From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 138 BC to AD 68 by H. H. Scullard (Third edition 1970)

Picked this up in a charity shop for £2. I’d like to read a more up-to-date history of the period, for example The End of the Roman Republic 146 to 44 BC: Conquest and Crisis by Catherine Steel, part of the multi-volume ‘Edinburgh History of Ancient Rome’ – but I can’t afford to fork out £20 on new books and it’s not in my local library system to borrow.

But then, a little research revealed that Scullard’s text is itself a classic account of the period, has been a staple of A-level and undergraduate Classics courses for over 60 years and has gone through numerous editions. The publishers proudly display glowing reviews:

‘Still the best introduction to Roman history.’
– Miriam Griffin, University of Oxford

‘The fundamental modern work of reference for teachers, sixth-formers and university students still … the best and most reliable modern account of the period.’
– Tim Cornell, University of Manchester

It’s a very densely written account which mainly focuses on the legal and political situation in Rome itself, mentioning, but not going into any details about, its many foreign wars (much like Beard and Holland’s accounts; I’m beginning to realise this is standard practice).

Scullard’s notes

But what really sets this book apart is the quality of the notes. These fill pages 381 to 467. Some authors use notes to indicate sources. Some use notes to elaborate on a point mentioned in the text. But I don’t think I’ve ever met notes like Scullard’s before. Almost all his notes refer to a point he’s made in the text, and then give a thorough history of the academic debates over said point. He’ll name the author and volume which first proposed this interpretation, then go on to cite other authors, books and papers, who contradict that view, or develop it into new areas.

Since his citations go back to the start of the twentieth century each note amounts to a summary of the academic debate on key issues over the last hundred years, with a detailed list of relevant authors, opinions and the works they’re expressed in.

I imagine that for A-level students and undergraduates this is immensely useful because it is an introduction not only to the history itself, but to the entire framework of contemporary academic thinking about that history, to the historiography of the period. This book gives you not only the event, but a solid introduction to the entire history of academic debate about the event.

The notes are so long and thorough that they not only have numbers referring to the superscript numbers in the text, but titles as well, written in caps so as to be really clear, indicating the crux or issue they are going to summarise.

In addition, there’s a long note for the start of each chapter which consists of a really thorough assessment of the sources from the ancient world for that particular period. Hence notes with titles like:

  • SOURCES FOR 121 TO 100 BC

The second of these is really interesting and typical of his method. Scullard names the most useful academic book which collects the important passages for students to refer to. Then he lists the contemporary ancient historians of the period (whose works, unfortunately, have mostly been lost). He mentions the speeches given by the Gracchi brothers (which only survive as fragments) and tells us which modern textbook these fragments can be found in. Then tells us what sources have survived, who wrote them, and how to access them.

Thus Cicero’s copious writings abound in references to this period (121 to 100), just before he was born, but our main sources for it fall into three groups:

  • Livy and his followers, notably Cassius Dio
  • Plutarch
  • Appian
  • (with an afterword on Diodorus Siculus)

For each of Livy, Plutarch and Appian Scullard gives a good, thorough summary of who they were, what they wrote, why they were writing, how reliable they are, which bits of their writings survive a) complete b) as summaries in later works c) as fragments d) as titles only. Then he mentions good modern books about each of these authors, for example Plutarch and His Times by R.H . Barrow.

And then he adds a reading list of key modern books about the period (121 to 100 BC) as a whole – six by my count – ending with two more books which gather together useful recent academic papers on the period.

And all of that is covered in just one footnote! You can see how fantastically useful this must be to a student of the period who gets not only a history of events but a detailed summary of the sources, plus an up-to date-reading list thrown in.

Because he was aware that his book had quickly become a standard introduction to the period and because teachers were referring to his text by page number in a thousand printed sheets for their students, Scullard and his publishers decided that in successive editions he would make relatively little change to the main text and instead update the notes to take account of recent historical work. The copy I picked up is of the third edition; I think the most recent version, quite expensive at £17, is the fifth edition.


Scullard’s account covers the period 133 BC to 68 AD. Why? Well, 68 AD was the year when the emperor Nero committed suicide, marking the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which had ruled since the first emperor, Augustus.

