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The Late Republic:
From the Gracchi to Sulla (133-79 BC)
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.


As we have seen, the vast expansion of Roman power that resulted from the wars of the third and second centuries BC led to immense changes in Rome's economy and culture. Over time, it became evident that the political and social institutions on which the Romans had traditionally relied were simply not adequate to deal with the new realities of empire.

These institutions emerged from, and were designed to deal with, a smaller, simpler, poorer society. They relied heavily on personal ties between individuals (both among the ruling elite, and — in the form of the clientela — between the rich and poorer classes) and on a general respect for the traditional roles and rights of various groups. Thus, for example, there was no vast civil service in Rome: instead, elected officials relied on family, friends, clients, political allies, and — above all — tradition in discharging their various duties. Nor (as we have seen) was there a formal constitution, in the modern sense: the system relied upon the Senate, consuls, tribunes, and other officers being aware of and respecting the traditional powers and jurisdictions of the various offices and political assemblies, and conducting themselves accordingly. In the end, the old system was all too easily manipulated by individuals seduced by the new opportunities for wealth and power offered by Rome's newly-acquired status as an imperial power.

Land Reform

The years 133-31 represent the death throes of the Roman Republic. This period witnesses a series of constitutional crises and attempted reforms that eventually lead to rise of Augustus and the Principate.

The immediate problem in 133 was land reform. As in the past, many poorer farmers had found themselves unable to maintain their property due to years of service in Rome's various military ventures in this period. Still more people had been forcefully driven off their land by the fighting within Italy. On the other hand, many members of the senatorial class had acquired vast wealth from military triumphs and lucrative terms as governor in the newly acquired provinces, and were looking for somewhere to invest it. The large amount of "public land" made available by the devastation in the Italian countryside offered a convenient business opportunity — all the more so, since the passing of the Lex Claudia in 218, which prohibited senators from engaging in overseas trade (in an attempt to avoid possible conflicts of interest in the Senate's deliberations on foreign affairs). Given that industry on the modern scale was unknown to the ancient world, land for farming and grazing provided one of the few opportunities for large-scale investment; moreover, these were activities that had traditionally been regarded as "respectable" for members of the noble class to engage in.

The Lex Claudia also helped to foster the rise of a new class of individuals in Rome: the *equites [equestrian class] — in effect, the business class of Rome. Members of this class were wealthy, well-connected individuals who opted not to pursue a traditional political career in favor of a life of commerce.

[As we have seen, the term eques originally referred to a member of the Roman cavalry — itself an elite group, since membership required the ability to own, maintain, and outfit a horse (an expensive proposition in antiquity), and the time to learn how to ride properly. As Rome's reliance on its cavalry declined, the equites became more of an officer class, filled by members of the privileged elite. Under the reign of Augustus (by which time the equites had long been formally acknowledged as an official class of citizen) a property qualification of 400,000 sesterces was established for membership.]

Members of the equestrian class engaged in a variety of business activities, but they too invested heavily in land.

Such practices led to the rise, in the first century BC, of large-scale ranching and farming operations on vast estates known as *latifundia. These immense, labor-intensive operations were made possible by another trend that we have already noted: the influx of huge numbers of slaves into Italy. While many Romans were troubled (with good reason, as we shall see) at the thought of huge gangs of slaves living and working together in the Italian countryside, for the wealthy senators and equites investment in land and slaves became a popular option.

Things were no better in the city-states of Italy, where the same problems arose but were compounded by the fact that much of the "public land" that was being bought up by wealthy Romans had originally been in their territory. The result was increasing resentment and unrest, as cities that had remained loyal to Rome and fought in its support now found their territory being plundered by wealthy Romans, against whom they could do nothing, since they lacked proper representation within Rome's political system.

Political Consequences in Rome

In a short time, large numbers of dispossessed farmers began to pour into Rome, inflating its population and creating an immense permanent underclass of unemployed or underemployed citizens. Their numbers were increased still further by the addition of retired veterans, who frequently found it unprofitable (as well as uncongenial) to work the small estates that they had been given upon leaving military service and so sold their land and moved to the city. (This added a new wrinkle to the city's demographics, since it meant that a significant proportion of the urban masses consisted of trained soldiers.)

