Break Rome to save Rome? The carnage and terror of the Marius-Sulla civil war (88 BC – 87 BC) set a dangerous precedent and inched the doomsday clock of the Republic closer to midnight.

History tends to demonstrate that when the people want change bad enough but are continuously blocked by powerful elites, violent means eventually follow. What we also learn from the past is that the ones who often champion the cause of the masses turn out to be ambitious men with tyrannical tendencies; and the fight for the poor takes a backseat to the thirst for power. This was the state of affairs in the final centuries of the Roman Republic.

Rome was divided. One group – the optimates – yearned for the conservative, aristocratic values of the old republic and scorned the calls for reform from the low-born patricians. Another group – the populares – championed the cause of “the people” and scoffed at the old order and the norms and virtues of the Republic.
Political violence was introduced with the murder of the populares politician Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC; who broke norms and used extrajudicial means to advocate for land redistribution. Now the city was facing the possibility of a civil war. When Marius had his powerful populares friends steal the command of the army in the east away from the optimate Sulla in 88 BC, there were now two separate Roman armies led by arch rivals. The resulting events would make a few political murders look like child’s play.

Marius was a great general and a skilled populist politician. He had defeated Germanic tribes, implemented essential military reforms, and had held the consulship for an unprecedented six terms. But he had made an enemy in Sulla – who had dutifully served under him – for he had stolen credit for Sulla’s brilliant deeds and leadership displayed under his command.


When Marius retired, Sulla was poised to rise to great power. He was elected consul in 88 BC and chosen to lead an army against a rebellion in Greece. The populares however, favored Marius to lead the army, and used violence and force in the government to get Sulla’s commission revoked. This action turned a political rivalry into a contest of wills between two powerful generals and fighting between the factions overtook the city. When Marius and the populares prevailed, Sulla fled Rome to his army and they camped outside the city.


Sulla then took a step that would forever change how power struggles would be resolved in Rome: He marched his army into the city. This was an unprecedented act and a gross violation of the norms and principles of the Republic.

“In this way the episodes of civil strife escalated from rivalry and contentiousness to murder, and from murder to full-scale war; and this was the first army composed of Roman citizens to attack their own country as though it were a hostile power.” (Appian)

Sulla was met with minimal resistance and was cautiously welcomed by a Senate that viewed Marius as a bigger threat to their power. Marius fled with whoever else could in his faction and they were declared enemies of the state.

After Sulla established power back in the hands of the Senate, he finally took command of his army and set out to put down the rebellion in Greece.

Marius bided his time in exile, gathering support and plotting a return to the city. With Sulla off with the army in the east, a Mauryan partisan named Cinna won a consulship and recalled Marius. The Senate, terrified by this action, exiled the new consul. Cinna and Marius then joined forces, raised armies, and marched on the city of Rome; taking a page out of Sulla’s playbook.


The Senate had no army or power to resist and begged for peace. But Marius was out for revenge and ordered a band of murderers and thugs to go after anyone who had conspired against him in the past.

“The carnage continued for five days and nights, the rebel terror for a year. A revolutionary tribunal subpoenaed patricians, condemned them if they had opposed Marius, and seized their property. A nod from Marius sufficed to send any man to death, usually by execution there and then. All of Sulla’s friends were slain; his property was confiscated; he was deposed from his command and was declared a public enemy. The dead were refused burial and were left in the streets to be devoured by birds and dogs. The freed slaves plundered, raped, and killed indiscriminately, until Cinna gathered 4000 of them together, surrounded them with Gallic soldiery, and had them butchered to death.” (Durant)

After the blood orgy settled, Cinna and Marius were elected as consuls. But quickly rumors began circulating of Sulla’s planned return, and it’s said that the fear and anxiety of this was so great that it led to the death of Marius. Cinna and his allies were now in control of Rome, but they knew a terrible storm was on the horizon.

Sulla reached a peace deal in the east and his army was on their way back to Rome. Cinna and his colleagues began raising an army and seeking alliances, but Sulla and his generals were effective at splintering Cinna’s support with the Italian allies. As Sulla began towards the Eternal City, they defeated the populares army led by the son of Marius. Word then reached the victorious Sullan forces that the city was under attack by the Roman’s bitter enemy the Samnites, who were hoping to take advantage of the Roman civil war to take the unguarded city for themselves. The army rushed to the city and Sulla’s star general Crassus led the right wing in the battle and routed the Samnites; foreshadowing the greatness that would shine from the young man in the future. Sulla showed no mercy to the Samnites, collecting over 6,000 prisoners, and butchering all of them outside the gates of Rome. He then entered the city, having successfully taken it back.

In the city, the members of the populares were terrified. Sulla vowed revenge and he wasted no time going after his rivals. Hundreds of his enemies were slaughtered right away, and the terror and bloodshed lasted for days. When a concerned senator dared to ask him when he planned to stop the killing and to inform the others who he wished to have killed, Sulla responded by making a list of those he condemned to death.

“Without communicating with any of the magistrates, Sulla proscribed eighty persons, and notwithstanding the general indignation, after one day’s respite, he posted two hundred and twenty more, and on the third again, as many. In an address to the people on this occasion, he told them he had put up as many names as he could think of; those which had escaped his memory, he would publish at a future time. He issued an edict likewise, making death the punishment of humanity, proscribing any who should dare to receive and cherish a proscribed person, without exception to brother, son, or parents. And to him who should slay any one proscribed person, he ordained two talents reward, even were it a slave who had killed his master, or a son his father.” (Plutarch)

Sulla was then able to establish himself as dictator for life because no one dared to oppose him; this was an elected Roman position designed for a singular ruler during war-time, but never before issued for life. Sulla began to put in place a set of conservative reforms; neutering the populares and returning power to the elites and the Senate. After three years, Sulla grew tired of the slaughter and was convinced order had been restored and that his reforms would protect the Republic from future tyrants. He then retired to his house in the country to write his memoirs, dying there shortly after his departure.


The civil war of Marius and Sulla – one of the most horrific episodes in the history of the Roman Republic – was finally over.
. . .

Sulla’s reforms gave the appearance that the Republic was back up and running, but now it was operating in the shadow of the violence of the Gracchi and the military coup by Sulla. This demonstrated that it was force and armies, not the respect of the Republic or the Senate, that held the real power.

“The streak of cruelty would never be forgotten, nor forgiven. Sulla had given the Romans their first glimpse of what it might mean to be the subjects of an autocrat, and it had proved a frightening and salutary one. This was a discovery that could never be unmade. After the proscriptions, no one could doubt what the extreme consequence of the Roman appetite for competition and glory might be, not only for Rome’s enemies but for her citizens themselves. What had once been unthinkable now lurked at the back of every Roman’s mind: “Sulla could do it. Why can’t I?”” (Holland)

During the kill lists and Sulla’s reign of terror, one young man was spared thanks to the requests of many prominent men and senators. Sulla is said to have begrudgingly agreed to let the man live, stating “but I’m warning you, in that man goes a thousand Marius.” That man’s name was Gaius Julius Caesar.

Sources:

– “Rubicon: The Last Years Of The Roman Republic” by Tom Holland

– “The Complete Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ” by Will Durant

– “Live of Noble Grecians and Romans” by Plutarch

– “The Civil Wars” by Appian