Chapter 5

Peace in Italy – a World at War (86–84 BC)

1. From Duumvirate to Coalition

The year opened with Rome’s ruling duumvirate, the consuls L. Cornelius Cinna and C. Marius, facing a number of challenges. Although they had secured military control of Rome and Italy and eliminated all domestic opposition, they still faced formidable hurdles at home and abroad. At home there were still two key issues: the Italian question and the financial crisis, both of which had been exacerbated by the fighting in 87 BC. Promises made to the Italian communities now had to be honoured and opposition from the existing citizenry still had to be overcome. The economic and financial crisis would have been exacerbated by the siege of Rome and the slaughter that accompanied it. Whilst some exiles had been recalled a greater number now lay scattered throughout the empire. The constitution had nominally been restored, with the Sullan–Pompeian legislation annulled, but Rome was now ruled by what were in effect two military dictators (in the modern sense of the word rather than the technical Roman official sense).

Outside of Rome, the duumvirate only had firm control of Italy itself; the rest of the empire lay in the hands of the various governors, who would not automatically support them. A number of notable exiles were scattered throughout the empire, from Metellus Pius in Africa, to M. Licinius Crassus in Spain. The war with Mithridates was still ongoing and Greece and Asia were still under Mithridatic control. Added to this, piracy in the Mediterranean was on the increase, being encouraged and supported by Mithridates. Finally, there was the matter of Sulla himself, currently fighting Mithridates’ generals in Greece and now an enemy of the state. With Marius now formally in command of the war against Mithridates, and preparing to cross into Greece, a military confrontation between the two enemies seemed inevitable. Thus the duumvirate ruling Rome faced some formidable tasks.

Marius started his year in office in typically forthright fashion. We are told that on his first day of his office he ordered one of the new tribunes (P. Popillius Laenas) to throw one of his predecessors (Sex. Licinius/Lucilus) off the Tarpeian Rock, the traditional means of execution for traitors. Interestingly, a fragment of Dio ascribes this act to Marius’ son, C. Marius, who also decapitated another ex-tribune and exiled two ex-praetors.¹

However, Marius’ reign as consul and partner in the ruling duumvirate was cut short after only seventeen days, when, on the Ides of January, he fell ill and died peacefully in his sleep at the age of seventy. In retrospect, given the exertions of the previous two years, including his escape from Rome, his command of a besieging army, the sacking of Ostia and the attack on Rome, all in his late sixties, his death is hardly surprising. However, it seems to have been something of a surprise at the time, with Marius preparing to invade Greece and fight the forces of both Mithridates and Sulla. It was an encounter that never happened, leaving the score between Sulla and Marius unsettled.

Thus, one of the principal architects of Rome’s First Civil War died peacefully in his own bed; it was a fate that few other men of this time shared (see Appendix III). Of all the obituaries of the man, perhaps the simplest and most succinct comes from the Periochae of Livy:

When we take everything into account, he had been a man about whom it was not easy to say whether he was more excellent in times of war than he was dangerous in times of peace. It can therefore be said that as much as he saved the state as a soldier, so much he damaged it as a citizen – first by his tricks, later by his revolutionary actions.²

Marius’ death ended the duumvirate that had been formed in 87 BC. In its place, Rome had one clear leader, L. Cornelius Cinna, but he ruled as the head of a coalition of men either loyal to him or to Marius. For the next three years, he guided the state by means of repeated consecutive consulships. Given the scant surviving sources for this period, it is not surprising that we have no clear idea of what type of rule Cinna exercised in the years 86–84 BC.³ Like Sulla, Cinna had seized control of Rome by the use of military force as part of a partnership and soon found himself bereft of a colleague. However, whereas Sulla’s position was precarious, with a hostile Senate and People and rivals in the wings, Cinna’s appears to have been more secure. It is clear that he had a good deal of support amongst the people, especially from the new citizens and the Italian peoples, and in 87 BC he had secured the support of a number of tribunes. We can assume that this was repeated throughout the years 86–84 BC, aided by the repeal of the Sullan–Pompeian constitutional reforms. Added to which, all of his opponents in the Senate had been slaughtered or exiled, ensuring a compliant Senate of nominal allies.

This does not mean that Cinna was a tyrant, in any sense of the word. In many ways, his period foreshadowed that of Octavius, with repeated consulships, a tame Senate and tribunes, and support of the new citizenry. Furthermore, at the time, he would have promised to bring about peace, both within Rome and Italy, and an end to the bloodshed. This alone would have earned him the temporary support of those people and senators in Rome who were not staunch allies, but who would lend their support to anyone who could establish peace and promote recovery after four apocalyptic years. To keep this support, he had to avoid a tyranny and deliver on his promises.

To replace Marius, he selected L. Valerius Flaccus as suffect consul. Flaccus had been a governor of Asia in the late 90s BC and was the younger brother of C. Valerius Flaccus (Cos. 93 BC) who was currently serving as governor of the Gallic and Spanish provinces (see below), and whose absence from the wars of 88 and 87 BC is an interesting topic in itself. The senior member of the family in Rome was another L. Valerius Flaccus, who had been co-consul with Marius in 100 BC and was appointed princeps senatus this year. Thus the Valerii Flaccii were at the centre of the ruling coalition, aided greatly no doubt by the presence of C. Valerius Flaccus in Gaul with his army, always a good guarantor for his family’s elevation in this period. The younger L. Valerius Flaccus also replaced Marius in the Mithridatic command, and was charged with taking an army to Greece to fight Mithridates, and if necessary Sulla himself. The coalition was now faced with the two key issues of the Italian question and the economic and financial crises, not to mention ensuring that this year did not follow the two previous ones and descend in bloodshed and warfare.

