Lucius Cornelius Sulla "Felix" (138-78 B.C.E)

Bust of Sulla

Bibi Saint-Pol/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Roman military and political leader Sulla "Felix" (138-78 B.C.E.) was a major figure in the late Roman Republic. He's remembered best for bringing his soldiers into Rome, the killing of Roman citizens, and his military skill in several areas. He was also notorious for his personal relationships and appearance. Sulla's last unusual act was his final political one.

Sulla was born into an impoverished patrician family but inherited wealth from a woman named Nicopolis and his stepmother, allowing him to enter the political ring (cursus honorum). During the Jugurthine War, in the first of a previously unheard of seven consulships, the Arpinum-born, novus homo Marius selected the aristocratic Sulla for his quaestor. Although the choice led to political conflict, it was wise militarily. Sulla resolved the war by persuading a neighboring African king to kidnap Jugurtha for the Romans.

Sulla's Contentious Relationship with Marius

Even though there was friction between Sulla and Marius when Marius was awarded a triumph, based, at least to Sulla's point of view, on Sulla's own efforts, Sulla continued to serve under Marius. The intense competition between the two men grew.

Sulla settled the rebellion among Rome's Italian allies by 87 B.C.E. and was then sent to settle King Mithridates of Pontus—a commission Marius wanted. Marius persuaded the Senate to change Sulla's order. Sulla refused to obey, marching on Rome instead—an act of civil war.

Installed in power at Rome, Sulla made Marius an outlaw and went to the East to deal with the king of Pontus. Meanwhile, Marius marched on Rome, began a bloodbath, got revenge with proscriptions, and handed out confiscated property to his veterans. Marius died in 86 B.C.E, not ending the turmoil in Rome.

Sulla Assumes Power as Dictator

Sulla settled matters with Mithridates and returned to Rome where Pompey and Crassus joined him. Sulla won the Battle at the Colline Gate in 82 B.C.E., ending the civil war. He ordered Marius' soldiers killed. Although the office hadn't been used for a while, Sulla had himself declared dictator for as long as necessary (rather than what had been the customary six months). In his biography of Sulla, Plutarch writes: "For Sulla had declared himself dictator, an office which had then been laid aside for the space of one hundred and twenty years."). S[u]lla then drew up his own proscription lists and rewarded his veterans and informants with confiscated land.

Sylla being thus wholly bent upon slaughter, and filling the city with executions without number or limit, many wholly uninterested persons falling a sacrifice to private enmity, through his permission and indulgence to his friends, Caius Metellus, one of the younger men, made bold in the senate to ask him what end there was of these evils, and at what point he might be expected to stop? "We do not ask you," said he, "to pardon any whom you have resolved to destroy, but to free from doubt those whom you are pleased to save." Sylla answering, that he knew not as yet whom to spare. "Why then," said he, "tell us whom you will punish." This Sylla said he would do. .... Immediately upon this, without communicating with any of the magistrates, Sylla proscribed eighty persons, and notwithstanding the general indignation, after one day's respite, he posted two hundred and twenty more, and on the third again, as many. In an address to the people on this occasion, he told them he had put up as many names as he could think of; those which had escaped his memory, he would publish at a future time. He issued an edict likewise, making death the punishment of humanity, proscribing any who should dare to receive and cherish a proscribed person, without exception to brother, son, or parents. And to him who should slay any one proscribed person, he ordained two talents reward, even were it a slave who had killed his master, or a son his father. And what was thought most unjust of all, he caused the attainder to pass upon their sons, and son's sons, and made open sale of all their property. Nor did the proscription prevail only at Rome, but throughout all the cities of Italy the effusion of blood was such, that neither sanctuary of the gods, nor hearth of hospitality, nor ancestral home escaped. Men were butchered in the embraces of their wives, children in the arms of their mothers. Those who perished through public animosity, or private enmity, were nothing in comparison of the numbers of those who suffered for their riches. Even the murderers began to say, that "his fine house killed this man, a garden that, a third, his hot baths." Quintus Aurelius, a quiet, peaceable man, and one who thought all his part in the common calamity consisted in condoling with the misfortunes of others, coming into the forum to read the list, and finding himself among the proscribed, cried out, "Woe is me, my Alban farm has informed against me."

Sulla may have been known as lucky "Felix", but at this time, the appellation better suits another, more renowned Roman. A still young Julius Caesar survived Sulla's proscriptions. Plutarch explains that Sulla overlooked him—this despite direct provocation, including failing to do what Sulla required of him. [See Plutarch's Caesar.]

After Sulla had made the changes he thought necessary to the government of Rome—to bring it back in line with the old values—Sulla simply stepped down in 79 B.C.E. He died a year later.

Alternate Spellings: Sylla


  • Plutarch. "Plutarch's Life of Sulla", Dryden translation
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Lucius Cornelius Sulla "Felix" (138-78 B.C.E)." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). Lucius Cornelius Sulla "Felix" (138-78 B.C.E). Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Lucius Cornelius Sulla "Felix" (138-78 B.C.E)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).