A reactionary general: the supremacy of Sulla, 88–79 BC

Marcus Livius Drusus, tribune of the plebs in 91 BC, was not a populist in the mould of the Gracchi; his father, indeed, had led the campaign against Gaius Gracchus, and the son was an avowed supporter of senatorial government. Yet he took it upon himself to propose a law giving full Roman citizenship to the Italian allies. When his bill ran into predictably stiff opposition, and Drusus himself was felled by an unknown assassin, the revolt of the allies which this eleventh-hour reform had been designed to avert was finally detonated. It started at Asculum in central Italy, where an especially arrogant magistrate provoked a massacre of Roman residents. The rising then spread like a bushfire among the Oscan-speaking peoples of the central Apennines. They quickly formed a rebel confederation centred on Corfinium, complete with senate, mint, political administration, army command, and a distinct identity as ‘Italians’. One of the coins issued by the Corfinium mint shows a female personification of Italia on the obverse, and eight warriors – perhaps representing the eight peoples who formed the core of the rebellion – swearing an oath of allegiance on the reverse.

Italy was at war. Broadly, the rebels controlled much of the east and the south, mostly poorer hill-country, while the Romans held the west, where most of their own territory and that of the generally loyal Latins and Greeks was located. But this is to oversimplify: in many areas the split between rebels and loyalists produced a complex patchwork of opposing allegiances, such that the ‘Social War’ (socii was the Latin for allies) was a war of many fronts.

At first the rebels were successful: the Romans had been taken by surprise, and their opponents moved fast to consolidate and expand the territory they controlled. While the hill-country was poor, it was easy to defend, and the Romans rediscovered the lesson of the Samnite Wars: that the Italian interior was ideal terrain for tribal guerrillas. A string of Roman defeats in the first year encouraged many whose allegiance was wavering to rebel, doubling the size of the Italian confederation and enabling it to put 100,000 soldiers into the field. Desperate to stop this potentially fatal haemorrhaging of support, the Romans took a momentous decision in 90 BC: they granted full Roman citizenship to all loyalists and any rebels who voluntarily laid down their arms. Those who had not already done so now lacked any reason to join the rebellion, while the resolve of many who had was gravely weakened by the offer of the franchise if they gave up. The Etruscans and Umbrians, who had been mobilizing their forces, quickly abandoned their planned rising, and the Romans, until now on the back foot against a spreading rebellion, were able to go on to the offensive. Separate campaigns were waged in central Italy, in Apulia and in Campania. The guerrilla bands were harried across the hills, and one by one the rebel cities fell. By 88 BC resistance was fizzling out everywhere.

Rome’s military victory had cost the optimates a huge political concession: the rebellion had revealed the hopelessness of continued resistance to the extension of the franchise, and victory had depended on granting it. Few after 88 BC can have doubted that all free Italians – including former rebels – would eventually be enfranchised: the long-term stability of the state and the strength of its army clearly hinged on this. Reformers had been arguing as much for half a century, during which time the anger of Rome’s allies had steadily mounted. The war against the Cimbri and Teutones had put a particular strain on the loyalty of allies, with as many as two in three of Marius’s soldiers non-Roman, and the general himself a firm supporter of the Italian franchise. But in the ten years since, the conflict between populists and optimates at Rome, swinging first one way, then the other, had repeatedly stymied reform. Years of frustration, of hopes raised and dashed, lay behind Drusus’s failed bill in 91 BC. So much was at stake: a say in political decisions at Rome; the protection of Roman courts; an equal share in war booty and land allocations; access to those in power and a fair hearing for pleas and petitions; the chance of a career in the imperial service; lucrative contracts for Italian entrepreneurs. Citizenship determined political rights, legal protection and economic opportunity, and the contradiction between the military contribution of non-Romans and their second-class status had become unsustainable as the empire continued to expand. Crudely, a bigger empire needed more soldiers, and armed men cannot easily be denied political rights.

But problems remained. The allies had been granted the vote. The impact this would have on Roman politics was uncertain. The state might yet be destabilized. The whole balance of power among the great aristocratic houses that dominated the Senate might be up-ended – with consequences no-one could predict – by a sudden, uncontrolled influx of new citizens; of voters, that is, not enrolled in factional retinues.

