Children's Plutarch: Tales of the Romans - F. J. Gould

The Red General

"Fire!" shouted the soldiers.

Fire, indeed, not of a burning house, but in the form of huge flames that shot up from a hole in the ground.

The whole army halted to watch the strange sight, and the general, whose name was Sulla, called up the soothsayers to explain the meaning of the fire. They whispered among each other for a while, and then one of them spoke:

"General, just as this flame has shot up suddenly from the earth, so there will arise in Italy a noble man, brave and handsome, who will put an end to the disorders that trouble the Roman Republic."

Sulla smiled.

"That man is myself. As to beauty, my golden locks of hair are proof of that. As to courage, I have been through battles enough to show my mettle."

Perhaps the flames were a kind of volcanic fire.

Other strange omens (or signs) took place, and were supposed to foretell the terrible events that were to happen in Italy. One day, the sky being bright and clear, there came from the heavens the sound of a trumpet, loud and shrill; and yet no trumpet was seen! And on another day, while the Roman senate were sitting, a sparrow flew into the hall where they were assembled, with a grasshopper in its mouth. It bit the grasshopper in two. The diviners (or soothsayers) then declared this to be a sign that the people of Italy would be divided into two parties. The people were, alas! divided into two parties in war; but you need not believe in the tale of the trumpet. As to the other story, it was not a very wonderful thing that a sparrow should bite an insect into two parts!

The name "Sulla," or Sylla, means "red," and this Roman general was so named because his skin was of a strong red color. His eyes were blue and fierce. His temper was wilful and cruel. And yet he sometimes seemed to care only for mirth and jollity, and he would spend hours and days in the company of clowns and dancers. He lived from about 138 B.C. to 78 B.C.

The King of Pontus (in Asia Minor) was Mithridates (Mith-ri-da-teez), and he had sent his armies into Greece. The Romans sent Sulla to turn them out.

The Red General halted before a Greek city—it opened its gates; before another—it opened its gates; before another—it opened its gates. Everywhere the citizens had the sense to yield to Rome, for they knew Rome would be sure to master the King of Pontus. But the city of Athens would not yield. Sulla laid siege to the city. So resolved was he to take it that he brought up against its walls an immense number of siege-engines; so many that ten thousand mules were employed to draw them. Being very eager to obtain money to carry on the war, he sent a messenger to the famous temple of Apollo the Sun-god at Delphi (Del fi), bidding the priests give up their treasures.

"Hark!" said the priests to the messenger, "do you not hear the sound of a lyre? It is the Sun-god himself who strikes the strings and makes music in the inner chamber of the temple."

The messenger wrote a letter relating this story to Sulla. The Red General laughed, and replied that the Sun-god was playing a melody to show how pleased he would be to oblige Sulla with his gold! So the poor priests had to surrender their precious store, and even had to hand over a huge silver urn which they prized very much.

Meanwhile the people of Athens were starving. They had to eat roots, and even gnawed leather. The commander of the garrison at last sent out some men to beg for peace. But they stupidly talked in a boastful manner about the great heroes who fought for Athens in the olden days.

"Go, my noble souls," said Sulla to them, in a sneering tone, "and take back your fine speeches with you. I was not sent to Athens to learn its ancient history, but to chastise its rebellious people."

Soon afterward the city was taken, and many were the slain in its streets.

An army of the King of Pontus held a strong position on a rocky hill. Two Greeks came to Sulla, and offered to lead a band of men to the top, so as to surprise the foe from the rear. Sulla gave them a small troop of Romans. They climbed a narrow path, unobserved by the Asiatics. Sulla attacked in front. The Romans at the summit of the mountain raised a loud yell, and began to descend. The enemy hurried down, springing from rock to rock, only to be met by the spears of Sulla's legions. Fifteen thousand men in the Asiatic army were slaves. They had been promised their freedom if they beat the Romans; but only a few of them escaped with their lives.

Not long afterward a second battle was fought. The foe were posted near a marsh. Sulla ordered his men to cut trenches, so that these ditches should keep the Asiatics from escaping one way, while his horsemen drove them toward the muddy marshes in another direction. But the enemy set furiously upon the diggers, who fled in confusion. Then the Red General seized a wooden eagle from a standard-bearer, and pushed his way through the runners, crying:

"Yonder, Romans, is the bed of honor I am to die in! When you are asked where you deserted your general, mind you say it was here!"

These words roused a sense of shame in his men. They rallied to his support, and the struggle ended in another victory for the soldiers of the republic. Soon Greece was free from the power of Mithridates, and he was fain to make peace.

Sulla suffered from the gout, and he betook himself to a hot spring, the waters of which were said to have a healing effect; and there he bathed his swollen feet, and lived lazily for a while, and sported with his dancers and buffoons.

When on his march to the shores of the Adriatic Sea, on his return to Italy, he passed a place where the grass and trees were of a most beautiful green. And here was brought to the Red General a most peculiar-looking person—a Wild Man of the Woods—who had been found asleep on the ground.

"This is a satyr," said the people, who led the strange creature to Sulla.

A satyr (sat-ir) was often carved by the old Greek sculptors. They made him appear as a mischievous-looking man, with a pug nose, curly hair, ears with pointed tips like goats' ears, and short tail. The satyrs used to play travellers in the woods many tricks, and then laugh at the vexation they caused. According to the story, the satyr who was shown to Sulla could not talk any language. He was asked questions in Latin, in Greek, in Persian, but all to no purpose; he replied in a noise that sounded like the neigh of a horse or the bleat of a goat. Sulla was shocked at the sight, and ordered the so-called satyr to be taken away.

Well, it was indeed sad to see this deformed creature, and hear his harsh voice. But what shall we say to Sulla himself? He had the form of a man; his limbs were well-shapen; his mind was clever; yet his deeds were brutal. When he arrived in Italy he made his way toward Rome. It was his intention to crush down the people's party—the plebeians. He belonged to the upper class, or patricians. All over Italy there were brave and honest men who worked hard in field or trade, or served in the Roman armies, and yet were not allowed to rank as freemen, and had no vote in public affairs. Many of these men had raised a rebellion, and some had received the title of freemen; but there was still sore discontent over the land, and great was the hatred between the mass of the common folk and the rich patrician class to which Sulla belonged.

A battle took place close to the walls of Rome. Sulla won, and entered the city. There is a dreadful tale that he had six thousand prisoners crowded into a yard and all put to death, and that he made a speech to the Roman senate while the cries of the unhappy prisoners were plainly heard. He had lists of citizens written up in a public place, the lists being the names of "proscribed," or condemned, citizens. All must die, and their property was given to strangers. One day eighty were proscribed; the next day, two hundred and twenty; the third day, two hundred and twenty more. He declared himself dictator, having all power of life and death. The people's party were in deep distress; the patricians were glad.

When he thought he had quite cowed the people's party he gave up his high office, and lived as a common citizen, and walked about the streets without a guard. Then he retired to a villa at the seaside, and died in the year 79 B.C. At his funeral a vast amount of cinnamon and other sweet spices was burned. But his memory was not sweet. Who could love the memory of a man who had caused so much pain and grief?

Rather would we honor the memory of a Roman in a certain city which was doomed by Sulla. An enormous number of captives, whom Sulla called rebels, were ordered to be slain—all except one, at whose house the Red General had once passed some agreeable hours.

"No," said this noble Roman, "I will not live while so many of my fellow-citizens die unjustly."

And he mixed with the people, and his dead body lay with theirs. His name is unknown, but we will salute the nameless hero.