This is a story of two friends, impoverishment, marriage, a fabulous treasure, military glory and downfall, as well of one ring, that was behind one of the most horrible wars in the Roman history.
Chapter One: Military glory
Our story has, if not humble beginnings, but at least a beginning, which can be taken as a typical Roman story. Q. Servilius Caepio was a consul of the year 106. He is from an ancient and proud patrician gens Servilia.
During his days the position of patricians was not what it had used to be a hundred or more years before. The fast growing population of Rome had driven patrician gentes to be such a small minority with overwhealming number of plebeian gentes ever growing. Plebeians had been given a chance for consulship and during the days of our Caepio, the majority of consuls were plebeian. Still Caepio was proud about his lineage, somewhat rightly so, being a descendant of consuls of 253, 203, 169 and 140.
His consulship reflected his, I’m tempted to say conservative, sentiments about the Roman society. He did what he could to overthrow the changes into Roman legal system by the brothers of Gracchi. What he did was to change the law about the composition of juries of the trials. The reform that was made before him was that the jurymen were chosen from the equites, but our Caepio cancelled this reform and from his days on the jurymen were chosen from the senatorial class, thus tightening the grip that narrow ruling nobility had from the Roman state.
After his consulship he was sent to fight in the border provinces in the established fashion of his family. He was chosen as proconsul of Gallia Cisalpina at the year of 105.
During those times the areas of Gallia and Germania were very different from the area of immediate Mediterranean coasts of Italy, Greece and North Africa. While being rich and prosperous, the Gallia and Germania were composed of numerous tribes and tribal societies. Many of these tribes were independent and warlike and certainly refused to submit themselves under Roman or any other authority.
This of course offered Romans excellent excuses for wars small and big. Behind Roman preference for war was not lust to conquer or grow the land area of the Roman empire, but a simple personal motivation: lust for riches. Caepio as well as other Romans who reached the highest positions of the Roman state, had to use considerable sums of money to build their career. They had to show largesse to the masses, give favours to political allies, buy and bribe their way through elections. After their run in public positions they usually were more or less broke and had to fill their coffers.
Rich provinces for taxation like Sicilia or Asia were for those who did not like the fight so much. For those who were more ambitious and warlike, the provinces in Gallia and Hispania were the places to go. Caepio had already made a name for himself by his campaigns in Hispania before his consulship and returned Rome with triumph at 107, which obviously give him boost for consulship at 106.
So our Caepio got himself assigned into Gallia Cisalpina, after his consulship, where he commanded the other Roman force at the province while plebeian consul of 105 Cn. Mallius Maximus commanded the other. They fought against numerous Germanic tribes: Teutones, Cimbri and Cherusci.
Chapter Two: A Fabulous treasure
Caepio won some smaller victories along his way in the province and hit the jackpot at Tolosa (Tolouse) where he plundered its temples. The size of this so called Aurum Tolosanum treasure is said to have been 15 000 talents, that is about 510 tonnes of gold. Be that figure accurate as it may, it is no doubt that the treasure robbed from the temples of Tolosa was a fabulous one.
In many ways our Caepio this far was an examplary Roman of his date and social class: successful military commander and statesman, who had secured the status and the future of his family by getting himself into the consular rank and getting rich while doing it. He also had son and therefore a male heir.
At this point of our story the fate steps in, as so often it tends to do in the stories of successful men, in the guise of pride.
Chapter Three: A Downfall of an illustrious man
As said, our Caepio was a proud man. While perhaps not that evident before his proconsulship in Gallia, I think we can safely assume that pride was one of his leading traits. What he did in Gallia was to demonstrate his pride about being a patrician by refusing to camp together with the plebeian consul Mallius Maximus, who technically was also his superior officer.
Mallius Maximus was a homo novus, one of the few real new men of his day to reach consulship – meaning his ancestors had not reached consulship or even a place in the Senate. This was a stain bad enough for our Caepio to keep his distance.
The two Roman armies reached the area of Arausio (modern day Orange in Southern France) and camped separately: opposite shores of river Rhone. This was during September of 105. In the beginning of October it seemed that Mallius Maximus was able to reach a peace treaty in negotiations with the Germanic tribes. In such event Mallius would be awarded as a victor of those tribes and Caepio would be left without glory for final solution to pacify his province.
