Marius and Sulla – Tyrants of Rome

23 Nov

Marius and Sulla are not well known names now, but they were giants of the early first century BC. Ruthless, violent, single minded, they both had their sights set on ultimate power in Rome. Marius made his play first while Sulla was away, then Sulla came back to town and showed him how it should be done.

Born in 157BC, Marius was almost twenty years older than Sulla. He was from the equestrian class – well off, but not as rich as people from the senatorial class, like Sulla. He managed to rise to high political and military positions with help from aristocratic backers and by proving his own merits.

Marius was the kind of man you wanted to have on your side in a war. He was a ruthless commander who impressed ordinary soldiers with his willingness to suffer the same conditions as them, and impressed voters with his ability to get the job done in Rome’s wars. (He impressed them so much that he had been consul six times by the time of his final run-in with Sulla, and there was a prophecy, which may have been made up by Marius, that he would go on to have seventh consulship.)

When there wasn’t a war on, however, Marius was a bit of a spare part and ended up getting involved in fairly dirty politics. Fortunately for Marius, there were plenty of wars during his lifetime. Apart from his military victories and record number of consulships, Marius has two other claims to fame. Apparently, he was the man who first came up with the idea of making Roman javelin heads weak on one side. This meant that while they could still stick your enemy, once they had landed the neck would be bent and the enemy wouldn’t be able to throw them back at you. Clever.

The other, more significant thing, is that he was the first to recruit soldiers who didn’t meet the property qualification. This was from necessity, not planning, but it meant that these new rectruits didn’t have a farm to go back to when the war ended and had to rely on their general to be successful and be able to provide them with land he had captured. It was the beginning of a professional army, but it was also the beginning of armies that were loyal to their commanders, not to Rome, and that opened the door to the civil wars that racked Rome in the first century BC, and terminated with Augustus becoming Emperor.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla was from the senatorial class, a noble, but not very well off at the start of his life. A couple of legacies from women who were fond of him put that right, and he got his first break in the political arena under Marius. Sulla was chosen to serve under Marius as a quaestor (a junior politician) and in 107BC Marius took Sulla with him to Africa, which had been appointed as his field of command. The African king Jugurtha was defying Rome and Marius made a lot of progress in the war against him. It was Sulla, however, who captured Jugurtha alive by the risky strategy of trusting Jugurtha’s uncle, Bocchus, to betray his nephew to Sulla rather than the other way around. This was infuriating for Marius and from that moment on there was ill-feeling between Marius and Sulla. It didn’t help that Sulla had his signet ring inscribed with a picture of Jugurtha being handed over to him, or that Bocchus donated to Rome the same image hammered into a gold frieze.

Marius and Sulla’s animosity towards each other didn’t come to anything until the end of the Social War (91 – 89BC), a particularly nasty war since the Romans were fighting mainly against former allies. It had grown out of decades of political strife and violence over the question of land and citizenship for non-Roman Italians.

At the tail end of the Social War Marius started to take action against Sulla. He enlisted the help of a rabble-rousing tribune (a powerful politician outside the senate) called Sulpicius who had a group of six hundred supporters he called “the anti-senate”. Through sly dealing and plenty of violence they managed to get the real senate to withdraw the allocation of a command in Asia to Sulla, and give it to Marius instead, even though by this time Marius was getting rather old to be leading big campaigns. Marius was never satisfied with what he had, and the prospect of winning huge riches by defeating King Mithridates was too tempting to pass up.

When Sulla heard about this he took the army he had, which was all ready to go to Asia and fight Mithridates, and turned it towards Rome instead. This was the first time a Roman army had marched against the city of Rome, but it wouldn’t be the last. Sulla took control of the city, reversed all of the laws passed by Sulpicius, and had Sulpicius and Marius declared public enemies, so that they had to escape Rome or die. Sulpicius died, but Marius, after lots of adventures, made it to Africa where there were ex-soldiers who were loyal to him.

After sorting out the situation in Rome, Sulla acted as if life were going on as normal. He sent his army out of the city and performed his normal duties as consul (similar to a prime minister) until the end of the year. Then he went off to fight Mithridates as he had intended to do to start with. Sulla, who gave himself the nickname “lucky”, had a series of wonderful victories in western Asia and the Balkans, but while he was out of the picture Marius’ friends were active. With their help, Marius was soon back. He besieged Rome into submission, and then set about wreaking his bloody revenge on anyone who had ever opposed him, failed to help him, or even annoyed him. It got so bad that the gang of violent slaves who formed Marius’ huge bodyguard took it as a signal to kill people if they said hello to Marius and he didn’t say anything in reply. With Rome under his bloody thumb, Marius was elected consul a seventh time, as the prophecy had said. Much good it did him – he died of pleurisy just a couple of weeks later.

Sulla’s wife, Metella, managed to escape to him in Greece with their children, but most of his other friends and family had been killed. Furious, Sulla turned towards Rome. It wasn’t as simple as walking into Rome because Marius’ supporters, including his son, put up a fierce fight. Sulla had a well-trained army, though, and the support of a lot of the senate, who had been terrified by Marius’ random violence. They were prepared to welcome Sulla with open arms when he won.

He wasn’t quite the saviour they were looking for. Instead of restoring the state to its usual condition, Sulla declared himself dictator – sole ruler indefinitely, with the right to make up laws. Where Marius had been random and unpredictable in his violence, Sulla was much more organised. He made lists. Everyone on the lists, which were published, was declared an enemy of Rome. It was illegal to shelter them and there was a reward for anyone who kiled them. What was more, all their property was forfeit to the state, meaning that plenty of people ended up on the lists who had done nothing wrong except own a nice seaside villa or vineyard. This was called proscription, and it was one of the most sinister periods of Roman history.

Sulla was a man of contradictions, and while he was making the streets of Rome run with (largely innocent) blood, he was also using his power as dictator to bring in perfectly sensible laws about the regulations for holding political office, and he added new people to the senate to bring it back to full strength after all the murders. Then, after he had done all of this, he voluntarily retired from the position of dictator, remarried (Metella having died) and lived a quiet life until he died after a short illness a few years later, at the age of sixty. So both Marius and Sulla, who lived by violence, didn’t die by it. The legacy they left was more in keeping with their violent lives, though: Catiline, who failed in his armed struggle to become ruler of Rome in 63BC, and Pompey, who fought Julius Caesar for control of the Empire, got their training in civil bloodshed as Sulla’s supporters. Marius and Sulla’s civil war with each other set the stage for the more famous civil wars which were to follow.

If you want to read more:

Plutarch Life of Marius, Life of Sulla (easy, fun)

Appian The Civil Wars (a bit heavy, lots of detail)

Sallust The Jugurthine War, The Conspiracy of Catiline (pretty easy, exciting, reads like a novel)


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