Some days ago I watched the news about the Chilean government demanding a monetary restitution from the widow of the deceased dictator Augusto Pinochet. In 1973 Chile was divided in a brutal conflict between a popular left party seeking wealth redistribution and an elitist conservative group that made a coup and gained power. The left wing leader Salvador Allende had actually been responsible for a big career boost of Augusto Pinochet, the right wing general who led the coup, since Allende had no idea of the true political views of his appointed general. The picture on the right shows Allende and Pinochet together in the presidential palace in Chile. Now and in old times no friendship survives a political conflict. Historian Plutarch and the novels of Aussie writer Colleen McCullough portray a real historical conflict that mirrors the class struggles in the 20th century and how old friendships are broken for the sake of power.
Santayana said those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. In my view there are at least two aspect in which the Chilean 70’s conflict parallels the Roman Republic of 100 BC. One, ancient Rome had a sharp conflict between the Optimates (the party of those who defended the old traditions and privileges of the rich) and the Populares (those who defended the redistribution of agrarian lands and the extension of political votes to the masses). There were several strands in each group, with moderate Populares and also more radical branches that defended a real dictatorship based on popular acclaim. The political rivalry between Optimates (right wing) and Populares (left wing) explains much of roman history between 133 BC and 44 BC, when Julius Caesar, a general who capitalized the anger of the Populares to gain absolute military and political power, was assassinated by members of the Optimates.
Two, just like in Chile where President Allende believed – until it was too late – that general Pinochet would be a possible ally, the Roman left wing between 110 BC and 88 BC had a charismatic leader, Gaius Marius (left pic above), who unwittingly promoted the career of his friend, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (right pic above), who would become the Optimates leader and his most fierce enemy! These two former allies fired up all the class struggles in Rome and neither gave up until the former friend and all of his supporters were brutally killed.
Gaius Marius was a Roman general and politician who won two wars between 108 and 101 BC. The first war was in North Africa around 108 BC in the area of modern Argelia. The second war between 103 and 101 BC was against teutonic peoples who migrated from Germany to invade north Italy. This Teutonic invasion was one of the worst crisis in Roman history and there was a generalized fear in the Italian population that their civilization would be beaten and destroyed. To win this war Marius decided to recruit poo men for the Roman army, something unthinkable until then! This decision broke the political power that the wealthy had over the army and in the future decades armies were more loyal to their generals than to the political institutions. Over the short term the decision saved Rome. Over the long term this measure created endless revolutions in which generals used their armies to become new dictators!
Marius also introduces many innovations in terms of the organization and equipment of the legions and turns the legionnaire into professionally trained soldiers. The classic image of a professional and extremely organized Roman army that we see in Hollywood movies was only made real by Gaius Marius! Above I show a painting of Marius leading his newly trained armies to fight a much larger Teutonic army in the forests of northern Italy.
Marius became the most powerful politician of his time and certainly one the most relevant in the entire history of Rome. The most important political office of the Republic was consul and Marius was elected consul seven times, while before him none had been consul more than three times.
Sulla was possibly an in-law of Marius and started his career as Marius' trusted second in command. However, during a brief mission in Asia, Sulla consulted a fortune seer who foretold his death would come at the peak of his fame and glory. Sulla returns to Rome and becomes one of the generals fighting the Social War, a large conflict in which Rome fought rebellions in many Italian regions. In this war Sulla won the Grass Crown, the most important prize of valor given in Ancient Rome. In all of Roman history only eight men won the grass crown, since this trophy was only given to a man that by his courage had saved an entire army!
Sulla was then elected consul and nominated general for the war against Mithridates of Pontus, a western nation in northern Turkey which was threatening the roman territories of Greece and west Asia. Sulla's success triggered a conflict with his former friend Gaius Marius. Marius, then an old man, remained popular with the crowds and dreamed of being the commander in the new war. Marius used his prestige and wealth to finance popular mutinies and rebellions against his former friend. Sulla is persecuted by fanatics through the streets of Rome and saves his life by seeking refuge in Marius’ home. Marius agrees to save Sulla’s life from the raging crowd, but only if he promises to support Marius’ party and his nomination for the war. Sulla pretends to agree, escapes from Rome and then returns with his loyal army. Sulla does the unthinkable by marching upon Rome, something that was forbidden by the sacred laws of Rome. In Rome’s previous six centuries of history no one had broken this rule. Sulla enters Rome and his army kills several of the Populares and Marius’ supporters. Afterwards, he leaves for Asia and wins surprising battles against the greek-asian enemies of Rome. Sulla becomes famous among his followers as a mad genius, one who makes elaborate plans that always work. Sulla destroys the forests around Athens to build catapults and siege engines to destroy the city. Then he wins two battles against much bigger armies. In the first battle he orders the building of trenches and palisades which rumble his enemy's organization. In the second battle, Sulla orders the building of water dams and then floods the plain in front of the opposing army. His opponents are stranded with horses and men in the mud and unable to move are slaughtered. Sulla gains a reputation of invincibility against all odds and becomes one of the most famous generals in world history.
While Sulla stayed in Asia, Marius returned to Rome and then orders the murder of many of Sulla’s supporters. The Populares take control of Rome and send several armies against Sulla. But all of the armies sent by the Populares are useless, because Sulla had gained the fame of an invincible commander. No army wants to fight Sulla and his adversaries end up surrendering and joining him. Marius dies sick in Rome just 17 days after he became consul for a 7th and last time. Plutarch relates that Marius was by then a deluded old man, bragging to people about his accomplishments and then behaving crazy as if he was in charge of battles in Asia.
Sulla returns to Rome in 83 BC and publishes a long list of his enemies, whom he convicts to death without a trial. Sulla promises to pardon the people who cooperate with his executions. Some men are executed by their own wives and children who are then allowed to keep the family estate. Sulla rewards his friends and punishes his enemies. The young Julius Caesar is included in the death lists of Sulla, since Caesar was related by marriage to Marius. Sulla lets the young Caesar live, but warns that he sees in the young man “the ambition of many Marius”.
Sulla was Dictator (then a real office which gave its holder the power to decree martial law and act as he pleased for a limited period) of Rome for two years of political terror. At the end of his dictatorship, Sulla leaves Rome for his countryside villa to write his memoirs. Sulla lives a dissipated life with a young wife and a male actor called Metrobius who had become his lover a long time ago. He still intervenes with politics, but remains open to discuss his policies with any man who approaches him. Sulla dies of old age, a mysterious man for all who knew him. It was said he could drink and party with the poorest and simplest persons, celebrating with great joy, but then would change to be a tyrant ordering deaths with no cause at all. It is estimated that around 1000 persons died from Sulla’s political persecutions. I wonder what the ancient Romans would have thought of the 20th century dictators who murdered far more people.