Total Civil War

Chapter 6

The War for Italy (83–82 BC)

1. The Various Factions on the Eve of War

The Coalition (Rome’s West)

With the death of Cinna, the coalition that ruled Rome, Italy and the western part of the empire was robbed of its last major figurehead from the year 87 BC. However, the two junior partners of that coalition, Cn. Papirius Carbo and Q. Sertorius, were still active. Of the two, it seems that Sertorius was the better general and Carbo the better politician. Certainly, Carbo’s career had flourished under Cinna, with consulships in 85 and 84 (the latter being a sole consulship for most of the year), whilst Sertorius had seen no such obvious advancement. For 83 BC, neither man took the consulship. Carbo stepped down after two consecutive years to focus on the command of the forthcoming war in Italy, via a proconsulship of Italy and Cisalpine Gaul. Sertorius had been appointed to a command in Nearer Spain. Between them, they controlled some of the key military regions of the western half of the empire. The other regions were Transalpine Gaul and possibly one of the Spains under C. Valerius Flaccus (see Chapter 5 and below), Africa under C. Fabius Hadrianus (see Chapter 7) and Sicily under M. Perperna.

Fresh consuls were elected for 83 BC, in the form of C. Norbanus, the former governor of Sicily, and L. Cornelius Scipio ‘Asiaticus’, who had returned from his command in Illyria, both with good (if not spectacular) recent military records (see Chapters 4 and 5respectively). In addition, the son of C. Marius, another C. Marius, aged only in his mid-twenties, was in Rome, obviously acting as a figurehead for the former supporters of his father.¹ The preparations for the impending invasion of Italy continued throughout 83 BC, with the coalition apparently being able to field over 100,000 men, according to Appian.² Appian also states that the coalition government benefited greatly from being seen as the legitimate government of Rome at a time when Italy was faced with an invasion, even if it was by another Roman general.³

However, despite this apparent position of strength, there were a number of potential flaws in the coalition strategy. The initial plan adopted by Cinna appears to have been to confront Sulla in Greece, rather than Italy. As had been shown in both 88 and 87 BC, control of Rome, and the legitimacy it granted, was the key objective in these civil wars, and fighting in Greece denied Sulla that advantage. Allowing him to cross, seemingly unopposed, into Italy, put Sulla in striking distance of Rome itself. An invasion would also test the strength and resolve of the coalition and just how firm a grip it had on Rome and Italy. As we have seen, the deaths of Marius and Cinna robbed the coalition of their key figureheads and the personal ties that would have ensured the support of a number of the Senate and People of Rome and the wider Italian communities. None of these constituencies would be guaranteed to support the new leaders of the coalition. Whilst a number of the Italian communities supported the coalition in 87 BC, they had now received full citizenship, and unless they could be convinced that Sulla would remove these newly won rights, their active support may have turned into neutrality.

In military terms, whilst all the key coalition leaders (Carbo, Sertorius, Scipio and Norbanus) had military experience, none of them had the experience to match Sulla, and their forces were mostly freshly raised troops, who would be pitted against Sulla’s battle-hardened veterans. Furthermore, there was no one clear figurehead who could take overall control of the military effort. Whilst Carbo was technically the most senior figure in the coalition, it was only by default, having been Cinna’s deputy during the 87–84 BC period. Whilst on paper he was a two-time consul, he had little of the overriding dignitas to match his former mentor and could not be guaranteed to keep the coalition forces and their generals in step.

The Sullan Faction (Rome’s East)

By contrast, Sulla had a far smaller army at his disposal, the highest estimate for which comes from Appian, who puts it at just over 40,000 soldiers and cavalry. However, his forces had two key advantages over the coalition: experience and a clear command structure. In terms of experience, this army had defeated the forces of Mithridates in two separate battles and driven them from Greece, also recapturing Athens after a protracted siege. This had been followed by a campaign in Macedon to drive out the invading Thracian tribes and any remaining Mithridatic garrisons. Thus they were an experienced and battle-hardened army. Furthermore, they were led by Rome’s foremost surviving general, who was in total command of the campaign, despite having allies commanding portions of his force, most notably M. Licinius Crassus, fresh from the aborted African campaign.

Furthermore, the death of Cinna had removed the prospect of a coalition invasion of Greece, which handed Sulla the initiative. In terms of strategy, the campaign objectives were clear: invade Italy, fight his way to Rome and capture the city. With the Senate and assemblies under his control, he could change status from renegade to legitimate proconsul, overturn his hostes status and become the ‘legitimate’ representative of the Senate and People of Rome once more. For the time being, he had control of Rome’s eastern empire and an alliance with Mithridates, none of which could be relied upon if he failed in his invasion of Italy.

The Neutrals

Whilst we may have analyzed the two key sides in the forthcoming conflict, we must not forget that the vast majority of the Roman people, old and new citizens alike, whether in Rome, Italy or the wider empire, did not fall into either camp, but would remain neutral, as they had done in 88 and 87 BC, either until the war was over or a clear winner began to emerge. Crucially, in both 88 and 87 BC, the forces that gained the initiative had been victorious, whilst the defending, or reactive, forces had been defeated. For the majority, the crucial objective was not victory, but survival and ultimately a restoration of peace and normalcy in Rome and Italy. For the client kingdoms, a continuation of neutrality and obedience to the Senate (whoever was in charge of it) was the wisest course. For Rome’s enemies, both within the empire and without, a long-drawn-out struggle between the two warring sides would further weaken Rome and provide them with the opportunity to escape, or avoid, the Roman yoke.

One of the key neutrals in this conflict was C. Valerius Flaccus, who continued to command a large army in Spain and Gaul in this period without apparently declaring for either side. He apparently took no part in the eighteen months of conflict that followed, remaining in the north and not returning to Rome until the war had ended and then only to lay down his command. In this period of conflict such studious neutrality marks him down as a fascinating, albeit shadowy, figure. What is also interesting is that his kinsman, L. Valerius Flaccus (Cos. 100), was the princeps senatusin Rome throughout the civil war period and interestingly passed through every change of government unharmed. Between them, the Valerii Flacii represented a powerful, perhaps the most powerful, neutral faction in Rome during this period.

2. The Invasion of Italy

Thus 83 BC saw the first invasion of Italy from Greece since the time of Pyrrhus, some 200 years earlier, and the second invasion in a generation (the first being the Cimbri in 101 BC from the north). Ironically, in 88 BC, the fear (however genuine) had been that it would be Mithridates invading Italy, but now the invader of Italy was the general the Senate had sent to defeat Mithridates, though it is doubtful the citizenry appreciated the irony of the situation. Backed by the resources of the eastern empire and his Mithridatic alliance, Sulla had amassed a force of 1,600 ships with which to make the short but potentially dangerous crossing, choosing to cross from Dyrrhachium in Illyria (modern Durazzo), to Brundisium.

The lessons of the war of 87 BC would not have been lost on Sulla, and it is clear that the key element to his strategy was to isolate the hardcore anti-Sullans amongst the supporters of Marius and Cinna, and deny them the support of the majority of the people of Rome and Italy. This could be accomplished in two ways: military victories to quickly establish his image as the clear favourite to win the war; and propaganda to ensure that the peoples of Italy did not see him as their enemy and this war a continuation of the Italian rebellion, merely another bloody squabble amongst the Romans. To these ends, we hear of messages being sent out to the Italian peoples stating that he would not overturn their newly won citizen rights, thus removing their motivation for supporting his enemies. In many ways, these tactics draw a superficial comparison to those of Hannibal, a century and a half earlier, who also needed quick victories and the support of the Italian communities.

Whether through fear, apathy, successful propaganda or outright bribery, Sulla was able to make an unopposed landing at Brundisium. In recognition of this, Brundisium was granted permanent exemption from custom duties, an arrangement that appears to have lasted well into the Imperial period. Given the presence of Sullan emissaries in Brundisium in 84 BC, we may speculate that this deal was worked out in advance with the relevant town authorities. With his army safely in Italy, he fanned out from Brundisium, passing into Campania apparently without any opposition (or at least none that survives in our sources). In fact, Velleius points out that Sulla went out of his way not to arouse the hostility of the regions he passed through:

One would think that Sulla had come to Italy not as the champion of war but as the establisher of peace, so quietly did he lead his army through Calabria and Apulia and into Campania, taking unusual care not to inflict damage on crops, fields, men or cities …

Thus Sulla appears to have made an initial ploy of portraying himself to the Italians as a man who wanted to avoid a repeat of the bloodshed of 91–87 BC, and that he was not in Italy as a conqueror but as a returning Roman general. How successful this was we can never know, but it seems clear that the Italian communities had no desire to start a fight unnecessarily, especially with a man in command of 40,000 plus battle hardened veterans.

