Sulla's Second Civil War, 83-82 BC

Sulla's Second Civil War (83-82 BC) saw Sulla overthrow the Marian establishment of Rome, reform the Roman constitution and then unexpectedly retire into private life, giving up formal power.

Sulla's First Civil War (88-87 BC) developed out of the rivalry between L. Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Marius, both of whom wanted the command in the First Mithridatic War. Sulla, as consul for 88 BC, was able to get the appointment, but Marius refused to accept this. He allied with Sulpicius, one of the Tribunes for 88 BC, who wanted to pass a law distributing the newly enfranchised Italian voters amongst the existing 35 voting tribes, and not in 8 new tribes whose votes would rarely been significant. Sulpicius used a combination of his powers and the mob to get his way, but Sulla didn't accept the loss of his command, convinced the army that he had been preparing for the eastern campaign to support him, and marched on Rome. The resulting battle of the Esquiline Forum (88 BC) was the first time Romans soldiers had fought a battle within the city for centuries. Sulla gained control of the city, and attempted to reform the constitution for the first time, but he was unable to influence the elections for 87 BC, and when he left for the east one of the consuls for 87 BC, Cinna, attempted to undo his reforms. Cinna was expelled by his co-consul Octavius, gathered an army, recalled Marius from exile, and besieged Rome (87 BC). Once again the city fell, although this time after some prolonged resistance. The fall of the city was followed by a bloodbath as Marius in particular settled scores. Cinna and Marius were 'elected' as the consuls for 86 BC, giving Marius the seventh consulship he so badly wanted, but he died a few days after taking up office.

For the next few years Cinna dominated in Italy, while Sulla continued to campaign against Mithridates in the east. For the rest of 86 BC he served alongside Valerius Flaccus, who was then sent east with a fresh army to find and defeat Sulla. In 85 and 84 Cinna served alongside Papirius Carbo, who would later command the Marian forces during the civil war.

Flaccus failed in his mission in the east. He was deposed by one of his own legates, Gaius Flavius Fimbria, who then campaigned against Mithridates in Asia Minor. In 84 BC Sulla moved from Greece to Asia, and Fimbria's army turned against him. Fimbria committed suicide, and his troops were forced to remain in the east until the end of the war against Mithridates, which dragged on for another twenty years. The First Mithridatic War ended when Sulla made peace with Mithridates, allowing him to keep his kingdom.

This meant that Sulla was free to return to Italy. Cinna and Carbo began to raise new armies in Italy, while at the same time there was an exchange of letters between Sulla and the Senate. This started with a letter from Sulla to the Senate, in which he outlined his many achievements, complained about the way he had been treated, and promised to return to Italy to take vengeance on his enemies. The Senate responded by sending reconciliatory messages to Sulla, offering him security, and by ordering Cinna and Carbo to stop recruiting troops until Sulla's reply arrived. They agreed to this, but then declared themselves to be the consuls for the following year (83 BC), so they wouldn't have to return to Rome to hold elections, and then resuming their recruiting drive. Their plan was to move their troops to Liburnia in Illyria, so they could fight Sulla before he returned to Rome. This backfired badly, The first detachment crossed the Adriatic safely but the second ran into a storm, and the survivors had to return to Italy, where they deserted the consul's army as they no longer wanted to fight fellow Romans. The rest of the army then refused to risk the sea crossing. Cinna summoned them to an assembly, but badly mishandled it, and was killed by the soldiers. Carbo abandoned the plans to cross to Illyria, and withdrew the troops already over there. This chaos probably helped convince the young Pompey to switch sides and join Sulla, despite his father having fought against him in the first civil war. After the death of Cinna, Carbo refused to hold an election for a replacement, but he also decided against holding the post in 83 BC. Instead the posts went to Gaius Norbanus and Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus.