For more than ten years, ever since Marius, returning victorious from the north, had led his veterans into Rome to vote through Saturninus’s land law, senatorial conservatives had been buffeted by radical attacks. Sometimes they had struck back successfully. The consuls had cracked down in 95 BC on Italians who had registered unlawfully as Roman citizens; and, as we have seen, it was conservative opposition to Drusus and his franchise bill that had provoked the Social War. Now, in the aftermath, the radical threat re-emerged greatly strengthened by the potential influx of new voters. The tribune Publius Sulpicius Rufus proposed a package of popular laws centred on franchise reform. First, the equestrian money-lending interest was accommodated with the proposal that all senators with outstanding debts above 2,000 denarii should be unseated. Second, the new citizens were to be empowered through a scheme to distribute them among the existing 35 voting tribes. This was a direct challenge to the Senate, for the original franchise concession of 90 BC had been neutered by the proviso that the Italians were to be enrolled in 10 new tribes – which, since the popular assemblies had a block-voting system, would have left them a permanent minority. Third, a new military command in Asia Minor against King Mithridates of Pontus was to be transferred from the conservative general Lucius Cornelius Sulla to the old popular favourite Gaius Marius. The political struggle around these proposals quickly became, as so often in the recent past, a physical battle for control of the streets as rival factions competed to pack the popular assemblies with their own supporters. The Marians were successful, and Rufus’s three bills were passed. But matters were not allowed to rest there. This time too much was at stake.

Sulla, the general divested of the eastern command, was an ambitious, dissolute and unprincipled young aristocrat from a decayed family who had first won renown as a senior officer under Marius in the wars against Jugurtha and the Germans. He had since commanded with great distinction in Campania during the Social War, and had, in fact, only recently left his army to return to the capital and stand for election there as consul. Sulla was not very political: his instincts were conservative, but his ambition made him an opportunist. What turned him into a counter-revolutionary leader was his hatred for Marius, his envy of the older man’s greater reputation, and the way in which his own chance for glory – in an eastern war – had been snatched away. Sulla’s reaction stunned Rome. He returned to his army, appealed to the soldiers for support, and, when they gave it, led six legions of Social War veterans against their own capital city. The speed of this political and military coup destroyed any possibility of effective resistance. Marius and many of his followers fled before the soldiers arrived. Rufus and some others not so quick were summarily executed. The fugitives were declared outlaws. Sulla’s eastern command was restored. To guarantee his position while away, Sulla attempted to remodel the Roman constitution, stripping the Assembly of the Tribes of its legislative power, and allowing the Assembly of the Centuries only to debate matters already passed by the Senate. Sulla’s career was to be safeguarded by the hobbling of the popular party.

Then to the East in pursuit of glory and riches. The enemy, King Mithridates VI of Pontus (120–63 BC), was the ruler of a prosperous kingdom centred on territory along the southern shore of the Black Sea. Its part-Hellenized population was governed by a dynasty of Persian kings. The present incumbent was the sixth of the line and by far the most ambitious and able. He had greatly extended his kingdom, first occupying the northern shore of the Black Sea, then pushing eastwards into Armenia. Soon he threatened the buffer states of Bithynia (to the west) and Cappadocia (to the south), states which separated his kingdom from the Roman province of Asia. Repeated incursions were beaten back, until, in 89 BC, with Rome distracted by the Social War, Mithridates launched a huge invasion, sweeping through Bithynia and Asia, bringing his army and fleet to the Aegean. Many people, long oppressed by the officials, tax-collectors and businessmen who had battened on to Asia, the richest of all Roman provinces, welcomed him as liberator. Many, at his command, turned upon and massacred the Italian residents in their midst. There was to be no going back: the Roman Empire in Asia Minor was to be liquidated. Dizzy with success, still posing as the crusading champion of Hellenism, Mithridates then sent his forces into Greece. The pro-Roman oligarchy at Athens was overthrown. The Italian commercial community at Delos (the main centre of the slave trade) was massacred. The Pontic fleet established its base at Piraeus (the port of Athens). All southern and most of central Greece came over to Mithridates. Only now, in 87 BC, did Sulla finally arrive, landing in Greece with an army of five legions.

The Pontic Empire was no bubble. The bitterness accumulated over decades of Roman rule had fuelled Mithridates’s campaigns. Corruption and extortion were endemic. Debate has raged over whether the highly publicized cases we hear about are representative. The most famous is that of Verres, Governor of Sicily in 73–71 BC, who was prosecuted in the Roman courts by Cicero. Verres was accused of every conceivable malpractice to enrich himself – tax evasion, appropriating public funds, accepting bribes, business fraud, selling honours, imposing extraordinary levies, and straightforward extortion with threats. He seems to have been the very embodiment of greed, and, moreover, to have been confident that bribery, powerful allies, the services of a top defence lawyer, and the traditional indifference of the Roman courts to provincial corruption would secure his release. He was mistaken: crushed by the weight of Cicero’s attack, he fled into exile (with, however, much of his plundered wealth).

