Plutarch’s life of Lucullus

Lucius Licinius Lucullus (118 to 56)


Lucullus was a Roman general and politician during the last century of the Roman Republic, closely linked by family ties and military service with the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla both dedicated his memoirs to Lucullus and made him guardian of his son, after his death in 78 BC.

Lucullus’s adult life falls naturally into two parts. During 20 years of military and government service, he conquered a series of eastern kingdoms for Rome, specifically during the Third Mithridatic War (73 to 63 BC). The quality of his generalship impressed everyone and was widely studied by later soldiers.

However, the usual toxic Roman politics meant that, despite his achievements, Lucullus was abruptly relieved of his command and replaced by Pompey in 66 BC, whereupon he returned to Rome with fabulous wealth and devoted the last decade of his life to grandiose building projects and luxury living which shocked and amazed his contemporaries.

The life

He was tall and handsome, a power­ful speaker, and equally able in the forum and the field. (33)

(Chapter 1) Plutarch emphasises that Lucullus came from a very good family and received a very good ‘liberal’ education and was a highly literate man in both Latin and Greek. In a sense his entire public and military career was to turn out to be a detour from his earliest, literary and philosophical interests. to which he was able to return on his retirement.

(2 to 3) Sulla employed Lucullus in the Social War (91 to 87 BC) and then in his campaign against King Mithridates IV in Greece, whence he was sent on an important mission to Egypt to fetch supplies for the Roman army in Greece. He had to run the gauntlet of the enemy blockade but was welcomed in Egypt (87 BC), collected supplies before undergoing a complicated journey back to Greece which involved encountering the enemy fleet, landing at various islands and besieging their cities.

(4) Having fought Mithridates to a draw, Sulla lay a heavy bill of compensation on the cities of Greece and ‘Asia’ i.e. Greece-facing Turkey, but Lucullus won popularity by applying it lightly and fairly. He also managed to be out East when Sulla returned to Italy in 83 BC and so avoided the blood Sulla shed in his vengeful ‘proscriptions’ against the defeated supporters of Gaius Marius.

(5) In 74 Lucullus was elected consul. He wanted to return to the East and so was unhappy to be allotted Cisalpine Gaul as his province. Above everything, he wanted to assure Pompey didn’t return from Spain, where he was engaged in fighting the insurgency of Quintus Sertorius, for he knew Pompey would be assigned to the East. Therefore, when Pompey called for more resources to fight Sertorius in Spain, Lucullus enthusiastically supported him.

(6) The governorship of Cilicia became vacant. The most influential man in Rome at the time was Cethegus and he had taken a noted courtesan Praecia as mistress. Therefore Lucullus paid court to Praecia who influenced Cethegus to get Lucullus command of Cilicia. He used this governorship to resume the war with Mithridates. The only possible rivals were Sulla (dead), Metellus (retired) or Pompey (tied up in Spain).

(7) In 74 BC Lucullus crossed into Asia and took control of the Roman armies there, latterly commanded by Gaius Flavius Fimbria. After a few years of peace, Mithridates had declared war again, not least by playing on the widespread resentment of Roman tax collectors who were still mulcting the cities for the punitive war reparations imposed by Sulla (20,000 talents).

Antique map showing Turkey divided into Roman provinces in the first century BC. Note how ‘Asia’ refers only to western Turkey; Bithynia and Pontus to the south coast of the Black Sea with Amisus, the town which Lucullus besieged and was set afire, on the coast of Pontus. Cilicia, Lucullus’s official governorship, is on the south coast of Turkey opposite Cyprus. And the whole region is bordered on the east by the kingdom of Greater Armenia, ruled over by King Tigranes.

(8) Lucullus’s fellow consul, Marcus Aurelius Cotta a, thinks he can take on Mithridates alone, but is heavily defeated, losing ships and men.

(9) Mithridates marched his army to take Cyzicus, a rich port town on the south coast of the Sea of Marmaria, surrounding it by land and blockading it by sea. Lucullus followed and camped his men around Mithridates’ camps.

The inhabitants of Cyzicus are fortified by a number of supernatural signs and omens (10). Mithridates’ soldiers beginning to suffer from hunger, he took advantage of Lucullus’s brief absence to send many away to Bithynia. But Lucullus took ten cohorts of infantry and his cavalry, set off in pursuit and brought the enemy to battle at the river Rhyndacus. Lucullus won: 6,000 horses and 15,000 men were captured, besides an untold number of beasts of burden. Mithridates hastened to leave by sea, leaving his generals to lead the rest of the land army to safety, but Lucullus attacked them at the river Granicus, capturing a vast number and slaying 20,000. On this campaign, it was said that no fewer than 300,000 camp-followers and fighting men lost their lives (11).

(12) Lucullus entered Cyzicus in triumph but then had a dream in which the goddess Aphrodite told him some of Mithridates’ ships were nearby at Lemnos, so Lucullus embarked his navy, caught the enemy ships, some at sea, and some drawn up on the shore, and defeated them.

(13) Mithridates escaped by ship to Pontus despite a large storm which wrecked much of his fleet and forced him to switch from a heavy merchant ship to a light brigantine. The storm was said to be owing to the wrath of Artemis of Priapus against the men of Pontus who had plundered her shrine and pulled down her image.

(14) Lucullus pursues Mithridates into Bithynia i.e. northern Turkey. His troops criticised him from dawdling but Lucullus is given a speech saying he actively wanted to give Mithridates enough time to recruit a new army because otherwise the Romans risked forcing Mithridates either a) into the Caucasus, a labyrinth of mountains it would be impossible to flush him out of or b) worse, into the arms of Tigranes the Great of Armenia, who happened to be Mithridates’ son-in-law.

(15) In 72 BC Lucullus brings Mithridates to battle at Cabira. Mithridates wins and puts the Romans to flight. Daunted at fighting further, Lucullus finds some local Greeks who guide his army into a mountain redoubt. But some Roman stragglers got into a fight with Mithridates troops over a stag, the forces on both sides increasing till the Romans fled. At which point Lucullus refused to engage in a full scale battle, but led a small force down which rallied his fugitives, made them turn and see of Mithridates’ men, before escorting them back to the camp. But here they were assigned the traditional punishment of runaways, namely to dig a 12 foot ditch in just their tunics.

(16) A Dandarian prince named Olthacus persuades Mithridates to let him go on an assassination mission against Lucullus, and he made his way to the Roman camp with marks of disgrace, as though shamed and outcast by the king. After a probation period, Lucullus admitted this prince to his table and councils. But on the big morning when Olthacus tried to gain entrance to Lucullus’s tent the latter happened to be asleep and his chamberlain wouldn’t give entrance to Olthacus, who rode back to Mithridates in frustration.

(17) Two separate Roman legates are sent to requisition grain. When Mithridates’ forces attacked them, both times the king came off worst. He decided to move camp but the soldiers rebelled and murdered Dorylaüs the general and Hermaeus the priest. Nonetheless, Mithridates moved his army but was nearly caught when Romans gave chase, until a mule came between them and the king, which was bearing gold, so the soldiers stopped to loot the treasure and let the king get away.

(18) The Romans liberated some of Mithridates’ hostages and many women including one of Mithridates’ sisters, Nyssa. The other two sisters, along with two of his wives, had been sequestered in faraway Pharnacia and Mithridates now ordered his eunuch, Bacchides, to go there and murder them. There follows a florid, sensationalist account of how they died:

  • Monimé fastened her diadem round her neck and tried to hang herself but it broke in two so she offered her throat to Bacchides to cut it.
  • Berenicé from Chios shared a cup of poison with her mother which killed the mother but wasn’t enough for Berenicé who was such a long time that Bacchides, who was in a hurry, had her strangled.
  • Of Mithridates’ two unmarried sisters, one drank off her poison with many abusive imprecations on her brother but the other, Statira, drank it off without saying a word.

(19) Lucullus comes to the town of Amisus and, once his troops break into part of it, the rest is set aflame by its governor, Callimachus to prevent their possession. Lucullus orders his men to put out the fires but they disobey him and ransack the town while it burns to the ground, reducing Lucullus to tears of frustration. Interestingly, he is quoted as saying he wanted to be like Fortunate Sulla who successfully ordered his troops to put out the fires they’d started as they entered Athens in 86 BC, but had ended up with the reputation of Mummius, who burned Corinth to the ground in 146 BC.

(20) With a lull in the fighting Lucullus set out to reform the cities of ‘Asia’ (i.e. western Turkey), specifically lightening the yoke of debt – a massive 20,000 talents – which Sulla had imposed on them which had caused all kinds of misery and social dislocation. Unscrupulous debt collectors or publicani by manipulating interest rates, had inflated this to 120,000 talents! So Lucullus passed some practical laws, reducing interest rates to 1%, forbidding the total interest to exceed the initial loan, and punishing lenders who added interest to the loan. Within four years all debts in the province had been paid off and justice restored, despite the lobbying of the publicani back in Rome.

