Roman Coups d’Etat


A lot can happen in one year.

In early 88BC the more legitimate leader of the Roman army was undoubtedly Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78BC). He had recently won honours in the infamous Social War, being elected consul. A terrible massacre of Romans in Pontus {Appian XIIiv 22-23}, led to war with King Mithridates. Sulla was appointed commander of the legions.

This was opposed by Gaius Marius (157-86BC), a military genius who had transformed the Roman army into a professional fighting force. He won victories against the Teutones, Cimbri and in Numidia; capturing King Jugurtha with his quaestor Sulla’s kidnapping tactics. {Sallust, XII} A new man in the Senate, he had been elected consul six times. At nearly 70, “Marius ought to go and take the warm baths at Baiae and look after his health.” {Plutarch, I} Instead he schemed with the violent tribune Publius Sulpicius Rufus to transfer leadership of the Pontic legions to him.

Sulla’s reaction broke all the rules. Escaping to the army camp, he marched his six legions against Rome, staging a coup d’etat. NEVER had an army crossed the sacred pomerium before. Rufus was killed and Marius fled to Africa. So when Sulla marched away to Pontus, he was no longer the legitimate leader of the Roman army. He had used the military to gain power against a representative government, when he had other options as consul. Sulla would lead a larger coup in 82BC, appointing himself military dictator.

Marius was hardly better. Returning from Africa in 87BC, he formed a junta with Lucius Cornelius Cinna. Perhaps he was suffering from senility, because he began proscribing his enemies – and a terrible bloodbath began. When Marius died in early 86, “it seemed that the city had been freed from a harsh and savage tyranny.” {Plutarch, I}

Sulla would be no better when he took over. In his proscriptions, approximately 40 senators and 1600 equites were killed {Appian I xi95-xii103}. Truly, in a development that reverberates to the present day, Sulla had enlisted the military dictator into the ranks of Plato’s tyrants.


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