The Grass Crown — Ancient Rome: Marius vs Sulla and the Marsian Wars!

The magnificent “Masters of Rome” series of historic fiction by novelist Colleen McCullough continues down the annals of the Roman Republic with the notable careers of Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Aemilius Scaurus, Metellus Numidicus, Metellus Pius, and Marcus Livius Drusus. This second tome at 894 pages also contains magnificent maps, improved glossary, and sketch portraits of many of the main characters. The scholarship still astonishes as does the crisp writing and exhilarating reading in this historic drama. The informative and elegant correspondence to and from Rutilius Rufus, now expanded to Scaurus and Sulla, continues in The Grass Crown.

So-called “Marius” bust, marble, Roman artwork of the 1st century BC, restored by Alexander Trippel, now in the Vatican Museums

Nevertheless, we are still obliged to point out deficiencies in this second historic novel as we did with the first one for the same reasons. The apotheosis of her main protagonist, Gaius Marius, continues to the detriment of other historic figures, despite the author’s claim to historic veracity and her outstanding scholarship. Her politics and her prejudicial bias for the Populares faction at the expense of the Optimates distorts the personalities, motives, and true attitudes of the historic figures and detracts significantly from the historical veracity she claimed in her works.

The First Man in Rome spanned the period 110-100 B.C.(1) The Grass Crown spans the years 97-86 B.C. and covers extensively the Social War between the Roman masters and their former Italian Allies (Socii) between 91 to 88 B.C.(2) The life-death struggle in the peninsula brings to life the characters of the Roman leaders, Catulus Caesar, Licinius Lucullus, Mamercus Aemilius and particularly Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who receives from his legions the coveted corona graminea (“the Grass Crown”) for valor in saving the Roman army from certain defeat and hailed imperator by his troops in the field for defeating the enemy in front of the Samnite stronghold of Nola. The Italian insurrectionists led by the courageous Marsian leader Quintus Poppaedius Silo and the belligerent, Roman-hater, Samnite chief Gaius Papius Mutilus are heroically portrayed. The conflicts with King Mithradates VI of Pontus and King Tigranes II of Armenia are also outlined and vividly described. Most poignant, and unenviable of all are the personal and family entanglements of Marcus Livius Drusus and his friend-turned-enemy, young Servilius Caepio, and their sisters, their double marriages, their children, and concurrently Marcus Livius Drusus’ indefatigable political efforts to secure Roman citizenship for all Italians, which led to his fateful assassination. For the most part, all of this narrative is historically accurate, and the novelistic license of speeches is within the range of plausibility and actions comport with historic truth, significantly enhancing the suspense and drama of the novel.

If an ennobled and beatified Gaius Marius and a demonized, degraded Sulla are definitely the main protagonists in The First Man in Rome, a lovable Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, Princeps Senatus, almost steals the show in her second book along with Marcus Livius Drusus, as we have intimated. This is true for at least the first part of The Grass Crown. The complaints of the Italian Allies and their subsequent revolt against Rome is convincingly and poignantly narrated. The domestic political struggle of the Senate, the Order of the Roman Knights or Equites (Ordo Equester), and the people continue to entertain, inform, sometimes polarize, and frequently disrupt the machinery of the government of the Republic to the consternation of the Senate and those Romans, Patrician or Plebeian, who upheld the mos mairorium —i.e., the old forms and traditions of the Roman Republican institutions. 

Lamentably, the historical reputation of the conservative nobility, be they Patrician or Plebeian,  as in her first book, The First Man in Rome, continues to be deliberately besmirched by the fictional embellishment of the author — all the way from the retrospective references to the Gracchi brothers and their political opponents, the conservative Scipios (i.e., Scipio Aemilianus Africanus and Scipio Nasica) — to the time of Marius and Sulla. We wonder how with this corrupt Roman nobility, incompetent leadership, self-interested Senate and mediocre generals and consuls, the aristocratic Roman Republic achieved the conquest of the Western world, halted the barbarian hordes, constructed engineering marvels, such as bridges, roads and aqueducts, codified magnificent laws, and lasted 5 centuries in which Roman citizenship was coveted and treasured, civilization spread, and commerce flourished. Even after Augustus triumphed nearly a century later, the forms (although not the substance) of Republican government with consuls, Senate, divided powers, etc. were maintained and lasted another 300 years. ithridates VI of Pontus

Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix

Marius and Sulla collaborate in the Social War against the Italians but once this savage conflict is settled, and new hostilities arise in the East in the form of the barbarities and invasions by Mithridates VI, King of Pontus, legal command of the new war is given to Sulla because Marius, now advancing in age and in declining years, is no longer fit for command. McCullough partially incapacitates (and excuses) Marius with a series of strokes, thus explaining his irresponsible, mad, criminal behavior in his final years. Plutarch does not ascribe Marius’ belligerency and cruelty to stroke. In fact, Marius’ illness is not described by Plutarch as a stroke or an affectation of his mind but to his latent personality. And when he was not given overall command of the Roman army in the Social War or the war against Mithridates, it was because of his age and declining years (not only was he old but also corpulent): “Marius who was thought tardy… the people bade him to go to the baths at Baiae, to cure his body worn out, as he himself had confessed, with age and catarrh.”(3) Be that as it may, from McCullough’s “strokes,” Marius recovers twice, and this turns out to be a disaster for Roman history.

Sulla was elected consul in 88 B.C. with his colleague Quintus Pompeius Rufus. He won the corona graminea, the highest military honor awarded by the Roman legions in battle, toward the end of the Social or Marsian War. It was awarded to Sulla for personal bravery, when during the battle the Roman army, facing annihilation and threatening to rout, Sulla forced a rally of the troops, counterattacked, and by his personal efforts saved the Roman army in the field in front of the fortified Italian enemy city of Nola. The crown made from woven grasses from the battlefield was solemnly placed on his head by the leading centurions upon acclamation by the legions.

The Social War was ending with victory for Rome and reconciliation with the Italians was being accomplished by extending them the coveted Roman citizenship. A new confrontation was brewing in East, where King Mithridates of Pontus had succesfully organized a conspiracy that resulted in the massacre of 150,000 Romans, Italians, and their slaves throughout the Hellenistic world.

Bust of Mithridates VI (120-63 BC) Eupator, King of Pontus, in the Louvre

Sulla was made commander-in-chief of the army and made preparations to march East to confront the new hostilities commenced by the troublesome Mithridates VI, perpetual thorn in Rome’s side. As if this was not enough, as Sulla prepared to depart from Brundisium, he learned the demagogue Publius Sulpicious Rufus, Tribune of the Plebs, in cahoots with Gaius Marius, reversed Sulla’s command and gave it to Marius. Immediately, Sulla took six of his legions and made the fateful decision to march on Rome, an unprecedented action in the history of the Republic, to reassert his constitutional mandate as Consul and commander-in-chief. He was supported by one of his gifted commanders, Lucius Licinius Lucullus. He easily defeated and routed his Marian opponents and entered the city victorious. Marius and his son escaped, but Sulpicius was assassinated by one of his slaves. Sulla reestablished order, strengthened the power of the Senate and then proceeded with his plan to depart with his army and defeat the various Mithridatic forces massed in Greece and Asia.

After a series of adventures and misadventures Marius escaped to Africa and was reunited with his son, Young Marius. With Sulla now in the East fully occupied in fighting Mithridates, Marius and his followers, who had been reassembling, seized the opportunity and returned to Rome in 87 B.C., where Marius allied himself with the leader of the Populares faction, the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna, who was busy in Rome dismantling Sulla’s reforms.

Marius seized the opportunity in the rampant civil strife and returned with a small armed force to Rome, pledging his support to the consul Cinna. With Cinna’s cooperation and using force and unprecedented violence, they reestablished themselves in Rome and began exterminating Sulla’s friends. Marius proved he would do anything to fulfill his prophesied and much coveted seventh consulship, which he achieved in 86 B.C. Mad, revengeful, and now criminally insane, Marius turns loose his personal bodyguard and slave army, his savage but loyal Bardyaei, on the defenseless citizens of Rome, wreaking death and destruction in the city. But with his third and final “stroke,” only 17 days after attaining his last consulship, Marius dies leaving his Bardyaei on the loose and his son, Young Marius, and the Consul Cinna in command. The city hopes for Sulla to return and put an end to the anarchy.