So at the 6th of October Caepio started his own attack against the tribes. The attack was poorly executed for some reason, perhaps for over confidence? In any case the Caepios force was cut down practically to the last man. Only small handful of men managed to escape, Caepio amongst them. The enemy looted the camp of Caepio and moved on to press attack against the other Roman camp. This camp was poorly placed between the enemy and the river, so there was no chance for Mallius’ troops to retreat and form any battle formation. Mallius’s force was also completely annihilated.
This battle of Arausio was the single largest defeat of Roman army ever. Estimate of total Roman losses are between 80 000 and 120 000 killed, that is about 10 legions and their auxiliary troops.
Strategic importance of this defeat was big. Northern frontier of Roman territory was left open. Romans also suffered severe lack of manpower due this defeat and this in its part was behind the coming innovation of C. Marius, who went to completely re-organize the way Roman military force was kept up and even fought.
Caepio escaped unharmed from the battle and went back to Rome. His defeat was widely seen as a (another) example of the rotten and incompetent upper class of Roman society. Caepio was tried in the court for losing his army. He was stripped of his citizenship and more importantly he received a sentence of interdicere aquae et ignis, that is any Roman was forbidden to give him food or shelter within 1200 kilometres from Rome, he was thus exiled. He chose to migrate into city of Smyrna at Asia, where he lived rest of his days.
He also received a fine of 15 000 talents. This was partly because the main part of the treasure of Tolosa never arrived into Rome. Rumour had it that Caepio himself had arranged it to be stolen on the way. This rumour was proved to be long lived: it was said that some parts of it survived to the ancestors of Caepio, eventually ending into the hands of M. Junius Brutus, murdered of Caesar!
Such a huge sum of course could not be paid, it probably exceeded many times the treasury of the Rome itself. The state then confiscated all property of Caepio and it was sold in public auction.
This ends the first part of our story. The elder Caepio had it all and lost it all in very spectacular manner. We can only guess what he must have felt about all this. What he thought during the long return to Rome from Gallia? What passed in his mind during the long nights? Still he chose not to commit a suicide, which would have been a honourable way out in Roman society. Did he believe he could get away from all that had happened? To bribe courts, to rely political allies? We don’t know.
The second part of our story is about the tragedy of his son and daughter.
Chapter Four: Impoverishment
Let’s have a look into the family of Caepiones. Consul of 169, Cn. Servilius Caepio had two sons Quintus and Gnaeus, who were consuls at 141 and 140. Our elder Caepio was son of Q. Servilius Caepio consul of 140. This elder Caepio had a son and a daughter: Q. Servilius Caepio (whom we call here younger Caepio for clarity) and Servilia Caepionis. Younger Servilius married Livia Drusa and together they had one son and two daughters and his sister married Q. Lutatius Catulus, consul of 102. Of these infamous daughters of younger Caepio I have already written.
The family of elder Caepio naturally faced a disaster when the paterfamilias was exiled and all his possessions were auctioned. According to the Roman custom, the new head of the family was younger Caepio and it was his task now to keep up the family lifestyle according to the high position. He also was made a custodian to his sister and was expected to come up with suitable dowry and wed her to a suitable husband. To do any of this he lacked funds and we can only imagine what he had to do to arrange the family affairs in order.
Chapter Five: Two friends and two marriages
In his youth younger Caepio had been close friends with M. Livius Drusus (whom we also call younger for clarity). The father of younger Drusus was consul of 112 M. Livius Drusus. This elder Drusus had the peak of his political career by presenting a dummy counter-proposal for the laws of C. Gracchus in 121, these leges Liviae were never enacted, but they managed to draw support from Gracchus’ laws and keep the reforms minimal. As such he was a staunch optimate against popular faction in the politics. During his consulship this elder Drusus fought wars in Macedonia from which he gathered a considerable possessions added to family’s already considerable wealth. When he died at 108 during his censorship he left his fortune to his son, who then became one of the richest men in Rome. Elder Drusus, in short, was a typical Roman statesman-general of the era and most probably a political ally of elder Caepio. Younger Drusus started from the same political position as his father, but gradually moved more and more towards opposing faction.
Younger Caepio and younger Drusus had shared some early parts of their career together and when the disaster of elder Caepio’s exile hit the family, Drusus offered his help to younger Caepio in form of marriage arrangements. First of all rich Drusus married younger Caepio’s sister, who had been widowed from Q. Lutatius Catulus. And as the marriage was between friends and Drusus was already rich, there was no need for Servilia to have a dowry with her. Also a part of the arrangement was that younger Caepio would marry Drusus’ sister Livia and with Livia would come a large dowry.
