THE TWO MEN WERE, TO PUT IT MILDLY, UNPROMISing and even distasteful specimens of humanity.
The older one was Gaius Marius. He was born in 157 in a small village near Arpinum, a hill town in Latium of Volscian and Samnite origins, some sixty miles southeast of Rome. He was lucky to be a voting citizen of Rome, for the full franchise had been awarded the town only thirty years earlier.
According to his biographer Plutarch, the boy’s parents lived in very humble circumstances and he is said to have worked for wages as a simple peasant. He may have been a blacksmith for a time. He grew up rough and uncouth and lived frugally. He seems to have been proud of his modest background. When campaigning later in life for public office, Marius certainly made the most of it, and liked to compare himself, a little in the manner of Cato, with effete aristocrats:
These proud men make a very big mistake. Their ancestors left them all they could—riches, portrait busts, and their own glorious memory.… They call me vulgar and unpolished, because I don’t know how to put on an elegant dinner and don’t have actors at my table or keep a cook who has cost me more than my farm bailiff. All this, fellow citizens, I am proud to admit. For I was taught by my father and other men of blameless life that, while elegant graces befit woman, a man’s duty is to labor.
The teenage Marius chose the only escape route from provincial isolation that was open to him, the army. His exceptional ability soon allowed him to shine. It is possible, too, that despite his poverty his social status was higher than he cared to admit and that he came from an equestrian family that had fallen on hard times; if so, that would have helped speed promotion.
He had a fierce temper. Plutarch once saw a statue of him at Ravenna and wrote: “It very well expresses the harshness and bitterness of character that are attributed to him.” Military life suited him. He refused to study Greek literature and never spoke Greek; he could not see the point of having anything to do with the culture of a subject people. Some critics regarded him as a hypocrite who would say anything to get his way and was not above employing blackmail; to their annoyance, Iago-like, he actually won a reputation for honest dealing.
What nobody could deny was Marius’s combination of fortitude and realism. Later in life, he suffered from varicose veins in both legs. Disliking their ugly appearance, he decided to undergo surgery to remove them. Anesthetic had not been discovered, but he refused to be tied down, as was the practice, to keep himself still. He endured the excruciating pain from the knife in silence and without moving. But when the surgeon proceeded to the other leg, Marius stopped him, saying, “I can see that the cure is not worth the pain.”
LUCIUS CORNELIUS SULLA could not have been more different in background and personality from a bright country lad with rough edges. Nearly twenty years Marius’s junior, he was born into a patrician family of little distinction and less money. His only ancestor of whom anything was known had been expelled from the Senate. He inherited so little from his father that he lived in a cheap ground-floor apartment in an unfashionable part of town.
Sulla loved literature and the arts, and before he had any money he spent most of his time with actors and actresses. He liked a good time and enjoyed drinking and joking with the most indiscreet theater people; once seated at a dinner table, he categorically refused to discuss any serious topic, although when on business he was severe and unyielding.
The young nobleman seems to have got on well with older women; his stepmother loved him as if he were her own son and left him her estate. He fell in love with a wealthy courtesan, a certain Nicopolis, and his charm and youthful grace eventually led her to return his feelings; on her death, he inherited again. In this way, he became moderately well-off. However, Sulla was bisexual and the true love of his life was Metrobius, a celebrated tragic actor who specialized in women’s roles, of whom he remained passionately fond until his dying day.
Sulla’s most remarkable feature was his appearance. He had gray eyes and a sharp and powerful gaze. His face was covered with an ugly birthmark—coarse blotches of red interspersed with white. An Athenian wit wrote a famous verse about him:
Sulla is a mulberry sprinkled with barley meal.
Marius and Sulla came to represent two emerging groups in Roman public life. On the one hand, the populares spoke for the People; in the footsteps of the Gracchi, they supported the sovereignty of the Assembly against the authority of the Senate. They were inheritors of the centuries-old campaigners for the rights of the plebs. Then there were the optimates, the soi-disant “best people,” who distrusted democracy and spoke for the predominance of the great families that monopolized the offices of state.
These groups were not disciplined political parties with agreed programs, as in today’s parliamentary democracies. Rather, they were fluctuating factions. Their methods varied; a popularis leader tended to be an individualist who sought power for himself, whereas the optimates defended a collective interest. Although the occasional novus homo, “new man,” such as Marius, was admitted via elections into the ruling class, the membership of both groups was drawn from the aristocracy. Ordinary citizens were allowed to vote, but otherwise their participation in politics did not extend much beyond watching and waiting, receiving bribes from candidates for public office, and, when they lost patience, rioting.
THE PATHS OF Marius, the unpolished commoner, and Sulla, the hard-up sensualist, crossed for the first time in northern Africa. They were fighting Jugurtha, a very able but unscrupulous grandson of the old Numidian king Masinissa, who had helped the Romans defeat Hannibal at the Battle of Zama nearly a century earlier. As a young man, he had served in Spain under Scipio Aemilianus, and won golden praises. He was ambitious and very free with his money. Scipio gave him some avuncular advice. In a private meeting, he told Jugurtha to cultivate Rome’s friendship, not that of individual Romans, and to suppress his habit of offering bribes. The prince paid absolutely no attention to these wise words.
When the current king of Numidia died, he bequeathed his realm to his two sons and to Jugurtha, his nephew. A similar tripartite division had worked well enough on Masinissa’s death, probably because it had been guaranteed by the Romans. But Jugurtha did not want to share power. He had one brother assassinated and the other, Adherbal, fled to Rome. The Senate misguidedly decided that Numidia should be bisected between the two surviving rivals. Jugurtha refused to accept the settlement and besieged Adherbal in his capital. A resident community of Italian merchants persuaded the beleaguered king to give himself up on condition that his life be spared.
Jugurtha accepted the terms, but as soon as he had his cousin in his possession he put him to death—and many of the Italian merchants were massacred, too, for good measure. This was an irreparable mistake. Rome never forgave the murder of its citizens. War was declared and the Senate dispatched an army to Africa. However, Jugurtha soon agreed to surrender to a Roman general on condition that he keep his throne.
