[Edited 10/6/14 and 10/4/16]



The tenacity with which the senatorial class of Rome held on to political power over the centuries is little short of amazing.  The senators and emerged from the expulsion of the kings with a monopoly on political power in Rome.  The senators were challenged during the Struggle of Orders, seemed to make some concessions, but then managed to get their power back.  They were challenged again by Tiberius Gracchus—but, again, they emerged from the struggle with their power intact.  Then there was the even greater challenge of Gaius Gracchus that they again met, emerging with their power intact.  And after the still greater threat of the Marian challenge?  The senators emerged once again with their power intact, and, seemingly, safe from further challenge. 

Sulla’s conservative constitution stripped the tribunes and the assembly of power, eliminating the lex hortensia.  Further, Sulla incorporated safeguards designed to prevent the rise of another Marius—or, for that matter, another Sulla.  The courts reverted to senatorial control. Running for tribune was a political dead end: the new rules forbid former tribunes from running for other offices.  On top of that, the proscriptions eliminated the most prominent figures who might have challenged the senate. Sulla laid down his dictatorship, ran for consul in  80 BC, then  after the traditional political process had been restored, went into  retirement.

Senatorial hegemony seemed assured for years.  And yet Sulla’s constitution was remarkably short-lived.  I series of threats in the 70’s and 60’s BC gave ambitious young men all the excuse they needed to subvert Sulla’s constitution and, ultimately, to bring senatorial control of Roman affairs to an end.

And so it’s time to begin a new round of the most exciting of all game shows: Let’s destroy the Roman Republic.

Sulla's Constitution

Elite Romans are playing for some valuable prizes.  Wealth, power, and things like fama, gloria, auctoritas and dignitas.  Most valuable of all, the distinction of being princeps senatus, the first man of the Roman senate, the man designated to speak first on any issue—and likely just by that fact to carry the day.

Here’s how the game is played under the new Sulla rules.  There are minimum ages for every office, and one has to wait ten years before holding that office again.  Consuls, for instance, have to be at least 42.  This ensures (or seems to ensure) a fairly even distribution of prizes. rather than one great grand prize.

Ok, those are the rule changes.  Now to meet our contestants.

Main contestants

Our first contestants are our returning champions, agreeing once again to play as a team and to share their prizes more or less equitably—the Roman Senators.  Sulla’s new rules give them a great advantage, and they are favored to retain their title.  But there are other contestants who, though they could be content with just their fair share of the usual senatorial prizes, instead want an especially big grand prize, e.g., Crassus.

Crassus is the wealthiest man in Rome.  He made lots of money during the proscriptions, buying up land cheap—and buying plenty of slaves to work that land.  He added to his fortunes with a fire department.  Whenever fire broke out in Rome, he offered to buy threatened homes.  If the owners sold, he sent in his fireman to protect his new investment. Quite clever—and Crassus is certainly a leading contender for the princeps title.

Another contestant:  Pompey.  Pompey had served under Sulla, and, after one victory against the Marians, Sulla had called him Pompeius Magnus, Pompey the Great. Sulla was probably a little mocking, but Pompey did have the makings of a great player.  At this point (78 BC, the year of Sulla's death), the rules say he isn’t yet old enough to be a consul.  But there’s an important point to remember, well put in the musical The Roar of Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd:

Life is like cricket, we play by the rules, and the secret which few people know, that keeps men of class far apart from the fools is to make up the rules as you go. 

Pompey gets his opportunity to modify the rules as a result of a formidable threat in Spain, the threat posed by a man named Sertorius.


After the defeat of the Marians in Rome, the survivors took refuge with the general Sertorius in Spain.  Sertorius had an alliance with some of the Spaniards, and, for ten years (82-72), was able to hold out against any force sent against him.  One of the Metelli failed and had to return to Rome. Consuls were reluctant to go themselves, and they sent out a propraetor--who got himself killed.  Pompey pressured the senate to give him proconsular authority (remember, he’s never served as consul!).  He gets that authority and eventually wins…helped by the betrayal and assassination of Sertorius.  Eventually, after consolidating his position in Spain, Pompey is going to return to Rome in a very good position to play for an even bigger prize.

[Pompey is in Spain from 76-71 BC.  Sertorius fights a guerilla war, and Pompey can't bring about a decisive win.  Sertorius is assassinated in 72 BC, and Pompey is able to finally get the victory he had been aiming for.]


Meanwhile, back in Rome, Crassus also has taken advantage of a crisis to improve his position.  A Thracian gladiator named Spartacus and a fellow-gladiator named Crixus escaped from their barracks.  With other gladiators, they went from estate to estate, liberating the slaves and creating a huge slave army—70,000 strong.  In 73, Spartacus beat two praetor-led armies.  In 72, he and Crixus divided their forces.  Two consuls led out the troops.  They defeated Crixus and pursued Spartacus.  But Spartacus turned the tables on them, winning a major victory.  What now?

Crassus persuades the senate to give him control of 6 legions.  Spartacus decided to cut a deal with pirates: he’ll pay them to transport his men out of Italy altogether.  The pirates take the money…and run. Crassus takes advantage, defeats the slave army—and crucifies 6000 slaves (71 BC).  Pompey makes a somewhat belated move, returning with his army to mop up some of the slaves who had escaped.