Late in 84 BC Sulla replied to the Senate's message. His response wasn't terribly encouraging - he said that his army meant he could better off the Senate security than they could offer it to him, refused to return to friendly terms with his enemies and demanded the return of his dignity, his property, his priesthood and all other honours he had been stripped of over the previous few years. Sulla sent some of his own men back to Italy alongside the Senate's messengers, but when they reached Brundisium they learnt of the death of Cinna and the chaos in the consul's camps, and decided to return to Sulla without heading for Rome.

83 BC

Our main source for this civil war is Appian's Civil Wars, which provides a continuous narrative of the conflict. This is supported by several of Plutarch's lives, in particular the lives of Sulla and Pompey. Plutarch's accounts don't entirely match up with Appian, or indeed with each other (in particular the collapse of Scipio's army and a battle on the River Aesis appear to be accidently duplicated), but they do provide useful extra details.

After the exchange of messages Sulla began his journey home. He began with five legions of Italian troops and 6,000 cavalry, and boosted this to 40,000 men with reinforcements from the Peloponnese and Macedonia. He led this force from Athens to Patrae, then sailed to Brundisium, where he was allowed to land without any resistance.

Soon after landing in Italy Sulla was joined by Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius. Before Sulla's First Civil War Metellus had been given a commission to deal with the last embers of the Social War, and when Cinna besieged Rome in 87 BC he had come to the aid of the Sullan defenders of the city. The consul Octavius had refused to acknowledge Metellus's greater military experience, and he had left for Africa before the end of the war. Now he returned to Italy and offered his support to Sulla. During his first march on Rome in 88 BC Sulla had been deserted by all but one of his senior (and thus aristocratic) officers, but this time he had much more support.

More support came from Pompey (the future Pompey the Great). According to Appian he raised a legion in Picenum, on the Adriatic coast, and then joined Sulla early in the war. Plutarch gives a more detailed account of Pompey's early service, but it is somewhat problematic. The consuls sent three armies against him, under Carinas, Cloelius and Junius Brutus (possibly  L. Junius Brutus Damasippus or M. Junius Brutus). Pompey chose to attack Brutus first. He began the battle with a cavalry charge, which he led himself. Brutus sent his Celtic cavalry to deal with this threat, but Pompey killed the leading cavalryman. The rest of the force recoiled and disrupted their infantry, allowing Pompey to win his first victory. The three hostile armies then withdrew from the area.

So far this is fine, but two more battles are now reported, which may well be duplicates of other battles of the war. First the consul Scipio came against Pompey, but as the two armies came within range of each other, Scipio's men deserted him and came over to Pompey. This is a repeat of a similar story given in Plutarch's life of Sulla, and in Appian, but in both cases Scipio was facing Sulla himself at Teanum when he lost control of his army. The third battle came on the River Aesis, the northern border of Picenum, where Pompey defeated a cavalry force sent by Carbo. Once again this duplicates a battle found in Appian, who reports the battle of Arses as being the first battle of 82 BC, and involving Metellus and one of Carbo's lieutenants. The most likely solution is that Plutarch has duplicated Sulla's victory of 83 BC and the battle of Aesis of 82 BC, and erroneously given credit for them to Pompey (who could have present on both occasions), perhaps using lost sources that exaggerated Pompey's role in the fighting.

In both accounts Pompey and Sulla then met up, and Sulla treated Pompey well. Plutarch has him greet Pompey as 'Imperator', normally a title that had to be given by the acclamation of a general's soldiers after a victorious battle. Appian reports that Pompey became Sulla's right hand man during was the only person for whom Sulla rose when he entered a room.

Appian reports that Norbanus and Scipio began the war with 250 cohorts of 500 men (125,000 men), and recruited more men during the war. They began the war with popular support, as Sulla was seen as an enemy who had invaded his country and was now fighting the legitimate consuls. The two consuls sent their troops south from Rome in detachments, having failed to defend southern Italy. Sulla was thus able to cross the Apennines into Campania without any fighting. Even with their army split in two, both halves probably outnumbered Sulla's forces, but lacked recent experience, whereas Sulla's men were veterans of the war in the east.

