Sulla Belongs In Our Pantheon Of Heroes
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Sulla Belongs In Our Pantheon Of Heroes
In 88 B.C., Lucius Cornelius Sulla took his army in hand and marched upon Rome. If you’ve ever heard this story before, you probably think it goes like so: Sulla was a successful general whose ambition was suspected by the Senate. Concerned about his rising popularity, the Senate ordered Sulla to give up his command and return to Rome. Instead, Sulla marched on Rome, installed himself as dictator, and massacred his political opponents.

If this is the story you’ve heard, then I hate to break it to you, but you’ve been had. This narrative about Sulla’s first march on Rome gets one thing right: Sulla did march on Rome in 88 B.C. Otherwise, it’s a strange mish-mash of obfuscation, conflation, and outright deception. In antiquity, Sulla was fiercely hated for a variety of acts but also tremendously respected for stabilizing the Roman state and defending the empire from foreign aggression. This modern story is the result of dumbed-down and over-simplified history.

One remarkable feature of antiquity was how little a man’s politics affected whether or not he was admirable. There were limits, of course—people who tried to become tyrants were usually beyond the pale, for instance—but Plutarch could include among the noble Greeks and Romans pairs of political enemies such as Cimon and Pericles, Caesar and Cato.

Three factors combined to produce this milieu. The first was elite solidarity: if aristocrats undermined each other too severely, they ran the risk of undermining the aristocracy as a whole. The second was general respect for the past. As time passed and passions cooled it became easier to respect the accomplishments of genuinely illustrious men and their contributions to their societies. Though Marius’ later years were disreputable, he also saved Rome from a horde of invading Germans. And the third factor was that great men were considered heroic figures by their families and dependents, so even if one period’s politics tarnished a man’s image, his descendants would rehabilitate him a hundred years later when they were back in favor.

Today selecting rosters of admirable characters from history is more ideological than familial. Cicero, for instance, has always been a darling of the Left, but from a neoreactionary perspective he does not make the cut: though eminently worthy, Cicero refused to assume power and rule. Sulla, by contrast, is today much reviled but deserves our respect and admiration.

88 B.C. marked the climax of the contest between the optimates and populares, the oligarchic and democratic factions in Rome. Before the 120s B.C., the Roman aristocracy had been able to mobilize mobs very quickly in order to crush any opposition, but Gaius Sempronius Gracchus organized his own standing mob to counter the patricians. Though Gracchus’ forces were eventually crushed, his successes inspired imitators, and by 88 B.C. Publius Sulpicius Rufus had assembled a force of 3,000 swordsmen to support him.

Sulpicius also had the favor of Gaius Marius. Though a magnificent soldier, Marius was utterly contemptuous of the Senate and the patricians as a whole. Thus, when he was finally forced out of office, Marius found himself ignored rather than respected by his senatorial colleagues. Bored and restless, Marius quietly stirred up trouble for the Senate and aimed to win an important military command through his alliance with Sulpicius.

As luck would have it, such a command was presently available. While Rome was distracted by the Social War, King Mithridates of Pontus had invaded Roman possessions in Asia Minor and incited many Greek cities to revolt, as well. When the Social War wound down, the Senate turned its attention to Mithradates and, to Marius’ chagrin, appointed to command the army Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

Sulla had risen from early poverty to the height of wealth, status, and power in Rome by combining a likeable personality with extraordinary merit. He had a remarkable ability to turn enemies into friends, and had repeatedly proved himself a skilled administrator and diplomat. Most significantly, he was also a superb soldier, easily the most distinguished Roman general of the day after Marius. However, Marius and Sulla were rivals in the personal, political, and familial spheres. Sulla had stolen Marius’ glory during the Jugurthine War, favored the optimates while Marius sided with the populares, and married into the Metelli, a family whom Marius had stabbed in the back in his own rise to power.

One plank in the populares’ platform was increasing the representation of the Italian allies in the Roman Assembly. When Sulpicius put a proposal before the Assembly to this effect, the optimates opposed it and ferocious rioting ensued. Sulla was at Nola mopping up resistance from the Social War and returned to Rome quickly. He and his consular colleague Quintus Pompeius Rufus announced a public holiday until the rioting stopped.

The next day, Sulla and Pompeius were hearing legal cases in the Forum when Sulpicius attacked them with his men. Pompeius escaped, though his son was killed, while Sulla fled to Marius’ house. What Marius and Sulla discussed is unknown, but Sulla emerged to face Sulpicius’ men and annul the holiday. Sulpicius then forced his proposal through the Assembly, and Sulla returned to his army.

Emboldened by success, Sulpicius had the Assembly strip Sulla of his command and bestow it upon Marius. He also began a campaign of terror, murdering his senatorial opponents. Pompeius and a number of others escaped and fled to Nola. There Sulla addressed his men, enumerating the wrongs Sulpicius and Marius had inflicted upon him. The soldiers then cried out to their commander, demanding that he lead them in arms to Rome.

When the army arrived at Rome, most of Sulpicius’ supporters abandoned him. After brief fighting, Sulla’s troops took control of the city. Marius tried to rally slaves to make a final stand, but virtually no one answered his call. Sulla declared Marius, Sulpicius, and ten other ringleaders public enemies and that Sulpicius’ laws were invalid, reformed the constitution to strengthen the Senate’s position, and oversaw the year’s elections. Despite Sulla’s military control over the city, many of his opponents won high office, most notably Lucius Cornelius Cinna being elected consul. Sulla’s intention was simply to restore the peace, not to rule Rome for his own benefit.