It seems that the coalition policy was to allow Sulla to land, progress inland and then meet him head on, with two consular armies (Norbanus and Scipio) seeming to converge in the vicinity of Capua. Thus the coalition held northern and central Italy and Sulla in the south. An interesting passage in the fourth century AD writer Iulius Exsuperantius, based upon Sallust, preserves the following:

… Sertorius forestalled the anger of the Senate at the public suffering, which the fighting between the leaders would cause, by passing a resolution that ‘the consuls should see to it that the state received no harm.’ This resolution of the Senate prompted the consuls to prepare defences of every kind against Sulla, who was advancing against them and threatening everyone with destruction; and they chose suitable generals, including Sertorius, who would direct the war energetically. After preparing a very strong army, the consuls marched out and in spite of Sertorius’ objections they agreed to discussions between their army and Sulla’s army.

This interesting passage has a distinctly pro-Sertorian tinge and details that we do not find even in Plutarch’s biography of Sertorius. It also illustrates the obvious unease amongst the Senate and People of Rome about the oncoming war and gave the coalition a clear legal mandate to go to war with Sulla.

The consuls marched towards Sulla with a combined force of 200 cohorts of 500 men (100,000 men in total), though we are not told the disposition of the two armies. We are told that Scipio was accompanied by Sertorius, whilst Norbanus had the younger Marius on his command staff.We also know that the two armies did not meet up before the first encounter with Sulla, though this may well have been their plan. The first battle of the war of 83/82 BC occurred between the armies of Sulla and Metellus on the one hand and Norbanus and Marius on the other.

Battle of Mount Tifata (Casilinum)

The two forces met to the east of Capua, on the foothills of Mount Tifata. The exact location is unknown, but Velleius states that it was by the River Vulturnus (the modern Volturno), which runs past the mountain. What we do not know are the circumstances of this encounter. Velleius has Sulla ascending the mountain with his forces when Norbanus’ forces attacked. The key question is what was Sulla doing there? Both Velleius and Plutarch link the mountain to religious factors, with Velleius mentioning the Temple of Diana on the mountain and Plutarch reporting that there was an apparition of two male goats, which was meant to be emblematic of the war.¹⁰ Aside from the spiritual aspect, Mount Tifata overlooks the city of Capua and the plain to its west. Thus we can ask whether Sulla was moving to occupy the city of Capua when Norbanus attacked. This situation is further complicated by the presence of the other coalition army under Scipio, which was also in the region. If Sulla was moving towards Capua why did Norbanus not wait until Scipio’s army joined him to deliver a knock-out blow? Furthermore, both Plutarch and Florus speak of Sulla immediately attacking the forces of Norbanus and immediately routing them:

Sulla, without either giving out an order of battle or forming his own army in companies, but taking advantage of a vigorous general alacrity and a transport of courage in them, routed the enemy and shut Norbanus up in the city of Capua, after slaying 7,000 of his men.¹¹

… The whole army of Norbanus was immediately routed …¹²

Unfortunately, that is all the narrative we have for the battle itself, though Orosius and Eutropius provide some additional detail on the casualty figures:

Sulla’s men slew 7,000 other Romans and captured 6,000; Sulla’s losses amounted to 124 killed.¹³

In the first battle he engaged with Norbanus not far from Capua, when he killed 7,000 of his men, and took 6,000 prisoners, losing only 124 of his own army.¹⁴

Despite these meagre details, the few surviving sources do give us two highly suggestive elements to consider. Firstly, Sulla managed to attack first and seemingly caught Norbanus’ forces by surprise. This is backed up by the one-sided casualty figures, with large numbers of Norbanus’ men killed or captured. Secondly, despite this apparent surprise attack, Norbanus was able to retreat into the city of Capua unopposed, which indicates that at the very least he was between the city and Sulla’s forces.

The first would suggest that it was Sulla who ambushed Norbanus and the second that Sulla had not entered the city of Capua, nor was laying siege to it. Taken together, this suggests that Norbanus was camped outside the city of Capua, perhaps awaiting Scipio’s army, when Sulla took the initiative and attacked first, thus preventing the joining of the two armies and having to face overwhelming numbers. Thus Sulla would have been able to disrupt the coalition strategy and pick off each army at his own pace. Whatever the manoeuvres which led to the battle, it was clear that first blood had gone to Sulla, and with Norbanus and the remnants of his army holed up in Capua, Sulla was free to face Scipio.

Sulla, Scipio and the Battle that Never Was

Leaving Norbanus in Capua, it seems that Sulla and Metellus took their forces into the field and settled near the town of Teanum (modern Teano), which occupied an important strategic position on the Via Latina. They also seem to have secured the nearby town of Suessa. Obviously, having heard of the defeat at Tifata, Scipio (and Sertorius) moved their army to Teanum to engage Sulla, but were met by a Sullan offer of a negotiated peace, which, whilst it was opposed by Sertorius, seems to have found favour with Scipio at least. Appian provides full narrative details of the situation:

Next, while Sulla and Metellus were near Teanum, L. Scipio advanced against them with another army, which was very downhearted and longed for peace. The Sullan faction knew this and sent envoys to Scipio to negotiate, not because they hoped for or desired to come to an arrangement, but because they expected to create dissension in Scipio’s army, which was in a state of dejection. In this they succeeded. Scipio took hostages for the conference and marched down to the plain. Only three from each side conferred, so that what passed between them is not known. It seems, however, that during the armistice Scipio sent Sertorius to his colleague Norbanus, to communicate with him the ongoing negotiations, whilst there was a cessation of hostilities. Sertorius on his way [to Capua] captured the town of Suessa, which had joined the side of Sulla, and Sulla made a compliant of this to Scipio. The latter, either because he was privy to the affair or because he did not know what answer to make concerning the strange act of Sertorius, sent back Sulla’s hostages. His army blamed the consul for the unjustifiable seizure of Suessa during the armistice and for the surrender of the hostages, who were not demanded back and made secret agreement with Sulla to defect, if he drew nearer. This he did and straight away they all went over en masse, so that the consul Scipio, and his son, Lucius, alone of the whole army were left not knowing what to do, in their tent when they were captured by Sulla.¹⁵

The account is supported by that of Plutarch, but contains some important differences:

[Sulla] invited Scipio to make terms of peace. He [Scipio] accepted the offer and several meetings were held; but Sulla continually interposed some pretext for gaining time, and gradually corrupted Scipio’s soldiers by means of his own [soldiers], who were practiced in deceit and every kind of trickery, like their general himself. For they entered the camp of their enemies, mingled freely with them and gradually won them over to Sulla’s cause, some at once with money, others with promises and others still with persuasive flatteries. And finally, when Sulla drew near with twenty cohorts, men greeted those of Scipio who answered their greetings and went over to them. Scipio who was left alone, was taken in his tent, but dismissed, while Sulla, who had used his twenty cohorts as decoy birds to catch the forty cohorts of the enemy led them all back to his camp. It was on this occasion that Carbo is said to have remarked that in making war upon the fox and the lion in Sulla, he was more annoyed by the fox.¹⁶

Thus Sulla was able to defeat a second consular army in a row, this time without a single clash of swords. For the second time in a few years he had managed to subvert an opposing army to his cause, resulting in a wholesale defection, the other being that of Fimbria in 85 BC. Not only did he defeat a second consul, but he added the consular forces to his own, more than doubling his strength.

