BMCR 2008.12.07

Sulla, the Elites and the Empire: A Study of Roman Policies in Italy and the Greek East. Impact of Empire 8

, Sulla, the elites and the empire : a study of Roman policies in Italy and the Greek east. Impact of empire, v. 8. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007. 1 online resource (xiv, 300 pages) : illustrations, maps.. ISBN 9789047423713. $139.00.

Despite the rush of works on Sulla that have recently been published, or republished, this work stands out. The book is the eighth volume in the Brill series ‘Impact of Empire’, and the first monograph (the other seven being conference proceedings). The series editors’ preface sums up the features of this book that makes it immediately stand out from the usual biographical treatments of Sulla by pointing out that this work attempts to tackle the impact of Sulla’s actions and policies on Italy and the East, with particular focus on the elites of these regions. The work is split into three sections ordered by their different themes: Sulla and the Civil War, the Sullan Settlement and Sulla and religion. Across the three sections, there are some seventeen chapters not including the introduction, conclusion and appendix.

The introduction sets the tone of the work well, combining a brief overview of Sulla’s career with the author’s intentions and aims. Central to these aims are the author’s contention that Sulla viewed the Social and Mithridatic Wars as resulting from a break between the Roman elite and those of the Italy and Greece and he engaged in a reorganisation of both regions in an attempt to cure the causes of these conflicts.

Section One ‘Punishment and Rewards. Sulla and the Elites’, covers the period of the Social, Mithridatic and First Civil Wars. This section is composed of a short introduction and seven sub-chapters. The introduction to this section expresses the author’s intention to deal with this period in thematic fashion based on the regions involved (Greece, Asia and Italy) and defends the order in which he discusses them, placing Greece before Italy.

Despite the introduction’s stated intent of avoiding a biographical treatise, Chapter One, ‘A Silent Crisis, A Noisy Collapse’, takes the reader back to Sulla’s early career, from the Jugurthan War through to his pro-praetorship in the east, and again acts as an introduction to the Mithridatic War. Given the previous introductions to both the book and the first section, this first chapter appears ill at ease with the author’s stated intentions. Chapter Two, ‘A Complex Strategy: Sulla Between Attica and Boeotia’, focuses on the situation in Greece during the Mithridatic War and its aftermath. This chapter provides an excellent analysis of the relationship between Greece and Rome in this war, analysing both the potential motivations and strategies of the three main parties, Sulla, the Greeks and Mithridates.

Chapter Three, ‘Facing the Consequences: The Elites of Asia Minor’, shifts the focus to Asia Minor and analyses this three-way relationship between Sulla, the locals and Mithridates in some detail. Taken together with the preceding chapter on Greece, these two chapters constitute an important analysis of the causes and effects of the Mithridatic War on the Roman East. Despite the wealth of detail, amply supported by excellent footnotes of the ancient and modern sources, the Roman east is dealt with in just thirty-four pages before the following chapters revert to an analysis of Rome and Italy, which gives the impression of being at odds with the author’s stated intentions.

Chapter Four shifts the focus back to Italy and analyses the situation between the Roman and Italian elites during the Social and Civil Wars. Although the author had stated and defended his decision to combine Sulla’s activities during the Social and Civil Wars into one chapter, covering them in just eleven pages does give the impression of a brief overview rather than a fuller analysis. Chapter Five, ‘Retaliation and Politics: The Proscriptions’, and Chapter Six, ‘Sulla’s Infamous Associates’, turn the focus to the proscriptions. The first question raised in the reader’s mind is why the need for two separate chapters rather than one and why the same space is devoted to a discussion of the proscriptions in general as was devoted to Sulla in Greece and Asia. These two chapters form a good general discussion of the Sullan proscriptions but fit awkwardly with the rest of the section and diverge somewhat from the stated intention of focussing on the relationship between Sulla and the elites. Certainly the proscriptions would have had a serious effect on them, but the two chapters focus almost entirely on matters at Rome, as we have little evidence for the effects in Italy.