The urban plebs soon came to be an important force in Roman politics. Despite the anti-populist features of the Republican constitution that we have already studied, this immense mob of people could not be ignored by any office-holder who hoped to maintain peace in the city — or to have a future career in politics. Although by the late second century BC the franchise had been extended to some of the allied states outside of Rome, such groups would always be under-represented in Roman politics, since only rarely — and usually for a specific purpose — could a significant number of individuals from an outlying city-state be present in Rome for a particular meeting. The urban mob, by contrast, was ever-present and always had time on its hands. To placate the urban plebs, it became common practice for office-holders and others with political ambitions to offer free or heavily subsidized grain to the masses, as well as frequent entertainments in the form of public games — chariot races, gladiatorial events, and the like. (This practice has been immortalized in the satirist Juvenal's reference to "bread and circuses.") As a result, the urban plebs came to expect special treatment at the hands of its public officials, and was extremely hostile to any measure that might threaten to undermine or dilute its privileged position.

All of these trends lead to a gradual change in the political equation in Rome. The initial divisions were between: (1) the aristocratic, conservative class (now known as the *nobiles), whose interests were staunchly represented by the Senate; (2) the relatively new class of equites; and (3) the plebs (i.e., the urban mob and retired veterans).

The first two groups had a particularly difficult relationship: while the interests of the nobiles and the equites overlapped to a great degree, they frequently found themselves in competition with one another — particularly in the provinces, where wealthy members of the senatorial class were appointed as governors, charged with administering justice, watching out for Rome's interests, and overseeing the activities of members of the equestrian class, who were heavily engaged in various business ventures there.

[One of the most lucrative of these was tax-farming. Since Rome lacked an extensive civil service, individuals would bid for the right to collect taxes in the different provinces. Once these rights had been purchased from the state, it would be up to the individual to recoup his investment and make a profit by collecting the taxes in his particular province. This system easily lent itself to abuse and had to be monitored by the provincial governor, to make certain that the provincials were not being gouged by the tax-collectors, or publicani.]

While the provincial governors (all of them ex-magistrates) were charged with an important public duty, one of their main motives for assuming the job was to line their own pockets — to recoup the often considerable sums that they had spent in order to curry popular favor and win office in the first place, and to allow them to maintain a position of authority and influence once they returned to Rome — and to permit their friends and clients (who would attend the governor in various capacities as members of his official staff) to do the same. Thus the governors and their staffs, no less than the equites, were looking to profit from the local economy. There naturally arose a good deal of friction between the governor and those members of the equestrian class active in any particular province, given that the former was both an unwanted watchdog for the latter and a competitor.

Populares vs. Optimates

As competition for political office and prestige becomes more fierce, given the ever-increasing value of the stakes involved, a new configuration emerges. Various nobiles begin to break ranks with their fellows in the senatorial aristocracy and to act as spokespersons for the other two "interest groups" — i.e., for the equites and, especially, the urban plebs. These individuals come to be known as *populares (i.e., advocates for the common people [populus]). They placed themselves in direct opposition to the aristocratic Senate, which had traditionally guided Roman political, military, and financial affairs, but which now was increasingly coming to be viewed as simply another "player" in the general political mix. Thus, from the late second century until the end of the Republic, Roman politics comes to be viewed as a competition between the populares (as proposers of radical popular measures) and the traditional conservative senatorial aristocracy (who refer to themselves as the *optimates, or "best men" — i.e., those who have Rome's "true" interests at heart).

The populares are "friends of the people," but not in the sense of radical democrats. In many cases, one can argue that they were merely demagogues who exploited the dissatisfaction of various groups to their own political advantage (although some clearly were idealistic reformers). The major difference that distinguishes them from the optimates is their political methods: rather than relying on the traditional authority of Senate, they employ appeals to the popular assemblies (via the tribuneship) to drive their measures through. (We can see a foreshadowing of this in the way in which Scipio Africanus had earlier acquired command of his expedition against Carthage.)

In considering the split between the populares and the optimates, it is important not to think in terms of modern political parties. Roman politics in this period remains very much a matter of cliques — unstable coalitions of powerful individuals who find themselves united by personal ties or shared interests, subject to constant realignment as conditions change and the personal interests of particular individuals converge or diverge. (See, in particular, the excellent book by L.R. Taylor, Party Politics in the Age of Caesar.)

