The brief emergence and demise of each of the brothers Gracchus (Tiberius in 133 BC, Gaius in 120 BC) onto the scene of Roman politics should send shock waves through the entire structure of the Roman state of such magnitude that their effects would be felt for generations.
One believes that around the time of the Gracchus brothers Rome began to think in terms of political right and left, dividing the two factions into optimates and populares.
However questionable their political tactics at times were, the brothers showed up a fundamental flaw in the way Roman society was conducting itself. Running an army with less and less conscripts to oversee an expanding empire was not sustainable. And the creation of ever greater numbers of urban poor was a threat to the stability of Rome itself.
But however reasonable some of their arguments might have been, the two brothers with their contempt for the senate, their flagrant populism and their political brinkmanship heralded a change in the nature of Roman politics. The stakes were getting ever higher, things were becoming more brutal. Rome’s well being seemed more and more to be a secondary factor in the great contest of egos and boundless ambition.
Also the passions whipped up during the brief time in office is largely seen as having led to the following period of social strife and civil war.
The Jugurthine War
In 118 BC the king of Numidia, Micipsa, died, leaving the crown to his young sons Hiempsal and Adherbal jointly with a much older nephew, Jugurtha, who was an experienced soldier.
Jugurtha arranged the assassination of Hiempsal, whilst Adherbal fled for his life and appealed to the senate.
The senate decided to send a commission to Numidia to divide he kingdom between the two claimants. Jugurtha appeared to bribe the commission’s leader, Opimius, who returned to Rome a richer man, after awarding the greater and wealthier part of Numidia to Jugurtha. Though this was not enough for the ambitious Jugurtha who then marched on the territory of Adherbal and had him murdered, too.
Rome was outraged. Rome’s judgement had simply been swept aside. Under the consul L Calpurnius Bestia troops were sent to Numidia to deal with the usurper. But the campaign was ineffective from the start, the Roman heavy infantry struggling to make any impression on the nimble Numidian horsemen.
Back in Rome eventually the comitia tributa to halt the campaign to have Jugurtha summoned to Rome to give evidence against any senators who were alleged to have accepted bribes from him. For this he was assured safe-conduct, meaning he was promised no to be charged or in any way harmed himself. But, once Jugurtha had arrived in Rome, these legal proceedings were stopped by a Tribune of the People who sought to avoid a political scandal.
So effective were Jugurtha’s methods that even while he was in Rome he had another cousin murdered in the city.
This was too much, and he was ordered to depart.
‘A city for sale !’ he is said to have sneered as he left.
More troops were now sent to Africa to deal with the usurper. though the campaign was so ill managed that a commission of inquiry was held, which revealed such dire scandals of widespread bribery and corruption that three ex-consuls, one being Opimius, retired into exile. Instead Quintus Metellus and Gaius Marius, both known not only for their ability as well as their for being virtually incorruptible, were sent out to Africa to take command of the troops (109 BC).
Metellus was a good soldier who conducted his campaigns with skill and vigour, but Jugurtha, a master of the arts of guerilla warfare, held out against him. Marius, a better soldier than Metellus, returned to Rome to stand for the consulship, claiming that if the command were given to him the war would be ended at once.
In fact, by the time he returned to Africa as consul to supersede Metellus, it appeared that Jugurtha was beaten. Metellus went home bitterly disappointed at having had his victory snatched from him. But Jugurtha was not finished yet.
Marius could not catch him, and he found a dubious ally or protector in his neighbour Bocchus, king of Mauretania. Finally it was the diplomatic skill of the quaestor Lucius Cornelius Sulla that induced Bocchus to betray Jugurtha to the Romans and to a miserable death at Rome. But the conquest was credited to Marius.
Gaius Marius and his Reforms of the Roman Army
Before Marius was back in Rome he was re-elected to the consulship (104 BC), though the law forbade re-election and required the candidate to be present in Rome.
But Marius was the soldier of the hour, and the hour demanded Rome’s finest soldier of the day.
For during the Numidian war a tremendous menace had been gathering on the northern frontiers of Italy. The German tribes were making their first appearance on the stage of history.
