Ancient History & Civilisation


Turbulence at Home and Abroad

Someone cut off the head of Gaius Gracchus, we are told, and was carrying it, but a friend of Opimius took it off him: he was called Septimuleius. At the beginning of the fighting a proclamation had been made that anyone who brought in Gaius’ head… would receive its equal weight in gold. So Septimuleius stuck Gaius’ head on a spear and brought it in to Opimius, and when it was placed on the scales it weighed in at seventeen and two-thirds pounds, for Septimuleius had shown himself a scoundrel in this too and had acted like a rascal: he had taken out Gracchus’ brain and filled the head with lead.

Plutarch, Life of Gaius Gracchus 17

Sulla’s memorial stands on the Campus Martius and the inscription on it, they say, is one he wrote himself, and the gist of it is that ‘none of his friends surpassed him in doing good and none of his enemies in doing harm’.

Plutarch, Life of Sulla 38

With Carthage destroyed and Greece cowed, we might have expected the Romans to settle down to a steady domination of the Mediterranean. They had removed kings from Macedon for ever; their conquests in western Asia had left a large hole in the largest Hellenistic empire, that of the Seleucids. They had intrigued decisively in the affairs of the Ptolemaic kings in Egypt: in 155 the young Ptolemy VIII had even drawn up a will bequeathing the entire kingdom to Rome if he failed to produce a legitimate heir. As he was still hardly thirty years old, the ‘bequest’ was rather hypothetical, and was probably meant only to scare his enemies in Egypt. But it was the first example of a practice which would have a significant future and which later worked to Rome’s benefit. The main problem in view was still Spain: in the late 150s a series of campaigns were needed here against insurgents.

A system of control over Rome’s conquests was also forming. During the second century BC Romans developed their rule over conquered peoples bysending out magistrates as governors with standing armies to help them. These individuals became focal points for their subjects’ petitions and disputes. As always, many cases gravitated to a new source of justice which had suddenlybecome accessible in their midst. On the other side, however, the individual governors saw new possibilities of enrichment, and their misconduct was still veryloosely regulated. Until the 120s the most they might suffer for ‘rapacity’ (‘extortion’) was a ruling that theyshould repaywhat theyhad taken. The new scope for gain abroad would have crucial implications for individuals’ capacity to compete for pre-eminence back at Rome.

Most Roman warfare abroad in the third and second centuries BC had already had economic motives: one obvious result of victory for Roman individuals was ever more slaves and plunder. There was also subsequent access (albeit sometimes through active middlemen) to land, moneylending and assets overseas. Collectively, too, Romans began to receive regular yearly tribute from their conquests. It had begun in Sicily, from 210 onwards, where they had taken over the taxation of previous kings. Then annual tribute was imposed in Spain in the 190s; payments were spread to Greece, Asia and north Africa. After 167 the newly won control of Macedon and its rich mines enabled Romans to abolish the direct tax which had previously been levied on individual Roman citizens in Rome and Italy (the indirect taxes continued). No single uniform system of tax was imposed as yet on all provinces, but from 146 onwards Rome’s subjects in north Africa are known to have had to pay a tax on ‘land’ and also a poll tax. Those two taxes would become the mainstays of Roman taxation in the early Empire: they were mainstays under Hadrian too.

This new financial strength was confirmed by receipts of booty, fines and war-reparations: surelythese gains would allow the Romans

to sort out some of their social injustices at home? In fact, the years from 146 to 80 BC were to see outbursts of extreme social and political tension in Rome and Italy. The historian Sallust later looked back on the year 146 as the start of a wave of ‘disturbances and riots’, combined with corruption.1 The removal of the external fear of Carthage (he thought) had made things worse. It is also important that the settlement of new colonies in Italy had all but ceased since the 170s: poorer citizens were no longer being sent off from Rome to a new home.

