Lucius Cornelius Cinna: War against the State to Save the State

Author: Raquel Ells

Lucius Cornelius Cinna (130-84 BC) was not a very prominent figure in Rome until he ended up in the middle of the political conflict between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla. His political and martial accomplishments are notable in Roman history and demonstrate true Roman identity. Although Roman identity can be interpreted in many ways, here it will mean the character that valued loyalty, warfare, and political advancement for the good of the Roman state. From this perspective, Lucius Cornelius Cinna certainly embodied what it meant to be Roman.


With the Social War coming to an end, Lucius Cornelius Sulla came into power with his first election to the consulship in 88 B.C.[1]  After much political conflict with Gaius Marius, Sulla marched on Rome.  This was the first time in Roman history that a Roman general had sacked the city.  Upon returning as consul and strengthening the Senate’s power, Sulla exiled Marius and his supporters and declared them enemies of the Roman state.[2] Determined to obtain another consulship, Marius planned his return and succeeded, principally because of Lucius Cornelius Cinna.[3]

Cinna as Consul

Cinna came into consulship in 87 B.C. Sulla illustrated his distrust for Cinna by making him take an oath with a stone at the Capitol while “praying that if he failed to preserve his goodwill for Sulla, he might be thrown out of Rome as the stone was thrown out of his hand.”[4] Because Cinna was coerced into taking this oath, he felt that he had a duty to support the people, and not let his oath influence his political decisions in any way. He then sought to remove Sulla from Rome.

However, Sulla ignored these accusations and set out to fight against Mithridates.[5] Gn. Octavius, a fellow consul, was not supportive of this endeavor and persuaded the senate to declare Cinna a public enemy. Octavius gained support from the Romans, also known as “old citizens”. The people from the Italian tribes that were promised citizenship, but that never actually gained any significant power were known as the “new citizens” and were in support of Cinna. This led to one of the biggest fights to ever occur in the Forum. Octavius used this to justify Cinna’s banishment from the city. Concurrently, the senate illegally removed him from consulship and elected Lucius Merula, the Flamen Dialis, to take his place. ⁶ Cinna was determined.  He gathered troops from resentful ex-allies, shared support from the Italians with Marius, and prepared to march on Rome.  Marius and Cinna strategically cut off Rome’s food supply, and used the opportunity to advance on the city.[6]  The Senate, in an act of fear sent someone to negotiate peace with Cinna: a failed venture. [7]  Upon enraging Cinna, out of fear the Senate sent another negotiator to plead with him to abstain from any more bloodshed.  He did not agree to this, but did say he wouldn’t be directly responsible for anyone’s death.  The Senate agreed to this and repealed Sulla’s acts of banishment on everyone previously exiled.[8]

According to Plutarch, Marius reentered the city before his exile was repealed and sought to slaughter anyone in support of Sulla.[9]  Cinna somewhat distanced himself from this by only ordering the deaths of Octavius and others directly associated with him. [10] After about five days of massacre and mayhem, Cinna became disgusted and ended the bloodbath through force.[11] Cinna and Marius were subsequently declared consuls in 86 B.C.  Ironically, after all that, Marius died within the first month of his consulship.[12] With the death of Marius, Rome entered into what historians call the “Domination CInnae” or the Domination of Cinna.

For the next three years, Rome was essentially in Cinna’s control.  He chose Valerius Flaccus to replace Marius and together they attempted to improve Rome’s economic situation.  During this time, Cinna’s great accomplishment was that of the citizenship issue.  Some progress was made and “new citizens” were distributed among the thirty-five tries and officially recorded in the census.

Roman Identity

These noteworthy events in Cinna’s life offer a portrait of what can be seen as a man who embodies Roman identity.  Defined early as an individual that valued loyalty, warfare and political advancement for the good of the Roman state, Lucius Cornelius Cinna can be seen as that as that identity.  Roman society valued loyalty something Cinna possessed and displayed.  He showed his loyalty to the “new citizens” and plebs early in his career by demonstrating that he would not let his oath to Sulla get in the way of doing what he thought was best for the people.  He proved his loyalty again when he passed the citizenship law regarding the rights of the “new citizens”.  His tendency for warfare is certainly well documented.  Most of his political career was spent preparing for warfare or engaged in it.  Although there were self-preservation motives, he was also motivated for the people and his political party.  Roman culture valued war and was almost comforted by it, meaning that it was felt weird for Rome not be to be engaged in warfare.  Cinna’s propensity for battle and his victories within it, show that he valued it just as much as the Roman state.  Lastly, political advancement was obviously important to him as seen throughout his career. He served four consecutive consulships from 87-84 while defending the rights of the people against Sulla’s laws of support to the aristocracy.  He probably would have made more advancements and laws if he hadn’t been in constant conflict with Sulla.  Nonetheless, Cinna’s commitment to the consulship and the equalization of all Italian groups is clear.  Although he can be seen as just a pawn in the epic rivalry between Marius and Sulla, he was more than that; he embodied Roman identity.



Appain, “The Civil Wars” in Appian’s Roman History, Translated by Horace White.

Great Brittan: Harvard University Press, 1979


Plutarch, “Gaius Marius,” in The Fall of the Roman Republic, trans. by Rex Warner.

London: Penguin Books, 2005.


Plutarch, “Sulla,” in The all of the Roman Republic, trans. by Rex Warner.

London: Penguin Books, 2005.


H. H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero: A history of Rome from 133 B.C. A.D. 68,

New York: Routledge, 2011.


[1] Plutarch, “Sulla,” in The Fall of the Roman Republic, trans. by Rex Warner. (London: Penguin Books, 2005.), sect. 6:10

[2] Appain, “The Civil Wars” in Appian’s Roman History, trans. by Horace White. (Great Brittan: Harvard University Press, 1979), 1:58

[3] Appain, “The Civil Wars”, 1:64

[4] Plutarch, “Sulla”, sect. 10:4

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 1:67

[7] Ibid., 1:69

[8] Ibid., 1:70

[9] Plutarch, “Gaius Marius,” in the The Fall of the Roman Republic, trans. by Rex Warner.  (London: Penguin Books, 2005.)

[10] Appain, “The Civil Wars”, 1:75

[11] H. H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero: A history of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68, (New York: Routledge, 2011), 60

[12] Appain, “The Civil Wars”, 1:75