Marius vs Sulla- The many layers of historical bias


Hello all, I hope my last first post wasn’t too long, confusing, repetitive or just plain bad for you, I should probably clarify what I’m aiming to do with this post, I’m not planning to compare the two men to decide who was better in anyway (at least not directly) or who would have defeated the other in battle, be it hypothetically with both at their prime or if Marius had lived longer and faced Sulla on his return from the first Mithridatic war. No, nothing nearly as fun as any of that!

My aim is to explore the question: “who is history more biased towards Marius or Sulla?” to many who did the course Rome: from Republic to Empire as I did at Macquarie University the answer must seem obvious, “Sulla! He wrote his own memoirs praising himself and damning Marius and the naive and uncritical ancient “historians” like Plutarch lapped it up like calcium deficient kittens! Not to mention his filling the senate with his Cronies- the winners write the history books!” Others  I’ve met would say with equal fervour “Marius! the overrated hack gets all the glory and credit and none of the bad press, if you look at the actual details Sulla was clearly the better general and the greater man, besides it was Marius who pushed- indeed forced Sulla to march on Rome because of his use of illegal public violence just to gain himself one more burst of Glory!, so you see the cycle of violence started with him!”

However in my opinion, the answer depends so much on how you look at it, indeed perceptions of Marius and Sulla both independently and in comparison differ so widely depending on both the class, political views and period of time in which a historian dealing with either is writing as well as both the specific action or phase of either’s life being discussed and finally the type of source used by the historian. Indeed If one were to read all the information and opinions on Sulla and Marius available without constantly considering the nature of bias we would end up with an extremely schizophrenic view of either figure. lets start with Ancient sources and perspectives.

Now as most Romanophiles would know in Roman society it was typically the senatorial class (of Rome itself) that wrote the history’s (at least until well into the period of the emperors), more often then not when it wasn’t it was written by Greeks who however for the period in question were largely dependent on said sources for their information, this in my opinion goes some way to explaining for instance what I deem Plutarch’s seemingly incompatible strong sympathy for the Grachii with the way events in his lives of them are actually portrayed.

Thus directly or indirectly virtually every text from the Ancient world on these two men (and indeed on almost any topic) is strongly affected by the biases and vested interests of Rome’s landed aristocracy, in particular those of senatorial rank. This accounts for much of the bias against Marius, though likely a significant land owner around his hometown of Arpinum, he was a novous homo and though a member of Italy as a whole’s broader aristocracy, moderately wealthy and landed he may have been but he was far from a member of Rome’s true elite as Cicero another upstart from Arpinum was to discover to his chagrin some decades later. This in itself would be unlikely to arouse any hostility (if perhaps disdain) from Rome’s aristocracy. If Marius  hadn’t risen above his station (as many senators may have seen it) and made a point of doing so at their expense, attaining his first consulship by fanning and utilizing a wave of popular resentment against said elite as well as his populist actions both as a tribune himself and in his support for the radical populist tribune’s Saturninus (who he was eventually prevailed upon to suppress) and Sulpicius, I imagine his military innovations were not uncontroversial either.To Rome’s elite Marius wasn’t just an upstart he was an upstart that built himself up by knocking them down and threatening their interests.

That said Sulla’s own origins would not wholly recommend him to Rome’s establishment, he was a Patrician that was true and doubtless counted for much but his family had long been obscure and he was born into little money, indeed seemingly far less than Marius, if Plutarch is to be believed (he likely exaggerates somewhat) Sulla for a time in his life owned no land and lived in an insula, making him a member of Rome’s lowest economic class of citizens the Proletarrii, Only coming into sufficient money to pursue a political career after inheritances from two wealthy women. His poverty and obscurity and all that entailed are likely why according to Plutarch he wasn’t deemed good enough by many of Rome’s aristocrats to marry (as he did) Metella Dalmatica, from the extremely prominent Metelli clan. Plutarch also records that many disapproved of his shirking off of his inherited poverty (as it is was also considered shameful to squander one’s inherited wealth- thats a very convenient set of attitudes for Rome’s establishment), though no doubt part of thats a roundabout attack on the man’s purported avarice.

