Plutarch’s lives of Marius and Sulla (translated by Rex Warner)

Now the generals of this later period were men who had risen to the top by violence rather than by merit; they needed armies to fight against one another rather than against the public enemy.
(Doleful reflections of the Amphictyons of Delphi upon being ordered to hand over all their treasure to the Roman general Sulla who was besieging Athens: Life of Sulla, chapter 12)

1. Plutarch’s Life of Caius Marius (157 to 86 BC)

Plutarch’s life of Marius is divided into 46 brief sections. Rex Warner’s translation of Plutarch in the Penguin edition is relaxed and chatty. Very clear, very readable. However it is not available online whereas the 1920 Loeb Classical Library edition is. So, for practical purposes, I’ll quote Loeb.

As for the personal appearance of Marius, we have seen a marble statue of him at Ravenna in Gaul,​ and it very well portrays the harshness and bitterness of character which were ascribed to him. For since he was naturally virile and fond of war, and since he received a training in military rather than in civil life, his temper was fierce when he came to exercise authority.

Plutarch brings out very vividly the successive rivalries during the Jugurthine War (112 to 106 BC) between Metellus, Marius, and his quaestor Sulla. The Roman army comes over as an engine of fierce rivalries. But although Plutarch describes some of Marius’s military victories, in Numidia (112 to 106 BC) and then against the Cimbrian and Teutons who threatened to invade Italy from Gaul (113 to 101 BC) what really impresses is the second half of the life, and especially the final years when Marius fell from military and political favour and was eventually outlawed from Italy and had to go on the run, in disguise.

These final sections of his adventures on the run (35 to 45) read more like a boy’s own adventure story than history. The modern histories I’ve read refer to Marius’s brief exile only in general terms whereas in Plutarch we meet the captains of the ships which smuggle him out of Ostia, then dump him further down the Italian coast, the peasants who take him in and try to hide him, his betrayal and arrest to the authorities. We meet the Cimbrian soldier who is ordered to kill him but can’t bring himself to do so because, in the darkened bedroom, he sees Marius’s eyes darting fire and hears the voice of a god warning him against such a wicked deed. And so on. It’s like something out of the Arabian Nights more than history, more even, than biography.

Superstitions

Rex and other commentators emphasise Plutarch’s focus on the individual, on character, and call him ‘the first of modern biographers’ (p.9). None of them mention the ubiquity of superstition, prophecies and the uncanny i.e. the irrational, in his narratives. Thus in Marius alone:

  • as Marius prepares to sail back from Africa to Rome a soothsayer predicts great things (8)
  • in the campaign against the Cimbri and Teutones Marius has a Syrian prophetess named Martha accompany him in a litter (17)
  • the story that his army was accompanied everywhere by two vultures (17)
  • over the Italian cities of Ameria and Tuder flaming spears and swords are seen in the sky moving as if in actual battle (17)
  • from the massed ranks of the enemy arose an unearthly wailing (20)
  • heavy rain often follows a major battle because the supernatural powers want to hallow and cleanse the earth (21)
  • Fortune or nemesis or natural necessity, call it what you will, some force always ensures the enjoyment of any great success is never unalloyed or pure (23)
  • the incident of Fannia’s donkey who ran out to drink water from a spring near where Marius was being held by his escort, stopped directly in front of him, let out a tremendous bray, then went frisking past him – from which Marius drew the conclusion that his escape would be by sea

And:

When he was quite young and living in the country, Marius had caught in his cloak a falling eagle’s nest, which had seven young ones in it; at sight of this, his parents were amazed, and made enquiries of the seers, who told them that their son would be most illustrious of men, and was destined to receive the highest command and power seven times. (36)

  • when a Cimbrian soldier went into Marius’s bedroom to kill him he saw a pair of mighty eyes darting flame at him and a voice as of a god saying: ‘Man, does thou dare to slay Caius Marius?’ (39)

The grotesque

A sprinkling of what must surely be grotesque exaggerations, notably the wildly improbable description of the mass suicides of the Cimbri civilians once their menfolk were defeated

The fugitives were driven back to their entrenchments where the Romans beheld a most tragic spectacle. The women, in black garments, stood at the wagons and slew the fugitives — their husbands or brothers or fathers, then strangled their little children and cast them beneath the wheels of the wagons or the feet of the cattle, and then cut their own throats. It is said that one woman hung dangling from the tip of a wagon-pole with her children tied to either ankle, while the men, for lack of trees, fastened themselves by the neck to the horns of the cattle, or to their legs, then plied the goad, and were dragged or trampled to death as the cattle dashed away. (27)

In their hurry to claim for Plutarch all kinds of proto-modern interests in character and psychology, Rex and others simply ignore the much more prominent traits of primitive superstition and a garish, vulgar fascination with grotesque violence.