This was a completely unexpected outcome, and it was widely supposed that Jugurtha had bribed every Roman official with whom he had come into contact. The Senate set up a board of inquiry and Jugurtha was invited to Rome under a safe-conduct to reveal the identity of all those he had suborned. Incorrigible as ever, he bribed a tribune to prevent him from announcing any names. He was also responsible for the assassination of a cousin, who was living in Rome and had been invited by one of the consuls to claim the Numidian throne for himself. By now it was obvious that Jugurtha was a man with whom it was impossible to do business. He was sent back to Africa, and the fighting resumed.
An incompetent Roman army was soundly beaten by the Numidians and forced to march under a yoke of spears, as in the bad old days of the Samnite Wars. It was obliged to evacuate Numidia. At long last in 109, the Senate was persuaded to treat Jugurtha seriously and a competent and incorruptible general was sent out to rescue the war.
He was Quintus Caecilius Metellus, a member of a leading senatorial family. Marius was among Metellus’s clients and served as his legatus, or deputy. Now in his late forties, he had made reasonable progress up the political ladder for a novus homo, having been elected praetor in 114 and appointed governor of Lusitania. He was ambitious for the top job, even if it meant offending his longtime patron.
Metellus was winning the campaign, but slowly. Jugurtha had not been captured. Marius began to agitate that the war was being spun out unnecessarily. He was popular with the army rank and file and with Roman traders, not to mention voters at home. He asked Metellus for permission to return to Rome so that he could run for the consulship and take over the command. Being the aristocrat that he was, an irritated Metellus could not resist cracking a joke at his deputy’s expense. “So you are going to abandon us, are you, my dear fellow?” he asked. “Wouldn’t it be a better idea to delay your campaign until you can stand at the same time as this boy of mine?” Metellus’s son was only twenty.
Eventually, Marius was allowed to take his leave. In Rome, he raised enough popular and equestrian support to win the consulship. The Assembly disregarded the Senate’s decision to prolong Metellus’s command and appointed Marius in his place. This usurpation of the Senate’s traditional role in deciding provincial commands set a dangerous precedent. It paved the way for extraordinary commands for ambitious politicians who were willing to bypass the usual constitutional limitations.
Marius was determined to finish off Jugurtha at the earliest opportunity, so he levied more troops. However, he found the going as difficult and time-consuming as his predecessor had. He reduced stronghold after stronghold, but the legions were hard put to worst a highly mobile enemy on land well suited to the deployment of cavalry. Jugurtha strengthened his position by an alliance with his neighbor, Bocchus, the king of Mauretania. At long last a pitched battle was fought, which Marius won decisively—thanks in large part to Sulla, who commanded the cavalry, turning up at just the right moment.
However, the slippery Numidian king was still at large. He was not so slippery, though, as his new friend Bocchus, who decided to surrender him to the Romans. Simultaneously and falsely, the king promised Jugurtha to hand Sulla over to him; with such a distinguished captive, the Numidian calculated, he would easily be able to negotiate a peace with Rome. Bocchus invited the two men to a conference. Sulla, taking his life in his hands, rode to the rendezvous with only a few followers. At the last minute, the Mauretanian king had second thoughts and wondered anxiously whether, after all, he should favor Jugurtha. He eventually decided that the Roman was the better bet, and Jugurtha was arrested.
Jugurtha was taken to Rome and paraded in Marius’s triumph. Defeat made him lose his mind. When he was inserted, naked, into Rome’s main prison, the Tullianum, a tiny drumlike cellar with a shaft leading into the Cloaca Maxima, he said, “God, this Roman bath is cold.” He lasted six days in the dark and without food before dying.
Much to Marius’s fury, Sulla made the most of his coup and was widely credited with winning the war. He had a seal ring made that depicted Bocchus delivering, and Sulla receiving, Jugurtha.
We may imagine a smile lighting up Metellus’s face.
MARIUS WAS CREDITED with being a great military innovator, although it may be that the ancient sources have used him as a clotheshorse on which to hang a number of important reforms agreed at different times.
As the Gracchi had discovered, the days of the reasonably well-off yeoman were closing and, when he raised his additional troops for Africa, Marius recruited directly from the head count, Rome’s lowest economic and social stratum, who owned little or nothing and by law could not be drafted. This was not as revolutionary a step as might at first appear, for the prescribed property qualifications for legionaries had been falling for some time, and Marius was careful to ask for volunteers rather than conscripts.
One way or another, many recruits could no longer afford to pay for their own gear, as they had been expected to do in the past, and had no farms to return to. What had once been a militia was mutating into a near-professional army. This had one very dangerous consequence: soldiers became increasingly dependent on their commanders, both to ensure that they were well equipped and, already a problem in the age of Scipio, that they had somewhere to go when they were demobilized after their six to sixteen years’ term of service.
The system of maniples, the three lines of infantry and the forward screen of light-armed skirmishers, gave way during the second and first centuries to the cohort, a grouping of four hundred and eighty foot soldiers equivalent to three maniples. Not as complex and decentralized as the old arrangement, a legion of ten cohorts was more readily responsive to its commander during battle.
Marius standardized uniforms and weapons and, to foster esprit de corps, introduced the aquila, a silver eagle carried on a pole. It symbolized the legion, and its capture by the enemy conferred lasting shame on all its soldiers.
An ingenious technical device helped make survival on the field of battle a better bet. The heavy javelin, or pilum, was an essential part of the legionary’s armory. But when he threw it at his opponents, they often picked it up and hurled it back. Its iron head was attached to a wooden pole by two metal rivets. One of these was now replaced by a wooden dowel, so that the head was bent or snapped off entirely when the pilum reached its target or fell to the ground. This meant that it could not be reused.
Marius reduced the number of camp followers, making individual legionaries more self-reliant. In addition to their weapons, they had to carry on their backs emergency food rations and essential equipment for cooking and entrenching. With their bent, ungainly gait, infantrymen looked like beasts of burden. They were nicknamed Marius’s mules.
A TERRIBLE THREAT to Rome’s very existence suddenly materialized. Every Roman remembered the horror story of the Battle of the Allia and the capture and looting of their city by the Celts in the fourth century. Barbarian hordes pressing down from the dark forests of central Europe into the sunlit lands of the Mediterranean remained figures of nightmare, lurking just beyond the direct field of vision.
