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Roman Dictator: Lucius Cornelius Sulla

Updated on November 30, 2009

138 - 78 B.C.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla was a Roman general and statesman. Dictator of Rome from 82 B.C. to 79 B.C. Sulla distinguished himself with military victories in Asia Minor and in the Social War between Rome and other Italian cities.

He was quaestor in 107 under Marius in the Jugurthine War, and it was to him that Jugurtha surrendered, an event which marked the beginning of his rivalry with Marius. He continued, however, to serve under Marius against the Cimbri and Teutones from 104 until 102, when Marius's undisguised jealousy drove him to take a command under Q. Lutatius Catulus, with whom he fought at Campi Raudii in the following year.

In 93 he was praetor, and in 92 was sent as propraetor to Cilicia with orders from the Sentate to restore Ariobarzanes to the throne of Cappadocia, from which he had been driven by Mithridates.

This task fulfilled, he received a Parthian embassy asking alliance with the republic, and returned in 91 to Rome.

Sulla's ability and reputation had led the Optimates to look to him as their leader, and thus political animosity was added to professional jealousy and personal hatred on the part of Marius. At this stage, however, the outbreak of the Social War hushed all private quarrels. Both men took an active part in hostilities against the common foe; nevertheless, whereas Marius was now advancing in years, Sulla gained some brilliant victories, notably his defeat of the Samnites and capture of their chief town Bovianum. The war ended with the taking of Nola.

After he was elected consul in 88 B.C., the Roman senate appointed him to lead an army against Mithridates VI, King of Pontus. Sulla remained at Rome until his year of office had expired, and then set out to oppose Mithridates at the beginning of 87. During the next four years he won a series of amazing victories, and collected a large amount of plunder. Having sacked Athens (86), and driven the enemy from Greece, he crossed the Hellespont in 84 and in the same year concluded peace with Mithridates.

Sulla now prepared to return to Italy, where the Marian party had regained the upper hand. Leaving his legate, L. Licinius Murena, as governor of Asia, and taking with him, among other booty, the library of Apellicon, he set out and landed at Brundisium in the spring of 83. By promises and bribery he won over or neutralised most of the forces which his enemies could bring against him, leaving only a few Samnites. In 82 the struggle was brought to a close, first by the defeat of the younger Marius at Sacriportus near Praeneste, and then by the great victory over the Samnites under Pontius Telesinus before the Colline Gate at Rome.

Sulla was now absolute master of Rome and Italy; he resolved to take revenge upon his enemies and to destroy all potential opposition to the Optimates. The steps he took are known as the 'Sullan proscription'. He was given the office of dictator and drew up a list (proscriptio) of men who were said to be outlaws and enemies of the state. The reign of terror spread to the whole peninsula; new lists appeared; no one was safe, for Sulla gratified his friends by including in these fatal documents their personal enemies, or those whose property was coveted by his adherents.

At the beginning of 81 he celebrated a magnificent triumph for his victories in the Mithridatic war, and devoted the following year to the carrying of his constitutional and administrative reforms. These were in effect a restoration of the Senate to its old legislative and executive supremacy. Believing he could ensure the stability of his regime by the constant threat of arms, he established military colonies throughout the length and breadth of Italy. His personal safety was in the hands of a bodyguard created for this purpose by the emancipation of slaves who had belonged to persons proscribed by him. They were known as Cornelii after their patron, and are said to have numbered as many as 10,000.

Sulla's reforms were unsuited to the times; they scarcely survived him, except for the quaestiones perpetuae (permanent tribunals), which formed the basis of all future criminal justice.

Sulla had himself appointed dictator, and before withdrawing as leader in 79 B.C., he forced the enactment of legislation that made the senate the strongest body in Rome's government.

Convinced by an old prophecy that he had not long to live, he withdrew into private life and devoted his time to literature and the preparation of his memoirs. He died the following year (78) in Campania, Italy, of a long-standing disease.


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    • Clark Kent profile image

      Clark Kent 7 years ago from Europe

      Interesting hub. Accurate, concise and clear work, Darkside.

    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      I have read, and enjoyed, all your Roman hubs, keep 'em coming!