Thus Plutarch dwells lovingly on the scenes in Rome once Marius has returned from exile, seizes power along with Cinna, and unleashes a tidal wave of vengeful violence:

Headless trunks thrown into the streets and trampled under foot excited no pity, though everybody trembled and shuddered at the sight. The people were most distressed however, by the wanton licence of the Bardyaei, as they were called, who butchered fathers of families in their houses, outraged their children, raped their wives, and could not be checked in their career of rapine and murder until Cinna and Sertorius, after taking counsel together, fell upon them as they were asleep in their camp, and transfixed them all with javelins. (44)

Gory enough for you?

The ludicrous

And then incidents which are so wildly improbable as to be ludicrous. Take the incident of the faked diarrhoea. Marius fell in with a rabble rousing demagogue who didn’t hesitate to murder his political opponents, Saturninus. Marius attempts to keep the respect of the senate but also stay in with Saturninus, a balancing act which is epitomised one night:

For when the leading men had come to him by night and were trying to incite him against Saturninus, without their knowledge he introduced Saturninus into the house by another door; then, pretending to both parties that he had a diarrhoea, he would run backwards and forwards in the house, now to the nobles and now to Saturninus, trying to irritate and bring them into collision. (30)

2. Plutarch’s Life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78 BC)

Sulla served as captain of cavalry under Marius in the Jugurthine War. To his bravery was attributed the final negotiations which led to the capture of Jugurtha and Sulla was embittered when Marius received the credit and triumph for it. Sulla was tasked with fighting the Social War (91 to 87 BC) and when Marius, in Rome, managed to manoeuvre Sulla out of leadership of the army set to head off to deal with Mithradates in Turkey, Sulla rejected the senate’s decision, let his men kill the senate’s envoy and marched on Rome.

Why Sulla failed

Rex gives admirably brief, one-page introductions to each of the lives (generally pointing out how Plutarch ignores the profound historical importance of this or that event in order to focus on trivial anecdotes or shallow moralising). Therefore it is Rex who sums up Sulla’s political agenda, once he’d become dictator (82 to 78 BC) and why it failed, more briefly and better than any other account I’ve read.

After marching on Rome to seize power twice, with an intervening period of anarchy and bloodshed under Cinna (87 to 84 BC), Sulla set out to make the republic safe by ensuring the situation which led to the anarchy could never happen again. These he took to be:

  • the ability of the tribunes of the plebs to veto laws suggested by the patricians and senate, which sounds fine in theory, but in practice tribunes were all too often bribed by powerful interests to derail senatorial rule
  • the struggle between senate and equites for control of the courts, which again unravelled into political powerplays
  • the consecutive consulships of overmighty rulers (in the recent past the consecutive consulships of Marius in 107, 104, 103, 102, 101, 100)

So Sulla:

  • abolished the legislative powers of the tribunate and debarred those who held it from higher office
  • restored the courts to full control of the senate
  • revived the lex annalis which set minimum ages to hold each of the magistracies in the so-called cursus honorum and required fixed periods between people holding each post

It was a valiant effort but, as Rex points out, it was blind to the fact that the chief threat to the republic came not from any law or aspect of the constitution but from a reality which transcended them, which was the advent of proconsuls appointed for long periods of time to prosecute distant wars whose armies came to owe more allegiance to them than to the state – the conversion of Roman armies into something closer to private armies answerable to charismatic warlords.

The obvious examples were Marius, Sulla himself, Pompey then Caesar, then Mark Anthony and Octavian and the era of instability and collapse exactly matches the rise of this new phenomenon.

