While Marius and his friends were ruling and murdering in Rome, Sulla, their bitter enemy, was commanding and conquering in the East, biding his time for revenge. He drove the Asiatic foe out of Greece, taking and pillaging Athens as an episode. He carried the war into Asia, forced Mithridates to sue for peace, and exacted enormous sums (more than one hundred million dollars in our money) from the rich cities of the East. Then, after giving his soldiers a winter's rest in Asia, he turned his face towards Rome, writing to the senate that he was coming, and that he intended to take revenge on his enemies.
It was now the year 83 b.c. Three years had passed since the death of Marius. During the interval the party of the plebeians had been at the head of affairs. Now Sulla, the aristocrat, was coming to call them to a stern account, and they trembled in anticipation. They remembered vividly the Marian carnival of blood. What retribution would his merciless rival exact?
Cinna, who had most to fear, proposed to meet the conqueror in the field. But his soldiers were not in the mood to fight, and settled the question by murdering their commander. When spring was well advanced, Sulla left Asia, and in sixteen hundred ships transported his men to Italy, landing at the port of Brundusium.
On the 6th of July, shortly after his landing, an event occurred that threw all Rome into consternation. The venerable buildings of the Capitol took fire and were burned to the ground, the cherished Sibylline books perishing in the flames. Such a disaster seemed to many Romans a fatal prognostic. The gods were surely against them, and all things were at risk.
Onward marched Sulla, opposed by a much greater army collected by his opponents. But he led the veterans of the Mithridatic War, and in the ranks of his opponents no man of equal ability appeared. Battle after battle was fought, Sulla steadily advancing. At length an army of Samnites, raised to defend the Marian cause, marched on Rome. Caius Pontius, their commander, was bent on terribly avenging the sufferings of his people on that great city.
"Rome's last day," he said to his soldiers, "is come. The city must be annihilated. The wolves that have so long preyed upon Italy will never cease from troubling till their lair is utterly destroyed."
Rome was in despair, for all seemed at an end. The Samnites had not forgotten a former Pontius, who had sent a Roman army under the Caudine Forks, and had been cruelly murdered in the Capitol. They thundered on the Colline Gate. But at that critical moment a large body of cavalry appeared and charged the foe. It was the vanguard of Sulla's army, marching in haste to the relief of Rome.
A fierce battle ensued. Sulla fought gallantly. He rode a white horse, and was the mark of every javelin. But despite his efforts his men were forced back against the wall, and when night came to their relief it looked as if nothing remained for them but to sell their lives as dearly as possible the next morning.
But during the night Sulla received favorable news. Crassus, who commanded his right wing, had completely defeated a detachment of the Marian army. With quick decision, Sulla marched during the night round the enemy's camp, joined Crassus, and at day-break attacked the foe.
The battle that ensued was a terrible one. Fifty thousand men fell on each side. Pontius and other Marian leaders were slain. In the end Sulla triumphed, taking eight thousand prisoners, of whom six thousand were Samnites. The latter were, by order of the victor, ruthlessly butchered in cold blood.
This was but the prelude to an equally ruthless but more protracted butchery. Sulla was at last lord of Rome, as absolute in power as any emperor of later days. In fact, he had himself appointed dictator, an office which had vanished more than a century before, and which raised him above the law. He announced that he would give a better government to Rome, but to do so he must first rid that city of its enemies.
Marius, whom Sulla hated with intense bitterness, had escaped him by death. By his orders the bones of the old general were torn from their tomb near the Anio and flung into that stream. The son of Marius had slain himself to prevent being taken. His head was brought to Sulla at Rome, who gazed on the youthful face with grim satisfaction, saying, "Those who take the helm must first serve at the oar." As for himself, his fortune was now accomplished, he said, and henceforth he should be known as Felix.
