Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (138 – 78 BC), commonly known as Sulla, was a successful Roman general and statesman who came to head the optimates, Rome’s conservative and aristocratic political faction. In an ominous precedent, he used his legions to seize power in Rome and win the resultant civil war against the populares – a political faction that supported the plebeians, or commoners, against the conservative aristocratic patricians. He then had himself appointed dictator and massacred his political opponents by the thousands.
As dictator, Sulla carried out constitutional reforms that were intended – but ultimately failed – to strengthen the Roman Republic in its final decades. He came from an old patrician family that was centuries removed from its heyday by the time he was born. He grew up dissolute and debauched and consorted with actors – a despised profession in those days. Strikingly handsome, he earned his keep by the seduction of wealthy older women, upon whom he preyed. At least two of his older Sugar Mommas died in mysterious circumstances after they had designated Sulla the sole heir in their wills.
Sulla used the inheritances from his older lovers to fund his political career, which he kicked off in 107 as Gaius Marius’ quaestor, or financial magistrate, in the Numidian War. He captured the Numidian king Jugurtha by treachery and claimed credit for the victorious conclusion of the war, which aroused Marius’ resentment. When the Social War (91 – 88 BC) broke out against Rome’s Italian allies, who demanded Roman citizenship and equal rights, Sulla performed brilliantly. His erstwhile commander Marius, aged and in poor health by then, did not.
Sulla was elected consul in 88 BC and given command of war against King Mithridates of Pontus. Marius engineered the enactment of a law that stripped the command from Sulla and gave it to Marius instead. In response, Sulla informed his legions that if Marius was commander, he would use his own legions and not Sulla’s men. That would deprive them of the opportunity for the rich rewards they had expected in the form of booty from a successful war against Pontus. With their financial interests threatened, the legions supported Sulla when he marched on Rome to seize power.
Sulla was in charge of the siege of the Italian city of Nola, in the final stages of the Social War when he heard that command of the war against Mithridates had been transferred to Marius. At the head of five of six legions then under his command, Sulla marched on Rome. It was an unprecedented move: no Roman commander before then had ever crossed Rome’s city limits, the pomerium, with his army. A dangerous example was set, as it became clear that Roman legions could be more loyal to their general than to Rome.
Marius and his supporters put up a fight, but they were disorganized, few in numbers, no match for Sulla’s veterans, and were forced to flee Rome. With armed soldiers at his back, Sulla pushed through favorable legislation, regained command of the war against Pontus, declared the Marians enemies of the state, then marched to Pontus to fight Mithridates. When Sulla left, Marius returned to Rome at the head of his own army in 87 BC, had Sulla’s laws reversed, executed about a dozen Sulla supporters, and was elected consul an unprecedented seventh time for 86 BC. His term was brief, however, and he died a mere seventeen days into his consulship.
Sulla won the war against Pontus, then returned to Rome, which he entered at the head of his army 82 BC after he defeated the Marians. He undid all their legislations, introduced reactionary conservative constitutional reforms that solidified the power of the aristocracy and weakened that of the middle classes, and got himself appointed dictator. The office of dictator was a legal one in Rome’s constitution, bestowed in emergencies for a maximum term of six months. Until then, Roman dictators had typically used their extraordinary powers to fight foreign enemies.
Sulla was a new kind of dictator: one who used his extraordinary powers against domestic opponents. He proceeded to massacre the Marians and populares by the thousands. He posted prescriptions, or lists that named enemies of the state who could be legally killed by anybody. The killer was rewarded with a share of the proscribed victim’s property upon the presentation of his head to Sulla’s agents. Sulla finally resigned in 79 BC, retreated into private life, and died a year later.
18. Ancient Romans Had Flush Toilets and Public Restrooms
The Minoans of Ancient Crete developed toilets that could flush waste in the second millennium, BC. For centuries, that remained a luxury available only to the elites, until an economic boom and the spread of prosperity in the first millennium BC allowed the introduction of flush toilets to middle-class houses. Before long, some ancient Greek cities had large-scale latrines that were open to the general public. Those early public restrooms consisted of large rooms with bench seats, connected to a drainage system. It was the Romans, however, who made the most use of flush technology and public latrines in the ancient world.
By the first century BC, many Roman houses had private flush toilets that were connected to the public drainage system, and public restrooms were common in cities and towns. They did not have private stalls, however: the facility consisted of a room lined with stone or wooden bench seats, with toilet openings over a sewer. Everybody – of both genders – did their business in front of everybody else. To clean themselves, they used reusable sponges on a stick. The sponges were “cleaned” between uses by dipping them into small gutters with running water that flowed in front of the toilet seats.
