The War against Aristonikos: The Years 132-131 BCE


  • The pontifex maximus Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio dies in exile in Pergamum; Publius Licinius Crassus Dives Mucianus is elected in his stead (132 BCE);
  • The consul Publius Rupilius ends the First Servile War on Sicily (132 BCE);
  • Scipio Aemilianus returns from Spain and celebrates a triumph for his victory at Numantia (132 BCE);
  • As consul, Publius Mucianus is given command of the war against Aristonikos, thus becoming the first pontifex maximus to leave Italy as a general (131 BCE);
  • Mucianus is defeated and killed by Aristonikos (131 BCE);
  • For the first time in history, two plebeian censors are elected, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus and Quintus Pompeius (131 BCE);
  • The people’s tribune Gaius Atinius Labeo threatens to throw the censor Metellus from the Tarpeian Rock after the latter refuses to enrol him in the Senate (131 BCE);
  • The Lex Papiria de suffragiis introduces the secret ballot for legislative assemblies (131 BCE);
  • The people’s tribune Gaius Papirius Carbo tables a bill that allows candidates to be elected people’s tribune as often as they want, but he is defeated in a debate with Scipio Aemilianus (131 BCE).

The new consuls Publius Popilius Laenas and Publius Rupilius continued the persecution of the supporters of Tiberius Gracchus. There do not seem to have been any proper trials; the consuls simply took the decisions themselves, no doubt with a mandate from the Senate. Velleius Paterculus claims that the consuls were notorious for their severity, and yet a few people were actually acquitted. One of them was a Stoic philosopher from Cumae named Blossius. He had been one of Gracchus’ advisors. Upon his acquittal he immediately left for Asia, where he joined the pretender Aristonikos, who now ruled the kingdom of Pergamum as Eumenes III. The kingdom had been bequeathed to Rome by its last king, Attalos III. He had died in 133 BCE, but it was probably because of the problems with Tiberius Gracchus that the Senate was slow to claim its prize.


The river Tiber.

The pontifex maximus Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio had been sent to Asia on a diplomatic mission, the nature of which is most unclear. He had led the violent opposition against Tiberius Gracchus and his life and limbs were in danger if he stayed in Rome. He seems to have died in Asia Minor in 132 BCE. Plutarchus claims that Nasica “roamed and wandered about in foreign lands ignominiously, and after a short time ended his life at Pergamum”.[1] Was it a natural death? Did Tiberius Gracchus’ supporters catch up with him? Did the pretender Aristonikos put him to death? Because of a lack of sources, we unfortunately cannot answer these questions. Now that Nasica was dead, a new pontifex maximus needed to be elected. The choice fell on Publius Licinius Crassus Dives Mucianus, an ally of the late Tiberius Gracchus.

In 131 BCE, Mucianus was elected consul as well. His consular colleague was Lucius Valerius Flaccus. By electing these two men, the Roman people had created a serious problem. The Senate wanted to send one of the consuls to Asia Minor to defeat Aristonikos and claim the former Pergamenian kingdom as a Roman province, but religious law prohibited both men from leaving Italy. Mucianus was the pontifex maximus. His distant relative Publius Licinius Crassus – also pontifex maximus – had respected this religious duty and had stayed in Italy in 205 BCE during the war with Hannibal. It is true that the previous pontifex maximus Nasica had been sent abroad, but that had been involuntarily. The Senate could not send Flaccus to Asia either, as he was the flamen Martialis. A flamen was not even allowed to leave Rome (see 242 BCE for a precedent that confirmed this rule).

The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

So what to do now? Cicero claims that the case was referred to the people.[2] Mucianus badly wanted the foreign command and threatened to fine his consular colleague if he neglected his religious obligations. As pontifex maximus, Mucianus was technically Flaccus’ superior, and this was confirmed by the people, although it also decided that any fine was to be remitted to Flaccus. Cicero asserts that the people could have entrusted the war against Aristonikos to Scipio Aemilianus, who had returned to Rome the previous year, fresh from his victories in Spain. But Scipio was just a private citizen now, and in the end the people voted to give the command to Mucianus. And so, at a time when breaking with tradition seemed to become the norm, a pontifex maximus left Italy to fight in a war abroad.

Mucianus’ campaign against Aristonikos ended in disaster. The Roman army was defeated and the consul himself was captured and then executed. Thus Mucianus not only became the first pontifex maximus to travel and fight abroad, but also the first to die abroad.


Replica of a Roman gladius (left).

