The Roman Political and Social Revolution: 82-62 BCE.

Lecture 11, Tuesday 27th February 2018

…picking up the political story from lecture 7.

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.

Suetonius (Divus Julius 77): No less arrogant were [Julius Caesar’s] public utterances, which Titus Ampius records: that the state was nothing, a mere name without body or form; that Sulla did not know his A. B. C. when he laid down his dictatorship.


Gnaeus Pompeius (= Pompey), 106 BCE – 48 BCE
took up the name Magnus (‘the Great’) after 81 BCE

Pompey's consulships.png

Left: Portrait of Pompey. Venice, Museo Archeologico. Image: Egisto Sani [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via FlickrRight: Portrait of Pompey. Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Image: Carole Raddato. These portraits appear as figs. 37 + 38 in Paul Zanker’s Roman Art (the twitter prize book).

Zanker 2010: 60-63: “This period of social change and cultural liberalization also saw the development of the ‘realistic’ portrait, which is rightly considered a characteristic genre of Roman art. But here too we have to reckon with a number of coexisting approaches to portraiture…[Romans] could choose, at one extreme, expressive images that were full of movement and powerful emotion, or, at the other extreme, realistic images that included every tiny blemish, or any of dozens of hybrid forms in between…The quieter, calmer portraits [p62] of Pompey, by contrast, attempt to combine the Hellenistic tradition of emotional engagement with the ideals of the Roman citizen. Above the plain face, the locks of hair rise as buoyantly as those of Alexander, to whom Pompey liked to compare himself. A special characteristic of the best images of this period is that they try to convey not only the patron’s physical features but also his character.”

Zanker 2010: 63: “One version of the earlier portrait is in the Museo Archaeologico in Venice [left]. It depicts Pompey in a purely Hellenistic style, using the usual formulae for energy and charisma, which to a modern viewer seem almost to give him an air of sadness. The later image, created between 60 and 50 BCE, the best copy of which is in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen [right], combines an allusion to Alexander the Great — in the form of the anastole*, the hair springing up over his forehead — with the realistic and traditional facial traits of a Roman citizen.”

*ANASTOLE (ἀναστολή): “an extreme ‘cow-lick,’ used to refer to the dramatic upswing of hair above the middle of the forehead on portraits of Alexander the Great and others” cf. Zanker 1988: 10.

Cn. Pompeius Strabo:

  • Pompey’s father, Cn. Pompeius Strabo (135–87 BCE), was consul in 89 BCE; celebrated triumph over Asculum on 25 December 89 BCE.
  • Cn. Pompeius Strabo’s estates were in Picenum, central Italy.
  • Cn. Pompeius Strabo played a decisive role in the Social War (91-87 BCE), which erupted from Asculum in the region of Picenum. But Pompeius Strabo also cultivated ties of patronage with the Italians in this area which his son took advantage of.
    • Seager 1979: 20: “Strabo’s military achievements included the subjection of the Vestini, Paeligni, Marrucini, and Marsi, and culimated in the bitterly contested siege of Asculum, the stronghold of the Italian leader Vidalicius.” [see AppianBC 1.48 for Vidalicius’ “heroic suicide”]
    • Seager 1979: 21: “It is surely no accident that Picenum, the scene of Strabo’s greatest success, was also the chief source of his own power and of the clientela that was his most useful legacy to his son.”
    • Pompey family influence Spain and Cisalpine Gaul in addition to central Italy:
      • inscription records Cn. Pompeius Strabo’s grant of citizenship as a reward for distinguished service (causa virtutis) to a squadron of Spanish cavalry, in accordance with the lex Iulia of 90 BCE (CIL 1².709)
      • Cn. Pompeius Strabo gives individual grants of Roman citizenship, e.g. to Publius Caesius of Ravenna (Cic. Balb. 50).
      • Cn. Pompeius Strabo passed a law designed to extend his own influence from Picenum into the lands beyond the River Po (Asconius 3).

Picenum Asculum Roma AWMC
Map of Picenum region and city of Asculum in relation to Rome. Generated with the AMWC’s à-la-carte map.