Plutarch’s Sulla

Predictably, Plutarch focuses on gossip and anecdote:

  • Sulla had a famously bad complexion, covered in blotchy spots.
  • Though he came from a patrician family, it was very down at heel and he spent a dissolute young manhood with dancers and actors and cross-dressers and comedians. Throughout his life, strict and stern in public, once he sat down at a banquet he reverted to a monstrously debauched and bohemian character.

And, once again, a blizzard of superstitions, omens and prophecies:

  • A certain man in the retinue of Orobazus, a Chaldaean, after looking Sulla intently in the face, and studying carefully the movements of his mind and body, and investigating his nature according to the principles of his peculiar art, declared that this man must of necessity become the greatest in the world, and that even now the wonder was that he consented not to be first of all men. (6)
  • Sulla himself relates that when he was dispatched with an army to the Social War, a great chasm in the earth opened near Laverna, from which a great quantity of fire burst forth and a bright flame towered up towards the heavens; whereupon the soothsayers declared that a brave man, of rare courage and surpassing appearance, was to take the government in hand and free the city from its present troubles. And Sulla says that he himself was this man, for his golden head of hair gave him a singular appearance, and as for bravery, he was not ashamed to testify in his own behalf, after such great and noble deeds as he had performed.
  • When Sulla had set out for his camp on unfinished business,​ he himself kept at home and contrived that most fatal sedition, which wrought Rome more harm than all her wars together had done, as indeed the heavenly powers foreshadowed to them:
    • for fire broke forth of its own accord from the staves which supported the ensigns, and was with difficulty extinguished
    • and three ravens brought their young forth into the street and devoured them, and then carried the remains back again into their nest
    • and after mice had gnawed consecrated gold in a temple, the keepers caught one of them, a female, in a trap, and in the very trap she brought forth five young ones and ate up three of them
    • but most important of all, out of a cloudless and clear air there rang out the voice of a trumpet, prolonging a shrill and dismal note, so that all were amazed and terrified at its loudness. The Tuscan wise men declared that the prodigy foretokened a change of conditions and the advent of a new age (7)
  • While the senate was busied with the soothsayers about these prodigies, and holding its session in the temple of Bellona, a sparrow came flying in, before the eyes of all, with a grasshopper in its mouth, a part of which it threw down and left there, and then went away with the other part. From this the diviners apprehended a quarrelsome dissension between the landed proprietors and the populace of the city and forum; for the latter is vociferous like a grasshopper, while the former haunt the fields (like the sparrow). (7)
  • After he had offered a sacrifice, Postumius the soothsayer learned what the omens were, and stretching out both hands to Sulla, begged that he might be bound and kept a prisoner until the battle, assuring him that he was willing to undergo the extremest penalty if all things did not speedily come to a good issue for him. (9)
  • It is said, also, that to Sulla himself there appeared in his dreams a goddess whom the Romans learned to worship from the Cappadocians, whether she is Luna, or Minerva, or Bellona. This goddess, as Sulla fancied, stood by his side and put into his hand a thunder-bolt, and naming his enemies one by one, bade him smite them with it; and they were all smitten, and fell, and vanished away. Encouraged by the vision, he told it to his colleague, and at break of day led on towards Rome. (9)
  • Mithridates, who was staying at Pergamum, was visited with many other portents from Heaven, and that a Victory with a crown in her hand, which the Pergamenians were lowering towards him by machinery of some sort, was broken to pieces just as she was about to touch his head, and the crown went tumbling from her hand to the ground in the midst of the theatre, and was shattered, whereat the people shuddered, and Mithridates was greatly dejected. (11)

And so on and very much on. And The Grotesque:

Nearby is Apollonia, and in its vicinity is the Nymphaeum, a sacred precinct, which sends forth in various places from its green dell and meadows, streams of perpetually flowing fire. Here, they say, a satyr was caught asleep, such an one as sculptors and painters represent, and brought to Sulla, where he was asked through many interpreters who he was. And when at last he uttered nothing intelligible, but with difficulty emitted a hoarse cry that was something between the neighing of a horse and the bleating of a goat, Sulla was horrified, and ordered him out of his sight. (27)

