A popular general: the supremacy of Marius, 107–88 BC

The Roman Revolution – the slow-motion breakdown of the Republican system of government and its replacement by the dictatorship of the Caesars – was a revolution without a revolutionary class. It is for this reason that it was so protracted and chaotic. For this reason, too, it is easily misunderstood, its deeper meaning hidden by the clash of aristocratic factions and their private armies. Rome was in the grip of a deep-rooted crisis in the years 133–30 BC, but the peculiar configuration of Roman society prevented any simple resolution through the action of a powerful class-based party like the Independents of 1649, the Jacobins of 1793, or the Bolsheviks of 1917. None of the main groups constituting the Roman citizen-body – senators, equestrians, decurions, assidui, proletarii – was able to play an effective revolutionary role.

The senatorial aristocracy was split by the crisis. A small minority favoured radical reform. A larger minority opposed reform of any kind and was determined to defend senatorial property, privilege and power against dilution. The ‘centre’ was open to argument, but, as part of a property-owning elite, most senators were instinctively cautious and conservative, becoming openly reactionary in the face of revolt from below. The Senate was therefore congenitally incapable of leading the reform of Roman society: feeble at best, hostile at worst, it was a barrier to change that had to be physically broken.

The equestrians were hardly more capable of providing new political leadership; they were certainly not the basis for some sort of ‘bourgeois revolution’. The equestrians were themselves top aristocrats, men of property who feared revolt from below no less than senators; they had no wish to unleash a revolutionary struggle against the Republic that might place them at the mercy of radicals demanding cancellation of debts and redistribution of land. Equestrian hostility to the Senate was, in any case, muted. It is not as if the equestrians constituted an independent business class with interests sharply opposed to aristocratic landowners; they were not a bourgeoisie in the modern sense. Most equestrians were themselves landowners. Many had no business interests at all. Those who did, or who pursued careers in public service – especially the most successful of these, like the leading publicani – depended heavily on senatorial patronage. The Roman Republic offered neither a free market to enterprise nor a career open to the talents: it was a controlled society in which opportunities for enrichment and advancement were embedded in political structures. Public contracts and government appointments were in the gift of senators. The equestrians who prospered were those who enjoyed the favour of powerful patrons. The highest aspiration of an equestrian was to enter the Senate as a ‘new man’. There was, in short, no firm economic, social or political ground on which the Equestrian Order might have taken a stand against the Senate.

Senators and equestrians were the grandees of Roman politics. Below them was a class of lesser aristocrats or gentry who formed the local governing elites in Italian towns. The composition of town councils was regulated by the census, which ranked people by property ownership, so that Roman towns were safely in the hands of landed oligarchs. (Later, under the Empire, they were known as curiales or decuriones – members of the Curial Order, the class of town councillors.) While there was some basis for tension between grandees and gentry – as between senators and equestrians – this was more than offset by myriad factors promoting collaboration. For one thing, the Roman state had always backed oligarchs against democrats, and could be relied upon to intervene in support of any established municipal authority threatened by popular disorder: for many Italian gentry, political loyalty to the Republic was synonymous with social order. Hannibal’s attempt to raise the Italian towns against Rome had, after all, foundered on the rock of oligarchic resistance to city-state democracy.

Secondly, many towns enjoyed the patronage of senatorial and equestrian grandees – as did many decurions individually – and this was an important source of largesse and influence. Quintus Cicero, writing to his more famous brother about canvassing for the consulship, explained how the aspiring Roman politician should cultivate the support of leading men in the towns, whom he would find most eager to form political friendships. It is easy to see why. Though the example is of later date – c. AD 113 – the inscription recording Pliny the Younger’s benefactions to his home town of Comum is instructive of long-established practice: ‘He left […] sesterces in his will for the construction of baths, with an additional 300,000 sesterces for decoration, and in addition to that 200,000 sesterces for upkeep; and for the support of his freedmen, a hundred persons, he likewise bequeathed to the municipality 1,866,666 sesterces, the income from which he desired to have applied thereafter to an annual banquet for the public. In his lifetime he also gave 500,000 sesterces for the support of the boys and girls of the lower class, and also a library and 100,000 sesterces for the upkeep of the library.’(7) The material interest binding country-town gentry to the senatorial elite could hardly be more obvious.

