Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Seventy-Seven

The Problems of Prosperity

Between 118 and 73 BCthe allies of Rome demand citizenship, the Han Dynasty spends too much money on conquest, and Sulla and Marius fight for power inside Rome itself

AFTER THE DISASTER OF THE GRACCHI, it was clear that new laws were not going to bring any solution to the growing problems of poverty and landlessness. The Roman constitution, the elaborate system of tribunes and consuls, senators and judges, checks and balances, would neither bring nor prevent justice; the will of the rich or the charisma of the popular could always subvert it. New laws were not going to bring any solution to the growing problem of poverty and landlessness. Almost every Roman orator looked back wistfully to a golden age “before the destruction of Carthage,” when the Republic was healthy: “Down to the destruction of Carthage,” the Roman historian Sallust wrote a few years later, echoing the lament of the times, “the people and Senate shared the government peaceably and with due restraint, and the enemies did not compete for glory or power; fear of its enemies preserved the good morals of the state.”1

That there had never been such a time was beside the point. Romans needed to look back with longing to an imaginary golden age, in order to cope with the present. Rome had once been pure, but now was filled with greed, corruption, pride, general decadence, and other fruits of prosperity, an evaluation which was only confirmed by a disaster called the Jugurthine War.

Down in North Africa, King Masinissa of Numidia had passed his throne on to his son Micipsa. This son, now getting on in years, had two sons of his own, plus a nephew named Jugurtha. The nephew was not in the line of succession, so Micipsa planned a military career for him and sent him off, in command of Numidian troops, to fight with Scipio Aemilius. Here Jugurtha was befriended by Roman officers, who assured him (so Sallust writes) that he could bribe the Roman government to put him onto his uncle’s throne: “At Rome money could buy anything.”2


77.1 Numidia

When Micipsa died in 118, Jugurtha took the throne by force; his henchmen murdered one of his cousins, and the other, Adherbal, fled the country. To make sure that the Romans would not take the part of the rightful heir, Jugurtha “sent ambassadors to Rome with a quantity of gold and silver” to bribe senators with. This worked: “Their bitter resentment against Jugurtha was converted into favour and good will,” Sallust remarks.3

Adherbal showed up in Rome, asking for help on his own account, to find that Jugurtha’s money had already assured him a throne. The Senate decreed that the kingdom should be divided between the two of them; once they were both back down in Numidia, Jugurtha mounted a war against Adherbal, trapped him in his own capital city, captured him, and tortured him to death.

Public indignation meant that the Senate could not overlook this. In 111, a consul was sent down to Numidia with an army to punish Jugurtha. But like so many Roman officials, the consul was open to corruption: “Jugurtha sent agents who tempted him by offers of money,” Sallust says, and he “quickly succumbed,” subjecting Jugurtha to a token fine and then returning home.4 Another official was then sent to drag Jugurtha to Rome, to stand trial, but once in Rome, Jugurtha paid off a tribune to halt the trial. The Senate sent him home. As he passed through the city gates, he is said to have looked back and said, “There is a city put up for sale, and if it finds a buyer, its days are numbered.”5

This parade of bribes infuriated the Roman public, who saw in it everything they hated about their own corrupt government. Not until 109 did a Roman officer gain a reputation for dealing honestly with Jugurtha. His name was Gaius Marius, and he was a “new man,” meaning that he came from a family with no political power and no money. Given the mood of the Roman people, this worked in his favor. He spent two years fighting honorably in North Africa; in 107, he was elected consul.217

After the election he spent three more years campaigning against Jugurtha. Finally, with the help of his senior officer Lucius Cornelius Sulla (the same Sulla who had met with Mithridates II, inaugurating contact between Romans and Parthians, some fifteen years before), Marius managed to lure Jugurtha into a trap and capture him.

Jugurtha was paraded back into Rome in chains, a symbol not just of Roman victory, but of the triumph of common honesty over aristocratic corruption. Marius himself was hailed as Rome’s champion. He was then elected consul five more times in succession.