But how typical was Verres? We know of the case because Cicero published his speeches and these have survived. Probably he was worse than most. But a more moderate level of corruption and extortion seems to have been normal. When Cicero himself went out to Asia Minor as Governor of Cilicia in 51–50 BC, he found it ‘in a state of lasting ruin and desolation’ owing to the depredations of tax-farmers, money-lenders, and army billeting and requisition officers (who routinely took bribes from the richer towns to go elsewhere). The evidence emerges in surviving letters from Cicero to his friend Atticus. What is equally plain here is that the sanctimonious governor – ‘I have bound myself to it [the province] by the principles of government expressed in my six books [The Republic]’(10) – was hopelessly compromised by his intimate relations with other members of the Roman ruling class – men like Marcus Brutus – ‘the noblest Roman of them all’ – who was deeply involved with a racketeering consortium that had lent money to the Greek city of Salamis on Cyprus at the illegal rate of 48 per cent compound interest. Cicero could have imposed a settlement; instead, importuned by Brutus’s agent, he allowed the debt to roll over. Cicero lamented ‘how hard it is to be good’. The truth of empire lay with the profiteers not the philosophers – a truth laid bare by the extraordinary success of the Mithridatic blitzkrieg across the East in 89–87 BC. Sulla – champion of the Roman rich – had arrived to fight a war for tax-collectors and loan-sharks.

Greece did not fall easily. Athens held out until reduced by famine in early 86 BC, pinning Sulla down in central Greece while two large Pontic armies pushed through Thrace and Macedonia. Tough battles followed at Chaeronea and Orchomenus, the Roman legions fighting defensively against the enemy’s scythe-chariots and massed cavalry, securing victory on both occasions only through well-timed counter-attacks by reserves late in the day. The campaign of 86 BC opened a road into Asia, however, and the following year Roman armies pushed deep into Pontic territory, knocking aside whatever hastily assembled forces opposed them, and sacking the Greek cities that had sided with Mithridates. The king, having narrowly evaded capture, sued for peace. At the Treaty of Dardanus (near Troy), Mithridates accepted Sulla’s terms, agreeing to give up all his recent conquests in Asia, surrender his Aegean fleet, and pay a moderate indemnity. These were, in the circumstances, easy terms, but Sulla needed a quick finish: the political situation in Rome had deteriorated alarmingly, and there was urgent need for him to return home. The king’s former allies, the Greek cities of Asia, were less fortunate: first comprehensively plundered by the soldiers, they were then forced to pay an indemnity of 120 million denarii. Thus was Sulla’s eastern war made to yield a handsome profit.

The counter-revolution of 88 BC had, in fact, been reversed as soon as Sulla departed for the East. The popular party had been scattered but not smashed, and once Sulla’s veterans were removed from the scales, the balance of forces had tipped back in favour of Marius and his supporters. A short civil war in 87 BC had settled matters: the radical consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna, defeated by his more conservative colleague in street fighting in Rome, raised an army of newly enfranchised Italians and old Marian veterans in the countryside and marched on Rome. The garrison, weakened by hunger and disease, melted away, and the popular forces entered the city. The government was overthrown and its supporters decimated in a bloody purge. The severed heads of the executed were displayed in the Forum. Cinna, the new firebrand of radical politics, and Marius, the ageing war hero, declared themselves consuls for the following year. Marius soon fell ill and died, leaving Cinna virtual dictator in the period 87–84 BC. He chose Gnaeus Papirius Carbo to share his successive consulships, and when Cinna was assassinated by mutinous soldiers in 84 BC, Carbo succeeded as effective head of government.

Sulla’s legislation was swept away, and power was restored to the popular assemblies. The new citizens were enrolled in the existing 35 voting tribes, making them the equals of old citizens. Generous debt-relief was instituted. The coinage was reformed. But as the regime consolidated its base at home, it lived in fear of Sulla’s army in the East and of a resurgence of reaction when it returned. Cinna’s government was authoritarian and unconstitutional not by choice but because threatened with imminent destruction by powerful and vengeful enemies. Though declared an outlaw, Sulla controlled the East, had accumulated a fortune in booty and indemnities, and led tens of thousands of veteran soldiers. An army sent out by the government with secret orders to relieve him of command had simply deserted. And now he was coming home.

Sulla landed at Brundisium early in 83 BC. Leading nobles quickly rallied to his cause, bringing his army to 50,000 men. Anticipating this, Carbo had organized a general levy across Italy, raising some 100,000 men, and these were further augmented by contingents of newly enfranchised Italians determined to defend their political rights. But Sulla was an experienced general with a bulging war-chest and a veteran army. The popular forces sent against him were destroyed either in battle or by a stream of desertions, and by the end of the year Sulla controlled southern Italy.