2. Roman Domestic Affairs During the Cinnan Regime (86–84 BC)

The Economic and Financial Crises

It appears that the new regime quickly attempted to resolve the financial crisis. Prior to his departure, the consul Valerius Flaccus passed a measure of debt relief, which allowed all private debts to be settled for a quarter of their value, with the rest written off. Barlow provides a good analysis of the possible wider financial motivations behind the Lex Valeria, which may have brought debts back into line with land prices, which had collapsed during the previous years of warfare. As land was the primary source of debt security, both debts and security values may have now been balanced and stability restored to the credit system, with debts and land values equal. Thus stability may have been brought to the credit system, though given the paucity of the sources this will never be known for sure.

Whilst the debt relief would have been welcome to the populace, the state’s finances would still have been in terrible shape. In terms of income, the government in Rome could not draw upon the tax revenues of Asia, and piracy was a major disruption to Mediterranean trade. Nevertheless, the government could still raise revenues from the western provinces, notably Spain and Gaul, which lay in their sphere of influence (see below). In terms of expenditure, the forces raised during 87 BC had to be paid off, whilst still maintaining strong enough forces to equip another army to fight Mithridates and support campaigns in Gaul. On a positive note, peace in Italy would have greatly helped both income and expenditure levels. In 87 BC, Cinna had been funded by the Italian cities (not affected by the war), and we again hear of this in 85 BC when the regime was raising forces to fight Sulla. Thus state expenditure in this period had to be of a more limited nature than in previous years.

Whilst the credit system may have been rebalanced and the state expenditure reduced, it is clear that there were serious issues with Rome’s currency, either through hoarding or debasement, which seems to have continued to undermine the economy with an unstable currency. In 86 or 85 BC, in a testament to the serious nature of the problem, the praetors and tribunes jointly agreed a proposal to re-establish Rome’s currency on a firmer footing. This joint proposal was promptly stolen by one of their number, a praetor named M. Marius Gratidianus, who was a nephew of C. Marius, and who promptly took all the credit for the reforms. The measure of the law’s success can be seen by the huge amount of adulation that Marius received, with Pliny telling us that the populace raised statues of him across the city. We can assume that his betrayed colleagues did not hold him in such high esteem. The nature of the proposal is less clear than its outcome, but it appears to have centred on a new system for testing the purity of coins, thus enabling a crackdown on counterfeiters. It may also have set an official exchange rate, to counter inflation. Overall, it seems that the Marian measure did indeed stabilize Rome’s currency in this period.

Thus, throughout this period, the Cinnan regime made strenuous efforts to rebuild or at least stabilize Rome’s finances, through reduced state expenditure and attempts to stabilize the debt system and the currency. Nevertheless, we must not underestimate the poor state of Rome’s finances throughout this period, which in turn affected the nature of the military expenditure in this period.

It is interesting that both the laws introduced by Valerius and Marius Gratidianus were not sponsored personally by Cinna. In fact, the currency measure was originally meant to be jointly issued by the praetors and tribunes combined. This perhaps allows us to see the style of Cinna’s government, with Cinna appearing to take a step back from issuing laws himself and allowing colleagues to propose them. As well as gaining their support for allowing them to take the credit, it allowed him, much as Octavian was to later do, to remain in the background and avoid looking like he was actively governing Rome, and thus avoid the impression of being a tyrant. Consensus amongst the ruling elite (what was left of it in Rome) appears to have been very much the order of the day for the Cinnan regime.

The Italian Question

This approach appears to have been used in the efforts to resolve the ongoing Italian question. By 86 BC, it is believed that the majority of the three groups of Italians – those who had not rebelled, those who had surrendered, and those still fighting – had been granted citizenship, whether through the Lex Iulia of 90 BC, the senatorial grants of 87 BC, or the alliance with Cinna and Marius. Yet despite this technical grant of citizenship, there were a number of practical matters to be resolved, centred upon their formal registration in a census and their distribution to voting tribes, the latter of which issues had caused the riots in Rome in both 88 and 87 BC that were the sparks of all the bloodshed that followed.

Again, due to the fragmentary nature of our sources, we have no clear narrative for events of the Cinnan regime. But what is clear is that special censors were elected in 86 BC, only three years after the appointment of the previous ones, thus breaking the five year rule for censorial elections. The men elected were two of the only surviving former consuls in Rome, L. Marcius Philippus (Cos. 91) and M. Perperna (Cos. 92), neither of whom could be labelled as died-in-the-wool Cinnan supporters. However, despite this extraordinary census, the citizen list remained constant, registering 463,000 Roman citizens. We have no accurate figures for the period between the census of 115/114 and that of 86/85 BC, including the crucial census of 89/88 BC, but we know that the number of citizens given for 115/114 BC was 394,000. Thus, we only have a slight increase in the course of a generation, and certainly no mass enfranchisement of Italians. In the census of 70/69 BC, the total number of Roman citizens was over 900,000, and that was after another fifteen years of bloodshed. Thus it seems that the central tenet of Cinna’s programme of 87 was not carried out. This has naturally puzzled modern historians. The easiest explanation given is that the figure of 463,000 has been wrongly transmitted, and it was in fact 963,000, but this is pure conjecture.

Furthermore, the Periochae of Livy states that c.84 BC, the Senate passed a decree granting citizenship to Italians, and that freedmen were distributed equally amongst the thirty-five tribes.¹⁰ Therefore, it seems that both Italians and freedmen were enrolled as Roman citizens in this census, thus fulfilling the central plank of Cinna’s programme and bolstering his support. As Lovano points out, it is barely conceivable that given the importance of the Italian question to Cinna, and his position of dominance, he failed to have this enacted. Furthermore, the evidence of Sulla’s promises to the Italians when he returned to Italy in 83 BC also lends weight to this interpretation.¹¹ This still leaves us with the Jerome figure of 463,000, but it is possible that this represented a two-stage census: first, a tally of the existing Roman citizens before the additional ones were enfranchised; and second, an enfranchisement of the new citizens. Such a move is without precedent, but then so was an additional census, and such a set of circumstances – the mass enfranchisement of Italy – was without precedent too.

