The Saturninus Affair, pars II
by: M. Horatius Piscinus
PARS I | PARS II | PARS III | PARS IV
In the intervening years between the murder of Saturninus and the trial of Rabirius there had occurred the Social War, the Great Mithridatic War, and the Civil War between Marius and Sulla. The major thread that linked these events together, and back to Saturninus, were the issues of distributing land to veterans and enfranchisement of the Italians. For the sake of brevity we shall have to skip over that period. In the intervening period however, two men rose to prominence: M Licinius Crassus and Gn Pompeius Magnus ("Pompey"). Crassus became enormously wealthy by seizing the property of those proscribed by Sulla; Pompey had managed to gain for himself a reputation as a military hero of the Sullani.
Back in 100 BCE, Q Caecilius Metellus Numidicus had been sent into exile by Saturninus for refusing to vow to uphold the laws of the Comitia. He was followed into exile by his son, whose devotion to his father earned him the name Pius. Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius was praetor in 89 and had fought in the Social War. In 87, when Cinna and Marius were returning to Rome, the Sullani Senate called on Metellus Pius to defend the City. Instead he fled to North Africa. He returned in 83 to join with Sulla, and led the armies that defeated the Marians in Umbria and Cisalpine Gaul. In 80 he became Consul along with Sulla. Then in 79 he was made proconsul of Spain. There for 8 years he fought against arguably the best Roman general of all time, Q Sertorius. Pius proved to be no better a general than his father. But Sertorius was murdered by one of his own men, and Sertorius' army was finally defeated when a second army was sent to reinforce Pius, under the command of Pompey. Pompey got the credit. Metellus Pius went on to become Pontifex Maximus.
In 70 BCE Crassus and Pompey, serving together as Consuls, restored the tribunician powers that Sulla had removed. In 64 P. Servillius Rullus, tribunus plebis, proposed a new agrarian reform. He withdrew his proposal, however, when newly elected consul M Tullius Cicero attacked it, amid rumors of a conspiracy to murder the tribune under the guise of another senatusconsultum ultimum. That same year an aedilis made a name for himself by erecting statues in the Forum that were dedicated to the victories of Marius. The Senate was not pleased by this new political challenge, and the aedilis did not endear himself to them any more when he later rose to give a funerary oration for Marius' wife. But the Senate could not take action against this upstart, as the people supported the aedilis, and his actions could be dismissed as familial piety. Marius' wife after all was the aedilis' aunt. The aedilis himself was G. Julius Caesar, who was also the son-in-law of Cinna.
In 63 Pontifex Maximus Q Caecilius Metellus Pius died. The man who wanted to become the new PM was an ally of Cicero, Q Lutatius Catulus. But Caesar, seeing an opportunity to protect his person, managed to have himself elected PM instead. In October of that year Catilina attempted his coup. News of it leaked out, Catilina fled north, and Consul Cicero arrested six of his supporters in Rome. Cicero then went to the Senate to ask what he should do with his prisoners. The first Senators to speak demanded they be put to death, but when it became the young Senator Julius Caesar's turn to speak, he reminded the Senate of the Lex Sempronia that forbade the execution of Roman citizens without an indictment. Catulus, who harbored a grudge against Caesar over the PM position, then rose and accused Caesar of being a Catilina conspirator. He was joined in making these accusations by Cato the Younger. The Senate passed an SCU and authorized Cicero to execute the men, which he did without trial. Leaving the Senate afterwards, the men surrounding Cicero drew swords and went after Caesar. Caesar was only saved when tribune G Scribonius Curio threw his cloak over Caesar, granting him a tribune's protection. The following day Caesar returned to answer charges before the Senate. Outside had gathered a crowd of supporters demanding the Senate release Caesar. Later, to escape prosecution, Caesar had himself elected praetor. Catulus and Cato had a falling out with Cicero for failing to get Caesar when he had an opportunity. The senior praetor for the year 63 was Q Caecilius Metellus Celer, grandson of Numidicus' brother, and second cousin to Metellus Pius.
Between the rumors of an SCU over the Servilius Rullus proposal, and the SCU passed to justify executing Catilina's supporters, the populares sought to question the whole legitimacy of the Senate's use of such measures. They decided upon a test case, to try the aging senator G. Rabirius for the murder of Saturninus. Of all the senators involved in the incident, Rabirius was selected perhaps because he was in the habit of displaying Saturninus' pickled head as a centerpiece at his dinner parties. His role in the incident is not quite known, but we can assume he played a prominent part in having received such a trophy. At the time Saturninus was murdered Rabirius was however not a Senator but a member of the order of Equites. There may have been some more personal reasons for settling on Rabirius. The tribunus plebis who initiated the charges against Rabirius was Titus Labienus, whose uncle was one of Saturninus' followers killed in the aftermath. Rabirius did play a leading role in the riots that followed and several members of the populares held personal grudges against him because of it. There were however two other figures behind the prosecution, and either of them may have also sought a personal vengeance against Rabirius.
Crassus was the richest man in Rome and had used his wealth to assist many politicians, Caesar and Cato among them. He was also behind Catilina and may have wanted to test the Senate's SCU authority to prevent its use against himself in the future. Rabirius was one of the Equites elevated into the Senate by Sulla and had amassed a fortune like Crassus by seizing the property of those proscribed by Sulla. This he had accomplished while serving in administrative positions in the south, his holdings being mainly in Apulia and Campania. Crassus did not therefore hold any political or financial influence over Rabirius, but instead had been Rabirius' rival in acquiring the property of others, with Rabirius using his offices for his own benefit and thwarting the interests of Crassus.
A more immediate concern was with Pompey. Having resolved affairs in the East, he was soon to return to Italy along with his army. His arrangements in the East had made him even wealthier than Crassus. His army also made him a potential threat to the Senate, as Sulla had already proven once before. He asked the Senate to approve his rearrangement of the East and that they grant land to his soldiers. The Senate delayed and it was felt that Pompey might use his army to secure his requests. The potential for an SCU being issued against him was a serious consideration. Pompey's arrangements in the East increased the Roman treasury by 40%, but the way he did it was by decreasing taxes collected by the Equites in the old provinces, founding 40 cities that gave land to his veterans and the local population, and having client states pay tributes directly to Rome. The Sullani Senate had replaced the old landed aristocracy by executing half of them, proscribing the property of many more, and raising Equites like Rabirius into an expanded Senate where they held a majority. Other Equites served them as tax collectors in the East, from whom they received a cut of the profit. Land that might have been seized by the Senators was instead given to Pompey's colonies. So although the arrangements made Pompey very popular in the East, and very wealthy, it was at the expense of many in the Senate. Rabirius was one of those who thus opposed the Senate granting Pompey's requests.
Cicero was another person to play a dominant role in the trial of Rabirius. In his oration he mentions his long friendship with Rabirius. A "new man," Cicero had managed to be elected Consul only because Sullani like Rabirius had joined with moderate Senators to support him over Catilina in the 64 elections. There was also to be the other figure in the affair, Julius Caesar, whose growing political influence among the people made him a potential target of an SCU as well. Today we know that Crassus, Pompey and Caesar came together to form the first Triumvirate three years after the trial of Rabirius. Cicero was offered to join them but declined. It was in that trial that the disparate interests of these men first came together.
Proceed to pars III