Constitutional reforms of Lucius Cornelius Sulla

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    The constitutional reforms of Lucius Cornelius Sulla were a series of laws enacted by the Roman Dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla between 82 and 80 BC, which reformed the Constitution of the Roman Republic.


    In the decades before Sulla had become dictator, a series of political developments occurred which severely weakened aristocratic control over the Roman Constitution. Sulla's dictatorship constituted one of the most significant developments in the History of the Constitution of the Roman Republic, and it served as a warning for the coming civil war, which ultimately would destroy the Roman Republic and create the Roman Empire. Sulla, who had witnessed chaos at the hands of his political enemies in the years before his dictatorship, was naturally conservative. He believed that the underlying flaw in the Roman constitution was the increasingly aggressive democracy, which expressed itself through the Roman assemblies, and as such, he sought to strengthen the Roman Senate. He retired in 79 BC, and died in 78 BC, having believed that he had corrected the constitutional flaw. His constitution would be mostly rescinded by two of his former lieutenants, Pompey Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus, less than ten years after his death. But what he did not realize was that it was he himself who actually had illustrated the underlying flaw in the Roman constitution: that it was the army, and not the Roman senate, which dictated the fortunes of the state. The precedent he produced would be emulated less than forty years later by an individual whom he almost had executed, Julius Caesar, and as such, he played a critical early role in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.

    Before the Gracchi (287133 BC)

    By the middle of the 2nd century BC, the Plebeians (commoners) saw a worsening economic situation.[1] The long military campaigns, in particular those of the Punic Wars, had forced citizens to leave their farms, which often caused those farms to fall into a state of disrepair. This situation was made worse during the Second Punic War, when Hannibal fought the Romans throughout Italy, and the Romans adopted a strategy of attrition and guerilla warfare in response. When the soldiers returned from the battlefield, they often had to sell their farms to pay their debts, and the landed aristocracy quickly bought these farms at discounted prices. The wars had also brought to Rome a great surplus of inexpensive slave labor, which the landed aristocrats used to staff their new farms.[1] Soon the masses of unemployed Plebeians began to flood into Rome, and into the ranks of the legislative assemblies. At the same time, the aristocracy was becoming extremely rich,[2] and with the destruction of Rome's great commercial rival of Carthage, even more opportunities for profit became available. While the aristocrats spent their time exploiting new opportunities for profit, Rome was conquering new civilizations in the east. These civilizations were often highly developed, and as such they opened up a world of luxury to the Romans. As both wealth and eastern luxuries became available to aristocratic Romans, they began to enter the "international" Mediterranean arena in collection of art, sponsorship of literary works, and cultural acquisition and development generally; some Romans saw the changes with alarm.[3] The sums that were spent on the new luxuries had no precedent in prior Roman history; the Romans began to pass sumptuary laws to limit some excesses, although these were harmless at best, political footballs at worst.[3]

    By the end of this era, the divide that was between the aristocratic landowners and the landless and small-holder Plebeians had deepened and widened. Latifundia and the willingness of the aristocracy to leave large tracts of public lands fallow as opposed to distributing them among the Plebs had created a situation in which many former small farmers migrated to the city of Rome, looking for work and sustenance, having been driven from or bought out of their family inheritance, fields, and farms. In the principle legislative assembly, the Plebeian Council, any individual voted in the Tribe to which his ancestors had belonged. Thus, most of these newly landless Plebeians belonged to one of the thirty-one rural Tribes, rather than one of the four urban Tribes; this meant that their vote counted more than those of the lower classes in the four Urban Tribes—and these landless Plebeians soon acquired so much political power that the Plebeian Council became highly populist.[3] The new power of the Plebeians was watched with fear and dismay by the aristocratic classes who had formerly had control of all law-making at Rome. The aristocrats accused "the mob" of selling its votes; of course, the "mob" was often voting for individual aristocrats themselves, so although the game rules had changed, the main aims remained the same—there had been no real structural change in the Republic; there was merely a need for a change of tactics on the part of the aristocrats. Some adapted by using excessive bribery to win votes; others appealed to the crowd's populist ideals, fairness, respect for antiquity, or desire to gain a better life for themselves and their children.[3] Bribery was perceived as a problem; but despite this, major reforms were ultimately passed, in particular the requirement that all votes be by secret ballot—a measure that made bribery more effective, as the "elders" of a tribe no longer would hear how the members of the tribe were voting, and the entire process of voting became more personalized. Populist leaders arose one by one from the same aristocracy that fought to keep the populace at bay—some had plans for deep-rooted changes, and others had more temporary measures to offer, to relieve both the cash poverty (and land richness) of the aristocracy and the desire of the plebs to better their lot.[4]

    Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus (133121 BC)

    Gaius Gracchus, Tribune of the people, presiding over the Plebeian Council

    Tiberius Gracchus was elected Plebeian Tribune (the chief representative of the people) in 133 BC, and as Tribune, he attempted to enact a law that would have distributed some of the public land amongst Rome's veterans. The aristocrats, who stood to lose an enormous amount of money, were bitterly opposed to this proposal. Tiberius submitted this law to the Plebeian Council, but the law was vetoed by a Tribune named Marcus Octavius, and so Tiberius used the Plebeian Council to impeach Octavius. The theory, that a representative of the people ceases to be one when he acts against the wishes of the people, was repugnant to the genius of Roman constitutional theory.[5] If carried to its logical end, this theory removed all constitutional restraints on the popular will, and put the state under the absolute control of a temporary popular majority. This theory ultimately found its logical end under the future democratic empire of the military populist Julius Caesar.[5] The law was enacted, but Tiberius was murdered when he stood for reelection to the Tribunate. The ten years that followed his death were politically inactive. The only important development was in the growing strength of the democratic opposition to the aristocracy.[5]

    Tiberius' brother Gaius was elected Plebeian Tribune in 123 BC. Gaius Gracchus' ultimate goal was to weaken the senate and to strengthen the democratic forces,[6] so he first enacted a law which put the knights (equites, or apolitical businessmen of the upper classes) on the jury courts instead of the senators. He then passed a grain law which greatly disadvantaged the provincial governors, most of whom were senators and thus who could no longer serve on the jury courts. The knights, on the other hand, stood to profit greatly from these grain reforms, and so the result was that Gaius managed to turn the most powerful class of non-senators against the senate.[6] In the past, the senate eliminated political rivals either by establishing special judicial commissions or by passing a senatus consultum ultimum ("ultimate decree of the senate"). Both devices allowed the senate to bypass the ordinary due process rights that all citizens had.[7] Gaius outlawed the judicial commissions, and declared the senatus consultum ultimum to be unconstitutional. Gaius then proposed a law which granted citizenship rights to Rome's Italian allies, but the selfish democracy in Rome, which jealously guarded its privileged status, deserted him over this proposal.[7] He stood for reelection to a third term in 121 BC, but was defeated and then murdered. The democracy, however, had finally realized how weak the senate had become.[7]

    Sulla's constitution (8280 BC)

    Roman Dictator Sulla, who attempted to increase the power of the Centuriate Assembly at the expense of the Tribal Assembly

    Several years later, a new power had emerged in Asia. In 88 BC, a Roman army was sent to put down that power, king Mithridates of Pontus, but was defeated. Lucius Cornelius Sulla had been elected Consul (one of the two chief-executives of the Roman Republic) for the year, and was ordered by the senate to assume command of the war against Mithridates. Gaius Marius, a former Consul and a member of the democratic ("populares") party, was a bitter political rival of Sulla. Marius had a Plebeian Tribune revoke Sulla's command of the war against Mithridates, so Sulla, a member of the aristocratic ("optimates") party, brought his army back to Italy and marched on Rome. Marius fled, and his supporters either fled or were murdered by Sulla. Sulla had become so angry at Marius' tribune that he passed a law that was intended to permanently weaken the Tribunate.[8] He then returned to his war against Mithridates, and with Sulla gone, the populares under Marius and Lucius Cornelius Cinna soon took control of the city. The popularis record was not one to be proud of,[8] as they had reelected Marius to the consulship several times without observing the required ten year interval. They also transgressed democracy by advancing unelected individuals to office, and by substituting magisterial edicts for popular legislation.[9] Sulla eventually made peace with Mithridates, and in 83 BC, he returned to Rome, overcame all resistance, and captured the city again. Sulla was installed as Dictator, and his supporters then slaughtered most of Marius' supporters, although one such supporter, a 17-year-old popularis (and the son-in-law of Cinna) named Julius Caesar, was ultimately spared.

