BMCR 2006.01.13

Sulla: The Last Republican. Second edition

, Sulla, the last republican. London and New York: Routledge, 2005. x, 233 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0415336600. $29.95.

As I was completing a review of Robin Seager’s revised edition of Tiberius, another revised edition of a Roman political biography was brought to my attention.1 In that previous review, I questioned the value of reissuing a volume after a considerable juncture and not fully taking into account, in the main body of the text, the fruits of recent scholarship and critical thought, in addition to new evidence. It was with some relief, consequently, to learn that Keaveney (afterwards K.), with the second edition of his undergraduate standard on Sulla, had seen fit to update the original text. This undertaking should therefore have provided us with a more or less up-to-date volume on Sulla. Despite this initial optimism, it was rather disappointing to discover that changes — on the whole — are decidedly minimal. Indeed, whole tracts of the volume remain virtually unaltered.

The original book met with mixed reviews. Indeed, some were rather harsh,2 especially with regard to the brevity of coverage on more controversial points, K.’s magisterial dismissal of contrary views, and the perceived lack of in-depth political, sociological and literary analysis. It would appear that the more negative responses have had little impact on K.’s approach — they may have even hardened his resolve on several points of contention. Keaveney’s book was first published in 1982 (reprinted in unaltered form in 1986), and a good deal of scholarship on Sulla and the period in question has since found its way to the press. K. has been at the forefront of this activity. Indeed, the bibliography reveals a total of twenty works written by K. from 1982 onwards,3 an impressive record that suggests the reader will be in safe hands.

Like most biographies of this sort, it is somewhat difficult to establish the intended reader, a conundrum exacerbated by the relatively infrequent referencing. Still, it might be assumed that this volume addresses the need of the undergraduate and that elusive ‘general reader’. There are no in-text references and, for a book composed of almost two hundred pages, the twenty-five pages of notes seem somewhat light. I also find it difficult to believe that a bibliography on this oft-discussed theme should amount to only seven pages. But, in terms of engagement with modern controversies, the bibliography clearly demonstrates that K. has paid attention to post-1982 scholarship on Sulla and his era. Despite this, greater dialogue with Roman historiography in general would have been a welcome improvement, especially since source criticism and literary engagement are rather underdone. This was previously — and quite rightly — criticised by Briscoe, but little remedial action has been taken.4

Many commentators have questioned the relevance of the modern autobiographical approach. One of the reasons for this is that the writer tends to look at his/her subject with a pre-determined disposition, usually apologetic in the case of history’s bêtes noires, and overly critical in the case of anyone regarded as the amor ac deliciae generis humani.5 In the case of Sulla, K. almost inevitably chooses to treat of his subject in an apologist manner (“un essai raisonné de réhabilitation”)6 that occasionally borders on the mechanical. Thus he deals with Sulla and his actions against the framework of his belief that Sulla was a typical Roman of his class, a thoroughly religious (even mystical) fellow, and somebody with a strong sense of justice. Although this might be construed as something of a criticism, it does make for a unified and cohesive treatment. Such an intellectual structure may seem slightly crude (especially in our enlightened post-modern world), but, on the whole, it is relatively successful and the reader will not go too far astray as a result.

Of course, any attempt to show Sulla in a positive light should run into difficulties when the issue of the proscriptions arises. Stockton has previously described K.’s view of Sulla as “ingenuous”,7 which observation may be overly critical. To my mind, K. continues to demonstrate that Sulla’s behaviour was in accord with his famous epithet regarding his desire to reward his friends and punish his foes (Plut. Sull. 38.4) — thus he was exacting vengeance on his enemies, albeit on a grand and bloody scale. It follows, then, that the Cinnans, “if they had carried the day”, would surely not have behaved any differently (p. 132). Likewise, the massacre at Athens committed by Sulla’s troops is similarly explained, although the actual events seem to be at odds with K.’s belief that Sulla was “a fundamentally decent person” (p. 74).

Perhaps a problem with K.’s methodology, especially with respect to contemporary historical theory, is that he takes pains to judge Sulla according to modern (and Western) perspectives of what is right and what is wrong, rather than use the standards of the time. Thus the question should be not “do we think that Sulla was a good person?” but “did the Romans and their subject peoples think that Sulla was a good person?”. Of course, the response to the latter question would have depended on one’s political beliefs. Despite this, Sulla, according to modern Western values, is probably not a “fundamentally decent person” (fundamentally decent people, according to prevalent Western cultural values, do not allow their underlings to murder civilians, even if it does makes sense from a pragmatic and Machiavellian ends-justifies-the-means perspective). But this is irrelevant and K. need not defend his subject as one might try to defend a Saddam Hussein or an Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. From an ancient perspective, however, Sulla probably behaved in a way that would not have warranted any great censure from a truly impartial judge,8 if such a person could be found.

