(The ROMAN REPUBLIC – continued)
From the years 112 to 106 BCE the Romans fought the Jurguthine War in Numidia in North Africa. A commoner soldier, Gaius Marius, became a military hero leading armies during that war. Then in the years 104-02 the Romans fought blondish tribes of Cimbri and Teutons who had been threatening Rome from the north. In one battle against these tribes the Romans lost as many as 80,000 dead – Rome's greatest defeat since Cannae. Fear and panic swept through Italy, and in Rome frightened people mobbed and stoned senators. In 101 the Cimbri invaded Italy. Marius decisively defeated them, and Romans saw him as their savior. In Rome's annual elections for its two consuls, Marius in the year 100 was elected again as consul, as he had been in 107 and for the fifth consecutive year since 104.
Military heroism, in the person of Marius, was again on the side of reforms. A tribune named Saturninus and his praetor friend, Glaucia, were political allies of Marius, and for Marius they wrote a program of reforms. The program called for Marius' Italian veterans to receive Roman citizenship, and his veterans were to receive lands that had been taken from the Cimbri. Also for Marius' veterans, colonies were to be created in Sicily, Macedonia and Greece. And for people in general, there was to be a reduction in the price of grain. From some opposed to reform came a renewed threat of violence, and Marius countered these threats by calling his veterans into the streets. The Senate vetoed the reforms, and one of the tribunes sided with the senators, preventing the people's assembly (Comitias Plebis) from overriding the veto. But by threatening the Senate with Marius' veterans, Saturninus coerced it into changing its position. Violence was still a major political force within in the city of Rome.
Backers of Saturninus and Glaucia murdered a recently elected tribune whom they disliked, and Rome's business class – the equites – joined the aristocrats in the Senate. The Senate ordered Marius to restore order. Marius was shamed by the tribune's murder. Using his veterans, he had Saturninus and Glaucia and some of their followers arrested and locked in the Senate house for safekeeping. But a group hostile to Saturninus and Glaucia tore a hole in its roof and stoned the two men and their followers to death.
In 95 BCE the Senate attempted to punish those who had supported Marius' reforms, many of whom were Marius' Italian veterans. The Senate passed a law that ordered all non-Roman Italians in Rome to move out of the city. Italians, meanwhile, were becoming fed up with the Romans taking advantage of them. And they were fed up with the imperious attitudes of visiting Roman officials – as when the wife of a visiting senior Roman official had all the men turned out of a bath so she could use it and then complained that the bath was not clean. The Italians had fought alongside the Romans, paid taxes to Rome and shared the financial burden of Rome's wars, but they had been given no corresponding increase in rewards and were without equal protection under Roman law. A Roman soldier could not be summarily executed by an officer, but an Italian soldier could. In warfare, Romans got a greater share of the booty, and the Italians were often sent against the tougher enemies. Now the Italians wanted equality, and they wanted their votes to count concerning vital issues decided in Rome.
A senator who supported the Italians, Druses, was assassinated, and when word of his assassination spread through Italy it was a signal to Italians that relief from Rome would not be forthcoming. Various Italian cities increased communications with each other and took steps that to Rome suggested conspiratorial alliances. Rome sent officials to Italian cities to spy and to persuade. In the city of Asculum, in the northeast, a visiting Roman official berated a crowd. The crowd became enraged and killed him and his aides. Fearing retaliation from Rome, the crowd closed their city's gates, and they hunted down and killed all the Romans they could find. Other Italian cities joined Asculum in an open revolt against Rome. And Rome sent its legions against the rebel cities. A civil war had begun, and in the first year of the war, Rome moved to prevent more cities from joining the rebellion, and they did so by extending citizenship to their inhabitants, pretending they were doing so as a reward for their loyalty. What the Romans had resisted before the war, they were now offering because of the war.
By the second year of the war, Rome gained the upper hand. A Roman army attacked Asculum, and it was written that only a handful of that city's 60,000 people survived. Anxious to end the war, Rome offered citizenship to those cities that would agree to stop fighting. Many cities accepted, and the war began winding down.
