Salty Sulla and How He Ruined Rome

Having only hearing of the legacy of Sulla, rather than the acts of the man himself, I was pretty excited for my lecture about his dictatorship. He represented a turning point in Roman politics, setting an arguably damaging precedent for the future of the republic.


In his early career, Sulla, coming from a lesser-known patrician family, made a name for himself by serving as Marius’ quaestor, before gaining a good military reputation for his involvement in the Social War. Around this time, the infamous Mithridates VI was becoming an increasingly powerful monarch in the East. Mithridates himself is a particularly interesting character; there’s a famous story in which he gradually took poison in teeny tiny amounts in order to make himself immune, in case someone attempted to kill him. However, when Mithridates actually attempted to commit suicide after being defeated by Pompey after the third Mithridatic War, he was immune to the poison he took and was forced to make one of his servants kill him with a sword.


Sulla was elected consul in the aftermath of the social war in 88BC and given command over the Eastern provinces, in order to fight against Mithridates. Mithridates was initially successful in command, famously killing Aquillius by pouring molten gold down his throat, making a political statement about those who over value riches. He encouraged the cities of Asia Minor to put Romans and Italian citizens to death, which was clearly a huge problem for Rome.


Meanwhile in Rome, a new law was passed which spread new citizens throughout the old tribes in Rome, which allowed for a fairer voting system. Marius gained the consulship, and Sulla was stripped of his command in the East. This marks a turning point on Roman history, as unlike his predecessors who, after being stripped of their command returned to Rome and dismantled their armies, in 88BC Sulla marched on Rome with his fully armed consular army.


The Mithridatic war continued, and after defeating Mithridates on two occasions in Greece, Sulla agreed to relatively soft peace terms, despite being very harsh on the Greeks, ruining their economy for what is believed to be an entire century. In the consular elections of 87BC, Cinna, an enemy of Sulla was successful. Cinna was anti- Sulla, and reinstated the laws which allowed equality in voting which Sulla had reversed. Various acts of aggression eventually lead to the first fully fledged civil war of Rome, which despite only lasting from 83-82BC, resulted in hundreds of deaths.


Pompey and Crassus, you’ve probably heard of these two. Pompey, despite not being a consul, raised three legions against Sulla, whilst Crassus gained a fortune by buying up property around Rome. In the spring of 83BC, Sulla returned to Rome, and when the two men met with their armies, they both saluted each other as imperator, meaning that each of them believed the other had defeated their enemies.


After Sulla’s loss of the Battle of Coline Gate, he called a senate meeting in the temple of Belladonna, whist survivors of both parties were told to meet in the circus in Rome. According to a passage written by Plutarch, 6000 Romans were killed in the circus, massacred by Sulla’s supporters. Clearly, this isn’t the act of a man who simply wants what is best for Rome; Sulla was a tyrannical leader.


Sulla was given the dictatorship for an indefinite amount of time, tasked with making laws and putting the state in order. This redefined what it was to be a dictator in Rome, as prior to this it was seen as a relatively benign office to hold. Sulla wrote proscription lists, lists which denoted enemies of the state who were to be killed by anyone with reward.


Sulla thought, or claims to have believed, that killing those who he deemed to be enemies of the state would restore order in Rome, however he managed to do the complete opposite. He essentially caused more problems for Rome than it had initially faced, and the best part is, Mithradates was still a problem! Sulla resigned the dictatorship in 81BC, and lived a private life in his estate until he died in 78BC, however due to the violence he exacted upon Rome, politicians were too scared to begin reversing his laws whilst he still lived and had influence in Rome.
Sulla set a precedent in Rome for being an unconstitutional leader. Future political figures, for example Julius Caesar, bent over backwards to not look like Sulla. His dictatorship lead to the rise of Pompey and Crassus, who became leading political figures of this period. Proscription lists were also seen again, not too much further into the future, and it must be considered that the murder of almost an entire generation of senators had a huge affect on Roman society which is difficult to comprehend in the modern day. Sulla, in trying to restore what he thought was order, just managed to cause many problems for Rome, which are to be made clear in the following few years.


2 thoughts on “Salty Sulla and How He Ruined Rome

  1. Sulla is an interesting one. He was pretty ruthless, from most accounts – but probably quite tame compared to some of those who came later. Though, as you point out, it is interesting to question whether Sulla essentially laid the groundwork for the future dictators.


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