The Roman Political and Social Revolution: 133-82 BCE.

Lecture 7, Thursday 8th February 2018

Roman theories of decline

Velleius Paterculus (2.1): Scipio Africanus [202 BCE] opened the road for Rome’s power, Scipio Aemilianus [146 BCE] for Rome’s luxury (LUXURIA).

Polybius (31.25): Some of them had abandoned themselves to sex with boys and others to the society of courtesans, and many to musical entertainments and banquets, and the extravagance they involve, having in the course of the war with Perseus [168 BCE] been speedily infected by the Greek laxity in these respects. Cato the Elder gave vent in public to his displeasure that many people were introducing foreign luxury into Rome: they bought a keg of salt fish from the Black Sea for 300 drachmae, and paid more for handsome slaves than for estates.

Livy (34.4): [Cato speaking in 195 BCE*] You have often heard me complaining of the extravagance of the women and often of the men, both private citizens and magistrates even, and lamenting that the state is suffering from those two opposing evils, avarice (AVARITIA) and luxury (LUXURIA), which have been the destruction of every great empire. The better and the happier becomes the fortune of our commonwealth day by day and the greater the empire grows —and already we have crossed into Greece and Asia, places filled with all the allurements of vice, and we are handling the treasures of kings —the more I fear that these things will capture us rather than we them. Tokens of danger, believe me, were those statues which were brought to this city from Syracuse [in 212 BCE]. Altogether too many people do I hear praising the ornaments of Corinth and Athens and laughing at the clay temples [lit: antefixes] of our Roman godsI prefer that these gods be propitious to us, and I trust that they will be if we allow them to remain in their own dwellings.

*in 215 BCE Rome had passed a law (lex Oppia) that limited women’s access to gold, wearing of purple garments, or riding an animal-drawn vehicle in the city. In 195 BCE, women flooded the Roman forum, staging the “first women’s demonstration” (Pomeroy 1975: 77) to demand the law’s repeal.

Livy (39.6): For the beginnings of foreign luxury (LUXURIA) were imported into Rome by the army of Asia. These soldiers were responsible for the first importation into Rome [in 187 BCE, triumph of Manlius Volso] of bronze couches, expensive bedspreads, tapestry, and other textiles, and — what was at that time considered gorgeous furniture — pedestal tables and sideboards (monopodia et abaci). Banquets were made more attractive by the presence of girls who played on the harp and sang and danced, and by other forms of amusement, and the banquets themselves began to be prepared with greater care and expense. It was then that the cook, who had been to the ancient Romans the least valuable of slaves, and had been priced and treated accordingly, began to be highly valued, and what had been a mere task of a slave came to be regarded as an art. And yet the things that were at that time viewed with wonder were hardly even the seeds of the luxury (LUXURIA) that was to come…

 C. Vestorius Priscus tomb Pompeii in pictures.jpgWallpainting from the Tomb of C. Vestorius Priscus, just outside of Pompeii (before 79 CE), depicting silver flasks, cups, bowls, dishes, ladles on a table. Image: pompeiiinpictures.com.

bronze banquet couch.jpgA Roman couch made of bronze; wood framework modern restoration. 1st c. BCE Image: The Walters Museum.

Met museum Roman couch.jpgA Roman couch reassembled from fragments, made of wood, bone, glass; plus footstool. 1st-2nd century CE. Image: Metropolitan Museum.

SallustThe War with Catiline (10-11): But when our country had grown great through toil and the practice of justice, when great kings had been vanquished in war, savage tribes and mighty peoples subdued by force of arms, when Carthage, the rival of Rome’s sway, had perished root and  branch, and all seas and lands were open, then Fortune began to grow cruel and to bring confusion into all our affairsThose who had found it easy to bear hardship and dangers, anxiety and adversity, found leisure and wealth, desirable under other circumstances, a burden and a curse. Hence the lust for money first, then for power, grew upon them; these were, I may say, the root of all evils.  For avarice (AVARITIA) destroyed honour, integrity, and all other noble qualities; taught in their place insolence, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to set a price on everything Ambition drove many men to become false; to have one thought locked in the breast, another ready on the tongue; to value friendships and enmities not on their merits but by the standard of self-interest, and to show a good front rather than a good heart.  At first these vices grew slowly, from time to time they were punished; finally, when the disease had spread like a deadly plague, the state was changed and a government second to none in equity and excellence became cruel and intolerable. But at first men’s souls were actuated less by avarice (AVARITIA) than by ambition (AMBITIO) — a fault, it is true, but not so far removed from virtue (VIRTUS);  for the noble and the base alike long for glory, honour, and power, but the former mount by the true path, whereas the latter, being destitute of noble qualities, rely upon craft and deception. [+ compare Sallust, The War with Jugurtha (41)]