Not only were decurions cocooned within a system of patronage; they were also divided among themselves. The gentry competed fiercely with one another for advancement within their towns – as Pompeii’s numerous painted election-notices testify – seeking election as duovirs (mayors), aediles (in charge of public works and municipal regulation) or quaestors (city treasurers). The most successful could even aspire to rise from the Curial to the Equestrian Order – with perhaps the Senate itself on the distant horizon of ambition. There were intense rivalries, too, between neighbouring towns, sometimes going back centuries; so intense that they occasionally erupted into violence, as when, in AD 59, the ancient antagonism between Pompeii and Nuceria degenerated into anamphitheatre riot in which 11 people were killed. Roman policy had, of course, exacerbated such feuds, creating a hierarchy of privilege which set Roman, Latin and ally at loggerheads, diverting political energy into a struggle for the franchise and equal rights. As well as being divided, the Curial Order was scattered in separate townships across Italy, with no overarching organization – in contrast to senators and equestrians – such as might have facilitated concerted action. The decurions were no more a revolutionary force than senators or equestrians.

That left the common people. The small citizen-farmers certainly had no love for the senatorial elite – or the rich generally – but their position was weak, and growing weaker. The peasantry was a scattered class of individualists, difficult to organize in the first place, harder still to keep together as a coherent force. The peasant farmer’s ambition was restricted to his own farm; he wanted to defeat his oppressors and then be left alone to work the land with his family; he had no vision of a wider social transformation involving the collective action of peasants in general. That is why the peasants backed the Gracchi in their struggle against land poverty, but had no independent existence as a party, no leadership of their own, no political staying-power once the aristocratic reformers who had called them forth had been cut down. The Roman peasants of the Late Republic were further weakened by two specific circumstances: first, heavy conscription and the growth of commercial farming had combined to undermine traditional subsistence agriculture and erode peasant numbers; second, the still-substantial privilege of Roman citizenship prevented Roman peasants making common cause with Latins, allies and slaves in the Italian countryside. The assidui therefore lacked the economic weight, social coherence, and political organization necessary to constitute a serious revolutionary force.

Then, finally, there was the city mob. Most citizens lived in Rome or another Roman town, and it was here that the political, social and cultural life that defined ‘civilization’ was lived. But ancient cities were centres of consumption, not production. They were parasitic on the countryside, leeching away agricultural surpluses to be invested in monumental architecture, luxury living, and the ‘bread and circuses’ which, increasingly, sustained the urban poor. The senators and equestrians in Rome and the decurions in other towns were mainly landowners – not an independent mercantile elite as in medieval cities – and the urban masses were linked to them by ties of economic dependence and political affiliation. The archaeology of Pompeii is especially instructive. There was no zoning into rich and poor neighbourhoods. Many of the working population lived in the grand houses, either as part of the household, or through renting workshops and first-floor apartments along the street front. There were, of course, no factories – all production was at workshop level – but nor, it seems, was there an independent petty bourgeoisie of workshop masters organized in guilds. Instead, workshops belonged to the owners of grand houses, and guilds were subordinate to aristocratic patrons. Urban economic activity was embedded in an oligarchic power structure.

The mob – the plebs media, ‘the middling sort’ – was not, then, an independent political player. There was to be no equivalent in the Roman Revolution of the English Levellers or the Parisian sansculottes. The Late Republican crowd never detached itself from its aristocratic leaders. Because cities were parasitic and citizens privileged, the plebs media could intervene in urban politics in support of a reformist senator, but it could not break its ties of dependence, forge links with the rural masses, and challenge the power of the senatorial aristocracy as a whole. Indeed, the corruption and fickleness of the Roman mob – famously caricatured by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar – were real enough. The mob was bribed by largesse (effectively a share in the spoils of empire) and was loyal to the aristocratic patrons who dispensed it. One example will suffice: the grain dole – soon to be distributed free to all those on the citizen roll – was brought to Rome in fleets of ships from Sicily, North Africa, and (later) Egypt. It was a tithe levied on provincial peasants for the benefit of the Roman mob. Dependent for their privileges on imperialism and the aristocratic elite, the citizens of Rome were incapable of becoming an independent political force; indeed, they were only marginally more likely to back a reformer than a conservative, and often they split into warring gangs at the behest of rival aristocratic factions.

