Rome's brutal dictator: Lucius Cornelius Sulla

Ancient Roman general

Most people know the name Julius Caesar, but what about his predecessor Lucius Cornelius Sulla?


This Roman general and dictator is a fascinating figure in history, and his life story is definitely worth exploring.

Roman politics in the early 1st century BC

Political life in Rome during Sulla's early life was complex and often unstable. Sulla rose to power during this time, and his career was full of military successes and political intrigue.


He is perhaps best known for his years as dictator, during which he made several controversial decisions that changed the course of Roman history. 


The Roman senate was divided between two factions: the populares and the optimates.


The populares, who were supported by the lower classes, advocated for reform of the government.


The optimates, on the other hand, were supported by the wealthier classes and wanted to maintain the status quo.


Sulla belonged to the optimate faction and he grew to detest other politicians who relied too heavily on the popularity of the common people to achieve their political aims. 

Early life

Sulla was born in 138 BC into a patrician family in Rome. Despite its respectable name, his family was quite poor. 


Sulla had always had an interest in a political life but had never had the means to pursue it.


His fortunes changed when both his stepmother and lover died when he was a young man. Both women left him considerable sums of money.


This allowed Sulla to invest in a political career.


In 107 BC, he won election as a quaestor for the first time. In this capacity, he was picked to serve as one of Gaius Marius' lieutenants in the war against Jugurtha in North Africa.

Sulla in the Jugurthine War

The Jugurthine War was a long and complicated conflict. Rome had been at war with the Numidian king since 112 BC.


Sulla served with distinction in the war but his commanding officer, Gaius Marius, was unable to defeat him on the battlefield nor force him to surrender.


However, Sulla was able to negotiate with one of Jugurtha's allied leaders to betray the Numidian king.


As a result, Sulla was able to capture Jugurtha in 106 BC, ending the war.


Despite the fact that Sulla was the key figure in the capture of Jugurtha, Marius claimed the credit for himself.


This began a rivalry between the two men that would last for years. It is said that Sulla continually complained that it was he, not Marius, who really defeated Jugurtha.


Marius refused to acknowledge his efforts and the two men became bitter political enemies.


As time passed and both men vied to be the most important person in Rome, their hatred for each other only grew.

Driven by his desire for success, Sulla returned to Rome to focus more on his political career. 


He was elected to the position of praetor in 97 BC, primarily due to the fact that he encouraged people to vote for him by paying for lavish, free games for the Roman people.


In this role as praetor, he was responsible for administering justice in Rome. 


He then went on to serve as governor of Cilicia (a province in Asia Minor) in 96 BC. 


It was during this time that he demonstrated an obvious skill in management, and he successfully crushed an uprising by the pirates who were operating in the area.


During this appointment, Sulla also became aware of the growing power of the kingdom of Pontus, ruled by King Mithridates VI.


This kingdom was wealthy and powerful, but it had been threatening to seize Roman territories in Asia Minor.


At the conclusion of his governorship, Sulla returned to Rome and was welcomed by members of the optimates faction of the Senate.


This was a significant achievement by Sulla, how had always desired to be accepted by the elite ruling class of Rome.

Sulla in the Social War

The Social War broke out in 91 BC, which was a conflict between Rome and its allied cities in Italy.


These allies, known as the socii, had been fighting for decades to be granted the legal title of Roman 'citizens'.


This would grant them the ability to vote and participate in political decisions that affected them.


The allied cities argued that since their men were fighting and dying in Rome's wars, they should have a say in how Rome was administered.


However, the Roman senators, particularly those of the optimates faction, adamantly refused to grant Roman citizenship to them, no matter how many times the allied cities asked.


Finally, the socii grew tired of being treated like second-class citizens and formally rose up in armed rebellion against Rome.

As one of Rome's commanders, Sulla quickly raised an army and marched to Rome's aid.


He served under the consul Lucius Julius Caesar, and helped defeated the rebel forces in a series of battles, forcing many to surrender. 


Facing defeat in the Social War, the Roman Senate finally relented and offered Roman citizenship to the rebel cities.


One by one, the Latin cities accepted Rome's offer and the Social War came to an end in 88 BC.


However, this conflict allowed gifted commanders, like Sulla, to increase the social prestige and political reputation.

The rise of Pontus

While the Roman republic had been preoccupied with its wars in Africa, northern Italy and the Social War, the kingdom of Pontus had been expanding out its own empire in Asia Minor. 


Its young king, Mithridates VI, had ambitions of forging a kingdom that would incorporate the best elements of the old Greek and Persian empires.


Mithridates won a series of surprise victories against Roman forces in Asia Minor. He had even managed to seize parts of mainland Greece. 


When Rome had recovered from the brutal Social War, the Senate finally realised that Mithridates VI was a significant threat. 


It was decided that he needed to be dealt with immediately.

