Ladies and gentlemen, we got him: Sulla, Sallust and the capture of Jugurtha


A long time ago (in my second post) I talked about/compared the various layers of historical bias in favour of the Roman political figures Marius and Sulla and at one point I mentioned how Sulla’s writing of his own memoirs (even though they haven’t survived) lead to bias in his favour as other ancient writers (whose writings have survived, at least in part) used said memoirs as a source without being sufficiently critical (which was kinda their thing…..). For example I believe insufficiently critical use of Sulla’s memoirs as a source is responsible for the content of the following extract (keep in mind that if I’m wrong about the present extract there’s no shortage of other potential examples) from Sallust’s Jugurthine war, more specifically the extract is about Sulla’s negotiations with king Bocchus of Mauretania and the negotiations of Jugurtha and his representative with the same king:

“On the next day the king [Bocchus] called Aspar, Jugurtha’s legate, and said that through the agency of Dabar he knew from Sulla that the war could be laid aside under certain conditions: could he therefore find out the opinion of his king. Delightedly the man set off for Jugurtha’s camp; then, fully informed by the latter, he sped on his way and returned to Bocchus after eight days and reported that, while Jugurtha desired to do everything that was being commanded, he had little confidence in Marius: often before, a peace agreed with Roman commanders had proved fruitless; but, if Bocchus wanted the interests of both of them to be consulted and a certified peace, he should do his best to ensure that they all convened for a dialogue as if concerning peace, and should there hand Sulla over to himself: when he had such a man in his power, that would be the time for a treaty to be made on the order of senate or people! A noble individual in the power of the enemy not through his own cowardly apathy but for the sake of the commonwealth would not be abandoned.”

Now to me this seems suspect, Sulla at this time was not a very important Roman magistrate or a figure of much standing, he was a Quastor, the lowest rung on the cursus honorum, furthermore his family though patrician were obscure and he himself was born into (by Senatorial standards at the very least) poverty. As members of Rome’s elite go he was not at the time important, lacking office’s and achievements and likely money and friends as well. Why then would his capture result in much better conditions of peace for Jugurtha? At least ones that would last,on a few occasions whole Roman armies (with thier commanders) had been surrounded facing nearly certain destruction and their commanders had signed peace treaties with the enemy in order to get themselves and/or their men home alive. However on all occasions once the Roman army had gotten safely away the treaty was repudiated. Jugurtha himself early in the same war had by his surrounding of a Roman army provided an example of this behaviour. Furtheremore during the First Punic war Carthage captured Marcus Atilius Regulus, a Roman pro-consul, who had been consul twice (one suffect but still) and
refused to bargain for his safe return.This extract smacks of Sulla building himself up after the fact, with hindsight on Sullust’s part projecting Sulla’s later importance to his very early career (Ancient biographers/historians loved over projecting stuff from the later years of a key figure to thier early life/career, indeed thier over and inappropriate use of projecting would make the modern motivational industry proud) this and the lack of other available sources conspired succesfully to obtain Sullust’s credulity.

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Samuel Runge

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