The Gracchi

Two of the earliest populares (and in some ways the most notorious) were *Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and his brother *Gaius Sempronius Gracchus.

Tiberius Gracchus was a member of one of Rome's leading families, with powerful connections on all sides. His father had been consul twice as well as censor; his mother Cornelia was the daughter of Scipio Africanus and a force to be reckoned with in her own right; his sister was the wife of Scipio Aemilianus. Tiberius himself had fought with distinction in the Third Punic War and, less happily, had been involved in a disastrous defeat in Spain when serving under Hostilius Mancinus at Numantia. In short, he had all the makings of a traditional aristocratic politician.

Rather than seeking a career in Senate by rising through the cursus honorum, however, Tiberius became tribune of the plebs in 133 BC. His likely motive for doing so was his concern for land reform. He had witnessed some of the evils of the contemporary situation in his travels through Italy and was concerned about what he regarded (especially after his experience in Spain) as the declining quality of the Roman soldiery, which he associated, in turn, with the disappearance of the Roman farmer-soldier. Moreover, a slave uprising in Sicily in 135 (which was able to muster some 60,000 men at its height) had demonstrated the practical dangers of relying upon huge servile populations.

Tiberius wished to restore the status of small-holders and thus revitalize Rome's citizen army by breaking the hold of the nobiles over the vast amounts of "public" land that they held (much of it contrary to Roman law). It was clear to him that any hope of getting the Senate to act on this matter was unrealistic: the Senate was not a body that could be moved by the activism of a single individual, nor were its members likely to vote against their own interests. There had been growing signs of popular discontent with the situation, including recent activism on the part of certain tribunes. Taken together, such considerations must have convinced Tiberius that his best option was to employ the tribunate to take on the Senate directly. (Whether, in doing so, he was driven by idealistic fervor or raw personal ambition was a matter for debate in antiquity and continues to be so today.)

Rather than consulting the Senate, Tiberius introduced before the concilium plebis a bill that would free up much of this land by establishing a limit of 500 iugera (= 300 acres) for the amount of public land that could be controlled by any one individual, and would redistribute any reappropriated lands among the people.

The bill was not quite so radical as it might appear: it assured the present tenants of reimbursement for any reappropriated land and granted them rent-free ownership of the land that was left under their control. It also provided for extra allotments for any children (thus in effect doubling the allotment of 500 iugera). A similar bill had in fact been put forward by C. Laelius in 145, with some support from nobiles.

But Tiberius' use of the concilium plebis would have been highly disturbing even to those nobiles sympathetic to his cause. As you will recall, the establishment of the concilium plebis was a practical matter, motivated by a desire to allow the plebs to conduct its own affairs more efficiently. It was intended to permit the plebs to elect the plebeian magistrates (the tribunes and plebeian aediles), to conduct non-capital trials involving plebeians, and to present petitions through the consuls to the comitia centuriata. Although, according to the Lex Hortensia of 287, its decisions (plebiscita) had the force of law, it had never been imagined that this body would take upon itself matters that had traditionally been subject to the control of the Senate. Yet this is exactly what Tiberius employed it to do, with the support of Ap. Claudius Pulcher (senior member of the Senate and Tiberius' father-in-law), P. Licinius Crassus (the father-in-law of Tiberius' brother Gaius), and P. Mucius Scaevola (a respected jurist and one of the current consuls).

Given the makeup of the concilium plebis, there was little doubt of the bill passing, since it pushed an agenda that was popular with the urban plebs and veterans. The bill did nothing to address the concerns of the Italian allies, but this too was a practical matter: any attempt to distribute land to the Italian allies was likely to have aroused the jealous mistrust of the urban plebs.

Angered by Tiberius' methods, the Senate took advantage of the established political mechanisms by having another tribune, M. Octavius, employ his veto to block a formal vote on the bill. At this point Tiberius unwisely raised the stakes: he passed a measure in the concilium plebis to have Octavius thrown out of office, passed his land bill, and established a board of three commissioners (himself, Gaius, and Ap. Claudius Pulcher) to begin implementing its measures. (Note the makeup of the board — Tiberius, his brother, and Tiberius' father-in-law — which nicely illustrates the personal nature of Roman politics in this period.)

