- This page is about the Roman dictator Sulla, for the Brythonic goddess sometimes called Sulla, see Sul.
Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (Latin: L·CORNELIVS·L·F·P·N·SVLLA·FELIX) (ca. 138 BC–78 BC) was usually known simply as Sulla. His agnomen Felix — the fortunate — was attained later in his life, due to his legendary luck as a general. Sulla's name is also seen as "Silla", presumably due to corruption of ancient writing "SVILLA" (Suilla), that went in the 2 directions of Sulla and Silla. It is also occasionally seen as "Sylla" (which in Latin would be pronounced "Syoola", closely to the regular form "Sulla").
Sulla was born into an impoverished branch of the Cornelii gens, or family, of aristocratic patrician stock but without influence in the city. Without any money, Sulla's first years were spent in the backstage of Rome's political elite. The means by which Sulla attained the fortune that enabled him to ascend to senatorial rank are not clear, although some sources refer to family inheritances.
In 107 BC, Sulla was nominated quaestor to Gaius Marius, who was taking control of the Roman army in the war against King Jugurtha of Numidia. The Jugurthine war had started in 112 BC with humiliating results for Rome. Marius' army ultimately defeated the enemy in 106 BC, thanks to Sulla's initiative to capture the Numidian king by persuading his family to betray him. The publicity attracted by this feat boosted Sulla's political career, but earned him bitter resentment from Marius. Nevertheless, Sulla continued to serve on Marius' staff until the campaign against the Germanic Teutones and Cimbri tribes in Gaul 104–103 BC. At this time, Sulla transferred to the army of Quintus Lutatius Catulus, Marius' rival consul. With Sulla's assistance, Catulus defeated the Cimbri in the Battle of Vercellae in 101 BC.
Returning to Rome, Sulla was elected 'Praetor urbanus', through massive bribery, according to rumour. Afterwards, he was appointed to the province of Cilicia (in modern Turkey).
In 92 BC Sulla left the East and returned to Rome, where he aligned himself with the opposition to Gaius Marius. On the verge of the Social War (91–88 BC), the Roman aristocracy and Senate were starting to feel fear Marius' ambition, which had already given him five consulships in a row from 104 BC to 100 BC. In this last rebellion of the Italian allies, Sulla served with brilliance as a general, and outshone both Marius and the consul Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (the father of Pompey). For example, in 89 BC Sulla captured Aeclanum, the chief town of Hirpini, by setting the wooden breastwork which defended it on fire. As a result, he was elected consul for the first time in 88 BC, having Quintus Pompeius Rufus as a colleague.
As the consul of Rome, Sulla prepared to depart once more for the East, in order to fight the first Mithridatic War, by the appointment of the Senate. But he would leave trouble behind him. Marius was now an old man, but he still had the ambition to lead the Roman armies against King Mithridates VI of Pontus. Marius convinced the tribune P. Sulpicius Rufus to call an assembly and revert the Senate's decision on Sulla's command. When the news reached Sulla, still camped in the South of Italy and ready to cross over to Greece, he took an unusual decision. Sulla took six of his most loyal legions and prepared to march into Rome. This was an unprecedented event. No general before him had ever crossed the city limits, the 'pomerium', with his army. It was so unethical that most of his commanders refused to accompany him and Sulla hardly took measures against them. Frightened by this unusual action, Marius and his followers fled the city, whilst Sulla consolidated his position and addressed the Senate in harsh tones, portraying himself as a victim, presumably to justify his violent entrance into the city. After some major restructuring of the city's political trends and with the Senate's power strengthened, he returned to his camp and proceeded with the original plan of fighting Mithridates in Pontus.
With Sulla out of the way, Marius began to recover control of the situation by the end of 87 BC. With the support of Lucius Cornelius Cinna (Julius Caesar's father in law), Marius declared Sulla's reforms and laws invalid and Sulla himself officially exiled. Together, Marius and Cinna accomplished a major bloodbath of Sulla's supporters and were elected consuls for the year of 86 BC. Marius died a few days after the election and Lucius Valerius Flaccus was nominated suffect consul. Cinna was the effective ruler of Rome, being elected consul without opposition, for the following years.
Meanwhile, Sulla defeated Mithridates in the East and in 86 BC captured Athens after the battles of Chaeronea and Orchomenus. While in the East, Sulla was the first Roman magistrate to meet a Persian ambassador, but unknowingly offended him by taking the seat between Mithridates and the ambassador. He left the East in 84 BC upon hearing the news of Cinna's death. Determined to regain control of Rome, he marched on the city. After a period of idleness, Sulla's army defeated the consular forces of Gnaeus Papirus Carbo in November, 82 BC at the battle of Colline Gate. Crucial to this victory was the defection of Marcus Licinius Crassus, and the help of young Pompey.
By 81 BC Sulla was appointed dictator for life by the senate and had total control of the city of Rome. This unusual honour (used hitherto only in times of extreme danger to the city, like in the Second Punic War, and only by six months periods), represents an exception to Rome's policy of avoiding personal power of a single individual and was the precedent to Julius Caesar's dictatorship less than fifty years later that ended the Republic.
In total control of the city and its affairs, Sulla instituted a reign of terror, proscribing or outlawing every one of his political opponents. The young Caesar, as Cinna's son-in-law, was one of his targets and fled the city. He was spared through the efforts of his supporters, but Sulla noted in his memoirs that he regretted sparing Caesar's life because of the young man's notorious ambition.
Without any political obstacle, Sulla enacted a series of reforms to put control of the state firmly in the hands of a larger Senate, but also arranged that the number of senators was doubled from 300 to 600 and that membership was automatic on election to the office of quaestor instead of at the decision of the censors. He also reduced the tribune's political power, and limited the Assembly's ability to pass laws or veto them without the Senate's approval. His goal was to return the control of the city to aristocratic hands.
With a lifetime dictatorship in his hands, Sulla was elected consul for the second time in 80 BC, but in the next year he took the decision of stepping out of every political activity and withdraw to a country villa. In this apparent quiet retreat, Sulla's purpose was to write his memoirs, but he ended up surrounded by a troupe of actors, dancers and prostitutes. Amongst them was Metrobius, a famous actor that he knew since his youth. In his last address to the senate, Sulla was keen to acknowledge him as his lifetime lover, to the dismay of the audience. Within this merry company, Sulla died in 78 BC.
Sulla's marriages and children:
- First wife, Julia
- Second wife, Aelia
- Third wife Caecilia Metella Dalmatica
- Faustus Cornelius Sulla
- Fausta Cornelia Sulla, his twin
- Fourth wife, Valeria
- Postumia Cornelia Sulla, posthumous daughters