As to the start date, many histories begin their account of the fall of the Roman Republic in 146 BC because that was the year when Roman forces:

  1. crushed and destroyed Carthage, thus seizing Africa and asserting complete control over the central and western Mediterranean
  2. finally conquered all of Greece, renaming it the province of Macedon and utterly obliterating its most important city, Corinth, to show the Greeks who was boss

The contemporary Greek statesman Polybius took 146 as the key date and wrote a history of Rome from 220 to 145 BC precisely because he wanted to explain to his contemporaries how Rome had, by this year, established itself as the superpower of the Mediterranean.

Scullard chooses the date 133 instead, because this was the year in which tribune of the people Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus proposed proposing radical land reforms. Not only did this alienate the traditional ruling class but he then bypassed constitutional conventions – ignoring the senate and having a fellow tribune who opposed his bill, Octavius, forcibly removed from the building. The crisis came when Tiberius proposed to use the bequest of Attalus III of Pergamum to finance his proposed land distribution and the commission which would administer it. This was a break with the tradition that only the Senate could manage state finances and foreign policy. And Gracchus further alienated traditionalists when he announced he planned to stand for a second consecutive tribunate, against established convention. At the next meeting of the Senate a faction declared him an enemy of the state, these senators raised a mob through Rome which attacked and killed Gracchus and many of his followers in the streets.

Scullard goes into minute detail about the social and political origins of the land problem which had become such a crisis that it needed reform; into detail about the precise measures contained in the laws Tiberius proposed; and into great detail about the precise familial and political alliances which Tiberius gathered for and against him.

But the high-level point is simple. There’s been a consensus of opinion from ancient times right down to modern scholars that the date and manner of Tiberius’s death (killed by a politically motivated lynch mob) marked the start of the Roman republic’s decline and eventual collapse.

  • For example, Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote that: ‘the death of Tiberius Gracchus…divided a united people into two distinct groups.’
  • Modern scholar Jürgen von Ungern-Sternberg writes: ‘It was Tiberius’ assassination that made the year 133 BC a turning point in Roman history and the beginning of the crisis of the Roman Republic.’

Anyway, on page 1 of his text Scullard collocates the two dates, 146 and 133, into a neat introduction to his narrative. 146 was the date when Rome secured hegemony over the Mediterranean – but the events of 133 raised the question: Rome may have conquered the world but was it at the expense of her own internal political and social stability? Could what was in many ways still a provincial city state manage to run what had become, in effect, an empire? Could Rome’s complex matrix of traditions, customs and institutions be adapted and modernised to run this empire? Above all, could Rome produce men of sufficient statesmanship and self-discipline to rise above the narrow interests of their clique or class and make decisions in the best interests of the state as a whole?

These are the questions which will underlie the next 400 pages of historical text but even here, on page 1, we already know the answer and the answer is: No, it couldn’t.

Scullard’s account, scholarly and unflashy and densely written as it is, accompanied by his extensive and detailed notes carefully laying out the sources for all the key cruxes he recounts, and summarising different scholarly interpretations – Scullard’s account gives a magisterial, fast-moving and yet deeply satisfying account of the fateful century from 133 (death of Tiberius Gracchus) to 31 BC (Octavian wins the battle of Actium and becomes master of the Roman world).


The political controversy Tiberius Gracchus stirred up was the result of a whole set of social and economic forces which Scullard proceeds to summarise:

The Equestrian Order

The rise of a new estate, situated between the People and the Senate, the Equites or Knights. Originally the knights simply referred to those Roman citizens wealthy enough to provide their own horse when called to serve in the army. In the third century the censors drew up a list of those who fulfilled the wealth criteria and probably in the second century this list was fixed by law. The sons and grandsons of these men came to be called the Equestrian Order.

The key fact is that by the lex Claudia of 218 BC, senators were forbidden to take part in commerce – but Knights could. With the result, entirely predictable in hindsight, that as the empire spread, as territories in Spain, Africa, the South of France and Greece became provinces, the scope for international trade hugely expanded and a new class of international businessmen arose which became ever more rich and powerful, but which specifically excluded members of the senate.

Hence, ever-increasing scope for a growing number of Equites and smaller negotiatores who handled money-lending, banking and trading, and publicani, public contractors who supplied the Roman legions and military.

Scullard is at pains to emphasise that the Equites did not amount to a new class. They came from the same patrician ranks as the Senate, sometimes from the same families or intermarried with them. But over time they became a distinct interest or faction which became evermore powerful and, on many issues, aspiring politicians found themselves having to calculate what would please the Senate or the Equites.


