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RETHINKING SULLA: THE CASE OF THE ROMAN SENATE*

  • Catherine Steel (a1)

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Pressing and urgent domestic problems were the justification for L. Cornelius Sulla's election to the dictatorship in 82 b.c. He responded with an extensive legislative programme which reorganized the judicial and legislative processes of the res publica. While there is agreement, in broad terms, about the nature of these changes, their purpose and significance remain debated. None the less, there is general consensus that the Senate's role in Sulla's res publica was enhanced in comparison with earlier periods. This conclusion is based on the increase in the size of the Senate; on the monopoly it resumed of judicial decision-making in the iudicia publica; and on the extension, in practice, of its legislative capacity, given that its decrees could not be vetoed by tribunes of the plebs, who had also lost their capacity to put forward legislation. Flower offers a recent and concise summary: ‘This new “consensus” of Sulla was based on force and on the necessity of agreeing with Sulla himself, and subsequently with his new, mighty senate that was expected to wield unprecedented power and absolute authority.’

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The research for this article was supported by the British Academy, through its Mid-Career Fellowship scheme. I am grateful to audiences at Durham, Cambridge, and Trinity St. David, and to CQ’s anonymous referee, for their responses to its earlier versions.

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1 Appian (B Civ. 1.99) records that Sulla was elected ἐπὶ θέσει νόμων … καὶ καταστάσει τῆς πολιτείας. The description is plausibly understood as a translation of the phrase legibus scribundis et rei publicae constituendae (Gabba, E., Appiani Bellorum civilium liber primus [Florence, 1967 2], 270–1).

2 The major changes were (i) restrictions on the tribunate of the plebs, which ceased to have either positive or negative legislative capacity; (ii) increases in the numbers of quaestorships and praetorships, with automatic Senate entry for quaestors; (iii) a reorganization of the iudicia publica and the restriction of jury service to senators. Tribunes of the plebs were barred from holding further office.

3 See Hantos, T., Res publica constituta: die Verfassung des Dictators Sulla (Stuttgart, 1988); Hurlet, F., La Dictature de Sylla (Brussels, 1993); Brennan, T.C., The Praetorship in the Roman Republic (2 vols, New York, 2000), 2.388–402; Thein, A., ‘Sulla the Weak Tyrant’, in Lewis, S. (ed.), Ancient Tyranny (Edinburgh, 2006), 238–49.

4 E.g. Gruen, E.S., The Last Generation of the Roman Republic (Berkeley, CA, 1974), 712; Meier, C., Res publica amissa: eine Studie zu Verfassung und Geschichte der späten röimischen Republik (Wiesbaden, 1980 2), 246–66; Millar, F., The Crowd at Rome in the Late Republic (Ann Arbor, MI, 1998), 4954; Flower, H., The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political Culture (Chapel Hill, NC, 2006), 98; Gotter, U., ‘Cultural differences and cross-cultural contact: Greek and Roman concepts of power’, HSPh 104 (2008), 179230, at 214–16; Wiseman, T.P., Remembering the Roman People: Essays on Late-Republican Politics and Literature (Oxford, 2009), 11.

5 Flower (n. 4), 98; the comment is particularly striking as it comes from what is otherwise an incisive and highly revisionist reading of Sulla. Flower, H., Roman Republics (Princeton, NJ, 2010), 121–34, implicitly revises this analysis of the role of the Senate, though it remains unclear how it fitted into the model presented there of a Sullan republic dominated by the rule of law (129–30).

6 See, in general, Meier (n. 4), 128–40; Bleicken, J., ‘Das römische Volkstribunat’, Chiron 11 (1981), 87108; North, J.A., ‘Democratic politics in Republican Rome’, P&P 126 (1990), 321; Lintott, A.W., The Constitution of the Roman Republic (Oxford, 1999), 6773; Wiseman (n. 4), 7–10.

7 Livy, Per. 77; Plut. Vit. Sull. 8; App. B Civ. 1.56; Morstein-Marx, R., ‘Consular appeals to the army in 88 and 87’, in Beck, H. et al. (edd.), Consuls and res publica: Holding High Office in the Roman Republic (Cambridge, 2011), 259–78, at 262–4.