References

1) McCullough C. The First Man in Rome. 1990. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY.
2) McCullough C. The Grass Crown. 1991. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY.
3) Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Translated by John Dryden. Modern Library, Random House, New York, NY, p. 515.

Reviewed by Dr. Miguel A. Faria

Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D. is Clinical Professor of Surgery (Neurosurgery, ret.) and Adjunct Professor of Medical History (ret.) Mercer University School of Medicine. He is an Associate Editor in Chief and World Affairs Editor of Surgical Neurology International (SNI), and an Ex-member of the Injury Research Grant Review Committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2002-05; former Editor-in-chief of the Medical Sentinel (1996-2002). Author, Vandals at the Gates of Medicine (1995); Medical Warrior: Fighting Corporate Socialized Medicine (1997); and Cuba in Revolution: Escape From a Lost Paradise (2002). His website is https://HaciendaPublishing.com.

This article may be cited as: Faria MA. The Grass Crown — Ancient Rome: Marius vs Sulla and the Marsian Wars! HaciendaPublishing.com, June 6, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/the-grass-crown–ancient-rome-marius-vs-sulla-and-the-marsian-wars.

(The Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough (1990). William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY, 896 pages.)

The photographs used to illustrate this exclusive article for Hacienda Publishing came from a variety of sources and do not necessarily appear in Colleen McCullough’s The Grass Crown. A shortened and unillustrated version of this article appeared also in Amazon.com book reviews.

Copyright ©2013 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.


The First Man in Rome — The Apotheosis of Gaius Marius!

This is a wonderful introduction to the “Masters of Rome” series of historic novels by famed author Colleen McCullough. The first tome in this series, The First Man in Rome, at 896 pages, including magnificent maps, glossary, even sketch portraits of many of the main characters, is incredibly well-researched. Crisp writing, eloquent prose, exhilarating reading, spellbinding plots and intrigue — are all parts and parcel of this literary, unfolding, historic drama. The historic novel would have been a complete masterpiece had not the author fallen head over heels for the main protagonist, Gaius Marius, to the detriment of other historic figures who deserved better, particularly when the author boasted of historic veracity. Indeed, McCullough’s scholarship is outstanding, and her literary abilities certain; the problem lies elsewhere, apparently her politics and her prejudicial bias for the Populares faction at the expense of the Optimates and the historical veracity she claimed.

Thus, to cover her political leanings, the author does not use those terms at all in her novel, as she “does not want to give the impression that there were formal political parties.” The reality is she does not want to make her liberal leanings too obvious to her readership. Had she used those helpful and historic political terms, it would have made it too obvious that at least in her mind, with few exceptions, all the popular leaders and political demagogues pandering to the mob were the good guys with nobility of purpose and good intentions (e.g., not only Marius, but Saturninus and later Sulpicius, Cinna, and Carbo), while the Optimate leaders and the members of the old conservative-leaning families, those upholding the mos maiorum (i.e.,”the established order of things” and the “established customs of ancestors”) were, almost uniformly, the bad guys. For example Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus, actually a great and distinguished Roman, was turned into an incompetent general and undeservingly nicknamed “Piggle-wiggle” because in a fictional account Gaius Marius, McCullough’s hero, throws Numidicus down on a pigsty in Numantia to the delight of young Jugurtha and Rutilius Rufus. His son Metellus Pius, also a distinguished Politician and war hero, is made to stutter and called derisively “the Piglet.” The Caepios, with some truth, are severely and umnmercifully turned into despicable villains. McCullough dwells and relishes describing the low living, dissipated adolescence of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who is turned into a Dr. Jekyl and (mostly) a Mr. Hyde, a homosexual poisoner and serial killer with misogynistic tendencies and prone to pathological violence, which of course makes tantalizing reading but distorts history. In book two of this series, The Grass Crown, Sulla is even made to kill by poisoning a member of his party and mentor, Caecilius Metelus Numidicus, enraged in a completely fictional and implausible scenario! In fact, Sulla in his memoirs, which are unfortunately no longer extant but read and quoted by Plutarch, wrote that “his concord with Metellus, his equal, and his connections by marriage [were] a piece of preternatural felicity.”(1)