The advance hordes of the Teutones and the Cimbri had rolled past the Alps and poured into Gaul, flooding down the valley of the Saône and the Rhône and also setting in motion the Helvetic (Swiss) Celts. They defeated the Roman consul Silanus in 109 BC and in 107 BC another consul, Cassius, was trapped by the Helvetii and lost his army and his life. In 105 BC the forces of the pro-consul Caepio and the consul Mallius were annihilated by the Cimbri at the Battle of Arausio (Orange), ancient sources estimating the the losses up to even 80’000 or 100’000 men.
Then for no apparent reason the tide relented for a moment.
Rome, desperate to use the time, turned to Marius, placing control and reorganization of her armies in his hands and making him consul year after year. And Marius did the unthinkable.
Marius reorganizes the Army
For a primarily agricultural society such as Rome to be a perpetual war machine is to attempt to combine two incompatibles.
What Tiberius Gracchus had tried to halt when he was tribune in 133 BC was a trend which had begun centuries earlier and which, by the very success with which Rome had conducted military operations, had become a vicious circle.
Ancient armies were armed by peasant farmers. A society constantly at war required a constant flow of conscripts. Smallholdings fell into disuse because there was no one to tend to them. As Roman conquests spread through the Mediterranean lands, even more men were required, and wealth and cheap corn poured back into Rome, much of it into the hands of entrepreneurs, who carved out vast areas for vegetables, vines, olives and sheep farming, all managed by slave labour. The dispossessed rural poor, became the urban poor – so becoming ineligible for military service as no longer being nominal property holders.
Not only was there therefore a shortage of recruits, but the soldiers had nothing to return to between campaigns or at the end of their service. A working solution to this problem was finally devised by Gaius Marius, once consul in 108 BC. He introduced the Roman army as it came to be known and feared all across the Europe and the Mediterranean.
Rather than conscripting from Roman landowners he recruited volunteers from the urban poor. Once the idea of a professional army of mercenaries was introduced, it never remained until the very end of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, Marius introduced the idea of granting soldiers allotments of farmland after they hand served their term.
Marius defeats the Northmen
Marius’ revolution in the army came only just in time.
In 103 BC the Germans were again massing at the Saône, preparing to invading Italy by crossing the Alps in two different places. The Teutones crossed the mountains in the west, the Cimbri did so in the east.
In 102 BC Marius, consul for the fourth time, annihilated the Teutones at Aquae Sextiae beyond the Alps, while his colleague Catullus stood guard behind them.
Next in 101 BC the Cimbri poured through the eastern mountain passes into the plain of the river Po. They in turn were annihilated by Marius and Catulus at Campi Raudii near Vercellae.
Marius reaped the benefit of his joint victory with Catulus, by being elected to his sixth consulship.
The Second Slave War
The atrocities of the First Slave War were anything but forgotten when in 103 BC the slaves of Sicily dared to revolt again. That after the cruelty in the aftermath of the first conflict they dared to rise again, hints how bad their conditions must have been.
They fought so stubbornly that it took Rome 3 years to stamp out the revolt.
The Social War
In 91 BC the moderate members of the senate allied themselves with Livius Drusus (the son of that Drusus who had been used to undermine Gaius Gracchus’ popularity in 122 BC) and aided him in his election campaign. If the honesty of the father is open to doubt, that of the son is not. As tribune he proposed to add to the senate an equal number of equestrians, and to extend Roman citizenship to all Italians and to grant the poorer of the current citizens new schemes for colonization and a further cheapening of the corn prices, at the expense of the state.
Though the people, the senators and the knights all felt that they would be conceding too many of their rights for too little. Drusus was assassinated.
Despite his eventually loss of popularity his supporters had stood by Drusus loyally. The opposition Tribune of the People, Q. Varius, now carried a bill declaring that to have supported the ideas of Drusus was treason. The reaction by Drusus’ supporters was violence.
All resident Roman citizens were killed by an enraged mob at Asculum, in central Italy. Worse still, the ‘allies’ (socii)of Rome in Italy, the Marsi, Paeligni, Samnites, Lucanians, Apulians all broke into open revolt.
