By Ryan Anderson
Arguably the greatest contribution to the eventual downfall of the Roman Republic was the institution of Gaius Marius' popular, yet dangerous reforms, and his repeated usage of questionable political tactics to achieve his underlying personal goals. By undermining the power of the senate through illegal political conduct, and by introducing reforms that created the open potential for abuse of military power, Marius paved the way for future military monarchies, civil conflict and the eventual downfall and segregation of the Roman Republic.
In the decade before Marius, the senatorial oligarchy, having been undermined by the various reforms posed by the tribunates of the Gracchi, was reasserting control. Talk of revolution amongst the Roman people had settled. During this time the Caecilii/Matelli family was in political control and the senate had shifted its concerns from an uprising of the proletariat class, to foreign affairs and potential explosive developments of war.
Marius was born southeast of Rome, in Arpinum. A Novus Homo with a moderately wealthy family, Plutarch notes that Marius' upbringing was "rough and unrefined" but also "temperate and in accordance with the ancient roman standards of education".1 The ancient Greek historian Plutarch, having written the most complete account of Marius' life and career, is a valuable source, but must be approached with caution due to his obvious bias. As a source of personal information, Plutarch used the memoirs of Marius' enemies Sullu and Rufus, and in the process adopted the ideas and general bias they impress on Marius.
Marius began his military career fighting in Spain but made a name for himself in 133 when he was sent to fight as a junior officer in Numantia, under the commandment of a powerful Scipio family member, Scipio Aemilianus. It wasn't long before Aemilianus noticed Marius' incredible natural ability, and respecting his interest in politics, chose to support his cause. Sallust describes Marius in his youth as a "hard worker", "a man of integrity" and "an experienced soldier"2 and it seems many others, such as Aemilianus, noticed these characteristics. The roman historian Sallust presents a mostly favorable account of Marius, and is one of the greatest sources of information on the individual. Sallust was friends with Marius' nephew so presents a bias favoring Marius' actions and highlighting his strong points. As a Novus Homo, Marius quickly learnt that he needed political backing such as Scorpios' to be taken seriously. Plutarch makes the observation that perhaps it was owing to Scipio's acknowledgement of his natural talent that he began to aim high.
In 119 after gaining the respect of the extremely powerful Matellus family, Marius became a Tribune. Without wasting any time, he began his long climb up the political ladder. By attempting to pass a senatorially unpopular bill, Marius showed the legions of commoners that he was not afraid to displease other senators, and won the initial respect of the Roman public, making the impression that he would favor neither side at the expense of the general good. This plan paid off when Marius was made Praetor and later a governor of further Spain. At this point Marius may have had his sights on a simple political career, or he may have been aiming in a more sinister direction with the hopes of an eventual dictatorship. Whichever aim Marius had early on in his career, it is certain he was seeking glory in some form, and according to Sallust, "There was nothing he wouldn't do or say to make himself popular."3
Still focusing on improving his reputation, Marius married into the powerful Caesar family and eager to prove himself, went to fight under Metellus as a legate in the war against Jugurtha, the talented ruler of Numidia. After one year of fighting, Marius convinced the reluctant and unpleased Metellus to allow him to return to the senate and run for...