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Sulla

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I am going to be brave and announce that I have always been fascinated by Lucius Cornelius Sulla since the day I first picked up Plutarch. But the more I read about him the more my bafflement grows. I just don't know what to make of the man. Was he an unconstituional tyrant, or was he, as Keaveney states in the subtitle of his biography, 'The Last Republican'? I am reading this book at the moment as it has just been published in a second edition and whilst it is something of a favourable account with apologies all over the place, Keaveney does admit that the Proscriptions were a massive blot on an otherwise mainly consitutional career - the march on Rome notwithstanding! My reading of Sulla so far is that he definitely used harsh measures, but he was genuine in his belief that the ailing Republic needed those measures. Why did he retire from the Dictatorship? Was he genuine in this - i.e. he had restored the powers of the Senate and could now bow out as a dutiful citizen should? Or did he retire, as some have suggested, because of some silly prophecy he had when younger?

 

There are so many questions. Would he have acted the way he did had it not been for the Marians and later the Cinnans? Was his rule a death knell for the Republic as some have suggested? The more I read the less I am sure about this.

 

I would love to know all your views on Sulla's career and just how great an influence you think he was in the Republic's downfall. I have scoured the old threads to see if there has been a topic devoted purely to Sulla and could not find one. I know he was briefly discussed in the 'downfall of the Republic discussion' but someone there (it may have been MPC, but I can't be sure just from memory) suggested that he deserved his own thread.

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On the whole, I think I am FOR Sulla. I think I understand much of his career - at least to my own satisfaction.

 

First, I think Sulla was Sulla, as Caesar was Caesar, a remarkable man in his own right, with outstanding leadership and intellectual abilities who would have had significance at whatever time he had lived. I say that because I also see Sulla - in politics as a machine terms - as the necessary balance to Marius.

 

Marius was the one who first "broke the rules" - seven consulships, the general who became in real and modern (not just titular Roman terms) a dictator. Sulla was the reaction to that, and the man who had to FIGHT the forces that Marius - advertently on inadvertently - had set in motion.

 

Thus Sulla really had little choice but to march on Rome, and in this HE set the precedent for those who came latter - not least Caesar and Octavian. Like caesar later, Sulla COULD have surrendered - no doubt MP Cato (then and on this site) would say both should just have given up. But that could have been his death warrant.

 

Neither Sulla nor Caesar stepped back and I think no politician of the first rank could or would have.

 

As Marius aged and broke down, smaller, opportunists emerged in his shadow. Sulla had to deal with them.

 

And when he had the opportunity, he looked at the decades since the Gracchi and sought to do something about it in constitutional terms. His solution did not work, but at least he tried.

 

At this point one has to factor in Sulla's late emergence into public life and his patrician ancestry and perspective. Clearly these are not things we can make judgements on - but they must have coloured and influenced Sulla's view of the world, of Rome, of politics and of the options open to him.

 

Unlike many public figures we also know something of Sulla's vices and foibles - something that, for instance, we lack for Caesar (his womanising apart). We know that Sulla had a taste for the low life, an attraction to actors and mimes, a coarse streak and (one must use the term carefully and probably anachronistically) that he was bisexual.

 

I see much of this influencing his world view - maybe he was two men and had to play the autocrat consciously and deliberately.

 

My problem with Sulla is in his end - the walking away from power, the sudden convenient death - did he know he was dying or fatally ill, or was he killed? Such timely deaths always make me suspicious.

 

I know it is frowned on by some on UNRV, but I cannot reach a judgement on historical figures without seeking parallels (albeit with differences in the modern world). There are today some politicians who see a philosophical or political path and are driven seemingly by a need to pursue it to its logical conclusion. A very extreme example would be the third reich where racial policies, at least initially with a rational basis (deportation or emmigration for the Jews etc) eventually reached an extreme end in the Holocaust or rightly called FINAL solution. A more moderate example in the UK might be Tony Benn - and i do not for a moment suggest coupling him with the Nazis!! - where as I see it his initially moderate socialism became more radical with age. While his language always remained moderate in interviews, I alsways seemed to perceive a logic behind his words that socialism as he saw it could not be founded in the Uk without a thorough revolution, sweeping away all traces of the co-called british "establishment".

