Today Rome Across Europe hits #10 on our list of Top 15 Roman Commanders in ancient Rome. As we march along, you can find the entire list here. Or you can check out the individual biographies of #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8 and #9. We now present to you…
10: Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 – 78 BC)
Lucius Sulla was a Statesman of Rome and part of a great list of powerful Roman Generals, so he fits perfectly on RAE’s list. Sulla was twice Consul and during the Social War he was awarded the rarest and most prestigious military honor, the Grass Crown.
His dictatorship came at the peak of the struggle between Populares and Optimates. General Sulla was skillful and gifted, winning many victories against Italians, barbarians, and fellow Romans.
One of his many rivals even described him as having a lion’s courage and a fox’s cunning ways. In Greece, Sulla developed his innovative battle tactics thus making the 1st known use of field works in an open-field battle in Roman history.
Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, known commonly as Sulla, was born into a branch of the patricius gens Cornelia. His family had fallen to an impoverished condition though at the time of his birth.
Lacking ready money, Sulla spent his youth amongst Rome’s comics, actors, lute-players, and dancers. For the rest of his life Sulla retained an attachment to the wicked nature of his youth. Plutarch mentions that during his last marriage, to Valeria, Sulla still kept company with “actresses, musicians, and dancers, drinking with them on couches night and day”.
Apparently Sulla received a good education for his was known to be well-read, intelligent, and fluent in Greek, which was a sign of education in Rome. The means by which Sulla attained the fortune that would later enable him to ascend the ladder of Roman politics, the Cursus honorum, are not clear.
The Jugurthine War had started in 112 BC when Jugurtha claimed the entire kingdom of Numidia in defiance of Roman decrees and divided it between several members of the royal family. After 5 unsuccessful years of fighting, Gaius Marius was then elected Consul and took over the campaign, while Sulla was nominated Quaestor to him.
Sulla persuaded King Bocchus I of Mauretania to betray Jugurtha who had fled to Mauretania for refuge. The publicity attracted by this feat boosted Sulla’s political career. A gilded equestrian statue of Sulla donated by King Bocchus was erected in the Forum to commemorate his accomplishment.
In 104 BC, the migrating Germanic–Celtic alliance headed by the Cimbri and the Teutones seemed to be heading for Italy. The Senate had Marius lead the campaign against them, with Sulla serving on Marius’ staff as Tribunus Militum during the 1st half of this campaign. By the Battle of Vercellae in 101 BC, Sulla had become Legatus to Catulus and is credited as being the prime mover in the defeat of the tribes.
In the Social War (91–88 BC) Sulla captured Aeclanum, the chief town of the Hirpini, by setting the wooden breastwork on fire. As a result of his success in bringing the Social War to a successful conclusion, he was elected Consul for the 1st time in 88 BC.
At Nola, Sulla was awarded Rome’s highest military honor the Corona Obsidionalis (Obsidional or Blockade Crown), also known as a Corona Graminea (Grass Crown). The Grass Crown was awarded for personal bravery to a commander who saves a Roman legion or army in the field, and General Sulla served in this manner during the Social War.
As Consul, Sulla prepared to depart once more for the East, to fight the First Mithridatic War, by the appointment of the Senate. Marius was now an old man, but he still wanted to lead the Roman armies against King Mithridates VI of Pontus.
Former allies of Sulla then attempted to take control of Rome for themselves, even staging a riot with gladiators and murdering some supporters of Sulla in the Senate. Marius desperately wanted to be in power once again.
Sulla received news of this at the camp of his victorious Social War veterans, waiting in the south of Italy to cross to Greece. He announced the measures that had been taken against him, and his soldiers stoned the envoys of the assemblies who came to announce that the command of the Mithridatic War had been transferred to Marius.
Sulla then took 6 of his most loyal legions and marched on Rome. This was an unprecedented event for no Roman General had ever before crossed the city limits, the Pomoerium, with his army.
Marius’ armed gladiators were unable to resist Sulla’s organized Roman soldiers. Although Marius offered freedom to any slave that would fight with him against Sulla, Marius and his followers were forced to flee the city.