The year following, however, the fighting was harder: the new government legions had had time to train, and Rome’s temples had been plundered to provide the money to equip, pay and sustain them. But Sulla – ably supported by subordinate commanders such as Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus – outgeneralled his enemies in a whirlwind campaign which saw the popular forces defeated and dispersed in Latium, Etruria and the Po Valley. The last sizeable force – 70,000 men, some of them fugitives from earlier defeats, many of them newly raised Samnites – was crushed at the Battle of the Colline Gate outside Rome. The battle was bitterly contested, the Samnites dying to the last man, for the few who did surrender were promptly butchered on Sulla’s orders. Residual resistance continued in parts of Italy – Etruscan Volterrae was not starved out until 80 BC – and major campaigns continued in Sicily, Africa and, above all, Spain, where the renegade Marian leader Quintus Sertorius was to remain in the field until 73 BC. But Sulla was master of Rome – and effective ruler of the Roman world – from the moment of his victory at the Colline Gate late in 82 BC. It was a victory tainted with the blood of massacre, and it heralded a counter-revolutionary terror of unprecedented ferocity: this time the party of the Gracchi, of Marius, and of Cinna and Carbo, the party of popular reform, was to be destroyed beyond hope of recovery.

Many of Sulla’s enemies had perished in the civil war, whether killed in battle, in the sack of cities, or in massacres of prisoners. Now in Rome and across Italy, Sulla’s death squads hunted down political opponents and murdered them. Soon, bringing system to the terror, the general had official lists posted up of the ‘proscribed’: anyone whose name appeared on a list – known enemies, those denounced by informers, some whose names were included through the malice of personal enemies or an accident of false intelligence – was declared an outlaw and could be killed with impunity. The lists, moreover, were regularly updated with supplementary notices, so that those whose names did not at first appear could not feel safe. Several thousands perished, including 40 senators and 1,600 equestrians, and their property was appropriated by the state and distributed as rewards to Sulla’s supporters. Italian cities that had fought against him also had land confiscated for the resettlement of 120,000 legionary veterans. Pompeii is a famous example: besieged and captured by Sulla in the Social War ten years earlier, the city was remodelled as a Roman colony in 80 BC.

Sulla had himself appointed dictator rei publicae constituendae – ‘dictator for the reform of the state’ – in 82–81 BC. To ensure his reforms took effect, he then retained power as consul through 80 BC, before retiring from public life the following year. His power in this period – what Cary called ‘the temporary monarchy of Cornelius Sulla’ – was absolute, rested on military force, and was used to destroy completely the popular party and shore up the authority of the Senate. The veto powers of the tribunes and the law-making powers of the popular assemblies were drastically curtailed. The state-subsidized grain supply was abolished. Marian senators were purged and either fled or were killed. Three hundred new senators were drafted in to create an enlarged and conservative-dominated assembly.

A formal career structure – the cursus honorum (‘course of honours’) – was created for senators. First one sought election to one of 20 quaestor-ships at the minimum age of 30, success in this guaranteeing a seat in the Senate, a measure which helped maintain the number of senators at around 600. This was followed by the praetorship, with eight posts available, and a minimum age of 39; Sulla’s increase in the number of posts from six to eight enlarged the pool of men qualified to govern provinces in an expanding Empire. Finally, for the fortunate few, there was election to one of the two consulships, for which the minimum age was 42. Sulla’s purge, enlargement and reordering of the senatorial order were the prerequisites for the dominant role its members were expected to play in the new political order. As well as commanding armies, governing provinces, and directing government departments, senators alone – not equestrians – were to sit as judges in a series of new specialist tribunals that Sulla set up to deal with different types of crime.

Five times now – in 132, 122, 100, 88 and 82 BC – the popular party had been crushed in a reactionary coup. But the last had been by far the worst, and it must have seemed to the traumatized survivors a decisive blow. But the violence, avarice and naked illegality of Sulla’s regime – a response to the depth of the crisis in Roman society – provoked a reaction. When the dictator retired and the terror ended, when ‘normal’ politics resumed, men found themselves outraged by what had happened and few, even among the most conservative, wished to be known as supporters of Sulla. Many had benefited and were glad to have done so, but, opportunists and trimmers, they found little advantage in any lingering association with the bloody tyrant of counter-revolution. When the politically ambitious looked about them, moreover, they found those great streams of popular discontent that had once carried Marius to glory still flowing strongly. Decayed noble families, equestrian entrepreneurs, upwardly mobile Italian gentry, debt-ridden small farmers, the mob of the city slums: Roman society was still a cauldron of discontents. Above all there were the soldiers – senator-generals, equestrian-officers, and the common citizens who formed the rank and file: tens of thousands of highly trained, tightly disciplined, heavily armed men. The army, Rome’s instrument of imperial conquest, had always been the very essence of the state. Never more so than now. The crisis of the Late Republic had militarized politics. Armies had become arbiters between reaction and reform. Blood and iron determined history’s course. This was the new reality. It would soon be apparent that at such a time the restored rule of the Senate had no secure foundation.

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