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Plutarch on Lucius Cornelius Sulla

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

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

“Sulla is a mulberry sprinkled o’er with meal” – this is how Lucius Cornelius Sulla was ridiculed by mocking Athenians1. It was an allusion to his red face and a harsh rash against which piercing blue eyes gleamed. How does he describe the life of this Roman chief, Plutarch?

He was Sulla from an impoverished patrician family. Due to poverty, in later years he fell into complexes and often bragged about his acquired wealth. He had one more peculiarity – he was fond of cutting jokes by nature. At the same time, he surrounded himself with actors and jesters, drank with them every day and played games. When he was entertaining himself at the table, it was impossible to talk to him about anything serious. A morbid urge to erotic life developed within him. He liked women as well as men. He had sexual relations with one of the actors – Metrobios from his youth, but at the same time, he had a love for a rich woman named Nikopolis, after whose death he inherited a large fortune2.

He was Sulla, but a great organizer who skilfully used the differences of interests of his opponents, the strength of the Roman army, and his own ambitious plans.

When he travelled to Africa as a quaestor, he befriended King Bokchos of the Numid there. Thanks to this friendship, he managed to capture the rebel Jugurta3. It was an act that Marius with his entire army could not do. Sulla has become a popular and well-known person. Proud of his achievements, he gave himself a ring with a scene of his own deed engraved on it, which became the reason for a conflict and hatred with Marius.

While remaining under Marius’s command, Sulla performed several more famous deeds. He captured leader of Tektosags Kopillusa and convinced people to alliance with the Roman tribe of Mars4. However, disagreements with Marius prompted him to switch to Catullus, a noble but not very energetic man5. Under his new leadership, Sulla grew in strength and importance. He turned out to be not only a talented military commander, defeating the barbarian peoples in the Alps, but also a good organizer in terms of army supplies. According to Plutarch, Sulla was able to get such supplies of everything that the soldiers of Catullus abounded insufficient resources, and it was possible to make some supplies for Marius’ people6. The fame he gained resulted in great resentment and hostility from his opponents. Sulla, however, hoped that thanks to her, he would gain the highest political offices in Rome.

Excessive political ambition prompted him to bribe and make promises to win the support of the senate and get a job as a praetor. Plutarch gives a very interesting anecdote relating to this event. Namely, when, as a praetor, he once threatened Caesar that he would use his law of power against him, Caesar replied to him with a laugh: “You do well to consider the office your own, for you bought it”7 . In the near future, Caesar had to hide from his wet boys.

Also in later times, political ambitions did not leave Sulla and often put the country on the brink of civil war or threatened to collapse his political career.

Sulla, however, considered himself lucky and treated all adversities with a grain of salt. He believed that he was guided by divine providence and urged others to believe it. He treated good relations with his co-workers and trusted people as a special gift of divine kindness.

He described his experiences and beliefs in his “Memoirs”. However, these diaries are lost and we know them only from the accounts of other ancient authors. According to Plutarch, he stated in them that everything he did not according to his own thoughts, but on which he dared, as dictated by the current moment, he always succeeded better than what he had carefully planned in advance8.

He saw his further fate in special supernatural signs. In “Memoirs” he described it as follows, namely, when he was leaving Rome, sent with an army to war with his allies, a great pit was formed in the ground near Lawerna, from which a powerful fire burst out and a bright column of flame rose up to heaven itself9. Probably, the seers told him that a husband of some exceptional and extraordinary appearance would come to power and remove the present unrest from the state. Sulla believed that supernatural forces indicated him and his mission. In addition to the unrestrained lust for power, Sulla was very complicated in her private life. His personality was full of contradictions and at times unbalanced. He robbed the conquered provinces, but gave even more to his trusted henchmen and friends, and showed people both respect and contempt. He flattered those he needed and disregarded those who needed him. More than once, he punished people with death for accidental offences, while he put the biggest crimes on the line. Usually, two natures clashed in it: vindictive and aggressive, as well as the unrestrained ambition to gain higher and higher promotions. Hence, he did not lack bravery in difficult and sometimes impossible situations. He was able to prove it during numerous military campaigns against Jugurtha, the Italic tribes, Mithridates, or against all of Hellas.

He showed a rare phenomenon of willpower in hopeless situations during the war campaign in Hellas, where he set out as a consul after finally dealing with Marius. It took a lot of courage and insolence to take the treasures of the temple in Olympia and Delphi10 for the needs of the waged war.

He was able to lay his life on the scales of victory and defeat when, in the battle of Chaeronea, he launched himself into the attack in the face of the general panic of his troops. By personal example, he was able to mobilize soldiers and turn the tide of the battle11.

He was also called a fox and a lion. He earned this name after returning from Greece to Italy. Surrounded by a much stronger enemy under Kapua, he started negotiations and tricked the whole enemy army to his side so that only the commander remained in his camp12.

This is what Sulla was like when he was not entirely sure of his power and had to share it often with others.

But the time came when he was given the power he wanted, unlimited and ruthless.

This man has changed radically. Rome and the surrounding towns run down with blood. Sulla’s soldiers murdered in city squares, in houses in front of their wives and children, in temples and palaces. For example, in the city of Preneste, Sulla ordered the murder of about 12,000 inhabitants13. By declaring himself dictator, he announced that he was not responsible for everything that happened. He also assigned himself the right to punish him with death, confiscate estates, found and destroy cities, and take power away from kings.

The time came, however, that Sulla, confident of his happiness and respect from the citizens, relinquished absolute power and handed it over to the people, and stepped back as a private man.

Author: Radosław Marchel (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  1. Plutarch, Sulla, 2.
  2. Ibidem.
  3. Ibidem., 3.
  4. Ibidem., 4.
  5. Ibidem.
  6. Ibidem.
  7. Caesar - the future dictator of Rome in 48-44 BCE, Plutarch, Sulla, 5.
  8. Ibidem., 6.
  9. Ibidem.
  10. Ibidem., 12.
  11. Ibidem., 15.
  12. Ibidem., 28.
  13. Ibidem., 31.
  • Plutarch z Cheronei, Sulla, wyd. Ossolineum, Wrocław 1976

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