(21) Mithridates takes refuge at the court of King Tigranes of Armenia whose pomp and tribute kings are described. Appius Clodius is sent as ambassador to demand the handing over of Mithridates, but Tigranes is irritated that Lucullus’s letter only refers to him as king instead of King of kings, and he refuses.

(22) In fact Tigranes had been keeping Mithridates in an outlying region of his kingdom. Now he summoned him. Tigranes inadvertently lets slip that one of Mithridates’ ambassadors to him, Metrodorus, had once candidly advised Tigranes not to send Mithridates the reinforcements the latter required. As a result Mithridates has Metrodorus killed and Tigranes regrets his words.

Plutarch slips in a reference to Amphicrates, the rhetorician, who was exiled from Athens and attached himself to Cleopatra, the daughter of Mithridates and wife of Tigranes, but speedily fell into disfavour, and, being excluded from intercourse with Greeks, starved himself to death.

(23) Lucullus restored the liberties of many Greek cities and blessed them with festivals and contests. As a result many celebrated festivals which they called Lucullea. But then he was summoned back to war and and laid siege to Sinopé, or rather, to the Cilicians who were occupying it. He took it and slaughtered 8,000 Cilicians.

Now Lucullus learns that Tigranes has allied with Mithridates and intends to invade Cilicia and advance on Asia. Lucullus wonders why Tigranes chose to do this now, when Mithridates is weak, rather than when he was at the peak of  his powers.

(24) When Machares, the son of Mithridates, who held the Bosporus, sends Lucullus a crown valued at a thousand pieces of gold, begging to be included in the list of Rome’s friends and allies, Lucullus realises the war in the West is over. But he insists on taking the fight to his enemies in what Plutarch calls the ‘second war’ (starting 69 BC) and marches his very reluctant army all across Turkey and Syria to the Euphrates whose waters, at full flood when he arrived, miraculously lowered themselves overnight so the army could cross. He forces his army on across the Tigris and so into the territory of Tigranes.

(25) Tigranes sends a force against Lucullus led by Mithrobarzanes. It comes across Lucullus’s army as it was still making camp so Lucullus sent Sextilius sent at the head of sixteen hundred horsemen and about as many light and heavy infantry to engage Mithrobarzanes, who the Romans defeat and kill. Tigranes abandons Tigranocerta, that great city which he had built, and withdraws beyond the Taurus  river but Murena, pressing hard on his heels, captured his baggage train and killed many of his Armenians.

(26) Lucullus commenced a siege of Tigranocerta, which was full of Greeks and other exiled peoples who Tigranes had forcibly resettled. Mithridates advised Tigranes not to engage Lucullus but Plutarch gives a long list of allies from the whole region who joined Tigranes and eventually gave him the confidence to attack.

(27) Plutarch lovingly describes the enormous array of the many allies and kings who’ve joined together to make Tigranes’ monster army. When they see Lucullus’s force divide, leaving Murena with 6,000 to maintain the siege while he, Lucullus, with 10,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, they burst out laughing and compete with each other to mock the Romans and offer to finish them off with just their national cohort. Tigranes is said to have uttered a ‘famous’ quote:

“If they are come as ambassadors, they are too many; if as soldiers, too few.”​

(28) In the event it was a famous Roman victory, Lucullus leading a charge against the heavily armoured  Armenian cavalry who turn to escape but, in doing so, trample over their own infantry and cause such confusion the Romans massacre them. Supposedly over 100,000 enemy infantry perish and all their cavalry to the loss of only a hundred Roman wounded and five killed. Sure.

Plutarch then draws a reflection on Lucullus’s generalship, that he used delay and slowness to wear down Mithridates for years, but in this battle deployed lightning tactics to devastate Tigranes’ army.

(29) Mithridates, assuming that Lucullus would draw the battle out, hadn’t even arrived with the main forces. Now he encountered the survivors straggling back and then Tigranes himself, with whom he condoled.

Then Lucullus completes the siege of Tigranocerta, thoroughly looting its treasures and handing out a dividend to all his soldiers. He freed actors who had been abducted by Tigranes and got them to perform in plays celebrating his victory, and sent all the Greeks inside the city who’d been forcibly moved there back to their original cities, thus garnering much gratitude and popularity.

