Invasions and rampant destructions were common events in the long history of ancient Athens. Persians, Spartans, Romans, and later northern marauders such as the Herulians all had a go at Athens and left their mark on the age-old city’s archaeological record. One of the most notorious attacks was the months-long siege of Athens and Piraeus in 87-86 BC by the Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
Today, when reading archaeological reports or visiting historic sites around Athens, one often finds references to this particularly destructive, brutal takeover. Sulla’s invasion, according to specialists, was a turning point in the city’s history – afterward, Athens lost much of its Classical and Hellenistic character, becoming a subdued provincial city more artistically and architecturally aligned with Rome.
Although controversy exists over just how much archaeological evidence indicative of destruction can be attributed to Sulla’s capture of Athens, it is clear from historical sources and physical remains that much devastation occurred both during and after the siege. Among important Athenian districts affected were Plato’s outlying, heavily wooded Academy and the south side of the central Agora, where once stood elegant stoas, bankers’ tables and the city’s law courts (the Heliaia).
Athens became a target for Roman aggressions in the 1st century BC, during Rome’s eastward expansion and resulting struggle against Mithridates VI, the resistant king of Pontus (part of the former Persian Empire, roughly equivalent to present-day Turkey). Athens was also inclined to resist Rome. Aristion, the city’s ambassador to Pontus, became a close ally of Mithridates, who then backed Aristion’s return to Athens and his elevation to tyrant. Athenian support for Mithridates, led by Aristion, raised the anger of Rome.
Sulla, a brilliant, battle-hardened and unethical warrior-politician, was caught up in Rome’s internal strife as various leading figures there vied for power. The year before, in 88 BC, Sulla had infamously violated a cherished Roman custom by being the first general in the city’s history to enter Rome with his troops. In Greece, as well, Sulla showed little respect for sacred laws, local traditions or the preservation of human life. His army rampaged through the Greek countryside burning and looting. To support his war effort, Sulla pillaged valuable votive statuary and other works of art from the sanctuaries at Epidaurus, Olympia and Delphi. Ancient writers including Plutarch, Appian, Pausanias and Pliny the Elder report that after penetrating Athens’s walls, Sulla seized gold and silver objects, statues, paintings and prized dedicatory shields that adorned the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios in the Agora. He even took down several gigantic marble columns from the unfinished Olympieion and shipped them back to Rome to be used in the Capitoline temple of Jupiter.
The assault on Athens and Piraeus, from the fall of 87 BC until spring of 86 BC, was a demonstration of Roman power. Sulla ordered the erection of huge earthworks that cut off the Athenians from the land side. He also constructed massive siege towers, battering rams and catapults, with which his army could attack the city’s walls and gates. Stone balls were hurled into the city, landing just short of the Acropolis in the Agora. American excavations in the Agora have revealed signs of damage or destruction from the siege in the Royal Stoa, the Tholos and especially along the district’s southern side in the South Stoa II, the East Building and the Heliaia. Several large catapult balls were also found preserved on the site. Sulla’s main artillery position appears to have been in the northwest, outside the Sacred Gate near Plato’s Academy.
After Athenian defenders had burned many of the Romans’ siege engines with flaming arrows, according to Plutarch, Sulla cut down all of the Academy’s sacred olive trees (dedicated to Athena) to collect timber for their replacement. In an attempt to prevent Sulla’s men from acquiring further timber useful for besieging the Acropolis, the Athenians themselves burned down the largely wooden Odeion of Pericles on the South Slope.
Conditions inside Athens had become desperate. The starving Athenians were reduced to boiling down their leather shoes and oil bags and harvesting edible weeds on the slopes of the Acropolis. The tyrant Aristion, meanwhile, made light of the predicament, enjoying nightly drinking parties, dancing in his armor and refusing to share oil even with Athena’s priests to keep the sacred lamps in the Parthenon burning. He refused to seek terms with the enemy and mocked them from the walls.
Sulla finally broke through the city walls on March 1, 86 BC, somewhere in the vicinity of the Kerameikos. Incensed, perhaps partly by Aristion’s taunting, the general unleashed his army on the weakened, helpless Athenians. Many inhabitants were massacred, fires destroyed residential areas and the city’s wealth was carried away. Plutarch reports that blood flowed in the streets and out the Dipylon Gate. The Acropolis took several more weeks to conquer but it, too, eventually fell; Aristion was captured and executed, and Athens sank into a period of severe economic decline.
Sulla went on to become dictator in Rome in late 82 BC but retired from public life about two years later. Pausanias records he died from a terrible disease (see below) that may have been divine punishment brought on not by his cruel treatment of the Athenians but by the killing of Aristion in the sanctuary of Athena, perhaps even inside the Parthenon. Other historians suggest Sulla was simply a hard drinker whose liver finally succumbed. Sulla’s lack of compassion for ancient Athens was uncharacteristic of later Roman leaders, especially emperors Augustus and Hadrian, whose numerous benefactions left a more positive stamp upon the Athenian landscape.
‘Died seething with maggots...’
Sulla’s brutality in Greece during Rome’s war against Mithridates VI became legendary, as did the general’s apparently well-deserved ultimate fate. Second-century AD Roman traveler Pausanias relates: “Sulla, who was so savage and so un-Roman at Athens, was the same at Thebes and Orchomenus; he went to work even at Alalcomenae [in Boeotia], looting the very statue of Athena. This man who was so mad against the cities and the gods of Greece was gripped by the most horrible disease there is: He died seething with maggots. His early apparent good luck came round to so terrible an end.” [Pausanias, 9.33.4]