The rising sun: the supremacy of Pompey, 77–60 BC

‘More worship the rising than the setting sun’: so the young general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus – Pompey the Great – is supposed to have said when comparing his own career with that of his former patron in the late 80s BC. It was the rival ambitions of the men who had formed Sulla’s victorious civil-war faction that undid the counter-revolution of 82–81 BC. Sulla’s response was world-weary – ‘I see, then, it is my destiny to contend with children in my old age’ – and the young Pompey was granted his desire: a triumphal procession through the streets of Rome.

‘In his youth,’ explained Plutarch, ‘his countenance pleaded for him, seeming to anticipate his eloquence, and win upon the affections of the people before he spoke. His beauty even in his bloom of youth had something in it at once of gentleness and dignity; and when his prime of manhood came, the majesty and kingliness of his character at once became visible in it.’(11) By Plutarch’s time, the later 1st century AD, Pompey had become a legendary golden boy, but even contemporaries had compared him – in appearance and achievement – to Alexander himself. After victory over Marian diehards in Africa in 81 BC, his soldiers had hailed him, just 26 years old and not yet a senator, Imperator (Conqueror) and Magnus (the Great). Pompey welcomed the acclaim, indeed revelled in it. Coming at such an early age it deepened the outlines of his emergent character: though dynamic and brilliant, Pompey was essentially shallow and self-serving, a man driven to great achievement not by high purpose but by vanity. One of Sulla’s brood, once launched in life he quickly broke with a patron whose carefully crafted constitution was designed precisely to smother such politically precocious men as himself. Already famous as one of Rome’s most successful generals, Pompey, under Sulla’s system, would have had to wait four years for a seat in the Senate, 13 for the governorship of a province, and 16 for the consulship. Pompey, to advance himself, broke with the Senate and appealed to the People.

But men make history in the circumstances given to them. The ambition of its members may have broken up Sulla’s faction, but Pompey’s challenge to the authority of the Senate was possible only because the People offered an alternative way to power. The proscriptions had crushed the popular regime of Cinna and Carbo, but they had not settled the myriad discontents to which that regime had given distorted expression. Reforming magistrates, militant demonstrations, the packing of popular assemblies: these methods of change had been defeated by force of arms. But the chaotic swirl of interests that powered the Roman Revolution soon found another channel: in the ambition of a young politician-general – an opportunist willing to sell his aristocratic soul for popular favour.

It was a new military crisis – or rather a series of crises rooted in the empire’s exponential expansion – that gave ‘the rising sun’ its chance to ascend. Huge and growing inflows of plundered wealth from the Empire had inflated the cost of competition for high office. Generals and their soldiers were enriched by war booty and slave hauls. The state coffers were filled by indemnities and tribute payments. Businessmen grew rich on tax-farming and money-lending, senators and their staffs on the bribes and perks of colonial service. Land was seized and parcelled up to make ranches for the rich and farms for veterans. The art market was flooded with Greek masterpieces. The beautiful coastline of the Bay of Naples – the ancient Roman riviera – was soon ringed with luxury villas. Pompeii became a boom town. Its art and architecture reveal much about the Italian elite in the age of Pompey and Caesar. What had once been a town of small houses and workshops became a city of grand residences and luxuria.

The owners of the House of the Vestals – recently excavated by a Bradford University team – absorbed two houses to the north of their own property and carried out wholesale remodelling of the resultant complex, creating an elaborate series of reception rooms around two peristyles (colonnaded courtyards). Such houses were decorated with an abundance of mosaics, frescos and statues. This was the age of Pompeii’s ‘Second Style’ wall-painting. Fresco artists covered entire walls with highly elaborate trompe-l’oeilschemes, where depictions of architectural structures in three dimensions, often with gardens beyond, gave an impression of surpassing grandeur and wealth – in contrast to the austere simplicity of the earlier ‘First Style’. Luxuria was the conspicuous and extravagant consumption of wealth as a signifier of rank, status and influence – of the ability to pull strings and do favours. Luxuria was about building a political base: recruiting the retinue of clients whose role as voters, canvassers, and, if it came to it, heavies for a street fight, was essential to political success. Hosting dinners in fashionably redecorated peristyles was, for the elite of Pompeii, a strategy for pursuing public acclaim and the honour of elective office. So too was the private patronage by which the public face of the town was transformed. ‘Gaius Quintus Valgus, son of Gaius, and Marcus Porcius, son of Marcus, in their capacity as quinqennial duoviri [dual mayors in a census year], to demonstate the honour of the colony, erected this place of spectacles at their own expense and donated it to the colonists for their perpetual use’(12): thus do two of the leading citizens of Pompeii announce their generosity in paying for the construction of the amphitheatre on a stone plaque in c. 80–70 BC. ‘Twenty pairs of gladiators of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius, quinquennial, and their substitutes will fight without any public expense at Pompeii’(13): here another Pompeian politician advertises the free games he is paying for on a painted wall-poster. Dozens of similar inscriptions reveal a whole town built and serviced by private patronage. In this, the local gentry of Pompeii mimicked the imperial statesmen of Rome – who played, of course, for far higher, and equally inflationary, stakes.

