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Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (c. 138 BC – 78 BC), known commonly as Sulla, was a Roman general and statesman. He had the distinction of holding the office of consul twice, as well as reviving the dictatorship. Sulla was awarded a grass crown, the most prestigious Roman military honor, during the Social War. Sulla was a skilful general, never losing a battle. His life was habitually included in the ancient biographical collections of leading generals and politicians, originating in the biographical compendium of famous Romans, published by Marcus Terentius Varro. In Plutarch’s Parallel Lives Sulla is paired with the Spartan general and strategist Lysander.
Sulla’s dictatorship came during a high point in the struggle between optimates and populares, the former seeking to maintain the Senate’s oligarchy, and the latter espousing populism. In a dispute over the eastern army command (initially awarded to Sulla by the Senate but reneged at Marius’s intrigues) Sulla unconstitutionally marched his armies into Rome and defeated Marius in battle. After his second march on Rome, he revived the office of dictator which had been inactive since the Second Punic War over a century before, and used his powers to enact a series of reforms to the Roman Constitution, meant to restore the primacy of the Senate and limit tribune power. Sulla’s ascension was also marked by political purges in proscriptions. After seeking election to and holding a second consulship, he retired to private life and died shortly after. Sulla’s decision to seize power - ironically enabled by his rival’s military reforms that bound the army’s loyalty with the general rather than to Rome - permanently destabilized the Roman power structure. Later leaders like Julius Caesar would follow his precedent in attaining political power through force.
Sulla was born into a branch of the patrician gens Cornelia, but his family had fallen to an impoverished condition at the time of his birth. Lacking ready money, Sulla spent his youth amongst Rome’s comics, actors, lute-players, and dancers. Sulla retained an attachment to the debauched nature of his youth until the end of his life; Plutarch mentions that during his last marriage – to Valeria – he still kept company with “actresses, musicians, and dancers, drinking with them on couches night and day”.
It seems certain that Sulla received a good education. Sallust declares him well-read and intelligent, and he was fluent in Greek, which was a sign of education in Rome. The means by which Sulla attained the fortune which later would enable him to ascend the ladder of Roman politics, the Cursus honorum, are not clear, although Plutarch refers to two inheritances; one from his stepmother and the other from a low-born, but rich, unmarried lady.
In older sources, his name may be found as Sylla. This is a Hellenism, like sylva for classical Latin silva, reinforced by the fact that our two major sources, Plutarch and Appian, wrote in Greek, and call him Σύλλα.
Sulla is generally seen to having set the precedent for Caesar’s march on Rome and dictatorship. Cicero comments that Pompey once said “If Sulla could, why can’t I?”. Sulla’s example proved that it could be done, and therefore inspired others to attempt it; and in this respect, he has been seen as another step in the Republic’s fall. Further, Sulla failed to frame a settlement whereby the army (following the Marian reforms allowing non-landowning soldiery) remained loyal to the Senate rather than to generals such as himself. He attempted to mitigate this by passing laws to limit the actions of generals in their provinces, and these laws remained in effect well into the imperial period, however they did not prevent determined generals such as Pompey and Julius Caesar from using their armies for personal ambition against the Senate, a danger that Sulla was intimately aware of.
While Sulla’s laws such as those concerning qualification for admittance to the Senate and reform of the legal system and regulations of governorships remained on Rome’s statutes long into the Principate, much of his legislation was repealed less than a decade after his death. The veto power of the tribunes and their legislating authority were soon reinstated, ironically during the consulships of Pompey and Crassus.
After his second consulship, he withdrew to his country villa near Puteoli to be with family. Plutarch states in his “Life of Sulla” that he retired with his wife, and his long-time male lover, Metrobius. Plutarch mentions that “although Metrobius was past the age of youthful bloom, Sulla remained to the end of his life in love with him, and made no secret of the fact”. From this distance, Sulla remained out of the day-to-day political activities in Rome, intervening only a few times when his policies were involved (e.g., The Granius episode).
Sulla’s goal now was to write his memoirs, which he finished in 78 BC, just before his death. They are now largely lost, although fragments from them exist as quotations in later writers. Ancient accounts of Sulla’s death indicate that he died from liver failure or a ruptured gastric ulcer (symptomised by a sudden haemorrhage from his mouth followed by a fever from which he never recovered) possibly caused by chronic alcohol abuse. Accounts were also written that he had an infestation of worms, caused by the ulcers, which led to his death. His funeral in Rome (at Roman Forum, in the presence of the whole city) was on a scale unmatched until that of Augustus in AD 14. His epitaph reads “No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full”.
Sulla was red-blond, blue-eyed, and had a dead-white face covered with red marks. Plutarch, the ancient historian, notes that Sulla considered that “his golden head of hair gave him a singular appearance”.
He was said to have a duality between being charming and easily approachable, able to joke and cavort with the most simple of people while also assuming a dictatorial stern demeanor when he was leading armies and as dictator. An example of the extent of his charming side was that his soldiers would sing a ditty about Sulla’s one testicle, although without truth, to which he allowed as being “fond of a jest.” This duality, or inconsistency, made him very unpredictable and “at the slightest pretext he might have a man crucified, but on another occasion would make light of the most appalling crimes; or he might happily forgive the most unpardonable offenses and then punish trivial, insignificant misdemeanors with death and confiscation of property.” His excesses and penchant for debauchery could be attributed to the difficult circumstances of his youth, such as losing his father while he was still in his teens, retaining a doting step mother, necessitating an independent streak from an early age. The circumstances of his relative poverty as a young man left him removed from his patrician brethren, enabling him to consort with revelers and experience the baser side of human nature. This “first hand” understanding of human motivations and the ordinary Roman citizen may explain why he was able to succeed as a general despite lacking any significant military experience before his 30s.
Marriages and Children
- First wife, “Ilia” (according to Plutarch). If Plutarch’s text is to be amended to “Julia”, then she is likely to have been one of the Julias related to Julius Caesar, most likely Julia Caesaris, Caesar’s first-cousin once-removed.
- Cornelia, married first Quintus Pompeius Rufus the Younger and later Mamercus Aemilius Lepidus Livianus; mother of Pompeia (second wife of Julius Caesar) with the former.
- Lucius Cornelius Sulla, died young
- Second wife, Aelia.
- Third wife, Cloelia. Sulla divorced her due to sterility.
- Fourth wife, Caecilia Metella
- Faustus Cornelius Sulla
- Cornelia Fausta, married first to Gaius Memmius (praetor in 58 BC), then later to Titus Annius Milo (praetor in 54 BC). Mother of Gaius Memmius, suffect consul in 34 BC.
- Fifth wife, Valeria
- Cornelia Postuma (born after Sulla’s death)
Sulla’s descendants continued to be prominent in Roman politics into the imperial period. His son, Faustus Cornelius Sulla, issued denarii bearing the name of the dictator, as did a grandson, Quintus Pompeius Rufus. His descendants among the Cornelii Sullae would hold four consulships during the imperial period: Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 5 BC, Faustus Cornelius Sulla in AD 31, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix in AD 33, and Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix (the son of the consul of 31) in AD 52. The latter was the husband of Claudia Antonia, daughter of the emperor Claudius. His execution in AD 62 on the orders of emperor Nero would make him the last of the Cornelii Sullae.
Keaveney, Arthur, Sulla: The Last Republican, Routledge; 2nd edition (June 23, 2005).
G. P. Baker: Sulla the Fortunate: Roman general and dictator (1927, 2001: ISBN 0815411472)