AMBITIO = gives us “ambition” but literally meant “walking around”,
hence “the going about of candidates for office in Rome”,
then finally “a desire for power, popularity; display, vanity”
Latin amb- (from PIE root *ambhi-) = “around” + -itio from ire “to go”

AMBITUS = a court case where you are sued for bribing voters
law against bribery (de ambitu) introduced in 181 BCE (Lex Cornelia Baebia)


The seeds of revolution

Plutarch, Life of Tiberius Gracchus (8): Of the territory which the Romans won in war from their neighbours, a part they sold, and a part they made common land, and assigned it for occupation to the poor and indigent among the citizens, on payment of a small rent into the public treasury. And when the rich began to offer larger rents and drove out the poor, a law was enacted forbidding the holding by one person of more than 500 iugera [=125 ha.: 309 acres, defined by Lex Licinia 366 BCE]. For a short time this enactment gave a check to the rapacity of the rich, and was of assistance to the poor, who remained in their places on the land which they had rented and occupied the allotment which each had held from the outset. But later on the neighbouring rich men, by means of fictitious personages, transferred these rentals to themselves, and finally held most of the land openly in their own names. Then the poor, who had been ejected from their land, no longer showed themselves eager for military service, and neglected the bringing up of children, so that soon all Italy was conscious of a lack of free men, and was filled with gangs of foreign slaves,* by whose aid the rich cultivated their estates, from which they had driven away the free citizens.

*Slave Rebellions in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE

  • Bradley 1994: 109: “The likelihood that Roman slaves attempted from time to time to reduce the rigours of servitude or to extricate themselves permanently from their condition may be readily admitted in simple terms of human nature, especially in view of the already documented fact that prisoners-of-war in Roman antiquity often preferred to inflict death on themselves than to submit to the horrors of capture. The evidence of revolt is decisive.
  • First Slave War: c.135-132 BCE, Sicily, see Diodorus 34.2ff.
    • Joshel 2010: 59: “The Roman estimates of the total number of slaves involved in the rebellion range from 60, 000 to 200, 000.”
  • Second Slave War: c. 104-101 BCE, Sicily, see Diodorus 36.1-10
    • Joshel 2010: 62: “the number of slaves in revolt grew from about 1,000 to 10,000.”
  • Spartacus rebellion: 73-71 BCE, began in gladiatorial school in Capua, led by the Thracian gladiator, Spartacus
    • 70 slave gladiators used kitchen tools (cleavers + spits) to break out of the school (Plut. Crass. 8)
    • at first supported by Thracian, German, + Gallic gladiators, then from slaves + poor of the countryside in Southern Italy working the farms of the rich; rebellion eventually = 70,000 to 120,000.
    • 71 BCE: Crassus destroyed the army in Lucania, crucifying the 6,000 of the defeated slaves along the Via Appia from Capua to Rome (see Plutarch, Life of Crassus 8ff.Joshel 2010: 62-63)
    • Spartacus 1960 by Stanley Kubrick starring Kirk Douglas (see Page duBois 2010: 120-130< a chapter on how this film reflects ancient evidence)
  • Brunt 1971: 122: “slaves who worked on the land were seldom freed; probably they constituted in an essentially agricultural society the immense majority of all slaves. To estimate total slave numbers we are thrown back to conjectures.”

More on gladiators.

The rise of the tribune: Tiberius Gracchus (tr. pl. 133 BCE)

Plutarch, Life of Tiberius Gracchus (8): Tiberius Gracchus was passing through Etruria on his way to Numantia [as quaestor in 137 BCE], and observed that there were few inhabitants in the country, and that those who tilled its soil or tended its flocks there were barbarian slaves, he then first conceived the public policy which was the cause of countless ills to the two brothers. However, the energy and ambition of Tiberius were most of all kindled by the people themselves, who posted writings on porticoes, house-walls, and monuments, calling upon him to recover for the poor the public land.

AppianCivil Wars 1.7: …the rich, getting possession of the greater part of the undistributed lands, and being emboldened by the lapse of time to believe that they would never be dispossessed, absorbing any adjacent strips and their poor neighbours’ allotments, partly by purchase under persuasion and partly by force, came to cultivate vast tracts instead of single estates (=latifundia), using slaves as labourers and herdsmen, in case free labourers should be drawn from agriculture into the army. At the same time the ownership of slaves brought them great gain from the multitude of their progeny, who increased because they were exempt from military service. Thus certain powerful men became extremely rich and the race of slaves multiplied throughout the country, while the Italian people dwindled in numbers and strength, being oppressed by poverty, taxes, and military service.


mus-cent-rom-004.jpgLand distribution. Air photograph of Roman ‘centuriation‘ preservered in the modern field-patterns northeast of Padua. Image: Museo della Centuriazione Romana. 


