The Saturninus Affair: Epilogue
by: M. Horatius Piscinus

I hope you enjoyed my account of Saturninus and Rabirius, filled with inaccuracies as it may be. We can't be very sure what happened in 100 BCE, or whatever role Rabirius played in it. The reason behind his prosecution concerned the politics of 63 BCE rather than earlier. What can we make of it then? The trial was one of those turf battles politicians like to get into; heated arguments over obscure points of law that people care little about until it affects them personally. We know more about what came later than we do the causes leading up to it. If Caesar and Labienus were trying to make a point on a principle of Roman law, the optimates did not learn their lesson. Before the year was ended, in Oct 63, word of the Catiline conspiracy had leaked out and Consul Cicero had captured six followers of Catilina and executed them without trial. That was to ruin Cicero's career; it cost him his supporters and made him a target of his enemies. In the end Cicero was exiled over it and finally executed by agents of Marcus Antonius.

What can we really make of Cicero? He was a political figure much like Newt Gingrich turned out to be. He rose in politics because of his ability to verbally abuse his opponents, but with little or no ability in politics itself. His bombastic speeches made him a useful tool of the conservatives at times, but his schemes cost the conservatives any support they might have had with moderates, and so their leadership in the Senate narrowed. He wrapped himself in false morality that his opponents and friends were well aware was only a facade, costing him his integrity within every faction. His corruption was considerable, but maybe moderate by the standards of his day. Before leaving his office of Consul at the end of 63, Cicero had alienated his conservative supporters: Catulus, Metellus Nepos, Metellus Celer, Cato, P. Servilius Vatia Isauricus. Cicero was neither ideologically unwavering enough to appease the extreme optimates, nor moderate enough to effectively build a political coalition. He was never really part of the conservative elements he served but he had served them too closely to be accepted among any other faction. In that too there can be a parallel drawn with Gingrich. In 60 when he published his Catiline speeches, Cicero inflated his position, tried to justify his actions by inflating the danger. The speeches served only to further alienate Pompey into joining with Cicero's opponents that year, forming the Triumvirate with Crassus and Caesar. By 60 Cicero had been abandoned by everyone. In 58 he fled the city rather than face trial for the murders of Catilina's supporters. Later he was recalled to Rome by the optimates tribune Milo and continued to defend conservatives, but by then he was a laughingstock of the populares and an embarrassment to the optimates.

We might compare the trial of Rabirius to the impeachment of President Clinton. For all the animosity it generated, neither side won. The conservatives stating their high principles only served to expose their own hypocrisy. The law abused for political and personal reasons resolved nothing and served only to create greater animosity between the rival parties. Polarization increased, compromise became impossible, political battles were moved to the courts with accusations and counter-accusations, and nothing was resolved until the breaking point that ended in the Civil War. And what can we make of the two parties involved in all this? The optimates spoke of their defending the state, their ideal of which was that brought in earlier by Sulla whom they idolized. That served only to alienate them from all who had suffered under Sulla's rule. They considered their wealth and political positions to justify their right to exploit the people with high-handedness as Sulla had been their example. Invoking Sulla's mantle without his power cost them in the end. When Cicero defended Rabirius by claiming he had done no more than what others had done that day, enumerating the names of proconsuls who had joined in murdering Saturninus and his followers, it served only to distinguish the conservative elements. When he appealed to the memory of the Gracchi, claiming Rabirius was being denied rights, much as today's Gingrich had tried to appeal to the memory of the Kennedys and Truman, it served only to show the difference between their policies and that of the conservatives.

