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The Life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla:
A General and Dictator of the Roman Republic

In the era just prior to the time of Julius Caesar the Roman Republic was experiencing problems of corruption and governance. Leaders of the Roman Republic recognized that reforms needed to be made but were undecided as to what the reforms must be and how major reforms could be carried out.

One leader prior to Caesar arose that gained the power to make such reforms. His name was Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Lucius Cornelius Sulla was born in 138 BCE into a patrician family of Rome, but one with little power and influence. He aspired to a political career but he had little success until 78 BCE when he became quaestor (financial officer) in an army commanded by Gaius Marius. (For more information on the political offices of the Roman government see Roman Governance.) The Senate authorized Marius to go to North Africa to wage war against the local leader Jugurtha. Jugurtha was a Berber leader that had a turbulent relationship with Rome. Jugurtha was the illegitimate son of a former king of Numidia, which roughly corresponded to what is now Algeria.

In times past Jugurtha had been an ally of Rome, commanding a Berber force fighting in alliance with Rome in Spain. Jugurtha was winning control of Numidia against the rival claimants to the throne when his troops captured a city where his rivals had taken refuge. When the city, which was what is now Constantine, Algeria, was taken all of the inhabitants were slaughtered, along with some important Roman business men. As a consequence Rome declared war on Jugurtha. Jugurtha fought a guerilla wars against the Romans. Finally Jugurtha negotiated a favorable treaty of peace with the Romans. The terms were so surprisingly favorable to Jugurtha that the Roman Senate requested he come to Rome and explain how he had obtained such favorable conditions. The Senate suspected bribery. Under safe conduct conditions Jugurtha journeyed to Rome. The Senate accepted that the treaty was a legitimate one and Jugurtha was allowed to return to Numidia. However before he left Rome Jugurtha arranged the assassination of a rival of his for the throne of Numidia. This so outraged the Senate that the treaty was abrogated and war was to continue against Jugurtha.

It was expected that the war against Jugurtha would be long and difficult. When the Roman Army under the command of Marius arrived in Numidia, Sulla carried out a daring plot. Sulla journeyed to the adjacent kingdom which was in what is now north Morocco and convinced the king, Bocchus, to betray Jugurtha who was a refugee in the kingdom of Bocchus, who happened to be his father-in-law. Sulla had risked his life in this venture but it was successful. People said of Sulla that he had the courage of a lion and the cunning of a fox. For more on Jugurtha see Algeria.

While Sulla was hailed as hero by most Roman, his success was resented by his commanding officer, Marius. Sulla moved up in political rank when he became a praestor, a judge. He also had military responsibilities. Non-Roman allies in Italy were demanding Roman citizenship and grants of land. The battles in this dispute (90-89 BCE) were called the Social War. Sulla suppressed the rebellion but allowed the soldiers to retain the land they had already acquired.

At the time there were two major political groupings in the Senate. The two groupings originated from the class structure of Rome. One grouping was of the patrician class, the old land owning families of Rome. Sulla supported that political grouping. The other had its origin in the plebeian class but some patrician families, including the family of Julius Caesar, had allied themselves with it. It was known as the popular party.

Having demonstrated his capabilities as a general in the Social War Sulla was duly elected as one the two consuls of the Roman Republic, the highest political office in the Republic. It was standard procedure for the Senate to put consuls in command of armies to go off and fight Rome's enemies. In 88 BCE Sulla was assigned to go to Anatolia and put King Mithradates VI of Pontus in his place. Pontus was a Hellenized Persian kingdom situated along the Black Sea in the northeast of what is now Turkey.

The kingdom of Phrygia had been part of the Pontic Empire but it rebelled and sought the support of Rome. Rome made Phrygia part of its province of Asia. It had thus become an integral part of the Roman Empire. Mithradates had the audacity to bring Phrygia back under Pontic control.

In Rome Sulla's old commanding officer, Marius, the one who had become jealous of Sulla solution to the Jugurtha problem, used his influence in the Senate to have himself named commander of the expeditionary force to punish Mithradates instead of Sulla. Sulla with an army already at his command marched on Rome and the decision concerning naming Marius commander was reversed. Marius fled Rome into exile and died about a year later. Marius had been a revolutionary seeking to take power away from the oligarchy represented by the Senate. Sulla was the counter-revolutionary.

Sulla took his force to Greece where he proceeded to defeat each general of Mithradates. By the spring of 87 BCE the troops of Sulla had captured most of Greece. Athens resisted but fell in 86 BCE after a long siege.

In 85 BCE Mithradates met with Sulla and accepted a treaty that made him a vassal of Rome. Sulla stayed in Athens until the summer of 83 BCE when he led his forty thousand troops into southern Italy.

In Rome during Sulla's absence the popular party had gained control of the Senate. This group declared Sulla to be a public enemy. The house belonging to Sulla was destroyed and his family had to flee for their lives. The Senate even sent someone to take command of the army which Sulla had been commanding. That replacement happened to have been killed before he could reach Sulla. Sulla then marched to Rome and took control of the city by the end of the year 82. Rome had been militarily occupied before but always by alien invaders rather than a Roman army. Sulla's troops took vengeance upon the popular party.

The victorious Sulla was given the office of dictator. For the Romans dictator was a temporary position given to someone to run the government until an election could be held and the subsequently elected official could take office. However prior to Sulla the office of dictator was for a specified period of time. In the case of Sulla his term as dictator did not have a time limit. Sulla promised to relinquish the office as soon as possible.

In power as the dictator of Rome, Sulla carried out an extensive program of governmental reform. For example, he increased the number of courts to try criminal cases. One of the concerns at the time was that popular assemblies with legislative power would wrest effective control of Roman government away from the Senate. Sulla sought to prevent this by enacting legislation that required laws which were to be considered by popular assemblies be first submitted to the Senate for debate. The Senate could thus deny a popular assembly the opportunity to even consider a proposed law. This reform enabled the Senate to reign in any usurpation of power by the popular assemblies.

After carrying out his reform measures Sulla then indulged himself with a celebration of his triumph over Mithradates. Such celebrations were an important element of Roman life and politics. After the celebration, in 79 BCE Sulla then, to almost everyone's surprise, resigned his dictatorship and retired to private life. He wrote his memoirs and continued to be active, but a fever killed him in the year 78 BCE when he was about sixty years of age.


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