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

Plutarch

Plutarch was a Greco-Roman philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. He lived from about 46 to about 120 AD. He was a prolific writer in all genres: an ancient catalogue attributes no fewer than 227 works to Plutarch, of which 78 have come down to us.

Plutarch is most famous for the Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of eminent Greek and Roman leaders. These were arranged in pairs, one Greek and one Roman, in order to compare their lives and achievements and characters. The surviving lives contain 23 pairs of biographies as well as four unpaired single lives = 50 lives in total.

As he explains in the opening paragraph of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch was not concerned with history as such, with the broad sweep of historical events, but with exploring how the characters of famous men influenced their lives and destinies. Hence a lot of room is taken up with gossip and anecdote on the assumption that this often tells you more about a person than their official CV. Plutarch consciously sought to create a portrait of each figure and himself compares his craft to that of a painter.

In his history of the Roman republic, Tom Holland explains that the parallel lives only make sense in the format Plutarch conceived them for, as pairs, and disapproves of the way Penguin Books rearranged the lives, removing them from their pairings and reorganising them by chronological period, to produce volumes of biographies of just Greeks or Romans, thus losing the point of the entire project.

It was on this editorial principle that, in 1958, Penguin published a volume of six lives from the last 70 or so years of the Roman Republic, being Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar and Cicero, entitled Fall of the Roman Republic, translated by the novelist and Classicist Rex Warner (1905 to 1986).

In his very brief introduction to the Penguin edition, Warner justifies the decision by arguing that a) Plutarch’s original pairings of Greeks and Romans often have very little in common and feel ‘artificial’, so that b) translating the original pairings runs the risk of confusing the reader by forcing him or her to jump backwards and forwards between the very different social, economic and historical backgrounds of Greece and Rome. It’s a persuasive argument.

(And to be fair to Penguin they have, in recent years, reconsidered this editorial decision and published some of the lives in pairs, as Plutarch originally intended. The most recent edition of this volume of six Roman lives for the first time includes the brief passages Plutarch wrote comparing the lives of his Greek and Roman exemplars.)

Rex Warner (1905 to 1986)

Born in 1905, Warner went to public school and on to Oxford where he was associated with the Auden group. He wrote poetry, plays and novels, and is best remembered for the eccentric allegorical novel, The Aerodrome (1941), which I reviewed a few years ago.

From 1945 to 1947 he was in Athens as Director of the British Institute and became involved in numerous translations of classical Greek and Latin authors. His 1954 translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War for Penguin Classics sold over a million copies and helped to establish the commercial and cultural viability of Penguin Classics. Warner went on to translate Xenophon, Caesar and this selection of Plutarch’s Roman lives for Penguin.

Bill Thayer

An American named Bill Thayer has created a fabulous website onto which he has transcribed all 50 of Plutarch’s parallel lives (as well as a staggering amount of other ancient literature). They’re all given in the out-of-copyright 1923 Loeb Classical Library edition by Bernadotte Perrin. It includes interesting notes, handy maps, and a very useful list of all Plutarch’s lives in the form of a table.

When I saw this table I realised I wanted to read more than just the 6 lives included in the Penguin volume. I was particularly intrigued by the less well-known characters of Sertorius and Lucullus who had walk-on parts in several of the histories I’ve read. In fact I realised there were no fewer than 11 Plutarch lives from the final century of the Roman Republic which I was curious to read. In chronological order of birth these are as follows. Ones included in the Penguin edition are in bold:

  • Marius (b. 157)
  • Sulla (b. 138)
  • Lucullus (b. 118)
  • Crassus (b. 115)
  • Sertorius (b. 126)
  • Pompey (b. 106)
  • Cicero (b. 106)
  • Caesar (b. 100)
  • Cato the Younger (b. 95)
  • Antony (b. 83)
  • Brutus (b. 85)

Some I read in the Rex Warner Penguin translation, some in the 1923 Loeb classics edition, some swapping between the two. In order to be clear and consistent, references are to the long-established ‘chapter’ numbers which each life is divided into.

