Episode 7 - Silla, the owner of the Republic

Wednesday, 14 April 2021 14:34 Written by
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Ten years had passed since Marius had saved Rome from the barbarian invasion of the Cimbri and the Teutons. The situation had been calm, both in Italy and outside, quite unusual for Rome, which had been at war almost since its foundation.

In 91, the aristocrat Marcus Livius Drusus was elected tribune. He understood that only by renouncing some of its privileges, the oligarchy could retain the control of the state; so, he promoted the assignment of lands and the foundation of colonies and proposed to grant the allies of the peninsula citizenship, it would have been a radical change in Rome’s policy towards the Italic peoples. The assembly approved the first proposal, and Drusus seemed on the verge of succeeding in his full intent, but in November 91, he was assassinated by an unknown hand.

Soon after, the whole peninsula was in arms. It had been treated until then as a conquered province. It was squeezed with taxes and military levers; it was subject to laws passed by a Parliament in which it had no representation, and the Roman prefects in the various capitals had fomented the contrast between rich and poor to keep them perpetually disunited. Only a few millionaires had obtained Roman citizenship, robbing and distributing tips.

The Italian allies had understood that Rome would never consent to their aspirations unless faced with the use of force, and rebellion exploded. It was called the “social” war, the war of the “socii”, the allies, against Rome. Almost all the Italic peoples joined the Federation, except the Etruscans and the Umbrians; they chose as capital Corfinio near Sulmona in Abruzzo, which was renamed Italica, and established a Senate and two consuls. Until then, the term Italy had had only a geographic value; it also assumed a political meaning for the first time.

In Rome, the panic spread, and in this panic, someone thought back to, guess who, Marius, the great general, the only man who could handle the crisis. Marius improvised an army with his usual system and led it from victory to victory, but without mercy, ravaging and massacring across the peninsula. In three years of bloody fighting, from 90 to 88 BC, the revolt was suppressed. Still, the war for the Romans had been dangerous and unexpectedly difficult because the enemy troops had shared Rome’s training, its weapons and techniques.

When over 300,000 men had already fallen on both sides, the Senate decided to grant citizenship to Etruscans and Umbrians as a reward for their loyalty and to all those who were ready to swear their allegiance and lay down their arms. The allies were defeated on the battlefields, but they were victorious in the political arena: Italy was slowly absorbed within the Roman State, and in the years ahead, this integration policy, extended to the conquered territories, will be the foundation for Rome’s long power.

Meanwhile, in the east, the kingdom of Pontus, on the shores of the Black Sea, was the most powerful among the various small states of Asia Minor, the territory on the border with the Roman province of Asia. Like all the others, it was still subject to Roman hegemony. In 120 BC, the energetic and ambitious Mithridates VI ascended to the throne. His main aim was to drive out the Romans from the area, and he started by attacking the smaller neighbouring kingdoms, provoking the repeated reprimands of the Senate, which ordered him to abandon the conquests. In the meantime, he reinforced his army, which counted up to 250,000 infantrymen and 50,000 cavalrymen. In 88 BC, taking advantage of Rome’s difficulties in the social war, he invaded the Roman province of Asia, proposing himself as the leader of a crusade against the hated Roman exploiters, and here he was welcomed as a liberator. Then he passed on to Greece and occupied it; here, he ordered the magistrates of the Greek cities to massacre all the Roman and Italic civilians, mostly tax collectors, the so-called “Publicans”, with their employees, and Roman and Italic merchants: the victims were around 80,000.

In Rome, the Senate was compelled to declare war. According to the law, the command was entrusted to one of the two Consuls in charge, Lucius Cornelius Silla. Silla had already proved to be a magnificent commander, cold, courageous, and with a remarkable ascendancy over the soldiers and, after being elected Aedilis and Praetor, in 88 BC. he had conquered the consulate thanks to the support of the aristocracy, which was beginning to see its champion in him.

Marius, though he was pretty old by now, demanded the command of this campaign, the one that would crown his glory, and with a plebiscite, Silla was removed and the command given to Marius. The procedure was illegal, but Silla reacted with an even more illegal initiative: he convinced the soldiers to protect the dignity of their commander, and with six legions, he marched on Rome. For the first time in the Republic's history, a commander used the army he led as a tool for his own power, not against enemies but against other Roman citizens. The poisoned fruit of Marius’ reforms, the close relationship of loyalty between commander and troops, was starting to show its disastrous consequences.

The leaders of the populares fled, Marius took refuge in Africa, those who could not escape were sent to death as public enemies. The plebiscite that had given Marius the command of the war against Mithridates was cancelled. With his 35,000 men encamped in the Forum, Silla proclaimed that from now on, no draft law could be submitted to the assembly without the prior consent of the Senate. Then, after being reconfirmed as the supreme military commander with the title of proconsul, he allowed the election of the two consuls to take place for the handling of ordinary matters at home, and at the beginning of 87, he left for what he considered the feat that would make him great, the war against Mithridates.

