CHAPTER IX. SULPICIUS.
The terrible disintegration which the Social War had brought on Italy was faithfully reproduced in Rome. There, too, every man's hand was against his neighbour. Creditor and debtor, tribune and consul, Senate and anti-Senate, fiercely confronted each other. Personal interests had become so much more prominent, and old party-divisions were so confused by the schemes of Italianising politicians, aristocratic in their connexions, but cleaving to part at least of the traditional democratic programme, that it is very hard to see where the views of one faction blended with those of another and where they clashed. [The Sulpician revolution difficult to understand.] Still harder is it to dissect the character of individuals; to decide, for instance, how far a man like Sulpicius was swayed by disinterested principles, and how far he fought for his own hand. We need not make too much of the fact that he appealed to force, because violence was the order of the day, and submission to the law simply meant submission to the law of force. But there are some parts of his career apparently so inconsistent as almost to defy explanation which in any case can be little more than guesswork.
[Sulpicius.] Publius Sulpicius Rufus was now in the prime of life, having been born in 124 B.C. He was an aristocrat, an orator of great force and fire, and a friend of Drusus, whose views he shared and inherited. Cicero speaks of him in no grudging terms. 'Of all the speakers I have heard Sulpicius was the grandest, and, so to speak, most tragic. Besides being powerful, his voice was sweet and resonant. His gestures and movements, elegant though they were, had nothing theatrical about them, and his oratory, though quick and fluent, was neither redundant nor verbose.' [Financial crisis at Rome.] The year before his tribunate had been a turbulent one at Rome. The Social War and Asiatic disturbances had brought about a financial crisis. Debtors, hard pressed by their creditors, invoked obsolete penalties against usury in their defence, and the creditors, because the praetor Asellio attempted to submit the question to trial, murdered him in the open Forum. The debtors responded by a cry for tabulae novae, or a sweeping remission of all debts. Of these debtors many doubtless would belong to the lower orders; but, from a proposal of Sulpicius made the next year, it appears probable that some were found in the ranks of the Senate. War had made money 'tight,' to use the phraseology of our modern Stock Exchange, and reckless extravagance could no longer be supported by borrowing.
[Sulpicius the successor of Drusus.] Sulpicius inherited the policy of Drusus, which was to reconstruct the Senatorial Government on an Italian basis. Like Drusus he had to conciliate prejudices in order to carry out his design. Plutarch says that he went about with 600 men of the equestrian order, whom he called his anti-Senate. No doubt it was to please these equites, who would belong to the party of creditors, that he proposed that no one should be a senator who owed more than 2,000 denarii. No doubt, too, he would have filled the vacancies thus created by the expulsion of reckless anti-Italian optimates, from the ranks of these equites, just as Drusus had done. [He attempts to remodel the government.] Just like Drusus, too, he had to court the proletariate, and this he did by proposing to enrol freedmen in the tribes. This, as they were generally dependent on men of his own order, he could do without prejudice to the new-modelled aristocracy which he was attempting to organize. He also proposed to grant an amnesty to those who had been exiled by the Lex Varia, hoping, no doubt, to gain more by the adherents who would return to Rome than he would lose by the return of men like Varius himself. He had opposed such an amnesty before; but on such a point he might have easily changed his views, especially if a strong cry was being raised by the friends of the exiles. He had a personal feud with the Julian family, because he had opposed Caesar's illegal candidature for the consulship; but, having fortified himself by such alliances, he proceeded to carry out the main design of Drusus, namely, the complete enfranchisement of the Italians. [Pro-Italian measure of Sulpicius.] This, perhaps, would be especially distasteful to the Julii, as superseding the Lex Julia and the Lex Plautia Papiria, which to them, no doubt, seemed ample and more than ample concessions. Sulpicius, on the other hand, and the minority of the Senate which sided with him, saw that under the cover of clemency a grievous wrong was being done. For not only were the Italians who had submitted since the terms of the Lex Plautia took effect without the franchise, but from the fact of their rebellion they had lost their old privileges as allied States. Even those who had benefited by these concessions had benefited only in name. As they voted in new tribes, their votes were valueless, and often would not be recorded at all; for a majority on most questions would be assured long before it came to their turn to vote. To a statesman imbued with the views of Drusus such a distribution of the franchise must have seemed impolitic trickery; and, like Drusus, Sulpicius resorted to questionable means in order to gain the end on which he had set his heart.