Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

The Rule of Sulla

When Marius returned to Rome, he found the city in difficulties. Thus far, she had ruled the peoples of Italy with a high hand. If she chose to grant privileges to one city and not to another, she did so, and those who were less favored could not help themselves. The Romans were the only people who had full citizenship. If a Roman was condemned to die or to be flogged, he had the right of appealing to the people. Away from Rome, if a petty Roman officer flogged a non-citizen or killed him, he was in small danger of punishment; but in the farthest corners of the realm, it was a protection to a man to be able to declare himself a Roman citizen. Some years later than this time, a Roman captain in Jerusalem bound the apostle Paul and ordered him to be scourged; but one of his officials whispered, "This man is a Roman," and then the captain was greatly alarmed be cause he had ventured even to bind a Roman.

It is no wonder that the Italians were eager to become citizens. Many of them had fought for the republic, and they thought it only right that they should have a share in the government. Marcus Livius Drusus, a tribune, came out boldly and proposed that the Italians be made citizens. The Romans were indignant at such a suggestion, and Drusus was murdered in his own house. As soon as the Italians heard of this murder, they saw that the only way to gain what they believed their rights was to fight for them. They fought with such energy and determination that the Romans were greatly alarmed lest the republic be overthrown. Marius took up arms and overcame them in a great battle. The story is told that an Italian general tried by sneers and taunts to force him to fight when he did not think it best, and called out, "If you are a great general, Marius, come down and fight." Marius retorted, "If you are a great general, make me come down and fight."

When the Romans at last learned that they could not resist all Italy, they yielded, but very grudgingly. First, they gave citizenship to those communities that were not fighting against them; then to all Italians who within two months should declare before a magistrate that they wished to be Roman citizens. This struggle was called the Social War, that is, the war of the socii, or allies. When it was over, nearly all the Italian freemen had become Roman citizens.

Citizenship was a valuable right, but the people who lived in Rome still remained the real rulers, because those who lived away from the city could not often come to Rome to vote. No one had yet thought of having one man chosen to represent each community. The Italians, then, had gained the right to vote, but they could not exercise it; and it must have been most exasperating to have the idlers and vagabonds of Rome make laws for them simply because these idlers lived in the city and they did not.

There was a power in Rome which was fast coming to be above the laws, and that was the army. In the earlier days, every citizen was a soldier when need came. He defended his country as he would have defended his own house, and never thought of demanding pay for the service. At the long siege of Veil the soldiers were kept on duty through the year and could give no care to their crops or business, and therefore, as has been said before, wages were paid them. Under Marius, any citizen might enlist; and now men who had no other way of supporting themselves might always join the army, receive wages, and have a part of whatever plunder might be obtained. They were ready to follow their commander wherever he led, for they knew that if he was successful, there would always be a share in the booty for them. A new master was growing up in the state, for the successful general with his army was more powerful than the senate with the idle, luxurious folk of the capital.

When the army of a state is stronger than the law-making power, there is almost sure to be a struggle between the two for the mastery. The time of struggle in Rome was postponed for a while because of amazing events that had come to pass in the East. Mithridates, king of Pontus, kept close watch of what was going on in Rome, and when he saw that the Romans were fully occupied with the Social war, he seized the opportunity to get possession of nearly all the lands bordering on the Euxine, or Black Sea, and also to capture some of the Roman lands in Asia Minor. He did not have much time for these exploits, but he did have an exceedingly good opportunity, for the magistrates sent to the countries conquered by the Romans had allowed the money-making Italians who followed them to extort money from the natives and treat them with such cruelty that they were ready to welcome the rule of Mithridates. Even the Greek cities of Asia were glad to throw aside their allegiance to Rome and claim him as a protector. Athens was so happy in the hope of freedom from Rome that she, too, yielded willingly to this Eastern potentate. When the Social War had come to an end, Mithridates knew that the Roman armies would soon be upon him. "They shall find no friends and helpers here," he said to himself; and by his orders the Italians living in the country were murdered by his officials.

The Romans now made ready an army to punish Mithridates. The senate gave the command to Lucius Cornelius Sulla, one of the consuls. Sulla had served as lieutenant under Marius in the war against Jugurtha. He had shown a favor to Bocchus, father-in-law of the usurper, and in return Bocchus had delivered up Jugurtha to the young lieutenant. The honor of the triumphal procession had of course been given to Marius as commander of the army; but so many gave all the glory of the war to the young Sulla that Marius became intensely jealous of him. Sulla had a seal made representing. Bocchus in the act of delivering up Jugurtha to him, and used it constantly to seal his letters. Even worse than that, whenever Marius went to the Capitol, he saw gilded figures representing the same scene, which had been presented by Bocchus.

