Who Was The First Dictator Of Ancient Rome

The Roman Republic was a form of government established in 510 BC which held power in the Mediterranean region for around five hundred years. It was one of the most successful governments of its time, largely thanks to its ability to expand and incorporate new territories. During this time of growth and prosperity, the government of Rome changed from a constitutional republic to a full-fledged dictatorship. The first dictator of Rome was Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, who held power from 82 to 79 BC.

Sulla came from a wealthy patrician family in Rome, and had a strong background in military service. He served as a consul in 88 BC and was a respected general in the Social War. He gained a reputation as a skilled politician and effective leader, and soon gained the support of powerful Roman patrician families. In 82 BC, the Senate appointed him dictator with the purpose of restoring order in Rome and to combat the presence of a large number of armed gangs.

Under Sulla, the Roman Republic entered a period of significant political and social upheaval. He was responsible for numerous reforms which had a dramatic effect on the Roman government and its citizens. He granted Roman citizenship to all of Italy, and designed a new constitution which increased the power of the Senate. Sulla also established a police force and a system of courts, both of which helped to increase the rule of law. He took control of the state treasury, and was known for his harsh punishments for those that opposed him.

Sulla’s reign as dictator was not universally popular, and he was forced to flee Rome in 79 BC due to growing opposition from within the Republic. Although he was a successful leader while in office, his tenure in power was seen by many as a sign of autocratic rule which threatened the foundation of the Republic. Despite his reforms, the Roman Republic was eventually replaced by an empire ruled by a succession of emperors who held absolute authority over the state.

Sulla’s legacy as the first dictator of Rome remains controversial today. While he is credited with introducing new reforms that provided significant improvements to the Republic, his role as a dictator led to the downfall of the Republic and the establishment of imperial rule. Some historians argue that by introducing measures which undermined the rules and traditions of the Republic, Sulla ultimately undermined the longevity and stability of the Republican government.

Economic Effects

Sulla’s reign as dictator had a significant effect on the Roman economy. While he established some reforms which increased the efficiency of the state finances, his policies also had a negative impact on the Roman Republic. Under Sulla, the Republic’s finances were tightly controlled and taxes were increased in order to fund his reforms. This had the unintended consequences of widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor, as the burden of taxation fell disproportionately on those who could least afford to pay.

Sulla’s economic reforms also had a damaging effect on the Roman currency. He increased the amount of silver and gold coins in circulation, which caused inflation and depressed the value of the currency. This had a severe impact on businesses, as high inflation eroded the value of their profits. Sulla’s economic policies therefore had a significant impact on the Roman economy in the short term, but these effects were largely reversed upon his departure from office.

Political Impact

Sulla’s rule as dictator was also marked by political instability. He took control of the government apparatus and adjusted the traditional checks and balances within the system in order to consolidate his power. This included disbanding the tribunician system, a network of tribunes elected by the people to defend their interests against the authority of the Senate. By doing so, he removed the only safeguard which had been preventing the Senate from gaining absolute control over the state.

Sulla’s dictatorship also resulted in a number of laws which further weakened the Republic. In 79 BC, he passed the lex Licinia Mucia, which allowed him to confiscate land from those who had opposed him during his reign as dictator. He also passed the lex Plautia Papiria, which allowed him to distribute land to his supporters, effectively rewarding those who had stood by him during his time in power.

Sulla’s tenure as dictator thus had a significant impact on the political culture of Rome. As the first dictator, his policies and actions set a precedent for future rulers and had a lasting effect on the government of the Roman Republic.

Social Effects

Sulla’s rule as dictator had a profound impact on Roman society as well. His policies encouraged aristocratic families to increase their power and dominance over the state, while those who did not support his rule were marginalised and persecuted. He also introduced a system of patronage and nepotism, whereby the powerful families in Rome could make favouritism a means of gaining even greater power.

Furthermore, Sulla’s policies also spurred the growth of a professional army in Rome. He established a standing army, thereby diminishing the importance of the people’s militias. This allowed the Senate to gain greater control over the military apparatus in Rome and become the ruling body of the Republic.

Sulla’s rule thus had a marked effect on the social structure of the Roman Republic. His reforms and policies allowed the elite class to wield even more power over the state, and in doing so provided the foundation for future imperial rulers who would ultimately forsake the Republic for absolute autocracy.

Cultural Impact

Sulla’s rule as dictator also had a significant impact on Roman culture. As the first dictator, he legitimised the idea of autocratic rule in the Roman Republic and encouraged future rulers to follow the same model. His harsh punishments and oppressive laws led to a fear amongst the population of usurpation. This eventually resulted in a culture of obedience and order, which would become the foundation of Roman imperial rule.

Sulla’s legacy also had a lasting effect on the Roman Senate. Under his rule, the Senate and the elite families it represented became the most powerful factions in the Republic and were able to solidify their control over the government. This allowed them to maintain their monopoly on power even in the face of imperial rule, a legacy that remains to this day.

Sulla’s time as dictator thus had a lasting impact on the Roman Republic and its culture. His reforms and policies had a profound effect on the government and society of the Republic, and set the precedent for future rulers who would expand the Roman Empire and bring about the decline of the Republic.


Sulla’s legacy as the first dictator of Rome is complex and oftentimes controversial. Historians debate whether his reforms benefited the Republic or led to its downfall. However, it is widely accepted that his time as dictator had a significant impact on the Roman Republic and its citizens. His reforms and policies changed the political and social landscape of the Republic, and provide a foundation for the imperial rule which eventually replaced it.

Sulla’s legacy remains a controversial subject in modern society, as his actions are seen by some as an example of autocratic rule and the dangers of autocracy. His reign as dictator was the beginning of a new era for the Roman Republic, and his time in power set the stage for future rulers who would ultimately bring about the decline of the Republic and usher in the era of imperial rule.

Moshe Rideout is a professional writer and historian whose work focuses on the history of Ancient Rome. Moshe is passionate about understanding the complexity of the Roman Empire, from its architecture to its literature, political systems to social structures. He has a Bachelor's degree in classic studies from Rutgers University and is currently pursuing a PhD in classical archaeology at UMass Amherst. When he isn't researching or writing, he enjoys exploring ruins around Europe, drawing inspiration from his travels.

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