Sulla Marches on Rome

Sulla Marches on Rome

However, during that year a tribune and former associate of Drusus, Publius Sulpicius Rufus, clashed with Sulla and his colleague Quintus Pompeius Rufus over Italian voting rights. The new Romans had found their brand-new citizenship a rather dilute thing as they had been allotted to ten tribes (and hence ten votes). As their champion Sulpicius proposed to reform the tribal system and enrol the new citizens in the thirty-five old tribes so that their right to vote would not be utterly vitiated.

Up against stiff senatorial opposition and needing further support for his reforms, Sulpicius adopted a more radical stance and allied himself with Marius, who in turn wanted the tribune’s help to obtain the lucrative command against the Pontic king. Violence erupted on the streets of Rome and Pompeius Rufus’ son, who was related to Sulla by marriage, was one of the victims. During the rioting Sulla himself was forced to seek refuge in Marius’ house, later managing to flee the city. Sulpicius was now in power and his programme of measures, including the bill transferring the eastern command to Marius, was passed by vote of the people. The septuagenarian general had stepped down from command during the later stages of the Social War pleading age and fatigue, but the glory and booty that would result from a successful campaign in the richest area of the Graeco-Roman world were undoubtedly great inducements for a second comeback.

When a tribune had done something similar in 107 BC, taking the command against Iugurtha from Metellus and handing it to Marius, Metellus had acquiesced in the decision of the people, whatever sense of outrage he may have felt. The response of Sulla, now at Nola preparing to depart for the east, was to be entirely different and revolutionary.

With his soldiers behind him, Sulla marched on Rome and after a few hours of street-fighting imposed martial law for the first time in Roman history; Sulpicius and Marius were declared hostes, or public enemies. Sulpicius was hunted down and killed, but Marius, after a series of hair-raising adventures that saw him outfacing contract killers, made a spectacular escape to Africa where he was persona grata among the settlements of his own veteran soldiers.

Sulla had earned the dubious distinction of being the first man to march his legions against Rome, and Appian recalls his justification for doing so:

When Sulla discovered this [i.e. the transfer of the eastern command to Marius], he decided to settle the matter by force and summoned his army to a meeting, an army that was eagerly anticipating a profitable war against Mithridates and thought that Marius would enlist other men in their place… . [Sulla] immediately placed himself at the head of six legions. Except for one quaestor, the officers of his army made off to Rome because they could not stomach leading an army against their own country. On the way, Sulla was met by a deputation who asked him why he was marching under arms against his native land, and he replied, ‘To free her from tyrants’.

Appian, Bellum civilia, 1.57

Appian waxes lyrical here, but it is clear that the event was traumatic as all Sulla’s officers bar one refused to march with him, the rest resigning their commands and hurrying to the defence of the city. What had changed was not the attitude of the army and its officers, but that of their general. Sulla had dared to do what others scarcely dared to dream.

First Civil War

The following year Lucius Cornelius Cinna, a popularis, and Cnaeus Octavius, an optimate, were returned as consuls. Octavius was a tractable man, but Cinna attempted to re-enact Sulpicius’ legislation on the voting rights of the new citizens. He also recalled Marius, but was driven out of Rome along with six of the tribunes by his colleague, who supported the status quo – namely not allowing the new citizens to be fairly distributed among the voting tribes.

Washing up outside Nola, where the Social War still flickered, Cinna appealed to the one legion Sulla had left to continue the siege, and also to the rebel Italians within. In the meantime, after long months brooding in Africa, Marius had landed at Telamon in Etruria. Recruiting a personal army of slaves, he joined forces with Cinna, and then turned on Rome. There Marius quickly introduced tribal reform, and even granted the unbending Samnites full citizen rights. Psychotic with rage and bitterness, he then ordered Rome to be systematically purged of anti-Marians, including Octavius, along with six consulares, Marius’ old campaigning colleague Catulus among them. But the main opponent, his erstwhile protégé Sulla, had already gone east with five legions to fight Mithridates.