Initially I reviewed Marius and Sulla in the form of a summary overview of their lives and careers, taking material from other sources to make them historically accurate but this just ended up making them into  second-rate Wikipedia articles.

I realised it was more useful to stick closely to what Plutarch actually wrote, summarising every one of his short ‘chapters’, and recording the eccentric material he periodically includes – the anecdotes and omens and folk tales and sayings – precisely because that’s the kind of thing which doesn’t appear in  the conventional histories or biographies but sheds most light about h ow the ancients thought about great figures and great events.


Related links

Roman reviews

  • Plutarch
  • Plutarch’s Lives of Marius and Sulla
  • Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Crassus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Sertorius
  • 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

Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus 86 to 35 BC)

Gaius Sallustius Crispus, usually anglicised as Sallust (86 to 35 BC), is the first Roman historian by whom a complete work survives – we know the names of earlier Roman historians but none of their works have come down to us. In fact, we have just two works by Sallust, being his account of the Catiline Conspiracy of 63 BC and the Jugurthine War of 112 to 106 BC.

A third work, the Histories, covered the period from 78 (the year the dictator Sulla died) to 66 BC, taking in the war against Sertorius (72), the campaigns of Lucullus against Mithradates VI of Pontus (75 to 66 BC), and the victories of Pompey in the East (66 to 62). Invaluable as this material would be, nothing of the Histories survives except a fragment of book 5, describing the year 67 BC, and scattered quotes in later works.

His two surviving works are relatively brief – Cataline 44 pages and Jugurtha 86 pages long in the 2007 Penguin paperback edition, edited and translated by A.J Woodman. Throw in a detailed introduction, notes, index and a couple of maps, and it adds up to a tidy little 204 page-long paperback.

In his own time and ever since, Sallust’s brief oeuvre has been famous for two things: a terse style much given to archaic vocabulary and phrasing; and his insistent moralising.

Theories of history

The editor and translator, A.J. Woodman echoes critics quoted on Sallust’s Wikipedia article who all emphasise that Sallust relies on a moralising interpretation of history. He attributes the prolonged failure to end the Jugurthine War on the corruption and willingness to be bribed of numerous Roman officials, and the Catiline conspiracy on the same kind of falling away from Rome’s venerable notions of honour and duty among its ruling class.

Critics point out that Sallust therefore misses the deeper social and economic causes of the events he describes, interpretative paradigms which the last couple of hundred years of economic, sociological, historical and political theorising have elaborated to sophisticated heights.

He doesn’t even take into account the clash of personalities, which was obvious enough to contemporaries (for example, Cicero) and should have informed Sallust’s accounts.

I see what the critics mean but I’m inclined to take Sallust as he is – I mean, to read and enjoy Sallust for what he says rather than what he doesn’t. There’s no shortage of modern histories of the Roman Republic which overflow with economic, sociological, Marxist, feminist or other schools of interpretation. Throw in the findings of modern archaeology, the study of contemporary texts from other cultures, numismatics and so on, and modern scholars often know more about ancient events than contemporaries did – and are certainly able to spin more elaborate and sophisticated analyses of them than the ancients could.

It’s always seemed obvious to me that the value of ancient (so-called) histories is not to reach a ‘true’ account of events because a) they are frequently littered with exaggerations (of casualties in battles), made-up speeches and bizarre omens and b) modern editors routinely point out their factual errors and elisions, to the extent of getting the dates of key events or names of people wrong.

I’ve always read them not for a strictly accurate account of what happened so much as to get a sense of the meaning the events they describe had for their contemporaries – not so much what happened, but how they thought about what happened. What it all meant to them. How they made sense of human existence, human actions, big historical events. They did this in ways very different from us, but it’s precisely those differences which shed light both ways, bringing out the subtly but profoundly different world they lived in, and also helping to understand the (sometimes taken for granted) bases of our own worldview.

