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Overthrow of constitution by Sulla

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Reconstruction of Sulla's image
Reconstruction of Sulla's image

In 83 BCE Lucius Cornelius Sulla returned to Rome after the war with Mithridates VI – King of Pontu. At that time, the city was governed by Populists previously associated with Gaius Marius – his political opponent – who died a few years earlier (86 BCE). Sulla, at the head of his supporters, captured Rome and crushed the army of those who opposed him. In 82 BCE he became a dictator. Almost immediately after taking power, he decided to carry out numerous reforms that were to change the system in the Roman Republic.

Sulla ordered that from now on, each bill was to be approved by the senate before it could be presented to the people’s assembly. In this way he wanted to further increase the senate’s power over the state. In addition, keeping in mind the radical reforms carried out by the Grakchus and the actions of popular tribunes allied with Gaius Marius, he sought to limit the authority of this official. He achieved this goal by depriving him of the right of veto, which in practice deprived him of any significance. In addition, he banned former tribunals from taking any other offices, which effectively deterred most applicants.

The new dictator also sought to increase the number of senators. To this end, he increased the number of judges elected every year and ordered that from now on every citizen elected quaestor was to receive a seat in the senate. In this way, the number of senators increased from 300 to 600. However, this was not the only effect of these reforms. Increasing the number of judges diminished the prestige associated with taking up this function. Sulla also began to limit the rights of censors, which ultimately made this function only a representative function. To further increase the powers of the senate, Sulla took control of the courts and handed it over to the senate. This, combined with the increase in the number of judges, gave almost entirely control over justice to senators.

During Sulla’s dictatorship, “cursus honorum” from ordinary tradition was transformed into a law that required a citizen applying for a specific function of a certain age. In order to avoid an ambitious politician like himself in the future, Sulla introduced a rule according to which he had to wait 10 years before taking office again. In addition, the former consul had to spend the following year as provincial governor after leaving office. He also increased the number of praetors from six to eight so that there would never be a situation in which the province would lack officials. This was to prevent an ambitious commander from commanding the same troops for a long period of time, which in turn was to prevent him from gaining dangerous power, as was the case with Caesar and Sulla himself. The former organization of the army was also restored, which made it impossible for people from the social lowlands to take on the highest functions.

Most of Sulla’s reforms survived a little longer than he did (he died in 78 BCE). Already in 70 BCE Pompey the Great and Marcus Crassus – both former Sulla soldiers supporting him during the civil war – they promised the Senate in exchange for electing them as consuls, undoing Sulla’s reforms, which they did. It should be remembered, however, that Sulla’s predictions about the attempt to take power by an ambitious leader and a new civil war came true when Julius Caesar – the same who miraculously escaped death during proscriptions carried out by Sulla – reached for power in the republic.

Author: Kacper Walczak
  • Robert Byrd, Senate of Roman Republic
  • Cicero, De Re Publica
  • Ronald Syme, Rewolucja Rzymska
  • Lily Taylor, Roman Voting Assemblies

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