Cinna and His Times - Harold Bennett

Chapter II
The 'Marian Massacre'

Discussion of story regarding entry of Marius—Possible sources of exaggerations—The council of death—Massacre of senatorial leaders—Why trial by law in two cases?—The banished—Did they escape or were they ordered to withdraw?—Unofficial violence ended by Cinna and Sertorius—Relation of other leaders to Marius—Was Marius the originator of all the outrages?—Discussion of the actual extent of the massacre.

Cassius Dio records that Marius and his band "burst into the city . . . by all the gates at once, and having closed them so that no one could pass out, proceeded to despatch all whom they met, making no distinction between them, but treating all alike as enemies." There can be no doubt that this story is entirely fictitious. Marius entered the city either during or immediately after an assembly of the people, so that Dio's account, taken literally, would involve a slaughter surpassing that of "Octavian's day." Such an event would hardly have escaped mention in all the other sources. Moreover, the intrinsic improbability of the story is alone sufficient to discredit it. Marius had neither the time for such a fantastic disposition of his troops, nor the motive for desiring a general massacre of the citizens, in which many of his own friends and supporters would be sure to perish.

The explanation of this and other fictions or exaggerations to which I shall have occasion to refer later, is doubtless that the later Roman historians derived much of their material for this period from the work of their republican predecessors who were hostile to Marius and his party. Sulla himself wrote an account of his own career in twenty-two books, now lost, but certainly extant in the time of Plutarch, and it is quite within the field of possibility that this was the actual source from which Dio drew his inspiration for the passage quoted. I conclude, therefore, that there is no good reason for doubting that Marius and his fellow-exiles, with the whole remaining part of the army, entered Rome by the Porta Capena, where Cinna had left them, and that they did so with as much decorum as the circumstances permitted or required.

Cinna seems to have lost no time in carrying out his threat against the consul Octavius, whom, it will be remembered, he had specifically excluded from his equivocal promise of amnesty. When the Cinnan forces entered the city, the friends of Octavius urged him to seek safety in flight, but that uncompromising zealot, fortified in his devotion to duty by predictions of safety by soothsayers and astrologers, to whose arts he was always susceptible, declared that he would never leave the city while consul. Accompanied by a few of the nobility and the pitiful remnants of his army, he retired to the Janiculum and there established himself in all the dignity of his office. According to the ancient story, a band of horsemen, sent by Cinna under command of one Censorinus, found him there and killed him, still sitting in the curule chair and wearing the robes of state.

The fate of the other Sullan leaders, however, was not settled until after Marius had entered and a conference of all the party leaders had been held. This council decided that for "the secure establishment of peace" it was necessary that such of their enemies whose power and influence was great enough to menace the authority of the new administration should be removed. In the name of expediency Cinna's promise was set aside, and a number of the most distinguished men of Rome were condemned to death. Parties of soldiers under subordinate commanders were at once sent out to search for the condemned, with orders to kill them wherever discovered. Atilius Serranus, P. Lentulus, C. Numitorius, and M. Baebius, were struck down on the streets of Rome, and the bodies of the two last named were dragged on hooks through the forum. L. Julius Caesar, the victor of Acerrae, was killed by Fimbria's horsemen either on the street or in his own house. His brother Gaius, famous as an orator and poet, escaped from the city and took refuge at Tarquinii, on the estate of an Etruscan named Sextilius, whom he had once successfully defended in the law courts; but the latter betrayed him to his pursuers. His body was taken back to Rome and there mutilated in front of the tomb of Quintus Varius, whom he had probably once impeached. P. Licinius Crassus, who had commanded senatorial troops at the Janiculum and the Alban Mount, fled from the city, accompanied by his father, but they were pursued and overtaken by Fimbria and his band. The son perished by the assassin's sword and the father by his own.

M. Antonius, the foremost pleader of his day, fled into the country and found refuge with a poor but faithful friend, whose well-meant hospitality, however, presently proved the ruin of his distinguished guest. For a slave, sent out to purchase better wine, disclosed the reason for his master's extravagance, and the wine-dealer carried the secret to Marius. A party of soldiers was sent to the house, under the tribune P. Annius, who, when his men had been moved to irresolution by the old man's eloquent entreaties, rushed in and with his own hand carried out his orders. It was said that when he carried back the victim's head to Marius, the latter rose from his place at table to receive it and to embrace the murderer still be spattered with the bloody traces of his crime.

Q. Ancharius, of praetorian rank, voluntarily came to Marius when he was about to sacrifice on the Capitol for his safe return, thinking that this would be the most favorable time to sue for mercy. Marius did not return his greeting, and seeing this his bodyguard at once despatched the suppliant under their master's eyes. His head and those of all others who had been of senatorial rank were exposed on the rostra; their bodies were left unburied on the streets.

All the victims thus far named were condemned and executed without trial, but in two other cases at least a show of legal procedure was made. L. Cornelius Merula had aroused the enmity of Cinna by becoming consul suffectus after Cinna had been driven out of the city. Technically, therefore, he could be considered guilty of a breach of the constitution, since Cinna had not been legally removed from office, and this was probably made the basis for his impeachment. The suborned witnesses and irregular procedure mentioned by Appian are doubtful because superfluous. The case did not come to trial, however, for just before the appointed day Merula died by his own hand, having opened his veins at the altar of the god whose priest he was.

More fictitious, however, must have been the charge against Q. Lutatius Catulus, the associate of Marius in his day of greatest triumph, whose life Marius had once saved, but who had incurred the bitter hatred of his former colleague by his vigorous support of the aristocracy at the time when Marius was banished. His friends now came to Marius and pleaded for mercy, but found him unbending in his resolve that for his ingratitude Catulus must die. He too anticipated the sentence of the court by taking his own life.

The reasons for the selection of these two men for trial by law is nowhere stated, but it is a reasonable conjecture that it was because the council of Marian leaders was not unanimous in condemning them. Cinna demanded the life of the priest who had dared to usurp his place; Marius thirsted for revenge upon the ungrateful aristocrat who had repaid him so ill for his magnanimity in the matter of the Cimbrian triumph; but these were personal grudges, and it is very likely that the more moderate leaders of the party, especially Sertorius, may have demurred at the summary condemnation of these highly respected citizens for the gratification of a merely personal spite.

In addition to those who were sought out and killed at this time, there appears to have been another group whose punishment was not death but exile. Appian definitely asserts that there were [egelag els] at this time, and the epitomist of Livy, in reporting the negotiations between Sulla and the senatorial embassy of 84 B.C., writes "futur um se in potestate senatus respondit, si cives, qui pulsi a Cinna ad se confugerant, restituerentur." It cannot be denied that a part of the large number of senators who joined Sulla in the East during the course of the Cinnan regime, left Italy of their own free will, but the passages cited clearly show that there were some, at any rate, who were expelled at this time, and against whom the sentence of banishment was formally pronounced.

It is not clear whether these men were ordered to withdraw from Italy, or whether their banishment was decreed only when they had already made good their escape and harsher measures were impossible. The passages quoted would lend support to the former view, but other writers refer to these refugees in terms which point to escape. Probably the truth is to be found between the two extremes, in the assumption that these senators were condemned to death, but not pursued with the same diligence as was shown in the case of the prominent leaders. It is true that there is one recorded instance of escape by a man actually sought for by the Cinnan executioners, but in this case the search was abandoned because they thought him dead. The man was a certain Cornutus, whose slaves, when the soldiers appeared, passed off a dead body for that of their master, and afterwards facilitated his escape to Gaul. This was probably M. Cornutus, who served as a legate in the Social War, and very likely had held a similar commission under Octavius.

It is noteworthy, however, that we do not know of a single consular or political leader of any standing, who escaped from Rome and reached Sulla in safety. The inference to be drawn is surely that the Cinnan leaders were relentless in pursuing to the death the great men of the government and efficient in preventing their escape, but somewhat careless with regard to political enemies of lesser calibre and quite content with securing their departure from Italy.

It seems most likely, then, that the formal banishment of these men took place after their flight from Italy, and was legally effected by a vote of the people which declared them public enemies. A very similar case, in which the facts are more definitely recorded, is that of Appius Claudius, the officer left by Sulla in command of the Campanian legion which went over to Cinna. Apparently he had not returned to the city, for about this time he was summoned for trial by a Cinnan tribune and having failed to appear, was deprived of his imperium and made an exile. The property of all those put to death or banished seems to have been confiscated, but their families were left unharmed. Sulla himself was declared a public enemy, his town and country houses burned, and the rest of his property confiscated. His wife Metella with his children fled from danger and joined him in Greece. The implication in certain sources, however, that the Marians had designs upon her are probably groundless, for it seems unlikely that Metella could have escaped against their will, especially as she did not go until after Sulla's houses had been destroyed.

Such was the organized vengeance of the Cinnan victors upon their political foes. To this official program, however, must be added numerous acts of violence committed by individual members of the factions upon one another, and especially the promiscuous outrages perpetrated by the liberated slaves. It will be recalled that many slaves had joined Marius from the great estates of Etruria in the first days of his return, and that their numbers had later been considerably increased by fugitives from the city who had answered Cinna's call to freedom. A selected company of these slaves formed Marius's bodyguard when he entered the city, and the rest seem to have entered at the same time. With the licence of newly-won freedom these creatures proceeded to plunder the city and terrorize the citizens. Those who had lately been city slaves seized the opportunity for avenging old wrongs upon the persons and families of their former masters; others broke into houses, and killed for the sake of plunder. In spite of the efforts of the moderate leaders, these outrages of murder, rape, and robbery continued for five days and nights, until finally a troop of Gallic soldiers, under the instructions of Cinna and Sertorius, surrounded the camp where the slaves lay asleep and killed them to the last man.

This incident throws some light upon the relations of Marius with the other leaders of the party, showing, as it clearly does, that when occasion arose they did not hesitate to act without his consent, and perhaps even against his wishes.

There can be no doubt that Marius was the most vindictive of the victors. He had reason for being so. It is certainly wrong, however, to place upon him the responsibility for all the bloodshed that occurred. There was a story current in ancient times to the effect that, on the day of his entry and on subsequent days, Marius went about the streets of the city, attended by a retinue of slaves, condemning men to death by his word or nod and finally merely by his failure to extend his hand in greeting. This ingenious anecdote, which is probably the invention of the same traducer of Marius whose work we have already noticed, has been accepted by a number of modern historians, and has led Mommsen to the conclusion that there was no selection of individual victims at all, but that Marius himself was the originator of all the outrages of that time.

The injustice of this view is apparent from several considerations. In the first place, it entirely ignores the testimony of Diodorus Siculus, who definitely asserts that individuals were condemned by a council and that the executions were carried out by subordinates. Again, it ignores the evidence of Cicero, who must have been an eye-witness of that reign of terror, and who certainly would not seek to spare the reputation of Marius. He says nothing to confirm the story of Marius condemning citizens on the streets, but on the contrary, whenever he names any of the distinguished men who were killed at that time (as he frequently does), he regularly attributes to Cinna the responsibility for their death. Livy and Velleius Paterculus distribute the blame between Marius and Cinna, while Asconius speaks of Cinna as the slayer of Octavius "et alios principes optimatum." This supplementary evidence, in which the responsibility is placed upon Cinna, or upon Cinna and Marius jointly, does not conflict with the view that the executions were ordered by a conference of leaders among whom Cinna and Marius held chief place, but is quite irreconcilable with the view that Marius was sole judge and executioner-in-chief. Other sources make it probable that only one of all the victims whose names we know was actually killed in the presence of Marius, viz. the praetorian, Q. Ancharius, and it is clear that his death occurred not as the result of a chance encounter on the street, but when he had deliberately put himself in the way of Marius. The circumstances of his action make it reasonable to infer that he had already been marked down for death and knew it.

There can be no doubt, therefore, that the massacre of leading men, which is generally assigned as the distinguishing feature of this victory, was an organized affair of which all the party leaders shared the responsibility, and that the story of Marius roaming the streets of Rome like a wild beast seeking its prey is a fiction (suggested perhaps partly by the fate of Ancharius, partly by the unauthorized ravages of the slaves), which may have appeared first in Sulla's memoirs, or at any rate in some political pamphlet written to vilify the character of Marius and to justify the harsher methods afterwards employed by Sulla.