Next we come to partisan bias for or against either one. Naturally such political giants as Sulla or Marius played a large role in making or breaking the careers of many other men and also became symbols of certain viewpoints, ideas and values with which people could and did identify (then and now). For instance, though too young to have been involved in politics whilist Marius lived a young Julius Caesar would later use the memory of his famous uncle by marriage to jump start his career, the historian Sallust however was one of Caesar’s supporters (and dare I use the loaded term…a Popularis) and like Marius himself a novous homo (according to some site, so if some good reader of mine could check that with something more reliable it’d be appreciated) wrote a work entitled ‘the Jugurthine war’ which needless to say deals with Marius a lot and Sulla too not insignificantly. This doubtless goes some way to explaining some of his favourable treatment of Marius- though far from all treatment of Marius in said work is positive.

partisan support for Sulla ties in to the vested interests of the senatorial class, but they are far from one and the same. Yes Sulla enlarged and further empowered the senate through his

Lucius Cornelius Sulla- caption courtesy of Nicholas Schwapol

reforms while also purging it of his enemies (and the enemies of his friends) and filling it and the magistracies with his friends, not to mention rewarding his partisans with the property of his victims and avenged many of those slain in Marius’s own reign of terror, Indeed he is said to have chosen as his own epitaph “no man did more harm to his enemies or more good for his friends” those are unlikely to be the exact words (for one thing the exact words were likely Latin) but I’m very confidant that thats an accurate gist of it, one doesn’t forget such a fitting summation so easily. No doubt many of these actions brought him the goodwill or at least the approval of much of the aristocracy, his removal of most powers of the Tribune’s of the Plebs and his granting control of the law courts to the senate (juries would now until the law was again altered be composed entirely of senators) seem to have been particularly popular with a significant group of senators (and increasingly unpopular with many other people), not to mention the fact that building Sulla up could be and was used to take credit from and attack the reputation of Marius.

However It was never a matter of hate the one and love the other and neither class or background count for everything. Cicero Arpinum’s second famed upstart, despite his very similar background (or perhaps to an extent because of it) had little liking for Marius or his populist policies but yet one definitely would not call him an admirer of Sulla. Indeed he had strong sympathies for Sulpicius and found the proscriptions abhorrent, as did many others amongst Rome’s elite, even amongst it’s conservative and pro-senate membership. Sulla by being the first to march on Rome and the first to introduce proscriptions as well as bringing civil war to Italy and establishing himself as dictator (in our sense of the word as well as the theirs, dictator being an emergency Roman magistracy) indefinitely by force had ensured that his name would live on in infamy. So much so that in many ways during his own civil war Caesar used the example of Sulla as a guide of what not to do if you want your legacy to endure and (very importantly for Caesar) your reputation to remain intact (unfortunately for Caesar and Rome as a whole Sulla’s methods were sometimes more effective then he seems to have estimated).

statue of Cicero in modern day Arpino (ancient Arpinum) his hometown- the warlike stance seems more akin to his fellow Arpinite Marius whose statue stands across the square......

Though many benefited financially and in the longer term politically from Sulla’s dictatorship, he had done so through actions abhorrent to the values of most of Rome’s aristocracy, pro-senatorial or otherwise, his defenders could and did claim that the actions of Marius, Sulpicius, Cinna, Carbo and their ilk forced him to take these measures to protect his life, defend his dignitas or for the greater good of the Republic, but the very fact that these actions seemed to call for defending, as well as the reasons given should tell you that the actions in and of themselves were widely regarded as shocking and horrendous even by some of  their defenders. Yes Sulla packed the senate with many of his supporters but that does not mean they were all terribly enthusiastic (doubtless some were), some may have become enemies of the Marius-Cinna-Carbo faction and thus had little alternative (see Crassus) or others may have judged him the lesser of two evils, others still amongst Rome’s elite remained largely neutral throughout the conflict or only joined Sulla after being rebuffed by the other side out of opportunism (see Pompey) or joined at the last minute out of opportunism (again) or fear and finally not all those with significant ties, sympathy for or similar ideas to Sulla’s principal enemies was killed (see Caesar and Lepidus). Furthermore Roman society was not so rigidly divided as to suggest that those of the elite left unproscribed would not have lost friends or relatives to the proscriptions.

