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Sulla: A Dictator Reconsidered

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Lucius Cornelius Sulla is one of the central figures of the late Roman Republic. Indeed, he is often considered a major catalyst in the death of the republican system. The ambitious general whose feud with a rival (Marius) led to his marching on Rome with an army at his back, leading to civil war and the terrible internecine bloodletting of the proscriptions. In these thin Lucius Cornelius Sulla is one of the central figures of the late Roman Republic. Indeed, he is often considered a major catalyst in the death of the republican system. The ambitious general whose feud with a rival (Marius) led to his marching on Rome with an army at his back, leading to civil war and the terrible internecine bloodletting of the proscriptions. In these things, and in his appropriation of the title of dictator with absolute power, he set a dangerous precedent to be followed by Julius Caesar a generation later. Lynda Telford believes Sulla's portrayal as a monstrous, brutal tyrant is unjustified. While accepting that he was responsible for much bloodshed, she contends that he was no more brutal than many of his contemporaries who have received a kinder press. Moreover, even his harshest measures were motivated not by selfish ambition but by genuine desire to do what he believed best for Rome. The author believes the bias of the surviving sources, and modern biographers, has exaggerated the ill-feeling towards Sulla in his lifetime. After all, he voluntarily laid aside dictatorial power and enjoyed a peaceful retirement without fear of assassination. The contrast to Caesar is obvious. Lynda Telford gives a long overdue reappraisal of this significant personality, considering such factors as the effect of his disfiguring illness. The portrait that emerges is a subtle and nuanced one; her Sulla is very much a human, not a monster. REVIEWS ...a milestone. It brings to life a principled man who should have had the acclaim of the Roman world in which he lived. Instead he was, and is, vilified for his choice of friends and lovers. ..brings his life and times to us in it's full panoply. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who has even the slightest interest in the history of the later Roman republic. " Wargamers Needful Things


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Lucius Cornelius Sulla is one of the central figures of the late Roman Republic. Indeed, he is often considered a major catalyst in the death of the republican system. The ambitious general whose feud with a rival (Marius) led to his marching on Rome with an army at his back, leading to civil war and the terrible internecine bloodletting of the proscriptions. In these thin Lucius Cornelius Sulla is one of the central figures of the late Roman Republic. Indeed, he is often considered a major catalyst in the death of the republican system. The ambitious general whose feud with a rival (Marius) led to his marching on Rome with an army at his back, leading to civil war and the terrible internecine bloodletting of the proscriptions. In these things, and in his appropriation of the title of dictator with absolute power, he set a dangerous precedent to be followed by Julius Caesar a generation later. Lynda Telford believes Sulla's portrayal as a monstrous, brutal tyrant is unjustified. While accepting that he was responsible for much bloodshed, she contends that he was no more brutal than many of his contemporaries who have received a kinder press. Moreover, even his harshest measures were motivated not by selfish ambition but by genuine desire to do what he believed best for Rome. The author believes the bias of the surviving sources, and modern biographers, has exaggerated the ill-feeling towards Sulla in his lifetime. After all, he voluntarily laid aside dictatorial power and enjoyed a peaceful retirement without fear of assassination. The contrast to Caesar is obvious. Lynda Telford gives a long overdue reappraisal of this significant personality, considering such factors as the effect of his disfiguring illness. The portrait that emerges is a subtle and nuanced one; her Sulla is very much a human, not a monster. REVIEWS ...a milestone. It brings to life a principled man who should have had the acclaim of the Roman world in which he lived. Instead he was, and is, vilified for his choice of friends and lovers. ..brings his life and times to us in it's full panoply. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who has even the slightest interest in the history of the later Roman republic. " Wargamers Needful Things