The two sides finally clashed around the Volturnus River. Norbanus had moved fastest, but perhaps too fast, as he suffered an embarrassing defeat at the battle of Mount Tifata or Casilinum, close to the river. He was forced to flee south to Capua where he took refuge. Sulla then crossed the river and moved north to face the second consul, Scipio. The two armies met around Teanum, but Sulla managed to avoid a battle. Negotiations began, and Sulla used the time to undermine the morale of Scipio's men. Eventually Scipio's army deserted en-mass to Sulla, leaving only the Consul and his son in arms against him. Sulla attempted to win Scipio over, but then let him go.

In the aftermath of this disaster, Rome would appear to have been vulnerable to attack, but Sulla still wasn't strong enough risk an attack on the city. He probably risked an advance towards Rome, but Norbanus still had much of his army intact, and was able to send troops north along different roads. Carbo rushed to Rome, and secured his control of the city. At this point the Temple of Jupiter on the Capital burnt down, and some blamed Carbo for the disaster. The Sibylline Books, a series of Greek prophecies that had been consulted at times of dire need were also lost in the fire. As the campaigning for the year came to an end, both sides concentrated their efforts on recruiting fresh troops and preparing for the resumption of the fighting in the following year.

82 BC

The first part of the campaign of 82 BC was split into two. In the south Marius the Younger attempted to block Sulla's advance on Rome from Campania. In the north Metellus Pius, supported by Pompey, faced the second consul for the year, Carbo.

In the south Sulla advanced towards Rome and besieged Setia (modern Sezze). Marius advanced towards Setia, but was unable to save the place. He then retreated north towards Signia (modern Segni), thirteen miles to the north. Sulla followed him, and the two armies clashed at the battle of Sacriportus (82 BC), a lost location probably somewhere between Signia and Praeneste, twelve miles to the north-west. Marius was defeated and had to flee for safety to the fortified town of Praeneste. Sulla's men were so close behind that the city gates were shut before Marius had reached safety, and he had to be winched up the walls.

In the north the fighting began at the start of spring, with a battle on the River Aesis, the northern boundary of Picenum. Metellus Pius, probably supported by Pompey, defeated an army led by Carbo's lieutenant Carinas. In the aftermath of this battle the local area switched sides to support Sulla. The campaign then moved north, probably to the Po valley (Cisalpine Gaul), which was Metellus's assigned area of operations. Carbo arrived in person, and besieged Metellus in an unknown location. This must have been located somewhere to the north of Ariminum (Rimini). When the news of Marius's defeat at Sacriportus reached him, Carbo decided to move back to Ariminum, with Pompey harassing his retreat. Carbo moved back towards Rome.

Carbo left some troops in the north, but they suffered two defeats, the first at the hands of Metellus at an unknown location (where five cohorts deserted to Metellus), the second at Sena Gallica (to the north-west of the Aesis), where Pompey defeated Marcius (probably Gaius Marcius Censorinus). This indicates that Carbo's forces had continued their retreat from northern Italy, as this battle took place some way to the south of Ariminum.

Back at Praeneste, Sulla built lines of circumvallation around the town, and prepared to starve out the defenders. He gave command of the siege to Q. Lucretius Ofella, and then prepared to move on Rome itself. He sent troops along several roads to seize the gates and attempt to enter the city, but if they met resistance to move to Ostia instead. At the same time Marius sent messages to Rome, ordering L. Junius Brutus Damasippus, the Urban Praetor, to kill a list of his enemies. These killing were carried out before Sulla's men reached the city, but once they did arrive the city let them in without a fight (probably because the city's food supplies had been cut off). When the news from Rome reached Sulla he moved to the city in person and camped on the Campus Martius. He then entered the city, confiscated the property of his opponents (all of whom are said to have fled from the city).