Aside from the result, perhaps the most interesting feature of this episode concerns the role of Sertorius. Three further sources touch on Sertorius’ role in this affair. Plutarch in his biography of Sertorius dismisses the affair with a few lines, stating that Sertorius warned Scipio of what would happen but that Scipio ignored him.¹⁷ This is the line taken by Exsuperantius (and thus possibly Sallust).¹⁸ Plutarch’s account of the incident in his biography of Sulla makes no mention at all of Sertorius; he mentions neither the Suessa affair nor Sertorius’ role in breaking the armistice.¹⁹ Velleius takes this silence in Plutarch one stage further by reporting that Sulla captured Sertorius along with Scipio and his command staff, all of whom were later released.²⁰

Velleius’ statement is the only one to survive in the ancient sources concerning Sertorius’ capture, and Spann dismisses it as being a Sullan fabrication, most likely from his memoirs.²¹ Plutarch seems to ignore a number of aspects of this incident, which painted Sertorius in a poor light, as apparently did Sallust or at least his epitomator Exsuperantius. Unless Sertorius had orders from Scipio (which seems unlikely, given the present evidence), his actions were a remarkable breach of military discipline and a clear attempt to force an end to the negotiations and avoid Scipio being suckered in by the proffered peace process. If this was the case, it seems at best to have been too little too late, and at worst counter productive.

What can we say about the capture of Sertorius? Initially, this depends upon whether Sertorius returned to Scipio after taking Suessa and meeting Norbanus at Capua. To return to his commander after so flagrant a breach of an armistice would have been a bold act in itself, even more so if he suspected Scipio’s army of treachery. Furthermore, if he did return and was captured, would Sulla have so easily forgiven him? Velleius himself marks this out as an unusual move for Sulla, given his notorious low threshold for forgiving enemies, especially as the two had clashed in 88 BC,²² and puts it down to ‘a notable example of a double and utterly contradictory personality in one and the same man.’²³

All that we know of Sertorius is that he returned from Campania and was sent to Etruria to recruit fresh troops for the war effort, prior to leaving for Spain, where he had been appointed governor of Nearer Spain. Plutarch again misses out the Etrurian role and has him heading off to Spain in disgust at Scipio’s incompetence; seeing the ‘writing on the wall’, he wished to distance himself from the coalition and their seeming defeat.²⁴ Yet given the Suessa incident, both Etruria and Spain (which were minor, non-combat roles) could have been a sign of his fall from grace and punishment for his appalling lack of discipline. His military record at that time was a solid but unspectacular one, and now it was blighted by Suessa. Exsuperantius states that he was sent to Spain because the coalition needed a competent commander in that province and to be rid of a nuisance.²⁵

We do know that Sulla released Scipio and his son, after failing to convince him to join his side. But then Scipio was a serving consul and had shown himself to be utterly inept at military matters, and so releasing him was not necessarily aiding his opponents, and in fact may have had the opposite effect. Sulla provided him with a cavalry escort and safe conduct to any city he chose. It seems that he chose to return to Rome to continue as consul, and according to Diodorus, was once again put in command of an army.²⁶

Thus Sulla had achieved the two quick victories he needed to confirm his credentials as the likely winner in this war, and he increased his forces at the same time. For the coalition, the defection of a whole army (for the second time) must have been as hard a blow as the defeat at Mount Tifata, highlighting their weak position for all to see.

3. Stalemate in Italy

Despite the apparent weakness of the coalition, it appears that Sulla was unable to capitalize on these victories to bring the war to a swift conclusion. Whilst the capture of Scipio was a victory, he failed to convince the serving consul to join his side, which would have been a boost to Sulla’s official position, if not his military capacity. With a captive Scipio proving to be of little intrinsic value, he therefore seems to have chosen the lesser of two evils and released the man, possibly with Scipio’s other commanders, in a show of clemency. This may also have been related to his opening negotiations with the other consul, C. Norbanus, who was still based in Capua. Sulla apparently had neither the men nor the time to engage in a siege of the city. In fact, despite the 13,000 men lost or captured, Norbanus would still have had a considerable force at his disposal.

Appian reports that Sulla attempted to play the same trick on Norbanus that he had pulled on Scipio, but to no avail; Sulla’s envoys got no response, as Norbanus was determined to continue the war.²⁷ Thus, despite the two victories over the consuls, neither could be convinced to sue for peace, and so the war continued. Appian reports that both Sulla and Norbanus went on the offensive in the Campania, with both sides attacking the allies of the other in the region, and destroying anything that could be of use to the enemy.²⁸ However, it does seem that Norbanus had learnt his lesson and he avoided another full-scale battle, but both armies continued to harry the other. Thus again we have echoes of Hannibal, with Norbanus shadowing Sulla with a large army, whilst apparently refusing to give battle, and thus avoiding handing Sulla the further advantage of another victory.

Whilst the consuls were seemingly determined to continue the war, it seems that this view was not shared by all the senatorial oligarchy. The Periochae of Livy reports that a large number of defections took place among the leading men of Rome.²⁹ Of these leading men, only one is known of for sure: the Cornelius Cethegus who was one of the twelve hostes of 88 BC, along with Marius and Sulpicius. This marked him as one of the close adherents of the elder Marius, and his defection would have been a propaganda coup for Sulla, who promptly pardoned Cethegus. We have no other details of senatorial defections, but the Periochae of Livy describes Rome as seeming abandoned, though this may refer to a general abandonment of the city by a populace who expected an attack from Sulla any day.

As a matter of fact, it seems that senatorial and city business continued as normal. However, the number of physical defections to Sulla’s camp must have been matched by the number of the neutrals in the Senate who wanted a negotiated peace. It seems that the situation was only salvaged for the coalition by the actions of Carbo, who swiftly returned to Rome and re-imposed coalition control of the Senate. Appian reports that he had the assemblies pass a motion declaring as enemies of the state Metellus and all those who had defected to Sulla.³⁰ This must have meant that Cethegus earned the dubious distinction of being declared an enemy of state by both principal factions.

4. The Capitol Fire

Rome itself suffered in this year, though not through the expected Sullan siege. Midway through the year, on 6 July, the Capitol of Rome caught fire, with the resulting destruction of all the original buildings on the Capitol, many dating back to the early days of the Republic.³¹ Thus the buildings on the Capitol that had survived the Sack of Rome in c.390 BC did not survive Rome’s First Civil War. Apparently, a number of people at the time put this fire down to divine providence, a warning of the consequences of Roman fighting Roman. A number of others claimed it was the work of human agents, though opinion was divided on whether they were acting on Sulla’s orders or Carbo’s. Appian summed the situation up the best:

It was at this time that the Capitol was burned. Some attributed this deed to Carbo, others to the consuls, others to agents of Sulla; but of the exact facts there was no evidence; nor am I able to now conjecture what caused the fire.³²

One could see why the coalition would want to attribute this disaster to human hands, especially Sulla’s, if only to avoid the charge of being disfavoured by the Gods. History has a more famous example of a Roman fire being blamed on scapegoats, but this does not turn Carbo into a new Nero. If it was an accident, the timing (during a period of open civil warfare) does seem coincidental, but this may have been just one of those quirks of history. In practical terms, the destruction of the most ancient part of the city, and its religious heart, would have been a blow to the Roman government and people.

5. Preparations for Renewed Warfare – The Revolt of Cn. Pompeius

Thus it seems that on both the military and political fronts, the coalition managed to salvage the situation and avert full-scale disaster. Through his use of harrying tactics and refusal to give battle, Norbanus managed to stabilize the military situation and keep Sulla confined to southern Italy. By his swift and decisive actions in Rome, it seems that Carbo managed to stabilize the political situation. Therefore, with both a swift military resolution and a negotiated settlement ruled out, both sides set about rearming and equipping for the war ahead, which seems to have taken the rest of 83 BC.