Returning to Gaius Marius, suffice to say that had he been a fictional character, McCullough would have been free to put him in Mount Olympus, but being a real historic figure with warts, wrinkles, and major flaws in his character — no better and in some ways worse than those of Lucius Cornelius Sulla — the revisionism in this fictional but historic novel raises eyebrows in some of us aware of Roman history and “qualified to judge.”

Gaius Marius, the so-called “Marius” bust, marble, Roman artwork of the 1st century BC, restored by Alexander Trippel, now in the Vatican Museums

In this book with some historic evidence, Gaius Marius, the New Man (i.e., the first in his family to reach consular status) is held suspect and disliked by the old aristocracy not only because of his humble origin, “an Italian hayseed with no Greek,” but also because of his opposition to the Senate, his involvement with the People’s and the Plebeian assemblies, where he usually obtained what he wanted politically (i.e., appointments and reappointments as consul and given repeated military commands), as well as his iconoclastic politics. Thus McCullough sets out to reconstruct Marius’ persona, to invent a more likable and agreeable character, albeit a less historic figure. McCullough transforms Gaius Marius, the man, into an accomplished orator, political thinker, almost a philosopher, the best of the Romans, graceful and congenial, despite his military manner. He is fluent in Ionian Greek but timidity prevents him from displaying his learning. Even Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, his political enemy, is made to admit, although rather implausibly, “Marius has a wonderfully sharp brain between his ears,”(2) and calls him the “Arpinate Fox” for his political acumen,(3) when in reality the historic record (not to mention Plutarch, whom the author herself has used in her research) gives us a very different and unflattering picture of the hero.

Plutarch writes: “[Marius] a man altogether ignorant of civil life and ordinary politics, he received all his advancement from war.”(4) Moreover, opines Plutarch, “[Marius is] inferior to others in agreeableness of conversation and the arts of political life, a mere tool and implement of war.”(5)

Novelistic license has its limits for those of us who, as the author puts it, “are qualified to judge.” And yet, McCullough has written a magnificent historic novel, and indeed most of what she has written with so much research is well within her purview of literary creativity and within the boundaries of factual history.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix

Take for instance the magnificent creation of Julilla, as the second daughter of Gaius Julius Caesar (grandfather of Julius Caesar), who in the story becomes Sulla’s first wife — thus binding Marius and Sulla to the Julii clan, as well as making them brothers-in-law and relations to the future Julius Caesar. Indeed in this novel, not unreasonably, Marius and Sulla are close confidantes and collaborating friends, militarily and politically, longer than we expect from the historic record. The plausible family interconnections and relations are in fact a stroke of literary and novelistic historic genius, given the fact that Sulla’s first wife was a “Julia,” and Sulla truly served as second-in-command to Gaius Marius, both during the war with Jugurtha in Numidia and against the Germanic Teutones and Cimbri. Likewise, the informative and witty correspondence of the consular Publius Rutilius Rufus and various characters, particularly his close friend Marius, is outstanding, reminding us of the use of similar literary correspondence in Gore Vidal’s masterpiece, Julian.

For the sake of intrigue and dramatic tension, I also find no fault in assigning Lucius Cornelius Sulla’s failure in his first campaign for the position of Praetor to the opposition of the powerful Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, Princeps Senatus. Why? Because of sexual matters and intrigue. The reasons chronicled were his lack of money and not having provided games for the mob as was expected of the candidates. To further enhance her novelistic plot, Caecilia Metella Dalmatica, Scaurus’ wife, had become infatuated with Sulla, embarrassing the influential and powerful Scaurus and threatening his dignitas! This makes for a more intriguing plot.