    Sulla, who had observed the violent results of radical popularis reforms (in particular those under Marius and Cinna), was naturally conservative, and so his conservatism was more reactionary than it was visionary.[9] As such, he sought to strengthen the aristocracy, and thus the senate.[9] Sulla retained his earlier reforms, which required senate approval before any bill could be submitted to the Plebeian Council (the principal popular assembly), and which had also restored the older, more aristocratic "Servian" organization to the Centuriate Assembly (assembly of soldiers).[8] Up until the 3rd century BC, the Plebeian Council was legally required to obtain senatorial authorization before enacting any law, while the Centuriate Assembly had been organized in such an aristocratic manner as to have denied the lower classes any political power. The reforms which had altered these two processes had marked the end to the Conflict of the Orders, during which time the Plebeians had sought political equality with the aristocratic Patrician class.

    Sulla, himself a Patrician and thus ineligible for election to the office of Plebeian Tribune, thoroughly disliked the office. Some of his dislike may have been acquired when Marius' Tribune had revoked Sulla's authorization to command the war against Mithridates. As Sulla viewed the office, the Tribunate was especially dangerous, which was in part due to its radical past, and so his intention was to not only deprive the Tribunate of power, but also of prestige. The reforms of the Gracchi Tribunes were one such example of its radical past, but by no means were they the only such examples. Over the past three-hundred years, the Tribunes had been the officers most responsible for the loss of power by the aristocracy. Since the Tribunate was the principal means through which the democracy of Rome had always asserted itself against the aristocracy, it was of paramount importance to Sulla that he cripple the office. Through his reforms to the Plebeian Council, Tribunes lost the power to initiate legislation. Sulla then prohibited ex-Tribunes from ever holding any other office, so ambitious individuals would no longer seek election to the Tribunate, since such an election would end their political career.[10] Finally, Sulla revoked the power of the Tribunes to veto acts of the senate. This reform was of dubious constitutionality at best, and was outright sacrilegious at worst. Ultimately, the Tribunes, and thus the People of Rome, became powerless.

    Sulla then weakened the magisterial offices by increasing the number of magistrates who were elected in any given year,[9] and required that all newly elected Quaestors be given automatic membership in the senate. These two reforms were enacted primarily so as to allow Sulla to increase the size of the senate from 300 to 600 senators. This removed the need for the Censor to draw up a list of senators, since there were always more than enough former magistrates to fill the senate.[9] The Censorship was the most prestigious of all magisterial offices, and by reducing the power of the Censors, this particular reform further helped to reduce the prestige of all magisterial offices. In addition, by increasing the number of magistrates, the prestige of each magistrate was reduced, and the potential for obstruction within each magisterial college was maximized. This, so the theory went, would further increase the importance of the senate as the principal organ of constitutional government.

    To further solidify the prestige and authority of the senate, Sulla transferred the control of the courts from the knights, who had held control since the Gracchi reforms, to the senators. This, along with the increase in the number of courts, further added to the power that was already held by the senators.[10] He also codified, and thus established definitively, the cursus honorum,[10] which required an individual to reach a certain age and level of experience before running for any particular office. In this past, the cursus honorum had been observed through precedent, but had never actually been codified. By requiring senators to be more experienced than they had been in the past, he hoped to add to the prestige, and thus the authority, of the senate.

    Sulla also wanted to reduce the risk that a future general might attempt to seize power, as he himself had done. To reduce this risk, he reaffirmed the requirement that any individual wait for ten years before being reelected to any office. Sulla then established a system where all Consuls and Praetors served in Rome during their year in office, and then commanded a provincial army as a governor for the year after they left office.[10] The number of Praetors (the second-highest ranking magistrate, after the Consul) were increased, so that there would be enough magistrates for each province under this system. These two reforms were meant to ensure that no governor would be able to command the same army for an extended period of time, so as to minimize the threat that another general might attempt to march on Rome.