The fate of Ventidius Bassus

Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights 15.4): It was recently remarked in the conversation of certain old and learned men that in ancient times many persons of most obscure birth, who were previously held in great contempt, had risen to the highest grade of dignity. Nothing that was said about anyone, however, excited so much wonder as the story recorded of Ventidius Bassus. He was born in Picenum in a humble station, and with his mother was taken prisoner by Pompeius Strabo, father of Pompey the Great, in the Social War, in the course of which Strabo subdued the people of Asculum. Afterwards [89 BCE], when Pompeius Strabo triumphed, the boy also was carried in his mother’s arms amid the rest of the captives before the general’s chariot. Later, when he had grown up, he worked hard to gain a livelihood, resorting to the humble calling of a buyer of mules and carriages, which he had contracted with the state to furnish to the magistrates who had been allotted provinces. In that occupation he made the acquaintance of Julius Caesar and went with him to Gaul. Then, because he had shown commendable energy in that province, and later during the civil war had executed numerous commissions with promptness and vigour, he not only gained Caesar’s friendship, but because of it rose even to the highest rank. Afterwards he was also made tribune of the plebs, and then praetor, and at that time [43 BCE] he was declared a public enemy by the senate along with Mark Antony. Afterwards, however, when the parties were united, he not only recovered his former rank, but gained first the pontificate and then the consulship. At this the Roman people, who remembered that Ventidius Bassus had made a living by taking care of mules, were so indignant that these verses were posted everywhere about the streets of the city:

Assemble, augurs and diviners all!
A portent strange has taken place recently:
For he who curried mules is consul now.
concurrite omnes augures, haruspices!
portentum inusitatum conflatum est recens:
nam mulas qui fricabat, consul factus est.*

Suetonius writes that this same Bassus was put in charge of the eastern provinces by Mark Antony, and that when the Parthians invaded Syria he routed them in three battles [in 39 + 38 BCE]; that he was the first of all to celebrate a triumph over the Parthians, and was honoured when he died with a public funeral.

*On this poetic epigram, see Syme 1939: 151.

Roman patrons and clients:

A man of wealth and influence (patronus) receives support from poorer men of lesser status (cliens), and the patron supports the client with financial gifts, legal defense, etc. The relationship is usually hereditary, and is conceptualized as mutually beneficial, although it contributes greatly to a sense of societal stratification.

  • a client is obligated to greet his patron in the morning (salutatio)
  • a client is obligated to  support his patron in political + private life
  • a patron is obligated to give favours to his client in the form of food or money (known as sportula = ‘little basket’)
  • a patron is obligated to assist his client in the courts
  • freedmen (ex-slaves) were legally bound as clients to their former masters
  • Latin patronus ‘patron’ related to pater ‘father’
  • Latin cliens ‘client’ seems to mean ‘man who listens’ (from older form cluens)

Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights, 5.13.2-4): But it was readily agreed and accepted, that in accordance with the usage of the Roman people (MOS MAIORUM) the place next after parents should be held by wards entrusted to our honour and protection; that second to them came clients, who also had committed themselves to our honour and guardianship; that then in the third place were guests; and finally relations by blood and by marriage. Of this custom and practice there are numerous proofs and illustrations in the ancient records, of which, because it is now at hand, I will cite only this one at present, relating to clients and kindred. Cato [the Elder] in the speech which he delivered before the censors Against Lentulus wrote thus: “Our forefathers (MAIORES) regarded it as a more sacred obligation to defend their wards than not to deceive a client. One testifies in a client’s behalf against one’s relatives; testimony against a client is given by no one. A father held the first position of honour; next after him a patron.”

*mos maiorum = custom (mos) of the ancestors (maiores)

Cicero (On Duties, 2.69): “And so it’s an easy thing to say, and it’s commonly said, that in investing kindnesses we look not to people’s outward circumstances (FORTUNA), but to their character (MORES). An admirable saying! But who is there that does not in performing a service set the favour of a rich and influential man above the cause of a poor, though most worthy, person? As a rule, our will is more inclined to the one from whom we expect a prompter and speedier return. But we should look more carefully at the nature of this issue: the poor man can’t return a favour in kind, of course, but if he is a good man he can do it at least in thankfulness of heart. As someone has said: “A man has not repaid money if he still has it; if he has repaid it, he has ceased to have it. But a man still has the sense of favour, if he has returned the favour; and if he has the sense of the favour, he has repaid it.”

