Plutarch described Marcus Antonius as a man with “simplicity in his nature, and slowness of perception.” In this, he had always been a mixed blessing for Julius Caesar. On one hand, He was one of his most loyal supporters, and an inspired field commander. He had rescued Caesar from potential destruction at Pompey’s hands at Dyrrachium, showing up with reinforcements in the nick of time, and had performed masterfully at the Battle of Pharsalus. However, in matters political, Antony was a mess. He was an infamous drinker and debaucher, showing up at state matters hung-over and even vomiting drunk on occasion. When Antony stood as Caesar’s surrogate in overseeing Rome, he governed impulsively, high-handedly and with disdain for anyone but the military. The violence sparked by his personal clash with the tribune Dolabella was easily the low point of his tenure. The ill will he generated toward Caesar had to have given the dictator pause in trusting his lieutenant with more than limited responsibility.
For Brutus, Cassius and the conspirators, Antony was even more of a conundrum. As Caesar’s close friend, he held the potential for tremendous influence, yet never seemed to make much of it in practice. Would he be an asset, a liability, a needless distraction or a mortal threat? In the debate over killing Caesar, the subject ranged from recruiting Antony to killing him. Ultimately, they decided to do neither.
In the moment of Caesar’s assassination, Antony initially reacted true to form, fleeing to his house disguised as a slave. However, when he realized the Liberators were not planning a general slaughter, he approached them with the offer of a general amnesty. The Liberators had misread the political zeitgeist badly in killing Caesar, and were in no position to rein in the political chaos they had touched off on their own. Reluctantly, they allied with Antony, hoping to utilize him in the short term as a junior partner in restoring order.
As William Shakespeare famously demonstrated, Antony surprised virtually everyone with his uncharacteristic quick thinking and strategy. He seized control of the vast war-chest Caesar had stockpiled for his Parthian War and got his hands on Caesar’s will with the assistance of his widow Calpurnia. This revealed that Caesar planned to leave a substantial fortune to the people of Rome, which Antony would use to garner sympathy. At the dictator’s funeral, he undermined the Liberators with the subtlety of a pitcher plant, lulling them first with sweetness, then turning that nectar into acid against them. He whipped the Roman mob into such a frenzy that they rioted in the streets, burning Brutus and Cassius’s houses and murdering a poet who shared the name of a conspirator (Cornelius Cinna). The conspirators fled for their lives, leaving Antony in place as the new master of Rome.
This was Marcus Antonius at the height of his fortunes. He wasted no time in attending to Caesar’s mistakes, separating friend from foe in the Senate and brutally massacring those who fell into the latter category. This included Marcus Tullius Cicero, a lifelong foe who Antony had beheaded for his personal attacks in the Senate. Over the next two years, Antony destroyed the murderers of Caesar one by one, ultimately felling Brutus and Cassius in spectacular fashion at the Battle of Philippi.
Philippi effectively ended the Roman Republic as we know it. Yet it was not quite the beginning of a new Roman world order. For all of his success, Antony was not to be the coming man. He had displayed brilliant tactical prowess and opportunism, but remained a poor long-term strategist. These weaknesses would be laid bare all too soon by the man who would actually usher in Rome’s new, autocratic age.
PART X: THE HAIRY MAN FALLS
This segment focuses on two key, opposing yet oddly complementary failures: Caesar's ultimate failure to become king, and his successors' failure to halt Rome's slide toward one-man rule. It seems fitting that, since I began the section on Julius Caesar on the anniversary of his death, I am concluding it on the anniversary of his birth (July 13).
In the last segment, our intrepid dictator was at last on the top of the heap, wallowing in victory, reveling in praise, and drunk with glory. But as any victorious politician quickly discovers, the champagne runs dry, the balloons deflate, the bunting comes down, and the hard, ugly work of governing must begin. This was harder and uglier for Caesar than for your average head-of-state. The Senate had declared him dictator in perpetuum, or dictator-for-life, effectively giving him one-man rule. However, his position remained tenuous, as it depended on the compliance of the existing system. Caesar wanted to uproot this system, firmly cementing his power to become nothing less than an absolute monarch. The way to this goal was through the Roman people and the legions, with whom he was tremendously popular. The mob was his base of support, the legions a cudgel against his enemies, and as long as he had their backing, the Senate could do nothing against him.
The irony was that the Roman masses upon whom he depended would never accept him (or anyone else) as a king. Hatred for monarchs burned just as brightly in Rome as it had nearly five hundred years before, when Lucius Junius Brutus toppled Tarquin the Proud. Caesar came up hard against this reality during an incident at the Festival of Lupercalia in February, 44 B.C. He staged an event where Mark Antony would present him with a crown wrapped in laurel, which Caesar would refuse. He hoped that his enormous popularity would stir the crowd to demand that he accept the office of king, but they cheered loudly only when he refused it. Antony offered it twice more, with Caesar refusing both times, and each time the crowd cheered louder. This infuriated the dictator, and he later took his frustrations out on two tribunes who were removing similar crowns from his statues (to great public acclaim) by stripping them of their offices. This was a very unpopular move with the public, and was one of the few public relations missteps the otherwise savvy Caesar made. Yet it spoke to the tremendous difficulty he was suddenly finding in moving his agenda forward.
Ultimately, Caesar's grand experiment never got to play out, due to his other great failing: his incredible hubris. Caesar had come to believe (like many of his supporters had) that he was invincible, as no enemies remained to challenge him. He had made a practice of forgiving the followers of his vanquished enemies, perhaps to avoid appearing as a bloodthirsty tyrant as Sulla had, perhaps to make the Romans amenable to his potential example as king, or perhaps because he just had a pathological need to be loved. Anyway, he surrounded himself with these "friends", not considering that to be forgiven was not the same as to be reformed. As a result, a conspiracy coalesced around a group of these men, senators calling themselves "The Liberators" and led by Marcus Junius Brutus (descendant of the king-toppling Brutus) and Gaius Cassius Longinus. The incident at the Lupercalia was the last straw in Caesar's mountainous hay bale of tyranny, and to preserve representative democracy, they made the obvious choice on March 15, 44 B.C....
MURDER MOSH PIT!!!
Twenty-three stab wounds later, Caesar lay dead at the feet of a statue of Pompey, symbolically defeated by his enemy (and don't think this wasn't intentional on the part of the Liberators). Having righted one wrong with another, Brutus and his fellow Underpants Gnomes lay back on their giant pile of skivvies and waited for the profits to roll in. Or, if you aren't familiar with this South Park reference, they reclined upon their laurels and waited for democracy to re-assert itself.
Like the Underpants Gnomes, the conspirators skipped their own Step 2 in restoring the Republic: making sure that they had a popular base of support for committing tyrannicide. Sure, the senatorial class hated Caesar, just as they had hated every popular reformer since the Gracchi. As part of this class, the Liberators were certain of the justness of their cause. But being the insular, classist snobs that they were, they did not deign to ask what the plebs thought about it. As it turned out, they misread the popular reaction badly. Rather than rescuing the Republic, they had sped it to its doom, one that would reach out and claim all of them only five days later, at the dictator's funeral. The harbinger of this doom would be one that none of them (save perhaps Cassius) would have expected.
NEXT: AN EMPIRE RISES
PART IX: THE HAIRY MAN TAKES IT ALL
In the last segment, it was 48 B.C. Caesar was on his way to Greece, in hot pursuit of Pompey the Great and his enemies in the Senate. Caesar had displayed some incredible chutzpah so far, winning hand after hand in this game of poker mostly through elaborate bluffing. However, his tricks were running out, his moves were becoming more predictable, and the risks were becoming greater and greater with each new confrontation.
Caesar’s army clashed with Pompey first at Dyrrachium in Epirus, and was very nearly destroyed. Pompey finally realized that he had more troops than Caesar (outnumbering him two to one), and did his level best to trap his adversary and nearly overwhelm him. He delivered the dictator his first tactical defeat, but failed to capitalize on it by moving too slowly to pursue Caesar as he retreated. Caesar managed to escape to fight another day.
