The material benefits which a state exists to confer-- security of frontier, undisturbed peaceful intercourse, legal protection, and regulated administration--began all of them to vanish for the whole of the nations united in the Roman state; the gods of blessing seemed all to have mounted up to Olympus and to have left the miserable earth at the mercy of the officially called or volunteer plunderers and tormentors. Nor was this decay of the state felt as a public misfortune merely perhaps by such as had political rights and public spirit; the insurrection of the proletariate, and the brigandage and piracy which remind us of the times of the Neapolitan Ferdinands, carried the sense of this decay into the remotest valley and the humblest hut of Italy, and made every one who pursued trade and commerce, or who bought even a bushel of wheat, feel it as a personal calamity.

If inquiry was made as to the authors of this dreadful and unexampled misery, it was not difficult to lay the blame of it with good reason on many. The slaveholders whose heart was in their money-bags, the insubordinate soldiers, the generals cowardly, incapable, or foolhardy, the demagogues of the market-place mostly pursuing a mistaken aim, bore their share of the blame; or, to speak more truly, who was there that did not share in it? It was instinctively felt that this misery, this disgrace, this disorder were too colossal to be the work of any one man. As the greatness of the Roman commonwealth was the work not of prominent individuals, but rather of a soundly-organized burgess-body, so the decay of this mighty structure was the result not of the destructive genius of individuals, but of a general disorganization. The great majority of the burgesses were good for nothing, and every rotten stone in the building helped to bring about the ruin of the whole; the whole nation suffered for what was the whole nation's fault. It was unjust to hold the government, as the ultimate tangible organ of the state, responsible for all its curable and incurable diseases; but it certainly was true that the government contributed after a very grave fashion to the general culpability. In the Asiatic war, for example, where no individual of the ruling lords conspicuously failed, and Lucullus, in a military point of view at least, behaved with ability and even glory, it was all the more clear that the blame of failure lay in the system and in the government as such--primarily, so far as that war was concerned, in the remissness with which Cappadocia and Syria were at first abandoned, and in the awkward position of the able general with reference to a governing college incapable of any energetic resolution. In maritime police likewise the true idea which the senate had taken up as to a general hunting out of the pirates was first spoilt by it in the execution and then totally dropped, in order to revert to the old foolish system of sending legions against the coursers of the sea. The expeditions of Servilius and Marcius to Cilicia, and of Metellus to Crete, were undertaken on this system; and in accordance with it Triarius had the island of Delos surrounded by a wall for protection against the pirates. Such attempts to secure the dominion of the seas remind us of that Persian great-king, who ordered the sea to be scourged with rods to make it subject to him. Doubtless therefore the nation had good reason for laying the blame of its failure primarily on the government of the restoration. A similar misrule had indeed always come along with the re-establishment of the oligarchy, after the fall of the Gracchi as after that of Marius and Saturninus; yet never before had it shown such violence and at the same time such laxity, never had it previously emerged so corrupt and pernicious. But, when a government cannot govern, it ceases to be legitimate, and whoever has the power has also the right to overthrow it. It is, no doubt, unhappily true that an incapable and flagitious government may for a long period trample under foot the welfare and honour of the land, before the men are found who are able and willing to wield against that government the formidable weapons of its own forging, and to evoke out of the moral revolt of the good and the distress of the many the revolution which is in such a case legitimate. But if the game attempted with the fortunes of nations may be a merry one and may be played perhaps for a long time without molestation, it is a treacherous game, which in its own time entraps the players; and no one then blames the axe, if it is laid to the root of the tree that bears such fruits. For the Roman oligarchy this time had now come. The Pontic-Armenian war and the affair of the pirates became the proximate causes of the overthrow of the Sullan constitution and of the establishment of a revolutionary military dictatorship.

Chapter III

The Fall Of The Oligarchy And The Rule Of Pompeius

Continued Subsistence Of The Sullan Constitution

The Sullan constitution still stood unshaken. The assault, which Lepidus and Sertorius had ventured to make on it, had been repulsed with little loss. The government had neglected, it is true, to finish the half-completed building in the energetic spirit of its author. It is characteristic of the government, that it neither distributed the lands which Sulla had destined for allotment but had not yet parcelled out, nor directly abandoned the claim to them, but tolerated the former owners in provisional possession without regulating their title, and indeed even allowed various still undistributed tracts of Sullan domain-land to be arbitrarily taken possession of by individuals according to the old system of occupation, which was de jure and de facto set aside by the Gracchan reforms.(1) Whatever in the Sullan enactments was indifferent or inconvenient for the Optimates, was without scruple ignored or cancelled; for instance, the sentences under which whole communities were deprived of the right of citizenship, the prohibition against conjoining the new farms, and several of the privileges conferred by Sulla on particular communities--of course, without giving back to the communities the sums paid for these exemptions. But though these violations of the ordinances of Sulla by the government itself contributed to shake the foundations of his structure, the Sempronian laws were substantially abolished and remained so.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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