Monday, April 1, 2013

Part V: Sulla And The Death of The Republic

You will recall that I called Marius the founder and destroyer of Rome. I listed why Marius was hailed as a second founder of Rome. He reorganized the polity, particularly the military, into the structures that lasted we recognize today. But I did not list why Marius was considered the destroyer of Rome, and that is because it requires the introduction of another man of great importance, Sulla. The first unraveling of Rome would occur as these two men battled it out politically and on the battlefield.

Sulla was like Marius in many ways, ambitious, intelligent and militarily competent. But Sulla was very different from Marius in one very important aspect, while Marius come from a wealthy equestrian family which, despite their relatively high standing from his home town of Arpinum, he was a new man; whereas Sulla come from a family, that while not wealth, was of Patrician standing. Rome, despite being less stratified than many other societies of it's era, still had class systems that largely determined a persons lot in life. Both Marius and Sulla were preeminent Roman politicians and generals and certainly deserved the high offices they obtained, but Marius had labor in ways Sulla never had too. This would be a source of major resentment, and eventual bloodshed between the two.

Sulla first distinguished himself in the Social Wars the Numidian wars against Jurgurtha. Sulla was nominated as a Quaestor under the consul Marius and went with him to Northern Africa. The war against Jurgurtha had been ongoing for 5 years at this point and Marius had actually used his mentors inability to conclude the war as means to constitutionally oust him from command and take his place.

It is certainly an illustration on how fractious Roman politics had become at this point when Metellus, who should have rightly expected to return back to Rome in shame, was greeted enthusiastically by many Romans; those who did not support Marius any ways. Metellus was granted a triumph and the cognomen Numidicus. Metellus would go on to be one of Marius most ardent and vocal opponents. Marius would not forget this and in 103 B.C entered into an agreement with a tribune by the name of Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, who attempted to have Metellus forcefully exiled from Rome. Metellus, rather than risk outright confrontation, voluntarily exiled himself from Rome.

The story for Metellus ends happily enough, as Marius was forced to relent to the Senate and Metellus was allowed to return to Rome in 99 BC. Saturninus on the other hand, much like the Gracchi brothers, over extended his hand, for example murdering his political opponents, to the point that even Marius couldn't protect his life after the Senate declared him a public enemy. These events would all transpire after the conclusion of the Numidian wars and were only a foreshadowing of the turbulent century that Rome would endure before the final death of the Republic.

Marius, like Metellus, also suffered difficulty fighting against Jurgutha. It wasn't for a lack of martial ability, but that wasn't the case for Metellus either, rather all the pieces that he put together for his plan, which was very similar to Metellus plan, never quiet came together the way he had anticipated. It would be Sulla, not Marius, who would eventually capture Jurgurtha via trickery. Sulla, being politically astute as he was able to use Jurgurtha familial ties against him and then capture him when Jurgutha visited his father in law, ruler of the nearby kingdom of Mauretania. This would earn Sulla incredible fame back in Rome, and undying resentment from Marius.

Both Marius and Sulla served in the Cimbrian War to the north of Rome. The Roman elite were hesitant to put Marius, a man the patricians deeply loathed despite his ability, as the commander and chief of the Roman legions up north. But the war was going badly and the phrase terror cimbricus was on the lips of every Roman. Rome was in very real danger of being stormed, sieged, and sacked if they could not reverse the course of the war. So, with reluctance, Marius was put in command. Sulla joined Marius as his tribune militum but would eventually transfer over to the command of proconsul Catulus as his legatus, a very fortuitous event for Catulus as he was military incompetent. The war would end with a triumph for both Marius and Catulus, though most Romans knew that Catulus' victory was granted by the skill of his legate Sulla.

After the war Sulla would go on to serve as a governor in Anatolia but his martial ability would be called again during the Social War. Sulla would acquit himself well, earning himself the rarest, and perhaps most coveted honor, the grass crown. This was an award given to commander who had rescued another legion from almost certain annihilation and was only ever awarded if the rescued legion would proclaim it so. Contrast this to Marius largely was absent from the battlefield during this period, whether it was due to failing health or Senate marginalization no one can say, but Marius must have considered it the latter because he would come back with vengeance.

