Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 – 79 BC) was a successful general who, at the head of the optimates, Rome’s conservative and aristocrtic-leaning political faction, used his legions to seize power in Rome and win the ensuing civil war against the populares faction. He then had himself appointed dictator, massacred his political opponents by the thousands, and carried out constitutional reforms that were intended, but ultimately failed, to strengthen the Roman Republic in its final decades.
Sulla belonged to an old patrician family that was centuries removed from its heyday by the time he was born. He grew up dissolute and debauched, consorting with actors – a despised profession in those days. Strikingly handsome, he earned his keep as a young man seducing and preying upon wealthy older women, at least two of whom died in mysterious circumstances after naming Sulla sole heir in their wills.
He began his political career in 107 as Gaius Marius’ quaestor, or financial magistrate, in the Numidian War, but when he captured the Numidian king by treachery and claimed credit for ending the war, he aroused Marius’ resentment. When the Social War (91 – 88 BC) broke out, Sulla performed brilliantly while Marius, aged and ailing by then, did not. Sulla was elected consul in 88 BC and given command of war against Pontus, but Marius engineered the enactment of a law that stripped the command from Sulla and gave it to Marius instead.
Sulla responded by informing his legions that if Marius was appointed to command the war, he would use his own legions and not Sulla’s men – thus depriving them of the opportunity for the rich rewards they had expected in the form of booty from a successful war against Pontus. With their financial interests threatened, the legions supported Sulla in marching on Rome.
Marius and his supporters were forced to flee, but when Sulla marched off to the war against Pontus, Marius returned to Rome at the head of his own army in 87 BC, had Sulla’s enactments reversed, executed about a dozen leading Sullans, and was elected consul for 86, only to die 17 days into his consulship.
Sulla won the war against Pontus, then returned to Rome, which he entered at the head of his army 82 BC, after defeating the Marians. He undid all their legislations, introduced reactionary conservative constitutional reforms that solidified the power of the aristocracy and weakened that of the middle classes, and got himself appointed dictator. He then proceeded to massacre the Marians and populares by the thousands, passing proscriptions, or lists naming enemies of the state who could be legally killed by anybody in exchange for a reward and a share of the proscribed victim’s property upon presentation of his head to Sulla’s agents. He resigned in 79 BC, retreated into private life, and died the following year.