Sulla's first march on Rome

As a result of his success in helping to end the Social War, he was elected consul for the first time in 88 BC, at around the age of 50.


As consul, Sulla was assigned the task of leading Rome's armies against Mithridates VI of Pontus.


Sulla was delighted with this appointment, as it would almost guarantee him wealth and glory.


The command over the Mithridatic War, as it would come to be known, was so sought after that many people had campaigned for the consulship in order to obtain it. 


Sulla's army from the Social War was stationed at the nearby Italian city of Nola, and Sulla travelled there to tell his men the good news about the command against Mithridates.


Sulla boasted to his men that they too were going to benefit from the imminent money and fame.


However, while preparing for departure with his army, Sulla received word that after he had left Rome, Marius had used his political power to manipulate the Senate and forced them to reassign the command against Mithridates to himself instead.


He achieved this with the help of one of the Plebeian Tribunes, and with the use of violence.


Marius desperately wanted the wealth and glory for himself and refused to allow his long-time rival to get the benefits of the war.


When this information was shared with Sulla, he was outraged. Not only was he about to lose a potential opportunity to earn a lot of money from this war, but Sulla could also not accept that his sworn political enemy would get it in his place.


Also, Sulla was maddened that Marius would use corrupt means to steal away something that he had rightfully earned.

Sulla told his waiting army of the events in Rome and stressed the fact that they had been robbed of everything he had promised them. 


Sulla's men were so angered that when messengers arrived from Marius to inform them of the change in command, Sulla’s soldiers stoned them to death.


Then, with the encouragement of his men, Sulla announced that he was going to march them to Rome in order to free the city from the tyranny of Marius.

This was a monumental moment in the history of ancient Rome, as it was the first time that a Roman general had led a Roman army against their capital city. 


Sulla's first march on Rome was also a significant event because it broke the tradition of not bringing an army into the city, setting a dangerous precedent for future Roman generals.


The city was clearly not expecting such an aggressive move and there were no defenders ready for an attack.


When he arrived, Sulla was able to simply march into Rome unopposed. His forces quickly took control of the Senate and Marius, with his supporters, were forced to flee to northern Africa for safety.


With Rome under his control, Sulla then installed trusted allies in the Senate who reconfirmed his command against Mithridates.


Then, Sulla ensured that the Senate declared that Marius and his supporters were 'public enemies' (hostes in Latin), which meant that they could be killed on sight by any loyal Roman.


This was a significant development in the use of the word hostes in Roman history. Up to that point, it had only been used to describe Roman's military enemies: usually foreigners.


By using this word to describe fellow Romans, Sulla introduced the idea that war could be waged upon them in the same way as their traditional enemies on the battlefield.


Once Sulla was confident that Rome was safe from Marius, he finally departed from Italy in 87 BC with his army for Asia Minor and for the war against Mithridates.

The Mithridatic War

The Mithridatic War was a long and difficult conflict. It lasted for six years, from 88-83 BC.


Sulla initially had some success against Mithridates, but the tide quickly turned against him when he received word about what had happened in Rome following his departure.


While Sulla had been busy with his war in the east, Marius and his supporters had regained control of Rome and the populares were once again in power.


Marius' allies in the Senate hod now declared Sulla a 'public enemy' and encouraged people to kill him on sight. 


Then Marius ordered that some of Sulla’s most loyal supporters in the city were to be killed and displayed their heads in the Forum. 


Messengers escaped from Italy and tried to reach Sulla in the east where they hoped to warn him of his loss of support back home.


When Sulla was informed, he was enraged. He quickly arranged a peace treaty with Mithridates and marched his army back to Rome. 

Sulla's second march on Rome

When Sulla arrived back to Italy in 83 BC, he found that the Senate was more prepared, and they had formed armies to defend the city.


However, Sulla's rival, Marius, had died in 86 BC, after becoming consul for the seventh time.  


In Marius' place, the Senate's forces were commanded by Marius’ son (who was also called Marius).


When the two armies clashed, a larger civil war broke out. Many Romans had to decide whether they were in support of Marius or Sulla.


However, Sulla’s veteran soldiers quickly gained the upper hand and the younger Marius fled to the safety of the city of Praeneste.

The most brutal event during Sulla's second march was the Battle of Colline Gate in 82 BC, outside of Rome's wall.


At this battle, Sulla's forces killed around 50,000 soldiers who were loyal to Marius. Among Sulla's commanders at this battle were a young Pompey (who would later become 'the Great') and Crassus.  


After crushing the last of the Marian resistance, Sulla entered Rome in triumph.


With his military enemies defeated on the battlefield, Sulla now turned to his political rivals. This time, he did not hesitate to have them executed or exiled. 


Sulla declared himself dictator in 82 BC. The position of dictator had not been used in over 100 years.


The last time was in 202 BC, when both consuls were away from Rome, fighting in the Second Punic War, and was used as an emergency measure to ensure that the elections could continue as normal.

