In the last issue, we ended our discussion of Rome at the point where Sulla, having concluded his Eastern campaign, was returning to Rome to confront his enemies. His enemies were the Populares or Marian party, who were now led by a consul named Carbo (Marius himself had died three years earlier, in 86 BC). But before we describe the confrontation between Sulla and Carbo, we need to backtrack a few years, and describe the war with Mithridates (Sulla had gone to the East to fight Mithridates).
Mithridates had become King of Pontus around 115 BC. At that time, the Kingdom of Pontus was confined to the southern shore of the Black Sea, but Mithridates expanded his realm around most of the Black Sea. In 104 BC, with Rome occupied by the War With Northmen (the Cimbrian War), Mithridates began expanding in Asia Minor, and threatening Roman territory in western Asia Minor. In 98 BC, Marius toured Asia Minor, met with Mithridates, and warned him to stay away.
In 96 BC, Sulla was sent with an army to Asia Minor, perhaps to confront Mithridates, perhaps to suppress pirates, who were often a problem in the Mediterranean. Not wanting a war with Rome, Mithridates pulled back, and Sulla marched all the way to the Euphrates. It was at this time that Rome first came in contact with the Parthian Empire, which was based in Iran, and would eventually be one of the Roman Empire’s major foes.
In 90 BC, with Rome occupied by the Italian War, Mithridates struck again. Allied with the Armenian king, Tigranes, Mithridates re-conquered the territories in Asia Minor from which he had recently pulled back. But the Italian War ended quickly, and a new Roman army was sent to Asia Minor. Again Mithridates pulled back. The Roman commander, Aquilius, restored the previous kings to their thrones, then over-reached by asking them to pay him for his services — pay him by stealing from the domains of Mithridates. Apparently Aquilius over-rated his own strength, and under-rated Mithridates’ strength.
When Mithridates couldn’t endure these provocations any longer, he decided that he would have to fight the Romans, and his army swept through almost all of Asia Minor, including the Greek cities on the coast which were part of the Roman province known as Asia. Mithridates advertised himself as the liberator of the Greek cities; he said he was freeing them from Roman tyranny, and he promised them five tax-free years. Then he organized a massacre of all the Italian residents of Asia Minor, a massacre that may have claimed 80,000 lives. Our authors, Cary and Scullard, call this the “Asiatic Vespers” since it resembles the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, when Sicilians massacred their French rulers.
Mithridates then advanced on Greece, again advertising himself as a liberator. He took control of much of Greece, where Roman forces were weak. In 87 BC, Sulla landed in Greece with 30,000 men. He confronted Mithridates’ forces at the Battle of Chaeronea, and routed them. Sulla was eager to make peace with Mithridates because Sulla had to deal with his opponents in Italy. So he gave Mithridates easy terms, and didn’t try to kill him, as Jugurtha had been killed. This is known as “The First Mithridatic War.”
The Second Mithridatic War was a minor affair: a Roman commander, Murena, perhaps thirsting for glory, made an incursion into Mithridates’ domains, which Mithridates repelled. Peace was restored on the lines that Sulla had negotiated earlier. (We’ll discuss the third and final Mithridatic War later.)
Sulla and his troops landed in Italy in 83 BC. Carbo had a large army (100,000 men), but his army had little training and little motivation. Sulla found an able lieutenant in Pompey (Pompeius), later called Pompey the Great (Pompeius Magnus). Though only 23 years old, Pompey had fought under his father, Pompeius Strabo, in the Italian War. Like his father, Pompey was a member of the Optimates party (Sulla’s party). Pompey’s family was from an Italian city, not from the old Roman nobility. Later Pompey married Caesar’s daughter, Julia, and joined Caesar and Crassus in the First Triumvirate.
Sulla was also supported by Crassus, whose father was a senator, consul, and censor. Crassus and his father were members of the Optimates party. Crassus later became famous as a triumvir and as the wealthiest man in Rome.
At first, Sulla easily defeated Carbo’s armies. Later, however, Carbo won the support of the Samnites in southern Italy, and of Marius’ son, who brought with him Marius’ old soldiers. But Sulla managed to defeat Carbo’s armies and march on Rome. Carbo’s party (the Populares or Marian party), anticipating that they couldn’t hold Rome against Sulla’s army, carried out a massacre of Optimates (aristocrats), and then abandoned Rome.