30 review for Sulla: A Dictator Reconsidered

  1. 4 out of 5

    Iset

    This biography both came as a pleasant surprise, but is also something I find myself sceptical of at the same time. I knew little of Sulla previously, beyond the basics; he had been a dictator of Rome and engaged in a civil struggle with his main opponent, Gaius Marius; he famously published execution lists, purging his political opponents, in which people lived in terror; and a young Gaius Julius Caesar had a brush with him as a young man, when Sulla demanded he divorce his wife and the youth br This biography both came as a pleasant surprise, but is also something I find myself sceptical of at the same time. I knew little of Sulla previously, beyond the basics; he had been a dictator of Rome and engaged in a civil struggle with his main opponent, Gaius Marius; he famously published execution lists, purging his political opponents, in which people lived in terror; and a young Gaius Julius Caesar had a brush with him as a young man, when Sulla demanded he divorce his wife and the youth bravely refused. That was about the sum total of my prior knowledge. So obviously, there was a lot here for me to learn. Pretty much everything, in fact, from Sulla’s four marriages, to his early career struggles with noble blood but very little hard cash, and his campaigns, in Numidia, during the Social Wars, against Mithridates’ forces in Greece, and his later return to Rome for another round of civil strife. And along the way I definitely had to admit that my previous view of a bloodthirsty dictator was simplistic and erroneous. From that point of view, the book succeeds in its aims, because the author, Lynda Telford, states openly from the beginning that she has set out to rehabilitate Sulla’s reputation and that she believes he deserves greater appreciation. This is both a potentially positive point, and the cause of my scepticism. In some instances, it seems very clear that Telford is making excellent points about Sulla that should indeed be worthy of reconsideration by historians. The lingering stigma surrounding him regarding his friendship with the poor, and his possible bisexuality, is among the most prominent of these, and surprising considering that our modern perspective on these issues should cause us to rethink the condemnation of ancient authors sneering at his keeping company with common folk. And yet I’ve been reading a couple of books by Philip Matyszak before and after this one – one about a contemporary figure, Quintus Sertorius, and one about Rome’s Social Wars, both of which Sulla features in – and Matyszak appears to accept completely uncritically the sources’ reports of Sulla as ‘debauched’ and ‘degenerate’. One can’t help but feel Telford has a real case when she opines that this attitude ought to be re-examined. She also presents some interesting alternatives from mainstream thought, such as the possibility that in later life Sulla suffered from shingles, not scabies, and, perhaps most partisan of all, that Sulla only ever believed he was acting in the best interests of the Republic and that he tried to keep executions to a necessary minimum and punish those of his own supporters who went too far. Well… maybe. At the very least I can probably concede that perhaps this is how Sulla himself viewed the times in which he found himself and justified the actions he took. But more on this later. Another positive point was that I honestly expected such a favourably biased biography of Sulla to absolutely slam his greatest rival, Gaius Marius… but it didn’t. Telford was upfront about Marius’ talents and achievements, and in fact challenges mainstream interpretations yet again by placing the break in the friendship between Sulla and Marius as much later. She also rather charitably suggests that Marius’ last gasp to hold on to power with heretofore unrevealed brutality was the product of mental disturbance caused by age – something which some other historians agree with her on. I found her arguments in this arena to be quite plausible and convincing. To my scepticism then. Telford makes no secret of the fact that she is partisan in Sulla’s favour, and as a trained historian this obviously puts my senses on high alert. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about this era and these figures to spot errors very well. However, Telford certainly gives Sulla the benefit of every doubt and always interprets the best possible reasons behind his actions. I think she may be right in some of her propositions, but I also think she may be wrong in some of them. Telford admits in the introduction that she is no expert, and that she has a history of being drawn to rehabilitate maligned figures, being a part of the Richard III Society. She sometimes makes comparisons in the text to Medieval situations and events which rang alarm bells about drawing false comparisons with such a great distance of time. For me the most troubling question left unanswered was Sulla’s opposition to extending citizenship to the Italians, which for a supposedly well-intentioned figure who Telford would have us believe strongly cared about the impoverished common folk, leaves rather a big question mark. Some of his executions too seem perhaps too neatly justified as being absolutely necessary and the minimum to which Sulla set himself this unpalatable task. Somehow I don’t think I should just accept this and view Sulla as an undoubted good guy, just because his opponents killed more people in bloodier, more indiscriminate rampages, while Sulla’s proscriptions were more restricted and oh some innocent people were killed too but under his corrupt officers who he later punished. That sits uncomfortably, and while I’m prepared to admit that Sulla was probably a more admirable figure than I previously gave him credit for, I also highly doubt the most favourable interpretation of his motives in every case, and suspect that the real Sulla may have existed somewhere between these extremes. So, would I recommend this book? Yes – with a caveat: read books about Sulla from other authors too to gain varying perspectives into this fascinating historical figure. 7 out of 10

