BioFile - The Other Sulla
Anyone how has more than a passing familiarity with Roman history certainly knows about Lucius Cornelius Sulla, nicknamed “Felix – the Fortunate.” Sulla (the cognomen means “Pimply,” his branch of the Cornelii being noted for bad skin), a tough old veteran, championed the aristocratic faction in Rome’s first bout of civil war (82-81 B.C.), and then set himself up as Dictator for a couple of years, before retiring to private life, happy in the knowledge that he had no enemies, having killed them all.
Well, the Sulla the Fortunate had a nephew who might be termed “Sulla the Not-So-Fortunate.” This was Publius Cornelius Sulla. He was the son of the dictator’s rather obscure brother, also named Publius.
Publius was born about 107 B.C. Although his father died when he was quite young, he was apparently raised in comfortable circumstances. As a young man Publius would have done the usually hitch of military service, probably as a junior officer under his uncle’s command, fighting in the Social War (91-87 BC) and then later against Mithridates of Pontus (87-82 BC). And he certainly took his uncle’s part in the first Roman civil war (82-81 BC). During his uncle’s dictatorship (81-80 BC), Publius was prominent among those who profited greatly from the proscriptions. By “brandishing” connection with the dictator, he was able to buy at a fraction of their actual value properties of some of the nearly 2,000 senators and knights who were executed by Sulla’s command, thus becoming quite wealthy. And while he was sometimes able to get his uncle to relent and cancel death sentences in a few instances, it appears that he still managed to profit, accepting “gifts” from wealthy men who wanted to get off the hook.
In 80 B.C., when Publius was about 27, his uncle designated him as one of the triumvirs supervising the veterans’ colony the dictator created at Pompeii; Publius would remain the principal patron of the colony for the rest of his life, a position that brought a number of perks. With the retirement of the dictator in 80, Publius’ life becomes rather more obscure. But he held a praetorship before 68 BC and was by then married to none other than Pompey the Great’s sister, so he retained some influence in Roman politics.
In 66 B.C. Publius was a candidate for election to of the consulships for the following year. Although he won the election, the losers brought suit against both him and Publius Autronius Paetus, the other winner. The two were convicted of electoral bribery, which barred them from office and led to their expulsion from the Senate as well. Publius retired to Campana, where he lived near Pompeii, enjoying the fruits of his distinguished status as patron of the veterans’ colony there.
In 62 B.C. Publius may have been involved in Catiline’s conspiracy to overthrow the Republic, perhaps as an agent of the famed orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, then serving as one of the consuls. This is suggested by two facts. For one thing, Sulla was not among the senators and knights who were rounded up with the rest of the conspirators following Cicero’s decisive action in crushing the conspiracy. But, and perhaps more to the point, when charges of having been one of the conspirators were brought against Sulla in 60 BC, he was successfully defended by Cicero himself, in a clever speech that survives.
Since Roman defense attorneys could not be paid, soon after his acquittal, a grateful Publius loaned Cicero two million sesterces, with which the latter bought a luxurious house on the Palatine.
Until this time Publius had been more or less identified with the aristocratic party. But he had begun to drift over to the “popular party,” and for a time even lent his house in Rome to the demagogue Publius Clodius for use as the field headquarters of his gang. In the civil war between Caesar and the Senatorial party, Publius was a staunch Caesarian. Caesar seems to have thought enough of Publius’ military skills to appoint him commandant of his base camp during the protracted siege of Dyrrachium, in western Greece, in 48 B.C. At one point during the siege, Publius demonstrated considerable initiative when he led two legions into action without orders to repel a surprise attack by Pompey’s troops against one part of Caesar’s siege lines. Publius was criticized by some for not turning the counter-attack into a full scale effort to break into the besieged town, but in his memoirs, Caesar says Publius acted properly. Certainly Publius remained in Casear’s good graces, and may even have been placed in command of legio X, the Dictator’s favorite legion. Moreover, Caesar gave Publius command of the right wing of the army at Pharsalus, some weeks later, where, on August 9, 48 B.C., Pompey the Great was decisively defeated.
Following Pharsalus, Publius seems to have remained in Greece when Caesar went to Egypt, but joined him later in Syria. There, in mid-July of 47 B.C., Caesar received news of unrest among some of his veterans left in Italy. He immediately dispatched Publius and several other senior officers to put down the disorders. Moving with commendable speed, the officers arrived in Italy within a month. Publius was assigned to take command of the veteran legio XII, under orders to proceed to Sicily. Having been continuously under arms and in action since 58 B.C., the men were tired, and looking forward to their discharges, if only to cash in on the generous donatives that Caesar had promised them. So when Publius arrived to take command, around August 20th, the legionaries rejected his authority, and even chased him from the camp. Caesar arrived in Italy a few weeks later, and immediately began spreading money around. This restored order. But it appears that Caesar was wary of the legion’s loyalty thereafter, for although it was not discharged for another two years, it does not seem to have seen active service again.
As for Publius, he more or less disappears from the record after this incident, until the end of 46 BC. He apparently remained in Italy during Caesar’s African expedition, which began in late 47 BC. Publius seems to have spent his time buying up at a discount the estates of those of Caesar’s enemies who had died or fled into exile (unlike Publius’ uncle, Caesar usually didn’t execute his enemies), thus adding to his already considerable wealth.
The last we hear of Publius is in a letter of Cicero’s dated in January of 45 BC. In it, Cicero reports that Publius had recently died, having either been killed by bandits while traveling, or as a result of acute indigestion from overeating. Cicero added the wry comment that it appeared no one particularly cared one way or the other. And Cicero went on to comment that Publius’ passing would probably have no effect, save perhaps that “Caesar’s auctions be dealt a telling blow,” suggesting that Publius had been a very good customer of confiscated property indeed.
Although Publius never gained the consulship, several of his descendants did. While his son, also named Publius, appears to have been a non-entity, his grandson, Lucius Cornelius Sulla was consul in 5 B.C., with no less than the Emperor Augustus himself as the colleague. Lucius doesn’t seem to have been a very good manager; in A.D. 17 he was expelled from the Senate by reason of poverty. Apparently the Emperor Tiberius took pity on the family and restored their fortunes, for Lucius’ son, also named Lucius, served as consul in A.D. 33, as the colleague of Servius Sulpicius Galba, who became emperor-for-a-little-while in 68-69. This Lucius lived to a very old age, apparently surviving long enough to see his son, yet another Lucius, be appointed suffect (replacement) consul in 52, toward the end of the reign of Claudius. Thereafter the family fades from history.