in the short term and the long term. In addition to the murder of Sulpicius, his legislation, passed by force and against a consular moratorium, was annulled, with Pompeius restored to full office. We hear nothing more of these proposed colonies, though there were a number of legions to be demobilized after the Marsic and Samnite campaigns, and idle legions were the last thing that the consuls needed following their blatant use of military power in Rome itself. A fragment of Festus notes financial legislation passed by the pair to ease the credit crisis in Rome (as detailed above).⁶⁰

The lengthiest account of their actions in this year comes from Appian, who lists a range of constitutional reforms that were enacted. These include a change to the voting system of the assemblies (by centuries rather than by tribes), restrictions on the office of the tribunate of plebs, the formalization of the tradition that all laws (whether leges or plebiscita) must first be approved by the Senate, and the addition of 300 new senators.⁶¹ It has long been argued that Appian may be confusing these measures with ones passed by Sulla when he took control of Rome in 83/82 BC and ruled as dictator, with powers to amend the constitution (see Chapter 7). Given that no other surviving source places them at this point, and given the weak position the consuls found themselves in (with a hostile populace and Senate) and little support outside of Rome, full-scale constitutional reforms do not appear to be likely at this time.⁶²

The next obvious step would be to secure further control of the military resources within Italy and favourable political office holders the following year. In military terms, Sulla once again received the command of the Mithridatic campaign, whilst Pompeius Rufus was granted command of the armies of the proconsul Cn. Pompeius Strabo in Italy. Furthermore, a certain P. Servilius Vatia celebrated a triumph in Rome.⁶³ Though we do not know the exact timing of this triumph, Servilius is most likely identified with a Servilius whom Sulla sponsored for the consulship of 87, thus securing a valuable (armed) ally and giving the people a spectacle to take their minds off the other Roman army that had recently paraded through Rome, though in far less favourable circumstances.⁶⁴

This raises perhaps one of the most interesting points about this whole affair, namely the reaction, or lack thereof, of the other Roman commanders, both in Italy and abroad. In Italy, as detailed above, there were two other major forces still engaged in fighting: those of Cn. Pompeius Strabo and Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius. Although we have no record of such, the consuls must have sent word to these other commanders detailing the reasons for their actions, and in both cases it is revealing that neither man sought to oppose them. Certainly, Metellus would have had no reason to aid Marius, given the bad blood between him and Metellus’ father.⁶⁵ Pompeius Strabo, as will be detailed below, would probably have been weighing up what actions would bring him maximum advantage, and at this point opposing the consuls would not have been among them. In any case, both commanders were still engaged against Italian forces and neither would have been in an ideal position to break off. In both cases, it can be argued that their lack of action cannot be taken as support for the consuls, merely acquiescence. Even if their forces could disengage, the only option would be another march on Rome and one with far less legitimacy, as they would have been opposing the sitting consuls.

For those commanders overseas there would have been even less opportunity to intervene, especially given the lack of clear communication about the nature of events. The forces in Asia were engaged with Mithridates, and those in Macedon, under C. Sentius, fighting the Thracian invasion. Nearer to Italy, it is clear that the governor of Africa, Sextilius, adhered to the orders from Rome and treated Marius as an enemy of the state.⁶⁶ The governor of Sicily was a certain C. Norbanus, who would later oppose Sulla, but at the time seemingly kept Sicily neutral. As for Servilius Vatia, his province is unknown, but Sardinia has been suggested.⁶⁷ In any event, the offer of a triumph and a consulship for 87 BC quelled any qualms he may have had about the consuls’ actions. In Nearer Spain we find C. Valerius Flaccus (Cos. 93) fighting a long campaign against Celtiberians and in no position to break off and concern himself with affairs in Rome. Thus we can see that the other forces in Italy were engaged in active campaigning and could not have opposed the consuls without escalating the situation even further into open warfare, whilst those overseas were either too far away, tied down in their own campaigns, or again unwilling to oppose the consuls and the ‘legitimate’ rule of law of Rome.

10. The Backlash

However, despite their efforts, it is clear, as it must have been then, that the efforts of the consuls to secure their position were failing. Firstly, Marius and, as far as we can tell, the other ten enemies of the state, had evaded death or capture, with Marius seeking refuge amongst old allies in Africa, including a number of his veteran colonies. In Rome, Sulla and Pompeius’ choice for candidates for the consulship of 87, the aforementioned Servilius and a nephew of Sulla, named Nonius, were both rejected by the people.⁶⁸The men elected as consuls were Cn. Octavius and L. Cornelius Cinna. Both Plutarch and Dio report that Sulla had Cinna swear some type of oath in support of Sulla and Pompeius.⁶⁹ It is not reported that Octavius was made to swear such an oath, but it is reasonable to assume that Sulla wanted an assurance from both men that they would support the consuls’ actions in office and reverse neither the condemnation of Marius nor Sulla’s command of the war against Mithridates. There is nothing to suggest that Octavius was a staunch Sullan supporter. In fact, Dio reports that one of Octavius’ key attributes was his slowness in managing public business; thus at best he was someone who could be considered ‘sound’.⁷⁰ Given all that Cinna and Sulla were to become enemies, there is no way of clearly ascertaining Cinna’s attitude to the consuls upon his election. A number of the surviving sources paint Cinna as a staunch opponent of Sulla from the beginning, yet even if he was, it was in his interests to ensure that Sulla was gone from Rome, along with his forces.