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jerry-Book

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. This is a praiseworthy attempt to reconstruct the career of Sulla whose previous biographer had called “the last Republican” of Rome. The author’s thesis is Sulla was maligned by later historians who preferred Julius Caesar and his career. As the author notes Caesar and Sulla had almost parallel careers. Both were self made men who became very successful generals. Both had to march on Rome. Both won their civil wars against their opponents. Sulla in 87 BC against the Marians and Caesar in 45 BC This is a praiseworthy attempt to reconstruct the career of Sulla whose previous biographer had called “the last Republican” of Rome. The author’s thesis is Sulla was maligned by later historians who preferred Julius Caesar and his career. As the author notes Caesar and Sulla had almost parallel careers. Both were self made men who became very successful generals. Both had to march on Rome. Both won their civil wars against their opponents. Sulla in 87 BC against the Marians and Caesar in 45 BC against the Pompeians. Both became dictators and tried to reform Rome. The author argues Sulla believed in the Republic by trying to build up the Senate as the political body that could rule Rome. The author also argues somewhat less successfully that Sulla’s proscription of many of his opponents was a necessary evil to accomplish his reforms. Many of Sulla’s reforms did not last. The restoration of the powers of the tribunes so soon after Sulla’s death certainly would have surprised the Dictator. As this book argues and as I knew from other readings there is no question Sulla did try to institute reforms he hoped would cause the Republic too last. But the institutions including the Senate had become corrupt and the Republic could no longer handle the Empire. Thus, the Sulla’s reforms did not last.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Gerry Germond

    “Sulla? To the infamy of his name! To the utter damnation of his line!” (From Spartacus), 1960). The paper cover of this book says, “Lynda Telford’s sympathetic biography challenges the traditional depiction of Sulla as merely a power-hungry tyrant.” That it does, although not always totally convincingly. It’s hard to get past the slaughter of the Samnites immediately after the battle at the Colline Gate and then the proscriptions, although the author displays a knack for presenting the case from “Sulla? To the infamy of his name! To the utter damnation of his line!” (From Spartacus), 1960). The paper cover of this book says, “Lynda Telford’s sympathetic biography challenges the traditional depiction of Sulla as merely a power-hungry tyrant.” That it does, although not always totally convincingly. It’s hard to get past the slaughter of the Samnites immediately after the battle at the Colline Gate and then the proscriptions, although the author displays a knack for presenting the case from the point of view of Sulla. He seems to have had a stern, if patrician, sense of justice and it is clear (to me) from reading this and other accounts both fictional and non-, that he was a guy who knew exactly what he wanted, got it, and held it, much like someone he spared, Caius Julius Caesar. What’s missing is an explanation of how his reputation was so blackened and by whom. Livy, who was in the service of Augustus, is one suspect. There isn’t much explanation here. Still, if you’re interested in history’s villains, as is Ms. Telford, this is a good start. I doubt his name will ever be cleared (Theodore Dodge praises his generalship).