For its entire history, Rome had managed to avoid the confluence of internal disorder and threats from abroad, but Mithridates wasn’t going to disappear while the Romans settled their differences. So Sulla quickly disembarked for Illyricum and marched into Greece. There he besieged and captured Athens and won victories over Mithridates’ lieutenant Archelaus at Chaeronea and Orchemenos in Boeotia. Sulla even captured Archelaus and, winning him as an ally, used him as a go-between for negotiations with Mithridates.

While Sulla was off defending the Roman Empire, affairs in Rome took a turn for the worse. Cinna tried to revive Sulpicius’ proposal for the Italian allies, once again precipitating riots in which Cinna and his party were worsted. Raising his own army and joining Marius who had done the same, Cinna marched on Rome and massacred his enemies. Sulla’s family and friends fled to Greece, but for the time being Mithridates absorbed Sulla’s full attention.

Cinna’s control of Rome meant that Sulla had to defeat Mithridates without financial support or reinforcements from Rome. At the same time, Cinna claimed to be the legitimate rulers of the Roman Empire, so he had to do something about Mithridates. Lucius Valerius Flaccus, Cinna’s ally, took an army to the East in 85 B.C., but Flaccus was unpopular with his men, most of whom deserted to Sulla. Those who remained supported his aide Gaius Flavius Fimbria, who quickly assassinated his commander. Fimbria reluctantly cooperated with Sulla, but when his usefulness had run out, Sulla won over his troops, and he committed suicide.

Sulla had taught Mithridates a violent lesson in the perils of antagonizing Rome on the battlefield but concluded a mild peace with him. Rome’s allies who had revolted did not receive such lenient treatment: they were forced to pay for the costs of the war, reparations, and their ongoing garrisons. Those cities who had remained loyal to Rome, however, received rich rewards. For example, Sulla had been forced to plunder many shrines throughout Greece to pay for his campaigns, but when the war was concluded, he not only restored the sacred treasures but even added substantially to them.

In 84 B.C., Cinna finally perished after effectively ruling as tyrant for three years. Marius was dead by this time, so Cinna himself led an army into Illyricum, but his soldiers grew dissatisfied with his leadership and stoned him to death. Cinna’s murder threw the populares’ leadership into disarray just as Sulla was preparing to return to Rome.

When Sulla landed in Italy in 83 B.C., allies came out of the woodwork. Quintius Caecilius Metellus, governor of Africa, revolted against the populares. Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo also raised troops in support of Sulla. In a lightning-quick campaign, Sulla secured control of Italy and crushed the populares in battle at Rome’s Colline Gate.

After driving out the populares, Sulla had himself declared dictator in order to reform the Roman constitution and initiated proscriptions of his enemies. In both of these actions he aimed to strike at the root of Rome’s political problems which was elite overpopulation. In short, there were too many aristocrats hungry for glory and not enough conventional ways to gratify them; accordingly, many found in radical politics an alternative path to power and wealth. Assuring Rome’s political stability required expanding conventional avenues to power and choking off radical routes.

Sulla’s proscriptions targeted the whole popular party, stripping its members of their lives, their properties, and their descendants’ political prospects as well. The populares ceased to exist as an organization. Those who survived rallied around Gaius Julius Caesar, but it took twenty years for him to become a significant political player.

In the constitutional realm, Sulla expanded the number of offices and doubled the size of the Senate. He also confirmed the Senate’s probouleutic powers and reformed the Assembly to make it less susceptible to demagogic manipulation. The plebeian tribunes were stripped of most of their powers and debarred from higher office; no longer would the tribunate be a path to power. Sulla also made a variety of legal reforms and systematized the Roman imperial administration.

After holding supreme power for two years, Sulla then did something remarkable: he stepped down. Rome was not yet ready for a monarchy, so Sulla held the consulship for one year and then retired to his country estate. From there he did not rule but rather policed the new constitution—when one man tried to run for consul despite being legally ineligible, Sulla had him cut down in the Forum. Unfortunately, Sulla died of liver failure in 79 B.C., leaving the Roman state in the hands of lesser men.

We can see now just how much of a distortion the modern narrative truly is. Sulla was a supporter of the Senate, not an enemy; he marched on Rome to save the state, not to overthrow it; he then left to address a grave threat to national security while his enemies fomented revolt; when Sulla finally returned to Rome, he restored and strengthened the constitution that the populares had overthrown; and finally, having done all these things, Sulla returned power to the Senate.

Throughout the 80s B.C., Sulla appears as the adult in the room of Roman politics. When rioting threatened the security of the Roman state, he intervened decisively to end it; when Mithridates menaced Rome’s eastern possessions, he put domestic politics aside until the threat was eliminated; and when he assumed supreme power, he fixed the constitution so that the violence of the previous years would not be repeated. Alone among his contemporaries Sulla appreciated the danger that domestic strife represented and was both willing and able to put a stop to it.

Where Cicero would have dithered, Sulla acted. During a coup d’état is not the time to be overly scrupulous about the legality of one’s actions. Though Cicero spun a good yarn about the “Harmony of the Orders,” Sulla actually put his ideas into practice and gave Rome a relatively stable constitution that survived him by thirty years. Sulla became worthy, assumed power, and ruled.

Today, Sulla is worth admiring, though his personal example is not one we’re angling to repeat. The key to his success, however, was to take advantage of openings left by his opponents. Marius had reformed the army to fight the Germans and weakened its loyalty to the Roman state. Sulla merely stepped into the void Marius created. So too the very successes of the Left can be opportunities .
2016 Dec 06 19:16
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