Proscriptions: How to make a killing and beat your enemies

“And while the people were still in this state of mind, those murders by proscription which Sulla had once indulged in were once more resorted to and the whole city was filled with corpses. Many were killed in their houses, many even in the streets and here and there in the fora and around the temples; the heads of the victims were once more set up on the rostra and their bodies either allowed to lie where they were, to be devoured by dogs and birds, or else cast into the river.” Dio Cassius, 47.3.

Imagine going about your business one day, when you see your name on a list in a public square. You see the names of others – some are friends of yours, others are people you happen to know, others still you do not recognise. You have no idea what this means. Eventually, you come home, but your partner and children are gone: they have left you for fear of being punished. Before you can go out to look for them, there is a knock at the door. You answer – a group of men intrude, looking to cash in on the reward for bringing the head of the proscribed individual to the authorities. 

Now, imagine the same thing, but only this time you know exactly what this means.

Welcome to the greedy and morbid world of proscriptions, or how to annihilate your enemies and make a killing. 

There are two occurrences in Roman history I’d like to focus on where large-scale proscriptions reportedly took place: the first was in 82 BCE and the second some forty years later in 43 (AUC 672 and 711). It is worth noting that they were afterwards renounced as unacceptable by Roman Emperors and that they took part at a cataclysmic period for political philosophy, i.e. the first century BCE.

It was a period of war, civil and more than civil war. It was a time when a generation of Romans was cut down on battlefields or murdered in their homes – it was one hundred years of regeneration following mass acts of destruction, internal conflict that witnessed a nation tear out its own entrails. The Roman Republic of the People and the Senate was to be transformed from a collectivist culture into an individualist one: decisions of State made by consensus mutated into a machine dictated by one man projecting onto a global empire. This was a painful process.

We have come to see the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Principate, as a shift in political thought – a Roman Revolution, ushering in a new epoch, as James Frazer would describe it; when a new system emerges, the dying layer of the old regime needs to be removed. Disease and old age are natural exterminators; war and proscriptions are manmade. 

There are two reasons why proscriptions are beneficial to those who are able to use them: to eradicate your opposition and to pay your soldiers.

Sulla gained absolute authority after more than a decade of civil war and external war. The Social War of the late 90s had ended with more citizen rights given to the Northern parts of Italy (which meant that Rome was losing its peninsular hegemony), while the civil war between Sulla and Marius, respectively the Optimates and the Populares, was the beginning of the slaughter of the flower of Rome. Meanwhile, the first two of three Mithridatic wars in the East had ended in an inconclusive victory, if not a near total defeat. 

The distinction between Optimates and Populares helps us understand the proscriptions and also offers some insight as to why the Republic was to collapse. In essence, the Optimates represented a political pedigree; their family trees began with the Republic and most indeed would end with it. They relied on the status quo to maintain their position, whereas the Populares sought a new way to gain power: the Tribune of the Plebs. By inciting the power of the people and in time the army, they created a force that could topple their opponents. 

Sulla was old guard, one of the Optimates, and in his eyes Marius and all those who followed him were upstarts, one of the reasons he wanted to be as harsh as possible on his victims. “And what seemed the greatest injustice of all, he took away the civil rights from the sons and grandsons of those who had been proscribed, and confiscated the property of all.” It was a total eradication of his enemies and not only in the present, but for the future as well. Furthermore, not only did he not consult any magistrates on his decision, but also made it punishable by death to aid, abet or assist a proscribed man in anyway. 

Though he himself must have had some financial gain, it seems more his purpose to instigate a desire for profit in the bounty hunters: “Those who fell victims to political resentment and private hatred were as nothing compared with those who were butchered for the sake of their property, nay, even the executioners were prompted to say that his great house killed this man, his garden that man, his warm baths another.” Once more, we see greed for capital gain as the driving factor behind rotten methods. It is a divide and conquer tactic – by encouraging people to fight each other in the hope of material gain, this encourages individualistic behaviours, on both sides.

With as many as 9,000 killed, his measures were effective because they established some thirty years of Optimates power. During this time Pompey the Great, who had overseen Sulla’s funeral, could finally defeat Mithridates VI in 63 and lord over Rome. But political murder is a cyclical phenomenon and the pendulum will ineluctably swing in the other direction.

Julius Caesar, a trailblazer of Populares politics, was assassinated by desultory Optimates. However, by this point, those who were of the ancien régime would simply lack the means and unity to turn the tide in their favour, while from a historical perspective Caesar’s actions had buried the Republic and conceived the Empire. 

It is in this context that we explore the second round of Roman proscriptions. 

The Second Triumvirate, an official body with the purposing of ‘restoring the Republic’, was a fragile alliance between the two most powerful men and a buffer: Marc Anthony (Caesar’s de facto heir), Gaius Octavian (Caesar’s legal heir) and Marcus Lepidus (eye candy). They not only had scores to settle with their enemies – the Optimates were not totally defeated – but they also had to raise money to pay their armies. Coupled with the fact that three people were making the list, instead of just one, many more Romans were to be proscribed.

According to Dio Cassius there are two differences between Sulla’s proscriptions and the Triumvirates. The first is the unexpected nature of the first proscriptions came as a surprise, while the second time meant that people knew exactly what was going to happen. People saw history repeating itself and trembled. 

The next difference is that the three men who were wanting to eradicate their enemies had friends who appeared on the others’ lists and thus began a bargaining of friends and enemies. As Dio Cassius puts it: “In consequence they were now offering up to each other their staunchest friends in return for their bitterest enemies, and getting their most implacable foes in return from their closest comrades, sometimes exchanging equal numbers and sometimes several for one or fewer for more, and carrying on their negotiations in general after the fashion of a market, particularly in over-bidding one another as at an auction” (47.6). One death is a tragedy, whereas a thousand are profitable.

With around twenty active legions and decades of sweetening them with pecuniary rewards, the main reason for the proscriptions of 42 was to provide the land and gold to satisfy Rome’s greatest asset, and most deadly threat. It was robbing Peter to Paul, only here Peter is the likes of Cicero and others from an aristocratic class and Paul is the professional soldiery. Furthermore, to make this a long-standing arrangement, they did not record the deeds of the perpetrators, so that those families who had land confiscated could not ask for it to be restored to them under a different rule. 

The Triumvirate had learnt from Sulla’s mistake and paved the way for autocracy to take hold in Rome, though it is precisely this authoritarian grip that would bring peace.

Historiographical post-scriptum

My sources are Plutarch (Life of Sulla, 31) and Cassius Dio (Roman History 47.3), who were writing respectively roughly 150 and 250 years after the fact. The sources they used would probably have been more the victims of proscription rather than its beneficiaries. Furthermore, they would look down at this barbaric practice and question how such things might have happened in the first place. This might call into question the objectivity of their writings with regards the extent and impact of assassinations. 

Nonetheless they happened because absolute power requires money, and it’s always a delicate moment when you stand on the wrong side of history with a large purse of coin stashed in the attic.

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