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Sulla's Early Fortunes and his Reputation*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2015

T.W. Hillard
Macquarie University


Plutarch reports that when Sulla was giving himself airs after his successful service under Marius in the Jugurthine war (107-105 B.C.), one of the nobility reproached him with regard to his improved circumstances. (It is my guess Sulla had asserted that his achievements in Numidia heralded a return of his family's interrupted renown — with all the social, moral and financial assumptions this implied.) The riposte was, according to Plutarch: (Sulla 1.4), which Plutarch took to mean (i) that Sulla's patrimony had been negligible (having already stated categorically that Sulla was reared in unenviable domestic circumstances — intelligence he seems to have gathered from this item and one other [discussed below] which he proceeds to relate as evidence) and (ii) that his wealth had been gained subsequently (and, it goes without saying, from other quarters). Plainly the antagonistic observation implied that Sulla's fortune was outside the bounds of what was proper. Sulla was demeaned. The biographer comments for his readers' information that ‘… though the age of pure and upright manners had passed and people had degenerated and given way to their appetites for luxury and extravagance, yet [the Romans of that period] still thought that to forsake one's hereditary poverty was just as disgraceful as to squander a fortune that one had inherited‘ (ibid).

Research Article
Copyright © Australasian Society for Classical Studies 1991

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I would like to thank Lea Beness, Edwin Judge and Greg Stanton for their criticisms of an earlier draft of this paper. They are not to be assumed in agreement with the hypothesis. I would also like to thank Rosalie Cook, who checked with me Plutarch's usage of by means of the TLG CD-ROM, using Macquarie Ancient History Documentary Research Centre's Ibycus computer.


1 The anonymous critic is actually identified as a certain L. Manilius by Vives, Juan Luis (Declamationes Sullanae quinqué [Basel 1583] 5.164Google Scholar; cited by Lintott, A., PBSR 54 [1986] 225 n.14)Google Scholar. This is, of course, a purely creative piece of prosopography.

2 Sull. 1.1Google Scholar.

3 Given Plutarch's quite explicit and apparently authoritative statement with regard to Sullan family finances, his reading of the gibe has been generally followed (though see the recent caveats in n.8).

4 R. Warner trans.

5 On the turpitude seen in significantly diminishing patrimony we are well informed: see, for example, Corbier, M., ‘Family Behaviour of the Roman Aristocracy, Second Century B.C. - Third Century A.D.’ in Pomeroy, S.B. (ed.), Women's History and Ancient History (Chapel Hill 1991) 189Google Scholar, citing Cic, . Mil. 95Google Scholar and Asc. 27 C. It was worthy of in Plutarch's language, characterised in this case as ignavia by Sallust, if Sallust is sharing a tradition about the Sullan family (financial) fortunes at b.J. 95.3 (which I do not think to be the case, as will become clear below), where he speaks of the familia prope iam extincta maiorum ignavia. The first part of Sallust's claim is a trifle extreme applied to a family that could at least claim praetorian rank in recent generations, a distinction that may have been enjoyed by Sulla's father (Badian, E., Lucius Sulla: The Deadly Reformer [The Seventh Todd Memorial Lecture] [Sydney 1970] 5Google Scholar, though there is no direct evidence: see most recently Madden, J.A. and Keaveney, A., ‘Sulla Pere and Mithridates’, CPh 88 [1993] 138141Google Scholar, countering the attempts of F. Hinard to find that evidence), and the second part may allude to specific shortcomings, such as the ignominy of P. Cornelius Rufinus (cos. 290, 277). (On the latter, see Plut, . Sull. 1.1.Google Scholar) It seems to have been generally agreed that the Sullan family was in eclipse by the end of the second century: Vell. 2.17.2 (cum familiae eius claritudo intermissa esset). Sulla's political career would be an uphill struggle all the way (whatever his initial enthusiasm after his return from Africa and then again after the Cimbric wars; Plut. Sull. 5). A case can be made that his aspirations in the 90s did not reach beyond the praetorship (see most recently Cagniart, P.F., ‘L. Cornelius Sulla in the Nineties: a Reassessment’, Latomus 50 [1991] 285303Google Scholar; even though that particular profile of Sulla's career leans on the [now generally followed] early dating of Sulla's praetorship [following Badian, E., ‘Sulla's Cilician Command’, Athenaeum 37 (1959) 279303Google Scholar = Studies in Greek and Roman History (Oxford 1964) 157178Google Scholar] which may need to be returned to 95 or 93, more probably the latter; Arnaud, P., ‘Sylla, Tigrane et les Parthes. Un Nouveau Document pour la datation de la Propréture de Sylle: Sid.Apoll. Paneg. A viti’, REA 93 [1991] 7982)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Reams, L.R., ‘Sulla's Alleged Poverty and Roman Rent’, AJAH 9 (1984) 158–174Google Scholar.

