Marius and Sulla


For almost 20 years after the death of Gaius Gracchus, there was a lull in the Roman Revolution.  The Optimates, those who favored working through the consuls and the senate, had an almost complete lock on political power in Rome.  While the grievances of the other classes remained (equestrians without sufficient voice in the judicial system, allies denied a share in the governance structure, the proletariat still poor and without much hope of betterment, and the plebian farmers still threatened by uncertain agricultural economics), the opposition had almost been silenced—and no wonder!  Gaius Gracchus and 3000 of his followers had been executed.  The “popular” court that eventually tried Opimius (the main man responsible for the slaughter of Gracchus and his followers), had been intimidated into acquitting him!

Just as the Vietnam War opened up the door to radical changes in other aspects of American life, so the war with Jugurtha shook things up enough in Rome to eventually lead to major changes.  In particular, the war brought to prominence two men who would drastically change the Roman political scene, Marius and Sulla.  Marius and Sulla were both true patriots, and it is clear that each man saved Rome from horrible disaster.  Nevertheless, both men also brought disaster on the Roman people.

The Great Game

Now it is very important to understand that prominent Romans are playing a very high stakes game.  Each of them wants dignitas, fama, gloria, auctoritas--and perhaps most of all, to celebrate a triumph in Rome or to be recognized as Princeps Senatus, the leading man of the Roman senate.  Only a relative handful of Romans can play the game, and though newcomers can sometimes make their way into the game, they aren’t entirely welcome.

Marius was one of these newcomers.  After the failure of three senatorial generals in the war with Jugurtha, Marius managed to win election to the consulship, becoming what the Romans called “a new man.”   Marius has made it into the game…but how well can he play, and how much can he win?  Well, a lot more than some of his more experienced rivals might think.

The Cimbri and the Teutones

What gives Marius his extra change is a threat to Roman security more serious than that of Jugurtha.  The Cimbri and the Teutones, Gallic and Germanic wanderers originally from Jutland and Frisia, are having trouble finding a home.  They try to establish themselves by the Elbe, by the Danube, and in the Balkans—very unsuccessfully.  But then they think they might offer themselves to the Romans as mercenaries.  But they have to prove they are worth hiring…so they attack Rome!

In 109 BC they beat a Roman army under Silanus.  In 107 they beat a Roman army under Longinus.  In 106 they lose to an army under Caepio, losing also an immense amount of gold treasure…but that treasure never makes it back to Rome—and Caepio was suspected of diverting it to his own purposes.  In 105, the Cimbri and Teutones win a tremendous victory at Arausio.  The Roman consul Mallius, who was supposed to be supported by Caepio, loses at least 20,000 men! 

But the Cimbri don’t immediately follow up.  Rome still seems too tough.  Still, the Roman people are worried--very worried. They need a real leader—someone who can succeed where the old senatorial generals had failed.  Who better but Marius?  But Marius had already been consul to fight Jugurtha.  Not to worry…Marius is elected again, and again, and again…winning six consecutive consulships!

Marian army reforms

While the Cimbri and Teutones delay, Marius takes advantage of the opportunity to reform the Roman army.  The legion is reorganized into 10 cohorts of six centuries each: 6,000 men total.  Each legion has its eagle standard, part of Marius' method of working for a kind of "espirit de corps."

The equipment changes with the introduction of a break-away spear and tools that each soldier carries: the troops are now called Marius’ mules: no baggage train necessary: the soldiers pack what they need.

Most important, Marius recruits from the proletariat, turning men into professional soldiers.  Conscription had become very unpopular.  Now, enlisting in Marius’ professional army offered a way out of poverty.

The reformed army was no guarantee of success: the Romans were still outnumbered, and there were three different venues in which to fight: the Teutones in France, the Cimbri in the Alps, and the Tigurini in Venetia.

In 102, Marius wins a great victory over the Teutones at Aquae Sextae—and captures a huge number of slaves.

In 101, Marius beats the Cimbri at Vercellae—and captures more slaves.  Sulla, meanwhile, defeats the Tigurini—and captures still mover slaves.

Now, long term, there was a danger here.  There was a slave revolt in Sicily from 104-101, the slaves making themselves a king (Tryphon).  After his victories against the Cimbri and the Teutones, Marius turned his attention to the slave revolt—and put that down too.

Marius victories against overwhelming odds show him a great general.  But a politician he was not, and he much needed some political clout.  His veterans need to be paid—land or money will do—but Marius can’t by himself get his veterans’ benefits ratified.  So he makes an alliance..

Saturninus and Glaucia

Saturninus and Glaucia were populare types, working through the tribunes and the assembly. Saturninus would eventually be elected three times as tribune, while Glaucia served as praetor.  They wanted reforms like those of the Gracchi borthers: cheap grain, colonization, land reform.  Marius’ need of land for his veterans created a natural alliance, and the combination here, for a time, works well—though there are seeds of trouble—and some slight rule-changes for our great game.

