CENTRALIZATION OF P OWER
AND SULL AN AMBIGUITY
In a book about homicide and its relationship to political power, Lucius Cornelius Sulla takes center stage. As consul in 88 B.C.E. he marched his troops against the city of Rome and then created the hostis (“enemy of the state”) declaration, which made certain citizens of Rome (and personal enemies of Sulla) into enemies of the res publica and therefore subject to death. While proconsul and general fighting on the eastern fringes of the empire, he was himself declared a hostis. Upon his return to Rome, he waged a civil war. He became dictator for restoring the laws, in 81, around which time he created the proscriptions, a list of people whom one could kill with impunity, and then he promulgated the lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis, known in many English-language texts as Sulla’s murder law. He resigned his position of absolute political power eighteen months after he assumed it.
In his promulgation of the hostis declaration, Sulla conflated himself with the res publica. Nearly a decade later, along with the assumption of the dictatorship, Sulla took for himself, as preserver of the res publica, the power to determine who could be justly slain on its behalf. His treatment of homicide reveals his relationship to political power, in particular, his impermanent assumption of absolute power that resulted in a temporary centralization of political power in the last century of the Roman republic.
Twice in his career, in two different ways, Sulla attempted to legitimize the killing of his enemies by making them enemies of the Romans and the res publica. With hindsight, connections can be seen between the two attempts, but it is preferable to explore them separately, because the Sulla of 88 almost certainly had no inkling of the kind of temporary political revolution that the Sulla of 81 would bring about.