82 BCE: The defeated populares of the Battle of the Colline Gate

Add comment November 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On November 1 of 82 BCE, the Roman general Sulla clinched victory in his running civil war against the liberal populares by smashing them at a decisive battle at Rome’s Colline Gate. And on November 2 the victorious dictator* had his captured foes put to death en masse in the Villa Publica while Sulla himself laid out the new order in an address to the cowed Senate.

The roots of this climactic — although not literally final — battle stretch back years, decades even, to the populist Gracchi in the 130s and 120s, and even further than that. Rome’s burgeoning had strained her original social contract past the breaking point. Terms were renegotiated in bloody civil conflicts that saw Sulla emerge this date as master of the Caput Mundi.

The Gracchi all those years ago had tried (until the oligarchs’ faction assassinated them) to rebalance an increasingly stratified Roman society by introducing land reform and an early bread subsidy.

The Gracchi banner would eventually fall to Gaius Marius, a successful general noted among other things for defeating Jugurtha. His “Marian reforms” thoroughly overhauled military organization; crucially for the Roman social crisis, he opened to the propertyless masses service in the legions — formerly the preserve of the very landed citizen-farmer being squeezed out by the empire’s concentrating wealth.**

Marius’s program addressed two problems simultaneously: it gave the Roman poor a vector of upward mobility; and, it professionalized an army whose fighting capacity had slipped behind Rome’s imperial reach.

Because the capstone to a career in the newly-professionalized army would be a grant of land secured by Marius himself, it also introduced a dangerous personal alliance between vaunting commander and his troops, the seed of later centuries’ cycles of incessant rebellion.

During the decade of the 80s, a now-aged Marius was still the populares‘ standard-bearer, but was opposed now by the patrician general Sulla, Marius’s own former lieutenant during the war against Jugurtha.

Marius’s attempt to displace Sulla from command of a planned Roman expedition to the East to punish King Mighridates of Pontus for his abuse of Roman citizens in Asia Minor brought the two to open blows. Calling on his troops’ personal loyalty to him, Sulla broke an ancient taboo by marching on Rome itself.

Marius fled into Africa, a death sentence nipping at his heels. (Various artists have imagined him chilling in the ruins of Carthage.) Once Sulla sailed for Asia, however, Marius allied with the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna and roared back from exile, seizing the capital and instituting a reign of terror against his political enemies. Plutarch:

whenever anybody else greeted Marius and got no salutation or greeting in return, this of itself was a signal for the man’s slaughter in the very street, so that even the friends of Marius, to a man, were full of anguish and horror whenever they drew near to greet him. So many were slain that at last Cinna’s appetite for murder was dulled and sated; but Marius, whose anger increased day by day and thirsted for blood, kept on killing all whom he held in any suspicion whatsoever. Every road and every city was filled with men pursuing and hunting down those who sought to escape or had hidden themselves. Moreover, the trust men placed in the ties of hospitality and friendship were found to be no security against the strokes of Fortune; for few there were, all told, who did not betray to the murderers those who had taken refuge with them.

He died about the age of 70 in 86 BCE, days into his unprecedented seventh consulship.

While all this transpired, Sulla had been several years detained in fighting Mithridates. By 83, he’d hung up the “Mission Accomplished” banner and made ready to march on Rome for the second time.

Marius was dead; his ally Cinna had also been killed in a mutiny. The populares party was now headed by Marius’s altogether less formidable son Gaius Marius the Younger and a plebeian consul named Carbo — guys nobody today has heard of, which pretty much tells you what happened next.

Attempting to stop Sulla in the south, Marius the Younger was thrashed and forced to retreat to Praeneste, where he would be bottled up harmlessly until he took his own life in desperation. Further north, Carbo was trounced and chased into exile (and eventual execution) by Sulla’s ally Pompey, the future Triumvir who got his possibly-sarcastic honorific “the Great” from his action in Sulla’s civil war.

