Marius, Sulla, and the Fall of the Roman Republic

Marius and Sulla are very curious figures in the late Roman Republic. History has portrayed them as being emblematic for a generation of chaos in Roman society. However, despite this portrayal, particularly from Plutarch’s accounts, it is difficult to determine just how culpable Marius and Sulla were for the chaos that engulfed the Roman Republic in the 1st century B.C.. Both leaders had major character flaws that defined their political careers to be sure but to what extent did they personally contribute to the decline of the Republic and to what extent was the Republic’s decline due to structural issues which had been long in the making? This essay will endeavor to demonstrate that, while the Republic had begun to decline well before Sulla and Marius, it was these 2 men who ultimately tipped the balance irresistibly towards rapid decline and further destructive civil wars.

For chronology’s sake it is necessary to begin with the role of Gaius Marius. Marius was probably best known for his prowess as a general in the Roman Army, in particular his victories over the Cimbri and Teutones in northern Italy and Gaul. With these victories Marius was able to win an impressive 6 consulships between 115-100 B.C. and played a major role in Roman politics.

It was not unprecedented to have great military commanders attain significant influence in the Senate, as the Scipios had during the Punic Wars. If anything, the Roman governmental system was built around its members achieving military successes. What was unprecedented about Marius was that he had been elected consul so many times in succession. Roman law forbade any senator from holding the same office multiple times in a row since this would be a dangerous, slippery slope to despotism. Marius, however, utilizing the danger posed by the northern barbarians was able to egregiously surpass these limits and consistently be reelected. However, the danger was very real and Plutarch, much as is outlined above, describes the reasoning behind the decision to make Marius consul following his defeat of Jugurtha, “This would not be the first time, they reckoned, that considerations of legality had given way before considerations of what was good for Rome, and the reasons for doing so now were certainly no less compelling than when they had illegally appointed Scipio consul…”(Plutarch 132).

Thus, given the combination of the dangerous military situation and the precedent set by Scipio, Marius was able to win his impressive string of consulships. This is not to say that there weren’t those who opposed this usurpation, in particular the Metelli and their allies, but many believed that Marius was in fact one of the ‘good men’ whose valor on the battlefield was indicative of his desire to serve and better the state. This is best understood when one looks at Marius’ 6th consulship after the final defeat of the Cimbri. As A.N. Sherwin White states in his work, Violence in Roman Politics, “The sources tell a different tale. They say in remarkable agreement that Marius was given his sixth consulship as the reward of his merits with the approval of the hitherto suspicious nobilitas, who admitted that he had saved the State”(White 4).

Never-the-less, as will be demonstrated in the following paragraph, Marius proved to be a very vain and power-hungry man who would abuse the power granted him upon his reelection. In any event, Marius’ string of consulships was to set an important precedent for those who followed him, like Sulla and Caesar, that would allow them to seek ever more unprecedented powers from the state.

However, even this, in and of itself, should not be enough to comprehensively condemn Marius for the collapse of the Republic, for although it certainly set a dangerous precedent it did not mean that such an anomaly had to send the Republic spiraling out of control. What really makes this incident significant in the collapse of the Republic is that Marius is not like the other Roman commanders from the early and mid-Republic. Polybius, writing of the Punic Wars describes the Republic at this time thusly, “…and for thirty years after this period, it was always one of those polities which was an object of special study, and it was at its best and nearest to perfection at the time of the Hannibalic war”(Polybius V.11).

In this same vein Bradley Buszard in his work, The Decline of Roman Statesmanship in Plutarch’s Pyrrhus-Marius, describes the Roman commanders that fought against Pyrrhus in the 3rd century B.C. who were intended to be the foil to Marius in Plutarch’s account. The ideal Roman portrayed by Plutarch, according to Bradley, is C. Fabricius Luscinus from Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus. Fabricius was the ambassador who met with Pyrrhus prior to official hostilities and someone whom Pyrrhus attempted to bribe into joining his army. Fabricius manages to withstand the temptations and maintains the honor of Rome in these negotiations. As Bradley describes him, “In the context of his time, he is an ideal leader because he leads an idealized people. His character never wavers, even when he must subjugate his own welfare to that of his state. He is, then, a model statesman, both for the readers of Pyrrhus-Marius and, as we will see, for his successors in the early first century B.C.”(Bradley 485).

It is this self-sacrifice for the good of the state which we find lacking in Marius in Plutarch’s account. Indeed, Plutarch describes Marius as being, “’driven by the winds of rage, an inordinate love of power, and insatiable greed to founder on the reefs of a particularly brutal and savage old age’”(Plutarch 171). So although great commanders had usurped great power and influence within the framework of the state in the past, they had done so with the betterment of the state as their primary concern, in keeping with the Roman conception of the state being run by the ‘best men’.

But Marius was not one of the ‘best men’, Marius was a power hungry, glory seeking demagogue who bent the state to sate his desire for power. Marius was not an optimate, who respected the rules and traditions of the Roman state, but a Populares who appealed to the will of the mob and disdained the traditions of the Senate. It is for this reason that Marius is most often compared with the likes of Pyrrhus and with the Demos of Tarentum. In both these instances we see what Bradley describes as ‘diseased states’ where the state has been usurped by demagogues in pursuit of personal advantage. Although Rome at the time was not in the same position, Bradley notes that Plutarch, who is writing many centuries later, sees the same pattern of decline in store for Rome. As Bradley puts it, “The trouble with the leadership of the late republic is, in part, its inflexibility: not that it declines in the generations after Claudius and Fabricius, but rather that it does not adapt”(Bradley 495).

There is no doubt that the Roman Republic was a very successful system, but it had a number of flaws which would ultimately spell its doom. Polybius in his work describes the way the Republic is supposed to function thusly, “For when one part having grown out of proportion to the others aims at supremacy and tends to become too predominant, it is evident that, as for the reasons above given none of the three is absolute, but the purpose of the one can be counterworked and thwarted by the others, none of them will excessively outgrow the others or treat them with contempt”(Polybius V.18). This, however, is not the same Republican frame work we see in Plutarch’s account. In this account Marius usurps unprecedented power from the rest of the Republican governing structure and threatens this framework with destruction.

The inability of the Senate to adapt to the growing threat posed by power hungry demagogues allowed men like Marius to rise to prominence and push the bounds of power within the Roman state. As Bradley concludes, “…where Livy sees a recurring need for great men who operate within the republican system, Plutarch argues that the republic eventually devolved to the point where such men could not save it, and one of them had to assume sole power”(Bradley 496). While Livy, writing in the time of Augustus, has seen Rome ruled by great men like Caesar and Augustus and sees them as being what saved the empire, Plutarch, writing later after the time of the mediocre Julio-Claudians, focuses on the collapse of the framework of the Republic and the breakdown of the Republican ethos that, until then, had allowed the great men to keep the Republic intact.

However, even the rise of demagogic politics is not entirely sufficient to explain Marius’s decisive role in the collapse of the Republic. Despite his demagoguery and his power grabbing, Marius would not have been able to achieve all his aims without the aid of his own reforms of the Roman Army.

Prior to Marius other leaders had turned into demagogues, most notably the Gracchi brothers of the mid-2nd Century B.C.. But the Gracchi, for all their demagoguery, did not bring about the decline of the Roman state. Although they had many followers and strong political alliances, when the senate turned on them they were powerless to protect themselves. Indeed, in the case of Gaius the Senate was even able to grant special powers to the consuls to lead the army against Gaius and his followers who had fled to Aventine Hill. Indeed as Harriet Flower puts it, with regard to Tiberius Gracchus, in her work, Rome’s First Civil War and the Fragility of Republican Political Culture, “Cicero himself also tells us that divisions in Roman society existed before Tiberius’ death and that these differences between citizens were essentially political rather than military (Rep. 1.31). Tiberius Gracchus was killed without the use of weapons or troops on the authority of a private citizen, albeit one who held the high religious office of pontifex maximus”(Flower 5).