7 This is developed fully by Reams, op.cit., if often too polemically in castigation of Plutarch's ‘ignorance’.

8 For earlier scepticism, see Reams, op.cit. 169 n.2 for references. E. Badian (op.cit. 5-6) hints at the possibility that Sulla sought to draw a parallel with the early struggles of M. Aemilius Scaurus, whose place, in some senses, Sulla filled. Reams shies away from the idea that Sulla's commentarli covered in any detail the period before his quaestorship (op.cit. 160). [The idea that Sulla's memoirs contained very little detail of his early life, surely the opinion of the majority of scholars who have dealt with the commentarli, has been challenged by two recent studies: Ramage, E.S., ‘Sulla's Propaganda’, Klio 73 (1991) 93-121, esp. 95102CrossRefGoogle Scholar, asserting from the length of the work ‘that the author went into considerable detail about his life’ and pointing out (without further elaboration on the particular point) that the fragments ‘involve family background and events from pretty well all periods of [Sulla's] life’ (96); and Lewis, R.G., ‘Sulla's Autobiography: Scope and Economy’, Athenaeum 79 (1991) 509519Google Scholar, rejecting as ‘unlikely’ that there would have been ‘really large discrepancies’ in density of treatment between one period of his life and another. Lewis promises further elaboration on the memoirs of M. Aemilius Scaurus, which he asserts included an exposition of the subject's ancestry, youth, early training and experience (512 and n.14) and which may have served as Sulla's literary model (their res gestae were considerably different); but his observation of vestigial information in the historical tradition regarding Sulla's ancestors hardly proves ‘generous coverage’ of his ancestry (513; if Lewis means here lengthy treatment), and the highlighting (513 and n.19) of the survival of such items as de vir. ill. 75.1 (which ps.-Victor does not attribute to any source) hardly clinches the suggestion that Sulla's boyhood was treated (cf. the proposition even more boldly asserted in ‘Suetonius’ Caesares” and the literary antecedents’, ANRW 2.33.5 (1991) 3623-74, esp. 3651Google Scholar). Moreover, Lewis’ own plausible suggestions about the contents of the last two books (517-519) strongly suggest that the work was a highly specialised one devoted to military affairs, and this is consistent with Ramage's elaboration of the themes to be discerned in the commentaries.] Certainly, in at least twenty-two books, the memoirs were long enough, but Plutarch's silence in (and, it must be presumed, lack of information regarding) such matters, as Reams points out, is probably the strongest evidence. Sulla seems to have covered his ancestry (Gell. 1.12.16 = Sull. Comm. frag. 2 Peter) — at some length if Gellius’ citation of Bk. 2 is correct and suggestive of chronological treatment (though we are freed from the necessity of that assumption by Lewis’ attractive argument [514-515] that Book 1 contained a developed exordium) — but that need not be incompatible with silence on his own childhood and youth. The latter fits with Plutarch's apparent ignorance of the identity of Sulla's mother, which Badian highlights at op.cit. 6 n.10. If Sulla had covered the topic of early poverty in any detail, Plutarch would have been able to offer a more substantial statement of fact and not have been forced to adduce two faulty items of evidence, one of them (concerning the rent) irrelevant, the other (the contemporary gibe) polemical and obscure. Plutarch's interest in such details, had they been to hand, can be presumed given his concern with the vulgarities of Sulla's early life and the brutal ruthlessness with which Sulla struggled out of his earlier circumstances (on which theme, Städter, P.A., ‘Paradoxical Paradigms’ in Stadter, [ed.], Plutarch and the Historical Tradition [Routledge 1992] 4155, esp. 47CrossRefGoogle Scholar), a further indication that the obiter dictum with which we are concerned came without context and that Plutarch had no other details with which to work.

