The Saturninus Affair, pars I
by: M. Horatius Piscinus
PARS I | PARS II | PARS III | PARS IV
This essay-cycle concerns the murder of Appuleius Saturninus, and the trial of Rabirius for the crime some 47 years later. It is an interesting tale, its characters well known. Marius, the prosecuting tribune Titus Labienus, the praetor Julius Caesar sitting as judge, Consul Cicero speaking for the defense, Q. Caecilius Metellus Celer as the opposing praetor, his wife Clodia, her lover Catullus, her brother P. Clodius Pulcher, all in the few short months leading up to the Catilina episode.
Every tale should have a clear beginning and a definite end. But this is a tale of a feud. A feud not between two rival political factions, as it is often portrayed, but a family feud lasting over generations. We can start then from the two first antagonists.
Back in 109 BCE Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus was Consul, commanding the legions in the Numidian campaign, and doing a rather poor job of it. He was a haughty commander, who managed to upset his legatus, Gaius Marius. Marius of course returned to Rome, managed to get himself elected Consul in 107, reformed the Roman army, and went back to conclude the war with a swift campaign against Jugurtha. Numidicus lost face and Marius' popularity was about to begin.
In 103 BCE the tribunus plebis Appuleius Saturninus passed a series of measures: drastically reducing the price of the monthly corn ration, establishment of new permanent courts to hear cases of maiestas which broadened the definition of what constituted treason (the Lex Appuleia will come into play later), and the distribution of land in North Africa to the veterans of Marius' Numidian campaign. His colleague, tribunus plebis G. Servilius Glaucia introduced a separate law restoring the Equites to a position where they constituted the permanent tribunals.
In 102 Numidicus was Censor and tried to have both Saturninus and Glaucia removed from the Senate. The Senatorial Party was opposed to Saturninus' agrarian law that gave land to Marius' veterans. Marius had of course first upset them by recruiting the urban poor into his army. The fact that Marius had won the war with this 'rabble of sewer scum', where Numidicus had failed with an army of Roman gentry, was just too much of an insult to Numidicus' dignity. To reward the army with land only made Numidicus' pride fester all the more.
The case against Saturninus and Glaucia was presented in the following year; they were brought up on capital charges. As they were senators they had to go before a special court, originally set up by T. Gracchus, which was composed entirely of Equites. The reason such a court had been set up was that the Senate had a monopoly on judgeships, and couldn't be trusted to sit as judges against fellow senators. After the Gracchi were murdered by the Senate, the Equites had had their position on such tribunals removed. So, in this case one of the defendants being Glaucia who had restored the position of the Equites proved to be an asset for the defense. Saturninus and Glaucia were acquitted in 101.
In 100 BCE Saturninus was again elected as tribunus plebis, with Glaucia now as praetor, and Marius was in his sixth Consulship. Saturninus proposed a new agrarian bill, giving land to Marius' veterans of the Cimbrian campaign in Cisalpine Gaul, establishing Latin colonies in Sicily, Macedonia and Achaea, and granting citizenship to those Italians who had sent troops to fight in the German campaigns. By this time the majority of troops in Roman legions were Italians, but not Roman citizens, and Saturninus proposed to correct that. Marius as Consul supported Saturninus' measures. As part of the measure, the Senators were to vow to uphold the measure passed by the Comitia. One senator refused, Q Caecilius Metellus Numidicus. Numidicus ended up going into exile for his refusal, followed by his son who gained the name Q Caecilius Metellus Pius for his devotion to his father.
Elections were held for the following year. Saturninus won reelection as tribunus plebis for 99. Glaucia had attempted to run as Consul, but the Senate disallowed his candidacy. Disorder broke out. Saturninus arranged for the assassination of G. Memmius, who was the Senate's candidate for Consul. So no elections were being held for the Consulship. The Senate made some moves against Saturninus, and Saturninus and Glaucia seized the Capitoline.