 

Now I see Sulla somewhat in those terms. A man who saw a "right-wing" path and then followed it logically to its conclusion however ruthlessly, and whatever its personal and social consequences. he was ruthless, and maybe there was a cold, even cruel streak in him. Perhaps he even lacked a moral sense - whatever that may have meant in Roman/pagan terms. (I see Caesar as possessing a better balance in that sense.)

 

Sulla, unlike Caesar or Octavian, had no model from which to learn. Undoubtedly he made mistakes, but they were "honest" ones, albeit sometimes brutal.

 

I don't think I would have liked the man, but I infinitely prefer him to Marius. He had ability, but he was not a genius.

 

I think he knew he would be hated, but he had the courage to do what he saw as essential even so.

 

Does my rambling make sense?

 

Phil

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On the whole, I am AGAINST Sulla--though not for the reasons Phil suspected and not because I don't see any good in his career.

 

First off, far from condemning Sulla's march on Rome, I think Sulla was obligated to march on Rome--because it was in Rome where the Marians were in the midst of a coup d'etat and where they were slaughtering innocent Romans in the streets. I agree with Phil that the Marians had to be checked to save the republic.

 

BUT, Sulla's behavior after this was inexcusable. His proscriptions were as bad as anything the Marians were doing. His constitutional reforms were reactionary expedients rather than constructive solutions: by giving it powers that went unchecked by any mechanism, he paradoxically undermined the legitimacy of the Senate. So far from being the 'last republican', he was an autocrat who set the stage for the destruction of the republic.

 

I might add that I personally dislike Sulla -- he was one of those patricians who seemed to believe that he was so beloved by the gods that he could do no wrong (even when he was doing wrong), just like that darling of Venus.

Edited by M. Porcius Cato

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I am largely in agreement with Cato, though I would add the caveat that while Sulla may have been obligated to march on Rome, I don't think of us believe he actually did so out of a sense of duty to Republicanism. I am quite sure that this was predicated mostly by personal ambition regardless of lawful implications. Had Sulla stopped short of his victorious onslaught on political opponents and the Roman constitution history would judge his march on Rome quite differently.

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In my views, Sulla was a crook who wanted self-ambition. He took advantage to attack Rome when the army was on campaign or the Democrats were severely hurt. He practically exterminated the Samnites just to speed up Latinization.

 

As dictator, he tried to press for certain measures he wanted and could care less about the future of Rome.

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I dislike Sulla. I think that Marius was the better man. Maybe he did "break the rules" by becomming Consul seven times, but six of those were by popular election, democracy in action. In his sixth consulship he proposed lowering costs for wheat, and when the senate opposed this violence broke out. He, in the interest of public order, put down this revolt. Against Mithridates, the assembly gave the command to Marius and Sulla rose up with his legions in revolt. Marius was unable to defend the city against the invader, as he had against the Germans, and so was forced out. When Cinna's anti-Sullan faction rose up against Sulla's supporters Marius came back to support them.

 

I guess that any question of what I think of Sulla ends with the Marius vs Sulla civil war, in which I probably would have sided with the Cinnans/Marians. This may draw some blunt criticism from some members, but I see Marius as being the better of the two bad apples.

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Sulla is a fascinating character, but not one I particularly like. I'm unsure what I think of "who was the better of two bad apples" but I don't particularly care for either group. I can't really decide who would be more tolerable.

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History, as you may rightly guess, is a matter of interpretation. It would be nearly impossible to know Sulla's true thoughts concerning the Republic and I would agree with both Cato's interpretation as well as Primus's astute observation that Sulla was probably acting to restore his own dignitas and his actions were probably spurred by his own personal ambitions than anything else.

 

As an impoverished Cornelius and a man who had to literally work his way to the top, Sulla must have learnt some harsh lessons along the way. He was an intelligent man who saw quickly that the road to power did not lie in Rome, with the senate, but actually with the legions, out in the field. I'm sure he saw the Marian meltdown as a personal opportunity for himself to step in and once he had his men established in Rome, he saw no opposition to whatever measures he wanted to bring upon as dictator. After all, weren't these the men he truly despised when he was still struggling to get elected to even junior positions. His true success came from the military and his measures were also brutal, as he employed less than statesman like tactics to get his way with the populace of Rome.