While Rome had been busying itself with it's civil war of sorts an old enemy of Rome, Mithridates saw this as an opportunity to expand his empire at the expense of Rome. During the civil war there was little Rome could do to stop the transgressions of the king of Pontus, but now that the civil war was settled, Rome could deal with their foe to the east. Sulla, who had been elected consul, was tasked with dealing with the Mithridatic menace and organized his legions to east, however, the aging Marius, perhaps seeing this as his last chance for glory, coveted the command. Marius was able to find an all, the tribune Rufus, call a public assembly and overturn the Senates decision on making Sulla the commander of the legions against Mithridates. This would be a major turning point for Rome.

Marius actions, while incredibly underhanded and self serving, were constitutionally legitimate. This hadn't been the first time that a conniving politician had used the popular assembly to circumvent the senate for their own advantage, but Sulla's response would be very different than in times past. Sulla, rather than gnashing his teeth, decided that he had enough of Marius and turned his legions on Rome. History remembers that crossing of the Rubicon as a watershed moment in Roman history, but it was Sulla's veterans from the south of Italy, not Caesars legions from Gaul, who were the first in this respect.

Marius hastily organized the cities defense with gladiators but they were easily overwhelmed by the experienced veterans under the command of Sulla. Marius fled the city and narrowly avoided capture to make it to the safety of North African shores. Legend has it that Marius had actually been captured by a contingent of Sulla, but the soldiers were unwilling to execute the venerable legend, who for all his faults was beloved by the soldiers, and let him go. Sulla killed a few of his political opponents, put a standing death sentence on Marius head, and then traveled to Greece to fight Mithridates. However, this was not the last act for Marius.

Sulla's actions, the killing of a few of his political opponents and the standing death sentence on Marius head, didn't sit well with the Romans. While the Senate was mistrustful of Marius, the truth was that the populace, and the soldiers, loved the man, and the actions he had taken were constitutionally legitimate. Rome fell into disarray with street fighting between the rival political factions, the populares, lead by Cinna, and the optimates, lead by Sullas man Octavius. Marius raised an army to support Cinna. Octavius, and some dozen nobles, were beheaded and Marius soldiers rampaged through Rome. It became bad enough that Marius had some of his soldiers executed in order to reinstall order and stop the rampaging. Cinna and Marius were elected as consuls, and Sulla was exiled by the Senate. Though this hardly mattered as Sulla was off fighting Mithridates.

The rivalry between Marius and Sulla built up over the years into a great showdown, like the one between Caesar and Pompey, however, it was never to be. Marius died only 17 days after obtaining his last consulship. Some historians, such as Plutarch, thought it was Pleurisy, others think that he may have been poisoned. Either way it left Rome in the hands of the cruel Cinna and set the stage for Sulla to return to Rome with vengeance. And return with vengeance he did.

Cinna new that he would have to face off against Sulla after the end of the Mithridates war, however, he appeared to be too hard of a task master, as in 84 BC his own men mutinied and murdered him. In retrospect it was understandable, there was little prospect of earning booty in this campaign, the soldiers were reluctant to fight their own, and perhaps most importantly, no one in their right mind would want to tangle with Sulla; at least not now that Marius was dead. A campaign between Sulla, and his opponents commenced and eventually ended with a massive battle outside the gates of Rome. Both sides believed they would be victorious, but it was Sulla who was the victor in the end.

Sulla was declared dictator, or more accurately dictator for making the laws and settling the constitution, and the decision was reaffirmed by the popular assembly. There were many reasons why Sulla was declared dictator, fear, revenge, return to order,= or a desire for restoration of the constitution, but what matters is that it set the precedence for Julius Caesars actions almost a half century later. Sulla, being true to his traditionalist roots, only held his dictatorship for the traditional year and would retire afterwards, though there had been no term limit established on his dictatorship. But it was a very bloody period.

