[You think the liberals are worried about the Tea Party and Rush Limbaugh? Read about
a real reactionary who was dictator of ancient Rome]
Julius Caesar is famous for crossing the Rubicon with his legions, marching on Rome,
and effectively abolishing the old Roman Republic and transforming it into an empire.
Yet Caesar never really got a chance to show what he could do as an emperor; he was
assassinated. It is often forgotten that a generation before Caesar, another Roman
accomplished exactly what Caesar may have intended...and survived to die in his bed.
He was Lucius Cornelius Sulla, known as "Felix" or "Lucky Sulla," and he was able
to inscribe upon his tomb what is probably the best epitaph any man ever had, because
it was true.
Of an old but decayed patrician family, Sulla was famous for his conquest of foreign
kings and his unrivaled luck in battle. He was ruthless, brilliant, alternately merciful
and pitiless to his enemies, devilishly handsome and a renowned seducer of beautiful
women. The young general’s actions sent shock-waves to the very foundations of the
enfeebled Republic and led to his seizing the dictatorship of Rome. However, he would
not step aside from the office in the traditional six months, but proceeded to force
through legislation to recreate Rome in his own image. His name would become a byword
for those who helped destroy the Roman Republic in its final years.
The parallels between Sulla’s notorious career and that of Julius Caesar (who was
not even born when Sulla first rose to prominence, but who lived his youth under
his shadow) are uncanny. As Caesar had his Pompey, Sulla had his Gaius Marius. The
increasing struggles between the two warlords resulted in civil war and a seesaw
of alternating political regimes that immersed Rome in blood. Caesar grew up in this
political chaos. Sulla’s ruthless actions must have profoundly influenced the mind
of the young Julian.
We know more about Sulla than of many Romans of the period; Sulla wrote extensive
memoirs and, although they are lost to history, other writers like Plutarch and Appian
could rely on Sulla’s own words to justify his actions.
Sulla was born into an impoverished branch of the Cornelii, of impeccable patrician
background but no longer contenders in Rome’s power structure. Sulla appears to have
lived a poor and dissolute existence until he received two family inheritances that
finally gave him the financial stature to run for office. According to a best-selling
sequence of Roman novels by author Colleen McCullough, Sulla gained those inheritances
by poisoning his own mistress and also his stepmother, whom he had seduced as well.
There were contemporary rumors to this effect, which may simply have been the usual
nasty political gossip, but as he proved later, Sulla was certainly capable of it.
His first major break into the Roman political ladder was to serve as quaestor for
the famous general, Gaius Marius, who was leading Rome’s armies against King Jugurtha
of Numidia. Sulla, the impoverished patrician, served with Marius, the ambitious
up-and-comer, and rose to be his ranking lieutenant. After several years of inconclusive
battles, the ambitious Sulla was able to negotiate Jugurtha’s surrender personally:
typically, he persuaded one of Jugurtha's relations to betray him.
Sulla was also able to cop the credit for defeating Jugurtha which, in all fairness,
should have gone to Marius, who did all the work. This glorious conclusion to the
campaign was an achievement the jealous Marius never forgave. Relations between the
two men soured to the point that, when Marius fought his memorable campaign against
the Germanic Teutons and Cimbri tribes in further Gaul (104–103 BC), Sulla had transferred
to the staff of his rival, Catullus, and fought elsewhere. By all accounts, Sulla
was invaluable to Catullus and their armies secured a great victory against the invading
Upon his return to Rome, Sulla served as praetor urbanus, kind of a city manager
of Rome, after having lost the year before in his first attempt at the office. The
young Caesar would later comment on the common rumors that Sulla had bought his election;
when Sulla threatened to use his personal power and authority against Caesar, Caesar
replied “Considering that you bought it, you are absolutely right to call it your
own.” (Plutarch, 5)
Sulla was assigned the province of Cilicia as proconsul, and was instrumental in
displaying Rome’s power to the eastern provinces, including Parthia; the rulers of
the distant kingdom, hitherto largely unknown to Rome, sent their ambassadors to
meet the tough young politician. It was while in the East that Sulla allegedly was
told by a mystic that he would achieve greatness and die at the very height of his
good fortune, a prophecy Sulla apparently took seriously and recounted in his memoirs.
Sulla remained in the east for several years, returning to Rome in either 92 or 91
BC. He immediately joined the political faction opposed to Gaius Marius, who had
served in five successive consulships but was still hungry for power. The two factions
were on the verge of open riot when the "Social War" intervened in 89.
After decades in which various city-states on the Italian peninsula sought, and were
denied, full political power in Rome, a series of revolts against Roman hegemony
drew all her generals into the field. Sulla rose to increased prominence as one of
the three generals who were successful in the bitter years of the Social War; he
outshone Marius (who was now in his late sixties) as well as his only other rival,
Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (father of Pompey the Great). Due to his successes, he was
elected Consul (88 BC). Velleius comments, Sulla was a man to whom, up to the conclusion
of his career of victory, sufficient praise can hardly be given, and for whom, after
his victory, no condemnation can be adequate. (II, XVII).
At the summit of his career, Plutarch notes that Sulla had a very irregular and inconsistent
character. He was deeply greedy and deeply generous; he was completely unpredictable.
He would have a man beaten to death for no good reason, and yet pardon an inveterate
Sulla lived rough with his troops, sharing their lives. He could be a brutal disciplinarian
yet also was notorious for pampering his soldiers (recognizing, probably, that they
were his guarantee of influence and power). Physically, Sulla is described as looking
"much like his statues," with cold blue eyes although later in life his famous good
looks were married by a peculiar blotched complexion of red and white, looking like
"mulberries lying atop oatmeal."