Conquerors returning to Rome would celebrate with triumphal processions, free games and banquets, and the building of public monuments and private palaces. Pompey’s spectacles, benefactions and luxuria would eventually surpass that of all his predecessors, but his in turn would be surpassed by those of Caesar, Octavian-Augustus, and the Julio-Claudian emperors. Pompey’s triumph after his return from the East in 62 BC, Plutarch tells us, lasted two days, the pageant representing the subjugation of 15 nations, the capture of 1,000 fortresses, 900 towns and 800 pirate ships, and the foundation of 39 new cities. The booty was commensurate, much of it displayed in the procession, while placards raised overhead recorded ‘an account of all the tributes throughout the empire, and how that before these conquests the revenue amounted but to 50 million denarii, whereas from his acquisitions they had a revenue of 85 million, and that in present payment he was bringing into the common treasury coins, gold and silver plate, and ornaments to the value of 20,000 talents, over and above what had been distributed among the soldiers, among whom the smallest share was 1,500 drachmas.’(14)

It was from such hauls that Roman politicians built power-bases. One among many of Pompey’s benefactions was Rome’s first large stone-built theatre. A later marble map of Rome and the evidence of archaeology show it to have been a massive barrel-vaulted structure able to seat around 27,000; associated with it was a large garden with surrounding portico. Less permanent but no less politically potent were handouts, banquets and shows. ‘Pompey spent some time in Rome before the opening or dedication of his theatre,’ explains Plutarch, ‘where he treated the people with all sorts of games, shows and exercises, in gymnastics alike and in music. There was likewise the hunting or baiting of wild beasts, and combats with them, in which 500 lions were slain; but above all, the battle of elephants was a spectacle full of horror and amazement. These entertainments brought him great honour and popularity; but on the other side he created no less envy to himself.’(15)

The inflationary cost of competitive ‘political accumulation’ – the building and maintaining of rival power-bases in domestic politics – meant aggressive wars of plunder, and super-exploitation of conquered territory. Military action was used, in effect, to redistribute large quantities of surplus wealth from native ruling classes on the rim of the imperial system to the Roman ruling class at its centre. Different sorts of evidence allow occasional glimpses of the impact on the subjugated. We have seen that Sulla’s eastern war of 87–84 BC yielded – among much else no doubt – 120 million denarii from the indemnity payments imposed on the Greek cities of Asia. This, however, proved far more lucrative than it first seems, for the ransacked cities – they had already been comprehensively plundered by Sulla’s troops – were forced to borrow to pay, and within a decade their compound-interest debt to Roman money-lenders had reached a staggering 720 million denarii. Pompey’s eastern war in 66–63 BC appears to have cost its victims much more. If Plutarch can be trusted (mistakes in recording numbers are easily made, not least in the copying of manuscripts), then we seem to have the equivalent of £3 billion ($5.9 billion) in booty for the treasury, perhaps £2 billion ($3.9 billion) in booty for the soldiers, and almost a £1 billion ($1.9 billion) extra each year in tribute (see Note on ancient monetary values).