In the Social War and the wars with the Cimbri and the Teutones, Rome had been in such danger that there was no room for jealousy, and both Marius and Sulla had done their best; but this war with Mithridates would bring to the commanding general glory and wealth, and now to have the management of it given to his own former lieutenant was most exasperating to Marius, and he was furiously angry. He was nearly seventy years old, but he went to the Campus Martius, or training ground, every day, and exercised with the young men to prove that he was equal to the toils of a campaign. He persuaded a tribune to propose a law giving to him, instead of to Sulla, command of the army. Now Sulla's soldiers had something to say, for they were devoted to their general. The struggle between the law and the army had begun. The army was victorious, for Sulla led his troops into Rome and drove Marius into exile. Then he set off for the war.

Marius took refuge on a little vessel and sailed down the coast. He was driven ashore by a storm, and had to hide in the woods to escape horsemen who were searching for him. He begged the sailors not to desert him. "When I was a child," he said, "an eagle's nest with seven young ones in it once fell into my lap. The soothsayers declared this meant that I should be seven times consul. Six times I have held the office; the seventh, will surely come, and those who have aided me will not fail of their reward." In spite of the story of the eagles, the sailors deserted him, and he wandered about through bogs and marshes till he came to a cottage. He begged the owner to save him, and the cottager hid him near a river and covered him with reeds. Soon he heard loud talking and the trampling of horses' hoofs; his enemies were again on his track. He threw off his clothes and plunged into the mud of the swamp. He was discovered and carried into the nearest town. A proclamation had been sent out that he was to be put to death wherever he might be found, and the magistrates sent a man to kill him. The man came back without his weapon. He had rushed into the gloomy cell with drawn sword, but in the darkness he had seen the flash of the old general's eyes and heard a voice demanding solemnly, "Do you dare to kill Marius?" He had thrown down his sword and fled.

Then the people cried out that the man who had saved Italy should be set free. They went to the shore with him and put him on board a vessel. He sailed for Africa and landed where Carthage had once stood; but the Roman governor forbade him to set foot in Africa. "Go and tell him," said Marius, "that you have seen the exile Marius sitting on the ruins of Carthage." A fishing boat was at hand. Marius went on board and fled to a little island off the coast of Africa. Here he heard some good news. The party of the people, led by the consul, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, were in power. Marius collected as many volunteers as he could in Africa and in Etruria and appeared at the mouth of the Tiber. He burned and plundered and destroyed. He got possession of the grain that was on its way to Rome, and the starving city was forced to yield.

Then the streets of Rome ran with the blood of her nobles. The heads of consul and senators were fixed to the rostrum, or orator's platform in the forum. Marius was taking a fearful revenge for every insult, every slight. It is said that he walked through the streets with a band of soldiers, and that they killed every man whose salutation he did not return.

The time for the annual election drew near, but Marius and Cinna had put themselves above the law. They did not wait for an election, but simply declared themselves consuls, and no one ventured to contradict them. This was Marius's seventh consulship. He had reached the height of his ambition, but it had brought him neither glory nor happiness. In his long life he should have won a position of honor and hosts of friends. He now held power, but not honor; he had flatterers, but no friends. Sulla would soon return and with him would come a terrible vengeance. Marius was a wretched, miserable old man. He died only a few days after he had seized the consulship.

While Marius was ruling in Rome, his rival Sulla was carrying on the war with Mithridates. Sulla knew that no matter how powerful his enemies might become, yet if he should return from the war a successful general, with ships full of slaves and the treasures of conquered cities, and escorted by a devoted army, he could regain all that he might have lost. He went first to Epirus, then to Attica, and laid siege to Athens. The Athenians defended their city valiantly; but

Sulla had built a stockade about it, and the time soon came when there was no food for even the soldiers. They boiled the hides of oxen, and with the little nourishment that they could get from these, they tottered feebly to the walls and tried to resist the enemy. It was in vain. One midnight Sulla's forces burst into the city. Horns and trumpets sounded, soldiers shouted and yelled and ran through the streets with drawn swords, for they had been commanded to cut down all whom they met, men, women, and children; and then they were free to plunder as they would.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


The forces of Mithridates were driven back into Asia, and before long he was begging for peace on the ground that he had once been a friend of Sulla's father! Sulla replied that the king had not recalled the friendship till he had lost one hundred and sixty thousand of his troops. At length, however, peace was made. Cities had been torn down, people had been sold as slaves, and many thousands slain. The king was obliged to give up all the territory that he had seized and to pay a great sum to the Romans.

