Detail of ‘Caius Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage’ (1807) by John Vanderlyn.

Gaius Marius was the Savior of Ancient Rome, but was he a Hero or Villain?

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Gaius Marius was easily one of the Roman Republic’s most accomplished men. He was a beloved general, influential military reformer, and a massively successful politician; but later in his career, he tarnished his once sterling reputation. As a result, his legacy suffered - but was Marius a hero or a villain? The answer is nuanced.

Marius was born in 157 BC to a family of supposed rustic origins. After he served honorably in Rome’s legions, he ascended the political ladder, fulfilling each post’s duty with distinction. He was even elected to the state’s highest post, the consulship, in 107 BC. He subsequently took command of a war with one of Rome’s recalcitrant client kings, Jugurtha, who had previously frustrated multiple Roman generals. By 105 BC. Marius concluded the simmering conflict, prompting his popularity to surge, but he was quickly called back into action.

So-called "Marius". Marble, Roman artwork of the 1st century BC, restored by Alexander Trippel.

So-called "Marius". Marble, Roman artwork of the 1st century BC, restored by Alexander Trippel. (Marie-Lan Nguyen/ CC BY 3.0 )

Gaius Marius Steps in for Rome

Rome was reeling from multiple defeats at the hands of a barbarian horde that was led by a mighty tribe called the Cimbri. Romans seriously worried that if the tribesmen turned towards Rome, then the Republic would be vanquished once and for all. Therefore, the Romans clamored for Marius’ steady leadership. Consequently, he was re-elected to the consulship of 104 BC, which was technically unconstitutional since no man was permitted to be consul more than one time in any 10-year period. He was also tasked with delivering Rome from the danger that the Cimbri and their allies posed.

After preparing for a war of survival, Marius patiently waited for a couple years for the tribesmen to turn towards Rome, and in the meantime, he was continually re-elected to the consulship. By 102 and 101 BC, Marius finally engaged the horde and crushed the barbarians, leaving an estimated 360,000 tribesmen dead. Afterwards, Marius returned to Rome a hero and was celebrated as one of Rome’s founders because his actions prevented the Republic’s fall and breathed new life into it.

‘The Defeat of the Cimbri’ (1833) by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps. ( Public Domain )


After his 6th consulship in 100 BC, Marius lived the relatively quiet life of an elder politician, but by 91-90 BC, he was asked to return to the field because many of Rome’s Italian allies had revolted against the Republic. The aging Marius readily obeyed the summons and ably commanded troops, but he resigned from his post at the end of 90 BC, citing health problems. Had Marius’ retirement remained permanent, he would be remembered as one of Rome’s greatest men, but history played out differently.

Marius’ Risky Return from Retirement

A bellicose Eastern monarch named Mithridates sparked a major conflict with Rome and the elderly Marius wished to lead the war against the king. Despite his desires, in 88 BC, the command was awarded to his former deputy, Sulla.

The so-called ‘Marius’ and ‘Sulla’ busts. (Egisto Sani/CC BY NC SA 2.0) The bust in the foreground depicts the consul - general Gaius Marius (157 - 86 BC); behind him, his contender Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (c. 138 – 78 BC).

The so-called ‘Marius’ and ‘Sulla’ busts. (Egisto Sani/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 ) The bust in the foreground depicts the consul - general Gaius Marius (157 - 86 BC); behind him, his contender Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (c. 138 – 78 BC).

After Sulla initially departed to prepare for the campaign, Marius successfully utilized a purely legal maneuver to have the command transferred to him. But Sulla didn’t intend to obey the people’s will. The Mithridatic War promised to bring fame, power, and riches to the Roman who defeated the pugnacious king. As a result, Sulla treacherously marched his troops on Rome as an invading enemy army to protect his command. Once he had assumed mastery over Rome, he exiled Marius and sentenced him to death in absentia. The man who once saved Rome fled like an odious criminal, causing his allies and many of his enemies to pity him, but the old general had one more conflict left in him.

‘Marius sitting on the Ruins of Carthage’ (circa 1791-1794) by Pierre-Joseph François. ( Public Domain )


After Sulla departed for the East, Marius took advantage of a violent dispute that erupted between the consuls of 87 BC. Marius joined with one of the consuls, Cinna, and the two marched legions on Rome to institute their own version of order and illegally settle their personal vendettas. After they gained control of the city, Marius ordered those who had allowed his exile and aided Sulla to be rounded up, and most of them were then summarily executed without trials or charges.


Golf's picture

Nice article! I think you just answered your own question with the last statement <cite>“Marius’ legacy is muddled due to the last chapter of his life.”</cite>. In my personal view, he was a military genius. Starting by his reform of the Legions organization, recognizing the old Manipular system was antiquated in opposed to operating with Cohorts for maximum performance and optimal administration.

He was probably a member of an Equites family, exalted in importance and relations to some very prestigious Patrician families, including the Claudii, through marriage to Julius Caesar’s aunt Julia. But he was still a soldier, a non-patrician from Arpinum, a city that only 30-odd year before had obtained full roman citizenship.

Even so, Marius was the ideal roman of its time and Father of the Nation, whom should have stayed in retirement, enjoying all his prestige and benefits of a fruitful life intact. Instead, he got pulled into a very damaging civil war with the much younger and power-hungry patrician Sulla. In fact, Marius facilitated Sulla’s march on Rome, as after Marius’ reforms, roman armies that used to swear loyalty to the nation, now swore devotion to their commanders.

It was a very bloodied civil war. Caesar claimed that while Sulla considered all citizens not with his party to be his enemies, Marius in contrast, announced that all citizens not with Sulla, were his friends. Ultimately, I am sure many atrocities were committed in their name as Rome changed hands several times.

In the end, I imagine that Romans grew very tired and weary of this episode (since it is mentioned as something to avoid by most writers and Emperors afterwards) and placed both rivals in the same light.

Horatio Golf
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