9 Plin, . NH 7.128Google Scholar for the slave; Shatzman, I., Senatorial Wealth and Roman Politics [Collection Latomus. 142] (Bruxelles 1975) 264, for the houseGoogle Scholar.

10 Cf. Badian, loc.cit.; Reams, op.cit. 163; Lewis, op.cit. 513 n.19.

11 As does Reams, loc.cit.

12 A parallel of sorts might be found in Augustus’ handling of his family background. It was relatively humble, in rank if not financially, ipse Augustus nihil amplius quam equestri familia ortum se scribit [presumably in his memoirs], vetere ac locuplete, et in qua primus senator pater suus fuerit (Aug. 2). Nothing more, nothing less. The fact was stated simply and without drama.

13 While Marius’ opponents taunted him with his novitas (which is, of course, in no way to be associated necessarily with poverty), Marius seems to have held up with some pride the comparative simplicity of his upbringing, if Sallust's speech is any indication. He is judged sordidus (b.J. 85.39), but that is of choice, ita ad hoc aetatis a pueritia fui, uti omnes labores et pericula consueta habeam (ibid. 7) is too general and need not refer to financial standing. Ibid. 14 is perhaps more to the point but still not specific: contemnunt [nobiles] novitatem meam, ego illorum ignaviam; mihi fortuna, illis probra obiectantur. It was Marius’ stance, coupled with aristocratic slurs, which probably led Plutarch badly astray and to his belief that Marius’ parents worked with their hands! (Mar. 1.1Google Scholar) Plutarch often faced the problem of reconciling schematism with the evidence which came his way (e.g., in a similar instance of ‘poor beginnings’ in the Cato maior, on which see I. Shatzman, op.cit. Note G, pp. 482-3). But in the Marius he misses a major cue for possible reconciliation by keeping Marius poor (or at least not wealthy) even after his Spanish command (Mar. 6); see Carney, T.F., A Biography of C. Marius [Proceedings of the African Classical Associations, Suppl. no. 1] (1961) 1924Google Scholar for a more realistic picture.

14 No comment from Walbank, F.W., A Historical Commentary on Polybius 1 (Oxford 1957) 741Google Scholar. On the whole, Polybius regarded the Romans of the second century as tight-fisted. Scipio Aemilianus’ generosity made him exceptional, in Polybius’ opinion (31.26.9).

