With his hands still dripping with the blood of hundreds of his political rivals whom he had massacred, Marius fled from Rome in defeat. The city had scarcely time to regain its breath, when, in Cicero’s words, ‘in the sequel Cinna and Marius got the upper hand. The lights of the city were quenched when its most illustrious men were slain. Later, Sulla took revenge for this bloody victory, and it is needless to recall how frightful was the slaughter of the citizens and the disaster to the state.’ Of this act of revenge, which did more harm than if the crimes avenged had been left unpunished, Lucan has this to add: ‘The remedy exceeded due measure, and the hand followed the trail of the disease too far. The guilty ones perished, but at a time when none but the guilty could survive.’
In the war between Marius and Sulla, besides the numbers slain in the battles outside Rome, in the city itself, the streets, the squares, the forums, the theatres, and the temples overflowed with corpses. It is hard to say whether the victors butchered more people while fighting for victory, or after they had won it. Close upon the success of Marius when he fought his way back from exile, not to mention the massacres perpetrated everywhere, the head of the consul Octavius was exposed on the rostra; the two Caesar brothers were killed in their own homes by Fimbria; the two Crassi, father and son, were slain before each other’s eyes; Baebius and Numitorius were dragged along with hooks and died when their bodies broke open; Catulus escaped from his enemies’ hands by taking poison; Merula, the flamen of Jupiter, opened his veins, and with his blood made a libation to Jupiter. Before the eyes of Marius himself, everyone was struck down whose salute he refused to acknowledge by raising his right hand.
Then followed Sulla’s victory. It was meant to avenge those atrocities, but was won only at the cost of numberless citizens’ lives. When the war was over, the bitter animosities kept alive in time of peace made the victory even more atrocious. For, after the old and new massacres ordered by the elder Marius, came a wave of bloodier ones instigated by his partisans, Carbo and the younger Marius. When they saw Sulla overshadowing them, threatening not only their hope for victory but even their lives, in desperation they spread havoc all around by further butcheries of their own. Not content with the widespread slaughter, they surrounded the Senate house and dragged the Senators from the Curia, as from a prison, to execution. The pontifex himself, Mucius Scaevola, was cut down as he threw his arms around the altar in the Temple of Vesta, a spot which the Romans held more sacred than any other, and with his blood almost extinguished the fire kept always burning by the constant vigilance of the Vestals.
Then, the victorious Sulla marched into the city. It was amid the furies not of war but of peace that he ordered 7,000 men slaughtered in a state villa, after they had capitulated and laid down their arms. Throughout the city, followers of Sulla put to the sword any they pleased. It was impossible to count the many corpses until Sulla was advised to leave alive some of the conquered, in order that the victors might have subjects to rule over.
Finally a halt was called to the orgy of authorized and indiscriminate murder. In its stead, a list, greeted with loud applause, was posted, giving the names of 2,000 men of two upper classes, equestrian and senatorial, and marking them for death or proscription. The number caused consternation, but the limit put to it was reassuring; there was less grief that so many were doomed than there was joy that the rest need no longer fear. Among those who were doomed to die, the fiendish manner of their execution wrung pity even from those who enjoyed their grim security. One victim was torn to pieces, not with weapons but with bare hands, thus affording the spectacle of human beings dismembering a live man with more ferocity than wild beasts do a corpse thrown to them. Another wretch had his eyes scooped out, and then, while his limbs were being hacked off piecemeal, his life, or rather his death, was forcibly prolonged in an agony of torture. Some splendid cities were sold at auction like small farms, but one of them was ordered to be led to execution, like a single culprit, and saw its entire population massacred.
The atrocities were committed in a period of peace following a war, not to hasten the winning of a victory, but that the victory once won might not be underestimated. Peace vied with war in a contest of ferocity, and peace won. War struck down men in arms; peace, men without weapons. According to the rules of war, the man who was struck, struck back if he could; by the rules of that peace, the man who escaped was not to live, but to die without a struggle.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII