When you think of the great rivalries of the Late Roman Republic, you might well first think of Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great or Marc Anthony and Octavian (later Augustus).
Yet before those two famous rivalries, there was another that shook the Roman world to its core: the rivalry between Gaius Marius and his populares (the men who championed the Roman lower social classes, known as the “plebeians”) and Lucius Cornelius Sulla and his optimates (those who wished to reduce the power of the plebeians).
Their head-to-head would mark the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic and would also see the emergence of various figures who would go on to become some of the most famous Romans of the age.
Here is a timeline of the lives of these two formidable Roman leaders and their rivalry.
Marius served under Scipio Africanus during the Siege of Numantia in northern Spain.
He was elected tribune of the plebs – the office that represented the plebeians of Rome and the most important check on the power of the Roman Senate and magistrates.
He was elected praetor – the office below consul.
He was sent to govern the province of “Further Spain” (Hispania Ulterior).
The Cimbric War erupted when a Roman army was crushed by a barbarian migration of the Cimbri, Teutones and Ambrones tribes at Noreia. The Romans lost more than 20,000 soldiers in the battle.
Marius served as then consul prior Quintus Caecillius Metellus’ lieutenant in North Africa during the Jugurthine War. During this war, Marius grew very popular with the soldiers.
He began to lose faith in the leadership of Metellus, who was still commanding Roman forces during the Jugurthine War but was no longer the consul prior. Marius thus left the army and travelled back to Rome where he was elected consul posterior (a less senior position than that of consul prior) for the first time at the age of 48.
He recruited among the poorest classes of Roman society – the proletarii – for a new army to take to Numidia. He also arranged for the state to supply them with arms.
This army was markedly different from previous Roman armies, which citizens were only able to join if they owned property and could supply their own arms.
Until that point, the landless Romans had thus been excluded from recruitment, the only exception being in the most dire of times (they were recruited, for instance, at the time of the Pyrrhic War).
Marius removed Metellus as the commander of the Jugurthine War and assumed command himself in Numidia (Libya). He quickly advanced into western Numidia where he defeated Jugurtha at the Battle of Cirta.
The Romans suffered one of their worst defeats at Arausio in southern France in the Cimbrian War. The Romans lost 80,000 men – their biggest defeat since the Battle of Cannae.
Following their victory at Arausio, the Cimbri decided not to attack Italy straight away, but to march on the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal) and plunder the land. This gave the Romans precious time to recover.
Sulla, then a quaestor (Ancient Roman official), negotiated with Bocchus, King of Mauritania, securing peace and receiving Jugurtha, King of Numidia, as prisoner. Sulla was consequently hailed as the man who captured Jugurtha – much to Marius’ anger. This marked the beginning of the rivalry between Sulla and Marius.
Marius returned from North Africa with Jugurtha as his captive. Upon his return he received a triumph (a ceremony to celebrate a victorious military commander), during which Jugurtha was paraded through the city in chains. The Romans then had the Numidian king starved to death.
Marius then reorganised the Roman Army in preparation for meeting the huge Germanic migration. He focused heavily on discipline and training, making them practice long marches and ensuring that every soldier carried his own baggage. Such was their training that they soon became known as Marius’ mules.
That same year, Marius was elected consul prior for the first time.
He was elected consul prior for a second time.
Marius and his new-look professional army defeated the Teutones and Ambrones at Aquae Sextiae.
He was also elected consul prior for a third time.
Marius then defeated the Cimbri at Vercellae. His victory at Vercellae resulted in the total destruction of the German migration and the end of the Cimbric War. Marius was given the glory of the victory and was styled by the populace as the “third founder of Rome” – following in the footsteps of the legendary founder of Rome, Romulus, and Camillus.
This was followed by a rise in the status of Marius and the plebs and a decline in the popularity of the patricians (nobility). Divisions began to form between the people who loved Marius and the patricians who hated him.
During that year, Rome also became the supreme power in North Africa and Marius was elected consul prior for a fourth time.
Marius was elected consul prior for a fifth time.
He left Rome for Asia where he spent some time at the court of Mithridates VI, King of Pontus and Armenia Minor.
The Social War broke out: Rome’s allies in Italy, the socii, rose up against Rome after the Senate refused to give them Roman citizenship. The Italians set up their headquarters at Corfinum and were soon able to field an army of 100,000 men.
Marius and Sulla’s rivalry was temporarily quelled by the threat of the Social War in Italy.