Sulla consolidated his position, declared Marius and his allies hostes (enemies of the state), and addressed the Senate presumably to justify his violent entrance into the city. After restructuring the city’s politics and strengthening the Senate’s power, Sulla returned to his camp and proceeded with the original plan of fighting Mithridates in Pontus.
With Sulla out of Rome, Marius returned with the support of Lucius Cornelius Cinna and took control of the city by the end of 87 BC. Marius and Cinna were elected Consuls for the year 86 BC. Marius died a fortnight after, and Cinna was left in sole control of Rome.
In the spring of 87 BC Sulla landed at Dyrrachium, in Illyria. Asia was occupied by the forces of Mithridates under the command of Archelaus. Sulla’s 1st target was Athens and the Mithridatic puppet, the tyrant Aristion.
Sulla moved southeast, picking up supplies and reinforcements as he went. Sulla’s Chief of Staff went ahead of him to scout the way and negotiate with the existing Roman commander in Greece. All Roman soldiers in Greece then fell under the command of Sulla.
At Chaeronea, ambassadors from all the major cities of Greece (except Athens) met with Sulla, who impressed on them Rome’s determination to drive Mithridates from Greece and Asia Province. Sulla then advanced on Athens.
On arrival, Sulla threw up siege works encompassing not only Athens but also the Port of Piraeus. At the time Archelaus had command of the sea, so Sulla sent Chief of Staff Lucullus to raise a fleet from the remaining Roman allies in the eastern Mediterranean.
By controlling Piraeus, Athens could not be re-supplied. Huge earthworks were raised, isolating Athens and its port from the land side.
Despite the complete encirclement of Athens and its port, and several attempts by Archelaus to raise the siege, a stalemate seemed to have developed. Sulla patiently bided his time, and soon his camp was full of refugees from Rome, fleeing the massacres of Marius and Cinna.
Athens by now was starving, and a delegation from Athens was sent to meet with Sulla. Instead of serious negotiations they expounded on the glory of their city. Sulla sent them away saying: “I was sent to Athens, not to take lessons, but to reduce rebels to obedience.”
With his spies discovering part of the city wall was neglected, Sulla’s men brought down 900 ft of wall between the Sacred and Piraeic gates. A midnight sack of Athens began, and blood was said to have literally flowed in the streets.
Sulla then concentrated his forces on the Port of Piraeus, and Archelaus, seeing his hopeless situation, withdrew to the citadel and then abandoned the port to join up with his forces under the command of Taxiles. Before leaving Athens, Sulla burnt the port to the ground.
Sulla then advanced into Boeotia to take on Archelaus’s armies and remove them from Greece. The army of Archelaus outnumbered Sulla’s forces by at least 3 to 1.
Commanding the fords on the road to Chaeronea, Sulla now occupied the ruined, but impregnable, city of Parapotamii. Sulla then abandoned the fords and moved in behind an entrenched palisade.
This looked to Archelaus like Sulla was retreating, but little did Archelaus know that behind the palisade were the field artillery from the siege of Athens. Archelaus advanced across the fords and tried to outflank Sulla’s men, only to have his right wing hurled back.
Archelaus’s chariots then charged the Roman center, only to be destroyed on the palisades. Next came the phalanxes who also found the palisades impassable from the withering fire from the Roman field artillery.
Then Archelaus flung his right wing at the Roman left, a deadly maneuver for the exposed Roman flank. Sulla raced over and stabilized the situation, at which point Archelaus flung in more troops from his right flank.
Dashing back to his right wing, Sulla ordered the general advance. The Legios, supported by Equites Romani, rushed forward and Archelaus’ army folded in on itself.
The slaughter was terrible, and some reports estimate that only 10,000 men of Mithridates’ original army survived. Sulla had defeated a vastly superior force in terms of numbers.
Cinna’s government of Rome then sent out Lucius Valerius Flaccus with an army to relieve Sulla of command in the East. The pair of Roman Armies camped next to each other; and Sulla, not for the first time, encouraged his soldiers to spread dissension among Flaccus’ army.