Every now and again, the Celts reappeared. In 279 they invaded Greece, reaching as far as Delphi before being repulsed. Immigrant Celts settled in Galatia (in what is today’s central Anatolia). Rome did what it could to reduce the risk of further incursions into Italy by creating buffer territories. In 120, southern France became the province of Gallia Transalpina, later Narbonensis. Over the years, many consular armies marched north to reduce the Celtic communities in the Po Valley; eventually, in the first century, the region became the province of Cisalpine Gaul.
Alarming reports reached Rome in 113 that two Germanic tribes, the Cimbri and the Teutones, were emigrating en masse with their women and children southward from their homelands in or near Jutland. The record of incompetence and corruption in Rome’s political class continued; somewhere in the eastern Alps, a consul crashed to defeat at the hands of the tribal wanderers. Most fortunately for the Republic, they turned westward toward Gaul, which they reached in 110.
A succession of consuls suffered further routs, culminating in 105 at Arausio (modern Orange, not far from Avignon), in Rome’s greatest military disaster since Cannae, with a reported loss of eighty thousand men. Italy lay at the invader’s mercy. Men under the age of thirty-five were forbidden to leave the country. Rome prepared for the worst.
Marius was still in Africa when the news of the catastrophe reached Rome. On a wave of popular enthusiasm, he was reelected consul in absentia for the following year. This was against all the conventions, but the Assembly had had enough of hopeless aristocrats and wanted a commander who had a chance of repulsing the Celts.
The Celts were in no hurry to do anything in particular and rambled around the Gallic countryside. This gave Marius breathing space, during which he introduced his military reforms (or refined earlier ones) and honed his troops into an efficient fighting force. He went on being elected consul for six years in a row. This was unprecedented, but it was evidently more sensible to keep the Republic’s most able general in place than to insist on an annual change of command just for the constitutional principle of the thing.
The Celts split their forces into two. The Teutones (alongside a fellow tribe, the Ambrones) intended to enter Italy via the seacoast, while the Cimbri would descend on the peninsula through the Brenner Pass. Marius was waiting for the former, but did not immediately give battle. The Celts were a terrifying sight, and their vast numbers covered the plain. The Romans stayed in their camp and watched them pass by; if we are to believe Plutarch, this took six days.
Marius shadowed the enemy until he found a suitable site for a battle. A skirmish led to a successful engagement, and on the following day the Roman army deployed for battle. A force of three thousand men hid in ambush behind the Celts. In the face of an onslaught by the Teutones, the legions more than held their ground; astounded by an attack on their rear, the enemy panicked and fled.
The bodies of the Celtic dead were left where they were. They fertilized the ground, and the people of Massilia used their bones to fence fields. For some years, it was said that the grape harvests were unusually rich.
Marius quickly joined the consular army confronting the Cimbri in the Po Valley, and in 101 the combined forces met the enemy outside Vercellae (today’s Vercelli, in Piedmont) on a hot midsummer’s day. The armies raised such a cloud of dust that at the beginning they missed each other. The Celts were unused to the sweltering temperature and were soon cut to pieces. Their disgusted womenfolk killed any fugitives who came their way, and many of them strangled their children and cut their own throats.
Rome had outfaced an external challenge, but it was to have no peace. Now it was to risk destruction from enemies within.
MARIUS WAS NOT much of a politician. A man without grace, he was happier giving orders to troops than compromising with civilians. While serving his successive consulships and campaigning against the Celts, he needed political support in the Forum. He found it, unwisely, in an embittered and daring tribune, Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, a nobleman who turned against his class and became a popularis after being sacked from his job as quaestor in charge of managing Rome’s grain supply at the port of Ostia.
A fine public speaker and a clever fixer, Saturninus was elected tribune in 103. His policy was uncomplicated: it was to be as disobliging as possible to the Senate. He entered into a partnership with Marius and on his behalf passed a law settling the general’s veterans from the war with Jugurtha on land in the province of Africa. He had no qualms about using violence. When a fellow tribune tried to interpose a veto, Saturninus got his followers to drive him off with a hail of stones. He also helped Marius win his fourth consulship in 102.
After his victories over the Celts, Marius returned to Rome and entered into a new compact with Saturninus. The tribune and the consul shared a hatred for Metellus, who had not only patronized Marius in Africa but also tried to remove Saturninus from the Senate on the grounds of immorality. They laid a trap for him.
A proposal was put to the Senate that all soldiers, Latins as well as Roman citizens, demobilized after the defeat of the Cimbri and the Teutones, should be given allotments in Transalpine Gaul and colonies in various places across the Mediterranean. A controversial clause was added that each senator should swear to observe the new law. Everyone knew that for Metellus this was an unconstitutional infringement of senatorial independence.
Marius assured all and sundry that he would never bind himself in this way. Then, a few days later, just before the legal deadline for taking the oath, he unexpectedly convened the Senate and said that because of popular pressure he had changed his mind. But he had worked out an ingenious formula that would address Metellus’s objection. He would swear to obey the law “insofar as it was a law.” A nervous Senate followed his lead, except for Metellus. He was outmaneuvered and isolated, but, having taken a stand, he refused to backtrack. His punishment was exile.
Marius, although cussed, was no revolutionary and could see that the populares were running out of control. Saturninus won a third term as tribune, and a colleague of his ran for consul. When a leading rival for the consulship was beaten to death in public, it was clear that a line had been crossed. Popular support for Saturninus evaporated.
For the second time, the Senate passed the Final Decree. The tribune and his friends occupied the Capitol. Abandoning them to their fate, Marius put together an armed force and cut off their water supply. This was a turning point in the history of Rome, for soldiers in uniforms and carrying weapons were strictly forbidden within the city boundary; also, the ease and speed with which the consul found and deployed these men strongly suggests a personal loyalty to him rather than to the state.
The parched revolutionaries soon surrendered. Promised their lives would be spared, they were locked up, as a temporary expedient, in the Senate House at the foot of the Capitol. But a furious lynch mob climbed onto the roof, stripped off the roof tiles, and threw them down onto the rebels until most of them were dead.
That was the end of the affair. Marius completed his term as consul, but his lack of political skill and principle were embarrassingly obvious, and thereafter he was frozen out of public life. As Plutarch put it: “He lacked the abilities others had of making themselves agreeable socially and useful politically. So he was left on the side like military equipment in peace-time.” He traveled to the East, apparently on private business, and disappeared from view.