That day came on the plain of Pharsalus in Thessaly. Caesar was still badly outnumbered by Pompey, and his troops were in a state of low morale and exhaustion. Yet Pompey seemed terminally afflicted with indecision and doubt, partly inflicted by Caesar’s veneer of invulnerability and partly from all of the contradicting advice he was getting from his Senate allies. He did not order a charge against Caesar’s forces, but waited defensively as Caesar covered the distance between the two armies and initiated the first attack. Had Pompey gone on the offensive, it is possible he could have broken Caesar’s precariously thin battle lines and won the day, but by not taking the initiative, he let Caesar establish the terms of battle. Through skillful placement of his best troops and the use of subterfuge and surprise, Caesar routed Pompey’s cavalry and smashed his left wing, then aggressively pursued his army as it turned to flee.
Pompey threw off his general’s cloak and fled the field, soon quitting Greece altogether. He sailed to Egypt, hoping to find refuge with the family of his old ally, Ptolemy XII, as well as a new base from which to recruit. But the 13-year-old Ptolemy XIII now ruled Egypt, and he felt it more prudent to acquiesce to a conquering enemy than to defend a defeated friend. Pompey was stabbed to death and beheaded by a Roman mercenary, one of his own former soldiers, as he was stepping onto the shore.
Pursuing Pompey to Egypt, Caesar was enraged to discover Ptolemy had murdered him, which may have influenced him to to take sides in a civil war against the boy-king. Of course, the fact that Ptolemy’s rival was the crafty, charismatic and charming Cleopatra VII likely enticed the old goat as well. (The story goes that she had her servants smuggle her into Caesar's quarters rolled in a carpet, and he then proceeded to...unroll...her.)
Once again, Caesar waded into circumstances that threatened to overwhelm him, only to triumph by the force of sheer ballsiness, crushing Ptolemy’s forces and setting the young Cleopatra on the throne as Egypt's queen and Rome's client. Notably, their infant son, Caesarion, was next in line to the throne.
Meanwhile, back in Rome, Mark Antony, the young rapscallion who represented Caesar’s interests so poorly to the Senate, was now continuing his losing streak. Antony was a skilled soldier and a competent commander in the field, but he was no Caesar in the political arena. Lacking any real interest in winning friends and influencing people, he vetoed popular legislation (including a debt forgiveness bill that would have benefitted Caesar’s own troops) and picked personal fights with lawmakers, including a tribune named Dolabella who he suspected had slept with his wife. This escalated into open conflict, with Dolabella seizing the Forum and Antony unleashing the troops on him and his supporters, creating so much chaos that Caesar had to pause the pursuit of his enemies to return and restore order. This likely created a rift between Caesar and his lieutenant that sowed the seeds for later discord, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The next three years were a wild race around the Mediterranean for Caesar. He chased his Senatorial enemies to every corner of the compass, swatting King Pharnaces of Pontus like a fly and conquering northern Asia Minor in a war so brief that it produced his famously glib phrase “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered). Caesar raced to North Africa next, trouncing Marcus Porcius Cato and his phalanx of elephants at Thapsus and biting off Numidia as a Roman territory.
It was in Spain that Caesar’s luck nearly ran out. At Munda in 45 B.C., he faced off against Pompey’s sons Gnaeus and Sextus. Gnaeus was a significantly more aggressive general than his father, and his troops much more desperate; no trickery or bluff would help Caesar prevail this time. Munda was a bloody slugfest, an eight-hour pushing match that included Caesar and generals on both sides fighting in the ranks with their troops. Tens of thousands of Romans died in the onslaught. Caesar, much less glibly this time, said of the battle that he had fought many times for victory, but at Munda he had to fight for his life.
And yet, ballsiness once again carried the day. Caesar out-pushed Gnaeus’s forces, forcing him and Sextus to flee, Gnaeus was captured and executed, while Sextus escaped. Nonetheless, Pompeian resistance was broken, and the civil war was over. Caesar returned to Rome to celebrate a quadruple triumph (Gaul, Egypt, Asia, Africa). An exhausted, cowed and compliant Senate appointed him dictator for ten years and then in perpetuum, effectively for life. Crapulent with success, Caesar went about remaking the Roman world in his image, revising the calendar (Julian, for those of you wondering), getting a month renamed in his honor (do I need to say which one?) and prepping for the hardest sell of his life: convincing the Romans to declare him a king.
Caesar also made plans for one last flourish of military glory: the conquest of the Parthian Empire. This was purportedly to “avenge” Crassus’s completely justified beheading. “Invasion Tour 44” planned to sweep the entire Middle East (and possibly India?) into the Roman dominions, then turn north and west to conquer the rising kingdom of Dacia and environs in-between, leaving time for lunch and a relaxing bath before returning to Rome and a new golden age. Caesar would finally surpass all other conquerors, including his idol Alexander, and unite the known world under the rule of a god-king.
This undertaking was to begin on March 18, 44 B.C.
Barring any complications, of course…
NEXT: A HAIRY MAN FALLS, AND AN EMPIRE RISES
PART VIII: THE HAIRY MAN GOES TO WAR (2)
When last we left our intrepid Hairy Man, it was 49 B.C., and he was crouched in Cisalpine Gaul like a spider, ready to descend into Italy with his army in an act of war against the Senate and the people of Rome. However, we are not ready to cross this Rubicon yet. Before we can irrevocably cast the die, we must rewind seven years and revisit the rest of the supporting cast in Gaius Julius Caesar's tragicomedy, namely our old friends Pompey, Crassus and Cicero.
Julius Caesar was a master multi-tasker two millennia before the term would even be conceived, keeping plates spinning from one end of the Roman world to the other, maintaining his hegemony as he fought his war in Gaul. However, one of these plates started to wobble badly almost as soon as he left Rome. Clodius Pulcher, the hedonistic aristocrat-turned-tribune Caesar had used to avoid prosecution, had very nearly gone mad with power. He ran roughshod across Rome, using gangs of thugs to enforce his will and to attack and harass anyone who crossed him. He had turned on Pompey after the general had dared to criticize his excesses, laying siege to him in his own home with his gang army and even attempting an assassination. This led to Pompey raising his own gangs to combat Clodius, with titanic violence breaking out every time a vote on legislation came to the Senate or the tribunal. Crassus played both sides against the middle, angering Pompey and threatening the Triumvirate. Somewhere in all of this, Clodius turned against Caesar and tried to have all of his legislation declared illegal. Something had to be done.
In 56 B.C., Caesar called Pompey and Crassus to the northern Italian city of Lucca to save their three-way bromance. Caesar arranged for the two to run jointly for the consulship in 55 B.C. Caesar would send thousands of his own soldiers to Rome to vote for them. Following this, Crassus would be awarded control of the province of Syria, and Pompey would be allowed to retain his political stronghold in Spain. In exchange for this, Pompey and Crassus would extend Caesar's provincial control for another five years. A new deal was struck, and there were kisses all around.
Yet despite his efforts, this Romancing of the Bros began to fall apart only a few years later, culminating with the death of Crassus. Crassus had very good reason to want control of Syria. It was to be the staging ground for his massive invasion of the Parthian Empire (modern Iraq and Iran). Crassus, though wildly successful in all realms fiduciary, could never get past his crazy jealousy of his fellow triumvirs' military glory, of which he had none. No matter how many times they told him how pretty he was, this insecurity gnawed, and from this came his idea to confront one of Rome's last great rivals in an unprovoked attack.
Unfortunately, an army and a chip on your shoulder does not a brilliant general make, and in 53 B.C., Crassus very quickly blundered into trouble only shortly after entering Parthian territory, near the city of Carrhae. The Parthians' secret weapons were the armored knight (called a cataphract) and the horse-archer, and they used them to great effect against Crassus's largely horseless legions. Much of his army was pincushioned with arrows, and Crassus himself was taken prisoner while negotiating his surrender. One version of his death says that he was beheaded. Another far more lurid version says that the Parthians, well-aware of his vast wealth, forced Crassus to drink molten gold for his avarice.
