The first half (or so) of The Grass Crown is taken up with the main characters attempting to extend Roman citizenship to the Italian allies. The effort is defeated on the eve of its success by the assassination of Marcus Livius Drusus (the non-protagonist hero). The allies then revolt. A ghastly civil war ensues and devastates the Italian Peninsula. Citizenship is extended to all Italians not taking part in the revolt, and gradually to others as well. Gaius Marius, hero of First Man in Rome, is sidelined by a stroke, but Lucius Cornelius Sulla seizes the reigns, wins the war, and is elected senior consul based on his war hero status. He gets off to a reasonable start, accepting the newly admitted Italians as citizens and seeking to draw a reasonable compromise between creditors and debtors to allow the devastated land to recover. But soon he learns that a hostile king in the east has taken advantage of Rome's civil war to seize much of Rome's Greek possessions and massacre every Roman and Italian under his control. Rome has a new war on its hands.
Marius demands command despite his age and ill-health. Sulpicius the demagogue blames Rome's ruling class for its misfortunes and sets out overturn it. Together, they propose the following measures:
- To recall everyone banished for supporting Italian citizenship (eminently reasonable, since they had been vindicated);
- To distribute the newly admitted Italian citizens among the 35 Roman tribes (controversial, but defensible. The Roman assemblies practiced a modified form of direct democracy whereby the citizenry was divided into 35 tribes. Each tribe had one vote in the assembly based on the decision of a majority of its members. Thus to spread the new citizens among the tribes was to give them voting power roughly proportional to their numbers, while to segregate them in a few tribes was to ensure that they would always be outvoted);
- To distribute Rome's freedmen among the 35 tribes (also controversial but defensible. A slave, when freed, became a citizen with the right to vote, but was always a member of one of four urban tribes and therefore outnumbered by the 31 rural tribes. To spread the freedmen among all tribes would give the city of Rome something closer to influence proportionate to its population);
- To expel from the Senate all members with debts over a rather modest sum, which would have the effect of shrinking the Senate so small that it could never form a quorum (completely nuts. The Senate had essential roles in Rome's government, including foreign and imperial policy and control over money. To destroy so important a part of government would blow a huge hole in the Roman state with nothing to fill it);
- To give Marius command of the new war. (That made it personal for Sulla).
Sulpicius resorts to force to pass his measures, bringing an armed gang to support him and intimidates the Assembly into passing his measures, with a number of opponents dead. Plutarch strongly condemns this action; Wikipedia is a bit more forbearing, reminding us what happened to radical tribunes who were not ready to resort to force.
Sulla, on his way to the East for the war, is informed that he has been relieved of his command and Marius is to take over. So Sulla does what no one had ever done before in Rome's 600 year history -- he leads his army against Rome and seizes power by military force. Once in power, he repeals Sulpicius' legislation and replaces it with several laws of his own. The first re-fills the Senate, reasonable enough. The others radically change the nature of Rome's government. This requires some background on the nature of Rome's government. The Senate was not a true legislature; it could not pass binding legislation. For legislation to be binding, it had to pass one of three popular assemblies -- the Centuriate Assembly which was organized by class and was too cumbersome to be an effective legislature, the Assembly of the Whole, which was organized by tribe, or the Plebeian Assembly, which was also organized by tribe but excluded patricians. The Assemblies could modify measures recommended by the Senate. They could pass measures the Senate recommended against. And the official calling an Assembly into session (consul or praetor for the Assembly of the Whole, tribune for the Plebeian Assembly) could introduce legislation without consulting the Senate at all, although to do so was considered the work of a demagogue. Sulla modifies the Centuriate Assembly to give the First (richest) class half the votes in it and limits the tribal assemblies to voting up or down on measures recommended by the Senate. McCullough says he ended with a measure ending the Tribal Assemblies' legislative powers altogether and allowing only the Centuriate Assembly (dominated as it was by the richest) to pass legislation. None of the other places I have seen mention this last measure, and it does not appear to be in force in Fortune's Favorites.
Plutarch never so much as mentions these measures, although they are of immense importance. He also seems to assume that Sulla's government was legitimate and that everyone opposing him was in unlawful rebellion. And in the absence of these measures, that might make sense. Sulla was, after all, the lawfully elected consul. He had, to all appearances, conducted his consulate in a reasonable manner. With war now brewing, it was the accepted practice to put the consul in command of the army, and Sulla had certainly proven himself qualified for the job. Marius' dubious health (physical and mental) should have been disqualifying. And Sulpicius' measures were enacted by force and could very well be deemed illegitimate. So if Sulla had taken the shocking measure of marching on Rome, but limited himself to deposing Marius and Sulpicius, repealing Sulpicius' measures as made under duress, and reasserted his command of the war, one could very well argue that his actions were justified. His radical overhaul of the government was a different matter altogether and, we may safely assume, was possible only because he had a large army to enforce it. So much for complaining about Sulpicius legislation being passed under duress. These measure change Sulla from a lawful consul taking drastic action to a military dictator, a thing Plutarch completely overlooks.
Sulla then holds elections. One of the consuls (Octavius) is a supporter, but the other (Cinna) is an opponent, as are almost all the tribunes of the plebs (there were 10). Sulla goes off to war. Under these circumstances, it was probably inevitable that battle would break out between the consuls and one would depose and banish the other. Plutarch sides with Sulla's consul as legitimate and McCullough with his opponent. But really the result of Sulla's action was that no one had an undisputed claim to legitimacy and everything would necessarily come down to a trial of force. Octavius won. Cinna fled, joined forces with Marius, and together they raised an army and marched to re-take Rome. The Grass Crown ends with Marius, completely deranged, capturing Rome and unleashing his slave bodyguard in a mad reign of terror and slaughter. Marius is then felled by a stroke, so the others kill off his slave bodyguard and the terror comes to an end.
Or so McCullough says. Plutarch is somewhat unclear on this matter, implicating Cinna in Marius' general slaughter (McCullough denies it) and seeming to indicate that the reign of terror continued unabated after Marius does. But on the other hand, he also says that after Marius died his bodyguard who were guilty of the worst excesses were killed, so things presumably improved.
McCullough begins with a 20-page synopsis of the events in First Man in Rome, these events, and the events between the books. What happened between was apparently that both Sulla and the forces sent by the new government fought in the East and won significant victories, but were handicapped by their refusal to cooperate. Sulla ends up having to quit before he has full won to go home and seize power.
It is not clear why McCullough glosses over these events, but I have my suspicion. My suspicion is that McCullough's basic sympathies are with the popular faction, and if she showed events in the interim, she would not have been able to disguise the fact that their reign of terror continued, albeit at a reduced level, even with Marius and his bodyguards out of the way. To do so was the inevitable logic of their position. Their government was of dubious legitimacy. Sulla and his army were out there, certain to claim power some time. Undoubtedly Sulla had a fifth column of supporters in Rome. The threat would almost seem to compel some sort of a purge. And purges have a habit of escalating out of hand.
The biggest takeaway I would say I got from The Grass Crown was what an immense military asset it is to have a government of indisputable legitimacy and an army of unquestionable loyalty. An indisputably legitimate government does not have to take forces out of foreign wars to handle domestic security. It is not unexpectedly torn asunder by civil war. It does not have to abandon foreign threats in favor of ones at home. And a government that doubts its army's loyalty will have to be in the position of undercutting its own military effectiveness out of fear that its own army is a bigger threat than the enemy it is fighting. Undoubtedly one of the strengths that permitted Rome to become a mighty empire in the first place was the undisputed legitimacy of its government and the unquestioned loyalty of its army. And that was the advantage that Rome is now in the process of throwing away.