Ancient historians have not been kind to Saturninus, and we cannot now judge his value as a statesman. He may have been no more than an upper-class monster with a chip on his shoulder, or a worthy successor of the Gracchi, or a bit of both. But one truth stands out: where the old Republic used to solve problems through discussion, now the optimates and the populares had acquired an addiction to violence that they were unable to shake off.
IF THE ENTENTE in the Forum was dissolving, so, too, were relations between Rome and its allies throughout Italy. For years there had been talk of offering them full Roman citizenship, but proposals had always lapsed. The urban masses who voted at assemblies in Rome would not allow any measure that benefited others than themselves.
In 91, a bright young optimate, Marcus Livius Drusus, was elected tribune. He was hardworking but self-important. From his boyhood, he refused to take holidays. When he was building a house on the fashionable Palatine Hill, his architect thought of a way of designing it that would prevent it from being overlooked. “No,” replied Drusus. “Build it so that my fellow citizens are able to see everything I do.” The tribune had a solution to every political conundrum, and a talent for putting backs up—in the Senate and among the People and the equites. He correctly judged that the Italian allies should be given what they wished, and proposed that they should be enfranchised. But the opposition was too strong. Drusus was suspected of conspiring with allied leaders, some of whom he was known to have entertained in his house—no doubt because of its openness to observers. It was there, too, that he paid for his plans with his life. One evening, after conducting business in a portico, he dismissed the crowd. Then, suddenly, he shouted that he had been stabbed, and fell to the ground with the words on his lips. He had been fatally wounded in the groin. A leather worker’s knife was found, but not the assassin.
The allies laid secret plans for an uprising but awaited the outcome of Drusus’s attempts at reform. With his death, they abandoned negotiation for armed force. Their war aim was, to put it mildly, unusual: most of them sought not to overthrow the Republic but to join it. They intended to force the Romans to be their friends and equals, and to give them the vote. There was one exception, a community that had harbored hatred for their conquerors through long, bitter centuries of servitude. These were the Samnites. They had never accepted the verdict of defeat after defeat after defeat two centuries earlier. Whenever the opportunity arose, they enthusiastically took up arms against their ancient enemy once again.
By mischance the allies’ plans were detected too soon, and they were obliged to launch their attack rather late in the campaigning season. However, they held the initiative and swept all before them. After all, they regularly supplied more than half of Rome’s ever-victorious armies and knew all there was to know about their methods. The legions were fighting against old comrades.
Rome had the winter to gather its forces, and by spring of 90 put fourteen legions into the field. Every Roman of good family was called up. (Even the unmilitary young Cicero served as an officer.) There were two theaters of war—north-central Italy and Samnium. In both of them, the Italians scored a catalog of victories culminating in the defeat and death of a consul. Marius was recalled and held off the onslaught in the north (he soon retired, ostensibly on grounds of ill health, but perhaps because, as a man of Arpinum, he was not altogether trusted). Although much of the peninsula was in flames, the Latin and Roman fortress coloniae remained true.
As one disastrous month followed another, the revolt spread southward, and toward the end of the year the Etruscans and Umbrians in the north demanded the franchise. The Senate made a historic decision. The only way Rome could win the war was by conceding the main point at issue. A law was passed granting full Roman citizenship to any Latin or Italian communities that either had not revolted or had laid down their arms.
The war carried on for another two years, but this timely concession, later extended to everybody, threw a blanket over the flames. Sulla was successfully active in the south. The legions began to win victories, and even the Samnites lost heart. Gradually, the fighting petered out.
It had been a terrible convulsion. Many thousands of lives had been lost, and it was said that the devastation of the countryside exceeded that wreaked by Pyrrhus and Hannibal. In the long run, there were both positive and negative consequences. Every man south of the Po became a Roman citizen, and there was a growing sense of Italy as a single nation. Local identities continued to flourish, but within a larger commonwealth that the civitas Romana brought into being and guaranteed.
However, Italian enfranchisement weakened a constitution that had been designed for a city-state where most citizens were within a day or two’s traveling distance of Rome, and so were able to cast their democratic vote. In future, the interests of those attending Assembly meetings in Rome were not necessarily the same as those of the new larger, far-flung citizenship.
A FLAMBOYANT NEW actor now strode onto the stage—Mithridates, the king of Pontus, a remote realm on the southern littoral of the Black Sea. For the ordinary Roman, this was near the edge of the known world, but it had formed part of Alexander’s empire and had been duly Hellenized. The official language was Greek, and city-states in the Greek manner lined the coast. In the interior, mountains stood guard over a large, high plateau where Persian aristocrats presided over a native peasantry.
The royal house claimed descent from Darius, the luckless King of Kings whom the Macedonian conqueror overthrew in the fourth century. The character of Mithridates’ home life can be gauged by a glance at his family tree. His father was murdered, and his mother died in prison. Five siblings (from a total brood of seven) met untimely ends, all of them at the hands of their brother Mithridates, who was also responsible for the deaths of two of his own sons. None of this was particularly unusual in Hellenistic monarchies, where a ruler’s greatest enemies were usually his closest relatives.
Mithridates was born in about 120, the elder of two boys. When he was eleven, his father was poisoned at a banquet. The beneficiary, and perhaps the assassin, was his wife, a daughter of Antiochus the Great, who took over the reins of power during her sons’ minority. She seems to have preferred her youngest child, Chrestus, to Mithridates, or (just as likely) had no intention of letting either of them reach adulthood and claim the crown back from her.
By the age of fourteen, Mithridates began to fear for his life. He rode off on a hunting trip, and did not return for seven years. He seems to have spent the time in the valleys and forests of Pontus’s massif central, and became a romantic folk hero in the popular mind. When he eventually came back to Sinope, the capital of Pontus, he had the support of the masses and his mother gave herself up without making trouble. He agreed to rule with Chrestus, but the boy became a focus of palace intrigue. Mithridates was too strong-willed to bother with the constraints of a dual monarchy. He gave Chrestus a show trial and a public execution.
Traditionally, Pontus pursued a pro-Roman policy, but the young king intended to challenge the new imperialists from the west. Calculating that the Republic would hardly notice, he began by creating an empire up the eastern coast of the Black Sea as far as Colchis, the legendary birthplace of Medea and once the home of the Golden Fleece.