We certainly hear nothing of any further disturbances in Rome in this period, and the mass enfranchisement of the new citizens appears to have been conducted without further bloodshed. Given that there were no leading opponents of Cinna left in Rome in this period (certainly none that would risk their lives in a public display of opposition), and that all magistrates would have been carefully selected, the old citizens would have been left leaderless. Furthermore, given the levels of violence used by Cinna the year before, any opponents of enfranchisement would have clearly thought twice about publicly opposing such a move.

Such an extraordinary census would probably have also been needed to rebuild the Senate, whose numbers must have been thinned given the slaughter of 87 BC and those who fled Italy. This would have given Cinna the opportunity to have the Senate re-stocked with men who would, in theory, owe him their elevation. It would also allow for the removal of any surviving senators whose loyalties were suspect, whether they were in exile or in Italy. Cicero confirms this when he tells us of the case of Ap. Claudius Pulcher, uncle of one of the censors (L. Marcius Philippus), who was removed as a senator whilst in exile.¹² It must be stressed, however, that this does not mean that the Senate was a rubber stamp for Cinna, in the way it became under the emperors; a number of those remaining senators were at best temporary supporters of Cinna, and even the new ones would soon forget their gratitude when it came to their own future survival. The elevation of the Valerii Flacci was confirmed by the appointment of the L. Valerius Flaccus (Cos. 100) as princeps senatus. His kinsmen, L. Valerius Flaccus and C. Valerius Flaccus, were serving as consul and proconsul respectively, and had control of a significant portion of Rome’s military forces. Thus, the Cinnan regime appears to have resolved the long standing Italian question, with full enfranchisement being offered to the Latin and Italian communities, even those that had rebelled and not been defeated, such as the Samnites and Lucanians.

Peace in Rome and Italy

The case of the Samnites and Lucanians is an interesting one. Despite the perilous military position in which they found themselves, by the year 87 BC, thanks to events in Rome, they were able to negotiate a peace settlement from a position of strength. C. Flavius Fimbria, negotiating on behalf of Marius and Cinna, and desperate for additional manpower and resources, appears to have granted all of the Samnites terms. We can include the Lucanians in this peace treaty, as Appian refers to the two peoples receiving the citizenship together, later than the rest of the Italian peoples.¹³ Thus, almost by default, the last of the Italian Wars, which had been waged for the last four years across the Italian peninsula, and had done so much to weaken Rome, came to an end, not with outright Roman military victory, but by a hastily arranged peace treaty, having been overtaken by wider events.

Salmon is right to argue that this treaty would have led to the demobilization of forces throughout Italy, by both sides, although the Samnites later re-mobilized to face Sulla (see Chapter 6). Cicero describes these years (86–84 BC) as Rome being free from the threat of arms.¹⁴ Such an outbreak of peace would have helped the Cinnan regime, providing a period of military and financial recovery, but also allowing Cinna to portray himself as the bringer of peace and stability to Rome.

On a similar note, after two years of street warfare, we hear nothing more of fighting on the streets of Rome, with the full enfranchisement of the Italians passing through the assembly without the bloodshed that had accompanied previous attempts. Given the bloodletting of previous years and the absence of any visible opposition to the regime, this is hardly surprising, but again, it would have allowed the regime to reap the benefits of the restoration of peace and security.

3. Roman Foreign Affairs During the Cinnan Regime (86–84 BC)

The years 91–87 BC are notable for the absence of the spreading of the civil war to the rest of Rome’s empire, though the east was invaded by external enemies. Yet, simply because the focus of our surviving narrative sources is on events in Italy, Greece and Asia, we must not forget the rest of the empire; we must appreciate how far the writ of the Cinnan regime in Rome ran.¹⁵

Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica

Throughout this period, Sicily appears to have avoided the fallout of both the Italian and Roman civil wars. As we saw earlier, the nearest the fighting came was in 87 BC when the governor, C. Norbanus, intervened on the mainland to prevent the remnants of the Italian rebels from seizing Rhegium and spreading the war to Sicily (see Chapter 4). We have no clear idea of when his governorship started, but Cicero indicates that Norbanus was there for the duration of the war in Italy. Badian has argued that Norbanus was a follower of C. Marius, which would have placed Sicily at odds with Rome during 88 BC, though it seems that Norbanus wisely kept out of events in Rome. The same can be said of 87 BC, with no record of Norbanus’ support for the duumvirate. Norbanus did return to Rome to successfully run for the consulship of 83 BC, which placed him at the forefront of the post-Cinnan coalition government. His replacement appears to have been M. Perperna, a praetor and kinsman of the censor of 86/85 BC. Thus, throughout this period, Sicily was firmly in the coalition orbit.

We know even less about the governance of Sardinia and Corsica during this period. Badian suggested that P. Servilius Vatia, who returned to Rome in 88 BC to celebrate a triumph and was endorsed by Sulla as one of his preferred candidates for the consulship of 87 BC, was governor of Sardinia during the Italian War. We have no record of which province he triumphed over, leading to the speculation that it was not a major province and there are few viable provincial commands he could have filled.¹⁶ Again, this is speculation, albeit highly informed. What we do know for certain is that by 82 BC the province was securely in the hands of the coalition government and that C. Antonius Balbus was in charge. We can assume that if the two islands were not held by duumviral supporters in 87 BC, they soon were brought under the control of the coalition government.