Each constituent element of the Roman citizen-body was disabled by a combination of self-interest and weakness from playing a revolutionary role. Yet the crisis grew worse, not better, and the clamour for reform, albeit from a formless mélange of competing and contradictory interests, grew louder. Chaos, the ancients believed, spawned Night and Day, Earth and Heaven, Gods and Mortals – all things. Chaos now would conjure armies, wars, military coups, a Caesar, an Augustan Age – a new world order. When a clash of class forces produces chronic instability but no clear outcome – when there is no revolutionary class able to seize power for itself and remodel society in its own image – leadership may devolve on military ‘strongmen’ who lift themselves above the factions, building support by promising both reform and a restoration of order, and maintaining power by balancing – or wobbling – between evenly balanced opposing forces. The first such military strongman – the first of the great warlords of the Late Republic – was Gaius Marius.

The occasion of Marius’s rise to power was a severe military crisis comparable with that of the 130s BC. It gradually unfolded between 113 and 104 BC, involving a long guerrilla war in Africa, a devastating Celtic-Germanic invasion in the north, and a second great slave revolt in Sicily: multiple threats, none of which was easily mastered. The story, so far as Marius is concerned, begins in Numidia (roughly modern Algeria) in North Africa. A huge territory immediately west of the Roman province of Africa, Numidia comprised a rich coastal plain and river valleys where arable agriculture was practised, and a vast hinterland of mountain and desert. Since the end of the Second Punic War it had been ruled by two exceptionally long-lived client-kings – Masinissa (202–148 BC), the founder of the dynasty who as a young adventurer had fought alongside Scipio Africanus against Hannibal, and his son Micipsa (148–118 BC). Then the succession was disputed between two full brothers, Hiempsal and Adherbal, and their older, more accomplished, but bastard half-brother Jugurtha. When Jugurtha murdered Hiempsal and appeared poised to take over the kingdom, Adherbal invited the Romans to mediate. Reluctant to see Numidia united under a vigorous ruler of doubtful allegiance, the Romans divided the kingdom, giving the richer east to Adherbal, the more desolate west to Jugurtha.

The integrity and independence of Numidia were compromised, and Jugurtha raised the more resolute nobles to challenge the division of the kingdom. Cirta, the principal town of western Numidia, was captured, Adherbal assassinated, and the Italian merchant community massacred (113–112 BC). To restore control to their clients, the Romans then commenced a series of annual invasions by consular armies; but the Numidians proved formidable opponents. The desert was their ally. Limited water, food and forage crippled the mobility of Roman forces. When they did march, the invaders were swallowed up in the vastness of the landscape, unable to bring their opponents to battle. For the Numidians were mainly light cavalry, able to move fast and strike at will, employing the tactics of ambush and skirmish, against which Rome’s legions were cumbersome and ineffective. Jugurtha was master of these methods – one of ancient history’s great guerrilla leaders. (Though rumour had it that some of Rome’s commanders were bribed with African gold, and the capture of a Roman army in 110 BC provoked the passage of a law for investigating the corruption of senator-generals.)

The war entered its second phase with the appointment to command of the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus in 109 BC. Metellus was no aristocratic fop: he restored morale, took the offensive, beat off a determined surprise attack on his main column, and captured a number of enemy strong-points. But the Romans still controlled little more than the ground they occupied. Jugurtha and his army continued their war of avoidance and attrition, making good their losses by recruiting new allies, Gaetulian tribesmen from Numidia’s southern border, and King Bocchus of Mauretania (Morocco) in the west. The war dragged on through 108 BC. Late that year, Metellus’s second-in-command, Gaius Marius, took home leave and returned to Rome to stand for election to the consulship.

