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Sulla: The Proto-Emperor

Date of news: 11 March 2022


British Museum, R.8359.

In 82 B.C. Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix was appointed dictator by the Roman Senate. At that time, he was the most powerful man in the Roman Republic. To understand how a descendent from the impoverished gens Cornelia became the most important man in Rome, we have to look at the social struggles that were wreaking havoc in the Roman Peninsula.

Sulla, who had proven to be an able commander under Marius, was instrumental in stopping the revolt of the Italian allies in 91 B.C., restoring order in the Roman World. As a result of these military successes, Sulla was elected consul in 88 BC.

Mithridates and the march on Rome

As a consul, Sulla was confronted with trouble in the east. Mithridates, king of Pontus, wanted to reduce Roman influence and started a war by murdering Romans and Italians living in the east. As per tradition, the Senate had given Sulla the command to wage war against Mithridates. When Sulla moved east to fight, Marius was able, through political intrigue, to reverse the decision of the Senate and transfer the command onto himself. Furious, Sulla reversed direction and marched on Rome with his army. An unprecedented decision, which would have grave consequences for the coming decades. After restoring order in Rome, Sulla turned his attention back to Mithridates. A new revolt broke out in Rome and Sulla marched once again on the city. After crushing this second rebellion, he was proclaimed dictator.


Many of Sulla’s actions were unprecedented. To legitimize his deeds Sulla resorted to propaganda. He did this by constantly promoting himself as a bringer of abundance and peace and creating a link between his good fortune and that of the Empire. In order to reach the public he used buildings, inscriptions, statues and even used different names for different audiences in the Roman Empire. Sulla also used coins for his propaganda. Even though the coins are small in size, the symbolic messages they carry are huge (Ramage 1991).

Take for example the coin shown above from 84/3 B.C. (RRC 359/1). Sulla creates an association with the gods by putting the portrait of the goddess Venus Victrix on the coin alongside with an image of the god Cupid, holding the palm branch of victory. Underneath this imagery he places the text ‘L SULLA’. He does this to show the public that he enjoyed good luck and was favoured by the gods, thus bringing victory and prosperity to Rome (Ramage 1991).

His military prowess is further emphasized by the obverse of the coin, where the imagery shows two trophies. There is also a jug and lituus on this side of the coin. These symbolize his prophetic powers which again create an association with the gods. The legend on the reverse says ‘IMPER(ator) ITERUM’. This text indicates to the public the position that Sulla had, but also shows that his actions were undertaken with legitimate power (Ramage 1991). Sulla’s immense power, acquired through the use of the military and bolstered by propaganda, paved the way for a world in which powerful individuals ruled Rome, making him the proto-emperor.

By: Tom Ottens en Pieter Wintjes
(students of the course Populism and Propaganda in the Roman World)


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • kennismakingoudewereldDe Blois, L., & Van der Spek, R.J.,Een kennismaking met de oude wereld. (7th ed., Bussum, 2017).

    CB311 - .B58 2017
    De oude wereld van het Middellandse-Zeegebied is in veel opzichten de bakermat van zowel de Europese als de islamitische beschavingen. Veel zaken die tot op de dag van vandaag bepalend zijn voor de westerse cultuur, zijn in de periode van 3500 voor Christus tot 500 na Christus ontstaan. Hierbij kan gedacht worden aan moderne rechtstelsels en aan de wijsbegeerte, die zonder het Romeinse recht en de Griekse filosofie ondenkbaar zouden zijn geweest. Het jodendom en het christendom zijn in de Oudheid ontstaan en ook de islam is door de Oudheid beïnvloed.

  • Ramage, E.S., 'Sulla's Propaganda', Klio 73 (1991), 93-121. https://doi.org/10.1524/klio.1991.73.73.93

  • Sumi, G. S., 'Spectacles and Sulla's Public Image', Historia 51:4 (2002), 414-432. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4436667