Sulla was now ready to return to Rome. He sent in advance a long letter to the senate, recounting what he had done for the Roman people. "And in return," he said, "my house has been destroyed, my friends put to death, and my wife and children have barely escaped to me. I shall soon be in Rome to take vengeance upon the guilty."

The Romans were terrified, but the senators tried their best to maintain their dignity and sent messengers to say to Sulla that he need have no fear, and if he wanted any protection, he might write to the senate at once. Sulla replied, "I have a devoted army, and I can protect the senate better than it can protect me." Then the Romans knew that he meant to bring his army into the city, and they were more frightened than ever. Their alarm increased, for the Capitol caught fire and burned, and with it the famous Sibylline Books. They had been stored away with the utmost care and fifteen keepers appointed to guard them. In times of great danger, the Romans consulted them. They felt sure now that their destruction foretold the overthrow of the city.

They had reason to fear. Sulla landed with his army. The people who had favored Marius opposed him, and the Samnites did likewise, for they thought that this was a good opportunity to revenge themselves for the battles lost in former days to the insolent Romans. There was a great contest just without the city walls. Sulla was victorious and master of Rome. He called the people together and told them that the government would soon go as it ought. His plan for making it "go as it ought" was to kill every one who opposed him. He sold the property of his enemies or gave it to his friends. He slew tens of thousands of Italians who had been of the party of Marius. In Rome itself he had so many persons put to death that a young senator ventured to say to him in the senate, "We do not ask you to spare those whom you have marked out for punishment, but we do beg that you will free from anxiety those whom you have decided to save." "I do not yet know whom I shall save," Sulla replied. "Then let us know whom you intend to destroy," besought the senator. Sulla graciously yielded and published a list of eighty names at once. Each day he added to the number. Then he said, "That is all I remember now; the rest must come into some future proscription." These lists were put up in the forum and sent to all the Italian cities. Whoever killed a proscribed man received a reward. It is said that forty-seven hundred citizens of Rome were slain.

Some of the men whom Sulla put to death were enemies of him and his party; some were wealthy, and either he or some of his friends wanted their riches. One young man of eighteen was put on the list because his aunt had been the wife of Marius, and his own wife was the daughter of Cinna. Friends interceded for him, and finally Sulla agreed to spare him if he would divorce his wife. It is said that Sulla spared him unwillingly, saying, "In that boy there is many a Marius." The "boy" would not divorce his wife, but he left Rome for a while. This was Caius Julius Caesar, who afterward became the most famous of all the Romans.

Sulla meant to rule Rome as he would, but he preferred to have it appear that the Romans had chosen him as ruler. Therefore he went out of the city for a few days, and sent back a letter saying that it seemed to him wise for a dictator to be chosen for an indefinite time until the government should be well established again. He made it clear that he expected to be the choice of the people, and they did not dare to refuse him. Then he set to work to make new laws that should give the senate more authority. He feasted the people for many days, and he gave them a great show of gladiators.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Suddenly he resigned the dictatorship, no one knows why, and withdrew to his country house. There he occupied himself with feasting, with companions, both good and bad, with hunting and fishing, with books, the writing of his life, and with a close watching of public affairs. A few months later he died. His enemies declared that he should not have the funeral honors usually given to a successful general; but Cnaeus Pompeius, who had been in his army, prevailed upon them to allow it, and his body was borne to the funeral pyre with all the honors that the Romans could pay.


Roman citizenship was of great value. After the Social war of 91-89 B. C., it was granted to nearly all Italian freemen. The army became the chief power in Rome. Mithridates seized some of the Roman lands. The leadership of the campaign against him was given to Sulla. Marius was driven into exile. After many adventures, he collected an army, returned to Rome, and took a bloody revenge on his enemies.

Sulla captured Athens, but finally yielded to the request of Mithridates for peace. The Romans were in terror at the thought of Sulla's return. The Capitol was burned, and the Sibylline Books were destroyed. Sulla returned to Rome, and took a terrible vengeance on his enemies. By special favor, the life of Caesar was spared. Sulla was made dictator at his own command. He suddenly withdrew to the country. At his death, he was buried with the honors of a successful general.

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