Marius was a ‘new man’ (novus homo) from the small hill-town of Arpinum in central Italy. The town had gained Roman citizenship only in 188 BC, and Marius was the first of his family to achieve senatorial status. After serving in Spain in the 130s BC, he had held a series of magistracies in Rome from the late 120s onwards, culminating in the praetorship in 115 BC. In the same year, he contracted a marriage alliance with the ancient patrician family of the Julii. For Marius, the plebian new man from Arpinum, association with the patrician Julii represented spectacular social advancement. But it suited the Julii too, for the family had won little distinction of late, and Marius, whatever his background, was a rising star. (Rarely can such calculation have been better rewarded. Marius was destined to achieve unprecedented political honours. But even his achievement was to be eclipsed by that of his nephew – Julius Caesar. And then, between 30 BC and AD 68, the family was to produce a line of emperors.)

After faltering briefly, Marius’s career had resumed when Metellus, needing good officers, invited him to become his second-in-command in Africa in 109 BC. But when Marius returned to Rome in the winter of 108–107 BC, he campaigned for the consulship on a populist ticket, criticizing the conduct of the war and blaming military failure on the domination of Roman politics by an aristocracy of birth that was corrupt and incompetent. Marius was duly elected and awarded Africa as his province. So he returned to Numidia to displace his old commander and bring the war to a successful end.

Marius’s strategy was to increase the mobility of Roman forces by shedding baggage and marching light. In 107 BC he led a column through the desert to surprise, capture and destroy Jugurtha’s southern stronghold of Capsa. In 106 BC he repeated the feat, this time marching 600 miles to reach the western edge of Numidia, where he captured the king’s principal treasury in a near-impregnable fortress. When the Numidians and Mauretanians counter-attacked, the retreating column beat them off (albeit with heavy losses). Demoralized by the range and punitive power the Romans had acquired, and by his and Jugurtha’s inability to defeat them in the open field, King Bocchus resolved to abandon the struggle and betray his ally. Jugurtha was kidnapped, handed over to the Romans, and executed in Rome in 105 BC. By then, however, a more serious military crisis had arisen on the Roman Empire’s northern limits.

A rambling folk-movement by two large hordes, the Cimbri and the Teutones, perhaps a mixture of Celts and Germans, had been causing widespread disruption in central and western Europe for a decade. Several Roman armies had been defeated, either by the Cimbri and Teutones themselves, or by Celtic tribes in southern Gaul that the prevailing chaos had also set in motion. Finally, in 105 BC, the Cimbri and Teutones launched a full-scale invasion of the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis. This large segment of what the Romans called ‘Transalpine Gaul’ (Gaul beyond the Alps), roughly corresponding to modern Provence, had been annexed as recently as 121 BC; Roman control remained fragile. The response to the invasion was correspondingly robust: a second consular army was dispatched to Gaul to reinforce the one already there. But the two commanders bickered, action was not coordinated, and the combined Roman force was destroyed at the Battle of Arausio (Orange) in perhaps the worst military disaster since Cannae, resulting, the ancient sources say, in some 80,000 casualties. The way to Italy lay open, and if the victors did not immediately take it, Rome was nonetheless gripped by panic-fear at the prospect of an imminent onslaught by northern barbarians. Marius, the returning conqueror of Jugurtha, was immediately elected to a second consulship and given the command in Gaul; he would continue to be re-elected each year of the emergency from 104 to 100 BC, holding an unprecedented five consecutive consulships.

Repulsed from the parts of Spain and Gaul to which they had migrated after Arausio, the Cimbri and Teutones finally descended on Italy in 102 BC. They came in separate columns, and Marius planned to defeat them in detail; but first he manoeuvred and avoided battle, seasoning his own troops while sapping the energy of the barbarian hordes. Then he struck, bringing the Teutones to battle on unfavourable ground at Aquae Sextiae and defeating them utterly, so that hardly a man escaped slaughter or slavery. For a time the Cimbri remained at large, settling on the rich plains of the Po Valley for the winter. But the following year Marius repeated his success, first wearing his enemy down with long campaigning in the north Italian summer heat, then bringing them to battle at Vercellae and winning a second crushing victory.

