Sulla: The first Monster of Rome

Sulla wages Civil War against Marius (Mary Evans Library)

Rome did not fall in a day. There is no one man who can be credited alone for its fall nor any single moment in time that can be pointed to as the beginning of the end. Important figures such as the Grachii brothers, Marius, Sulla, and most naturally Julius Caesar can all be blamed for the fall of the Roman Republic. Certainly, Julius Caesar delivered the deathblow to the Republic, but he could not have done so had the groundwork not already been laid for the takeover of the government. Who was most pivotal in the devolution of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire? The answer could be any of these men, but the answer of Lucius Cornelius Sulla provides perhaps the most interesting take on events. Sulla’s appetite for power and his systematic exploitation of the Roman legal system showed his successors not only how power could be obtained but also how truly absolute such ruthless dynamism could be.

The context that set the stage for the prodigium of Sulla was a Roman world that had endured centuries of turmoil. The Roman Republic was an elected oligarchy of elites. Under their rule, an undying battle for power between the plebeians (peasants) and the patricians (nobles) embroiled the nation in perpetual disarray. Ultimately, the efforts of the reformers, among them the Grachii brothers and all others who fought for societal reform and for increased rights for the plebeians, and the efforts of the patricians who fought to deny the plebeians those rights, served only to create a chaos waiting to be exploited. That societal conflict in the end served neither side because neither side achieved victory in the struggle for power. Instead, chaos ultimately led to form of order — not order with shared power or equality of classes, but an order of an iron fist. The long-feared return of the Rex resulted, a new world in which all became losers in their fight, and only one man the victor. The weakness of the Republic gave birth to the power of the tyrant. It was Gaius Marius who first claimed this power by exploiting the arbitrary legal system of Rome to become the dominant figure in Roman politics, achieving an unrivalled seven consulships.

Marius, who had used political machinations to seize and maintain power, was to be outdone by Sulla. War had once again come to Rome. Mithridates VI, a Greek King of Pontus, staged a rebellion and sought to liberate the Greek world from Roman rule. The Senate initially appointed Sulla to put down this revolt; Marius, however, used his political power to overturn this decision and to be appointed head of the invading force. What occurred next was an unthinkable act of treason: Sulla, unwilling to abandon his command, marched his forces into Rome and took the city, ousting Marius and regaining command of the military.[1] This was the first time in Roman history that a Roman general would march on Rome, a fatal precedent that showed Julius Caesar and those that followed that power could be taken by war against one’s own country. Marius and his ally Lucius Cornelius Cinna would take power in Rome upon the leave of Sulla, who went to fight the war against Mithridates. Marius would die shortly after, and Cinna would assume command of the consulship of Rome.

Sulla, however, was yet to be finished with his illegal assaults on Roman sovereignty. Sulla in his war with Mithridates would commit atrocities, burn the fabled city of Athens to the ground, and achieve victory over Mithridates. He then set his sights on Rome. He returned with his legions and initiated a civil war in Italy. Roman forces fighting desperately to repel Sulla eventually fell. Rome had been conquered by a Roman. A deadly precedent had been set that would plague Roman civilization until its end. Legality was now irrelevant, for any man who possessed an army could become master of Rome.

Sulla quickly had the defeated Roman Senate proclaim him dictator for life.[2] He ended elections and become emperor in all but name. But his sacrilege of Roman values was far from complete. Plutarch writes of Sulla, “Great powers bring about a change in their holders — a change in the direction of overexcitability, pomposity and inhumanity.”[3] Whoever Sulla had once been, that man was now gone, and evil filled the vacuum. “Sulla now devoted himself entirely to the work of butchery.”[4] Mass crucifixion and genocide occurred. Sulla had spilt Roman blood and waged war on his own people to take and maintain power, plunging headfirst into the darkness of monstrosity.