Sulla would implement one of the bloodiest purges ever seen in Roman history via proscription. An individual who saw themselves fall on the proscription lists would see their property taken and their lives forfeit with little recourse since those proscribes were denied the right to appeal to a magistrate. Plutarch says that as many as four hundred individuals were proscribed in a couple of days, and that many of those individuals were not political opponents of Sulla but that they had the misfortune of being an enemy of a supporter of Sulla. The proscriptions went on for months, and were incredibly bloody and it is estimated that as many as 9,000 Roman patricians and nobles were killed during this period. Even a young Caesar couldn't avoid being put on Sulla's list, but he did manage to garner support from relatives of his who were Sulla supporters in pleading to spare his life. Sulla did so, but he did so grudgingly, saying that he saw a lot of Marius in young Caesar.

Sulla implemented many much needed reforms, strengthened the magistracy, and codified the cursus honorum, but whatever good he implemented is overshadowed by the bloody streets he left behind. His proscriptions were not the most bloody, longest running, or even the most indiscriminate, but they were the first and they set a terrible precedent. Sulla's proscription marks the death of a real functioning senate, as all principled opposition was culled, and perhaps most importantly, constitutional power was shown to be nothing against a determined man with an army at his back. A lesson that was well learned by Rome's younger men, Crassus, Pompey, Cicero, and Caesar. The governance of the empire would reach it's weakest point yet, Sertorius, an opponent of Sulla, would wage a civil war that would last until 72 BC and the Senate, fearing another Sulla or Marius, feared putting competent men into positions of command. Their fear would later prove to be well found, but it was too late, the Republic was dead, the intervening years from the resignation of Sulla to the rise of Augustus are merely the death throes of a once mighty republic. Collapse doesn't always happen in a single moment, sometimes it is long and drawn out. It was that way for the Roman empire, it was the same for the Republic. Many battles, small and large, political and real, will be fought, but they are fighting for, or even against, the republic, they are fighting over who will get to pick up the pieces.

I say that Republic was dead because while the Senate and the procedures continued to exists the last tenants of the constitution had been violated. A Republic is a nation rule by laws, not by men, and not by a man backed by an army. Ba'athist Iraq was officially a republic, with an elected leader, but we don't fool ourselves into actually thinking that it is a republic nor did we think that the Soviet Union, China, or any number of 'republics' are actually republics. What is important about a Republic isn't so much the forms and functions as it is the spirit and sanctity. Legislators mean nothing if the laws will never be followed, changed capriciously, or do not honor the constitution upon which the republic is founded. The judiciary means nothing if, when an executive can proscribe your life and wealth and you find no way to appeal. And an executive branch means nothing if it is just to give thuggish actions the veneer of legitimacy.

A lot will happen in the intervening years to the rise of Augusts. A civil war in Spain, the rise of Cicero, the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crasses, the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, the second triumvirate of Octavius, Antony and Lepidus, and the civil war between Antony and Octavius, proscriptions, inflation and anarchy. But these events aren't about the Republic and the Senate, in fact they are secondary players, these events are driven by men playing, to borrow a phrase, the game of thrones. But one thing that cannot be denied, is that after Sulla the republic is beyond saving.

Sulla and Marius didn't kill the Republic so much as expose the facade that the Republic was. The terrible actions done by the militant populistic tribunes and unscrupled senators had always at least been covered in the veneer of the law and legitimacy to a point.  Yes there were moments when the constitution was twisted and ignored, but they were largely isolated incidents, but each incident furthered strained the republic and showed power hungry men that they could get away with more and more until completely brushed the constitution aside when he marched on Rome. It's ironic that he was declared dictator in order to restore the constitution that was already dead. Nothing Sulla could do, no good or ill, would ever undo the reality that the constitution mattered no more. Prior to Marius and Sulla there was a chance that the Republic could endure, however small, but after Sulla there was none. When the military is used to put a man in power then a nation cannot hope to call itself a republic, that is a nation ruled by law, it is a nation ruled by power. And all that remains in a nation for a nation to fall into complete despotism, where power, and not the law, is shown to be the ultimate authority is a man with enough tactical genius and political guile to take the world for himself. It would take nearly fifty years, but eventually such a man would sit on the thrown. And that man was Octavius, who we know as Caesar Augustus.

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Seattle resident whose real name is Kevin Daniels. This blog covers the following topics, libertarian philosophy, realpolitik, western culture, history and the pursuit of truth from the perspective of a libertarian traditionalist.