A minor digression: "The Capitoline" was actually only the southern hilltop where the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus was located; the northern hilltop was the arx or citadel, where also was the auguraculum. The arx was where Titus Tatius had his house, the site later converted by Camillus into the Temple of Juno Moneta. The arx was also the location where the signal flag, vexillum russi coloris, was kept, that will play a role in the next portion of the story. The two hilltops together, along with the saddle in between, was called Mons Saturnus; only later was the entire hill called the Capitoline. Patricians had been prohibited from building on the Capitoline after the Manlius affair; but wealthy plebeians, members of the nobiles, did have their houses on the Capitoline/Saturnus. After this whole affair, Saturninus' house was burnt down by the Senate, its location unknown. But it is a good possibility, with his cognomen referring to it, that Saturninus' house was on Mons Saturninus and that, as he was Tribune, it represented a place of sanctuary under law. So to say that Saturninus and Glaucia "seized the Capitoline" as the Senate later charged is probably inaccurate; instead their plebeian followers gathered in the sanctuary of the house of their tribunus plebis, which happened to be on the Capitoline.
The Senate then passed a senatusconsultum ultimum, only the second time it had done so. The first one was passed in 122 BCE against T. Gracchus and his followers, as a way of circumventing a new Gracchan law, the Lex Sempronia de provocatione (which required that citizens could not be tried on capital charges without consent of the Comitia, and that a citizen could not be executed without Comitia consent, thus acting as a guarantee of the right of provocatio). It was regarded as a political maneuver on the part of the Senate in 122 to offer the innovation of an SCU, and it was not determined yet if it was even legal when it was attempted again in 100 BCE against Saturninus. The SCU called on the Consul to restore order in the city by any possible means. The Consul, however was Saturninus' ally, G. Marius.
Marius brought his troops into Rome. Ostensibly they were there to quell the riots and seize Saturninus, but also as a reminder to the Senate that it was his veterans who had been promised land, and that his present legionaries expected no less. There are some conflicting reports about Marius' role in this affair. The general interpretation is that after being allied with Saturninus for so long, Marius withdrew his support because of what appeared to be the excesses of Saturninus that were leading to what Cicero would later call 'rule by the tribunes.' That is rather doubtful. The tribunes and the Comitia were the real political authority in Rome at the time, the Comitia at the height of its power. The Senate was only an advisory board and really had no authority to issue a senatusconsultum ultimum. The real power rested in Marius' army who were decidedly supportive of Saturninus. Marius himself held office because of the support of the populares in the Comitia, and command of legions was decided by election in the Comitia. The myths about Marius siding with the Senate, the tribunes trying to usurp power from the Senate, the constitution granting a power of the Senate to issue an SCU, all came after Sulla.
What seems to have happened is that Saturninus and Glaucia came to see Marius; according to the myth they surrendered to him. Assured of Marius' protection, Saturninus and Glaucia entered the Senate to negotiate a resolution of the situation that would allow an election of the Consuls to take place. The Senate locked its doors behind them, and then murdered Saturninus and Glaucia. There are different accounts as to how they were killed. Cicero made claim in a later trial that a slave by the name of Scaeva killed them. Another story was that Marius had them locked in a cell and the Senate tore off the roof and stoned them. Afterward the Senate went after the followers of Saturninus, and several more were killed.
The issues involved here were not resolved by the murder of a tribune and his followers. The issues were land for veterans, citizenship for the Italians, the Senatorial Party resorting to different means including murder to thwart the decisions of the Comitia, and the Senate's usurpation of authority to bypass the laws with arbitrary edicts that controverted the laws. In 91 BCE tribune M. Livius Drusus posed another agrarian measure, again granting citizenship to the Italians. But when instead he was murdered by the Senatorial Party, the Social War broke out, and Marius was again named Consul to save Rome. Those events then led to the Civil War between Marius and Sulla.
So how did this develop into a family feud? That I'll tell in the next essay on the trial of senator Rabirius for the murder of Saturninus. But as a preview, the two praetors in 63 BCE when the trial takes place are Q Caecilius Metellus Celer, grand-nephew of Q Caecilius Metellus Numidicus, and G. Julius Caesar, born the year Saturninus was killed, the nephew of Marius and son-in-law of Cinna. And what's a tale of political intrigue and violence without a little sex too? ...Well, a little innuendo Cicero drops in the trial plays a part in its aftermath.
Proceed to pars II