July 18, 2019
60 mins read

Editor’s note:  The following comprises the fifth chapter of Seven Roman Statesmen of the Later Republic, by Sir Charles Oman (published 1902).

V.  Sulla

Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the man whom Sulpicius and Marius had so recklessly challenged to mortal combat, is one of the most striking figures in Roman history. For mere psychological interest, there is no one who can be compared with him save Caesar alone. He combined in the most extraordinary degree the old Roman political virtues with the personal vices that the new Rome had borrowed from the Hellenised East.

To his credit it must be granted that, throughout his career, he displayed the main qualities which had distinguished those generations of men who had built up the Roman domination in Italy during the fourth and third centuries before Christ. He had an enormous sense of the dignity and importance of the Roman name: the welfare of the state, as he conceived it, stood before any private or party interest. He was entirely lacking in personal as opposed to national ambition: the crown and the purple robe had no attraction for him; in this respect he must be reckoned superior even to Caesar, who was not insensible to such things. Nor was he affected by the more insidious craving for power; he was one of those rare spirits who, after they have achieved the highest things, and risen to practical sovereignty in the state, are content to step down from the throne and to retire into private life. Moreover, he had the solid military ability, the steadfast level-headed perseverance, the freedom from vain theory, which had distinguished the best men of the elder days of the Republic.

Mixed with these old Roman characteristics were all the vices of the decadent half-Hellenised generation into which he had been born. Sulla had learnt to be regardless of human life, not merely of the lives of aliens or barbarians (most Romans were that), but of the lives of citizens also. If a man, great or small, stood in way of his schemes or his reforms, he doomed that man to perish with entire nonchalance. He had the most profound belief in the all-importance of the Roman state, but the sacrosanctity of the individual citizen seemed to him a farce. The old shibboleth, civis Romanus sum, had no protective power against his ruthless hand. Another modern trait in his character, which could only have come from the habitual study of destructive and doubting Greek philosophy, was a frank disregard for the law of the constitution — a thing for which the old Roman had as slavish a reverence as had his contemporary the Pharisee for the letter of the law of Moses. While other men still wrangled over forms and ceremonies, vetoes and auspices, Sulla quietly marched an army against Rome, and showed that neither religious sanctions nor tribunicial mandates had any power to stop a commander with loyal troops at his back. Sulla had a supreme contempt for forms that had grown meaningless, though the majority of the men of his generation were still in bondage to them.

Very un-Roman, again, was another of Sulla’s characteristics — a smooth, plausible, utterly hollow urbanity, the deceptive courtesy of the diplomat. The Roman of the elder republic had been brutally straightforward: his notion of diplomacy was summed up in the two handfuls of “peace” and “war” which Fabius offered to the Carthaginian senate, or in the line which Popilius Laenas drew around the astonished Antiochus Epiphanes. Sulla, on the other hand, took an artistic pleasure in circumventing and cajoling those with whom he had to deal. To out-manoeuvre Jugurtha at Bocchus’s court, to talk round the Parthian ambassador (whom his master afterwards executed for being so outwitted), were great delights to him. To outdo the wily barbarian in his own field of lies had an intrinsic pleasure in the execution.

Another and most unamiable side of Sulla’s disposition may be summed up in saying that he was an epicurean both in the best and the worst sense of the word. He had a keen enjoyment of artistic and intellectual pleasures: he loved beautiful things for their own sake, was an enlightened student of literature, and appreciated and collected Hellenic works of art. He liked to converse with philosophers and authors, with actors and artists, and willingly sharpened his brains and increased his knowledge of every side of life by mixing with all sorts and conditions of men.

But at the same time he had the bad side of the artistic temperament. He was frankly vicious in his private life, as evil a liver as any Greek tyrant of old. He was perfectly destitute of any sense of chastity or shame, and, moreover, habitually indulged to excess in the banquet and the wine-cup. This it was that ruined his splendid constitution, and turned his handsome face into the “mulberry spotted with meal,” to which it was compared in his middle age.

To complete this strange and repulsive character we must add a curious strain of wild superstition. Of the simple and stolid religiosity of the old Roman there was no trace in him: but, like Napoleon, he believed in his star. Though, as far as deeds went, he was a scoffer, yet he professed a belief that he was the chosen tool of the gods. Venus, he said, was his special patroness, and gave him good fortune; he sometimes called himself in gratitude “Epaphroditus.” He claimed to have dreams, omens, and premonitions. He took as surnames the adjectives Felix and Faustus, “the lucky.” His most hazardous steps were made, as he said, under direct inspiration from above. He wrote in his autobiography that his resolutions taken on the spur of the moment, and his enterprises begun without any proper preparation, always succeeded far better than those on which he had bestowed the most time and forethought. We might perhaps have imagined that he assumed this role of the favourite of fortune merely to encourage his followers, had it not been that he carried it into private life, when no end was to be gained by proceeding with the farce. There seems to have been a genuine fantastic vein of superstition in this otherwise practical and cynical mind. We know, for example, that on battle-days he wore under his corslet a small golden image of Apollo which he had got at Delphi. But the strangest development of his beliefs has yet to be told. On his death-bed, when one would have expected that his mind should have been filled with the memory of all the horrors that he had committed, he was visited with comforting visions. He told his friends that he faced the other world with equanimity, for his dead wife and son had appeared to him and had bidden him hasten to join them in a life of perfect rest and happiness beyond the grave. Truly this was a strange ending for the blood stained author of the proscriptions of B.C. 81!

Sulla had spent his youth in dire poverty. His family was ancient but impoverished: no man of this branch of the Cornelii had held curule office for six generations. He had not even a paternal mansion or a hearth of his own, but lived, as we learn from Plutarch, in a set of lodgings one storey removed from the garret, and hired at the meagre rent of 3000 sesterces (about £26) per annum. He was a man who yearned after all the comforts and elegancies of life, who loved good dinners, good wine, and other less reputable luxuries, and who in his youth could not get them. It is this poverty of his early years that accounts for his insatiable addiction to pleasure in middle age, when most men have lost their taste for frivolity. He was making up for the enjoyments of which he had been defrauded in his young days.

Men of the type of Sulla, able, impecunious, and destitute of any family influence, were generally the stuff from which demagogues were made. There are a dozen instances in Roman history of young and penniless aristocrats who started on the career of mob leader and champion of the rabble. It was the easiest trade on which to embark if one loved notoriety, had no scruples, and lacked wealthy relatives to push one forward. But Sulla was above all things an aristocrat: he loathed the urban multitude and all its works, and when he put himself forward as a candidate for the quaestorship in B.C. 107, it was as a strict Optimate. How such a poor and unknown young man ever succeeded in obtaining a magistracy we do not know. That he was able and eloquent is clear enough, but a full purse, or a programme of confiscation and corn-doles, was a much better commendation to the electors than mere ability. How one who was an Optimate, and yet had not the money to buy his way to power, got his foot on the first rung of the ladder that led to the consulship, it is hard to conceive. But the feat was accomplished : Sulla became quaestor, and served under Marius in Numidia during the last year of the Jugurthine war [106-105].

It was here that he won his first distinction, and earned the undying enmity of his superior in command. While the struggle with the evasive Numidian seemed likely to drag on for ever, Sulla suddenly brought it to an end by his clever and unscrupulous diplomacy. By a combination of bribes and cajolery, he induced Bocchus the Moor, Jugurtha’s chief ally, to kidnap his guest and relative, and to hand him over in chains to the Romans. The war came to an end, and Marius took the credit to himself, but he was well aware that Sulla had really brought it to a finish. The quaestor made no attempt to disguise the fact; he took as the device of his signet-ring a picture of Jugurtha surrendered by Bocchus to himself, and he persuaded the Moor to dedicate on the Roman Capitol a group of statues reproducing the same composition. Marius was bitterly vexed; it was probably for this reason that Sulla took a particular pride in the statues; they were placed long after as the device on Cornelian coins. We may still see Sulla in his chair, the captive Numidian king in chains before him, and the Moor in front waving the olive branch with which he sued for peace with Rome.

