Sulla: The Story of Rome’s Lucky Dictator

Before Caesar, there was Sulla. A ruthless dictator or the savior of the Republic? Discover one of Rome’s most controversial and important figures.

May 12, 2023By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History

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Although his reputation as a merciless military leader often precedes him, it is notable that a philosophical debate offers one of the most pertinent introductions to the life and legacy of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. In the middle of the first century BCE, the Roman Republic was slowly but surely descending into chaos. The social and political bonds that had previously held the state in check were beginning to stretch and fray, stretched ever further by Pompey, Caesar, and their supporters.


The escalating political turbulence provoked reflection. A particularly compelling insight into the situation is offered by Cicero. In his De finibus bororum et malorum (‘On the Ends of Good and Evil’), the orator uses a series of Socratic dialogues set over five books to explore different philosophical views. Still, the text is also useful for the insights into contemporary society. As part of the dialogue in the fifth book, one of the interlocutors — M. Piso Calpurnianus — rather cryptically remarks that the Roman senate house, the Curia, “to my eyes looks smaller since its enlargement”. Piso’s apparent contradiction, the architectural impossibility of the larger yet smaller senate house, not to mention the ends of good and bad, all provide an apt analogy for approaching the figure of Sulla.


The Curia had been restored on Sulla’s orders in 80 BCE, and it was an emblem of the Roman Republic’s strength. For instance, the interior was decorated with a fresco of Manius Valerius Maximus Messalla’s triumph over the Carthaginians in the First Punic War. However, Sulla’s restoration also meant that an iconic structure of Roman political autonomy had been patronized by an autocrat. Sulla was the man who had subsumed all of the Republic’s powers into his own being: a dictator. The senate house might now be larger and restored to glory, but it also writ large into Roman’s urban landscape and political memory the power and influence of a single man: Sulla.


The Gens Cornelia: Sulla’s Prestigious Predecessors

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The Tomb of the Scipios (Sepolcro della famiglia de’Scipioni), Giovanni Battista Piranesi, ca. 1748 via Met Museum


To make it in the Roman Republic, a young man would be at a significant advantage if he could rely on the backing and reputation of his influential family. Very few made it as a novus homo (a ‘new man’); Cicero was a notable exception. Sulla’s own family existed in the rarefied stratosphere of the Roman aristocracy: he had been born into the patrician ranks, a member of the gens Cornelia.

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The Cornelian gens counted among their ancestors several of the Republic’s most significant men. Perhaps the most famous of these were the Cornelii Scipiones. The Scipiones included two the Republic’s most celebrated generals. There was Lucius Cornelus Scipio Barbatus, who had defeated the Etruscans at Volterra in 298 BCE; his vast sarcophagus — recovered from the family tomb on the Via Appia — still survives, complete with its dedicatory inscription. There was also Barbatus’ great-grandson, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. Scipio was the general who had orchestrated Rome’s defeat of the Carthaginian forces under Hannibal during the Second Punic War.


Despite this, Sulla himself was from a relatively impoverished branch of the gens Cornelia. His political career at Rome did not begin until ca. 108 BCE, when he stood for the quaestorship. Lots were drawn, and he was assigned to serve under the then-consul, Gaius Marius. The relationship between these two men would define the Republic’s political landscape for decades to follow.


Sulla, Soldier of Rome 


The Jugurthine War

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Jugurtha Bound and Handed Over to Silanus who Takes Him to Marius, Mariano Salvador Maella, 1772, via Museo Cerralbo


Toward the end of the second century BCE, Rome was drawn into war in Numidia. This was the vast territory of northwest Africa (largely equivalent to today’s Algeria). The war was sparked by a contested succession in the kingdom and the seizure of power by Jugurtha. After having won the consulship in 107 BCE, Gaius Marius was dispatched to Numidia to bring Jugurtha to heel. Sulla’s role in the campaign was to organize the Italian cavalry; the more mobile forces would be vital for the Romans against the Numidians. Although it was possible that Sulla was able to gain so important a position in Marius’ staff through nepotism (the two men had both — possibly — been married to members of the gens Julii), it was clear that the consul’s decision had been astute. The young Sulla proved to be popular with the troops and the officers, as well as an effective military leader.