Slavery had been part of Roman life since the beginning but Rome had a tradition of freeing slaves much more often than any other state in the ancient world. However, the creation of this new empire in the second century hugely increased the numbers of slaves across Roman territory.

Conditions of slavery varied immensely, with educated Greek slaves being made secretaries and assistants and even tutors to the wealthy, and sharing their lifestyle. Plenty were the single dogsbody of small households. And an increasing number were put to work as forced labour on huge farms or latifundia or, if they were really unlikely, condemned to the silver mines of Spain or Macedon.

The spread of slaves throughout Roman society obviously led to the rise of slave-trading as a business and made slave entrepreneurs rich. But it made even ordinary Roman households ‘rich’ as well, as even minor domestic work could be handed over to unpaid lackeys.

On the downside, widespread slavery led to periodic revolts. There were two large-scale slave revolts on Sicily, which are dignified with the names of the First Servile War (135 to 132) and the Second Servile War (104), both of which required full-scale commitment by the Roman army to subdue. There were also sporadic other revolts throughout the empire, the most famous of which is the Spartacus Revolt (sometimes called the Third Servile War or the Gladiator War) of 73 to 71 BC.

The land problem, pages 19 to 22

But the deepest and most enduring problem caused by these huge social and economic changes was the Land Problem with its impact on the economy and the army. In the good old days the Roman army had been raised by a levy of smallholding farmers who came together for a campaigning season, fought, then went home to their farms.

But, as Tom Holland vividly describes, when Spartacus and his rebels marched through central Italy in the late 70s they were amazed to discover it a depopulated wasteland, huge expanses of empty agricultural land, with only occasionally a large farm complex. Why? Because the rich had bought up all the land. Because the habit of dividing land among heirs split land smaller and smaller till it became economically unviable, at which point many smallholders sold up to developers and large land-owners – and migrated to the city to find a living, where they formed a swarming underclass, many sinking to become beggars and criminals, and helping to push Rome’s population over one million, living in huge squalid shanty towns.

The other result was that the massed ranks of sturdy yeoman which the Roman army had relied on for centuries had, in effect, disappeared.

These are the issues which Tiberius Gracchus set out to solve in 133 by a) limiting the amount of land any individual could hold, and b) requisitioning the rest back to the state to be redistributed to the urban and rural poor. It would have been a complicated process and required the setting up of a land commission, but you can see why a) it was, in principle, a good idea but b) was vigorously opposed by the large landowners, who had everything to lose.

Although Scullard is at pains to emphasise that it was less the content than the way he went about it that alienated the Senate, nonetheless Gracchus and hundreds of his followers were murdered in the street. Half-baked attempts at reform were tinkered with for the next decade, until Tiberius’s younger brother Gaius was elected to the tribunate in 123 and himself resumed the cause of land reform. But Gaius was himself to suffer the same face, murdered in the streets, and then thousands of his followers outlawed and executed (p.38).

Marx and 19th and 20th century socialists have made the Gracchi brothers martyrs to the cause of equality and class war. Scullard, like all the other accounts I’ve read, emphasise that they didn’t think in that way – they themselves were solidly embedded in the ruling class – but they could see that ‘radical’ action was needed to cure the multiple social issues caused by the land problem. And over the following decades various other attempts were made to solve it, many of which came close to the Gracchi brothers’ original proposals.

But in a deeper sense all reforms were kicking against economic inevitability. The consolidation of landholdings into big latifundia continued apace, creating the vast empty spaces which appalled Spartacus, and then became established practice under the empire. It simply made economic sense, no matter how devastating its social consequences.

The professionalisation of the army

If the army could no longer count on raising large numbers of trusty smallholding yeomen (because they had ceased to exist) who could they recruit? The short answer was: the urban poor. According to traditional Roman practice, citizens had been categorised into five classes according to their wealth and possessions, with a 6th class who had nothing except their children to offer, the proletarii. These latter had been excluded from military service as having no investment in the state. But in the wake of the Gracchi the law was changed to allow the swarming urban poor to be recruited.

This went hand in hand with regularising the pay of legionaries and reforms (the most eye-catching of which is that Roman citizen soldiers were no longer subject to the scourge, p.37). And was followed by major reforms to the structure and management of the army instituted by the successful general Gaius Marius (157 to 86 BC).