However, the story was very different in the case of Marius. The Marian Reforms would have a very profound effect on the traditional structure and role of the Roman Army. Prior to the reforms the Roman Army had been made up of men who owned land and who were generally from the middle class. This was done because it was believed that only property holders would have a stake in the betterment of the state and would have something to go back to after the war. The Marian Reforms, partly because of a need to widen the Roman’s manpower pool, expanded the scope of the army’s recruitment program to allow the landless poor to be recruited. A career in the army could be very profitable to a member of the poor. The pay was very good and best of all, there were promises of land for soldiers who survived their term of service.

However, this would create a dangerous new dynamic in the Roman armed forces. As is written by the translator of Plutarch’s, Roman Lives, “He [Marius] was the first to demonstrate the political power available to someone with a military command and a loyal army, dependent upon its commander for rewards of land and money at the end of service”(Waterfield 118). With their former or current legionaries willing to support them, many demagogues after the Marian Reforms could be more secure in the knowledge that they could call on their soldiers to protect them and their interests. This did not happen at first, as A. N. Sherwin-White states, ”The Marian army reforms took a sinister turn only when a general appealed to his troops to help him against the Senate or the Comitia. That happens from 88 B.C. onwards, but not before the Social War”(Sherwin-White 5).

The reason for this was because, in Marius’s case, there was not at first any need but also because his veterans could be used in another way that did not require them to be in arms. As Sherwin-White states, “It is not as organized legionaries but as citizens that the discharged veterans make their contribution in the year 100. The point of Marius’s actions is not that he calls upon his veterans to support his interests. He does no such thing. But he supports their interests”(Sherwin White 5). As White demonstrates the soldiers were at first used for voting purposes and as the mob to which Marius could appeal to, but they would not remain this way. Indeed, Sulla, the other major figure that will be discussed, was the one to make this not so unpredictable leap to using the loyalty of his troops to his own advantage when he marched on Rome. But more broadly, the effects of the Marian Reforms would leave their imprint on this era of Roman history as a succession of great commanders like Caesar, Pompey, Augustus, Lepidus and Mark Antony all led their own personal armies in the Roman Civil Wars. The reforms gave each of these leaders a degree of political protection and individual political influence that was unprecedented prior to the Marian Reforms.

Next, the focus will turn to the role of Lucius Cornelius Sulla in the collapse of the Republic. Although Marius is certainly very important to our understanding of the collapse of the Republic he is not the primary culprit. Marius may have been a demagogue and the one who laid the framework under which other would be tyrants like Caesar and others would appear but he himself did not leave a permanent mark on the structure of the Republic. Sulla, by contrast, would use the ideas and systems begun by Marius and take them to their final conclusion.

To begin, it is necessary to look at Sulla’s march on Rome in 88 B.C.. At this time Sulla had been granted command of the Roman Army destined for the war with Mithridates VI of Pontus after being elected consul. But just as Sulla was preparing to join his army and set off for Asia Minor, the Tribune Sulpicius Rufus, who needed Marius’ influence to pass his proposed legislation, decided to support Marius’ bid to be made commander in the Mithridatic War and put the proposal to have Sulla replaced put to a vote. Strictly speaking this move by Rufus and Marius, though reprehensible to Roman sensibilities, was perfectly legal under Roman law and by rights Marius should have been placed in charge of Sulla’s army.

