When Gods Collide – Sulla and Marius – The 5 Most Titanic Military Rivalries of the Ancient World



After Marius’s reforms, legionaries were required to carry their own kit on their backs as they marched, breaking the earlier practice of bringing their personal slaves with them on campaign. This gave rise to the sobriquet “Marius’s Mules”.

One of the unforeseen circumstances of the change was that the legions were now paid rather than volunteers – a professional army. The soldiers signed up for a period of 16, later extended to 20, years and when their time came to an end they were given a bonus and a plot of land to work in retirement. Their generals, whom they now served for long periods of time could also reward them with bonuses as spoils of war. The end result was that the first loyalty of the legionaries was no longer the Roman state, but to the generals that they served under.

Marius effectively retired from active service following the German wars, but Sulla remained very much at the forefront of national and military affairs, and when a new enemy arose in the east, Mithridates of Pontus, his fellow nobles and other admirers in the senate gave him the command of an army to lead against the menace. Sulla was enticed not only from the prospect of the riches of the region, but also as a result of Mithridates’s slaughter of tens of thousands of Roman and Italian merchants in the republic’s province of “Asia”, now western Turkey.

Marius had also campaigned for the appointment, and he took advantage of some political infighting in Rome to have the command transferred to him whilst Sulla was out of the city. Indeed, Sulla was in the south of the country preparing to embark for Greece when he received news of his demotion. He refused to accept the senate’s decision and marched north to Rome. The bonds between the two former fast friends were irreversibly severed.

The impact of Sulla’s first march on Rome at the head of a Roman army is hard to adequately quantify. Never before in the city’s seven centuries of existence had one of its own armies attacked it. Contemporary sources say that only one of Sulla’s officers agreed to march with him. Ironically, Sulla was only able to mount such an attack as a direct result of Marius’s own reforms of the Roman Army. The six legions he led were steadfastly loyal to him alone after serving with him during the recent Social War, an uprising of Italian cities against the high handed hegemony of Rome. Marius could not match these forces with the few street thugs and armed gladiators he could call on in Rome, and he and some of his supporters retreated from the city before Sulla arrived.

Once he took control of the capital, Sulla declared Marius and his political supporters outlaws against the state, stamping his authority on the senate and government and ensuring, at least to his satisfaction, that the situation was now under control. With Rome under his command, he moved south again and then embarked to fight the war in the east, first in Greece and then in Asia.

Marius meditating on his fate in exile, surrounded by the ruins of Carthage.
Marius meditating on his fate in exile, surrounded by the ruins of Carthage.

While Sulla was busy avenging the attacks on the republic, Marius re-emerged in Africa, where he raised a token force and then sailed for Rome, overpowering the forces that Sulla had left in place. Along with his ally, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, Marius attacked and killed Sullan supporters without trial. Now seventy and rumored to be completely mad, he then made himself consul, with Cinna as his counterpart, thus holding the office for a record seventh time. He had just enough time to declare Sulla an outlaw in turn before he died, raving, just a fortnight later. On hearing of the debacle back in Rome, Sulla patched up a peace with Mithridates and marched on the city once more, but he arrived too late to deal personally with the man who once been his closest ally. This time, however, Sulla was indiscriminate with the executions of Marian supporters and Cinna, Marius’s last ally, was killed in a degrading brawl with his own soldiers.

The rivalry between Sulla and Marius had begun as a competition to see who could win the greater glory, or dignitas in the Roman lexicon – prestige or fortune in the eyes of their fellow citizens. Unfortunately, the timing and the personalities of the two men meant that not only were their own lives forever altered by their vendetta, but the precedent had been set for other Romans to follow their example. The Republic that had been built on the twin foundations of discipline and unwavering tradition was never the same again.