15 The boast of a Metelius in praise of his father (L. Caecilius Metelius [cos. 251, 247]), Plin, . NH 7.139Google Scholar; cf. Sail, . Cat. 7.6Google Scholar: divitias honestas [maiores] volebant. Due regard to the appropriate means can be seen at Cic, . Off. 1.13Google Scholar; 2.87-9 and care in the circumlocutory language used for trading interests, D'Arms, J.H., Commerce and Social Standing in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, Mass. 1981) 48-71, esp. 62 ffCrossRefGoogle Scholar. While some deprecated reliance upon manifest opulence to inspire awe (e.g. M. Aemilius Lepidus [cos. 187, 175] at Liv. Per. 48), personal wealth was by others conspicuously displayed as a mark of nobility. This was especially so amongst the womenfolk. [Men consistently demonstrated wealth, sometimes inherited, sometimes won, in benefactions to the people and to the State: feasts, games and the construction of public utilities (bearing the appropriate name).] When Aemilia Africani uxor appeared in public, e.g. for religious ceremonials, she appeared in great glory ‘as befitted the wife of Scipio’ (Polyb. 31.26.1-5). [I see no reason to regard this observation as pejorative, in which light it is ‘generally viewed’, according to S. Barnard, not necessarily in agreement (Latomus 49 [1990] 385-6Google Scholar), but offering only one example. The reading of the following item by J.P. Hallett (Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society [Princeton 1984] 94-5Google Scholar), to which B. (loc.cit.) refers and which is surely the correct one, virtually rules out a moralistically-hostile observation.] A substantial gift was also cause for unabashed celebration. When Aemilia died, her retinue, carriages etc. passed through Scipio Aemilianus to Papiria (his natural mother) and this good fortune marked her public advent of sorts: ‘… now when a solemn sacrifice had to take place, she drove out in all the state and splendour which had once belonged to Aemilia’ (Polyb. 31.26.6-7; trans. I. Scott-Kilvert). [In this light, the alternative pride of Aemilia's daughter (haec [her sons] ornamenta sunt mea: Val.Max. 4.4 intro.) ought not perhaps to be seen as the manifesto of a counter ideology (as Valerius Maximus’ source, Pomponius Rufus, seems to have dressed the item) so much as a wounded and rationalising pride; cf. E.A. Judge, ‘The Mind of Tiberius Gracchus’ (unpubl. paper, University of Sydney, 1966) 32. (Barnard [op.cit. 389] is tempted by the same thought.) Not that Cornelia had to scrimp.] Cornelius Nepos, in his eulogistic portrait of Ti. Pomponius Atticus, was obviously not embarrassed by the already wealthy Atticus’ spectacular windfall on the death of his uncle — if we may so call the result of his assiduous cultivation of an irascible old man whom few others could abide (Nep, . An. 5Google Scholar; for his previous wealth, ibid. 2-4).

16 There were probably degrees and nuances lost to modern scholarship but one thing is certain: it was extravagance rather than wealth itself that was decried (except, that is, in out-and-out rhetoric: [Cic.] ad Herenn. 8) — unnecessary extravagance, such as the proverbially luxurious lifestyle of Lucullus, or an extravagance beyond one's means. (See Livy 39.9 for an interesting example of expenditure judged suitable. So it was with expenditure for an aedilate [Cic, . Off. 2.57Google Scholar]. Caesar represented the antithesis [Plut, . Caes. 5Google Scholar].)

17 All the more remarkable given the decline in fortune of the traditional ruling class, on which see Hopkins, M.K. (and Burton, Graham), Death and Renewal (Cambridge 1983) 120200CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In Plutarch's society it was doubtless fear of New Money. For indicators of social constraints: Brown, P., Body and Society (London 1988) 1112Google Scholar. A relevant condition may be the prevailing ennui which either became chronic or was recognised as such at this time (Toohey, P.G., ‘Some Ancient Notion of Boredom’, ICS 13 [1988] 151164Google Scholar), and a parallel is possibly provided with Plutarch's retrospective projection of the condition onto Pyrrhus (id., ‘Plutarch, Pyrrh. 13: Giotta 65 [1987] 199-202). On the latter point I am not sure I would go to the wall with Toohey, but it is an interesting thought. Elaboration on Plutarch's characterisation of Pyrrhus would require a separate paper.

18 This is plausibly suggested by Reafns, op.cit. 160-161.

19 By Reams, op.cit. 163.

20 As Reams acknowledges.

21 b.J. 96.2.

22 Ibid. 95.3.

23 Sulla 2.4Google Scholar.

24 This woman, it is said, eventually became enamoured of Sulla and Plutarch reports that the young man profited handsomely from her will, but in the liaison's initial stages it was Sulla's role to court her; and her affections, it is argued by Reams (op.cit. 167), were as likely as not to have been costly. Reams categorises Nikopolis rather too quickly as a ‘high-class prostitute’ and the relationship as ‘at first a strictly professional one from her standpoint’, a rather uncourtly (not to say perhaps misleading) way to refer to the various manners by which her attention may have been captured. (Reams is not alone in assuming her professional status: op.cit. 173 n.49 for reference to other scholars.) I say this despite her name, which Badian (op.cit. 6) reasonably styles a nom de guerre. Now it is quite probable that this woman was not classed by the aediles amongst the matronae in stola, but it is another thing to assume that the charismatic young patrician made this ‘capture’ (or even initiated the liaison) by financial expenditure of necessity. Reams (loc.cit.) also introduces other evidence of Sulla's hedonistic lifestyle as suggestive of high living rather than poverty.