McCullough’s narrative is spellbinding: The 20-year migration of the Cimbri and Teutones to Italy from the Jutland peninsula and northern Germany, as related by the “spy” Sulla to Marius, is marvelously reconstructed. The events leading to and stemming from, as well as the battles of Arausio, in which 80,000 Romans were decimated; Aquae Sextiae, where the Teutones were obliterated in 101 B.C.; and finally Vercellae later that year, where the Cimbri armies were completely destroyed, are magnificently described.

Towards the end of this first book, Mccullough describes the insurrection of the odius Tribune of the Plebs, Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, favorite of the mobs, and his sidekick Gaius Servilius Glaucia who attempted the overthrow of the Republic with violence and mayhem. McCullough enhances their performance by writing for Saturninus a marvelous piece of oratory pandering to the mob. Nevertheless, Marius, who is forced to choose, makes the political decision to side with Scaurus and the Senate, and in the hands of Sulla enforces the Senate’s ultimate decree to protect the state — senatus consultum de republica defendenda. Saturninus, Glaucia and their followers, Marius’ former friends and political allies, are put to death. Had Marius retired at this point in his life to rest on his laurels — the conqueror of the Teutones and Cimbri and the saviour of Rome — his well-deserved historical reputation would have been unblemished. But that was not to be. Marius’ ambition to gain the seventh consulship and be the greatest Roman, and his consuming, iniquitous obsession to destroy the Senatorial class (to which he already belonged), would destroy him and marr his life.

Marcus Aemilius Scaurus (161–89 BC) was a Roman statesman who served as consul in 115 BC. He was also a long-standing princeps senatus

Aemilius Scaurus is another main character in this novel, and we are surprised to find he is perhaps the only conservative Roman politician whose reputation is enhanced. Indeed we learn to love him in this historic novel. Most other Roman conservative politicians are disparaged and belittled without mercy. And this political historic bias is a second (and closely related) detraction, the fictional apotheosis of Gaius Marius, in this otherwise spellbinding historic novel. Needless to say, those readers attuned only to historic melodrama, but not necessarily “qualified to judge” in the historic arena and oblivious to historic reality and political sentiment, will find no fault with this book and may even misconstrue my “parochial” criticism as undeserved. But the reader is invited to read the magnificent Plutarch, still highly readable, to ascertain my criticisms. These valid caveats still do not detract me from recommending this book (4 out of 5 stars). I have already finished her second book, The Grass Crown, and I am presently reading the third book in this series, Fortune’s Favorites. I plan to continue to review these books for my readers and for those interested in ascertaining fact from fiction in these fascinating historic novels.

References

1) Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Translated by John Dryden. Modern Library, Random House, New York, NY, p. 549.
2) McCullough C. The First Man in Rome. 1990. William Morrow and Company, Inc., p. 695.
3) Ibid., p. 718.
4) Plutarch, Lives. op cit., p. 513.
5) Ibid., p. 514.

Reviewed by Dr. Miguel A. Faria

Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D. is Clinical Professor of Surgery (Neurosurgery, ret.) and Adjunct Professor of Medical History (ret.) Mercer University School of Medicine. He is an Associate Editor in Chief and World Affairs Editor of Surgical Neurology International (SNI), and an Ex-member of the Injury Research Grant Review Committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2002-05; former Editor-in-chief of the Medical Sentinel (1996-2002). Author, Vandals at the Gates of Medicine (1995); Medical Warrior: Fighting Corporate Socialized Medicine (1997); and Cuba in Revolution: Escape From a Lost Paradise (2002). His website is https://HaciendaPublishing.com.

This article may be cited as: Faria MA. The First Man in Rome — The Apotheosis of Gaius Marius! HaciendaPublishing.com, June 4, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/the-first-man-in-rome–the-apotheosis-of-gaius-marius.

(The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough (1990). William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY, 896 pages.)

The photographs used to illustrate this exclusive book review for Hacienda Publishing came from a variety of sources and do not necessarily appear in Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome. An unillustrated, shortened version of this book review was published in Amazon.com on June 3, 2013.

Copyright ©2013 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.