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88 BC - Lucius Cornelius Sulla

Relieved from the strain of the Social War, in 88 BC the Romans turned their attention to the intrigues of Mithridates in the Orient, and put Sulla in command of an army destined to carry on the war against him. But Marius coveted the appointment, and to attain his object made an alliance with the democratic leader Sulpicius as he had years before with the democratic tribune. The reform measures of Sulpicius and the bill transferring from Sulla to Marius the command of the army destined for the East were pushed through the comitia by the use of force.

Sulla was with his army in Campania. He laid before the soldiers the news from Rome. Fearful of losing their share of the Eastern spoils, and indignant at the treatment which their commander had received, they urged him to lead them to the city. Sulla, nothing loath, set out for Rome with six legions. On the way envoys met him and asked him why he was marching with armed forces against the city. "To deliver her from her tyrants," he replied - the same defense which Caesar offered forty years later, when he advanced against Rome. The democratic leaders called the mob together, promised the slaves their freedom, and attacked the troops of Sulla from the roofs of houses and temple's, but the struggle was short and decisive.

Sulla was victor, the new laws were repealed, and Marius and Sulpicius were banished. The meaning of the incident is clear. It was an armed struggle between two leaders for personal supremacy, and success lay with the heavier battalions. But Sulla's troops were eager for the Eastern campaign, and he left the city without firmly establishing his own party in power.

Cn. Octavius, one of the two consuls for the next year, 87 BC was an aristocrat, but his colleague, L. Cornelius Cinna, belonged to the opposite party. Marius's opportunity had come. Calling out his veterans, he supported the cause of Cinna, drove Cn. Octavius from the city, established the authority of the democratic party, and realized his dream of holding the consulship for the seventh time. He died in office, having apparently triumphed over his enemy.

But the success of the democrats was short-lived. Early in 83 BC Sulla landed in Italy and advanced toward Rome. The untrained forces of the democrats under incompetent leaders could not withstand the assaults of his veteran troops. Sertorius alone of the Marian leaders escaped with a few troops to set up later in Spain the standard of the Marian cause. After crushing out a desperate uprising of the Samnites, who saw in the civil war a chance to avenge the wrongs of centuries, Sulla entered Rome as its unquestioned master. Sulla crushed all opposition. With grim determination Sulla set himself to work to establish the conservative party, or the oligarchy, firmly in power again. This involved in his mind two things: the extermination of the democracy, and the restoration of the senate to its old position of authority. The first part of his plan was carried through with that cynical contempt for human life and liberty which was characteristic of him. The horrors of the proscription which followed Sulla's return to Rome never faded from the memory of the Romans. The murder of his enemies and the confiscation of their property, though carried out without regard to law or evidence, was reduced to a careful system. The names of the proscribed were posted in lists; rewards were publicly offered for their murder and the partisans of Sulla cut down their victims wherever they could be found. Four thousand and seven hundred Romans, including forty senators and sixteen hundred knights, lost their lives in this way. The wrath of Sulla also fell heavily upon the peoples and towns in Italy which had opposed him, and to hold them in check in the future, he founded several colonies of veterans. He did all this, not so much from a spirit of animosity against his personal enemies, as with the desire to rid the country of men who might again lead a revolution.

Sulla had already received the dictatorship for an indefinite period, instead of taking it for the traditional six months, and, vested with the unlimited powers of this office, he addressed himself to the positive side of his work and showed that his skill as a constructive statesman was as great as his ability in the field. To increase the power of the senate as a law-making body he reverted to the method of procedure which prevailed before 287, by reaffirming the principle that the preliminary approval of the senate was necessary before a measure could be submitted to the plebeian tribal assembly. So long as this conservative system continued in force the tribune was prevented from proposing any measures of which the senate did not approve, for the concilium plebis, now held in check by the senate, was the body in which the tribune secured the passage of such bills as he favored.

