1902 Encyclopedia > Sulla (Lucius Cornelius Sulla)

(Lucius Cornelius Sulla)
Roman soldier and dictator
(138-78 BC)

SULLA (138-78 B.C.). The life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla makes one of the most important chapters in Roman history. Both as a general and as a politician he stands in the foremost rank of the remarkable figures of all time. It was by his ability and his force of character that Sulla, who had neither great wealth nor noble ancestry to back him up, pushed himself to the front in early manhood, distinguishing himself in the Jugurthine War in 107 and 106, and being able with a good show of reason to claim the credit of having terminated that troublesome war by capturing Jugurtha himself. In these African campaigns Sulla showed that he knew how to win the hearts and confidence of his soldiers, and through his whole subsequent career the secret of his brilliant successes seems to have been the enthusiastic devotion of his troops, whom he continued to hold well in hand, while he let them indulge themselves in plundering and in all manner of licence. "Rome's soldiers from Sulla's time," says Sallust (Cat., 11), "began to drink, to make love, to have a taste for works of art, to rob temples, and to confound things sacred and profane." From the year 104 to 101 he served again under Marius in the war with the Cimbri and Teutones and fought in the last great battle near Verona, which annihilated the barbarian host. Marius, it is said, was jealous of him, and any friendly feeling there may have hitherto been between the two now finally ceased. Sulla on his return to Rome lived quietly for some years and took no part in politics. What with his genuine love of letters and his love of gay company he was never at a loss for amusement, and he must always have been a particular favourite with fashionable society at Rome. In 93 he was elected praetor after a lavish squandering of money, and he delighted the populace with an exhibition of a hundred lions from Africa, from the realm of King Bocchus. Next year (92) he went to the East with special authority from the senate to put pressure on the famous Mithradates of Pontus, and make him give back Cappadocia to its petty prince Ariobarzanes, one of Rome's dependants in Asia, whom he had driven out. Sulla with a small army soon won a victory over the general of Mithradates, and Rome's client-king was restored. An embassy from the Parthians now came to solicit the honour of alliance with Rome, and Sulla was the first Roman who held diplomatic intercourse with that remote people. In the year 91, which brought with it the imminent prospect of revolution and of sweeping political change, with the enfranchisement of the Italian peoples, Sulla returned to Rome, and it was generally felt that lie was the man to head the conservative and aristocratic party. Who was to have the command in the Mithradatic War and be en-trusted with the settlement of the East was the question of the day, and the choice lay plainly between Marius and Sulla. The rivalry between the two men and their partisans was as bitter as it could possibly be. Marius was old, but he had by no means lost his prestige with the popular party.

Meanwhile Mithradates and the East were forgotten in the crisis of the Social or Italic War, which broke out in 91 and threatened Rome's very existence. The services of both Marius and Sulla were needed, and were given ; but Sulla was the more successful, or, at any rate, the more for-tunate. Of the Italian peoples Rome's old foes the Sam-nites were the most formidable; these Sulla thoroughly vanquished, and took their chief town, Bovianum. But his victories were, after all, followed by the concession of the franchise to the Italian towns and communities generally, though an arrangement which made them vote in separate tribes greatly diminished their political power and became a further source of irritation. It was clear that Rome was on the eve of yet further troubles and revolutionary changes. Her armies, now recruited from the very scum of the population, had not the loyal and honourable spirit of former days, and cared only for licence and plunder. On every side it seemed that public life was demoralized and politics degraded. In 88 Sulla was consul; the revolt of Italy was at an end; and again the question came to the front—who was to go to the East and encounter the warlike king of Pontus, against whom war had been declared. The tribune Publius Sulpicius Bufus moved that Marius should have the command; there was fearful rioting and bloodshed at Rome at the prompting of the popular leaders, Sulla narrowly escaping to his legions in Campania, whence he marched on Rome, being the first Roman who entered the city at the head of a Roman army. Marius now had to fly; and he and his party were crushed for the time.