Things had already begun to deteriorate with Pompey. To seal the deal with him at the launch of the Triumvirate, Caesar had given his daughter, Julia, away to Pompey in marriage. It was apparently a love-match, but it ended in tragedy in 54 B.C., when Julia died in childbirth. From this point, relations between Caesar and Pompey, which were already on the rocks due to their respective envy, became irreparable. Optimate resistance to Caesar rallied about Pompey. Cicero was recalled from exile by the general in another swipe at his former ally. Pompey even married the daughter of a prominent Optimate senator. Pushed by the virulently anti-Caesar senator Marcus Porcius Cato, he supported the Senate, albeit hesitantly, when, in 50 B.C., they recalled Caesar to Rome to stand trial for crimes committed during his consulship, on his behalf by Clodius and in the Gallic Wars. (Clodius, by-the-by, was stabbed to death in a brawl between his supporters and a rival gang leader. Neither here nor there, but a fitting end to the douchebag, IMHO.)
So, whither Caesar? His tricks had run out. His allies in Rome had turned against him. His loyalists in the Senate, Quintus Cassius and a young rapscallion named Mark Antony, had been run out of town on a rail after trying to veto legislation against him. The Senate gave him an ultimatum: resign your command, return to Rome or be branded an "enemy of the people." It looked pretty rough, until you considered that Caesar had a much better understanding of who the people were. The ones that mattered, the mob, was on his side. His army was fanatically loyal to him. The hand he held was powerful. But did he dare consider playing it?
With a single legion, Caesar marched to the Rubicon River on January 10, 49 B.C. This was the border of Italy, which if crossed in arms by a Roman general meant civil war. Caesar inspired his troops with something nonchalant and ballsy ("Alea iacta est" - the die is cast) and crossed into history, or infamy, depending on which side of the Rubicon you were watching from.
Caesar's entry into Italy did not surprise Pompey so much as his speed did. Unaware that he possessed only one legion, this sent the Senate into a panic. Pompey had raised levies of his own, and technically outnumbered Caesar, but many of his soldiers were raw recruits, while Caesar's were battle-hardened veterans of Gaul. Moreover, a goodly number of Pompey's soldiers were veterans of Caesar's armies, and it was uncertain how they would perform against their former general. Showing significantly more indecisiveness than he did against Mithridates, Pompey dithered until it was almost too late, then gave the order for his legions and supporters to evacuate Rome. He retreated south to the heel of Italy, eventually giving up the boot entirely as he fled to Greece. Caesar succeeded in trapping thirty cohorts of his army, which surrendered and joined his forces. He then marched to Spain in an unheard-of 27 days to destroy Pompey's forces at Ilerda, absorbing them into his army as well. In December, he returned to Rome and was declared dictator by the remaining Senate.
Was the war over, the Republic now dead? Far from it. Pompey was still at large, with a sizeable force in Greece and several of his worst enemies in tow. As his uncle Marius had discovered the hard way, bad pennies like these kept turning up if they weren't dealt with. He would have to take the fight to them to secure his coveted one-man rule, and do a lot of hard-selling to convince the Roman people to accept it. He would ultimately find the former far less difficult than the latter.
NEXT: THE HAIRY MAN TAKES IT ALL
PART VII: THE HAIRY MAN GOES TO WAR (1)
So, Julie C!
You've just completed one of the most contentious consulships in Roman history, checkmated your wealthy enemies in the Senate, and left a virtual criminal in Rome to maintain your policies with the threat of mob violence, terror and bloodshed! What do you do next?
"I'm going to Gallic-land!"
And that's precisely what he did in 58 B.C., setting off from Rome to take command of the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul. Caesar was in a precarious position politically. He was deep in debt from his political campaigns, and had made hundreds of powerful foes in Rome who were sharpening their knives. He had secured a provincial governorship (and immunity for prosecution) for an unprecedented five years, but would be at the mercy of his enemies the very moment it ended. Caesar had to use his time wisely if he was going to escape scot-free. But what could he possibly do to effect this?
1. Create a national emergency. Transalpine Gaul sat just south of Gaul proper, home of the fierce warrior people who had infamously sacked Rome three hundred years earlier (See Part II). As a result, Rome hated and feared the Gallic people beyond almost all others. At the moment Caesar became governor, a tribe of Gauls, the Helvetii, were planning a migration from the Gallic interior to the coast that would pass through Roman territory. The chieftains of the tribe promised the Romans it would be a peaceful migration, but Caesar deliberately stalled the negotiations to buy time to mobilize his legions and fortify the province. Caesar claimed that the kings of the Helvetii and another tribe, the Sequani, were colluding to use the migration as a pretext to conquer the rest of Gaul. The Helvetii did attack the Aedui, a Roman ally, who called to Caesar for help. He sent three legions to attack the Helvetii, warriors and non-combatant families both, as they were crossing a river. Following a slaughter, Caesar sent his legions after the portion of the tribe that had gotten away, launching a war that would last for seven years and drag in the entire Gallic nation. This war was considered an illegal act by many in the Senate, but it thrilled the hearts of the average Roman citizen, who saw Caesar as defending Roman national interests against a mortal enemy.
2. Kill a LOT of people, and take their wealth.
Gaul was actually not the barbaric nation of stereotype, but was organized and civilized on relative par with Rome, down to cities, technology, trade and agriculture. However, it was divided along tribal lines, which made unity against a common threat difficult. Caesar recognized this, and used the Roman alliance with the Aedui as an excuse to cudgel tribe after tribe that presented a threat to them, certain that others would not come to their aid. He swathed his way back and forth across Gaul this way, conquering tribe after tribe and even warring against nations and kings that were friends to the Roman Senate. The historian Plutarch estimated that 2 million Gauls were killed or enslaved, numbers that today would rank Caesar as one of the bloodiest war criminals in history. Caesar's senatorial rivals concurred, although not out of any real concern for the Gauls, but fear of how bloody popular it was making him with the plebs! It goes without saying that the wealth Caesar raked in from his conquests and proscriptions was utterly staggering, and more than eliminated his debts from his consulship.
3. Stunts. Lots of 'em. The wackier the better.
It can be argued that Caesar may very well have been operating in the interests of national security by attacking the Gauls (at least at first). However, several of the side campaigns he engaged in were little more than showboating for the crowd. He led a raid into Germany, literal terra incognita to the Romans, to punish the Suebi and other German tribes for interfering in Gaul, and built the first bridges across the Rhine. His campaigns led him to the shores of Europe, where he subdued the seafaring Veneti tribe in a protracted sea campaign. But his biggest daredevil coup was leaving the Continent entirely to invade the shadowy island of Britain in 55 and 54 B.C. To the Romans, Caesar might as well have launched an invasion of Mars. Never mind that it was very nearly a debacle and held no strategic importance whatsoever; it was exotic, and daring, and pushed Caesar's reputation to heights that threatened to eclipse Pompey the Great.
4. Gamble like a madman.
"Go big or go home" might have been Caesar's motto; he was a man who delighted in pushing the envelope, and it very nearly cost him his life on a number of occasions. In 57 B.C., his army was taken by surprise during a battle against the Belgae by the Nervii tribe, one of the fiercest warrior nations in Gaul. A massive force of them inflicted horrendous casualties on the Romans, killing most of Caesar's officers and threatening to envelop and annihilate them. It took Caesar picking up a shield and personally rallying the legions to give them the will to hold out until reinforcements arrived, whereupon they eventually repulsed and wiped out the Nervii force.
However, Caesar's ballsiest move in the Gallic Wars was during the siege of Alesia. The Gallic tribes, faced with utter defeat, finally united in a confederation under the chief Vercingetorix to repulse the Romans. Vercingetorix initially brought the fight to Rome in a big way, laying siege to Roman legions at Avaricum and actually defeating the Romans at Gergovia. However, Vercingetorix ultimately settled on a defensive strategy, fortifing and holding the strategic town of Alesia against the Romans and counting on reinforcements to break any attempted siege. Caesar did lay siege to Alesia, encircling it with a wooden wall. However, he also built a second wall around his own army to defend against a gigantic Gallic relief force. Outnumbered two-to-one and attacked from both sides, Caesar's army repulsed every assault, holding out even when the outer defenses were breached. In spite of the overwhelming odds of defeat, the Romans succeeded in breaking Vercingetorix's army, and effectively ending the war in Gaul. This launched Caesar's fame into the stratosphere and gave him a reputation of invincibility in battle.
