Roman Life in the Days of Cicero - Alfred J. Church

In the Days of the Dictator

In November 82 B.C., Cornelius Sulla became absolute master of Rome. It is not part of my purpose to give a history of this man. He was a great soldier who had won victories in Africa and Asia over the enemies of Rome, and in Italy itself over the "allies," as they were called, that is the Italian nations, who at various times had made treaties with Rome, and who in the early part of the first century B.C. rebelled against her, thinking that they were robbed of the rights and privileges which belonged to them. And he was the leader of the party of the nobles, just as Marius was the leader of the party of the people. Once before he had made himself supreme in the capital; and then he had used his power with moderation. But he was called away to carry on the war in Asia against Mithridates, the great King of Pontus; and his enemies had got the upper hand, and had used the opportunity most cruelly. A terrible list of victims, called the "proscription," because it was posted up in the forum, was prepared. Fifty senators and a thousand knights (peers and gentlemen we should call them) were put to death, almost all of them without any kind of trial. Sulla himself was outlawed. But he had an army which he had led to victory and had enriched with prize-money, and which was entirely devoted to him; and he was not inclined to let his enemies triumph. He hastened back to Italy, and landed in the spring of 83. In the November of the following year, just outside the walls of Rome, was fought the final battle of the war.

The opposing army was absolutely destroyed, and Sulla had everything at his mercy. He waited for a few days outside the city till the Senate had passed a decree giving him absolute power to change the laws, to fill the offices of State, and to deal with the lives and properties of citizens as it might please him. This done, he entered Rome. Then came another proscription. The chief of his enemies, Marius, was gone. He had died, tormented it was said by remorse, seventeen days after he had reached the crowning glory, promised him in his youth by an oracle, and had been made consul for the seventh time. The conqueror had to content himself with the same vengeance that Charles II in our own country exacted from the remains of Cromwell. The ashes of Marius were taken out of his tomb on the Flaminian Way, the great North Road of Rome, and were thrown into the Anio. But many of his friends and partisans survived, and these were slaughtered without mercy. Eighty names were put on the fatal list on the first day, two hundred and twenty on the second, and as many more on the third. With the deaths of many of these victims politics had nothing to do. Sulla allowed his friends and favourites to put into the list the names of men against whom they happened to bear a grudge, or whose property they coveted. No one knew who might be the next to fall. Even Sulla's own partisans were alarmed. A young senator, Caius Metellus, one of a family which was strongly attached to Sulla and with which he was connected by marriage, had the courage to ask him in public when there would be an end to this terrible state of things. "We do not beg you," he said, "to remit the punishment of those whom you have made up your mind to remove; we do beg you to do away with the anxiety of those whom you have resolved to spare." "I am not yet certain," answered Sulla, "whom I shall spare." "Then at least," said Metellus, "you can tell us whom you mean to punish." "That I will do," replied the tyrant. It was indeed a terrible time that followed. Plutarch thus describes it: "He denounced against any who might shelter or save the life of a proscribed person the punishment of death for his humanity. He made no exemption for mother, or son, or parent. The murderers received a payment of two talents (about 470) for each victim; it was paid to a slave who killed his master, to a son who killed his father. The most monstrous thing of all, it was thought, was that the sons and grandsons of the proscribed were declared to be legally infamous and that their property was confiscated. Nor was it only in Rome but in all the cities of Italy that the proscription was carried out. There was not a single temple, not a house but was polluted with blood. Husbands were slaughtered in the arms of their wives, and sons in the arms of their mothers. And the number of those who fell victims to anger and hatred was but small in comparison with the number who were put out of the way for the sake of their property. The murderers might well have said: 'His fine mansion has been the death of this man; or his gardens, or his baths.' Quintus Aurelius, a peaceable citizen, who had had only this share in the late civil troubles, that he had felt for the misfortunes of others, coming into the forum, read the list of the proscribed and found in it his own name. 'Unfortunate that I am,' he said, 'it is my farm at Alba that has been my ruin;' and he had not gone many steps before he was cut down by a man that was following him. Lucius Catiline's conduct was especially wicked. He had murdered his own brother. This was before the proscription began. He went to Sulla and begged that the name might be put in the list as if the man were still alive; and it was so put. His gratitude to Sulla was shown by his killing one Marius, who belonged to the opposite faction, and bringing his head to Sulla as he sat in the forum. (This Marius was a kinsman of the great democratic leader, and was one of the most popular men in Rome.) This done, he washed his hands in the holy water-basin of the temple of Apollo."