Generals give land to their ex-soldier (p.58)

The obvious problem with recruiting tens of thousands of the very poor from Rome itself and other cities around Italy, training them, paying them and leading them on campaigns which sometimes lasted for years was – what to do with them when the war was over? Dump them back in the squalid slums you recruited them from?

The last decades of the second century (120s, 110s) and the first decades of the first century (the 90s and 80s BC) saw two major developments:

  1. One was generals who held their posts for more and more extended periods of time, the length of time necessary to get the job done, whether it was suppressing Jugurtha in North Africa or Mithradates in Turkey or the tribes of southern Gaul.
  2. The second was the bond of personal loyalty which grew up between long-serving generals and men with the expectation that, when they returned from dangerous arduous service, the men would be looked after by their (extremely) rich general (not least if he had personally taken charge of the treasuries of defeated kings) and that the general would find these landless slum dwellers decent land to farm and own.

This is why the rather dry and boring subject of land ownership and schemes to reform and manage it play a central role in the history of this period – because it was at the centre of so many related military, social, economic and political issues.

The Italians

One last issue needs mentioning, which is the role of the Italians, Latins and other allies. In the preceding centuries the Romans had not only conquered all the other tribes and peoples who inhabited Italy but implemented their unprecedentedly generous policy of assimilation, giving many of these peoples many of the legal rights of Roman citizens.

In actual fact, as you might expect, it was a complex and highly legalistic picture which Scullard, with characteristic scholarly precision, explains in some detail. But the core point is this: the land reforms proposed by the two Gracchi brothers also included a new deal for the Italian peoples which, in most cases, amounted to giving them full rights of Roman citizenship.

And when the Gracchi were murdered, not only dirt poor Roman citizens and liberal-minded reformers were upset (and sometimes arrested and executed) but so was a great swathe of the Latin tribes who were pinning their hopes on them to be given full Roman rights.

The result was that the issue of rights for Italians was left to fester for decades, with growing resentment among the Italians who were enthusiastically drafted into the ever-increasing number of Roman armies, risked everything and died, were wounded or helped achieve great victories for Rome, only to return to their life as second class citizens in provincial municipalities. To quote Wikipedia:

The Italian allies wanted Roman citizenship, not only for the status and influence that came with it, but also for the right to vote in Roman elections and laws. They believed that they should be treated equally to the Romans, given that they had formed cultural and linguistic connections with the Roman civilisation, and had been their loyal allies for over two centuries.

This is what lay behind the so-called Social War, 91 to 87 BC, which broke out when another young reformer, Marcus Livius Drusus, as tribune of the plebs, in 91 BC proposed a law extending full Roman citizenship to all the tribes of Italy. As with the Gracchi, this prompted vehement opposition from conservative elements in the Senate who, as with the Gracchi, had Drusus murdered, although the murderer was never discovered (p.65). The very high hopes of the Italian allies were dashed and war broke out almost immediately (pages 66 to 70).

This totally avoidable conflict lasted for a grinding four years and led to massive casualties, the depopulation and devastation of vast tracts of Italy. Although the Roman army did, eventually, succeed in taking rebel towns one by one, the war was only ended when Rome awarded the full Roman citizenship they wanted to the many towns and tribes who had remained loyal. Seeing that coming to terms gained them the result they wanted, most of the another tribes then capitulated. Although Rome made examples of some towns, razing them to the ground and transplanting their populations to new territory, the overall high-level result of the war was that, within a decade, almost all the population of Italy had full Roman citizenship.

To the outsider, it seems the height of stupidity that the Roman Senate triggered a major war and the devastation of its land and people, only to end up conceding what they had fought the war to withhold.

Thus Italy came the closest thing to being a nation state there was to be for another 2,000 years, till the nation-building movements of the 19th century (p.70).

However, it had been a genuine civil war with populations of multicultural towns and cities turning against each other, with Roman armies investing and destroying towns which had, up till then, been close allies. Mary Beard emphasises that the Social War introduced the conceivability of intense fraternal violence and destruction into civic life, and so helped enable, or make thinkable, the greater destruction of the civil wars which were to follow. It established a terrible template.

Scullard’s ominous warnings

After a while I realised the text follows a set pattern: Scullard describes domestic events in Rome or wars fought against various opponents abroad and so on, and then pauses to summarise the implications and consequences for the future. These summaries all tend to be baleful in tone i.e. he describes each one as representing a further degradation of the delicate balance of the ‘mixed constitution’ which an external observer like Polybius so admired about the Roman state in 145 BC.

