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Gaius Marius

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Gaius Marius:

January 13, 157 B.C.E. - 86 B.C.E.


Note: Gaius Marius was a real person. His decisions and actions affected the political turmoil of the age that led to the civil wars that brought down the Roman Republic and made possible the Empire. This first scene is imagined, but the rest of the story is true. 


"Please be still, Master Gaius," The servant whispered. "It would not do for you to enter manhood with a bloody face.

            The servant held the slender blade a scant inch from Gaius' cheek. He was a body slave of the Caecilius Metellus household assigned to give young Gaius his first shave. The elder Gaius Marius shot his son a glance from his place on one of the lower couches on the far side of the triclinum, or dining hall, though this room in the magnificent household of the Caecilius Metellus family held far more than three couches. Gaius' mother, Fulcinia, watched, turned sideways in the straight chair across the low table from his father. She held her head high and her mouth smiled, but her eyes looked like she was going to weep. Gaius sat up very straight and held the silver dish up close under his chin to catch the tiny hairs as they fell.

            The Metellus house was very full, and the Marius family, Gaius, his mother and his father shared a small cella, or sleeping room at the corner of the peristyle garden nearest the servants' quarters. Still, it was an honor to be invited to stay in the household of the family's patron for New Year's festivities. This year was particularly fortuitous, as one member of the Metellus family had been one of the two consuls elected the previous year and another was a consul for the coming year.

            Fulcinia had objected to her husband's idea that young Gaius, at not quite fifteen years old, was ready to wear his manly toga. This was one time, however, that Marius insisted on his right as head of the household to make the decision.  

            The following morning, young Gaius joined his father in the throng of clients escorting the leaders of the Metellus household in the long procession from their domus on the Palatine, down the clivius, the shallow stairway down the hillside to the Roman Forum,  up the via Sacra to the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. Gaius carried his shorn whiskers in a covered silver dish, clutching it tightly to keep the downy whisps from floating away. His father carried a creamy white toga folded over his arm, twin to the one he wore himself.  Both togas were gifts from the Metellus family.  The togas the Metellus men wore were whiter, with crimson borders to match the broad crimson stripe down the left side of their tunics, and they wore crimson leather boots like all members of the Roman Senate.

            "Will Metellus give me my toga?" Gaius asked his father.

            "Oh, no. He will be much too busy for that," the elder Marius said. "We can be grateful just to be in his escort this important day."

            "Someday, I will be the one who is so important," Gaius said. Someday, I will be so important Metellus would be glad to hand me my toga, he thought.      

            Gaius' mother waved to him from the podium of the Temple of Saturn. She had to lean far over to see from her place in the back of the group of women from the Metellus household. Some of them had young children with them, the boys dressed in tiny crimson-trimmed togas like their fathers. Gaius didn't remember having a toga when he was little, certainly not a crimson-trimmed one.

            By the time Gaius and his father reached the top of the Capitoline Hill, the sacrifices were almost over. Smells of roasting meat doused with wine and herbs, of sheeps and pigs and even oxen, rose from the altar on the steps of Jupiter's Temple and others scattered around the huge plaza. After the flames had consumed the blood and the fat from the internal organs, the parts the gods were said to prefer, and the savor from the sacrifice had risen to the heavens, the leftover meat would be served to the people. Long tables were already set up in the Forum and people brought other foods to go with what was essentially a barbecue.   

            Gaius and his father were far back in the crowd, too far to see the actual ceremony to recognize the new consuls. But, as his father reminded him, at least they were present when two members of their patron family were honored. The food smells were tempting, but nothing could have convinced Gaius that his sacrifice and his toga could wait for another day. So, they waited in the long line as it snaked its way to the main altar on the temple steps. Certainly having his ceremony of manhood at Jupiter's central temple and on such an important day would bring good fortune.

            A minor priest accepted the silver dish from Gaius' hands, splashed in some wine and oil and flamed the mixture with a sliver from the altar fire, then dropped the dish in a sack at his feet and waved them off. Gaius' father said his own prayer for his son's honor and carefully draped the toga around his body himself.

            In the afternoon, after the sacred barbecue was reduced to scraps, the citizens of Rome, the males from seventeen to mid-forties, gathered on the Capitoline to find out who would serve in the legion for the coming year. The aristocrats and nobles would serve in positions of command, of course, and their postings were already decided. The twenty-four military tribunes, six junior officers for each of the four legions to be filled, were splendid in their polished bronze cuirass, molded to look like the chest muscles of a Greek statue. They stood at attention flanking the officers overseeing the lots or carried documents from one official to another.