Now the tribune was the acknowledged representative of the democracy. Consequently, by preventing him from proposing any bills without the approval of the senate, Sulla aimed to suppress any organized movement of the democracy. The number of praetors was increased to eight and of quaestors to twenty. Ex-magistrates, by virtue of having held an office, passed directly into the senate. The senate was thus filled automatically; the censor was no longer called upon to draw up a list of senators, and the control of that official over the senate disappeared. Senators were also substituted for knights on the juries.

By these measures Sulla freed the senate from the control of the magistrates, and gave it almost exclusive legislative and judicial powers. He felt that the tribune was the mouthpiece of radicalism and reform, and to keep able, ambitious men out of the tribunate he had a bill passed which made the tribune ineligible to any other office in the state. All of these measures, of course, had a political purpose, and were well calculated to restore the old regime, and to put the oligarchy in an impregnable position, but even a Sulla could not hold back the tide setting toward democracy. These changes were in force but a short time.

Sulla's permanent achievements were the reforms which he made in the administrative and judicial systems. Hitherto it had been customary for magistrates to command the armies of the state during their year of office. From this time on they were rarely sent to a foreign post until their term of office had expired: that is, an official was really chosen for two years, serving one year as a magistrate in Rome, and the following year as governor in a province. This change was made possible by increasing to eight the number of praetors, who, in the year following their term of office at Rome, could, with the two ex-consuls, take charge of the ten provinces.

In originality, permanence, and practical value Sulla's reform of the judicial system was perhaps of more importance still. Hitherto the Romans had had only two standing courts, one to try magistrates charged with accepting bribes or with similar offenses (the quacstio de repetundis), and the other to hear cases of murder or attempted murder (the quaestia de sicariis et veneficis). Men charged with other crimes were tried before a popular assembly, or else a special judicial commission was established to hear the case, or some other irregular method of procedure was adopted. In the procedure before the comitia, all the people meeting in the assembly heard the evidence brought against a man accused of an offense, and voted upon his guilt or innocence. The method was cumbersome; the evidence could not be properly presented before so large a body, and a great assembly is likely to be swayed by gusts of prejudice or passion. Sulla remedied this defect by providing a number of new courts, each with special jurisdiction over certain classes of crimes. One of the new courts for example, heard cases of forgery, another cases of bribery. Over these courts the praetors presided. The juries in Sulla's new courts were made up of small bodies of picked men, whose deliberations were directed by a presiding judge, and henceforth justice was dispensed in a speedier, simpler, and surer way than had been possible before.

Sulla, having triumphed and been proclaimed perpetual dictator, humbled the plebeians, compromised the tribunes, debased the knights, and elevated the senators. The assemblies by tribes were dissolved and the comitia centuriata invested with all power. Sulla, in fact, desired to restore to the senate its pristine splendour, and to the republic its primitive energy. He wished to restore its virtues, its public spirit, and, above all, its liberty; and it was, perhaps, this last consideration which induced him, after having retained his office of dictator for five years, to abdicate - an act which history has regarded with astonishment.

Sulla's work was finished. In 79 he resigned the dictatorship, and retired to his villa at Puteoli. His death in the following year excited alarm among his followers and joy among his enemies. His body was brought to Rome, and as Appian tells us, "was borne through the streets with an enormous procession following it. From fear of the assembled soldiery all the priests and priestesses escorted the remains, each in proper costume. The entire senate and the whole body of magistrates attended with their insignia of office. A multitude of the Roman knights followed with their peculiar decorations, and in their turn, all the legions that had fought under him. . . . Some really longed for Sulla, but others were afraid of his army and his dead body, as they had been of himself when living. . . . The corpse was shown in the forum on the rostra, where public speeches were usually made, and the most eloquent of the Romans then living delivered the funeral oration, as Sulla's son Faustus was still very young. Then strong men of the senators took up the litter and carried it to the Campus Martius, where only kings were buried, and the knights and the army passed in line around the funeral pile. And this was the last of Sulla."

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:28:34 ZULU