(c) Jerry Fielden 2000 

The Life of Caius Marius 

Caius Marius was a formidable and ambitious equestrian from Cirrhaeaton near Arpinum,[1] one of the first “warlords”, or faction leaders that would characterize the end of the Roman Republic. He was born circa 157 BC, in a time of growing internal problems in the Roman State, of which the Gracchi were one of the principal manifestations. Marius was an excellent soldier and a shrewd statesman who knew his allies and enemies well, and who was not afraid to try out new alliances and to marry into the “proper” social group to further his ambitions.[2] He held a record for the times of seven consulships, the last being held for a few days before his death in 86 BC. Some of the important events of his life were the Jugurthine Wars, his victories against the Germanic Tribes, his rivalry against Lucius Cornelius Sulla and the “massacre” of his enemies in 86 BC. Marius is remembered especially for his reforms and social measures related to the Roman Army. 

His father Marius and his mother Fulcinia were poor and “undistinguished”,[3] according to Plutarch. Marius’ family might have been upper class Italian and closely related to other leading municipal aristocrat families of the area and maybe even to some leading administrators of Rome itself, or at least as clients to these Roman families.[4] We do know that Marisa’s family was in a client relationship to the Metelli in Rome.[5] The local aristocrats were considered to be of equestrian rank, and a sizeable fortune of that sort was certainly necessary to a man of Marius’ ambitions. [6] Marius also received an ordinary but solid education.[7] 

He first joined the Army in 134-133 as an eques[8] under Scipio Aemilianus, whom he impressed by his bravery and willingness to endure camp discipline without complaining. He also distinguished himself in hand-to-hand combat and had the luck of being seen by his general when this happened. So Scipio conferred many honors on the recruit, to the point of telling people that Marius might be a natural successor to him.[9] After these events, Marius ran for tribune and won. Right away, he showed the mettle of a much more experienced magistrate in a confrontation in the Senate with the consul Cotta about a law on the method of voting, confrontation that Marius won by standing his ground. He became known as a defender of the people, a popularis.[10] He was quaestor in 122 and was posted in Transalpine Gaul under Q. Fabius Maximus, Scipio Aemilius’ son.[11] He then lost two elections in the same day as curule and plebeian aedile and barely won an election as praetor in 116-115, and he was also prosecuted for bribing people in this last election.[12] After his praetorship, he was sent to Outer Spain and fought bandits in the province. When he returned to Rome, he made a political alliance by marrying Julia from the family of the Caesars: his bride was the aunt of the future dictator Julius Caesar.[13] This alliance must have helped Marius regain some countenance in the political arena.[14] 

He returned to army service during the Jugurthine war under Caecilius Metellus, where he did all he could to upstage his commander and take advantage of all the opportunities for glory that were presented to him. He also made sure he was loved by his own men and shared in all their work, meals and accommodations. He made a lot of friends in the army that way and his name became famous in Libya then Rome. His soldiers even wrote home stating that he should be elected consul to end the war they were involved in and Metellus was not too pleased with this and eventually became hostile to Marius.[15] Marius knew the Metelli and the rest of the nobles were set against his obtaining the consulate and he resented that and wanted to win despite their lack of support towards him for the attainment of that magistrature.[16] Marius then sailed back to Rome and asked for the consulship after attacking Metellus in the Senate and promising that he would return with Jugurtha alive or kill the Numidian leader.[17] 

He was elected consul for this purpose and it is at this moment that he made a previously informal situation official: he enrolled proletarii in the army, men who had no property to qualify them for military service. Under his consulships from 104-101 the Army was reformed completely and weapons standardized.[18] He also made angry speeches against the nobility and railed against their ancestors. He claimed it was better to be talented than well-born.[19] Marius returned to Africa where Metellus did not want to meet him, because he claimed Marius wanted to steal his glory. Finally, it was Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Marius’ quaestor, which captured Jugurtha and “upstaged” Marius, establishing thus the foundation of one of Rome’s most infamous rivalries, even though the hatred did not erupt into the open until later in both men’s careers.[20] An interesting theory on the fuel to this rivalry was that Sulla had been demoted from legate to military tribune by Marius[21] during the Germanic Invasions of 104-101 BC, of which we will now talk about. 

Then Marius was sent to deal with a massive invasion of Teutones, Ambrones and Cimbri that had wiped out some Roman armies in Transalpine Gaul.[22] He was elected consul a second time by a populares vote to handle the situation,[23] even though he was not actually in Rome for the election nor had let the proper amount of time pass between consulships, which was illegal but not unprecedented -[24] the people wanted Marius in any case.[25] Marius then came over from Libya and held a triumph in Rome upon assuming his second consulship with “a spectacle the Romans had never hoped to see - Jugurtha in chains”. [26] 

He then left with his army for the front and trained them heavily upon the way: he had them carry their own packs and make their own meals, as well as make them practice runs and tiring marches. Soldiers who would submit to this without complaining and even joyfully came to be called “Marius’ Mules”: this sobriquet might have also applied to patient and hard-working men in the army because of the well-maintained mule and horse Marius had once shown to his commander Scipio.[27] Marius had trained his army so well and had been such a good, tough and just commander that he was elected consul for the third time.[28] However, the anticipated enemy didn’t show up, Marius’ third consulship had expired, and he faced some tough competition for a fourth consulship. To ensure that Marius obtained it, a tribune of the plebs, Saturninus, was put into action by Marius to speak on his behalf, and thus the people were won over and the election gained in this manner.[29] 

Marius then set out for Gaul, crossed the Alps and built a camp on the Rhône River, where he built a canal that still bears his name.[30] Marius was then challenged to battle by the Teutones and Ambrones, but let all the proffered insults pass; his soldiers were beginning to complain that Marius was thinking they were cowards and this is why he would not let them fight. Marius told them that he was waiting for the Gods to tell him the right time and place for him to win the battle.[31] So the enemy tried to attack Marius’ camp but failed. They then left their positions, followed by Marius and his men, and both armies eventually reached a place called Aquae Sextiae. Both armies settled down and went to get water and bathe. But more and more noise was going on and the Romans were starting to worry for their servants by the water. So a battle started , more by accident than by planning, and the Romans and their allies wiped out the Ambrones.[32] A couple of days later, Marius and his men cut down the Teutones also in a huge massacre.[33] During the ensuing festivities, a messenger from Rome told Marius that he had been elected consul for a fifth time.[34] 

In the meantime, Catulus, the other consul, was having problems with the Cimbri, who had routed his forces and forced him to retreat, which he did with dignity.[35] Marius was called back to Rome to help Catulus, and refused to put on a triumph until the enemy had been taken care of.[36] 

Again, it is then that Marius had innovated a bit in military equipment. For instance, he changed the pins on the Roman javelin in order that the head could detach itself on impact so the enemy could not re-use the spear.[37] 

Marius and Catulus then engaged the enemy at a place called Vercellae. Sulla, who fought there as well, stated that Catulus outshone Marius in glory in that particular battle. It was a massive rout for the enemy, who lost over 100,000 men.[38] Of course, Catulus wanted to claim the victory for himself, but the people gave Marius the honors of the victory, even though he insisted, maybe under pressure from the soldiers, that Catulus share the triumph with him. 

Marius obtained his sixth consulship after this, and some said he obtained it by bribery. It is then that he had problems with the nobles, and had plotted to have Metellus exiled, with the help of the agitators Glaucia and Saturninus.[39] The tribune Saturninus helped Marius achieve his objective with the exile of Metellus and in obtaining land for his own veterans,[40] and Marius also allied himself with Saturninus in criminal activities.[41] Metellus eventually returned because of a recall and Marius left for a trip to Asia where he provoked Mithridates into belligerence towards the Roman people: Marius wanted to obtain more military glory by fighting the Asian king eventually.[42] 

Marius eventually returned to Rome and a conflict almost broke out between Sulla and himself. But the Social War happened just in time to postpone the confrontation between the two men.[43] Marius was quite old at that time but still managed to get a big victory where he killed 6,000 enemy troops: he had a very good war along with Sulla in 90 against the Marsi and Marrucini.[44] He went into retirement after this.[45] But Marius could not get enough of the Army, so he tried to obtain the command of the army that was to be sent to fight Mithridates. In this, a tribune, Sulpicius, who was considered a ruffian, backed him. The people, at this point, were hesitating between Marius and Sulla, and some stated that Marius was too old and should enjoy the fruits of retirement. Marius wanted to disprove this, so he went and exercised with the younger soldiers at the Campus Martius and showed that he could still hold his own, even though some people pitied him instead of admired him for this.[46] 

Sulpicius then tried to attack the consuls and killed the son of one of them, Pompey,[47] and Sulla, who was the other consul, barely managed to escape with his life by running into Marius’ house, where Marius might have helped him to escape.[48] Sulpicius then gave the command of the war against Mithridates to Marius, but Sulla marched on Rome and Marius had to flee.[49] 

