Marius opens the army to all citizens. But his new army is loyal to him personally rather than to the state. For the first time the army is used by an individual to short-circuit traditional political methods. Despite his early success and six consulships, Marius' career ends in tragedy for himself and for Rome. Sulla's army marches on Rome: a sinister precedent.


What Tiberius Gracchus tried to halt when he was tribune in 133 BC was a trend which had begun centuries earlier and which, by the very success with which Rome had conducted its military operations, had become a vicious circle. Ancient armies were manned by peasant farmers. A society continually at war required a constant supply of conscripts. Smallholdings fell into disuse because there was no-one to tend them. As Roman conquests spread through the Mediterranean lands, even more men were required, and wealth and cheap corn poured back into Rome, much of it into the hands of entrepreneurs, who became even richer, and invested in land out of which they carved vast areas for vegetables, vines, olives, and sheep farming, all managed by slave labour.

Treading grapes

Treading grapes. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)

The dispossessed rural poor became the urban poor, thus also becoming ineligible for military service as no longer being nominal property holders. Not only was there a shortage of recruits, but the soldier had nothing to return to between campaigns or at the end of his service.

A solution to the problem of recruitment was devised by Gaius Marius, a man of humble origins who was born near Arpinum, a town in Latium about 60 miles south-east of Rome. He first saw military service in Spain, and did not hold any public office until he was 38, when he was elected a tribune of the people. Four years later, in 115 BC, he managed to achieve a praetorship and made a good marriage, to Julia of the family of that name; he was thus to become an uncle by marriage of Julius Caesar. He then served in the African wars against Jugurtha, who in the wake of the destruction of Carthage had usurped the whole of Numidia after being granted half.

Marius returned to Rome in 108 BC to stand successfully for consul, in which capacity the comitia tributa elected him to assume military command in Africa, an infringement of the traditional prerogative of the senate to make military appointments. Abandoning the usual methods of enlisting servicemen, Marius openly recruited volunteers from the urban poor, promising them victory, booty, glory, and, of course, permanent jobs. He introduced new training methods and, with the first professional army the Romans ever had, brought the fighting to a speedy end; though the final negotiations, which resulted in the kidnap of Jugurtha and his being handed over to Rome for execution, were conducted by a young quaestor called Cornelius Sulla.

When it was announced in Rome that the African war was over, Marius was elected consul in his absence. He was re-elected in 105 BC, and assigned to Gaul, where two displaced Celtic tribes from the north, the Cimbri and Teutones, had inflicted near Arausio (Orange) the greatest defeat on the Romans since Cannae. He was elected again for the years 103-101, during which he destroyed the menace of the Cimbri and Teutones.

Dying Gaul

Marble statue of a dying Gaul, a first-century copy of a third-century BC bronze original from Pergamum. (VRoma: Capitoline Museum, Rome: Susan Bonvallet)

As a professional soldier at the head now of a professional army, Marius needed to establish the means for his soldiers to receive allotments of land on discharge and to continue his own career by getting a new command. He threw in his lot with the tribune Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, a man not above using street violence to achieve political ends, with whose help he was elected consul for a sixth time for the year 100 BC. Saturninus now put forward on his behalf a number of legislative proposals in the Gracchus mould, including the usual controversial measures for land allotments to be made to army veterans from the Italian states and full franchise for some of them.

The whole programme was accepted, but not without predictable opposition from both nobility and people of Rome, which culminated in violent demonstrations. These were put down by Marius’s soldiers, who, of course, had a vested interest in the outcome. This appearance on the streets of Rome of armed military, and their use, without an act of the senate, was a precedent of profound significance. From that time onwards, the rule of Rome was always in the hands of whoever had the support of the army.

Saturninus now instigated a tragic sequence of events by organizing the assassination of an inconvenient political opponent. The senate issued a senatus consultum ultimum obliging Marius to take action against his principal supporter, which he did by arresting him with an armed force. An enraged mob broke into the prison, and lynched Saturninus and several of his cronies. The senate now repealed all Saturninus’s laws on the grounds that they had been implemented by force, which was technically true. Marius, with no legislation to back his plans for his soldiers and no political support, went into temporary exile at the end of his year of office. When he returned, it was to take an active part in the “Social War” (91-89 BC). A confederacy of Italian states in the south, fed up with having to fight for Rome without being treated as equals, and not even being allowed to participate in the decisions for which they were fighting, rebelled. They lost the war but eventually gained their objective, most of them being granted full citizenship.

Italians against Rome

Denarius of the time of the Social War; the Italian confederacy takes the oath against Rome. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

In 88 BC all Roman eyes were turned to the east, where Mithridates (c. 132-63 BC). king of Pontus, had invaded the Roman province of Asia and massacred eighty thousand Roman and Italian citizens. The senate appointed Sulla, who was consul that year, to lead a force against Mithridates. The tribune Sulpicius Rufus (124-88 BC) passed through the concilium plebis a package of laws, one of which called for the transfer of this command to Marius. Sulla marched on Rome with his six legions and had the decision reversed. This was the first time that a Roman army had been used against Rome itself.

Sulpicius went into hiding, but was discovered and killed. Marius, now in his seventieth year, fled with his adopted son. Marius was picked up near the coast of Latium while hiding in a marsh and was sentenced to death by the local magistrates, but was hustled aboard a ship when no-one could be found to perform the execution. He ended up in Carthage, from where he was ordered by the Roman governor in Africa to move on.

In the meantime, while Sulla was carrying out his orders in Asia, Cornelius Cinna (d. 84 BC), one of the two consuls for 87 BC, took the opportunity to reintroduce another of the proposals of Sulpicius, the enrolment of the newly enfranchised Italians and also freedmen as members of the traditional 35 tribes. He was promptly ejected from the city by his consular colleague. Cinna raised an army of Italian volunteers. He was joined by Marius, now back in Italy with a small force of cavalry, which he augmented by breaking into the quarters in which slaves who worked the farms were held at night and enlisting them as fighting men.

slave quarters

Slave quarters at Villa Adriana, Palace of Hadrian, early second century AD. (VRoma: Sue Olsen)

Together Marius and Cinna marched on Rome with their motley armies. After a dreadful siege in which thousands died of plague, the city capitulated, having extracted from Cinna a promise that there would be no bloodshed. Marius, who had kept silent during this exchange, obviously did not regard himself as a party to the agreement. The moment the gates were opened, the killing began. It went on for five days. Marius and Cinna now proposed themselves as consuls for the next year, 86 BC. No-one dared oppose them. On 13 January, however, Marius died, it is said of drink and delirium, but possibly simply of old age. He had reformed the army and had been consul an unprecedented seven times, but his ambition, combined with his political naïveté, had caused the stability of Rome to be permanently upset.

Map of Mediterranean

The Roman world at the end of the second and beginning of the first century BC. (Ancient World Mapping Center)

Roman soldier

Drawing of a legionary on the march, with his weapons and personal gear. (VRoma: Landesmuseum, Mainz: Barbara McManus)

Believe it or not:

Before the time of Marius, a legion had several standards which were carried in front of different units. He made the eagle the pre-eminent standard for all legions, to be a signal as to where the action was and a rallying point for the troops. To lose, or to have to surrender, an eagle to the enemy was a colossal disgrace.