In book 36 of his Roman History Cassius Dio devotes about one third of the whole book, which covers the events of four years, to one particular event: the vote in 67 BC of the well-known lex Gabinia, which provided Pompey with an imperium extending over the whole Mediterranean sea and its coasts, in order to crush the overwhelming spread of piracy. This unusually extensive passage, which includes several speeches, betokens a conscious choice of Dio to shed light on one of the extraordinary commands of Pompey. The inquiry I propose tries to elucidate the meaning of that choice, by examining the relations between these long chapters about the lex Gabinia and other passages devoted to similar matters in different parts of the Roman History. By focusing on Dio’s view of some turning points in the last years of the Roman Republic, such a comparison will make manifest for us the particulars of his reflection about the passage from Republic to Empire. It should also exemplify the coherence of his thought throughout his work, in the wider perspective of his understanding of the politeiai of Rome.
The image of Sulla as a monster of cruelty, that was consolidated since the Late Republic, is endorsed by Cassius Dio too. But in Caesar’s speech after Thapsus, in the triumvirs’ allocution to the people during the proscriptions, in Tiberius’ epitaph for Augustus, and in Otho’s last address to the soldiers, Sulla’s cruelty is remembered in terms which remind the reader of the speech of Severus in 197, who, in turn, had praised it as an exemplum worth following. Thus a historiographical topos becomes for Dio a means to criticize the emperor, a way to express his judgment on the civil war of his times. But Dio’s criticism of Sulla’s cruelty did not imply a rejection of the work done as a legislator and reformer during his dictatorship. For Dio, Sulla did not aim to absolute power and his dictatorship was conformed to Roman traditions. The one responsible for the transformation of this magistracy into a means to exert a “monarchic” power was not Sulla, but Caesar.