(Lucius Cornelius )

138–78 BC

Cornelius Sulla was from a well established patrician family, and when he came to power he represented the interests of the senate or optimates. He established his reputation while serving under Marius, first in the Jugurthine War in Africa, and later in the Cimbrian War in northern Italy. In both wars, incidents arose that enflamed personal jealousies between the two. They served together ten years later in the Roman Social War , but it was apparent by then that Sulla's star was on the rise, while Marius was becoming advanced in years. The long-brewing jealousies finally erupted in 88 B.C. when Mithradates, King of Pontus overran Asia Minor and Greece. Sulla was elected consul and put at the head of the army, but the populares party, headed by the tribune Sulpicius, preferred to have Marius lead the army. He incited a riot, and forced laws to be passed that would make Marius the commander of the army. Sulla was so infuriated by this turn of events that he took the unprecedented step of marching his army into the city of Rome and restoring power to the senate. He declared Marius and Sulpicius public enemies and ordered them put to death, although Marius managed to escape. He then turned his army around and marched off to meet Mithradates.

The First Mithradatic War lasted from 88 to 84 B.C. Athens had gone over to Mithradates, and was serving as his central command post in Greece. Sulla besieged and sacked the city before winning several other important victories against Mithradates, and driving him back to Pontus. He did not return to Rome until 83 B.C. In his absence, however, the populares party, under Cinna and Marius, had raised an army and taken over control of the city by force. Both leaders were already dead by the time Sulla returned to Rome, but many of their partisans still controlled all the public offices. Sulla again advanced on the city with his army, and was met by a force led by the son of Marius. Sulla prevailed after a furious Civil War, and slew all 6,000 of the prisoners he took. He then marched into Rome, declared himself dictator, and started systematically putting all of his rivals to death. Instead of murdering them outright, he had them first declared public enemies. These lists of public enemies were called proscriptions. They made it a crime for anyone, even a family member to protect them, and allowed the government to confiscate their property upon their death.

In order to understand Sulla's actions, it must be remembered that the party of Sulla's enemy Marius was composed of rich and powerful men who claimed to represent the interests of the poor, rather than poor people themselves. Since the populares had seized control of the government by force, Sulla saw himself as reforming the government, and putting things back in proper order. He held his dictatorship for less than three years, and then retired from public life. He spent his few remaining years writing his memoirs, and travelling freely around Rome without a bodyguard, convinced that posterity would exonerate him. He died in 78 B.C. and wrote his own epitaph (a masterpiece of understatement): "No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full."

Key events during the life of sulla:

106 BC
Serves under Marius in Africa; set a trap to ambush Jugurtha.
104 BC
Serves under Marius in northern Italy, against the Teutone and Cimbri Gauls.
90 BC
Serves in the Social War.
88 BC
Elected Consul. Sent against Mithradates, but returns to Rome to send his enemy Marius into exile.
87 BC
Sacks Athens after year-long siege, and prevails over Mithradates at Chaeronea.
86 BC
Prevails again over Mithradates at Orchomenus; Marian party takes control in Rome and purges Sulla's allies.
84 BC
Mithradates is driven back to Asia, and a temporary peace is concluded.
83 BC
Returns to Rome with an army of 40,000 men. Civil war ensues.
82 BC
Sulla's party prevails; Sulla made dictator; purges and proscriptions begin.
81 BC
Reorganizes government to favor the aristocratic party over the popular (Marian) party.
80 BC
Retires from public life. Moves freely about Rome without a bodyguard.
78 BC
Dies peacefully in his villa outside Rome.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Marius and Sylla  in  Julius Caesar  by  Jacob Abbott
In the Days of the Dictator  in  Roman Life in the Days of Cicero  by  Alfred J. Church
Red General  in  Tales of the Romans: The Children's Plutarch  by  F. J. Gould
Social War  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Proscription Lists  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Sulla  in  Famous Men of Rome  by  John H. Haaren & A. B. Poland
Sylla  in  Our Young Folks' Plutarch  by  Rosalie Kaufman
Capture of Jugurtha  in  The Story of Rome  by  Mary Macgregor
Sulla Enters Rome with His Troops  in  The Story of Rome  by  Mary Macgregor
Sulla Besieges Athens  in  The Story of Rome  by  Mary Macgregor
Proscription of Sulla  in  Historical Tales: Roman  by  Charles Morris

Image Links

 in Famous Men of Rome

Sulla Fights his Way into Rome
 in Greatest Nations - Rome

Sylla entering Rome
 in Our Young Folks' Plutarch

Jugurtha came to the tent of his father-in-law unarmed.
 in The Story of Rome

Lists of those who were doomed were hung up in the Forum.
 in The Story of Rome

Short Biography
Marius Renowned general. Modernized legions. Waged a bloody feud with party of Sulla.
Cinna With Marius, raised an army, and took possession of Rome for populist Party.
Mithridates King of Pontus, enemy of Rome, raised rebellions in Greece and Asia Minor.
Lucullus Led Rome against Mithradates in third Mithradatic War. Known for extravagant lifestyle.
Sertorius Led rebellion against Rome in Spain; held out for 8 years.
Pompey Very renowned general. Defeated pirates. Led opposition to Caesar in civil war.