Sulla’s shadow:

Seager 1979: 26: “For the moment Pompeius was content to sit on his estates in Picenum and await developments. But once Sulla had landed in Italy [83 BCE] no sane man could have any doubts as to the eventual result of the civil war, and Pompeius, like many others, saw this as the opportune moment for spectacular commitment to Sulla’s cause. Like M. Licinius Crassus and Metellus Pius, he assembled a private army from his clients and hastened to put himself at Sulla’s disposal.”

Plutarch (Life of Pompey 8): But when Pompey learned that he was near, he ordered his officers to have the forces fully armed and in complete array, that they might present a very fine and brilliant appearance to the imperator; for he expected great honours from him, and he received even greater. For when Sulla saw him advancing with an admirable army of young and vigorous soldiers elated and in high spirits because of their successes, he alighted from off his horse, and after being saluted, as was his due, with the title of Imperator, he saluted Pompey in return as Imperator. And yet no one could have expected that a young man, and one who was not yet a senator, would receive from Sulla this title.

Appian (BC 1.80): Then came Gnaeus Pompeius, who not long afterward was surnamed the Great, son of the Pompeius who was killed by lightning and who was supposed to be unfriendly to Sulla. The son removed this suspicion by coming with a legion which he had collected from the territory of Picenum owing to the reputation of his father, who had been very influential there. A little later he recruited two more legions and became Sulla’s right-hand man in these affairs. So Sulla held him in honour, though still very young; and they say he never rose at the entrance of any other than this youth. When the war was nearly finished Sulla sent him to Africa [81 BCE] to drive out the party of Carbo and to restore Hiempsal (who had been expelled by the Numidians) to his kingdom. For this service Sulla allowed him a triumph over the Numidians [81 BCE], although he was under age, and was still in the equestrian order. From this beginning Pompeius achieved greatness, being sent against Sertorius in Spain [77-72 BCE] and later against Mithridates in Pontus [66-62 BCE].

Pompey’s killing of Cn. Papirius Carbo:

Plutarch (Life of Pompey, 10): He was thought to have treated Carbo* in his misfortunes with an unnatural insolence. For if it was necessary, as perhaps it was, to put the man to death, this ought to have been done as soon as he was seized, and the deed would have been his who  ordered it. But as it was, Pompey caused a Roman who had been consul three times to be brought in fetters and set before the tribunal where he himself was sitting, and examined him closely there, to the distress and vexation of the audience. Then he ordered him to be led away and put to death. They say, moreover, that after Carbo had been led away to execution, when he saw the sword already drawn, he begged that a short respite and a convenient place might be afforded him, since his bowels distressed him.
*Carbo had defended Pompey in court on the charge of embezzlement in 86 BCE.

Valerius Maximus (6.2.8): …all of them with one voice indignant that without judicial sentence they perished at your bidding, you, the teenage butcher (adulescentulus carnifex).

Pompey: taking credit…

Plutarch (Life of Pompey 21): Pompey then led his army back to Italy, where, as chance would have it, he found the servile war at its height [Spartacus, 73-71 BCE]. For this reason, too, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who had the command in that war, precipitated the battle at great hazard, and was successful, killing 12,300 of the enemy.  Even in this success, however, fortune somehow or other included Pompey, since 5,000 fugitives from the battle fell in his way, all of whom he slew, and then stole a march on Crassus by writing to the senate that Crassus had conquered the gladiators in a pitched battle, but that he himself had extinguished the war entirely. And it was agreeable to the Romans to hear this said and to repeat it, so kindly did they feel towards him.

Plutarch (Life of Crassus 11): But although Crassus had been fortunate, had shown most excellent generalship, and had exposed his person to danger, nevertheless, his success did not fail to enhance the reputation of Pompey. For the fugitives from the battle encountered that general and were cut to pieces, so he could write to the senate that in open battle, indeed, Crassus had conquered the slaves, but that he himself had extinguished the war. Pompey, accordingly, for his  victories over Sertorius and in Spain, celebrated a splendid triumph [in 71 BCE]; but Crassus, for all his self-approval, did not venture to ask for the major triumph, and it was thought ignoble and mean in him to celebrate even the minor triumph on foot, called the ovation, for a servile war.