Farther and Nearer Spain

It seems that throughout the first decade of the civil war, the bulk of Rome’s western empire fell under the control of one man: C. Valerius Flaccus. He has rightly been identified as one of the great enigmas of the First Civil War. Throughout the early periods of fighting he remained quiescent, remaining in his provinces with his forces. During the Cinnan regime his brother was appointed suffect consul for Marius and given command of the regime’s eastern armies, and his kinsman was appointed princeps senatus. Yet by 81/80 BC, he was welcomed back in Rome and celebrated a triumph over the Celtiberians and Gauls. It is only this triumph that gives us an indication of the range of his command, which Badian argues must have originally been one or both of the Spanish provinces, with Gaul (most likely Transalpine Gaul) added later.¹⁷ Appian briefly mentions that Flaccus was engaged in fighting a Celtiberian revolt in Spain and killed 20,000 of them, though we have little detail and no chronology for the war.¹⁸

This was the second Celtiberian revolt within the decade, and it seems to have provided a safe haven for refugees and exiles from Rome. We hear of a number of exiles from across the various conflicts seeking refuge in Spain, whether it be Brutus fleeing Sulla in 88, Crassus fleeing Cinna in 87, or the younger L. Valerius Flaccus fleeing Fimbria in 86.¹⁹ Exiles from all sides of the civil war appear to have found refuge in Spain, indicating either a policy of neutrality or a tenuous grasp of such a large fiefdom – or a combination of the two. Crassus himself was able to raise an army (2,500 strong) to support his cause and crossed to Africa to join Metellus’ uprising (see below). Despite this, given the resources at his disposal, Flaccus must have been one of the most powerful men of the period, and this period of semi-autonomous rule way from Rome must have helped lay the foundations for the greater independence from Rome that the region exerted during the 70s, under Sertorius (see Chapters 8 to 10).

Transalpine and Cisalpine Gaul

As noted above, ultimately, Transalpine Gaul found itself under the command of C. Valerius Flaccus and was most likely added to his commands in Spain, creating an extraordinary provincial command, in both size and tenure. We do not know the circumstances of his taking command in Transalpine Gaul; we only have knowledge of one commander in Gaul shortly before him, a C. Coelius (possibly the consul of 94 BC, who in 90 BC crushed a rebellion of the Salluvii against Rome, inspired no doubt by the Italian War.²⁰ The only reference we have to this comes from thePeriochae of Livy, which states that Caelius defeated the Salluvii.²¹ Badian argues that Coelius had command of both Gallic provinces (as was common) during the period 91–87 BC, with a prolonged command for the period of the Italian Wars.²² Interestingly, we find a mention of a possible kinsman, P. Coelius, being appointed prefect of Placentia by Octavius in 87 BC and committing suicide when captured by Cinnan forces.²³ Thus Badian argues that C. Coelius supported the Octavian regime in 87 BC, holding the vital provinces of the Two Gauls.²⁴ Given that C. Coelius disappears from history and that by 85 we find C. Valerius Flaccus in command in at least Transalpine Gaul, Badian takes the argument to the logical conclusion, namely that the Cinnan regime had Flaccus take charge of the Gallic provinces and secure them for the regime, though sadly we lack any detail of this process. Thus we can see that the silence of the sources may well be masking a wider expansion of the civil war to the provinces as the Cinnan regime fought to secure control, however tenuous, of Rome’s empire.


Africa too proved to be a popular destination for Roman exiles, the most famous being C. Marius in 88 BC, which is hardly surprising given his strong links with the region from the Jugurthine War, two decades earlier. The governor at the time was a P. Sextilius who is assumed to have been governor of the Roman province of Africa throughout the wars in Italy.²⁵ Sextilius appears to have observed a policy of strict neutrality in the civil wars of 88 and 87 BC, with Plutarch describing him as a man who was neither a supporter nor an opponent of Marius, but merely an official enforcing Rome’s edicts, and who opposed Marius’ landing and denied him refuge in Roman northern Africa.²⁶ When Marius found refuge in one of his veteran colonies, he apparently made no move against him, nor prevented him crossing back to Rome in 87 BC, as far as the silence of our meagre sources allows us to postulate.

The Jugurthine War connection again came to the fore in 87 BC when, anticipating the fall of Rome to the duumvirate, Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius (son of Numidicus) took refuge there. This time we hear nothing from Sextilius, who disappears from our sources. Metellus’ role in Africa between 87 and 84 is unclear, with most commentators assuming that he acted as de-facto governor.²⁷ However, the Periochae of Livy has for the year 84 BC an entry stating that Metellus provoked a war in Africa, which forced the Cinnan regime to send a Praetor C. Fabius Hadrianus to dislodge him and restore Roman (Cinnan) control. Thus it seems more logical that Metellus stayed in hiding in the province from 87 to c.84 BC and then attempted to seize it, most likely as a strategic asset for Sulla.²⁸ Control of Africa would be an important stepping stone for Sulla, through whether he ordered this move or it came from Metellus’ own initiative we will never know.

Plutarch sheds some further light on this, as he reports that M. Licinius Crassus, the son of the murdered senatorial commander in 87 BC (and future triumvir), came out of exile in Spain with a force of 2,500 men and joined Metellus, who apparently had amassed a considerable army, but we are not told its size.²⁹ Crassus, it appears, soon fell out with Metellus and left to join Sulla in Greece. In any event, Fabius arrived from Italy with fresh forces and defeated Metellus, forcing him to flee to northern Italy (Liguria), restoring Cinnan control over the province. Hadrianus maintained control of Africa for the next few years (see Chapter 7). Thus its seems that Metellus’ aborted rebellion in Africa attracted wider support amongst the anti-Cinnan exiles, and may have been more serious than the meagre surviving references portray. Interestingly, the Periochae of Livy has the following entry for the aftermath of the African War:

[After Metellus] had been defeated by praetor C. Fabius, the faction of Carbo and the adherents of Marius passed a senatorial decree that all armies everywhere ought to be disbanded.³⁰

Thus it seems that the African War had alarmed the Senate to a considerable degree, and also demonstrated how fragile their control of the western empire was and how fearful they were of other Roman commanders and their armies. Whether this decree was acted on is not known, though C. Valerius Flaccus certainly retained his forces.

In terms of the wider Roman sphere of influence in Africa, we can see that the Roman allied states, such as Numidia, placed obedience to Rome (whoever was in charge) above personal ties. Plutarch relates the story of the Younger Marius fleeing to the Numidian court in 88 BC following Pompeius and Sulla’s seizure of Rome, exploiting his father’s close connection with the Numidian royal family, the current branch of which owed the throne to his efforts in the Jugurthine War.³¹ However, despite these ties, Plutarch reports that the king of Numidia, Hiempsal II, was planning to size Marius and hand him over to the Romans.³² If true, this gives us an insight into the allied attitude to the apparently perplexing events in Rome, namely obedience to the Senate and its representatives, regardless of who had control of Rome at the time.

