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Sulla’s divine guide

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)


The Roman politician Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, also known as Sulla, lived from 138-78 BCE. In the history of Rome, he went down as one of the most controversial figures of the Roman Republic. As an efficient military and politician, he is known for the first Roman civil war and the adoption of the office of dictator (82 BCE) for life. He was cruel in getting rid of political opponents. A certain goddess of war, Bellona, ​​played a large role in Sulla’s enormous career.

Follower of Bellona

Bellona was a Roman goddess of war, originally of Sabine origin. Her main attributes include a military helmet, a sword, a torch, and a four-horse chariot. She is considered to be the sister or wife of the god of war Mars. Like Mars, Bellona is strongly associated with war, especially its aspects of bloodlust and destruction.

As a praetor in Cappadocia during the wars with Mithridates VI, Sulla encountered the cult of the Anatolian goddess Ma. The Romans who came into contact with this cult began to identify Ma with Bellona. The resulting cult of Ma-Bellona was spread by Sulla’s legionaries. The cult of the goddess was very bloody. On March 24, on a day called Dies sanguinis (Day of Blood), the priests of Bellona – bellonari – ritually mutilated themselves and drank blood. The feast of Bellona was also celebrated on June 3. Her cult was also widespread in the army.

To the target over the dead

Bust of Lucius Cornelius Sulla without nose.
Under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

It is said that Sulla’s victories and happiness were due to the goddess Bellona. In the final year of the Allied War (bellum sociale) in 88 BCE Lucius Cornelius Sulla separated the blockade of the city of Nola from Pompeii and was victorious, capturing the city of Pompeii and Aeclanum. Before the battle, Bellona appeared to him in a dream, instructing him to eliminate his political opponents, which Sulla did.

Sulla won a decisive victory in the final battle of the First Civil War (83-82 BCE) fought at the Porta Collina Gate. After winning, he had himself appointed dictator for an indefinite period. As a dictator, he made a bloody settlement with his enemies and with anyone who could threaten his rule. Then came the time of terror and repression, which reached many citizens. After winning the battle of Porta Collina, Sulla presided over the Senate meeting in the temple of Bellona located on the Campus Martius. He scheduled the meeting time on the day and time when prisoners accused of treason were executed. Everything was done so that the senators could hear everything carefully. During his relatively short 3-year dictatorship, he introduced a number of reforms in the Senate and confiscated the estates of opponents, giving them to his supporters. Convinced by an ancient prophecy that he had little life left, Sulla retired from politics in 79 BCE.

Temples of Bellona

To celebrate his victories, Sulla built the temples of Bellona near Porta Collina, where his decisive battle took place. Built according to the inscription in 82 BCE and was associated with the cult of Ma-Bellona. It is possible that the Sanctuary of Bellona on the Capitol was also built by Sulla. The sanctuary was accidentally demolished in 48 BCE. After the destruction of the temple, jars of human flesh were found, testifying to the bloody and mad practices of Ma-Bellona’s cult.

Sulla and Bellona – a good couple

Analyzing Sulla’s brutal career, which made him famously cruel, Rome remembered him for a long time. The Roman politician and writer Cato the Younger once asked his teacher why no one had killed Sulla. From the teacher, he got the answer: “Because they fear him more than they hate him.” Lucius Cornelius Sulla, like Bellona, ​​won victories and sowed terror on the battlefields.

Author: Aleksandra Zaporowska (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Thomas R. Martin, Starożytny Rzym od Romulusa do Justyniana, Poznań 2022

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