Sulla by marching on Rome, securing ultimate power by force and initiating the proscriptions set a series of dangerous precedents as far as that same elite he built up in his reforms were concerned, he had shown that a general with the support of his troops could seize power by force, robbing them of their political powers, rights and freedoms and that he could use that power to kill any of their number he chose, despite all the good he had done them there was no greater threat to the senatorial elite then a military dictator, as would be proven time and time again, Sulla may have promoted and enriched many senators but as long as he was dictator they were robbed of the preciously held view that they had no master, that they were a member of an exclusive club whose members were all the equal of kings, in doing so Sulla threatened the ego and self worth of Rome’s elite (an ego tied to ideology) which was something they found particularly hard to forgive or forget (as Caesar would find out).

Marius it is true also marched on Rome with an army, attaining his seventh consulship by force and initiating his own reign of terror, however its not at all clear that his power was as great as Sulla’s (Cinna for instance- his co-consul, had raised an army independent of Marius) nor did it last nearly as long, according to Plutarch Marius died seventeen days after attaining his seventh consulship, cutting short his campaigns of perceived retribution and any tyranny he may have established. Sulla on the other hand reigned for a few years, not a

Marius- With eyebrows to put John Howards to shame no wonder he won re-election so many times;)

number of days. Furthermore unlike Sulla most of Marius’s accomplishments are not tainted by association with civil war, he attained six of his seven consulships, he reformed the army, defeated the Numidians and the Germans and for the last of these was hailed as the third founder of Rome (as its saviour) all well before Sulla’s first march on Rome. Indeed his defeat of the Germans(and In the case of the Modern world his military reforms) certainly rival his deadly rivalry with Sulla as a candidate for what the Romans (and us) chiefly remember him for.

Sulla doesn’t seem so fortunate, he too proved himself against Rome’s enemies, serving as a capable subordinate in the Jugurthine wars and the invasions of the Cimbri and Teutones etc. as well as as a general in the social and 1st Mithridatic wars, however he suffers from marching on Rome during his first consulship, not after his sixth, everything afterwards, the height of his career and fame has the spectre of civil war and/or dictatorship blemishing and obscuring it. Sulla for instance performed brilliantly in the first Mithridatic war (even if he says so himself…) but as Mithridates was not as obvious a threat to Rome’s existence as the Germans of Marius he had already marched on Rome once, would do so again immediately following said war, it is for marching on Rome, dictatorship and proscriptions that he is chiefly remembered, perhaps it is Marius who should be dubbed Felix;)

“So advantage to Marius then?” At this point I would tentatively say yes but Sulla has one more trick up his sleeve (one mentioned earlier), that being that unlike Marius (so far as we know) he wrote his own memoirs, unfortunately they have not survived down to the present day (Octavius wrote memoirs too early in his rise to power….the gems we have lost!:(…) so its difficult to tell precisely how much surviving sources relied upon them and how critically they were used, but we know they did. Plutarch makes many references to them in his life of Sulla and seems to rely heavily on them and a squizz through the last 10 or so pages of Sallust’s the Jugurthine war has me thinking he made use of them too. Unfortunately even the finest Ancient historians tend to fall well short of modern standards when it comes to critical source analysis (they were not necessarily less intelligent, They often wrote their works for a different purpose to many modern academics and besides we stand on their shoulders) and seem to take Sulla’s memoirs with a pinch of salt rather than the recommended spoonful (we historians love our salt nowadays). So maybe Sulla was lucky after all?

-for a look of what I believe to be an interesting, if slightly less obvious example of insufficiently critical use of Sulla’s memoirs creeping into the surviving historical tradition of the ancient world see my next post, coming soon….ish.

“Well then then the answer is Sulla then, hooray! were done then!? because I’m pretty sure Archduke Franz Ferdinand had just been assassinated when I started reading this, do you think I missed much?” Well yes and no, yes you missed a lot, though you really should thank me that you missed some of it (the Somme, Spanish flu, Hitler, Pol Pot and Pauline Hanson), no I’m not quite done yet, what remains is to discuss more modern perspectives of these two figures.