Nor was this the only victory of Marian armies in 101 BC. One of Marius’s leading lieutenants, Manius Aquillius, had been dispatched with a force of veterans from the northern wars to suppress a new slave revolt in Sicily. As in the 130s BC, the rising had coincided with military crisis elsewhere. Concerned that the military manpower of allied states was being drained away by the activities of slave-raiders, the Senate had ordered the release of any allied subjects who had been enslaved. The consequent rush of slaves to Syracuse to demand their freedom in 104 BC overwhelmed the Governor of Sicily, who released 800 and then ordered the rest to return to their masters. Despite the memory of grisly retribution following the First Sicilian Slave War a generation before, the promise of freedom suddenly withdrawn, coupled with the crowding together of a great mass of the recently enslaved, was enough to detonate a second revolt. The slaves marched from Syracuse to the Shrine of the Palici. This was located at a small lake in the crater of an extinct volcano not far from Mount Etna. The water there still bubbles and exudes gaseous vapours; in antiquity it was livelier still, spouting two geyser-like jets, and the Palici, the ancient deities believed to reside in the lake, were considered the special protectors of the island’s native people. They had supported an anti-Greek resistance movement in the 5th century BC. Now they would give their support to slaves in revolt against Rome.

There were two major outbreaks and two leaders emerged, one called Athenion, who was from Cilicia in Asia Minor, the other Salvius, of uncertain origin. At first in conflict, the two leaders were reconciled and, as Eunus and Cleon had done, combined their forces. Also as before, the slaves established a proto-state, though this time it took on Roman form, Salvius wearing a purple toga and appointing lictors bearing fasces in the manner of a consul. Though many rural slaves joined the revolt, both men and women fighting in the rebel army, the urban slaves remained loyal to their masters, and the Romans retained their grip on all the towns. The highest figure cited in the ancient sources for the size of the slave army is 40,000, far less than in the previous revolt. Nonetheless, the rebels, facing incompetent commanders and demoralized soldiery, held the countryside for three years. It was only with the arrival of Manius Aquillius and his veteran legionaries in 101 BC that the Second Sicilian Slave War was ended. Betrayal was a hallmark of the Empire’s vengeance: urban slaves promised their freedom in return for loyalty during the war were kept in slavery; a thousand rebels promised their lives if they surrendered were sent to die in the arena.

In the space of five years, the soldiers of Gaius Marius had conquered Numidia, destroyed the Cimbri and Teutones, and crushed the Sicilian slaves. The Republic had been saved. The People’s faith in their champion had been vindicated. Marius found himself the greatest Roman of his age, elevated so far above his erstwhile peers that the edifice of the state tottered top-heavy under his weight. The conservative majority in the Senate could only view their new master with gloomy suspicion.

No doubt this self-made man, basking in the popular acclaim that his achievements had earned, regarded the snobbery of hereditary nobles with a mixture of contempt and irritation. Barriers to the advancement of parvenus like himself, barriers whose effect was to shield incompetence from the competition of better men, must have seemed unjust and detrimental to the public interest. Yet it would be wrong to see Marius as a revolutionary – or even a radical reformer – opposed to senatorial government. On the contrary, access to the Senate, and the offices and rewards in its gift, were the summit of his political ambition, as they would be that of other great populists, not least his nephew Julius Caesar. Marius’s faction included many of the senatorial elite, some from the oldest families, of which the Julii were merely the most prominent. The Roman aristocracy had always been divided into factions – alliances of great senatorial families and their networks of clients, competing for honour, power and wealth at the top of society. In the past, such clashes over policy as there had been rarely concerned matters of substance. The new wealth of empire in the 2nd century BC had encouraged some, like Scipio Africanus and his family, to adopt an ostentatious and luxurious lifestyle modelled on the Hellenistic East. And traditionalists like Cato the Elder had denounced them, the Scipiones in particular, speaking out against the supposed corruption of Roman public life, demanding a return to the imagined sobriety of the past. But a squabble about Greek art was hardly going to turn the world upside down.