From the later vantage point of the Emperor Hadrian, the tensions of these years would have seemed only a prelude to others which were even more important, the emergence of Pompey and Julius Caesar in the 70s and 60s, the resulting Civil War and the eventual ending of the free Republic. The later crises therefore will feature at more length here, but for historians, these forerunners (as we now see them) are a fascinating kaleidoscope. Political combinations which would later prove so dangerous are already in evidence, and yet are somehow surmounted. Conquering generals started to enjoy prolonged commands abroad and to link up with tribunes in Rome so as to protect their interests at home. In 147 BC the charismatic Scipio Aemilianus was elected directly to a consulship without any previous job as a magistrate and was then elected to a second consulship, of dubious legality. Populists started to take proposals directly to the people to turn them straight into law without approval from the Senate; in reply, political reformers were killed by senatorial opponents in the centre of Rome. In the 80s there was to be civil war for the first time in Italy and a disgruntled patrician would actually march on Rome.

During these decades of intense manoeuvring at Rome itself, there was nonetheless a continuing fight to retain and extend Rome’s conquests overseas. Wars continued bitterly in Spain; they then erupted in north Africa and in Gaul. In 88 the bold King Mithridates of Pontus (on the south coast of the Black Sea) made as if to avenge the appalling Roman misdeeds in Greece and Asia Minor during the previous century by beginning a war against them and killing (it was said) more than 80,000 Romans in Asia in the first bout, a magnificent reprisal. Nearer home, a slave-society’s worst nightmare came true: big slave-revolts and slave-wars broke out, persisting from 138 to 132 and again from 104 to 101. Their major cause was the intensified use of slave-labour in Sicily and the Italian south, a delayed result of ‘Hannibal’s legacy’. Above all, Rome’s own heartland, her Italian allies, then rose up in war against her from 91 to 89 BC. They even declared their own ‘Italy’ and their own senate. They struck coins which showed a sexually aroused bull goring a Roman she-wolf.2 Interpretation of their aims in this Social War varies, but the Romans’ refusal to give them Roman citizenship (aired, but then withdrawn in 95) was crucial. Renewed offers of it did, surely, hasten the war’s end.

Freedom and justice were conspicuously involved in all of this turbulence. ‘Freedom’ was a rallying-cry of the rebellious Italians; in order to curb Mithridates, freedom was proclaimed by the Romans for the nearby Cappadocians in Asia. Mithridates, by contrast, was seen by Greeks (including Athens) as their ‘liberator’ from Rome. In the political struggles at Rome, the two-headed nature of the Roman constitution and the differing ideas of liberty of its social orders also began to be exploited. On a populist view, one aspect of freedom was the freedom of the people to pass laws without consultation of the Senate. On this view, the ‘people’ were even free to decide about areas which senators had traditionallyreserved for their own decision: finance, the composition of courts and juries, the allotment of commands abroad, the ways in which corrupt senatorial Roman governors abroad should be regulated. A clear, populist approach began to be pursued which ignored this senatorial ‘tradition’ and created its own heroes; those politicians who exemplified it became objects of cult, even, among a loyal plebs long after their death.

One result of this populist approach was a reform in the method of voting at Rome. Secret ballots were introduced, first for elections (139 BC), then for public non-capital trials (137 BC) and then for legislation (131/0 BC). Deliberately, they reduced the scope for intimidation of the voters: they did not eliminate it, because voters still processed up narrow ramps in order to cast their votes, and ‘canvassers’ could threaten them and try to inspect what each voter had written as he passed up the queue before voting. Eventually, the ramps were broadened, so as to make the intimidation of individuals more difficult. In the Greek world, at Athens and elsewhere, secret ballots had been the accepted practice for particular types of trial, but the extension of them to votes on law-making is a Roman innovation. Descendants of the reformers would even illustrate the changes in images on their coin-types.