Tiberius Gracchus’ land redistribution bill (tribune: 133 BCE):

  • limit possession of land to 500 iugera (+250 per child)
  • proposed compensation to rich for giving up land for redistribution
  • proposed use of Attalus III’s kingdom be used to solve agrarian problem (Plut. Ti. 14)
  • anticipated a hostile reaction from senate, took to plebeian council; there another tribune, Marcus Octavius, tried to block the proposal; Gracchus had him removed from office
  • the redistribution to be organized by a commission of 3 men: Tiberius Gracchus, his brother Gaius Gracchus, his father-in-law Appius Claudius Pulcher
  • sought reelection for 132 BCE: Tiberius Gracchus + 300 of his followers killed by Publius Scipio Nasica (pontifex maximus) + senators holding broken legs of furniture (Plut. Ti. 19) , who dumped his body into the River Tiber at night (Plut. Ti. 20)
  • senatorial perspectives:
    • Plutarch, Life of Tiberius 14: Eudemus of Pergamum had presented Tiberius with a royal diadem and a purple robe, believing that he was going to be king in Rome. 
    • Cicero, On behalf of Sestius 103: Tiberius Gracchus sought to carry an agrarian law. It appealed to the common people. It looked likely to safeguard the fortunes of the poor. The best people (= optimates) threw their weight against it because they saw it was a source of discord and believed that to remove the rich from their long-held possessions was to rob the state of its defenders.
  • archaeological evidence: several markers (termini, cippi) have been found from various parts of Italy, some with names of commissioners: CIL 12.639 , CIL 12.640 , CIL 12.643CIL 12.644CIL 12.645

Gaius Gracchus (tribune: 123-122 BCE)

Plutarch, Life of Gaius Gracchus (3): But after entering upon his office he was at once first of all the tribunes, since he had an incomparable power in oratory, and his affliction gave him great boldness of speech in bewailing the fate of his brother. For to this subject he would bring the people round on every pretext, reminding them of what had happened in the case of Tiberius… “But before your eyes,” he said, “these men beat Tiberius to death with clubs, and his dead body was dragged from the Capitol through the midst of the city to be thrown into the Tiber; moreover, those of his friends who were caught were put to death without trial.”

Plutarch, Life of Gaius Gracchus (5): he now set a new example by turning towards the other part of the forum as he harangued the people, and continued to do this from that time on, thus by a slight deviation and change of attitude stirring up a great question, and to a certain extent changing the constitution from an aristocratic to a democratic form; for his implication was that speakers ought to address themselves to the people, and not to the senate.

  • re-enacted Tiberius’ land reform law
  • put forward proposal to establish new colonies in Italy + one at Carthage to be called Junonia (Plut. Gaius 10-11)
  • sponsored law that state required to provide clothing to soldiers (Plut. Gaius 5)
  • law that state would purchase grain in bulk to distribute to population at price below market rate, establish public granaries (Plut. Gaius 6)
  • judicial reform: equestrians to be judges in extortion courts instead of senators (known from a fragmentary bronze tablet from 2nd century BCE in Urbino, known as Tabula Bembina — see Lintott 1992)
  • proposed law to give voting rights to Latins, Latin rights to allies (Plutarch Gaius 8-9); rejected by senate, equestrians, urban poor alike
  • killed by the senate, beheaded — bounty of equal gold on his head, body thrown in the river (Plut. Gaius 17)


Gaius Marius (consul 107; 104, 103, 102, 101, 100; 86 BCE)

  • novus homo — a new man — from Arpinum, which had only received full citizenship in 188 BCE (Pleiades: Arpinum)
  • reformed the army, abolishing the property qualification for service and enrolled a volunteer army.
  • elected consul 107 BCE, fought Jugurtha (king of Numidia) for 2 years; reelected consul in 104 BCE to fight the Germanic Cimbri + Teutones, was reelected consul every year till 100 BCE, in that time brought further military reform, improving equipment + organization

Sallust, The War with Jugurtha (86): He himself in the meantime enrolled soldiers, not according to the classes in the manner of our forefathers, but allowing anyone to volunteer, for the most part the proletariat [the capite censi]. Some say that he did this through lack of good men, others because of a desire to curry favour, since that class had given him honour and rank. As a matter of fact, to one who aspires to power the poorest man is the most helpful, since he has no regard for his property, having none, and considers anything honourable for which he receives pay.