In the Britain of the late 1920’s a biography of Sulla was written by a G.P. Baker entitled ‘Sulla the Fortunate: Roman General and Dictator’ , I have not read the book in full, or even most of it but I got it out from Macquarie university’s library for help with a tute paper, I did however read the author’s foreword (I think its called that) in full, a lot of which was about how in the author’s opinion the present age Europe was entering (in the late 1920’s) was much like the era dawning on Rome at the time of Sulla an era in which dictatorship was both on the rise and beneficial, Sulla indeed seems to have been likened with the fascist dictator Mussolini but in a complimentary way (remember the British government was not hostile to Mussolini from the outset of his dictatorship, indeed they initially seemed to have high hopes for him) and I read enough of the biography to deduce that it has a very positive view of Sulla. I do not know whether this work represented the views on Sulla in anyway of the majority (or largest minority) of British, much less European scholars at the time (though Scullard who wrote much later I admit seems to have had a good deal of Sympathy for him), not that the book is very scholarly, but it is certainly an example of a very different perspective on Sulla than that held by most Ancient history undergrads today (if they have an opinion) nor I suspect does a generally pro-Sullan view prevail in academic circles today.

Oh and a note on the book in question, while interesting in some ways and some what quaint, I am in no way recommending it, aside from the fascist association the book when it gets to Pompey and describes his character at some length, amongst many other (in my opinion) seriously misguided and very positive views of the man, he is described as………..wait for it…….humble!!! That’s like saying George Bush Jr is well spoken, Hilary Clinton is unambitious, John I of england was competent or that Katy Perry can sing! If one had to list all the things Pompeius ‘Magnus’ wasn’t, it’d be vying for top of the list with an albino black sheep, I lost all remaining faith in the book at that moment. Now to wrap this epic post up:

Fast forward to the present day and I believe attitudes have shifted decisively in Marius’s favour- at least in comparison to Sulla. In a lecture for Macquarie universities brilliant course: Ciceronian Rome Sulla was like in G.P. Baker’s book likened to a fascist leader but the implication of that comparison for Sulla is very different, Fascism isn’t quite as popular these days (for good reason). Furthermore Sulla has long been associated with oligarchy, aristocracy and the interests of the rich as well as with dictatorship, Sulla’s association with the entrenched elite which once led to much bias in his favour has ironically been a principal cause for the largely negative light he seems to be held in these days. Much of the Western world is now democratic and has developed a cultural aversion to dictatorship and a egalitarian ethos has to varying extents been adopted that sometimes, as in Australia develops into an ingrained dislike and distrust of the society’s elite, known colloquially as tall poppy syndrome in one way or another, be it the highly educated, the rich, the “cultured”, politicians, the “aristocrats”- not that we really have any, etc. etc. (In Australia tall poppy syndrome does not seem to apply to actors, musicians or sports stars….bread and circuses much?).

All this results in a very negative perception of Sulla and what he is seen to stand for, Marius however benefits from being seen (rightly or wrongly) as Sulla’s opposite, the tough, gritty no nonsense  outsider making it big and saving his country and standing up for the little guy, despite the constant attempts of the jealous snooty blue bloods to stop him. A radical, a reformer and fair dinkum working class hero. This is a particularly extreme way to look at it but the current culture does seem to favour Marius over Sulla (not that either lack thier detractors or defenders) as the culture prevalent at other times and place’s has favoured Sulla.

Thus in a sense their rivalry continues down to the present day, are their any takers on who will win the next round?



About the author

Samuel Runge


  • “That’s like saying George Bush Jr is well spoken, Hilary Clinton is unambitious, John I of england was competent or that Katy Perry can sing!”

    My favourite quote!!!

    Also Happy Idus Martii!

  • Interesting article Samuel. Have you considered writing a more historiographic article focusing on the views expoused in the last couple of paragraphs? Specifically the merits of the rise of Empiricist history as the sole “legitimate” excercise in historical writing or the assessment of the impact of egalitarian thinking and aversion to violance that pervades modern academic writing?

    On the content of the article more specifically – an interesting assessment of the various sources of bias on the two figures. On form – a few more commas would probably help, and maybe a summary of the various sources of bias towards the end of the article as a uniting element?

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