In 104, he and the neighboring king of Bithynia invaded and annexed Galatia and Paphlagonia. They then marched into Cappadocia but quarreled over who should control it. Mithridates sent an embassy to Rome to bribe senators to tolerate his interventions and to take his side on the issue of Cappadocia. In 99 or 98, Marius, who was in the region on his eastern travels as a privatus, warned Mithridates to take care. “Either be greater than the Romans,” he advised, “or else obey them.”
The Senate found the whole business tediously complicated and ordered both kings to withdraw, which they did. Sulla, who was the propraetor of Cilicia at the time, installed a new king of Cappadocia, chosen by the local nobility.
In 90, with Rome preoccupied by its war with the Italian allies, Mithridates went on the offensive again. This time he occupied Bithynia and (for a second time) Paphlagonia. The Senate sent out a commission to deal with this turbulent despot, led by a certain Manius Aquillius. Backed by a small military force, the commissioners ordered Mithridates to return to Pontus forthwith. Again, he obeyed. The Romans were not offering a free service and asked their protégés for payment. To raise the necessary cash, they recommended an invasion of Pontus. Bithynia reluctantly complied.
This was too much for Mithridates. He had always taken care to avoid a direct military confrontation with Rome, but now he felt that he had no choice but to resist. In short order, he defeated three armies sent against him. Aquillius was captured and put to death; as punishment for his greed, gold was melted and poured down his throat.
The king had reached a point of no return, and felt obliged to go to a further extreme. He marched on the Roman province of Asia, promising freedom for the Greek city-states and canceling debts. He accepted an invitation from Athens to liberate Greece. But what was he to do with the many thousands of Roman and Italian businessmen in the cities of Asia? If they were left alone, they would be a potential fifth column, but it was impractical to gather them together and expel them.
Mithridates made the most dangerous decision of his long career. He sent a round-robin letter to Asia’s local authorities, in which he instructed them, in exactly thirty days from the date of writing, to kill all people of Italian birth—men, women, and children—and, in the ancient world the ultimate insult, to leave them unburied. Almost everyone obeyed with enthusiasm, although at least one municipality used hired killers. There were terrible scenes. Once the slaughter began, many victims ran to temples for sanctuary. In Ephesus, fugitives in the world-famous Temple of Artemis (the Greek equivalent of Diana) were torn from statues of the goddess, and in Pergamum those who had fled to the temple of the god of healing, Asklepios, were shot with arrows. In total, about eighty thousand people lost their lives.
The king knew that Rome would never forgive him, or anyone complicit in the extermination. The citizens of Asia were now bound to follow the fortunes of Pontus. From the Senate’s point of view, there was a painful lesson to be learned: the zeal with which the population took to mass murder exposed the widespread hatred of Roman corruption and cruelty.
THE SENATE PLAYED a dirty trick when it offered the full Roman franchise, in effect, to all the allied communities south of the river Po. The many thousands of new citizens were enrolled in only a few of the thirty-five tribes, instead of being distributed among them all; this meant that, despite their large numbers, they would never be able to win a majority for their views. (It should be remembered that each tribe cast only a single collective vote.)
In 88, the conservative-minded Sulla was consul, a reward for his distinguished record in the Italian war. He was allocated the province of Asia—in other words, the potentially very lucrative command against Mithridates. So far, so straightforward.
A tribune of the same year, Publius Sulpicius Rufus, was one of the finest public speakers of the day. Cicero in his youth witnessed him perform. “Sulpicius of all the orators I have ever heard was the most theatrical,” he claimed. “His voice was strong but pleasing and noble.” Now in his mid-thirties, Sulpicius had been a brilliant and influential optimate, but as soon as he was elected tribune he switched loyalties and joined the populares. This probably had something to do with his close friendship with the assassinated Drusus. He was a warm supporter of the Italian allies and set himself the difficult task of passing a law that distributed Rome’s new citizens fairly across all the thirty-five tribes.
Sulpicius could count on opposition in the Senate and among the People, so he struck a deal with Marius, who was still bitter that he had been excluded from public life and, at seventy, eager for one final military adventure. Marius was a popular figure among ordinary voters and could also muster backing for Sulpicius from the equites. In return, the tribune would repeal the law giving Sulla the eastern command and transfer it to Marius.
An outraged Sulla called a halt to public business (a iustitium). In reply, Sulpicius brought his mob onto the streets. Fighting broke out in the Forum, and an attempt was made on the consuls’ lives. Sulla was able to make his escape but was forced, humiliatingly, to take refuge in Marius’s house near the Forum. His pursuers ran past the building and Marius let him out by a back door. Sulla stayed in the city long enough to call off the iustitium and then slipped away to join the six legions he was to lead against the king of Pontus.
Sulpicius passed his legislation, and some of Sulla’s supporters were killed. As soon as the consul learned that he had lost the command he convened a meeting of the army. The soldiers were looking forward to a profitable war and feared that Marius might recruit other men in their place. Sulla reported the violence to which he, a consul of Rome, had been subjected. He asked the men to obey orders, without specifying exactly what these were likely to be. They could read between the lines, though, and when Sulla commanded them to march on Rome they did as they were told. Their officers, however, could not stomach leading an army against their own country and fled the camp.
Another of Rome’s great turning points had been reached. Politicians had now graduated from roughing up their opponents, and from time to time killing them, to out-and-out civil war. Appian writes bluntly: “The murders and civil disturbances had so far been internal and sporadic; but after this the faction leaders struggled against each other with great armies in military fashion for the prize of their native land.”
THERE BEING NO garrison and so no official resistance, Sulla entered Rome at the head of two legions. This was sacrilege. A strict and ancient taboo forbade soldiers to enter the city (except for a triumph). Never before had it been so comprehensively broken. As the men filed down the narrow street to the center, shocked citizens flung stones and roof tiles on their heads, until Sulla threatened to set fire to their houses.
Once master of Rome, the consul had no trouble annulling Sulpicius’s legislation. He also pushed through a few measures to strengthen the Senate and limit the power of tribunes. The consular elections took place, but he had no time to manage the results and one of the two new consuls, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, was a popularis and not to be trusted. Too bad, for Sulla was in a hurry to reach the East and deal with Mithridates.