Thirst for power transformed Sulla into a proliferator of evil. As Plutarch remarked “when a man is in power the evil that has been latent in him reveals itself openly.”[5] So it was that this evil burst from him like a fountain. Sulla upon his victory in Rome rounded up 6,000 prisoners of war and had them butchered in the circus.[6] His iniquity then became promulgated by law, with a decree that all who opposed him were to be slaughtered. Thus began a rapacious butchery of the people of Rome. The Senate, striving to make sense of the chaos, wished to know who would be killed and who would be spared. So came the lists to appease the Senate. Each day a new list would be written by Sulla containing the names of hundreds of people he wished to be murdered.[7] A substantial bounty was placed on the head of each person on the list, and so Rome became filled with head-hunters willing to do their master’s bidding. “These lists were published not only in Rome but in every city of Italy. No place remained undefiled by murder — neither temple of god, nor hearth of hospitality, nor ancestral home. Husbands were slaughtered in the embraces of their wedded wives, sons in the arms of their mothers.”[8] The terror of Sulla spread far beyond Rome across every corner of Italy. After a millennium of policing the villainous, all Rome found that murder was not only now legal, but a state-sanctioned and rewarded activity. The climax would occur in the unfortunate town of Praeneste. The city was to play host to Sulla, who deemed them all rebellious. He put each citizen on trial, until, growing weary of the proceedings, “he herded them all together in one place and gave orders that the whole lot of them, 12,000 in all, should be slaughtered.”[9]

Sulla’s other prolific activity would be debauchery. Copious drinking and a sedentary lifestyle would be accompanied by a voracious appetite for extra-marital affairs with women and transvestite individuals.[10] Perhaps sensing his impending demise and or punishment for his sins, he would then, in bizarre fashion, throw a ‘triumph’ parade for himself and renounce his position as dictator for life.[11] His attempt to rectify the damage he inflicted upon the Roman Republic (and perhaps just as likely atone for his crimes in the eyes of the gods) was for naught. Whether through divine smite or karmic justice, Sulla would meet an end fitting of his hideous nature. Ulcers and, as Plutarch attributes, his alcoholism and sexual proclivities resulted in his “whole flesh being corrupted and turning into worms. Many people were employed day and night in removing these worms, but they increased far more quickly than could be removed. Indeed, they came swarming out in such numbers that all his clothing, baths, handbasins and food became infected with corruption. He tried to clean and scour himself by having frequent baths throughout the day; but it was no use: the flesh changed to worms too quickly and no washing away could keep pace with their numbers.” (Sulla, 36, 102) Sulla died, eaten alive by worms. The new consul Lepidus with large support wished to deprive the corpse of Sulla of funeral honors. Pompey, however, intervened; and Sulla received a traditional state funeral.[12]

The literal worms that emerged from Sulla’s flesh paled in comparison to the metaphorical worms he spawned. Just as parasites had devoured his body, so, too, would evil men following in the path of Sulla infest and consume Roman society. The unimaginable evil of Sulla would become the new normal for Roman society. Maniacal behavior went from an aberration to an expectation. Many men, following Sulla’s example, would seize power by force or commit heinous massacres of their own citizens. Julius Caesar, Nero, Caligula, Domitian, Caracalla, Maximus, Commodus, Diocletian are only a few of the Roman leaders who followed in the footsteps of Sulla. Sulla had set a precedent that would eventually see Roman leaders remembered as some of the most maleficent in human history. The Roman expectation of pietas, severitas, and other virtues gave way to a world where the morality of Roman leaders could better be described with words such as paranoia, barbarity, and insanity.

Sulla had been the first to subvert law and the Senate and to march on Rome and seize power by force. He was the first leader to eliminate elections and have himself appointed leader for life. He was also the first leader of Rome to maintain power by butchering any he deemed a threat through genocide. Sulla’s actions had revealed a path to power that would quickly become a thoroughfare. Legality had been rendered obsolete by the power of the sword. His example would be immediately followed by Julius Caesar just 32 years after Sulla to officially end the Roman Republic. The precedent set by Sulla not only led to the downfall of the Roman republic but would be an affliction on Roman civilization for its duration, and the eventual demise in a period of warring generals, instability, and anarchy. The scourge of the Roman culture created by Sulla would not be eliminated until Constantine the Great ruled nearly 400 years later. By that time only complete removal of leadership from the barbaric culture of Rome and the switch to a completely different religion could end the imperial Roman culture of debauchery and genocide.


[1] Plutarch, Sulla, 10.

[2] Sulla, 33.

[3] Sulla, 30.

[4] Sulla, 31.

[5] Sulla, 30.

[6] Sulla, 30.

[7] Sulla, 31.

[8] Sulla, 31.

[9] Sulla, 32.

[10] Sulla, 36.

[11] Sulla, 34.

[12] Sulla, 38.

History student at UNG Military College. Specialist in European history and Mythology. Footnotes and Bibliography always provided. Only scholarly sources used.

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