For Sulla, the most notable reinforcements arrived in the shape of a legion commanded by the twenty-three-year-old son of Cn. Pompeius Strabo (Cos. 89), one of the key figures in the war of 87 BC. The young man’s name was Cn. Pompeius, soon to be known as Magnus (the Great). He had spent the years between his father’s death and Sulla’s invasion in Rome on the edges of the Cinnan regime. By 83 BC, he had made his way to Picenum on the Adriatic coast and his father’s estates. Seeing the way the war was going and having no intention of turning up in Sulla’s camp empty handed, he raised an army from his father’s veterans and family supporters in the Picentine region and declared for Sulla. The sources differ on the size of his army; Plutarch states that it was three legions, whilst Appian has him raising just one in Picenum and a further two after he had joined Sulla.³³

Pompeius then proceeded to seize the city of Auximum (modern Osimo) from the supporters of Carbo, and then marched from Picenum towards southern Italy with the intent of stirring up rebellion from coalition rule as he went. Naturally enough, the coalition did not tolerate such open rebellion and three junior officers were dispatched to deal with Pompeius: L. Iunius Brutus Damasippus, C. Carrinas and a Cloelius, each with their own forces, though no figures are given for their respective sizes.³⁴

Unnamed Battle

Plutarch reports that the three coalition forces attempted to surround Pompeius’ army, but that Pompeius took the offensive and attacked the nearest one, commanded by Iunius Brutus:

Pompeius, however, was not alarmed, but collected all his forces into one body and hastened to attack one of the approaching armies, that of Brutus, putting his cavalry, amongst whom he himself rode, at the forefront. When the Celtic horsemen rode out from the enemy’s cavalry against him, he promptly attacked the nearest and sturdiest amongst them, attacked him with his spear, and brought him down. The rest then turned and fled and threw their infantry into confusion so that there was a general rout. The opposing commanders fell out with each other and then retired, each as best they could’.³⁵

Thus the young Pompeius had won his first battle, admittedly against other junior officers. Plutarch goes on to list two more battles that Pompeius fought as he marched across Italy to reach Sulla, the first apparently against the consul Scipio.

Unnamed Battle

According to Plutarch, Scipio marched out against Pompeius, though we must treat the account carefully:

Next, Scipio the consul came up against him, but before the lines of battle were within reach of each other’s javelins, Scipio’s soldiers saluted Pompeius’ and came over to their side and Scipio took flight.³⁶

Thus we apparently have Scipio losing yet another army to defection. This has naturally led many commentators to assume that Plutarch is confusing the Sullan incident against Scipio with the Pompeian one. And certainly, we cannot dismiss the chance of their being a clash between Scipio and Pompeius. A fragment of Diodorus mentions that Scipio did indeed take up a fresh command, and we have no clear timescale for Pompeius’ campaigns in relation to those of Sulla.³⁷ In point of fact, most ancient sources seem to have Pompeius meeting Sulla almost as soon as he landed, allowing no time for the amassing and equipping of an army, or the battles Plutarch describes, never mind the march itself. Furthermore, crushing the rebellion of a young man with little military experience, as they would have seen it, would have been the perfect opportunity for Scipio to contribute something to the war effort without being out of his depth (as he was against Sulla). It seems, however, that this was not the case, and that Scipio’s military ability was well below the mark for a Roman general, especially one who bore such an illustrious name. Thus it is perfectly possible that Scipio was defeated once again, this time by Pompeius.

Battle of the River Arsis

The third clash took place between the forces of Pompeius and a large force of cavalry sent out by Carbo himself, though he does not seem to have been present. Again, as with his first battle, Pompeius seems to have attacked the enemy first and routed them. He then pursued them onto rough ground that was unsuitable for cavalry and forced them to surrender, probably adding them to his growing army.

Thus Pompeius fought his way through central Italy to meet up with Sulla’s army at some point in mid to late 83 BC. Famously, when the two men met, Pompeius hailed Sulla as imperator, an acknowledgment of his imperium, but Sulla apparently returned the greeting, hailing Pompeius as imperator also, an acknowledgement of his practical power though, rather than an official position. Given the young man’s undoubted abilities, Sulla must have assumed that it was better to keep him close and use him as a legate rather than stand on ceremony about his youth and inability to command troops under the formal cursus honorum. Furthermore, given the youth’s uncanny ability to command an army and his lineage (his father being as unscrupulous as they come, with an uncanny ability to manipulate armed forces for his own ends), it must have been expedient for Sulla to keep Pompeius onside and deal with him later, when the war was won. As events turned out, this was more easily said than done. We must also not forget that it was Pompeius’ father who had had Q. Pompeius Rufus, Sulla’s consular colleague in 88 BC, murdered (see Chapter 3).

6. In the Shadow of Pompeius – M. Licinius Crassus

We are told, by a fragment of Diodorus, that Pompeius’ actions were used by Sulla to berate a number of his allies, especially the senators who had recently arrived in his camp, as they had come empty handed and Pompeius brought legions and victories. Certainly, Pompeius would not have been welcomed by many in Sulla’s camp, especially those older commanders who had been with Sulla for a number of years.

Furthermore, the case of Pompeius should remind us of that of M. Licinius Crassus, the youngest and only surviving son of P. Licinius Crassus (Cos. 97), who had helped to defend Rome in 87 BC against Marius and Cinna (see Chapter 3). The younger Crassus had fled the city, most likely before it capitulated, and fled to family friends in Spain. He too declared for Sulla, but in c.84 BC also raised his own army, fighting first in Spain, albeit briefly, and then crossing to Africa to take part in the Metellan uprising of 84 BC (see Chapter 5). When this uprising failed, he then transported the reminder of his forces to Greece, to join up with Sulla, who also apparently greeted him warmly, with Plutarch stating that Crassus stood in ‘a position of special honour’.³⁸ This position of precocious and talented youth appears to have been taken by Pompeius, who was only a few years his junior.³⁹ Thus we can see the clear parallels between the two men. This was a rivalry that came to define both the latter stages of the First Civil War and the late Republic as a whole.

Crassus does not seem to have played a major part in the early stages of the Sullan campaign, and it cannot have helped that Metellus had rejoined Sulla in Italy and become his de-facto deputy, given the clashes the two men had had during the failed Metellan uprising in Africa. We are told that once in Italy, Sulla sent Crassus on a recruitment drive amongst the Marsi, which is interesting in itself, given their role and Sulla’s in the Italian War. Plutarch also specifically records a clash between Sulla and Crassus, and that Sulla expressed doubts about his character, though how much of this was tainted by his later years is impossible to judge.⁴⁰ Thus, as one star rose, another seemed to fade.

Both Plutarch and Appian record some of the general activities that Sulla undertook to bolster his forces in this period. They both record that Sulla sent emissaries (mostly his younger legates, such as Crassus), to all the regions of Italy, to raise fresh troops, whether by alliance, threats or bribes, though again we are unable to accurately judge the levels of success. However, we are told on a number of occasions that the Italian communities stayed loyal to the coalition, a fact that would have hampered Sullan recruitment.⁴¹

7. The Coalition Forces – The Rise of C. Marius

Sulla was not alone in the promotion of talented youth. Whilst he had both Pompeius and Crassus to call upon, the coalition chose to promote a new figurehead, C. Marius, son of the seven-time consul. At the age of twenty-six, he surpassed both Pompeius and Crassus to become the youngest consul Rome had ever seen, being some sixteen years short of the mandatory age.⁴² However, it seems that the election of one so young to the consulship did not pass smoothly, with the Periochae of Livy recording that he was only elected following violence, though again we have no further details.⁴³

His fellow consul was none other than Cn. Papirius Carbo, who took his third consulship in four years. It is clear from this that Carbo had tired of the previous year’s experiment with fresh consuls, given that Norbanus had been easily defeated in battle and Scipio had been stripped of his army at least once, possibly twice, including by the twenty-three-year-old Pompeius. Carbo was undoubtedly the senior surviving figure in the coalition and needed to take total control of the war for the crucial year ahead, which both sides hoped would be decisive. Despite his young age, having the son of the great Marius as consul would be a major boost to shoring up any wavering Marian supporters and would give the coalition a new figurehead who could tap into a glorious past, unlike himself. The major issue would be his military inexperience. Thus the civil war saw a twenty-six-year-old leader on one side and a twenty-three-year-old one on the other.

Norbanus seems to have received a proconsulship and was dispatched to Cisalpine Gaul, with Carbo and Marius taking command against Sulla in the south. Wisely, it appears that Scipio was removed from the military side of operations and left in Rome. Sertorius, another figure from the early years of the coalition, was chosen as praetor for Nearer Spain, and after conducting a recruitment drive in Etruria (see above) he was dispatched to his province. According to Iulius Exsuperantius, he also had orders to settle affairs in Transalpine Gaul, province of C. Valerius Flaccus (see above), but again we have no further details.⁴⁴ L. Iunius Brutus and C. Carrinas, two of the young officers who had faced Pompeius in 83 BC, also were elected to the praetorship, with Carrinas heading south to join the fight against Sulla and Iunius Brutus staying in Rome as urban praetor. Given the lineage of the Iunii Brutii, as defenders of the Republic and tyrant-slayers, this was a good propaganda move.