As consul, Sulla prepared to take an army to the east, where Mithridates, King of
Pontus, had invaded Bithynia and Phrygia. However, the aging Marius, who had become
almost unbalanced in his jealousy of Sulla, encouraged the tribune Sulpicius Rufus
to force a vote in the assembly to award command of the army to Marius, instead of
Sulla. After Sulla and the army left Rome, Sulpicius managed through violent means
to reverse the command.
When Sulla learned of this, camped in Italy prior to leaving for the East with his
army, he called his commanders together and portrayed himself (correctly) as the
victim of Marius’s intrigues, manipulating them into suggesting that he march on
Rome to secure his rights. Taking six legions, Sulla took the fateful step. Most
of his officers resigned rather than being part of what looked like the first act
in civil war. As Sulla’s armies took Rome, Marius fled and Sulla harangued the Senate.
Sulla, with an army behind him, easily persuaded the Senate and the Comitia (the
people's Assembly) to pass laws implementing his wishes. Marius and his followers
were declared outlaws and efforts made to hunt them down and kill them. Sulla then
took his army and left to fight Mithridates.
Scarcely had Sulla’s army left Rome when Cinna, now allied with the fugitive Marius,
switched sides. Before the end of 87, Rome had fallen to the forces of Marius; together,
he and Cinna instituted a bloodbath of political opponents exceeding anything ever
seen in the city. Marius and Cinna were elected consuls for 86; Sulla was formally
exiled and his laws repealed. Marius died only days into the new consulship and,
for the next three years, Cinna controlled Rome, securing reelection to the consulship
each year. As Sulla’s armies found increasing success in the campaign against Mithridates,
his vengeful shadow loomed over the forces of Cinna. Upon Cinna’s death in 84, his
co-consul, Carbo, became the target. Sulla pillaged the treasures of Asia for the
inevitable conflict with his enemies in Rome.
Once Sulla heard of Cinna’s death, he abandoned his Asian maneuvers and returned
to Italy. En route to Rome (his second effort with an army behind him), Sulla was
met by the ambitious young Gnaeus Pompeius, who brought him a small army of his own
clients and his father's veterans; hereinafter, Pompey would firmly attach himself
to Sulla’s star. Later on Pompey was to become the greatest enemy of Julius Caesar.
Sulla won battles and negotiated to bring armies over to his side before finally
approaching the gates of Rome.
The final battle against the consular forces was in Rome’s very outskirts, in the
battle of the Colline Gate in November, 82, in which Marcus Crassus helped turned
the tide for Sulla. Crassus was another future foe of Caesar who eventually came
to a sticky end. (The Parthians captured him and poured molten gold down his throat,
as a sardonic comment on his fabulous wealth and his renowned, insatiable greed for
money.) It had taken less than a year to defeat the armies of Carbo and the young
Marius, who were now hunted down without mercy and destroyed. Pompey completed the
mopping-up operations, earning the possibly ironic title from Sulla of Magnus, the
Now completely in charge of Rome, Sulla proceeded to butcher all political opponents
on a scale unmatched even by the outrages of Marius and Cinna. Plutarch describes
the terror and awe in which Sulla was held. The city was filled with murder; a young
senator at one point asked Sulla when they could expect a cessation of the murder
"We are not asking you" he said "to pardon those whom you have decided to kill; all
we ask is that you should free from suspense those whom you have decided not to kill."
Sulla obligingly began posting lists of the condemned in the Roman Forum, of those
to be killed and/or those who property would revert to the state, in this case comprised
of Sulla, his creatures, and his cronies. These were the famous Proscriptions of
Sulla. The young Caesar was also proscribed because, married to Cinna’s daughter,
he refused the tyrant's order to divorce his wife. Caesar fled Rome, only barely
escaping Sulla’s enforcers. Thousands were not so lucky. Eventually, Sulla was persuaded
by a consortium of Caesar’s supporters to pardon him, but only after grimly noting
that he should not be permitted to survive as he had many Mariuses in his nature.
He also ordered the young Julian yet again to divorce Cinna's daughter. When Caesar
again refused, Sulla simply impounded her dowry.
A complaisant and severely diminished Senate, flooded with Sullan supporters and
under a tame interrex (temporary ruler), voted Sulla the long-neglected position
of Dictator. In the early years of the Republic, a dictator could be appointed to
sole power when the state was in imminent danger, but for no longer than a six-month
period. However, no dictator had ruled Rome in centuries. And no dictator had refused
to step down after the expiration of his six-month term. Sulla did. He retained supreme
power for almost seven years.
Then, to the astonishment of his contemporaries and historians, Sulla did what no
dictator has ever done before or since. He voluntarily stepped down. Apparently,
Sulla believed a prediction made in the East that he would die soon after attaining
his unmatched power as dictator. He agreed to stand as Consul in 80 but withdrew
in 79 from all political activity, essentially retiring from politics.
Someone asked him at the time why he was giving up power voluntarily. "Are you not
afraid of your enemies?"
"I have no enemies," replied Sulla. "I've killed them all."
Living quietly in the country, and writing his memoirs, Sulla was surrounded by a
riffraff of actors, prostitutes and thugs, some of whom had remained his friends
since his youth. He died the next year. Pompey helped force through a magnificent
state funeral, to the delight of Sulla's veterans, although many wished to give him
no honors from a Republic they thought he had polluted. On his tomb was inscribed
the following magnificent epitaph:
"No friend ever served me, no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full."