5. Own the message.
Caesar owed a significant amount of his success to the fact that he was a better communicator than most of his rivals. His optimate enemies took pride in the fact that they were "superior" to the hoi polloi, and they dressed, spoke and behaved in the rarified manners that underscored this separation. Caesar understood that his power lay with the plebs, and he did not hesitate to speak directly to their level. As a result, he was able to convince them that, in his heart, he was "one of the people." This public relations genius extended to his messaging for the wars in Gaul. Caesar wrote his own historical account of the Gallic Wars (officially called "Commentaries" to avoid being taken to task for its many glaring historical mistakes and omissions) in the vernacular of the common people, with no rhetorical flights of fancy. Clean, straightforward and dynamic, Caesar's account remains one of the most readable and approachable Latin texts to this day. By controlling the message, Caesar was able to whitewash his defeats and his egregious crimes against Gallic civilians, once again hamstringing his critics and embellishing his image to near godlike proportions with the people.
Still, all wars, good and bad, have to end sometime. Caesar had strung things out for as long as he could, working allies, dividing enemies and utilizing every loophole he could to avoid a return to private citizenship. But by 50 B.C., all of his tricks had run out. The Senate was frothing at the mouth to prosecute him, and demanded he relinquish control of his province and his legions and return to Rome, where he was sure to be branded an "enemy of the state" and likely executed. Yet the Caesar that returned to Rome was a far more powerful beast than the one that left, with the support of several battle-tested legions and the vast plebeian classes cheering him on. The master gambler had taken the house for its shirt, pants and suspenders, and was now in a position to strip it of the keys to the front door. We'll see just how hard a republic can fall in the next segment.
NEXT: THE HAIRY MAN GOES TO WAR (2)
PART VI: THE ARRIVAL OF THE HAIRY MAN
In ancient Roman culture, all men had two names, and some had three or more. The first name was the praenomen, one of about twenty or so first names that every man had as a formality. The second name was the nomen, the family name, which told which gens, or clan, you came from. The third name was the cognomen, a nickname that was ascribed to you, or, in later history, one inherited from an ancestor to identify your branch of the gens.
Today, we recognize ancient Romans most readily by their cognomen. When translated, a lot of them sound oddly similar to old-fashioned mob nicknames, such as Caligula ("Little Boots"), Cicero ("Chickpea"), and Scaevola ("Left-Handed"). However, the most famous of these cognomen, and one of the strangest under the circumstances, is also believed to mean "Hairy":
And no bearer of this cognomen leaps more immediately to mind than the man who signaled the beginning of the end of Rome's republic: GAIUS JULIUS CAESAR.
Yet for the first forty years of his life, this man with the famous (if silly out-of-context) name did little of historical note. Born circa 100 B.C., he hailed from an old if undistinguished patrician family whose fortunes were beginning to rise around the time of his birth. (Tellingly, Caesar's uncle was none other than Gaius Marius.) Caesar's personal fortunes took a dive when his father died when he was just 15, and went into free-fall after his uncle's faction was annihilated by Sulla. Offered the choice of divorcing his wife (the daughter of a Marian ally) and losing his life, Caesar did neither and went into hiding, and his inheritance was confiscated. He was only pardoned after the vociferous lobbying of his mother's family, which included prominent Sullan allies. Sulla did this reluctantly, and was reputed to say he saw "many a Marius" in Caesar.
Even after Sulla died, Caesar's career only managed to bump along for the next decade. He served with distinction in the army, was captured by pirates, was freed, hunted down the pirates with his own resources and had them crucified, and eventually began a political career around the age of 30. Caesar did not lack for ambition. Yet his relative lack of success was stark next to that of his contemporaries Crassus and Pompey. Encountering a statue of Alexander the Great in Spain, he broke down weeping upon realizing how much Alexander had achieved, while he by the same age had done nothing.
Perhaps this was the moment that galvanized him, and drove his rapacious arc through the Senate over the next decade. Caesar was nothing if not a student of history, and history had taught him the following: the Senate had lost the ability to govern the empire; institutions of government were only as strong as the will to preserve them; and a man backed by troops and popular support could do whatever he liked. Every move he made from this point on was not to replicate the achievements of Crassus and Pompey, but to surpass them.
Caesar churned through the Senate during the 60s B.C. as a one-man political machine. He wormed his way into Crassus's confidence and, bankrolled by the plutocrat's vast wealth, cut deals, forged alliances, made bribes, and aligned himself with anyone who could advance him another step up the ladder toward the consulship. He surprised his contemporaries by defeating two powerful opponents in the election for chief priest, elections that were marred by bitter accusations of bribery from both sides. He made a few missteps, aligning himself with the would-be usurper Catiline in 63 B.C. Yet slick as ever, he avoided being labeled as a co-conspirator. During this period, he also positioned himself as one of the populares, a step toward earning the favor of the common people, and Crassus's wealth went a good distance in greasing these wheels as well.
Yet the act that cemented his standing and secured a base of power was the alliance he secured between Crassus and Pompey in 60 B.C., who had been bitter rivals since their consulship. Between the three of them, there was enough gold, swords and political will to master the Senate and Rome. This alliance was referred to by historians as the First Triumvirate ("Rule of Three Men"), and it was with this unchecked political capital that the beast was finally unleashed.
The consular elections of 60 B.C. were the nastiest, most sordid and brutal elections the Romans had seen in years. Caesar was determined to become consul, and his optimate opponents, who loathed him, were determined to defeat him, with even the reputedly-incorruptible Cato resorting to bribery to advance one of Caesar's opponents. Yet it was all in vain. Caesar was elected consul for the year 59 B.C., and from here, the gloves were off. With Pompey's troops stationed throughout the city as intimidation, he rammed a populist bill redistributing public lands to the poor through the Senate against the loud protests of the optimates. After all, this was the sort of thing they had murdered the Gracchi for seventy years earlier. Now the shoe was on the other foot. They implored Caesar's co-consul Bibulus to stop him, but when he tried, he was assaulted by Caesar's supporters, who dumped a large basket of manure on his head and wounded two magistrates accompanying him. Bibulus fled to his home and did not return for the rest of his consulship, leaving Caesar unimpeded.
Unfortunately for him, consulships only lasted a single year. Once he was out of office, he was no longer immune to prosecution by his enemies, who were chomping at the bit to attack him with the full force of the law. However, it was common practice for consuls to govern a foreign province in the year following their term, thus extending their immunity. Caesar outmaneuvered his enemies in three ways: he had his term governing a province extended from one year to five; he successfully wrangled control of three provinces instead of one, which included the command of four legions; and he orchestrated the election of his ally, Publius Clodius Pulcher, as tribune of the plebs. Clodius could veto any attempt by the Senate to prosecute Caesar or repeal his laws. In addition, Clodius was a massively destabilizing presence in the city, fully embracing violence and intimidation as a tactic against his (and Caesar's) opponents. One of his victims was the former savior of Rome, Cicero, whom he successfully drove into banishment and confiscated his property. Against the evil genius of Caesar, there seemed to be no resistance.
With Rome secure at his back, Gaius Julius Caesar marched off to govern Cisalpine Gaul in 58 B.C. Having bent the Roman state to his will, he was now ready for his military career to truly begin. It is at this point that the image of Caesar the world knows, and has even admired, comes into view: the larger-than-life colossus bestriding the world with his armies, the brilliant general seizing his destiny. The collateral damage, apart from thousands of Roman and non-Roman lives, would be nothing less than Rome's tradition of representative government.