Once launched on an official career, Sulla came steadily to the front; his only drawback was his want of funds. The first time that he stood for the praetorship he was rejected, because the people had expected from him, and had not received, a great show of African wild beasts. But finding money necessary, he finally succeeded in scraping it together, partly as spoils of war, partly in less obvious and reputable ways. His public services, however, were distinguished in the highest degree: nothing that he took in hand failed to come to a good end; already the “luck” on which he was so fond of insisting made itself felt. He won golden opinions in the Cimbric war while serving under the Consul Catulus. In B.C. 93 he at last obtained the praetorship, and in the following year held as propraetor the turbulent and newly formed province of Cilicia. He had been sent there without an army or a proper supply of money, yet he made his name feared all around. He frightened away Mithradates, who was trying to annex Cappadocia; he restored the rightful king of that country, and protected him against an Armenian invasion. First of all Romans he came in touch with the formidable Parthian power, which was just advancing to the line of the Upper Euphrates. He met the ambassador of King Arsaces IX, and not only cajoled him into a friendly agreement, but induced him to allow the Roman to have the place of honour over the Parthian name in their negotiations. The great king executed his envoy, when he returned, for permitting this humiliation of his majesty, but the peace between the two powers stood firm. In short, Sulla had pacified South-Eastern Asia Minor, and strengthened the boundaries of his province, with no other resources than his ready wit, his capacity for “bluffing” Orientals, and a handful of untrustworthy native auxiliaries. His self-confidence, never weak, is said to have been confirmed by the prophecies of Eastern wizards. The chief soothsayer of the Parthian ambassador was struck by his invariable good fortune, cast his horoscope, and told him “that he was destined to be the greatest of men, and that it was strange that he could endure to be anything less at the present moment.”

When Sulla returned to Rome, it was natural that he should take a high place among the Optimate party: he was the only man among them who had built up a reputation for unvarying success. Hence he was naturally entrusted with high command in the Italian war. He fully justified his promotion, won battles over the Samnites and the Lucanians which far surpassed the successes of any other Roman general in these campaigns, Marius not excepted, and gained such a reputation that he was elected as consul for B.C. 88. It was natural that when the Italian war died down he should be chosen to march against Mithradates, for he was the only living general who knew the East, and had already made a name in that quarter of the world. Sulla was quite satisfied with the commission; he believed that he was competent to save Asia, and he had been deeply grieved by the humiliation which the Roman arms had been suffering in the Mithradatic war.

Hence it was that he was moved to ungovernable wrath when he was informed that Sulpicius had passed a law to remove him from command, and to make over his army to Marius. He had already been in violent collision with the demagogue, who — as it is said — had tried to get him assassinated in broad daylight during the meeting of the Comitia. But there is no reason to suppose that he would have interfered with the sword in domestic politics if he had not been deprived of his Eastern commission. He believed that the turning back of Mithradates was a far more important duty than the quelling of demagogues. Sulpicius had had many predecessors who had all come to a bad end: if sufficient rope was given to a turbulent tribune, he was certain to end by hanging himself. But it was a different matter when he intervened between Sulla and his cherished project of reconquering Asia and Greece from the Pontic king. When the news reached the consul he behaved in the most unexpected fashion. He began by drawing off the greater part of his army from the siege of Nola and bringing it up to Capua. There he harangued the soldiers, told them that he was the victim of the intrigues of bad citizens, and asked them whether they were prepared to follow him. The men were devoted to the general who had led them so well during the Italian war: they cared little for the difference between Optimate and Democrat, but they remembered that Sulla had always been the most indulgent and good-humoured of chiefs, that he had kept their stomachs full and their pockets well lined. They believed, like himself, in his luck, and they had been looking forward to easy victory and endless plunder in Asia. The legions shouted that they would follow him anywhere, even if he marched against Rome itself — which was precisely what he was intending to do. When the praetors Brutus and Servilius met him, forbidding him to advance further, the soldiers fell upon them, tore their robes, broke their fasces, and stoned them out of the camp, glad to escape with their lives. This violence frightened many of Sulla’s chief officers, who slunk away from him lest they should find themselves involved in high treason. But the rank and file stuck firmly to him, and with 30,000 men at his back he began a rapid march on Rome. To those who were appalled at his project, he merely said that all the omens were favourable. The Asiatic Moon- Goddess, who had been so friendly to him in Cappadocia, had appeared to him in a dream, had promised him victory, placed a thunderbolt in his hand, and bade him use it to annihilate his enemies.

When this wholly unexpected news reached Rome, Marius and Sulpicius sent out several embassies one after another to endeavour to stop Sulla. But he deceived them by fair words, inviting them to induce the Senate and the Democratic leaders to meet him in a conference, while he continued to advance at full speed towards the city. As he was approaching it he was joined by his colleague, Pompeius Rufus, a very determined Optimate, whose presence was invaluable to him, for when the two consuls acted together it gave a false air of legality to their proceedings.

Marius and Sulpicius had barely time to barricade the streets and to arm their followers from the state arsenal, when the arrival of the Sullan army in the suburbs was reported. Without the least hesitation the legions crossed the sacred Pomoerium and pushed into the city. The Democrats, surprised as they were, made a desperate resistance; but though swords and pikes had been served out to them, they were but untrained rioters contending with disciplined soldiery. There was fierce fighting around the Esquiline market and the temple of Tellus, but it did not last for long. When Sulla brought forth torches, and told his men to burn out the enemy if they could not expel them in any other fashion, the Democrats gave way and fled.

The victors bivouacked that night in the squares and along the streets, ready to fight again next morning if necessary: but they soon discovered that the leaders of the enemy had left the city, and that the mob had dispersed. Sulla had broken up the dearest traditions of ancient Rome; he had brought armed legions into the Forum. To lovers of the constitution, whether Optimates or Democrats, it seemed that the abomination of desolation was in the Holy Place. But no thunderbolt descended from heaven to annihilate the impious consul. His luck was still with him, and he faced the situation, which would have appalled anyone less cheerful and unscrupulous than himself, with perfect equanimity.

The Senate was assembled by the consuls, and informed that the “tyrants” had been expelled from the city. It voted that the Sulpician laws had been passed without the proper formalities and were null and void. It also passed a decree of outlawry, by which Sulpicius, Marius and his son, and ten other persons, were declared public enemies, and a price was set on their heads. The tribune was caught lurking in a villa at Laurentum. He was beheaded, and his head was set upon the rostra from which he had so often declaimed, a ghastly innovation in the etiquette of massacre which was to be regularly followed hereafter. But most of the other Democratic leaders escaped from Italy. Marius, after a long series of adventures, culminating in his celebrated mud-bath in the marshes of Minturnae, made his way to Africa, where he was ultimately joined by his son and several others of the outlaws.

It would now have been in Sulla’s power to assume the permanent control of the state. He might have proclaimed himself dictator, or have renewed his consular authority, and have settled down to rule as an autocrat with the swords of his legions propping up his throne. But he had no personal ambition. He was a Roman and an Optimate, who desired the triumph of his country and his party, and was determined to do his best for both. But there was nothing of the tyrant in him: his present duty, as he supposed, was to restore his party to power at Rome, and then to sally forth to save the Eastern provinces from Mithradates. These two ends he proceeded to carry out, with no concern for his own private profit.

The executions, as he supposed, had crushed the Democrats. Marius he despised, and considered a negligible quantity; there was no other surviving chief of any note to resuscitate the vanquished faction, and the Senate ought to be able to take care of itself for the present. Accordingly he contented himself with making some comparatively unobtrusive changes in the constitution before his departure. The chief of these was a law providing that the approval of the Senate — senatus auctoritas — had for the future to be granted to any bill brought forward by tribunes, or other magistrates, before it could be laid before the assembly. Another law restored the old order of things in the Comitia Centuriata, where the wealthier classes were replaced in the preponderant position which they had enjoyed under the early Republic. But it was not really by these slight alterations of existing custom that he imagined that the Senate could defend itself. He left behind for their protection two armies under Optimates of assured fidelity and ability — his late colleague in the consulship, Pompeius Rufus, and Q. Metellus Pius, the son of the conqueror of Numidia. For the Mithradatic war he withdrew from Italy only five of his own veteran legions, which had served with him throughout the campaigns of B.C. 90-88, and had won so many successes over the Samnites. With this force he thought that he could master all the Asiatic hordes of Mithradates; nor, as the event showed, was he wrong.

The moment, however, that he set out for the East all went wrong in Italy. He had, as it seemed, taken his good fortune away with him. The Senate proved far too weak to maintain the position to which he had restored it, and the Democratic faction found a new leader in the consul for B.C. 87, L. Cornelius Cinna, a vain heady man, who seems to have been carried away by a sudden lust for establishing a personal domination in the style of Caius Gracchus, rather than by any true zeal for the popular cause. As an Optimate, no statesman could hope to be more than a member of the governing ring; as a Democrat, it was possible to exercise a quasi-monarchical power; hence came the temptation to men of vulgar and unscrupulous ambition to enlist on the Democratic side.

