Julius Caesar may have been Rome’s most famous dictator, but he certainly wasn’t the first. Dozens held the title in the early Roman Republic, wielding varying degrees of absolute power, up until 202 BC. After that, the title was seemingly abandoned for more than a century, until someone rose up to claim it again: Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 – 78 BC). Although he re-instated the role of dictator, Sulla did not wish Rome to evolve into an autocracy. In fact, Sulla relinquished his totalitarian power once he thought his actions had secured the Republic’s future. Even so, Sulla’s actions upset Rome’s powers structure to an extent that facilitated the ascent of Caesar and his successors. Intentionally or not, Sulla’s turn at dictatorship proved the prelude to Empire.
Sulla hailed from a patrician family, and reportedly spent his youth consorting with Rome’s performance artists. It was not until his thirties that Sulla earned fame for his first significant accomplishment: the 107 BC capture of the Numidian usurper Jugurtha. After Sulla turned forty, he distinguished himself as administrator over Cilicia, battling pirates and thwarting a Persian invasion. After that, the rising general returned to Italy, joining the fight against several city-states that were former socii, or allies, but now sought separation from Rome. That conflict, known as the Social War (91-88 BC), secured Rome’s mastery over the Italian peninsula and propelled Sulla’s career even further. Sulla managed a series of impressive victories, including one after which the troops awarded him their very highest form of exaltation: a corona graminea, or grass crown. Sulla also managed to win the post of consul, Rome’s highest elected political office.
Even while Rome outlasted its enemies in the Social War, another crisis brewed. To the east, Pontic King Mithridates VI planned and plotted his realm’s expansion. In a shocking development, Pontus launched a highly orchestrated massacre of many thousands of Roman men, women, and children residing throughout Asia Minor. Rome sought revenge, and Sulla was the Senate’s logical appointee for the task. However, Sulla’s military and political mentor-turned-rival, Gaius Marius, preferred his own glorification, and managed a popular assembly’s override of the Senate’s decision. The political unrest spawned violent protests and rioting, even within the Forum, the very center of Roman public life. Sulla, who had a long history with Marius, decided that Pontus could wait. He mustered his available forces (six formidable legions) and marched against Rome. It was the first time that a Roman general had ever stormed the Eternal City. The forces supporting Sulla (mostly the optimates, or “best men,” who championed oligarchic rule) battled those favoring Marius (mainly the populares, who preferred power via popular assemblies). Sulla’s battle-hardened forces proved stronger, and Marius barely managed to escape. Sulla proceeded to establish his power over Rome, at least to the extent he re-established the Senate’s authority.
Having stabilized the situation in Rome, Sulla turned his earnest attention to Mithridates. He rallied his troops and merged them with Rome’s remaining eastern forces to wage the First Mithridatic War. For further support, Sulla also called upon the realm of Bithynia, whose ruler, King Nicomedes IV, had developed the habit of giving up his throne to Pontus, then seeking Rome’s assistance to regain it. Sulla and his Bithynian allies waged several epic battles against Mithridates’ forces; of particular note was a brutal siege of Athens. By 85 BC, Mithridates was forced to surrender his control over Greek territories, not to mention a large portion of his own personal wealth.
Meanwhile back in Rome, Marius returned, and managed his re-election as co-consul for an unprecedented seventh time. It proved his last; he died just two weeks later. It was enough time, however, to launch a vicious purge of Sulla’s supporters. After Marius’ death, his co-consul, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, continued persecuting the pro-Sulla faction.
With Pontus out of the way, Sulla returned his attention back to Rome and retribution against his domestic enemies. Cinna, perhaps fearing Sulla’s growing popularity, decided that the best course of action was to set forth from Rome with a pre-emptive attack force. Cinna’s men, not eager to engage Sulla’s battle-hardened veterans, decided to murder their leader instead.
Although Marius and Cinna had both been eliminated, many of their followers (referred to as the Marians) remained, and still controlled much of Italy. But their power did not last for long. A highly determined Sula returned to Rome, and, with local supporters including future triumvirs Crassus and Pompey, he once again waged civil war. In 82 BC, he achieved final victory at the monumental battle of the Colline Gate.
Subsequently, the Senate granted Sulla the title dictator legibus faciendis et reipublicae constituendae causa, meaning dictator for the making of laws and for the settling of the constitution. Apparently, no term limit applied, effectively bestowing perpetual, unlimited power. It was now the great imperator’s turn to carry out bloody proscriptions. Sulla reportedly killed thousands of Romans who he deemed had acted against the Republic’s best interests. Escaping the bloodbath was Julius Caesar, a potential target since he happened to be Cinna’s son-in-law. Sulla reportedly lamented his failure to deal with Caesar, foreseeing him as a future threat to Rome’s political system. Besides brutal proscriptions, Sulla issued many reforms to promote economic recovery, as well as renew the power and prestige of the Senate.
Sulla also issued coins, including this well-preserved denarius, probably struck by his own travelling military mint. The obverse features the classic motif of a helmeted Roma, along with the inscription PROQ L MANLI T, indicating Lucius Manlius Torquatus, Sulla’s proquaestor during the Pontic war. On the verso, an exultant figure drives a quadriga (a four-horse chariot), while holding a caduceus (a winged staff), and being crowned by Victory (the Roman goddess personifying the same). Based on the inscription L SVLLA IMP, the scene was probably portrays Sulla celebrating a triumphus, or triumph (a public ceremony reserved for Roman military commanders who have achieved a great victory). It is not clear which victory is being represented, and it may be the case that Sulla issued the coin in anticipation of his final victory over the Marians. It is conceivable that Sulla approved of the design, despite the numismatic tradition that living Romans not be depicted on Rome's coinage.
In 81 BC, Sulla, keeping his resolve to maintain Rome as a Republic, resigned as dictator and restored the Senate's power. He served as consul for a second term, then retired from public life in 79 BC. He died shortly thereafter. Sulla married five times, and sired several children, ensuring the continued political prominence of his clan for decades. More than descendants, precedents define Sulla's legacy: marching on Rome, reigning as dictator, and even issuing coins invoking his own image. These bold moves set the stage for similar actions by Caesar and the Republic’s subsequent transformation to an Empire.
Like many figures of ancient Rome, Sulla's personal history is complex and subject to interpretation. His brilliant, yet brutal, tactics were enacted not merely for personal glory, but also out of a deeply-rooted patriotism and his own sense of justice. Sulla is perhaps best epitomized by his purported epitaph: "No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full."
Coin Details: ROMAN IMPERATORIAL, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, died 79 BC, AR Denarius (3.94g), NGC Grade: MS, Strike: 4/5, Surface: 5/5, Obverse: Helmeted head of Roma right, L. MANLI. PROQ (L. Manlius Torquatus, proconsul), Reverse: Triumphator Sulla, crowned by flying Victory, in quadriga right, holding reins and caduceus; in exergue, L. SVLLA IMP, References: RRC 757; Crawford 367/5. (less...)