Barbarian kings, who found Roman senators ready to take bribes from them, believed, not unnaturally, that the days of Roman dominion were numbered. When the news of the Social war reached Mithridates, he thought it needless to temporize longer, and he stretched out his hand to seize the prize of the dominion of the East. The Armenians, who were at his disposition, broke into Cappadocia and again overthrew the government, which was in dependence upon Rome. Mithridates himself invaded Bithynia, and replied to the remonstrances of the Roman authorities by a declaration of open war. He called under arms the whole force of which he could dispose; frightened rumor spoke of it as amounting to three hundred thousand men. His corsair fleets poured down through the Dardanelles into the archipelago; and so detested had the Roman governors made themselves by their extortion and injustice that not only all the islands, but the provinces on the continent, Ionia, Lydia, and Caria, rose in revolt. The rebellion was preconcerted and simultaneous. The Roman residents, merchants, bankers, farmers of the taxes, they and all their families, were set upon and murdered; a hundred and fifty thousand men, women, and children were said to have been destroyed in a single day. If we divide by ten, as it is generally safe to do with historical round numbers, still beyond doubt the signal had been given in an appalling massacre to abolish out of Asia the Roman name and power. Swift as a thunderbolt Mithridates himself crossed the Bosphorus, and the next news that reached Rome was that northern Greece had risen also and was throwing itself into the arms of its deliverers.
The defeat at Cannae had been received with dignified calm. Patricians and plebeians forgot their quarrels and thought only how to meet their common foe. The massacre in Asia and the invasion of Mithridates let loose a tempest of political frenzy. Never was indignation more deserved. The Senate had made no preparation. Such resources as they could command had been wasted in the wars with the Italians. They had no fleet, they had no armies available; nor, while the civil war was raging, could they raise an army. The garrisons in Greece were scattered or shut in within their lines and unable to move. The treasury was empty. Individuals were enormously rich and the State was bankrupt. Thousands of families had lost brothers, cousins, or friends in the massacre, and the manifest cause of the disaster was the inefficiency and worthlessness of the ruling classes. In Africa, in Gaul, in Italy, and now in Asia it had been the same story. The interests of the Commonwealth had been sacrificed to fill the purses of the few. Dominion, wealth, honors, all that had been won by the hardy virtues of earlier generations, seemed about to be engulfed forever.
In their panic the Senate turned to Sylla, whom they had made consul. An imperfect peace was patched up with the Italians. Sylla was bidden to save the Republic and to prepare in haste for Greece. But Sylla was a bitter aristocrat, the very incarnation of the oligarchy, who were responsible for every disaster which had happened. The Senate had taken bribes from Jugurtha. The Senate had chosen the commanders whose blunders had thrown open the Alps to the Germans; and it was only because the people had snatched the power out of their hands and had trusted it to one of themselves that Italy had not been in flames. Again the oligarchy had recovered the administration, and again by following the old courses they had brought on this new catastrophe. They might have checked Mithridates while there was time. They had preferred to accept his money and look on. The people naturally thought that no successes could be looked for under such guidance, and that even were Sylla to be victorious, nothing was to be expected but the continuance of the same accursed system. Marius was the man. Marius after his sixth consulship had travelled in the East, and understood it as well as Sylla. Not Sylla but Marius must now go against Mithridates. Too late the democratic leaders repented of their folly in encouraging the Senate to refuse the franchise to the Italians. The Italians, they began to perceive, would be their surest political allies. Caius Gracchus had been right after all. The Roman democracy must make haste to offer the Italians more than all which the Senate was ready to concede to them. Together they could make an end of misrule and place Marius once more at their head.