  • defeated Jugurtha, king of Numidia, through the diplomacy of his quaestor, Sulla; Jugurtha was displayed in Marius’ triumph in 104 BCE (Plut. Marius 12)

Plutarch, Life of Marius (10): He put Jugurtha alive into the hands of Sulla. This was the first seed of that bitter and incurable hatred between Marius and Sulla, which nearly brought Rome to ruin. For many wished Sulla to have the glory of the affair because they hated Marius, and Sulla himself had a seal-ring made, which he used to wear, on which was engraved the surrender of Jugurtha to him by Bocchus.


Jugurtha surrenders to Sulla.jpg

Left:  Bust of Diana wearing a diadem, with text FAVSTVS.
Right: Sulla seated, Bocchus holds olive branch, Jugurtha kneels with hands tied behind back, with text: FELIX. Date 56 BCE. Image: wikimedia.
Post on this coin type by Hannah Mitchell on the
University of Warwick numismatics blog.

Plutarch, Life of Sulla (6): Sulla’s quarrel with Marius broke out afresh on being supplied with fresh material by the ambition of Bocchus, who, desiring to please the people at Rome, and at the same time to gratify Sulla, dedicated on the Capitol some images bearing trophies, and beside them gilded figures representing Jugurtha being surrendered by Bocchus to Sulla.  Thereupon Marius was very angry, and tried to have the figures taken down, but others were minded to aid Sulla in opposing this, and the city was all but in flames with their dispute, when the Social war, which had long been smouldering, blazed up against the city and put a stop for the time being to the quarrel.

The Social War (91-87 BCE; main fighting in 90-89 BCE)

Italian bull Roman wolf .jpg

Mary Beard 2016: 239 n40 on this coin type: “The most aggressively anti-Roman coin minted by the Italian allies in the Social War. [Right] The Roman wolf is entirely overpowered by the Italian bull, and beneath the design the name of the moneyer  responsible is written in the Italian language of Oscan. [Left] The other side of the silver coin blazons the head of the god Bacchus and the name, also in Oscan, of one of the leading Italian generals.” Image: British Museum.

LeGlay (2009: 130): “The reason for this war was Rome’s refusal to grant its Italian allies (socii) the Roman citizenship they desired. The question had been first raised as early as after the conquests in the 3rd century BCE. Since that time, Italy had been a confused tangle of territories. Rome conferred unevenly upon them privileges, rewards, rights, and duties, based loosely on their status compared to that of Roman citizens. Roman citizens, full members of the civic body, participated in all the state’s activities; they enjoyed the benefit of civil and legal rights; since 167 BCE (after Pydna) they had been free of direct taxation (tributum), and they were entitled to a share in booty, to agrarian allocations, and to distributions of grain. Next came “Latins,” who held a status half-way between that of citizens and that of the allies. Inhabitants of Latin cities and colonies, the Latins shared the civil and legal rights of citizens (rights of contract, commercial, matrimonial), and were liable for certain fiscal and military dues (serving in auxiliary units)…The allies belonged to a third, even less privileged, category. They were peoples connected with Rome by a treaty that outlined their relations with the capital which, in most cases, exerted close control over them….They continued to supply the Roman army with contingents that were indispensible to its wars of conquest.”

  • 122 BCE: tribune Gaius Gracchus had tried to grant citizenship to Latins + Latin rights to allies
  • 91 BCE: tribune Marcus Livius Drusus proposed a citizenship bill
    • 10, 000 Marsi approached Rome in support intending to attack, but were convinced to turn back
    • senate rejected Drusus’ bill (Liv. Epitome 71)
    • Drusus was assassinated in his own house (Liv. Epitome 71)
  • 90 BCE: lex Julia de Civitate Latinis Danda awarded Roman citizenship to all the Latins + allies who had not taken up arms
  • 89 BCE: lex Plautia Papiria added new tribes to the comitia as communities were granted citizenship
  • Cisalpine Gaul remained apart until the time of Caesar

Velleius Paterculus (2.15):  The long smouldering fires of an Italian war were now fanned into flame by the death of Drusus. All Italy took up arms against the Romans. The rebellion began with the people of Asculum, who had put to death the praetor Servilius and Fonteius, his deputy; it was then taken up by the Marsi, and from them it made its ways into all the districts of Italy. The fortune of the Italians was as cruel as their cause was just; for they were seeking citizenship in the state whose power they were defending by their arms; every year and in every war they were furnishing men, both of cavalry and of infantry, and yet were not admitted to the rights of citizens in the state which, through their efforts, had reached so high a position that it could look down upon men of the same race and blood as foreigners and aliens.