Lucullus then reveres the memory of Zarbienus, king of the Gordyeni, who had sent to offer friendship with Rome but was informed against and murdered, along with his wife and children, by Tigranes. Now Lucullus restored his body to his city and held proper funeral rites and lit the funeral pyre himself.

(30) Lucullus received an embassy from the king of Parthia requesting friendship but then discovered he was parlaying with Mithridates and Tigranes at the same time so decided to march against him. But when he sent for the remainder of his army to join him from Pontus they refused point blank and news of this demoralised the soldiers with Lucullus.

(31) So Lucullus abandoned his plan to attack Parthia and moved against Tigranes again, besieging Artaxata. Plutarch explains that this city was sited and constructed under the supervision of the famous Hannibal after he had fled from Carthage. Tigranes drew up another combined army to stop him but Lucullus crossed the river Arsania and destroyed the royal army.

(32) Lucullus set off in pursuit but the weather became very cold, snow and ice, difficult for horses and the army began to mutiny. So he returned west, descending to a plain where he took a large city named Nsibis.

(33) Lucullus’s luck turned against him. The soldiers had endured two winters in the open rather than occupy cities because Lucullus wanted to keep the friendship of the Greek population. The usual undermining critics in Rome led by Lucius Quintus, one of the praetors, who claimed Lucullus was prolonging the war to enrich himself.

(34) The troops were subverted by Publius Clodius, Luculla’s brother-in-law, who was aggrieved because he’d been overlooked for promotion. Plutarch summarises Clodius’s speeches in which he compared the soldiers’ endless tribulations here in the East, with the nice cushy lifestyle of Pompey’s ex-soldiers from the Spanish war who had, by now, been settled and given citizenship.

(35) In 67 BC a resurgent Mithridates defeated Fimbrius’s army and then the army of Triarius who took him on without waiting for Lucullus. But when Lucullus roused his army to march on Mithridates it rebelled. Lucullus was reduced to going from tent to tent arguing with individual soldiers, but they refused to fight any more. It was all he could to do keep his army together in their summer camp while Tigranes roamed Cappadocia ravaging it at will. In 66 BC the senate appointed Pompey leader of the army in the East with the result that the soldiers refused to obey Lucullus any more while they awaited their new commander.

(36) Pompey and Lucullus met in a village in Galatia, Lucullus aged 52, Pompey aged 40, the latter much the more famous having already won two triumphs. They were polite but didn’t get on, Pompey annulling most of Lucullus’s edicts and allowing him only 1,600 soldiers to take back to Rome.

Plutarch then interjects a two Big Historical Ideas:

  1. If Lucullus had had the magic touch of inspiring love and loyalty in his troops he might have led them against the Parthian Empire which was, at this point, relatively small, and expanded Rome’s borders across Iraq to Iran. But he didn’t and left the border at the Euphrates and the Parthian Empire to grow into a redoubtable enemy.
  2. When he did finally return to Rome and hold a huge triumph (although delayed for nearly three years by his political enemies), the sight of so much wealth and treasure inflamed the Roman imagination so that a man like Marcus Licinius Crassus came to identify the East with one thing only, loot. This inspired Crassus to undertake his ill-fated attack on the Parthian Empire which led to catastrophic Roman defeat at the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC and Crassus’s death soon after.

(37) Lucullus returned to Rome to find himself under attack from Gaius Memmius for prolonging the war. He was also prevented for some time from holding a triumph although when he did, it was magnificent and Plutarch describes it in detail.

(38) Lucullus divorced Clodia, who was ‘a licentious and base woman’ and married Servilia, a sister of Marcus Porcius Cato, but she turned out to be just as bad. Lucullus tolerated her immoral behaviour out of respect for Cato but eventually ‘put her away’.

The Senate hoped Lucullus would prove a political champion and oppose the growing dominance of Pompey and his clique but, maybe sensing that the political situation was too rotten, or just reckoning he’d earned retirement, Lucullus took no part in politics. Given the lamentable record of Marius and Sulla before him, you can’t help lauding his decision. Plutarch appears to agree and makes the interesting suggestion that:

a political cycle, too, has a sort of natural termination, and political no less than athletic contests are absurd, after the full vigour of life has departed.

(39) Instead Lucullus devoted the extraordinary wealth he’d amassed to the arts and luxury and fine living. He was a devotee of Latin and Greek literature and he amassed a great library in his villa. He allowed scholars to use his library and he patronised many poets and philosophers and this was imitated by other aristocratic Romans.