Again the Senate employed one of its traditional means of asserting its authority: it blocked any financing for the board, using one of the checks and balances praised by Polybius. Again Tiberius was unfazed: he threatened to challenge the Senate's authority over finances by passing a bill in the concilium plebis that would have appropriated the bequest of *Attalus III for use by the board. (Attalus was king of the wealthy kingdom of Pergamum in Asia Minor. On his death in 133 — at the very moment Tiberius was planning his maneuver — he willed his kingdom to the Roman people, thus in effect creating the new province of Asia.) Moreover, in an attempt to protect himself and ensure that his board would remain in operation, Tiberius sought a second tribuneship in 132 — a maneuver that was not necessarily illegal but would have been viewed with suspicion by many. [FN 1]

In the run-up to the elections, a riot broke out on the Capitol. In the ensuing violence, the Senate and its followers (led by the ex-consul Scipio Nasica) clubbed Tiberius and 300 of his followers to death.

Tiberius' brief career reveals the depths of the divisions that were beginning to split the various elements of Roman society. It also vividly illustrates the weakness of the Romans' constitutional system. The sorts of radical reforms advocated by Tiberius and his followers were difficult to institute, given the make-up of the Senate and the dominance of that body in Roman political affairs. To that degree, the Roman constitutional system was far from unique. What sets the Romans' situation apart is the ease with which their constitutional system, with its reliance upon the different parties playing their traditional röles, could be manipulated by individuals who were willing to ignore such time-honored traditions. There was nothing to prevent a tribune from employing the concilium plebis to infringe upon the prerogatives of the Senate in giving expression to the people's wishes, other than established tradition. Once that tradition was infringed, there was a real possibility of political chaos, since the entire system was predicated on the oversight of the Senate and the magistrates under its authority. (For many people, Tiberius' actions no doubt suggested the possibility of a political coup, with overtones of the rise of another Tarquinius Superbus.) Yet there was no established mechanism for resolving the sorts of issues raised by Tiberius' maneuvers (just as the Romans had no formal constitution, they lacked a Supreme Court): thus the only recourse available to defenders of the established constitution was violence.

Despite Tiberius' violent end, his land commission continued to operate, with M. Licinius Crassus assuming his place on the land board. The board's authority was limited, however, by a bill introduced by Scipio Aemilianus (who was acting in the interest of the Italian allies). Scipio also blocked a bill to allow the re-election of tribunes, thus preventing any future individual from employing the office as a base from which to govern Rome through the concilium plebis. Scipio died mysteriously in 129, however, giving rise to various dark speculations that he had been assassinated.

The next few years see the situation of the Italian allies come ever more to the fore. Increasing protests on their part in Rome lead a tribune, in 126, to pass a law preventing non-Romans from settling in Rome. In the next year, the consul M. Fulvius Flaccus' attempts to extend the franchise throughout Italy and provide the Italians with basic protections against the actions of Roman magistrates are voted down. This leads the Latin city of Fregellae to revolt — an indication of how serious the problem had grown to be, and a hint of things to come.

At this point, Tiberius' younger brother Gaius Gracchus becomes active in politics. Following his brother's path, he is elected tribune in 123 and then again in 122 (a move that was now legal, thanks to a law passed following the death of Scipio Aemilianus). Where Tiberius was the consummate politician and orator, whose motives are sometimes open to suspicion, Gaius is generally portrayed as an idealist. He was charismatic, an effective speaker, and (at the beginning of his career) wildly popular. (A comparison with the Kennedies in the 1960s comes readily to mind.)

Gaius continued and expanded Tiberius' plans in a methodical and calculated way, with a comprehensive program of revitalizing the Italian countryside that included improving the system of roads and establishing various colonies — both of which would have invigorate local economies, support the growth of industry, and offered a future to members of the urban plebs. His most daring proposal was a new Roman colony on the former site of Carthage.