Carbo decided his cause was lost, and fled Italy. But some of his supporters fought on, and launched an assault on Rome itself. Sulla defeated them under the walls of Rome at the Battle of the Colline Gate. “The Samnites fell to the last man, for those few who surrendered were subsequently butchered in cold blood by Sulla’s orders.”1
Though the war in Italy was over, fighting continued in the western provinces until 80 BC. Pompey defeated Marian forces in Sicily and Africa. In Spain, a Marian officer named Sertorius was defeated and withdrew to Africa. Later, Sertorius returned to Spain, and fought a long guerrilla war against the government in Rome. But for now, the Marian forces were completely defeated, and Sulla was firmly in control.
Sulla’s first act was to carry out a “party massacre,” that is, murder his enemies, murder prominent Populares. These killings are called Sulla’s “proscriptions” (lists) because he posted lists of “wanted men,” men whose heads he would pay for, as a U.S. Post Office might post a list of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted. If you were “proscribed,” you were listed, outlawed, marked for death. Prominent members of the Equestrian Order were killed, partly because Equestrians generally supported the Marian party, partly because if he killed a wealthy Equestrian, Sulla could appropriate that wealth for himself. So it was dangerous to be wealthy, wealth made you a juicy target.
Julius Caesar, who was born in 100 BC, was now a 20-year-old Marian. He was closely connected to two leading Marians: he was the nephew of Marius, and the son-in-law of Cinna. When Sulla came to power, he stripped Caesar of his inheritance and his priesthood, and Caesar went into hiding. But some members of Caesar’s mother’s family were Optimates, and they persuaded Sulla to spare Caesar’s life. Caesar joined the army, and went to the East, returning only after Sulla’s death in 78 BC.
Sulla had himself appointed dictator by the Assembly, for the purpose of “writing laws and establishing the republic” (legibus scribundis et reipublicae constituendae). His reforms strengthened the Senate, and weakened the tribunes. He gave the Senate veto power over legislation passed by the Plebeian Assembly (Concilium Plebis). He also made an “ill-advised attempt” to reduce spending on luxuries, but his sumptuary laws were “stultified by his own extravagant mode of life.”2 Sulla remained dictator for three years, gradually reducing his own role, and finally retiring to an estate in Campania, where he died in 78 BC.
Summarizing Sulla’s career, our authors say that he ranks with Scipio Africanus the Elder and Julius Caesar as
|one of the outstanding figures of the Roman Republic.... Of his eminence as a soldier there can be no question. In his campaigns he showed the same boldness of initiative, the same fertility of resource, the same uncanny influence over his troops as Africanus and Caesar.... Like Africanus and Caesar he had a mystic strain which expressed itself in an unshakable faith in his own luck.3|
But our authors criticize Sulla for lacking imagination, for correcting immediate problems but not carrying out far-reaching reforms. He failed to devise a way to bring new talent into the Senate. He could have set up polling stations in Italian cities (as Augustus later did), or even converted the Senate into a House of Representatives, with a certain number of representatives from each Italian region.
Sulla also failed to prevent future military leaders from seizing political power, and from battling each other for power. The Republic (the Senate and People of Rome) should have assumed the responsibility of soldier-pay and soldier-pensions, and thereby attached the soldiers to the government, instead of to individual commanders. Perhaps Sulla could have created an officer corps that had no connection to politics.
Our authors insist that the Republic might have been saved by bold reforms. They say that Sulla missed a “unique opportunity,” but they also blame the “senatorial nobility” for resisting reform and for lacking vision.
After Sulla’s death, the senatorial nobility wanted to avoid war at all costs. It knew that once a commander was given an army, he could turn that army against Rome itself, and seize the reins of government. But it proved impossible to avoid war; as often happened in Roman history, there were enemies on all sides. “Sertorius was in revolt in Spain, Thracian tribes were pressing on the frontiers of Macedon, piracy was rampant [and] Mithridates started once again on the warpath.”4 As if this weren’t enough, Spartacus led a slave revolt in southern Italy, and Lepidus led a rebellion in northern Italy.
The first challenge to the Senate came from Lepidus, a consul and aristocrat who was supported by Brutus.5 Lepidus and Brutus tried to undo Sulla’s reforms; their program was a Populares reaction against the Optimates. They tried to restore the power of tribunes, sell corn to the people cheaply, etc. They collected some troops in northern Italy, and began marching on Rome. The Senate passed an Emergency Decree (senatus consultum ultimum), and appointed two commanders, Catulus and Pompey, to confront Lepidus and Brutus.
Catulus and Pompey won quick victories, but Pompey delayed disbanding his army, using it as leverage against the Senate. Pompey asked for, and received, a command in the Spanish campaign against Sertorius.
