Ancient History & Civilisation



Caius Marius (157–86 BC)

And there is nothing a Roman soldier enjoys more than the sight of his commanding officer openly eating the same bread as him, or lying on a plain straw mattress, or lending a hand to dig a ditch or raise a palisade. What they admire in a leader is the willingness to share the danger and the hardship, rather than the ability to win them honour and wealth, and they are more fond of officers who are prepared to make efforts alongside them than they are of those who let them take things easy.1

ROMAN COMMANDERS WERE ARISTOCRATS, AND THIS WAS ESPECIALLY TRUE of the generals we have so far discussed. Fabius Maximus, Scipio Africanus, Aemilius Paullus and Scipio Aemilianus were all from patrician families – the last both by birth and adoption – and so members of Rome’s oldest ruling élite. By the third century BC the patricians had lost their monopoly of high office and a number of plebeian families had forced their way into the small privileged group which, generation after generation, dominated the Republic’s highest magistracies. Some patrician lines died out or dwindled to obscurity, whilst others, such as the Julii, continued to enjoy modest success, but remained largely on the fringes of real power. Four patrician clans, the Aemilii, Fabii, Cornelii and Claudii, were consistently strong, and provided a disproportionately high percentage of consuls. The greatest plebeian families rivalled them in wealth and influence, and shared a common ideology. Any successful leader must be confident, but the self-assurance and refusal to listen to criticism of Fabius Maximus, Paullus and the Scipios – and to a lesser extent Marcellus – owed much to their distinguished birth and patrician outlook. From his earliest youth each man knew that it was both his right and his duty to serve the Republic in a distinguished capacity, earning fame, honours and wealth in the process. A youth born into one of the dominant senatorial families was almost assured a reasonably successful political career regardless of personal ability. All the men we have studied had exceptional military talent, and at least some political ability. This, combined with their family background, not a little luck, and the opportunities presented by real or apparent crisis facing Rome, granted each man an exceptionally distinguished series of magistracies and field commands.

In spite of the dominance of the nobiles, in every generation there were always a few ‘new men’ who managed to reach the consulship. Such a rise was never easy, though perhaps not so difficult as successful ‘new men’ were inclined to claim, but always possible. When Caius Marius was elected consul for 107 BC, there was little to single him out as markedly different from any other novus homo. Some episodes in his career to this date had been controversial, but this was also true of many other senators, and it was only at this point that Marius began to shatter many conventions. His consulship proved to be the first of seven, more than any senator had ever held before. It was not simply the number which was unprecedented, but the nature, for five were held in consecutive years between 104 and 100, whilst the seventh he seized, as he had taken Rome itself, with armed force in 86. Marius was one of the key figures in the civil war which erupted in 88, the first in a long cycle of internal conflicts which would eventually destroy the Republican system of government. Roman politics and society had changed profoundly by the end of the first century. So had the fundamental nature of the Roman army, which had evolved from the traditional militia composed of a cross-section of the propertied classes into a semi-professional force recruited primarily from the very poor. Marius’ career, and the disorder of his times, was a symptom of these changes.


Plutarch claims that Marius’ parents laboured with their own hands to work their small farm near the village of Ceraetae outside the town of Arpinum.2 Tales of the poverty of ‘new men’ were common, adding to the drama of their subsequent political success, but must be taken with a pinch of salt. Only equestrians could seek election to any important magistracy at Rome, and membership of this Order required very substantial property. Members of senatorial families began their lives as equestrians, until political success led the censors to enrol them in the Senate, but these formed a small minority of the Order, most of whom chose not to enter politics. Evidently senators considered most ordinary equestrians as their social inferiors, but this snobbery should not blind us to the fact that the latter were people of considerable wealth and status, close to the top of Roman society, if not quite at its pinnacle. Marius’ family were doubtless part of the local aristocracy at Arpinum with considerable influence and power in the town, however rustic and obscure they may have appeared to the nobiles. His education may have been a little conservative by the standards of the day, Plutarch claiming that he had lacked much knowledge of Greek literature and culture and rarely, if ever, used the language. Yet in most respects Marius, like all other ‘new men’, differed little from the sons of senators in his attitudes and ambitions.3

Marius began his military service in the Celtiberian war and may have served there for several years before the arrival of Scipio Aemilianus. He readily accepted the stricter discipline imposed by the new commander and one story tells of the good impression he made during one of Scipio’s frequent inspections of his army’s weapons, equipment and baggage. On another occasion he is said to have fought and won a single combat whilst the consul was watching, a feat which won him decorations and other marks of favour. Marius was 23 years old and probably a tribune by this time, just as Scipio had been when he won fame in a similar encounter. Such displays of bravado were evidently not considered inappropriate for officers of this rank, even if army commanders and their most senior subordinates no longer took such risks.4

It was common for ambitious young men who lacked inherited reputation, wealth and influence to be supported in their careers by powerful families. Marius and his parents were clients of the Caecilii Metelli, plebeian nobiles who enjoyed frequent success. In 119 Lucius Caecilius Metellus Delmaticus was elected consul and seems to have assisted Marius in his successful campaign to become a tribune of the plebs. This was the office through which the Gracchi had pushed their programmes of reform, but a man of Marius’ obscure background could not hope to emulate such projects. He carried through some minor bills, one of which altered electoral procedure and brought him into direct conflict with his patron, an incident which won the tribune some reputation for independence and courage. Even so, few would have guessed at his future fame, for he failed to win election to the office of aedile, and only just scraped into the praetorship for 115. Charged with bribing the electorate, Marius was just as narrowly acquitted. Sent as governor to Further Spain, he carried out some minor operations to suppress banditry, but had no opportunity to win great fame or wealth. Around this time he married into the Julii Caesares, an ancient patrician family who were no longer especially prominent and only managed to produce a single consul in the entire second century. It was a good match, but scarcely guaranteed significant political advancement. It is more than probable that Marius unsuccessfully sought the consulship on one or more occasions in the following years and it may have seemed that his career had run its course, until a military crisis in Numidia offered him a fresh opportunity of attracting the public eye.5

