Publius Sulpicius Rufus

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Publius Sulpicius Rufus (ca. 121 BC – 88 BC) was an orator and statesman of the Roman Republic, legate in 89 to Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo in the Social War, and in 88 tribune of the plebs.

Soon afterwards Sulpicius declared in favour of Gaius Marius and the popular party. He was deeply in debt, and it seems that Marius had promised him financial assistance in the event of his being appointed to the command in the Mithridatic Wars. To secure the appointment for Marius, Sulpicius brought in a franchise bill by which the newly enfranchised Italian allies and freedmen would have swamped the old electors. The majority of the senate were strongly opposed to the proposals; a justitium (cessation of public business) was proclaimed by the consuls, but Marius and Sulpicius fomented a riot, and the consuls, in fear of their lives, withdrew the justitium. The proposals of Sulpicius became law, and, with the assistance of the new voters, the command was bestowed upon Marius, then a mere privatus holding no elected office.

Sulla, who was then at Nola, immediately marched upon Rome. Marius and Sulpicius, unable to resist him, fled from the city. Marius managed to escape to Africa, but Sulpicius was discovered in a villa at Laurentum and put to death; his head was sent to Sulla and exposed in the forum, and his laws annulled.

Sulpicius appears to have been originally a moderate reformer, who by force of circumstances became one of the leaders of a democratic revolt. Although he had impeached the turbulent tribune Gaius Norbanus, and resisted the proposal to repeal judicial sentences by popular decree, he did not hesitate to incur the displeasure of the Julian family by opposing the candidature for the consulship of Gaius Julius Caesar Strabo Vopiscus, who had never been praetor and was consequently ineligible. His franchise proposals, as far as the Italians were concerned, were a necessary measure of justice; but they had been carried by violence.

Of Sulpicius as an orator, Cicero says (Brutus, 55): "He was by far the most dignified of all the orators I have heard, and, so to speak, the most tragic; his voice was loud, but at the same time sweet and clear; his gestures were full of grace; his language was rapid and voluble, but not redundant or diffuse; he tried to imitate Crassus, but lacked his charm." Sulpicius left no written speeches, those that bore his name being written by a Publius Canutius. Sulpicius is one of the interlocutors in Cicero’s De oratore.

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