Sertorius was a Marian officer who never accepted Sulla’s victory. Sertorius was able to win the loyalty of the natives of Spain and Portugal. He knew Roman tactics, and also learned the guerrilla tactics of the natives. He stirred up native revolts in southern Gaul, and even made common cause with Mithridates, in far-off Asia Minor. After Sulla died in 78 BC, the Senate could have reached out to Sertorius, and tried to negotiate an end to the war. Instead, they decided to crush Sertorius, and sent their best general, Pompey, against him.
Pompey planned to attack Sertorius in eastern Spain; his own army would come down from the north, while another Roman army, led by a general named Metellus, would come up from the south. But Pompey fought two battles with Sertorius before Metellus arrived, and in both battles, Pompey was defeated.
Metellus, however, was able to defeat another Sertorian army, and the Senate was able to send reinforcements to Spain, so the tide of war began to shift against Sertorius. Morale in Sertorius’ army flagged; one of his officers murdered him, and seized command of his army. Pompey promptly defeated this new commander, and the war came to an end.
In 73 BC, a band of gladiators broke out of their barracks in Capua, south of Rome. They freed some local slaves, and formed a small army. Gradually their numbers were swollen by bandits, deserters, slaves, etc. Their leader was Spartacus, who had gained military experience in the Roman army. They managed to defeat several armies, and roamed the whole length of Italy. Spartacus knew they would eventually be defeated, and tried to persuade them to cross the Alps, and return to their homelands in Gaul, Thrace, etc. But they were having too much fun in Italy, and wouldn’t listen to Spartacus.
Meanwhile, Crassus had assembled and trained an army of 40,000. He cornered Spartacus in southeastern Italy (Apulia), and killed him, along with many of his men. Some of the survivors of Spartacus’ army were returned to their masters. The remaining 6,000, whose masters couldn’t be found, were crucified along the Appian Way, between Rome and Capua.
This is known as the Third Servile War, and it’s the last major slave revolt in ancient times. According to Cary and Scullard, it taught Roman landowners to treat their slaves better, and to try to substitute free labor for slave labor. For more on this war, consider The Spartacus War (2009) by Barry Strauss, a Cornell professor.
Howard Fast and Arthur Koestler wrote novels about Spartacus. Fast’s novel, published in 1951, was made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas. Koestler’s novel, entitled The Gladiators and published in 1940, was the first novel in a trilogy (the other two novels in the trilogy are Darkness At Noon and Arrival and Departure); the theme of the trilogy is how ideals are often corrupted.
When Pompey returned from the Spanish campaign, he again delayed disbanding his troops, as he had after the revolt of Lepidus. He pretended that his army was needed to mop up the last stirrings of the slave revolt. Pompey wanted a powerful position at Rome, he wanted to be consul. But Sulla had tried to prevent ambitious young men from taking over; Sulla’s new constitution stipulated that you had to ascend the cursus honorum (the sequence of offices) gradually, and you couldn’t be consul until you were 42. Pompey was only 35, and “had not yet stepped on the lowest rung of the cursus honorum.”
But laws are silent amidst arms (leges silent inter arma), and Pompey brought his army close to Rome, to add weight to his arguments. The only force that could stand up to Pompey was Crassus, whose army of 40,000 had recently defeated Spartacus. But Crassus was an investor, a rich man, and he was unwilling to risk everything on a showdown with Pompey. So Crassus and Pompey made common cause; both became consuls for 70 BC. But both were reluctant to disband their armies; they watched each other warily, and a civil war seemed likely. Finally they reconciled and disbanded their armies.
Pompey and Crassus restored the power of tribunes, which Sulla had curtailed. Pompey wanted tribunes to have the power to grant military commissions, bypassing the Senate. The tribunes gave Pompey a commission to act against the pirates, then a commission to restore order in the Near East. The Senate’s power withered: “From this time the aristocracy ruled but on sufferance, and under a constant apprehension of renewed military usurpations.”6
Meanwhile, a young lawyer from an Italian city was making a name for himself at Rome. Cicero was known for his erudition and his eloquence. His prosecution of Verres, a corrupt governor of Sicily, was so effective that Verres’ lawyer “threw in his brief, and Verres betook himself into exile.” Cicero was becoming a spokesman for the Equestrian Order, and a force in Roman politics.
In 66 BC, Pompey went to the Near East, and Crassus became the most powerful man in Rome. Crassus knew that eventually Pompey would return at the head of his army, and perhaps destroy his rivals in Rome. Crassus tried to put his followers into positions of power, so they could assist him if war broke out with Pompey.