The socii defeated Roman armies in both the north and the south.
The then consul prior, Lucius Julius Caesar, proposed a new law to try and solve the growing crisis. The law granted Roman citizenship to the Italians who had not taken up arms against Rome in the Social War.
It is likely, however, that the offer was also extended to the Italian rebels so long as they laid down their arms. The concession was a major breakthrough for the Italians.
Following the concession, the Roman armies – one of which was commanded by Sulla – began inflicting defeats on the remaining Italians.
The First Mithridatic War began: Mithridates VI invaded the Roman province of Asia in response to a Roman-backed invasion of Pontus by the neighbouring king of Bithynia, Nicomedes IV.
Mithridates initiated the Asian Vespers – the order for the massacre of all Roman and Italian citizens in Asia Minor. This was meant as a political move to gain the support of the Greeks in Asia Minor who had become disillusioned with their Roman counterparts.
The Social War ended in a Roman victory, with Sulla gaining much glory and power as a result. Marius, on the other hand, gained little, despite having played a crucial role in the War.
That same year, Sulla was elected consul prior, while a proposal to transfer command in Asia from Sulla to Marius was duly decreed.
Sulla, however, refused to give up control of his 35,000 strong army and went on to take Rome and defeats Marius.
The latter, by then aged 70, fled to Africa where he famously despaired of his misfortunes amid the ruins of Carthage.
Meanwhile, Sulla’s reforms reduced the powers of the plebeian and tribal assemblies.
Sulla left for Greece to fight Mithridates VI, whose forces had by then pushed the Romans out of Asia and crossed into Macedonia and Greece.
Marius died on 13 January, just 17 days into his seventh consulship. Following his father’s death, Marius the Younger took control of Rome with the support of the elder Marius’ allies.
Sulla captured Athens, sacked the city and slaughtered most of the citizens supporting Mithridates.
He then won the Battle of Chaeronea against Mithridates’ General Archelaus.
As Sulla fought in Greece, Marius returned to Rome from exile, seized the consulship (along with Cinna) and massacred Sulla’s supporters.
Sulla defeated Mithridates’ General Archelaus for a second time at the Battle of Orchomenus. Following the battle, Mithridates and Sulla began to discuss peace terms.
Despite Mithridates’ consent of the Roman genocide in Asia barely three years before, the peace deal reached was surprisingly lenient; Sulla was desperate to return to Rome and reassert his authority.
Marius the Younger was elected consul prior at the age 26. He then attempted to rally supporters of his father and killed any suspected allies of Sulla.
The Battle of Sacriportus occurred between the forces of Young Marius and the battle-hardened legions of Sulla. In the ensuing fight, Sulla defeated Marius, who consequently fled to Praeneste. Sulla then duly besieged the city.
Gnaeus Carbo attempted to lift the Siege of Praeneste but failed and fled to Africa. Realising all hope was lost, Marius the Younger committed suicide before Praeneste fell.
Sulla emerged victorious in a battle outside Rome at the Colline Gate – a last ditch attack by supporters of Marius to capture Rome. His success marked the end of the Civil War on the Italian mainland.
Sulla massacred 8,000 prisoners with darts. Those prisoners were Samnites, who had aided the Marians (supporters of Marius) since the start of the First Civil War.
Sertorius, a supporter of Marius, fled Italy and continued fighting for the Marians in North Africa.
Pompey was dispatched with an army to recover Sicily and North Africa from the Marian remnants. While at Lilybaeum in Sicily, he was presented with a captured Gnaeus Carbo who he duly put to death.
Sulla declared himself dictator – the first time the office had been filled in 120 years. He then killed all of Rome’s enemies and took their property, with much of it being appropriated by Crassus.
Julius Caesar flees into exile with only his life.
Sulla’s reforms consolidated power in the dictatorship and Senate, stripping the plebeian assemblies of legislative power and barring tribunes of holding further office.
Pompey returned victorious from his campaigning in North Africa and coerced Sulla into giving him a triumph.
The Sertorian War began: After being invited to Lusitania (modern-day Portugal) by the native population, Sertorius took control of the region and began a resistance movement against Sulla’s regime in Rome.
Sulla abdicated, retiring to a private life of lavish parties, writing his memoirs and living with his wife and long-time male lover.
Sulla died, perhaps of alcoholism or disease. His funeral was the largest in Roman history up until that point.
His epitaph reads:
“No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.”