Perils of Empire: Caesar

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The Story of Julius Caesar’s Uncle - Gaius Marius

For unknown reasons, two large Germanic tribes, the Cimbri and the Teutones, who had lived for centuries in northern Germany along the North Sea, began migrating south toward Rome around the year 120 B.C.E. Searching for a new homeland, they encountered one of the consuls of the Roman Republic serving in the year 113 B.C.E., Papirius Carbo. They met in what is now southern Austria and the Romans suffered a crushing defeat, with thousands of soldiers killed or wounded.

Italy lay open for invasion, but for unknown reasons the Germans moved west into Gaul (modern France) instead. Four years later they moved down the Rhodanus River (now the Rhone) and threatened the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul (southern France), which was Rome’s land link to the fabulous silver mines of Spain. A large army of Italian and Roman soldiers, under the leadership of the consul M. Junius Silanus, marched to meet them. Again the Germans overwhelmed the Roman army, inflicting thousands of casualties and then moved north rather than south toward Rome.

Rome in Africa

Meanwhile, in 112 B.C.E., on the border of Rome’s Africa province (formerly Carthage), a man named Jugurtha usurped the Numidian throne and captured the large city of Cirta from his half-brother Adherbal. Jugurtha then executed him and a group of Roman equites (merchants and bankers) who had been his financial backers. Outraged at this coup in a pliant neighbor of the empire, the Senate sent an army to restore order.

Jugurtha, who had served under the brilliant Roman general Scipio Aemilianus in Spain and knew many members of the nobility, bribed key officers in the Roman army and used their treachery to soundly defeated a small Roman army.

Public indignation over these of defeats prompted a tribune to successfully propose a law creating a special court to investigate the Senate’s conduct of foreign policy. This investigation in 109 would never have happened before the bloody, endless war in Spain (the Republic's Vietnam) and the controversial murders of the Gracchus brothers. The court exiled of a number of nobles accused of accepting bribes from Jugurtha, including L. Opimius, the consul who had led the massacre of Gaius Gracchus and his followers.

The Rise of Marius

While Rome waited in terror of barbarian invasions, Gaius Marius was rising in the esteem of the average citizen. Marius was the son of a leading Italian family, which was wealthy enough to have equestrian status but was only prominent locally. Traditionally, a man from this background could only hope to be elected quaestor, the lowest political office in the Roman government.

Marius however was a terrific soldier, an asset that overcame many obstacles in the Roman Republic. He served under the legendary Scipio Aemilianus in Spain and later became an ally of the powerful Metelli family. With their help, he was elected quaestor in 123 and tribune in 118. As tribune he showed a streak of independence by proposing a law making it more difficult for the nobility to intimidate voters on election day. This independence won him enemies in the Senate and he was barely elected praetor in 115.

In contrast to the era of upward mobility in the 4th century B.C.E., Marius’ status as a person whose family had never held a praetor or consul position lowered his dignitas in the city. The nobility, after dominating Roman society for 250 years, was as established and snobby as any aristocracy, and he was considered a novus homo (a new man) and thus not consul material. The Roman historian Sallust greatly admired Marius and commented on his status:

"This was still a time when plebeians might win other offices, but the consulship was handed down by the nobles from one of their own number to the next. For this distinction, a “new man” (novus homo) – no matter how famous he might be, or how outstanding his record – was considered unworthy, and even tainted."

Julius Caesar's Family

Marius was an ambitious man and in his quest for greater dignitas, he struck up an alliance with Gaius Julius Caesar, the head of a distinguished but impoverished patrician family. They arranged for Marius to marry Caesar’s oldest daughter, Julia. When Gaius Julius Caesar’s son, also named Gaius, had a son in 100 B.C.E., Marius became the uncle and role model for young Julius Caesar, who one day would cross the Rubicon.

After his marriage, Marius went to Africa with the consul for the year 109, Quintus Metellus, to renew the conflict with Jugurtha. During his term as praetor, Marius had developed extensive friendships with equites businessmen. These men appreciated his competence and shared his disdain for the nobility, which they viewed as corrupt and incompetent.