NEXT: THE HAIRY MAN GOES TO WAR
PART V: NOBODY'S RIGHT IF EVERYBODY'S WRONG
The segment to come is context. Context for things to come. This does not mean that it is unimportant in itself. Some exceptionally dramatic things happen in the eighteen years following Sulla's death, involving earth-shakingly huge figures on the world stage. Nonetheless, they are here to serve as context for an even bigger one, one that no one saw coming.
But for now, context.
In our last segment, the year was 78 B.C., and the dictator Cornelius Sulla had decidedly pinned the Roman Republic under his thumb. The faction of Gaius Marius had been smashed and scattered to the winds. The representatives of the people, the tribunes, and their nominally-supportive Senate allies, the populares, had been vanquished, and the conservative optimates reigned supreme. Well-pleased with his work wiping out any and all progressive gains from the past 200 years, Sulla had retired from public life and promptly died, presumably happy and secure in the belief that his changes were secure and immutable.
As with other men and mice, all of Sulla's well-laid plans would come to nothing. Their undoing would come at the hands of a new, ambitious generation of senators, some who wished to emulate his path to one-man rule and a few who sought to defend against it. The three men below would come to define this struggle for the destruction or salvation of the Republic:
The first and most pre-eminent of these men, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, was one of Sulla's lieutenants. Throwing in with Sulla during the wars with Marius, he so impressed the dictator that he was gifted with the title Magnus: "The Great." Handsome and hugely-skilled in the arts of war (he was compared in looks and talent to a latter-day Alexander the Great), Pompey the Great was showered with prestigious commands, honors and even the consulship in spite of the fact that he had never served a day in the Senate and was technically ineligible to hold office. These extra-legal honors greatly troubled the senators not enraptured with him, and they saw him very much for what he was: an opportunistic strongman-in-the-making.
Marcus Licinius Crassus was several rungs down the ladder from Pompey in popularity, but was unrivaled in Rome for his wealth, and wielded it similarly to the way Pompey did command. He used Sulla's vicious proscriptions to buy up the valuable property of executed Romans for cheap. He established Rome's first fire brigade from an army of 500 slaves, who would rush to burning homes but then refuse to put them out until the owners agreed to pay Crassus an exorbitant fee. Crassus also bought burnt and collapsed properties and rebuilt them with slave architects and laborers, flipping them for huge profits. In modern dollars, Crassus's fortune is estimated to have been worth $8.4 billion, a staggering personal sum now as then.
Pompey and Crassus first became associates during a festive romp known as the Third Servile War (See Part III), or, as it is more popularly known, the Revolt of Spartacus. In 71 B.C., an army of escaped gladiators, slaves and other ne'er-do-wells had ravaged central Italy for two years.This army, reputed to be over 120,000 strong, was led by a Thracian gladiator named Spartacus. Under his brilliant tactical leadership, the slave army had routed four Roman armies and, according to some, was poised to march on Rome. The Senate chose Crassus to lead a fifth army, as he was the only one who volunteered for the job. For most of 71, he pursued Spartacus across central and southern Italy, nearly losing six of his legions in a rout at one point. Finally, he managed to pin the slave army into the toe of Italy, and waited for them to starve or surrender.
These two very powerful, influential men were duly elected as co-consuls for the year 70 B.C. So, when unparalleled plutocratic wealth and overweening military might come together in government and have a baby, what does it look like? To begin with, very bad for the status quo. Crassus and Pompey immediately started fighting with each other after Pompey tried to claim the credit for defeating Spartacus. They refused to disband their armies, and appeared at one point on the brink of open warfare. However, an agreement was found (in this instance, at least): Pompey accepted a triumph for his victory in Spain, and Crassus accepted a lesser honor, an ovation, for his victory over the slave army.
According to Plutarch, not much of consequence was achieved during Pompey and Crassus's consulship, as they continued to squabble and oppose one another. However, they must have gotten along at some point, as nearly all of Sulla's reforms gutting the office of tribune and plebeian council were repealed during their tenure. This restoration of the tribunate would have been bitterly opposed by the Optimates in the Senate, but wildly popular among the common people, which may have been the point all along.
Following the consulship, Crassus faded into the background somewhat, content to grow his fortune and use it to influence the Senate and foster the careers of certain unsavory up-and-comers (who we will touch on later). Pompey, on the other hand, rode his consular wave of popularity to even greater heights. In 67 B.C., the Senate granted him unprecedented military authority to sweep the Mediterranean clean of pirates, who plagued the seaways at this time. Pompey was reputed to have succeeded in a matter of months, but he wasn't done there. Pompey's pirate-hunting operation turned into a case of mission creep on steroids, as he turned his wrath against the pirates' sponsor in the East, Rome's old enemy Mithridates of Pontus. In the course of his war against Pontus, the nations of Armenia, Cappadocia, Parthia, Syria, Colchis, Nabataea and Judea were dragged into the melee. Three years later, huge swaths of Asia Minor and the Middle East had become Roman territory, and Pompey was hailed as the greatest general of his age, and recognized by all as the most powerful man in Rome.
And what of Marcus Tullius Cicero, whom we mentioned earlier? His rise took place slightly after Crassus and Pompey, and could not have been more different in its path. A "new man" of the Senate, he was a staunch believer in the traditions of the Republic, pursuing his path to the consulship via the cursus honorum, the prescribed path laid out by ancient custom. Cicero was a brilliant orator and writer, and according to some reshaped the Latin language with his words the same way Shakespeare remade English. He used these words to ardently defend the Republic from her enemies, namely those who would see Rome reduced to one-man rule.
In the year of his consulship (63 B.C.), he demonstrated precisely this quality in his revelation of the plot of Lucius Sergius Catilina (or Catiline). In a series of four powerful speeches to the Senate, Cicero revealed that Cataline plotted to murder him and overthrow the Republic with the support of foreign troops. Catiline, who was the scion of one of Rome's oldest families, attempted to discredit Cicero by claiming this "new man" was maligning his ancestral dignity from jealousy, and thus insulting the Senate at large. Yet Cicero so skillfully dismantled Catiline's character that he utterly destroyed any support for him in the Senate and drove him from the city. Catiline was later killed in battle against Roman legions, and his co-conspirators were rounded up and executed (disturbingly, without trial.) Cicero was hailed as "father of his country," and a contemporary could reasonably claim that this was a man who could stand against the creeping ambitions of senators such as Crassus and Pompey, and hold the state secure against any assault.
But as I mentioned earlier, all of this is merely context, the setting of the stage for a new figure who has been conspicuously absent thus far. He doesn't come out of nowhere; he has always been there, watching, waiting, patiently calculating and preparing for his moment to emerge from the shadows. No one has thought terribly much of him up to this point; he isn't rich, he has no illustrious military background or oratory fame. He doesn't really seem to have achieved much of any importance in his life. But in 60 B.C., he reveals himself to be far more formidable than anyone ever guessed, and in a short time, to be the greatest danger the Republic had ever faced.
PART IV: BATTLE LINES BEING DRAWN
Democracies, apart than being "the worst form of government, except for all the others" in Churchill's words, have something of an Achilles heel in their structures. Governments of laws, not men, only work so long as everyone respects and believes in the laws and the institutions they uphold. This respect and belief, while strong and steadfast at the outset, can change as a government ages. The more distant it grows from its founding, the more the priorities of its people shift, evolve...and diverge. Factions and special interests form, fracturing the unity around which the government was formed. Dual, sometimes multiple visions of the nation's future emerge, and the contention between these visions becomes more and more pronounced. To gain an edge, one side or the other begins to probe at the edges of the law, to bend the frame of a hallowed institution to its agenda. A crisis arises when one side, or one man, decides to warp or break them for the purpose of accumulating personal power. A government and people united in strong belief in its laws can resist and survive such a threat. A government riven internally, divided by self-interest, and disconnected from its founding raison d'être, will be helpless against such a threat.