Forty senators and sixteen hundred knights, and more than as many men of obscure station, are said to have perished. At last, on the first of June, 81, the list was closed. Still the reign of terror was not yet at an end, as the strange story which I shall now relate will amply prove. To look into the details of a particular case makes us better able to imagine what it really was to live at Rome in the days of the Dictator than to read many pages of general description. The story is all the more impressive because the events happened after order had been restored and things were supposed to be proceeding in their regular course.

The proscription came to an end, as has been said, in the early summer of 81. In the autumn of the same year a certain Sextus Roscius was murdered in the streets of Rome as he was returning home from dinner. Roscius was a native of Ameria, a little town of Etruria, between fifty and sixty miles north of Rome. He was a wealthy man, possessed, it would seem, of some taste and culture, and an intimate friend of some of the noblest families at Rome. In politics he belonged to the party of Sulla, to which indeed in its less prosperous days he had rendered good service. Since its restoration to power he had lived much at Rome, evidently considering himself, as indeed he had the right to do, to be perfectly safe from any danger of proscription. But he was wealthy, and he had among his own kinsfolk enemies who desired and who would profit by his death. One of these, a certain Titus Roscius, surnamed Magnus, was at the time of the murder residing at Rome; the other, who was known as Capito, was at home at Ameria. The murder was committed about seven o'clock in the evening. A messenger immediately left Rome with the news, and made such haste to Ameria that he reached the place before dawn the next day. Strangely enough he went to the house not of the murdered man's son, who was living at Ameria in charge of his farms, but of the hostile kinsman Capito. Three days afterwards Capito and Magnus made their way to the camp of Sulla (he was besieging Volaterræ, another Etrurian town). They had an interview with one Chrysogonus, a Greek freedman of the Dictator, and explained to him how rich a prey they could secure if he would only help them. The deceased, it seems, had left a large sum of money and thirteen valuable farms, nearly all of them running down to the Tiber. And the son, the lawful heir, could easily be got out of the way. Roscius was a well-known and a popular man, yet no outcry had followed his disappearance. With the son, a simple farmer, ignorant of affairs, and wholly unknown to Rome, it would be easy to deal. Ultimately the three entered into alliance. The proscription was to be revived, so to speak, to take in this particular case, and the name of Roscius was included in the list of the condemned. All his wealth was treated as the property of the proscribed, and was sold by auction. It was purchased by Chrysogonus. The real value was between fifty and sixty thousand pounds. The price paid was something less than eighteen pounds. Three of the finest farms were at once handed over to Capito as his share of the spoil. Magnus acted as the agent of Chrysogonus for the remainder. He took possession of the house in which Roscius the younger was living, laid his hands on all its contents, among which was a considerable sum of money, and drove out the unfortunate young man in an absolutely penniless condition.

These proceedings excited great indignation at Ameria. The local senate passed a resolution to the effect that the committee of ten should proceed to Sulla's camp and put him in possession of the facts, with the object of removing the name of the father from the list of the proscribed, and reinstating the son in his inheritance. The ten proceeded accordingly to the camp, but Chrysogonus cajoled and overreached them. It was represented to them by persons of high position that there was no need to trouble Sulla with the affair. The name should be removed from the list; the property should be restored. Capito, who was one of the ten, added his personal assurance to the same effect, and the deputation, satisfied that their object had been attained, returned to Ameria. There was of course no intention of fulfilling the promises thus made. The first idea of the trio was to deal with the son as they had dealt with the father. Some hint of this purpose was conveyed to him, and he fled to Rome, where he was hospitably entertained by Cæcilia, a wealthy lady of the family of Metellus, and therefore related to Sulla's wife, who indeed bore the same name. As he was now safe from violence, it was resolved to take the audacious step of accusing him of the murder of his father. Outrageous as it seems, the plan held out some promise of success. The accused was a man of singularly reserved character, rough and boorish in manner, and with no thoughts beyond the rustic occupations to which his life was devoted. His father, on the other hand, had been a man of genial temper, who spent much of his time among the polished circles of the Capitol. If there was no positive estrangement between them, there was a great discrepancy of tastes, and probably very little intercourse. This it would be easy to exaggerate into something like a plausible charge, especially under the circumstances of the case. It was beyond doubt that many murders closely resembling the murder of Roscius had been committed during the past year, committed some of them by sons. This was the first time that an alleged culprit was brought to trial, and it was probable that the jury would be inclined to severity. In any case, and whatever the evidence, it was hoped that the verdict would not be such as to imply the guilt of a favourite of Sulla. He was the person who would profit most by the condemnation of the accused, and it was hoped that he would take the necessary means to secure it.