25 Sail. b.J. 95.3.

26 Sulla's education is properly noted by his latest biographer, Keaveney, A., ‘Young Sulla and the Decern Stipendia’, RFIC 108 (1980) 165-173, esp. 166Google Scholar; Sulla the Last Republican (London 1982) 7Google Scholar. The plain fact of this evidence necessitates Keaveney's belief in a ‘change of fortune … around the time he assumed the toga’ or that ‘[Sulla's] fortune took a decided turn for the worse’, though K. does not follow through the ramifications of that scenario, i.e. that ‘Sulla was reduced to poverty as a result of his father's will’ (Sulla the Last Republican 7-8). Instead, he opts for an alternative (see below) inconsistent with that proposition.

27 As does Keaveney, , ‘Young Sulla166Google Scholar.

28 Keaveney, to be fair, canvasses this possibility (Sulla 7; ‘Young Sulla’ 167) — only, in effect, to abandon it without discussion.

29 That is, if Plutarch has got the quotation right, and it would be critical without purpose to suggest otherwise at this point.

30 Though the effective disinheritance (i.e. in strictly material terms) may have been temporary (and intended to be so), if Sulla senior made his second wife, who held her step-son in affection, his major heir. This would hardly have lessened the moral impact of the gesture since the legal procedure required a formal statement of dispersion (see following note). A testator, lacking confidence in his (young) son's competence to manage sensibly a patrimony might use a fideicommissum, leaving his property to his wife — in the present case this would have entailed leaving his estate to Sulla's stepmother as fiduciary heir (in effect, if through roundabout means) — to be passed on to the son at a suitable age (Dig. 28.2.18Google Scholar; cf.;, 1.80.1, 2.26.2; Sailer, R.P., ‘Roman Heirship Strategies in Principle and in Practice’, in Kertzer, D.I. and Sailer, R.P. (eds.), The Family in Italy from Antiquity to the Present (New Haven 1991) 2647, esp. 43Google Scholar; Champlin, E., Final Judgments: Duty and Emotion in Roman Wills 200 BC — AD 250 (Berkeley 1991) 108 ffGoogle Scholar, where Champlin explains ‘disinheritance’ in such circumstances as ‘far more likely to [have been] an act, if not of love, at least of cool calculation’ (108). Originally this custom will have come into being to protect young children (or a spouse), but variations on the theme can be imagined from the inventive Romans. This act might be taken as an affront by the son (and indeed intended as a rebuke by the father) without entailing a major scandal of the type we might expect to have surfaced in the general source tradition (see the concerns expressed below in note 37). It would still have offered the perfect opportunity for hostile polemic.

