Gaius Marius was the Savior of Ancient Rome, but was he a Hero or Villain?
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. (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.
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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).
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.
No less than seven unsanctioned deaths were attributed to Marius, which, in part, ruined his once respectable reputation. Despite this short-lived reign of terror, Marius was elected to the consulship of 86 BC, giving him his prophesized 7th consulship, which was more than any previous Roman had obtained. However, not long after his inauguration, Marius died, allegedly of pleurisy.
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Was Marius a Hero or Villain?
So, was Marius a hero or a villain? The truth is that he was both. Early in Marius’ career, he proved to be a conscientious politician even though he later violated Rome’s laws on term limits. However, this provision was sometimes violated in times of great danger. Marius was also a talented general. He concluded the long-running Jugurthine War, which no other commander seemed capable of doing. He vanquished the menacing Cimbri, who had previously routed numerous Roman armies. However, Marius’ legacy is muddled due to the last chapter of his life.
Because of a petty dispute with his erstwhile subordinate, Roman legions marched on their homeland as conquering armies for the first time in history, which threw the Republic into chaos. Once Marius returned to power, the man who once safeguarded the Republic evolved into a bloodthirsty tyrant. This unfortunately ensured that his reputation would forever be tainted. In fact, as is evident by my book Gaius Marius: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Saviour , 2,000 years later, it is still being debated how Marius should remembered.
‘Marius Meditating on the Ruins of Carthage’ (1807) by Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Detail of ‘Caius Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage’ (1807) by John Vanderlyn. Source: Public Domain
By Marc Hyden
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