In 132 BCE, the Romans finally managed to end the slave revolt or First Servile War on Sicily. Command of the Roman forces had been entrusted to the consul Publius Rupilius. The consul was a ‘new man’ (homo novus) from an undistinguished family, but turned out to be fairly competent. He first besieged the town of Tauromenium (modern Taormina) and intended to starve it into submission. Diodorus Siculus claims the inhabitants ultimately resorted to acts of cannibalism to stay alive.[3] One of the two main rebel leaders was a Cilician slave named Cleon, whose brother was captured by the consul. Rupilius did not want to storm the town, but simply waited. Ultimately the citadel was betrayed to him and Tauromenium was captured. The slaves that were still alive were not shown any clemency: they were flogged and then thrown off the rocks.

The consul subsequently set his sights on the main rebel stronghold of Enna. That was where it had all started back in 135 BCE. Enna was put under siege as well, and Cleon was killed during a sally, the Romans parading his dead body to intimidate the defenders. Enna was a tough nut to crack because of its position, but like Tauromenium, it was ultimately betrayed to the Romans. The other main rebel leader, a Syrian slave named Eunus, fled from the city with several hundred of his followers. Rupilius was hot on their tail, forcing many of them to commit suicide rather than suffering an even worse fate at the hands of the Romans. Eunus, however, was captured and taken to Morgantina. There he died in prison, “consumed by lice” according to Diodorus. Rupilius spent the rest of the year mopping up the last pockets of resistance, but the First Servile War, the worst slave revolt in Roman history, was now over.


Scipio Aemilianus had been at Numantia in Spain when his brother-in-law Tiberius Gracchus had been murdered. Plutarchus claims that he had cited Homer when he learned of Gracchus’ death – “So perish also all others who on such wickedness venture”[4] – thereby more or less condoning the murder. The story may very well be true, as it matches with a similar story about Scipio citing Homer upon the destruction of Carthage (see 146 BCE). After the capture of Numantia (see 134-133 BCE), Scipio returned home and in 132 BCE celebrated a triumph for his victory. The Romans were likely in need of a little entertainment after the political violence of the previous year, but the next year there were dark clouds over Rome again.

Helmet of a centurion.

The year 131 BCE was once again special. For the first time in Roman history, two plebeian censors were elected. The first plebeian censor had been elected in 351 BCE and his colleague had always been a patrician, even though the constitution by no means required this. A traditional people, the Romans waited another 220 years before electing the plebeian noblemen Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus and Quintus Pompeius. Metellus had defeated the Macedonian pretender Andriskos (see 148 BCE) and had fought with distinction against the Achaean League (see 146 BCE) and the Arevaci in Spain (in 143 BCE). Metellus was, in other words, an obvious choice. This was not the case with Pompeius, whose campaign in Spain in 141-140 BCE had hardly been a raging success.

As censors, Metellus and Pompeius registered 318.823 citizens. In a speech which purportedly inspired the emperor Augustus later, Metellus encouraged Roman couples to have more children. Apparently the birth rate was rapidly dropping. The censor also got into a conflict with a people’s tribune named Gaius Atinius Labeo. The source of the conflict was apparently the fact that Metellus had refused to make Labeo a senator when he revised the senatorial roll. Using his sacrosanctity, the tribune retaliated by threatening to throw the censor off the Tarpeian Rock. This would probably still be illegal, as ‘sacrosanct’ did not mean ‘above the law’. Fortunately the other tribunes intervened and prevented their colleague from committing another heinous murder.

Voting scene from Ancient Rome (113-112 BCE). A voter receives a ballot from an official (left), a second voter drops it into the ballot box (source: Münzkabinett Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

Among these other tribunes was probably Gaius Papirius Carbo, who had the popular assembly pass a bill introducing the secret ballot for assemblies that voted on draft legislation. The Lex Papiria de suffragiis complemented previous ballot laws from 139 BCE (about elections) and 137 BCE (about non-capital trials in the assembly). Carbo was obviously a popularis politician and a supporter of Tiberius Gracchus. Because of this he was intensely disliked by a man like Cicero, who called him a ‘factious and mischievous citizen’.[5]

Carbo would later change sides and support the optimates, but for now he endorsed the cause of the populares. He also tabled a bill in the assembly that stipulated that candidates could be elected people’s tribune as often as they wanted. This was exactly what Tiberius Gracchus had tried to do shortly before his death. Carbo was opposed by Scipio Aemilianus, who turned out to be a supporter of the optimates. Scipio’s speech was a good one, but his opponents forced him to comment on the murder of his brother-in-law Gracchus. Scipio rather foolishly admitted that he thought Gracchus’ measures had been stupid and that the murder had been somewhat justified. In the end, Scipio won the debate, but lost much of his prestige with the people.


Primary sources


[1] The Life of Tiberius Gracchus 21.3.

[2] Philippics 11.18.

[3] Bibliotheca historica, Book 34.20.

[4] The quote is from chapter I of the Odyssey.

[5] De Legibus III.35.


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