Gaius' main problem was how to win over the various special interest groups to support his program. For the plebs, he instituted a regular grain subsidy, designed to put an end to uncertainties in supply and the attendant fluctuations in price. For the equites he instituted a series of legal reforms, the most important of which was altering the constitution of the quaestio de rebus repetundis (the court that dealt with malfeasance on the part of provincial governors): this was now to be manned by members of the equestrian order rather than senators — a move that placed provincial governors at the mercy of the businessmen operating in their provinces. (It also left the provincials without an effective guard against the Roman tax collectors.) Gaius also passed a measure that caused provinces to be assigned to the various annual magistrates before elections were held, thus limiting the Senate's ability to employ such postings as prizes and to ensure that the more important postings were held by individuals who supported the Senate's agenda. Again, this measure served to undermine the authority of the provincial governors.

Gaius' downfall comes when he attempts to extend the franchise to the cities of Italy, a move that displeased the nobiles and the urban plebs alike, since it was sure to dilute the political influence of each. This proposal, along with the fickleness of the voters, causes Gaius to lose his bid for a third term as tribune. (In effect, M. Livius Drusus — the Senate's man — simply "outbids" him in a cynical display of demagoguery. Among Drusus' proposals: that those allotted land get it rent free; the establishment of more colonies; that all Latins be exempt from physical punishment at hands of Roman military commanders.)

Once Gaius was out of the picture, the Senate set about annulling his various measures. When the tribune M. Minucius Rufus, acting on the Senate's wishes, puts forward a measure to cancel the colony in Carthage, Gaius gathers his friends to oppose Rufus at public meeting. A brawl breaks out, in which a servant of the consul L. Opimius is killed. The Senate decrees martial law, and a virtual war breaks out on the Aventine Hill. Gaius and 3000 of his followers die as a result, either in the actual battle or the subsequent executions.

Although Gaius employed many of Tiberius' methods and met with a similar fate, the lesson of his career is slightly different. His fall reveals the way in which general inertia could scuttle even a rational effort at reform. The Senate and other vested interests vehemently opposed measures that would dilute their authority and cut their income. The mob was just as selfish regarding their power at the polls and their consequent ability to win special treatment from the various magistrates. They were also fickle and short-sighted, and thus were easily bought off by rival factions. Most unsettling, however, is the speed with which individuals on all sides of the political equation are beginning to realize just how easily the Republican constitution can be exploited, and their increasing readiness to do so.


The next years witness problems in Numidia and the rise of *C. Marius. Numidia was a client kingdom of the Romans that, under Masinissa, had served Roman interests during the Third Punic War. Masinissa had passed the kingdom on to his son, Micipsa, who in turn had two sons of his own, Adherbal and Hiempsal. Unfortunately, Micipsa adopted a third son, *Jugurtha, who, on Micipsa's death in 118, murdered Hiempsal and drove Adherbal from the kingdom. (Compare the story of Tarquinius Priscus and the sons of Ancus Marcius.) Adherbal appealed to Rome, but the Senate hesitated to get involved; eventually it established him in Cirta, west of Carthage, where he was to govern the eastern half of Numidia. Immediately, rumors began to spread that Jugurtha had employed bribery to corrupt the Senate — a charge that had some merit, but also reflects popular distrust of and resentment against the Senate. Jugurtha was relentless, however, and proceeded to slaughter not just Adherbal but a number of Roman colonists settled in Cirta. This leads to the Jugurthine War (111-104).

A series of military disasters at the outset of the war (something of a Roman tradition, it seems) gave Marius his opportunity to come to prominence. The Roman army was helpless against Jugurtha's cavalry. After a series of Roman miscues, Jugurtha came to Rome to negotiate a peace and testify against those senators who had sold him their votes, but his high-handed behavior while in Rome (particularly the assassination of his cousin Massiva, another potential rival who had taken refuge there) fanned the flames of war all the more.

Unfortunately, the military commanders put in charge of the campaign by the Senate continued to blunder. At this point Marius comes to the fore. He was a novus homo who distinguished himself in Numantia and turned to popularis-style measures, as well as his personal connections, to advance his career. (Marius was a client of the powerful Metelli and had married an aunt of Julius Caesar.) Although he was serving in Numidia under the command of Q. Caecilius Metellus (his patron), he went to Rome and stirred up popular discontent by slandering Metellus and the other Roman commanders. This leads to him being elected consul in 107.

Marius then goes further and has the comitia tributa give him command of the war, overriding the Senate's decision to extend Metellus' command. (Here again we can see the precedent set by Scipio, as well as the influence of the Gracchi.) Marius does indeed win the war eventually, when Jugurtha's treasury is captured and Jugurtha himself betrayed by his own allies. This wins Marius popular credit as a military genius — in contrast to the inept and/or corrupt aristocratic commanders who had preceded him — whether this was deserved or not.