In fact, it was Sulla’s initiative that contributed significantly to the Roman victory in 106 BCE. As the tide turned against Jugurtha, the Numidian king fled to the neighboring territory of Mauretania (Morocco), which was ruled by his father-in-law, King Bocchus. A Roman victory in a pitched battle against the African forces — in which both Marius and Sulla were prominent — bought Bocchus to the negotiating table. There, Sulla came to the fore. It was the young man who orchestrated Bocchus’ betrayal of Jugurtha. Sulla’s success attracted a lot of attention, but it also began to sow the seeds of rivalry.


The Cimbrian War

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The Battle of Vercellae, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1725-29, via Met Museum


Within a few years, Rome was once again at war — this time with enemies to the north. News was circulating that two Germanic tribes, the Cimbri and Teutones, were marching on Rome again by 104 BCE. Marius was able to leverage his reputation as a military leader to win repeated consulships. The apparently inexorable rise of the novus homo concerned the traditionalists within the Roman senate. As a counter, they raised up Sulla in response — although he was poor, he was still a patrician.


For a time, the two collaborated successfully, driving back Rome’s enemies. However, as the younger man and therefore still in the maelstrom of the Republic’s hyper-competitive contest for prestige, Sulla soon began to complain that opportunities for continued advancement were being denied to him by Marius. Nevertheless, he performed his duties admirably. In 102, the Cimbri were decisively routed at the Battle of the Raudian Field. Although absent from the battlefield and not awarded a triumph as Marius was, it was Sulla’s skill that had provided the supplies the Roman forces needed.


His political career continued after the campaign, and in 96B CE, he was assigned to the governorship of Cilicia (southern Turkey). The post was a fortuitous one for Sulla’s career. In his efforts to restore the king of Cappadocia, his successes over the soldiers of Mithridates VI led to his soldiers saluting him as imperator. Perhaps more notably, Sulla’s campaigning brought him to the banks of the Euphrates. There, he became the first Roman magistrate to meet with the Parthians. In an assembly with the Parthians and Cappadocians, he proposed a treaty establishing the Euphrates as a boundary between the two great empires.


Rebellion Against Rome: The Social War

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Denarius minted by the C. Papius Mutilus, a Samnite, with Bacchus (obverse) and a Bull goring the Roman she-wolf (reverse), 90-89 BCE, via British Museum


Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was the empire built just by Romans. And just as the ‘new men’ began to feature more prominently, so too were men from other Italian cities and communities increasingly numerous among the ranks of the Roman Army. Ever since Rome had triumphed in the Samnite Wars in the 4th century BCE (343-290), it had been the de facto ruler of the whole Italian peninsula. Although it ostensibly had a series of alliances with the other cities in Italy, Rome remained in a position of pre-eminence, able to levy tribute or soldiers when needed. The terms of these treaties were heavily weighted in Rome’s favor, with the historian Appian surmising that the Italic peoples were “declining little by little into pauperism”.


In 91 BCE, Marcus Livius Drusus — the tribune of the plebs — had introduced a series of revolutionary reforms, among which the offer of Roman citizenship to the Italian allies. This would give the allies (the socii) a much greater say in Roman affairs as well as the right to vote in the Republic’s elections. The assassination of Livius Drusus in 91 BCE by the senatorial elite was the final spark. The Italian peninsula ignited into a war that pitched Rome against its former allies.


Sulla was deployed to fight against the rebellious socii in the south of Italy (Marius was active in the northern theatre). In 89 BCE, Sulla was serving under the consul Lucius Porcius Cato. However, when Cato was killed at the Battle of the Fucine Lake, Sulla was prorogued as consul and given supreme command in the south. As general, he besieged Pompeii and other towns in the area. He routed a Samnite army near Aesernia before going on to capture Bovianum Undecimanorum (modern Boiano). The end of the Social War was ushered in by political developments at Rome, notably the passing of the lex Plautia Papiria. This law granted citizenship to all the socii (except the scattered Samnites and Lucanians under arms). For Sulla, the war was an important career milestone. His successes meant that he easily won the vote to be consul in 88 BCE.


Sulla in the East: The Mithridatic Wars

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Portrait of Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus, as Herakles, marble copy of a bronze original, ca. 1st century CE, via Musee du Louvre


While Rome’s attention had been held by the Social War, her rivals sensed an opportunity. In the east, Mithridates VI Eupator, the King of Pontus, invaded Roman Asia. Sulla, as consul, was given command of the Roman response. Financial and logistical constraints delayed the Roman departure for the east, during which time Mithridates orchestrated the massacre of tens of thousands of Roman and Italian colonizers in the province. According to Appian’s history, the Ephesians murdered stricken fugitives who had taken shelter in the colossal Temple of Artemis. Mithridates’ early successes also prompted others to rebel. Most notably, the Athenians revolted against Roman rule.


