A marble bust of Sulla
An online conversation today reminded me of Plutarch, whose lively biographies provide so very much of our present knowledge of the statesmen and generals of classical antiquity. My very favorite passage of Plutarch (and possibly in the whole canon of Roman history) consists of three throw-away paragraphs from the life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix commonly called Sulla (or “Sylla” by 18th century classicists). The whole biography is worth reading, for Sulla was one of the greatest figures of the Roman Republic, a peerless general who lived during the harrowing struggle between the optimates and populares. Sulla assumed the long moribund office of dictator by force or arms (conquering Rome in the process). He used his supreme power to make necessary constitutional reforms, and then, to universal astonishment, he resigned. The following passage is not really about him though.
The first paragraph is a sort of Roman joke where Sulla takes a little vacation and expresses amazement upon coming across some survivors from a town he had exterminated. The second paragraph–my favorite–details how his troop captured a satyr and brought it before Sulla for interrogation (something worth keeping in mind when assessing Plutarch as a source). The third paragraph details the fair auguries and good omens which Sulla viewed as he prepared for combat—a particularly auspicious liver from a sacrificed animal and a pair of magical ghost goats fighting! It then offhandedly describes a great miltary victory Sulla won. Plutarch wrote this in 75 AD and the translation is from the pen of no less a poet than John Dryden. I love the passage for its robust color, its fancifulness, and for the window it provides into the long vanished Roman soul:
During Sylla’s stay about Athens, his feet were attacked by a heavy benumbing pain, which Strabo calls the first inarticulate sounds of the gout. Taking, therefore, a voyage to Aedepsus, he made use of the hot waters there, allowing himself at the same time to forget all anxieties, and passing away his time with actors. As he was walking along the seashore, certain fishermen brought him some magnificent fish. Being much delighted with the gift, and understanding, on inquiry, that they were men of Halaeae, “What,” said he, “are there any men of Halaeae surviving?” For after his victory at Orchomenus, in the heat of a pursuit, he had destroyed three cities of Boeotia, Anthedon, Larymna, and Halaeae. The men not knowing what to say for fear, Sylla, with a smile, bade them cheer up and return in peace, as they had brought with them no insignificant intercessors. The Halaeans say that this first gave them courage to re-unite and return to their city.
Sylla, having marched through Thessaly and Macedon to the sea coast, prepared, with twelve hundred vessels, to cross over from Dyrrhachium to Brundisium. Not far from hence is Apollonia, and near it the Nymphaeum, a spot of ground where, from among green trees and meadows, there are found at various points springs of fire continually streaming out. Here, they say, a satyr, such as statuaries and painters represent, was caught asleep, and brought before Sylla, where he was asked by several interpreters who he was, and, after much trouble, at last uttered nothing intelligible, but a harsh noise, something between the neighing of a horse and crying of a goat. Sylla, in dismay, and deprecating such an omen, bade it be removed.
At the point of transportation, Sylla being in alarm, lest at their first setting foot upon Italy the soldiers should disband and disperse one by one among the cities, they of their own accord first took an oath to stand firm by him, and not of their good-will to injure Italy; then seeing him in distress for money, they made, so they say, a free-will offering, and contributed each man according to his ability. However, Sylla would not accept of their offering, but praising their good-will, and arousing up their courage, went over (as he himself writes) against fifteen hostile generals in command of four hundred and fifty cohorts; but not without the most unmistakable divine intimations of his approaching happy successes. For when he was sacrificing at his first landing near Tarentum, the victim’s liver showed the figure of a crown of laurel with two fillets hanging from it. And a little while before his arrival in Campania, near the mountain Hephaeus, two stately goats were seen in the daytime, fighting together, and performing all the motions of men in battle. It proved to be an apparition, and rising up gradually from the ground, dispersed in the air, like fancied representations in the clouds, and so vanished out of sight. Not long after, in the self-same place, when Marius the younger and Norbanus the consul attacked him with two great armies, without prescribing the order of battle, or arranging his men according to their divisions, by the sway only of one common alacrity and transport of courage, he overthrew the enemy, and shut up Norbanus into the city of Capua, with the loss of seven thousand of his men. And this was the reason, he says, that the soldiers did not leave him and disperse into the different towns, but held fast to him, and despised the enemy, though infinitely more in number.
A Satyr Mosaic from Roman Ruins in Libya