The cruel work which Sulla had promised immediately began. Adherents of the popular party were slaughtered daily and hourly at Rome. Some who had taken no part in the late war were slain. No man knew if he was safe. Some of the senators asked that the names of the guilty should be made known, that the innocent might be relieved from uncertainty. The proposition hit with Sulla's humor. He ordered that a list of those doomed to death should be made out and published. This was called a Proscription.
But the uncertainty continued as great as ever. The list contained but eighty names. It was quickly followed by another containing one hundred and twenty. Day after day new lists of the doomed were issued. To make death sure, a reward of two talents was promised any one who should kill a proscribed man,—even if the killer were his son or his slave. Those who in any way aided the proscribed became themselves doomed to death.
Men who envied others their property managed to have their names put on the list. A partisan of Sulla was exulting over the doomed, when his eye fell on his own name in the list. He hastily fled, and the bystanders, judging the cause, followed and cut him down. Catiline, who afterwards became notorious in Roman history, murdered his own brother, and to legalize the murder had the name of his victim placed on the list.
How many were murdered we do not know. Probably little less than three thousand in Rome. The stream of murder flowed to other cities. Several of these defied the conqueror, but were taken one by one and their defenders slain. To all cities which had taken part with the Marians the proscription made its way. Of the total number slain during this reign of terror no record exists, but the deliberate butchery of Sulla went far beyond the ferocious but temporary slaughter of Marius.
Murder was followed by confiscation. Sulla ordered that the property of the slain should be sold at auction and the proceeds put in the treasury. But the favorites of the dictator were the chief bidders, the property was sold at a tithe of its value, and the unworthy and dissolute obtained the lion's share of the spoil.
During this period of murder and confiscation we first hear the names of a number of afterwards famous Romans. Catiline we have named. Pompey took part in the war on Sulla's side, was victorious in Sicily and Africa, and on his return was hailed by his chief with the title of Pompey the Great. Another still more famous personage was Julius Cæsar. Sulla had ordered that all persons connected by marriage with the Marian party should divorce their wives. Pompey obeyed. Cæsar, who was a nephew of Marius and had married the daughter of Cinna, boldly refused. He was then a youth of nineteen. His boldness would have brought him death had not powerful friends asked for his life.
"You know not what you ask," said Sulla; "that profligate boy will be more dangerous than many Mariuses."
Cæsar, not trusting Sulla's doubtful humor, escaped from Rome, and hid in the depths of the Sabine mountains, awaiting a time when the streets of the capital city would be safer for those who dared speak their minds.
Another young man of rising fame showed little less boldness. This was Cicero, who had just returned to Rome from his studies in Greece. He ventured to defend Roscius of Ameria against an accusation of murder made by Chrysogonus, a prime favorite of Sulla. Cicero lashed the favorite vigorously, and won a verdict for his client. But he found it advisable to leave Rome immediately and resume his studies at Rhodes.
Sulla ended his work by organizing a new senate and making a new code of laws. Three hundred new members were added to the senate, and the laws of Rome were brought largely back to the state in which they had been before the Gracchi.
This done, to the utter surprise of the people he laid down his power and retired from Rome, within whose streets he never again set foot. He had no occasion for fear. He had scattered his veterans throughout Italy on confiscated estates, and knew that he could trust to their support. Before his departure he gave a feast of costly meats and rich wines to the Roman commons, in such profusion that vast quantities that could not be eaten were cast into the Tiber. Then he dismissed his armed attendants, and walked on foot to his house, through a multitude of whom many had ample reason to strike him down.
He now retired to his villa near Puteoli, on the Bay of Naples, with the purpose of enjoying that life of voluptuous ease which he craved more than power and distinction. Here he spent the brief remainder of his life in nocturnal orgies and literary converse, completing his "Memoirs," in which he told, in exaggerated phrase, the story of his life and exploits.
He lived but about a year. His excesses brought on a complication of disorders, which ended, we are told, in a loathsome disease. The senate voted him a gorgeous funeral, after which his body was burned on the Campus Martius, that no future tyrant could treat his remains as he had done those of his great rival Marius.