            First the volunteers were called up. They were mostly veterans, many already wearing their coppery pectorale or chain mail, or young men eager to earn a reputation and defend the honor of Rome. After that, the lots were drawn and lists posted of the names of the men serving in each class within each legion.

            The classes of legionary were distinguished by the different armament they carried. Since the Roman legionaries supplied their own equipment and armor, the class they served in was determined by what they could afford to buy. Marius did not want to think what it would be like to go into battle as those from the poorest classes, armed only with a light buckler, a sword a few javelins and a helmet covered with animal skin. Instead, he imagined himself as one of the shining tribunes.

            Gaius Marius was not a Roman noble. But, his father's connections with the Metelli made it possible for him to make himself one. It was possible for a new man to rise from plebian status to the nobility, but not at all easy.

            As the Marius family readied themselves to return to their home outside Arpinum,  and the elder Marius thanked their patron for his hospitality, an offer was extended for young Gaius to remain in Rome and further his education. Gaius was happy for the opportunity to remain in the capital city, but he already knew he was not interested in spending his time becoming a philosopher.




            By the time he was 23, Gaius Marius was serving with the legion at Numantia. Things were not going well with the Roman campaign to conquer the Celtic tribes in Spain, when the new general Scipio Aemilianus arrived. Under his leadership, however, the Romans enjoyed more success. Gaius Marius gained attention by courage and good service. Some said he defeated an enemy in single combat and was seen by his commander. He used this attention to launch his military and political career. He ran for election as one of 24 special military tribunes (junior officers) of the first four legions, and was elected by a healthy margin. He was not known by sight to the electors, but was included by all the tribes on the basis of his reputation. Romans serving in rich provinces expected to bring home wealth from this service, so Marius likely also increased his fortunes in Spain.

            It was an auspicious beginning to a career that would see both incredible success and occasional failure. Marius was not always successful in politics, and his successes seem all to have been connected to his military ability.

            Upon his return from Spain, he ran for a local office in his home town of Arpinum and lost. Perhaps he was trying to gain support back home, but was unsuccessful. Next, he ran for a questorship in Rome. These magistrates performed a variety of duties, from supervising the financial affairs in Rome to serving as assistants to generals or as lieutenant governors of provinces. He was elected, but we know nothing of what his duties were.

            At the age of 37, Marius was elected a tribune of the plebs, likely with the help of the Metellus family. This board of ten men, annually elected, shared a great deal of power as a group and as individuals. Attempting to interfere with any one of them in performance of their duties carried a sentence of death. A tribune could convene the Senate and lay proposals before it. He could also veto actions of the Senators. This power only continued for the one year the man held office, however, and only within the precinct of Rome, so the wise man was careful how he used his authority.

            Whatever his ambitions to be a member of the Roman nobility, while he was tribune, Marius served the interests of the common people. He brought forward a law making it more difficult for anyone to influence or harass people as they were voting. The law was opposed by the consul Cotta and by Metellus, but Marius used his power to threaten both men and to confirm his law, winning great support from the common people. Even with this support, Marius lost in the next two elections where he ran for aedilships, or to be an administrative magistrate. Even though the Romans allowed all male citizens to vote, the Roman system gave more power to the upper classes in electing officials, so Metellus' lack of support may have taken its toll.

            In 116 B.C.E., when he was 41, Marius won election as one of six praetors. These magistrates shared many of the powers of the consuls, and might preside at trials, but were often sent to govern Roman provinces. He was accused of corruption, but won acquittal on the charge, and apparently spent an uneventful year in Rome. His power was extended the next year by the senate and he was sent to govern Lusitania, a province including much of what is Portugal today. As governors generally served two years at this time, he likely returned to Rome in 113 B.C.E.

            Consuls or praetors were sometimes honored with a triumph celebration upon their return to Rome. In order to qualify, the governor must have acted as a general in a foreign war where over 5,000 enemies were killed, must bring his army home indicating the war was over, and must be approved by the senate. The parade included the victorius general's troops, wagons of captured goods and banners with paintings depicting the victory. The defeated leaders, or people dressed to represent them, were marched in the parade and executed at its end. 