 

On his departure, I guess the lifelong fascination with the lower dregs of society got the better of him and he probably just got tired of ruling without opposition. It was rumored that Sulla would walk alone at night, unaccompanied even by a slave or any form of escort and although he was old, probably decrepit, people feared him like the plague and avoided him at all costs. He probably grew weary of being of all alone, with only fawning servitors surrounding him. Colleen McCullough speculates that he whiled away his remaining years in a debauched manner but who really knows why a man chooses to lay down great power ? Perhaps, as someone suggested, he was ill, maybe dying. Or, as Colleen speculates, he may have wanted to have that last fling and indulge in his depraved desires one last time before he "gave up his ghost".

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Since when did a Roman relinquish power in order to fully enjoy depravity?

Its the power that fully enables it.

 

I see Sulla as a Boris Yeltsin who just wanted to stay drunk.

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A few comments on posts subsequent to my own:

 

Were not the fulfillment of personal ambition and the preservation of personal dignitas at the core of "republican" values and the political system of the age?

 

Why are "Democrats" (Ramses) considered so highly? as another poster points out it was "democracy" (actually the Roman system wasn't democratic in any real sense but we'll leave that aside) that allowed Marius to be elected consul multiple times - creating one of the initial problems.

 

I'm also fascinated by the responses for another reason. true we were asked about our opinions of Sulla, and we almost all say we would not have liked him as a man. What relevance that has I am uncertain - I probably would not have liked many of the shapers and movers of history. But for all we know, Sulla may have had great personal charm and we would have fallen for it - who can say.

 

More important is the difficulty I think we face today, in a society that has evolved in certain ways (I am thinking particularly of US and UK posters, but other "westerners" too) in that we find overt ruthlessness, the willingness to turn to violence, a political community of some savagery, difficult to deal with. yet many historical societies - Samurai Japan, early medieval England, the Crusades, pre-Colombus mezo-America, have all been violent and required ruthless men to tame and shape them.

 

I don't except myself when I say that our modern preference for such things as social inclusiveness, moderation, peaceful resolution of conflict, obedience to political rules, modesty etc etc, make it difficult for us truely to understand or judge the motives or actions of men like Sulla.

 

Does that also say something about the way we sift out the less palatable elements of our own political realities. After all, Messrs Bush and Blair have been pretty ruthless in "marching on" Baghdad; in supressing or overcoming those who disagreed. Guantanamo Bay is hardly a creche or a place of gentleness. Yet many would excuse these things or argue that they are "essential". So, no doubt with Sulla.

 

One difference between patrician Sulla and others who came after him was that Sulla cared not one jot what others thought of him. He did what he did with contempt for those who thought otherwise. At least hypocrisy was not one of his apparent vices!! Maybe too he did openly what others do, but try to hide.

 

I think, overall, that Sulla has a strong case in his favour.

 

And anyone who seeks to control or even stamp out the scourge of "democracy" (a myth in any case) cannot be wholly bad IMHO.

 

Phil

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While I admit Sulla is a fascinating figure I can't be but against him.

 

When it all comes out in the wash his influence on the Republic is a great big minus. His war with Marius was conducted in such a politically scorched earth manner that the compromises or reconciliations of past internal conflicts were now fought in a civil war. In checking reforms he tried to put the genie back in the bottle but whatever skills he showed as a military man (and they were great) he lacked when trying to stabilize Rome politically.

 

A man with more political prescience could have worked to diffuse the Republic's internal conflicts with an eye towards future stability once in power. Instead he proscribed on a level greater than ever seen before and rejected past reforms.

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When it all comes out in the wash his influence on the Republic is a great big minus.

 

Is that a bad thing? But was it a minus? The republic was dying - he saw the direction it would go, before others did.

 

Pompeius, Caesar, Octavian all followed his lead in many respects.

 

His war with Marius was conducted in such a politically scorched earth manner that the compromises or reconciliations of past internal conflicts were now fought in a civil war.

 

Sometimes wars have to be fought to be WON. Compromise suggests that you may be wrong, or that you don't care about the outcome. Sulla did. Compromise almost never provides a full loaf either - why settle for anything less than all, if you believe you are right.

 

A man with more political prescience could have worked to diffuse the Republic's internal conflicts with an eye towards future stability once in power.