Sulla’s bout of domestic political violence was the worst in the Roman Republic’s history until then, but it was not the first. A generation earlier, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (circa 164 – 133 BC), a Roman tribune of the plebes and a pro-commoners populares politician, met a violent end at the hands of Rome’s conservative upper classes. His widowed mother Cornelia, who became known as “Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi”, was a daughter of Scipio Africanus who had defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War. She had refused a marriage proposal from King Ptolemy VIII to devote herself to her children. Tiberius’ political platform revolved around public lands that had been steadily concentrated into illegal giant estates controlled by a small elite of the patrician senatorial class. That threatened to extinguish the class of small independent farmers who had formed the backbone of the Roman military.
Tiberius had served in the military as a young man, and he noticed that the legions faced a manpower crisis. Rome’s legions were drawn from those who could afford to arm and equip themselves, mostly independent farmers. However, the class of independent farmers had drastically shrunk over a generation as public lands were illegally seized and consolidated into vast estates controlled by the patrician senatorial classes. In addition to illegality, it drove small farmers off their lands and into poverty and diminished the pool of prospective legionaries. Tiberius sponsored agrarian reform laws to redistribute those public lands from the elites to the commoners, and his efforts were met by a vicious backlash from the elites.
16. The Roman Republic’s First Serious Bout of Domestic Political Violence
Tiberius Gracchus proposed agrarian reforms to break the giant estates illegally seized by the elites from public lands, and redistribute them in small parcels to lower class citizens in order to restore the independent yeoman class. He was vehemently opposed by Rome’s elites. When he nonetheless pushed through legislation that began to redistribute the land, he was murdered by a senatorial mob in a riot organized by optimates. That was the name of a faction of conservatives who sought to limit the power of the popular assemblies and the tribunes and extend that of the pro-aristocratic Senate. It was the Roman Republic’s first act of organized political violence.
That broke two taboos: one against political violence in general, and one against violence against a tribune of the plebes, whose persons had been deemed sacrosanct and inviolate for centuries. Violence begat violence, and Tiberius Gracchus’ political murder ushered in nearly a century of turmoil, as the Roman Republic tore itself apart in bouts of civil wars and bloody political purges. In a historic irony, the violence fell disproportionately upon and virtually wiped out the very patrician and senatorial class whose interests the optimates sought to advance.
15. A Young Reformer Who Followed in His Brother’s Footsteps
Tiberius Gracchus’ reformist torch was picked by his younger brother, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (154 – 121 BC). A decade younger than Tiberius, Gaius was influenced by his brother’s reform policies and his murder at the hands of a senatorial mob, and followed in his footsteps. He became a tribune of the plebes, a populares politician who advanced the cause of the plebeians, and an advocate of agrarian reform. He also followed in Tiberius’ footsteps as a victim of political violence when the conservative Roman Senate and the optimates murdered him.
Elected a tribune of the plebes in 123 BC, Gaius Gracchus made innovative use of the popular assemblies to push through legislation to reenact his brother’s agrarian reforms. He also advocated other measures to lessen the power of the senatorial nobility. Gaius also pushed through legislation to provide all Romans with subsidized wheat, and was reelected tribune in 122 BC. In 121 BC, the Senate and the Roman conservative elites once against turned to political violence and organized a riot to go after a tribune.
14. Roman Conservative Elites Initiated Bouts of Political Violence That Came Back and Exterminated Their Class
After one of his supporters was killed by Roman conservatives, Gaius Gracchus and his followers retreated to the Aventine Hill, the traditional asylum of plebeians in an earlier age. In response, the Senate enacted a novel decree that ordered the consuls to go after Gaius, which they did with a mob. When he saw that all was lost, Gaius committed suicide, while the mob fell upon and massacred hundreds of his followers, then threw their bodies into the Tiber River. In the long run, the political murders of the Gracchi brothers backfired upon the optimates‘ cause and the patrician senatorial class whose interests they sought to advance.
The patricians were virtually exterminated in rounds of proscriptions that killed members of their class and confiscated the properties. First, the dictator Sulla went after the populares after his victory in Rome’s first civil war. Then the pendulum swung a generation later, when Octavian and Mark Antony went after the optimates in an even bloodier and more thorough proscription after their victory in a civil war against Julius Caesar’s assassins. What relatively few patricians survived were gradually killed off later as they were caught up in or were falsely accused of conspiracies against various emperors. By the end of the first century AD, the patrician class was virtually extinct.
