Who was Lucius Cornelius Sulla and What Did He Do?

Engraved on his tomb were his own words, ‘No friend has ever served me, and no enemy has ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.’ To many, Sulla was an enigma whose tenure paved the route to power of Julius Caesar. Here is the astonishing story of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix.

History Rulers
20 April 2023

From humble beginnings, Lucius Cornelius Sulla rose to become one of the Roman Republic’s most skilled generals as well as one of its shrewdest – and most ruthless – political operatives.

Described as ‘a man of contradictions in an age of contradictions’, the battlefield rivalry between Gaius Marius and Sulla would occupy much of his adult life. When he wasn’t fighting wars, he reformed the Roman constitution and instituted legal reforms.

He also killed thousands of people without due process whom he deemed ‘enemies of the state’. Read on to discover the remarkable life and times of Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

Sulla - The Early Years

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (Photo: Print Collector via Getty Images)

Lucius Cornelius Sulla was born in 138 BC into a patrician family – one of the ruling class – however they had fallen on hard times. One story, which is almost certainly apocryphal, goes that when he was a baby and his nurse was out on a walk with him, a woman approached and said ‘puer tibi et reipublicae tuae felix’, which means ‘the boy will be a source of luck to you and your state.’

This is possibly why he took the name Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix – felix meaning lucky – as a good luck charm later in life.

It’s believed he had a good education, and Roman historian Gaius Sallustius Crispus said that he was bright, well read and spoke fluent Greek. But as a young man he was poor by the standards of Roman nobility. He may have been disinherited by his father but it’s possible the old man had nothing to give.

He spent much of his early years renting digs in Rome and cavorting carefree around the city. However, his fortunes – literally and metaphorically – quickly changed when he was about thirty.

When it comes to their early years, as with many Romans of the age the same is true of Sulla, facts are scarce. Greek historian Plutarch wrote that he received two inheritances. One from his stepmother and another from a mistress. Historians are relatively certain he did receive money, but the story of the inheritances from the two women may or may not be true.

With this new found wealth, Sulla applied to become a quaestor, a public official, in 108 BC. He was assigned to serve under the high-profile general Gaius Marius, and this is where the complex story of Marius and Sulla began.

Sulla the Soldier

Coin of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (Photo: ilbusca via Getty Images)

Lucius Sulla’s first taste of war was against the Numidians in the Jugurthine War of 112 – 106 BC.

He was singled out as a capable and popular fighter, who negotiated the surrender of the Numidian king Jugurtha. Much to the annoyance of Marius, Sulla claimed that it was he who won the war. This led to the two men vying for power and becoming hated political enemies. The story of Marius and Sulla only got worse.

Their feud carried on during the Cimbrian War between 113 and 101 BC, even though Lucius Cornelius Sulla effectively served under Marius at this time. In 97 BC he was elected as praetor, a high-ranking official. He became governor of an area of southern Turkey known as Cicilia.

During the Social War – a conflict between Rome and its Italian allies, which lasted from 91-88 BC – Sulla emerged as a key military figure, further deepening his rivalry with Gaius Marius. Sulla distinguished himself as a skilled commander, winning important battles and helping to secure a Roman victory. Throughout the war, Sulla and Marius competed for military glory and political influence, which exacerbated their already strained relationship, and set the stage for the violent power struggles that would follow in the years to come.

Sparks of Conflict

Portraying King Mithridates (Photo: Heritage Images via Getty Images)

In 88 BC Sulla was appointed as commander of a force to be sent east to put down Mithridates, King of Pontus, who had killed thousands of Roman and Italian citizens. It was a commission Marius had sought for himself, and he manoeuvred the Senate to appoint him in Sulla’s place.

Furious, Sulla refused to obey the change in command. After hearing that his enemies had taken control of Rome, he marched on the city with his army, forcing Marius and his allies to flee the city and allowing Sulla to take command of the campaign in the East after all.

War with Mithridates

Mithridates VI (Photo: Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

Lucius Cornelius Sulla’s battles in the east started after Mithridates VI, king of Pontus – the Black Sea region of Turkey – conquered traditionally Roman-held regions. In 88 BC he massacred up to 80,000 Roman and Italian expatriates.

When this news filtered back to Rome, Sulla was tasked with the command. Although it took over a year to mobilise his legions, they now marched to crush the king of Pontus and his forces.