The populares general Pontius Telesinus made the last stand of his movement hurling a force of Samnites and Roman Marian supporters at the capital where, at the Colline Gate, they momentarily pressed Sulla’s wing dangerously against the city wall before another future Triumvir, Crassus, overcame them from the opposite flank.

The ensuing slaughter on this date in 82 settled the Marius-versus-Sulla civil war: Sulla published a large proscription of former Marius supporters who were put to death by the thousands before the general resigned his dictatorship at the end of the year 81.†

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast series covers these events in Death Throes of the Republic, episode 3. In the indispensable History of Rome podcast, the relevant episodes are 31a. Marius | 31b. Marius | 32. The Social War | 33. Marius and Sulla | 34. No Greater Friend, No Worse Enemy.

* Sulla would be acclaimed dictator by the Senate a few weeks later, reviving an office that had been unused since Hannibal threatened Rome more than a century before.

** Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD:

there is a famous utterance of Manius Curius, who after celebrating triumphs and making a vast addition of territory to 290 B.C. the empire, said that a man not satisfied with seven acres must be deemed a dangerous citizen; for that was the acreage assigned for commoners after the expulsion of the kings. What therefore was the cause of such great fertility? The fields were tilled in those days by the hands of generals themselves, and we may well believe that the earth rejoiced in a laurel-decked ploughshare and a ploughman who had celebrated a triumph, whether it was that those farmers treated the seed with the same care as they managed their wars and marked out their fields with the same diligence as they arranged a camp, or whether everything prospers better under honourable hands because the work is done with greater attention. The honours bestowed on Serranus found [297 B.C.] him sowing seed, which was actually the origin of his surname. An apparitor brought to Cincinnatus his commission as dictator when he was ploughing his four-acre property on the Vatican, the land now called the Quintian Meadows, and indeed it is said that he had stripped for the work, and the messenger as he continued to linger said, ‘Put on your clothes, so that I may deliver the mandates of the Senate and People of Rome’. That was what apparitors were like even at that time, and their name itself a was given to them as summoning the senate and the leaders to put in an immediate appearance from their farms. But nowadays those agricultural operations are performed by slaves with fettered ankles and by the hands of malefactors with branded faces! although the Earth who is addressed as our mother and whose cultivation is spoken of as worship is not so dull that when we obtain even our farm-work from these persons one can believe that this is not done against her will and to her indignation. And we forsooth are surprised that we do not get the same profits from the labour of slave-gangs as used to be obtained from that of generals!

† Surviving the proscription was the son-in-law of the late consul Cinna, one Julius Caesar. He was able to pull strings with Sulla to get himself off the list.

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104 B.C.E.: Jugurtha

1 comment January 1st, 2010 emperorhadrian

(Thanks to Daily Kos diarist “emperorhadrian” for licensing this guest post, originally published on that site June 24, 2007. -ed.)

The Jugurthine War was a key war in the final century of the Roman Republic.

Like the Americans in Iraq, Rome assumed that their war against Jugurtha, King of Numidia (a nation in north Africa), would be a cakewalk. They believed that Numidia was a nation of savages with a bizarre religion. They assumed that their own “shock and awe” attacks by the superior legions would decapitate and destroy the “evil doer” Jugurtha. They believed that in order to liberate the Numidians of their primitive ways, they had to impose the civilized will of the Roman state on this backward nation. Rome never expected that the Numidians would wage an insurgent war against their Roman occupiers. This war ended up dragging on for almost a decade. And in the end, it showed the depravity of the ruling party (the ultra-conservative republican Optimate party), which was sending the Roman Republic on its way to tyranny, empire and ruin.

In 148 BC, the King of Numidia, Masinissa, died. The Roman proconsul, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, had been given authority by Masinissa to divide Masinissa’s estate. He divided it between Masinissa’s three sons, Micipsa, Gulussa, and Mastarnable. Soon after, Gulussa and Mastarnable died, leaving Micipsa as the sole King of Numidia. Around the year 134 BC, Micipsa sent Jugurtha (who was Masinissa’s grandson, but the son of another Numidian) to Spain with Scipio Aemilianius. Scipio was fighting the Celtiberians, who lived in a part of what is now Spain. Jugurtha was able to raise an army to help Scipio. Because of the valor of Jugurtha and his army at the Siege of Numantia, Scipio was able to win his war against the Celtiberians.