Other States of the Eastern Mediterranean

For states of the eastern Mediterranean, however, choices were made more difficult by the presence of the army of Sulla in Greece and the forces of the Pontic King Mithridates, who was busily carving out a Mediterranean empire of his own (see Map 6). For them, edicts issued by Rome would have had less force than the dangers posed by the Sullan/Mithridatic conflicts raging in Greece and the Mediterranean. For some, it was a case for balancing Rome against Mithridates and not wanting to choose one side or the other for fear of making the wrong choice. For others, such as Rhodes, allegiance to Rome was the priority, regardless of divisions between the Romans themselves. Rhodes notably defeated a Mithridatic invasion fleet in 88 BC.

The Ptolemaic Empire

For other key states in the region, matters were complicated further by their own internal problems, and this period sees a spate of civil wars breaking out amongst the remaining powers of the east. Egypt in particular would have been crucial to all three of the main protagonists in this period, being the ancient world’s richest state and the source of much of its grain supply. As Rome collapsed into a bout of internal bloodletting in 88 BC, so did Alexandria, with the populace rising up and forcing out Pharaoh Ptolemy X in favour of his elder brother Ptolemy IX. Ptolemy X fled to Egyptian controlled Cyprus, dying in battle there against the forces of his brother. His son (the future Ptolemy XI), was first handed over to Mithridates as a captive and then managed to escape and find his way to the army of Sulla, by 84 BC. It seems that the reigning Pharaoh Ptolemy IX also took a policy of (three-way) neutrality between Rome, Sulla and Mithridates.

In 86 BC, Sulla sent a legate, L. Licinius Lucullus, around a number of the largest allied states of the east to raise fresh naval forces, but Lucullus, whilst receiving an honoured welcome, found the support lukewarm. Again, we can perhaps see loyalty to the Senate overriding all other considerations, though we hear nothing of Ptolemy IX’s relations with the Cinnan regime.

In Cyrene (modern eastern Libya), however, Lucullus had greater success. Historically, the kingdom was part of the Ptolemaic Empire, but had apparently been bequeathed to Rome in 96 BC, though the bequest had never been taken up (see Appendix I). It seems that between then and 86 BC, the kingdom had collapsed under a series of short-lived tyrannies. Both Plutarch and Josephus report that Lucullus pacified the region and gave it a stable government, also converting it to the Sullan cause. Plutarch also reports that he won Crete over to the Sullan cause, though we are not told what method he employed.³³

The Parthian and Seleucid Empires

The theme of civil war is one which continues across the east in this period, with both the rump of the Seleucid Empire (Syria) and the Parthian Empire collapsing into civil wars of their own as well, which merely added to the general instability of the eastern Mediterranean. In practical terms, it meant that the rising power of Parthia was not able to capitalize on Rome’s misfortunes in this period and ultimately allowed the rise, albeit temporary, of the Armenian Empire of Tigranes (the Great). During the following decade, Tigranes, allied to Mithridates, was able to take advantage of the Parthian and Seleucid Empires’ weaknesses and annex large swathes of Parthian and Seleucid territory, extending the Armenian Empire from the Caspian to the Mediterranean itself. This soon brought him into conflict with a resurgent Rome in the 60s BC (see Appendix I).

Interestingly, Velleius records that in c. 85/84 BC, following the Peace of Dardanus (see below), Sulla once again met with a Parthian ambassador, establishing cordial relations between the two empires, both of whom were suffering from civil wars and the rise of the new regional powers of Pontus and Armenia. No details are recorded as to what was discussed.³⁴

Macedon and Illyria

As noted earlier (Chapter 1) the Macedonian borders were again being threatened by what seems to have been an alliance of Thracians tribes, with C. Sentius being defeated by the Maedi.³⁵ The scale of the war is clear from the snippets of information that our meagre surviving sources provide:

Against the Denseletti, a tribe which has always been submissive to the empire and which even at the general rising of the barbarians preserved Macedonia when C. Sentius was praetor, you waged an abominable and cruel war.³⁶

The Thracians, at the instigation of Mithridates, overran Epirus and the rest of the country as far as Dodona, going even to the point of plundering the Temple of Zeus.³⁷

The Scordisci, the Maedi and the Dardani again invaded Macedonia and Greece simultaneously, and plundered many temples, including that of Delphi.³⁸

Although the Thracian War had predated the Mithridatic War, the Thracian tribes usually needed little encouragement to raid Roman territory, though they may have been spurred on by the seeming Roman collapse in this region, similar to those conflicts in Gaul and Spain. It is interesting that Cicero speaks of a general tribal uprising whilst the Periochae of Livy still speaks of raids.³⁹

Again, our few sources seem to be confused. Orosius states that the Romans defeated the Maedi quite early on (c. 87 BC) when the governor of Macedonia, C. Sentius, was able to defeat the Maedian King Sothiumus, decisively driving him back into Thrace.⁴⁰However, it seems that the Thracian raids continued into 85/84 BC.