This was actually against the Roman constitution, which was supposed to prevent consuls from serving year after year (and gaining more and more power). But Marius had become the people’s darling, and the constitution hadn’t prevented the wealthy and powerful from doing away with those earlier champions of the common man, the Gracchi brothers; so why should it stand in the way now?

Marius himself, awarding citizenship to a thousand Italian allies as a reward for their help in battle, was reproved for breaking the constitution: “I’m sorry,” he replied, “but the noise of fighting prevented me from hearing the law.”6

AFTER HIS SIXTH CONSULSHIP, Marius—realizing that he was unlikely to win a seventh—took himself off into self-imposed retirement. Rome had not fought a real war since Jugurtha’s conquest, and Marius (so Plutarch says) “had no aptitude for peace or life as a private citizen.”7

Real war was not long in coming, though. The Italian cities on the peninsula, Roman subjects all, had been asking for years to become full Roman citizens with voting rights, a privilege which the Senate had been stingy in granting. The general feeling that the common people of Rome were being trampled underfoot had spread outwards to encompass the Italian peoples as well, and little attention had been paid to their constant requests: “Tiberius Gracchus was persistent in support of the citizens,” Cicero would remark later, “but neglected the rights and treaties of the allies and the Latins.”8 Now the allies and the Latins wanted a voice in Rome’s own affairs. They wanted, in the words of the ancient historian Justin, not just to be citizens, but to be partners in Rome’s power.2189

When the Senate resisted sharing its authority, a swell of anti-Rome sentiment began. At first this took the form of a rejection of Roman customs and the Latin language, in favor of the old tongues of Italy; the historian E. T. Salmon has pointed out that inscriptions from Italian cities during this time contain an unusual number of archaic words.10 This was followed by the joining together of a number of Italian cities into a new association which they called Italia. In 91, indignant Italians killed a Roman officer at the city of Asculum, and fighting began in earnest.

The struggle—the “Social War”—was an odd cross between civil war and reconquest of a foreign people. Rome slowly bargained and beat the Italian cities back into its fold. The consul of 90 BC, a member of the aristocratic but poor Julii Caesares clan, adopted the strategy that Gao Zu had used with success a century earlier, and offered citizenship to any Italian allies who refused to join the rebellion. Roman armies marched against the cities that remained hostile. Old Marius, now nearly seventy, came charging back from retirement to lead the campaign against the northern cities, but his ambitions were stronger than his body; he moved slowly, his decisions were hesitant, and finally, Plutarch says, “he felt that he was too incapacitated by his ill health to continue” and retired for the second time.11

Marius’s former aide, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, did better out of the Social War. He was in charge of the campaigns in the south; twenty years Marius’s junior, able to stand the rigors of camp life, he won victory after victory. “Sulla gained such remarkable successes,” Plutarch says, “that he came to be regarded by his fellow citizens as a great leader.”12

By 88, the Social War was over. Rome was master of the peninsula again, and the Italian cities had won the right of full Roman citizenship. Sulla stood for consul and was handily elected, thanks to his reputation as a great general. He fully expected to be given the plum military job of the year, which was to lead Roman legions into Asia Minor against a troublesome king there: Eupator Dionysius219of Pontus, a northwestern kingdom which was threatening to swallow more Asia Minor territory.


77.2 Pontus

Winning a war against Eupator Dionysius was a sure path to glory, and Sulla was the obvious choice for the job. As a matter of fact he was already out in the countryside with thirty-five thousand soldiers, preparing them for the upcoming campaign. But Marius had grown increasingly jealous of his old assistant. Even though he was now elderly, frequently ill, and overweight, he asked the Senate to award the campaign against Eupator Dionysius to him instead.

A good many Romans thought this was ridiculous. (“They suggested,” Plutarch says, “that Marius should go to the warm springs and cosset himself instead, since he was worn out by old age and fluxes.”)13 Marius had not lived through decades of Roman politics to no avail, though. He bribed one of the tribunes to support his own claim to the generalship. The tribune, one Sulpicius, gathered himself a troop of armed men which he called the “Anti-Senate” and managed, more or less at swordpoint, to get the generalship awarded to Marius. He also sent two tribunes up to take command of Sulla’s army and march it down to Marius.