The populares were not much better in their own actions, only different in their style. They appealed to older forms in the political tradition, relied on democratic institutions, postured themselves as protectors of the people against the abuses of the wealthy when they were themselves the wealthiest. Perhaps the trial of Rabirius benefited Caesar. Sitting as judge he did not expose his views and gave a public appearance of being moderate. Perhaps by not pursuing the trial further he won the support of more moderate elements in the Senate. The goals of the prosecution seem to have changed during the trial, from one of challenging the basis of any senatusconsultum ultimum to a position that an SCU could not be used to justify executions without trial. So we can say that Caesar moved towards the moderates in this political trial, and that Cicero's later use of an SCU contrary to this moderate position only served to emphasize the differences between the radical right and the moderate left, if we can use those terms. In the years that immediately followed, Caesar was supported by Crassus and Pompey, neither of whom had any links with the Marians but were clearly Sullani. Caesar played upon his family relations to position himself as the leader of the Marians, yet appeared to have checked Labienus so that he appeared to be a moderate Marian.

In the following year, 62 BCE, Metellus Nepos and Cato the Younger became tribunes, supporting the optimates. Praetor Caesar left for Spain to take up his post as governor. Pompey returned from the East and disbanded his army at Brudisium. He was denied a triumph, his veterans denied land, and his arrangements in the East opposed by Cicero, Celer, and Lucullus. Lucullus was married to Clodia, sister to Celer's wife Clodia, and both were sisters of Clodius Pulcher. That same year Clodius Pulcher entered the secret rites of Bona Dea held in praetor Caesar's house. It was Cicero who prosecuted Pulcher for sacrilege. Pulcher was acquitted and in 58 was himself tribune, prosecuting and exiling Cato and Cicero.

Metellus Celer, who disrupted Rabirius' trial, became Consul in 60. In 59, however, his wife Clodia poisoned Celer. One of Celer's relatives, M. Caelius Rufus, was tried in 56 for a plot to assassinate Clodia; Cicero was his defense counsel.

Pulcher did not fair well either. On 18 Jan 52, while leading a gang of populares, he ran into a rival gang of Milo's optimates on a road outside Rome. A fight ensued and Pulcher was killed. Milo was tried for the murder, Cicero again called upon to defend the excesses of the optimates. But Cicero was attacked (verbally) by tribune Sallustius for defending Milo, and was warned by Caesar not to leave his house. Cicero hid, never to deliver his speech that has since come down to us. Milo was convicted and sent into exile. When Cicero wrote an apology to Milo for not appearing in his defense, Milo replied that it had all turned out for the better as he was enjoying the Marseilles cuisine.

Caesar became Consul in 59. One of his first acts as Consul was to have his colleague beaten so that he could rule alone. He proposed a distribution of land to Pompey's veterans. It was blocked in the Senate by Cato, but Caesar pushed it through the Comita. He managed to pay his political debts, take care and protect his clientele, while using his surrogates' thugs to beat down opposition. At the same time, even his opponents admitted, he was exceptionally charming and considerate towards people of all ranks so that he won the support of many. He was the model of the ideal mafioso. The Senate thought they had successfully neutralized him by assigning him Cisalpine Gaul for his next governorship. It was intended as a slight to him, where as consul he could have expected a richer province to govern in 58. But it was there that Marius' veterans had been settled by Saturninus, where Metellus Pius had campaigned against the Marians and alienated the populace towards the optimates. The province provided Caesar with the luxury of a solid political base from which to launch his campaign into Gaul proper. In Rome Celer was dead, Cato and Cicero exiled. The optimates were leaderless and in disarray, while Caesar's allies in Crassus and Pompey commanded the Senate and Pulcher and the populares held sway over the Comitia. But things do have a strange way of coming back around on people.

Throughout the whole series of events from 109 down to 58 we have run into the many members of the Caecilius Metellus family. On the other side were the Servilii. Servilius Glaucia was killed at Saturninus' side. In 63 Cicero's opposition to the agrarian bill of Servilius Rufus precipitated the trial of Rabirius. And somewhere in there Caesar had an affair with Servilia, and by her had a son, L. Junius Brutus. Caesar's last words, spoken to Brutus, were in Greek, Kai su technon ("And you too, my son")?

© 2001-2017 Societas Via Romana