Sulla, leaving things quiet at Rome, quitted Italy in 87 for the East, taking Greece on his way, and for the next four years he was winning victory after victory against the armies of Mithradates and accumulating boundless plunder. Athens, the headquarters of the Mithradatic cause, was taken and sacked in 86, and Sulla possessed himself of a library which contained Aristotle's works. In the same year at Chseroneia, the scene of Philip of Macedon's memor-able victory more than two and a half centuries before, and in the year following, at the neighbouring Orchomenus, he scattered like chaff, with hardly any loss to himself, immense hosts of the enemy. Crossing the Hellespont in 84 into Asia, he was joined by the troops of Fimbria, who soon deserted their general, a man sent out by the Marian party, now again in the ascendant at Rome. The same year peace was concluded with Mithradates on condition that he should resign all his recent conquests, give up all claim to meddle with Rome's Asiatic dependencies, and pay a considerable indemnity. In fact the king was to be put back to the position he held before the war; but, as he raised cavils and Sulla's soldiers wanted better terms and more spoil, he had in the end to content him-self with being on the same footing as the other princes of Asia,—simply a vassal of Rome. I Sulla returned to Italy in 83, landing at Brundusium, having previously informed the senate in an official de-spatch of the result of his campaigns in Greece and Asia, and announced his presence on Italian ground. He com-plained, too, of the ill-treatment to which his friends and partisans had been subjected during his absence. The revolutionary party, specially represented by Cinna, Carbo, and the younger Marius, had massacred them wholesale, confiscated his property, and declared him a public enemy. They felt they must resist him to the death, and with numerous bodies of troops scattered throughout Italy, and the support of the newly enfranchised Italians, to whom it was understood that Sulla was bitterly hostile, they counted confidently on success, but on Sulla's advance at the head of his 40,000 veterans many of them lost heart and deserted their leaders, while for the most part the Italians themselves, whom he confirmed in the possession of their new privileges, were won over to his side. Only the Samnites, who were as yet without the Roman franchise, remained his enemies, and it seemed as if the old war between Rome and Samnium had to be fought once again. Several Roman nobles, among them Cneius Pom-peius (Pompey the Great), Metellus Pius, Marcus Crassus, Marcus Lucullus, joined Sulla, and in the following year (82) he won a decisive victory over the younger Marius near Prseneste (Palestrina), and then marched straight upon Rome, where again, just before his defeat of Marius, there had been a great massacre of his adherents, in which the famous and learned jurist Mucius Scaevola perished. Rome was at the same time in extreme peril from the advance of a Samnite army, and was barely saved by Sulla, who, after a bloody and very hard-fought battle, routed the enemy before the walls of Rome. With the death of the younger Marius, who killed himself after the surrender of Praeneste to one of Sulla's officers, the civil war was at an end and Sulla was master of Rome and of the Roman world. Then came, with the object of breaking the neck of the Marian or popular party, the memorable "proscription," when for the first time in Roman history a list of men declared to be outlaws and public enemies was exhibited in the forum, and a reign of terror— a succession of wholesale murders and confiscations through-out Rome and Italy—made the name of Sulla for ever infamous. The title of "dictator" was revived after a long period and conferred upon him; Sulla was in fact emperor of Rome, with absolute power over the life and fortunes of every Roman citizen. There were of course among them some really honest well-meaning men who looked up to him as the " saviour of society." After celebrating a splendid triumph for the Mithradatic War, and assuming the surname of "Felix" ("Epaphroditus," "Venus's favourite," he styled himself in addressing Greeks), he carried in 80 and 79 his great political reforms (see ROME, vol. xx pp. 761-762). Of these the main object was to invest the senate, the thinned ranks of which he had recruited with a number of his own creatures, with full control over the state, over every magistrate and every province, and the mainstay of his political system was to be the military colonies which he had established with grants of land throughout every part of Italy, to the injury and ruin of the old Italian freeholders and farmers, who from this time dwindled away, leaving whole districts waste and desolate. Sulla's work had none of the elements of permanence ; it was a mere stop-gap purchased at the cost of infinite misery and demoralization.
In 79 Sulla resigned his dictatorship and retired to Puteoli, where he died in the following year, probably from the bursting of a blood-vessel, though there is a story that he fell a victim to a particularly loathsome disease similar to that which cut off one of the Herods (Acts xii. 23). The half lion, half fox, as his enemies called him, the "Don Juan of politics," to quote Momm-sen's happy phrase, the man who carried out a policy of "blood and iron" with a grim humour, amused himself in his last days with actors and actresses, with dabbling in poetry, and completing the Memoirs of his strange and eventful life.

For Sulla and his times, there is his Life by Plutarch, who had his Memoirs for one of his authorities, and there are very numerous references to him in Cicero's writings. The best and fullest modern account of him is that of Mommsen (vol. iii., bk. iv. ch. 8, 9). (W. J. B.)

The above article was written by: Rev. W. J. Brodribb.

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