Scipio’s invasion of Africa in 204 BC had been greatly aided by the defection to the Romans of the Numidian Prince Masinissa, who was subsequently established in an enlarged kingdom as a reward for his support. After the Second Punic War, Numidia proved useful to Rome as a check on the renewal of Carthaginian power. Both Masinissa, who died in the early stages of the Third Punic War, and his son Micipsa loyally provided grain, troops and elephants whenever requested by the Romans. Micipsa’s nephew Jugurtha took a contingent of elephants and infantry skirmishers to aid Scipio Aemilianus in the Numantia campaign, where he won a high reputation for skill and courage. In 118 the king died, bequeathing his kingdom jointly to Jugurtha, whom he had adopted, and his own sons Adherbal and Hiempsal. The latter was swiftly killed on the orders of his cousin. Adherbal fled to Rome, and the Senate decreed that the kingdom should be divided equally between the two rivals, but the truce was soon broken by Jugurtha. Dynastic struggles of this nature had never been uncommon amongst the Numidian and Moorish royal houses, and it was just such a dispute which had first prompted Masinissa to seek aid from Scipio. However, in 112 Adherbal was besieged in Cirta, whose population included a substantial number of Roman and Italian businessmen. These formed the main strength of the defence and, after the city’s capitulation, were massacred by Jugurtha’s men.

Rome was outraged by this news. Much of the fury may have come from the equestrian heads of the great business companies which had interests in the region and agents amongst the dead, but there does seem to have been widespread anger from all sections of the population. This was further roused by the tribune-elect Caius Memmius – quite possibly the same man who had provoked Aemilianus’ scorn at Numantia – until the Senate decided to send the consul Lucius Calpurnius Bestia with an army to North Africa. Jugurtha was persuaded to come to Rome, where he indulged in widespread and blatant bribery of influential senators and even arranged the murder of another member of his family who was in exile there. As he left Rome, he is supposed to have declared it ‘a city up for sale and likely to perish if it finds a buyer!’ Popular fury redoubled, and much of it was directed at the perceived incompetence and corruption of the Senate.

Worse was to come in 110 when Bestia’s successor Spurius Postumius Albinus led a spiritless attack on Jugurtha before leading his ill-disciplined army back to winter quarters and placing his brother Aulus in command. Politicking at Rome, where two tribunes wished to prolong their year of office and held up all magisterial elections, led to Aulus Postumius Albinus’ being left in command for far longer than had been expected. Deciding to make the most of this, he advanced on the stronghold at Suthul which contained Jugurtha’s main treasury. The Numidian king feigned a willingness to negotiate once more and secretly began to bribe the centurions and other officers in the Roman army. Then he launched a sudden night attack on Postumius’ camp. The result was panic and rout, as a number of legionaries, an entire cohort of Ligurian infantry and two turmae of Thracian cavalry deserted en masse, whilst the senior centurion (primus pilus) of the Third Legion allowed the enemy to come through the section of fortifications which he was supposed to be defending. Resistance was both feeble and short-lived as a mob of fugitives fled from the camp to a nearby hill, leaving the Numidians to plunder the tents.

The next day Jugurtha surrounded Aulus and his men and offered to make a treaty ending the war. In return for acknowledging him as the rightful king of Numidia, he would allow the Romans to depart freely, once they had undergone the symbolic humiliation of walking under a yoke of spears. The precise origins of this archaic ritual are unknown, but it clearly implied a loss of warrior status. Nor is it certain whether it was widely practised outside Italy, or chosen on occasions by Rome’s enemies precisely because they knew of its significance to the Romans. As at Numantia the treaty was immediately repudiated by the Senate. This did little to still the public outcry against the incompetence and corruption which had caused this disaster.6

In 109 the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus, the younger brother of Delmaticus, was sent to take command of the war against Jugurtha, taking drafts of replacements for the legions already in Africa rather than raising an entirely new force. Marius’ rift with the Metelli had evidently not been irreparable, for he and Publius Rutilius Rufus accompanied Quintus as his senior legates. With two old hands from Numantia on his staff, it was probably unsurprising that many of Scipio Aemilianus’ methods were soon being employed to knock the legions into shape. Albinus’ troops had spent the last months in ill-disciplined idleness, not bothering to fortify or lay out their camp properly and shifting it only when forced to by lack of locally available forage or because the stench of their own waste became overpowering. Soldiers and camp slaves marauded and plundered at will. Metellus imposed a set of regulations very close to those of Aemilianus. Traders and other unnecessary hangers-on were expelled, and soldiers forbidden to buy food – many had been in the practice of selling their ration of grain to purchase ready-baked white bread rather than eating wholemeal loaves they had prepared themselves. The ordinary soldiers were barred from keeping their own slaves or pack animals. From now on the army broke camp every day, and marched to a new position where it constructed a marching camp as if in hostile territory. Just as Scipio had done, Metellus and his legates set an example on the march, moving around the columns to ensure that units and individuals kept their positions and were always properly equipped and ready.7

When Metellus considered that his army was ready, he advanced against Jugurtha. At first the king avoided battle, so the Romans turned their attention to his towns, capturing several small strongholds and the capital at Cirta. Such losses seriously dented Jugurtha’s prestige, prompting him to attack the Roman army as it marched across open country near the River Muthul. In a confused whirling fight, during which the fast-moving enemy broke the columns up into several sections, the Numidians were eventually driven off with heavy loss, most of their war elephants being killed or captured. The Romans had also suffered heavy casualties and Metellus rested the army for a while, allowing the men to recover and tending to the wounded. Parades were held to decorate all those who had distinguished themselves in the recent fighting. After four days they began once again to ravage the most fertile areas of Numidia and to threaten its towns and strongholds. Storming fortified towns was never easy, and Metellus was forced to withdraw from Zama after a siege which had involved very heavy fighting. An attempt was made to dispose of Jugurtha in the same way that the Romans had defeated Viriathus, by bribing some of his own leaders to murder him, but this time the plot was discovered and failed.

It is difficult to see what else Metellus could have done with the resources at his disposal, but there was growing discontent at Rome about the time it was taking to wreak revenge on Jugurtha. In 108 Marius sought permission to return to Rome and announce his candidacy for the consulship. Sallust tells us that he was encouraged in his ambitions by a soothsayer at Utica who had prophesied that he would have a most distinguished career. Throughout his life Marius appears to have had a strong sense of his personal destiny, and took encouragement from various omens. The general’s response was scornful, suggesting that Marius should wait until he could stand with Metellus’ own son, a lad only in his early twenties and currently serving on his father’s staff. Marius continued to serve as legate, but from this point on lost no opportunity to belittle his commander. Both with the army and when he met some of the many Roman traders and businessmen in the province of Africa, he accused Metellus of needlessly prolonging the war to gain more glory and plunder for himself. A stream of letters went back from such men to their connections at Rome, criticizing the commander and lavishing praise on his legate.

