In this last consulship 1
particularly did Marius make himself hated, because he took part with Saturninus in many of his misdeeds. One of these was the murder of Nonius, whom Saturninus slew because he was a rival candidate for the tribuneship. Then, as tribune, Saturninus introduced his agrarian law, to which was added a clause providing that the senators should come forward and take oath that they would abide by whatsoever the people might vote and make no opposition to it.
In the senate Marius made pretence of opposing this part of the law, and declared that he would not take the oath, and that he thought no other sensible man would; for even if the law were not a bad one, it was an insult to the senate that it should be compelled to make such concessions, instead of making them under persuasion and of its own free will. He said this, however, not because it was his real mind, but that he might catch Metellus in the toils of a fatal trick.
For he himself regarded lying as part of a man's excellence and ability, made no account of his agreements with the senators, and did not intend to keep them; whereas he knew that Metellus was a steadfast man, who thought with Pindar that
‘truth is the foundation of great excellence,’
and he therefore wished to bind him beforehand by a statement to the senate that he would not take the oath, and then have his refusal to do so plunge him into a hatred on the part of the people that could never be removed. And this was what came to pass.
For Metellus declared that he would not take the oath, and the senate broke up for a while; but after a few days Saturninus summoned the senators to the rostra and tried to force them to take the oath. When Marius came forward there was silence, and the eyes of all were fastened upon him. Then, bidding a long farewell to all his boastful and insincere expressions in the senate, he said his throat was not broad enough to pronounce an opinion once for all upon so important a matter, but that he would take the oath, and obey the law, if it was a law; adding this bit of sophistry as a cloak for his shame.
The people, then, delighted at his taking the oath, clapped their hands in applause, but the nobles were terribly dejected and hated Marius for his change of front. Accordingly, all the senators took the oath in order, through fear of the people, until the turn of Metellus came; but Metellus, although his friends earnestly entreated him to take the oath and not subject himself to the irreparable punishments which Saturninus proposed for those who should refuse, would not swerve from his purpose or take the oath,
but, adhering to his principles and prepared to suffer any evil rather than do a shameful deed, he left the forum, saying to those about him that to do a wrong thing was mean, and to do the right thing when there was no danger was any man's way, but that to act honourably when it involved dangers was peculiarly the part of a good and true man.
Upon this, Saturninus got a vote passed that the consuls should proclaim Metellus interdicted from fire, water, and shelter; and the meanest part of the populace supported them and was ready to put the man to death. The best citizens, however, sympathised with Metellus and crowded hastily about him, but he would not allow a faction to be raised on his account, and departed from the city, following the dictates of prudence.
‘For,’ said he,
‘either matters will mend and the people will change their minds and I shall return at their invitation, or, if matters remain as they are, it is best that I should be away.’ But what great goodwill and esteem Metellus enjoyed during his exile, and how he spent his time in philosophical studies at Rhodes, will be better told in his Life. 3