Sulla - A Dictator Reconsidered, Lynda Telford

Sulla - A Dictator Reconsidered, Lynda Telford

Sulla is one of the most controversial figures in Roman history. He was an able politician and general, with an impressive track record against Rome's external and Italian enemies, and a rare example of a politician who willingly laid down power. At the same time he was the first Roman general to lead his armies against the city, a feat he carried out twice in his career. On the second occasion his return to Rome was followed by a period of political bloodletting (his 'prescriptions'), and he has been blamed for starting the series of events that led to the fall of the Roman Republic, not least by setting an example for future leaders.

Biographies of Sulla have ranged from the admiring to the very hostile from antiquity to the present day. This volume comes at the extreme end of the admiring range, and is one of the most biased books of ancient history I've ever read. Everything Sulla does is good, all of his opponents are always in the wrong. The author refuses to admit that any of his opponents had any legitimate reasons not to approve of all of his actions, and their motives are almost always painted as due to greed or an inability to see that Sulla's policies were correct. This approach also leads to double standards. Sulla's massacre of Samnite prisoners after one of his battles is OK, because they were his long standing opponents, Caesar's massacre of Romans after one of the last battles of his civil war is an atrocity, even though those same opponents had refused several earlier chances to give up. Caesar is also criticised for not giving up his dictatorship, but of course he was assassinated, so we don't know what he would have done next. The basic premise is that it was OK for Sulla to kill his victims because he was right. 

The biggest flaw in the book is the failure to really come to terms with Sulla's first march on Rome. This came after his political opponents in the city bent (but didn't break) the laws to have Sulla removed from command of the upcoming war against Mithridates of Pontes and have him replaced by the elderly Marius. Sulla responded by breaking with all precedence and leading his armies against Rome. The result was a battle within the city and effectively a military coup, which saw Sulla's opponents forced to flee. This was the first time that a Roman general had led an army against his own city, and set a new precedence that would be followed repeatedly in the long series of civil wars that followed (most famously by Julius Caesar). This dramatic move is dealt with very quickly here, despite being one of the most important events in the long collapse of the Republic.

I wouldn't recommend this book to someone who was new to the topic, as it would leave a very one sided view of events. However it is of interest to the more knowledgeable reader. The author has done her research, and knows the topic, and a full length biography of Sulla is always of interest.

Chapters - 17 untitled
Author: Lynda Telford
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 240
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2014

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