Republican Rome was not a democracy, or rather not one in the sense that modern representative democracies are, but its downward spiral arguably began with the first in a series of such crises, the murder of the Gracchi by the Roman Senate. This incident resulted in two things: first, it split the Senate into two factions, the Optimates ("Best Men"), or traditionalist Senate majority, and the Populares ("Men Favoring The People"). Second, it opened the floodgates for senatorial avarice, corruption and abrogation of law. In the sixty years following the Gracchi, the Senate engaged in an orgy of bribery and bribe-taking, deliberate weakening of Roman laws to aid friends and allies and to settle scores, and even murder as means to their ends.
Two senators, Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, would come to embody the worst of the Senate's excesses, plunging Rome into the greatest crisis it had faced in centuries: its first civil war.
The two first crossed paths during the Jugurthine War (112-104 B.C.), a conflict between Rome and its North African client-state Numidia (modern Algeria). The war and the events leading to it were a tragicomedy of senatorial corruption and incompetence. Numidia's King Jugurtha bribed the Senate to rule in his favor when dividing the kingdom between him and his half-brother, Adherbal. When Jugurtha went to war with him later, the Senate tried to intervene. Yet Jugurtha bribed them again to let him conquer Adherbal's capital, Cirta. Unfortunately, this resulted in the king executing his brother, along with a colony of Roman citizens who had supported Adherbal. Rome was forced to declare war.
For Rome, war in Numidia went as well as peace had gone, thanks to Jugurtha's deep pockets and the Senate's addiction to lining their own. Two generals sent against him were bribed, and when one of them was brought up on corruption charges, Jugurtha bribed two tribunes to sabotage his prosecution! The scandal rippled through Rome, destroying the careers of many senators (including, in a moment of karmic justice, Opimius, the senator who had driven Gaius Gracchus to his death).
After an entire Roman army was defeated and humiliated through Jugurtha's bribery, the Senate sent the consul Metellus with another army to crush the Numidians. Metellus was honest but vainglorious, and tried to draw the conflict out, milking the drama leading up to his "eventual" victory. However, he was unfortunate enough to have Gaius Marius as his lieutenant, who went back to Rome in the middle of the campaign to run for the consulship. His first act upon election was to insist the Senate remove Metellus from Numidia and place him in command. Marius returned to Africa with Sulla as his young lieutenant, and the two continued the war.
Unfortunately for them, Jugurtha was not as convinced as the Romans were that Marius would defeat him, and continued to elude the Romans for three maddening years. Finally, Sulla took it upon himself to convince Jugurtha's father-in-law Bocchus to betray Jugurtha for a large sum of money. Bocchus obliged, and delivered the Numidian king directly into Sulla's hands. In keeping with the rest of this farce, the Jugurthine War ended as it had begun: with lots of palms being greased.
The capture of an enemy king, regardless of how it was achieved, was a great honor in Rome, and it would have tickled Sulla to have received it. But Marius, suddenly wary of his young protégé, seized the credit for himself, a move that cannot have sowed bonhomie between these two men of ambition.
The utter cluster that was the Jugurthine War, along with the base avarice displayed by the Senate, must have deeply demoralized the Roman people, because they flocked to the hero Marius in droves. In his career, he was elected consul a record seven times, an occurrence that was not only unprecedented but also illegal. The Senate had restricted successive consulships in its laws, as well as the number of times senator could run, in order to deter anyone with kingly ambitions. Yet Marius's overarching support in the Senate and among the people kept his enemies thoroughly cowed, if still deeply threatened by his ambition.
Marius wasted none of his mandate. As an avowed populist with a deep contempt for the conservative Optimates, he set about transforming Roman law to strip as much of their power as he could. Many of the reforms of the Gracchi that had seemed to die with them were pushed through into law. However, the change that would resonate the furthest was his complete transformation of the Roman army.
As mentioned in the last segment, Rome was experiencing a recruitment crisis. Rome's armies were a largely volunteer force recruited at a moment of crisis from landowning citizens with the money to pay for their own arms and armor. However, Senate landowners had been turning Roman farmers off of their land in large numbers, cutting deeply into the recruitable segment of the population. Marius solved this problem by eliminating the landowning requirement, opening recruitment to all Roman males of appropriate age. More than this, he established this new force as Rome's first standing, professional army, to be outfitted and supplied at the Senate's or, as often happened, their commanding general's expense. Provisions in later years were made to provide land to veterans who had served for 20 or more years. This change appeared wildly successful. Landless Romans poured into recruitment offices, swelling the legions tremendously. Roman citizens who had been ignored in the census were now counted and represented "by head," and career opportunities opened up to a large swath of the population.
The changes also came just in time to save Rome from an existential threat, in the form of a massive Germanic invasion known as the Cimbrian War (113-101 B.C.). A horde of Germans, the Cimbri and Teutones, had annihilated three Roman armies with such ferocity that the term terror cimbricus became a popular watchword of the time. Marius and his new army not only stopped them from invading Italy; they completely wiped them out in two breathtakingly one-sided battles. Marius was celebrated as "Third Founder of Rome," and the Germans did not again threaten Rome for nearly a century.
However, a more farsighted observer of the time might have noted with concern the deeply troubling precedent Marius's military reforms had created. With the legions, Marius had established a new lever of power outside of the Roman government whose loyalty would not necessarily be to the state, but to the generals that led them. More and more often in succeeding years, this would prove to be the case, and, within a few generations, would become a fatal destabilizing factor to the Republic.
More immediately, Marius's aggressive governing style was getting out of hand. After his sixth consecutive election to consul (100 B.C.), the man was feeling invincible. He and his allies began ramming through more and more Gracchian legislation, utilizing brutal intimidation tactics, exile and even encouraging violence to get their way. Then, two of his tribunician allies, Saturninus and Glaucia, assassinated a rival in the elections of 99 B.C. and incited a riot among their supporters to tamp down protest. The Senate demanded that Marius denounce the tribunes and quell the revolt, which Marius did, reluctantly. He sheltered the two tribunes in his own home to keep angry citizens from murdering them, but the mob climbed the walls of his house and pelted them to death with tiles from his own roof. This incident cost Marius the trust of the people and made him vulnerable in the Senate, so when his consulship ended, he left Rome for several years as tempers cooled.
And where, during all of this, was Sulla?
He had continued to distinguish himself as a general, serving again under Marius in the Cimbrian War, and was then sent east to be military governor of the province of Cilicia in modern Turkey, where he won a great victory in battle against the king of Armenia. While in Cilicia, a Chaldean seer told Sulla that he was meant to be the greatest of all the Romans. Sulla knew that, for this prophecy to be fulfilled, he would have to oppose Marius, which he was all too willing to do. Sulla was an arch-conservative, convinced that Marius's populist legislation had weakened the Senate and order of the Republic. (There was still the smoldering rivalry over who was the greater general.) On his return to Rome, he threw his full support to the Optimates against his former commander.
Before any sparks could fly between the two rivals, a new conflagration flared up. In 91 B.C. yet another progressive politician, Marcus Livius Drusus, was murdered by Senate elites for trying to fulfill another Gracchian promise, the extension of Roman citizenship to all Italians. At this, most of Rome's allies revolted against them in a delightful-sounding event called the Social War. (Socii = "allies" in Latin.) This was every bit the existential threat to Rome that the Cimbrian War had been, requiring the Senate to marshal all of its assets against it. Marius was made co-commander of Rome's forces in the north, while Sulla was appointed co-commander in the south. For the first time, Marius failed to distinguish himself in battle, and was forced to retire in ill health (he was closing on 70 years old). Sulla, on the other hand, performed brilliantly, capturing a key enemy city and rescuing another Roman legion in dire straits. He was presented with Rome's highest military honors, and elected consul in 88 B.C. Yet the Social War did not conclude in military victory, but with the Romans capitulating to its allies, granting them the citizenship they had coveted. This was a move that no doubt stuck deep in Sulla's craw.
