Bloomsbury (2019) p/b 240pp £28.99 (9781472580580)

This should be familiar territory: civil war, Sulla and Lepidus, Cicero’s Pro Roscio.  But, as Alison Rosenblitt contends, there’s plenty that we don’t know at all.  What actually happened in 80 BC?  When did Sulla resign his dictatorship?  Did he still exercise power by terror in 79 BC?  When exactly did he die?   How significant was Lepidus—a postscript to the Sullan regime or a stepping-stone to Caesar’s?  And how much of Sulla’s constitutional settlement was really built to last?

R.’s principal argument is that our view of all this is far too Cicero-centric, and that the years 79 to 77 BC in particular are understudied.  She restores the balance through a deep reading of Sallust—the Historiae, Bellum Jugurthinum and Bellum Catilinae—and to a lesser extent of Livy and Appian.   Sallust, of course, was writing just forty years after these events; Livy perhaps 70 years later; Appian two hundred.  For Cicero, Sallust and Livy their own lived experience of the later larger-scale civil war between Caesar and Pompey heavily conditioned their writing about the earlier ones: Cicero’s writings in particular, R. believes, view Sulla’s reforms too rosily through the lens of Caesar’s dictatorship.

The consequence, R. suggests, has been a historiographical tendency towards flattening the century, seeing everything as leading inevitably to the end of the republic in 49 BC.  On this reading earlier tensions—for example the tumultus Lepidi—were nothing compared to the climactic watershed that ushered in Octavian and the Augustan principate.  R. contends that we should more accurately mark its true demise forty years earlier, not just in the way Sulla exercised his power but in the structural weaknesses that flowed from his settlement, especially the exclusion of so many patricians from Rome and their loss of property rights.

Sulla of course was that very rare historical figure: a political leader who voluntarily cedes his power.  He had attempted to construct a legacy.  He claimed his march on Rome was legitimate (rather than strictly legal) but his officer corps opted out. There was some constitutional re-booting: useful reforms of the cursus honorum, the magistracy and jury selection.  The tribunes recovered their legislative power.  But in fact there was to be no return to pre-Marian stability, even in the years immediately following Sulla’s death.  Nobody could have assumed that his settlement would last.  Nor equally was there anything inevitable about the rise to power of his principal lieutenant Pompey.   

Sulla had promised an era of felicitas and prosperity.  The reality was very different. Pace Cicero, this wasn’t happy consensual politics at all.  Instead of a refreshed Republic, Rome got, in R.’s phrase, hostile politics: autocratic power that was terrifying and destabilising, especially when it was exercised by deceit.  Patricians and plebs alike were confronted with interpreting the motivation and sincerity of one man.

Rather than rely on Cicero’s Pro Roscio to know what the year 80 BC was really like, its unknowability, R. contends, helps us better to understand the Pro Roscio.  Sulla’s march on Rome had been the real watershed; from then on, civil and foreign wars became conflated, as did war and civic life.  Spoils were looted and property seized from Roman citizens.  Lepidus’ challenge to Catulus and his eventual defeat at Milvian Bridge (77 BC) were only another close-run battle in yet another civil war.

Disenfranchisement, and continuing wrangles over exile and property rights continued long after Sulla was gone: the fate of the exiles and their land wasn’t resolved until years later by Caesar.  R. sees as a significant, possibly fatal, weakness in the Sullan settlement that it lacked any moderate path to redressing these injustices.  Even though Roman history, like any other, was written by patricians about patricians, this mattered because the arbitrary proscriptions and uncertainty of those times undermined confidence all round in the Republic and its institutions.

Nor did the plebs benefit from any new-found stability.  Notwithstanding Sulla’s re-introduction of the dole, the organisation of the corn supply persistently failed, leading to riots throughout the 70s and 60s.   Constitutional tinkering couldn’t conceal the changing physical environment in which the urban plebs lived: frequent food shortages; the use of the forum for proscriptions, sudden executions, and the display of severed heads; the massacre of prisoners of war in the Campus Martius; the intimidating networks of veterans and the thousands of Cornelii.     

R. is certainly right in that the Sullan ‘settlement’ was inherently unstable in that it lacked any cohesive moral political framework. There was no reliable access to natural justice.  Many families remained excluded, landless and in debt, as did their sons and grandsons after them; some returned but all were affected by the trauma of sudden exile and dispossession and its accompanying moral ambiguity.  This was a profound cultural change, and one that in turn helps us better understand how later on the Republic fell away so rapidly: politically, constitutionally, morally it was already hollowed out.

Sir Michael Fallon

Secretary of State for Defence 2014-2017 and former chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Classics group