When the tribunes arrived, the army stoned them to death.

“For many years there had been a festering sickness beneath the surface of Rome,” Plutarch says, “and now the present situation caused it to erupt.”14 Full civil war broke out. Inside Rome, Marius, Sulpicius, and his armed ruffians “set about killing Sulla’s friends.” The senators, fearing for their lives, sent another halfhearted message to Sulla asking him to surrender his army. Instead, Sulla called the legions together, and asked them to march on Rome.

This was a dreadful breach of the Roman constitution; no consul, awarded military powers, was supposed to exercise them within the pomerium, the domestic space set off from the outside world by Rome’s walls. The inside of the city was solely the domain of the Senate. But as far as Sulla was concerned, Marius had already violated this restriction by employing those armed men of Sulpicius. He had to breach the constitution himself in order to fight back.

Some of Sulla’s own officers refused to invade the pomerium. Sulla, knowing how serious an offense he was about to commit, did not even reprove them; he simply marched without them. When he got to the city, the Senate asked him to halt outside the walls, in order to give them time to sort the whole mess out. He refused, bursting through the gates with torch in hand and shouting to his men to set fire to the houses of his enemies. “In the heat of the moment, he let anger dictate events,” says Plutarch. “All he could see were his enemies, and he…used fire as the agent of his return to Rome—fire, which made no distinction between the guilty and the innocent.”15

Marius fled down to North Africa. Sulpicius was taken prisoner, and the Senate, convened by Sulla (and his armed men), dutifully sentenced Sulpicius to death (and also passed a death sentence on Marius in absentia). Sulla, walking a fine line between restoring order and acting like a military dictator, then pulled back a little and allowed a free election for consul held. The man who was elected, Lucius Cinna, was no friend of Sulla’s. But he swore to be loyal to his fellow consul, and to obey the Senate.

Sulla, who had still not won his glory in Asia Minor, left the city in the hands of Cinna and the Senate and reassembled his army outside the walls. Then he marched on to the east, headed for Pontus and war.

THE OTHER GREAT EMPIRE, at the other end of the world, was also suffering growing pains. While Rome was struggling through the Social War, the Emperor Wudi—now close to the end of a fifty-year reign—was finishing up decades of campaigning against the nearby peoples: the Xiongnu, who were still trying to push down into the Han territory, and the lands to the west, along the new trade route, the Silk Road.

By 101 BC, the Han general Li Kuang had been put in charge of the most expensive campaign in Chinese history: the conquest of the northwestern land of Ferghana, or T’ai-yuan.16 Li Kuang had been fighting for the Han emperors for over thirty years; his first military expedition had been against invading Xiongnu, back in the days of the Emperor Wendi. Sima Qian writes that, on a later campaign, he demonstrated his intelligence by escaping from several thousand Xiongnu horsemen who had cut him off with only a hundred of his own men around him. He told his riders to get down from their horses and undo the saddles: “They expect us to run away,” he said, “and if we show that we are not ready to flee, they’ll suspect that something is up.” His men obeyed him, and the Xiongnu, suspecting a trap, kept their distance. Dark was now creeping up on the trapped band, and Li Kuang told them to roll up in their blankets and lie down under their horses. The Xiongnu, seeing this, “concluded that the Han leaders must have concealed soldiers in the area and be planning to fall upon them in the dark.” They all retreated, upon which Li Kuang and his men sprang up and rode back to the main body of the army.17


77.3 The Silk Road

This sort of strategic thinking was still in short supply among the Roman commanders, who were far more likely to rely on sheer numbers to crush the enemy. It stood Li Kuang in good stead during his four-year campaign into Ferghana. He was now quite elderly, but unlike Marius he was still tough, active, and thoroughly capable of leading a difficult invasion into rough country.