13. Roman Fathers Could Kill Their Promiscuous Daughters and Their Lovers
A Roman patriarch’s power of life and death over family members was particularly evident when it came to his authority over the family’s women. Despite the Romans’ reputation for licentiousness, debauchery, and wild orgies, they indulged in such carnal excesses even as they viewed adultery as a serious matter. Not just on moral grounds, but also because it introduced the possibility of illegitimate heirs to a pater familias’ estate. When Augustus became emperor, he sought to restore traditional values with a slate of morality laws aimed against adultery – defined as physical intimacy between a woman and man who was not her husband. However, physical relations with female slaves and prostitutes did not count.
One of Augustus’ morality laws, enacted in 18 BC, codified a father’s traditional rights if somebody engaged in adultery with his daughter. The father could legally kill the lover, as well as his daughter, whether in his own house or in the house of his son-in-law. Ironically, Augustus’ own daughter, Julia the Elder, ran afoul of those anti-adultery laws. He did not kill her, but to save face, exiled her in 2 BC, first to a small island, then to a tiny village in the toe of Italy. She remained in exile for the rest of her life. In 8 AD, Augustus’ granddaughter, Julia the Younger, also got caught up in an adultery scandal with a Roman Senator. He had her exiled to a remote island, where she gave birth to a love child. Augustus ordered the infant exposed.
The Roman poet Catullus (circa 84 – circa 54 BC) once directed an insult at a man named Egnatius, whose smile the poet disliked. It illustrates an odd fact about Romans’ day-to-day lives: they cleaned their mouths with pee. As the poet put it in his put down: “There’s nothing more foolish than foolishly smiling. Now you’re Spanish – in the country of Spain what each man pisses, he’s used to brushing his teeth and red gums with, every morning, so the fact that your teeth are so polished just shows you’re more full of piss“.
The insult about an abnormal practice was that Egnatius smiled too much, which was bad because smiles were presumably worthless. The diss was not that he washed his mouth with urine: that part was perfectly normal in Ancient Rome. Urine’s active ingredient is ammonia, which the body secretes in the form of urea. Today, we use ammonia in many things, from explosives to cleaning products to agricultural fertilizers. Not only will ammonia remove stubborn stains from your bathtub and oven, it will also give your dishes and glasses an impressive twinkle.
Nowadays, we extract ammonia with chemical processes that do not rely on pee. Ancient Romans did not have modern science, but they still understood the benefits of ammonia. So they got it from the most readily available source back then: urine. Not only did ancient Romans use it to clean their mouths, they also put it to a variety of other uses. The laundry trade, for example, relied heavily on stale urine. In giant public laundries known as fullonica, dirty clothes were placed in vats, where they were soaked in stale pee. Then workers – usually slaves – stomped on them until the stains came out.
Other industries, such as tanneries and agriculture, used not only urine but urine mixed with feces. Urine was so important in ancient Romans’ daily lives and their economy, that pee collection was a big business. As a result, public chamber pots or big vats where anybody could stop and take a piss, were commonplace. In addition to dental hygiene, industrial, and commercial uses, Romans also used pee for medicinal purposes. Pliny the Elder, for example, praised stale urine’s effectiveness in the treatment of diaper rashes. He also wrote that fresh urine could treat “sores, burns, infections of the anus, chaps and scorpion stings“.
10. Pee Played a Significant Role in the Roman Economy
The use of pee as medicine might seem gross to modern sensibilities. However, in light of urine’s sterile properties – or more precisely the sterile properties of the ammonia contained in urine – such medicinal applications might not have been totally useless. In light of all the uses Romans had for urine, pee collection and resale was an important sector of the economy. And as happens with any economic activity that generates revenue, the urine industry did not escape the attention of the government’s tax collectors – in that, the ancient world was not much different from the modern one.
Ancient Roman tradesmen who specialized in pee collection received special licenses for the privilege and were taxed accordingly. That was when the government did not tax the pissers directly. One of Emperor Vespasian’s revenue schemes involved a tax on public urinals, which was widely ridiculed. When his son argued that revenue from bodily excreta was beneath imperial dignity, Vespasian held a coin beneath his nose and asked whether he could smell any urine. He concluded the lesson with the remark: “money does not smell“, a phrase that became a Latin proverb.
