Gaius Marius: Savior of the People or Destroyer of the Roman Republic?

The Roman Civil Wars are taught in schools around the country; however, the first Civil War is usually dismissed. Men on the political left, the populares, sought Roman citizenship for Italians plus grain and land reform to make the lives of the average citizens better. The optimates, or best men sought to keep the power of the Roman Senate from the teeming hordes of the unwashed masses who could destroy the Roman Republic and upend the traditional values of the nation.

One of the key figures in the Roman Civil Wars was Gaius Marius, a member of the populares. He has been overshadowed by his own nephew Iulius (there is no J in Latin) Caesar. A professor of the author once lectured, “that Gaius Marius was a brilliant general, charismatic, handsome, an excellent orator.” He went on to state, “that everything Marius was Iulius Caesar was, but better.” Marius has been frequently ignored or forgotten, in favor of Marius 2.0, Iulius. Four biographies were written on Marius in the twentieth century, but all are out of print. Conversely, Iulius has been the subject of countless books, one can walk into any major bookstore and find writings on Caesar. Marius was Consul a record seven times, and six times in eight years, yet is largely neglected.

Of the historians who have examined Marius, they have noted his military achievements, but in large part have belittled his political and intellectual abilities. These get mentioned in passing before moving briefly into the deeds and actions of Iulius Caesar. Marius has been seen as a man grasping for power at the expense of all else. He has been portrayed as an uncultured brute in much of the surviving ancient record. Plutarch, one of the main sources that discusses Marius, does so in a negative light. The autobiography of Sulla was used a great deal as well. Sulla the son-in-law of Marius hated the man, and these two would fight the Socii War/War of the Allies, the first of Three Roman Civil Wars. Marius was not a patrician and used his plain-spoken gruff soldier nature in order to become a man of the people. He was one of the rare Interestingly, this helped him succeed at the time, but has hurt his perception over the last two millennia. He did not write anything about himself and was dismissive of Greek education that came to permeate the Roman Empire. Men of learning came to despise Marius for these reasons.

Plutarch wrote about a statue of Marius in Ravenna and stated, “it very well portrays the harshness and bitterness of character which are ascribed to him,” Plutarch then went on, “he (Marius) never studied Greek…thinking it ridiculous to study a literature the teachers of which were the subjects of another people.”[1] These factors have shaped the narrative of many historians when dealing with Marius. This perception has been handed down from the ancient world to the present day. Historian Lawrence Keppie wrote of the modern perceptions of Marius as one who, “paved the way for the lawless, greedy soldiery whose activities…contributed to the disgrace and fall of the Republic a few generations later.”[2] Additionally, the American founding fathers were concerned about the military ruling the nation, and at the same time the mob. Marius was able to use his military prowess and the people to gain power and make changes in Rome itself. As such they glorified those who fought against Marius, Iulius, and Augustus, all of whom were related.

A major issue when dealing with ancient sources is the scarcity of material. Funnily enough, Iulius Caesar, does have something to do with this when he burned down the Great Library in Alexandria. Frustratingly, sources that ancient historians used have been destroyed over the millennia. The reason modern historians know of these sources are the references to destroyed materials made by the surviving accounts. Looking at Marius from an intellectual perspective means wading through the sources that highly unfavorable in order to determine the truth. There is no denying the success of Marius, but the surviving accounts mainly begrudge this point. The investigation will require reading between the historical lines in order to determine who exactly was Marius?

There are two key questions: if Marius was an intellectual lightweight, then why did Iulius use his uncle as a model for his political and military career? Secondly, is the characterization of Marius as a savage brute trying to tear down the Republic accurate, or was he a hero saving the Republic from crisis after crisis? In the wake of the populist rage and violent events that have swept the nation (from both the political left and right), the example of Marius and the death of the Roman Republic are especially poignant.

[1] Plutarch, Lives Volume II, (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2006), 467.

[2] Lawrence Keppie, The Making of the Roman Army, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984), 61.

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