Here Marius had another stroke of luck. Incursions in the north by Scandinavian peoples known as the Cimbri and Teutones gave him another field in which to display his skill and win popular favor. The gravity of the threat not only led the comitia tributa to appoint Marius leader of the campaign but saw him elected consul for five straight years (104-100).

Marius was a soldier, not a politician. While he was in the field, he employed a tribune by the name of *L. Appuleius Saturninus to look out for his interests in Rome and, in particular, to guard against any reprisals on the part of the Senate. (In this, Marius anticipates the later relationship between Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.) Saturninus, who was tribune from 103-100, was a popularis who pushed forward a series of measures designed to maintain Marius' popularity: an expansion of the grain dole, pensions for Marius' veterans, and (most ominously) a quaestio de maiestate populi Romani imminuta (a court to deal with offenses against the "majesty" [i.e., sovereignty] of the Roman people: an all-purpose tribunal for indicting unpopular aristocrats). Saturninus was particularly violent in his methods, however — perhaps as a result of having seen what happened to the Gracchi. He made a regular practice of employing thugs and inciting mob violence to intimidate, harass, and even assassinate opponents.

In 100 Marius returned to Rome victorious and seeking land for his soldiers. (As we will see, the need for commanders to deliver appropriate rewards for their troops after a successful campaign brings still more pressure to bear on the traditional political mechanisms of Republic.) Saturninus passes the necessary legislation by his usual methods, but includes a modest proposal regarding the Latin and Italian allies who had fought with Marius, providing them with land and, in some cases, the franchise. This leads to open battles in the Forum between Marius' veterans and the urban mob (who were vehemently against giving land allotments and the franchise to the allies). Saturninus goes further and assassinates C. Memmius (an ex-tribune and one of his principal opponents). This alienates Marius, who makes an uneasy truce with the Senate. Seizing upon Marius' altered outlook, the Senate declares martial law and appoints Marius to put down the violence. In the ensuing chaos, Saturninus is killed by the mob.

Marius' military reforms. Under Marius, the Roman army became a much more professional and efficient organization. He divided his forces into legions of 6000 men, each subdivided into 10 cohorts. Each legion was represented by a standard (emblem), which gave it a sense of identity and fostered camaraderie among the troops. Each soldier was outfitted with a pilum (heavy thrusting spear), a short thrusting sword, and entrenching tools. Each soldier was drilled in the use of these weapons as well as in the skills necessary to build quick temporary fortifications.

For our purposes, the more important change was the mass recruitment of volunteers from among the proletarii. With fewer conscripted troops — i.e., men compelled to serve Rome out of a sense of duty — the Roman army quickly took on the appearance of a mercenary force: professional soldiers with no stake in civilian society, who owed absolute loyalty to a charismatic leader and looked to that leader for rewards in the form of booty and land. (Comparisons to the patron-client relationship are inevitable and, as we shall see, apt.)

Thus Marius is important for:

  1. his reliance on popular appeal and mob tactics in Rome to further his military career abroad (in this he sets the pattern for Julius Caesar)
  2. the increasing popular hostility against the senatorial aristocracy
  3. his reform of the Roman military

The career of Marius illustrates still further the breakdown of the old order and the increasing hostility toward and mistrust of the Senate. He also introduces the potential röle of a military command in the battle for political supremacy at Rome, and the ease with which the commander's relation with his troops could come to mirror that of the popularis to the urban plebs.


With the death of Saturninus and the decommissioning of Marius' army, we find an uneasy return to the status quo, with the Senate maintaining its traditional authority, but the various tensions examined above persist.

There is particular unrest in Italy at large, where the "Italian question" continues to fester. Various attempts at Rome to extend the franchise to the Italians are defeated, often through violent tactics of the sort employed by Saturninus (gangs of thugs, assassination). In 91, tensions boil over and the Romans find themselves confronted by an armed revolt throughout central and southern Italy. This conflict is known as the *Social War (91-89), not because it was particularly polite but because it involved a battle with Rome's "allies" (socii).