The Xiongnu saw this as a direct challenge to their authority, and invaded Ferghana from the other side to stop the Han armies. Li Kuang’s first push into Ferghana was disastrous. He and his army marched up to the north through an area known as the Salt Swamp, which was about as hospitable as it sounds; their only source of food and water came from the walled cities along the way, and at the sight of the Han army on the horizon, most of these shut their gates tight and refused to come out. Li Kuang had the option of stopping to besiege them, and perhaps using up more supplies than the army would gain if the siege succeeded, and simply marching on. Sima Qian tells us that he took a middle way: if the town didn’t surrender after a couple of days, the army abandoned it and continued the journey. By the time Li Kuang reached his original target, the major city of Yu-ch’eng, he had “no more than a few thousand soldiers left, and all of these were suffering from hunger and exhaustion.”18

But he was unwilling to waste the journey, and set his men against Yu-ch’eng anyway. They were driven off in record time, and Li Kuang realized that he had no choice but to go back home. He turned and retraced his steps back to the edge of the Han land. The entire pointless journey had taken two years, and by the time it had ended, he had less than a fifth of his army left.

The Emperor Wudi, receiving word that the army was on its way home, flew into a fury and sent messengers to stand at the pass that led from Ferghana down into the Han territory: the Jade Gate. “Anyone who comes through the pass will be cut down on the spot,” the messengers announced. Li Kuang came to a halt, unable to go home, unable to go back. For an entire summer he waited in limbo with the remnants of his army.

Wudi believed that the reputation of his empire was in jeopardy, and now that paths to the west had been opened, he could not afford to lose face. “Other lands would come to despise the Han,” Sima Qian writes, “and China would become a laughingstock.” So he emptied the royal treasury to hire soldiers and supply them, rounded up tribute fighters from his allies, and freed all the criminals in prison to go fight in Ferghana.

Li Kuang, receiving this new army of convicts and mercenaries, may not have felt particularly grateful. However, he had learned his lesson. He set off again for Yu-ch’eng. This time, the first walled city that refused to supply provisions for the passing soldiers was besieged, conquered, and sacked; all the inhabitants were massacred.19 “After this,” Sima Qian remarks, “his advance was unhindered.”

Yu-ch’eng fell. Not long after, so did Erh-shih, the capital of Ferghana’s ruling lord. The Xiongnu were unable to halt the Han advance. Four years after the campaign had first begun, the Han finally controlled all of Ferghana.

This was a major accomplishment; it demonstrated the Han superiority over the Xiongnu, and also put the states to the west, along the Silk Road, on notice that they had better yield to any Han parties passing through: “All of the states of the Western Region were shocked and frightened,” one account reads.20 The Han emperor had protected his empire’s claim to greatness—its power to buy and sell with the west.

Pride came expensive, though. When Wudi died in 87, the same year that Sulla was marching towards Asia Minor at the head of his legions, the Silk Road remained open. But the Han treasury was drained, the army exhausted. The next two Han emperors, Zhaodi and Xuandi, would do little to advance the empire further.

JUST AS SOON AS SULLA was safely out of the Italian peninsula, Cinna’s fellow consul threw him out of the city and locked the gates. Cinna, fuming outside the walls, began to collect himself an army, intending to fight his way back in. Marius, down in North Africa, heard the news and returned at once, meeting Cinna outside the city.

Marius indulged in a bit of theatrics, Plutarch says, dressing in rags and refusing to cut his hair during his entire exile from Rome, and limping slowly to meet Cinna like a persecuted elderly petitioner. News of this humility undoubtedly went to Rome, where the remaining consul was becoming increasingly unpopular (it was difficult to stay on anyone’s good side for long in first-century Rome). Possibly bribes changed hands as well; in any case, the Senate sent messages inviting both Cinna and Marius to return to Rome.

Marius, rags notwithstanding, had used his considerable personal fortune to hire himself a large army of North African mercenaries. He and Cinna marched back to Rome at the head of this alarming force and passed through the gates.

Marius’s behavior afterwards suggests that he was no longer thinking clearly. His personal bodyguard killed without question anyone at whom he pointed, and although this at first included anyone who might be a friend of Sulla’s, the bloodbath soon expanded. “If anyone greeted Marius, but received no word or greeting in return,” Plutarch says, “this in itself was the signal for him to be murdered right there in the street, until even his friends were riddled with anxiety and terror every time they came up to Marius to greet him.”21 Even Cinna began to look at him with alarm.