8 Flower (n. 5), 119, notes the difficulty of accessing Sulla's own intentions. On ancient analyses of the legitimacy of popular politics at Rome, see Erskine, A., The Hellenistic Stoa (London, 1990), 150–80.

9 Cic. Leg. 3.23–26; Morstein-Marx, R., Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic (Cambridge, 2004), 241–78; Wiseman (n. 4), 16–32.

10 Greenidge, A., The Legal Procedure of Cicero's Time (Oxford, 1901), 436–42. The alternative of making jurors entirely non-senatorial was presumably unthinkable because of the connection between equestrian jurors and Gaius Gracchus and other popularis politicians.

11 The exact number of quaestors before Sulla's expansion of the office is unclear, though it was between eight and twelve: Harris, W.V., ‘The development of the quaestorship, 267–81 b.c.’, CQ 26 (1976), 92106; Kunkel, W., Staatsordnung und Staatspraxis der römischen Republik (Munich, 1995), 512–14.

12 Ryan, F.X., Rank and Participation in the Republican Senate (Stuttgart, 1998), 7287.

13 The details of this transition, including Sulla's role in it, are unclear; see ibid., 284–92.

14 That is the implication of Cic. Att. 1.13.2, where he consoles himself for losing first place to C. Calpurnius Piso with the thought that ‘I am free from paying attention to a difficult man [sc. the consul Pupius Piso] and free to preserve my position in the res publica by opposing his wishes; moreover, the second place in speaking has almost as much influence as the first, and one's stance is less tied by a favour from the consul’ (sum enim et ab obseruando homine peruerso liber et ad dignitatem in re publica retinendam contra illius uoluntatem solutus, et ille secundus in dicendo locus habet auctoritatem paene principis, uoluntatem non nimis deuinctam beneficio consulis). Despite Cicero's special pleading about second place, this is clear evidence for the bond of gratitude which tied the year's senior consular to the consul who chose him.

15 They remained, however, formally outside senatorial debates: the Senate's role, after all, was to advise magistrates.

16 In contrast, before 81 there were years in which, after the Feriae Latinae, the only imperium-holders in the city were the urban and peregrine praetors. Although it is now accepted – or should be – that Sulla did not prevent consuls from exercising their imperium outside Rome, it remains unclear why they now tended to stay (they did not, after all, receive new responsibilities – as the praetors did – which prevented their departure). Polo, F. Pina, The Consul at Rome (Cambridge, 2011), 316–28, discusses the change in tempo of political life which followed from this development. Consuls-elect had possessed a privileged position in senatorial debates long before Sulla, but when elections took place towards the end of the year its use was limited: see Polo, F. Pina, ‘The Political Role of the consules designati at Rome’, Historia 62 (2013), 420–52.

17 Eutropius (5.9.2) and Orosius (5.22.4) give almost identical figures for numbers killed in the Social and Civil Wars: the figure for senators is 200, though some of the deficit may have been filled by the censors of 86. Forty senators were on Sulla's proscription list (App. B Civ. 1.95); Appian gives ninety (B Civ. 1.103) as the final number of senators killed by Santangelo, Sulla. F., ‘Sulla and the Senate: a reconsideration’, Cahiers Glotz 17 (2006 [2008]), 722, at 8, concludes that the Senate which Sulla found in 82 may have been as small as 150. Evans, R.J., ‘The Augustan “purge” of the Senate and the census of 86 b.c.’, AClass 40 (1997), 7786, at 80–1, notes in connection with the census of 86 the possible effects of deaths during the wars with the Cimbri and Teutones towards the end of the second century b.c.; but by the end of the 80s b.c. those losses had probably ceased to have an impact.

18 Evans, R.J., ‘The consulares and praetorii in the Roman Senate at the beginning of Sulla's dictatorship’, Athenaeum 61 (1983), 521–8, lists the members of each category.