Marius barely escaped several times with his life during this flight,[50] and finally joined up with Cinna, one of the consuls of 87, who had been behaving like a dictator and was exiled by the other consul, Cnaeus Octavius, when Sulla was away fighting Mithridates. Cinna named Marius proconsul and Marius met him and wore the humblest clothes to do this so people could pity him. But Marius’ ferocious expression contradicted this stance however, and he soon set about leading the forces against Octavius, who ended up being assassinated by a squadron of cavalry.[51] The Senate surrendered, Cinna entered Rome, but Marius asked for a law rescinding his exile so he could enter the city legally. This he obtained and finally, he entered Rome, where some slaves that had joined him started a massacre of his enemies under his orders. Finally, Cinna had had enough of this carnage and he and Sertorius had their soldiers kill the slaves during their sleep.[52] Even at that, the Cinnan rule still became known as a dominatio because of these massacres.[53] 

At that point, Sulla was on his way home with a large army from his battles with Mithridates. Marius became consul for the seventh time, and was terrorized by Sulla and had nightmares all the time. He eventually fell ill with pneumonia and died in the seventeenth day of his seventh consulship.[54] 

Marius had been the first in a long line of faction leaders, but he had also been, if not an innovator, at least a synthesizer of much-needed military reforms that also drew on the changing social aspects of Roman society. He will be remembered for his courage, his military acumen and his tenacity, and unfortunately, for the massacres that marred the end of his career. 


Appian, The Civil Wars, translated by John Carter, Penguin Classics, London, 1996 

Cagniart, P.F., ‘L. Cornelius Sulla’s Quarrel with C. Marius at the time of the Germanic Invasions’, Athenaeum LXVII, Pavia Università, 1989 

Carney, Thomas Francis, A biography of C. Marius, Proceedings of the African Classical Associations, Supplement Number 1, 1961 

Keaveney, Arthur, Sulla, the Last Republican, Croom Helm, London and Canberra, 1982 

Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Republic, Translated by Rex Warner, revised Edition, Penguin Books, 1972 

Syme, Ronald, The Roman Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1939 


[1] Plut., Marius 2 

[2] To wit, his marriage with the patrician Julia 

[3] Plut., Marius 3 

[4] Carney, p. 9 

[5] Plut., Marius 4 

[6] Carney, p. 9 

[7] Plut., Marius 3 

[8] Carney, p. 15 

[9] Plut., Marius 3 

[10] Plut., Marius 4 

[11] Carney, p. 17 

[12] Plut., Marius 5 

[13] Plut., Marius 6 

[14] Carney, p. 24 

[15] Plut., Marius 7 and 8 

[16] Syme, p. 86 

[17] Plut., Marius 8 

[18] Carney, p.32 

[19] Plut., Marius 9 

[20] Plut., Marius 10 and Sulla 3 

[21] Cagniart, Athenaeum LXVII, pp. 139-147 

[22] Plut., Marius 11 

[23] Carney, p. 31 

[24] Scipio had been made consul like this in 147 BC to handle Carthage; Plut., Marius 12 

[25] Plut., Marius 12 

[26] Plut., Marius 12 

[27] Plut., Marius 13 

[28] Plut., Marius 14 

[29] Plut., Marius 14 

[30] Plut., Marius 15 

[31] Plut., Marius 16 and 17 

[32] Plut., Marius 19 

[33] Plut., Marius 20 and 21 

[34] Plut., Marius 22 

[35] Plut., Marius 23; Keaveney, p. 33 

[36] Plut., Marius 24 

[37] Plut., Marius 25 

[38] Plut., Marius 27 

[39] Plut., Marius 28 

[40] Carney, p. 41; Appian 1.29 

[41] Plut., Marius 29 and 30 

[42] Plut., Marius 31; Keaveney, pp. 43-44 

[43] Plut., Marius 33; Appian 1.34 

[44] Carney, p. 52; Appian 1.46 

[45] Plut., Marius 33 

[46] Plut., Marius 34 

[47] Appian, 1.56 

[48] Plut., Marius 35: Plutarch also says that Sulla himself denied this 

[49] Plut., Marius 35 

[50] Plut., Marius 35-40; Appian, 1.58-1.62 

[51] Plut., Marius 41-42; Carney, p 65 

[52] Plut., Marius 43-44 

[53] Carney, p. 68 

[54] Plut., Marius 45


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