After dealing with the situation in Rome, Sulla moved north towards Carbo. The first clash came on the River Glanis (probably the modern Chiana, which flows south past Clusium (Chiusi) and into the Tiber. Part of a group of recently arrived Celtiberian horsemen deserted Carbo during this battle, and in revenge he killed the rest of the group. Another detachment of Carbo's men were defeated at Saturnia (about twenty miles to the south-west of Clusium). This phase of the campaign ended with the first battle of Clusium, a day long but inconclusive clash between Sulla and Carbo. Further to the east Pompey and Crassus defeated Carinas in the plain of Spoletium (Spoleto, 45 miles to the east/ south-east of Clusium), and then besieged Carinas in Spoletium. Carbo attempted to send some troops east to lift the siege, but they were ambushed and defeated by Sulla. Carinas managed to esacpe under cover of a siege.

Elsewhere part of Sulla's army managed to break into Naples. In the north Metellus sailed around Ravenna, which must have remained in Sullan hands after Carbo retreated from the area, and occupied the wheat growing area of Uritanus.  

Carbo next sent eight legions, under Marcius, to try and raise the siege of Praeneste, but they were ambushed by Pompey, defeated in a battle and the survivors surrounded on a hill. Overnight they managed to escape, using the old trick of leaving their camp fires burning, but most of Marcius's army deserted him, leaving him only seven cohorts when he returned to Carbo.

The Samnites had sided with Cinna during Sulla's First Civil War, and now they decided to support Carbo and the Marians in the second. A large force of 70,000 Samnites, Lucanians and Capuans moved towards Praeneste, to lift the siege. Sulla got word of their approach in time to move south and block a key pass. The Italians were unable to get past Sulla, and Marius's attempts to break out of the siege also failed.

At the same time Carbo took advantage of the arrival of his new allies to try and defeat Metellus, who was now at Faventia (Faenza), at the southern end of Cisalpine Gaul, close to the Rubicon. Carbo and Norbanus attempted a night attack on Metellus's camp, but this ended in a major defeat. In the aftermath a legion of Lucanians deserted to Metellus. Their leader, Albinovanus, remained with Norbanus for a few days, but then betrayed him to Sulla and killed most of his senior officers. Norbanus chose to flee into exile on Rhodes, where he later committed suicide.

Carbo made one last attempt to lift the siege, sending Brutus Damasippus with two legions, but this attempt also failed (although Damasippus's legions survived). At about the same time the Cisalpine Gauls switched sides, abandoning their support of Marius and joining Sulla. Finally Sulla's lieutenant Lucullus defeated another of Carbo's armies near Placentia (Piacenza) on the middle stretches of the Po. These setbacks finally broke Carbo's nerve, and despite still having at least 40,000 men under his own command, and the large Samnite force attempting to reach Praeneste, he decided to flee to Africa.

Pompey dealt with the 30,000 men at Clusium, defeating them in what Appian described as the greatest disaster of all, in which the Marians lost 20,000 men. By now the Samnites had lost most of their Roman allies, and their leaders decided to gamble everything on an attack on Rome. The Samnites and their allies had a head start, and were able to reach the walls of Rome. The resulting battle of the Colline Gate (82 BC) was probably the nearest that Rome came to falling to a foreign enemy between the Gallic sack of 390 or 387/6 BC and Alaric the Goth's sack of 410 AD, but the battle ended as a costly Roman victory. By now hardly any of the Marian leaders were still in Italy. Sertorius had fled to Spain, Carbo to Africa and Norbanus to Rhodes. The defenders of Praeneste agreed to surrender, and Marius the younger committed suicide rather than fall into Sulla's hands. The town was sacked, and many of its inhabitants killed, as were most of the Senators captured when it fell. The town of Norba, which had also held out, was captured by treachery soon afterwards. There were still some places that held out against Sulla, most notably Nola, where the Samnites continued to resist, but Sulla was now free to turn his attentions to Rome.


