Stubborn Nags of Ancient Rome, Part III

He might be Spartacus

Cato the Younger got drafted into a fake army at age fourteen.

The teenagers of Rome played an annual game of horsemanship called the Troy Game, where they got to display their skill at riding horses in military formation and reminding Rome of its legendary ancestors, the Trojans.

Dwelling on the fact that the Trojans ultimately lost their war was not a big part of the festivities.

For the Troy Game of 81 BC, the Roman Republic was under the rule of apparent dictator for life Cornelius Sulla, who had won Rome’s first civil war, got himself appointed “dictator for the making of laws and for the settling of the constitution,” and then proceeded to throw laws and the constitution out the window. He established proscriptions in which the property of anyone opposing him (or anyone whose neighbors accused of opposing him) was confiscated and their heads stuck on pikes in the Forum. The more fortunate ones, like a young Julius Caesar, chose exile instead.

It was Sulla’s way or the highway. Literally.

What with having the power of life and death over everyone, Sulla got to pick the two teenage leaders of the Troy Game. He chose the children of two of his cronies. The other boys in the game refused to participate with these leaders, and threw down their wooden swords.

The adults glanced nervously at the skull farm in the Forum, then back at their recalcitrant offspring, then over to the murderous dictator.

Sulla was in a good mood and decided not to end the festivities with a surly teen genocide and instead asked, “Who do you want to lead you?”

Their answer: Cato the Younger.

***

Cato impressed Sulla so much that the dictator took him under his wing, granting the teenager a front row seat to the bloodbath that was Rome during the dictatorship. Cato and his half-brother often sat at Sulla’s side, watching the decapitated heads of Rome’s leading men rolling by.

(If you’d rather listen than read, check out this episode of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast):

https://embed.acast.com/60a3be0e6196e1001b05895b/61867c3d3cbea30019980987

The Roman Senate, that rock of courage, weary of not knowing who was next, begged Sulla to “at least let us know whom you intend to punish.” This whiny petulance was as close as the Senate would get to dissent during Sulla’s dictatorship.

The proscriptions were arbitrary. They may have started as a way to ferret out Sulla’s enemies, but descended into a naked grab for property. Anyone proscribed had their lands confiscated, and if you were on Sulla’s good side that day, you could get some nice stuff.

Cato the Younger, watching silently, developed an “almost neurotic attachment to rules, to precedent, to propriety.” In this, he was a lot like his ancestor, Cato the Elder. He asked his tutor why Sulla was still alive despite his flouting of all the Roman laws and traditions he had been appointed to uphold.

“Because men fear him more than they hate him,” the tutor replied.

“Give me a sword,” Cato said, “so I might kill him and set my country free from slavery.”

Every day thereafter, his tutor searched Cato for weapons before they headed out to Sulla’s house.

***

Dictator For Life Safety Tip Number Two Hundred Fifty Seven: There are only two ways to get rid of a tyrant: Kill him or wait for him to die.

Cornelius Sulla was untouchable for two reasons — his friends got rich and his enemies got exiled. Well, the quick ones did. The slow ones got their heads cut off.

Resistance to the dictator was non-existent in Rome, and it would take a while for all those ex-pats in exile to get together and raise a sufficient force to come back and try their hand at beating the thus-far unbeatable general.

The Roman Republic was ultimately saved by Sulla’s liver.

In 81 BC, Sulla announced he was stepping down as dictator, disbanded his army, sent his bodyguards away, and strolled through the streets of the city alone, where nearly anyone who felt like it could stab him in the neck. No one did.

Julius Caesar, years later, criticized Sulla for this move, saying that he clearly didn’t know what he was doing. I’m not entirely sure Caesar was right about that. Let’s just wait till March fifteenth to find out.

In case we needed any more proof of Sulla’s stranglehold on Rome, here it is. Even unguarded (and probably drunk), no one touched him.

Having failed at Suicide By Walking Unguarded Amongst One’s Cruelly Oppressed Citizens, Sulla went back to the tried and true method of drinking himself to death. He retired to his villa, dictated his autobiography, and according to Plutarch, “consorted with actresses, harpists, and theatrical people, drinking with them on couches all day long.” He died hemorrhaging blood from his mouth, delirious with fever.

Harpists must be far more dangerous than originally assumed. Even so, Sulla went out on his own terms, that’s for sure.

Rome, dictator free, could breathe a sigh of relief.

For now.

***

Cato embraced the Greek philosophy of Stoicism during and after Sulla’s rule. “Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.”

You could argue that a man who had been held upside down out a window, arms folded, perfectly calm, unrepentant, at age four was already well on his way to becoming a capital-S Stoic. Here was a philosophy and way of life that dovetailed nicely with a path Cato the Younger was already on.

Being seated at the right hand of a capricious, drunken dictator with the power of life and death over all he surveyed could also have been a major factor.

Reason, virtue, logic. Clear, unbiased thinking. Even though Cato’s great grandfather Cato the Elder would have been pretty peeved at his descendant’s embrace of a Greek philosophy, Stoicism really was the ideal religion for a family of uptight sticks-in-the-mud. Cato learned “how to subsist on a poor man’s food or no food at all, how to go barefoot and bareheaded in the rain and heat. He learned how to endure sickness in silence, how to speak bluntly and how to shut up, how to mediate on disaster and suffer the imagined loss of everything again and again. In effect, Cato was learning how to reincarnate his holy ancestor.”

