Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Sulla: Rome’s Brutal Butcher


Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BC) was born into a poor aristocratic family in Rome, a very unfortunate situation for an ambitious young patrician. Fortunately for him and not necessarily for the thousands who would have good reason to dread and fear him in later life, he was a man who always seemed to have luck on his side.

As a young man with golden-blond hair, piercing grey-blue eyes, striking good looks and a charming personality, Sulla managed to create such a strong and lasting impression on one of Rome’s richest courtesans that when she died she left all her money to him, thus enabling him, along with an inheritance from his step-mother, to pursue the cursus honorum, the expected but costly career path for a male member of the Roman aristocracy.

Thus, via a combination of good looks, luck and no-doubt careful cultivating of his political acquaintances, Sulla became the Consul Marius’s Quaestor in 107 BC. (The Quaestorship being the first step of the cursus honorum). After taking part in successful military campaigns in north Africa against King Jugurtha and in the northernmost parts of Italy defending against migrating Germanic tribes, Sulla was elected Praetor Urbanus. Rumour had it that he achieved this via bribery. The next year he was posted as Pro-Consul of Cilicia, one of the richest Roman provinces, offering even more potential for advancement. There, during a meeting with the Parthian ambassador Orobazus who brought along a Chaldean seer with him, Sulla was told he would die at the height of his fame, a prophecy which would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Sulla returned to Rome in 93 BC and aligned himself firmly with the Optimates, the ultra-conservative political faction in Rome, serving primarily the interests of the patricians. Shortly afterwards, in 91 BC a civil war broke out which was to solidify Sulla’s reputation as a general in the battlefield, as he won the grass crown Corona Graminea for his services. In 88 BC he was elected Consul, the most coveted magistracy in Rome and the top of the cursus honorum.

One of the most notoriously bloody and terrifying times in ancient Rome’s history came about shortly after Sulla was declared dictator by the Senate in 82/81 BC. He was granted absolute power and proceeded to proscribe around 1,500 Roman nobles (although some say the number may be larger than that). Sulla had proscription lists drafted and posted in the Roman Forum [proscriptio] and widespread butchering ensued as Sulla eradicated all his enemies or those he was suspicious of. Any man whose name appeared on the list was ipso facto stripped of his citizenship and excluded from all protection under law. Reward money was given to any informer who gave information leading to the death of a proscribed man and any person who killed a proscribed man was entitled to keep part of his estate (the remainder went to the state). No person could inherit money or property from the proscribed men, nor could any woman married to a proscribed man remarry after his death. Many victims of proscription were decapitated and their heads were displayed on spears on the Rostra in the Forum.

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