Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The Republic in crisis: the Gracchi, Sulla and Marius

Lucius Cornelius Sulla, dictator

The land problem

Rome’s expansion came at a high political and economic price.  In the early second century BC the Republic faced severe class tensions caused by the shortage of land.  In the early days of Roman expansion, soldiers had been given land in the rest of Italy, but with the conquest of the peninsula completed, there was little new land available. During the Second Punic War the Romans had confiscated large tracts of land belonging to the allies of Carthage, but this public land (ager publicus) became monopolized by the senatorial and equestrian classes, who built up large slave-run estates and excluded the poor from land ownership.

The land problem was intensified by the rise of the professional solder. By the first century up to half a million men were serving overseas for years at a time. When they returned, the generals confiscated land from the peasants and gave it to discharged soldiers.  Displaced peasants flocked to Rome and the other Italian towns. The population of Rome grew to perhaps three-quarters of a million by the middle of the first century. Poor families crammed into tenements put up by speculative builders, but found that their wages were undercut by unpaid slave labour. 

The Gracchi

However, the Roman poor had some political power. They could vote by secret ballot in their assemblies, and politicians had to pay at least lip service to their needs. Two young aristocratic brothers, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus, the grandsons of Scipio Africanus, were elected tribunes of the plebs in 133 and 123-122 BC respectively.  As tribune, Tiberius pushed a programme of land reform through the Plebeian Council, thus hitting at the vested interests of the Senate. When he proposed to stand a second time as tribune, the Senate organized a riot on the Capital and Tiberius, along with three hundred of his followers, was clubbed to death. 

In 123 Gaius was elected as tribune and tried to continue his brother’s work. He set up new colonies for landless Romans and Italians and subsidised the price of grain for the poor. This marks the start of what was later called the corn dole. He set up new juries to be manned by the equestrian rather than the senatorial class. In a deliberately populist gesture he left his house on the exclusive Palatine Hill and moved into the Forum. In 121 he too was killed in orchestrated mob violence.

The brief period of the Gracchi was full of long-term significance. In an attempt to pass much-needed reform, they struck at old-established institutions and were part of a process that ultimately undermined the Republic. Both brothers received cult as gods from their admirers and the spot where they died was regarded as sacred.

The Social War (91-88 BC)

The Gracchis’ attempts at land reform highlighted and intensified the growing resentment of the Italian allies (socii), who were also suffering from the shortage of land and came to feel that they had all the duties of Roman citizens and none of the privileges. In 91 BC they rebelled in the short but bloody Social War, a traumatic convulsion that threatened Rome’s dominance in Italy. Rome responded by what the historian David Gilmour describes as its ‘traditional tactic of brutality plus concessions’. In 89 BC Lucius Cornelius Sulla wound up the revolt by defeating the Samnites. Rome then quickly pacified the allies by offering them Roman citizenship with the right to participate fully in political life. This unified Italy for the first time and made citizenship wider and easier to obtain. Increasingly men of non-Roman origin became involved in political life. The more affluent of these joined the equestrian class, and the term rapidly lost its purely military meaning.

The chief victor from the Social War was Sulla, now fifty years old, a member of the old nobility. In 88 he was elected consul.

The wars of Marius and Sulla

Gaius Marius
157-86 BC
The next personal challenge to the senatorial nobility came from an ambitious military man, Gaius Marius, a non-noble.  Between 104 and 100 he had held the consulship for an unprecedented five times. In 102 and 101 he won impressive victories against tribes that had migrated south to Gallia Narbonensis and northern Italy. In order to achieve his victories he recruited legionaries from all classes of Roman citizens, whether or not they had property, and increased their pay. This was a profound change.  The possession of a farm was no longer the qualification for military service, but the reward.  As Tom Holland puts it:
‘The legions had turned professional.’  
In 88 BC, following the ending of the Social War, Rome faced a
King of Pontus
new challenge from King Mithridates VI of Pontus, who had gained control of a large region of Asia Minor and occupied Athens and other parts of Greece.  The elderly Marius was not allowed to take command in this war. Instead the senators gave the task to Sulla. When the Popular Assembly revoked this command and handed it to Marius, Sulla, who had six legions under his command, responded in 88 BC with his first ‘March on Rome’ (two thousand years before Mussolini!), crossing the sacred pomerium,  
the boundary of the city since the time of Romulus. This was what Tom Holland calls ‘a uniquely audacious and dreadful’ step; no citizen since the mythical Coriolanus had ever led legions against their own city.  Marius was outlawed and fled to Africa.

Sulla was forcing the hand of the Senate to give him command in the East. In 87 he besieged and captured Athens and made a temporary peace with Mithridates. 

During his absence Marius returned and presided over the bloodiest civilian massacres Rome had ever experienced. Sulla was declared a public enemy, his house was destroyed and his laws repealed.

Marius died in 86, soon after entering an unprecedented seventh consulship. In 83 Sulla returned from the east and in November 82 he captured Rome.  With his bodyguard of 10,000 men he then took revenge on the followers of Marius. Hundreds of people, including  forty senators and 1,600 knights were proscribed, their names published, their lives forfeit, their property confiscated to be sold and distributed to loyal Sullan officers.

Sulla the Dictator

In 82 the Senate appointed Sulla Dictator ‘for the making of laws and the settling of the constitution’, a decision subsequently ratified by the Plebeian Council.  The office of dictator had been incorporated into the earliest republican constitution in order to deal with emergencies and it was not envisaged that its holder would remain in power for more than six months. In reviving it, Sulla potentially transformed the office.

The paradox of Sulla’s career is that, having given himself unprecedented powers, he used them in a conservative fashion. His laws were passed through the Assembly and were aimed at restoring the power of the Senate. He doubled its size to 600 and packed it with his supporters, and deprived the post of tribune of most of its powers.  But if he hoped that the enlarged Senate would make good use of the powers he gave it, he was mistaken.

At the end of 81 BC Sulla ceased to be dictator. He was elected consul in 80 BC but in the following year he retired from public life to his villa near Naples and died in 78 BC. 


Sulla's legacy was a bitter one: the use of force, confiscations of land, and the title of dictator. He reinforced the lesson that the way to power was through the army rather than the Senate, and he left a memory of the regnum Sullum, a time of great violence and illegality.