Sentius’ victory proved to be short lived in another way, as in 86 BC, one of Mithridates’ sons, Arcathias, invaded Macedonia and conquered the province, adding it to the Mithridatic Empire (albeit briefly). At the time, Sulla was engaged in the siege of Athens, and Flaccus and Fimbria were in Asia (see below). We hear nothing more of Sentius or his legate Bruttius after these events, and it is highly likely that they were killed defending the province. Appian has but a brief note on the invasion:

At the same time Arcathias, the son of Mithridates, with another army invaded Macedonia and without difficulty overcame the small Roman force there, subjugated the whole country, appointed satraps to govern it …⁴¹

Memnon has the Mithridatic general Taxiles capturing Macedonia, most of which joined large parts of Greece in defecting to the Mithridatic side:

They would have been in desperate trouble, if Taxiles had not captured Amphipolis, after which the rest of Macedonia went over to his side, and he was able to provide plentiful supplies.⁴²

Thus Macedonia, which had seen another protracted war against the Thracian tribes, was annexed (albeit temporarily) to the Mithridatic Empire (see Map 6). Appian preserves details of a campaign against these tribes by a certain L. Scipio (who may be L. Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus), which appears to date from this period. According to Appian, Scipio was able to decisively defeat the Scordisci and drive them back across the Danube. The Maedi and Dardani then made peace with Scipio and handed over the looted Delphic treasures to him (as a bribe, according to Appian), which he then apparently used in the later stages of the civil war. Where exactly these campaigns took place is not stated, though it seems that Macedonia was still under (nominal) Mithridatic control, though this is not mentioned by Appian in this narrative.⁴³

However, it seems that although Scipio had destroyed the Scordisci, the Maedi and Dardani remained a problem for the province. Scipio appears to have returned to Italy, complete with the treasure, where he ran for and won a consulship for 83 BC. In late 85 and early 84 BC, having secured control of Greece, Sulla sent a large force into Macedonia. Primarily, this would have been to restore Roman control, and eliminate any Mithridatic garrisons there may have been. However, Eutropius and a fragment of Granius Licinianus record campaigns by Sulla’s legate Hortensius and then Sulla himself against these Thracian tribes:

In the meantime Sulla also reduced part of the Dardanians, Scordisci, Dalmatians, and Moedians, and granted terms of alliance to the rest.⁴⁴

While the terms of the treaty (of Dardanus) were being negotiated, Sulla’s officer Hortensius routed the Maedi and Dardani, who were harassing the allies. Sulla himself had led an army into the territory of the Maedi, before he crossed over to Asia for the talks. After the slaughter of the enemy forces who were harassing Macedonia, he received the surrender of the Dardani and Denselatae.⁴⁵

Thus, by the end of 85 BC, after the campaigns of Sentius, Scipio and Sulla, Macedonia was finally recovered and secured to Rome, albeit in the form of Sulla, rather than the Senate.


Throughout the civil war of 87 BC, Sulla was engaged in the war in Greece against the generals of Mithridates. Although the details of this war fall outside the remit of this work, a short overview of the campaigns will be of use. Central to Sulla’s campaign was the capture of Athens, which had become headquarters of the Mithridatic forces and a symbol of the Greek rebellion. He laid siege to the city throughout 87 BC, eventually taking it by storm in March 86 BC.⁴⁶ Thus both Rome and Athens fell to Roman sieges within a year of each other.

Interestingly, Memnon reports that during 86 BC Sulla received reinforcements from Italy, in the shape of 6,000 men commanded by L. Hortensius.⁴⁷ Although we have no further details, it is an important note, as its shows that, despite being an official enemy of the Roman state, Sulla still had supporters in Italy who were capable of mustering additional forces to help his fight against Mithridates.

Sulla followed the capture of Athens with major victories over Mithridatic forces at the Battles of Chaeronea and Orchomenos. Appian and Orosius report that Sulla killed 110,000 of the Mithridatic forces at Chaeronea, with only 10,000 escaping.⁴⁸ Faced with the loss of Greece, Mithridates, who was in Asia, sent another 50,000 reinforcements to Greece, only to see them destroyed at the Battle of Orchomenos. With these two stunning victories, the Mithridatic forces in Greece were destroyed and Greece was restored to Roman control. Furthermore, it sparked a series of revolts in the Greek cities of Asia Minor against Mithridatic rule. By 85 BC Sulla was moving against Mithridates in Asia, who was forced to start negotiations with him.

Sulla, however, was the not the only Roman commander appointed to the war with Mithridates. L. Valerius Flaccus (Cos. 86) had been appointed by the Senate to replace Marius. With Sulla in Greece, Flaccus appears to have chosen to transport his army from Italy to Asia to take the fight to Mithridates directly, despite only having two legions. Unfortunately for him, he lost a large part of his army in the crossing. Appian reports that a portion of his army crossed Thessaly heading toward Asia.⁴⁹ Plutarch reports that Sulla’s intention was to intercept Flaccus’ army as it crossed Thessaly, following the Battle of Chaeronea, but that the arrival of the Mithridatic reinforcements from Asia prevented him.⁵⁰ In any event, Appian reports that a portion of Flaccus’ army did defect to Sulla when crossing Thessaly. The rest passed into Asia to prosecute the war there.⁵¹

Asia Minor

For Flaccus, the Asian campaign went from bad to worse. Following the losses at sea (from both storms and Mithridatic forces) and the defection of parts of his army to Sulla, he managed to assemble his army at Byzantium and crossed into Asia, by late 86 BC. It seems, however, that Flaccus fell into a dispute with one of his legates, C. Flavius Fimbria. Fimbria was a follower of Marius who had been one of the commanders at the storming of Rome in 87 BC and had commanded the force that killed P. Licinius Crassus. At Marius’ funeral in early 86 BC, he attempted to murder one of his rivals, Q. (Mucius) Scaevola, but only wounded him. He followed this attempted assassination by prosecuting Scaevola on a trumped-up charge. Despite this, he appears to have been popular with the army, whereas Flaccus was not.