But that, it seems, was not the whole story. While Pompey used much of his own share to further his political career in Rome, he also invested some to ensure a steady income for the future. Cicero discovered something of this during his governorship of Cilicia in 51–50 BC. Pompey had lent money to the King of Cappadocia at a very high rate of interest, and he was subsequently being paid 198,000 denarii a month – though even this was not enough to cover interest, let alone pay off capital. The cost was passed on to local taxpayers: the peasants of Cappadocia. Our knowledge of this is an accident: it is mentioned in a surviving letter of Cicero to his friend Atticus. We have no way of knowing the extent of such practice. However, the debasement of the Egyptian silver coinage, the bullion content of which roughly halved between the 60s and the 40s BC, may well be circumstantial evidence for the overall level of Roman exploitation in the East. King Ptolemy XII Auletes is known to have borrowed and bribed on a massive scale to secure Roman military support for his restoration to the Egyptian throne after a coup in 58 BC. It is very tempting to agree with Michael Crawford, numismatist and ancient historian, and link the debasement with the corruption.

It is a common misconception that Rome brought peace and order to the world. The misconception is rooted in Roman myth. According to Virgil, it was only ‘the proud’ who were ground down by war, while ‘the submissive’ were spared to enjoy the benefits of peace, order and good government. It was the barbarian ‘other’ that threatened violence, not the imperial superpower. In truth, the predatory aggression of Late Republican Rome plunged the world into violence and chaos. It provoked an explosion of resistance across the Mediterranean in the 70s BC, resistance facilitated by Rome’s victories over the Hellenistic states of the East. Once-powerful empires had been fragmented by defeat into a myriad of imperial provinces, client kingdoms, and carefully contained ‘rogue states’. Rome did not yet constitute an effective suzerain. Its interventions took the form of smash and grab. The pieces left behind, the broken states of a disintegrating geopolitical system, could not always hold in check the furies of discontent and disorder aroused. This provided Pompey’s opportunity. Vain, ambitious and self-serving, he now stepped forth as saviour of Rome and seeming architect of a new Pax Romana for the Mediterranean world.

The conflict raged across Spain, Asia Minor, the Mediterranean Sea, and Italy itself. In 80 BC, after Sulla’s victory in the civil war, the Marian leader Quintus Sertorius had fled to Spain (where he had served as a provincial governor) to continue the struggle against the new regime. With a small retinue of Roman officers, he raised the Spanish tribes and sustained a guerrilla insurgency across the peninsula for eight years. Roman commanders found themselves in the coils of a people’s war, facing hostility in every village, and the risk of ambush by numerous but elusive guerrillas whenever their cumbersome columns crossed country. At about the same time, fleets of pirate ships achieved naval dominance in the Mediterranean. Many men displaced by the political and military upheavals of the 80s BC found service on fast light warships that could be used to overhaul merchant vessels, raid coastal towns, and kidnap high-ranking Romans for ransom. King Mithridates regarded the pirates as potential auxiliaries alongside his own fleet – many were perhaps his own subjects, or at least supporters – and he offered them safe havens. The king had also formed an alliance with Sertorius, some of whose Roman officers were engaged to modernize the Pontic army. These hostile alliances and war preparations reflected Mithridates’s growing fears for the survival of his kingdom, regarded by the Romans as the principal ‘rogue state’ in the East.

The crisis broke in 74 BC. Mithridates’s allies in Spain and at sea were under heavy military pressure. Sertorius faced Roman armies augmented to 50,000 men pushing into the Celtiberian heartland of central Spain. The pirates lost most of their bases along the southern shore of Asia Minor to a systematic Roman campaign begun in 77 BC, and finally risked being driven from the Eastern Mediterranean entirely. The Kingdom of Bithynia, a buffer state between the Roman province of Asia and Mithridates’s Pontus, was bequeathed to the Republic by the childless King Nicomedes III, a bequest the Senate readily accepted. As well as providing rich revenues, the acquisition threatened to bring the Roman army on to the Pontic border, and to close off the Black Sea entrance to Pontic trade and warships. In rapid response, Mithridates’s remodelled army launched a pre-emptive strike and overran Bithynia.