What happened next, as White describes, caught these 2 completely off-guard, “The story of Sulla’s coup d’etat shows that it never occurred to Marius and his associate, Sulpicius Rufus, that the consul Sulla might refuse to obey the plebiscite that legally deprived him of his eastern command. Metellus in I07 had obediently gone home when deprived of Africa, and they expected Sulla to do likewise in 88. He did not, and thereby the violent phase of the late Republic began”(White 5). This was because Sulla, rather than accept his fate, left Rome to quickly rejoin his army camped in Campania and there he appealed to his troops to join with him. He claimed that the Senate had been usurped and that it was necessary to march back to Rome to restore order.

However, as B. M. Levick notes in, Sulla’s March on Rome in 88 B.C., there were other, more enticing reasons for why the troops would join Sulla, “It is well known that Sulla depended on the rank and file of his army… he is unanimously admitted by ancients and moderns alike to be the first master of the client army… not because they felt that they owed their senatorial commander any ideological or class loyalty, rather that he had something to offer them: the spoils of Asia”(Levick 505). As Levick goes on to note, despite the fact that his troops stayed loyal to him, many of the Tribunes and Centurions under his command deserted because they did not support Sulla’s intended actions. This observation is key since it indicates a clear class divide in Sulla’s army between his troops, drawn from the ranks of the poor per the Marian laws, and his officers from the traditional land holding classes.

This divide is further sharpened when the Tribunes, sent to assume control of Sulla’s army, encountered these troops and were killed. This is indicative of the effect of the Marian Reforms mentioned previously. However, what truly sets Sulla apart from Marius is the attack on Rome itself. As Harriet puts it, “This was the first time that Roman soldiers took up arms and followed a general in an outright attack on other Roman magistrates in office and on their home city, which they captured by force”(Harriet 6).

This was an important because not only because it was the first time soldiers had sided with their commander in an attack on the Senate and Rome but it also set a very dangerous precedent. If a commander did not want to give up their power and their imperium, then the solution was to march on Rome and force the Senate to accept their continued imperium. Just as Sulla had done, Julius Caesar some 40 years later would march his army across the Rubicon and towards Rome when the Senate planned to end his imperium following his conquest of Gaul. It also demonstrated how powerless the Senate was to effectively do anything to prevent this as Sulla marched on Rome not just once but 2 times in 88 and 83 B.C. and captured the city on both occasions.

As important as Sulla’s march on Rome is to understanding his role in the fall of the Republic perhaps his most important contribution is his regime of proscriptions which he ordered against his enemies in Rome following his 2nd occupation of the city. As Plutarch describes it, “…he was proscribing everyone who came to mind… He also proscribed anyone who sheltered and saved the life of a proscribed person…”(Plutarch 209). Although Plutarch is likely inflating this sensational story to some degree, since Sulla had sacked Athens during his campaign in the Balkans, it is important to note that there was no precedent for this action in the entire history of the Republic.

In the case of the Gracchi the murders of them and their followers represents a fairly small part of the senate and governing structure and certainly was nowhere near the scale that can be seen in Sulla’s proscriptions. Nor is this entirely similar to the deaths of so many senators in battle, as happened at the battle of Cannae in the 2nd Punic War. As Lily Ross Taylor puts it in her work, The Rise of Julius Caesar, “…from Livy’s account of the enrollment of new members of the depleted Senate after the battle of Cannae, an action carried out by a dictator who, as a former censor, was evidently following regular procedure”(Taylor 12). In this way, though dozens of Senators were slain by the Carthaginians, it did not pose a severe structural threat to the Roman state since mechanisms were in place to handle a situation like this one. Additionally, those senators killed at Cannae had died at the hands of a foreign enemy and not at the hands of an elected official of the Roman state.

