Gaius Marius was born of modest origins, the son of plebeian farmer near Arpinum. Plutarch informs us that a seer predicted that Marius would be Consul of Rome an unthinkable seven times. And so it came to pass, and Marius was also hailed as the Third Founder of the city and the First Man in Rome. He would reform the Army, restructure Roman society, save the city from barbarians and revolts, and raise significant political isssues to the attention of his fellow citizens. Unfortunately, for all his accomplishments, Marius would also help lay the groundwork for the Fall of the Roman Republic.
The First Man in Rome
Little is known of Marius' youth, but his humble origins are frequently cited. It should be noted, however, that, while his lack of Patrician lineage inevitably hampered any attempts he made to climb the cursus honorum, Marius' family did have sufficient wealth to provide their son with some favorable ties in Rome. He came from modest origins, not from destitute anonymity. For all that, however, it must have appeared a near impossible challenge to the young novus homo (New Man) as he considered his future journey through Roman political life.
It is known that Marius spent his early career in Hispania under Scipio Aemilianus, grandson of the legendary Scipio Africanus. He was quickly promoted through the ranks and entered politics in 123 BCE. At this point, at the age of 34, he was elected as Quaestor, the starting point for the cursus honorum. A few years later Marius was elected to the office of Tribune of the Plebes, a position that was restricted to the Plebeian class alone. Marius' formative years had been spent in the time of the Gracchi brothers, and he prudently took the surest route to political power for a Plebeian: he became a Populares. Unfortunately, while this guaranteed him the support of the Roman Plebes and capite censi (head count), it also earned him the undying enmity of the Optimates, the "best men." Composed of the vaunted Patrician class, the Optimates had emerged as a dominant power in the class war that still simmered in Rome.
This enmity caused difficulty for Marius in his youth, as he unsuccessfuly ran for several offices following his tribunate. His perserverance eventually paid off, however, as he was Praetor of Rome in 115 BCE. The following year his propraetorship was in the relatively insignificant province of far Spain. Here he put his military skills to good use in putting down several minor rebellions. After a relatively uneventful governorship, Marius returned to Rome. The next rung on the cursus honorum was the Consulship, a difficult challenge for any Plebeian, much less one that had antagonized the Optimates. Marius would need something more than his family's resources or his own talents to achieve his goal: He needed a name.
In 110 BCE, Marius made an arrangement that paved the way for his political future. One of the great old Patrician families of Rome, the Julii clan, had fallen on hard times. Money and fame powered the pursuit of fame in Rome, and the Julii had become notoriously poor. In a stunning move, a marriage was agreed to between Gaius Marius and Julia Caesar. Marius instantly gained entry into the social and political circles of the Patrician world, while the Julii once more became players in Rome's political life through their access to Marius' wealth. In 109 BCE Marius was selected to be the chief legate for Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus, Consul of Rome, in his campaign against Jugurtha of Numdia.
The Jugurthine War
Jugurtha had been a one-time Friend of Rome prior to rebelling against Rome's authority. When Metellus and Marius landed in North Africa, the Jugurthine War had dragged on for four years, due largely to the inept and corrupt management by the previous commanders. Metellus' first two years would prove similarly uninspiring, with the exception of some minor victories by Marius. Personally frustrated by Metellus' incompetence and accurately gauging the anger and frustration that dominated politics in Rome, Marius began assembling support among the legionaries while simultaneously sending back word to Rome that only he could lead Rome to victory over Jugurtha. Metellus became alerted to Marius' machinations, however, and denied him permission to return to Rome for the campaign. Running a campaign through surrogates, Marius was still able to ride the wave of public anger to victory, however, and he was elected Consul for the first time in 107 BCE.
As Consul, Marius managed to acquire Africa as his realm of responsibility. Germanic tribes were threatening invasions to the north, however, and Marius was given little opportunity to recruit from the traditional sources of legionaries; Plebeian small farmers. All of Rome's manpower was being direced to the northern danger. Faced with a critical manpower shortage, Marius took the unprecedented step of recruiting directly from the capite censi, the headcount. The Headcount were the poorest Roman citizens, lacking land or significant wealth of any sort. In more ancient times they might serve as velite, lightly armed and armored skirmishers, but they had never filled the legions as line troops before. The Headcount lacked the requisite weapons and armor that was required of a legionary, and their addition to his army forced Marius to enact four major reforms that changed the nature of the Legions forever.
- Because Marius' new legionaries could not afford their own equipment, he arranged to have the state provide their arms and armor for them. Moreover, as the new legionaries lacked the typical experience that a plebeian legionary would have hade from past battles, Marius established standardized training that every legionary had to undergo, thus further professionalizing the army and ensuring the Roman Legion's place as the most powerful fighting force in the world. From this standardized training--and because Marius insisted that his men carry everything they needed to live upon their backs--his legions were known as "Marius' Mules."
- As a further incentive to the Headcount, Marius introduced legislation to provide retirement benefits in the form of land grants to his legionaries. This would latter become a constant source of friction between the Senate and the generals of Rome.
- Marius reshaped the Legions from a manipular based force (with the 160 man maniple as the base unit) to a cohort based force (three maniples made up one cohort of 480 men). This change created a more flexible and reactive army that could readily detach elements away from the Legion.
- Italian allies that served in the Legions were granted Roman citizenship upon discharge. This would later become the most powerful source of "Romanizing" a conquered region.
These reforms would prove to have enormous impact on Roman society as well as upon the Legions themselves. Landless and poverty stricken, the Headcount would form the nucleus of a new kind of legionary, a professional soldier wholly dependent upon the general who led him for retirement, pay, and purpose. The general was replacing the state as the source of security.