19 There are ten men in this category, eight of whom died violently. Q. Pompeius Rufus (cos. 88) was killed during his consulship by the troops of Cn. Pompeius Strabo, when he attempted to take command of them; Cn. Octavius (cos. 87) and L. Cornelius Merula (cos. suff. 87) died during Marius’ and Cinna's capture of Rome in 87; L. Cornelius Cinna (cos. 87, 86, 85, 84) was killed by his own troops in 84; L. Valerius Flaccus (cos. suff. 86) was killed during his consulship, by his own troops, while campaigning against Mithridates; Cn. Papirius Carbo (cos. 85, 84, 82) was executed by Pompeius during his third consulship; C. Norbanus (cos. 83) committed suicide on Rhodes following defeat by Sulla's followers; the younger Marius (cos. 82) was killed during his consulship as he tried to escape from the siege of Praeneste. The elder Marius died of natural causes, aged around seventy, early in his seventh consulship in 86; L. Cornelius Scipio Asiagenes (cos. 83) was in exile in Massilia after his defeat and proscription by Sulla during his consulship (he survived into the 60s: Kaster, R., Cicero: Speech on Behalf of Publius Sestius [Oxford, 2006], 126).

20 Even an equivalent span of the opening years of the Second Punic War was not quite as destructive: at the end of 212, nine holders of the office since 218 (inclusive) were still alive: P. Cornelius Scipio (cos. 218), Ti. Sempronius Longus (cos. 218), M. Atilius Regulus (cos. suff. 217), C. Terentius Varro (cos. 216), M. Claudius Marcellus (cos. suff. 215, cos. 214), Q. Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (cos. suff. 215, cos. 214), Q. Fabius Maximus (cos. 213), Q. Fulvius Flaccus (cos. 212), and App. Claudius Pulcher (cos. 212), in comparison with five dead: Cn. Servilius (cos. 217), C. Flaminius (cos. 217), L. Aemilius Paullus (cos. 216), L. Postumius Albinus (cos. des. 215), and Ti. Sempronius Gracchus (cos. 215, 213). Scipio and Pulcher died in 211.

21 T. Didius (cos. 98), P. Rutilius Lupus (cos. 90), and L. Porcius Cato (cos. 89) were killed during the Social War; A. Postumius Albinus (cos. 99) was murdered by his troops, and Sex. Iulius Caesar (cos. 91) died of disease during the siege of Asculum. M.’ Aquillius (cos. 101) was killed by Mithridates in 88 and Cn. Pompeius Strabo (cos. 89) died of disease during the Octavian War in 87. M. Antonius (cos. 99) and L. Iulius Caesar (cos. 90) were killed after Marius’ and Cinna's capture of Rome that year, and Q. Lutatius Catulus (cos. 102) committed suicide. Q. Mucius Scaevola (cos. 95) was killed on Damasippus’ orders in 82.

22 Rutilius Rufus (cos. 105) was in exile in Smyrna; he was still alive in 78, when Cicero visited him (Brut. 85). In 49, at the start of the Civil War between Pompeius and Caesar, when the existence of consulars is well documented, 22 are known to have been alive: Perperna (cos. 92), Pompeius (70), L. Aurelius Cotta (65), L. Iulius Caesar (64), C. Antonius (63), Cicero (63), Afranius (60), Caesar (59), Bibulus (59), Piso Caesoninus (58), Gabinius (58), Lentulus Spinther (57), L. Marcius Philippus (56), Domitius Ahenobarbus (54), Appius Claudius (54), Domitius Calvinus (53), Valerius Rufus (53), Metellus Scipio (52), Ser. Sulpicius Rufus (51), M. Marcellus (51), C. Marcellus (50), and L. Aemilius Lepidus Paullus (50). Two of these (Antonius and Gabinius) were certainly in exile. Syme, R., The Augustan Aristocracy (Oxford 1986), 1531, draws attention to patterns of mortality among the elite, including (22–3) apparently high mortality in the mid-50s. On the other hand, it may be rash to assume that every consular unnoted in the sources was dead, even in a well-documented period: Perperna (see n. 24 below) is a useful counter-example.

23 He had been flamen Martialis since before his consulship in 100, and the taboos which prevented the holder of that office from undertaking military activity had helped his life expectancy.

