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CHARACTER OF SULLA
distinguished the best men of the elder days of the Republic.
Mixed with these old Roman characteristics were all the vices of the decadent half-Hellenised generation into which he had been born. Sulla had learnt to be regardless of human life, not merely of the lives of aliens or barbarians (most Romans were that), but of the lives of citizens also. If a man, great or small, stood in way of his schemes or his reforms, he doomed that man to perish with entire nonchalance. He had the most profound belief in the all-importance of the Roman state, but the sacrosanctity of the individual citizen seemed to him a farce. The old shibboleth, civis Romanus sum, had no protective power against his ruthless hand. Another modern trait in his character, which could only have come from the habitual study of destructive and doubting Greek philosophy, was a frank disregard for the law of the constitution—a thing for which the old Roman had as slavish a reverence as had his contemporary the Pharisee for the letter of the law of Moses. While other men still wrangled over forms and ceremonies, vetoes and auspices, Sulla quietly marched an army against Rome, and showed that neither religious sanctions nor tribunicial mandates had any power to stop a commander with loyal troops at his back. Sulla had a supreme contempt for forms that had grown meaningless, though the majority of the men of his generation were still in bondage to them.
Very un-Roman, again, was another of Sulla's characteristics—a smooth, plausible, utterly hollow urbanity, the deceptive courtesy of the diplomat. The Roman of the elder republic had been brutally straightforward: his notion of diplomacy was summed up in the two handfuls of “peace” and “war” which Fabius offered to the Carthaginian senate, or in the line which Popilius Laenas drew around the astonished Antiochus Epiphanes. Sulla, on the other hand, took an artistic pleasure in circumventing and cajoling those with whom he had to deal. To out-mancuyre Jugurtha at Bocchus's court, to talk round the Parthian ambassador (whom his master afterwards executed for being so outwitted), were great delights to him. To outdo the wily barbarian in his own field of lies had an intrinsic pleasure in the execution.
Another and most unamiable side of Sulla’s disposition may be summed up in saying that he was an epicurean both in the best and the worst sense of the word. He had a keen enjoyment of artistic and intellectual pleasures : he loved beautiful things for their own sake, was an enlightened student of literature, and appreciated and collected Hellenic works of art. He liked to converse with philosophers and authors, with actors and artists, and willingly sharpened his brains and increased his knowledge of every side of life by mixing with all sorts and conditions of men.
But at the same time he had the bad side of the artistic temperament. He was frankly vicious in his private life, as evil a liver as any Greek tyrant of old. He was perfectly destitute of any sense of chastity or shame, and, moreover, habitually indulged to excess in the banquet and the wine-cup. This it was that ruined his splendid constitution, and turned his handsome face into the “mulberry spotted with meal,” to which it was compared in his middle age.
To complete this strange and repulsive character we must add a curious strain of wild superstition. Of the simple and stolid religiosity of the old Roman there was no trace in him: but, like Napoleon, he believed in his star. Though, as far as deeds went, he was a scoffer, yet he professed a belief that he was the chosen tool of the gods. Venus, he said, was his special patroness, and gave him good fortune; he sometimes called himself in gratiTHE YOUTH OF SULLA
tude “Epaphroditus." He claimed to have dreams, omens, and premonitions. He took as surnames the adjectives Felix and Faustus, “the lucky.” His most hazardous steps were made, as he said, under direct inspiration from above. He wrote in his autobiography that his resolutions taken on the spur of the moment, and his enterprises begun without any proper preparation, always succeeded far better than those on which he had bestowed the most time and forethought. We might perhaps have imagined that he assumed this rôle of the favourite of fortune merely to encourage his followers, had it not been that he carried it into private life, when no end was to be gained by proceeding with the farce. There seems to have been a genuine fantastic vein of superstition in this otherwise practical and cynical mind. We know, for example, that on battle-days he wore under his corslet a small golden image of Apollo which he had got at Delphi. But the strangest development of his beliefs has yet to be told. On his death-bed, when one would have expected that his mind should have been filled with the memory of all the horrors that he had committed, he was visited with comforting visions. He told his friends that he faced the other world with equanimity, for his dead wife and son had appeared to him and had bidden him hasten to join them in a life of perfect rest and happiness beyond the grave. Truly this was a strange ending for the bloodstained author of the proscriptions of B.C. 81!
Sulla had spent his youth in dire poverty. His family was ancient but impoverished: no man of this branch of the Cornelii had held curule office for six generations. He had not even a paternal mansion or a hearth of his own, but lived, as we learn from Plutarch, in a set of lodgings one storey removed from the garret, and hired at the meagre rent of 3000 sesterces (about £26) per annum. He was a man who yearned after all the comforts and elegancies of life, who loved good dinners, good wine, and other less reputable luxuries, and who in his youth could not get them. It is this poverty of his early years that accounts for his insatiable addiction to pleasure in middle age, when most men have lost their taste for frivolity. He was making up for the enjoyments of which he had been defrauded in his young days.
Men of the type of Sulla, able, impecunious, and destitute of any family influence, were generally the stuff from which demagogues were made. There are a dozen instances in Roman history of young and penniless aristocrats who started on the career of mob leader and champion of the rabble. It was the easiest trade on which to embark if one loved notoriety, had no scruples, and lacked wealthy relatives to push one forward. But Sulla was above all things an aristocrat: he loathed the urban multitude and all its works, and when he put himself forward as a candidate for the quaestorship in B.C. 107, it was as a strict Optimate. How such a poor and unknown young man ever succeeded in obtaining a magistracy we do not know. That he was able and eloquent is clear enough, but a full purse, or a programme of confiscation and corn-doles, was a much better commendation to the electors than mere ability. How one who was an Optimate, and yet had not the money to buy his way to power, got his foot on the first rung of the ladder that led to the consulship, it is hard to conceive. But the feat was accomplished: Sulla became quaestor, and served under Marius in Numidia during the last year of the Jugurthine war [106-105].
It was here that he won his first distinction, and earned the undying enmity of his superior in command. While the struggle with the evasive Numidian seemed likely to drag on for ever, Sulla suddenly brought it to an end by his clever and unscrupulous diplomacy. By a
combination of bribes and cajolery, he induced Bocchus the Moor, Jugurtha's chief ally, to kidnap his guest and relative, and to hand him over in chains to the Romans. The war came to an end, and Marius took the credit to himself, but he was well aware that Sulla had really brought it to a finish. The quaestor made no attempt to disguise the fact; he took as the device of his signet-ring a picture of Jugurtha surrendered by Bocchus to himself, and he persuaded the Moor to dedicate on the Roman Capitol a group of statues reproducing the same composition. Marius was bitterly vexed; it was probably for this reason that Sulla took a particular pride in the statues; they were placed long after as the device on Cornelian coins. We may still see Sulla in his chair, the captive Numidian king in chains before him, and the Moor in front waving the olive branch with which he sued for peace with Rome.
Once launched on an official career, Sulla came steadily to the front; his only drawback was his want of funds. The first time that he stood for the praetorship he was rejected, because the people had expected from him, and had not received, a great show of African wild beasts. But finding money necessary, he finally succeeded in scraping it together, partly as spoils of war, partly in less obvious and reputable ways. His public services, however, were distinguished in the highest degree: nothing that he took in hand failed to come to a good end ; already the “luck” on which he was so fond of insisting made itself felt. He won golden opinions in the Cimbric war while serving under the Consul Catulus. In B.C. 93 he at last obtained the praetorship, and in the following year held as propraetor the turbulent and newly formed province of Cilicia. He had been sent there without an army or a proper supply of money, yet he made his name feared all around, He frightened away Mithradates, who was