These changes were the prelude to even more serious ‘populist’ turbulence. The major figures in it were Tiberius Gracchus (in 133) and then his remarkable brother, Gaius. They had a noble ancestry, but the problem which first stirred Tiberius appears to have been the poverty and apparent depopulation of Italy: in addressing it he was not only thinking of a shortage of soldiers. As a result, he proposed a reallotment of public land in Italy. Rich landowners were no longer to be allowed to encroach on it for their own purposes: a basic limit of about 350 acres for each landowner (with maybe 150 acres more for each son) would release a significant amount of land in Italy for redistribution by commissioners to rural landless peasants. The new lots, which ranged up to twentyacres, were not to be bought and sold by recipients. The proposals and the issues here were not new, but they were enthusiastically received by many countryfolk outside Rome. They were also very fiercely opposed by traditional senators. As an elected tribune, Tiberius took them directly to the people’s assemblies and then invoked the sovereigntyof the people in order to depose a fellow tribune who tried to veto what he was proposing. This last argument was quite unprecedented, although Tiberius could have cited an ancestor, the consul of 238 BC, who had built the temple to ‘Jupiter Liberty’ (now known as ‘Liberty’) on the popular hill, the Aventine. His clash with his colleagues was followed by the lucky coincidence of a bequest to Rome of the kingdom of Pergamum. Tiberius referred this financial matter to the people for their decision, too, with the proposal that some of the funds be directed to help his new settlers. Traditional senators regarded financial decisions as the Senate’s. On top of it all, Tiberius then proposed to stand as tribune for a second year, with even bigger plans for reform. Led by the Pontifex Maximus, his senatorial enemies had him killed on the very Capitol hill. Tiberius (theysaid) had been aiming to be a king; he had the ‘purple robe and diadem’ of the king of Pergamum in his house; he had pointed to his forehead while on the Capitol as if to want a diadem on his head.3 His killer, Scipio Nasica, was a liberator acting for freedom.

This allegation was a monstrous distortion: Tiberius was no king and if he pointed at his head, it was to show that his life was in danger. His brother Gaius was the greater political genius. Naturally, Tiberius’ murder grated on him, as with others: in 125 Liberty appears on the coins of two Romans, descendants of legislators who had helped to protect it. Gaius then became elected as tribune (in 123 and 122) and proposed the most far-ranging legislation in senators’ living memory. It covered almost every popular grievance. It saw to monthly distributions of grain at a subsidized price to the people; it set up new courts to try cases of extortion in which none of the jurors would be senators and voting would be by secret ballot: it proposed mixed juries in other courts, too, with a preponderance of the non-senatorial rich (the ‘knights’, equites, in the sense of those capable of serving as cavalry). Before 123 BC, we must remember, the judges and advisers on all major criminal and civil cases had been senators only. Gaius capped his major reform of Roman justice by legislating that no Roman citizen should be sentenced to death ‘without the bidding of the Roman people’. This law directlyaddressed the senators’ lynching of his brother, Tiberius. This widening of the juries was detestable to senators and their dignity, but it was upheld by its proponents as ‘equal liberty’. Gaius also provided for the privatizing of tax-collection in the rich province of Asia, byhanding it over to the bids of companies who could collect the taxes (and their own profit), thereby ensuring that a known revenue would always be assured in advance of collection. He even resumed land-settlements for the poor by proposing Roman colonies overseas (including one on the site of ruined Carthage). In 125 one of the consuls had talked of giving Roman citizenship to Italian allies: the previously loyal Latin colony of Fregellae had revolted, as if in frustration, and had been all but destroyed. In the aftermath of this crisis, Gaius Gracchus seems to have proposed giving the Roman citizenship to all the peoples of Italy (precise details are disputed), but to have allowed those who might want to keep their local independence to opt for particular privileges only.

In most of his laws, there was a considered response to injustice and abuse; Gaius Gracchus was later said to have described himself as putting a ‘dagger in the ribs of the Senate’.4 A close reading of his best-known law, the law on ‘extortion’, has helped to tone down extreme views of his radicalism: responsibilities were being given to the new equestrian jurors, too, who would have to exercise them in full public view.5 But in principle, judgement in this court was to be the job of non-senators, to whom the people, not the Senate, had devolved the task. That slight to senatorial pre-eminence was most fiercelyresented. In the political turmoil which continued after Gaius’ two years as tribune, he and his supporters (up to 3,000 of them) were callously murdered. The senators simply declared an emergency and urged the consuls to see that the republic was defended and ‘came to no harm’. This measure is now known by the modern name of the ‘last decree’: it was a brazen innovation, a measure by senators to suppress those who could be regarded (by themselves) as public enemies. In the next sixty years it was to claim some of the most notable populists as its victims. One of Gaius’ attackers, the consul Opimius, was acquitted when put on trial after the event.