Lucullus was a great builder and built magnificent parks and villas, whose designs were very influential. During his campaigns in the East, the retired consul was impressed by the Persian tradition of horticulture. With his vast wealth he built a great park in the centre of Rome, that became known as the ‘Gardens of Lucullus’ and his gardens were important in the development of gardening in Europe.

He was interested in farming and introduced fruits such as the cherry into Rome and also experimented with aquaculture, especially fish ponds. Lucullus became infamous for his feasts and was a great gourmet.

Lucullus’s example inspired many members of the elite to abandon the traditional austere Republican lifestyle and to cultivate the arts, to collect manuscripts, build villas and gardens, a legacy which was to grow under the empire.

(40) His fine dining became legendary. Plutarch gives a quote from Pompey and Cato both satirising Luculla.

(41) These last chapters are taken up with tittle tattle and stories:

Once, when he was dining alone, and a modest repast of one course had been prepared for him, he was angry, and summoned the servant who had the matter in charge. The servant said that he did not suppose, since there were no guests, that he wanted anything very costly. “What sayest thou?” said the master, “dost thou not know that today Lucullus dines with Lucullus?”

Plutarch tells a story about Cicero (a good friend) and Pompey approaching Lucullus in the Forum and asking to be invited to dinner but insisting he serves only what he was going to have anyway. But Lucullus cleverly outwits them by telling his servant which room he wants to eat in and, because he has so many dining rooms and they all have a specific menu and size, the servant immediately knew what was required and so Cicero and Pompey were still staggered by the quality of the meal. Plutarch criticises this gross ostentation, comparing it with a barbarian.

(42) By contrast Plutarch praises Lucullus for assembling a huge library and throwing it open to all, in particular visiting Greek scholars. Lucullus was such a devotee of philosophy that Cicero wrote a summary of the doctrines of the Old Academy (which he favoured) put them into Lucullus’s mouth and titled the treatise Lucullus.

Although Plutarch has said Lucullus retired from political life that doesn’t seem to be strictly true. Thus Lucullus allied with Cato to prevent Pompey’s proposal for a generous distribution of lands to his soldiers, and this was one factor leading Pompey to form the alliance (or, as Plutarch puts it, ‘a conspiracy’) with Crassus and Caesar in 60 BC. Pompey filled the city with his armed soldiery and expelled from the forum the partisans of Cato and Lucullus to get this measure passed. An old man was then produced who swore that he had been hired by Lucullus to assassinate Pompey but nobody believed him and he was soon found dead, probably killed by the very people who put him up to it. Sounds like slippage back towards the bad old days of Marius and Sulla…

(43) All the more reason, then, for Lucullus to retire from increasingly poisonous public life to his library and his gardens. When Cicero was exiled in 58 BC (after a campaign led by Lucullus’s former brother-in-law Publius Clodius Pulcher), Lucullus retired completely. In his last days there were rumours that he lost his mind but Plutarch retails the story that he deteriorated due to drugs administered by his freedman, Callisthenes.

When he died in 56 BC the people lamented and wanted his body to be buried in the Campus Martius where Sulla was buried, but his brother prevailed on them to let the body be buried at Lucullus’s country estate at Tusculum.

Superstitions, prophecies and omens

When Lucullus had come within sight of the enemy and seen with amazement their multitude, he desired to refrain from battle and draw out the time. But Marius, whom Sertorius had sent to Mithridates from Spain with an army, came out to meet him, and challenged him to combat, and so he put his forces in array to fight the issue out. But presently, as they were on the point of joining battle, with no apparent change of weather, but all on a sudden, the sky burst asunder, and a huge, flame-like body was seen to fall between the two armies. In shape, it was most like a wine-jar, and in colour, like molten silver. Both sides were astonished at the sight, and separated. This marvel, as they say, occurred in Phrygia, at a place called Otryae. (8)

The importance of dreams

All the leaders profiled by Plutarch have meaningful dreams which guide or succour them.

Whenever he had secret intelligence that the enemy had made an incursion into the territory which he commanded, or were trying to bring a city to revolt from him, he would pretend that the doe had conversed with him in his dreams, bidding him hold his forces in readiness. (Sertorius 11)

Lucullus called to mind the advice of Sulla, in his memoirs, which was to think nothing so trustworthy and sure as that which is signified by dreams. (Lucullus 23)

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