While fighting for Rome, Jugurtha worked alongside his future enemy, Gaius Marius. Jugurtha not only learned the superior Roman style of fighting, but he also learned of Rome’s weakness for money and thus bribery. Jugurtha described Rome as “urbem venalem et mature perituram, si emptorem invenerit” (“a city for sale and doomed to quick destruction, if it should ever find a buyer”). When Jugurtha returned to Numidia, Micipsa adopted Jugurtha, and decided to include Jugurtha in his will.

After the fall of Numantia, Jugurtha returned home with a letter from Scipio addressed to his uncle; in it, the commander praised Jugurtha’s exploits and congratulated Micipsa for having “a kinsman worthy of yourself, and of his grandfather Masinissa” (Sallust Iug. 9). On this recommendation the king formally adopted Jugurtha and made him co-heir with his own children

In 118, Micipsa died. He left his kingdom to Jugurtha and his two natural sons, Hiempsal and Adherbal. Shortly after Micipsa’s death, Jugurtha had Hiempsal killed. Adherbal fled to Rome. The Roman Senate sent a commission to Numidia to make peace. Jugurtha bribed the Romans on the commission, and thus the commission gave the better regions of the kingdom to Jugurtha.

In 113 BC, Jugurtha took his army and cornered Adherbal in his capital city of Citra. According to Sallust, Adherbal had the support of the people, but Jugurtha had the support of the best soldiers. A Roman Commission was sent to Numidia to forge a new peace. Jugurtha then bribed the Romans on this commission. The Romans thus allowed Jugurtha to storm Citra, and slaughter Adherbal and his supporters. Because Jugurtha slaughtered a number of Italian business people (including Roman Equites, or “Knights“), the Roman senate declared war on Jugurtha.

The Roman Senate sent an army under the command of the consul Lucius Calpurnius Bestia to fight Jugurtha. Bestia decisively defeated Jugurtha. But Jugurtha bribed Bestia, and thus was given unusually favorable terms. The Roman Senate viewed the favorable terms with suspicion, so it summoned Jugurtha to Rome. When Jugurtha arrived in Rome, he bribed two Tribunes, who thus prevented him from testifying. While in Rome, Jugurtha attempted to have his cousin and rival Massiva assassinated. Because of this, he was expelled from the city and returned to Numidia.

In 110 BC, the Roman Senate sent the praetor Aulus Postumus Albinus (who was the cousin of a consul for that year) to defeat Jugurtha. Because Jugurtha bribed key Romans involved in Albinus’ army (who then betrayed Albinus), Albinus was defeated.

The Roman Senate then sent the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus to fight Jugurtha. At the Battle of the Muthul, a young Roman officer named Gaius Marius helped to reorganize Metellus’ legions, which then defeated Jugurtha. But Jugurtha was defeated because he forced his army to retreat before it could suffer heavy losses. The Romans did suffer their own heavy losses. Jugurtha disbanded his army, and had his soliders mount an insurgency to fight the Roman occupiers.

Marius returned to Rome. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of the war under Metellus, the Roman Military Assembly (one of the two Roman legislative assemblies, similar to the US Senate) appointed Marius consul (the Military Assembly, not the senate, appointed consuls). The Roman consuls had similar powers as the US President. The consulship was the highest constitutional office, and the consuls had imperium powers, which allowed them to command armies and conduct wars. The senate didn’t want Marius to be consul, because at this time it was dominated by an ultra-conservative republican party of aristocratic elites known as the Optimates. Marius belonged to the party that opposed the Optimates, the Populares. Partly because the senate didn’t like Marius, and partly because of the increasing difficulty Rome was having in recruiting armies, Marius was forced to raise his own army.

The capture of Jugurtha, from this French history of the Jugurthine War.

