Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.03.08

Karl Christ, Sulla. Eine römische Karriere.   Munich:  C.H. Beck, 2002.  Pp. 236; 12 figs., 4 maps.  ISBN 3-406-49285-1.  EUR 19.90.  



Reviewed by A.G. Thein, The British School at Rome (alexander-thein@gmx.de)
Word count: 1557 words

Christ's Sulla is a short introduction to Sulla and his times which belongs in the genre of propaedeutic works written for a general audience by a well-known scholar in the field. It adopts the form of a narrative history and relies heavily on the ancient literary sources but does not provide original source analysis or create a new narrative of the period. There are no footnotes and very few citations of modern scholars, and, despite the frequent and often extended quotations or paraphrases of ancient texts, only a small fraction of the ancient sources used to write the book are referenced. However, there is much that may be of interest or useful for the expert reader, not least the survey of Sulla's image in modern historiography and the extensive and up-to-date bibliography.

This book is explicitly intended for the general reader and sets itself three aims: "Firstly, it seeks to free Sulla's personality from an isolating and solely biographical perspective and rigorously to contextualize it among the political forces of its time. Secondly, it aims to clarify the context and conditions of Sulla's legacy through a general retrospective on the developments of the second century B.C. Lastly, in a short overview, it sketches the variety of Sulla's reception in antiquity and the modern period" (p. 10, translated from the German). The book is divided into seven chapters: I. The Historical Framework - The Crisis of the Roman Republic, II. Sulla's Early Life and Rise, III. Consulate and Proconsulate, IV. Civil War, V. Dictatorship, VI. Legacy, VII. Sulla's Personality. The subtitle of the book, "A Roman Career," was suggested by the publisher (p. 10).

Despite its 200 odd pages, this is a small-sized book, and so every page counts. But the central chapters dealing with the narrative of Sulla's career (II-V) are short compared with those on the historical context and legacy of Sulla's career (I and VI). Sulla is born on p. 54 and buried on p. 139. At 86 pages, the story of Sulla's life and career occupies less than half the book, and only twice as much space as the introductory chapter. Sulla retires mid-way through the chapter entitled Dictatorship, so discussion of the Sullan dictatorship, the most important phase of Sulla's career, is limited to only 11 pages (pp. 122-132). There is much in this very short book that is tangential to Sulla or his career. As a result too little space is devoted to Sulla himself.

The introductory chapter gives a nuanced discussion of the political, social and cultural background of the second century, starting with the end of the Second Punic War in 201, though there is much that is more appropriate to a general history of the Late Republic than a biography of Sulla. In the chapters that deal with Sulla's life and career, the narrative sticks closely to the two main literary sources, Appian and Plutarch. In general this makes for a safe and standard account, but on occasion the result will seem reactionary to some. Thus the dispute between Marius and Sulla is traced back to the end of the Jugurthine war (p. 203), Sulla abdicates the dictatorship at the start of 79 (p. 133), and Q. Lucretius Afella was killed by Sulla in the consular elections for 80, standing against Metellus Pius and Sulla himself (pp. 126-27), not the relatively unknown consuls of 81, Cn. Cornelius Dolabella and M. Tullius Decula.

The author's interests and strengths come to the fore in the second part of Chapter VI, "Ancient and Modern Images of Sulla" (pp. 155-194). It begins with a review of the literary sources down to Late Antiquity (pp. 155-165). This survey of Sulla's image in Imperial historiography is novel, as previous studies on Sulla's reception have focused on the Late Republic, especially Cicero. As an appendix, there is a useful excursus on the question of Sulla's portrait as reflected in the media of statues, coins and gems (pp. 164-167). Archaeology, however, receives very little attention throughout the work (note the brief disclaimers on pp. 135 and 165).