Mithridates was waiting for him in Greece with an army five times bigger. But Silla was a formidable general who knew perfectly the men and the means to exploit with cold and lucid calculation their strengths and weaknesses. He retook Athens, which had passed to the enemy, for this, the city was punished with angry and bloody plunder, and a few days later, he defeated the king of Pontus in a masterful battle. And, without completing the campaign and without avenging the slaughter of the 80,000 Romans, he hastened to sign the peace with Mithridates, which cost the king only the payment of an indemnity and the withdrawal from his recent conquests, and headed for Patras, to embark for Italy.

In Rome, of the two Consuls of 87, one, Octavius, was aligned with Silla and the optimates, the other, Cinna, with the populares. Cinna had been expelled from Rome, and in a single day, more than 10,000 corpses had piled up on the City's pavements. But in aid of Cinna, Marius came from Africa, gathering an army of veterans and slaves. It was the civil war. After some battles around Rome, Marius and Cinna defeated Octavius’ troops and occupied Rome. It was their turn, now, to eliminate all those who had collaborated with their opponents, but in addition to that, their troops plundered and killed indiscriminately before order was restored. The senators' heads, hoisted on spades, were carried around in the streets. A revolutionary court sentenced thousands of Patricians to death. Silla was declared relieved of his command, all his property confiscated, all his friends killed.

But the bloody success of the populares did not last for long. The elderly Marius, who had been elected consul for the seventh time in 86, died after a few days in office. Cinna was killed in 84 while trying to bring a legion that had mutinied back to order, a clear symptom of the degradation of military discipline. Now that the armies of Rome enlisted on a voluntary basis, they fought more and more not for the Republic but for their own advantage.

Back from Greece, Silla landed in Brindisi in 83. The populares, led by Caius Marius the Younger, Marius’ son, still controlled the legitimate government and the consular legions. The government proclaimed Silla a public enemy and sent an army to fight him; on the other side, Silla’s army was joined by the troops that various young nobles had enlisted at their expense, among them  Gnaeus Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus; we will meet them again soon. The Battle of Porta Collina was one of the bloodiest in ancient times: 50,000 men, half of Marius’ army, were killed.

Silla’ triumph in the capital, on January 27th of the year 81, was glorious. The general was followed by the enthusiastic procession of the proscripts of Marius, all with wreaths of flowers around their head, who acclaimed him as the “saviour of the fatherland”. Romans bowed and decided to erect, for gratitude, the first equestrian statue ever dedicated in Rome, of gilded bronze, no one had ever been represented otherwise than on foot.

Silla was the true inventor of the cult of personality; he had new coins minted with his profile, the celebration of Silla’s victory was introduced in the calendar as mandatory. He had himself appointed dictator, but with an extraordinary role and duration: he would write the laws to reform the state, and his office would last indefinitely.

In line with his totalitarianism, Silla treated Rome like a conquered city, leaving it under the guard of his army and carrying out the most ferocious repression.  40 senators and 2,600 equites, who had sided with Marius, were sentenced to death and executed. Prizes were distributed to those who delivered a fugitive, dead or alive; the forum and the streets were adorned with decapitated heads, and even many of those who had tried to get by without taking sides were killed or deported, especially if they were rich: Silla needed their wealth to fatten his soldiers. One of the suspects was a young man named Caius Julius Caesar, who, being the nephew of Marius on his wife’s side, refused to deny his uncle. Then, common friends got in the way, and the young man got away with a sentence of confinement.

With a series of laws, Silla started to redesign the architecture of the Republic, with the obvious aim of consolidating the Senate's authority and the aristocratic class to which he belonged. In his fight against the populares, he abolished the fundamental right of veto of the tribunes of the plebs and their faculty of proposing bills independently; from now on, they could do it with the prior approval by the Senate. Moreover, from then on, those who had previously been tribunes of the plebs could not hold other positions; this dissuaded the most ambitious and valid young people from becoming tribunes. It was a complete aristocratic restoration; he carried it out to its full extent and, to prevent other generals from doing what he himself had done, namely occupy Rome with soldiers and impose one’s will, he eventually dismissed the army and extended the ban to introduce an army within the city boundaries to all peninsular Italy, whose borders were the rivers Magra, north of Lucca, and Rubicon north of Rimini (remember the Rubicon, it will come back in a few decades).

It seemed that Silla would reign over Rome for the rest of his life, but in 79, surprising everyone, he returned supreme power to the Senate and retired to private life in his villa in Cuma. He died in 78. Before he died, he dictated his epitaph: “no friend has done me any service, no enemy has offended me, that I have not fully repaid”.

Silla's dictatorship was the first step towards monarchy, based on the control of armies. From now on, the State's future would be in the hands of politicians-military leaders with troops, like for Silla, more loyal to someone who could best defend their interests than to the State.


Read 1305 times Last modified on Tuesday, 14 November 2023 07:56
Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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