As dictator, he had absolute power over the city and its people. During his time as dictator, Sulla made several reforms, specifically to counter the achievements of populares figures of recent history. 


He cancelled the 'corn dole' which had been introduced by Gaius Gracchus. 


Sulla particularly hated the position of Tribune of the Plebs and worked to reduce its power.


He required all laws proposed by the tribunes to be first approved by the Senate and declared that anyone holding this position would be banned from holding any other political role in Rome for the rest of their lives.

He also sought to strengthen the power of the Senate and increased the number of senators from around 300 men to about 600.


Sulla also created a strict order in which Roman political positions could be held, and the minimum age one had to be in order to seek election.


This orderly course through the political system was known as the cursus honorum.


He did this to limit the power of ambitious young Romans who sought more power than Sulla thought they deserved.

For example, a politician had to be at least 30 years old to become quaestor, which was an 'entry level' role.


Also, one had to be at least 42 years old to seek election as consul. In addition, Sulla made a law that a person could not hold the same position twice in a ten-year period.


Ultimately, Sulla's political reforms seem to have been an active attempt to prevent any other Roman from seizing power in the same way that Sulla himself had done.

The proscriptions

The most notorious part of Sulla's time as dictator were his proscriptions. The proscriptions were lists of people’s names that were displayed in public places throughout Italy.


The thousands of people named on these lists were considered 'enemies of the Roman state' and could be legally hunted and killed by anyone brave (or greedy) enough to do so. 


They included a third of the senators, equites (members of the wealthier classes), and even some common citizens. 


Once these proscribed people were killed, their lands and houses were seized and sold, with the money given to Sulla.


In addition, Sulla announced that the descendants of anyone on these lists were forever banned from entering Roman politics.

There was an additional incentive for Romans to hunt down those people on the lists.


Anyone who could prove to Sulla that they had killed a proscribed person was promised a monetary reward. 


A young Crassus was particularly active in the proscriptions. He is said to have made a fortune by writing men's names on the proscription lists so that he could get their houses after they were killed.


It was also rumoured that he even bought the property of those who had been killed at a reduced price.

The proscriptions were motivated by Sulla's desire for revenge against his enemies, but they also served to instill fear in the people of Rome and discourage any future rebellions.


In all, it is estimated that as many as 2000 people were killed as a result of the proscriptions. 


However, many people were horrified at the chaos that ensued as a result of the proscriptions.


Regular Roman citizens hunted down and killed complete strangers in return for a cash reward.


Very few people felt safe in Rome under Sulla's dictatorship, as people feared that they may wake up one day and find their names on the lists.

Unfortunately, the position of dictator gave Sulla absolute power. This meant that every law he passed, including sanctioned murder of other Romans, was considered entirely legal.


Traditionally, the position of dictator was only granted for a maximum of a six-month period.


However, Sulla encouraged the Senate to make him dictator for as long as he deemed it necessary. 


As a result, many Romans saw Sulla as no better than a ruthless tyrant, and they resented his rule.


And, when Sulla ordered the corpse of Marius to be removed from its grave, and torn to pieces, many thought that he had gone too far.


In 81 BC, when he was sure that he had created a more stable government and removed threats to his power, Sulla stepped down from the dictatorship.


He served one more year as consul in 80 BC, then, in 79 BC, Sulla announced that he would be stepping away from politics and retiring.

Sulla's retirement and death

After three years as the most powerful person in Rome, Sulla retired from public life in 79 BC.


He withdrew to his country estate near Puteoli (modern-day Pozzuoli) in Naples. There, he wrote his memoirs and lived out the rest of his days in relative tranquility.


He died in 78 BC at the age of 60, apparently while yelling orders to have one more of his enemies executed. 


It was said that when he had died, he had been so reviled by the people of Rome that no one even bothered to attend his funeral.


And so, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the Roman general and dictator, was laid to rest in obscurity.


Despite the fact that Sulla seemed to have been a talented military leader and politician, future generations of Romans would only remember him as a brutal tyrant with blood on his hands. 


Sulla's political reforms, while ultimately unsuccessful in preventing the fall of the Roman Republic, did have a lasting impact on the structure of the Roman government.


The memory of the widespread murders of Romans by other Romans was truly horrific. 


While some ancient sources seem to agree that Sulla only did what he did in order to restore stability to the Senate, they still thought Sulla was a monster.


Some later politicians would attempt to emulate Sulla while trying to avoid the worst parts of his character.


The most famous example would be Julius Caesar, who openly criticised Sulla not holding on to the position of dictator for longer. 


However, the longest lasting impact of Sulla’s life would be his two marches on the city of Rome.


Later Roman commanders, including Julius Caesar, understood the effectiveness of using the military to seize control over their enemies.


Sulla had set a dangerous precedent that would be an important cause of the ultimate collapse of the Roman republic.

Further reading