Publius Sulpicius Rufus
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Sulpicius served as legate in 89 BC to Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo in the Social War. In 89 BC, he was elected as Tribune of the Plebs for the following year. It is worth noting that the Sulpicii family were of patrician status: since patricians were legally barred from standing as tribune of the plebs, Sulpicius must have therefore carried out a formal transfer to the plebeians at some point before 89 BC (as Publius Clodius Pulcher was to do in 59 BC).
Soon afterwards Sulpicius declared in favour of Gaius Marius and the populares, a move considered to be a surprising volte face by contemporaries: Cicero, for instance, remarks that 'the popular breeze carried Sulpicius, who had set out from an excellent position, further than he wished' 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 which Sulla had already been appointed. 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 proposal; 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, at the time a 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 in 95 BC, 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 illegal candidature for the consulship of Gaius Julius Caesar Strabo Vopiscus, who had never been praetor and was consequently ineligible. Sulpicius' franchise proposals, as far as the Italians were concerned, were a necessary measure of justice; but they had been carried by violence.
Cicero as a young man went almost daily to see Sulpicius speak as tribune in the Forum (Brutus, 306), and judged him an able orator. Of his skills, 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.
- Cicero, Har. resp. 43
- For general discussion of Sulpicius' motives, see: J. Powell, 'The tribune Sulpicius', Historia 39 (1990), pp. 446–60
- Sources in T.S.R. Broughton, Magistrates of the Roman Republic, Vol. 2, pp.41–2
- Appian, Bell. Civ. I 55—60.
- Plutarch, Sulla and Marius.
- Velleius Paterculus ii.18
- Livy, 77
- E. A. Ahrens, Die drei Volkstribunen (Leipzig, 1836)
- Mommsen, History of Rome, bk. iv, ch. 7
- G. Longs, Decline of the Roman Republic, vol. ii, ch. 17
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Sulpicius Rufus, Publius". Encyclopædia Britannica. 26 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 69–70.