            Marius was not honored with a triumph on his return from Lusitania, and apparently did not run for consul. During the next couple of years, however, Marius did marry a woman from the Julius family. Marriages at this time were often arranged by the father, or pater familias, rather than between the two people to be married, and agreements might include promises of money or power. The Julii Caeares were one of the oldest and most respected of the patrician families. However, they were not particularly powerful at this time, and only one member of the family had held the office of consul in the previous century. Marius was apparently very wealthy by this time, however, and money in Rome brought its own kind of power. By this marriage, Marius was to be the uncle of the famous Julius Caesar the dictator. By the time the young Caesar was born, Gaius Maius was at the height of his power, and so must have been an influence on his nephew's ambitions.

            Marius' break with the Caecilii Metelli was not permanent. In fact the Caecilius Metellus family was of plebian or common origins, having become noble by members' election to high office, so there may have been some sympathy for Marius' popular values. In 109 B.C.E., Quintus Caecilius Metellius took Marius with him to Numidia, north Africa, as legate in his campaign against a leader named Jugurtha. Legates were originally envoys sent by the senate, but by this time they were appointed at the general's request and were often used as junior commanders. Since no other legate is mentioned for Metellus at this time, it seems that Marius was his right hand man or most trusted lieutenant. Metellus may have been using Marius' military talent, and Marius was certainly strengthening his position to run for consul.

            In 108 B.C.E., Marius requested permission of his commander to return to Rome to run for consul. At first Metellus refused and attempted to convince Marius to wait until a later time, when he promised his support. Marius, however, set about making himself popular with the troops, by relaxing military discipline, and with the traders, by claiming that he could capture Jugurtha very quickly if he were in command. Both groups wrote home praising Marius. and saying that Marius could win the war quickly. Finally Metellus gave in, realizing that it did him no good to have a resentful lieutenant.

            Marius campaigned for consul as a new man who had worked his way up the cursus honorium, or ladder of honor, by competence and honesty. The people were weary of wars led by often inept or corrupt members of the aristocracy, and Marius was elected consul for the following year. The senate was in charge of assigning provinces, however, and decided to leave Metellus where he was in Numidia. Marius got around the senateby invoking a law that allowed a special election to select military commanders. Marius was voted the command of the campaign in Numidia in this special election. Metellus was very displeased. He refused to meet with Marius and applied for a triumph upon his return to Rome. His request was granted, and, as was the requirement, he brought his army home and released his troops.  

            Marius needed more troops if he were to continue the campaign in Africa. The disbanding of Metellus' legions, and a series of campaigns in which many Roman lives from the landed classes were lost, left him to depend on volunteers. With the system that demanded the legionaries purchase their own equipment and support themselves, many that were willing to volunteer were not eligible to serve. A generation earlier, the Grachi had tried to solve the problem by distributing public land to the poor, hoping to increase the number of Roman landholders. More recently, the minimum qualification for military service had been lowered to one-third its former level. 

            In 107 B.C.E. Marius decided to ignore the property qualifications altogether and recruit from the landless poor. In order to make this system work, of course, the government would be required to equip each legionary and to provide a regular paycheck. Marius was able to push through legislation to accomplish this. Perhaps Marius saw these reforms as only a temporary way to deal with the immediate crisis. However, from this time on, the Roman legion was made up primarily of professional soldiers, most of whom served 25 years and depended on the legion for their security and support.

            Dealing with Jugartha in north Africa took longer than Marius anticipated. In the end it was Marius' quaestor, or paymaster, who bribed the king of Mauretania, Brocchus, to betray Jugartha. As general, however, it was Marius who took credit for the victory and rode in the victor's chariot in the triumph parade in Rome.

            In late 105 B.C.E., while still in Africa, Marius was again elected consul. There was a law on the Roman books that required a ten year interval between terms if a man served as consul more than once. Another that forbad two terms altogether. Another required that a man be present in order to run for office. However, the Roman Senate had the power to set aside laws in an emergency, and the senators must have believed that the situation required it.

            Since 109 B.C.E., for the previous five years, tribes of people considered to be either Celtic or German had been migrating around Gaul defeating every Roman legion that came against them, then retreating to wander some more. Marius took time to prepare an army, and in 103 B.C.E., left for Gaul, taking as one of his legates Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla was a young patrician whose family had fallen on hard times, but it was he who had served as Marius' questor and captured Jugartha. It seems not to have mattered much at the time, as they were again serving together. However, Sulla is said to have had a ring made commemorating his role in that campaign, and he would be Marius' enemy in the civil wars that marked the end of the Republic.