Following a series of arguments between the two men, which led to Flaccus threatening to have Fimbria sent back to Rome, Flaccus himself was murdered. The sources disagree as to how this occurred. Whilst all agree that Fimbria inspired the act, they disagree as to whether he struck the blow himself. Memnon and Appian preserve the best two variant traditions:

While Flaccus was bitterly rebuking Fimbria and the most distinguished soldiers, two of them, who were roused to greater fury than the others, murdered him. The Senate was angry with Fimbria for this; but it disguised its anger, and arranged for him to be elected [pro] consul. Fimbria, thus becoming commander of the whole force, won over some cities by agreement and captured others by force.⁵²

Fimbria watched his opportunity, and when Flaccus had sailed for Chalcedon he first took the fasces away from Thermus, whom Flaccus had left as his praetor, as though the army had conferred the command upon himself, and when Flaccus returned soon afterward and was angry with him, Fimbria compelled him to fly. Flaccus took refuge in a certain house and in the night-time climbed over the wall and fled first to Chalcedon and afterward to Nicomedia, and closed the gates of the city. Fimbria overcame the place, found him concealed in a well, and killed him, although he was a Roman consul and the commanding officer of this war, and Fimbria himself was only a private citizen who had gone with him as an invited friend. Fimbria cut off his head and flung it into the sea, and left the remainder of his body unburied. Then he appointed himself commander of the army.⁵³

Thus we have the two clear divergent stories. Either Fimbria murdered Flaccus himself and took over command of his army or Flaccus was murdered by mutinous elements in his army and Fimbria stepped into the position, with the Senate’s grudging blessing. The common ground between the two versions is that one may have reflected reality and one may have been the story that the Senate was told; Fimbria could hardly have admitted to the Senate that he murdered Flaccus. However, once again, a Roman consul had been murdered by his own army (see Appendix III).

In terms of the Asian campaign, it seems that, despite his underhand method of becoming commander, Fimbria proved to be a very able general, and throughout 85 BC he enjoyed military success, defeating one of Mithridates’ sons at the Battle of Miletoplis and slaughtering a much larger army. He followed this up by driving Mithridates from Pergammum and sacking the pro-Mithridatic cities of Cyzicus and Ilium, each accompanied by great bloodshed. The latter was a notable and somewhat unusual action, given that Ilium claimed to be the site of ancient Troy, the ancestral homeland of the Romans.⁵⁴ Nevertheless, his actions proved to be successful in military terms, as the cities of Asia soon defected from Mithridates back to Rome to avoid a similar fate.

Fimbria also came close to ending the Mithridatic War with the capture of Mithridates himself. He drove Mithridates to seek refuge in the city of Pitane and laid siege to it. To trap him in the city, he contacted Sulla’s legate Lucullus, who was in charge of the only Roman naval force in the eastern Mediterranean, seeking his assistance. However, it was here that the enmities between the various Roman factions in the civil war came to the fore, and Lucullus refused to help Fimbria, allowing Mithridates to escape by sea. Thus, in one incident, we can see the damage that Rome’s civil wars were causing to its wider military activities. Rather than allow Fimbria to end the Mithridatic War, Lucullus was happy for Mithridates to escape (and plague Rome for another fifteen years).

With Mithridates fled, Fimbria continued to restore Roman control of Asia, but he was now confronted by Sulla, who moved his forces from Greece to Asia. Full-blown military conflict was only averted when Fimbria’s army deserted him and defected en-masse to Sulla, their second betrayal of a commander in two years. Faced with the loss of his army, Fimbria fled to Pergammum, where he committed suicide. Two of Fimbria’s legates, L. Magius and L. Fannius, remained loyal to the coalition and fled, finding safe haven at the court of Mithridates.

With his forces driven from Greece, Macedonia and Asia, Mithridates had clearly lost the war with Rome. He was only able to escape Asia thanks to the divisions caused between the Romans by the civil war. At any other time, Mithridates would have paid the ultimate price for invading Roman territory and slaughtering its citizens. However, once again, civil war took precedence over a foreign war, and Sulla, rather than prosecute the war to its logical conclusion (the destruction of Mithridates and Pontus), chose to negotiate a peace treaty, which allowed him to concentrate on the civil war.

4. The Approaching Storm

The outcome of negotiations between Mithridates and Sulla was the Treaty of Dardanus, one of the most extraordinary peace treaties made by a Roman. Despite waging war on the Romans, invading Asia and Greece and slaughtering tens of thousands of Roman citizens and allies, Sulla confirmed Mithridates as an ally of the Roman people and confirmed him as ruler of Pontus and its original territories. In return, Mithridates was to vacate all the territory he had conquered, restore the kings to the thrones of Bithynia and Cappodocia, return all prisoners he had taken, and all Roman deserters and – most importantly – pay Sulla a war indemnity of 2,000 talents and provide seventy triremes to support any military action. Thus, from a position of total military defeat, in both Greece and Asia, Mithridates found a way to avoid Roman retribution and keep his kingdom intact, as it was before the war started – a clear case of snatching victory (or at least a draw) from the jaws of defeat. The price was the funding of an attack on Italy by a Roman general, which was itself a bonus for Mithridates, as Rome collapsing into civil war once more would give him a freer hand in Asia Minor.

Thus, with the war in the east complete and Roman territory restored, Sulla turned his attention to Rome and returning from exile and still being an enemy of the state. Whilst he was clearly preparing for a military invasion of Italy, it is clear also that his preferred solution was a negotiated one. His and Pompeius’ move on Rome in 88 BC had at least a veneer of legitimacy, as consuls restoring order, though whether anybody believed that is another matter. However, a full-scale invasion of Italy could not be legitimized in such a manner. It also seems that a negotiated settlement was the preferred choice of the neutrals in the Senate, of which there must have been a sizeable number. The Periochae of Livy records that L. Valerius Flaccus, the princeps senatus, led the calls for a negotiated settlement and ensured that the Senate dispatched envoys to Sulla to discuss a peaceful return.⁵⁵ This dialogue was facilitated by the presence of a number of senators who had been forced out of Rome by Cinna and had found refuge in Greece with Sulla.

However, whilst various elements in the Senate may have wished for a bloodless return to Rome, neither Sulla nor Rome’s consuls, Cinna and Carbo, seem to go out of their way to find a negotiated settlement. Sulla in particular, although he may have wanted a peaceful return to Rome, certainly did not seem to intend to keep the peace once he arrived, and did not help his cause by threatening bloody vengeance against his nemeses (those who had hounded his supporters) in a letter read to the Senate.⁵⁶ Whilst the Senate ordered the consuls to desist from mobilizing an army, including the recruitment of fresh forces from across Italy, Cinna and Carbo ignored them and went a stage further by having themselves declared consuls for 84 BC without even the pretence of an election.