Marius took his army to Numidia to fight Jugurtha. But while Marius had been raising his army, Jugurtha allied with his father-in-law, Bocchus, the King of Mauretania. Marius defeated Jugurtha and Bocchus in several key battles. But much like with the American occupation in Iraq, Jugurtha’s strategy of insurgency warfare against the occupiers rendered all conventional victories irrelevant. Marius was playing a game of whack-a-mole. No matter how many times the Numidians were defeated, Jugurtha’s insurgents would regroup and keep fighting. It became clear that because of this, Rome could not defeat Jugurtha.

Marius sent his young Quaestor, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, to Bocchus. Sulla bribed Bocchus, and told him that Bocchus would be given a part of Numidia if he would betray Jugurtha. Bocchus then decided to give Jugurtha to Sulla. Sulla took Jugurtha to Rome, where Jugurtha was strangled in the Tullianum in Rome after marching in Marius’ January 1, 104 B.C. Triumph.


The Triumph of Marius (1729) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The inscription in Latin reads “The Roman people behold Jugurtha laden with chains”.

The Jugurthine War was over. But in the process, several problems were exposed that would cause Rome serious pain in the future. Republicans in this country love to tell us that money in politics is harmless free speech. But as we saw in the Roman Republic during the Jugurthine War, money can be very corrupting. Rome almost lost the war because of money in politics, and the susceptibility of public officials to bribery.

In addition, this war saw the rise of two Romans who would play a key role in the events that directly preceded the fall of the Roman Republic. The first Roman made famous through this war was Gaius Marius. Gaius Marius would later hold the Roman Consulship an unconstitutional 7 times in 21 years (constitutionally, a Roman had to wait 10 years before being reelected consul).

The second Roman made famous through this war was Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla and Marius would fight an unconstitutional civil war with each other several years after this war had ended. Sulla would illegally march his troops on Rome, and unconstitutionally legalize the mass killing of Marius’ supporters. Marius’ supporters in the senate would unconstitutionally prevent Sulla from fighting a war during one of Sulla’s consulships. Sulla would eventually seize absolute power for himself. Sulla would be the first Roman to be Dictator in almost 150 years. He would also be the first Roman in history to hold the dictatorship without the traditional six month term limit.

As dictator, Sulla would illegally change the Roman constitution to make himself and his party (the ultra-conservative republican Optimates) even more powerful. And most importantly, Sulla would set the example (of civil war on Romans, and then the seizing of absolute power) that the future tyrant Gaius Julius Caesar would follow.

In the end, the actions taken by key players in the war against Jugurtha would be repeated in the final destruction of the Roman Republic. The future triumvir Pompey would unconstitutionally hold multiple consulships in a short period of time. Crassus, another future triumvir, would illegally bribe politicians to get his way. And the future tyrant Julius Caesar would bribe, unconstitutionally hold the consulship, and become dictator for life (as Sulla had done). It was Caesar’s actions in this regard, as well as the similar actions of his adopted son and heir, Gaius Octavius (later Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the Emperor Augustus) that would once and for all destroy the Roman Republic, and create the Roman Empire.

1. When when, and whenever death closes our eyelids,
2. Moving naked over Acheron
3. Upon the one raft, victor and conquered together,
4. Marius and Jugurtha together,
5. one tangle of shadows.

6. Caesar plots against India,
7. Tigris and Euphrates shall, from now on, flow at his bidding,
8. Tibet shall be full of Roman policemen,
9. And the Parthians shall get used to our statuary
10. and acquire a Roman religion;

11. One raft on the veiled flood of Acheron,
12. Marius and Jagurtha together.
13. Nor at my funeral either will there be any long trail,
14. bearing ancestral lares and images;
15. No trumpets filled with my emptiness,
16. Nor shall it be on an Atalic bed;
17. The perfumed cloths shall be absent.
18. A small plebeian procession.
19. Enough, enough and in plenty
20. There will be three books at my obsequies
21. Which I take, my not unworthy gift, to Persephone.

From Homage to Sextus Propertius, Canto VI by Ezra Pound

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