Gaius Marius:The Reforms and the Man

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A bust of Gaius Marius


By the end of first century BCE, the Republic of Rome was a system ready to breakdown. For centuries the Republic had relied on its propertied classes to serve in the military as their duty to the state and their exclusive right as landholders; primarily because landowners would have enough money to equip themselves for war and stay abroad for periods of time. As service was their duty to the state, there was no payment for mandatory participation in the military. For the aristocracy, success and renown from military service was the deciding factor for their successful or unsuccessful political career.

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In the earlier centuries of the Republic, the army had campaigned around the planting and harvesting cycles so that the landowners could keep up their farms despite their service. By the first century BCE, the campaigns were moving farther and farther away, fighting new enemies such as the encroaching Germanic tribes who would not end their raping, pillaging, and hostile takeover of Roman land so that the harvesting could be completed. The result of these extended campaigns was the breakdown of many small farms that were not properly worked, condemned to lay fallow till their owner came back from war.

Men coming back from war, exhausted and aching for the comforts of home, would often come back to the monstrous task of cleaning up their overrun land and coaxing it once again to yield a crop. These men would have no recourse but to sell their land, for they would starve before the farm could produce any food, and migrate to the city in the hopes of finding work. Thus a growing urban poor began to develop: an angry proletariat with military training.

The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius (130's BCE) and Gaius (120's BCE), attempted to reform the deteriorating system by becoming Tribunes of the Plebeians to pass land reforms through the lowest council of the Republic. These land reforms would limit the lands held by the large farm-owners, mostly the aristocracy, and redistribute the land among the urban poor. This would settle the poor on new land, once again making them eligible for military service. The aristocracy, whose lands were being taken from them by these reforms, could not stand for the Gracchi brothers' methods of bringing the vote straight to the council of the plebeians for it threatened the collegiality key to their oligarchic government. Both Gracchi brothers were murdered by mobs incited by the Senate to ensure that they would never use their backing from the plebeians against the Senate. Some of their reforms were implemented, but they didn't solve the growing problem of a decreasing pool of landowners eligible for military service and an increasing urban poor.

Into this mix of events came Gaius Marius, a member of the municipal aristocracy of Arpinum and client of the noble Q. Caecilius Metellus Numidicus. Marius, a man of extraordinary military talent, would prove to be the catalyst necessary to successfully reform the Roman military and change the course of the Roman Republic forever.

The Roman Army Before Marius
The Marian Reforms
The Life of Gaius Marius

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