Most of Scullard’s text is dry and scholarly but in these short summaries he indulges in a little doom-mongering. They’re both a) handy waystations, summing up developments so far and providing yet more reasons why the Republic was doomed to fail and b) are a little more juicily phrased than the rest of the book and so add a welcome touch of colour. Thus:

The murders of the Gracchi (133 and 121) left:

  • the Italians embittered
  • the Equites more self conscious as a political force
  • the people more aware of the power of the tribunate
  • the weakness of the Senate exposed

Or, as Scullard summarises it:

The tempo and temper of political life were heightened. Whether or not the Gracchi should be regarded as revolutionaries, without doubt they precipitated the revolution that overthrew the republic. (p.40)

In 107 Quintus Caecilius Metellus was leading Rome’s military campaign against the Numidian king Jugurtha. However, his number two, Gaius Marius, disobediently returned to Rome and lobbied for the consulship. The People, by voting Marius consul, in effect disregarded the Senate’s decision to prolong Metellus’s command and appointed Marius to succeed him in Africa.

This intervention by the People in the Senate’s traditional right to allocate provincial commands established a very dangerous example which was later to exalt Pompey and Caesar to extraordinary commands to the great detriment of the Republic. (p.51)

Moreover, Marius then broke the rule that soldiers could only be enrolled from the five classes, as defined by the census of wealth (as mentioned above) and called for recruits to be made from among the poorest of the poor, the proletarii.

This innovation had far-reaching political effects and paved the way for the later military dictatorships. (p.52)

Eventually the Jugurthan War, which had dragged on from 112 BC, was brought to a successful conclusion in 106 BC. But there was widespread suspicion that it had lasted so long because Jugurtha had successfully bribed every Roman official sent out to negotiate with him and, even when he was brought to Rome itself, had successfully suborned key members of the Senate to be lenient on him. The net effect was to:

  • raise suspicions of Senate corruption
  • exacerbate relations between Senate and the People and the Equites
  • increase interference in foreign policy, traditionally a monopoly of the Senate, by the latter two groups
  • elevate a popular general, Marius who brought the war to a successful conclusion, to ‘potentially dangerous heights‘ (p.53)

It was Caius Marius who undertook the sweeping reforms of the structure and command of the Roman army which led to a step change in its efficiency (p.59). He was also the one who made the unprecedented move of recruiting from the urban poor, but this had consequences. As mentioned above, it meant that these poor became more dependent on their general when the campaign ended and they were demobilised.

As the state did not step in with any scheme of pensions, the men tended increasingly to expect their generals to provide allotments for them by securing the passing of a lex agraria. This spelt danger: these semi-professionalised soldiers, bound to their commanders by ties of personal interest, made possible the rise of a series of military dictators who in the end overthrew the Republic. (p.58)

Marius and Sulla

All of these ominous forebodings pale into insignificance compared to what, to me, is the obvious huge rupture in the Republic’s history, which was the ruinous rivalry between the successful ‘people’s general’ Caius Marius and his hyper-ambitious and utterly ruthless subordinate, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix. Sulla broke all the rules by marching on and taking Rome, not once but twice.

Marius and the Jugurthine war

During the Jugurthine War the popular general Caius Marius selected the aristocratic Sulla for his quaestor. Sulla was a very effective leader of cavalry with acute political skills. He resolved the war by persuading a neighbouring African king to kidnap Jugurtha for the Romans in 105 BC.

Marius’s triumph

It was, however, the lead general, Marius, who was awarded the triumph in Rome and dragged the captive Jugurtha through the streets as his prisoner in 104. Understandably, Sulla was peeved.

The Social War

Sulla went on to play a key role in Rome’s victory in the Social War (91 to 87 BC). But Sulla’s real ambition was to wind up this war as quickly as possible so as to be awarded generalship of the campaign in the East against the rebellious King Mithridates of Pontus. A campaign in the East promised both the military glory which high ranking Romans lusted after and also huge amounts of Eastern loot.

First march on Rome 88 BC

Not surprisingly, Marius also wanted this commission and was able to use his popularity and contacts in the Senate to have it re-awarded to him. When the order was brought to Sulla in his camp, tidying up the last stragglers from the Social War, Sulla simply refused to obey it and marched on Rome with his legions to overthrow the decision. This was, in effect, an outbreak of civil war within the Roman ruling class.