Even before Sulla left Italy, his colleague, Pompeius Rufus, on whose ability to keep order he most relied, had been murdered in a military riot in Picenum. Gn. Octavius, who was consul for B.C. 87 along with Cinna, proved too weak for the task of controlling his exuberant partner, when the latter openly took arms on behalf of the Democrats. A sporadic civil war began to spread all over Italy, which became really formidable when Cinna made an alliance with the Samnites, and called back Marius and the rest of the exiles. The Optimates lost ground; at last Octavius and his army were actually besieged in Rome, and, weakened by desertion and famine, the Senate capitulated. Cinna and Marius entered Rome in triumph, and celebrated their victory by a wholesale massacre, not a mere attack on a dozen leaders, such as Sulla had carried out in B.C. 88. Marius went about at the head of a band of slaves, slaying every man with whom he had ever had a personal quarrel, whether he was a prominent politician or not. Indeed, the old general acted more like a lunatic afflicted with homicidal mania than a responsible party leader. Every prominent man in Rome who had not taken sides with the exiles was doomed to death: not only was Octavius put to death, but a number of respectable ex-consuls were murdered, among them Lucius Caesar, who had enfranchised the Italians in B.C. 90; Catulus, the colleague of Marius in his Cimbrian victory; Antonius, the orator; and P. Crassus, the father of the Triumvir. The Optimate wing of the Senate was almost exterminated; none escaped save a handful of fugitives, and the officers whom Sulla had taken with him to the East. Marius caused the head of every senator who had been slain to be hung up in the Forum, so that for many weeks it resembled the precinct of the king of Dahomey after the “Great Customs,” rather than the meeting-place of a civilised people. The atrocities only ceased when Marius died, on January 13th, B.C. 86, just after he had caused himself to be elected consul for the seventh time. Cinna, glutted with blood, now turned from the work of massacre to the more practical task of taking measures for the suppression of Sulla, who had sailed for the East in the previous year to take up the war against Mithradates.

When Sulla had started from Brundisium for Greece in the spring of B.C. 87, he had taken with him no more than five of his own veteran legions — some 30,000 men at most — and a moderate supply of money. He had supposed that he might look for a regular supply of recruits and subsidies from the Optimate government which he had left behind him at Rome. He found the eastern provinces in a desperate condition; not only had the whole of Asia been lost, but the Pontic armies had crossed into Europe, and had overrun the greater part of Thrace and Macedon. The fleet of Mithradates had subdued the whole of the Cyclades, and had sacked the great central emporium at Delos, where 20,000 Italians are said to have been massacred. Athens had fallen into the hands of the tyrant Aristion, a humble imitator and admirer of the Pontic king. Nearly all the smaller states of Greece had hastened to do homage to the invaders. Sentius, the governor of Macedonia, and his legate, Bruttius Sura, with a handful of Roman troops, were holding out in Thessaly, but would certainly have been overwhelmed had not Sulla come to their aid.

The great proconsul had marched south from Epirus and recovered part of the western regions of Greece, as far as Delphi and the borders of Boeotia, when he received the appalling tidings of the outbreak of the new Democratic rising in Italy and of the treason of Cinna. Many men would have turned back to crush the rebels at home before grappling with the external enemies of the state. But Sulla thought even more of the danger to the Roman empire than of the danger of the Optimate party. Instead of returning to Italy, he pressed with all vigour the campaign against the generals of Mithradates. Without his help Octavius and the Senate were lost, and at mid-winter in B.C. 87-86 he learnt that Rome was in the hands of the Democrats, that his friends had been massacred, and that he himself and his chief officers had been declared public enemies and outlawed. Decrees passed at Rome to that effect did not much injure him, for his army was thoroughly loyal, and not a man left him. But the dreadful part of the situation was that he had for the future to depend entirely on his own resources. He had no money and no fleet, the bulk of Greece was in the hands of the king’s generals, and 100,000 Pontic troops occupied its chief fortresses.

But Sulla showed no sign of discouragement. He paid his legions by the desperate expedient of seizing the temple treasures of Delphi and Olympia. To raise a fleet he sent forth his legate, L. Lucullus, bidding him appeal to all the smaller powers of the East, who were frightened by the conquering career of Mithradates. But the Oriental states were cowed, and Lucullus at first met with many refusals; he could only procure a few galleys from the Rhodians and the Phoenicians, with which he could not make any head against the large Pontic fleet. The armies and supplies of Mithradates continued to pass and repass the Aegean without hindrance during the first two years of the war.

But on land, where Sulla was at work himself, things looked better. The generals of Mithradates were beaten at Mount Tilphossium in Boeotia and pressed back towards Athens. Then the greater part of the Greek states sent to ask for terms: they had not liked their experiences of the last year, while they were under the Pontic yoke. Sulla let them buy safety at a price: he wanted money above all other things, and consented to overlook their treason in consideration of huge fines. Having secured his rear, he proceeded to lay siege to the strongholds of the enemy, the city of Athens and its port the Piraeus. They were two fortresses, and no longer one, for the “Long Walls” which had connected them in the days of Pericles had disappeared, so that their defence was carried out on separate lines.

The first great episode, therefore, in Sulla’s Greek campaign of B.C. 87-86 was the double leaguer of Athens and the Piraeus. He had with a very small army — for many of his troops were detached in the direction of Thessaly — to besiege superior numbers in two strong places, of which one was perpetually receiving succour from the sea. The Pontic garrison and the Athenians held out with great resolution, knowing the massacre that awaited them if they gave way. The walls were too strong for Roman siege-craft, and the city had to be starved out, while at the same time several attempts to relieve it both from the inland and from the side of Piraeus had to be beaten back. But Sulla never despaired, and after many months the garrison of Athens grew so weak from famine that they failed to guard the circuit of the walls with sufficient care. The Romans entered by escalade at a point near the Dipylon gate, and met with little resistance in the streets. Sulla allowed his men to plunder the place as a reward for their long endurance in the trenches, and to put to the sword many of the citizens. When at last he ordered the sack to cease, he observed that “he spared the living for the sake of the dead,” i.e. the degenerate Athenians of his own day obtained mercy in memory of Pericles and Plato [March 1, B.C. 86].

Hardly was Athens won, when a great army of succour, over 100,000 strong, came down from Macedonia, driving before it the Roman corps which had been detached on the side of Thessaly. Sulla hastened up from Athens with reinforcements; whereupon Archelaus, the governor of Piraeus, came round by sea with his garrison and joined his colleague, Taxiles. The armies met at Chaeronea, one of the inevitable battle-spots of Greece, where an invader advancing from the north can be brought to action in the narrow space between Lake Copais and the Phocian foothills. Sulla had only 15,000 foot, and less than 2000 horse, but he never doubted for a moment of success. He had seen Asiatic armies before in their own land, and had the greatest contempt for them. But at first he had some difficulty in bringing over his own men to his opinion; they feared the masses of cavalry and the many regiments of mercenaries equipped in the Macedonian fashion with the brazen shield and the long sarissa. To quiet their minds Sulla had to cover his flanks with entrenchments and stockades; but presently the men grew tired of the spade and asked to be allowed to fight. Sulla told them that they should have their will, “though it seemed that it was not so much courage as dislike for digging that made them so eager.” The event showed that an Oriental army when manfully faced, even by very inferior numbers, would never stand firm before a resolute attack of European troops. There was much confused fighting, but the story of the battle reads like that of the early British victories in India. The odds seemed hopeless, but the balance of courage compensated for them. The scythe-chariots of the Asiatic turned out as great a fraud as they had been at Cunaxa or Arbela. The legionaries soon learnt their futility; “they clapped their hands and asked for more, as if they had been looking at the races in the circus.” The unwieldy phalanxes of infantry got into disorder, and when the line of pikes was broken, fell an unresisting sacrifice to the Roman sword. Only the cavalry of Archelaus gave some trouble; it pierced the Roman line at one point and had to be driven off by hard fighting. But, seeing his infantry cut to pieces, the Pontic general rode off the field and escaped.

We can hardly believe Sulla’s allegation that he slew 100,000 men in this battle, more especially when he couples it with the astounding statement that he himself lost but fourteen legionaries, of whom two were only “missing” and turned up next morning. Even Asiatic armies cannot be routed with such a light butcher’s bill, and the wild lie must have been put about merely to cheer the spirits of the army, and inspire them with contempt for the miserable enemy [March B.C. 86].