Nonetheless, the two Gracchi had set a populist example which was not forgotten. Both of them received cult as gods from their admirers after their death and the spot where theydied was regarded as sacred. Against them, the more ‘traditional’ senators now stood forward as self-styled ‘good men’, or the ‘best’ (optimates). Badly stung, they were explicitly hostile to change, to challenges to the Senate’s preeminence, to ideas that questions of finance or senatorial privilege (and much else) could be taken directly to an assembly of the people and be turned into legislation without any consultation, and prior approval, of the senators. ‘Traditionalists’ is one translation of their elastic catch-word optimates. Theywere never organized into a party, but, from the Gracchi on, there was a real division of political approaches among prominent Romans. It polarized their political methods and professed ideals.

Gaius would not have been altogether surprised that the ‘knights’ (or equites) to whom he gave new responsibilities proved not entirely admirable in exercising them. But the next personal challenge to the senatorial nobility came from an ambitious military man, not from a comparable reformer. Gaius Marius, a non-noble, rose to an unprecedented series of consulships (five in a row, from 104 to 100). He took his cue from charges that the senatorial commanders, ‘good men’, were proving highly incompetent in fighting a war in north Africa. He ended it, not without luck, and then won impressive victories in 102 and 101 against two feared tribes who had migrated south from the area of Jutland into southern Gaul (Provence) and north Italy. To win these wars, Marius trained his troops extremely hard and recruited legionaries for the first time from the class of poor people who had no property whatsoever. This change was to prove an important milestone in the social impact of service in the Roman armies. From now on, many military recruits would have much more to fight for and much less to return to. The innovation was to have revolutionary results in the next fifty years, although Marius, in his emergency, had certainly not foreseen them.

Marius was a ‘people’s hero’ rather than a reforming populist, and by his exploits he won a degree of acceptance among Rome’s top families despite his non-senatorial birth. Back at Rome, the Gracchi’s mantle of reform fell, rather, to the clever Saturninus, a tribune in the year 100. He began by combining with Marius but then took to proposing yet more popular laws and thereby losing the great military man’s support. Saturninus was eventually killed in the centre of Rome with Marius’ connivance: again, a populist’s legislation ended in murder. Yet even so, political turmoil did not become anarchy. In the same year as this crisis, we know from inscriptional evidence that detailed, carefully considered laws were being passed by the people’s assembly so as to continue to regulate extortion and to prescribe details of Roman governors’ conduct abroad.

In 91 BC came the Social War against the allied Italians, and then the war in 88 against vengeful Mithridates in Asia. These represented crises of a much greater order. Marius, not untypically, had opposed a recently revived proposal to enfranchise the Italians. In his late sixties, he then intrigued to try to take over the command of the war in Asia. Instead, the ‘good men’, the traditionalist senators, let it go to a formidable figure from the old patrician nobility, Cornelius Sulla. Sulla had served as an officer in the past under Marius; he was known for a somewhat dissolute lifestyle, but as he also had the backing of the family who most hated Marius, he was an obvious choice for the ‘traditionalists’ to support. Crucially, his appointment was overturned by a tribune, Sulpicius Rufus, who took the question of the command to the people’s assembly and had Marius appointed to it instead. It was a shocking blow to Sulla’s esteem and an intolerable intrusion into a type of decision which senators had typically regarded as theirs to make. With awesome disdain, Sulla relied on his troops’ loyalty and turned round and marched on Rome. He then settled his scores with his enemies, including the tribune Sulpicius who was killed in office.