Fairy tales

At Fidentia, when Marcus Lucullus, one of Sulla’s commanders, with sixteen cohorts confronted fifty cohorts of the enemy, although he had confidence in the readiness of his soldiers, still, as most of them were without arms, he hesitated to attack. But while he was waiting and deliberating, from the neighbouring plain, which was a meadow, a gentle breeze brought a quantity of flowers and scattered them down on his army; they settled of their own accord and enveloped the shields and helmets of the soldiers, so that to the enemy these appeared to be crowned with garlands. This circumstance made them more eager for the fray, and they joined battle, won the victory, killed eighteen thousand of the enemy, and took their camp. (27)

Fortunate Sulla

Plutarch emphasises the Sulla himself was happy to attribute much of his success to Fortune rather than his own personal merits or achievements. So in the matrix of opinions about what constitutes a Successful Man which the Parallel Lives amount to, Sulla stands at one extreme of the spectrum, a superstitious man who attributed much to Fortune. Hence his own insistence on the agnomen (‘a fourth name occasionally given as an honour to an ancient Roman citizen’) ‘Felix’, superficially meaning ‘happy’ but at a deeper level meaning ‘lucky’ – more than lucky, in the deepest sense of the word, fortune-ate. Fortune rich. Fortune full.

Slaughter in Athens 86 BC

Apart from the civil war and street fighting in Rome, what comes over more vividly from this account than others I’ve read, is the unmitigated slaughter Sulla inflicted on Athens after a prolonged siege in which he had devastated the surrounding territory. ‘There was no counting the slain’. The blood flowed under the city gates (14).

Proscriptions in Rome

The mass murder in Rome of Sulla’s enemies who he included on lists of ‘proscriptions’ brings to mind Stalin sitting up late into the night going through long lists of names, putting a tick or a cross next to who should live or die.

Sulla now busied himself with slaughter, and murders without number or limit filled the city…He also proscribed anyone who harboured and saved a proscribed person, making death the punishment for such humanity, without exception of brother, son, or parents, but offering anyone who slew a proscribed person two talents as a reward for this murderous deed, even though a slave should slay his master, or a son his father. And what seemed the greatest injustice of all, he took away the civil rights from the sons and grandsons of those who had been proscribed, and confiscated the property of all. Moreover, proscriptions were made not only in Rome, but also in every city of Italy, and neither temple of God, nor hearth of hospitality, nor paternal home was free from the stain of bloodshed, but husbands were butchered in the embraces of their wedded wives, and sons in the arms of their mothers. (31)

Mass murder at Praeneste

Meanwhile Marius the younger, at the point of being captured slew himself; and Sulla, coming to Praeneste, at first gave each man there a separate trial before he executed him, but afterwards, since time failed him, gathered them all together in one place — there were twelve thousand of them — and gave orders to slaughter them all. (32)

Metrobius

Plutarch’s life ends where it began, with comments on Sulla’s private behaviour and liking for louche, lowlife, bohemian company. Despite having a series of respectable wives, in the usual Roman fashion, Sulla also:

consorted with actresses, harpists, and theatrical people, drinking with them on couches all day long. For these were the men who had most influence with him now: Roscius the comedian, Sorex the archmime, and Metrobius the impersonator of women, for whom, though past his prime, he continued up to the last to be passionately fond, and made no denial of it.

Mass murderer, sacker of Athens, failed attempter to restore the Republic, and lifelong lover of a female impersonator.

A grisly end

Then comes the kind of moralising conclusion which delighted the ancients and then the Christians, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Plutarch claims that in his final illness Sulla was literally eaten alive by worms.

By this mode of life [his decadent lifestyle] Sulla aggravated a disease which was insignificant in its beginnings, and for a long time he knew not that his bowels were ulcerated. This disease corrupted his whole flesh also, and converted it into worms, so that although many were employed day and night in removing them, what they took away was as nothing compared with the increase upon him, but all his clothing, baths, hand-basins, and food, were infected with that flux of corruption, so violent was its discharge. Therefore he immersed himself many times a day in water to cleanse and scour his person. But it was of no use; for the change gained upon him rapidly, and the swarm of vermin defied all purification. (36)


Related links

Roman reviews

  • Plutarch
  • Plutarch’s Lives of Marius and Sulla
  • Plutarch’s life of Sertorius
  • Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Crassus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Pompey
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cicero
  • Plutarch’s Life of Caesar
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger
  • Plutarch’s Life of Antony
  • Plutarch’s Life of Brutus
%d bloggers like this: