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A Brief History Of The Roman Empire, Part 4: Marius And Sulla

If you know anything about Ancient Rome, you probably know that Julius Caesar used his army to overthrow the government and established himself as dictator for life before being assassinated in a vain attempt to restore the Republic. But before we can talk about Caesar, we have to talk about Gaius Marius. Because while the Gracchi had been put to rest, the pool of eligible soldiers was still shrinking at an alarming rate.

The Marian Reforms

Marius was a gifted commander from comparatively humble beginnings who married into a prominent patrician family known as the Julii. Marius distinguished himself in various campaigns in North Africa alongside a gifted young lieutenant of his named Cornelius Sulla. His lasting impact on the Roman military, however, would be established in 104 BC after Germanic tribes, the Cimbri and Teutones, routed several Roman legions and menaced Italy itself.

Marius was tasked with rebuilding the defeated legions from scratch, and to do so he completely scrapped property requirements for enlistment. Rome had begun to recruit from the landless poor in dire emergencies, but Marius made it standard policy — military service would no longer be a civic sacrifice but a career. Professional soldiers would serve for decades and be paid by the state and settled on conquered lands at the end of their service.

Bust of Marius. By © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0

By all accounts, Marius’s armies were better trained, better disciplined and better organized than any of their predecessors — but they created a fundamentally different political dynamic. Previously, soldiers had been stakeholders in the Republic who served part time to defend their own homes and interests. Now, soldiers were fighting for their commanders — because it was their commanders who made sure that they were paid, their commanders that led them to victory and booty, their commanders that made sure they were settled on good farmland when their decades in the legions were up.

The new Roman legions created economic opportunities for Rome’s underclass, but their men were loyal to the people who paid them — which, in effect, was not the Roman state.

It was for good reason that, centuries later, Emperor Septimius Severus would advise his sons to “enrich the soldiers and scorn all other men.”

Marius himself would be elected consul an unprecedented five times in a row between 104-100 BC (the same year his darling nephew was born) and would hold Rome’s highest office seven times before dying during his final term. He would also antagonize his former lieutenant, Sulla, repeatedly. 

Marius and Sulla

In 88 BC, Roman territory in modern-day Turkey was invaded by King Mithridates VI of Pontus, and an army was raised to retaliate. Sulla, who was a sitting consul at the time, was given command of that army and sent off to defend Roman territory and retaliate against the invaders. 

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But commanding such an operation came with significant prestige and the possibility of great riches, so Marius and his allies in the Senate worked to strip Sulla of his command and give it to Marius while Sulla and the army were marching out. Marius succeeded and his men intercepted Sulla’s force and informed him that Marius was in command now and he needed to step down.

Sulla promptly killed Marius’s messengers, turned his army around, put the defense of Anatolia on hold, and turned his full attention on driving Marius and his allies out of Rome. It was the first time a Roman army would march on their own capital — although it would not be the last.

The Entrance of Cornelius Sulla into Rome. Getty Images.

While this was happening, Mithridates was busy massacring tens of thousands of Roman civilians and advancing into territory Sulla’s army was ostensibly raised to defend, but political squabbles came first.

Marius was forced to flee for his life while over a dozen of his closest supporters were put to death. Once Sulla was satisfied that Marius had been put out to pasture and his own supporters were firmly in place, he left the city to go deal with the foreign invasion that had started this debacle.


Roman republic during the first Mithridatic War 85 B.C.

But while Sulla was busy prosecuting the First Mithridatic War, Marius was back in North Africa, licking his wounds and consolidating support. While Sulla was away Marius would play, and in 87 BC Marius marched an army of his own into Rome, purged roughly 100 of Sulla’s political allies and seized control of the government. Marius would be elected to the consulship for a record-breaking 7th time before dying two weeks after taking office, leaving his various allies holding the bag.

The Mithridatic invasion had pushed all the way into Greece at this point, and Sulla’s forces were thoroughly engaged so he couldn’t up and leave, but once the invading army had been dealt with and peace terms had been agreed to in 85 BC, the Civil War was back on.

Two big personalities made a name for themselves during this period, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius, who would later be known to history as “Pompey the Great” but at this point was known simply as “the adolescent butcher” — Pompey began serving under Sulla at the tender age of 19 and his ruthlessness during the war was infamous.

By 82 BC, Sulla had re-established control of the city and declared himself dictator for life — he also ordered hundreds of prominent Romans put to death and put many more on a “proscription list.”

By Silvestre David Mirys, Public Domain. Wiki Commons.

The proscription was a Sullan innovation where a citizen was declared an enemy of the state and marked for death — the catch was that the property of the proscripted was nationalized and anyone who killed them was entitled to a share of it as a bounty. This refilled the public coffers, which had been thoroughly exhausted over the course of the Civil War. They also caused a reign of mass terror as hundreds of prominent Romans were brutally murdered in the streets, their heirs left disinherited and destitute, and their murders made off with small fortunes.

Crassus, whose family’s wealth had been seized by the Marians early in the war, made a massive fortune off the proscription, buying up stolen property for a fraction of its value and growing that investment over through similarly dubious firesales until he was by far the wealthiest man in Rome.

Nobody liked Crassus.

Hundreds of Romans perished during the proscriptions, some for the simple crime of being related to the wrong people, but one especially notable person would escape by the skin of his teeth. Marius’s young nephew, Julius Caesar.

Gaius Julius Caesar

Caesar was only a teenager when Sulla had his name added to the list of the damned — but he had already been married off to Cornelia, the daughter of Cinna, one of Marius’s top lieutenants. Sulla ordered the boy to divorce her — marriages often signified political alliances and this particular union was unacceptable. 

Caesar refused. That got him on the list.

The Julii were one of Rome’s noblest patrician families, dating back to the founding of the city and supposedly the direct descendants of the goddess Venus herself. The Caesares branch of the family may have backed the wrong horse in the civil war, but while it was a death penalty offense to aid or comfort the proscribed, Caesar’s friends in the countryside gave him shelter while his family’s powerful friends in Sulla’s court pleaded for the boy’s life.

Eventually, and very reluctantly, Sulla relented. Sulla would not live to see this boy grow, but even then he had some inkling of what he would become. In his memoirs, Sulla would go so far as to specifically cite his decision to spare the young man as one of his lasting regrets, because Sulla saw “many a Marius” in Caesar.

Caesar, wisely recognizing that Sulla had second thoughts about sparing his life, quickly exited stage left for a military career in the provinces before Rome’s first dictator-for-life changed his mind. Sulla meanwhile, ruled for three years, from 82 BC — 79 BC, before stepping down as dictator-for-life, one year prematurely.

Bust of Sulla. Public Domain. Wiki Commons.

Sulla used his absolute power to reform the state — introducing new requirements and restrictions for holding office and passing various constitutional reforms that in his view eliminated roots of corruption — including the diminishment of the office of Tribune of the Plebs, that constant source of rabble-rousers. Sulla at least cast himself as a restorer of the Senate and republican virtue, in contrast to the depraved Marians, and spent his year of retirement hoping that his achievements would protect future generations of Romans from … men exactly like him.

Nevertheless, Sulla’s ‘do as I say, not as I do’ style of statesmanship proved unpersuasive.

RELATED: A Brief History Of The Roman Empire, Part 1: The Founding Of Rome

RELATED: A Brief History Of The Roman Empire, Part 2: The Public Thing

RELATED: A Brief History Of The Roman Empire, Part 3: Land Reform And The Era Of Gracchi


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