At this moment, committed to major wars in Spain, the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, the Republic was suddenly confronted with a mortal threat to its survival in Italy itself. In 73 BC, in the South Italian town of Capua, some 70 gladiators armed themselves with kitchen utensils, killed their guards, and escaped from their training school. They headed for nearby Mount Vesuvius – looming menacingly over the luxuria of the Bay of Naples – and from here they raided aristocratic estates, freed the slaves, and shared out booty equally. As news of their exploits spread, others came to join them. When they defeated a detachment of soldiers sent from Rome, the trickle of recruits became a flood.

The number of slaves in Italy was now very high, perhaps a third of the population in total, and more like half in parts of the South. As well as working in mines and quarries, on public construction projects, in the arena and the brothels, and as servants in rich households, huge and increasing numbers were used to work the land. Replacing the free Italian peasants who had once voted for the Gracchi or marched with Marius, the slaves worked mainly on large and medium-sized estates formed from the absorption of failed farmsteads. Brigaded together, brutally coerced and overworked, yet often with vivid memories of families, farms and a life of freedom now lost, they formed a potentially revolutionary class. Though drawn from all parts of the empire, many were from the East, and the Greek spoken there became the language of slaves generally. Many, moreover, were educated, had worked as minor officials, or were former soldiers. Herein lay the rudiments of political and military organization. All that was required to detonate slave revolution was the spark of brilliant leadership. This was now provided by the trainee gladiator who had led the original breakout at Capua: a former soldier from Thrace (Bulgaria) called Spartacus. Within a year, the whole of Roman Italy was convulsed by revolt. Tens of thousands marched with Spartacus, from the Bay of Naples to the Po Valley, and several Roman armies sent against them were crushed. Rome seemed face-to-face with Nemesis. It had transported millions of the victims of its wars to labour as slaves on Italian estates, and now the slaves had turned on their masters with bitter anger. The war had truly come home.

It threatened, moreover, to spread further and fuse with the struggle elsewhere. Marching south again in 72 BC, his followers having abandoned the idea of crossing the Alpine passes and dispersing to their respective homelands, Spartacus made contact with the pirates, planning to use their ships to transport his army to Sicily and reignite the slave revolution that had burned there a generation before. Links were being forged that might have united Sertorius in Spain, the slaves of Italy and Sicily, the pirates of the eastern Mediterranean, and the Greeks of Asia Minor in a common anti-Roman front. The years 74–71 BC were among the most dangerous in the history of the empire. Certainly the crisis proved fatal for the senatorial government restored by Sulla ten years before.

It was the failure of Sulla’s colleague, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius, to crush Sertorius that allowed Pompey to press for and secure a special command in Spain in 77 BC. Metellus and his army remained in the field, however, and the rivalry between the two commanders contributed to further defeats. Even after reinforcement, the war ground on for years, as Metellus and Pompey attempted to reduce one hilltop fortress after another. It was ended not by strategic brilliance but by treachery. The coherence of Sertorius’s high command was weakened when the Senate passed a law pardoning most of the rebels. One of them then murdered Sertorius, usurped his position, and was then promptly defeated by Pompey. Quite suddenly, all resistance collapsed and the long war was brought to an end in 72 BC. On the other side of the empire also, the Roman counter-offensive was successful. Though the Romans were defeated in a sea battle with the pirates off Crete, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, appointed to a special command against Mithridates, destroyed the main Pontic army and fleet, recovered the territory that had been lost, and then invaded Pontus itself. At the Battle of Cabira he won another decisive victory, and Mithridates fled his kingdom to take refuge with the King of Armenia, his kinsman and ally, whose mountain territory seemed at the time beyond the reach of Roman power. By the end of 73 BC the threat from Mithridates had been greatly diminished, and Lucullus spent the following year settling the affairs of Asia Minor.

That same year, 72 BC, traumatized by the slave revolution at home, the Romans appointed Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the richest men in the empire, to a special command against Spartacus. Conscription, hard drilling and brutal discipline – including the decimation of units routed in battle against the slaves (by which each tenth man was executed) – created a new army of ten legions (50,000 men). For six months the war continued in the South, where an embryonic slave state had emerged, in control of several towns and having official storehouses, arms factories, and tight collective discipline. But Spartacus found himself unable to supply his vast host once Crassus had closed off the toe of Italy with a huge entrenchment running from sea to sea. Breaking out northwards and resuming a war of movement in 71 BC, he was eventually boxed in and fell back into the mountains of Petelia in Apulia, threatened now by three converging Roman armies – that of Crassus, that of Pompey returning from Spain, and that of Lucullus recalled from the East: the whole military might of the Roman Empire deployed to crush the slave revolution in Italy.