A further opportunity to attack his old patron was offered when the garrison of the town of Vaga was massacred by a sudden rebellion of the populace who had decided to defect to Jugurtha and only the commander, a certain Titus Turpilius Silanus, was spared. The town was swiftly recaptured, but Marius was part of the court set up to investigate Silanus’ conduct and successfully recommended his execution, in spite of the fact that he too was a client of the Metelli. Eventually Metellus relented and permitted his disloyal and troublesome legate to return to Rome.

Marius’ electoral campaign was both swift and highly successful. Although our sources are inclined to depict his chief support as coming from the poorer sections of society, we need to remember that Rome’s electoral system gave a disproportionate influence to the wealthier citizens and many equestrians favoured his candidature. So did a fair number of senators, but other members of the House were incensed at the intemperate speeches the new consul-elect made attacking the nobiles. An experienced soldier, Marius contrasted himself with the soft aristocrats who tried to learn about war from books:

Now, compare me, fellow citizens, a new man, with those arrogant nobles. What they know only from hearsay or reading, I have seen with my own eyes or done with my own hands – what they have learned from books I have actually done during my military service. Work it out for yourself whether words or deeds are worth more. They hold my humble origins in contempt – I scorn their worthlessness; I am reproached for the chance of birth – they for their infamous conduct. Personally, I believe that all men have one nature, and that the bravest are the best born. And if now the fathers of Albinus and Bestia were asked whether they would prefer to have me or those men as their offspring, what do you reckon they would reply, if not that they wished to have the best children?

If they [the nobiles] justly look down on me, then let them also despise their own ancestors, whose nobility began with courage, as did my own…8

The words are those of Sallust, for it was conventional for a Greek or Roman historian to invent speeches appropriate for the events and the characters they described, but they may well be a genuine reflection of Marius’ tone and attitude in 107. However much he enraged the nobiles with such outspoken criticism, his speeches delighted the mass of the population. Marius had already decided that he wished to replace Metellus in the African command, and publicly he promised to bring the war to a rapid conclusion. Normally the Senate alone decided which provinces would be allocated to the new magistrates and which governors’ commands were to be prorogued, but a tribune brought a bill before the Popular Assembly (Concilium Plebis) granting Marius command in the war with Jugurtha. Metellus refused to meet his replacement, leaving Rutilius Rufus to hand over the army to the consul.

Marius did not win a swift victory in Numidia in spite of all his boasting. His popularity does not appear to have suffered because of this, and ensured that his command was extended, but it took three years to end the war. His strategy differed in no way from that followed by Metellus, the Romans concentrating on taking Jugurtha’s strongholds one by one since they could not force him into a decisive battle. Luck often favoured the Romans, as when a Ligurian auxiliary out looking for edible snails discovered a concealed pathway leading up to a weak spot in the defences of a fortress near the River Mulaccha. Marius, who had been on the point of abandoning the siege, was able to use this information to storm the place. Yet in spite of repeated successes, Jugurtha himself always eluded the Romans and never wavered in his determination to continue the struggle. Finally Marius resorted to treachery, persuading Jugurtha’s ally King Bocchus of Mauretania to betray him to the Romans in late 105 BC. The operation was organized and led by his quaestor, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who managed to retain a good deal of the credit. Nevertheless, Marius returned to celebrate a triumph on 1 January 104, entering on the same day into a second consulship to which he had been elected during his absence. This was highly irregular, but Italy was now threatened by a massive migration of barbarian tribes, who had already swept aside a number of Roman armies, and there was a strong feeling that the Republic’s most popular general must be sent against them.9


Neither Metellus nor Marius had been allowed to raise a new army for the African campaign, and they took with them only drafts of troops to bring the forces already in the province up to strength. In 107 Marius broke with precedent by accepting volunteers from outside the classes whose wealth made them eligible for military service. These men were the proletarii or ‘head count’ (capite censi), listed in the census simply as numbers because they lacked significant property. In the past the capite censi had only been summoned for military service at times of extreme crisis, such as in the darkest days of the Second Punic War, though it is possible that they served more often as rowers in the fleet. Traditionally the army had drawn its strength from men of property, and chiefly from farmers. Such men had a stake in the Republic and were therefore expected to fight all the harder to preserve it. However, by the late second century this duty had become burdensome. Sallust tells us that Marius’ opponents in the Senate hoped that even the levying of troops to bring the African army up to strength would dampen popular enthusiasm for the new consul. Taking willing volunteers from outside the normal recruiting base avoided this and provided plenty of keen recruits encouraged by his speeches and the promise of glory and plunder.

Marius’ action in 107 has sometimes been seen as a major reform, the moment when the Roman army effectively changed from being a citizen’s militia to a professional force recruited predominantly from the very poor. From now on legionaries saw the army as a career and means of escaping poverty, rather than as a duty which came as an interruption to normal life. Under the traditional system legions had been renumbered each year, but with the rise of the professional soldier the legions became increasingly permanent and over time acquired a stronger sense of identity and tradition. Marius contributed to this trend when he issued each of his legions with a silver eagle as its standard. In the past each legion had possessed five standards – an eagle, a bull, a horse, a wolf and a boar. Since recruitment was no longer based on wealth, the old divisions based on class and age ceased to have any real significance. Velites are last mentioned during Metellus’ campaign in 109, and Roman citizen cavalrymen seem also to have disappeared around the same time, so that the legion no longer had integral light infantry or cavalry. The names hastati, principes and triarii – the latter usually under their alternative title of pili – were preserved in the army’s ceremony and administration, but real distinctions between the lines vanished along with their tactical significance. All legionaries were now heavy infantrymen, uniformly equipped with helmet, mail or scale cuirass, scutum, sword and pilum.

