The Social War

In 100 BC Gaius Marius became consul in Rome for the sixth time. As well as being a politician, he was also a military commander. Marius was aware that the Roman Army would need to be reformed if it was to effectively protect the growing Roman Empire.

At that time, you could only serve in the army if you were a Roman citizen who owned land. This reduced the possible size of the army. Also, Roman soldiers were understandably always anxious to return to their farms. When military campaigns went on for too long, soldiers had to borrow money in order to keep their farms going. If this debt was not paid there was a danger that when he came home the soldier could be sold into slavery. This caused a great deal of resentment and many citizens were reluctant to join the army.

Marius decided that the army should now recruit the landless poor from Roman urban areas. These proletarians, as they were called, served for long periods of time which enabled the Roman Empire to obtain an experienced, professional army. As a reward for long and loyal service, Roman soldiers were given land when they retired.

As a result of these reforms, military commanders like Gaius Marius became more powerful. Soldiers were now willing to give their full loyalty to their commander as he was their guarantee of a secure and prosperous retirement.

The Senate, worried that they would now lose their influence over political decisions, opposed Marius. Another military commander called Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, who came from an old patrician family, supported the conservative members of the Senate who became known as the optimates. Those who were sympathetic to the plebeians supported Marius and were called the populares. Fighting soon broke out between the two sides. At first Marius was forced to leave Rome and many of his supporters who stayed were murdered.

Rome was now involved in a Civil War. Eventually Gaius Marius was successful and he then arranged for all the conservative members of the Senate to be executed. In 88 BC Marius died. Without his leadership, his army was ineffective and Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix was soon able to gain control.

Now it was the turn of the populares to be murdered. Their territory was then given to Sulla's soldiers. Sulla appointed himself dictator and the democratic reforms that had been introduced over the last hundred years were dismantled. The power held by the tribunes was dramatically reduced. They could no longer initiate laws and their right to veto laws passed by the Senate was severely restricted. When Sulla had completed these changes he retired and gave back power to the Senate.

Primary Sources

(1) Speech by Gaius Marius in the Senate, quoted by Sallust in his book The Jugurthine War (c. 40 BC)

My political opponents, if they make a mistake, can rely for protection on the resources of their relatives and marriage connections... My hopes rest only on myself... Compare me, the "new" man, with these high and mighty ones. What they know only from reading, I have seen with my own eyes or done with my own hands. What they have learned out of books, I have learned on the battlefield. They criticise my lack of famous ancestors, I criticise their lazy habits.

(2) Juvenal, Satire VIII (c. AD 115)

All the cheers were for Marius. Plebeian by name, plebeian in spirit... What good are family trees? What point is there in being valued for the length of your pedigree... The horse we most admire is the one who romps home a winner, cheered on by the frenzied roars of the crowd... the thoroughbred earns his title by getting ahead of the field, by making them eat his dust. But if he's seldom victorious, the auction-ring will claim him, though his pedigree may be starred with every legendary name from the stud-book. No ancestor-worship here, no respect for the dead. Sold off at knock-down prices.

(3) Sallust, The Jugurthine War (c. 40 BC)

The lower classes... whose ability to earn or to obtain credit depended solely on the labour of their hands, left their work to follow Marius about, regarding their own needs as less important than his advancement. The result was that the nobles were defeated, and for the first time in many years a newcomer to politics and was elected consul.

(4) Velleius, Compendium of Roman History (c. AD 20)

Sulla was a man to whom, up to victory, sufficient praise can hardly be given, and for whom, after victory, no criticism can be adequate.

(5) Horace, Epode (c. 35 BC)

No wolves or lions are so fiercely blind, they do not fight with their own kind.

1. What changes did Marius make to the Roman army?

2. The passage from Horace's Epode deals with the Social War. Explain the meaning of this passage?

3. Explain why Juvenal supported Marius.

4. Study the sources in this unit. Which two sources provide information that enables you to decide whether Marius was a patriarch or a plebeian? Explain your choice.