One of his followers, a patrician named Catiline, sought the consulship in 66 BC, but failed to obtain it. So Catiline hatched a plot to murder the two incoming consuls, but since he didn’t keep this plot secret, it failed. He wasn’t prosecuted because he was protected by Crassus. In 64, Catiline again ran for consul, but this time he was defeated by Cicero.
Another ally of Crassus at this time was Julius Caesar. Caesar’s heavy debts had prompted him to seek help from the wealthy Crassus. Like Catiline and Sulla, Caesar was from a patrician family that had fallen out of the “charmed circle” of wealth and power. In 63 BC, at age 37, Caesar was chosen Pontifex Maximus and praetor (a praetor was just one rung below a consul).
After Catiline lost the election of 64 to Cicero, Crassus stopped supporting Catiline, but Catiline didn’t stop pursuing the consulship. At the election of 63 BC, Catiline ran on a program of novae tabulae, that is, cancellation of debts. This program was popular with aristocrats who had incurred debts, but it was opposed by the Equestrian Order, the creditor class. The leader of this class, Cicero, rallied the opponents of Catiline’s program, and Catiline was defeated once again.
In late 63, Catiline decided to seize power by violence, and began collecting a force to march on Rome. To create a smoke-screen for his march on Rome, Catiline planned minor uprisings throughout Italy, and turmoil in Rome itself. Cicero got wind of Catiline’s plans, but decided not to arrest him, hoping to obtain more evidence. When Cicero attacked Catiline in a speech to the Senate, Catiline “listened imperturbably” then left Rome to collect his army.
Catiline’s comrades in Rome then tried to persuade some visiting Gauls to join the conspiracy. But instead of joining, they revealed what they had learned to Cicero, who promptly arrested Catiline’s comrades. Now Cicero thought he had the evidence he needed, so he addressed the Senate, and made his case. The Senate was convinced, and when Cicero proposed the immediate execution of the conspirators, most Senators supported him.
Then Caesar rose in opposition to execution. Apparently Caesar wanted to avoid the massacres that had taken place under Marius and Sulla. Caesar suggested imprisonment-for-life instead of execution. But Cato the Younger advocated execution, and the Senate finally voted for execution.
Catiline’s supporters in other parts of Italy lost heart, and Catiline was left with only a few supporters. His little army was defeated, and he himself was killed. Cicero was triumphant, and was hailed as pater patriae, the father of his country.
In 62 BC, Pompey returned from the East, and instead of using his troops to muscle his way into power at Rome, he disbanded his troops as soon as he landed at Brundisium. But the Senate didn’t try to reward this good behavior, they tried to punish Pompey for past misconduct. The Senate didn’t ratify his arrangements in the East, and didn’t make the customary land-grants to his soldiers. So Pompey felt that he had been left out in the cold.
When the Senate tried to leave Caesar out in the cold, he formed a partnership with Pompey, and broke down the door. After serving in Spain and winning some victories, Caesar thought he deserved a triumph, but the Senate refused (a triumph was a kind of parade in honor of a victorious general). Caesar’s plan was to become consul, then receive a command in the provinces, as was customary. The Senate frustrated this plan by passing a law that the consuls of that year wouldn’t receive an overseas command, but instead would be made forest commissioners. This was “nothing less than a declaration of war upon Caesar, who had discovered his military talents in Spain and was determined to test them more thoroughly on a wider field.”7
So Caesar formed the First Triumvirate with Pompey, who was also disgruntled with the Senate, and Crassus, Caesar’s former patron. One might describe the First Triumvirate as an informal agreement for mutual assistance. To cement the agreement, Caesar gave his daughter, Julia, in marriage to Pompey. Caesar tried to bring Cicero into his group, but Cicero still wanted to play by the rules of the Republic, and shied away from anything that smacked of revolution.
When Caesar became consul in 59 BC, he proposed land-grants to Pompey’s former soldiers. But Caesar’s opponents, including Cato the Younger, blocked this proposal, first in the Senate, and then in the Assembly. So Caesar “brought in a detachment of Pompey’s old soldiers, who swept away opposition by physical force and secured the passage of the law.”8 Rome had no police force, so a small number of soldiers possessed considerable power.
Caesar then pushed through a series of laws. Some of these laws were self-serving, others were nation-serving, like a bill to strengthen the law against extortion in the provinces, and a bill to publish acts of the Assemblies and the Senate. Caesar also pushed through a bill that Cary and Scullard call “the main object of the Triumvirate,” a bill making himself the governor of southern Gaul and northern Italy for five years. This governorship became Caesar’s platform for the conquest of Gaul.