But just when the subjection of Greece seemed complete, a new danger fell upon Sulla. The Democrats at Rome had just landed an army in Epirus under the Consul Flaccus, in order to attack him in the rear. For Cinna and his friends had not the magnanimity of Sulla, and would not reserve their swords for the foreigner, or defer civil strife till the state was free from external enemies. Fortunately for the victor of Chaeronea, Flaccus proved a feeble foe, as was to be expected from a hero of the Forum, — one whose only achievement had been to pass a disgraceful law which allowed debtors to pay off their liabilities by tendering one-fourth of what they owed to their unfortunate creditors. The consul marched into Thessaly, spreading proclamations which invited the legionaries of Sulla to desert the standard of an outlaw and to join the legitimate representative of the Roman people. But when the two armies faced each other near Melitaea, Flaccus’s raw levies showed no eagerness to fight; they began to pass over to Sulla, whose reputation as a general and notorious liberality impressed their minds. The Optimate, on the other hand, could thoroughly rely on his men, though he had bought their loyalty by methods of very doubtful morality, not only by paying them well but by allowing them to live at free quarters, to pillage every place that offered resistance, and to maltreat the inhabitants to their heart’s content. Flaccus found his own army much more likely to melt away than that of his rival, and hastily sheered off towards Macedonia, giving out that he would march against Mithradates instead of against the Optimates. This he actually did, to the great relief of Sulla, who not only was relieved of an enemy, but saw that enemy doing good work for him by making a diversion in Asia. For Flaccus crossed the Hellespont, and though he was soon after murdered in a mutiny, his successor, the demagogue Fimbria, continued his policy, left the Optimates alone, and began harrying Mysia and Bithynia.

But long ere Flaccus reached Asia, Sulla was compelled to fight one more great battle in Greece. While he had been marching into Thessaly to face the Democrats, Mithradates had sent reinforcements to join Archelaus, who after his defeat at Chaeronea had taken refuge at Chalcis in Euboea. To watch this new army Sulla had fallen back to Athens, where he spent the winter of B.C. 86-85, waiting for the enemy to make a move on to the mainland. For as long as the Pontic troops were protected by the channel of the Euripus they were unassailable. Sulla had no fleet to ferry him over the strait, and the sea belonged to his adversaries. The Pontic ships wandered far and wide, even as far west as Zacynthus, and there was no Roman squadron to keep them in check.

But in the spring of B.C. 85 Archelaus had been strengthened by new levies, till he had 80,000 men in hand. The king wished him to fight, and he had been sent a colleague named Dorylaus, who was eager to take the offensive. Accordingly the Pontic army crossed the straits into Boeotia, and gave Sulla the opportunity for which he had been longing. His second great battle was fought in the marshy plain near Orchomenus, only ten miles away from the spot where he had won his first victory in the preceding year. The decisive engagement was brought about by the Romans commencing to run lines across the plain, so as to hem in the enemy with their backs to the morasses of Lake Copais. As Sulla had expected, this manoeuvre compelled his adversaries to attack him. The Pontic cavalry came suddenly charging down on the half-completed entrenchments, and drove back for a moment the cohorts which were covering the work. Seeing them give way, Sulla sprang from his horse, seized a standard, and ran to the front. “If any one asks you where you deserted your general,” he shouted to the recoiling battalions, “say that it was at Orchomenus.” The taunt recalled them to their duty, the line was re-formed, the reinforcements brought up, and in the pitched battle which followed the whole Pontic army was hurled into the lake and annihilated. “Even two hundred years after that day,” writes Plutarch, “bows, helms, broken mail, and swords are still continually discovered in the mud, where the fen was once choked with the bodies of the barbarians.” The whole horde perished: only their general Archelaus escaped, as he had done in the previous year at Chaeronea.

Mithradates was now much cowed in spirit. All his chosen mercenaries had been destroyed, his foothold in Europe was lost, and he saw the war about to be transferred to Asia. For Lucullus had at last collected a fleet, which gave Sulla that power of crossing the Aegean which he had not hitherto possessed. Moreover, Fimbria was already across the Hellespont, and though his army was small and raw compared with that of Sulla, it was already giving the king much trouble. Accordingly he sent to ask for peace, offering to abandon all that he had conquered in Europe if he were allowed to retain the province of Asia. He promised in addition to lend the Optimates a fleet, a great sum of money, and an auxiliary army for use against the Democrats in Italy. But Sulla was far too good a Roman to allow the empire to be shorn of its wealthiest province, and scorned to march against Cinna at the head of a barbarian force. He rejected the terms proposed to him, and offered the king merely the restoration of the boundaries that had existed before the war. He might keep his ancestral kingdom, but he must evacuate Asia, surrender his fleet, and pay a heavy war indemnity.

The Pontic monarch at first thought that these terms were harder than his adversaries had any right to ask. He declared that he would continue the war rather than accept them. Sulla then began to make active preparations for crossing the Aegean: at the same moment a great number of the states of Ionia, Lydia, and Caria revolted against Mithradates, whose rule had been rapidly becoming unbearable, as his temper grew worse and his financial demands more pressing. Moreover, Fimbria’s army had pushed south and occupied Pergamus, after defeating the king’s son in a pitched battle.

With a sudden descent from swollen pride to abject servility, very characteristic of an Oriental prince in his day of trouble, Mithradates sent to tender acceptance of the original terms that had been offered him. He evacuated as much of the Asiatic province as was still in his hands, gave up seventy war-galleys, and paid a fine of 3000 talents. He had a formal conference with Sulla at Dardanus in the Troad, where he promised everything that was asked of him, and bore with humility the haughty and trenchant harangue of his conqueror, who told him that he was fortunate to escape so easily as he was now doing, after his unprovoked attack on Rome in the day of her necessity, and his wanton massacre of the Italian residents in Asia during the first year of the war.

The honour of the Roman name being now fully vindicated, and the boundaries of the empire restored, Sulla was at last able to turn against the Democrats. He had first to deal with Fimbria, whose army had pushed southward and was now lying at Thyatira, in Lydia; but when he drew near, the soldiers of his adversary refused to bear arms against the saviour and champion of the Roman cause in the East. Their general, seeing his men melting away from him, made an attempt to get Sulla murdered at a conference, and when this miserable plot failed, fell upon his own sword. The submission of Fimbria’s legions was a godsend to the Optimates, for Sulla was able to leave them behind to garrison Asia, so that the whole of his own veterans could be utilised for the approaching invasion of Italy.

Having completely pacified the East, and carried out in its entirety the programme which he had set before himself when he left Rome in B.C. 87, Sulla now turned his face homeward. He was aware that he had no light task before him: his military chest was full, for he had levied an enormous fine of 20,000 talents on the Asiatic cities which had joined in the massacre of B.C. 88. But his army was very small: he had no more than his original five legions, kept up with difficulty to their full strength, for Roman recruits were hard to find in the East. Even counting a few mercenary troops which he had levied, he had no more than 30,000 men — about the same number with which Hannibal had invaded Italy a hundred and thirty-five years before. They seemed but a handful, when it was borne in mind that Cinna could dispose of the resources of the whole peninsula, not to speak of those of the provinces of Gaul, Spain, and Africa. But Sulla had three causes for confidence — his own generalship (or, as he preferred to call it, his luck), the absolute fidelity of his legions, and the knowledge that comparatively few of those who were to be opposed to him were particularly zealous to fight for the Democratic cause. In military efficiency each of his men was worth two or three of the raw recruits with whom they would have to deal; and what soldier was likely to desert the general who had been giving him of late no less than sixteen denarii a day, just thirty-two times the normal pay of the Roman legionary?

Sulla gave his enemies fair warning of his intentions. Before he set sail he sent a despatch to Rome, in which he laid before the Senate a detailed account of his four successful years of campaigning in Greece and Asia. He then announced that he was approaching to chastise those who had been guilty of the massacres of the winter of B.C. 87-86, not to harm the Roman people. He should not meddle with the rights of the newly enfranchised Italian citizens, nor should he do any wilful damage to Italy. He was the enemy, not of the many, but of the few, and only those who had blood on their hands need fear him.

Such a declaration was well suited to frighten the Democratic government at Rome, for Cinna and his friends knew that they were no longer popular with the country at large. Their three years of rule had been a disastrous failure; it started with a bloody massacre which alienated every citizen of moderate mind. Then, when constructive measures were necessary, the famous Democratic programme had ended in a fiasco. Cinna had no genius in him, and the code of laws which he produced turned out to be no more than a réchauffé of the out-of-date expedients of Sulpicius and the Gracchi, which had already been tried and found wanting. The one startling novelty had been the dishonest debt-law of Valerius Flaccus, which (as we have already mentioned) permitted those who owed money to demand a receipt in full from their creditors when they had paid one-fourth of what they had borrowed. It may be guessed what was the effect of this law on the money-lending Equites, who had hitherto been staunch supporters of the Democratic cause.