The most inveterate of Rome's opponents were the Samnites of south-central Italy. Like the South in the American Civil War under Robert E. Lee, the rebels could draw on a good deal of local military expertise and were a force to be reckoned with. To quell the revolt, the pragmatic Romans grant the franchise (at last!) to those allies who remain loyal or lay down their arms. This eventually brings hostilities to a conclusion, but only after a bitter and needless war.

The granting of the franchise does not bring an end to the allies' dissatisfaction, however: although virtually all freemen in Italy and Cisalpine Gaul had been granted the right of Roman citizenship by 89, they were initially segregated by being registered within a relatively few tribes, thus limiting the impact of their vote.

It is in this period, that a man by the name of *L. Cornelius Sulla gains prominence. Sulla was an impoverished aristocrat and former lieutenant of Marius (it was he who had arranged the betrayal of Jugurtha) who successfully directed the Roman campaign in southern Italy during the Social War. In many ways, he is Marius' mirror image: a sort of anti-Marius rising to power as a champion of the conservative aristocracy.

The conclusion of the Social War saw more populares spring up with various proposals for reform, all aimed at winning the new "Italian" vote. Prominent among them was P. Sulpicius Rufus, who in 88 proposed to divide the Italians evenly among the existing 35 tribes (thus undoing the gerrymandering that to date had limited the Italians political influence) and to expel from the Senate those senators who were in debt (a measure favored by the equites since it would inevitably have weakened that body). In order to win Marius' influential support, Sulpicius proposes giving him the command against a new foreign menace: *Mithridates VI of Pontus.

Mithridates was a ruthless ruler who controlled much of the region around the Black Sea and had ambitions to extend his rule over the eastern Mediterranean. He was a cunning individual who carefully gauged the degree to which he could defy the Romans without provoking them to war. Thus, while Marius was involved with the Cimbri and Teutones in 104, Mithridates took the occasion to occupy much of what is today central Turkey (Galatia and Cappadocia). The Romans eventually sent Sulla to rebuke him (in 96) and force him to give up Cappadocia, but he remained undeterred from his grander schemes. With the outbreak of the Social War, he again attempted to extend his rule south. When it became clear that war with Rome was inevitable, he threw off all pretense and in 88 seized much of Asia Minor, including the Roman province of Asia. This was a relatively simple task, since the Romans were caught off guard — never imagining that Mithridates would undertake so bold a move — while the Greek city-states of the region were readily won over by the promise of release from the oppressive taxes imposed by the Romans. In order to bind the Greek city-states to him, Mithridates then ordered the slaughter of all Italian residents in the region: the city-states obeyed, killing some 80,000 Romans in all. (The scale of the massacre gives an indication of just how welcome the Roman provincial administration had made itself in the region.) Mithridates then took the campaign into Europe, seizing most of Greece and Macedonia and ruthlessly slaughtering Italian residents along the way.

[A number of colorful stories grew up concerning the wily Mithridates. One held that he had been the object of so many assassination attempts that he had deliberately ingested small amounts of various poisons over the years in order to inoculate himself against them. This story is recalled in A.E. Housman's poem, "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff."]

The command against Mithridates was much sought-after, given the opportunity it offered for military glory and personal riches. It had been given to Sulla (who was consul in 88) by the Senate, but Sulpicius called on his "Anti-Senate" of equites (a group of thugs reminiscent of those employed by Saturninus) and used force to compel the consuls to allow the enactment of Sulpicius' bill transferring the command to Marius.

Rather than capitulate, Sulla gathered his troops in southern Italy and marched on Rome, taking it by force. He suspended the constitution and passed a measure that all new laws must be approved by the comitia centuriata, thus putting an end to legislation by the tribunes. Sulpicius was killed in the turmoil, but Marius managed to escape Rome and go into hiding.

