Sulla's dictatorship came during a high point in the struggle between optimates and populares, the former seeking to maintain the Senate's oligarchy, and the latter espousing populism. In a dispute over the eastern army command (initially awarded to Sulla by the Senate but withdrawn as a result of Gaius Marius's intrigues) Sulla marched on Rome in an unprecedented act and defeated Marius in battle. In 81 BC, after his second march on Rome, he revived the office of dictator, which had been inactive since the Second Punic War over a century before, and used his powers to enact a series of reforms to the Roman Constitution, meant to restore the primacy of the Senate and limit the power of the tribunes. Sulla's ascension was also marked by political purges in proscriptions. After seeking election to and holding a second consulship, he retired to private life and died shortly after.
Sulla's decision to seize power – ironically enabled by his rival's military reforms that bound the army's loyalty with the general rather than to Rome – permanently destabilized the Roman power structure. Later leaders like Julius Caesar would follow his precedent in attaining political power through force.
Sulla's life was habitually included in the ancient biographical collections of leading generals and politicians, originating in the biographical compendium of famous Romans published by Marcus Terentius Varro. In Plutarch's Parallel Lives Sulla is paired with the Spartan general and strategist Lysander.
In older sources, his name may be found as Sylla. This is a Hellenism, like sylva for classical Latin silva, reinforced by the fact that our two major sources, Plutarch and Appian, wrote in Greek, and call him Σύλλα.
Sulla, the son of Lucius Cornelius Sulla and the grandson of Publius Cornelius Sulla, was born into a branch of the patrician gens Cornelia, but his family had fallen to an impoverished condition at the time of his birth. Lacking ready money, Sulla spent his youth amongst Rome’s comics, actors, lute-players, and dancers. He retained an attachment to the debauched nature of his youth until the end of his life; Plutarch mentions that during his last marriage – to Valeria – he still kept company with "actresses, musicians, and dancers, drinking with them on couches night and day".
It seems certain that Sulla received a good education. Sallust declares him well-read and intelligent, and he was fluent in Greek, which was a sign of education in Rome. The means by which Sulla attained the fortune which later would enable him to ascend the ladder of Roman politics, the Cursus honorum, are not clear, although Plutarch refers to two inheritances; one from his stepmother and the other from a low-born but rich unmarried lady.
The Jugurthine War had started in 112 BC when Jugurtha, grandson of Massinissa of Numidia, claimed the entire kingdom of Numidia in defiance of Roman decrees that divided it between several members of the royal family.