            The Cimbri and their allies continued to defeat Roman armies that they encountered, until they came up against Marius. In 102 B.C.E. Marius practically annihilated a tribe called the Teutoni at Aquae Sextae in what is now southern France. He deferred his triumph, perhaps because he had distributed most of the captured treasure (which was needed to make an impressive show in a triumph parade) to his legionaries. Instead, he marched north to reinforce his colleague from the previous year, Quintus Lutatius Catulus who was facing a much larger force of Cimbri at Vercellae. Again, with Marius in command, the Romans were victorious. Catulus and Marius triumphed together, but the people gave Marius credit for the victory.

            Marius was re-elected for five successive terms as consul (104 - 100 B.C.E.), totally against Roman law and custom. His successes in Gaul, and the perception that there was still threat of an invasion, explain all but his last election. Perhaps his return in 100 B.C.E. was something of a reward, though it didn't turn out that way.

            During Marius' sixth consulship, a tribune Saturnius pushed for reforms to distribute public land to the poor and to lower the price of government distributed grain. Although these positions were very like what Marius himself had advocated, he complied with the wishes of the Senate and put down the revolt. He then retired to and estate east of Rome; he was 58 years old.

            After Marius' retirement, Rome enjoyed a few years of relative peace. In 95 B.C.E., however, the Senate passed a decree that all citizens of other Italian cities be expelled from Rome. This decree seems to have been the final slap in the face for Italian cities whose citizens had long been expected to send troops and money to support wars they had no power to affect. After several years of agitation, tribune Marcus Livius Drusus proposed reforms that included full Roman citizenship for all freemen of Italy. He was assassinated, however, before his laws could be enacted. The Italian cities then revolted against Rome in what is called the Social War (91-88 B.C.E.)  Marius again took command along with Sulla against the rebel cities.

            In 88 B.C.E., Sulla was elected consul and took command of an army in Nola, just east of present day Naples, Italy. He expected to lead them against Mithradates of Pontus (modern day Turkey.) However, Marius again invoked a special election and won command of the army from the Assembly. This time Sulla urged his troops to defy the order and accept him as their commander. Sulla was successful and representatives sent from the Assembly were killed.

            Sulla then commanded the legions to march with him and take over Rome by force. No army had ever marched against Rome before (though Julius Caesar would do it a generation later); it was forbidden by law and by ancient custom. Marius tried to organize a defense of the city using gladiators, but they were no match for trained legionaries. Sulla and his supporters in the Senate passed a death sentence on Marius and his supporters.

            Marius narrowly escaped capture and death several times before he found relative safety in Africa. Many years before, when Marius was serving in north Africa with Metellus, he consulted a soothsayer in Utica, in present day Tunisia. The prophetess had told him he would serve as leader of Rome seven times. Perhaps he was seeking the comfort of that prophecy as, unprecedented as it already was, he had served only six terms as consul. More likely, he sought the support of veterans of his legions, many of whom were living on land he had secured for them in the colony.

            Conflict between supporters of Marius and supporters of Sulla continued, with neither party clearly gaining the upper hand. In 87 B.C.E., the two consuls included one from each faction. Sulla was confirmed as commander in the war against Mithridates and marched east.

            While Sulla was on campaign, Marius, along with his son, returned to Rome with an army he had raised from among his veterans. Based on his orders, some of his soldiers rampaged through Rome for five days, killing supporters of Sulla. They were finally stopped by troops of Cinna, another supporter of Marius. Cinna and Marius were elected consuls for the year 86 B.C.E., but Marius died suddenly, only one month into his seventh consulship.


            The years of Marius' leadership marked a pivotal point in Roman history. In many ways, he himself was the pivot point between the Roman Republic and the excesses of the Empire. He provoked Sulla into marching on Rome, the first time in history any Roman leader had dared to do so, setting a precedent followed by Julius Caesar a generation later and others after.

            His reforms of the legion changed it from essentially a National Guard composed of citizen soldiers who served year to year and owed their allegiance to the state, to a professional fighting force with primary loyalty to their general. This change in the nature of the legion, and the fact that many from the provinces, and even newly conquered areas, saw the legion as a path to adventure and the privileges of Roman citizenship, may be said to have made the Empire possible.

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