Should we excuse Caesar’s high-handed methods? Were his methods an appropriate response to the degeneration of Republican institutions? Our authors say that “in reintroducing the weapon of physical force into domestic politics at Rome [Caesar] laid the train for a new civil war.”9
A. I discovered a British historian named Michael Grant. Though his specialty is Roman history, he also wrote about Greeks, Jews, etc. His work is both scholarly and popular. Grant spent many years as an academic before becoming a freelance writer. As an academic, his specialty was Roman coins, and he wrote several books on that subject, including Roman History From Coins. Grant was interested in ancient Jewish history and early Christianity; he wrote The History of Ancient Israel, The Jews in the Roman World, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, and studies of St. Paul and St. Peter. He was also interested in ancient literature and art; he wrote Art in the Roman Empire, and Greek and Latin Authors: 800 BC--AD 1000. He wrote biographies of Caesar, Cleopatra, Nero, and others. In the field of ancient history, is there a better blend of scholarly and popular than Michael Grant?
B. I saw a documentary called Steal A Pencil For Me. It’s about a Jewish couple in Amsterdam who become close before the Holocaust, then continue their relationship while they’re in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They survive the war, marry, and appear in the film in their old age. Touching story, well told.
I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ 14-hour documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Extremely good. I fear painful withdrawals when it’s finally over. Perhaps Burns should organize support groups for people who suffer such withdrawals.
The documentary says that Teddy Roosevelt anticipated, at the time of the Russo-Japanese War (c. 1905), that Japan would fight the U.S., that the U.S. would win, and that it would be one of the biggest, fiercest wars in history. Teddy was a deep thinker, read widely, and wrote much.
At the end of the last episode, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor all had handicaps: Teddy was a sickly child (asthma, etc.); Franklin contracted polio at 39, and never walked again; Eleanor’s mother was distant, and her father was an alcoholic who died when Eleanor was just ten. Goodwin says that all three Roosevelts became stronger by dealing with their handicaps (as Nietzsche said, What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger). Goodwin quotes Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”10 (In 1995, Goodwin won the Pulitzer Prize for No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.)
Like most of Burns’ documentaries, The Roosevelts was written by Geoffrey C. Ward. Burns and Ward are now working on a documentary called Vietnam. As they do with most of their documentaries, Burns and Ward published a companion volume to their Roosevelt documentary.
Like David McCullough, Geoffrey Ward spent several years working for the magazine American Heritage. Ward has a special interest in Franklin Roosevelt, and wrote three books about him:
Ward also has a special interest in India, where he spent part of his childhood. According to Wikipedia, Ward is “currently at work on a book about the partition of the Indian subcontinent.”
Ward recently published a book about his great-grandfather, A Disposition to Be Rich: Ferdinand Ward, the Greatest Swindler of the Gilded Age.
Joseph P. Lash, who was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, wrote Eleanor and Franklin, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Lash also wrote Eleanor: The Years Alone, Roosevelt and Churchill, and other books. Lash was a Jewish leftist who attended City College of New York, and became a political organizer. In his early years, he was sympathetic to Communism. In 1939, “He was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee.” On the train to Washington, he met Eleanor Roosevelt. She invited him to dinner at the White House, and she also attended his hearing to provide moral support. Lash and Eleanor became lifelong friends.
|1.|| Ch. 23, #3 back|
|2.|| Ch. 23, #5 back|
|3.|| In an earlier issue, we discussed the “mystic strain” in Africanus and Napoleon. We find the same mystic strain in the American general George Patton:|
“Patton’s ancestry was far more than genealogy to him. It included his heroes and role models; he communed with them in times of crisis, emulated them, and sensed how they beckoned him to his destiny. His imagination blended past and present; he believed he had former lives as a soldier and took pride in deep mystical ties with his warrior ancestors.” back
|4.|| Ch. 24, #1 back|
|5.|| This Lepidus was the father of the better-known Lepidus who was a member of the Second Triumvirate (along with Augustus and Antony). And this Brutus was the father of the better-known Brutus who was one of the assassins of Caesar. back|
|6.|| Ch. 24, #5 back|
|7.|| Ch. 24, #9 back|
|8.|| Ch. 24, #9 back|
|9.|| Ch. 24, #9 back|
|10.||Compare the Latin phrase virescit vulnere virtus (courage grows by a wound). back|