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    The arguments are not particularly solid. That is not, though, the reason for this lone star: it is the immeasurable historical inaccuracy and talkativeness of the book. At the beginning it rambles on about poverty in Ancient Rome. Then I realized how inaccurate it was. I was utterly horrified. This is the first one I found 24 PAGES IN! "Was his first wife another daughter of the Senator, or was she a niece? Both relationships have been suggested..." by whom? Sulla's wife's family was a completel The arguments are not particularly solid. That is not, though, the reason for this lone star: it is the immeasurable historical inaccuracy and talkativeness of the book. At the beginning it rambles on about poverty in Ancient Rome. Then I realized how inaccurate it was. I was utterly horrified. This is the first one I found 24 PAGES IN! "Was his first wife another daughter of the Senator, or was she a niece? Both relationships have been suggested..." by whom? Sulla's wife's family was a completely different branch (no connection has ever been established) from that of the Dictator's. She states that "it may" (it was) "have been Julia the brother of Caesar Strabo". Why not mention Lucius Julius Caesar? What is holding you from mentioning her more famous brother? And for the record, Gaius Marius and Sulla were NOT brothers-in-law.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Craydon Burrows

    He was a hero of rome and one of my Hero s

  6. 5 out of 5

    Larry Van Bibber

    excellent and easy to read biography of Sulla with a different perspective from the author.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Erik Granström

    Lynda Telford gör till sin sak att upprätta diktatorn Sullas rykte inför historien. Jag gjorde en jämförelse med beskrivningen i Tom Hollands bok "Rubicon" och fick intrycket att de två skildringarna av samma händelser och person liknar propagandabilder från två motställda läger där det känns som om båda tillskriver Sulla avsikter och karaktärsdrag som inte känns helt underbyggda. Vem av författarna, om någon, som ger den sanna bilden kan jag inte bedöma, men även om jag skulle utgå från att Tel Lynda Telford gör till sin sak att upprätta diktatorn Sullas rykte inför historien. Jag gjorde en jämförelse med beskrivningen i Tom Hollands bok "Rubicon" och fick intrycket att de två skildringarna av samma händelser och person liknar propagandabilder från två motställda läger där det känns som om båda tillskriver Sulla avsikter och karaktärsdrag som inte känns helt underbyggda. Vem av författarna, om någon, som ger den sanna bilden kan jag inte bedöma, men även om jag skulle utgå från att Telford har rätt i sak, så lämnar skildringen en del övrigt att önska. Boken följer på ett ganska fantasilöst sätt Sullas liv kronologiskt och belastas med upprepningar av författarens favoritteser, där egentligen inte nya aspekter framläggs utan samma sak sägs igen. Texten är dock välskriven och jag kände aldrig något motstånd mot att öppna boken. Är man intresserad av Sulla så är boken läsvärd eftersom den ger en annan bild än den gängse.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Sekhar N Banerjee

    Interesting analysis It is more like an essay than history. Though the author's arguments may be valid, I would have expected them backed by facts. Only the author's views are presented and in most cases the facts are wanting. I made a mistake in buying the book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Anna Belsham

    I am a fan of revisiting previously maligned historical figures but I feel this book almost goes too far the other way. Somewhere in the middle is the real Sulla.

  10. 5 out of 5

    m shatley

  11. 5 out of 5

    Rob Sharfp

  12. 4 out of 5

    Cathy A.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sulla

  14. 5 out of 5

    mark mccallum

  15. 5 out of 5

    Neville Dummett

  16. 4 out of 5

    missy anderson

  17. 5 out of 5

    Margaret G. Hicks

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jon Burleson

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jim Rossignol

  20. 4 out of 5

    Karen M. Clay

  21. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Langley

  22. 4 out of 5

    Julia

  23. 5 out of 5

    Matty

  24. 4 out of 5

    Michael E Stauffer

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mike Whitehead

  26. 4 out of 5

    Edward Pirok

  27. 4 out of 5

    Eurydicegirlgmail.Com

  28. 5 out of 5

    michael ackroyd

  29. 4 out of 5

    Nikolay

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy Paulson

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