The century remained the basic administrative sub-unit of the legion and seems to have had a paper-strength of eighty men. The maniple was replaced as the most important tactical unit by the larger cohort, which consisted of three maniples, one from each of the old lines, and numbered 480 men. There were ten cohorts in a legion. In battle the legion still frequently formed in three lines, usually with four cohorts in the first line, and three each in the second and third. However, since all the troops were identically equipped and the cohorts all organized the same, it did not have to fight in this formation and had far more tactical flexibility than the manipular legion. The cohort legion might equally deploy in two or four lines, although a single line of cohorts was rarely employed and was probably considered too weak.

Most scholars now play down the significance of the Marian reform in the transition from a militia to a professional army, preferring to see this as a much more gradual process. Certainly from the time of the Second Punic War there had been periodic reductions in the minimum level of property which qualified a citizen for military service. Spurius Ligustinus – the spokesman of the group of disgruntled former senior centurions enrolled in the levy in 172 BC – farmed a plot of land too small to make him eligible for service and repeatedly volunteered during his twenty-two years with the legions. It is hard to know how common this was before Marius, although we ought to remember that Ligustinus spent all but three years as a centurion and is thus an example of a semi-professional officer rather than a professional soldier. It is equally difficult to know how large a proportion of the citizen population remained ineligible for legionary service in spite of the lowering of the property qualification for service.10

What is certain is that the role of the army had changed significantly since the early days of the militia system. When campaigns had been fought against Rome’s Italian neighbours, it had been possible for a man to be enrolled in a legion, serve in a campaign and still return home in time for the harvest. As the Republic’s power expanded, wars were fought further and further away and lasted for longer periods. By the late second century BC there was a need for the army to provide permanent garrisons in Spain, Transalpine Gaul and Macedonia, whether or not a war was actually being fought. Long years of continuous military service were a difficult burden for the owner of a small farm, which might easily fall into ruin during his absence. At the same time overseas expansion had massively enriched Rome’s élite, who bought up large tracts of Italian land to form grand estates worked by a labour force of slaves, cheaply available as one of the products of the same conquests. More Roman wars led to more citizens being dragged away from their smallholdings for years on end, causing many to fall into debt and sell their property, which was promptly swallowed up into the great estates or latifundia. Each time this happened the number of men eligible for army service dropped.

We do not possess sufficient reliable statistics even to estimate the extent to which Rome’s reserves of military manpower were declining in this period. Our sources may have exaggerated the problem, but make it clear that there was widespread concern amongst contemporaries about this. This issue lay at the heart of Tiberius Gracchus’ reform programme in 133, when he attempted to redistribute publicly owned land to increase the number of yeoman farmers who had traditionally formed the heart of the legions. Concerns about dwindling supplies of manpower may well have been reinforced by the poor showing made by Roman armies in so many of the campaigns since the middle of the century. The decline in the quality of Roman soldiers was at least as serious as their diminishing numbers.

Enthusiasm for legionary service may well have declined by the late second century BC, though we only hear of this in spectacular cases such as 151 BC or can infer it from the Senate’s hope that Marius would lose support once he began to recruit soldiers. Even if service did not lead to financial ruin and destitution, it may well have been resented. The levying (dilectus) of an army was carried out entirely under the control of the responsible magistrate and it was sometimes felt that these drew too heavily on certain individuals, as each new army wanted as many experienced soldiers as possible. The maximum term of conscripted rather than voluntary service was sixteen years – a substantial part of a man’s life. In 123 Caius Gracchus had renewed the old law which stated that no one younger than 17 could be forced to join the army, which suggests that some aspects of proper procedure were often ignored.

The obligation of all citizens who possessed sufficient property to undergo military service when required by the State was never formally abolished. Armies were levied after Marius, but it is unclear to what extent the process employed resembled the traditionaldilectus. It seems unlikely that any attention was paid to the old property classes. In the first century BC and throughout the remainder of Rome’s history, conscription was always hugely unpopular. Marius may not have been the first to recruit volunteers from theproletarii, but he was the first to do this openly. From 107 onwards the vast majority of legionaries were recruited from the poor – whenever possible from the rural poor who were considered to be better material than their urban counterparts. No longer was the army a cross-section of the Roman people under arms.

The army Marius commanded in Numidia was a mixture of his new drafts of replacements drawn mainly from the proletarii and the existing troops raised under more traditional methods. On arrival in the province he spent some time integrating the two by a programme of training and gave the troops a series of easy successes as he ravaged a fertile but poorly defended region of Numidia. Throughout his campaigns Marius insisted that his soldiers remained at a high state of readiness, always following the standard procedures which he had set down. Yet he was no martinet and the discipline in his legions was not considered harsh by Roman standards. Sallust tells us that Marius preferred to control his soldiers more through appealing to ‘their sense of shame than through punishment’.

Much was demanded from the soldiers. Just as he had whilst serving as Metellus’ legate, Marius continued to lay great importance on the army marching with as small a baggage train as possible. Luxuries were not permitted and the legionary was expected to carry all of his kit on his own back, for they were barred from keeping slaves or pack animals to take the burden. Marius may have introduced, or more probably standardized, the practice of each man suspending his leather pack from a pole which was carried over the shoulder, quite possibly tied to the pilum. This method allowed the pack to be dropped quickly. So burdened were the legionaries that they were nicknamed ‘Marius’ mules’. The general always set a strong personal example, closely supervising and sharing in all of the army’s activities on campaign, eating the same ration as the ordinary soldiers and living in the same conditions. It was his custom to inspect personally the sentries guarding the camp, not because he did not trust his subordinate officers to perform this task properly, but so that the soldiers would know that he was not resting whilst they were on duty. He was never slow to speak directly to men of any rank, whether to criticize and punish or to praise and reward. He was respected as a tough, but fair commander.11

The African army was demobilized after the defeat of Jugurtha and for the war against the northern barbarians Marius took command of the army raised by Rutilius Rufus during his consulship in 105. He is said to have preferred to do this because he felt that these legions were better trained than his own men. Some of the African troops had been serving continuously since the beginning of the war and the more recent recruits, having won the glory and plunder which Marius had promised them, may well have not been too keen on a further arduous campaign. Rufus’ men were probably also drawn predominantly from the poorest citizens and he had brought in gladiatorial trainers to teach them weapons handling. These techniques, which involved the recruit learning to fence first against a 6-foot post and then an actual opponent, would become standard in the army for many centuries. At first the soldier employed a wooden sword and wicker shield, both heavier than the standard issue items, to build up his strength. Traditionally it was assumed that any citizen qualified for military service would be taught to handle weapons – themselves family property and often probably handed down from generation to generation – as a youth by his father. Now the soldier was issued equipment by the State which also trained him in their use. It was another sign of the shift to a professional army.12