So what is new in this biography? It must be said that the phrase “Second Edition” (as is found discretely on the cover), is something of an overstatement. Of course, it is difficult to signal the degree to which the book has been rewritten. Suffice it to say, from a random inspection of selected passages, that the changes are hardly sweeping, but they do add a fresh coat of paint to the general structure of the narrative, even if it is rather thin for the most part. I am not sure that scholarship on Sulla and his period has moved forward in any dramatic way since the original text’s publication. Certainly, very little new material or literary evidence has come to light. Advances have been largely interpretive in nature and there has been no equivalent of the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre from the reign of Tiberius, or a new fragment in the case of Menander. An update on the battle of Chaeronea is made in light of archaeological findings from the “beginning of the 1990s” (p. 80) — a trophy, inscribed in Greek, has been recovered that commemorates “the services of his Chaeronean allies”.9 The notes, of course, have probably witnessed the greatest changes, but this is probably not a matter of great moment to the general or undergraduate reader.

Sulla, the man of religion, is still perhaps the most striking element of K.’s portrayal. It is something that, two and a half decades later, continues to merit consideration. That Sulla assumed the cognomen of Felix needs no introduction. But the connection between this epithet and the concept of felicitas as a mark of divine favour remains important, especially in terms of reconciling elements of Sulla’s extraordinary military behaviour (especially with regard to marching on Rome) with the view that he was “essentially a conservatist or, at least, a consolidator” (p. 150). It was Sulla’s felicitas (which was bestowed by the gods) that enabled him to do what he did. If the gods had disapproved, they would have deprived him of his felicitas. Thus Sulla could say — and believe — that what he did was not revolutionary or unpardonable, but was what the gods had decreed should come to pass in order to safeguard Rome’s political system. The irony of this is that Sulla’s felicitas did not extend to staying alive long enough to ensure the continuation of his constitution (as Augustus did after establishing the principate) (p. 187).

Some minor points might also be made. K. writes of Sulla’s “homosexual relationship” with the actor Metrobius (p. 8). This is somewhat misleading and skirts the issue of dominance and passivity. Modern literature on this theme is not adduced.10 Although K. does not cast Sulla’s relationship in a negative light (as indeed he should not), he fails to point out that Sulla was surely performing the ‘active’ role in this sexual union, which would mean that he was acting within the bounds of what was deemed acceptable for a Roman citizen male — Metrobius, as a (presumably) foreign-born actor (and thus a peregrinus and infamis) was not bound by the sexual constraints placed on citizen males.11 That Metrobius is also described as “an impersonator of women” ( λυσιῳδός) is also fundamental (Plut. 1472;is also fundamental (Plut. Sull. 36.1).12 Without some discussion of ancient sexuality, non-specialist readers may wonder why Sulla became so sexually attracted to the young and beautiful Valeria towards the end of his life (p. 166). Some may be left to infer that Sulla was bisexual, which, in light of recent works on this theme, would still not be an accurate summation from an ancient perspective.

In addition, K. seems to contradict himself after describing the way in which the general Fimbria had “stormed and sacked Ilium” by writing as follows: “Like all Romans, he [i.e. Sulla] would naturally feel a special affinity for the town from which, so legend had it, the Roman race had sprung” (p. 95). This seems infelicitous given that Fimbria, although not beloved of Venus like Sulla (witness Sulla’s use of Epaphroditus), was still a Roman citizen, even if a rather impious one in this regard.

The paperback edition comes in a neat and compact form. The font, though on the small side, is relatively user-friendly while the maps are an improvement of sorts on the execrable originals — at least the town of “Pompey”, which incurred the ire of Briscoe,13 has been suitably emended. Yet I can provide no explanation for why Map 3.1 is followed by Map 5.1, other than that Map 3.1 is found in chapter 3, and Map 5.1 in chapter 5. Furthermore, some photographic material might well have been incorporated. Indeed, the only photographic reproduction appears on the book’s cover, in the form of a coin showing Sulla as consul. Though ancient three-dimensional representations of the major identities of the period are not easy to identify, it is odd that some photographs of statues, coins and the like are not included, if only to break up the text. The revised volume differs from the original in having chapter endnotes grouped before the bibliography, whereas the original employed endnotes upon the conclusion of each chapter. I am not particularly partial to either format, though readers who like an uncluttered narrative will probably welcome it.