The man who had installed himself as tyrant in Athens, Aristion, appears to have misjudged the mood of the polis’ populace. As Sulla headed east with five legions against Mithridates, he also besieged Athens and Piraeus (the harbor). The city was stormed in March 86 BCE; the Romans had discovered a weak point in the city’s walls and heard rumors of the Athenian discontent with Aristion’s rule. Appian’s narrative paints a harsh image of the siege of the Greek city, with the defenders reduced to cannibalism by the Roman siege.


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Idealised view of the Acropolis and the Areopagus in Athens, Leo von Klenze, 1846, via Die Pinakotheken


After the Athenians had been brought back into line, Sulla marched his forces against the remaining rebels. Two major battles were fought later in 86 BCE, first at Chaeronea and later at Orchomenus. The Roman victory at Orchomenus effectively broke the back of Mithridates’ armies in Europe, and Sulla organized a treaty with the king, which was, surprisingly, quite cordial. The defeated king would return the territories in Asia to Roman control, pay a tribute of several thousand talents, and supply Sulla with a fleet of ships in recompense. In return, Sulla would recognize Mithridates’ position as King of Pontus and declare him an ally of the Republic. Pressures facing Mithridates, not least the Roman fleet prowling the Mediterranean, compelled the king to accept the Sulla’s terms in 85 BCE.


Roman Rivals: Sulla Against Marius

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The Triumph of Marius, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1729, via Met Museum


The tensions between Sulla and Marius, the two great rivals of Roman politics in the first decades of the first century BCE, had been brewing since before the former’s departure for Athens. Marius, accustomed to being the Romans’ savior as he had been before, was incensed at Sulla’s rise; the consulship of 88 BCE especially would give the patrician plenty of opportunity to accrue wealth and prestige by reasserting Roman control in the east. Marius’ attempts to block Sulla’s progress using the tribune of the plebs had already resulted in riots at Rome, even prompting the consul to march on the city! The Sullan forces defeated the Marians, declared the defeated to be dangerous demagogues, and had them banished as enemies of the state.


While Sulla was campaigning against Mithridates, Marius and his supporters did not rest. The new consuls, Cornelius Cinna and Gnaeus Octavius, were frequently in disagreement. Eventually, Octavius forced Cinna from the city, replacing him with a more amenable colleague. With Marius’ support, however, Cinna returned and lay besieged Rome. Reinstated by the panicking senate, Cinna orchestrated the reversal of Marius’ status as an enemy of the state. In fact, both Marius and Cinna — each recently reinstated into Roman politics — would have themselves elected as consuls in 86 BCE. Everywhere, their former enemies were dispatched, slaughtered in a bloody political retaliation, while Sulla himself was now presented as an enemy of the state. At the same time, Sulla was removed from his command in the east, to be replaced by Marius.


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Bust identified as ‘young Pompey’, via Musee du Louvre


Unfortunately for Marius’ ambitions of further glory, the old man died very shortly after being elected consul. Instead, Cinna, now in sole control of Rome, dispatched Lucius Valerius Flaccus to the east to relieve Sulla of his command. This occurred as Sulla and his forces were preparing for the battle at Orchomenus; their previous successes at Athens and Chaeronaea, not to mention Sulla’s reputation, meant that it was relatively easy to sow discord among the recently arrived army of Flaccus. Many men deserted, and Flaccus had no option but to move on, taking his army north against Mithridates’ forces.


Back in Rome, Cinna had lost control of the febrile political situation and had been murdered by his soldiers. Sulla, landing in Italy in 83 BCE, marched on Rome. Former allies who had escaped the Marian purges flocked to the cause, including Marcus Licinius Crassus. One of the more notable joiners to the Sullan cause was a young Gnaeus Pompeius (not yet Magnus), who raised three legions from his father’s settled veterans and marched to join Sulla. Marching north at the head of an army whose ranks kept swelling, Sulla’s forces besieged the son of Marius at Praeneste, while they had also advanced to the Colline Gate at Rome. The battle there, on 1st November 82 BCE, was a victory for the Sullan forces. Victory at Rome, coupled with the suicide of Marius’ son, left Sulla as supreme commander. Seizing the opportunity presented by the chaos, Sulla offered his service as dictator.