Rufus’ men may have been better trained and disciplined than the African army, and had certainly been raised and prepared with a view to facing the Cimbri and Teutones, whose tactics differed markedly from the Numidian way of fighting. However, Marius led these men in exactly the same way that he had commanded the legions in Africa. He maintained a continuous training programme, with regular route marches and a strong emphasis on physical fitness. As in Africa, the soldiers were expected to carry and prepare their own ration. Marius drove them hard, rewarding good conduct and punishing bad with equal impartiality. One incident involved his nephew Caius Lusius, who was serving as an officer, perhaps a tribune, in the army. This man tried repeatedly to seduce one of the soldiers under his command, but was always rebuffed. When finally, he summoned the legionary to his tent and attacked him, the latter, one Trebonius, drew his sword and killed him. Put on trial for the murder of his superior officer, Trebonius’ story was backed by the testimony of his comrades. Marius not only dismissed the charge, but personally presented Trebonius with the corona civica for defending his honour so staunchly. Polybius mentions that homosexual activity in the camp was punishable by death, and this law continued when the army became professional. Apart from a widespread and deep Roman and Italian repugnance for homosexuality – which, if never quite universal, was markedly harsher than Hellenic attitudes – the main reason for this strictness was the fear that such relationships might subvert the military hierarchy as had occurred in this case. More immediately, condoning the killing of not just an officer, but a relative, provided a clear object lesson that discipline applied to all without exception.13


In 104 BC it seemed to most Romans that it was only a matter of time before the northern barbarians swept over the Alps and threatened Italy and Rome itself as no foe had done since Hannibal. These tribes, chiefly the Cimbri and Teutones, but including a number of other groups such as the Ambrones and Tigurini, were not mere raiders, but migrants, seeking land on which to settle. Estimates of their numbers in the ancient sources – Plutarch says that there were 300,000 warriors and many more women and children – are almost certainly wild exaggerations, but very large numbers of warriors and their families were clearly on the move. They did not travel in a single vast column – which would have made it impossible for them to find sufficient food and fodder for their basic needs – but in many lesser groups, so that even the individual tribes were spread over a wide area. The Romans were not certain where the tribes had come from, other than somewhere beyond the Rhine and perhaps near the Elbe, whether they were Gallic or Germanic, or why they had begun their migration. The cause of this mass movement may have been simple overpopulation in the tribes’ home territories, civil war, pressure from external foes, or a combination of all three. Just how well Greek and Roman commentators understood the relationships between the various tribal peoples they encountered remains highly uncertain. The Cimbri and Teutones were most probably Germans, although archaeologists have generally found it difficult to confirm the clear distinctions between Gallic and Germanic tribes maintained in our Greek and Roman sources. Differences in the style and shape of artefacts suggest rather different boundaries, but of course may not automatically reflect variations in language, race and culture. As the German tribes passed through lands occupied by Gallic peoples, large numbers of Gauls seem to have joined them.14

In 113 BC some of the Teutones drifted into Noricum. Although the main purpose of the migration was a search for land, this did not prevent many groups of warriors from engaging in some enthusiastic plundering as they passed. Noricum was not a Roman province, but bordered on Illyricum and the Alps and its people were allied to Rome. The consul Cnaeus Papirius Carbo advanced with an army against the Teutones. The tribesmen sent ambassadors, explaining that they had been unaware of the alliance and had no wish to come into conflict with Rome. Carbo gave a conciliatory reply, but launched a surprise attack on the Germans’ camp before the ambassadors returned. In spite of this deception the warriors responded vigorously and the Roman army was defeated with very heavy losses. Afterwards this band moved westwards into Gaul.15 Four years later a group of migrants, who included the Tigurini – a subdivision of the Helvetii who lived in what is now Switzerland – approached the province of Transalpine Gaul (modern-day Provence) and defeated an army led by another consul, Marcus Junius Silanus. Following this success they asked the Senate for land on which to settle, but when this appeal was rejected did not mount an invasion, although the Tigurini raided the Roman province.

In 107 the Tigurini ambushed and killed the consul Lucius Cassius Longinus along with much of his army. The survivors surrendered and were sent under the yoke. These disturbances and the blows to Roman prestige prompted a rebellion amongst one of the tribes in Transalpine Gaul, but this was swiftly suppressed by Quintus Servilius Caepio. As part of this operation Caepio plundered the shrine of the Tectosages at Tolosa, where considerable amounts – some sources said over 100,000 pounds each of gold and silver – had been thrown into the sacred lake. Scandal erupted when this vast haul of treasure vanished on its way back to Italy. In 105 Caepio as proconsul was joined by the consul Cnaeus Mallius Maximus, for the Cimbri and Teutones had returned to threaten the Rhône frontier. Together the two men controlled one of the largest Roman forces ever to take the field when they met the invaders at Arausio (Orange). Bickering between the commanders contributed to a disaster where the casualties may well have rivalled those of Cannae.16

Five consular armies had been badly defeated by the northern barbarians and there seemed nothing to stop them from pushing on into Italy and sacking Rome just as the Gauls had done centuries before. The string of defeats was worse than anything the Romans had suffered for a hundred years. For the last time in their history, the nervous Romans openly carried out a human sacrifice, burying alive a Gallic and a Greek couple in the Forum Boarium just as they had done after Cannae. After the shameful conduct of Bestia and Albinus in Numidia, the events in the north prompted even more criticism of the nobiles. Silanus, Popillius (the legate in charge of the survivors of Cassius’ army who had surrendered in 107), Mallius and Caepio were all prosecuted, the last both for incompetence and on a charge of having stolen the Tolosa loot. The disillusion with the established aristocracy combined with the rarity of successful commanders led to the popular demand that Marius should take charge and thus to his second consulship.