To find an example of political murders on this kind of scale by a leader of the Roman state, it is necessary to go back to before the Republic came into existence. This brings us to the account by Livy of the last king of Rome and a hated tyrant, Tarquinius Superbus. As Livy writes, “His conduct procured for him the nickname of “Superbus,” for he deprived his father-in-law of burial, on the plea that Romulus was not buried, and he slew the leading nobles whom he suspected of being partisans of Servius”(Livy 1.49 (p. 58)). In this way Superbus murdered off those he thought would oppose his rule in much the same way that Sulla would use proscriptions to eliminate those who were his enemies and those whom he felt had been responsible for disturbing the peace. It is also important to note, as in the previous paragraph, another important factor which is similar to the case of Sulla. As Livy writes, “Conscious that the precedent which he had set, of winning a throne by violence, might be used against himself, he surrounded himself with a guard. For he had nothing whatever by which to make good his claim to the crown except actual violence; he was reigning without either being elected by the people, or confirmed by the senate”(Livy 1.49 (p. 58).

As with Sulla, Tarquinius saw the need for the army in order to support his regime and in order to enforce his murder of his opponents. However, unlike Sulla, as Livy seems to indicate here, Tarquinius could also see that by his use of violence to remake the state he risked the precedent that his form of government would be destroyed by violence as it was years later when Brutus lead the struggle to overthrow Tarquinius. In this way, Tarquinius’ usurpation of the state through his murder of large segments of the leading members of Rome was the catalyst for the creation of the Republic. Thus, with Sulla’s actions, a Republic established by the murder of many of its senators by a murderous tyrant, would now be undone by the murder of many of its senators by a murderous tyrant.

Even if Sulla did not realize the full magnitude of his actions as he tried to reform the Senate, as Harriet Flower points out, he did try to use his action to make changes to the senate. As Harriet puts it, “Rather, Sulla proposed and imposed a constitution that was very different from any traditional, received version of what had come before. His “New Republic” was a real alternative that had been thought out carefully”(Harriet 12). Never-the-less, Sulla’s attempt to recreate and rebrand the Roman Republic would prove too feeble to fight the trends that Sulla himself set in motion. Sulla’s constitution, constantly revised in the years after his death, would simply be a holdover until a more permanent governing system replaced it. As Harriet goes on to conclude, “It was this republic of Sulla, not a more traditional one, that proved so unstable in the 70s bc and beyond, as it slowly disintegrated, even as no second lawgiver emerged to propose a systematic and workable revision of Sulla’s system of government”(Harriet 12-13).

Without a more permanent and stable system, the Republic would vacillate between the triumvirates of the likes of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus and the later Antony, Octavius and Lepidus as well as with dictatorships like that of Caesar and later of Octavius. However, as will be demonstrated in the following paragraph, despite Sulla’s attempt to revitalize and reform the Republic, he would actually set the tone for the decades that were to come.

The last important point regarding Sulla is his role as dictator from 82-79 B.C.. Although it is not as decisive in the collapse of the Roman Republic as the previous point, it is most certainly significant as a precedent and to understanding the decades that followed. Following his second march on Rome in 83 B.C. Sulla again recaptured the city and made himself dictator whereupon he proceeded to revise the Roman governing system as well as inaugurate his proscriptions. As Plutarch describes it, “… he revived a type of office that had not been used for 120 years and proclaimed himself dictator. And a decree was passed giving him immunity from all his past deeds and for the future the power to condemn people to death, to confiscate property, found colonies, raze towns, and overthrow kings at whim”(Plutarch 211).

This was a level of power that was unprecedented for the Republic and created chaos within Rome as Sulla proceeded to do whatever struck his fancy. As Plutarch continues to describe Sulla would confiscate estates and manage their sale from the rostra while giving territories and the revenues of whole cities to beautiful women, transvestites and actors. Again, though, it is likely that Plutarch’s bias against Sulla has led this account to be distorted to some degree as well, it is still likely that some level of arbitrary confiscation took place. Of course the position of dictator had existed in the Republic but, as mentioned previously in the discussion of Marius, the positions in the Republic were intended for the ‘best men’ to hold. Like Marius, Sulla hardly seems to fit with this conception of the ‘best men’ and indeed could not have been more different from the likes of Cincinnatus who had also held this important office.