Much of this was perhaps the scheming passion of revolution; much of it was legitimate indignation, penitent for its errors and anxious to atone for them. Marius had his personal grievances. The aristocrats were stealing from him even his military reputation, and claiming for Sylla the capture of Jugurtha. He was willing, perhaps anxious, to take the Eastern command. Sulpicius Rufus, once a champion of the Senate and the most brilliant orator in Rome, went over to the people in the excitement. Rufus was chosen tribune, and at once proposed to enfranchise the remainder of Italy. He denounced the oligarchy. He insisted that the Senate must be purged of its corrupt members and better men be introduced, that the people must depose Sylla, and that Marius must take his place. The Empire was tottering, and the mob and its leaders were choosing an ill moment for a revolution. The tribune carried the assembly along with him. There were fights again in the Forum, the young nobles with their gangs once more breaking up the Comitia and driving the people from the voting-places. The voting, notwithstanding, was got through as Sulpicius Rufus recommended, and Sylla, so far as the assembly could do it, was superseded. But Sylla was not so easily got rid of. It was no time for nice considerations. He had formed an army in Campania out of the legions which had served against the Italians. He had made his soldiers devoted to him. They were ready to go anywhere and do anything which Sylla bade them. After so many murders and so many commotions, the constitution had lost its sacred character; a popular assembly was, of all conceivable bodies, the least fit to govern an empire; and in Sylla's eyes the Senate, whatever its deficiencies, was the only possible sovereign of Rome. The people were a rabble, and their voices the clamor of fools, who must be taught to know their masters. His reply to Sulpicius and to the vote for his recall was to march on the city. He led his troops within the circle which no legionary in arms was allowed to enter, and he lighted his watch-fires in the Forum itself. The people resisted; Sulpicius was killed; Marius, the saviour of his country, had to fly for his life, pursued by assassins, with a price set upon his head. Twelve of the prominent popular leaders were immediately executed without trial, and in hot haste swift decisive measures were taken which permanently, as Sylla hoped, or if not permanently at least for the moment, would lame the limbs of the democracy. The Senate, being below its numbers, was hastily filled up from the patrician families. The arrangements of the Comitia were readjusted to restore to wealth a decisive preponderance in the election of the magistrates. The tribunes of the people were stripped of half their power. Their veto was left to them, but the right of initiation was taken away, and no law or measure of any kind was thenceforth to be submitted to the popular assembly till it had been considered in the Curia and had received the Senate's sanction.
Thus the snake was scotched, and it might be hoped would die of its wounds. Sulpicius and his brother demagogues were dead. Marius was exiled. Time pressed, and Sylla could not wait to see his reforms in operation. Signs became visible before he went that the crisis would not pass off so easily. Fresh consuls had to be elected. The changes in the method of voting were intended to secure the return of the Senate's candidates, and one of the consuls chosen, Cnaeus Octavius, was a man on whom Sylla could rely. His colleague, Lucius Cinna, though elected under the pressure of the legions, was of more doubtful temper. But Cinna was a patrician, though given to popular sentiments. Sylla was impatient to be gone; more important work was waiting for him than composing factions in Rome. He contented himself with obliging the new consuls to take an oath to maintain the constitution in the shape in which he left it, and he sailed from Brindisi in the winter of B.C. 88.
The campaign of Sylla in the East does not fall to be described in this place. He was a second Coriolanus, a proud, imperious aristocrat, contemptuous, above all men living, of popular rights; but he was the first soldier of his age; he was himself, though he did not know it, an impersonation of the change which was passing over the Roman character. He took with him at most 30,000 men. He had no fleet. Had the corsair squadrons of Mithridates been on the alert, they might have destroyed him on his passage. Events at Rome left him almost immediately without support from Italy. He was impeached; he was summoned back. His troops were forbidden to obey him, and a democratic commander was sent out to supersede him. The army stood by their favorite commander. Sylla disregarded his orders from home. He found men and money as he could. He supported himself out of the countries which he occupied, without resources save in his own skill and in the fidelity and excellence of his legions. He defeated Mithridates, he drove him back out of Greece and pursued him into Asia. The interests of his party demanded his presence at Rome; the interests of the State required that he should not leave his work in the East unfinished, and he stood to it through four hard years till he brought Mithridates to sue for peace upon his knees. He had not the means to complete the conquest or completely to avenge the massacre with which the Prince of Pontus had commenced the war. He left Mithridates still in possession of his hereditary kingdom, but he left him bound, so far as treaties could bind so ambitious a spirit, to remain thenceforward within his own frontiers. He recovered Greece and the islands, and the Roman provinces in Asia Minor. He extorted an indemnity of five millions, and executed many of the wretches who had been active in the murders. He raised a fleet in Egypt, with which he drove the pirates out of the archipelago back into their own waters. He restored the shattered prestige of Roman authority, and he won for himself a reputation which his later cruelties might stain but could not efface.
The merit of Sylla shows in more striking colors when we look to what was passing, during these four years of his absence, in the heart of the Empire. He was no sooner out of Italy than the democratic party rose, with Cinna at their head, to demand the restoration of the old constitution. Cinna had been sworn to maintain Sylla's reforms, but no oath could be held binding which was extorted at the sword's point. A fresh Sulpicius was found in Carbo, a popular tribune. A more valuable supporter was found in Quintus Sertorius, a soldier of fortune, but a man of real gifts, and even of genius. Disregarding the new obligation to obtain the previous consent of the Senate, Cinna called the assembly together to repeal the acts which Sylla had forced on them. Sylla, it is to be remembered, had as yet won no victories, nor was expected to win victories. He was the favorite of the Senate, and the Senate had become a byword for incapacity and failure. Again, as so many times before, the supremacy of the aristocrats had been accompanied with dishonor abroad and the lawless murder of political adversaries at home. No true lover of his country could be expected, in Cinna's opinion, to sit quiet under a tyranny which had robbed the people of their hereditary liberties.
The patricians took up the challenge. Octavius, the other consul, came with an armed force into the Forum, and ordered the assembly to disperse. The crowd was unusually great. The country voters had come in large numbers to stand up for their rights. They did not obey, They were not called on to obey. But because they refused to disperse they were set upon with deliberate fury, and were hewn down in heaps where they stood. No accurate register was, of course, taken of the numbers killed; but the intention of the patricians was to make a bloody example, and such a scene of slaughter had never been witnessed in Rome since the first stone of the city was laid. It was an act of savage, ruthless ferocity, certain to be followed with a retribution as sharp and as indiscriminating. Men are not permitted to deal with their fellow-creatures in these methods. Cinna and the tribunes fled, but fled only to be received with open arms by the Italians. The wounds of the Social war were scarcely cicatrized, and the peace had left the allies imperfectly satisfied. Their dispersed armies gathered again about Cinna and Sertorius. Old Marius, who had been hunted through marsh and forest, and had been hiding with difficulty in Africa, came back at the news that Italy had risen again; and six thousand of his veterans flocked to him at the sound of his name. The Senate issued proclamations. The limitations on the Italian franchise left by Sylla were abandoned. Every privilege which had been asked for was conceded. It was too late. Concessions made in fear might be withdrawn on the return of safety. Marius and Cinna joined their forces. The few troops in the pay of the Senate deserted to them. They appeared together at the gate's of the city, and Rome capitulated.
There was a bloody score to be wiped out. There would have been neither cruelty nor injustice in the most severe inquiry into the massacre in the Forum, and the most exemplary punishment of Octavius and his companions. But the blood of the people was up, and they had suffered too deeply to wait for the tardy processes of law. They had not been the aggressors. They had assembled lawfully, to assert their constitutional rights; they had been cut in pieces as if they had been insurgent slaves, and the assassins were not individuals, but a political party in the State.
Marius bears the chief blame for the scenes which followed. Undoubtedly he was in no pleasant humor. A price had been set on his head, his house had been destroyed, his property had been confiscated, he himself had been chased like a wild beast, and he had not deserved such treatment. He had saved Italy when but for him it would have been wasted by the swords of the Germans. His power had afterward been absolute, but he had not abused it for party purposes. The Senate had no reason to complain of him. He had touched none of their privileges, incapable and dishonest as he knew them to be. His crime in their eyes had been his eminence. They had now shown themselves as cruel as they were worthless; and if public justice was disposed to make an end of them, he saw no cause for interference.
Thus the familiar story repeated itself; wrong was punished by wrong, and another item was entered on the bloody account which was being scored up year after year. The noble lords and their friends had killed the people in the Forum. They were killed in turn by the soldiers of Marius. Fifty senators perished; not those who were specially guilty, but those who were most politically marked as patrician leaders. With them fell a thousand equites, commoners of fortune, who had thrown in their lot with the aristocracy. From retaliatory political revenge the transition was easy to pillage and wholesale murder, and for many days the wretched city was made a prey to robbers and cutthroats.
So ended the year 87, the darkest and bloodiest which the guilty city had yet experienced. Marius and Cinna were chosen consuls for the year ensuing, and a witch's prophecy was fulfilled that Marius should have a seventh consulate. But the glory had departed from him. His sun was already setting, redly, among crimson clouds. He lived but a fortnight after his inauguration, and he died in his bed on the 13th of January, at the age of seventy-one.
"The mother of the Gracchi," said Mirabeau, "cast the dust of her murdered sons into the air, and out of it sprang Caius Marius." The Gracchi were perhaps not forgotten in the retribution; but the crime which had been revenged by Marius was the massacre in the Forum by Octavius and his friends. The aristocracy found no mercy, because they had shown no mercy. They had been guilty of the most wantonly wicked cruelty which the Roman annals had yet recorded. They were not defending their country against a national danger. They were engaged in what has been called in later years "saving society;" that is to say, in saving their own privileges, their opportunities for plunder, their palaces, their estates, and their game-preserves. They had treated the people as if they were so many cattle grown troublesome to their masters, and the cattle were human beings with rights as real as their own.
The democratic party were now masters of the situation, and so continued for almost four years. Cinna succeeded to the consulship term after term, nominating himself and his colleagues. The franchise was given to the Italians without reserve or qualification. Northern Italy was still excluded, being not called Italy, but Cisalpine Gaul. South of the Po distinctions of citizenship ceased to exist. The constitution became a rehearsal of the Empire, a democracy controlled and guided by a popular dictator. The aristocrats who had escaped massacre fled to Sylla in Asia, and for a brief interval Rome drew its breath in peace.