Massacres abroad and at home…

  • 88 BCE: Mithridates VI of Pontus brings an army to Asia and executes thousands of Romans; between 80, 000 and 150, 000 (Plutarch, Sulla 24) in the cities of Ephesus, Pergamum, Tralles and other Greek cities in Asia Minor
  • senate appoints Sulla (consul 88 BCE) > East
    • married to Caecilia Metella, connected to Metelli (senatorial)
  • plebeian council (via tribune Sulpicius) appoints Marius (private citizen, 72 years old…) > East
    • past his prime (overweight + embarassingly out of shape, Plut. Mar. 34) but still loved + connected to the people
  • Sulla intercepted the 6 legions stationed at Nola, in Campania, and turned them against Rome; forced senate to assign command to him, and to exile Marius (Plut. Sulla 8ff.)
  • 87 BCE: Marius captures Rome, has Sulla declared a national enemy, slaughtered his enemies in Rome (Plut. Marius 43); Marius elected consul for 86 BCE
  • Sulla fights Mithridates’ generals victoriously (86-85 BCE), makes peace (85 BCE)
  • Sulla returns from the East and marches on Rome a second time; recaptured Rome in November 82 BCE after prolonged fighting
  • 82 BCE: Sullan proscriptions (“death lists”proscribere, “to put on display”, “condemn”):
    • public display of the edict + the list of 80 names: senators who supported Marius; 2nd + 3rd lists with a further 440 names…(Plutarch Sulla 31)
      • disenfranchised the children of the proscribed
    • ban on shelter to the proscribed, death to those who harboured fugitives
    • reward of 40, 000 sesterces for a denouncer or killer of proscribed; freedom for slaves who denounced or killed
  • massacre at Praeneste, which had resisted Sulla in 83/82 BCE; Marius commits suicide there (Appian BC 1.94)
  • Sulla settled his veterans on confiscated land
  • 80BCE: Cicero’s defense of Sextus Roscius (Pro Roscio) references the chaos + darkness of Sullan period


Sulla inscription CIL 11, 07547 EDCS.pngAn inscription naming Sulla as dictator from Sutrium. Inscription: L(ucio) Cornelio L(uci) f(ilio) Sullae / Felici dictatori. “To Lucius Cornlius, son of Lucius, Sulla Felix, the Dictator.” Image: EDCS.

Sulla’s dictatorship 

  • 82 BCE: Sulla makes self dictator without time limit; previously 6 months, Rome had not had a dictator in 120 years, since Second Punic War (Plut. Sulla 33)
  • 81 BCE: Sullan legislation — senatorial consolidation
    • removes powers from the tribunes of the plebs
    • transfers the juries back from equestrians to senators
    • doubles the senate to 600
    • makes quaestors eligible for senate — raises quaestors to 20
    • re-estabilishes 10 year gap between same office, which Marius had flouted
    • magistrates had to wait for 2 years before being elected to next office
  • 79 BCE retired his dictatorship; Julius Caesar would mock him for relinquishing the power of the dictatorship (Suetonius, Divus Julius 77)


Sulla Felix 

Plutarch, Life of Sulla (34): His triumph, however, which was imposing from the costliness and rarity of the royal spoils, had a greater ornament in the noble spectacle of the exiles. For the most distinguished and influential of the citizens, crowned with garlands, followed in the procession, calling Sulla their saviour and father, since indeed it was through him that they were returning to their native city and bringing with them their wives and children. And when at last the whole spectacle was over, he gave an account of his achievements in a speech to the people, enumerating the instances of his good fortune with no less emphasis than his deeds of valour, and finally, in view of these, he ordered that he receive the surname of Fortunate (for this is what the word “Felix” most nearly means). But he himself, in writing to the Greeks on official business, styled himself Epaphroditus (ἐπαφρόδιτος), or Favourite of Venus, and on his trophies in our country his name is thus inscribed: Lucius Cornelius Sulla Epaphroditus. Besides this, when Metella bore him twin children, he named the male child Faustus, and the female Fausta; for the Romans call what is auspicious and joyful, “faustum.” And to such an extent did he put more confidence in his good fortunes than in his achievements, that, although he had slain great numbers of the citizens, and introduced great innovations and changes in the government of the city, he laid down his office of dictator, and put the consular elections in the hands of the people; and when they were held, he did not go near them himself, but walked up and down the forum like a private man, exposing his person freely to all who wished to call him to account.

Sulla infelix???

Plutarch, Life of Sulla (36): However, even though he had such a wife at home, he 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 mime, 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. By this mode of life he 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.


Further Reading:


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