The movements of the tribes continued to be as erratic as ever, for after Arausio the bulk of the Cimbri and Teutones wandered westwards and tried unsuccessfully to cross into Spain. In 104 Marius and his army had no one to fight, but everyone knew that the threat remained and that the Romans had done nothing to deter it. Determined that only Marius was fit to stop the anticipated invasion and encouraged by the story of his stern impartiality in the case of Lusius and Trebonius, the Comitia Centuriata once again elected him consul. At another time his command might have been prorogued, but the Senate did not normally make such decisions until after the elections and Marius’ supporters may well not have wanted to rely on their doing this. It is also true that proconsuls and propraetors were rarer in these decades than they had been earlier in the century. This third term was followed by a fourth, as once again the enemy failed to materialize, and it was only then, in 101, that the tribes finally launched their invasion.17

Little is known about the forces under Marius’ command, but they most probably consisted of a strong consular army of two legions and two alae, these units anything up to 6,000 strong and supported by substantial contingents of auxiliaries, some 30,000–35,000 men all told. These had taken up and fortified a strong position on the banks of the River Rhône, where Marius had massed immense quantities of supplies. During the long wait for the enemy, he had set his soldiers to the construction of a canal to the sea, greatly improving communications and facilitating this gathering of provisions. The consul was determined that he should not be forced either to fight a battle or to move his position through shortage of food. Further to the east, the main passes into Cisalpine Gaul were guarded by his colleague, Quintus Lutatius Catulus, with a weaker consular army of just over 20,000 men. The Romans were aware that the tribes had split, the Teutones and Ambrones heading towards Marius, while the greater part of the Cimbri swung back into Noricum and were threatening the Alps. Reports of enemy movements came to the Roman commanders from the many Gallic tribes allied to Rome, or at least hostile to the arrival of great numbers of migrants. Sulla, the man who had captured Jugurtha, served Marius as a legate in 104 and a tribune in 103, during which time he was involved in several diplomatic missions with the Gauls, for instance persuading the Marsi into an alliance. Rather more unorthodox were the exploits of Quintus Sertorius, an officer who had been wounded at Arausio and only escaped by swimming the Rhône. Disguised as a tribesman – he had some rudimentary knowledge of the language – he infiltrated the enemy camp and provided a detailed report on their numbers and intentions.18

When the Teutones and Ambrones approached the Roman camp on the Rhône, the sight confronting the legionaries was a daunting one. According to Plutarch, ‘their numbers were limitless, they were hideous to look at, and their speech and war-cries were unique’.19 Elsewhere he describes the barbarians as they came out to battle, the cavalry

wearing helmets made to look like the gaping jaws of fearsome wild beasts or the heads of fantastic creatures which, topped with feathered crests, made the wearers look taller. They were also equipped with iron breastplates, and white shields which gleamed in the light. For throwing, each man had a javelin sharpened at both ends, and for fighting at close quarters they wielded large, heavy swords.20

All seemed to be big, heavily muscled men, with pale skin, fair hair and blue eyes. Descriptions of the Cimbri and Teutones were heavily influenced by the literary and artistic stereotype of the wild northern barbarian; strong but lacking in stamina; brave but without discipline. Though exaggerated, there was more than a little truth in the topos and tribal armies were usually clumsy forces. Tactics were simple, and ultimately relied on a headlong charge. This was a terrifying thing, and at times could swiftly sweep away an opponent – especially a nervous opponent – but if it was halted the tribesmen would tend to lose their enthusiasm and eventually give way.

The migrating tribes had been travelling and fighting together for years on end and it is probable that they had become somewhat more efficient than most tribal armies raised to defend their own territory or to launch a brief raid. Nevertheless the warriors were essentially individual fighters, all – and especially the noblemen and the well-equipped men of their followings – eager to win personal glory by conspicuously heroic acts. They were also supremely confident, despising the enemy whom they had routed in all previous encounters. These victories, even if they had been won over badly trained and even more poorly led Roman armies, inevitably had the opposite effect on Catulus’ and Marius’ men as they waited to meet the invasion. Rumour doubtless magnified the numbers and ferocity of the enemy and added to the legionaries’ nervousness. Soldiers who entered a battle in a such a mood were extremely unlikely to stop a wild, screaming charge of terrifying, and up to this point invincible, warriors.21

Marius was aware of the mood of his soldiers, and for this reason declined the enemy’s offer of battle when the tribes arrived and camped near his army. For several days the Teutones formed up on the plain between the two camps and issued boastful challenges. Such displays were a central part of intertribal warfare as they have been in so many other heroic warrior societies. One warrior hoping to win great fame shouted out that he wished Marius to come forth and meet him in single combat. The consul suggested that the man should go and hang himself if he was so eager to die. When the German persisted, Marius sent out a diminutive and elderly gladiator, announcing that if the enemy champion would first defeat this man, he might then go out himself. This mockery of the Germans’ code of honour – for a proud warrior required an appropriately distinguished opponent – was markedly different to Marcellus’ willingness to match such overtly heroic behaviour.

Marius also kept his men under very strict control, stopping any from going out as units or individuals to meet the enemy. He wanted his men to see the barbarians at close quarters and get used to their appearance and the noises they made, rightly believing that this would make the enemy seem less terrifying. After a while his soldiers began to chafe at their commander’s refusal to join battle. The Teutones ravaged the surrounding landscape and even launched an attack on the Roman camp in their efforts to force Marius to fight. The attack was easily repulsed and the tribes decided to advance past the static enemy and push on to the Alpine passes. It is quite probable that remaining in one place for such a long time had caused them to run short of food and fodder. Yelling out to the Roman soldiers to ask if they had any messages for their wives, as the Teutones would soon be visiting them, the barbarians passed on. Plutarch says that it took six days for them all to pass the camp, implying that this was because of their vast numbers, but, if there is any truth in this story, it more probably reflects the loose march discipline of the tribes.22

Marius waited for the enemy to pass and then left camp to follow them. For the next few days he shadowed them, keeping close without actually coming into contact, and carefully choosing his campsites so that they were protected by the terrain against attack. He had already announced to his soldiers that he had every intention of fighting, but was determined to wait for the right moment and place to ensure their victory. Marius very publicly included in his entourage a Syrian woman named Martha who had won popular fame as a prophetess. Rumour said that his wife Julia had encountered the woman at a gladiatorial fight, where she had successfully predicted the outcome of each encounter in the arena. Now she was carried on the march in a litter. Other omens predicting the army’s success were widely reported. As with Scipio Africanus’ claim to have been inspired by Neptune before the attack on New Carthage, even our sources were unsure as to whether the general actually believed in these signs or was simply manipulating his men’s mood.23

