The Roman Republic

The Story of Gaius Marius, Caesar’s Uncle

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 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, 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 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 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.

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 who had been his financial backers. Outraged at this coup in a pliant neighbor of the empire’s Africa province, the Senate sent an army to restore order. Jugurtha, who had served under Scipio Aemilianus in Spain and knew many members of the nobility, was very effective with his bribery of army officers. Once again, a barbarian army soundly defeated an army of Roman legions.

Public indignation over these of defeats prompted a tribune to successfully propose a law creating a special court, with equite jurors, to investigate the Senate’s conduct of foreign policy. This investigation in 109, which would never have happened before the war in Spain and the conflicts with the Gracchi, led to the exile 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.

Then, in the summer of 108, Gaius Marius was elected consul for the first time. 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. Marius however was a terrific soldier, an asset that overcame many obstacles in ancient Rome. He served under 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. 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, 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.

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 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 the nobility to protect Rome in its new hour of peril.

Showing an alarming streak of independence, the Centuriate Assembly proceeded to elect Marius consul for the year 107. The Plebeian Assembly then overruled the Senate and appointed him to take over Metellus’ army. Marius and his 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 months 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 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 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 had not yet returned from 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.

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 and accepted 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 a well-developed fighting machine. To raise the morale of his proletarian soldiers he assigned a magical emblem, the eagle standard, 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 officer.

To make sure that his army could rapidly respond to any threats along Italy’s border with the Alps, Marius had his army repair 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. 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 when the Cimbri crossed the Alps through the pass that now connects Innsbruck with Verona. At the Battle of Vercellae, Marius routed the enormous barbarian army, killing most of their soldiers and selling their families into slavery. Rome was saved from its greatest threat since Hannibal and 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.

The Meaning of Roman Names

During the time of the kings and in the early Roman Republic, a Roman name consisted of three elements, a personal name (a “praenomen”), a “nomen” that indicating the clan (gens) to which he belonged, and a “filiation” that was related to his father’s praenomen. (Thus praenomen indicates ‘before the nomen.’) This system is confusing and hard to understand because it is unique to the peoples of ancient Italy. The thing to cling to when you see a Roman name is that the middle name, frequently of little importance in the modern United States, is the most important name. It is the family name, similar to the last name for European people who immigrated to the United States.

The Romans had fewer than thirty personal names (praenomens) and only ten were common. While friends and family would speak to a person using their personal name, when first names were written they were normally abbreviated because everyone knew what name the abbreviation stood for:

A. = Aulus                               C. = Gaius                               Cn. = Gnaeus

D. = Decimus                          L. = Lucius                              M. = Marcus

P. = Publius                             Q. = Quintus                            T. = Titus

Ti. = Tiberius

The C. and Cn. abbreviations that represent the sound G is a reminder of the letter’s original ancient pronunciation. There were also a few praenomens that were used only by specific aristocratic clans: for example, App. = Appius, and was a name used only by people from the Claudii clan.

The filiation was a problem even for the Romans. In the early period of Rome it consisted of the Latin word for “son” filius (abbreviated by the letter f.) preceded by the abbreviation of the father’s praenomen. Thus Ti. Antonius M.f was Tiberius Antonius the son of Marcus. This system probably worked well when the Latin people lived in small, scattered villages.

However, as the population grew, having the filiation dipping from the same limited pool of names as the praenomens became a problem. The first solution designed for the name problem was to add to each person’s name an abbreviation of the tribe that the man was enrolled in. There were 35 official tribes by 242 B.C.E. and each had a three-letter abbreviation: for example, Cor. = Cornelian. Thus, Ti. Antonius M.f Cor.

This system was too cumbersome to use and, during the last two centuries of the Republic, many men took on a “cognomen” i.e. ‘after the nomen’ to replace the filiation system. The cognomen was usually a nickname that distinguished different family groups within the by now quite large number of clan members. Oddly enough, the nicknames were often unflattering descriptions of physical or personality characteristics. Examples are Brutus (“stupid”) Caesar (“hairy”) and Cicero (“chickpea”.) Thus, C. Julius Caesar was addressed by his friends as Gaius, was a member of the clan Julii, and was in the Caesarian family branch of the Julii.


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