Meanwhile Sulla had been covering himself with glory (or shame, depending on whether you were a Greek or Roman historian) by taking back Asia Minor and then whipping various rebellious Greek cities back into shape. When word of happenings in Rome flew eastwards to him, he turned back towards home with his army.

Sulla was coming! Plutarch writes. It sounded like deliverance for the people of Rome, and the news unhinged Marius even more. He began to drink uncontrollably, contracted pleurisy, and fell into delusions, imagining that he was in command of the legions that had gone to attack Pontus and shouting out battle orders at odd moments. On January 17, 86 BC, he died in his home.

Sulla was not, in fact, as near as Marius thought. He did not arrive in Italy until 83 BC; in the meantime, more and more prominent Romans fled from Cinna’s “lawless thuggery” and travelled to meet Sulla, until he was “surrounded by what was to all intents and purposes a senate.”22 Cinna gathered together an army and set out to meet Sulla himself, but his men mutinied and killed him before he had gotten very far.


77.1. Sulla. Roman bust of Sulla, consul of Rome in 88 BC. Museo Archeologico, Venice. Photo credit Scala/Art Resource, NY

Clearly Roman opinion had turned more and more towards Sulla, as Cinna and Marius grew more savage; even so, Sulla had to fight his way into Rome when he finally arrived at the city. Marius’s son, at the head of his father’s old supporters, mounted fierce resistance. But Sulla was aided by two able younger officers named Pompey and Crassus, and under this three-way command, his army broke into the city.

Almost as soon as Sulla was inside Rome, he had six thousand prisoners (all men who had fought against him in his approach to Rome) herded into the Circus. He himself went to address the Senate. In the middle of his speech, screams began to rise up from the Circus. He had ordered the six thousand defenseless men butchered. “Sulla continued speaking with the same unmoved, calm expression on his face as before,” Plutarch says, “and told them…not to pay any attention to what was going on outside, which was just some criminals being punished on his orders. As a result of this, even the densest person in Rome came to understand that they had merely exchanged one monstrous tyranny for another.”23

It was true. The wound dealt to the Republic by Tiberius Gracchus’s death had widened and festered. The only men ruthless enough to fight against tyranny were themselves inclined to it; and Sulla, once in charge of Rome (in 81 he was appointed dictator, despite the fact that there was no particular crisis on the horizon), began his own purge. “I am proscribing everyone I can think of,” he said in one public speech, “but if I’ve forgotten anyone I’ll get around to proscribing them later.” Friends and relatives of Marius and Cinna died, or fled; Cinna’s son-in-law, a young man named Julius Caesar, was one of the lucky escapees. The official murders soon progressed beyond the political and encompassed the personal as well: “More were killed for their property,” Plutarch writes, “and even the executioners tended to say that this man was killed by his large house, this one by his garden, that one by his warm springs.”24 Sulla’s two right-hand men were no more admirable than Sulla himself. Pompey was given the job of chasing those allies of Marius who had left the Italian peninsula; he tracked rebels down in Sicily and in North Africa, and was so successful in murdering them all that he demanded a victory parade when he returned to Rome.25 Meanwhile, Crassus was helping out by setting fires to houses in Rome which he and Sulla wanted to claim. He also had a band of firemen and a real-estate agent on his payroll. As soon as the house began to burn, the agent would appear and offer to buy the property for a bargain price; the homeowner would agree, so that the house wouldn’t be a dead loss; and then the firemen would appear from out of sight and douse the fire.26

Having gotten everything that he could out of Rome, Sulla then retired, in 80, and went to the country. Here he both married again and took a male lover, more or less simultaneously. All of this activity notwithstanding, he was in poor health, probably suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. “For a long time he failed to observe that his bowels were ulcerated, till at length the corrupted flesh broke out into lice,” Plutarch writes. “Many were employed day and night in destroying them, but the work so multiplied under their hands, that not only his clothes, baths, basins, but his very meat was polluted with that flux and contagion, they came swarming out in such numbers.” In this disgusting condition, he passed his last years; like the Republic, fatally ill, but lingering on and pretending to good health.


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