Eventually, when the Teutones had reached Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence), Marius judged that the moment had at last arrived. As usual the Romans camped near the enemy in a strong position. In this case, however, the site had the major disadvantage of lacking an adequate source of fresh water. Frontinus blamed the advance party which always preceded the main column and marked out the shape of the next camp for this poor choice. Marius declared that this would give the men even more incentive to defeat the barbarians who were camped near the river and adjacent hot springs. However, his first priority was to ensure that the new camp was properly fortified and he set the grumbling legionaries to this task. The army’s slaves (and even though Marius had reduced these to an absolute minimum, substantial numbers were still essential for such tasks as supervising the baggage train and looking after the draught and pack animals; some of these – galearii – wore helmets and rudimentary uniform and carried basic weapons) headed down to the river to draw water. The Germans were not expecting to fight that day, for the Romans had been following them for some time without displaying any inclination to seek battle, and were widely dispersed, many of them bathing in the springs.

A skirmish developed as the nearest warriors clashed with the Romans’ slaves, the noise attracting growing numbers of Germans. The Ambrones were probably camped nearest to the disturbance, for after a while a substantial body of their warriors formed up and drove back the slaves. Plutarch claims that there were 30,000 of them, but this seems highly unlikely. They were met first by Ligurian auxiliaries – quite possibly posted to cover the construction of the Roman camp – and afterwards by other troops as Marius reluctantly reinforced the combat. The tribesmen became split into two bodies as only some managed to cross the river, and were then defeated separately. The Romans overran part of the enemy encampment, where even some of the women attacked them.24

The fight had not been planned or desired by Marius, but had occurred accidentally. The result was a Roman success, and a useful encouragement to the army who had now proved that they could defeat the feared enemy. Yet the engagement also meant that there had been no time to complete proper defences around the Roman camp. The army spent a nervous night listening to laments for the fallen being chanted by the enemy, and Marius all the while nervous of a sudden attack. Frontinus claims that he ordered a small party of men to go near to the tribal encampment and disturb their rest with sudden shouts. Plutarch makes no mention of this, and claims that there was no fighting on the following day as the Teutones needed time to muster their forces, which again may be an indication that they tended to move dispersed over a wide area. On the following night Marius picked out a detachment of 3,000 men under the command of Marcus Claudius Marcellus and sent them under cover of darkness to conceal themselves in some woods on high ground behind the enemy position. Frontinus says that the force consisted of both horse and foot and was accompanied by many of the army’s slaves leading pack animals draped with saddlecloths so that from a distance they appeared to be cavalry. If this is true, then it must have been even more difficult for Marcellus to lead his party into position without either getting lost or being discovered. Once there he was out of communication with Marius, and his orders were to launch an attack on the enemy rear once battle had been joined. It was left to Marcellus’ discretion to choose the precise moment.25

Early the next morning, Marius led his army out of camp and deployed in battle order on the slope in front. He sent his cavalry down into the plain, a gesture which swiftly had the desired result of provoking the Teutones into attacking. Officers rode around the Roman army, repeating the commander’s orders that the men were to remain where they were and wait for the enemy to advance up the hill. Only when they were close, within effective range of some 15 yards or so, were the legionaries to hurl their pila, draw their swords and charge. Marius himself was in the front rank, determined to put into practice his own instructions and relying on his own skill at arms and fitness. This is one of the very few occasions when a Roman general chose to take a part in the fighting from the start of an action, for in such a position he could do little to control the battle. Yet the gesture was a powerful one, showing the soldiers that their commander was sharing every danger with them. For all their rigorous training and the encouragement of the defeat of the Ambrones, the legions were still facing a numerous and confident enemy and might collapse under the shock of the enemy charge. The need to stiffen his men’s nerve in every possible way probably contributed to Marius’ decision to lead in this way. He is not recorded as doing the same thing in any other battle, either before or after Aquae Sextiae.

The Germans attacked up the slope, the ground making it difficult for their bands to keep together and present a continuous wall of shields to the enemy. In the earlier engagement Plutarch described the Ambrones rhythmically clashing their weapons against shields and chanting their name as they advanced. The legions waited until they were close and then launched a volley of pila. The heavy throwing spears were given added force by being thrown from uphill and punched through shields, the slim shank sliding easily through the hole to reach and wound the man behind. Some tribesmen were killed or disabled, others whose shields had been pierced by a pilum which remained fixed in place had to discard them and fight unprotected. Impetus had gone from the charge and the close formation had been broken up. Then the legionaries charged, using their heavy shields to strike and unbalance the enemy, and so open the way for a thrust with their short swords. The Germans were first halted and then gradually driven back. The slope favoured the Romans, but when the Teutones withdrew to the plain, this advantage was lost and the tribesmen tried to re-establish a solid fighting line. It was then that Marcellus led his men into an attack against their rear. The new threat caused a panic and in a short time the army collapsed into rout. It is said that 100,000 prisoners were taken, along with a large amount of plunder. The Teutones and Ambrones were destroyed as a threat to Italy. As the army celebrated, news arrived that Marius had once again been elected consul. He decided to defer his triumph until the Cimbri had also been defeated.26

The news was not all good, for in the meantime the Cimbri had reached Italy. Catulus’ men, not so carefully prepared for their encounter with the enemy, had panicked at the sight of the fierce barbarians, and had abandoned their positions in flight. The consul, realizing that nothing could stop them, had seized a standard and ridden to the head of the mob, stating that in this way the shame of the incident would fall on him for having led them, rather than on the soldiers. In spite of this failure, he was made proconsul and his command extended into the next year, for Marius’ colleague was needed in Sicily to suppress a serious slave rebellion. The two Roman armies united and eventually encountered the Cimbri at Vercellae. Accounts of this action are not good, for there was subsequently to be considerable bickering between Marius’ and Catulus’ men over who had contributed most to the victory. The leaders of the Cimbri continued to wage war in an heroic manner which seemed archaic to the Romans. King Boeorix with a small troop of followers rode up to the Roman camp and issued a formal challenge to meet the legions at a time and place of their choosing. Marius was now more confident in his men’s ability to defeat the enemy and, after stating that it was not the Romans’ custom to let their enemy decide their course of action for them, accepted the offer. In a single day of fighting fought under the hot sun and in clouds of dust thrown up by so many tens of thousands of feet and hoofs, the Cimbri were cut to pieces. Some of the fleeing enemy committed suicide. Others were killed by their own wives, who then killed their children and finally themselves. Even so, vast numbers of prisoners were taken to be sold as slaves. Both Marius and Catulus celebrated a triumph.27