By now the war had damaged Italy's economy. Debt had become more widespread. Uncertain about the future, financiers had begun refusing to make more loans, and they were demanding payment. Those Romans angered by the money-lenders had begun a movement against usury. A praetor responded favorably to the movement and invoked an ancient law against usury that had long been ignored. This infuriated financiers, and a gang of men mobbed the praetor and cut his throat, and some who had spoken in favor of the praetor and against usury were lynched.
Sulla on silver coin issued by his grandson.
Amid continuing discord between reformers and conservatives, the Senate chose as a consul a man who had become a personal enemy of Marius: Lucius Cornelius Sulla (pronounced SÜ-lah). He had fought alongside Sulla in the Jurguthine War and had been on Marius' staff against the Cimbri and Teutons. He became renowned as a general during the war against the Italians. He was a conservative, dismissing grievances and viewing the political turmoil in Rome of recent years as the product of anarchical inclinations among common people.
Sulla left Rome to take command of the six legions in Italy to stop expansions by a descendent of Seleucus, Mithridates VI, ruler of Pontus in Asia Minor. The appointment of Sulla instead of Marius to fight Mithridates disturbed those who favored reforms. Political violence again erupted in Rome. In violation of a sacred prohibition against a military leader marching troops into Rome, Sulla returned there with his army. He defeated the army that Marius had hastily assembled, and he and his troops overwhelmed others who supported Marius and his political ally, the orator Rufus. Rufus' severed head was nailed up for public display. Marius and others fled the city, and Sulla had them declared outlaws, which allowed anyone to kill them.
As Consul, Sulla decreed that the Senate would have the power to veto any bill or election it pleased and that tribunes would be unable to initiate legislation. Sulla did not run again for consul, and in the year 87, the Military Assembly elected one consul who supported Sulla and another consul who was popular among the common people: a man named Cinna. Sulla and his troops were looking forward to going East again to combat Mithridates, and, before they departed, Sulla had Cinna swear that he would not try to subvert the new order.
Soon after Sulla and his troops left for the East, political violence erupted again in Rome. To save himself from the conservatives, Cinna fled Rome, and the Senate took away his consulship. Cinna raised an army among Italians, and Marius joined him with a force he had gathered from among his veterans and some local shepherds and runaway slaves. To counter Cinna and Marius, the Senate raised a force, but to no avail. Cinna and Marius marched their armies into Rome and they won control of the city. Marius, almost seventy, sought vengeance for his years of humiliation, and he and Cinna sought to secure their standing against any possible future vengeance. Their troops butchered all supporters of Sulla that they could find. They murdered various senators and nailed their heads up for public display while much of the rest of the Senate fled the city. The violence and disrespect for a rule by law that Rome's conservatives had initiated in the days of the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, had come full circle.
Cinna was made consul again, and Marius became the other consul, a consul for the seventh time, as a prophet had told him he would. But the prophecy was apparently only a tease: Marius died after only a month in office. Cinna was left with control of the city, enjoying the support of most of the city's commoners. He repealed Sulla's laws, reduced all debts by seventy-five percent, gave complete equality to Italians, declared Sulla a public enemy, confiscated Sulla's property and persecuted Sulla's family and friends.
In the East, Mithridates agreed to withdraw from all territories he had conquered, to surrender part of his navy, and to pay Rome an indemnity. Sulla restored various kings that Mithridates had deposed, and he punished those Greek cities that had been prominent in their support of Mithridates. Then in the year 84 BCE, two years after Cinna had taken power in Rome, Sulla began his return. He landed in Italy in the spring of 83. Cinna sent an army against him, to no avail. Many of Cinna's soldiers deserted to Sulla's side. Mutinous soldiers assassinated Cinna. Sulla's army took power in Rome and slaughtered 8,000 Romans that it had taken prisoner.
Sulla drew up an enemies list: forty insufficiently conservative or insufficiently loyal senators and a list of sixteen hundred members of the equites. He gave rewards to informers who helped round up the enemies. Men were taken by surprise in their homes, in the streets and in temples. Some were killed outright. Some were dragged through the streets as frightened spectators dared not protest. Sulla had the property of the executed distributed to his soldiers, which inspired some to accuse and attack anyone with property. And Sulla set free the nearly forty thousand slaves of the executed, giving them his name and winning a new source of support and new recruits for repressing and terrorizing those considered enemies of his rule. Then, with dictatorial powers, he sought to undo the political failings of the previous fifty years.
Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.