Rome had just survived another major war. What do you think it did next? Started another one, of course. The eastern king Mithridates of Pontus had invaded Roman territory in Turkey, and the Senate selected Sulla to command the war against him. But Marius, deeply resentful of Sulla overshadowing him in the last war, bribed a tribune to block Sulla's appointment, and to appoint Marius as commander in his place. Sulla was in the midst of preparing his armies when the word came down from Rome, and he subsequently blew his stack. First, he had his men stone the Senate messengers. Second, he issued an order that had never been given to a Roman army in its history: to march on the city of Rome. Ironically, it was Marius's reorganization of the army that facilitated this action. This was the first-ever revolt of a Roman general against the Senate: it would not be the last.
Marius scrambled to organize a defense, slapping together a force of gladiators to defend the city. Sulla's legions easily destroyed them, and Marius barely escaped with his life, fleeing to Carthage. Sulla had him declared an enemy of the state, executed several of his friends, then marched off to fight in the east.
If Sulla thought he had seen the last of Marius, he was grossly mistaken. A few months after Sulla left, Marius returned with an army and seized Rome from Sulla's supporters. The Senate elected him to his seventh and final consulship. He then launched a reign of terror, slaughtering Sulla's friends, opposition leaders and anyone who looked at him cross-eyed. (One of his victims, Marcus Antonius, was the grandfather of Mark Antony.) Paranoid, raging and quite possibly demented, Marius painted the streets of Rome with blood before dying suddenly two weeks into his reign.
Marius's allies governed Rome (ineptly) for the next four years. Sulla, seemingly in no hurry to exact his revenge, continued the war against Mithridates to eventual victory. The Marian faction sent two generals to (ineptly) relieve Sulla of command. Sulla convinced most of their soldiers to desert to him, and defeated them in battle. After his chief Marian opponent in Rome (ineptly) allowed himself to be murdered by his own legions, Sulla invaded Italy and marched on Rome for the second time. Battles raged across the peninsula, with Sulla winning victory after victory against his (generally inept) opposition. Slaughter spiraled out of control on each side as the Marians and the Sullans purged the territory under their rule of suspected traitors.
On November 1, 82 B.C., the two factions clashed outside of Rome in the titanic Battle of the Colline Gate. Sulla was hard pressed, with his men literally fighting with one of their flanks against the city wall, but ultimately, his army broke the Marian forces. Over 50,000 men were killed in the fight. Sulla emerged as the sole master of Rome.
And that was the end of the Republic, right? No, actually. Yes, Sulla forced the Senate to declare him dictator. Yes, he revoked many of the Gracchian reforms, gutted the office of tribune through which Marius had passed most of them, and strengthened the power of the Senate at the expense of the tribunes and the courts. Yes, he made it illegal for tribunes to hold higher office. Yes, he issued "proscriptions" that resulted in the execution of over 9,000 people. Yes, he seized the wealth and property of the dead to enrich himself and protect against any future retribution. And yes, he forbade the sons and grandsons of his executed enemies from holding political office. But he also laid in a system of government that strictly prevented anyone else from doing exactly what he had done to seize power. After a year of dictatorship, Sulla relinquished the title, disbanded his armies, and rejoined the Senate. Convinced he had set things right, he retired a few years later, dying at the age of 60 from a ruptured ulcer, possibly brought on by excessive drinking. His epitaph pretty much summed up the man: "No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full."
And so we're back to the status quo ante of 133 B.C.: the Senate is in its heaven, all is right with the world. Or it would be, if anyone was naive enough to believe the genie Marius and Sulla unleashed could be so easily crammed back into the bottle. The rule of law had proven to be fragile, the will to hold to it weak and growing weaker. They had shown what ambitious men could do, and very soon, Rome would see even worse from these three stooges:
NEXT: NOBODY'S RIGHT IF EVERYBODY'S WRONG
PART III: THE TRIBUNE WAS TOUCHED
In our last segment, I provided an overview of the explosive military expansion of the Roman Republic, which, by this point, was really an empire without an emperor, between 300 - 100 B.C. In this time, Rome went from being a formidable city-state in Italy to the undisputed master of the ancient Mediterannean world. Voulez les bon temps rouler, non?
Well, the definition of this period as a "good time" really depended on who you were in Roman society. For the Roman Senate, these were great times. Through conquest and forfeit, millions of acres of territory had come into their posession as "public lands" which they redistributed and rented out to clients "for the good of the republic." (Senators, prohibited from holding a trade, were an investor and landlord class.) Classical art and treasure was pouring into the city from the recently-conquered Greek and Hellenistic world, as well as thousands upon thousands of Greek and Hellenistic slaves. For these guys, times were the worst of the worst. If they were fortunate, they were put to work as tutors or domestic servants ("servus" = slave in Latin) in senatorial households. If they were less fortunate, they were sent to burgeoning farms the senators were building on the previously-mentioned "public lands," mostly in Sicily. (These were the predecessors to the truly massive latifundia that would start appearing during the high empire.) If they were really unfortunate, they would be shipped to the gold and silver mines in Spain, where life expectancies ranged from a matter of months to a year.
If you belonged to a class somewhere between senator and slave, then things could go either way. Sure, the growth and proliferation of these large farms drove down the price of grain for the average Roman. However, if you were a Roman farmer, these farms were likely driving you out of business. We'll examine the corrosive effect this had on Roman democracy in a moment.
Let's focus for now on these enormous Sicilian farms, which were creating more immediate problems. As mentioned earlier, Sicily ended up being the destination for most of the recently-acquired slaves in the mid-second century B.C. Slave farming operations had turned the island into the breadbasket of the republic. It had also driven small farmers off of their lands and out of business as the farms grew and expanded. The combination of a large, poorly-treated captive population and a disgruntled local population reached a critical mass in 135 B.C. when a massive slave revolt erupted. Historians, in a likely fit of hyperbole, claimed that an army of between 70,000 and 200,000 ravaged the island for three years before the legions were able to stamp it out. Whatever the numbers, it was a huge revolt, and it has been suggested that part of the reason it lasted so long is that it had tacit popular support among the Sicilian poor and expropriated. At any rate, the suppression of this revolt did nothing to improve circumstances, and both Sicily and Italy were ravaged by two more slave wars in the next 60 years. We'll return to the third and final slave war, along with its famous leader, in a later segment.
Meanwhile, the growing economic inequality was creating a different problem in Rome. Landless Romans and Italians, put out of business by Senate farmers and out of their homes by Senate landlords, crowded into Rome, creating a large, under-represented and very angry faction, clamoring for relief from the crushing financial pressure of the upper classes. In addition to the social situation, the swelling itinerant population was also creating a recruitment crisis for the Roman army, as only property owners were eligible for military service.
Enter Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, newly-elected tribune of the plebs for 133 B.C. Tiberius was a reform-minded politician eager to balance the scales of society and right the listing ship of state. He proposed a law, the Lex Sempronia Agraria, allowing for a more egalitarian distribution of land and creating a new pool of landowners for taxation and recruitment. Like any idealistic, energetic young politician in his first try at legislating, he was promptly gobsmacked by the powers-that-be. The landowning senators attacked him as an instigator of class warfare and tyrannical wealth redistribution, and versions of the Lex Sempronia were either ignored or blocked outright.
However, a loophole in Roman law allowed Tiberius to sidestep the Senate entirely and take his case to the Plebeian Council, Rome's popular assembly. This infuriated the Senate, and they tried to block the law from being passed by leaning on another tribune, Octavius, to veto its presentation to the Council. This is where things got nasty: Tiberius appealed to the Council to strip Octavius of his tribunician powers as a traitor to the plebs. Octavius vetoed the Council's vote to depose him. Tiberius ordered one of his slaves to seize Octavius and throw him bodily out of the assembly so they could vote on deposing him. Thus, the Lex Sempronia was also passed.