Historiographical motifs

There is another factor at play, here. Woodman devotes a section of his introduction to explaining the simple fact that ancient historians often didn’t describe what happened because half the time they didn’t know what happened and went by hearsay and folk tradition.

Instead you often find ancient historians describing what should have happened. When two great generals confronted each other in battle, everyone knows the outcome i.e. who won, but the ancient historian garnished his account with a lengthy set speech from each general setting out their aims and motivation, probably calling on the gods to help him.

To take a well known example. Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 to 120 AD) in his profile of his father-in-law, the general Gnaeus Julius Agricola, describes him leading Roman legions against Caledonian tribes somewhere in Scotland, a long list of places they trudged through and minor skirmishes against tribes whose names Tacitus may or may not have got correct. The campaign leads up to a climactic battle, which, again, he may or may not describe accurately, but either way is a bit boring. What has made the scene live forever is that Tacitus invented a Caledonian chieftain, giving him the name Calgacus and, on the eve of the battle, gives him a great long speech to inspire his troops, which includes vivid accusations against the Romans and their ideology of imperialism. There now! Much more dramatic and satisfying.

Same in Sallust. In the case of the Cataline conspiracy actual speeches were given in the Senate during the days of the crisis (November and December 63 BC) and official records and eye witnesses survived which Sallust could consult. But for the Jugurthine War (112 to 106 BC), by the time Sallust was writing in about 40 BC, all eye witnesses were dead.

To really drill home this point, Woodman quotes Cicero. He summarises Cicero’s description of the central role of what he calls inventio in oratory, particularly in prosecuting a case in the courts. Cicero defines inventio as ‘the devising of matter true or lifelike which will make a case appear convincing‘ (On Invention 1.9, quoted in Woodman’s introduction, page xxiii). Woodman then applies this interpretation to Sallust’s practice, concluding that ‘a significant portion of his narrative was the product of “invention”‘ (p.xxiv).

Sallust wanted his accounts to be powerful, convincing and persuasive – and so it can be shown that he gave protagonists, at key moments, long moralising speeches which a) they probably never gave and b) which echo similar speeches in the works of previous historians (especially the Greek historian, Thucydides, who Sallust borrows from extensively). He is not recording objective history, he is reworking well established literary motifs to make his history more convincing and dramatic.

In other words, Sallust is one of those ancient historians who thought of writing history more as an art form than as an objective attempt to record ‘the truth’.

Moralising

This brings us to Sallust’s moralising. In a nutshell, Sallust took the entirely traditional view that Rome had declined from the former greatness of its glorious past and that the age he lived in was uniquely corrupt, depraved and fallen, a very, very common view of human existence, shared throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages and among pub bores down to the present day.

Like his contemporaries, Sallust had been buffeted by the chaos of the 50s (which happened to be the years when he held political office – quaestor in 55, plebeian tribune in 52, expelled from the Senate by Appius Claudius Pulcher in 50 BC).

With the coming of civil war in 49 Sallust opted, wisely as it turned out, to support Caesar (unlike Cicero who made the mistake of backing Pompey). In fact, in 46 BC Sallust served as a praetor and accompanied Caesar on his African campaign, so he was significantly more than an armchair supporter and actively involved in Caesarian campaigning.

Nonetheless, in the absence of modern sociological theories of historical causation, Sallust’s view of history is cast entirely in terms of personal morality. For Sallust history consists of, and is entirely driven by, the moral or immoral behaviour of great men. His three works can be threaded on this single principle:

  1. The pitiful failure of Rome to end the Jugurthine war was caused by – and symptomatic of – the increasingly venal, selfish and amoral Roman nobles and officials of his day.
  2. The Catiline Conspiracy represented the complete abandonment of the Roman ideals of loyalty, duty and devotion to the state in the shape of the vile traitor Catiline.
  3. The preface to the Histories repeats the accusation of personal irresponsibility, greed and corruption against the Roman nobles, taking an even more pessimistic view of Tome’s moral collapse than the two monographs.