If, then, we eliminate the alleged activities of Marius on the streets, and conclude that the authorized executions were ordered by a council in which the voice of moderation was not unheard, we shall be justified in assuming that the extent of the massacre was far less than the defamers of Marius would have us believe. Independent evidence can be adduced to show that such was actually the case.

The list of individual victims which has come down to us is probably far from complete, but when we find the names of celebrities like Antonius, Crassus, Octavius and the Caesars in juxtaposition with such comparatively obscure individuals as Ancharius, Baebius, and Numitorius, it would seem hardly likely that any of the more imposing names have been omitted. Yet the sources are in general agreement that the ravages upon the great and powerful were the distinguishing characteristic of the massacre. At any rate, it must surely be conceded that the brunt of the massacre fell upon the highest grades of society, viz. the senatorial and equestrian orders. I propose, therefore, to try to estimate the extent of the mischief in these two groups.

First, let us consider the senate. The only senators of whose death at this time we have positive knowledge are those few individuals whose names have already been mentioned. Probably there were more, but that the massacre was far from involving all the senators will appear most clearly from an enumeration of those who we know did not perish. In the first place, there were those who might have lost their lives had they remained in Italy, but fled the country and suffered banishment instead. In addition to these, however, many other Sullan senators seem to have withdrawn from Rome at various times during Cinna's supremacy, apparently without compulsion or interference. The extent of their numbers may be judged from the words of Velleius, who describes them as "maior pars nobilitatis," and from Plutarch, who reports that Sulla presently had the aspect of a senate about him in his camp, and that on his subsequent return to Rome, the spectacle of exiles whom he had restored formed the greatest glory of his triumph. Exile, then, either enforced or voluntary, was the fate of a great many, perhaps the majority of the Sullan senators. These were not, however, the only exceptions to the massacre, for there must have been a considerable group, including even men of high importance, who were granted complete immunity and continued in their honors. This is proved by the fact that a few years later the younger Marius found senatorial material for another massacre, which included at least two men of consular rank, viz. L. Domitius Ahenobarbus (cos. 94) and Q. Mucius Scaevola (cos. 95), the famous jurist; and by our knowledge of others who saved themselves by renouncing their Sullan allegiance, such as the consulars, L. Valerius Flaccus, (cos. 100), later princeps senatus under the Cinnan regime, and L. Marcius Philippus (cos. 91), who in the same office championed the Sullan constitution against the attack of Lepidus. Even the rank and file of the senate at the end of Cinna's domination still contained a strong Sullan element, as appears in the action which it took upon Sulla's letter from the East.

If, then, we eliminate these groups of the banished, the voluntary exiles, and the pardoned, from a senate already partly Marian and partly neutral, it will certainly appear that the proportion which perished in the massacre cannot have been very great.

The equestrian order sided with Cinna, as we might judge, even without the ancient testimony, from the terrible havoc wrought in its ranks by the vengeance of Sulla. The nickname of "saccularii" was given its members because of their ill-gotten gains from the sale of the estates confiscated from the killed and banished. We learn from Appian that there were some knights among the special offenders who were sought out by the executioners, and others doubtless perished in the unofficial ravages of the slaves, but we have positive evidence that there was no organized murder of the rich for the sake of their wealth. The victims of Marius and Cinna were political enemies; the spirit as well as the method of the Sullan proscriptions was entirely absent. We may conclude, therefore, that the massacre left the ranks of knights practically intact.

It will be seen, therefore, that the wholesale slaughter vaguely described by certain ancient writers is not substantiated by a close examination of the evidence, but that in this matter also we have to recognize the invention of a partisan historian. Nowhere do we find any actual statistics of the alleged massacres; an omission which in itself might easily be accidental, but considered in connection with the other evidence seems more likely to mean that the pro Sullan historians had good reason for preferring to confine themselves to extravagant figures of speech.