Whether Sulla had any allies elected to the tribunate is far from clear, though several of the tribunes of 87 BC did flee to Sulla following the events of the next year. Whether this was from original Sullan loyalty or expediency will never be determined.⁷¹Certainly, one tribune, named M. Vergilius, immediately launched into an attack on Sulla for his actions during the year and ordered him to stand trial. Plutarch stated that this attempted impeachment was sponsored by Cinna, but there is no evidence that he was necessarily the instigator at this time.⁷² Attacking Sulla, by then the sole surviving consul (see below), was an obvious choice for any tribune seeking popular acclaim. Sulla in turn ignored this impeachment and left Rome to resume his command in Asia.

The absence of Q. Pompeius Rufus in these latter events is a crucial factor. He had been granted command of the proconsular forces in Italy, replacing Cn. Pompeius Strabo. Strabo is an interesting figure, more commonly overlooked in favour of his more illustrious son, Cn. Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great). He had distinguished himself in the war in Italy, against the Marsic alliance, yet is notable by his absence in the events of 88 BC, apparently continuing his reduction of the remaining rebel strongholds (as detailed above). He clearly did not make any attempt to disengage and confront the consuls, and we have no detail of any communications between the consuls and himself, which must have accompanied their march on Rome.

What occurred next was a reflection of what had happened to Sulla himself, namely having his command stripped from him in favour of another, this time Pompeius Rufus. Given the consuls’ own actions, we must question what they were expecting when they did the same to a man like Pompeius Strabo. What happened next is best described by Appian:

Q. Pompeius was given the command of Italy and of the army that went with the command, which was then commanded by Cn. Pompeius. When the latter learnt of this he was greatly displeased, but received the consul into his camp, and when, next day, the consul began to take over his duties, he gave way to him for a time as if relieved of command; but a little while later a crowd of soldiers that had collected around the consul, under pretence of listening to him, murdered him. After the guilty had fled, Strabo came to the camp in a high state of indignation over the illegal killing of the consul, but despite his displeasure resumed his command over them.⁷³

Of the surviving sources, it is Paterculus who best sums the murder up:

In this year [88 BC] the hands of Roman soldiers were first stained with the blood of a consul. Q. Pompeius, the colleague of Sulla, was slain by the army of Cn. Pompeius, the proconsul, in a mutiny which their general himself had stirred up.⁷⁴

This event was as much of a turning point as the march on Rome earlier in the year. The death of Sulpicius had been the murder of a serving tribune at the orders of the consuls and Senate, utilizing arguments for the preservation of order and the public good. The murder of a serving consul by his own army, at the instigation of the outgoing commander, had echoes of the deaths of L. Porcius Cato (Cos. 90) and A. Postumius Albinus (Cos. 99) the year before. Yet Rufus’ death did not come during battle or the heat of war and had no arguments for the public good, merely the good of Pompeius Strabo, and marked another step along the road of individual generals using outright force for their own ends. For Rufus, it was a case of reaping what he had sown; for Sulla, it was a stark lesson in the forces that had been unleashed.

Ultimately, we must ask why Strabo’s army did this? In the case of Sulla’s army, they were following the commands of a serving consul, and the men faced at least the possibility that they would lose out on a profitable eastern campaign, especially attractive after fighting in Italy. In the case of Strabo’s army, they had murdered a serving consul and would remain in Italy. It is possible that Strabo played upon the supposed illegality of the march on Rome or Pompeius Rufus’ own deposition. In the end, though, it is clear that a new spirit had emerged amongst the Roman soldiers, perhaps engendered by years of fighting their own Italian kin, which destroyed the old certainties as to who the enemy was, so they relied upon the word of their commander. Clearly, a bond of loyalty and trust had been built up between the soldiers and their commander and not one that they wanted to be casually broken. This much the two armies of Sulla and Strabo shared.