This approach to history was widely shared in the ancient world. The idea was not to present a definitive ‘truth’ about events, but to present them in such a way as to instruct the present. Rather than invoke impersonal forces such as economic or social developments, a historian like Sallust is presenting the good or bad behaviour of high profile individuals from the past as lessons in morality for the present. The aim of this kind of history is to make us behave better, and if that requires colouring and dramatising events, well so be it.

Translating ‘virtus’

By contrast with the decline and fall which he sees everywhere, Sallust posits a quality which stands as polar opposite to the corruption of the Roman ruling class and which he calls virtusVir is the Latin for ‘man’ (hence ‘virile’ meaning ‘manly’) and therefore virtus describes the qualities and attributes of an ideal (Roman) man (loyalty, devotion to family, duty to the state, military ability and so on).

Unhappily, in my view, Woodman translates this key word, virtus, as ‘prowess’. The dictionary definition of ‘prowess’ is ‘skill or expertise in a particular activity or field,’ so I can see what he’s driving at, but I still think it’s too narrow? ‘Prowess’ by itself doesn’t immediately convey all the attributes of the ideal man in the way virtus obviously does for Sallust. Maybe it’s one of those instances in making a translation where leaving the word in the original language might have been best, because its frequent repetition would have allowed the reader to build up multiple meanings accrued from its various contexts. Slowly the reader would have been taught by the text what Sallust’s multiple uses of virtus mean to him.

It’s worth mentioning all this because the word and concept virtus occurs on virtually every page of the Jugurthine War, sometimes multiple times per page. It is an absolutely central theme in Sallust’s discourse, so the reader is reminded several times a page of the shortcomings of Woodman’s preferred term of ‘prowess’.

Woodman makes several other odd lexical decisions which undermine trust in his translation. Sallust repeatedly refers to the lack of action or energy with which the first Roman commanders prosecuted the war against Jugurtha. Woodman translates this quality as ‘apathy’ which, to me, conveys a completely different meaning; someone who is apathetic doesn’t care about anything, whereas someone who is inactive or is guilty of inaction is capable of more but is making a conscious decision not to act, and so is reprehensible. That’s much closer to the sense of what Sallust means.

Another peculiar translation choice is Woodman’s repeated use of the word ‘muscle’, the application of ‘muscle’, the use of ‘muscle’ in political or military situations, which makes his text sound like an American book about the mafia. I’d guess a better or more dignified translation would be ‘might’ or ‘manpower’.

In a nutshell, although I enjoyed Sallust, I came to dislike and distrust Woodman’s translation.

Mind versus body

Both Jugurtha and Catiline open with general remarks about human nature and, above all, how humans are separate from all other species by virtue of having mind, by the ability to think and reason. Here’s the opening of Jugurtha (in the 1896 translation by the Reverend J.S. Watson which is available online and doesn’t use ‘prowess’ to translate virtus):

The ruler and director of the life of man is the mind, which, when it pursues glory in the path of true merit [virtus], is sufficiently powerful, efficient, and worthy of honour, and needs no assistance from fortune, who can neither bestow integrity, industry, or other good qualities, nor can take them away. But if the mind, ensnared by corrupt passions, abandons itself to indolence and sensuality, when it has indulged for a season in pernicious gratifications, and when bodily strength, time, and mental vigour, have been wasted in sloth, the infirmity of nature is accused, and those who are themselves in fault impute their delinquency to circumstances.