Some have argued that the struggle between populares (populists: those who took the side of the People) and optimates (the ‘best men’: those who supported oligarchy and order) was no different: that policy differences remained secondary to the scramble for office, and if the competition became more vicious – indeed, lethal – that was only because the stakes for which men played were higher. New wealth fed intra-aristocratic competition, the argument goes, but did not alter its essentially factional, self-serving character.

Yet it was not wealth as such that had escalated the intensity of conflict within the Roman elite. The whole arena of conflict had been enlarged, allowing political protagonists to forge more powerful weapons and deploy a repertoire of new tactics. Things had moved beyond dinner-party gossip and bath-house cabals. Politics had ceased to be the exclusive pastime of aristocratic plotters. Everyone was now involved, since the whole shape and future of Rome and its empire were at issue. Though confusion and chaos often characterized their interventions, decayed patricians, ‘new men’, equestrians, decurions, common citizens, non-Romans, even slaves, all now entered the political process. Here was a potential base (except for the slaves) for men like Marius, a base independent of senatorial favour, one that could lift them clear of the carve-ups and compromises of factional politics. Thus had Marius triumphed at the polls – as the People’s general against Old Corruption. But matters could not rest there. For Marius had become the over-mighty subject whose pre-eminence threatened the collegiate principles and closed shop of senatorial government. Traditionally, high offices had been shared out by agreement among the great families. Traditionally, policy had been consensual, and the ‘advice’ of the Senate had been as good as law. Not any more. The Gracchi had been vanquished, but, it seemed, their demon had been reborn as a military tyrant.

If so, his sprite was a radical tribune of the plebs called Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, who had emerged as a scourge of incompetent generals and a champion of the common soldier. The Senate resisted his measures and there had again been open clashes on the streets of the capital. The stakes were raised further when Marius and Saturninus formed an alliance in 101–100 BC to ensure a proper settlement for discharged soldiers and a new appointment for the general. Saturninus introduced a bill to provide land-allotments for military veterans in Gallia Narbonensis, and another authorizing new colonies in Sicily, Achaea (Greece) and Macedonia. Senatorial opposition was led by Quintus Caecilius Metellus, Marius’s former commander in Numidia, and it was motivated in large part by fear that the proposed communities of veteran-settlers would constitute a permanent bloc of Marian loyalists, further entrenching the general’s power. Saturninus’s measures therefore faced defeat. At that point something extraordinary and unprecedented happened: Marius brought his veterans into the city to drive the senatorial mob off the streets, pack the popular assembly, and vote through Saturninus’s bills.

Soldiers had entered the political arena. The populists had found a new weapon. It was one that Marius himself had forged. He had done so without conscious political intent; his famous army reforms were of strictly military purpose; yet their effect was to transform Rome’s soldiery into a force of semi-professional mercenaries with real power. Marius had reformed the Roman army to make it a more effective military instrument in his campaigns against Numidians and Germans. Effectively a career officer who rose to the top through personal achievement, he was perhaps less hidebound than generals from the hereditary nobility. Certainly he was prepared to break rules to deal with the inherited weaknesses of the army: lack of manpower; poor discipline and training; low morale; limited strategic mobility; and equally limited tactical flexibility. Some changes may have been introduced by other Roman commanders (our sources are hazy). Some may have been intended only as temporary measures (but then became permanent). What is certain is that the Roman army was substantially remodelled at the end of the 2nd century BC, and Marius was the dominant military figure of the period. The army of the Late Republic – the army destined to win the victories of Sulla, Pompey, Caesar and Octavian-Augustus – was, in effect, the army Marius created.