The capstone of this orchestrated bloodbath was that Cinna and Marius made themselves, without the formality of an election, consuls for the coming year. Marius had held the consulship an unprecedented six times. He liked to claim that a fortune-teller in Utica had promised him a seventh. Early in 86 BC Cinna (cos. II) and Marius (cos. VII) tightened their grip on Rome. However, Marius quickly abandoned himself to alcohol abuse and nightmares. A fortnight later he was dead.

The following year Cinna chose Cnaeus Papirius Carbo, who had been a praetor during the Social War, as his colleague, and the two would remain self-appointed consuls until 84 BC, a period known as dominatio Cinnae. They appointed censors so as to begin a full registration of new citizens, and a detailed reorganisation of local government in Italy now commenced, and would continue for decades.

Sulla Marches on Rome, Again

Out east in the meantime Sulla had won a number of spectacular successes against Mithridates and against the Marian commander Caius Flavius Fimbria, sent by Cinna to replace him. Fimbria had fought well against Mithridates too, but in 85 BC lost his army to Sulla and committed suicide. In 84 BC Sulla held a summit with Mithridates himself. Both men had good reason to come to an agreement. Mithridates, knowing the game was up, was desperate to keep hold of his kingdom. Sulla, nervous of his enemies back in Italy, was eager to head home. The hurried result was the Peace of Dardanus, which not only allowed Mithridates to remain on the throne of Pontus but also to retain some of his territorial gains. The cold-blooded murder of 80,000 Italians was conveniently forgotten. Yet the time would come when Rome would regret that Mithridates had not been finished off for good.

Sulla’s troops spent a luxurious winter in the fleshpots of Athens, binding them more closely to him. The relationship between political and military power was abundantly clear to the successful and ruthless Sulla, and it was now that the victorious proconsul dispatched an ominous letter to the Senate. The government he had established before his hurried departure had collapsed and Sulla himself had been declared a hostis at the behest of Marius and Cinna, his property razed, his family forced to flee. ‘However’, as Appian says about Sulla and his outlaw status, ‘in spite of this he did not relax his authority in the least, since he had a zealous and devoted army’. Now that Mithridates had been tamed, Sulla prepared to embark his loyal troops and turn his vengeance back on his native city.

At Rome events moved on apace. While Sulla was talking peace with Mithridates, Cinna (cos. IIII) had been stoned to death by his own troops during a mutiny, thus leaving Carbo (cos. II) as the sole consul for the rest of the year. Carbo, struggling with a moderate majority in the Senate and despite having pandered to the newly enfranchised communities, was eventually forced to take hostages from many towns and colonies in Italy to ensure their loyalty in the coming showdown with Sulla. As the acceptable face of the Cinnan régime, Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiagenus and Caius Norbanus were returned as consuls for the coming year.

Early in 83 BC Sulla landed at Brundisium (Brindisi), and large numbers of senators and sons of senators flocked to his side, including the young Pompey. Unlike his first march on Rome, when only a single officer had accompanied him, Sulla’s entourage was now thronged with members of the nobilitas. By changing the rules of the political game, civil wars encouraged even more exceptional careers among those who supported the winning side and, as we shall later discover, that of Pompey was to break all records. Alas for the losers there was no such luck: Scipio Asiagenus’ soldiers judged they would do better to serve under the lucky Sulla.