This behaviour was a bitter taste of civil war. Sulla escaped the consequences only by setting off for Greece to cope with Mithridates’ war, his original assignation. In Greece, even Athens had broken with Rome and taken Mithridates’ side after a time of political turbulence in the city. Sulla earned the distinction of being the one man in history to attack both Rome and Athens when he sacked the Piraeus and parts of the main city. At Rome, his enemy Cornelius Cinna became consul for 87 and outlawed him. Nonetheless, Sulla headed on to Asia where he ended by making a rather feeble peace with Mithridates in 85. To meet his costs, he continued to ravage the Asian Greek cities in his path.

Back in Rome, Cinna died, whereupon Sulla rebelled and marched promptly back into Italyfor a second, more serious bout of civil war. Again, he showed extreme severity to his enemies (including to some of the newly enfranchised Italians), but nonetheless he won a decisive victory at the very Colline gate of Rome. It was a real breakdown of the Republic; with our hindsight it is a foretaste of the 40s BC and is the point at which histories of the ‘Roman revolution’ ought to begin. Nonetheless, after his victory, Sulla had himself approved as a dictator with the task of ‘settling the state’.

The laws which he then executed were detailed and not always extreme, but the most important of them were resoundingly traditionalist. Freedom and justice were at the heart of them. In the interests of justice, Sulla did increase the number of standing jury-courts, adding at least seven more, but he did away with Gaius Gracchus’ ‘equal liberty’ by handing the juries back to senators only. He increased the number of senators from 300 to 600 (the increase was made up from his supporters), but he also regulated the lower ranks of a man’s career towards the consulship: the likes of a Marius, rising directly to the top job, would now be illegal. The censors’ powers to choose senators were also checked: anyone who held a junior magistracy, a quaestorship, would now automatically become a senator.

Above all, Sulla settled his veteran soldiers, so loyal in his years of rebellion, on plots of land confiscated in Italy; the sites of Fiesole and Pompeii were among those settled with new Sullan colonies. And, wonder of wonders, he neutered the populists’ weapon, the tribunate, which had been turned against his own original command in Asia. He ruled that tribunes could not go on to hold other prestigious magistracies; ambitious men would therefore avoid the position. He even took away the tribunes’ power to veto (and probably, propose) legislation in the people’s assemblies. Arguably, he did not also give the Senate the formal right to vet all proposed laws in advance. But even so, his was a stunning political reaction.

Sulla’s lesser reforms were neither extreme nor ill-considered. He passed laws which limited the freedom of commanders outside Italy, and these persisted for decades. So did his establishment of a civil court to hear cases of ‘injury’, which was defined as assault or violent entry into private property. By these courts, the minimal framework of justice in the old Twelve Tables was filled out. Sulla had thought carefully about details which were ill-organized. Having turned the populist clock back, he then gave up his powers as dictator and in 80, unexpectedly took up the consulship instead. He had realized a conservative vision, as if the likes of Gaius Gracchus had never existed. Having done so, he retired, whereupon he died in 79 of disease, leaving his ‘restoration’ to be immediately contested. His funeral was a public one, the first known for a Roman citizen: a vast procession accompanied his body to the Forum where an orator spoke out on Sulla’s deeds. Actors wore the family’s masks; 2,000 crowns of gold were said to have been donated; his statue was carved from the precious wood of a spice tree.6 Some thirty years later this funeral would be excelled for the next dictator, Sulla’s only superior.

Sulla, the dissolute young man, had ended by legislating against disruptive luxury. What mattered more, though, was his stunning example: an outright defence of his own ‘dignity’, backed by veteran soldiers loyal to him and a long list of killings of enemies and confiscations of their property in Italy. From this short sharp revolution, whole fortunes changed hands, often passing to Sulla’s decidedly unsavoury agents. Sulla himself stressed his personal favour from the gods (especially Venus, whom he encountered in the town, as yet little known, of Aphrodisias in Asia Minor). He had also been told by an eastern prophet that he would achieve greatness and die at the height of his good fortune. The prophecy was one more reason why, mission accomplished, this bloodstained dictator resigned and let the ‘good men’ in the Senate get on with what he had put back into their hands.

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