Sulla marches on Rome and becomes dictator. His proscriptions initiate a reign of terror. His reforms restore power to the senatorial class, but his successors learn from his methods. After three years he resigns and soon dies unpleasantly.


Lucius Cornelius Sulla (later surnamed Felix) came from a good family of moderate means. When he returned in 83 BC from a successful eastern campaign, he had no political power beyond that which a man at the head of a trained army of veterans could command. This, however, gave him a more than adequate means of capturing Rome in the face of the nominally more constitutional opposition raised by the consuls, Gnaeus Papirius Carbo (d. 81 BC) and Marius junior (110-82 BC), but not without unnecessary butchery.


This accomplished, Sulla had himself appointed not consul, but dictator. In this capacity his first act was to rid himself of all political and personal opposition, using the novel method of proscription - the posting up of lists of undesirable characters whom anyone was now at liberty to assassinate, and for a reward. For a start, he pronounced sentence of death on forty senators and 1600 knights. Other deaths, expulsions, and confiscations of property followed.

Power away from the people

Sulla then reorganized the constitution to put power effectively back into the hands of the upper classes. He virtually nullified the traditional influence of the tribunes of the people. He doubled the membership of the senate by admitting some three hundred knights and selected Italian holders of office in outlying municipalities. He also made the holding of a quaestorship an automatic qualification for membership of the senate, and raised the number of quaestors to twenty. This, together with the re-application of the statutory ten-year gap between holding the same office, and the introduction of a new regulation that two years had to elapse between the holding of one office and election to the one above it, meant that there were now more junior state officials seeking fewer senior posts, and having to wait longer for them. As the competition grew, the ambitious were prepared to resort to unconstitutional means to achieve their aims.

Sulla’s reforms of the legal system were less contentious. He established new courts to deal with specific offences, and crystallized the distinctions between civil and criminal law, though he removed the right of anyone except a senior senator to adjudicate in law suits.


After three years of a reversion to what constituted an absolute monarchy, Sulla retired in 79 BC to his estate at Puteoli, there to write his memoirs. He died not much more than a year later, of phthiriasis. It was the end of an era, even though technically the republic had some fifty years to run.

sulla on a coin

Republican denarius of about 57 BC, depicting Sulla, coined by his grandson, the moneyer Quintus Pompeius Rufus. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)



According to Cicero, Julius Caesar reckoned that it was not sensible for a dictator to retire - and accused Sulla of not knowing his ABC (Sulla qui abecedariam ignorabat). Though Caesar did resign his post as dictator, it was largely because he had now achieved his principal aim, the consulship for 48 BC.


Believe it or not:

Under the republic, each consul was entitled to have twelve personal lictors, who marched in single file in front of him. When Sulla was appointed dictator, he was given 24 lictors.

Lictors carried an axe bound with a bundle of rods, symbolizing the consuls' power to inflict corporal and capital punishment. These were called fasces, and were adopted by Mussolini as the badge of his party, who called themselves fascists.