Spartacus tried to break out again by seeking battle with Crassus before other Roman armies could join him. The historians record that the rebels fought with great determination, and that Spartacus, having killed his horse beforehand as a symbolic rejection of flight, died trying to hack his way through the mêlée to reach Crassus himself. His body was never found. The remnants of his army were pursued back into the mountains, Pompey’s men now joining the manhunt. Some 6,000 captives were later crucified along the Appian Way, the road from Rome to Capua, where the revolt had begun three years before.

Pompey immediately sought further advancement for himself. This was far from guaranteed: his supremacy in the state was not yet firmly established. Spain had afforded him little glory: he had suffered several defeats, the war had been long and costly, much of the credit for such success as there was belonged to his colleague Metellus, and it was treachery that had finally brought Sertorius down. Lucullus, victor over Mithridates, and Crassus, conqueror of Spartacus, seemed at least equally meritorious. But Pompey had created a powerful base of support in Spain, where a network of client chiefs now worked in his favour, and he stood at the head of a veteran army that looked to him for pay, a share of plunder, and land for retirement. This army Pompey now led to within striking distance of Rome, at which point he issued a demand that he be allowed to stand for the consulship. Under Sulla’s constitution this was illegal on two counts: Pompey was too young, and he had not yet qualified by holding more junior magistracies. More importantly, the Senate feared a new Marius, a general who championed the People, an advocate of reform who threatened property and privilege, a would-be popular dictator hostile to the power of conservative oligarchs.

The Senate, however, lacked an army. Lucullus had one, but most of it had been left back in the East. There was only Crassus, whose ten highly trained and battle-hardened legions might be a match for the Spanish veterans. Only Crassus might checkmate Pompey. But would he be willing?

That it should come to this was itself evidence that the Sullan constitution was all but dead. The oligarchy’s powerlessness was apparent in its dependence on one warlord to defeat another. Now and henceforward it was reduced to little more than this: wooing, cajoling and bribing one senior general after another, each a prospective military dictator, the highest point of senatorial politics being to divine which of them was the lesser evil. At present it was Crassus in preference to Pompey. Later it would be Pompey over Caesar. Then Octavian over Antony. Sometimes the cynical opportunist whose favour was sought would judge it expedient to stamp his drive for power with the imprimatur of the Senate. And sometimes not, as now, when Crassus chose an alliance with Pompey instead of the Senate.

Crassus is a more shadowy figure than Pompey, his motives often difficult to fathom, but it seems likely that his natural caution inclined him to baulk at the risks of civil war – especially against Pompey and his veterans – and to prefer the safe option of a share in power. After all, both men were feared by their colleagues; not only was there the risk of defeat, but risk too in a victory which restored the power of the Senate and allowed it the chance one day to strike down Crassus in his turn. Whereas Pompey, also in fear of war, was willing to cut a deal: he and Crassus would stand for the consulship together, guaranteeing a combination of political power – of clients, of wealth, of votes – that would be unbeatable. And though the tension between the two rivals remained acute, their armies still in being during and after the election, the consuls did finally agree to demobilize, to reform the state, and to parcel out future high offices and honours between themselves and their respective retinues. Many features of the Sullan constitution were overturned. Senators lost their exclusive control of the jury-courts. The Senate was purged of many of Sulla’s appointees. And the powers of the tribunes of plebs were restored. The events of the winter of 71–70 BC amounted in fact to an anti-oligarchiccoup. Its principal agents may have been two rival politician-generals – suspicious and squabbling, each out for himself – but to secure their power they were compelled to weaken the Senate and strengthen the People.

Pompey aspired to a command in the East, and he remained in Rome until 67 BC, apparently awaiting the right opportunity. This came when the pirates attacked the ships that carried grain to the city. A bill was passed granting Pompey imperium infinitum – authority without boundaries – over the whole Mediterranean and all the coastal districts. With the right to levy on both the treasury and the tax-farmers, he raised a force of 500 ships and 120,000 men. Dividing the Mediterranean into 13 zones and organizing his forces into separate flotillas under 24 commanders, Pompey commenced a series of marine counter-insurgency sweeps that cleared the sea of pirates and shut down their coastal bases within three months.