24 His death in 49 b.c., at the age of 98, is the subject of anecdote (Plin. HN 7.156; Val. Max. 8.13.4). The only notice of his activities after his censorship are his presence at a civil process (Cic. Rosc. Com. 22) and that he provided a character reference for M. Aemilius Scaurus at his trial on repetundae charges, probably by letter rather than in person (Asc. 28C). It is tempting to explain this latter occasion through some connection between Perperna and the elder Scaurus, but that is speculation.

25 See Evans (n. 18), though, of the eleven surviving praetors he identifies, Perperna was not in Rome, Murena may never have held the praetorship, and M. Claudius Marcellus may have held his praetorship after 81. He also notes eighteen ex-praetors who may or may not still have been alive.

26 They are L. Gellius (pr. 94, cos. 72), P. Servilius Vatia (pr. 90, cos. 79), Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius (pr. 89, cos. 80), App. Claudius Pulcher (pr. 89, cos. 79), P. Gabinius (pr. 89), Q. Oppius (pr. 89), M. Tullius Decula (pr. ?84, cos. 81), Cn. Cornelius Dolabella (pr. ?84; cos. 81). A degree of circularity is, however, involved: Decula's and Dolabella's praetorian standing is assumed on the basis of their consulship in 81, since, it is argued, it is improbable that Sulla would have ignored his lex annalis (whose passage none the less post-dates their election). On Dolabella, see further Gruen, E.S., ‘The Dolabellae and Sulla’, AJPh 87 (1966), 385–99.

27 By 78, men who had held the praetorship in 81 were eligible to stand for the consulship.

28 The story is also told, with varying numbers of dead, by Seneca (Clem. 1.12.2: ‘a few seditious men are being killed on my orders’, seditiosi pauculi meo iussu occidentur), Livy (Per. 88); Val. Max. 9.2.1; August. De Civ. D. 3.28; Oros. 5.21; Flor. 2.9.24; Firm. Mat. 1.7.27. See Coarelli, F., ‘Il tempio di Bellona’, BCAR 80 (1965–7), 3772, at 62 n. 113.

29 Coarelli (n. 28); Bonnefond-Coudry, M., Le Sénat de la République Romaine (Rome, 1989), 151–60; Mackay, C., ‘Sulla and the Monuments: studies in his public persona’, Historia 49 (2000), 161210, at 196.

30 On Damasippus’ massacre, see Hinard, F., ‘La Terreur comme mode de gouvernement (au cours des guerres civiles du 1er siècle a.c.’, in Urso, G. (ed.), Terror et pavor: violenza, intimidazione, clandestinità nel mondo antico (Pisa, 2006), 247–64, at 254.

31 Plut. Vit. Sull. 31.1–3; Hinard, F., Les Proscriptions de la Rome républicaine (Rome, 1985), 1837.

32 Hinard (n. 31), 87–100; Crawford, J.W., M. Tullius Cicero: The Fragmentary Speeches: An Edition with Commentary (Atlanta, GA, 1994), 201–7.

33 Cic. Rosc. Am. 128; Kinsey, T., ‘The sale of the property of Roscius of Ameria: how illegal was it’, AC 57 (1988), 296–7.

34 Cic. Caecin. 101–3; Cic. Dom. 79; the evidence relates to Volaterrae and Arretium, and the Etrurian location of both cities may not be a coincidence. See further Santangelo, F., Sulla, the Elites and the Empire: A Study of Roman Policies in Italy and the Greek East (Leiden, 2007), 172–8.

35 Thein, A., ‘Sulla's veteran settlement policy’, in Daubner, F. (ed.), Militärsiedlungen und Territorialherrschaft in der Antike (Berlin, 2011), 7999.

36 Plut. Vit. Sull. 34.1.

37 Ibid., 34.2.

38 These were the first triumphs since Vatia had celebrated a praetorian triumph in October 88; and not since 167 had three triumphs been celebrated in a single calendar year (T. Itgenshorst, Tota illa pompa: der Triumph in der römischen Republik [Göttingen, 2005], 268–9). The impression created would have been even more powerful if in fact there were four triumphs in 81; but the date of Pompeius’ first triumph is uncertain (Badian, E., ‘The date of Pompey's first triumph’, Hermes 83 [1955], 107–18; Seager, R., Pompey the Great [London, 2002 2], 29). It may have taken place on 12 March 81, but that demands a very tight timetable for his campaigning in Sicily and Africa, and 12 March 80 is more probable.

