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Rome’s short-lived Patrician Restoration under dictatorial Sulla

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Politics, War on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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This edited article about Ancient Rome originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 620 published on 1 December 1973.

Spartacus, picture, image, illustration

Spartacus, rebel leader of the Roman gladiators, would be crushed by Crassus. Picture by Angus McBride

After the death of the Russian dictator Josef Stalin, Soviet leaders were determined to abolish what they called “the cult of personality” – meaning the ability of one man, like Stalin, to get himself so much power that people thought he was indispensable.

There was nothing new about the cult of personality. It was a form of leadership which the ancient Romans were constantly on their guard against. They passed complicated laws restricting the powers of their leaders and cried, “Down with the dictator!” in the streets if any elected leader looked like even attempting to prolong his term of office.

For three centuries after the fall of their last king, the republican Romans kept at bay the problem of one man’s permanent ascendancy over the others. But, in the last hundred years before the birth of Christ, the policy began to collapse under the onslaught of a succession of great men.

And when the last of these proved himself to be the greatest ever Roman; indeed one of the greatest men the world has ever known, the policy had to be changed and a whole new system of government inaugurated. But we shall hear more of him later.

After the second of the two Gracchi brothers had been killed by the Roman mob in the party struggles between the poor plebians and the wealthy patricians, the Roman Senate was convinced that the exhausting class struggle was over. They even caused to be erected in the Forum the Temple of Concord as a sign of universal friendship. They could never have been more misguided in that judgement.

The first trouble began in the realm of Jugurtha, King of Numidia, which is roughly where eastern Algeria is today. This monarch was both shrewd and powerful and had, it is believed, murdered to get his throne. To keep it and to increase his territories, he was bribing all the influential Romans, including their generals, who came to oversee his kingdom.

In Rome, the plebians did not take kindly to Jugurtha’s aggrandisement, and they became bitter and angry when it was rumoured that the patricians were taking bribes. They demanded war, and they got it. But who could pursue this war for them, and not be persuaded to take a bribe from this cunning African king?

The man the plebians found was Caius Marius, the son of a poor farmer and the first of a brilliant array of generals which the last century of the Roman republic was to produce.

Elected consul and placed in charge of the army, Marius introduced a sweeping new reform that was to change the face of the Roman army. Henceforth, he decreed Rome would have professional soldiers recruited from the plebians, in place of the old citizen part-time soldiers, who qualified for a place in the army if they owned a certain amount of wealth.

For Rome, always short of soldiers with so many foreign frontiers to guard, it was a timely reform. It meant that the army was now a full-time, fully paid profession; it meant, too, more soldiers and better quality ones.

But it also meant that the men who had money were now disarming themselves and handing over to the poorer classes, who had nothing, the arms with which they had defended and expanded the republic. The effect of this was to make the army an independent tool that could be used to political effect by an astute general.

And it also prompted the individual soldier to declare, “I am doing all the fighting. So what is there in it for me?”

In due course we shall see how that question was answered. But for the time being, there was not much more in it for him but war and more war. Marius, chosen because he was incorruptible, proved to be so and, with his new legions, swept the intriguing Jugurtha from his throne. When he returned to Rome for his Triumph, the vanquished Jugurtha and his family followed him in chains and Rome eagerly waived the rules to elect Marius as consul for a second successive year.

There was little time to rejoice. While Marius had been fighting in Africa, two German tribes called the Cimbri and the Teutoni, had invaded southern Gaul (modern France) and broken Rome’s hold on this important possession by annihilating two Roman armies at once.

Not often in the long history of his nation did the Roman citizen quake in terror. But when these two barbarian tribes anchored themselves in the territory that linked Italy and Spain, the citizens looked desperately for a man to save them in this dark hour.

They had not far to look. For here was the brilliant Marius!

Again, Marius did not let them down. He advanced first upon the Teutoni and at the place where Aix-en-Provence stands today, he skilfully drew them into a strategic trap which, it is said, cost the Teutoni 100,000 lives. Then, on a plain near Vercelli in the River Po valley, he repeated the medicine upon the Cimbri.

For a short time, Rome had never known such a hero. Six times Marius was elected consul but, as with so many military heroes, it was his peace-time rule that cost him his popularity. Unable to handle the intrigues of political life, he was forced to retire to the wings, from where a new man now stepped forward.

Rome already knew well Lucius Cornelius Sulla. He had fought with great distinction in all the campaigns led by Marius, and had become, predictably, the consul’s right hand man – his quaestor.

The alliance was an unusual one because Sulla was a very different man from Marius. He was what might be described today as a “gossip writer’s delight” – a man from a renowned family which had fallen on hard times and who enjoyed the “low life” of clowns and drinkers.