Sulpicius was found hiding in a villa and put to death; the slave who betrayed him was given his freedom and then flung from the Tarpeian Rock. Marius, however, made good his escape, but not without some unpleasant ordeals as he tried to elude his pursuers. He set sail for Africa but became seasick and made landfall near the seaside resort of Circeii, sixty miles south of Rome. Fainting from hunger, he and his companions wandered about aimlessly in a forest. At the seashore again, they were alarmed to see a troop of horsemen in the distance and swam out to some merchant ships that, luckily, happened to be sailing by. These reluctantly took their celebrated but unwanted guest aboard, and soon dropped him off again with some provisions.
The old man stripped off his clothes and hid in a muddy marsh. He was discovered and dragged out naked and covered in slime. He was taken to a nearby town and handed over to the local council, which decided that he should be put to death. A Celt (perhaps a member of the Cimbrian tribe that Marius had destroyed in battle more than ten years earlier) was ordered to do the deed. He entered the darkened room where Marius was lying. A loud voice roared from the shadows: “Man, do you dare kill Gaius Marius?”
The Celt threw down his sword, ran out of doors, and said, “I can’t kill Gaius Marius!” Consternation was followed by a change of heart. Marius was taken back to the coast, a ship was found for him, and he made his way to the province of Africa, where he had settled many of his veterans. At last, he was among friends.
WITH SULLA SAFELY in the East, the new consul, Cinna, tried to reintroduce Sulpicius’s legislation for the new citizens but was declared a public enemy by the Senate and driven out of the city. Marius, tormented by his trials, returned to Italy and raised troops. He was soon joined by Cinna. For the second time in its history, the legions marched on Rome.
The two men launched a massacre of optimates. Soldiers were allowed to loot and kill at will. Among the many statesmen who lost their lives was Quintus Lutatius Catulus, who had been Marius’s fellow consul in 102, when they had jointly fought off the Celtic hordes. He averted murder by suicide, suffocating himself by burning charcoal in a newly plastered room. No one was allowed to bury the dead, so birds and dogs tore apart the corpses. After five days, Cinna called a halt.
Marius won an unprecedented seventh consulship for 86, but within seven days of taking office he was dead. Old, sick, and mad, he fell into a delirium. According to Plutarch:
He imagined that he was the commander-in-chief of the war against Mithridates and then behaved just as he used to do when really in action, throwing himself into all sorts of attitudes, going through various movements, shouting words of command and constantly yelling out his battle cry.
Three years passed, with Cinna retaining the consulship and Italy remaining at peace. There appears to have been good government; useful laws were passed to alleviate indebtedness and restore the quality of a debased coinage. But, at last, Sulla, victorious over the Pontic king, returned to Italy. He had vengeance in mind. Cinna was killed by his own troops, who then switched sides. A short civil war put paid to the popularis administration.
For the very last time the Samnites, still bleeding from the war of the allies, rose again. They joined a consular army, which Sulla defeated. Many prisoners were taken and the victor, to settle the matter once and for all, had any Samnites put to death. After this atrocity, the Samnite nation could foresee its ultimate fate and made one final bold throw of the dice. Its forces made a dash for Rome. But Sulla rushed back and intercepted them just in time outside the city’s Colline Gate. The fighting went on all day and lasted well into the night. Although at one point the Samnites gained the upper hand, they went down in defeat. It was their last battle. An invasion of their homeland followed, and much of the population was put to the sword. Samnium became a desolation.
Once in Rome, Sulla launched a domestic pogrom, the Proscription (as we have seen, names of the doomed were listed on a public notice board). He decided to liquidate all the political opponents he could find, and the butchery went on for months. Victims’ heads were displayed on the speakers’ platform in the Forum. Their estates were confiscated and used to finance the settlement of demobilized veterans. According to Appian, ninety senators died, and about sixteen hundred equites, but we may guess that the final total was much higher. Many Italians also suffered. The Senate, usually about three hundred strong at this time, was reduced to a hundred and fifty members. Marius’s remains were disinterred and scattered.
Sulla freed himself of any legal checks by reviving the all-powerful post of dictator, which had been in abeyance for more than a century. He was elected dictator legibus scribundis et rei publicae constituendae (“dictator for the writing of laws and organization of the Republic”). His term of office was not the traditional six months but for an indefinite period.
This gave the new master of Rome as much time as he needed to reform the constitution. In his view, the Senate was broken and needed to be mended. The tribunes were overmighty and needed to be tamed. In a word, the world was to be made safe foroptimates. Above all, Sulla sought to prevent the emergence of another Sulla.
The Senate was increased to six hundred members. A ladder of political progression—the cursus honorum, or “honors race”—was clearly laid down, with minimum ages for magistrates. A man qualified for election as quaestor, a junior treasury official, from the age of thirty; as aedile, from thirty-six (this post was optional); as praetor, from thirty-nine; and, finally, as consul, from forty-two. The number of quaestors was raised from eight to twenty; they automatically joined the Senate once their term of office was over. So the membership would be regularly refreshed. New law courts were established that covered a range of crimes. Jurors were no longer to be equites but exclusively senators again.
In an attempt to control unruly generals, such as Sulla himself had been, governors were forbidden to leave their provinces or make war outside them without explicit permission from Rome. The charge for disobedience was to be treason, maiestas minuta populi Romani (literally, “the diminution of the majesty of the Roman people”).
The veto of tribunes was restricted, and they were no longer allowed to promote bills without the Senate’s prior authorization.
To universal astonishment, the dictator resigned his office on completing his legislative program, and in 80 retired into private life. He seems to have had a wonderful time. According to Plutarch, his wife died and he remarried a younger woman, who had picked him up at a gladiatorial show. In spite of that, Plutarch writes:
He still kept company with women who were ballet-dancers or harpists and with people from the theater. They used to lie drinking together on couches all day long. The men who were now most influential with him were Roscius the comedian, Sorex the leading ballet dancer, and Metrobius the female impersonator. Metrobius was now past his prime, but throughout everything Sulla continued to insist he was in love with him.