The First Mithridatic War (88 – 84 BC) was designed to oust Mithridates from power. Sulla achieved notable victories at the Siege of Athens and the Battle of Chaeronea, significantly weakening Mithridates’ power and forcing him to sue for peace. While Sulla had gained the battlefield advantage, he was called back to Rome while trying to negotiate a peace treaty with Mithridates.

The talks were never finalised, and with Sulla gone the king of Pontus built another army. This time the Romans, under Lucius Licinuis Murena, were defeated in what became known as the Second Mithridatic War fought between 83 and 81 BC.

Eight years later, the Third Mithridatic War saw Mithridates amass huge numbers, however he was defeated once and for all. He fled to Crimea with designs on creating a bigger army to take on the Romans. However, after both his sons rebelled against him, he committed suicide.

Return and Civil War

Gaius Marius (Photo: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

With Sulla away in the east, his bitter rival Gaius Marius attempted to take back control of Rome. Upon their return, his soldiers rampaged through the city, killing Sulla’s supporters as they went. They went as far as repealing Sulla’s laws, destroying his house and declaring him public enemy number one. However, just a short time after returning to Rome, the aged Marius himself died, probably of natural causes.

The Marian supporters quickly sent generals to relieve Sulla of his eastern command, but with Marius now dead and dissension amongst the soldiers – no doubt whipped up by Sulla himself – it was the perfect time for Sulla to return to Rome to take back control.

In the early months of 83 BC, Lucius Sulla arrived at Brundisium in southern Italy and took the town relatively easily. He fought his way north. The Battle of Tifata against troops led by Gaius Norbanus was a rout, with Norbanus losing six thousand men to Sulla’s seventy.

After a respite in fighting over the winter of 83 BC, Sulla resumed his victorious march by defeating opposition forces at Scariportus, Praeneste, Neapolis, Saturnia, Sardinia and elsewhere.

The most famous battle of the civil war was the Battle of Colline Gate in 82 BC, just outside Rome’s walls. Sulla’s forces killed thousands of Marian troops – it has been estimated over 50,000 men on both sides lost their lives on the battlefield – and he entered Rome triumphantly.

Sulla the Politician

Statue of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (Photo: ilbusca via Getty Images)

Not content with defeating his rivals on the field of battle, he wanted to defeat his rivals in the political arena.

He was now in total control of Rome and embarked on a programme of proscriptions. He seized the property of senators, the equine classes and thousands more he deemed ‘enemies of the state’ and executed them without due process. It’s believed that as many as 9,000 were killed in a purge that lasted months.

In addition, to cover himself from retribution, he decreed that sons and grandsons of the proscribed could never stand for political office.

Sulla Dictator of Rome

Sulla the Fortunate (Photo: Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

Lucius Cornelius Sulla then declared himself as dictator, and moved to model Rome according to his own vision. In making this move, Sulla became the first Roman to hold the title of dictator since the Second Punic War in the 3rd century BC.

He significantly increased the number of senators to strengthen the powers of the Senate – and to take powers away from the tribunate – and introduced strict age limits for political appointments to curb young, ambitious Romans from seeking power too quickly.

In essence, it seemed as if the constitutional reforms he put in place would effectively stop anyone from taking power in the same way he had done.

He increased the number of courts for criminal trials and instigated a new law for treason called Lex Cornelia Majestatis, which was designed to prevent insurrection from the army or provincial governors.

Historians would write that Sulla, who had given himself the name Sulla Felix, or Sulla the Fortunate, was a ruthless dictator who set a precedent for Julius Caesar to become dictator.

Indeed it is believed that Pompey later used Sulla’s career as a precedent for his own ambitions, reportedly saying: ‘if Sulla could, why can’t I?’

Lucius Cornelius Sulla - The End

Abdication of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (Photo: Bildagentur-online via Getty Images)

Unusually for a dictator, in 80 BC Sulla chose to lay down his powers and quietly withdrew to his family home near Naples. As he saw it, his job was done. He had vowed to repair a fragile republic by creating a stable government and to eliminate threats from within, and he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – do anything more.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix died at the age of 60 in 78 BC. One of Sulla’s contemporaries, Gnaeus Papirius Carbo said of him ‘he had the cunning of a fox and the courage of a lion but it was the cunning that was most dangerous’.

Crucially, Sulla had shown the next generation the way. There was now a line of men who saw dictatorship of Rome as a viable political tool for their own lust for power – a crucial factor in hastening the fall of the Republic.


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