The ‘allies’ had not planned any such rising, far more it was a spontaneous outburst of anger against Rome. But that meant they were unprepared for a fight. Hastily they formed formed a federation. A number of towns fell into their hands at the outset, and they defeated a consular army. But alas, Marius took led an army into battle and defeated them. Though he didn’t – perhaps deliberately – crush them.
The ‘allies’ had a strong party of sympathizers in the senate. And these senators in 89 BC managed to win over several of the ‘allies’ by a new law (the Julian Law – lex Iulia) by which Roman citizenship was granted to ‘all who had remained loyal to Rome (but this most likely also included those who laid down their arms against Rome).
But some of the rebels, especially the Samnites, only fought the harder. Though under the leadership of Sulla and Pompeius Strabo the rebels were reduced on battlefield until they held out only in a few Samnite and Lucanian strongholds.
Was the city of Asculum in particular dealt with severely for the atrocity committed there, the senate tried to bring an end to the fighting by conceding citizenship to by granting citizenship to all who laid down their arms within sixty days (lex Plautia-Papiria).
The law succeeded and by the beginning of 88 BC the Social War was at an end, other than for a few besieged strongholds.
Sulla (138-78 BC)
Lucius Cornelius Sulla was yet another nail in he coffin of the Republic, perhaps much in the same mould as Marius.
Having already been the first man to use Roman troops against Rome itself.
And much like Marius he, too, should make his mark in history with reforms as well as a reign of terror.
Sulla takes Power
In 88 BC the activities of king Mithridates of Pontus called for urgent action. The king had invaded the province of Asia and massacred 80’000 Roman and Italian citizens. Sulla, as elected consul and as the man who had won the Social War, expected the command, but Marius wanted it, too. The senate appointed Sulla to lead the troops against Mithridates.
But the tribune Sulpicius Rufus (124-88 BC), a political ally of Marius, passed through the concilium plebis an order calling for the transfer of command to Marius. Peaceful as these happenings may sound, they were accompanied by much violence.
Sulla rushed straight from Rome to his still undisbanded troops of the Social War before Nola in Campania, where the Samnites were still holding out.
There, Sulla appealed to the soldiers to follow him. The officers hesitated, but the soldiers did not. And so, at the head of six Roman legions, Sulla marched on Rome. He was joined by his political ally Pompeius Rufus. They seized the city gates, marched in and annihilated a force hastily collected by Marius.
Sulpicius fled but was discovered and killed. So, too, did Marius, by now 70 years old, flee. He was picked up at the coast of Latium and sentenced to death. But as no one could be found prepared to do the deed he was instead hustled onto a ship. He ended up in Carthage where he was ordered by the Roman governor of Africa to move on.
Sulla’s first Reforms
While he still held the command of the military in his hands, Sulla used the military assembly (comitia centuriata) to annul all legislation passed by Sulpicius and to proclaim that all business to be submitted to the people should be dealt with in the comitia centuriata , while nothing at all was to be brought to the people before it received senatorial approval.
In effect this took away any which the tribal assembly (comitia tributa) and the plebeian assembly (concilium plebis) possessed. Also it reduced the power of the tribunes, who until then had been able to use the people’s assemblies to by-pass the senate.
Naturally, it also increased the power of the senate.
Sulla did not interfere in the elections for the offices of consul, but to demand from the successful candidate, L. Cornelius Cinna, not to reverse any of the changes he had made.
This done Sulla left with his forces to fight Mithridates in the east (87 BC).
Marius and Cinna take Power
Though in his absence Cinna revived the legislation and the methods of Sulpicius. When violence broke out in the city, he appealed to the troops in Italy and practically revived the Social War. Marius returned form exile and joined him, though he appeared more intent on revenge than on anything else.
Rome lay defenceless before the conquerors. The city’s gates to Marius and Cinna. In the week’s reign of terror which followed, Marius wreaked his revenge on his enemies.
After the brief but hideous orgy of blood-lust which alarmed Cinna and disgusted their allies in the senate, Marius seized his seventh consulship without election. But he died a fortnight later (January, 87 BC).
Cinna remained sole master and consul of Rome until he was killed in the course of a mutiny in 84 BC.