 

As octavian later did you mean - hardly ANY bloodshed B) no political changes of consequence :rolleyes: everything done by concensus and compromise.... Come off it, Sulla only failed because there wass no one of the same mettle to follow him. The same old Republican half-wits started devouring themselves again. That was why Caesar and Augustus had no alternative but to return to a form of monarchy.

 

Instead he proscribed on a level greater than ever seen before and rejected past reforms.

 

Boldness, not half-measures is sometimes what is required. If you understand that the Augean stables need to be cleansed, with a simple wash-down do? And if he felt past reforms were wrong - why continue them.

 

Sulla did not know what was to come, or how things would turn out. He had no guarentee of success, his life was potentially in danger, and he saw the problems. he also had a vicious, mono-maniac and several dangerous demagogues as opponents. Men who would stop at nothing and had only their own interests at heart.

 

Sulla had the courage to act, come what may. he may not have managed to effect lasting change, but he certainly changed the nature of the "game" - and that was what was needed. The eventual cure for the republic's ills (c30BC) was, IMHO, not far from the remedy prescribed by Sulla.

 

Not likeable as a man, but undoubtedly pro-active.

 

Phil

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Sulla had the courage to act, come what may. he may not have managed to effect lasting change, but he certainly changed the nature of the "game" - and that was what was needed. The eventual cure for the republic's ills (c30BC) was, IMHO, not far from the remedy prescribed by Sulla.

 

Phil

 

Well, you've all given me lots to think about, and I want to go through a few posts, but I'll just start here, Phil. On my further readings of Sulla's career, I have noticed quite a few parallels with Augustus myself! Even down to the little things such as Sulla's attempt at religious revivals; his attempt to introduce sumptuary laws; even his revival of the Troy Game for the youths of Rome. But I don't want to get ahead of myself just yet, as I want to go back into this thread to pick up on something Cato said. I will return..... B)

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BUT, Sulla's behavior after this was inexcusable. His proscriptions were as bad as anything the Marians were doing. His constitutional reforms were reactionary expedients rather than constructive solutions: by giving it powers that went unchecked by any mechanism, he paradoxically undermined the legitimacy of the Senate. So far from being the 'last republican', he was an autocrat who set the stage for the destruction of the republic.

 

Thanks, Cato. Now this is the sort of thing I am having trouble understanding. If we leave the proscriptions out of it - for I am sure we would all wholeheartedly condemn them, just as we condemn the Triumviral proscriptions, no matter which side of the fence we are on - I still don't know how he provided a death knell to the Republic, other than perhaps setting the precedent for future men to march on Rome and take it into their own hands to 'reorder the Republic'. You say that his constitutional reforms were reactionary expedients, but surely you would agree that some curb had to be put on - say - the tribunate? Or wouldn't you agree? And then you say that by giving unchecked power to the Senate he actually undermined its legitimacy - well, perhaps there is a case for that. But - and here is the question I want you to answer, as you have far greater knowledge than me of this period: if his reforms were swept aside so quickly after his death, and in particular the tribunate was flourishing again, why then do you think he was so injurious to the Republic? Hadn't everything just gone back to how it was before, with factions and strife and discord and civil war? To put it another way, would events have unfolded the way they did with or without Sulla? Are you saying that his only contribution to the death of the Republic was that his own actions had set a precedent for other autocrats? Or are there more layers at work here?

 

I find it all very confusing, but I'm determined to come to some conclusion with everyone's help. B)

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A man with more political prescience could have worked to diffuse the Republic's internal conflicts with an eye towards future stability once in power.

 

As octavian later did you mean - hardly ANY bloodshed B) no political changes of consequence :rolleyes: everything done by concensus and compromise.... Come off it, Sulla only failed because there wass no one of the same mettle to follow him. The same old Republican half-wits started devouring themselves again.

 

You're right--Octavian was very much in the Sullan mold: a blood-soaked autocrat who used the republic as a cover for monarchy. The problem is that for all their murders, those two couldn't make monarchy work either--as soon as Sulla and Augustus were out of the scene, the system was set at the mercy of their own lackeys. They never learned that the peaceful transfers of power that elections provide really is a good thing for the people--even if those elections don't turn out the way you and your veterans like them.

 

(And let's be clear: your "half-wits"--Pompey, Catiline, and Crassus--were the ones that Sulla himself put in power, not the free competition that existed before him.)

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