His only concession to the world around him was his “love of the drinking bowl,” a most un-Stoic vice. In Cato’s defense, he had spent quite a lot of time hanging out with a committed and enthusiastic drunkard who could literally have you killed if you didn’t keep up.

To counter charges that his excessive drinking was at odds with his Stoic philosophy, Cato simply said that “drinking was an extension of his Stoic studies,” since his time spent in his cups was when he was able to seriously discuss things like philosophy and literature.

Even though this thin excuse sounded a lot like a modern university student claiming his religion requires the regular imbibing of alcohol, Cato the Younger had finally found a system of belief that matched his nature, and that of his esteemed ancestor. It sheltered him from the worst of Sulla, and prepared him for a future dictator, if one ever came along.

Brace yourself, Cato.

***

The Roman Republic believed the worst was behind them now that Sulla was safely dead. The king is dead, long live the Republic — that sort of thing. Say whatever you like about the ancient Roman Republic, but they really were a bunch of adorably oblivious optimists.

Cato enjoyed his freedom from the dictator and set out to find a wife who would help him in his political career. He courted Aemilia Lepida, daughter of a consul and his distant cousin. Her previous engagement had been broken off, which made her available to Cato in a way that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible, and the two of them planned a wedding.

Aemilia’s former suitor was Metellus Scipio, scion of the same Scipio family that Cato the Elder had done battle with in his day time and again. The feud between the Cato and Scipio clans hadn’t died down in the intervening generations; in ancient Rome, these kinds of things tended to get worse over time.

Days before the wedding, Metellus declared that he wanted Aemilia back. Cato’s newfound Stoicism was sorely tested when his bride to be left him at the altar to go back to his family’s ancient enemy.

I suspect that on that night, wherever Stoic philosophy failed, wine took up the slack.

Even though his friends argued that Cato had a legal course of action against Metellus — the equivalent of matrimonial sabotage — he declined to pursue that avenue and instead began writing epic poems about his rival, questioning his manhood. The Roman gossip mills churned.

But in keeping with the apparent untouchability of the Scipio clan, Metellus went on to a successful political career and stayed married to Aemilia.

Cato stoically — or perhaps not so stoically — found himself another bride named Atilia and got married.

But the feud between the Cato and Scipio families was still going strong.

***

Safety and calm can lead to arrogance, and set up the Roman Republic for a series of unpleasant surprises.

The first one came in 73 BC, when a couple dozen enslaved gladiators escaped from a gladiatorial school armed with kitchen utensils. They found a wagon full of weapons, conveniently left outside the gates of the school, and hid out on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

The Roman Senate sent a few thousand soldiers to put down this minor revolt and restore order in the city. With a thirty-to-one advantage, and with the slaves backed up against the side of a mountain, the assumption was that this would be a fairly standard, and boring, mop-up operation.

But the leader of the purported rabble, Spartacus, was no opportunistic bandit. He had served with the legions and knew how the Romans operated and what their weak spots were. He knew no one took his little slave revolt seriously, and considered him no real threat.

He also had nothing to lose.

While the forces sent against him camped for the night further down the mountain, Spartacus and his men weaved rope ladders, climbed down the far side of Vesuvius, came back around and attacked the legions while they slept. After this smashing victory, Spartacus’s army grew, eventually reaching 120,000 disciplined troops.

The Roman Senate once again woke up to find a massive army in the heart of Italy. At the same time, a renegade general named Sertorius had essentially taken over the province of Hispania and organized the native tribes against Rome. And pesky old Mithridates, king of Pontus, was taking another swing at the Roman piñata. Having been twice defeated by Rome, Mithridates took advantage of Rome’s distractions by Spain and Spartacus to march into the Roman protectorate of Bithynia in Asia Minor unopposed.

Roman leadership, seeing enemies on all sides, went paranoid, assuming that all three — Spartacus, Sertorius and Mithridates were in cahoots. These multiple crises gave Cato the Younger his first taste of military service at age twenty-three.

The harsh life of a Roman soldier was tailor-made for a Stoic — long marches, bad food, cruel punishments, and the fear of combat. He started as a staff officer in the operations against Spartacus, seeing his chance to gain the military glory that would help his political career.

He was attached to the army of the consul Publicola, who was incapable of stamping out this slave insurgency-turned-massive rebellion. Cato distinguished himself in battle, which invited comparisons to his legendary ancestor, and the consul awarded him a number of accolades.

Which he refused, Stoically, insisting that he had done nothing to deserve them. This gave Cato both the benefit of the accolades and the admiration of those who applauded his modesty in refusing them.

The war with Spartacus, a disaster for Rome, was turning out pretty well for Cato the Younger.

***

The Roman Senate, made desperate by the triple threat it faced, and the embarrassment of a giant slave army in its backyard that kept defeating consular armies, found itself in a familiar situation. It would hand over the keys to the city to anyone who could make it stop.

Here we go again.

***

As anyone except the cowardly Senate could have predicted, dictators were once more slouching their way toward Rome.

Pompey the Great and Marcus Crassus took care of business, ending Spartacus’s revolt and the rule of the renegade general in Spain.

They were rewarded with consulships, but it was just the beginning. Their less-than-friendly alliance paved the way for a third member of their autocratic gang and marked the beginning of the end of the Republic and Rome’s slow crawl toward empire.

But this opportunistic third fellow runs into an obstacle when he encounters the Republic’s premier Stoic, Cato the Younger.

We’ll see what Julius Caesar has to say about that in Stubborn Nags of Ancient Rome, Part IV.

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Historian

Historian

Host of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast — this is the stuff they never taught us in history class.