By the close of the second century B.C., the Roman Republic was unarguably the supreme military and political power in the Mediterranean world. Its influence stretched from the straits of Gibraltar in the west, to Suez in the east. Despite this dominance and the subjugation of former powers like Athens, Macedon, Carthage, and Egypt, the period was not without its threats and exceptional military leaders were still called for. The two greatest of these were Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
Marius, an Italian by birth rather than a pure Roman, was a relative newcomer to the Roman elite, and he was considered an outsider by the Senate fathers. It was not until he was in his very late forties and almost past the age of command that he took sole charge of a major war, in this case subduing the renegade king of Numidia, Jugurtha. Even this relatively undistinguished placement was only attained in the face of the sternest opposition of senators representing the old patrician families of Rome.
Sulla, then aged about 30 and a late starter himself, was brought into Marius’s inner circle by his marriage to the younger daughter of Gaius Julius Caesar, grandfather of the much better known Julius the Dictator. Marius had married Caesar’s elder daughter, making him and Sulla brothers in Roman law. These marriages had served them well; Marius gained an entrance into the highest noble circles and Sulla gained a return to patrician status following the squandering of his inheritance by his alcoholic father. Both men clearly had a lot to prove in the coming wars.
The campaign against Jugurtha proved difficult, as the Numidian had served Rome as an auxiliary in his younger years and was familiar with their tactics, but it was ultimately successful. Sulla personally captured the desert chieftain in a daring raid and brought him back to Marius’s camp in chains.
Following his triumph, Marius, with Sulla again as his military tribune, marched north to confront the much more serious threat of the German tribes, several of whom were making ominous movements in the north and had already devastated Roman armies sent to force them back; the casualties from the Battle of Arausio were said to eclipse even those that Hannibal had inflicted at Cannae and the senate and people of Rome were desperately in need of an able commander. In Marius and Sulla, they gained two.
The war with the Germans was concluded with two tremendous battles at Aqua Sextiae (102 B.C.) and Vercallae (101 B.C.). The Romans captured and enslaved over 80,000 people following these two encounters, giving some historically viable idea of the scope and size of the wars themselves. By this time, Marius had introduced so many changes to the Roman legions that they were almost unrecognizable to the armies that had vanquished Carthage less than fifty years before. In his early campaigns, he had modified both the Roman pila throwing spear and the common infantryman’s shield, squaring it so that the legionaries could march comfortably with it on their backs. Next he introduced a law that was tantamount to sacrilege in the eyes of the noble senators.
The Republic was so starved of men from its endless wars and battles (the defeat at Arausio was said by Livy to have cost the lives of 100,000 Romans and Italian allies) that land owning citizens of the correct age were becoming hard to come by. Many of the men already in the legions found that their enlistments were being arbitrarily extended into longer and longer terms of service as the manpower pool back in Italy dried up. To counter this, Marius had begun enlisting men from what was known as the “head count”, the common men without property or the means to equip themselves with weapons. The senate vigorously resisted this at first, but finding itself pressed by the demands of their foreign commitments, they eventually found it expedient.
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