But Sulla was waiting for his chance and it came when, with his old chief temporarily hors de combat, the Senate gave him command of the army to fight a war against Mithridates, King of Pontus, a Black Sea state. Mithridates had been intriguing against Rome’s allies in the East and threatened to cause a great deal of trouble unless he was checked.

From the moment of Sulla’s promotion, he and Marius became deadly rivals for the affection of Rome. Sulla was the champion of the patricians, or nobility, while Marius, of course, was the idol of the masses. And this is how their see-saw struggle for power went:

First, when Sulla was out of Rome preparing for his expedition against King Mithridates, Marius made a surprise return to the city and, backed by the plebians and the middle class, the equites, persuaded a tribune to propose laws which would restore the army command to him.

When Sulla heard this, he came back to Rome in a hurry and mounted a counter revolution. The patricians rallied behind him and Marius, beaten, was obliged to flee for his life to Africa.

Again, Sulla turned his attention to the campaign against Mithridates. And as soon as he was gone, Marius came back like a jack-in-the-box, staged a counter-counter revolution, got himself elected consul for the seventh time and drove Sulla’s aristocratic supporters from the city.

Perhaps fortunately for civil affairs in Rome, death stepped in and stopped an ugly situation. The victim was Marius.

Even though his old chief and rival was now gone, Sulla came back to Rome full of anger against the common people who had clamoured for power through Marius. Sulla had made a truce with Mithridates, from which the Romans gained a considerable booty, and as he returned to Rome with all this treasure there was murder in his heart.

Exile, confiscation, death without trial – these were the merciless punishments that Sulla, now the self-made dictator, meted out to the democratic supporters of Marius. Many were condemned without trial and Rome groaned under the fire and the sword as one by one all the legal rights that the people had gained under the Gracchi brothers, and under Marius, were stripped from them.

What Sulla wanted was a return to the old order of things, when plebians accepted without question the authority of patricians; a class system in which a military nobility ruled a submissive but reasonably contented nation of peasants. Of course, this “restoration,” as it is called, could not last, and when Sulla died his ideas died almost as quickly.

He left behind an indifferent band of men with no good claim to govern the republic. But two remarkable men, both not yet quite ready for office, had already stepped on to the Roman stage during Sulla’s dictatorship.

One of them was Caius Julius Caesar. He belonged to the democratic, or popular party – the supporters of Marius – and had therefore had to hurry into exile during Sulla’s dictatorship. The other was a young patrician, Cneius Pompeius, better known to us as Pompey the Great.

Unlike Caesar, Pompey was a supporter of Sulla and he became a great favourite of the dictator’s. Pompey repaid in good measure the trust that Sulla placed in him, gaining several victories while still in his twenties.

Much against the wishes of the Senate, who thought he was too young for the job, Pompey was next given command of an army. He crushed a revolt raised by Lepidus, a former consul who had been declared a public enemy, and then defeated Sertorius, a former supporter of Marius, in a battle in Spain.

While Pompey was in Spain, the Roman gladiators in Italy staged a rebellion. The gladiators were the men who were expected to fight and die in the arena as “entertainment” for the Romans, and since they had only death to look forward to they felt they had little to lose by rebelling.

The gladiators elected as their leader a Greek named Spartacus who, to the utter consternation of Rome, defeated two Roman armies led by the consul.

A vision of thousands of desperate men overrunning Rome and seeking vengeance from their Roman persecutors now haunted the minds of the citizens and again there was terror in the streets as the army of gladiators moved steadily towards Rome.

Who would save the city? The choice fell on Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in the Senate. And again Rome proved that she could always find her man in the hour of need – for Crassus crushed the gladiators and Spartacus was killed in the battle.

About 11,000 gladiators survived and of these 6,000 were crucified along the Appian Way that led from Capua to Rome. The other 5,000 fled northwards and, just as they thought they had got away with it, they met the army of Pompey returning from Spain.

Pompey quickly annihilated these pathetic survivors and then, to support his claim for political office, airily announced that he had “defeated the rebel army of gladiators.”

There was no room for a man of Pompey’s increasing military talent in the Senate, however, as long as there was more fighting to be done. The pirates in the Mediterranean were menacing Rome’s supplies – Pompey was sent to deal with them and in three months he wiped them out. King Mithridates was causing trouble again – Pompey was sent to fight him and returned victorious.

No wonder this young general, entering Rome, expected to find himself exulted. Instead, he found a Senate indifferent to his triumphs and still sour about the way that, long ago, Sulla had promoted Pompey against their wishes.

Angry and resentful, Pompey cast around for a friend. The man he found was Julius Caesar – destined to become the greatest of all the Romans.

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