One thing that still links Sulla to the traditions of the Republic, though, is that he did eventually relinquish his power. As Plutarch writes, “He was, in fact, so confident that his good fortune outweighed his actions that, despite all the huge numbers of men who had been killed by him, and despite the enormity of the reforms and changes he had made to Roman political life, he laid down his dictatorship and restored the people’s right to elect consuls”(Plutarch 212). This perhaps more than anything shows how little Sulla realized that he had altered the Republic. Although Sulla gave up his power willingly, the damage had already been done.

The Republic would never truly recover from the shock of this civil war and was but a shadow of its former self as other dictators like Caesar would soon rise to take Sulla’s place. As Ronald T. Ridley puts it in, The Dictator’s Mistake: Caesar’s Escape from Sulla, “When the civil war came and the victor once again had to have a position beyond challenge, Caesar found that the only office which he could devise was precisely the monster invented by Sulla”(Ridley 229). In this way, Sulla set the tone for the decades to follow and created the means for others to take bold action and usurp power in the Republic. Caesar was exactly the kind of figure who could take this kind of action and had actually barely escaped death during Sulla’s reign. Recalling Sulla’s period as dictator, Caesar would remark that Sulla’s mistake had been giving up his dictatorial power and Caesar certainly would not make this same mistake, even though it did cost him his life.

Sulla and Marius each had their own level of culpability for the chaos that would eventually bring about the fall of the Republic. Although Marius, as a demagogic leader whose lust for power was insatiable, stretched the rules and functions of the Republic to their breaking point and created the conditions under which future dictators could rise to challenge the state it is Sulla who bears the ultimate blame. Ironically, the man who claimed to be fighting in the name of the restoration of the Republic, who undid many laws and who attempted to bring about a return of more conservative values broke the Republic in his clumsy attempt to save it. In the end Sulla destroyed the foundations upon which the Republic had been based by his march on Rome, by his proscriptions and by his dictatorship. Sulla’s dictatorship and regal pretentions in particular were antithetical to the entire project of the Republic which was precisely to prevent the return of tyranny. Despite this, though, it is impossible to ignore Marius’ role. It is likely that none of this would have happened without Marius’ influence. Without Marius’ lust for ever greater power and his demagoguery it is likely that Sulla would have held his consulship as usual and without Marius’ reforms of the armed forces it is questionable whether Sulla’s troops would have supported his march on Rome. Both these men would influence the next generation very heavily and this next generation would finish the process that Sulla and Marius had set in motion.
Works Cited
Buszard, Bradley. “The Decline of Roman Statesmanship in Plutarch’s Pyrrhus-Marius.” JSTOR.
Cambridge University Press, Dec. 2005. Web. <;.
Flower, Harriet. Rome’s First Civil War and the Fragility of Republican Political Culture. Diss. Oxford,
2010. Oxford: Oxford Scholarship, 2010. Print.
Levick, B. M. “Sulla’s March on Rome in 88 B.C.” JSTOR. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 1982.
Web. <;.
Levick, B. “Morals, Politics, and the Fall of the Roman Republic.” JSTOR. Cambridge University Press, Apr.
1982. Web. <;.
Livy. The Rise of Rome: Books One to Five. Trans. T. James Luce. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.
Plutarch. Roman Lives. Trans. C. B. R. Pelling. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.
Ridley, Ronald T. “The Dictator’s Mistake: Caesar’s Escape from Sulla.” JSTOR. Historia: Zeitschrift Für
Alte Geschichte, 2000. Web. <;.
Sherwin-White, A. N. “Violence in Roman Politics.” JSTOR. The Journal of Roman Studies, 1956. Web.
Taylor, Lily Ross. “The Rise of Julius Caesar.” JSTOR. Cambridge University Press, Mar. 1957. Web.


5 thoughts on “Marius, Sulla, and the Fall of the Roman Republic

  1. Pingback: Precedent Utilitarianism: A Primer – Zachary Jacobi

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