Was this, as some claim, a result of landless men being recruited into the army? I find this unlikely. As I have argued elsewhere, the so-called ‘Marian reforms’ have long been overplayed by modern commentators.⁷⁵ Again, we can perhaps see the ‘civil war by stages’ argument being pertinent. The enemy was no longer clear; legion fought legion, Italian fought Italian, and Roman had fought Roman (actually in Rome itself). An enemy was no longer automatically a foreigner, as they had been for a century of more. An enemy could be anyone their commander decreed, whether they be an Italian community or a fellow Roman senator.

What I think we can see here is the result of the violence of the period 133–88 BC, in which inter-Italian and inter-Roman conflict had become casual. With their traditional value systems seemingly collapsing around them, the only thing that the legionnaires could trust was a commander they knew and respected; all other concerns were secondary. This, I believe, is key to the First Civil War and the ones that followed – local loyalty and shared bonds between soldiers and their commander replacing a wider loyalty to the state. The reaction of Sulla is an interesting one. Appian again provides us with a telling narrative:

When the murder of Pompeius [Rufus] was reported in the city, Sulla became apprehensive for his own safety and was surrounded by friends wherever he went, and had them with him every night. He did not, however, remain long in the city, but went to the army at Capua and from thence to Asia.⁷⁶

With Pompeius dead and Rome and Italy clearly slipping from his grasp, Sulla had little choice but to take up command in the east and hope that a glorious victory against a foreign enemy would cleanse his record. Even he could not have been prepared for the escalation of violence that would occur in his absence. When he left, Rome was at peace, albeit an uneasy one, but that peace was soon shattered, and by events that had little to do with Sulla.

Summary – A Civil War by Evolution

The consuls’ act of deploying the army into a domestic dispute did not come out of the blue, nor was it solely reliant on the personality of one man. The Marsic and Samnite campaigns had seen Roman armies fighting battles in Italy and increasingly against men they knew – neighbours, friends and kinsmen – all for reasons of politics rather than survival or territory. This lack of a clear motive for military action, such as defending their own home or an overseas war of conquest, seems to have engendered a certain ambivalence in the soldiers of this period regarding who and why they were fighting. The norms of the last 200 years had seemingly been overturned, and in such circumstances, it is not surprising that with the bonds of state loyalty weakened, soldiers would turn increasingly to their generals for guidance. Army disloyalty had seemingly been responsible for the murders of one serving and one former consul during the Italian War. With the added incentive of financial reward, it is not difficult to see how the Roman soldiers would follow their general in moving on Rome itself, especially given that they were not following a rogue general, but the two serving consuls.

Thus the onus is thrown back onto Sulla and Pompeius for introducing the army into Roman politics. Usually, commentators let Pompeius off lightly, given that he is swiftly removed from the picture – the second serving consul to die at Roman hands in two years (see Appendix III). However, the two men presented a united front in this matter, and must bear equal responsibility. Yet both men had themselves been conditioned by the background of Roman political life in the last generation. State sanctioned violence had been seen in 133, 121 and 100 BC, all aimed at ending supposedly seditious tribunes. Seen against this backdrop, using the only forces they had available (the army) to restore order, was not such a radical step. Condemning fellow Romans to death for sedition had occurred just over a decade previously, following the Saturnine tumult (in 100 BC), and leading Romans had been exiled under the Varian Commission just two years earlier.

Thus, both the army and the politicians had been conditioned by political evolution into accepting this act as a logical step, rather than something out of the blue. This is not to rule out the personal decisions involved. All four men – Pompeius and Sulla, Marius and Sulpicius – had taken radical steps in pursuing their aims and continuing the trend of Roman politicians putting their own good ahead of the state, examples of which, quite frankly, can be found from the earliest days of the Republic, from the Scipios through to the Gracchi. Hölkeskamp has recently spoken of the increasing need for Roman politicians to live up to the glorious deeds of their ancestors, but as their ancestors’ deeds had become increasingly glorious, they then became locked in a vicious spiral, with an increasing urgency to achieve personal and familial glory regardless of the good of the state.⁷⁷

Yet, despite the fact that all four individuals had clearly all gone to extreme lengths for personal success, all of which could, at least to themselves, have been classed as acting in the good of the state, this did not mean that the Republic was now doomed to fail. In fact, the recent record had shown that bouts of extreme violence (133, 121 and 100 BC) had all been followed by a collective pulling together of the Roman oligarchy. There were foreign wars aplenty to occupy their minds, and nothing creates internal cohesion like a foreign threat. By the end of 88 BC, with Sulpicius and Pompeius dead, and Marius and Sulla out of Italy, many would have been hoping that the worst was behind them and that the Republic had proved strong enough to survive these few tumultuous years. Unfortunately, this violence had not solved the underlying problems, such as the Italian question, and whilst the individuals may have been removed from Rome, their precedents remained: consular deposition and turning to the military. In the end, it was these factors that proved far more potent than the individuals themselves.

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