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Marius, the Guardian of Rome

Marius, the Guardian of Rome
01 April 2017 0 Comment

The story of Consul Caius Marius was saved for posterity by two Roman scribes, Tacitus and Plutarch, who recorded the remarkable exploits of this remarkable Roman.

Marius did more for the survival of Rome than others would ever manage; saving it from certain destruction no less. When Gaius Gracchus formed the plebeian party (135-121 BC) to challenge and eventually take over the old aristocratic ruling families of the senate he was unaware of course of what he was about to unleash upon Rome. Upon the death of Gracchus the plebs elected an obscure general six consecutive times as their senate representative and consul. His name was Caius Marius.

The Man

Marius was born in 157 BC (died January 13, 86 BC aged 70) in the town of Arpinum in southern Latium. The town had been conquered by the Romans in the late 4th century BC and was given Roman citizenship without voting rights. Only in 188 BC did the town receive full citizenship. Although Plutarch claims that Marius’ father was a labourer, this is almost certainly false since Marius had connections with the nobility in Rome, he ran for local office in Arpinum, and he had marriage relations with the local nobility in Arpinum, which all combine to indicate that he was born into a locally important family of equestrian status. The problems he faced in his early career in Rome show the difficulties that faced a “new man” (novus homo).

Destined to Greatness

There is a legend that Marius, as a teenager, found an eagle’s nest with seven chicks in it – eagle clutches hardly ever have more than 3 eggs; even if two females used the same nest, finding 7 offspring in a single nest would be exceptionally rare. Since eagles were considered sacred animals of Jupiter, the supreme god of the Romans, it was later seen as an omen predicting his election to the consulship seven times. Later, as consul, he decreed that the eagle would be the symbol of the Senate and People of Rome.

War in Numidia

A great leader succeeds where others had failed by the will of his character and brilliance in waging war and the unwavering love of his soldiers. Marius had these qualities and much more. He changed how Rome recruited for her armies because he needed more troops. In 107 BC Marius decided to ignore the census qualification that determined how Rome obtained her soliders and recruited with no inquiry into the property of the potential soldier. From now on Rome’s legions would largely consist of poor citizens (the “capite censi” or “head count”) whose future after service could only be assured if their general could somehow bring about a land distribution on their behalf. Thus the soldiers had a very strong personal interest in supporting their general against the Senate (i.e., the oligarchy) and the “public interest” that was often equated with the Senate. Marius did not avail himself of this potential source of support, With his rustic smartness and cool head in difficult situations he subdued the rebellious tribes of Spain and then entered north Africa to defeat the ferocious Numidians with an army that would defy death for their great general, or die in trying!

Rome’s Greatest Enemy was about to Pounce

The arrival of the Cimbri in Gaul in 109 BC and their complete defeat of Marcus Junius Silanus had resulted in unrest among the Celtic tribes recently conquered by the Romans in southern Gaul. In 107 the consul Lucius Cassius Longinus was completely defeated by the Tigurini clan, and the senior surviving officer (Gaius Popillius Laenas, son of the consul of 132) had saved what was left only by surrendering half the baggage and suffering the humiliation of having his army “march under the yoke.” Rome was ripe for plunder. The Cimbri and the Teutones (both migrating Germanic tribes) appeared on the Rhône and the march south had begun.

First, Marius had to deal with the Teutones, who were in the province of Narbonensis marching toward the Alps. He refused to give them a battle where they wanted, and withdrew to Aquae Sextiae (a settlement founded by Gaius Sextius Calvinus in 124 BC), which blocked their path. The leading contingent of the Germanic warriors, the Ambrones, foolishly attacked the Roman position without waiting for reinforcements and 30,000 were killed. Marius then hid 3,000 troops in ambush, so when the main Germanic contingent finally attacked, the hidden Roman troops could fall on them from behind. In the ensuing defeat, the Teutones were completely annihilated, to the number of something over 100,000. Marius’ colleague Quintus Lutatius Catulus in 102 BC did not have as much luck. He botched the holding of the Brenner Pass, allowing the Cimbri to advance into northern Italy by late 102 BC. Marius was in Rome, and after becoming elected consul for 101 BC and deferring his Triumph over the Teutones, he marched north to join Catulus, whose command was prorogued into 101. Finally, in the summer of that year a battle was fought at Vercellae in Cisalpine Gaul. Once again, Roman discipline overcame a larger barbarian force. At least 65,000 were killed (perhaps as many as 100,000 again) and all the remainder enslaved. The Tigurini gave up their efforts to enter Italy from the northeast and went home. Catulus and Marius celebrated a joint Triumph, but in popular thinking all the credit went to Marius, who was praised as “the third founder of Rome.”

Time to Rest

Marius had brought the barbarians to a halt at the gate of Italy. He lamented, on his death bed, that he had not achieved all of which he was capable, despite his having acquired great wealth and having been chosen consul more times than any man before him. Marius died on January 13, 86 BC, just seventeen days into his seventh consulship. Now it was up to a younger man to conquer the world.

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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