The work is pleasant enough to read, though there are a few irregularities, especially with regard to punctuation (e.g. p. 188). A happy improvement is the correction of the many typographical errors that marred the first edition. It is a minor quibble, but K.’s frequent use of “could not but” also becomes somewhat annoying (e.g. pp. 24, 103, 114, 160). Use of rather archaic words such as “contumely” and “attainted” (p. 151, both on the same page) also seems obscure and a trifle elitist. I am not sure whether they warrant inclusion in a book that is ostensibly aimed at the general reader or student. In addition, some Latin terms are not translated, or are not accompanied by an especially clear explanation, e.g. aquae atque ignis interdictio (p. 147). The Latin-less reader would feel him or herself cast slightly adrift.

K.’s volume is not a lengthy work, which, in this era of overlong and sometimes tedious tracts, might well be considered a boon. Make no mistake, this is not one of those Roman biographies such as A. R. Birley’s Hadrian or Champlin’s Nero that are almost as engrossing as a good historical novel (though, I hasten to add, are rather more scholarly).14 K. seems to believe — and probably quite rightly too — that long parenthetical digressions have no place in a book of this sort. The reader can surely find further detail on various political and military themes in one of the many generalist textbooks on the Republic. In terms of audience, K. generally serves the student or general reader well and his volume requires little background knowledge. Indeed, the narrative builds on itself so that little recourse to additional reference material is required. Perhaps more could have been said about Sulla’s early years — K. seems to put his subject’s rise to prominence in the context of Sulla’s dynamic personality and imposing presence rather than his inherent political savvy.

In sum, this is not a particularly controversial book. While there is very little (if anything) in this volume that will be new to the specialist of the Late Republic, it is quite an acceptable Roman political biography, if only on account of its accessibility and general verbal economy. It will probably manage to find its way onto the bookshelves of many university libraries.


1. R. Seager, Tiberius. 2nd ed. (Malden, Oxford and Carlton, 2005). See my review at BMCR 2005.09.77.

2. For rather negative reviews, see E. Badian Ancient Society 14 (1984), pp. 40-45; J. Briscoe JRS 75 (1985), pp. 238-239; D. L. Stockton CR n.s. 34 (1984), pp. 348-349. For a mildly negative review, see H. C. Boren CW 78 (1984), pp. 136-137. For more positive reviews, see J. J. Paterson G & R n.s. 31 (1984), pp. 219-220; J.-C. Richard REL 62 (1985), p. 504.

3. Sometimes in partnership with other scholars.

4. Briscoe, Review, pp. 238-239.

5. As Suetonius described the emperor Titus in his Caesares ( Tit. 1).

6. Richard, Review, p. 504.

7. Stockton, Review, p. 349.

8. Still, Velleius Paterculus generally echoes the received opinion with the following statement: L. Cornelius Sulla, uir qui neque ad finem uictoriae satis laudari neque post uictoriam abunde uituperari potest (2.17.1). Whatever the case, Caesar’s clementia, however calculated it might have been, certainly appeals more to the modern mind than Sulla’s bloody-minded vehemence.

9. The discovery of fragments thought to pertain to this trophy are reported by J. Camp, M. Ierardi, J. McInerney, K. Morgan and G. Umholtz, “A Trophy from the Battle of Chaironeia of 86 B.C.”, AJA 96 (1992), pp. 443-455. Aspects of this article are questioned by K. at p. 204, n. 28 (“Unfortunately the authors’ grasp of Roman practices is not always secure”). But C. S. Mackay, “Sulla and the Monuments”, Historia 49 (2000), pp. 161-210, receives praise for his discussion at “pp. 168-77”.

10. See Plut. Sull. 2.4 and 36.1. The words ‘homosexual’ and ‘homoerotic’ are best avoided in an ancient Roman context. According to recent scholarship, these terms have modern ethnocentric connotations that would have made little sense to ancient Mediterranean peoples. On this, see now H. N. Parker, “The Myth of the Heterosexual: Anthropology and Sexuality for Classicists”, Arethusa 34 (2001), pp. 313-362; F. Dupont and T. Éloi, L’érotisme masculin dans la Rome antique (Paris, 2001), p. 9.

11. C. Edwards, “Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome”, in J. P. Hallett and M. B. Skinner (edd.), Roman Sexualities (Princeton, NJ, 1997), pp. 66-95, provides a useful account of the concept of infamia. On Metrobius, see C. Garton, “Sulla and the Theatre”, Phoenix 18 (1964), pp. 142-143; H. Leppin, Histrionen. Untersuchungen zur sozialen Stellung von Bühnenkünstlern im Westen des Römischen Reiches zur Zeit der Republik und des Principats (Bonn, 1992), p. 260. With thanks to Miss Yvette Hunt for guidance on this important point.

12. Trans. of B. Perrin, Plutarch’s Lives, vol. 4 (Cambridge, MA/London, 1916), ad loc..

13. Briscoe, Review, p. 239.

14. A. R. Birley (1997), Hadrian: The Restless Emperor (London/New York, 1997); E. Champlin, Nero (Cambridge, MA/London, 2003).