Sulla in power

Rome was undefended – why did it need to be? – so Sulla and his commanders took the city after a few hours of street fighting. Once installed in power, Sulla made Marius an outlaw. Marius managed to escape to Africa but many of his associates were arrested and executed according to a list of ‘proscriptions’ i.e. death penalties, posted up by Sulla (p.72). As per the increasing practice, Sulla handed out the property confiscated from the enemies he had murdered to his army veterans.

Sulla heads East

Having secured his power base in Rome and cowed all opposition into silence, Sulla organised his legions and took ship for the East and war against Mithradates.

Marius retakes Rome

Scarcely had Sulla departed than the consul he left in charge, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, changed sides, going over to the ‘Marians’. He was promptly driven from Rome by the other consul, Octavius and declared an enemy of the state by the Senate. But Marius had returned from Africa, raised forces in Etruria and, joining with three legions which Cinna commanded, they took Rome by storm.

Marius’s bloodbath

‘Maddened by hate’ (p.73) Marius allowed his forces to run wild in Rome for five days of loot and murder, which included beating to death the defeated consul Octavius in his chair of office, and all the ‘anti-Marians’ he could get his hands on executed. In this state of terror Marius and Cinna had themselves declared consuls for the following year, 86. But only a few days later Marius, at one time the popular hero of the people for having saved them from the threat of barbarian invasion back in the late 100s, and then latterly a blood-crazed military dictator, abruptly died, leaving Cinna in charge.

Cinna’s rule

For the next three years (87 to 84) Cinna was effectively the sole ruler of Rome, passing laws with the help of tame consul Lucius Valerius Flaccus. All this time Sulla had been far in the East pursuing the war against Mithradates. This war ended with a peace treaty in 85 after which Sulla inflicted very punitive measures on the defeated territory (p.78). Then he made preparations to return to Rome and sort out Cinna. He wrote a letter to the Senate listing his achievements and promising justice to those who had brought bloodshed to the streets of Rome i.e. vengeance against the Marians.

Cinna murdered by his own troops

Cinna and his allies began organising troops in Italy for the coming conflict. According to contemporary sources Cinna intended to transport his troops across the Adriatic to confront Sulla in Greece. The troops were reluctant because a) there was little or no promise of loot b) a previous convoy of soldiers had been shipwrecked and the survivors sent home. When Cinna visited the troops at their camp to address them in person, one of his lictors struck a soldier who had been standing in the way as Cinna entered the gathering. When the soldier hit back, Cinna ordered his arrest. This caused another soldier to throw a stone at Cinna which hit him. Mob rule took hold as more missiles were thrown and the nearest soldiers stabbed Cinna to death. Thus ended Cinna’s rule.

The Battle of the Colline Gate, November 82 BC

Sulla arrived back in Italy with is army of the East to discover a power vacuum left by the death of Cinna. He marched at speed to capture Rome, joined on the way by the young Gnaeus Pompeius, soon to be nicknamed ‘Magnus’ or ‘the Great’, and other regional forces who rallied to his cause. With characteristic ‘voice of doom’ tones, Scullard summarises:

This mustering of support from the provinces, and still more the raising of a private army, augured ill for the future of the Republic. (p.79)

The ‘Marian’ side had been joined by Lucanians and Samnites (Italian tribes who saw the opportunity to grab more independence). These tribes arrived at Rome just ahead of Sulla but were held off by the inhabitants closing the gates just long enough for Sulla to arrive and draw up his legions in battle formation. There followed a massive and very close fought battle. Ancient historians claimed that 50,000 soldiers lost their lives and that Sulla only just won due to the decisive intervention of the force of Marcus Licinius Crassus, who had marched an army all the way from Spain to help Sulla (p.80).

Sulla’s revenge

Victorious, Sulla had thousands of his Marian opponents executed (Scullard cites one ancient author, Orosius, who gives the number as 9,000, probably too high, but it was certainly more than 2,000, p.81). In the same murderous spirit, after offering safe passage to the Samnite prisoners into Rome, he had every single one slaughtered on the Field of Mars. In what was now the established pattern, Sulla then rewarded his veterans and informants with land confiscated from the dead.

He needed land for his veterans and the vicious nexus between an army and its commander, which Marius’ career had first demonstrated, now began to gets its stranglehold on Roman life. (p.81)

Sulla’s rule 82 to 79 BC

Previously the role or position of ‘dictator’ had been awarded by the Senate but only in special emergencies and limited to 6 months. Sulla now cowed the Senate into making him dictator indefinitely (p.82). He undertook a programme of sweeping political reforms designed to restore the republican constitution which Scullard describes in detail on pages 83 to 86.