Restoring Rome? Sulla as dictator

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Lucius Cornelius Sulla from Henricus Spoor, Facissae Utriusque Antiquitatis, Pieter Bodart, ca. 1707, via the British Museum


The dictatorship in Rome was not, perhaps, as you might expect. Traditionally, the role was an extraordinary magistracy. In times of crisis, an individual might be endowed with the powers of the state, subordinating all others to his authority, with the express purpose of resolving whatever crisis the Republic faced. Sulla’s dictatorship had an important difference, however: there was no time limit on his term. The lex Valeria, which made him dictator, simply instructed him to restore the Republic (rei publicae constituendae). With no time limits imposed on his power, and no geographic constraint, Sulla’s powers — if he chose to exert them — were immense.


To illustrate his power, Sulla had summoned the senate to the Temple of Bellona (a goddess of war, worshipped on the Campus Martius — the remains of her temple are now adjacent to the later Theatre of Marcellus). There, while addressing Rome’s elite, the dictator had thousands of Samnite prisoners executed. It was a sign of the ruthlessness which would characterize Sulla’s dictatorship. A series of constitutional reforms were enacted by Sulla during this period, many aimed at curbing the powers of the Tribune of the Plebs. As an optimate, Sulla was staunchly opposed to popular politics. Instead, he undertook efforts to ensure the prestige of the traditional senatorial aristocracy and their political influence.


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The Wretchedness of Wealth, Philips Galle after Maarten van Heemskerck, 1563, via the British Museum


Perhaps most notoriously, Sulla’s dictatorship was marked by the proscriptions. Now in total control, those who had opposed Sulla were placed on lists and identified as enemies of the state; their lives were forfeit and their property and wealth ripe for confiscation. The bloodshed that ensued ripped apart families right across Italy, and Plutarch’s Life of the dictator provides a clear insight into the reach of Sulla’s vengeance. According to Suetonius, the young Julius Caesar had found himself on the proscription lists; he managed to escape through the efforts of his family and, eventually, the clemency of the dictator. The later biography, however, records Sulla’s remorse at sparing Caesar and his huge ambitions: “In this Caesar, there are many Mariuses”.


The Sullan proscriptions can be interpreted as a response to the similar spate of murders that marked Marius and Cinna’s political machinations while Sulla had been campaigning in the east. They, combined with his campaigns in the east, had also made Sulla fabulously wealthy. To demonstrate his wealth, Sulla became a patron of some notable construction and rebuilding projects in Rome. Most significant among these was the restoration of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill, Rome’s most sacred temple. It had burned down in 83 BCE. The new structure was adorned with colossal marble temples that Sulla had looted from the Temple of Zeus in Athens. The new temple, which was completed only after Sulla’s death, was built to the same plan as the previous iteration, only with more expensive materials. As a result, the temple’s restoration represented an architectural assertion of the importance Sulla attributed to tradition.


A Lucky Legacy? Sulla Felix Remembered

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Aureus minted by A Manlius with obverse bust of goddess Roma, and reverse depiction of an equestrian statue of Sulla, 80 BCE, via British Museum


In 78 BCE, Sulla died. He had given up his dictatorial powers and retired to a life of bucolic bliss, at a country villa near Puteoli. A grand public funeral was held for the former dictator in the Forum at Rome in a ceremony that would be unmatched in scale until the death of Augustus in 14 CE. His vast tomb (unfortunately never discovered) was inscribed with an epitaph preserving his generosity and fury for posterity: there was no better friend, no worse enemy. Ominous even after death, Sulla’s legacy remained a specter throughout Roman history. Notoriously, the man awarded himself a new cognomen during his career, becoming Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix — Sulla the Lucky. Was this fair?


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Bust identified as Sulla, , 1st century BCE, via Wikimedia Commons


In the centuries that followed the Republic’s demise, Sulla’s memory would be invoked as a model and as a warning. Emperors like Commodus and Caracalla would take the title Felix for themselves, subsuming good fortune as an inherent trait of the princeps. In the late second century CE, following years of brutal war that led to his accession, the emperor Septimius Severus reputedly gathered the senate and delivered a speech in which he ominously praised the severity and cruelty of Sulla…


As staunch champion of the traditional values of his political and social class, Sulla was also — perhaps inadvertently — a pioneer and revolutionary. In as much as he fought to preserve the status quo at Rome, his own vaunting ambitions and immense accumulation of power and wealth have been seen as precursors to the political titans who would rise in the last years of the Republic and after Pompey, Caesar, and the emperor’s who followed.

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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK-based independent researcher with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explore the representation of imperial status during the reigns of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the ancient world. He is currently writing his first book.