The power fell to an ally of Cinna’s, namely Cn. Papirius Carbo.
First Mithridatic War
When the Social War had broken out, Rome was fully occupied with its own affairs. Mithridates VI, king of Pontus, used Rome’s preoccupation to invade the province of Asia. Half of the province of Achaea (Greece), Athens taking the lead, rose against its Roman rulers, supported by Mithridates.
When Sulla arrived at Athens, the city’s fortifications proved too much for him to charge. Instead he starved them out, whilst his lieutenant, Lucius Lucullus, raised a fleet to force Mithridates out of the Aegean Sea.
Early in 86 BC Athens fell to the Romans.
Though Archelaus, the ablest general of Mithridates, now threatened with a large army from Thessaly. Sulla marched against him with a force only a sixth in size and shattered his army at Chaeronea.
A Roman consul, Valerius Flaccus, now landed with fresh forces in Epirus, to relieve Sulla of his command. But Sulla had no intention of relinquishing his power. News reached him that general Archelaus had landed another huge force. Immediately he turned southwards and destroyed this force at Orchomenus.
Meanwhile Flaccus, avoiding a conflict with Sulla, headed toward Asia seeking to engage Mithridates himself. Though he never reached it. His second-in-command, C. Flavius Fimbria, led a mutiny against him, killed him and assumed command himself. Fimbria crossed the straights and started operations in Asia.
Meanwhile Sulla opened negotiations with the defeated Archelaus. An conference was arranged in 85 BC between Sulla and Mithridates and a treaty was struck by which Mithridates was to surrender his conquests to Rome and retreat behind the borders he’d held before the war. So too, was Pontus to hand over a fleet of seventy ships and pay a tribute.
It now remained to settle the problem of Fimbria, who could only hope to excuse his mutiny with some success. With the war over and Sulla closing on him with his troops, his situation was hopeless. Alas, his troops deserted him and Fimbria committed suicide.
Therefore, in 84 BC, his campaigns a total success, Sulla could start making his was back to Rome.
Sulla becomes Dictator
Sulla should arrive back in Italy in the spring of 83 BC and marched on Rome determined to restore his will upon the city.
But the Roman government controlled greater troops than his own, more so the Samnites wholeheartedly flung themselves into the struggle against Sulla, who to them represented senatorial privilege and the denial of citizenship to the Italians.
Alas, it came to the decisive Battle of the Colline Gate in August 82 BC, where fifty thousand men lost their lives.
Sulla emerged victorious at the Battle of the Colline Gate and so became the master of the Roman world.
Sulla in no way lacked any of the blood-lust displayed by Marius. Three days after the battle he ordered all of the eight thousand prisoners taken on the battle field to be massacred in cold blood.
Soon after Sulla was appointed dictator for so long as he might think fit to retain office.
He issued a series of proscriptions – lists of people who were to have their property taken and who were to be killed. The people killed in these purges were not only supporters of Marius and Cinna, but so too people Sulla simply disliked or held a grudge against.
The lives of the people of Rome were entirely in Sulla’s hands. He could have them killed or he could spare them. One he chose to spare was a dissolute young patrician, whose father’s sister had been the wife of Marius, and who himself was the husband of Cinna’s daughter – Gaius Julius Caesar.
Sulla’s second Reforms
Sulla took charge of the constitution in 81 BC. All the power of the state would henceforth lay in the hands of the senate.The Tribunes of the People and the people’s assemblies had been by the democrats to overthrow the senate. Tribunes were to be barred from all further office and the assemblies were deprived of the power of initiating any legislation. The senatorial control of the courts was restored at the expense of the equestrians.
There were to be no more repeated consulships, like those of Marius and Cinna.
Consuls were not to hold military command until, after their year of office, they went abroad as proconsuls, when their power could only be exercised in their respective province.
Then in 79 BC Sulla lay down his powers as dictator and devoted his remaining months to the enjoyment of wild parties. He died in 78 BC.
Although the Roman Republic technically still had some fifty years to go, Sulla pretty much represents its demise. He should stand as an example to others to come that is was possible to take Rome by force and rule it, if only one was strong and ruthlessness enough to do what ever deeds were required.