ca. 138-78 B.C.
Roman general and dictator
Lucius Cornelius Sulla was a Roman general who became dictator of Rome in the first century B.C. A member of a little-known patrician* family, Sulla first gained renown during the Roman war against Numidia (a region in North Africa) at the end of the 100s B.C. After holding high political office in Rome in 97 B.C., Sulla served as governor of the province* of Cilicia in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey).
Sulla was elected consul* in 88 B.C. At about the same time, Roman territory in Asia Minor was being attacked by Mithradates, the king of Pontus, a region on the southern coast of the Black Sea. The Roman Senate gave Sulla the command of Roman armies against Mithradates, but the Roman assembly transferred command to a rival general, Gaius Marius. Against the wishes of his officers, Sulla attacked Rome and took the city by force. He then left for the east and made peace with Mithradates. In 83 B.C. Sulla returned to Rome, where he found his enemies in control of the city.
Aided by his war booty*, Sulla seized power. He declared himself dictator for an indefinite period instead of the usual six months specified by the Roman constitution. He executed many of his opponents and seized their land. He restricted the power of the people and the tribunes*, and he made sweeping changes in the jury system and in the constitution, giving more power to the Senate. His extraordinary changes, however, lasted only about ten years. Sulla resigned in 79 B.C. and died the following year. (See also Dictatorship, Roman; Government, Roman; Senate, Roman; Wars and Warfare, Roman.)
* patrician member of the upper class who traced his ancestry to a senatorial family in the earliest days of the Roman Republic
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
* consul one of two chief governmental officials of Rome, chosen annually and serving for a year
* booty riches or property gained through conquest
* tribune in ancient Rome, the official who protected the rights of plebeians from arbitrary actions by the patricians, or upper classes