A second bill in 66 BC then granted Pompey the command against Mithridates and his Armenian ally King Tigranes. Lucullus had returned to the East after the defeat of Spartacus, but his campaign in the Armenian mountains had badly misfired. The prize was Mithridates himself, an exotic eastern potentate who had become Rome’s most intractable enemy. Lucullus craved the glory of his capture. Invading Armenia in 69 BC with a small army, he won a brilliant victory at Tigranocerta over vastly superior eastern forces. But tactical success does not always translate into strategic dominance. The following year, in pursuit of Mithridates, Tigranes and the remnants of their forces, he pushed deeper into the mountain wilderness of Armenia. His wily enemies lured him on, refusing battle, letting time, terrain and climate eat away at the morale of his legionaries. Finally, as the first autumn blizzards struck, they mutinied and demanded a retreat. Lucullus was forced to pull back, harassed as he did so by Pontic and Armenian guerrillas. His discomfiture was complete when Rome denied his small force reinforcement. Lucullus had become the target of a hostile political coalition at home – the loan-sharks resented his rescheduling of the debts of the Greek cities of Asia, and Pompey had designs on his eastern command. Lucullus, who had crushed Mithridates and conquered Pontus, was recalled to Rome so that Pompey’s sun might rise higher.

Pompey resumed the war with a much bigger army – perhaps three times the size of Lucullus’s. With it, between 66 and 63 BC, he won a stunning series of military and diplomatic victories. Mithridates was again defeated and the last Pontic army destroyed. (The king escaped again, this time to the Crimea, but his attempts to renew the war from this base were frustrated by a revolt against conscription and taxation led by his own son; and Mithridates, blockaded inside a fortress by his own people, committed suicide in 63 BC, successfully evading his Roman enemies even at the end.) Pompey turned aside from the pursuit of Mithridates and quickly reduced Tigranes to submission. He then launched murderous attacks on the Albanians and Iberians of the Caucasus (66–65 BC), before being forced to pull back by an increasingly restive army. Other rich prizes soon beckoned. In 64 BC he intervened to restore order in Seleucid Syria, which feuding in the royal family had reduced to political chaos. Then, in 63 BC, he pushed on southwards down the Levantine coast towards Palestine and Arabia. Succession to the throne of the Jews was contested by two brothers, and both claimants submitted their suits to Pompey’s arbitration. Naturally, the Roman war-lord decided in favour of the weaker, provoking the stronger to revolt, whereupon Pompey unleashed his army on Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews. After a lengthy siege, the legionaries stormed into the Temple, the world centre of Judaism, cutting down soldiers, civilians and priests indiscriminately, and their leader then violated religious taboo by entering the Holy of Holies and profaning it with his unclean presence. Roman civilization had reached the Holy Land.

Sulla, Lucullus and Pompey had destroyed the Hellenistic system of states and created a power vacuum in the East. A new Roman supremacy was needed to keep the Parthian Empire at bay, to defend property and order, and to permit efficient exploitation of conquests. Pompey’s ‘eastern settlement’ of 63 BC centred on the rich and heavily garrisoned Province of Syria, which was annexed at the outset and thereafter remained under direct Roman rule. Ranged around it was a penumbra of smaller provinces and client states, the latter retaining nominal independence but ruled by pro-Roman puppets. But the new East was not simply Roman-dominated; it was also a personal fiefdom of Pompey himself. The region would remain his principal power-base in the years to come – controlled by his appointed vassals, milked of revenue to support his political campaigns at home, and a source of military manpower, matériel and supplies to sustain the Pompeian cause in civil war. Pompey by 63 BC had become probably the richest and most powerful Roman in history. His return to Rome was anticipated with a mixture of fascination and fear.

