Late Republic:
Lucius Sulla:

Sulla the Dictator

Sulla took control of Rome in late 82 and early 81 BC after victories in the civil war of his own making, and those of his chief legate Pompeius Magnus. With the army at his back, the Senate was forced to ignore the constitution and proclaim Sulla as Dictator of Rome for an indefinite period of time. The dictatorship, under constitutional law, was an office designed for extreme emergencies (generally military) with the intention of a 6 month term. Sulla not only butchered the constitution through various reforms he would make, but also focused his power on the leading members of the Roman ruling classes.

The new dictator introduced a judicial process called the proscription. Essentially this new concept was an open publication listing names of people he deemed to be undesirable. A reign of terror ensued with rewards offered for the death or capture of any name on the list. At first the proscriptions (including confiscation of property and not always involving physical harm) were mainly focused on Sulla's direct enemies and supporters, but eventually the death toll would reach epidemic proportions. In the first series alone, as many as 40 senators and 1,600 members of the equestrian class were murdered. Before long, in order to exact extreme control the list grew exponentially. There was simply no place to hide or run. People taking refuge in the temples were murdered; others were lynched by the Roman mob. An intricate network of spies kept Sulla informed and at his whim, tracked down anyone who might be considered an enemy of the state.

One member of the proscription lists who managed to survive was Gaius Julius Caesar. The husband of Cinna's (Sulla' rival) daughter and the nephew of Gaius Marius, he was most assuredly a top candidate for death. He managed to escape Rome prior to capture, but a delegation of Caesar's supporters made an influence on Sulla. He allowed Caesar to live in exchange for divorcing his wife, but Caesar defiantly refused. Lucky to find himself alive at all, Sulla only confiscated his wife's dowry. Sulla apparently was reluctant to let the ambitious young man live, commenting that he saw "many Mariuses" in his nature. For reasons not completely clear, Sulla did let Caesar live though and his prediction was later proven quite true.

In the midst of instituting his own form of the constitution, Sulla's power grab did little to curb corruption. The payment of large bounties to bringing in 'disloyal' Romans, and confiscation of properties certainly enriched the treasury, but it also lined the pockets of many Sullan supporters. Among these were Marcus Crassus, who it was alleged, helped build his vast fortune through the proscriptions. Others, like the young orator Marcus Tullius Cicero made names for themselves in Sulla's courts. The cases were fast and furious, and Cicero began to groom himself as the world's foremost lawyer and politician during Sulla's dictatorship.

Taking control through murder and confiscation, Sulla next focused on the laws of the state. He began his reform of the constitution in order to bring power back the Senate and away from the Tribunes. Oddly enough, after killing so many members of the senate, he became its champion. The powers of the tribunes, including veto rights, were virtually abolished. New legislation could not even be introduced without the approval of the Senate. The roles of the Senate were doubled to 600, placing powerful equestrians in the empty seats. This was more important than it may seem at first glance. As senators were limited to restrictive business opportunities, equestrians filled the gap by running powerful business empires. By moving these equestrians into the Senate, and forcing similar restrictions on them, these leaders no longer found it practical to support the popular politics of the day (and largely in contrast to the conservative Senate group) that made their businesses more lucrative.

New entries into the Senate after Sulla's reforms were also required to serve in the traditional magistrate position of quaestor before admittance into the Senate. Forcing senators to have some experience along the political path (or cursus honorum) to begin their careers also helped quell incredible and sudden rises to power by young ambitious populares. Additionally, he quelled this danger by introducing a law requiring at least a two year gap between holding an office and being elected for the next higher one. Also from this point on, office holders would be required to hold successive offices in the Cursus Honorum before being elected to the next higher one. Tribunes were further penalized to prevent ambitious politicians from using the office as a political launching pad. As such, a law was passed that prevented any office holder of the Tribune of the Plebes from ever holding a higher political office in the mainstream Senatorial path (such as Consul).

The courts were also reformed, each court being assigned one of seven different types of cases. The seven types of cases were: murder and poisoning, forgery, electoral bribery, peculation (theft), assault, extortion and treason. The senate was also required to sit all cases and the equestrian class was excluded from judging cases, clearly putting the control of the courts back into the hands of the traditional familial oligarchy that was the Senate.

Sulla didn't quite abide by his own constitutional law (waiting ten years between major magistracies) when in 80 BC he forced through his own election as Consul (first was in 78 BC) and continued his policies of reform (including the settling of his veterans on confiscated lands). By the next year though, Sulla had either tired of the political life, or felt that he accomplished all that he could. In 79 BC he retired to a country villa with the intention of writing his memoirs. Before he left Rome however, Sulla confirmed long standing rumors about his own sexual behavior to a shocked audience. He announced that Metrobius, a famous actor, had been his lifetime lover. As he left Rome, he was accompanied by a large contingent of actors, dancers and prostitutes in a final act of disdain. His memoirs, which he would finish over the next year, while they have not survived, did prove a valuable resource to later Roman writers (Plutarch and Appian in particular). Sulla died shortly after, in 78 BC, opening the Roman political system to a new and even more dangerous wave of power grabs.

continue to the Decline of the Republic

Did you know?

There were actually several different types of dictatorate. The most famous type is the dictator rei gerendae causa, who was appointed in times of military emergency for six months or for the duration of the emergency, whichever period was shorter.