Cinna and his friends, in short, had staked their success on their power to satisfy all Italy, and to provide a purer and a more efficient government than that of the old senatorial oligarchy. In this they had notoriously failed. So far from being a return to the Golden Age, the three years’ domination of the Democratic party had been a time of massacre, bankruptcy, and discontent. The chiefs of the dominant faction had proved windbags, and dishonest windbags too. Of all the men who emerged as leaders in these troublous years, none showed the least sign of genius save the praetor Q. Sertorius; the rest were noisy rather than energetic, and bloodthirsty rather than resolute. Indeed, the only men who fought with zeal against Sulla were those who had compromised themselves in the massacre, and knew that they were beyond the hope of pardon.

Sulla’s great advantage, then, was that he and his followers meant business, while the majority of those arrayed against him were lukewarm. But still the odds seemed so desperate, in point of mere numbers, that it was thought that his little army would be overwhelmed. Cinna had 100,000 men enrolled in B.C. 84, and in the next year it is said that his successors hurried double that number into the field. But few were eager for the fray. It seemed that they were to be sacrificed to save the necks of their leaders, not to defend Italy, for Sulla kept asserting that he came as a friend to every one but the fanatics who had murdered his friends, razed his house to the ground, and declared him a public enemy. Noting the slackness of the people and the army, the majority in the Senate, who felt themselves less compromised than their leaders, voted that an embassy should be sent to Sulla, to see if he could not be reconciled and brought home without a war. But when, amid many protestations of his moderation and good intentions, the proconsul answered that he must bring his army at his back to give him security, and that the guilty must be punished, it was evident that there was no way of avoiding the struggle.

Cinna meanwhile had been seized with the idea that the best way to keep Sulla out of Italy would be to attack him in Greece. He collected an army at Ancona, with the intention of crossing over into Epirus. The first cohorts sailed, but when the main body was ordered to embark in very stormy weather, the men mutinied. Cinna came hurrying down to appease them, but was received by a volley of stones and beaten to death. The control of his party fell into the hands of men even less capable than himself, the chief of whom were his colleague, the consul Papirius Carbo, Marius, the son of the great general, and L. Junius Brutus Damasippus. The Democratic party had no longer a single autocratic leader — Cinna’s three consulships had been styled a dominatio and almost a tyranny — but was ruled by a council of war destitute of any commanding personality.

In the spring of B.C. 83 Sulla landed in safety at Brundisium, which opened its gates without opposition — an event of evil augury for the Democrats. It was his object to show from the first that he came as the friend of Italy, and the enemy only of those who had proscribed him. All through his first campaign he was fighting with his brains as much as with his sword, by proclamations no less than by battles. He began by granting the Brundisians immunity from all taxation as a reward for their surrender. As he marched through Apulia he kept his army in such order that neither man nor beast, cottage nor cornfield, was harmed: yet it must have been hard to hold in veterans accustomed to the plunder of the East. Wherever he came, he announced that there was full amnesty and pardon for every one who did not actually appear in arms against him. This conduct had the most marked effect on the hostile army: from the very first the Democratic legions showed great lukewarmness in the cause of their commanders. The two consuls for the new year, C. Norbanus and L. Cornelius Scipio, were entrusted with the opening of the campaign against the invader. They were both very incompetent officers, and foolishly separated their armies by such a wide gap that Sulla was able to deal with them in detail. Norbanus was defeated near Canusium, in Apulia; he hastily fell back across the Apennines, but received a second beating at Mount Tifata, after which he shut him self up in Capua. His colleague Scipio marched to his aid, but his army was dispersed more by intrigue than by fighting. For Sulla proposed an armistice, and took advantage of it to tamper with the consul’s men, who, when the resumption of hostilities was proclaimed, refused to fight. Part of them dispersed, part went over to Sulla, and Scipio fell into the hands of his enemy. Still maintaining his ostentatious affectation of magnanimity, the latter sent him away unharmed, giving him an escort as far as the nearest Democratic camp. He then returned to blockade the army of Norbanus. The Democrats complained, as Plutarch tells us, that “in contending with Sulla they had to fight at once with a lion and a fox, and the fox gave the more trouble of the two.”

Sulla’s first successes emboldened the surviving members of the Optimate party, who had escaped the sword of Marius, and had been lurking ever since in obscure hiding-places, to take arms. The senior in rank was the proconsul Q. Metellus Pius, but by far the most able were two young men, Gn. Pompeius and Marcus Crassus, each of whom had to avenge a father slain in the civil war, the one in a mutiny, the other in the great massacre of B.C. 87. Both were active, enterprising, and fortunate. Pompeius gathered in Picenum, where his family was popular, a tumultuary force that gradually swelled to three legions. Crassus levied a small army in the Marsian territory. These insurrections distracted the attention of the Democrats, who were forced to turn against them a considerable portion of their new levies, and had in consequence less men to oppose to Sulla.

It thus came to pass that the proconsul found himself strong enough to march on Rome when the spring of B.C. 82 came round. He planned a diversion on the east side of Italy, where Metellus and Pompey made such a bold advance that Carbo, with the main army of the Democrats, went off to hold them in check, leaving the younger Marius, with 40,000 men, to guard Latium and the Appian Way. When Sulla started for a sudden rush on Rome, he found only this latter army in his path. At Sacriportus, near Signia, he inflicted a crushing defeat on the young general, who was a brave soldier but no tactician. The Optimates were much outnumbered, but the slackness of the rank and file among their enemies gave them every advantage. In the thick of the fight five cohorts threw down their standards and went over to Sulla: this broke the line, the enemy fled, and Marius only succeeded in saving a fraction of his host within the walls of the fortress of Praeneste. The road to Rome was open, and Sulla marched hastily on the city: he occupied it without having to strike a blow, but found to his disgust that he was too late to prevent a fresh massacre. On getting news of the defeat at Sacriportus, the praetor L. Brutus Damasippus had laid violent hands on every person in the city who was suspected of sympathising with the Optimates. Mucius Scaevola, the Pontifex Maximus, and many other respectable men, perished in this disgraceful slaughter.

After the fall of Rome Sulla’s star was manifestly in the ascendant, and he possessed the obvious advantage of appearing to be the legal representative of the people, since he could compel the Senate and the Comitia to vote whatever he pleased. The war assumed a very confused and chaotic aspect, for fighting was now going on all over Italy, and each side had dispersed its main force, in the endeavour to seize or to hold as many important districts as was possible. But the whole business came to a head on November 1 , B.C. 82: while Sulla was facing Carbo in Etruria, and young Marius was still being besieged in Praeneste, the enemy made a vigorous attempt to seize Rome. A division detached by Carbo made a junction, behind Sulla’s back, with the national levy of the Samnites, who were helping the Democrats more in the character of independent allies than in that of Roman citizens. Caius Pontius of Telesia, a namesake of the ancient hero of the Caudine Forks, led his country men to join Damasippus and Carrinas. The whole mass came rushing down from the Apennines upon the city, which the Samnites intended to sack rather than to save. Sulla received news of this concentration in his rear so late that he almost despaired of arriving in time. Rome was within an ace of destruction, for the vanguard of the Optimate cavalry arrived when the enemy were only two miles from the gates. If their generals had pushed for ward a little farther on the preceding night (October 31st), instead of encamping close to the city, they would have found no one to oppose them. As it was, Sulla’s legions had to be placed in line directly they arrived, after a fatiguing night march, and without being granted time to take a proper meal.

The battle that followed was far the fiercest of the whole civil war, for Sulla had to deal not with the lukewarm levies of Carbo, but with the sturdy Samnites. Pontius rode round his army crying, as Velleius tells us, that “Rome’s last day had come; that the tyrant city must be destroyed to her foundations; that the Roman wolves, the bane of Italian liberty, would never be got rid of until their lair was laid waste.” The armies met outside the Colline gate, on the northern side of the city, the Optimate legions being ranged with their back to the walls, and only a few hundred yards from them. Sulla had the left wing, his lieutenant, M. Crassus, the right. For some hours the fortune of the day was hardly contested: Crassus gained ground, but Sulla’s own division was pressed backward, till some of the cohorts were crushed against the walls, and others vainly tried to re-enter the gates, which were closed against them by the citizens. The general himself was in imminent danger of death: those who were near him saw him draw from his breast the little golden figure of Apollo which he always wore, kiss it, and mutter to the god that it would be a scurvy trick if he allowed Sulla the lucky to fall at last on his own threshold by the hands of traitors.

