Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix

By Legio Yow

Sulla was said by contemporaries to have had both a lion and a fox in him. His lion was his sheer force of personality and his military brilliance. The fox was his subtle, devious side that he showed when he felt pure force wouldn’t work as well. It is significant to note that, despite being a far crueler dictator than Julius Caesar, he died in his bed (Which puts an amusing light to Caesar’s claim that Sulla “did not know his political ABC’s”). His morality was a poor thing, but his brilliance and forcefulness have assured his place in history. His specter dominated Roman politics long after his death as surely as he dominated it in life. He is now mostly remembered for his fateful march on Rome, the first ever, and for the brutality of his dictatorship, but beneath the cruelty and ruthlessness Sulla was an extremely complex individual, filled with seeming contradictions and containing numerous layers.

Perhaps the best evaluation of his character was a self written epithet, which stated “No better friend, no worse enemy”. Sulla was extremely generous to his friends and allies. Metellus Pius (Who is best described as Sulla’s workhorse) was made Pontifex Maximus, and many of his allies in the Sullan War were made consul. Most obviously, however, was the favor he showed his friends when auctioning off the property of men he proscribed. There are, however, good examples of a line he placed between friend and foe. Lucretius Ofella, the man who captured Praenesta and Marius the Younger, was a firm ally of Sulla’s, but had begun to annoy him by his canvassing for consulship despite Sulla’s objections, so Sulla ordered him killed, saying that those who had been twice humbled should not provoke a third time. And his ferocity towards his enemies is readily apparent. Apart from the proscriptions, his actions in wars were cruel even for the standards of ancient warfare. But his cruelty, unlike many others, seemed to be calculated, like Genghis Khan’s. But despite this ruthlessness, he had a tendency to be lenient with people he had respect for. One example is Atticus, famed through his letters. Atticus, now living in Greece, was a supporter of the Marian faction, so was understandably nervous when Sulla paid him a visit on his way back to Rome. Sulla was so impressed by the man that he offered to give him a place on his staff, but Atticus told him point blank that he would rather not fight against the side he had recently fought for. Sulla was impressed by his candor and let him live.

Sulla’s personality is difficult to fathom, but his genius is breathtakingly clear. In a phrase that cannot be repeated too often when discussing him, Sulla was both a lion and a fox. The best example of his “lion” is his actions immediately following the Battle of the Colline Gate. He gathered together about nine thousand prisoners and herded them off into the Circus Maximus. During his address to the Senate in which he told them not to fear, because the wars were over, the prisoners were butchered, and Plutarch says that the screams were so loud that they were heard in the Senate House. It is understandable that he encountered very little dissent during his dictatorship. But he also had a fox, which is demonstrated by an action during the Sullan War, when he was blocked by the army of the consul Scipio, who outnumbered him 2:1, but was made up of raw recruits rather than Sulla’s battle-hardened veterans. Sulla likely could have destroyed Scipio’s army without too much difficulty, but he instead saw the opportunity to gain more soldiers, so he invited Scipio to a meeting of truce. During his discussions with Scipio, he sent his agents among Scipio’s army, turning it against Scipio and to Sulla. So when Sulla marched out of his camp, Scipio’s army joined him, increasing his force by a great deal. It was this incident that caused Carbo to say that Sulla had both a fox and a lion within him, and that of the two he feared the fox more.

But Sulla’s intelligence was not restricted to those arts, but in fact covered a great variety of topics. He was extremely good at recognizing talent in his subordinates, being able to pick out Pompey and Metellus Pius before they had proven themselves. He was also strangely prescient in many ways. The most famous example of this was his exclamation concerning young Julius Caesar, to the effect that in Caesar he saw many Mariuses. This proved to be eerily accurate, and made before Caesar had shown his Marian side.

A word also must be said to his private life. Sulla was rumored throughout his career to have homosexual tendencies, and when he was through being dictator, he showed the proof in this in a most spectacular fashion. As he was exiting the city, he was accompanied by actors and prostitutes, neither of which was far removed from each other in terms of respectability, and most importantly, his longtime lover Metrobius. He pointed to Metrobius and exclaimed to the crowd that this was his lover, and his procession demonstrated what kind of life he would lead for his last few months.

Pulling all this information together is not easy, and Sulla’s true character has eluded historians for two millennia. He was a brilliant general and politician, able to be both subtle and brutally blunt when the situation called for it. He was ruthless at times, and at other times surprisingly generous. He was a confirmed realist, but he had a firm belief in his own fortune. Perhaps the only way to describe Sulla comes from Shakespeare:
He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.