One reform which stands out was making anyone who held the role of tribune of the plebs ineligible for any other public office. The tribunate had been a powerful stepping stone for both Gracchi, for young Drusus and for various other reformers. Now Sulla turned it into a dead end.

But the main thrust of Sulla’s reforms was to try and prevent such a man as himself rising again to absolute power. In the event, almost everything Sulla worked to achieve and the laws he laboured to pass were overthrown with a decade of his death.

Sulla retired

Then this brutal hard-headed man did something amazing. Unlike most dictators in recorded history, he simply gave up all his titles and powers and retired to his country estate to live in peace (and, according to his enemies, to indulge in all kinds of wild immorality). To this day, this bold act amazes and puzzles historians. Sulla enjoyed retirement for precisely one year, dying in 78 BC aged 60 (p.87).

After Sulla

All this has taken 90 pages of Scullard’s text to relate and it will be another 90 to take us through to the defeat of Mark Anthony at Actium and the mastery of the Roman world by Octavian.

The old forms of Roman government persisted, there was still a Senate, consuls, tribunes of the people, annual elections and so on – what else did they have, what else was there to do? Yet I don’t understand how anyone can say that this or that threat was ‘looming’ or ‘augured ill’. Surely the Republic had been broken. It carried on, patched up with stitches and bandages, but surely its spirit was snapped by the brutal triple whammy of Sulla’s first march on Rome, Marius’s brutal bloodthirsty return, then Sulla’s second conquest of Rome, each coup attended by widespread political murder.

What I find mind-boggling is that everyone carried on as if nothing had happened. All the histories I’ve read just slip back into the routine of telling us which consuls were elected and the bickering and factions around them and their legislation. Wasn’t there some kind of social shock, some kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome resulting from Sulla decade, the decade during which Sulla tore up the rulebook, from his first march on Rome in 88 BC to his death a decade later?

More baleful summaries

The 20 years that followed the death of Sulla can generally be described as the Era of Pompey who went from boy wonder to most powerful figure in the Roman world via a series of military triumphs. Having spotted this habit of Scullard’s of giving two or three pages of history and then ending the section with an ominous warning about its long-term consequences for the Republic, I began to expect and enjoy them. Like a cartoon vicar lamenting the decline of society in his regular Sunday sermon.

Quintus Sertorius

Thus Pompey was given special authority to put down the rebellion of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus in 78 BC which he did with relative ease but then refused to disband his army. nInstead Pompey asked to be sent to Spain to help Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius put down the long-term rebellion by Roman governor Quintus Sertorius, who had remained loyal to the Marian party even after Marius’s death. Reluctantly, the Senate agree to this big promotion and Scullard concludes his description by saying:

To invest a young man [Pompey] who was not yet even a senator with proconsular imperium was a disastrous blow to Sulla’s intentions, and in the event proved suicidal to the Senate that sanctioned the grant. (p.89)

After a long and difficult campaign Pompey had effectively defeated Sertorius when the latter was murdered by his second in command in 73 BC. Again Scullard is ready with an ominous comment –Sulla, Sertorius, Pompey:

The influence of the army commanders now dominated Roman life. (p.92)


In 73 BC the slave rebellion of Spartacus broke out. The Senate was slow to realise how serious this would turn out to be but, after the armies of the year’s two consuls were defeated, appointed Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome and the only volunteer for the position, to a special proconsular command to defeat the slaves.

Thus a proconsul was in command of an army in Italy itself, the very thing that Sulla had hoped to prevent at all costs. (p.95)

Crushing Spartacus was mainly the work of Crassus but Pompey arrived right at the end of the campaign, mopping up some of the survivors of the final battle and so claimed some of the glory. As a result, both men were elected consuls for the following year, 70 BC.