Pompey’s special commands had been proposed by the tribunes and granted by the popular assemblies. His alliance with Crassus had delivered winning majorities. The Senate had been eclipsed in the years 71–67 BC. Afterwards, however, with Pompey himself in the East, the Senate had attempted to reassert itself. Ironically, the reaction had been led not by one of the traditional aristocracy, but by a ‘new man’ who was the first of his family to enter the Senate: Marcus Tullius Cicero. We know him mainly from the large corpus of his own writings that has survived – collections of letters and speeches, and treatises on philosophy, politics, oratory and religion. As well as being the greatest man of letters of his age, he was also a highly successful lawyer and a leading conservative politician from 67 BC until his death in 43 BC. From the outset a defender of the Senate, Cicero developed the concept of the Concordia Ordinum – the Union of the Orders – an attempt to unite senators and equestrians in a political bloc that would stand against what Cicero saw as the forces of disorder and breakdown: the warlords, the tribunes, the popular assemblies, and all those who supported reform. More clearly than any other Late Republican politician, Cicero theorized and articulated an ideology of senatorial reaction, that is, of the optimates (best men) who stood opposed to the populares (populists). In practice, however, the Concordia Ordinum quickly degenerated into political hysteria and a right-wing pogrom.

Cicero was elected consul in 64 BC in opposition to the popular candidate Lucius Sergius Catilina, against whose policy of cancelling debts (novae tabulae) the victor had run a veritable ‘red scare’ campaign. Afterwards, we are told, Catiline decided to organize a coup to overthrow the government, but his plans were betrayed, he fled the capital with some of his supporters, and he was then defeated and killed trying to raise an insurrection in the Etruscan countryside. Cicero, in this account, was the man of the hour. Acting promptly on intelligence received from informers, he arrested many of the leading conspirators, made the capital secure with improvised patrols and checkpoints, and dispatched the forces necessary to disperse Catiline’s rebel army. This is the version of events presented by the historian Sallust in The Conspiracy of Catiline; and his version is essentially that of Cicero himself. Catiline, according to Sallust, had ‘a vicious and depraved nature’, delighted in ‘civil war, bloodshed, robbery and political strife’, and was possessed by ‘an over-mastering desire for despotic power to gratify which he was prepared to use by any and every means.’(16)

Most classical scholars admire Cicero and assume the essential veracity of his account. In fact, he was a snob, a hypocrite, a liar and, as Michael Parenti has recently put it, ‘a self-enriching slaveholder, slumlord and senator [who] deplored even the palest moves towards democracy’.(17) By dissecting the traditional account of the Catiline Conspiracy and exposing its numerous oddities and inconsistencies, Parenti brilliantly exposes it as a fabrication in which a hapless populist politician was hounded to death in a ‘war on terror’ directed at opponents of the Senate. In the fevered atmosphere engendered, senators ran for cover, supporting whatever repressive measures were demanded lest apparent weakness betray them as ‘conspirators’ in league with Catiline. First a state of emergency was declared; then the men arrested were summarily executed in the state prison; and finally the fugitives from Cicero’s death-squads in Rome were hunted down by government forces in the countryside. Cui bono? Who benefits? This bon mot we owe to Cicero, who, though he did not invent it, made it famous by using it in his first big court case. The answer in this case is clear: the consul, the Senate, and the supporters of the Concordia Ordinum, now once again firmly in control of Rome.

Late the following year, 62 BC, Pompey returned from the East. Cicero hoped to enlist him as the figurehead leader of the Concordia Ordinum. The signs were good: in contrast to his behaviour in 71 BC, Pompey demobilized his soldiers, came immediately in person to Rome, and there respectfully addressed the Senate.

The honeymoon was brief. Pompey came to Rome seeking ratification of his eastern settlement and land allotments for his veterans. But the first would underwrite his power-base in the East, the second create a new one in Italy itself, and the Senate, encouraged by Crassus and Lucullus, jealous of Pompey’s pre-eminence, and by Cato, fearful of the over-mighty citizen, put off decisions from session to session. Pompey let matters drift. Not so, however, one of the few powerful men to support his demands, a man whose career had also been stalled by the hostility of enemies in the Senate. An intelligent, dignified and steely presence in the swirling politics of the 60s BC, it may partly have been fear of him that had caused Cicero to hope that Pompey would lead the Concordia. If so, Cicero was right in judging Pompey the lesser evil. For the man in question was destined to become the greatest popularis of them all: Gaius Julius Caesar.

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