Chapter Seven, ‘The Necessity of the Elites: Interim Conclusions’ initially focuses on the role that the Sullan reforms of the Senate played in this process, or rather it would have were the chapter not missing. The author starts by stating that the bulk of what would have formed this chapter will only be available in a forthcoming and unreferenced article and that this chapter will merely summarise the main conclusions, which form just three paragraphs of this two and a half page chapter. The reader is left feeling that if it is such an important topic, which it must be, then it needs to be here in the book, rather than three paragraphs of summary, especially given the author’s bold and interesting assertion that the Sullan senate was not increased to six hundred members as most commentators have claimed. This chapter also alleges that “the identities of most of the new senators are equally obscure”. Here the usually excellent footnoting ignores the work of Gabba,1 who tentatively identified some one hundred and two of the new Sullan senators. The rest of this short chapter summarises the author’s views of Sulla’s attitudes to the central role of the elites in aiding the recovery of the Roman Empire.

This chapter concludes the first section, which comprises the first half of the book. The chapter strikes the reader as being awkwardly constructed. Chapter One acts as background to the section, which is perhaps unnecessary given the excellent introduction to the book. Chapters Two to Four are an excellent analysis of the relationship between the elites of the regions of Greece, Asia and Italy to Sulla and Mithridates and are invaluable to any student of these wars. With Chapter Five, the whole tone of the section changes and the focus shifts more to Sulla’s actions, in terms of the prescriptions and Senatorial reform. Again, despite the author’s stated intentions, these last three chapters sit awkwardly with the first half of the section and appear to lose the focus.

Section Two, ‘Between War and Peace. Sulla and the Administration of the Empire’, comprises a further eight chapters. Chapter One, ‘Resettling the Province of Asia’, is one of the strongest and provides an excellent analysis of the Sullan settlement of Asia, in what will soon become the definitive treatment of this topic to date. The reader is left with a far deeper understanding of Sulla’s actions and the long term implication of his imperial re-organisation.

Chapter Two, ‘Statesmanship and Retaliation: Between Capua and Praeneste’, shifts the focus back to Italy (the focus of the rest of the section), which leaves the reader wondering about the question of Greece after Sulla. Nevertheless, this is an interesting short chapter that focuses on the city of Praeneste as a case study for Sulla’s veteran settlement policies. This combines well with Chapter Three, ‘Sullan Colonisation in Italy: Back to the Basics’, which widens the focus to an overview of the whole Sullan veteran colonisation programme. This chapter takes the form of a list of the known and speculative Sullan colonies, with a brief analysis of each one.

Chapter Four, ‘Pompeii and Campania Felix’, reverses this process and, like Chapter Two, focuses on a case study, the resettlement of Pompeii, which featured significantly in Section One, Chapter Four. Towards the end of the chapter the focus widens to cover Campania as a whole. This contrasts well with the region of Etruria, covered in Chapter Five, ‘Etruria: A Contrasting Picture’, which focuses on Sulla’s policies towards a region that had been a hotbed of opposition to him. Thus we have four excellent chapters on Sulla’s settlement of Italy, which constitute an important analysis of the topic.

Chapter Six, ‘The Sullan Veterans and Catiline’s Conspiracy’, takes this analysis a stage further and looks at the long-term results of Sulla’s policies. The role of Sulla’s veterans in Catiline’s army is well known and although the author gives a short restatement of the problems involved, he shies away from coming to any fresh conclusions. Chapter Seven, ‘The Importance of Etruria’, is just three pages long and acts as a summary of the views expressed in the preceding five chapters. This is followed by another two-page summary in the form of Chapter Eight, ‘Beyond the Emergency: Interim Conclusions’. These two pages constitute a summary of the entire section, and draw some comparisons between Sulla’s reorganisation of Asia and Italy (again there is no mention of Greece). On the one hand, the author makes his point about Sulla’s policies showing him to be more than the stereotypical tyrant who did little beyond securing his own position. But on the other, as to whether these actions constituted a vision for a newly ordered Roman Empire, the case is unproven.

