Exchanging Tyrants

“This is clear at once to the dullest-witted man in Rome that, so far from having escaped from tyranny, they had only exchanged one tyrant for another.  As for the elder Marius, he had always had a savage character, and power had intensified, not altered his natural disposition.  Sulla, on the other hand, had used his good fortune moderately at first and had behaved like a normal person, he had acquired the reputation of being a leader who was both an aristocrat and a friend of the people; then too from his earliest days he had been one who loved laughter and one who, so far from disguising his tenderer feelings, would often burst into tears.  It was natural therefore that his behaviour should cast a certain suspicion on the very idea of high office and should make people think that these great powers bring about a change in the previous characters of their holders–a change in the direction of overexcitability, pomposity and inhumanity.  However, I should have to write another essay altogether to determine the point whether this is a real change and revolution in a man’s nature, brought about by fortune, or whether it is rather the case that when a man is in power the evil that has been latent in him reveals itself openly.” Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Empire trans. Rex Warner, Revised Ed. (New York, 2005), p. 96.

Here we read Plutarch’s account of Sulla’s victory over his enemies in a civil war.  Marius, who had died in 86 BC, had promoted an authoritarian government in Rome particularly against the aristocratic Senators.  Sulla championed the traditionalists’ cause and won in 82 BC.  The Senate declared him dictator of Rome.  He used this power to purge Rome of his political enemies through proscription.  Sulla made lists with powerful men’s names on it and declared them to be enemies of the Republic.  Anyone could kill them and make a claim to their property.  This included their slaves who could gain their freedom through this action.  Plutarch depicts Sulla as a brutal, savage dictator.  The moral lesson: Don’t exchange one tyrant for another.  The second one, she, may be worse than the first.

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