31 I. Shatzman, op.cit. 50; Champlin, op.cit. 14-15, 110-111 (for examples with ‘extenuating’ circumstances). Not receiving an expected inheritance was something to be taken up in hostile rhetoric; see, for example, Cic, . An. 1.16.10Google Scholar and Phil. 2.40Google Scholar (hereditates mihi negasti venire), where Cicero responds to a taunt from Antony (and goes on to deny it with an account); Champlin 14. Any shame that might occur was quite public. Roman society generally (not just the circles directly affected) paid particular attention to the publication of wills as moral judgments or expressions of personal rancour. (On all this, see Champlin's excellent study, esp. 1-28.) Sulla learnt how to use wills effectively himself: Plut, . Sull. 38.2Google Scholar; Pomp. 15.3Google Scholar. It would not have been possible for Sulla senior to have passed over his son's name in angry silence. ‘Natural’ heirs had to be disinherited nominatim or the will was immediately nullified; cf. Crook, J., Law and Life of Rome (Ithaca 1967) 122–123Google Scholar; and, in far more detail, Watson, A., The Law of Succession under the Roman Republic (Oxford 1971) 40 ff.Google Scholar (though the latter is unsure whether that particular provision was in force by the beginning of the first century B.C.; see esp. 42). One less spectacular way forward for Sulla's father would have been to institute others (e.g. his second wife) as his major heirs, leaving Sulla a negligible amount. This might yet allow the cruel suggestion by a critic (in a rhetorical mode or polemical context) that Sulla had been left nothing. That would still, however, be an extraordinary occurrence and doubtless would have been regarded as extreme by contemporary society. Challenges could be mounted against a testamentum inofficiosum at least as early as the middle of the first century B.C. (on the querella inofficiosi testamenti, see Watson, op. cit. 62 ff.; cf. Buckland, W.W., A Text-Book of Roman Law from Augustus to Justinian [Cambridge 1921/1950] 327331; Champlin, op.cit. 15)Google Scholar, a clear indication of where society believed a testator's duty to lie (i.e. unless serious provocation prompted against natural feeling).

32 If that term was available to our anonymous aristocrat (in the last decade of the second century B.C.), which I believe it was. Livy (3.35.4, 9; 5.24.9 and 6.39.5) allows optimates to appear as early as the fourth century. Cicero (de Invent. 2.52) speaks of optimate feeling with reference to 232 B.C. These are more likely than not anachronistic uses of late Republican terminology but the word was used by Ennius (Medea frag. 105) in the sense of class, and Cato used it in a socio-political sense in his discussion of contemporary Carthage (frag. 80 Peter). It appears in the partisan sense first in ad Herenn. 4.45. The weight of scholarly opinion dates its familiar political usage to the Gracchan period (Strasburger, H., RE 18.1.773Google Scholar; Hellegouarc'h, J., Le vocabulaire latin des relations et des partis politiques sous la République [Paris 1963] 501)Google Scholar. For further discussion and references, Hellegouarc’h, op.cit. 500-505; and Stokes, S., The ‘Optimates’? A Study of the Roman Political Establishment from 133 to 70 B.C. (unpubl. MA thesis, Macquarie University, 1974) 140Google Scholar. (The latter is unwilling to vouch for the term's partisan-political usage before the late eighties B.C., but that hardly effects the present thesis.)

33 Compare the descriptions as of Catulus at Sull. 4.2Google Scholar; Rutilius Rufus at Mar. 28.5Google Scholar; and Metelius Pius at Pomp. 19.5Google Scholar. In Brutus’ speech at Plut, . Brut. 52.3Google Scholar, is used in contrast to (improbi?); cf. Pyrrh. 21.2Google Scholar.

34 Keaveney, , ’Young Sulla166Google Scholar.

35 Ibid. It is here that K. fails to accept the ramifications of the tradition, which he has accepted, that Sulla's family suffered from poverty. Plutarch characterises Sulla at this period of his life as which is, as K. allows, a vague term. Sulla was at the same stage of life when he married Ilia [sic] (Plut, . Sull. 6.10Google Scholar), a name sometimes emended to Iulia. If the emendation is correct, she was possibly a Iulia bringing a match with the Iulii Caesares (as suggested by H. Mattingly apud Keaveney, ‘Young Sulla’ 169 n.4).

36 M. Caelius Rufus perhaps provides a useful parallel in the next generation: Cic, . Cael. 17Google Scholar.

37 As it stands, very little is known of Sulla's early life (surprising, perhaps, only in the light of retrospective curiosity). Since, however, what we do have is scandal, it is difficult to accept that such a spectacular disgrace struck Sulla and was not recorded in any of the extant sources. I suspect that it did not. The fact of the gibe does not demand the fact of disinheritance. Alternative reconstructions of what might have happened are available (see, for example, n.30 above) — damaging enough. Still other circumstances, presently unknown, might lie behind the innuendo, either as inspiration or as putative corroboration.

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