Pompey thinks he deserves some prizes: a consulship and a triumph. Neither were in accord with the rules.  Pompey hadn’t gone through the ranks, and triumphs were only awarded for defeating a foreign enemy, not other Romans.  But Pompey is a master player.  He had fought alongside Sulla, and defeated the Marians who had taken refuge with Sertorius.  But he now finds political support from the Populares—enough support that he may get the prizes he wants.

So, Marcus Crassus, how do you play the game?

Pompey and Crassus join forces

Crassus has a choice.  He can side with the Optimates and the Senate against Pompey, making sure Sulla’s rules are followed.  But Crassus isn’t all that happy with senate either: he’s not getting big enough prizes.  So Crassus decides to cut a deal—with Pompey!  And the two men combined have enough political support they can outmaneuver the senate.

And we have nice prizes for them right away.  Crassus and Pompey both are consuls for the year 70 BC—with more prizes to come.  After your consulship, you get a proconsulship, a potentially valuable prize.

But there aren’t any good proconsulships available right away, so it’s time to change the rules.  Crassus and Pompey throw their support that restores the power of the tribunes and the assembly.  Now why would they do that?  Well, we’re about to see.


In 67 BC, Pompey finally sees the opportunity he wants.  Pirates are menacing the grain trade, driving food prices too high.  Pompey gets a tribune to sponsor the Gabinian law giving him a special command: 120,000 troops that he can take as far as 50 miles inland anywhere the pirates roam—and he has that authorization for 3 years.  Well, he deals the pirates—in 3 months!  Time to retire?  Not a chance.  There’s another threat that has to be dealt with: Mithridates.

MithridatesPart II (actually, the 3rd Mithrdaic War--but who's counting?)

Mithridates of Pontus had been an ally of the pirates, and he had once again risen in an attempt to drive Rome from the eastern Mediterranean.  Pompey wanted a command against him.  Trouble was, someone already had that command: Lucullus.

Lucullus had been doing a fine job, but he had alienated the equestrian tax farmers.  He saw, rightly, that extortionate taxes were the main reason for anti-Roman sentiment, and he had tried to rein the tax collectors in.  Sulla’s treaty had called for 20,000 talents—and they tax collectors gouged the people for 120,000!  Vae victus.

 So the tax collector types stir up problems when Lucullus threatens their profits. This is Pompey’s chance: he gets another tribune to sponsor the Manilian law—which gives him authority against Mithridates.

 Pompey is immensely successful.  He not only defeats Mithridates, but annexes Syria and Judaea turning them into client states. Pompey has moved into a commanding lead, and, when he returns to Rome…well, remember what happened the last time a victorious army had returned from fighting against Mithridates.

And so, back in Rome, there’s a lot of political maneuvering.  Crassus in particular figures he better have plenty of powerful allies, so he helps assist some new players into the high-stakes room.

New players

One of these is Gaius Julius Caesar who, with Crassus support, becomes aedile in 65, praetor in 63, and Pontifex Maximus (also in 63).

Also into the game, Catiline, an unsuccessful candidate for consul in 64 BC and again a candidate for consul in 63.  Catiline was an enormously unsavory character—but a formidable campaigner, offering lavish banquets featuring beautiful girls or handsome boys (whichever you liked) for your after-dinner entertainment.  And then there was his great promise: a cancellation of all debts.

 And then there’s Cicero, a “new man” who became a contender mostly on his own tremendous abilities.  He came from the equestrian class, but his skills as a lawyer, speaker, philosopher, poet, and political scientist gave him the ability to stand out in many ways head and shoulders above most of the old aristocrats.  In thinking about literature, we call this era the Age of Cicero.

In political affairs, too, Cicero was quite skillful.  He made his mark as a lawyer prosecuting a Sicilian governor named Verres…a man who had openly boasted that his first years takings were for himself, his 2nd years takings for his friends, and his third years’ taking to bribe the judges.

Cicero successfully prosecuted Verres, and thus won sufficient acclaim to challenge for the 64 consulship.  Cicerto promised a Concordia Ordinum,  a concord of orders.  Equestrians would work with senators, and all would be right with Rome.

He was successful in winning one of the two consulships, and Catilline was shut out.  When Catilline’s bid for the 63 consulship also didn’t pan out either, he hatched up a scheme to assassinate Cicero and seize power.  Cicero was tipped off, arrested the conspirators—and executed them without a trial.

Thus when Pompey returns, he is going to find a political mess—justification for taking whatever prizes he wants, perhaps.

Pompey's return

62 BC.  Here comes Pompey, a man basking in the glory of having greatly expanded the empire in the east.  New sources of tribute meant a 70% increase to the Roman treasury.  And Pompey made generous contributions to secure his popularity.  50,000,000 denarii to the treasury.  25 million to his officers.  71 million to his officers.  Yes—he’s got a loyal army accompanying him.

But when he gets to Rome, expecting his grand prize, a prize which would include ratification of his treaties and a triumphal march through Rome.  And the senators?  Well, they don’t like this.  They give Pompey none of what he thinks he has a right to expect.  Are they going to get away with it?  Well, we will see.