Sulla was now the dominant power in Rome. Late in 82 BC or early in 81 BC he had himself made 'Dictator for the Reconstitution of the State', reviving a post that hadn't been used for 135 years, since the worst moments of the Second Punic War. This was followed by a brief but costly reign of terror. He began by having 6,000 Samnite prisoners killed within earshot while he was addressing the Senate in the Temple of Bellona. The Senators heard the screams, and when they asked what was happening Sulla's reply was that it was 'nothing more than the screaming of a few criminals paying the just penalty for their crimes'. This wasn't the first time that Sulla had massacred a number of Samnite prisoners, but on this occasion the purpose was to make sure that the Senate knew who they were dealing with. Next came the proscriptions. This started with a list of 80 Marian supporters who it was now legal to kill, and expanded until around 1,600 men had been placed on the lists and many more murdered. Some of these men were supporters of the previous regime, but others were placed on the lists because of their wealth or to settle private scores. Crassus in particular used the proscriptions to make himself wealthy, and was so blatant that eventually even Sulla lost patience with him.

The proscriptions were followed by Sulla's constitutional reforms (some of which many have first been tried in 88 BC). The power of the popular assemblies was reduced, by removing their ability to vote on a law unless it had been put to them by the Senate. The Tribunes of the Plebs were no longer allowed to propose or veto laws, and couldn't stand for any further offices. The only way to become consul was to follow the regular career path - quaestor, praetor and then consul. Each had an age limit imposed - 30 for a quaestor, 39 for a praetor and 42 for a consul. Nobody could hold the same post within ten years. Praetors and consuls had to spent their year of office in Rome, followed by a year in charge of a province. The number of quaestors and praetors was increased, and the quaestors automatically entered the Senate. Control of the law courts was returned to the Senate, after being transferred to the Knights in 123 BC. Sulla's aim was to prevent another Marius from bypassing the traditional career path.

Although Sulla dominated Italy, the Marians still held Sicily, the Roman province of Africa and much of Spain. Sulla sent Pompey to Sicily with praetorian authority, making this his first official command. The Marian governor of Sciily, Perperna, fled when Pompey arrived. Carbo had just arrived in Sicily from Africa, and retreated to Cossyra (Pantellaria), but then somehow fell into Pompey's hands and was executed. Pompey was said to have executed the more famous Marians he captured, but to have been lenient when possible.

Pompey was then sent to North Africa, where Gn.. Domitius Ahenobarbus had raised a more threatening army, made up of Marius's veterans and a contingent provided by King Hiarbas of Numidia. Pompey landed at Utica and Carthage with six legions, and was soon joined by 7,000 deserters. The two armies then faced off near Utica, where Pompey attacked after Ahenobarbus ordered his men to return to their camp because of a major storm. The Marian army was destroyed, Ahenobarbus was killed, and in the aftermath Hiarbas was deposed as king. Pompey then returned to Italy, where he was greeted as 'Magnus' by Sculla, before forcing Sulla to let his celebrate a triumph despite not holding the correct rank.

Towards the end of 81 BC Sulla resigned as dictator. He served as one of the consuls for 80 BC, and during this year the siege of Nola came to an end. After that he retired into private life, where he concentrated on writing his memoirs and partying. Sadly his memoirs haven't survived, but many of our existing sources make use of them. Sulla was an unusual figure. He was probably convinced of the rightness of his cause, and he is almost unique as an example of a dictator who willing gave up his powers. What he failed to realise was that the aristocrats who his reforms favoured were the same over-ambitious generals who posed the greatest threat to the Republic. His system also didn't take into account the possibility of a crisis that required the best possible commander, not just the person whose turn it happened to be. His reforms barely lasted for a decade (his own protégé Pompey played a major part in their destruction), but the message that you could lead your army against Rome and gain power outlived the Roman Republic itself.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 September 2017), Sulla's Second Civil War, 83-82 BC ,

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us - Privacy