Many deserted to Sulla before Flaccus packed up and moved on north to threaten Mithridates’ northern dominions. In the meantime, Sulla moved to intercept the new Pontic army.
Sulla chose Orchomenus as the site for the battle to come. It was a town in Boeotia that allowed a smaller army to meet a much larger one, due to its natural defenses, and was ideal terrain for Sulla’s innovative use of entrenchment.
This time the Pontic army was in excess of 150,000, and it encamped itself in front of the busy Roman Army, next to a large lake. It soon dawned on Archelaus that Sulla had not only been digging trenches but also dikes, and before long he had the Pontic army in deep trouble. Desperate sallies by the Pontic forces were repulsed by the Romans and the dikes moved onward.
On the second day, Archelaus made a determined effort to escape Sulla’s web of dikes and hurled the entire Pontic army at the Romans. The Roman legionaries were pressed together so tightly that their short swords were like an impenetrable barrier, through which the enemy could not escape. The battle turned into a rout, with slaughter on an immense scale.
The Battle of Orchomenus was another of the world’s decisive battles. It determined that the fate of Asia Minor lay with Rome and her successors for the next millennium.
As the year 84 BC began, Cinna was still Consul in Rome and faced minor disturbances among Illyrian tribes. In either an attempt to gain experience for his own forces or to show Sulla that the Senate also had some strength, Cinna raised an army to deal with the Illyrian problem.
Cinna pushed his men hard to move to position in Illyria, the source of the disturbance between Sulla and Rome. A short time after departing Rome, Cinna was stoned to death by his own men thus leaving a power gap in Rome.
In Rome the newly elected consuls, L. Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus (Asiagenus) and C. Norbanus levied and prepared armies of their own to stop Sulla’s 2nd march on the capital.
Norbanus took on Sulla at Canusium, and after being seriously defeated Norbanus retreated to Capua. Sulla followed his defeated adversary and won another victory in a very short time.
Meanwhile Asiagenus was also on the march but seemed to have little motivation to fight. At the town of Teanum Sidicinum, Sulla and Asiagenus met face to face to negotiate and Asiagenus surrendered without a fight.
With Sulla’s 3 quick victories the situation began to rapidly turn in his favor. Many of those in a position of power, who had not yet taken a clear side, now chose Sulla.
Regardless, the war would continue on with Asiagenus raising another army in defense with Carbo. Indecisive battles were fought between Carbo and Sulla’s forces but Carbo knew that his cause was lost.
On 1 November 82 BC, the two forces met at the Battle of the Colline Gate, just outside of Rome. The battle was a huge and desperate final struggle with both sides certainly believing their own victory would save Rome.
Sulla was pushed hard on his left flank with the situation so dangerous that he and his men were pushed right up against the city walls. Crassus’ forces, fighting on Sulla’s right however, managed to turn the opposition’s flank and drive them back.
The Samnites and the Marian forces were folded up and broke. In the end, over 50,000 combatants lost their lives and Sulla stood alone as the master of Rome.
After his second consulship, he withdrew to his country villa near Puteoli to be with family. From this distance, Sulla remained out of the day-to-day political activities in Rome, intervening only a few times when his policies were involved (eg The Granius episode).
Sulla’s goal now was to write his memoirs, which he finished in 78 BC, just before his death. They are now largely lost, although fragments from them exist as quotations in later writers.
Ancient accounts of Sulla’s death indicate that he died from liver failure or a ruptured gastric ulcer possibly caused by chronic alcohol abuse. His funeral in Rome was on a scale unmatched until that of Augustus in AD 14. His epitaph reads “No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full”.
Sulla is generally seen to have provided the example that led Caesar to cross the Rubicon, and also provided the inspiration for Caesar’s eventual Dictatorship. A fighter to the last is why Lucius Cornelius Sulla is #10 on our list.
We hope you enjoyed today’s look at yet another Top Commander of Rome. Stop by again, and remember – Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Keaveney, Arthur, Sulla: The Last Republican, Routledge; 2nd edition (June 23, 2005). ISBN 978-0-415-33660-4.
Plutarch’s Life of Sulla
JanusQuirinus.org research site