If man, however, had as much regard for worthy objects, as he has spirit in the pursuit of what is useless, unprofitable, and even perilous, he would not be governed by circumstances more than he would govern them, and would attain to a point of greatness, at which, instead of being mortal, he would be immortalised by glory. (From the 1896 translation by the Reverend J.S. Watson)

The Catiline also opens with an extended passage explaining how humanity’s possession of reason behoves us to use it. Woodman here again uses ‘prowess’ in a dubious way whereas the Loeb Classical Library translation of 1921 (which can be found on the excellent LacusCurtius website) translates virtus as ‘mental excellence’. Where Woodman has:

The glory of riches and appearance is fleeting and fragile, but to have prowess is something distinguished and everlasting.

The Loeb edition has:

For the renown which riches or beauty confer is fleeting and frail; mental excellence is a splendid and lasting possession.

Which seems to me both more precise and more impressive. Or again, Woodman:

Ploughing, sailing and building are all dependent on prowess.

Loeb:

Success in agriculture, navigation, and architecture depends invariably upon mental excellence.

Woodman’s hangup with the word ‘prowess’, in my opinion, distort Sallust’s meaning on every page. Also, as a general rule. Woodman’s phrasing of English is worse. Woodman:

His eloquence was adequate, scant his wisdom. (5)

Loeb:

He possessed a certain amount of eloquence, but little discretion.

Which is a hundred times better – clearer, more vivid, more precise and also, paradoxically, more modern. ‘Scant his wisdom’ feels Elizabethan. Despite being a hundred years old the Loeb version is much clearer and more attractive and enjoyable, as prose than Woodman which is why I gave up reading the Penguin translation and read both books online.

After Carthage

One last point. Like many later Romans, Sallust thought the collapse in Roman honour, integrity etc set in at one very particular moment – after Carthage was conquered in 146 BC and Rome faced no more great enemies:

Before the destruction of Carthage, the senate and people managed the affairs of the republic with mutual moderation and forbearance; there were no contests among the citizens for honour or ascendency but the dread of an enemy kept the state in order. When that fear, however, was removed from their minds, licentiousness and pride – evils which prosperity loves to foster, –immediately began to prevail and thus peace, which they had so eagerly desired in adversity, proved, when they had obtained it, more grievous and fatal than adversity itself.

The patricians carried their authority, and the people their liberty, to excess; every man took, snatched, and seized what he could. There was a complete division into two factions, and the republic was torn in pieces between them.

Yet the nobility still maintained an ascendency by conspiring together for the strength of the people, being disunited and dispersed among a multitude, was less able to exert itself. Things were accordingly directed, both at home and in the field, by the will of a small number of men, at whose disposal were the treasury, the provinces, offices, honours, and triumphs while the people were oppressed with military service and with poverty, and the generals divided the spoils of war with a few of their friends. The parents and children of the soldiers, meantime, if they chanced to dwell near a powerful neighbour, were driven from their homes.

Thus avarice, leagued with power, disturbed, violated, and wasted every thing, without moderation or restraint, disregarding alike reason and religion and rushing headlong, as it were, to its own destruction. For whenever any arose among the nobility who preferred true glory to unjust power the state was immediately in a tumult and civil discord spread with as much disturbance as attends a convulsion of the earth. (Watson translation)

2,000 years later, many of the contemporary historians I’m reading, despite their use of much more sophisticated theories of history and society, and economic and social evidence, broadly agree. 146 BC, the year when Rome destroyed Carthage in the West and Corinth in the East (thus decisively taking control of all Greece) was the turning point. On this, a soldier who served under Caesar over 2,000 years ago and the most up-to-date scholar in a Cambridge college, agree.

Summary

To summarise, then: Sallust makes up most of his speeches, and maybe even some of the events he describes, in order to:

  • make his account more powerful and convincing
  • further his worldview or ideology – his scathing criticism of Rome’s nobles and senatorial class, his lament at the decline of Rome’s morality and behaviour
  • all with a view of instructing his readers and encouraging them, by showing the bad behaviour of people in the past, to behave better in the future

Roman reviews

  • Sallust
  • The Jugurthine War by Sallust (41 BC)
  • The Catiline Conspiracy by Sallust (42 BC)
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