The friends of the father were satisfied of the innocence of the son, and they exerted themselves to secure for him an efficient defence. Sulla was so much dreaded that none of the more conspicuous orators of the time were willing to undertake the task. Cicero, however, had the courage which they wanted; and his speech, probably little altered from the form in which he delivered it, remains.

It was a horrible crime of which his client was accused, and the punishment the most awful known to the Roman law. The face of the guilty man was covered with a wolf's skin, as being one who was not worthy to see the light; shoes of wood were put upon his feet that they might not touch the earth. He was then thrust into a sack of leather, and with him four animals which were supposed to symbolize all that was most hideous and depraved—the dog, a common object of contempt; the cock, proverbial for its want of all filial affection; the poisonous viper; and the ape, which was the base imitation of man. In this strange company he was thrown into the nearest river or sea.

Cicero begins by explaining why he had undertaken a case which his elders and betters had declined. It was not because he was bolder, but because he was more insignificant than they, and could speak with impunity when they could not choose but be silent. He then gives the facts in detail, the murder of Roscius, the seizure of his property, the fruitless deputation to Sulla, the flight of the son to Rome, and the audacious resolve of his enemies to indict him for parricide. They had murdered his father, they had robbed him of his patrimony, and now they accused him—of what crime? Surely of nothing else than the crime of having escaped their attack. The thing reminded him of the story of Fimbria and Scævola. Fimbria, an absolute madman, as was allowed by all who were not mad themselves, got some ruffian to stab Scævola at the funeral of Marius. He was stabbed but not killed. When Fimbria found that he was likely to live, he indicted him. For what do you indict a man so blameless? asked some one. For what? for not allowing himself to be stabbed to the heart. This is exactly why the confederates have indicted Roscius. His crime has been of escaping from their hands. "Roscius killed his father," you say. "A young man, I suppose, led away by worthless companions." Not so; he is more than forty years of age. "Extravagance and debt drove him to it." No; you say yourself that he never goes to an entertainment, and he certainly owes nothing. "Well," you say, "his father disliked him." Why did he dislike him? "That," you reply, "I cannot say; but he certainly kept one son with him, and left this Roscius to look after his farms." Surely this is a strange punishment, to give him the charge of so fine an estate. "But," you repeat, "he kept his other with him." "Now listen to me," cries Cicero, turning with savage sarcasm to the prosecutor, "Providence never allowed you to know who your father was. Still you have read books. Do you remember in Cæcilius' play how the father had two sons, and kept one with him and left the other in the country? and do you remember that the one who lived with him was not really his son, the other was true-born, and yet it was the true-born who lived in the country? And is it such a disgrace to live in the country? It is well that you did not live in old times when they took a Dictator from the plough; when the men who made Rome what it is cultivated their own land, but did not covet the land of others. 'Ah! but,' you say, 'the father intended to disinherit him.' Why? 'I cannot say.' Did he disinherit him? 'No, he did not. Who stopped him? 'Well, he was thinking of it.' To whom did he say so? 'To no one.' Surely," cries Cicero, "this is to abuse the laws and justice and your dignity in the basest and most wanton way, to make charges which he not only cannot but does not even attempt to establish."

Shortly after comes a lively description of the prosecutor's demeanour. "It was really worth while, if you observed, gentlemen, the man's utter indifference as he was conducting his case. I take it that when he saw who was sitting on these benches, he asked whether such an one or such an one was engaged for the defence. Of me he never thought, for I had never spoken before in a criminal case. When he found that none of the usual speakers were concerned in it, he became so careless that when the humour took him, he sat down, then walked about, sometimes called a servant, to give him orders, I suppose, for dinner, and certainly treated this court in which you are sitting as if it were an absolute solitude. At last he brought his speech to an end. I rose to reply. He could be seen to breathe again that it was I and no one else. I noticed, gentlemen, that he continued to laugh and be inattentive till I mentioned Chrysogonus. As soon as I got to him my friend roused himself and was evidently astonished. I saw what had touched him, and repeated the name a second time, and a third. From that time men have never ceased to run briskly backwards and forwards, to tell Chrysogonus, I suppose, that there was some one in the country who ventured to oppose his pleasure, that the case was being pleaded otherwise than as he imagined it would be; that the sham sale of goods was being exposed, the confederacy grievously handled, his popularity and power disregarded, that the people were giving their whole attention to the cause, and that the common opinion was that the transaction generally was disgraceful.