While serving as one of Metellus’ legats, (the commander of a legion) Marius began sending letters back to his equite friends in Rome complaining about Metellus’ slow bumbling attempts to defeat the barbarian king. When Marius told Metellus that he wanted to return to Rome in the summer of 108 to run for consul, Metellus, with aristocratic condescension, advised him to wait until his 20-year old son could run with him. With this insult ringing in his ears, Marius went back and ran a campaign that openly challenged the competence of the Senate and ability of the nobility to protect Rome in its hour of peril.

Rome Elects Marius

Showing an alarming streak of independence, the Centuriate Assembly broke the nobility's unwritten rule and elected Marius consul for the year 107 B.C.E. The Plebeian Assembly then overruled the Senate and appointed him to take over Metellus’ army.

Marius and his talented legat, Cornelius Sulla, methodically chased Jugurtha and eventually captured him in the year 105.  With this victory Marius and Sulla became heroes to the Roman people, who were desperate for a military triumph after years of bad news from Gaul.

While Marius and Sulla chased Jugurtha, the German tribes returned to threaten Roman control of the Rhodonus River Valley. The consul for 105, Mallius Maximus marched north with a newly raised army to join the army already stationed there, which was led by the consul of 106, Q. Servilius Caepio. Maximus, as a sitting consul, should have been the lead commander in the field, but he was a novus homo like Marius, and Caepio refused to cooperate with him. After a quarrel, Caepio moved his army north against the Germans on one side of the Rhodonus River and Maximus advanced up the other side.

At Arausio, the Germans overran first one army and then the other, inflicting more than 50,000 casualties and completely destroying the two armies as fighting units. The Plebeian Assembly reacted to this disaster by stripping Caepio of his imperium (power of command) and sending him into exile.

In an unprecedented event, Gaius Marius, fresh from his capture of Jugurtha, was elected consul for the year 104 even though he was still in Africa. The Centuriate Assembly, tired of the incompetent generals offered up by the nobility, would have no other leader. However, the bloody defeats of the previous five years had drained Rome and its allies of property-holding farmers eligible to be drafted as soldiers.

The Poor become Soldiers

Desperate for new men to stop the advancing Germans, Marius abandoned the requirement that recruits be property owners with voting status in the Centuriate Assembly. He began accepting anyone from the proletariat who volunteered for service. As a result, serving in the army became a way for men who owned no land to find steady employment.

After 400 years of a part-time citizens’ army, the social changes created by the conquest of an empire forced the Republic to switch to a paid, full-time, professional army. This army proved to be more efficient than the previous citizen legions, but also far less loyal to the Republic and its political institutions.

Marius had a marvelous flair for training and motivating soldiers and his new army was soon an efficient fighting machine. To raise the morale of his proletarian soldiers he assigned a magical emblem to each legion. This was a large, silver eagle held aloft on a pole and said to embody the spirit of the legion.

As part of the turn to a professional army, the legions were never disbanded after this time and retained the unit number that they acquired when they were formed. These changes boosted the army’s esprit de corps and marked the beginning of a change in the soldiers’ loyalties. The Republic became secondary in their affections to the legion they served in and to their commanding general.

To make sure that his army could rapidly respond to any threats along Italy’s border with the Alps, Marius had his army repaired the road between Massila (now Marseilles) and northern Italy. This showed remarkable foresight, for the Teutones and the Cimbri had decided to split up and invade northern Italy from both the west and east.

The Defeat of the Germans

Marius’ well-trained army met the Teutones at Aquae Sextiae, just north of Massila, and completely overwhelmed their brave, but undisciplined warriors. The surviving males and all of the tribe’s women and children were sold into slavery, ending the existence of the tribe.

Marius rallied his tired soldiers and marched back to Italy, where the Cimbri crossed the Alps through the pass that now connects Innsbruck with Verona. At the Battle of Vercellae, Marius routed an enormous barbarian army, killing most of their soldiers and selling their families into slavery. Rome was saved from its greatest threat since Hannibal.

Marius, Julius Caesar’s uncle by marriage, was the nation’s savior. During the period when he was training his men and fighting these battles, he was re-elected consul for the years 103, 102, 101, and 100. No man had ever held the office five years in a row and only one other had held six consulships.

Caesar's Legacy

While he saved Rome from the barbarians, Marius deepened the divide between the elite members of the Senate and the nobility and the ordinary citizens of Rome who voted for the tribunes who led the Plebeian Assembly. Supporters of Marius called themselves populares and would quarrel with the Senate for decades, until Caesar himself began following the path of military glory.