70 BCE: Pompey + Crassus consuls together for the 1st time

Seager 1979: 36: “For both Pompeius and the senate and people of Rome the inevitable and urgent question was: what now? Once the answer had been found, it no doubt seemed both obvious and ineluctable. Pompeius and Crassus were elected consuls for 70 BCE. It is worth stressing the different in their respective situations. Crassus had fulfilled all the technical requirements: he had been praetor in 73 BCE, and his achievement against Spartacus as well as his family background made him an obvious candidate for office. Pompeius, on the other hand, was too young for the consulship and had held none of the requisite preliminary offices. But the senate passed a decree exempting him from the provisions of the lex annalis and allowing him to stand in absence.”

Syme 1939: 29: “Elected consuls, Pompeius and Crassus abolished the Sullan constitution (70 BCE). The knights received a share in the jury-courts, the tribunes recovered the powers of which Sulla had stripped them.

Plutarch (Life of Pompey 22): Notwithstanding, after they had been elected consuls, they differed on all points, and were constantly in collision. In the senate, Crassus had more weight; but among the people the power of Pompey was great. For he gave them back their tribunate, and suffered the courts of justice to be transferred again to the knights by law.


The pirate problem

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Image 1: Map of the mediterranean by Tom Elliott (@paregorios) for AWMC. Image 2: Pillars of Hercules from Mediterranean Sea: left the Jebel Musa, right the Rock of Gibraltar. By Gregor Rom [CC BY-SA 4.0] via wikimedia. Image 3: The European Pillar of Hercules: the Rock of Gibraltar (foreground), with the North African shore in the background, via wikimedia.

  • Roman attempts to deal with pirates by M. Antonius in 102 BCE, and his son, M. Antonius in 74 BCE. Seager 1979: 43: “Rome’s subjects found the younger Antonius a worse menace than the pirates.”

Cicero (On Pompey’s Command 31): But now, also every coast, all foreign nations and countries, all seas, both in their open waters and in every bay, and creek, and harbour, are my witnesses. For during these last years, what place in any part of the sea had so strong a garrison as to be safe from him? what place was so much hidden as to escape his notice? Whoever put to sea without being aware that he was committing himself to the hazard of death or slavery, either from storms or from the sea being crowded with pirates? Who would ever have supposed that a war of such extent, so mean, so old a war, a war so extensive in its theatre and so widely scattered, could have been terminated by all our generals put together in one year, or by one general in all the years of his life?

  • 67 BCE: Lex Gabinia — 3 year imperium to deal with pirates (took 3 months)

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Images: Ian Mladjov.

Dealing with Mithridates VI again 

  • 66 BCE: Lex Manilia — Mithridates VI of Pontus
    • law put forward by tribune of the plebs, Gaius Manilius.
    • Manilius proposed provinces of Cilicia, Bithynia, Pontus to be assigned to Pompey, together with the Mithridatic war (Plutarch, Life of Pompey 30)
    • Cicero, praetor in 66 BCE, spoke in support of the bill before the people
  • Pompey fought Mithridates from 66-62 BCE. Celebrated a triumph for Asia in 61 BCE.
  • Syme 1939: 29: “The absent dynast overshadowed the politics of Rome, sending home from the East, as before from Spain, his lieutenants to stand for magistracies and intrigue in his interest. His name dominated elections and legislation. To gain office from the votes of the sovran people, no surer password than the favour shown or pretended of Pompeius; to reject a bill, no argument needed save that the measure was aimed at the people’s general. Among the ambitious politicians who had publicly spoken for the Lex Manilia were Cicero and Caesar.

Pompey’s back, but he’s not so hot anymore

Cicero (Att. 1.14.1), 13th February 61 BCE: I have already given you a description of Pompey’s first public speech—of no comfort to the poor or interest to the rascals; on the other hand the rich were not pleased and the honest men were not impressed. So—a frost (itaque frigebat).

Further Reading:


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