Pompey lobbied hard to be awarded a formal triumph and although he was a) too young b) hadn’t held the requisite magistracies, the Senate caved in and awarded him one. Crassus was annoyed but between the two of them, they proceeded to sweep away most of the reforming legislation put in place by Sulla. For example, in 70 they repealed Sulla’s law which had limited the power and career potential of the tribunes of the plebs and once again Scullard sums things up with one of his the-end-is-nigh comments:

The Senate had failed to rise to the opportunity that Sulla had given it, and the ultimate result was further civil wars in which the Republic perished. (p.98)

Pompey and the pirates

This sounds like the title of a children’s book but refers to the fact that pirates had become a real menace in the Mediterranean. They had banded together into organised leagues and by the late 70s commanded some 1,000 ships. Things came to head when in 68 BC a pirate fleet set Rome’s port at Ostia on fire, destroyed the consular war fleet and kidnapped two prominent senators along with their retinue.

Pompey arranged for the tribune Aulus Gabinius to introduce what would become the lex Gabinia in 67 BC giving Pompey sweeping powers and enormous resources to solve the pirate problem. Ancient sources vary but one says that Pompey was given 500 warships, 120,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry, 144 million sesterces and the authority to appoint 25 legates of praetorian rank for a period of three years.

This was the exact opposite of Sulla’s reforms, which he had intended to strengthen the power of the Senate and the consuls and make it impossible for one man to hold complete power. Pompey’s career in the 70s and 60s was, in effect, one large practical refutation of Sulla’s hopes. As Wikipedia puts it:

The Sullan constitutional reforms were not working. The senate was not empowered; power was not being shared among the aristocracy. The elevation of a person who, until his election to the highest office in the state was not even a senator to a military command over an immense swath of the Republic’s empire, established the precedent of extreme centralisation of military authority that could become central to the constitutional arrangements of the Principate.


The main impact of the lex Gabinia was not its direct impact on Roman trade, though this was considerable. Rather, it created a clear vision of the unity of the Republic’s empire under the control of one man.

In the event, Pompey used his resources to devastating effect and swept the Mediterranean clean of the pirates in an astonishing three months. He compounded his popularity by acting not vengefully but very wisely and resettling many of the defeated pirates at colonies around the provinces, thus integrating them back into lawful society.

The war against Mithradates, 73 to 63 BC

Following his stunning success against the pirates, Pompey was next sent by the Senate to take charge of the war against King Mithridates VI of Pontus, the third and longest of the three so-called Mithridatic Wars. Long and complex, the conflict dragged in kings of neighbouring territories such as Cappadocia, Armenia and the Parthian Empire.

Up to this point it had been prosecuted by Lucius Licinius Lucullus. Pompey took over in 66 BC and prosecuted the war into 65, driving Mithradates back to Crimea where, after his two sons abandoned him, the king committed suicide. Scullard summarises the character and achievement of this ambitious man but ends with a characteristically doom-laden comment:

By his stubborn resistance [Mithradates] had forced Rome to entrust unusual powers to ambitious men for long periods of time and in consequence hastened the end of the Republic. (p.106)

It is a little mind boggling to read how Pompey then set about single-handedly redrawing the boundaries of the entire eastern Mediterranean once Mithradates was dead. Without consulting the Senate he redrew the map of the area, defining a whole set of new provinces. He was acting more like an eastern king than a Roman proconsul.

Pompey had a staggering impact on the East for which he secured decades of peace and growing wealth, at the same time almost doubling the amount of money coming into the Roman treasury from taxes and tributes (p.108).

The first triumvirate 60 BC

Scullard describes the stealthy rise of Julius Caesar, born in 100 BC to a patrician but poor family, who just about survived the massacres of Sulla and worked his way up the traditional cursus honorem.

Skipping over a lot of detail (for example, the murky Catiline conspiracy of 63 BC) I’ll end this summary with 60 BC when three very different personalities – the super-rich Marcus Licinius Crassus, the super-powerful Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and the super-ambitious Gaius Julius Caesar – all blocked in their various political and legislative ambitions by the Senate, meeting and agreeing to work together to further their ambitions.

Later historians have dignified this cabal with the title of the First Triumvirate but Scullard emphasises that contemporaries called it much worse names, including a conspiracy against the state. It didn’t lead to a revolution or a coup, in the manner of Marius or Sulla, but it signalled the moment when three very powerful men began, in effect, to conspire, with their allies and clients and money, against the democratic norms and traditions of their society.

Three men, backed by armed force, by the urban populace and by many of the Equites, imposed their will on the state and destroyed the power of the Senate.


The state and the constitution were now at the mercy of dynasts, principes, who strove for potentia and dignitas. It was for these values that the leaders were to fight in the coming civil war. (p.118).

The details of these civil wars will be described in following blog posts.

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