Apollo was not unpropitious: the wreck of Sulla’s wing held out at the foot of the walls till the night fell: soon after the news came that Crassus had completely routed the force opposed to him, which seems to have been mainly composed of the Democratic levies of Damasippus and Carrinas, not of Samnites. This caused the enemy to draw off from Sulla; their general, Pontius, had been mortally wounded, and it seems that there was no capable man to take his place. At dawn the two Optimate divisions joined and swept away the dislocated forces of their opponents: one Democratic legion came over to Sulla’s side; the rest dispersed, but not so quickly but that 8000 of them were captured in their flight. The generals Damasippus, Marcius, and Carrinas suffered the same fate on the next day. Sulla cut off their heads and sent them to Praeneste, to be exhibited to young Marius and his famishing garrison. The dreadful sight had its effect: Marius committed suicide and Praeneste surrendered. The victor sorted out the Romans from among the prisoners, beheaded those of senatorial rank, but let the rest go free. The Italians were all put to death to the number of several thousands. The same fate had already befallen the captives taken at the Colline gate; 8000 of them — all save the Roman rank and file — were slain in the Circus Maximus, which had been utilised as their prison. The Senate, sitting hard by in the Temple of Bellona, heard the groans and shrieks of the victims, and showed signs of terror. But Sulla bid them “stick to their business and not allow themselves to be distracted; it was only some malefactors who were suffering the reward of their crimes.”

There was still much fighting to be done in Italy: Carbo deserted his army in Etruria and fled over-seas, but his partisans held out for some time in isolated bands. Norba and Nola stood long sieges, and Volaterrae held out for the incredible length of two years. But the main war in Italy practically came to an end with the victory of the Colline gate and the fall of Praeneste. The struggle after that date mainly consisted of the savage harrying of Samnium and Etruria, the two districts where the Democratic party had made itself most strong.


Leaving the completion of this guerilla warfare to his lieutenants, Sulla had set himself to the great work of his latter years, the remodelling of the Roman constitution on an oligarchical basis. With this object he had himself appointed dictator in November 82. But a dreadful preliminary to his political work was his great “Proscription,” the formal revenge for what Marius and Cinna had done in B.C. 87-86. “Down to the moment of his victory,” it was said, “he showed himself far more moderate and humane than could have been expected; after it was won, he was more cruel than could have been believed possible.” He spared indeed the rank and file of the Roman Democrats, but he systematically cut off every man of note in their party. It seemed that he was determined that not one leader should survive to rally the partisans of the lost cause. He started his operations by issuing three long lists of persons on whose heads a price was set; the first contained 80 names, the second and third 220 each. He then coolly gave notice that he had condemned every one whom he could remember, but that those whom he had forgotten should be put into supplementary catalogues. These dreadful appendices kept coming out for many weeks, and not till they ceased could any Roman who had not taken the Optimate side feel himself secure. Many comparatively obscure names crept into the lists, for the generals and favourites of Sulla often got him to insert their personal enemies among the executed. He himself seems to have been as impervious to corruption as to pity, but those about him were not, and all sorts of old grudges were paid off under a pretence of political vengeance. In all, some 50 senators, 1600 equites, and at least 2000 private persons were executed in the Sullan proscriptions. The heads of the fallen were exhibited in the Forum, according to the disgusting custom which had begun at the death of Sulpicius. Their property was confiscated, and their children and grandchildren were declared of tainted blood and incapable of holding any public office. The “sons of the proscribed” formed a well-known group of malcontents during the next generation, on account of this disability which was now laid upon them.

But the Proscription was only, in Sulla’s estimation, a necessary preliminary to the great work of reconstruction which he had taken in hand. He had resolved to rearrange the whole constitution, with the definite object of transferring the sovereignty of the state from the people to the Senate.

We have already pointed out that in the Roman politics of the last fifty years the main difficulty that lay at the bottom of all disputes was the quarrel for sovereignty. Should the Senate, according to recent usage, or the tribes, according to ancient constitutional theory, be the body that really ruled the city and the empire? Senatus Populusque Romanus was a sounding phrase, but neither Optimates nor Democrats had any love for the mutual interdependence which the words postulated.

Now Sulla thought that all the troubles of the time came from the fact that neither Senate nor people had full sovereignty; and, as a consistent oligarch and a conscientious party-man, he was determined to put the balance of power to an end, by conferring complete autocratic authority on his own senatorial order. The Optimates had, during the last fifty years, suffered from three different sorts of foes — from unruly tribunes galvanising into spasmodic life the cumbrous but all-powerful machinery of the Comitia; from over-great magistrates, like Marius or Cinna, who renewed their power from year to year and kept an army at their backs; and from the newly created Equestrian Order, the body of financiers, fighting for their own interests by the power of the purse, however sordid and anti-national these interests might be.

Sulla’s laws, so far as they dealt with things political, resolve themselves into an ingenious and systematic attempt to break down the power of all these three enemies of the Senate — the Comitia Tributa and its tribunes, the great magistrates, and the equites. If all three were politically annihilated, there would be for the future no check on the omnipotence of the Senate. The dictator’s object was to combine the maximum of real with the minimum of formal change; for though he was himself completely emancipated from that slavish respect for the letter of the constitution which swayed the average Roman, he knew that this was the case neither with his friends nor with his enemies.

The hardest blows were aimed at the most powerful enemies, the tribunes and the Comitia Tributa, whose power of issuing and repealing any laws that they pleased had been the greatest danger of the Senate. As long as any Democratic tribune could bring forward whatever bills he chose, and as long as such bills, when passed by the Plebeian assembly, became binding on the state, there was no security against a reaction that might annul the whole of the Cornelian Laws the moment that their author should have passed away.

Sulla’s action against the Comitia was very ingenious. He made no pretence of abolishing it, or of abrogating the omnipotence of such bills as it might pass. He only determined that no dangerous bill should ever come before it. This was accomplished by reviving and making indisputably valid the old claim of the Senate that every law should of right be laid before them and receive their auctoritas, or certificate of legality, before the tribune introduced it to the assembly. Now, obviously, such bills as the Senate would pass on as harmless and useful, would be measures that did not cut short their own authority or clash with their ideas of expediency. Sulla therefore compelled the Comitia to pass a law which made the grant of a senatus auctoritas a necessary preliminary for the production of a law before the people. Henceforth, as he hoped, there would be no chance of tiresome and dangerous bills for land distributions, or corn-doles, or grants of abnormal powers to magistrates, being passed by the assembly. All such schemes, if broached in the Senate, would be stifled there and go no farther. No measure of a Democratic complexion would ever reach the Comitia. All that the people would be able to do would be to reject bills sent down to them with the senatorial sanction, if they had the pluck to contradict the governing power in the state. Their power of initiative would be gone. Thus reduced to impotence, the assembly was no longer an object of dread to Sulla; and for that reason he did not think it worthwhile to abolish it, or even to turn out from it the hordes of Italians whom Cinna had thrust into the midst of the old citizens. He made no attempt either to confine them to a few tribes or to suspend their franchise. Thus he kept to the letter the promise which he had made to the new citizens when he landed at Brundisium. Personally, as an old aristocrat, Sulla probably felt much less contempt for the Italians than for the original Plebs Urbana. What he thought of the freedmen, who were so prominent a feature in that body, may be guessed from the fact that he not only put them all back into the four city tribes, but actually foisted in among them in a single day no less than 10,000 voters of the lowest class, enfranchised slaves of those who had fallen in his own proscription. They all took him as their patron, and adopted his name of Cornelius, which was henceforth one of the commonest appellations in the slums.

To destroy completely the powers of the Plebeian assembly as an element in the constitution, it was necessary not merely to subordinate its legislative functions to those of the Senate, but to cut short the dangerous and anarchical privileges of its presiding magistrates, the tribunes. Some legislators would have abolished the tribunate altogether; and considering the way in which Tiberius Gracchus and Saturninus had used it, there would have been a fair excuse for so doing. Sulla, however, merely resolved that he would invent rules which should for the future keep tribunes out of mischief. It was not enough that a senatus auctoritas should be required for any bill that they might bring forward. He determined that they should for the future be nonentities, men unlikely to disturb the state by their personal ascendency or ambition.

