Marius and Sulla

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Caius Marius was born in 157 B.C., most likely a plebeian, though some claim he was the son of an equites. He was born in a region of Italy called Latium, in a town that had not received full Roman citizenship until 188 B.C.. It was difficult for Marius to hold office or become known politically, not only because of his background, but also because he was an outsider, and was certainly not well-known in Rome. In his early career he served under Scipio, which might have somewhat furthered his career. Starting almost from scratch, Marius tried to thrust himself into the political arena, but failed a few times. His first attempt is believed to be for a local office at Arpinum. He was not elected. Next, he tried for quaestor, though it is unclear whether he won or lost. When he was thirty-eight, however, he did earn the office of plebeian tribune, and passed laws which restricted the wealthy from interfering in the elections. This was his first move towards what he was to become: a political figure supported by the people instead of the senate.

Marius continued his political movements. He subsequently ran for both Aedile and Plebeian Aedileship - but lost both elections. Finally, in 115 B.C., he won the election for Praetor, but by such a narrow margin that he was immediately accused of corruption. As was his wont, he barely scraped by to win the acquittal. A year later, however, he was sent to Lusitania, more to get him out of the way than for any real purpose; he was supposed to help out in some minor military operations. Five years passed, and he married Julia, the aunt of Julius Caesar. Finally, c. 109 B.C. Marius went to serve as Chief Legate under Quintus Metellus against King Jugurtha of Numidia, and had a chance to gain popularity. He purposely became extremely relaxed as to military discipline, and was popular with the Italian traders for his boasts that even if he had half the troops of Metellus, he could beat Jugurtha faster (the war had been going on since three years before). Spreading rumours and urging everyone and anyone to support him, Marius went to Metellus to ask to be excused from service so that he might run for consul. Metellus refused, but Marius, with some support and a little tweaking of the rules, was elected anyway. It was while he was consul, overseeing the fight against Jugurtha, that he first met Sulla, his soon-to-be greatest rival.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla, nicknamed "Felix" at the height of his career, was born into an old, aristocratic family, that of the Cornelii gens, but one that nevertheless had little political influence. Sulla also had to find a way to make himself known politically; he did this by working his way up to the senatorial rank. He, perhaps also hoping to gain popularity, went to serve as quaestor to Marius. He played the most important role in the battle against Jugurtha. It was Sulla who arranged that Jugurtha's family would betray him; it was Sulla who organised the capture of Jugurtha and ended the battle. Yet it was Marius who, being the current consul, got the credit, though Sulla protested and tried to point out the truth. But it was enough; already there was beginning to be a divide between those who supported Marius, and those who believed in Sulla. Marius was elected consul yet again for five consecutive years, after a short hiatus, in 104-100 B.C.. Marius gained immense popularity by defeating the Germanic tribes of the Cimbri and Teutones, the one at Vercelli during his second year as consul, the other at Aix in his third. During these battles, Sulla transferred to serve as one of the staff of Marius' rival consul, Quintus Lutatius Catulus, and was elected Praetor Urbanus in 97 B.C.; he is highly suspected of bribery to get this position. He was then appointed proconsul to Cilicia, a province in what is now Turkey, but returned to Rome four years later to join the Optimates against Marius. In 91 B.C., however, the Social War erupted, a war between the Roman Republic and its allied cities. Because of his cleverness as a general during this war, he became extremely popular in Rome.

At this time, Mithridates, the King of Pontus (a region in Asia Minor), had been taking over Roman territories and ordering all Romans in Asia to be killed. As many as 80,000 Romans were murdered. Sulla was appointed to go fight against Mithridates in the first Mithridatic war, but Marius got the tribune Publius Sulpicius Rufus to call an assembly and get them to overrule the senate's choice of Sulla as the leader for this war. Sulpicius, so that there could be no opposition, ejected Senators until there were not even enough to make a quorum.

The city descended into utter chaos; the people of Rome were not happy at this blatant disregard for laws and the senate. Supposedly, Sulla himself went to Marius to plead with him to stop this violence, but Marius would not listen. And so, in 88 B.C., Sulla went to Southern Italy, ordered any envoys bearing news of Marius' leadership to be stoned to death, gathered together an army of his six most loyal legions, and marched on Rome. Marius and his followers fled Rome, and Sulla and his colleague Quintus Pompeius Rufus were elected consul. Meanwhile, Marius had been laying low in Tunisia, but in 87 B.C., he returned to Rome (with the support of Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Cornelius Cinna), declared Sulla's laws invalid, and asserted that Sulla was hereby exiled. He ordered that all of Sulla's supporters be killed, and set his soldiers loose throughout the city; the victims' heads were displayed in the Forum. Finally, Cinna, fearing the worst, sent his own soldiers to search the city and kill any remaining marauding soldiers of Marius'. This stopped the bloodshed, and relative peace was regained. Soon, Marius and Cinna were elected consuls (in 86 B.C.), but Marius died only a few days after the election, ending the bitter rivalry between himself and Sulla once and for all. Cinna became de facto ruler of Rome, and was elected sole consul for the next few years, with no opposition.

Sulla, gone from Rome so long on his campaign against Mithridates, finally defeated him in 86 B.C. (having bloodily laid Athens to waste on the way), and returned to Italy when he heard of Cinna's death two years later. In 82 B.C., Sulla marched on Rome yet again, and this time the senate appointed him dictator without hesitation; Sulla drew up lengthy "proscription lists" -- these contained the names of all his enemies that he wanted dead. 1, 500 nobles were slaughtered, and their wealth divided between Sulla and his friends. Sulla very nearly killed Caesar, simply because of Caesar's relation to Cinna, but Sulla spared his life because his supporters urged him to. In his memoirs, Sulla wrote that he was sorry he had not killed Caesar, as he seemed to be a man of too much ambition. Sulla also doubled the number of senators in the senate, thereby reducing the power they wielded, and limited the Assembly's right to pass laws or veto.

Sulla resigned from dictatorship and became consul in 80 B.C., when he retired to a country villa and wrote his memoirs. He died of liver failure in 78 B.C., and had an extravagant and splendid funeral, fitting for a man who had had such an extravagant and splendid life, no matter how much it cost those around him.

The Columbia Encyclopedia (3rd edition)
edited by William Bridgwater and Seymour Kurtz
Columbia University Press 1963
by Andrew Zissos
Department of Classics, University of Texas at Austin
© 2003-2006 (United Nations of Roma Victor)
last modified 1 May 2006
Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.
last modified 7 May 2006.
Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

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