Ancient Romans liked to see themselves as the serious and stolid types, so they put on a stiff upper lip and avoided excessive displays of emotion. That, however, created a problem when it came to funerals. On the one hand, the more people attended a funeral, and the showier the funerary procession was, the more respected the deceased was. On the other hand, excessive displays of grief by the deceased’s relatives – especially for upper-class Romans – were seen as gauche and undignified. To solve the conundrum, they used professional mourners.
For a fee, special women wailed and put on the ostentatious displays of grief that custom barred well-born Roman women from demonstrating in public. The professional mourners wept to impress the crowds and to seriously sell their sadness, threw dust and dirt on themselves, tore out their hair, ripped their clothes, and scratched their faces until they drew blood. Eventually, those ostentatious displays became too much. So laws were passed to prohibit the hiring of professional mourners because their antics “invoked strong emotions and were incompatible with the idea of the quiet life of the citizen“.
Marcus Junius Brutus (85 -42 BC) is perhaps best known as the addressee of Julius Caesar’s final words and lines, “Et tu, Brute?” from Shakespeare’s play. He was the Roman dictator’s friend, the son of his longtime mistress, and the most famous of his assassins. Incongruously, Brutus’ father had been betrayed and murdered by Pompey the Great, so early in his political career, Brutus was an opponent of Pompey and the conservative optimates faction that supported him. Eventually, however, Brutus fought under Pompey’s command against Caesar.
After his father’s death, Brutus was raised by his uncle Cato the Younger, a conservative reactionary who became an avowed enemy of Caesar. Brutus initially supported Caesar but eventually thought he wanted to become a king – a position that Romans of his era greatly feared and loathed – and turned against him. When Caesar invaded Italy in 49 BC, Brutus went against him in the resultant civil war, joined the ranks of his enemies, and even became an ally of Pompey despite the fact that Pompey had killed his father.
Cesar defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, after which Marcus Junius Brutus surrendered, and was pardoned and restored to favor. Brutus’ resentment against the dictator and his mother’s lover remained, however. When a faction of Roman Senators formed to do Caesar in, Brutus eagerly accepted their invitation to join their secret group, which styled itself “The Liberators”. Brutus was a great symbolic catch because he was a descendant of Lucius Licinius Brutus, the Roman Republic’s founder who had chased out Rome’s last king.
On the Ides of March in 44 BC, Brutus stabbed Caesar in his assassination that day. The assassins were pardoned by the Senate, but a riot soon thereafter forced Brutus and his coconspirators to flee Rome. The next year, Mark Antony and Caesar’s nephew and heir, Octavian, got that amnesty revoked, and had the Senate declare Caesar’s assassins murderers. Civil war erupted again, and ended with the assassins’ defeat at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, after which Brutus committed suicide rather than fall into Octavian’s clutches.
People have dyed their hair for thousands of years, but until the arrival of modern science, they often flew blind when it came to which ingredients they selected for their hair dye. As a result, to dye one’s hair was often a fraught affair, whose risks ranged from cosmetic hair damage or destruction at the low end to catastrophic damage to health at the high end. For ancient Romans, the safer end included temporary dyes such as henna, and odd dyes such as a paste made of pigeon dung and earthworms to lighten the hair, or the ashes of donkey testicles to fight hair loss.
The more dangerous end of the spectrum could include substances such as lead and sulfur. Both ancient Greek and Roman women used lead and sulfur in their concoctions when they wanted a permanent hair dye. Their hair probably looked great as a result, but the health consequences could be extreme. For example, we now know such exposure to lead could lead to maladies that include headaches, weight loss, miscarriages, birth defects, seizures, and death, among many other bad side effects.
5. Lead Exposure Was Through the Roof in Ancient Rome
Nowadays, we try to keep as far away from lead as possible. We don’t allow it in children’s toys and have reduced its use in paint. Ancient Romans, however, did not know what we know about lead. The use of lead in hair dyes was just one illustration of a widespread Roman tendency to use it in ways that modern science has revealed to be dangerous. There is a theory that Romans – particularly elite Romans who could afford it – used lead pipes to carry water into their homes, which led to widespread lead poisoning. It might also shed light on what made so many Roman rulers were so bizarre.
Modern research indicates that lead levels from Roman pipes might not have been that dangerous, however. Nonetheless, Romans were exposed to lead in a variety of other ways that ensured they ingested it at exceptionally high levels. For example, they used cooking pots made of lead. They drank water and wine from lead jugs, poured into lead cups. They used amphorae to transport and store chief staples such as wine, olive oil, and their favorite sauce – a rotten fish concoction called garum – that were sealed with lead. As a result, lead particles made it into just about every sip of wine, or bite of their staple meal – bread dipped into olive oil or garnished with garum. They also used lead in jewelry, to help keep precious stones in place.