The courts shift back to the equestrians away from the senators.  But, perhaps more important, is the introduction of a new type of crime: maiestas (impugning the majesty of the Roman people). What exactly is maiestas?  Well, what do you want it to be?  It’s a vague charge that can easily be abused.  It was intended to deal with Caepio who probably deserved it.  But honest politicians were in trouble as well.  Just like our special prosecutor laws, this law was *very* easy to abuse.  And the Roman judicial system was more and more used in a potentially dangerous way.  King Mithridates, an allied king, brought with him to Rome lots of gold to bribe the senators.  Saturninus  had the bad taste to expose the corruption--and Metellus tried to use the courts to get rid of him, accusing Saturninus of  “insulting an envoy of King Mithridates.”  Metellus had the tables turned on him when the assembly required an oath of all senators to support their laws—an oath Metellus wouldn’t give, forcing him into exile.

Saturninus and Glaucia eventually went too far.  In the election for 99 BC, Glaucia wanted desparately to be elected consul.  Saturninus and Glaucia had a rival candidate, Memmius (whose speech against corruption during the Jugurtha affair I read to you), assassinated.  The senate passed the senatus consultum ultimum, and Marius, as consul, had the responsibility for turning on his own allies and arresting them.  While under arrest, they were killed…and Marius now has lost the political alliance which had secured for him his dominant game position. Marius, temporarily, is out of the game.  The senate was in control, and all was right with the Roman world.  Except that it wasn’t: too many problems remained.

[Note passive voice above "they were killed."  Wikipedia is much better, "The Senate met on the following day, declared Saturninus and Glaucia public enemies, and called upon Marius to defend the State. Marius had no alternative but to obey. Saturninus, defeated in a pitched battle in the Roman Forum (December 10), took refuge with his followers in the Capitol, where, the water supply having been cut off, they were forced to capitulate. Marius, having assured them that their lives would be spared, removed them to the Curia Hostilia, intending to proceed against them according to law. But the more impetuous members of the aristocratic party climbed onto the roof, stripped off the tiles, and stoned Saturninus and many others to death. Glaucia, who had escaped into a house, was dragged out and killed."]

Provincial misgovernment

Roman political affairs were a mess, and Rome was beginning to mishandle its growing empire.  At first, many subject peoples were happy with Roman governance.  Roman law often offered the average person more protection than had been available under previous rulers.  The presence of the Roman army often served to protect them from much more feared invaders.  And, perhaps above all, taxes often went *down* under Roman rule!

But the growing army of Roman tax farmers (who paid the Roman government up front a specified sum for each province and then took over the collection of taxes on their own, pocketing anything extra they could collect) joined by the publican tax collectors began exploiting the provincials right and left.  There were Roman officials who tried to prevent this, e.g., P. Rutilius Rufus, an ex-consul appointed governor in Asia Minor.  Because he was a real thorn in the side to the equestrian tax-farmers—they did their best to get rid of him—by accusing Rufus of exploiting the provincials!  Rufus defended himself ably—and he had plenty of provincials willing to testify on his behalf.  No matter: he was convicted.  At least he escaped with his life.  Not so lucky, the younger Marcus Livius Drusus.

Marcus Livius Drusus (II)

Drusus was elected Tribune in 91, and used that office to initiate a reform program similar to that of Gaius Gracchus.  Unlike his father, he actually got some of his reforms implemented: laws establishing new colonies, land reform, etc.  He doubled the size of the senate, ensuring broader representation.  He balanced the courts: 300 senators/300 equestrians.  But then he proposed giving the Italian allies the vote, infuriating some of his support-base among the proletariat and leading to his assassination.

Social War/Threat from Mithridates

For the Italian allies, this was the last straw.  No longer willing to wait for peaceful reform, the launched a revolt, what comes to be called the “Social War,” e.g., the war with the socii, allies (91-88 BC). The socii create a new country for themselves, Italia, elect their own senate, and create an army 100,000 strong.  Good soldiers, well led—very, very difficult for Rome to deal with.

Meanwhile, in the eastern Mediterranean, Mithridates, King of Pontius, decided to take advantage of the situation and destroy Roman rule, perhaps turning himself into the grand prize winner…another Alexander.  Making alliance with pirates and with others who resented Roman rule, Mithridates launches a campaign of genocide against Romans living in the eastern Mediterranean.  Thousands (maybe 80,000!) are slaughtered—and it looks like the empire is doomed.