This end was secured by the ingenious law which provided that for the future the acceptance of the tribunate should be a complete bar to the holding of any subsequent magistracy in the state. The man who chose to be a tribune would put himself out of the running for any further political promotion. But in spite of this disability, it was conceivable that an ambitious man might become tribune with the intention not of sacrificing any external career, but of being perpetually re-elected to this office like Caius Gracchus of old. Sulla provided against this possibility by repealing the law of B.C. 129, which had made it legal for a man to hold the tribunate in successive years. He enacted that tribunes (and, as we shall see, other magistrates also) should not be chosen again without an interval of ten years between their two tenures of the post. Thus it was secured that for the future no man of more than fifth-rate ambition would become a tribune, since by putting in for a nomination he cut himself off from all hope of a brilliant and continuous public career.

But even the nobodies who would now hold the office were not to be left shackled only by their own nothingness. Sulla gave the Senate a power of fining the tribunes for any conduct that it might consider illegal or unbecoming, so that they had to live in awe of the governing body all their days. If they held too many noisy public meetings or dared to use their veto freely, they might find themselves saddled with a crushing penalty and reduced to poverty. The only power, in short, which remained untouched among the tribune’s privileges, was that which he had been given when the office was first invented in the days of the early Republic, the jus auxilii ferendi, or right to intervene in behalf of the individual Roman citizen who might be suffering oppression.

Having dealt thus with the tribunes and the assembly, Sulla had next to take in hand the second power in the state which was dangerous to the sovereignty of the Senate — that of the individual magistrates. According to the theory of the Roman constitution, the consul or praetor, deriving his authority directly from the people because he had been elected by them in the Comitia Centuriata, had a very independent position in face of the Senate. That body, indeed, had in early days been nothing more than the band of advisers chosen by the consul, whose monitions he was equally free to accept or to reject. Even in these latter times a headstrong consul could practically disregard the voice of the Senate for his whole term of office: and if he was chosen for several years in succession, he could go on administering things much as he pleased, without being restrained to any appreciable extent. Such had been the position of Marius during the years of the Cimbric war, and of Cinna in B.C. 86-84.

Sulla therefore had to guard against the ambition of the magistrates of the future. His main weapon for this end was his lex annalis: this law provided that all the officers of the state must be taken in strict rotation — first the quaestorship, then the praetorship, and lastly the consulate. No one was to hold two offices in successive years; and the different limits of age prescribed for each secured that a considerable time must elapse between the tenure of them, otherwise, of course, an ambitious politician might, by taking aedileship, praetorship, and consulate in successive years, get a long spell of continuous power, and make himself permanently disagreeable to the Senate. Much less was it to be permitted that any magistrate should hold the same office continuously: one of Sulla’s ordinances was to the effect that there must be a gap of no less than ten years before a man could be re-elected to the same post. We have already come across this provision when dealing with the tribunate. There would, therefore, no longer be any place in the constitution for a Marius or a Cinna: but, in the true oligarchic style, each man would get his turn, and no man more than his turn. Every politician would be able to calculate with precision when he ought to hold each office, without the danger arising that some interloper of genius might sweep down and monopolise the series of praetorships or consulships that ought to have been divided among half-a-dozen minor persons.

It is curious to note that Sulla, with all his acuteness, overlooked one fact — that an ambitious proconsul in a province, at the head of an army, might be quite as troublesome to the Senate as an ambitious consul at Rome proposing laws to the people. Yet his own career ought to have taught him that a governor in Greece or Gaul with half-a-dozen faithful legions was the greatest danger of all. He did realise the peril, as it would seem, but merely provided against it by enacting that any imperator who crossed the frontier of his province at the head of an army, or refused to quit it within a month of his successor’s arrival, should become ipso facto a public enemy. This, no doubt, clearly defined high treason, but it gave no sufficient security against it. The Republic was ultimately to be overthrown by an adventurer of this kind — by a provincial governor who dared to cross the Rubicon, whatever might be the legal consequence, because he was well aware that his legions would follow him against any enemy whom he might choose to indicate to them. The real remedy against this peril would have been to separate the military from the civil command in each province — to have a governor who was merely an administrator, and a commander-in-chief who reported directly to the Senate. But this plan does not seem to have entered into the dictator’s mind.

Sulla made a large increase in the number of the annual magistrates, raising the praetors to eight and the quaestors to twenty; but it is improbable that he intended, as some have supposed, to decrease the importance of each office by multiplying the numbers of those who held it. Incidentally this result might follow, but it is probable that the dictator was merely studying the convenience of the state, for till his day the administration was decidedly undermanned. Nor, again, does it seem to be true that he deliberately deprived the consuls of their military power for their year of office, by arranging that they should stay in Rome, where no legions would be at their disposal, and only utilise their imperium when they went out as proconsuls to their provinces in the succeeding year. The usage that the consul should remain at home, unless urgent military affairs drew him out of Italy, had already begun to grow up before Sulla’s time. And on the other hand there are a few cases after his death in which the consul left the city and assumed command of an army before his year had expired — e.g., this was certainly done by Cotta and Lucullus in the first year of the third Mithradatic war.

It would seem that Sulla made the quaestorship qualify its holder for a seat in the Senate, so that the governing body of the state was no longer filled up by the censors, but recruited automatically by the influx of young magistrates. In this way he abolished the necessity for a censorship, and made the Senate independent of the likes and dislikes of individual holders of that office.

Having thus muzzled the tribunes and curbed the consuls, Sulla had next to deal with the third enemy of the Senate, the Equestrian Order. It will be remembered that a disproportionate share of the massacre of the fourth proscription had fallen upon them — no less than 1600 had been put to death, so that the Democratic wing of the knighthood had been almost exterminated. At the other end of the line Sulla had promoted a very large number of Equites of Optimate views to a seat in the Senate, so that in legislating against the body he was not striking at his own friends. His object was to loosen the bonds which held together the rather heterogeneous classes which formed the Equestrian Order. These bonds were, firstly, their honorary privileges, — the augusticlave toga, the gold ring, and the rows of reserved seats in circus and theatre; secondly, their monopoly of the control of the Jury Courts, which they had used so unscrupulously as a weapon against the Senate and the provincial magistrates; thirdly, their tax-farming privileges, especially that most profitable enactment of Caius Gracchus, which handed over the collecting of the tithes of Asia to the Societates.

Sulla, therefore, launched a whole series of measures against the Equestrian Order. One bill took away the entire control of the law-courts from them, and restored it to the senators. Once more the latter became the only persons eligible as jurymen, as in the days before Caius Gracchus; they could look forward to being tried by a friendly instead of a hostile court if they incurred prosecution, and were able to audit their own accounts inside the family. The Equites suffered, but not the empire, for the previous state of things had been so bad that any change must have profited the provincials. A second bill put an end to the system of tax-farming in Asia, and imposed on each of its cities a fixed tribute, instead of the tithes. This was an enormous boon to the Asiatics; but probably the way in which the measure commended itself to Sulla’s mind had nothing to do with their point of view. He made the change because it would be unpalatable to the knights, who lost an unparalleled source of money-making when the tax-farming disappeared. We may compare him to the Puritans of old, who abolished bear-baiting, not because it was cruel to the bear, but because it gave so much pleasure to the audience. Yet another bill, of which the details have unfortunately perished, would seem to have deprived the Equites of many of their honorary privileges, especially of their seats in the circus. These they did not recover till the law of Roscius Otho restored them in B.C. 67.

There were many other Cornelian Laws outside the three great groups with which we have been dealing. One abolished the corn-dole, a most admirable measure, for which we should admire the dictator more if we could only suppose that he was acting on economic reasons, and not merely doing his best to disoblige the urban multitude. Others systematised the organisation of the Law Courts, which had hitherto been arranged in a very haphazard fashion. Very prominent among his innovations was the law which added new courts for the trial of criminal offences (quaestiones perpetuae) to those already existing, so that every form of offence had for the future its proper venue. But of these legal matters we have no leisure to speak. Nor need we say much concerning his colonial schemes: he settled many of his veterans in Etruria and Samnium, on the lands of the cities which he had destroyed for obstinate adherence to the Democratic cause. But he can hardly have expected his colonies to prove economic successes, considering the character of the settlers, who had long been estranged from the soil, and the indisputable fact that farming had long ceased to pay in Central Italy. They were, no doubt, merely intended to last out Sulla’s own day, and to supply him for a time with compact blocks of adherents, accustomed to arms and cantoned in the close vicinity of Rome. It is a curious commentary on the wisdom of the step, that ruined Sullan veterans formed, sixteen years later, an appreciable element in the army of Catiline.

