Lucius Cornelius Sulla - A (Numismatic) Profile February 10 2014

Lucius Cornelius Sulla was one of the most important figures of the late Roman Republic.  An extremely-skilled general and politician, Sulla aligned himself with the Optimates, Roman aristocrats who sought to limit the power of the Roman people and extend the power of the elite Senate.  The Optimates were opposed by the Populares headed by the ambitious and powerful Gaius Marius, who sought to gain the favor of the Roman people at the expense of the Senate.  Tensions gradually escalated until Sulla was stripped of his command by Marius and his allies.  Unwilling to relinquish command, Sulla took the unprecedented step of marching upon Rome with six of his most loyal legions (approx. 30-40,000 men).  He seized control of Rome, drove out Marius and his allies, and declared Marius an enemy of the state.  

Sulla did not remain in Rome for long.  After King Mithridates of Pontus massacred 80,000 Romans in Asia Minor, Sulla marched east with his troops.  He first besieged and brutally sacked the city of Athens before meeting Mithridates in open battle on the plains of Chaeronea in central Greece.  With a force of 40,000, Sulla nearly annihilated the 120,000-strong Mithridatic army.  After one more battle, Sulla effectively defeated Mithridates and was able to concentrate on Rome once again.  

By this time, Marius and his allies had retaken control of the city.  Sulla and his troops marched on Rome once more.  Marian armies were raised to stop his advance, but they were easily swept aside by Sulla.  The Marian forces regrouped for a final desperate battle (50,000 dead) outside of the gates of Rome, but Sulla eventually prevailed once more.  Sulla had broken what remained of the opposition and stood as the master of Rome.  

The Senate quickly declared Sulla dictator, giving him absolute control over all of the Republic.  This was an groundbreaking step, which set the precedent for the dictatorship of Julius Caesar a generation later.  With absolute power in his hands, Sulla began a thorough purge of Rome, executing thousands of Marian supporters.  The young Caesar was nearly executed himself but was saved by the appeals of some of Sulla's supporters.  In his memoirs, Sulla wrote that he regretted sparing the man's life, predicting that his ambition would ultimately render him a danger to the state.  After thoroughly eradicating the Populare opposition and strengthening the traditional Roman aristocracy and Senate, Sulla willingly abdicated and resigned from the dictatorship.  He died peacefully several years later.  

While strengthening the traditional hierarchy of Rome in the short term, Sulla significantly weakened the foundations of the Republic.  Sulla set several dangerous precedents - he gained personal allegiance from his armies (whose allegiance should have been to the Republic alone), marched on Rome with those troops, and subverted the traditional Roman government structure by assuming the role of dictator.  More than any other Roman, Sulla's actions set the stage for the rise of Caesar, the fall of the Republic, and the beginning of the Roman Empire.  

On the right is a rare silver denarius of Sulla, struck shortly after he regained control of Rome. Earlier ancient Roman coins featured Roman gods and mythical scenes.  But by the time of the late Republic, most Roman denarii (which were produced by wealthy individuals rather than the state) featured the profiles of powerful men and leaders of Rome. Just as in politics, Sulla took a traditionalist approach to his coin's design. The obverse side of the coin features the bust of the goddess Roma, the divine personification of the city of Rome.  The reverse features Sulla himself driving a quadriga, a sort of four-horse chariot. 

This particular coin, featuring beautiful multicolored envelope toning is currently for sale at Silver Dollar Co.