(c) Jerry Fielden2000

Sulla and the proscriptions

Lucius Cornelius Sulla was consul in 88 BC (and again in 80 BC) and dictator from 82 to 79 BC. When he was still a proconsul in 82, he planned and executed the proscriptions against his enemies for revenge, especially from the Marian camp, and against rich Romans because he needed money to pay his veterans.

Unfortunately for modern readers, there are no surviving continuous first-hand accounts of Sulla’s career.[1] We have to rely mainly on Appian and Plutarch as second-hand sources. Here I will look at Appian and Plutarch’s versions of the proscriptions and compare the two: first we will find out about the authors origins and lives, about their own sources for their histories, then about the differences and similarities between both versions of the proscriptions accounts.

Appian (?95-?165 AD) was a Romanized Greek lawyer who wrote from the military point of view.[2] He was also a friend of Marcus Aurelius’ tutor Fronto, through whom he may have gotten a procuratorship.[3] Appian’s possible sources may have been Livy, Sulla himself, Sallust, and Plutarch.[4] Plutarch (?46-120 AD) was also a Greek and a municipal magistrate in his hometown of Chaeronea in Boeotia.[5] Plutarch apparently had access to Sulla’s memoirs, amongst other texts. He mentions them often as a reference in his biography of the dictator[6].

Both writers see Sulla as vindictive, ferocious, greedy and destructive, but they say he becomes even more of a butcher and a tyrant during the proscriptions and his dictatorship.[7] The numbers of the victims quoted at the onset of the proscriptions don’t quite agree in the separate accounts however. Plutarch mentions a list of eighty, followed by another list of 200 the next day,[8] whereas Appian tells us of 40 senators and 1,600 equestrians proscribed on-the-spot during a speech to the assembly of the people.[9] Both writers agree it was a terrible massacre: Appian said that Sulla warned his enemies of their forthcoming fate,[10] and Plutarch just said that it was blind butchery, not even a question of being Sulla’s enemy.[11] According to Keaveney, each side expected that the other show no mercy, and the enemy knew that Sulla had given them fair warning and many chances to join him.[12] This is reflected by both Plutarch, who mentions bribery and deceit to accomplish this purpose, [13] and by Appian, who mentions a lack of leadership on the opposing general’s part in one particular episode[14] of Sulla’s winning over an entire army.

There are a few more minor differences in the narratives but many more similarities: Plutarch talks of paying two talents for killing a proscribed man,[15] whereas Appian mentions “a prize for killers and rewards to informers”.[16] Plutarch and Appian both tell us that you could be executed for sheltering one of the proscribed.[17] Both authors also agree that many were killed for their possessions, that Sulla needed or wanted the money.[18] The authors agree that he needed to extort land and money, and needed the powers to do this too, in order to reward his veterans.[19]

I conclude that there were more similarities in both accounts than differences, which enables me to believe that the stories were accurate enough considering the era they were written in and the fact that they were second-hand. Appian wrote a little more on the military point of view and Plutarch on the personal side of Sulla, but both authors agree that the proscriptions were exceptionally cruel and horrible, even for those times.


Appian, Appian’s Roman History Vol. 1, translated by Horace White, Loeb Classical Library, Heinemann, London and MacMillan, New York, 1912;, The Civil Wars, Translated by John Carter, Penguin Classics, 1996

Freeman, Edward, Historical Essays, Second Series, 2nd Edition, MacMillan and Co., London, 1880

Lewis, Naphtali and Reinhold, Meyer, Roman Civilization, Vol. 1, 3rd Edition, Columbia University Press, New York, 1990

Keaveney, Arthur, Sulla, the Last Republican, Croom Helm, London and Canberra, 1982

Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Republic, Translated by Rex Warner, revised Edition, Penguin Books, 1972

“Plutarch”, Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, © 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation


[1] Freeman, p. 326

[2] Lewis & Reinhold, p. 28

[3] Appian Roman History, p. vii

[4] Appian Civil Wars, p. xxxi

[5] “Plutarch”, Microsoft Encarta 98

[6] For instance, see Plut., Sulla 37

[7] Appian Civil Wars 98 and 101; Plut., Sulla 31 and 33

[8] Plut, Sulla 31

[9] Appian Civil Wars, 95

[10] Appian Civil Wars, 97

[11] Plut., Sulla 31

[12] Keaveney, p. 157

[13] Plut., Sulla 28

[14] Appian Civil Wars 84

[15] Plut., Sulla 31

[16] Appian Civil Wars, 95

[17] Appian Civil Wars 95; Plut., Sulla 31

[18] Appian Civil Wars 95 and 96; Plut., Sulla 31

[19] Appian Civil Wars 96; Plut., Sulla 33


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