Sulla, as everyone knows, laid down his dictatorship in January B.C. 79, after holding it for two years. When he had passed all his long code of constitutional enactments, and had seen the last embers of civil war die down, he laid aside the trappings of power and retired into private life. He had no personal ambition, and when his work was finished and the new constitution had been set going, he resolved to let it have the chance of a fair start, with out the danger of overbalance caused by the perpetual presence of his own mighty personality. For the Sullan regime had in it no place for Sullas. The whole scheme of laws had been framed to keep down over-great men, and he was well aware that he was himself over-great. As a conscientious oligarch, it was his duty to remove himself from power, and to resign the abnormal office that he had held throughout B.C. 81 and 80. His function for the future was to stand by, outside the machine, to watch it work, and to step in to lend his aid if ever it showed signs of getting out of gear. His notion of how the new constitution could best be maintained may be gathered from the curious story of the death of Lucretius Ofella. That distinguished officer, the captor of Praeneste, so far presumed on his late services that he boldly proposed to break Sulla’s Lex Annalis by standing for the consulate before he had held the praetorship. Sulla gave him fair warning that he would not be allowed to take the office, but he refused to listen, and made a formal canvass in the Forum after the usual style. While Ofella was going his rounds with his white toga in the crowded market-place, his chief quietly told two centurions to cut him down. They did so; and when an uproar began, Sulla stepped forward to take all the blame and responsibility, and to offer to stand his trial for murder. No one dared to come forward as a prosecutor, and so he got off scot-free. The story has several morals; clearly the constitution was still so weak that an ambitious man could venture to attack it ere it was two years old; only Sulla himself could defend it, but as long as he survived it was safe. If he could have looked forward to twenty years of life, he might have dragooned the Roman people into an acceptance of it; but he was already elderly and ailing. Innovators should start young and live long, like the Emperor Augustus. What would have happened to the imperial system if Augustus had died at the age of forty, instead of living on till he was seventy-six?

No doubt Sulla’s constitution was doomed from the first to failure. But, at any rate, the experiment of restoring the oligarchy was worth trying. The opposite political device of the Democrats, that of endeavouring to transact all the business of the city and the empire in the Comitia, had proved utterly impracticable. Under Cinna’s domination such a regime had been working for nearly four years with the most deplorable results — the popular programme had been tried and found wanting — it had run to nothing more than corn-largesses and the repudiation of debts. At the touch of the sword the Democratic government had fallen to pieces, merely because it commanded neither respect nor affection from any quarter.

Sulla’s scheme, — to set up a Senate unhampered by any other power in the state, and possessing full and complete sovereignty, was at least equally worthy of a trial. It failed no doubt, mainly from the want of men able and willing to work the system when the old dictator had passed away. For he left behind him a Senate most unfitted to carry on his great plan — not a number of men of good average ability, each ready to take his turn of duty and power and not desirous of grasping at more, but quite the opposite sort of assembly — a multitude of nonentities and incapables mixed with a few ambitious young generals. The heart and core of the old Optimate party had perished in the Marian massacres; in spite of all its faults, the Senate, down to the days of the civil war, had always contained a certain number of men of mark and respectability — persons such as Antonius the orator; Catulus, the victor over the Cimbri; Crassus, the father of the Triumvir; the consuls Octavius and Merula. All these had been slain by Marius and Cinna. Of the Optimate senators none survived, save those who had been protected by their own insignificance, and the few who had been absent with Sulla in Greece when the civil war broke out. The reconstructed Senate of B.c. 81, therefore, was mainly composed of a mass of trivial and unimportant persons, whose nothingness had caused them to escape Cinna’s eye. But seated among them were the military men who had come to the front during the fighting, such as Ofella, Crassus, and Pompey. These young generals — as was but natural — were not content to take their single turn of power and office in company with the herd of nobodies. They were ambitious, and yearned for the carrière est ouverte aux talents, in which the able man could not only reach the front, but stay there. The slow oligarchic rotation, which Sulla had invented, was odious to them, and they were in the end driven to overthrow the new constitution in order that they might be able to assert themselves over the mediocrities. There was no resisting power among the majority — no true heir of Sulla’s breed survived to bind them together and to rally them to fight in behalf of the oligarchic system. So the great dictator’s constitution fell, almost undefended, only ten years after it had been created.

This, at any rate, was not Sulla’s fault. He did his best with the materials set before him. He constructed the first logical and well-planned constitution that Rome had ever known — a triumph of ingenuity, because it changed the essentials while leaving the external features still in existence. It was a thoroughly practical scheme for the governance of city and empire by a pure oligarchy. If it failed, it was because the machine was cleverly built, but its mainspring was not strong enough to keep the wheels moving, i.e. it demanded that the average senator should attain a certain moderate level of courage, capacity, and patriotism, — but the Fathers, as a body, were lacking in all these three essentials. In the hands of the senators of the third century before Christ the Sullan constitution could have been worked; but in B.C. 80 the motive power was too weak, through no fault of Sulla’s, and the machine was bound to run down. As long as he stood beside it to give the pendulum an occasional swing, the clock continued to go. When he died, it ticked feebly for a short time and then stopped.

It was ruinous to the oligarchy that Sulla should have survived only a little more than a year after he laid down the dictatorship. For himself, his early death was probably not so unfortunate: it saved him from many disappointments. Even before he died he had suffered one at least, in seeing M. Lepidus elected to the consulship contrary to his expressed desire. But on the whole his last year was one of prosperity ; for the first time for many a long day he was free from the cares of office and could live as he pleased. His powers of enjoyment do not seem to have been the least impaired by advancing years: he had still to make up for that youth spent in involuntary frugality. Just before he laid down the dictatorship he had married a young wife: the story of their first meeting, as told by Plutarch, gives an amazing picture of the light-heartedness of the man who had just waded through all the blood of the Proscription.

“The dictator was one day presenting the people with a show of gladiators, and it chanced that a lady of great beauty and good family sat close behind Sulla. Her name was Valeria, the daughter of Messala, and the sister of Hortensius the orator: she had lately divorced her first husband. This lady, coming gently behind Sulla, pinched off a thread from the edge of his toga, and then passed back to her seat. But he, much amazed at the familiarity, looked round at her, whereupon she said, ‘Do not wonder, sir, at what I have done; I had only a mind to get a shred of your good luck.’ Sulla was far from being displeased: on the contrary, it appeared that he was agreeably flattered, for he sent to ask her name, and to inquire into her family. Then followed, all through the games, an exchange of side looks and smiles, which ended ultimately in a contract of marriage. Now it seems to me that Sulla, though he got a wife of great beauty and accomplishments, came into the match on wrong principles, for, like a boy, he was caught with soft looks and languishing airs.”

Sulla’s last year was spent in his villa in Campania, near Puteoli, whither he retired and dwelt amid a court of clever and dissolute companions who kept him amused. He devoted his time partly to writing his memoirs — he finished the twenty-second book of them two days before he died — partly to pleasures (reputable and disreputable) of all sorts. The tale that his last months were vexed with a loathsome disease, which rendered life insupportable, is probably an invention of his enemies. It has been attributed to half-a-dozen well-hated tyrants, the last of whom was Philip II of Spain. But it is certain that Sulla died from breaking a blood-vessel rather than from any lingering ailment. In the leisure of his last year he found time for business: he kept a keen eye on Roman affairs, and drafted a constitution for the neighbouring town of Puteoli at the request of its inhabitants. His last recorded act was a strange and violent interference in politics, which much recalls the story of Ofella. The Quaestor Granius was making himself notorious by embezzlements, and openly said that he should escape punishment because the ex-dictator was dying. Sulla lured him to his bedside by a polite message, and then had him seized and strangled in his very presence by his slaves. The excitement of the scene caused him to rupture a blood-vessel, and he died of exhaustion next day.

His party being still in power, he received the most magnificent funeral that Rome had ever seen. His monument was erected in the most conspicuous part of the Campus Martius, and two centuries later was still visible. Plutarch says that it bore a curious and characteristic epitaph, composed by the dictator himself, in which he said that “No friend ever did him so much good, or enemy so much harm, but that he had repaid him with full interest.”

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Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

1 Comment

  1. Some of the stuff you have shared from Oman has quickly vaulted him up the list of favorite authors. Thanks for sharing again sir.
    I had read a bit about Sulla before, but did not realize the sheer breadth of events that occurred through his life. Interesting times indeed.

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