The Roman general and dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 B.C.) was the first man to use the army to establish a personal autocracy at Rome.
Sulla first came into prominence when he served as quaestor (107-106 B.C.) under Gaius Marius in the wars against the Numidian rebel Jugurtha. Sulla raised important cavalry forces for Marius and was responsible for the capture of Jugurtha. He also participated in the defeat of the German tribe, the Cimbri, by Marius and Catullus in 101 B.C. Sulla was praetor in 97 B.C. and had a command in Cilicia in Asia Minor.
In the wars against Rome's allies (the Social Wars) Sulla continued his military successes with several victories over the Samnites (89 B.C.). Elected consul for 88 B.C., he was selected to campaign against Mithridates, the king of Pontus who was threatening Rome's position in the East. However, no sooner had he departed from Rome than the popular tribune and supporter of Marius, P. Sulpicius Rufus, as part of a general program directed against the senatorial oligarchy, had Sulla's command revoked. Sulla marched on Rome with his troops, evicted Sulpicius and the Marians, reestablished a caretaker government, and departed for the East.
Sulla defeated the army of Mithridates in Greece and besieged and sacked Athens, which had been supporting the cause of Mithridates. Meanwhile, events in Rome had turned against him. Marius, supported by the consul Cinna, returned to power and massacred the followers of Sulla. Sulla was declared an outlaw, and a replacement was sent to take over his army. Sulla made a hurried peace with Mithridates, extracted all he could from Asia, and in 83 B.C. landed at Brindisi. A number of young adventurers flocked to him, including Pompey and M. Licinius Crassus. Sulla marched on Rome and by 82 B.C., having defeated the Marians and their Samnite allies, was in command at the capital.
Sulla was determined to ruthlessly eliminate both communities and individuals who had opposed him. Etruria and Samnium suffered tremendously. At Rome 40 senators and 1, 600 knights (equites-members of the financial class) were executed. Sulla settled his veterans in colonies scattered at key points around Italy.
Dictatorship and Reform
In Rome, Sulla based his political power in the revival of the old Roman office of dictator and then proceded to reform Roman law to ensure the power of the senatorial oligarchy. The tribunate, which had been the focus of popular agitation against the Senate, was stripped of most political power by a prohibition against its introducing legislation and the office holders' being made ineligible for other offices (thus removing the most ambitious from trying for the office).
The Senate, which had been depleted by war and proscription, was filled with men selected by Sulla. The power of the Senate was increased by turning over to it the control of the law courts. To prevent the too rapid rise of popular young men, Sulla rigidly established the age and order at which magistracies could be held.
Sulla did not limit himself to political reform. He started a number of building projects, including a new public-records office, and rebuilt temples. In this construction activity to enhance his image, as in his political reforms, he set the pattern for later potentates, like Pompey and Caesar, and for the Roman emperors.
In 79 B.C. Sulla felt that his aims of establishing Senate control had been accomplished, so he retired. Even though popular leaders like Lepidus began agitating almost immediately against Sulla's constitution, the old dictator did not leave retirement in Campania, where he died the following year. His use of the army to seize the state and his term as dictator provided an example for Julius Caesar.
Further Reading on Lucius Cornelius Sulla I
The ancient biography of Sulla written by Plutarch is useful. Sulla's career is recounted in detail in Howard Hayes Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68 (1959; 2d ed. 1963), and Stewart Perowne, Death of the Roman Republic: From 146 B.C. to the Birth of the Roman Empire (1969). Also useful for understanding Sulla's career are the article by E. Baddian in Robin Seager, ed., The Crisis of the Roman Republic: Studies in Political and Social History (1969), and David Stockton, Cicero: A Political Biography (1971).
Additional Biography Sources
Keaveney, Arthur, Sulla, the last republican, London: Croom Helm, 1982.
Vives, Juan Luis, Declamationes Sullanae, Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1989.