Having recruited a fresh army of an unknown size, in early 84 BC, the consuls made preparations to transport them to Illyria. Here we are not clear on whether they intended a preparatory campaign against the tribes of the region, to give their forces combat experience, or whether they intended to fight the war in Greece, rather than Italy. Whilst the first detachment of troops landed safely, the second were hit by a storm, and a number of those that survived the crossing apparently deserted. The troops who remained in Italy then apparently mutinied at the prospect of being sent overseas. Appian preserves a detailed account of the event:

When the rest learned this they refused to cross to Liburnia. Cinna was indignant and called them to an assembly in order to coerce them and they assembled, angry also and ready to defend themselves. One of the lictors, who was clearing the road for Cinna, struck somebody who was in the way and one of the soldiers struck the lictor. Cinna ordered the arrest of the offender, whereupon a clamour rose on all sides, stones were thrown at him, and those who were near him drew their swords and stabbed him.⁵⁷

Carbo, now sole consul, ordered the withdrawal of the sections of the army already in Illyria and changed tactics, preparing a defence of Italy. Delaying his return to Rome until threatened with deposition by the tribunes, he eventually held fresh elections for a suffect consul, but a lightning strike on a temple led to a postponement of the election due to unfavourable omens. Conveniently, augurs were found to interpret this omen in such a manner that no elections for a suffect consul were held that year, allowing Carbo to rule Rome throughout the majority of 84, as sole consul and new leader of the coalition. The rest of the year passed without notable incident, with Carbo mobilizing armies to defend Italy and Sulla returning from Asia to Greece to likewise prepare for an invasion of Italy.

Thus, without a shot being fired, Sulla had gained a considerable strategic advantage. The leader and driving force of the coalition had been murdered, throwing the coalition forces into chaos and stopping them from fighting the war in Greece. Given the monumental consequences of this event and Sulla’s track record of subverting opposing armies, one has to wonder whether this was a Sullan plot or one of those coincidences. As has been seen throughout this period, Roman armies were notoriously poor in terms of discipline. Despite Cinna’s death, and the Senate’s wavering, the coalition still had enough supporters to mobilize a far larger army to defend Italy than the one Sulla had to invade it. Added to this was the support of the majority of the Italian peoples and new citizens, many of whom had no love for Sulla. Nevertheless, the civil war was about to enter a new phase, with an invasion of Italy by a Roman general and the prospect of another peninsula-wide conflict, the second within the decade.

1. Ruins of the Roman Forum. The turmoil in Rome was central to the events of 88 and 87 BC, with full-scale battles being fought in the streets. As the war progressed, control of Rome itself, with the Senate and Assemblies, was a key objective for all sides of the war. (author’s collection)

2. A modern sculpture depicting the Gracchi. Both men held the Tribunate of the Plebs and their reform programmes have been seen by many (both ancient and modern) as unleashing the violence that was to engulf Roman politics in this period. (author’s collection)

3. Possible bust of C. Marius. He played a crucial role in the wars of 88 and 87 BC, laying siege to Rome itself and taking it by storm. Yet he was to die a natural death, leaving behind a legacy to be inherited by first his son and then his nephew Caesar. (author’s collection)

4. Bust of L. Cornelius Sulla. A former protégé of Marius, his attacks on Rome in 88 and Italy in 83–82 were central to the first decade of the Civil War. He became overlord of Rome in 82 BC and initiated a reign of terror. He also nurtured the talents of Pompeius and Crassus, who were to dominate the New Republic. (author’s collection)

5. Bust of King Mithridates VI of Pontus. He used Rome’s internal struggles to great effect throughout the two decades of the war, even fighting under the banner of a Marius at one point. At his peak he had annexed all of Rome’s eastern empire and his war with Rome extended beyond the Civil War period. (photo courtesy of Philip Sidnell)

6. A coin minted by the new Italian Federation. The minting of their own coinage was a tangible statement on the part of the Italian rebels, who sought to offer a viable alternative to the Roman Federation. (author’s collection)

7. The reverse of an Italian coin minted by the new Italian Federation, and depicting a bull. The animal provided the federation with its own distinctive imagery, emphasizing a clear separation from Rome. (author’s collection)

8. This coin issued by the Italian Federation shows four figures, each representing a different Italic people, swearing an oath of alliance. (author’s collection)

9. Roman coin from 83 BC issued by the son of the Coalition consul Norbanus. (author’s collection)

10. Roman coin from 83/82 BC issued by the Coalition government depicting Victory, part of a campaign of propaganda waged by both sides. (author’s collection)

11. Sullan coin issued in 82 BC by the victorious Sullan regime, upon their seizure of Rome, depicting victory. Part of a campaign by Sulla to try to draw a line under the war. (author’s collection)

12. Roman coin issued in 81 BC by Sulla’s trusted lieutenant Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius. (author’s collection)

13. Bust of Cn. Pompeius Magnus. The son of a Civil War commander, he dominated the latter stages of the war and came to exemplify the new generation of Civil War commanders. His alliance with Crassus brought the wars to a halt. (author’s collection)

14. Bust of M. Licinius Crassus. Another son of a Civil War commander, he also found fame and fortune in the latter stages of the Civil War. His alliance with Pompeius brought the wars to a halt. (author’s collection)

15. Bust of C. Iulius Caesar. Nephew to the elder Marius and cousin to the younger, Caesar took no part in the Civil War itself, and narrowly avoided being proscribed by Sulla. However, following the war he was able to inherit the Marian support and legacy. (photo courtesy of Philip Sidnell)

16. Bust of M. Tullius Cicero. Although he did not play an active part in the wars themselves, Cicero was in Rome during this period and provides first-hand insight into the characters and events involved. (author’s collection)

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