Let's not get the idea, however, that this defeated the Senate. It simply drove them to more drastic measures...much more drastic. When Tiberius successfully seized funds from the Senate to fund the land distribution law, the Senate implemented a whisper campaign that Tiberius had committed a criminal act in laying hands on his fellow tribune, and that he had ambitions to become king. This created a perilous situation for the tribune, requiring him to be protected by armed guards at all times. Tensions continued to build between them until an armed senatorial mob stormed Tiberius's house, bludgeoning him and 300 of his supporters to death with furniture pieces and throwing their bodies into the Tiber. The Senate banished the rest of his supporters or executed them by sewing them into a bag with poisonous
Strangely possessed with a sense of shame over the blatant murder of a public official, the Senate allowed the Lex Sempronia to stand to appease the populace. This no doubt encouraged Tiberius's brother Gaius to enter politics ten years later with an even more radical tribunician agenda. He brought about sweeping changes to the judiciary, to prevent unjust sentences such as the kind leveled upon his late brother's followers. He broadened the Lex Sempronia, shortened military drafts, and attacked the Senate's power base at all levels of government.
The Senate, again, oddly squeamish, attempted at first to use conventional methods to destroy their new mortal enemy: backing a rival tribune to sabotage as much of Gaius's legislation as possible, while supporting a consul running on a "repeal-and-replace" platform. They seeded dissent against him among other tribunes, which Gaius himself exacerbated by backing an unpopular motion to grant Roman citizenship to all Italians. Due to this and other conflicts, Plutarch claims his fellow tribunes illegally thwarted his election to a new term by falsifying ballots.
Gaius's ejection from the tribuneship opened the way for the Senate to begin repealing his legislation. However, on the day the repeal was meant to happen, the servant of Gaius's senatorial arch-enemy, Opimius, was killed in a scuffle with Gaius's supporters. This was the moment the Senate was waiting for to end Gaius, and they collectively howled for his blood. After intense negotiation, Opimius advanced on Gaius with mercenary archers (!), killing dozens and driving Gaius from the city. Gaius took his own life before the Senate mob could catch him.
Gaius's head was cut off and carried to Opimius, who had promised its weight in gold to whoever retrieved it. (This offer was rescinded when it was discovered its retriever had filled it with molten lead to increase his reward.) History continued to repeat itself: Gaius's supporters were killed, exiled, or put into snake-sacks and tossed into the Tiber. Gaius's laws were repealed wholesale, and Gaius's widow was forbidden to mourn his death. The threat to the Senate's power was nipped in the bud.
Or was it? The Senate had established an extremely dangerous precedent: any lawmaker who wanted to challenge their power now risked his own life. The rule of law was being replaced with a tyranny of violence and murder, and anyone who desired meaningful change would have to respond in kind.
That someone was Gaius Marius. We'll examine his contributions in the next segment, as the decline of the Republic kicks into high gear.
NEXT: BATTLE LINES BEING DRAWN
PART II: VICTIMS OF THEIR OWN SUCCESS
In our last segment, the centuries-long "Conflict of the Orders" between Roman patricians and plebeians had just ended, which didn't really solve the struggle between rich and poor so much as reshuffle the board. However, this would only become evident decades later, and in the meantime, Rome had a host of outside threats to unite the classes.
Italy of 300 B.C. was a mosaic of quarrelsome regions and city-states jockeying incessantly with one another for power. Entangling and regularly-shifting alliances made the mix even more volatile. Rome lived uneasily with all of them, and its experiences at the hands of the Etruscans and the Senone Gauls (who had sacked the city in 390 B.C.) kept it constantly on the defensive. The Romans had already fought two wars with the Samnites in central Italy, but the Third Samnite War in 298 touched off something bigger: it started Rome down the road toward its eventual conquest of the entire Mediterranean.
Why was this war different? Because even though it began in the usual way, in a border dispute between Rome and Samnium, it eventually dragged all of Italy into the fight. The Samnites, their final straw broken, joined an enormous coalition of Etruscans, Umbrians, and Gauls - basically, all of Rome's enemies - to wipe them off the face of the earth. Through a strong alliance of its own and a deft campaign of divide-and-conquer (the consul Quintus Fabius could have taught Napoleon a thing or two), the Romans routed the Gauls, bedeviled the Etruscans and Umbrians and utterly crushed the Samnites, ultimately absorbing their territory in 290 and becoming the dominant power in Italy. Rome went on to destroy the Senone kingdom and bring the Etruscans to heel in the 280s.
Unfortunately, these resounding victories immediately drew Rome into its next conflict, and its first war with a foreign power. The Greek city of Tarentum in southern Italy, alarmed at Rome's rapid expansion in their direction, pre-emptively attacked a Roman navy off its coast and then appealed to Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus (now split between Greece and Albania) for help. Pyrrhus, who was eager to establish an empire for himself in southern Italy and Sicily, was more than tickled by the request, and invaded with a large force in 280 B.C. Supported by elephants, Pyrrhus defeated the Romans in two major battles, but suffered such horrendous casualties that he could not press his advantage (inspiring the term "Pyrrhic victory," naturally). The alliances Rome had established (including one with Carthage!) allowed it to replenish its numbers far more easily than Pyrrhus's expedition could. He floundered across Italy and Sicily for several years, achieving no concrete gains and turning most of his Greek and Italian allies against him, before being soundly defeated at Beneventum in 275 B.C. and running for home. Rome was then able to pick off the exhausted Greek cities of Italy one by one, completing its conquest of the peninsula in 270 B.C.
"Conquest by defense" is a strange concept, but it was a strategy that was paying off in spades for the Romans. Forced repeatedly into defensive conflicts, the Romans were able to toughen and refine their war machine to triumph against daunting odds and expand their holdings as a result. The next stage of this pattern commenced just six years after their consolidation of Italy, with the beginning of the First Punic War in 264 B.C. ("Punic" = Phoenician = Carthaginian.) The Sicilian city of Messana called upon the Romans to defend them from their hostile neighbor Syracuse, but - oopsie! - they had also asked the Carthaginians to do the same thing. This plunged Carthage and Rome into a major conflict to control the island of Sicily, and a longer fight for control of the western Mediterranean that extended into a Second and Third Punic War over a total period of 118 years.
Whether you are a classics fiend or not, you probably know that these were the wars that made Rome. Collectively, they were the largest conflict the ancient world had seen since Alexander the Great invaded Persia, and they sucked in almost all of the major kingdoms of the Mediterranean, mostly in opposition to Rome. In addition to Carthage, Rome found itself at war with the Numidians, the Gauls, the Spaniards, the Greeks, the Macedonians and the Seleucid Empire in the Middle East. One by one, Rome trounced them all, although it flirted heavily with disaster when Hannibal invaded Italy (with his own set of elephants), destroying army after Roman army in the field. Fortunately, disaster wasn't in the mood to flirt, Rome was able to raise more armies, and all of Hannibal's efforts came to nothing. Rome destroyed Carthage's empire at the Battle of Zama in 202, crushed Macedon at Cynoscephalae and Pydna in 197 and 168, respectively, and sent the Seleucids packing at Magnesia in 190. Between the beginning and the end of the Punic Wars, Spain, Sicily, southern Gaul, western Asia Minor, Macedonia and Greece became provinces of Rome. After Rome destroyed the city of Carthage in 146, its territory in North Africa was annexed as well. In the course of a century, Rome went from a strong regional power to the undisputed master of the Mediterranean world.
So at this point, you may be asking:
To address both points: this provides the background to the next segment, showing the effect all of this rapid expansion and growth had on Rome as a society. While these wars turned Rome into a superpower and established its reputation as an unbeatable force of nature, other results of the wars were enacting enormous changes on Roman class structure and economic stratification, as well as putting an incredible strain on the Senate as a governing body. Untold wealth was flowing into Rome from all directions, yet into relatively few pockets. Rome was governing far-flung foreign peoples, yet the governing body was the same city council from the plebeian - patrician conflicts that was still largely unwilling to widen its narrow scope of interest. With peace at last breaking out, the Romans had the opportunity once again to turn their focus inward, and the cracks in Roman society that had been papered over during the wars now began to split open once more.
NEXT: THE TRIBUNE WAS TOUCHED
Travis Horseman is a writer, actor, and an incurable graphic novel junkie. His love of comic books, theater and classical history have largely driven the course of his life, and he is doing his darnedest to unite them in Amiculus: A Secret History.