With new and perhaps more robust commanders in place for the coming year, the coalition set about building up fresh forces, even though they already had a numerical advantage over Sulla. Appian records the following:

In the meantime, the forces of the consuls were constantly increasing from the major part of Italy, which still adhered to them, and also from neighbouring Gauls on the Po.⁴⁵

Thanks to Iulius Exsuperantius, we have more detail on this recruitment from central and northern Italy:

But the Etruscans were faithful supporters of Marius’ party, because they had received from them the Roman citizenship, which they did not possess before. They were afraid that Sulla would revoke the grant of this dignity, given to them by Marius’ party, if his enemies were completely destroyed. So they joined Sertorius and the other leaders of that party, promising that they would do everything which was commanded without demur. And so it happened that a strong army of forty cohorts was again assembled; and many soldiers, who had surrendered to Sulla on his arrival, returned to the camp of their former generals, whom they had betrayed, because their hopes of an agreement had been dashed.⁴⁶

Thus we can see that despite Sulla’s early victories, the bulk of the Italians did not appear to have gone over to him, or even remained neutral as he may have hoped. The coalition, especially with a Marius in command, could claim the success for the full awarding of citizenship to the Italian communities, whereas Sulla, who in 88 BC had ordered the murder of the men who supported this, would find it hard to shake off his old image, no matter how well he treated the locals. Furthermore, he was restricted to southern Italy, whilst the coalition had access to the manpower of central and northern Italy, as well as both Gauls and both Spains.

One crucial aspect is how these forces were paid for. We have already noted the difficult financial and economic climate in which the Roman state operated during this period (see Chapter 5). Brunt estimates the total number of troops the coalition had in the field at over 100,000.⁴⁷ Whilst the years of peace (in Italy at least) from 86 BC to 84 BC must have helped embed the financial reforms of 86 BC and give the state a breathing space financially, they were still without the revenues of the eastern empire. Both Pliny and Valerius Maximus record that Marius used the temple treasures, including those saved from the fire, to finance his campaigns, apparently authorized by senatorial decree, the total weight of it being 13,000 pounds.⁴⁸ It also appears that the government once again took to the minting of more and more coinage to pay for the increased military expenditure, wrecking the balanced financial settlement achieved only a few years before.⁴⁹

8. The War for Eastern Italy

We have no details of where Sulla spent the winter of 83/82 BC, but Appian reports that it was a harsh winter, which prevented any thought of further campaigning.⁵⁰ At some point, either during the winter or in early spring, the Sullan forces made a coordinated thrust northwards into central Italy, with Sulla on the west of Italy and Metellus the eastern coast (see Map 7), commanding an army of unknown size. His advance was met by the coalition forces led by the praetor C. Carrinas.

Battle of the River Aesis

Again, we have no details as to the size of the forces involved, but in what Appian indicates to be a major encounter, the forces of Carrinas were heavily defeated by those of Metellus, with Carrinas routed and his camp captured.⁵¹ Following the battle, Appian reports that the region defected to the Sullan cause. Plutarch does record that Crassus captured the city of Tuder in Umbria, though no other details are given.⁵²

Again, this placed the coalition on the back foot and Carbo himself moved to intercept Metellus. It seems that Carbo had greater success against Metellus and had him besieged, though we are not told where. We are also in the dark as to whether Metellus retreated in the face of superior coalition numbers in the form of Carbo’s army or whether he was defeated and forced to withdraw. What we do know is that Sulla dispatched reinforcements to relieve Metellus, whose forces were being pinned down by those of Carbo.

Appian reports that upon hearing the news of the defeat at Sacriportus (see below), Carbo broke off his engagement and retreated to Ariminum, being harried by Pompeius’ forces as he went.⁵³ Orosius, however, has Carbo’s camp being overrun by Pompeius’ forces, as he was withdrawing, which makes Pompeius’ arrival, rather than the news of Sacriportus, the key factor in Carbo’s retreat.⁵⁴ Whilst the exact chronology is now lost to us, it appears that Carbo regrouped his forces, as did Metellus, with two further key battles being fought.

Unnamed Battle

The larger of the two battles appears to have been between the forces of Carbo and those of Metellus. As is common, we have few details other than the fact that Metellus was victorious and that, again, a number of the coalition forces changed sides during the battle – five cohorts, according to Appian.⁵⁵ Such an occurrence can signal one of two key factors, if we are to believe our sources. The first one is that the bonds of loyalty were weak amongst the coalition forces, which were all freshly levied. This was no doubt aided by the nature of the conflict: Roman vs. Roman, with both sides guaranteeing the new citizen rights. Second, it would have been increasingly clear that Sulla was winning the war, with victories over three consuls in a row: Norbanus, Scipio and now the younger Marius.

Battle of Senae

The second clash took place between the junior commanders, who must have been in command of smaller forces, though again, we do not know their size. Here Pompeius faced the force of Carbo’s legate, C. Marcius, and emerged victorious, though again, we have no details of the encounter, not even from Plutarch’s life of Pompeius.⁵⁶

The War for Western Italy

As Metellus thrust into central Italy, it seems that Sulla mirrored his move with a thrust into Latium itself. Sulla advanced towards the city of Praeneste (modern Palestrina), Marius being camped in the vicinity. Following his capture of the town of Setia, the two forces engaged in battle.

Battle of Sacriportus

Appian and Plutarch preserve accounts of the battle:

After this, at Signia [Setia], Marius, with eighty-five cohorts, challenged Sulla to battle. Now Sulla was very eager to have the issue settled on that day, for he had seen a vision in his dreams, as follows. He thought he saw the elder Marius, who was long since dead, advising his son Marius to beware of the ensuing day, since it would bring him a great calamity. For this reason, then, Sulla was eager to fight a battle, and was trying to get Dolabella, who was encamped at some distance, to join him. But the enemy beset the roads and hemmed Sulla in, and his soldiers were worn out with fighting to open a passage.

Much rain also came upon them while they were at work and added to their distress. The tribunes therefore came to Sulla and begged him to defer the battle, showing him the soldiers prostrated with weariness and resting on their shields, which they had laid upon the ground.

Sulla yielded reluctantly, and gave orders to pitch a camp, but just as his men were beginning to dig a trench and throw the rampart before it, Marius attacked them confidently, riding ahead of his lines, and hoping to scatter his enemies while they were in disorder and confusion. There the Deity fulfilled the words which Sulla had heard in his dreams. For Sulla’s rage imparted itself to his soldiers, and leaving off their work, they planted their javelins in the trench, drew their swords, and with a general shout came to close quarters with their enemies. These did not hold their ground long, but took to flight, and were slain in great numbers.

Marius fled to Praeneste, but found the gate already closed. A rope was thrown down to him, however, and after fastening this around his waist, he was hoisted to the top of the wall. But there are some who say, and Fenestella is one of these, that Marius knew nothing of the battle, but was forced by loss of sleep and weariness to cast himself upon the ground in a shady place when the signal for battle was given, and there gave way to sleep, and was then roused with difficulty when the rout took place.⁵⁷ In this battle, Sulla says he lost only twenty-three men, but killed 20,000 of the enemy, and took 8,000 prisoners.⁵⁸

Sulla captured the town of Setia. Marius, who was encamped near by, drew a little farther away. When he arrived at the so-called sacred lake [Sacriportus] he gave battle and fought bravely. When his left wing began to give way, five cohorts of foot and two of horse decided not to wait for open defeat, but lowered their standards together and went over to Sulla. This was the beginning of a terrible disaster to Marius. His shattered army fled to Praeneste with Sulla in hot pursuit. The Praenestians gave shelter to those who arrived first, but when Sulla pressed upon them the gates were closed, and Marius was hauled up by ropes. There was another great slaughter around the walls by reason of the closing of the gates. Sulla captured a large number of prisoners. All the Samnites among them he killed, because they were always ill-affected toward the Romans.⁵⁹

Eutropius, Orosius and Diodorus preserve brief notices of the battle, which give some additional, and variant, casualty figures:

Sulla came to battle with Marius the younger, and killed 15,000 men, with the loss of only 400.⁶⁰

