If an individual was to be found here or there who kept aloof from such doings and yet did not forgo public life, he was assuredly, like Marcus Cato, a political Don Quixote. Parties and party-strife were superseded by the clubs and their rivalry; government was superseded by intrigue. A more than equivocal character, Publius Cethegus, formerly one of the most zealous Marians, afterwards as a deserter received into favour by Sulla,(4) acted a most influential part in the political doings of this period--unrivalled as a cunning tale-bearer and mediator between the sections of the senate, and as having a statesman's acquaintance with the secrets of all cabals: at times the appointment to the most important posts of command was decided by a word from his mistress Praecia. Such a plight was only possible where none of the men taking part in politics rose above mediocrity: any man of more than ordinary talent would have swept away this system of factions like cobwebs; but there was in reality the saddest lack of men of political or military capacity.
Phillipus Metellus, Catulus, The Luculli
Of the older generation the civil wars had left not a single man of repute except the old shrewd and eloquent Lucius Philippus (consul in 663), who, formerly of popular leanings,(5) thereafter leader of the capitalist party against the senate,(6) and closely associated with the Marians,(7) and lastly passing over to the victorious oligarchy in sufficient time to earn thanks and commendation,(8) had managed to escape between the parties. Among the men of the following generation the most notable chiefs of the pure aristocracy were Quintus Metellus Pius (consul in 674), Sulla's comrade in dangers and victories; Quintus Lutatius Catulus, consul in the year of Sulla's death, 676, the son of the victor of Vercellae; and two younger officers, the brothers Lucius and Marcus Lucullus, of whom the former had fought with distinction under Sulla in Asia, the latter in Italy; not to mention Optimates like Quintus Hortensius (640-704), who had importance only as a pleader, or men like Decimus Junius Brutus (consul in 677), Mamercus Aemilius Lepidus Livianus (consul in 677), and other such nullities, whose best quality was a euphonious aristocratic name. But even those four men rose little above the average calibre of the Optimates of this age. Catulus was like his father a man of refined culture and an honest aristocrat, but of moderate talents and, in particular, no soldier. Metellus was not merely estimable in his personal character, but an able and experienced officer; and it was not so much on account of his close relations as a kinsman and colleague with the regent as because of his recognized ability that he was sent in 675, after resigning the consulship, to Spain, where the Lusitanians and the Roman emigrants under Quintus Sertorius were bestirring themselves afresh. The two Luculli were also capable officers--particularly the elder, who combined very respectable military talents with thorough literary culture and leanings to authorship, and appeared honourable also as a man. But, as statesmen, even these better aristocrats were not much less remiss and shortsighted than the average senators of the time. In presence of an outward foe the more eminent among them, doubtless, proved themselves useful and brave; but no one of them evinced the desire or the skill to solve the problems of politics proper, and to guide the vessel of the state through the stormy sea of intrigues and factions as a true pilot. Their political wisdom was limited to a sincere belief in the oligarchy as the sole means of salvation, and to a cordial hatred and courageous execration of demagogism as well as of every individual authority which sought to emancipate itself. Their petty ambition was contented with little. The stories told of Metellus in Spain--that he not only allowed himself to be delighted with the far from harmonious lyre of the Spanish occasional poets, but even wherever he went had himself received like a god with libations of wine and odours of incense, and at table had his head crowned by descending Victories amidst theatrical thunder with the golden laurel of the conqueror-- are no better attested than most historical anecdotes; but even such gossip reflects the degenerate ambition of the generations of Epigoni. Even the better men were content when they had gained not power and influence, but the consulship and a triumph and a place of honour in the senate; and at the very time when with right ambition they would have just begun to be truly useful to their country and their party, they retired from the political stage to be lost in princely luxury. Men like Metellus and Lucius Lucullus were, even as generals, not more attentive to the enlargement of the Roman dominion by fresh conquests of kings and peoples than to the enlargement of the endless game, poultry, and dessert lists of Roman gastronomy by new delicacies from Africa and Asia Minor, and they wasted the best part of their lives in more or less ingenious idleness. The traditional aptitude and the individual self-denial, on which all oligarchic government is based, were lost in the decayed and artificially restored Roman aristocracy of this age; in its judgment universally the spirit of clique was accounted as patriotism, vanity as ambition, and narrow-mindedness as consistency. Had the Sullan constitution passed into the guardianship of men such as have sat in the Roman College of Cardinals or the Venetian Council of Ten, we cannot tell whether the opposition would have been able to shake it so soon; with such defenders every attack involved, at all events, a serious peril.
Of the men, who were neither unconditional adherents nor open opponents of the Sullan constitution, no one attracted more the eyes of the multitude than the young Gnaeus Pompeius, who was at the time of Sulla's death twenty-eight years of age (born 29th September 648). The fact was a misfortune for the admired as well as for the admirers; but it was natural.