Curiously, when he walked about the city with his friends nobody arrested or physically attacked him. The worst that happened to him were the insults of a teenage boy who once trailed him all the way to his house. The former dictator put up with this patiently, only remarking (presciently), “This lad will stop anyone else from laying aside such power.”
Throughout his life, Sulla believed in his luck and added the cognomen Felix, or Lucky, to his name. In this he resembled the legendary king of Rome Servius Tullius, who also made much of his good fortune. As with the king, Sulla’s luck abandoned him at the end. His retirement was brief. In 78, after a very unpleasant illness, entailing an ulcerated bowel, malodorous discharges, and worms guzzling on necrotic flesh, he died. He was about sixty years old. The early symptoms of a terminal disease may help to explain his unexpected abdication.
IN THE FOURTH century A.D., when the Roman Empire in the west was within a century of its fall, a collection of eighty-six short biographies of famous Romans was published: De viris illustribus urbis Romae (Famous Men of the City of Rome). All the most celebrated names of Roman history were there, from Romulus and Remus to Mark Antony. The list also included five foreigners, those who had been the Republic’s most dangerous enemies: they were Pyrrhus, Hannibal, Viriathus (the Spanish guerrilla fighter), Cleopatra—and Mithridates.
The king of Pontus spent a long lifetime opposing Rome, and came close to destroying its power in the Eastern Mediterranean. When Sulla left Italy to campaign against him, Mithridates was in command of the Balkans and Asia Minor, and disposed of vast financial and manpower resources. But after two great battles the legions drove him out of Greece and captured Athens, which had invited the king to free it from Roman rule. Much of the city center was destroyed and many Athenians were put to the sword.
In 85, Sulla crossed into Asia Minor, but instead of continuing the fight he negotiated a quick settlement at a place called Dardanus, near the ruins of Troy. Mithridates agreed to surrender a fleet, evacuate all the territory he had conquered in Asia Minor, and pay an indemnity of two thousand talents. In return, he not only kept his throne but was granted “most favored nation” status as a Friend and Ally of the Roman People. Under the circumstances, not a bad result. But the ghosts of eighty thousand businessmen remained unappeased.
In 75 or 74, the king of Bithynia, at various times the friend and the enemy of Pontus, died. He bequeathed his realm to Rome. The Senate accepted the legacy, careless of the impact this would have on the balance of power in the east. To have Rome right on his doorstep was more than Mithridates could bear, and he invaded the new province.
Two proconsuls were appointed to Bithynia and Asia. Mithridates defeated the former but was worsted by the latter—Lucius Licinius Lucullus, a talented but haughty general. Two years of fighting saw the destruction of a large Pontic army. Mithridates escaped to the safety of his own kingdom.
Lucullus was in no hurry and refused to countenance a compromise peace, as Sulla had done; he moved against Pontus itself. The campaign was hard-fought, but by 70 he had the kingdom at his mercy. Mithridates fled to Armenia, where his son-in-law Tigranes was the ruler and gave him refuge. The Roman commander sent an envoy to the Armenian court to demand the Pontic king’s surrender. While waiting for an answer, Lucullus reorganized the finances of his province, which was laboring under a high level of indebtedness. His reforms infuriated extortionate Roman tax collectors, who were used to excessive profits. They instigated a whispering campaign against Lucullus, alleging that he was prolonging the war for his own glory.
Tigranes refused to hand over his father-in-law, who returned to Pontus. Lucullus invaded Armenia, but after winning some important victories his troops refused to carry on the war. An effective commander, he was a poor manager of men. Much to his annoyance, he was replaced by a onetime favorite of Sulla, Gnaeus Pompeius, known to us as Pompey the Great. He had little trouble finishing off what Lucullus had almost concluded.
Betrayed by two of his sons, Mithridates was holed up in a castle in the Crimea. He no longer had any hope and took poison, but even though he walked around quickly to hasten the effect of the drug, it failed to work. Apparently, as an unsurprising precaution for an eastern monarch, he had regularly consumed small doses of various poisons for many years and had inured himself to their effect. So the king of Pontus had a servant dispatch him. He was about seventy years old and had been troubling the Romans for the better part of five decades.
POMPEY WAS NOT only a competent soldier but an administrator of genius. Before returning to Italy, he reconstructed the East in a settlement that lasted for many years. He established a line of directly governed provinces that ran from Pontus on the Black Sea, down the Eastern Mediterranean to the frontier of the still independent kingdom of Egypt. Alongside, a band of free states, governed by client kings, acted as a buffer between Rome’s sphere of influence and the great Parthian Empire, which stretched from the Euphrates to India.
On 29 September 61, his forty-fifth birthday, Pompey celebrated the most splendid of triumphs, mainly for his victories in Asia Minor but also for a successful earlier campaign against pirates in the Mediterranean. A long line of horse-drawn carriages and litters carried a fabulous quantity of precious metals. It included more than 75,000,000 denarii’s worth of silver coins (probably equivalent to Rome’s entire tax income for a year); Mithridates’ throne and scepter as well as a statue of the king, more than twelve feet high and made of solid gold; and chariots of gold and silver.
Among other exotic exhibits were a moon of solid gold, an outsize chessboard in precious stones and, writes the encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, a “square mountain of gold, with stags and lions on it and all sorts of fruit, framed by a golden vine.” This mysterious object was perhaps a table decoration for a banquet. All in all, the Roman public was offered a display of Oriental luxury at its most extravagant.
Large paintings illustrated high points in the campaigns. Tigranes and Mithridates were depicted fighting, defeated, and in flight. The Pontic king’s death was shown, too. Tigranes had been taken alive and he, with his wife and daughter and other captives, walked in the procession. Once the triumph was over, he was put to death in the Tullianum, according to custom.
A proud notice board boasted:
Ships with brazen beaks captured, 800;
cities founded in Cappadocia, 8;
in Cilicia and Coele Syria, 20;
in Palestine the one which is now Seleucis.
Kings conquered: Tigranes the Armenian,
Artoces the Iberian,
Oroezes the Albanian,
Darius the Mede,
Aretas the Nabataean,
Antiochus of Commagene.
The general himself rode a chariot studded with gems and wore a cloak that had once belonged to Alexander the Great—“If anyone can believe that!” remarked a skeptical Appian. Apparently, it was found among Mithridates’ possessions. Pompey was a great admirer of the Macedonian king, and somewhere in the procession there was a portait bust of him, ingeniously made from pearls and showing him, in imitation of Alexander, with his hair thrown back from his forehead.
WITH POMPEY’S RETURN from the East, the rise of Rome was complete. The Republic had destroyed the last of its external foes, and its position as proprietor of the largest empire the classical world had seen was secure. Except for desolate stretches of northern Africa, the Republic controlled the full extent of the Mediterranean coastline.
The next one hundred and fifty years would see further acquisitions. In the main, these were a form of extremely aggressive consolidation. They guarded against the Celtic threat from the north, Rome’s recurrent nightmare since the capture of the city in the fourth century. In the 50s, Gaius Julius Caesar conquered and annexed Gaul (roughly equivalent to France), and that was followed a century later by the invasion of Britannia under the emperor Claudius. During the same period, the conquest of all Spain was finally concluded and Rome’s northern frontier was extended to the banks of the Rhine and the Danube, a strong defensive position. With the death of Cleopatra, Egypt changed from being a client kingdom to a Roman province. The empire had found its natural frontiers.
SULLA’S HOPES WERE posthumously dashed; by reducing the power of the People, reinforcing that of the Senate, and curbing that of overmighty proconsuls at the head of armies, he had intended to restore constitutional stability. But the bad example he set by marching on Rome was more attractive to his successors than were his good intentions. The Proscription (and Marius’s earlier massacres) revealed a fateful truth: the ruling class had forgotten the imaginative tolerance it showed during the Conflict of the Orders.
The reforms Sulla introduced came too late to do any good. The governing system had broken down beyond repair. For this, there were interlocking reasons. First, as noted, the enfranchisement of all Italy meant that a People’s Assembly, suitable for a small city-state, lost its democratic legitimacy, because most citizens were unable to attend its meetings. From being guardians of the popular interest, tribunes became managers of the city mob and so were able to hijack the powers of government from the Senate. This upset the balance between the “mixed” constitution’s three component parts (as Polybius and Cicero saw it)—namely, the principles of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy as represented by the consuls, the Senate, and the People.
The arrival of empire greatly complicated the business of government. An arrangement whereby all executive posts were subject to annual election made strategic planning difficult, if not impossible. There was not enough talent in the aristocracy to ensure competent administration. It proved impractical to supervise provincial governors and prevent them from making fortunes through extortion and fraud. In theory, the Senate was a forum where long-term issues could be thrashed out, but the attacks on it by populist tribunes weakened its authority.
Major crises in distant corners of the Mediterranean meant that the rules had to be bent. A handful of able and ambitious men, supported by the People, were able to insist on special commands that would inevitably last for a number of years (for instance, both Sulla’s and Pompey’s eastern commissions to suppress Mithridates).
The decline of the class of rural smallholders, which used to supply the legions with recruits, and the transformation of a citizens’ militia into a professional army with long terms of service meant that soldiers were no longer primarily loyal to the state. Rather, they relied on their generals to look after their interests. The selfish reluctance of senators to reward demobilizing soldiers with grants of farming land only made the situation worse.
IT DID NOT take long for Sulla’s legislation to be unpicked. Pompey entered into a political alliance with a daring financial speculator, Marcus Licinius Crassus. The Senate was too weak to prevent them from becoming consuls in 70 (although they were conspicuously unqualified to stand) and from restoring the powers of the tribunes of the plebs.
However, it was not too weak to snub them. The latest in a series of special commands was the conduct of the war against Mithridates. After Pompey’s spectacular triumph, he was due to disband his army, but the Senate refused to help. The most brilliant politician of the age was a blue-blooded popularis, Gaius Julius Caesar. He persuaded Pompey and Crassus, who had fallen out, to join him in a secret alliance, which came to be known as the First Triumvirate.
Pooling their resources—clients as well as cash—the three men took control of the state. Caesar was elected consul for 59. Ignoring his consular colleague’s attempts at obstruction, he passed a law settling Pompey’s soldiers and obtained special commands for Crassus and himself. Crassus led an expedition against the Parthian Empire but found that his reach failed to exceed his grasp. In short order, he was defeated and killed.
Caesar did much better. He spent ten years conquering the Celtic tribes of Gaul, showing himself to be as brilliant in the field as he was in the Forum. He only returned to domestic politics in 50. He intended to stand for the consulship again, but the Senate blocked him on an electoral technicality. So Caesar led his legions across a little stream called the Rubicon, which marked the frontier between the province of Cisalpine Gaul and Italy itself. “The dice have been thrown,” he remarked dryly. The Senate won Pompey to its side and fought back, but Caesar defeated his old partner in a great battle at Pharsalus, in central Greece. Pompey fled to Egypt, where the nervous authorities had him killed.
By 45, the war was over and Caesar was master of the Roman world. He did not intend to repeat Sulla’s mistake and retire early. He appointed himself dictator for life. This was tantamount to being king, the unforgivable crime. On the Ides of March in 44 B.C., during a meeting of the Senate, he was stabbed to death by angry aristocrats. He collapsed at the feet of a statue of Pompey the Great.
Another fourteen years were to pass before peace returned to the empire. Caesar’s adoptive son, Octavian, an inexperienced but clever eighteen-year-old, and Mark Antony, an able but idle military commander who had been one of Caesar’s henchmen, launched a Proscription as savage as that of Sulla. After defeating Caesar’s assassins at Philippi, they divided the empire between them. Octavian took the West and Antony the East. As far as they were concerned, the Republic was dead. They, too, then fell out, however. Another civil war ensued, which Octavian won at the sea battle of Actium.
In 27, with breathtaking dexterity, he brought back the Republic—but in name only. Renamed Augustus, the Revered One, he restored elections, and political life seemed to return to normal. However, he made sure to maintain control over the legions, and he was given a tribune’s powers regularly renewed—the veto, authority to table laws, personal inviolability—but without the tiresome obligation of actually having to hold the office. The ruling class, decimated in the wars, accepted the pretense.
A little more than one hundred years had passed since the tribuneship of Tiberius Gracchus and almost exactly fifty years since the reign of Sulla, the Sullanum regnum. Like the inexorable plot of a Greek tragedy, the consequences of the constitutional breakdown they brought about had finally worked themselves out.