39 Sen. Brev. Vit. 13; see Hinard, F., Sullana varia (Paris, 2008), 6270.

40 There was a precedent for co-option by a dictator in the actions of Fabius Buteo in 216, who replenished a dangerously diminished Senate after the battle of Cannae (Liv. 23.22–3), though there is no indication that Sulla was aware of the parallel. Buteo's appointment was itself peculiar, since another dictator (Iunius Pera) was already in office, and no magister equitum was appointed for Buteo. Livy's account includes a splendid record of Buteo's speech criticizing most aspects of his appointment. Buteo's new senators consisted of those who had held curule office or the position of plebeian aedile, tribune of the plebs, or quaestor since the census of 220, and those who displayed enemy spoils in their home or had won the corona ciuica. See further Ryan (n. 12), 109–10.

41 Santangelo (n. 17) provides a full survey of the evidence.

42 Ibid., 16, lists those in this category, with ten secure identifications. Before Sulla the censors appears to have regularly recruited aediles, and some quaestors may also have been included, depending on vacancies, which naturally varied between censuses; tribunes of the plebs were always included after the passage of the lex Atinia, which is plausibly dated to the second half of the second century (Vishnia, R.F., ‘Lex Atinia de tribunis plebis in senatum legendis’, MH 46 [1989], 163–76). There is no attested example among Sulla's appointees of someone who had held the tribunate of the plebs and no other pre-Sullan qualifying office. Sulla's inclusion of ex-quaestors sits neatly alongside the establishment of the quaestorship as the criterion for entry to the Senate from 81 onwards.

43 Appian's figure is suspiciously round and may arise from a belief that Sulla doubled the size of the Senate, though there is no good evidence that that method underpinned either the co-option in 81 (since the Senate was almost certainly much smaller than 300 at that point) or the structural shift through the expansion of the quaestorship (see below). None the less, Appian is credible in his presentation of a very large influx. Since we do not know the precise number of quaestors before Sulla, the number of appointees under this criterion in the years 86–82 was somewhere between forty and sixty; given inevitable attrition, they may have formed as little as one-tenth of the new appointments. (Sulla might logically also have included men who had held the quaestorship prior to the census of 86 and no further office; they, in accordance with pre-Sullan norms, would not necessarily have become senators at that census. There is no attested example of this category, but, since its members were by definition obscure, the possibility remains.)

44 Sall. Cat. 37 has Sulla's new senators created ex gregariis militibus: this may reflect anti-Sullan sentiment, but does suggest that the new senators came from backgrounds which had not previously produced such. Cf. Sal. Hist. 1.55.21M, with its reference to the new senator Fufidius, ancilla turpis, honorum omnium dehonestamentum. See further Nicolet, C., L'Ordre equestre à l’époque républicaine (312–43 av. J.C) (Paris, 1974), 573–91; Spann, P., ‘C. L., or M. Cotta and “unspeakable” Fufidius: a note on Sulla's res publica restituta’, CJ 82 (1987), 306–9. On the entry of men from non-senatorial families into the Senate more generally during the Republic, see Hopkins, K. and Burton, G., Death and Renewal: Sociological Studies in Roman History, Vol. 2 (Cambridge, 1983), 31119.

45 Santangelo (n. 17), 18–19. It cannot, however, be assumed that all in this category were Sullan appointments, or that they had not in fact held office, since information about the holders of junior positions is so patchy.

46 Ibid., 20. In particular, there is no sign that Sulla took this opportunity systematically to integrate the newly enfranchised Italian domi nobiles into the Roman governing class.

47 Tac. Ann. 11.22 (number of quaestors); App. B Civ. 1.100 (order of office-holding). It is unclear whether ex-quaestors were now automatically members of the Senate, or belonged to a category of those who were not senators, would be enrolled as senators in the next lectio, and in the meantime had the right to speak in the Senate (see Lintott [n. 6], 68–72).

48 If we accept 49 b.c. as its end, it lasted for 32 years; that is, it ended before the Senate – given life membership – could be expected to consist only of men who had become senators after Sulla's changes. Val. Max. 8.13.4 and Plin. HN 7.157 imply that there were eight counter-examples.

