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Violating the City: Plutarch’s Use of Religious Landscape in the Life of Sulla

Mohammed Bhatti

Plutarch describes Sulla entering a city, an act loaded with religious and legal significance, three times in the Life: twice at Rome and once at Athens. In each case, the violation of the city corresponds with a violation of the religious landscape. This portrayal of religious violation contributes to the ambiguity in Sulla’s characterization. The work of Stadter (1992) and Duff (1999) has highlighted the ambiguity that is prevalent in the Sulla and its counterpart, the Lysander, but neither comment on the religious aspect. Religion is prominent in Plutarch’s Sulla and takes many forms, through portents (7.9), Sulla’s own declarations (34.3, 35.1, and 29.5), or the general pervasiveness of Τύχη in the life. The relationship between dynast and the gods, however, is problematized when we move away from Sulla’s positive claims. When we examine his actions, we see a very different picture. This paper examines Plutarch’s ambiguous portrayal of Sulla’s religiosity with special regard to significant moments in Sulla’s life: entering the city.

Our first instance of religious ambiguity occurs when Sulla enters Athens through the Dipylon Gate and into the Kerameikos, and lets his soldiers loose. The resulting bloodshed is so great that the Athenians estimate the number of victims by the area covered in blood (14.5), concluding with the final image of blood pouring out of the Dipylon Gate to the suburbs (14.6). Though his use of geographical markers, Plutarch points to the religious topography of Athens. The Kerameikos and the Dipylon Gate played vital roles in the Athenian religious landscape: the Kerameikos was the starting point for the Panathenaic Festival, while the Dipylon Gate played a significant role is the procession of the Eleusinian Mystery. Thus instead of a procession of Athenian citizens, Plutarch instead stages a procession of their blood. The irony of this defilement is seen later when Sulla becomes an initiate (26.1). To this geographic specificity, we can also add a temporal one. Plutarch emphasizes that the sack of Athens occurred on the Kalends of March, which corresponds to the First of Anthesterion. Both the Roman and Athenian dates bring to mind religious festival: the Kalends of March was the old Roman new year (Quaes. Rom. 19) while Anthesterion was the month of both the Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries, the Anthesteria, as well as the month that Athenians commemorated the great flood (Parker 2005: 316). Plutarch’s discussion of a flood that ushered in a new age of man brings to mind the oracle that proclaimed the advent of a new age (7.7). Unlike the flood, however, Sulla filled Athens with blood.
Plutarch furthers this problematic portrayal in the description of Sulla at Rome. When Sulla crosses the pomerium, he is breaching the sacred boundary which encompassed the city, a legal and religious demarcation that separated life within the city from the outside world (Rüpke 1990:32). Plutarch himself was aware of the antiquity and religiosity of the pomerium (Plut. Rom. 11). Sulla’s impiety is further highlighted during his second siege of the city, when his political actions cause impiety in others, best seen in the example of Lucius Catiline, who killed his brother before the proscription list was put forth, and then asked Sulla to place his brother’s name on the list post facto, a deed Plutarch describes as the most monstrous (32.3: καινότατον). For this favor, Catiline in turn killed Marcus Marius on behalf of Sulla and then washed his hands in the lustral basin of Apollo. This violation of the god’s property, with whom Sulla claimed a special relationship (29.5), contributes to the impiety that Plutarch portrays. This examination of the religious landscape in the Sulla furthers our understanding of Plutarch’s use of landscape as a technique to paint Sulla in an ambiguous way.

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Plutarch and Late Republican Rome

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