"Then," continued the speaker, "this charge of parricide, so monstrous is the crime, must have the very strongest evidence to support it. There was a case at Tarracina of a man being found murdered in the chamber where he was sleeping, his two sons, both young men, being in the same room. No one could be found, either slave or free man, who seemed likely to have done the deed; and as the two sons, grown up as they were, declared that they knew nothing about it, they were indicted for parricide. What could be so suspicious? Suspicious, do I say? Nay, worse. That neither knew anything about it? That any one had ventured into that chamber at the very time when there were in it two young men who would certainly perceive and defeat the attempt? Yet, because it was proved to the jury that the young men had been found fast asleep, with the door wide open, they were acquitted. It was thought incredible that men who had just committed so monstrous a crime could possibly sleep. Why, Solon, the wisest of all legislators, drawing up his code of laws, provided no punishment for this crime; and when he was asked the reason replied that he believed that no one would ever commit it. To provide a punishment would be to suggest rather than prevent. Our own ancestors provided indeed a punishment, but it was of the strangest kind, showing how strange, how monstrous they thought the crime. And what evidence do you bring forward? The man was not at Rome. That is proved. Therefore he must have done it, if he did it at all, by the hands of others. Who were these others? Were they free men or slaves? If they were free men where did they come from, where live? How did he hire them? Where is the proof? You haven't a shred of evidence, and yet you accuse him of parricide. And if they were slaves, where, again I ask, are they? There were  two slaves who saw the deed; but they belong to the confederate not to the accused. Why do you not produce them? Purely because they would prove your guilt.

"It is there indeed that we find the real truth of the matter. It was the maxim of a famous lawyer, Ask: who profited by the deed?  I ask it now. It was Magnus who profited. He was poor before, and now he is rich. And then he was in Rome at the time of the murder; and he was familiar with assassins. Remember too the strange speed with which he sent the news to Ameria, and sent it, not to the son, as one might expect, but to Capito his accomplice; for that he was an accomplice is evident enough. What else could he be when he so cheated the deputation that went to Sulla at Volaterræ?"

Cicero then turned to Chrysogonus, and attacked him with a boldness which is surprising, when we remember how high he stood in the favour of the absolute master of Rome, "See how he comes down from his fine mansion on the Palatine. Yes, and he has for his own enjoyment a delightful retreat in the suburbs, and many an estate besides, and not one of them but is both handsome and conveniently near. His house is crowded with ware of Corinth and Delos, among them that famous self-acting cooking apparatus, which he lately bought at a price so high that the passers-by, when they heard the clerk call out the highest bid, supposed that it must be a farm which was being sold. And what quantities, think you, he has of embossed plate, and coverlets of purple, and pictures, and statues, and coloured marbles. Such quantities, I tell you, as scarce could be piled together in one mansion in a time of tumult and rapine from many wealthy establishments. And his household—why should I describe how many it numbers, and how varied are its accomplishments? I do not speak of ordinary domestics, the cook, the baker, the litter-bearer. Why, for the mere enjoyment of his ears he has such a multitude of men that the whole neighbourhood echoes again with the daily music of singers, and harp-players, and flute-players, and with the uproar of his nightly banquets. What daily expenses, what extravagance, as you well know, gentlemen, there must be in such a life as this! how costly must be these banquets! Creditable banquets, indeed, held in such a house—a house, do I say, and not a manufactory of wickedness, a place of entertainment for every kind of crime? And as for the man himself—you see, gentlemen, how he bustles everywhere about the forum, with his hair fashionably arranged and dripping with perfumes; what a crowd of citizens, yes, of citizens, follow him; you see how he looks down upon every one, thinks no one can be compared to himself, fancies himself the one rich and powerful man in Rome?"

The jury seems to have caught the contagion of courage from the advocate. They acquitted the accused. It is not known whether he ever recovered his property. But as Sulla retired from power in the following year, and died the year after, we may hope that the favourites and the villains whom he had sheltered were compelled to disgorge some at least of their gains.