The overview of Sulla's reception in modern historiography shows Christ at his best and most engaging (pp. 167-194). He concentrates on scholarship from the 19th century to the present, mostly German (pp. 168-189), with a short appendix on the most important works of recent years (pp. 189-192), literary representations of Sulla by Mozart, the pro-Napoleonic Christian Dietrich Grabbe and the German-Resistance playwright Albrecht Haushofer (pp. 192-193), along with a list of historical novels on Sulla from 1931 to 1997 (p. 194). The long survey of Sulla's image is the most original section of the book. Each historian is placed in the context of his intellectual, political and cultural milieu, and his views are illustrated by representative quotations. One moves from Theodor Mommsen and the legacy of 1848 to post-war textbooks in the German Democratic Republic. The sentence with which the author ends the discussion of Haushofer's play Sulla (1938) points to his own personal fascination with Sulla: "One would be hard-pressed to find a similarly cutting anti-tyrant-piece in the national-socialist era" (p. 193).

Christ embraces Sulla as a paradox and resists attempts to place him in any single typological classification, whether as the Last of the Old Romans, Monarch, Revolutionary, Reactionary, Restoring Reformer, Restoration-terrorist, or Outsider (p. 196). One of the book's strongest conclusions is that "After 88 Sulla fought primarily not for political ideas and programmes, nor for a social group, but first and foremost for himself, namely his own interests as well as those of his army, the two of which had become identical" (p. 204). This is a refreshing contrast with the idea that Sulla fought the civil war simply to restore the power and authority of the Senate. But it is unfortunate, given the book's aim to place Sulla firmly in the context of his times, that there is no comparison with the military leadership of Marius or Cinna. One should not think of Sulla the client army general as entirely exceptional. He was certainly more successful than his allies and opponents in the civil wars of the 80s, but his methods and aims were not much different. As for Sulla the dictator, the author seems undecided: Sulla was no great statesman or politician (p. 205), but he was an efficient protector and renewer of the traditional structures of society and state (p. 211).

The second part of the concluding chapter examines Sulla's self-presentation, understood by the author chiefly in terms of religion and Sulla's personal relationship with deities such as Apollo, Venus and Mars, though the importance of public games is also acknowledged. The investigation of Sulla's self-presentation is recognized as the defining feature of contemporary scholarship on Sulla, but it is discussed in only six pages, devoted primarily to the author's disagreement with the ideas of Alföldi (pp. 205-210). He takes issue with the latter's argument that Sulla used religious mysticism to appeal to the masses and strengthen his political position, countering that it simply provided divine sanction and legitimacy for Sulla's acts. This reveals much about Christ's view of Sulla and his times. Sulla is presented as the all-powerful dictator who was able to rule without the need for popular consensus. There is no discussion of more recent scholarship on the importance of consensus in Republican politics both within the elite and between masses and elite, a debate which ties in closely with studies of elite competition and self-presentation. It is odd, given the stated aims of the book, that the author is here chiefly concerned with the personal religious beliefs of the supposedly "rational" Sulla.

One of the main contributions of this book for the scholarly reader is its up-to-date and wide-ranging bibliography. In the body of the text the author consciously avoids footnotes and questions of Spezialforschung, but the conclusions of modern scholars are somtimes cited in parentheses. There are 30 such citations in the book, excluding the section on Sulla's modern scholarly reception (pp. 167-194). Theodor Mommsen is cited eight times, Emilio Gabba three times, Ernst Meyer and Andreas Alföldi twice, and the rest only once. Of the 19 authors cited, ten are German and the rest international. The national bias is understandable in a work written in German for the general reader. Somewhat less justifiable is the chronological bias, judged in terms of the mode. Of the 30 citations there is one from the year 2000, one from the 1990s, five from the 1980s, ten from the 1970s, two each from the 1960s and 1950s, one from the 1920s, and eight from around 1900. These authors and works, notably Mommsen, are cited as "classics," but it would be misleading were the general reader to conclude from this selection that no significant advances had been made in the scholarship on Sulla and the Late Republic since the 1970s.

This book is not the most up-to-date synthesis that could have been written, but it provides the general reader with a serviceable introduction to the historical background to the Sullan period, the contradictory nature of the primary source material, and the variety of scholarly evalutions on Sulla's life and career. Christ embraces Sulla as a paradox and in doing so points the general reader to the core of Sulla's continuing scholarly interest, the fact that black-and-white answers are so difficult to find.

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