Sulla soon departs for the East (87), leaving the consul *Cornelius Cinna in charge of matters in Rome, after having first compelled him to take an oath not to alter any of the newly passed constitutional arrangements. Unfortunately, Cinna had learned from recent history and decided that this was a good occasion to establish his own political career: once Sulla was gone, he immediately rescinded Sulla's laws and reintroduced Sulpicius' bill concerning the Italians. A riot broke out in the Forum, pitting Cinna's thugs (representing the Italian allies) against those of his fellow consul Cn. Octavius, who was able to call upon the urban plebs. Cinna's forces lose, but he soon raises an army of Italians and, with Marius (who is able to call upon the loyal services of his veterans), marches on Rome (still in the year 87). Cinna's forces are victorious and there is mass slaughter in the Forum, as the elderly and now insane Marius takes vicious revenge upon the people who had slighted him in the years since his glorious victories of old. Eventually things grow so bad that Cinna's troops are forced to put down those of Marius, bringing an end to the bloodshed. Cinna and Marius are both named consuls, but Marius dies a few days later, leaving Cinna as virtual dictator of Italy.

An uneasy peace follows for three years (86-84), during which time Cinna passes a number of enlightened pieces of legislation, including (finally!) the registration of the newly enfranchised Italian citizens evenly throughout the 35 tribes. In the meanwhile, Sulla manages, with great difficulty, to recapture Greece and Macedonia, then is compelled to make a hasty deal with Mithridates, in part to forestall the successes of C. Flavius Fimbria, who had seized control of a second army (sent out by Cinna in Sulla's wake) and managed to recapture much of Asia Minor. Mithridates withdrew from the conquered territories and paid a modest penalty, but retained control of Pontus. With the hostilities ended, Fimbria's troops quickly went over to Sulla, leaving Fimbria to commit suicide. Sulla imposed a harsh settlement on the Greek city-states of Asia Minor, which were now subject to even more severe taxation and an immense fine of 20,000 talents, in addition to being plundered by Sulla's and Fimbria's troops.

Then in 83 Sulla returned to Rome. Cinna had been preparing to confront him prior to his return to Italy (in 84), but was assassinated. Cinna's colleague Carbo attempted to oppose Sulla, but saw his support quickly melt away in the face of Sulla's superior resources and seasoned troops. Carbo was able to call upon the services of the Samnites and enlisted the aid of one of Marius' sons to call up the latter's veterans, but this only prolonged the battle somewhat. Relatively quickly (83-82) this civil war within Italy (the third in five years) came to a conclusion.

The aftermath was bloody. Like Marius, Sulla took action against his opponents, but through quasi-legal means. He posted lists of men who were thus officially named as enemies of the state, with a bounty on their heads. The men were executed and their property confiscated by the state; moreover, in order to prevent any future reprisals, their sons were barred from holding political office. The *proscriptions (as they were called) served a practical purpose beyond mere revenge: Sulla needed the land thus confiscated in order to make good on his promises to his soldiers. In all, 40 senators and some 1600 equites were executed by this means; according to one ancient source, the total number of those killed throughout Italy numbered 9000. In addition, the territory of those cities that had supported Carbo (particularly that of the Samnites) was laid waste by Sulla's troops.

Having regained control of Rome, Sulla set about instituting a series of constitutional reforms designed to prevent popular agitation on the part of the tribunes and restore the Senate to its traditional authority. The main features of these reforms included:

  1. a measure giving the Senate a veto over acts passed by the popular assemblies;
  2. the addition of 300 new members to the Senate (which, as a consequence, numbered some 500 in all), most drawn from the Italian equites and all loyal to Sulla and his program;
  3. new limitations on the powers of the tribunes (they could no longer introduce laws or conduct prosecutions; their powers of veto were curtailed; they themselves were barred from seeking higher office [i.e., the praetorship or consulship] — a move designed to make the tribunate a political dead-end);
  4. the right to staff the law courts was restored to the Senate (i.e., the equites would no longer control the court de repetundis).

In 79 Sulla retired to Campania and died peacefully in his bed the following year. He left a restored Republic, but the same underlying problems remained, particularly:

  1. the rivalry for power, prestige, and wealth among various members of the Roman elite
  2. tensions between the Senate, equites, and urban plebs
  3. the altered relationship between military commanders and their troops

Few of Sulla's contemporaries could have been sanguine about the long-term prospects of his attempt to turn back the clock, particularly once he was no longer alive to enforce the reforms that he had imposed through brute force: in fact, Sulla's own career offered an ominous precedent for the future. Events were soon to demonstrate the validity of such concerns.


[FN 1] The Lex Villia (180) forbid consecutive terms in the case of magistracies, but the tribunate fell into a gray area. There was no precedent for Tiberius' plan. [Return to text]

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