    The fate of Sulla's constitution (7027 BC)

    Sulla resigned his dictatorship in 80 BC, was elected Consul one last time, and died in 78 BC. While he thought that he had firmly established aristocratic rule, his own career had illustrated the fatal weaknesses in the constitution. Ultimately, it was the army, and not the senate, which dictated the fortunes of the state.[11]

    In 77 BC, the senate sent one of Sulla's former lieutenants, Gnaeus Pompey Magnus, to put down an uprising in Spain. By 71 BC, Pompey returned to Rome after having completed his mission, and around the same time, another of Sulla's former lieutenants, Marcus Licinius Crassus, had just put down a slave revolt in Italy. Upon their return, Pompey and Crassus found the populare party fiercely attacking Sulla's constitution,[12] and so they attempted to forge an agreement with the populare party. If both Pompey and Crassus were elected Consul in 70 BC, they would dismantle the more obnoxious components of Sulla's constitution.[13] The promise of both Pompey and Crassus, aided by the presence of both of their armies outside of the gates of Rome, helped to 'persuade' the populares to elect the two to the Consulship.[13] As soon as they were elected, they dismantled most of Sulla's constitution.[13]

    In 63 BC, a conspiracy led by Lucius Sergius Catiline attempted to overthrow the Republic, and install Catiline as master of the state. Catiline and his supporters simply followed in Sulla's footsteps. Ultimately, however, the conspiracy was discovered and the conspirators were killed. In January 49 BC, after the senate had refused to renew his appointment as governor, Julius Caesar followed in Sulla's footsteps, marched on Rome, and made himself dictator. This time, however, the Roman Republic was not as lucky, and the civil war that Caesar began would not end until 27 BC, with the creation of the Roman Empire.

    See also


    • Abbott, Frank Frost (1901). A History and Description of Roman Political Institutions. Elibron Classics (ISBN 0-543-92749-0).
    • Byrd, Robert (1995). The Senate of the Roman Republic. U.S. Government Printing Office, Senate Document 10323.
    • Cicero, Marcus Tullius (1841). The Political Works of Marcus Tullius Cicero: Comprising his Treatise on the Commonwealth; and his Treatise on the Laws. Translated from the original, with Dissertations and Notes in Two Volumes. By Francis Barham, Esq. London: Edmund Spettigue. Vol. 1.
    • Lintott, Andrew (1999). The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-926108-3).
    • Polybius (1823). The General History of Polybius: Translated from the Greek. By James Hampton. Oxford: Printed by W. Baxter. Fifth Edition, Vol 2.
    • Taylor, Lily Ross (1966). Roman Voting Assemblies: From the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar. The University of Michigan Press (ISBN 0-472-08125-X).


    1. 1 2 Abbott, 77
    2. Abbott, 78
    3. 1 2 3 4 Abbott, 79
    4. Abbott, 80
    5. 1 2 3 Abbott, 96
    6. 1 2 Abbott, 97
    7. 1 2 3 Abbott, 98
    8. 1 2 3 Abbott, 103
    9. 1 2 3 4 5 Abbott, 104
    10. 1 2 3 4 Abbott, 105
    11. Abbott, 107
    12. Abbott, 108
    13. 1 2 3 Abbott, 109

    Further reading

    • Ihne, Wilhelm. Researches Into the History of the Roman Constitution. William Pickering. 1853.
    • Johnston, Harold Whetstone. Orations and Letters of Cicero: With Historical Introduction, An Outline of the Roman Constitution, Notes, Vocabulary and Index. Scott, Foresman and Company. 1891.
    • Mommsen, Theodor. Roman Constitutional Law. 18711888
    • Tighe, Ambrose. The Development of the Roman Constitution. D. Apple & Co. 1886.
    • Von Fritz, Kurt. The Theory of the Mixed Constitution in Antiquity. Columbia University Press, New York. 1975.
    • The Histories by Polybius
    • Cambridge Ancient History, Volumes 9–13.
    • A. Cameron, The Later Roman Empire, (Fontana Press, 1993).
    • M. Crawford, The Roman Republic, (Fontana Press, 1978).
    • E. S. Gruen, "The Last Generation of the Roman Republic" (U California Press, 1974)
    • F. Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World, (Duckworth, 1977, 1992).
    • A. Lintott, "The Constitution of the Roman Republic" (Oxford University Press, 1999)

    Primary sources

    Secondary source material

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