Although the war was over, Marius was still determined to win another term as consul. He had clearly needed considerable political skill to launch his career in the first place, and in particular to exploit popular agitation and win election as consul for 107, but in later life his touch was less sure. Perhaps years as a general, where he could command and was not required to persuade, left him unprepared for public life in Rome itself, or maybe the mood had simply changed. His methods had certainly made him many enemies in the Senate. His fame won him a sixth consulship in 100, but he had trouble securing many of his aims, most notably a programme to settle many of his discharged soldiers on land in Transalpine Gaul, Sicily and Greece. Many of the veterans of Numidia had already received plots of land in North Africa. In the past Marius had been generous in grants of citizenship to allied soldiers who had fought well, and his desire to include these in his settlement programme was not welcomed by many at Rome.

In the end Marius allied himself with the radical tribune Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, a demagogue who frequently resorted to mob violence, and even – it was rumoured – assassination, to defeat his opponents. For a while Marius’ veterans supported the tribune, resulting in a full-scale riot in the Forum. Then Saturninus went too far, arranging for the murder of the former tribune Memmius, leading to a break with Marius. The Senate passed its ultimate decree (the senatus consultum ultimum), which effectively suspended normal law and called on the magistrates to employ any means necessary to protect the Republic. This had last been used to justify the violent suppression of Caius Gracchus and his followers, and now it gave legality to similar use of force against Saturninus. Marius surrounded the tribune and persuaded him and his followers to surrender, but they were lynched before any decision could be made about their fate.28

After 100 BC Marius for a long time played little part in political life. For a decade Rome lurched towards a confrontation with many of her Italian allies who felt that they were not sharing sufficiently in the profits of an empire which their soldiers had helped to win. In 90 BC this developed into an open rebellion, the Social War, fought on a massive scale between armies that were identical in tactics, equipment and military doctrine. For a while things went badly for Rome, but eventually she won, as much by generous grants of citizenship to all those allies who had remained loyal, or quickly surrendered, as through the use of force. In the years after the war the franchise was extended to virtually the entire free population south of the River Po. Within a few decades Cisalpine Gaul was also included. Marius held an important command in the first year of the war, fighting with competence and skill though he failed to win a major victory. His health was poor and may have prevented his taking a prominent role in the later stages of the conflict.

One of the commanders who did distinguish himself was Sulla, who as the war was ending won election to the consulship in 88. Although a member of the patrician Cornelii, Sulla’s family had decayed into obscurity and his rise had been almost as difficult as if he had been a ‘new man’. In the eastern Mediterranean King Mithridates VI of Pontus had sought to expand his power while the Romans were weakened by the war in Italy. Over-aggressive Roman diplomacy convinced the king that war was inevitable, and led to his invasion of the province of Asia in 88, where he ordered the massacre of all Roman businessmen. The figure of 80,000 Romans and Italians killed in this episode is doubtless an exaggeration, but the number could well have been substantial. The reaction at Rome was similar to that which greeted the news of the fall of Cirta. Sulla was given the war with Mithridates as his province.

For some reason Marius was obsessed with taking this command for himself. In the 90s he had visited Asia as a private citizen and had evidently reached the conclusion that war with Pontus was only a matter of time. Marius was now 69, which was very elderly for a field command. Yet something, perhaps the knowledge that only recent military success had kept him at the centre of public life and certainly a rivalry with Sulla who had tried to steal his glory in Numidia, made him willing to go to any lengths to be sent against Mithridates. Once again he allied himself with a tribune, Publius Sulpicius Rufus, who used the Popular Assembly to bypass the Senate’s decision and pass a law granting Marius the eastern command as proconsul. Sulla was outraged, seeing the opportunity for renewing the fortunes of his line being sacrificed to the vanity of another man. The six legions which he had raised for the war were nervous that Marius would take other troops instead – wars in the eastern Mediterranean were by now synonymous with easy victories and rich plunder. The consul paraded his troops and made a speech explaining his grievances. Then he marched his legions against Rome to ‘free her from her tyrants’. Never before had a Roman army shown itself willing to use violent force to support its commander in a dispute with his political rivals. All save one of the senatorial officers with the army immediately disassociated themselves from the decision and left the army.29

Rome was easily occupied, for Sulla’s opponents had no troops to oppose him. Sulpicius was killed, but Marius fled, eventually escaping to Africa. His health was poor and his sanity sometimes questionable. He is supposed sometimes to have hallucinated that he was actually leading an army against Pontus, bellowing out commands and making signals to imaginary troops. In the meantime Sulla led his army east to fight Mithridates, a conflict which lasted for several years. Marius was eventually able to rally sufficient supporters, many of them from the colonies established for his veterans, to return to Italy and seize Rome in 87. His arrival in the city was savage, his followers a rabble who murdered and looted without restraint. Without bothering with the formality of an actual election, Marius and his ally Cinna declared themselves consuls for the following year. However, age and illness finally took their toll and Marius died suddenly no more than a couple of weeks into this, his seventh term of office.30

Marius in his later years was a selfish, vindictive, and at times also pathetic figure, who plunged the Republic into the first of the civil wars which would in time destroy it. Little seemed left of the genuine talent which had won him his unprecedented string of consulships and brought him victory over the Cimbri and Teutones. If with hindsight it seems inevitable that the Roman Republic would triumph over a few migrating barbarian tribes, few Romans can have felt such confidence at the time and Marius seemed genuinely the hero and saviour of Italy. His achievement was considerable, ending the run of shattering defeats which the Cimbri and their allies had inflicted on the legions. Perhaps it is better to end this chapter not with the civil war, but with an incident from the Social War, which encapsulates the proper attitude for a ‘good general’. Plutarch says that on one occasion Marius had taken up a very strong position and was blockaded by the enemy who tried to make him risk a battle. ‘Pompaedius Silo, the most impressive and powerful of his opponents, said to him, “If you are a great commander, Marius, come out and fight.” To this Marius replied, “If you are a great commander, make me fight even though I don’t want to.”’31

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