The Caesar Before Caesar

Alan Cai

December 9, 2022

When the topic of power struggles and dictatorships during the era of the Roman Republic is mentioned, the first and frequently the only person to come to mind is the controversial Roman general, Gaius Julius Caesar, more commonly known as simply “Caesar.” However, Caesar’s tenure as dictator was far from unprecedented, as the position was enshrined in Roman tradition. The most notable predecessor to Caesar was another general named Sulla.

Times of crisis require quick thinking and decisive decision-making. Thus, the Romans believed it necessary to establish the position of a dictator in order to temporarily sacrifice freedoms for protection, an eerily familiar theme splattered throughout the pages of history. It is important to note that Roman dictators were not absolute, as they were given the freedom to exercise their will in any way that assisted them in solving a specific issue delegated by the Senate. However, they were still subject to limited forms of oversight by the Senate and the Plebian Tribune, to a lesser extent.

In order to understand Sulla, one must first recognize the political landscape of the Roman Republic around a generation before Caesar’s fateful demise. The two dominating political affiliates, the Optimates and the Populares stood in defiance of each other while representing opposite sides of the political spectrum. The Optimates or “best ones” preferred a continuation of Senatorial authority and overall power concentration at the top of the political staircase while the Populares or “supporters of the people” preferred popular assemblies and other entities closer to the people as the seats of power. Although much more complex, a simpler method of comprehending this split would be to see them as ancient elitism versus populism.

Sulla was the leader of the Optimates in the Senate near the beginning of the first century BC and was opposed by Populares leader Marius. Roman generals were, more often than not, politicians who were delegated a certain task by the Roman Senate and responsible for raising and maintaining an army until the issue was resolved or the general was recalled. Thus, being sent to Roman frontiers to combat hostile forces not only served as a venue for glory and political advancement but also as a means to obtain military power. In this case, Sulla was commissioned to fight against the Mithridates, a longtime Roman foe, early into his election as consul in Rome. Shortly thereafter, Sulla was forced to seek refuge in the home of Marius after a Plebeian Tribune induced a rabble that threatened Sulla with his life. Marius took advantage of the initiative and forced legislation through the Senate transferring Sulla’s Mirthridate commission to himself. However, Marius overlooked a crucial military reform he had enacted earlier giving over military loyalty from the Republic to the generals.

Subsequently, Sulla, still in possession of an army, marched on Rome and quickly took over the city, suppressing limited Populares resistance. An unprecedented act, the event shocked the Roman citizens to their core. Thus, immediately following his leaving Rome for conflicts in the East, the Populares regained control of the city. Sulla then invaded the city for the second time with his newly surrendered Mithridates forces and declared himself dictator of Rome.

Sulla’s life and legacy are unprecedented on many levels. His position and abnormal usage and abuse of the position of dictator was the model which Julius Caesar followed in his more famous takeover. Both rulers hold an extremely controversial standing in history.