In 82 BC Caius Marius minor, not yet 27 years old, was consul alongside the veteran Carbo (cos. III), and they attempted, through a Marian–Cinnan coalition, to reassert control after a string of defeats. Despite many of his father’s veterans coming to his standard, Marius was eventually holed up in the hill town of Praeneste, some 40 kilometres east of Rome. Once again the Samnites, for the last time in history, marched down from their mountains and entered the war. They joined a Marian cause already on the point of collapse, but failed to lift the siege, and then, with the sudden realisation that Rome lay unprotected to their rear, abruptly turned and marched on the capital. Abandoned by his new allies, Marius minor committed suicide, while Sulla, surprised by the Samnites’ action, pursued them at frantic speed. Throwing his exhausted army into battle outside the city walls, by dawn on 2 November he emerged unbeaten from the bloodbath of Porta Collina. It had been a close call. The Samnites had marched on Rome not from loyalty to old Marius’ memory, but ‘to pull down and destroy the tyrant city’.

Marius in the Political Wilderness

With six consulships and two triumphs, Marius had created an extraordinary precedent. He was now a man above the system, a forerunner of Pompey and Caesar. However, at the time Marius’ unconstitutional position did have a certain amount of logic to it as he was no revolutionary and the system had worked to his advantage. The other extraordinary aspect was the temporary nature of Marius’ influence.

There is an old Latin expression gladius cedet togae, ‘the sword gives way to the toga’. If a man would be great, he must be great at home too. After his defeat of the northern tribes, Marius was hailed by the people as the third founder of Rome, a worthy successor to Romulus himself and Camillus – the old saviour from the war with Brennos the Gaul, the sacker of Rome. However, the year 100 BC, the year of his sixth and penultimate consulship, saw the great general fail disastrously as a politician. Marius would desert the tribune who had aided him, Saturninus, and stand by as an angry mob lynched him and his supporters.

The firebrand Saturninus had been re-elected as one of the tribunes for the coming year, proposing yet more radical bills, but the Senate, who saw the spectre of tribunician government raise its ugly head again, called on Marius to protect the state. Having restored public order under the terms of a senatus consultum ultimum, both literally and efficaciously ‘the ultimate decree of the Senate’, the veteran general subsequently saw his popular support slip away. The nineties BC were to be a decade of political infighting of the most extreme sort, and one of its first victims, according to Plutarch, was Marius. Yet his actions in 100 BC can be seen as a bungling attempt to announce his arrival to the nobility of Rome. Of interest here are Sallust’s remarks concerning the monopoly of the nobilitas on the consulship:

For at that time, although citizens of low birth had access to other magistracies, the consulship was still reserved by custom for the nobilitas, who contrived to pass it from one to another of their number. A novus homo, however distinguished he might be or however admirable his achievements, was invariably considered unworthy of that honour, almost as if he were unclean.

Sadly for Marius, to the nobilitas he would always be, despite his unprecedented six consulships and two triumphs, a novus homo. Despised by the inner élite and shunned by the equestrians and the people, Marius was now cast into the political wilderness. In early 98 BC Metellus Numidicus was recalled from exile – Saturninus had orchestrated this for Marius two years previously – and Marius, having tried to delay the return of his one-time patronus, admitted defeat and scuttled off to Asia ‘ostensibly to make sacrifices, which he promised to the Mother of the Gods’. The following year he did not stand, as was expected, for the censorship, a clear sign that he was not in the political spotlight.

Marius wanted to beat the nobilitas at their own political game, substituting self-made support for their inherited connections. Showing little flair for politics, it did not occur to him – as it would have done to Sulla and Caesar – that the rules of the game could not be changed. Though connected to the equestrians by birth and interests, and favouring the welfare of soldiers (including Italians, whom he truly valued as allies), he had no positive policies or solutions for the social problems of the day. As an individual he was superstitious and overwhelmingly ambitious, but, because he failed to force the aristocracy to accept him, despite his great military success, he suffered from an inferiority complex that may help explain his jealousy and, later, his vindictive cruelty. Yet he marks an important stage in the decline of the Republic: creating a client army, which Sulla would teach his old commander how to use, he was the first to show the possibilities of an alliance between a war leader, demagogues and a noble faction. His noble opponents, on the other hand, in their die-hard attitude both to him and later Sulla, revealed their lack of political principle and loss of power and cohesion.

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