The greatest battle of the war was fought between Sulla and the young son of Marius at Sacriportus, where, according to Claudius, the army of Marius lost 25,000 troops.⁶¹

Marius put up a valiant struggle against Sulla, but was nevertheless defeated and sought refuge in Praeneste with 15,000 men.⁶²

Plutarch has Marius catching Sulla unawares with a surprise attack, which must have been late in the day, and certainly does not have Marius sleeping during the battle. Appian chose to focus on another defection of Roman forces from the coalition to Sulla, a common theme in this war. All sources are unanimous that the battle was one of the turning points of the war. Marius appears to have had an army of over 40,000, of which only 15,000 made it into the safety of Praeneste. On this occasion, Sulla did not waste the opportunity and laid siege to the city, bottling up one of the key coalition leaders. Appian reports that Sulla had siege lines dug around the town and left the siege in the charge of a legate Q. Lucretius Ofella, a former Marian supporter, whilst he continued his campaigns northwards.⁶³ The Periochae of Livy and Velleius report that Marius’ attempts to break out were repulsed.⁶⁴

10. The Fall of Rome

With Marius defeated in western Italy and Carbo defeated in the centre, it appears that the path to Rome now lay open to Sulla. In an attempt to forestall the few remaining neutrals in the Senate from welcoming Sulla into Rome, Marius managed to send word from the besieged city of Praeneste to Rome, which was under the command of the urban praetor, L. Iunius Brutus Damasippus. Brutus then organized a massacre of the remaining neutral senators whilst the Senate was in session, some even in the Senate House itself. Amongst the victims were the pontifex maximusQ. Mucius Scaevola, the noted orator P. Antistius (a former ally of Sulpicius), L. Domitius (Ahenobarbus) (Cos. 94), and even a brother of the consul Carbo (see Appendix III).

In military terms, however, the massacre mattered little, as there seems to have been no major coalition forces between Sulla and Rome. That being the case, Sulla dispatched a large detachment of his army towards Rome to seize and hold the various city gates. They apparently encountered no opposition along the way, with all the towns on the route surrendering without a fight. With seemingly no ability to defend the city, certainly not in the manner of 87 BC, Brutus and the remaining coalition forces fled Rome. With a defenceless Rome before him, Sulla mustered his army in the Campus Martius and entered Rome unopposed, six years after he first seized the city. For the third time in six years, Rome had fallen to an approaching hostile army.

On this occasion, it seems that there was no bloodshed, mostly on account of there being no coalition supporters left in Rome. Sulla, however, did not savour his return for long, as the war still raged throughout central and northern Italy. He stayed long enough to seize and sell the property of the coalition leaders and summon an assembly of the people (the few that remained). We are not told what measures were passed, but the overturning of his hostes status and his official exile, along with that of his key supporters, must have been a key consideration.

11. The War for Central and Northern Italy

Not staying in Rome long, Sulla and his army set out north into Etruria. Appian reports his destination to be Clusium, which seems to have been the new headquarters of the coalition forces led by the consul Cn. Carbo and the former consul C. Norbanus.

Battles of River Clanis and Saturnia

On route to Clusium, Appian informs us that Sulla was twice involved in skirmishes with coalition, forces, first at the River Clanis and then at Saturnia. The location of these two battles, or skirmishes as they probably were, is interesting. The direct route from Rome to Clusium is along the Via Cassia. Yet Saturnia lies to the west of the Cassia, towards the ocean, and the River Clanis lies to the east (see Map 7). We must assume that both sides had skirmishing parties strung out on either side of the Via Cassia looking for their enemy. During the skirmish at the Clanis, Sulla defeated a small detachment of Celtiberian cavalry sent by Carbo, killing fifty, with another 270 deserting to his side. For the clash at Saturnia we have no details whatsoever.

Battle of Clusium

Sulla faced Carbo at Clusium, in what is referred to as a severe but inconclusive battle. The only details we have come from Appian, who refers to it as an all-day battle, ended by the onset of nightfall, with no clear conclusion.⁶⁵ As is usual for this period, we are not told the size of the forces involved, yet they must have been considerable, as Carbo was later able to spare eight legions to send to Praeneste (see below). Velleius also mentions Clusium and has the two Servilius brothers playing a prominent part, though again we have no details.⁶⁶

Sulla’s march towards Clusium seems to have formed the western part of a three-pronged thrust by Sullan forces up into central Italy. In the centre we hear of Pompeius and Crassus advancing via the Via Flaminia through Umbria, and Metellus Pius advancing up the eastern coast by sea. The advance of Pompeius and Crassus was blocked by a legate of Carbo, C. Carrinas. The two forces met in battle at the city of Spoletium.

Battle of Spoletium

Appian informs us that the battle resulted in a defeat for Carrinas, who lost 3,000 men, though we are not informed of the sizes of the respective armies. Following the battle, Carrinas was besieged in Spoletium.⁶⁷

Second Battle of Spoletium

Upon hearing of his legate’s defeat, Carbo sent reinforcements to break the siege of Spoletium. However, Sulla ambushed them as they were making their way from Clusium to Spoletium, at an unknown location, and killed 2,000 of them (again, we do not know the size of the forces in total). Following this defeat, and with no hope of reinforcements, Carrinas managed to escape Spoletium under cover of a rain storm. Meanwhile, Metellus landed seemingly unopposed, in the vicinity of Ravenna on the northeast coast of Italy, and secured the region for Sulla, outflanking Carbo. With deadlock on the Via Cassia and the Via Flaminia, Appian informs us that Carbo changed tactics and dispatched a sizeable part of his army, eight legions in fact, commanded by C. Marcius Censorinus, to march south, thus bypassing Sulla, Pompeius and Crassus, and relieve the siege of Praeneste and free Marius.⁶⁸

Unnamed Battle

Unfortunately for Marcius, these eight legions were ambushed by Pompeius. Appian preserves some details of the battle:

Pompeius fell upon them from ambush in a defile, defeated them, killed a large number, and surrounded the remainder on a hill. Marcius made his escape, leaving his fires burning. His army blamed him for being caught in an ambush and stirred up an angry mutiny. One whole legion marched off under their standards to Ariminum without orders. The rest separated and went home in squads, so that only seven cohorts remained with their general. Marcius, having made a mess of it in this way, returned to Carbo.⁶⁹

Thus, through battle and mutiny, Marcius managed to lose virtually the whole of the eight legions under his command, in what at best was a calculated gamble in trying to break through the Sullan forces and relieve the siege of Praeneste. The coalition forces could not sustain such losses. Following this defeat, Carbo and Norbanus retreated northwards, towards Metellus’ forces.

Some relief came in the form of the Samnite army, which appeared around this time and attempted to relieve Praeneste (see below). Although the attempt was unsuccessful, the emergence of a fresh force in central Italy did force Sulla to disengage from Clusium and reinforce the siege of Praeneste by occupying the key pass that led to the city. Although the siege remained in place and Marius remained neutralized, it did provide the forces of Carbo and Norbanus with some brief respite.

Battle of Faventia

Faced with an overwhelming Sullan force to their south, and Metellus to their northeast, Carbo and Norbanus clearly needed to avoid being caught between the two forces and seemingly chose to eliminate the weaker force of Metellus and secure northern Italy. Appian again preserves the fullest account of the battle, though Orosius also adds some detail:

About the same time, Carbo and Norbanus went by a short road to attack the camp of Metellus in Faventia just before nightfall. There was only one hour of daylight left, and there were thick vineyards thereabout. They made their plans for battle in hot temper and not with good judgment, hoping to take Metellus unawares and to stampede him. But they were beaten, both the place and the time being unfavourable for them. They became entangled in the vines, and suffered a heavy slaughter, losing some 10,000 men. About 6,000 more deserted, and the rest were dispersed, only 1,000 getting back to Ariminum in good order. Another legion of Lucanians under Albinovanus, when they heard of this defeat, went over to Metellus, to the great chagrin of their leader.⁷⁰

Metellus crushed an army commanded by Norbanus in an encounter in which 9,000 of the Marius faction were killed.⁷¹

Thus the coalition forces suffered another defeat in central and northern Italy and were faced with being caught in a tighter Sullan noose. The whole campaign had been marked by one disastrous defeat after another, with the coalition commanders, Carbo, Norbanus and Censorinus proving no match for their Sullan counterparts. The effect of these continuous strings of defeats was to convince the coalition armies and their allies that their cause was lost, and hence the high rate of defections.

