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Savior.. or Destroyer?
October 6th, 1998
Gaius Marius was the Janus-faced savior of Rome. On one hand his sweeping military reforms intensified Rome’s might at a crucial time, during the Jugurthine war, saving Rome from the steady advance of their Italian enemies. On the other, his no-frills military-minded personality drove him to push those away who could not socially accept this lower-upper class equestrian novus homo. He proved himself a most capable military leader, inspiring his troops by sharing their toils and personally leading them into battle; he vanquished Rome’s enemies time and time again yet was unable to grasp the brass ring of social acceptance, even as a seven-time consul. Yet his life was a dichotomy of military genius and political ineptitude. Due to the poverty of surviving sources during both the year 100 and the brief civil war in 88, and in fact during most of this period, insight into Marius’ day-to-day political activities is difficult. However this much is certain, his military reforms, such as offering land to veterans and accepting army volunteers from the capita censi, while saving Rome in the short run, ultimately led to the downfall of the Republic.
Born into an unimpressive equestrian family, Marius found himself better suited to the life of a warrior than that of a philosopher. He had little tolerance for the aesthetic, finding more use with the sword than the pen. He cut his military teeth under Scipio Aemilianus in the Numantine war In Spain c.134, making an excellent impression on his commander as did another up-and-coming young officer, Jugurtha, who would later become king of Numidia and a hated enemy of Rome. After serving in this campaign with distinction, Marius returned to Rome to stand for Tribune of the People. Backed by the powerful family of Caecilius Metellus, a hereditary patron, Marius won easily .
Shortly after winning the tribuneship in 119, Marius passed the lex tabellaria which narrowed the wooden bridges through which voters pass to cast their ballots. This was to discourage observers, usually aristocrats, who abused their position to influence an individual's vote. This law was the first demonstration of Marius’ lifelong tendency of undermining upper class power and placing it with the lower class, the attributes naming a populare. This inclination manifests itself numerous times, much to the chagrin of the Senate and patricians alike, and is due to Marius’ resentment of the upper classes. For although he would gain great military glory, many tributes, and even a clear mandate by the people for consecutive consulships, a rare occurrence, he would never be considered a social equal by most of the upper class. A short time later, Marius votes down a popular law that would have increased the grain dole to citizens. Plutarch explains that this was a demonstration of Marius’ political savvy, that he can both play toward the masses and act as a patrician. However without complete knowledge of the behind-the-scenes circumstances this sounds more like an example of today’s American give-and-take partisan politics than a calculated gesture to garner respect . Besides, the grain allotment was already generous, perhaps he was merely drawing a line.
Further evidence of Marius’ political naiveté is demonstrated by his campaign for the curule aedileship in 118. “Candidacy announced an intention of standing subsequently for the praetorship, ” and at age 39, Marius was running at almost the minimum age, 36, for this highly contested position through which any successful political career must pass. Seeing that he was losing the election for the chief aedileship, he quickly withdrew and ran for the lesser plebeian aedileship with the same results. Because of his relative youth and inexperience Roman citizens already viewed his candidacy as presumptuous, and this stunt soured voters against him, forcing him to a greatly-needed two year absence. When Marius did return, he narrowly won a praetorship with the generous use of his own funds, barely avoiding conviction for bribery.
Much later, in 100 BC, Marius receives his sixth consecutive consulship, and his popularity is at an all-time high. His auctoritas and dignitas would have allowed him to instigate sweeping social reforms. Instead he is mired in a poor political choice backing Saturninus, whose increasingly radical populist rhetoric and self-serving agenda only serve to embarrass
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Ancient Rome, 1st millennium BC, Gaius Marius, Time, Roman Republic, Marius Pontmercy, Jugurthine War, Plebs, Populares
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