In this way, the financial problems of younger Caepio were solved in neat way and family honour was saved. At least, this is how it meant to happen. Roman society was merciless when it come to malicious gossip and Servilia marrying without dowry with younger Drusus, a known epileptic, the marriage was labelled as prostitution in public talk very quickly. The family reputation of Caepiones has sunk so low that even a normally honourable arrange was not enough to save it.
Chapter Six: A Ring that brought war with it
Perhaps the most curious detail in our tragic story of elder and younger Caepio is a golden ring that eventually sparked the social war between Rome and her Italic allies. This ring belonged to elder Caepio and was auctioned along with the rest of his possessions. In the auction younger Caepio wanted to buy it for himself – for what motivation we don’t know. Perhaps it just had some emotional value to him. In any case also younger Drusus wanted the same ring for himself. Again, we don’t know why, perhaps he collected such artefacts – collecting being popular amongst the Roman high society of the day. The argument that ensued marked break up of the friendship of younger Caepio and younger Drusus, so whatever their motivation, both really held the ring so precious that it was worth breaking up such a friendship.
In politics too the former friends moved into opposing directions. Younger Caepio kept their fathers’ ideological stance while younger Drusus moved ever more into opposing faction. Younger Drusus had ambitious plans to balance the situation between poor majority of citizens and especially Italian rural nobility against the ruling elite in Rome. He formulated several proposals and got support for them from the leading statesmen of the time, the princeps senatus M. Aemilius Scaurus and celebrated C. Marius. When younger Drusus moved on to a following step of his proposal, his luck ran out: the Senate did not approve at all his proposal to grant citizenship for Italian allies.
The leading opponent of his was his former friend younger Caepio. Their disagreement went as far as Caepio divorcing Drusus’ sister, who then married M. Porcius Cato. The political situation kept on boiling ever hotter and eventually all his laws were annulled on religious pretext and younger Drusus himself was murdered. This assassination sparked the armed rebellion within Italian allies and started the social war, that was to become especially bloody war even by Roman standards.
Younger Caepio was long suspected of murder of younger Drusus, but was never proven guilty. All it took was one ring, that bind them all to darkness. Younger Caepio was killed during the social war. His death marks the end of our tragic story of elder and younger Caepio.
As I wrote in the synopsis, this was a story of two friends, impoverishment, marriage, a fabulous treasure, military glory and downfall, as well of one ring, that was behind one of the most horrible wars in the Roman history. These kind of stories, and the Roman history is full of them, reveal the intensity of life of the Romans of this class, the crude, horrifying intensity with interpersonal tensions, blood relations, marriages, divorces, honour, deceive, courage and cowardice, all of extreme scale. Even while the events of the battle of Arausio happened about 2120 years ago, they still touch and can have a fresh meaning for us, a thing or more to teach to us. Most importantly they are real events of history with real people.
I have always held that Roman history (as well as Greek) contains so many lessons about humanity and what being a human means, because of the intensity and seemingly limitless force of life that is so characteristic to ancient Roman culture. What Caepiones and their daughters were prepared to do for their survival, what kinds of fears and horrors they faced, what kind of moral boundaries they were ready to cross is staggering to think of. Still they were real humans, with real feelings and with real limitations. That is a thing we must keep in our minds every time we come across their story, because that also tells a lot about us as human beings. What extremes each of us would be prepared to go for our family and for our own survival?
And this is why I think that we would all need to study more about Caepiones or any other Roman family rather than spend our time with the Lord of Rings or Game of Thrones. The Romans were real, not invented stories. The story of Caepiones and their daughters have everything more than the Game of Thrones: 100x more power intrigues, 100x more sex, 100x more blood and guts ripped open – and everything is true, not any softcore fantasy. Of course when acknowledging this, one as a reader has to take the things a bit more seriously, to really think about those 100 000 or so corpse at the Arausio fields rotting or younger Caepio facing the downfall of his father. But I don’t think that is a bad thing, it reminds us about the brutality of life and that the history is always basically a history of human bodily fluids! That I think holds the lesson of history.
Of course we can look into these stories more scientific way, meaning that we also should be critical towards the assessments made in the Roman historiography about the elder Caepio. Our ancient sources interpret his life and actions in the context of patrician-plebeian class struggle, and we don’t know if this point of view is the only valid one and to what extent it has affected the way the story of Caepio elder and younger is told.