The most notable of these defections was that of P. Albinovanus, a legate of Norbanus, who was one of the supporters of Marius and Sulpicius when they defended Rome against Sulla and Pompeius Rufus in 88 BC, and was most likely one of the twelve hostesdeclared by the consuls (see Chapter 3). Having been present at the disaster at Fidentia and lost his own legion to desertion, he determined to defect to Sulla.

Given his history, he clearly determined that he needed his defection to be of great value. To this end, he organized a feast for Norbanus and his legates, along with a number of Carbo’s legates, at Norbanus’ headquarters in Ariminum. All except Norbanus turned up and were promptly murdered. We are only told of two victims: C. (Coleius) Antipater and a Flavius Fimbria, brother of the coalition commander killed in Asia (see Chapter 3).⁷² Such a loss not only wiped out Norbanus’ command staff, but the coalition forces at his headquarters in Ariminum declared for Sulla as well. Norbanus choose this moment to flee Italy, taking ship to Rhodes, where he later committed suicide rather than be handed over to Sulla.

Norbanus’ flight left only Carbo and his legates fighting in northern Italy. We are told that he again tried to send forces to relieve the siege of Praeneste, this time with two legions under L. Iunius Brutus Damasippus, but that they could not force their way past Sulla’s forces, though we are not told of any actual battle. The only other military encounter we know of came at Fidentia between one of Carbo’s legates, Quinctius, and a Sullan legate, M. Tarentius Varro Lucullus.

Battle of Fidentia

Plutarch and Orosius preserve accounts of the battle:

And still further, at Fidentia, when Marcus Lucullus, one of Sulla’s commanders, with sixteen cohorts confronted fifty cohorts of the enemy, although he had confidence in the readiness of his soldiers, still, as most of them were without arms, he hesitated to attack. But while he was waiting and deliberating, from the neighbouring plain, which was a meadow, a gentle breeze brought a quantity of flowers and scattered them down upon his army; they settled of their own accord and enveloped the shields and helmets of the soldiers, so that to the enemy these appeared to be crowned with garlands. This circumstance made them more eager for the fray, and they joined battle, won the victory, killed 18,000 of the enemy, and took their camp. This Lucullus was a brother of the Lucullus who afterwards subdued Mithridates and Tigranes.⁷³

When Lucullus was being besieged by Quinctius, he sallied forth and by a sudden attack destroyed the besieging army. More than 10,000, according to report, were slain.⁷⁴

Once again, a coalition army was caught in a Sullan ambush, this time from a supposedly superior position of being the besieging force. Following this string of defeats, Appian tells us that the Gallic inhabitants of northern Italy defected to Metellus.⁷⁵ Appian helpfully sums up the remaining collation forces in central Italy. Carbo was headquartered at Clusium with 30,000 men. Brutus Damasippus had two legions, whilst Carrinas and Censorinus had additional forces as well. In addition, there were the 70,000 men commanded by the Samnite leaders (see below).

Thus despite all their defeats and defections, the coalition could still muster an army of more than 100,000 soldiers. Despite this, it seems that Carbo, like Norbanus before him, now lost his nerve, and he and few close confidantes took ship to Sicily, planning to seek refuge and regroup their forces in coalition-held Africa (see Chapter 7), leaving behind over 30,000 men at Clusium. Command of this coalition army now seems to have fallen to an unofficial triumvirate of Carrinas, Brutus Damasippus and Marcius Censorinus.

Second Battle of Clusium

Seemingly eager to finish off the war in Italy, it seems that Pompeius attacked the coalition forces at Clusium, hoping to take advantage of Carbo’s desertion no doubt. Only Appian preserves a brief mention of this the last battle of the central Italian campaign and the penultimate battle of this war in Italy:

… The army around Clusium had a battle with Pompeius in which they lost 20,000. Naturally, after this greatest disaster of all, the remainder of the army dissolved in fragments and each man went to his own home. Carrinas, Marcius, and Damasippus went with all the forces they had to the pass in order to force their way through it in conjunction with the Samnites.⁷⁶

Thus, the final remnants of Carbo and Norbanus’ army were destroyed by Pompeius at Clusium. However, this did not mean the end of the war. The few forces that remained loyal were taken by the triumvirate of coalition commanders to join the 70,000-strong army of the Samnites. As shown repeatedly this year, attempts to relieve the siege of Praeneste and rescue the consul Marius (the highest ranking coalition commander still in Italy and a clear figurehead for the coalition as a whole) had proved to be impossible, due to the Sullan siege of the city. Thus the coalition forces made one last bold move: an attack on Rome itself, which was lightly defended since Sulla occupied it earlier in the year.

12. The Renewal of the Samnite Campaign

Part of the way through Appian’s account of the campaign of 82 BC he suddenly introduces an army of 70,000 led by three men: M. Lamponius, Pontius Telesinus and Gutta.⁷⁷ The first two of these men were the only key surviving leaders of the Samnite alliance during the war of 91–87 BC, and were last seen (in our surviving sources at least) being defeated in their attempt to size Rhegium and take the war to Sicily (Chapter 3). The sudden appearance of this separate army in the latter stages of this war is intriguing, to say the least. From the few scattered references we have, we know that the armies of the coalition had Samnites and Lucanians amongst their number throughout the fighting of 83 and 82 BC.⁷⁸ Yet the apparent sudden emergence of this massive force led by the surviving Samnite leaders points to a new phenomenon. It appears that with Italy in chaos and Sulla gaining the upper hand, the Samnite leaders re-forged their earlier alliance and raised a fresh army to stop Sulla from gaining victory in Italy, thus uniting the two strands of the civil war.

Given the history between Sulla and the Samnite alliance and his victories against them in 89 BC, there was clearly no love lost between the two parties. Furthermore, it is clear that the alliance did not put much faith in Sulla’s promises of keeping the newly established status quo. Both Florus and Velleius comment on the Samnite army:

Lamponius and Telesinus, the leaders of the Samnites, were laying waste to Campania and Etruria with even more brutality than Pyrrhus or Hannibal and were exacting vengeance on their own account under the pretence of helping their [the coalition’s] cause.⁷⁹

On the Kalends of November, Pontius Telesinus, a Samnite chief, brave in spirit and in action and hating to the core the very name of Rome, having collected about him 40,000 of the bravest and most steadfast youth who still persisted in retaining arms …⁸⁰

Thus, for both sources, the Samnite army was fighting against Rome for their own cause, which merely overlapped with that of the coalition, in terms of ends rather than aims. This links in to the one great unknown factor about the Samnite alliance in this period: namely, what their actual status was in the period between 87 and 82 BC in Italy. The terms of the peace treaty that the surviving rebels conducted with Cinna in 87 BC are not clear beyond the issuing of citizenship to those who wanted it and the return of property and deserters (see Chapter 4). Given that they had negotiated from a position of strength and backed the winning side in 87 BC, many commentators have speculated that the Samnite alliance spent the intervening years with a far greater degree of autonomy from Rome. If that was the case, then it is clear that they believed that Sulla would not honour the Cinnan agreement and thus were forced to take the field once more as a quasi-independent alliance of states against Sulla.

In military terms, it seems at first that they were acting in concert with the remaining coalition leaders, Carbo and Norbanus, by attempting to relieve Praeneste and free Marius, taking up where the others had left off. Nevertheless, as Appian reports, this attempt was not successful, thanks to the reinforcing of the siege by Sulla himself.⁸¹ However, with the flight of Carbo and Norbanus and the destruction of the remaining coalition forces at Clusium, this Samnite alliance army soon found itself the only opponent in the field against Sulla. Uniting with the survivors of the Clusium defeat, including the triumvirate of remaining coalition leaders, Brutus, Marcius and Carrinas, the alliance determined on a bold course of action: the seizure of Rome.

Throughout this war, control of Rome brought legitimacy, through control of the Senate and assemblies. With these organs of state, one’s enemies could be declared enemies of the state and empire, and the wider world would acknowledge you as the legitimate representative of the Senate and People, providing access to far greater resources. Furthermore, although the coalition forces had been defeated in Italy, they still held the western empire and both consulships. If Rome could be retaken and held, then Marius could be freed from Praeneste and Carbo could return from Sicily. Two of the three coalition leaders with the Samnite army were serving praetors (Brutus being the urban praetor), who could legitimately direct the organs of the Republic, albeit backed up with a 70,000-strong Samnite army. Everything that Sulla had won to date could be overturned if they could seize and hold Rome.

Battle of Colline Gate

With Rome lightly defended, the united Samnite–coalition army marched swiftly towards Rome, camping in the Alban territory to the west of the River Tiber. Realizing the danger, Sulla rapidly mobilized all his forces and marched to Rome. With him was Crassus, though it seems that Pompeius, Metellus and Lucullus all remained in central and northern Italy. The Samnite–coalition forces got to Rome first, held as it was by a small Sullan garrison, but camped outside of the city waiting for Sulla, rather than take Rome itself. We can determine two reasons for this. First, the objective would have been to defeat Sulla in open battle rather than storm the city and then have to defend it. Second, attacking Rome, though militarily easy, given the uneven odds, was politically unwise, as the praetors would need all the legitimacy they could muster to control the organs of state.

Plutarch reports that a force of cavalry rode from Rome to attack the Samnite army, but was slaughtered. The only named casualty was an Ap. Claudius.⁸² Having established superiority over the defenders of the city, the Samnite and coalition leaders waited for Sulla. Appian and Plutarch preserve the fullest account of the battle that followed:⁸³

[Sulla] encamped alongside the Colline Gate around the Temple of Venus about noon. The enemy were already encamped around the city. A battle was fought at once, late in the afternoon. On the right wing Sulla was victorious. His left wing was vanquished and fled to the gates. The old soldiers on the walls, when they saw the enemy rushing in with their own men, dropped the portcullis. It fell upon and killed many soldiers and many senators. But the majority, impelled by fear and necessity, turned and fought the enemy. The fighting continued through the night and a great many were killed. The generals, Telesinus and Albinus, were killed and their camp was taken. Lamponius the Lucanian, Marcius, and Carrinas, and the other generals of the faction of Carbo, fled. It was estimated that 50,000 men on both sides lost their lives in this engagement. Prisoners, to the number of more than 8,000, were shot down with darts by Sulla because they were mostly Samnites. The next day, Marcius and Carrinas were captured and brought in. Sulla did not spare them because they were Romans, but killed them both and sent their heads to Lucretius at Praeneste to be displayed around the walls.⁸⁴

Plutarch expands on this account, adding the detail that whilst the left flank collapsed, the right wing, commanded by Crassus won the day:

In the struggle which followed, and no other was so fierce, the right wing, where Crassus was posted, was brilliantly successful; but the left was hard pressed and in a sorry plight, when Sulla came to its assistance, mounted on a white horse that was mettlesome and very swift.⁸⁵

… He entreated some of his men, threatened others, and laid hands on others still; but at last his left wing was completely shattered, and with the fugitives he sought refuge in his camp, after losing many friends amid acquaintances. Not a few also of those who had come out of the city to see the battle were trodden under foot and killed, so that it was thought that all was over with the city.⁸⁶

But in the struggle near Rome, which was the last and greatest of all, while Sulla was defeated and his army repulsed and shattered, Crassus was victorious with the right wing, pursued the enemy till nightfall, and then sent to Sulla informing him of his success and asking supper for his soldiers.⁸⁷

Plutarch reports that a number of survivors of the battle fled to the town of Antemnae, just north of ancient Rome, pursued by Crassus, who surrounded the town.⁸⁸ Sulla joined him the next day and struck a deal with a group of 3,000 of the survivors that he would grant them mercy if they turned on their fellow survivors. Only too eager to oblige the 3,000 attacked the other survivors and the town fell to Sulla easily. In total, Plutarch estimates that over 6,000, including the 3,000 traitors, mostly Samnites, were captured alive.⁸⁹

Thus, it seems that Sulla nearly lost the battle of Colline Gate, and was forced to flee the battlefield himself, taking refuge in his own camp. Victory was only won by M. Licinius Crassus, who was the true victor. Nevertheless, the Samnite army had been destroyed and both the Samnites and the coalition had been defeated in Italy. Of the key leaders of the army, only L. Brutus Damasippus, the urban praetor, and M. Lamponius, the Lucanian commander, managed to escape. Rome and Italy fell to Sulla’s control. However, the coalition forces still controlled the western half of Rome’s empire and the younger Marius still held out in Praeneste.

13. The Fall of Praeneste

The resolution of the siege of Praeneste was swift in coming. Upon hearing the news of the Sullan victory and seeing the grisly trophies of severed heads erected around the city, and knowing that there would be no aid from anyone in Italy, the inhabitants surrendered the city to Q. Lucretius Ofella. Unfortunately for the Praenestians, Ofella was not in a forgiving mood:

All the others who were taken in Praeneste he ordered to march out to the plain without arms, and when they had done so he chose out a very few who had been in any way serviceable to him. The remainder he ordered to be divided into three parts, consisting of Romans, Samnites, and Praenestians respectively. When this had been done he announced to the Romans by herald that they had merited death, but nevertheless he would pardon them. The others he massacred to the last man. He allowed their wives and children to go unharmed. He plundered the town, which was extremely rich at that time.⁹⁰

Prior to this, Marius had sought refuge in an underground tunnel with a colleague. Fearing capture, the two men engaged in a suicide pact, but Marius struck first and with too much power leaving the other man unable to strike him through. In the end, he ordered a slave to stab him to death. Ofella cut off his head and sent it to Sulla in Rome for public display. Ofella also had executed a number of prominent coalition senators who had been with Marius in Praeneste. Others were sent to Rome for Sulla to deal with personally. With the fall of Praeneste, which was soon followed by that of Norba, Sulla had complete control of Italy and the eastern part of the empire.⁹¹ The western part of the empire, Sicily, Spain and Africa, still remained in coalition hands.


This period of warfare raises a number of interesting points. In terms of the overall strategy, for the third time out of four, the side that took the offensive won the conflict. This happened in both 88 and 87 BC. The only exception being the Marsic and Samnite campaigns of 91–87 BC, but then they were aiming for different outcomes, namely the total defeat of Rome, rather than defeating other Romans to gain control of the city. Whilst ultimately Sulla’s tactics of gaining momentum through quick victories (which put his numerically superior opponents on the back foot, whilst encouraging defections to his side) was successful, it is clear that this was not inevitable.

At times, this conflict appears to resemble previous wars, with Sulla as the new Pyrrhus or Hannibal, winning victory after victory, but constantly facing fresh Roman armies. Even after eighteen months of victories and the capture of Rome itself, he came within a whisker of total defeat at the Battle of Colline Gate, at the hands of the Samnite army. Had Crassus not been victorious on the right wing, Sulla would have been crushed and his alliance of opportunists placed under severe strain, leaving Pompeius, Lucullus and Metellus to fight the Samnites and possibly a freed Marius. What sort of Rome this would have produced is an interesting thought to contemplate?

What is clear is that Sulla was also fortunate (perhaps earning his title of Felix; see Chapter 7) in that he faced a poor calibre of opposition commanders: Carbo, Scipio, Norbanus, and even the younger Marius. The key figures that fought the wars of 88 and 87 BC, such as Marius, Cinna and Pompeius Strabo, were all dead and their successors all seemed to lack comparable military expertise. Given the strength of the coalition facing Sulla when he invaded Italy, one has to wonder whether he would have been successful if it had been led by someone with the military expertise of the elder Marius, or the leadership of Cinna. Nevertheless, Sulla was ultimately successful, in part because he attracted commanders of talent, Metellus, Lucullus, Pompeius, Crassus and the Servilii, all of whom contributed towards his victory. The clear danger lay in the fact that, whilst some of these men were supporters through genuine loyalty or shared beliefs, such as Lucullus or Metellus, others, notably Pompeius and Crassus, only supported him whilst it suited their own ends and whilst he represented the greater power. Therein lay the danger of a victory for the Sullan alliance. Sulla had won the latest round of civil warfare, which brought him control of Italy and the Senate. Yet he still faced the twin tasks of securing the rest of the Rome’s empire and restoring the Republican system, so that civil warfare did not break out again after a respite.

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