The book then moves on to the two short chapters of Section Three, ‘Sulla, Religion, and the Empire’. The theme of Section three is the role religion played in Sulla’s plan for the empire. Chapter One, ‘Why Sulla Epaphroditos’, raises the much discussed question of Sulla’s religious attitudes. Again this is a fine, one-chapter discussion of the key issues involved. The author argues that Sulla chose the name as part of a process of promoting himself to the wider Greek world. Yet as the author himself points out earlier in the chapter, for centuries to come, the Greeks would remember Sulla’s many infamous impieties and temple desecrations which surely held a far stronger sway than any additional name he might choose.

Chapter Two, ‘A New Founder for Rome’, is a brief section arguing that Sulla may have tried to portray himself as a second founder of Rome (we must overlook the uncertain roles of Camillus and Marius in this listing). Again the argument covers such areas of the founding of games in Athens and Rome, but was this part of a coherent strategy or simply Sulla showing off his dominance in Rome and Rome’s dominance over Greece? Again the author falls on the side of the former but gives enough evidence for the latter.

The conclusion is an excellent summary of the author’s intent and draws together the various strands of the proceedings chapters well. The author’s argument is that all of Sulla’s measures discussed fitted into a coherent plan to stabilise the various regions of the eastern Roman Empire after the devastation of the Social, Civil and Mithridatic Wars. Certainly the aspects that have been discussed do throw fresh light on Sulla’s actions but whether these formed a coherent policy or a series of ad-hoc measures, each reader will have to decide for themselves. For that reason alone, it is a book that must be read by anyone working on this period of the Republic.

In addition, the conclusion is followed by a short appendix that brings together all the inscriptions referring to Sulla and an exhaustive and excellent bibliography which in itself is a key reference tool for anyone working on or interested in the period. There is excellent footnoting throughout, a clear sign of the author’s fine grasp of the material.

In terms of the overall structure, the two main sections; of Sulla’s actions during the wars and his actions after them make perfect sense and work well. The third section, on Sulla’s religious elements, does seem to be fitted on at the end as an afterthought, especially given its brevity, and does not fit well with the first two sections.

The other major point that needs to be remarked regards the excessive number of chapters, seventeen in total, excluding the introductions, conclusion and appendix. This large number of chapters occupies just over two hundred pages and leads to chapters that average ten pages and on occasion number just two and three pages. This disjointed approach detracts from the overall argument with the author stopping and starting rather than aiming for a more flowing argument. With this in mind, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the chapter that features the finest analysis, that on Sulla’s reforms of Asia, is the longest (twenty-six pages) of the book.

Furthermore, of these seventeen chapters, only three concern the regions outside of Italy, two on Asia and one on Greece. The bulk of the work is devoted to Sulla’s reforms of Italy, hardly surprising given the evidence, but this imbalance does detract from the author’s stated intention of creating a wider Sullan policy. An equal number are given to the Sullan proscriptions and the brief appearance of the conclusions to the issue of the Sullan Senate. With Chapter Seven we are inexplicably teased with what should be an important part of Sulla’s relationship to the Italian elites, their enrolment in the Roman Senate, yet have three paragraphs advertising an as yet unnamed future article. The latter leaves the reader somewhat frustrated. It is this chapter that really stands out, given the author’s unwillingness to present his arguments here, leaving the reader stranded.

Despite these structural flaws, the work is a bold attempt to construct a fresh image of Sulla and his actions and the nature of the Roman Empire during these crucial years. For these reasons, and given the excellent quality of scholarship and its supporting materials, this work is important and should be read by anyone with an interest in the period.


1. Emilio Gabba, ‘Sullan Senators’, reprinted in Republican Rome. The Army and the Allies, P.J. Cuff, (trans.) (Oxford. 1976), pp. 59-67.