The Roman statesman, scholar, lawyer, and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC), who served as consul in 63 BC, is widely deemed to have been Ancient Rome’s greatest orator. Throughout his career, Cicero tried in vain to uphold republican principles as the Roman Republic tore itself apart in civil wars in its final years. He had much greater impact and success with the influence he exerted upon Western thought for centuries. The rediscovery of his writings more than a millennium after his death helped spark the Renaissance.
Cicero was born into a wealthy equestrian family in Arpinum and was sent to study law in Rome as a youth. His brilliant defense of a Sextus Roscius in 79 BC against trumped-up charges of parricide established his reputation as a lawyer and began his rise in Rome. He became a supporter of Pompey the Great, and as a member of the conservative and pro-aristocratic optimates faction, and was elected consul in 63 BC. That year, he suppressed what came to be known as the Catiline Conspiracy to overthrow the government, and arrested and ordered the summary execution of its ringleaders.
In 60 BC, Cicero declined an invitation to join Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus in what became known as the First Triumvirate. He deemed the arrangement to be unconstitutional and did all he could to undo it by driving wedges between the Triumvirs. Crassus was killed in battle in 53 BC, and when Pompey and Caesar fell out and the latter marched on Italy in 49 BC, Cicero sat out the resultant civil war. To fill the time, he wrote books and treatises and indulged in other scholarly pursuits.
When Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, Cicero promoted the cause of Gaius Octavian, Caesar’s teenaged adopted son and heir. He sought to use the teenager as a cat’s paw in his conflict against Caesar’s chief lieutenant Mark Antony, whom Cicero loathed and against whom he penned and orated scathing critiques known as The Philippics. Cicero thought he could control and manipulate Octavian, and quipped that he would “praise, raise, and erase” him. He greatly underestimated the youth, who as the future Emperor Augustus would end the Roman Republic and replace it with the Roman Empire.
2. A Political Defeat, But an Intellectual Triumph
Cicero’s underestimation of Octavian came back to bite him, hard. Caesar’s young heir shrewdly reconciled with Mark Antony and cut a deal that divided Rome between themselves. They then proceeded to clean house and eliminate all enemies and potential opponents of the regime in a bloody purge that outdid Sulla’s. Cicero, as an avowed enemy of Mark Antony, was on the new regime’s list of the proscribed. He fled Rome, but was captured and killed on December 7th, 43 BC. A vindictive Antony then had Cicero’s severed head and hands displayed in the rostra, or speaker’s platform in Rome’s Forum, after Antony’s equally vindictive wife Fulvia pierced the orator’s tongue with knitting needles.
Cicero was defeated politically, and the Roman Republic he had worked so hard to defend was no more. However, he triumphed intellectually. Cicero’s impact extended beyond his own days, as he left behind a trove of writings on philosophy, politics, rhetoric and oratory. Their rediscovery in the thirteenth century and the keen interest they aroused in scholars, amongst whom Petrarch was most notable, helped jump-start the Renaissance. Cicero thus influenced European literature and ideas more than any single prose writer before or since. His impact on the Latin language was such that until the nineteenth century, all European prose could be viewed as a return to or a reaction against Cicero’s style.
1. Unsurprisingly, Given the Patriarchy’s Great Power in Ancient Rome, to Kill One’s Father Was Amongst the Most Heinous Crimes in Roman Eyes
In light of the extraordinary powers that Roman fathers exercised over their family, it is no surprise that, from time to time, some kids snapped and did in the patriarchs. Since Ancient Rome was as pure a distillation of patriarchy as ever existed, that patriarchy took a particularly dim view of the murder of patriarchs. The Romans were particularly horrified and revolted by patricide, or the murder of one’s father. So they expressed their abhorrence with a particularly inventive punishment: poena cullei, or the “Punishment of the Sack“.
In accordance with Roman law, those convicted of patricide were first severely beaten with blood-colored rods, while their heads were covered in a bag made of a wolf’s hide. Then the patricide was sewn into the poena cullei, a sack made of ox hide, together with an assortment of live animals that included a snake, a rooster, a monkey, and a dog. The sack was beaten to rile up the animals and get them to bite and tear at the patricide. It was then put on a cart driven by black oxen, to a river or the sea, where the sack and its occupants were thrown into the water.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading