Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


Now we come to a period when the purity and honesty of Rome had given place to riches and luxury, with all their accompanying evils; nevertheless, a man whose parents had been poor was still much blamed by the public if he happened to have become suddenly wealthy. So when Sylla boasted of certain exploits of his, a nobleman who was present said, "How can you be an honest man, who, since the death of a father who left you nothing, have become so rich?"

Lucius Cornelius Sylla was descended from a patrician or noble family, but his father did not distinguish himself in any way, and bestowed upon his son neither honors nor riches. He gave him a good education, however, for he was learned in the literature of his own country and of Greece. If Sylla had been as moral as he was intellectual, it would be a pleasanter task to write the story of his life; but he was intemperate, notorious for his low, vulgar tastes, and observed no law but that which his passions dictated. He was vicious in his youth and poverty, and no less so when he became old and rich. Indeed, he so squandered the public treasure when he got the chance that he was forced to let many cities that were allied to Rome buy their independence, in order that he might be enabled to replace the sums he had thrown away to gratify his own vile pleasures. On the other hand, he was a great general, won a number of important victories, and was of immense service to his country.

When Marius was consul the first time, Sylla was appointed quæstor, or public treasurer, and went with him to Africa to fight against Jugurtha. He gained high honors as a soldier, and won fame besides in this way: Some ambassadors of Bocchus, the king of Numidia, had suffered severely at the hands of robbers who stopped them on the road, and Sylla not only relieved their wants, but loaded them with presents and sent them back home with a strong guard. Thus he won the friendship of the king besides.

Jugurtha, who was son-in-law to Bocchus, had taken refuge at his court after his defeat, but Bocchus both hated and feared him, and was just turning over in his mind some means of getting rid of him when this affair with the robbers took place. He would not deliver up his son-in-law, but how could he better show his gratitude to Sylla, he asked himself, than by allowing him to seize his enemy? So Bocchus intimated to Sylla that if he would come to visit him Jugurtha should be his. This was such a tempting reward that, after communicating the matter to Marius, Sylla took a small party and set out upon the expedition, dangerous though it was. For when Bocchus had two such powerful men in his power he began to debate with himself which should be the victim. At last it seemed more to his advantage to give up Jugurtha, as he had promised, and so it was done.

Marius became very jealous when all the glory of his capture was given to Sylla, and he was still more so when the latter, who was anxious for fame, had a ring made with a seal, which he used on all his letters, representing Bocchus delivering Jugurtha to him. After a time, finding that the ill will of Marius increased, Sylla left him and took command under his colleague, Catulus, instead. Then he was employed in the most difficult enterprises, and when it was his duty to supply the soldiers with provisions, he performed it so well that the army of Catulus had all they wanted, while the forces under Marius were suffering from hunger. This circumstance made Sylla still more hateful to Marius, and, added to others of like nature, led to civil wars and no end of tyranny and bloodshed.



When Sylla became prætor, or city magistrate, he was sent to Cappadocia to replace the king on the throne there, and succeeded without much trouble; it was his good fortune at the same time to be the first Roman to whom the Parthians had ever applied for friendship. These things, added to the fact that Bocchus dedicated several images of Victory in the Capitol, and close by them one of Jugurtha, in gold, representing his surrender to Sylla, caused the quarrel between Marius and Sylla to break out afresh. The former attempted to pull down the images, Sylla's friends opposed it, and the whole city was aroused to a degree that would have brought about ruin had it not been for the sudden breaking out of the Social War, which had been smouldering for a long time. This great event put a stop to the quarrel for the time being.

During the war, which was of the utmost importance to the commonwealth, Sylla distinguished himself much more than Marius did, and proved himself a commander of great ability. Towards its close he returned to Rome, and was rewarded with the consulship. At the same time he married Cæcilia, daughter of Metellus, the high-priest.

Sylla was glad to be consul, chiefly because his heart was set on getting command in the war now threatening with Mithridates, one of the most formidable enemies Rome ever had. But he had a rival in Marius, who, though an old man, was just as full of ambition as ever, and, while Sylla was gone to the camp to arrange some matters, he got Sulpitius, one of the most wicked creatures that ever lived, to join him in creating a disturbance, and proclaiming, at the sword's point, whatever laws suited their purpose. Marius made himself commander of the army, put many of Sylla's friends to death, ordered their houses to be plundered, and, with the aid of Sulpitius, got the senate completely under his control.

Then he sent two prætors to Nola, where Sylla was quartered with his army, to announce the change. They delivered their orders so haughtily that the soldiers prepared to kill them on the spot, but at last contented themselves with breaking their fasces, tearing off their robes, and sending them away with many marks of disgrace. Then Sylla broke up his camp, and prepared to march on Rome at the head of his six legions. He was met by ambassadors, who entreated him not to advance with the intention of fighting, and assured him that the senate would certainly do him justice. He promised to encamp where he was, and even ordered his officers to mark out the ground for the camp; but as soon as the ambassadors were gone, he sent part of his army to take charge of the gate and the wall, and followed with the rest as quickly as possible.

The citizens got on the tops of the houses, and threw stones and tiles on the heads of the soldiers as soon as they appeared. When Sylla arrived, he ordered the houses to be set on fire, and, taking a flaming torch in his hand, gave the example. In doing this he had no thought for friends or relations, but was impelled by fury and the desire for vengeance to ruin his enemies, and cared not that the innocent and the guilty alike suffered. He got possession of the city, and, after driving Marius out, called the senate together and had him and others condemned to death. Sulpitius was betrayed by one of his slaves and killed. For this act Sylla gave the slave his freedom, and then had him thrown down the Tarpeian rock.

After re-establishing the power of the senate and proposing Octavius and Lucius Cinna for consuls, Sylla set forward against Mithridates. His first object was to relieve Greece from tyrants, and he accomplished this after taking Athens by storm and defeating the armies of Mithridates in two great battles. Then a treaty of peace was concluded, for Sylla was very anxious to return to Rome, where Cinna was committing such dreadful acts of violence that many prominent people had made their way to his camp for protection.

The two consuls had quarrelled, and Cinna had gone among the dissatisfied allies of Rome and raised a powerful army. Then Marius, who had fled to Africa, hearing of the trouble, returned to Italy, joined Cinna, and, with an immense horde of robbers and ruffians from all parts of the country, advanced on Rome. The senate were so alarmed that they offered to make way for Marius if he would shed no blood; but he paid no attention to them, and gave the signal for slaughter. His barbarians rushed on like wolves, sparing neither old nor young, men, women, nor children. The hideous massacre lasted for five days and five nights, during which Marius gazed on the horrid scene and seemed to delight in it. He had died, and Cinna had been killed in a mutiny of his own troops, when Sylla returned at the head of his victorious army, prepared for vengeance on the Marian party, whom he regarded as enemies to himself and to the republic.

After a short but severe fight he succeeded in making himself ruler, and then all who had taken sides with Marius, or who were even suspected of having favored him, were put to death without mercy. Fearing that any should escape, Sylla even produced a list of those he had doomed to death, and set a price upon their heads. Caius Metellus, one of the younger members of the senate, asked him how these evils were to end, and at what point he might be expected to stop. "We do not ask you," he added, "to pardon any whom you have resolved to destroy, but to remove doubt from those you are pleased to spare."

Sylla answered, "I know not as yet whom I shall spare."

"Why, then, tell us whom you mean to punish," said Metellus.

Sylla consented, and, without consulting any of the magistrates, at once condemned eighty persons. The people of Rome were very indignant at such an outrage; but without taking any notice of that, Sylla condemned two hundred and twenty the next day, and as many more on the day after. In an address to the public he had the impudence to say that he had posted up whatever names he could think of, but those that had escaped his memory should be published later. He went further in his cruelty, and made a law that any one who gave shelter to a proscribed person should be put to death, without exception, no matter how near the relationship might be. He who should kill a proscribed person was promised a reward of two talents, even though it were a slave who slew his master or a son his father. But the most unjust of all his laws was that which declared the sons and grandsons of condemned persons infamous, and confiscated their property.

It was not only in Rome that the lists of people who were to be killed were put up, but in all the cities of Italy. No temple of the gods, no hearth or home, was held sacred at this period; men were butchered before the very eyes of their wives and children, sons in the arms of their mothers. Many were sacrificed merely because the cruel Sylla had reason to hate them or wished to be revenged on them, but the majority simply because they were rich, so that it became a common saying among the murderers, "His fine house killed this man, a garden that one, a third his luxurious hot-baths." Quintus Aurelius, a quiet, peaceable citizen, who thought that there could be no charge brought against him unless it were the sympathy he felt for others, walked into the Forum one day to read the list of the unfortunates who were to die. Suddenly he came to his own name. "Oh, woe is me!" he cried, "my Alban farm is my offence." He had not gone many steps before a ruffian approached and killed him.

At Præneste, Sylla tried the inhabitants, or went through the farce of a trial, and had them executed singly, but, finding this tiresome, he collected them to the number of twelve thousand and ordered them to be cooped up and slaughtered. One person he would have spared, and that was the man at whose house he had been entertained; but the noble fellow said, "I will never owe my life to the destroyer of my country," and, mixing with the crowd, met his death with his fellow-citizens. The strangest proceeding was with Lucius Catiline, a wretch who had killed his own brother. He begged Sylla to place the dead man's name on the list of the proscribed, just as though he were still alive. This was done, and in return for the favor Catiline went and killed one Marcus Marius and brought his head to Sylla as he sat on his chair of state in the Forum, then washed his hands in the holy water at the door of Apollo's temple near by, no doubt thinking thus to cleanse himself from crime.

The next thing Sylla did was to declare himself dictator, though there had been no such office in Rome for a hundred and twenty years. It gave him power of life and death, of seizing property, of forming colonies, of building or destroying cities, of giving or taking away kingdoms. In short, it gave him power unlimited, and he exercised it in a most insolent, despotic manner. He presented bad women, actors, musicians, and the lowest of the freed slaves with territory and the revenue of whole provinces, and compelled women of rank, against their will, to marry some of the most depraved ruffians. We have recounted only a few of the horrible deeds of which Sylla was guilty, but they are enough to show that he was no less wicked than Marius.

Sylla held his dictatorship nearly three years; then, having made all the political reforms he thought necessary, he resigned, and left the people to choose consuls again. Strange to say, although the wicked man walked about in the Forum and elsewhere without a guard, nobody seemed to think of taking his life, though killing was such an everyday occurrence.

On the occasion of making sacrifices to Hercules he gave a magnificent entertainment, and the provisions were so abundant that a quantity was thrown into the river every day. The wine was of the finest kind, being at least forty years old. The feast lasted many days, and in the midst of it Sylla's wife died. But that event did not interfere with his pleasures; for the priests forbade him to approach her, or to have his house defiled by mourning, so he divorced her, and ordered her to be carried elsewhere before the breath was out of her body. He was so superstitious that he obeyed strictly every law laid down by the priests, though he transgressed his own laws by sparing no expense either on his wife's funeral or on his sumptuous banquets.

The rest of his life was passed in the society of low people, with whom he sat drinking and feasting for whole days at a time, until he was seized with a loathsome disease that soon put an end to his existence. The very day before his death he had the quæstor, Granius, strangled by his bedside, because the latter wanted to keep the money due the state; hoping that when Sylla was dead he would not be obliged to give an account of it. Sylla was in the sixtieth year of his age, and had finished the twenty-second book of his autobiography just two days before his death. Some of his enemies tried to prevent his having the usual honors of burial, but the senate interfered, and his funeral was the most magnificent ever seen in Rome. His soldiers came from all parts of Italy to be present, and joined in the procession, which was headed by the senate, the magistrates, the priests, and the vestal virgins. Then followed the army, legion by legion, and all marched to the Campus Martius, where the pile was built.

Although such a cruel man, Sylla must have been a favorite with the Roman ladies, for they attended his funeral in great numbers, and sent two hundred and ten large baskets of spices; Besides these there was enough cinnamon and choice frankincense to make a full-length figure of the dead man and one of a lictor, both of which were carried in the procession. As soon as the corpse was laid upon the pile a strong wind arose, which blew up a flame sufficient to consume it in a few minutes. The ashes were deposited beside the tomb of the kings in the Campus Martius, where, according to Sylla's desire, a monument was erected bearing this inscription by himself,—"No friend ever did me so much good, or enemy so much harm, but that I repaid him with interest."

My young readers must not forget that the wars between Sylla and Marius were of the utmost importance, because they led to the destruction of Roman liberty; but neither of these heroes would have been so powerful had Rome retained her ancient virtues. She was on the brink of ruin because the nobles and the people had become corrupt, and after Sylla was gone new men arose to imitate his example, and new convulsions to disturb the public peace many times before a remedy could be found to cure the deep-seated malady.