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    “If Sulla could, why can’t I?” (Pompey the Great)

    When the topic of Roman dictators during the 1st century BCE comes up, one name instantly springs to mind. In 49 BCE, the “die was cast” as Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon at the head of the 13th Legion and ushered in a civil war that permanently destroyed the Roman Republic, leaving a line of emperors in its place. Caesar’s legacy is so strong that his name has become, in many languages, synonymous with power: The emperors of Austria and Germany bore the title Kaiser, and the czars of Russia also owe the etymology of their title to Caesar. His name also crept further eastward out of Europe, even cropping up in Hindi and Urdu, where the term for “emperor” is Kaisar.

    However, it’s quite possible that none of what Caesar did would’ve happened without the template for such actions being set by Lucius Cornelius Sulla 40 years earlier. At the time, when Caesar was in his teens, war was being waged both on the Italian peninsula and abroad, with domestic politics pitting the conservative, aristocratic optimates against the populist, reformist populares, and this tension ultimately escalated into an all-out war. One of the leading populares was his Caesar’s uncle, Gaius Marius, a military visionary who had restructured the legions and extended the privileges of land ownership and citizenship to legionaries on condition of successful completion of a fixed term of service. In the late 2nd century BCE, Marius had waged a successful campaign against several Germanic tribes, and after earning eternal fame in the Eternal City, Marius was appointed a consul several times, but in 88 BCE he entered into conflict with his erstwhile protégé, the optimate Sulla, over command of the army to be dispatched against Mithridates of Pontus, a long-time enemy of Rome and its Greek allies.

    Ironically, Marius’s reforms had made the legions fiercely loyal to their individual generals rather than the state, which allowed Sulla to march his army against Rome and force Marius into exile. With that, Rome’s first civil war was officially underway, but Sulla’s triumph proved short-lived, however. Just as Sulla departed for a campaign, Marius returned at the head of a scratch army of veterans and mercenaries, taking over the city and purging it of Sulla’s optimate supporters, and though Marius died in 86 BCE, his party remained in power.

    Upon his successful return to Rome, Sulla proclaimed himself Dictator, an all-powerful legislative authority which normally could be only vested in times of extraordinary crisis and never for more than a period of six months. Sulla’s supporters went on a rampage across Rome, and some of them disinterred Marius’s body and dismembered it before throwing the pieces into the Tiber River. Of course, the purge included the murder of Marius’s most prominent supporters as well, all in an effort to allow Sulla to proclaim himself Dictator for life. In the process, Caesar was a natural target and went into exile, putting him on the path to one of history’s most legendary military careers.

    Sulla had become renowned in Rome as a general during the Jugurthine, Social, and Mithridatic Wars, but naturally he is now remembered for the gruesome acts committed during his tenure as Rome’s first lifelong dictator. Sulla’s unprecedented period of one-man rule is viewed by many historians as a means of re-establishing peace and order in Roman politics while safeguarding the Republican system from abuse by powerful individuals.

    ©2020 Charles River Editors (P)2020 Charles River Editors

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