Dictator of All Dictators: L.C. Sulla

Updated on November 17, 2018
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David has a BA in History, with a specialization in Roman history, mainly 2nd-1st century BC, and a vast interest for 20th century history,


Dictators Before the Dictators

Dictator! What does the term really mean? Was it really what it is now back when it came into being? No, of course not. Dictator was a political office in the Roman republic to be assumed for a period of six months in urgent times with absolute power. Abuse of this power was neither expected nor encouraged, and the office of dictator was, therefore, not seen as something negative.

But a man by the name of Lucius Cornelius Sulla came and changed that, making ''dictator'' the name of tyrants and the name of all men who are seen as evil.

Italy During the Social War


Rome in Turmoil

As Rome went into chaos in the 2nd half of the 2nd century BC, wars on its borders were disturbing the peace. Both in North Africa, Numidia, with Jugurtha and in Europe, North of Rome, with the Cimbri and the Teutons(Germanic tribes).

As Rome solved these 2 problems, both with better strategies and a military reform(which made the army state-owned and no longer self-financed), it found itself in new conflicts—both inside Rome and outside of it.

The "Social War" with the people who were Romans (or Italians) but not yet citizens took a toll on Rome. This conflict further made a name for Sulla, who served in the Roman army during that time. The Pontus war and its king, Mithridates VI, also helped make a name for L.C. Sulla.

As outer enemies were fought off, new ones came into being, and they did not make it easy for Sulla.

A Bust of Gaius Marius

Older busts lack a nose.
Older busts lack a nose. | Source

The Tyrant Before the Dictator

When Rome was getting rid of it's outer enemies, it experienced a rise of new political forces. One such force was a popular(Roman equivalent for US democrats) politician and consul(equivalent of a president) of many times by the name of Gaius Marius.

Marius made the army reform possible. This reform made the army into a disciplined, institutionalized force, paid for by the state, no longer by the soldiers themselves, well trained and fierce. Before that the army was self funded, filled with Rome's elites and, not surprisingly, also highly corrupt.

As Marius' popularity rose, so did his lust for power. The people certainly adored him and gave him much support. As Sulla left to fight against Mithridates VI of Pontus, Marius basically performed a power grab, twice.

As Sulla fought in Pontus, Marius seized power and basically suppressed the optimates(Roman equivalent to US republicans). But, as Sulla came back, the same was done to the populares and Marius(who fled). Iron rule- until Sulla left again- was established. But as Sulla left for yet another war with Mithridates, Marius seized power again, for the last time, sparing few ''Sullans''(as in, supporters of Sulla).

Battle at the Colline Gate, 82 BC

A 19th century image
A 19th century image | Source

The Final Power Grab

As Marius died- old and weak, but in power- populares were in full power. But their days were numbered, as Sulla was on his way back to Rome, eager to regain what was taken from him. He was proclaimed an outlaw and, therefore, his men held on to him purely out of loyalty and, of course, the promise for land as a reward for service, which was a part of the above mentioned military reform. His battle-hardened and victorious veterans were a deadly force, which Rome was about to experience.

The populares, with their leader Cinna, sent legion after legion against Sulla- all of them failed and by 82 BC Rome was under optimate control. Sulla had won and now it was time to establish order.

Proscriptions in an Image

An image from around 1799
An image from around 1799 | Source

Sulla, the Dictator

Power! Finally! And now, as Rome was still in a disorderly state, Sulla had no other way but to fix everything. And so, in 82. BC Sulla, as a military warlord, appointed an interrex- an official office- or a "ruler between rulers", who, in turn, appointed Sulla a dictator, but for an unlimited period of time. But, basically, it was Sulla who appointed himself, just indirectly. Further laws passed allowed Sulla to do nearly everything he wants.

First and foremost, the enemy soldiers and other popular supporters were executed in vast numbers. That was purely for punitive measures- and this was not the last wave of repressions. The 2nd wave- known as the proscriptions- took place that same year and they were, basically, lists of people, mainly personal and political rivals, to be killed and their properties to be seized by the state. Sulla rewarded those, who killed the proscribed as vigilantes, but the possessions of the proscribed were auctioned off or just given to friends of the dictator.

This both instilled fear into the hearts and minds of Romans, helped keep loyal men in their place and, above all, gave the state extra funds.

Sulla in Rome

A 19th century image
A 19th century image | Source

Good Deeds of a Good-Willing Man

Sulla did not want to be a dictator for the sake of power, money or just sheer sadism. He took the office because he felt a need to help Rome. He wanted to bring it back to its former glory, to make Rome great again as it was in the "times of the founding fathers."

Sulla reformed the legal system of Rome. First and foremost, he weakened the people's council, where the people of Rome actually had a say, by flooding it with freed men (ex-slaves). There were about 10 thousand of his Cornelii in total and they all did what Sulla asked them to. Then he weakened the office of the tribune which was a high one for someone of non-noble origin.

Sulla also gave more power to the senate by reforming the cursus honormu. Sulla made longer the time a man should spend in one office to be able to take a higher office. Although Sulla ended his dictatorship in 81 BC, he still ruled until about 79 BC as consul. As he saw people resenting his reign (and perhaps for other reasons) he retired in 79 and died in 78 BC, leaving Rome to further years of political and social chaos.

Busts of Marius and Sulla

Supposed originals
Supposed originals | Source

Final Thoughts

Lucius Cornelius Sulla was a well-meaning dictator. His intentions to bring Rome back to its traditional state and to maintain order were in no way bad. It was only the means that were not too pleasant and in no way a treat for the victims. This could be said about any dictator—they come with the best intentions, but end up becoming revered.

Among many differences between Sulla and the many tyrants of the 20th century, the most stunning one was in his term as dictator. It was not very long and ended by his own will.

Used sources

List of main sources used:

  1. Boak, Arthur E.R., Sinnigen, William G. A history of Rome to A.D. 565. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971.
  2. Breasted, James Henry. Ancient times, a history of the early world. Boston: The Athenum Press, 1935.
  3. Cary, M., Scullard, H.H. A history of Rome. Hong Kong: The Macmillan Press, 1994.
  4. Chapot, Victor. The Roman world./ translated by E.A. Parker. London: Routledge, 1998.
  5. Harris, William W. War and imperialism in republican Rome. 327-70 B.C. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  6. Keavenay, Arthur. The army in the Roman revolution. New York: Routlegde, 2007.
  7. Le Glay, Marcel, Voisin, Jean-luis, Le Bohec, Yann, Cherry, David. A history of Rome. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.
  8. McKay, John P., Hill, Bennett D., Buckler, John. A history of Western society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.
  9. Scullard, H.H. From Gracchi to Nero. London: Methuen & Co LTD, 1970.
  10. Shotter, David. The Fall of the Roman Republic. London: Routledge, 2005.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 David


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