The single most important change was to abolish the property qualification and allow the proletarii – citizens without property counted by head in the census (capite censi) – to join the legions. This had occasionally been done in previous emergencies – after Cannae, for example – but this time, whether intentional or not, the change turned out to be permanent. The problem represented by the decay of the Italian peasantry was suddenly turned on its head. The legions were no longer formed of reluctant conscripts from a shrinking social class. Enlistment became voluntary and open to all able-bodied citizens, including the large and growing class of proletarii, for many of whom army pay and a military career were attractive alternatives to unemployment and poverty. At a stroke, Marius solved the problems of recruitment, training, discipline and morale that had plagued Roman military operations for so long. He created a large army of long-service soldiers willing to campaign in distant theatres for years at a time, and, as professionals, to train, march and fight harder. He thereby transformed the army’s strategic and tactical potential.

‘Marius’s Mules’ they came to be called: because their general, determined to increase mobility, slashed the size of the army’s baggage train and loaded essential equipment on to the backs of the soldiers. It was now that the marching Roman soldier became – when he needed to be: when the army had to move fast – a pack-animal. Henceforward, in addition to wearing heavy tunic and military cloak, legionaries bore more than 20 kg of arms and armour, and humped up to 30 kg of equipment, including cooking utensils, palisade stake, entrenching tool, several days’ rations, water flask, and personal belongings. Thus had Roman columns marched across 600 miles of North African wastes in the struggle against Jugurtha.

No less important was the abolition of the old distinction between hastati, principes and triarii, along with the division of the legion into maniples of 120 men. Instead, all legionaries were now equipped the same, with pilum and gladius, and the cohort, a battalion-sized unit of approximately 500 men, a tenth of a legion’s strength, became the basic tactical unit. Legionaries were still heavy infantry, wearing helmet and chain-mail, and carrying large oval or rectangular shields, but, instead of being anchored in a relatively static and essentially defensive line, they were now mobile shock troops organized in independent units. It was the new Marian legions’ combination of professional discipline, tactical flexibility and shock effect that had destroyed the northern hordes at Aquae Sextiae and Vercellae. The Roman army was fast approaching its zenith – and a period of military dominance that would last for 300 years.

But there was a political price. The soldiers fought for pay, and also, since many of the new recruits had no family plot to return to, an allotment of land to support them after discharge. They came to view their general as their patron (a conventional enough Roman view of the matter), and he regarded them (no less conventionally) as his clients. The soldiers looked to their patron to pay regularly and ensure adequate supplies while in service; to lead them to victory and bring them glory and shares of booty; and to provide farms and largesse at the end of their service. The general, for his part, found in his soldiers a powerful instrument for the advancement of his political career. One can hardly improve on the summary of the ancient historian Max Cary in 1935: ‘In the riots of 100 BC, the most ominous feature was the intervention of Marius’s soldiers. This incident revealed that the new army, which had proved itself the saviour of the Republic, might in turn become its destroyer. Composed mainly of proletarians without a stake in the country, and serving continuously with the colours for long terms of years, it gave its loyalty to the officer who enlisted and led it rather than to the Senate and People. The collision between Marius and the Senate over provision of land grants for his veterans also raised in an acute form the question of pay and pensions for the new army.’(8)

Rome’s new soldiers were no vanguard of democratic revolution. A privileged special interest group, they fought for themselves alone. They would back the man who paid them regardless of politics. There was a foretaste of this in 99 BC. With political violence escalating, Marius broke with his new allies and redeployed his veterans in the cause of order. As Plutarch describes it: ‘At length, when the Senate and Equestrian Order concerted measures together, and openly manifested their resentment, he [Marius] did bring his soldiers into the Forum, and driving the insurgents onto the Capitol, and then cutting off the conduits, forced them to surrender by want of water. They, in this distress, addressing themselves to him, surrendered, as it is termed, on the “public faith”. He did his utmost to save their lives, but so wholly in vain that, when they came down into the Forum they were all basely murdered.’(9) It was the Gracchi again, but now the agents of reaction were military veterans. Though it was far short of full-blooded counter-revolution – Marius and the supporters of moderate reform were to remain the dominant force in Roman politics for a decade – it was evidence that soldiers, like the urban mob, were loyal to patrons not principles. The next great crisis in the history of the Late Republic would see soldiers fight as willingly for a conservative dictator as a popular reformer. Here was the germ of the civil wars.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!