Magazine article The New American

Civil Wars and Despotism: Plagued by Murderous Ambition, Rome's Politician-Generals Turned Their Armies against Each Other-And Even against Rome Herself

Magazine article The New American

Civil Wars and Despotism: Plagued by Murderous Ambition, Rome's Politician-Generals Turned Their Armies against Each Other-And Even against Rome Herself

Article excerpt

This is the fifth installment in a series of articles on the rise and fall of the Roman Republic.

Travelers passing along Rome's Appian Way between Capua and Rome in the spring of 71 B.C. were greeted with a gruesome sight. For mile after mile along the road, festering bodies hung from crucifixes as kites, jackdaws, and other carrion birds picked at the remains. More than 6,000 men had been brutally put to death along Rome's main thoroughfare. They were not common criminals but captured soldiers of a former gladiator named Spartacus, who had led a damaging revolt against the Roman government.

Defeated by Crassus, one of Rome's iron generals, thousands of Spartacan rebels had been publicly executed as a salutary lesson to others contemplating rebellion against the Roman state. The bodies were never removed, but hung on their grisly scaffolds for years thereafter, a grim and poignant reminder of the monstrous regime taking shape in the heart of what had once been the world's freest civilization. In 71 B.C., the mass executions along the Appian Way were only the latest in a series of horrors that Rome had endured during nearly two decades of civil war and despotic government. No doubt some of the older passersby, who remembered Rome in better days, gazed on the fly-blown victims of the latest convulsion and wondered: how had the republic come to this?

The First Civil War

It began with the so-called Social War, which erupted in 91 B.C. At issue was a long-standing sore spot among the non-Roman Italian peoples living under Roman rule. For centuries, Rome had been absorbing other Italian peoples into the republic, but had never granted them Roman citizenship. When a consul named Drusus, who had been pushing to extend citizenship to non-Roman Italians, was assassinated, the Italian cities formed a league and revolted against Rome. Tens of thousands of Romans and Italians died in three years of brutal war--in which Marius and Sulla, two of Rome's most prominent military leaders, became bitter political enemies. The war ended when Rome negotiated a settlement granting citizenship to non-rebellious Italians and to those rebels who laid down their arms.

In the meantime, another threat to Rome had arisen in the east, in the person of the formidable Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus, a powerful state in Asia Minor. Mithridates was a prototypical oriental despot, having come to power by murdering most of his siblings and marrying his own sister. He is said to have spoken 25 languages and to have spent years building immunity to every kind of poison then known. He possessed a huge, well-equipped army and navy. Having territorial ambitions of his own in Asia Minor and the Aegean, Mithridates detested Roman power and the high-handed way in which the Romans presumed to dictate terms to every other nation. In 88 B.C., as the Social War was petering out in Italy, Mithridates decided to make his move against Rome.

In that year, Mithridates' agents instigated a massacre of all Romans living in Asia Minor. The victims, numbering in the tens of thousands, included merchants and diplomatic envoys as well as their families. After such a catastrophe, Rome had little choice but to declare war on Mithridates, an enterprise that promised to be Rome's greatest military exploit since the Second Punic War.

Rome's First Despots

With such a prospect for personal glory, the rivalry between Marius and Sulla, which had simmered since the Jugurthine War more than a decade earlier, exploded into the open. Sulla, serving as one of Rome's consuls, was chosen to lead the campaign against Mithridates. Marius, seething with envy but having no legal recourse, allied himself with the newly enfranchised Italian citizens of Rome. He encouraged them to vote for a new law giving him command over the Mithridatic task force.

Furious, Sulla decided to use the troops under his command to unseat Marius before turning his attention to Mithridates. …

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