But these twin crises are just what Marius and Sulla need—an excuse to get back into the game.  Both of them put together troops to aid in the Social War.  Their successes convince the allies that negotiating with Rome rather than trying to destroy it might be the wisest course.  The Social War begins to wind down as many of the allies give up the fight in return for the promise of a voice in Roman elections.

And now…who will take on Mithridates?  Both Sulla and Marius would like the assignment, as would the soldiers under their respective commands.  The senate, however, really dislikes Marius, and senatorial influence is enough to secure Sulla a consulship in 88 with the understanding that Sulla will take command of Roman forces against Mithridates.  But Sulla is busy mopping up problems remaining from the social war, and can’t go right away.  This opens the door for a new challengers, Sulpicius.

Sulpicius, one of the tribunes, allies himself with Marius.  He challenges senatorial control, and gets a base of support by enrolling new citizens (allies and freedmen) in all 35 tribes, not just a few tribes that will always be outvoted.  He gets the assembly to transfer the command against Mithridates to Marius. 

But Sulla simply marches on Rome with six legions, forces the assembly to transfer the Mithridates assignment back to him, and outlaws his political enemies…including Marius and Sulpicius.  Sulpicius is killed: but we have a nice consolation prize for him: he becomes a nice little footnote to history.  How many of us can say as much?  Marius escapes—hoping to get into the game again if conditions are right.

Marian reign of terror

Sulla takes off for the east, leaving two consuls, Cinna and Octavius in charge of Rome.  Octavius decides he wants to be top dog, and drives Cinna out of Rome.  Cinna combines with Marius, and the two of them together march on Rome.  And now…well, we have some really nice prizes for our winners—the heads of those who opposed them.  Octavius is dead.  Marius and Cinna become consuls, and begin to settle old scores.  We call this the “Marian reign of terror” because senators are killed right and left.  Marius himself dies shortly after beginning his new (#7!) consulship, but the terror continues…until Cinna is forced to use his own better disciplined troops to put down Marius’ out-of-control soldiers.

Marius, of course, is out of the game at this point—but he has won sort-of-lasting fame: though your Africa text suggests he’d have a more honorable historical legacy if he had only died a year earlier.

Cinna meanwhile gets his chance at fama, gloria, dignitas, etc.  He serves three consecutive consulships, and institutes some statesmanlike and long overdue reforms, e.g., debt reform.  He is joined by Carb as consul in 85/84, and the two of them lead well.  But what will happen when Sulla returns?

Sulla's Return

Cinna decided to prepare an army to prevent a military takeover by Sulla—but his troops revolt and kill him—expecting that Sulla will reward them much more lavishly.  And now Carbo has a choice: negotiate with Sulla and settle for a nice prize, but not the grand prize, or risk what he has to try for more.  Well, he decides to try for more.

 His Samnite troops lose at the battle of Colline Gate. Sulla enters Rome in triumph, and Carbo is out of the game.  Also out of the game: the younger Marius.  (You probably didn’t know the younger Marius was even in the game.  Well, that’s what textbooks are for.  Get your textbook, your official Roman history textbook.  Can’t tell one consul from another without a textbook. )

After his entry into the city, Sulla addresses the by-now-decimated senate.  Those in attendance hear screams.  What’s it all about?  Well, Sulla had ordered the “correction of some malefactors.”  He was having all the captured Samnite soldiers slaughtered.  But that’s not the end of the violence.  Sulla begins relying on “proscription,” outlawing people so that they could be killed and their estates confiscated.  More and more are killed.  Why? Some of them deserved it: they were responsible for murders during the Marian reign of terror.  Others were potential political enemies.  But others were simply rich—and  Sulla wanted their estates so he could pay of the 100,000 soldiers who had fought for him.  Also, Sulla emancipated the slaves of the proscribed—some 3,000—and these new freedmen became reliable clients for the Cornellii, Sulla’s family.

Sulla then begins setting the Roman house in order, trying to re-establish stability and ensure senatorial control.  He turns the tribunate into a dead-end office: former tribunes are ineligible for any other office.  He puts age requirements on other offices.  Questors must be at least 30, praetors 39, consuls 42.  One has to wait ten years before serving again in the same office.  The assembly is now subject to senatorial veto: no more lex hortensia.

Using his tenure as dictator to restore order, Sulla decides to retire—our grand prize winner.  He parties away the remaining few years of his life—though he does take time to write his—very unfortunately lost-memoirs.

He thought he had restored order and senatorial control…but he had left unsolved way too many potential problems.  Mithridates would rise again.  The pirates would rise again. Surviving Marians who had taken refuge with Sertorius would want to challenge Sulla’s settlement—and get their ancestral property back!  Slave revolt loomed.  But most of all, Sulla had left behind his example—and ambitious young men, several of whom owed their career success to Sulla, ended up paying a lot more attention to Sulla’s example than his new game rules.