49 See the discussion in Scheidel, W., ‘Emperors, aristocrats, and the grim reaper’, CQ 49 (1999), 254–81.

50 The largest-known attendance at a post-Sullan meeting of the Senate is 417 in 57 b.c. A further complication arises from the tribunate of the plebs. Sulla's restrictions on the tribunate may well have included their exclusion from Senate membership, but repeal of the lex Atinia is not actually attested. For the years 81–75 this uncertainty translates directly into uncertainty about the size of the Senate, if some of the 70 tribunes elected during these years had not already held the quaestorship. After the passage of the lex Aurelia in 75, the tribunate of the plebs was reintegrated into the career plans of plebeian senators; thereafter, it seems reasonable to assume that tribunes tended to be ex-quaestors, and so tribunician membership of the Senate (implied fairly securely after 70 in the context of the lifting of all of Sulla's restrictions) would have had little or no impact on its overall size.

51 Cic. Fin. 5.2; see also Flower (n. 5), 121 n. 11.

52 Ryan (n. 12), 288 n. 265, suggests that Sulla's lectio contained a high proportion of younger men.

53 This point is a matter of degree, not kind; since the lex Atinia, tribunician status brought with it membership of the Senate. But it would be interesting to know how many candidates for the quaestorship in excess of twenty there now tended to be. No failures to be elected quaestor are known after 80, and only one before (Cic. Planc. 52); see further Polo, F. Pina, ‘Veteres candidati: losers in the elections in republican Rome’, in Simón, F. Marco, Polo, F. Pina, and Rodríguez, J. Remesal (edd.), Vae Victis: perdedores en el mundo antiguo (Barcelona, 2012), 6382.

54 Hawthorn, R., ‘The Senate after Sulla’, G&R 9 (1962), 5360, at 55.

55 Some of Sulla's new senators had presumably been equestrian jurors in the decade before the Social War. On Sulla's new senators as a group, see Paterson, J., ‘Politics in the Late Republic’, in Wiseman, T.P. (ed.), Roman Political Life 90 bc–ad 69 (Exeter, 1985), 2144, at 23–7; Flower (n. 5), 122.

56 It is unlikely that there was any prohibition, either. But it would have taken over a decade for all of Sulla's non-quaestorial appointees to hold the office, and that would have precluded anyone else from starting a career in public life.

57 On the experience of senators in the 70s, see further Steel, C., ‘The Roman Senate and the post-Sullan res publica’, forthcoming in Historia 63.3 (2014).

58 Ryan (n. 12), 85–7.

59 The reasons for the continuing success of the nobiles in elections through the 70s deserve further attention; one question is the extent to which preference for a candidate with consular ancestry was perceived by voters as a gesture for or against the res publica as Sulla had reconstituted it. On the identification between Sulla's regime and the nobiles, see Cic. Rosc. Am. 16, where Sulla's victory is described as uictoria nobilitatis.

60 See further Steel (n. 57).

61 Flower (n. 5), 129.

62 Ibid., 128. None the less, it is important to note that Sulla did not create a written constitution for Rome: the method he employed – legislation on discrete issues, often modifying earlier statutes – was the same as that used by earlier reformers, and subject to the same prospect of subsequent modification or repeal.

63 In 91 the consul Philippus fell out disastrously with the Senate, claiming that he needed a different consilium (Cic. De or. 3.2); and in 87 the Senate stripped Cinna of his consulship, citing the authority of the Sibylline books (see Morstein-Marx [n. 7], 265–6).

64 This framework may also explain the presence in Sulla's legislation of a law concerning maiestas – a charge whose initial legal definition was the work of the popularis tribune Saturninus. Imperium-holding magistrates were at the heart of his res publica and were to operate within a defined system of rules.

65 This conflict closely mirrored the division between senators with ambitions towards high office and those without.

* The research for this article was supported by the British Academy, through its Mid-Career Fellowship scheme. I am grateful to audiences at Durham, Cambridge, and Trinity St. David, and to CQ’s anonymous referee, for their responses to its earlier versions.

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