Episode 6 - Marius, the "Homo Novus"

Thursday, 08 April 2021 15:44 Written by
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During the 2nd century, Rome had expanded its rule to the eastern Mediterranean. In 190, Romans had defeated Antiochus of Syria in the battle of Magnesia, and they had seized all his possessions in Asia Minor. Then, in 168, they had defeated the Macedonians at Pydna, and in 148, they had turned Macedonia into a province, and shortly afterwards, they had done the same with most of Greece. In 146, after three years of war, Roman legions had burnt Carthage to the ground, you remember, the old adversary: the city's territory had become the province of Africa. So, the Republic had triumphed over all its enemies. Now it was the time to catch its breath finally, savour the last triumphs, but it would be a short time; Rome was already seeking new lands to conquer.

Now, Romans started to reflect on this passage from a city-state to a multinational empire and what it meant for the social fabric of the Republic. In the city, there were two opposing factions: the "optimates", who proclaimed themselves as the best among the aristocrats and who dominated the Senate; and the "populares", the representatives of the people as they called themselves, who used their influence in assemblies to challenge the oligarchy.

The State's social structure suffered the negative consequences of the creation of an immense empire in such a short time. The wheat from Sicily, Sardinia, Spain and Africa poured into its markets at low prices because it was produced cheaply with free slave labour; due to this, that rustic Italy of direct farmers, small and medium-sized owners, who had constituted the best bulwark against Hannibal and provided the best soldiers to beat him, it was going broke.

They could not withstand this unfair competition, and they were selling their modest farms to wealthy landlords. A law issued in 220, which prohibited senators from trading, compelled them to invest the capital they had accumulated with spoils of war in lands. And the senators bought a plot and contracted it to an administrator, who tried to make as much profit as possible for the master and himself, using slave labour.

The Roman society, which used to rely on its small and free farmers, increasingly became dependant on looting outside and slavery inside. An endless stream of slaves poured into Rome. 40,000 Sardinians were imported there in 177, 150,000 Epirotes 10 years later. The wholesalers of this human trade followed the legions that had now arrived in Asia, on the Danube and up to Russia's borders, on the catastrophe of the Greek and Macedonian empires. There was such an abundance that transactions of 10,000 slaves at a time were standard on the Delos market. In the city, slaves now provided labour in artisans' shops, offices, banks, factories, condemning the citizens who had previously worked there to unemployment and poverty. In the countryside, in the lands where the slaves were engaged in the hundreds, the master did not show up; in his place, there was a tormentor, chosen from among the worst rascals, who managed to save even the impossible on food and clothes, the only salary due to those unfortunate.

It was a situation that challenged the stability of the Roman State, and many among the populares but also the optimates understood that some reforms were needed. In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus, the son of Cornelia, she was the daughter of Scipio Africanus, was elected tribune of the plebs. He understood that Italy would decay if its agriculture fell definitively into the hands of speculators and that in Rome itself, no healthy democracy could triumph with a populace used to idleness and subsidies. To him, the only remedy against slavery, urbanism and military decadence was a bold land reform. So right after he was elected, his first act was to propose a law, with two critical points: first, no citizen could own a plot of public land more extensive than a specific size; second, all lands already distributed or leased by the State should be returned and redistributed among poor citizens, in lots of 5 or 6 hectares each. The Senate claimed that Tiberius’ proposals were illegal, but the bill was voted on, and a three-person commission was appointed to implement the law. 

The following year, Tiberius, to follow his reform's execution and, even more important, to protect himself against growing hostility, ran for tribune again. But this decision was not welcome because it was against the custom of the last two centuries of Roman political history: many accused him of trying to establish a tyranny in good or bad faith. So, when the assembly of the plebs gathered for the election of the tribunes, many senators with their clients and slaves dispersed the legal assembly with violence. In the clashes, Tiberius and nearly 300 of his supporters were killed, his body was thrown into the river Tevere. 

Tiberius' law, however, was too long-awaited by many to be simply repealed, and the work of the commission in charge of its application continued, albeit slowly.

Ten years later, Tiberius' torch was taken up by his younger brother, Caius. In those nine years, the agrarian laws of Tiberius had brought fruit, although sometimes they were difficult to apply. Caius was elected tribune of the plebs in 123 and again in 122. In these two years in office, he had a new agrarian law pass, which updated the previous one; in particular, it assigned controversial cases back to the 3-member commission. He also passed a wheat law, by which wheat was distributed regularly at a reduced price.

Caius also faced the problem of the Italian allies. He knew the fire was hatching under the ashes; they were deeply unsatisfied, they had provided troops and money, but still, they were treated as subjects. He proposed granting Roman citizenship to cities and colonies under Latin law and Latin law to all others. However, the proposal backfired. In fact, it was rejected: the Roman citizens, especially the poorest among them, wanted to maintain this privileged condition for themselves and saw the extension to others as a threat. Also, the Equites, the wealthy traders, would be harmed by the new land reform.

The Senate promptly moved to exploit this tactical error, and to shift the favour of the people away from Caius, it pushed the other tribune, Livius Drusus, to make even more radical proposals: the abolition of the taxes imposed by the laws of Tiberius on new owners, and the distribution of new lands in new colonies to 40,000 destitute of Rome. Immediately, the assembly approved the project, and when Caius returned, he found that Drusus had monopolized all the favours of the people.

In the elections for 121, Caius Gracchus ran for a third mandate, but he failed reelection. His supporters said there had been a fraud, but he did not follow them and retired to private life.

Now the Senate had to keep the promises that Drusus had made to liquidate Caius, and the senators found themselves embarrassed and tried to delay. Caius' supporters knew that the proposals were a first step towards the sabotage of the legislation of the Gracchi, and the most zealous showed up at the next session in arms. The next day, the senators appeared in battle wear, each followed by two slaves.

The armed factions clashed during the mass gathering, and the Senate could declare a state of emergency and authorize the Consuls to take any initiative to restore public order. Caius Gracchus took refuge on the Aventine hill, and finally, he had one of his slaves kill him. His collaborators and followers were tried and sentenced to death.

Cornelia, she had called the two dead sons "my jewels", wore mourning for both of them. The Senate ordered her to remove it.

Over the next ten years, step by step, a series of laws dismantled the agrarian reforms of the Gracchi, and the large estates formed once again on the usual basis of servile labour. The senatorial oligarchy seemed to have won on all fronts. But, with this jealous and short-sighted defence of its interests, it was just digging the grave of the Republic and of itself too.

After a few years of relative calm, in 107, the popular assembly elected as consul a “homo novus”, a new man, meaning not belonging to the aristocracy. His name was Gaius Marius. Marius came from the very bottom of Roman society; he was the son of a poor farmhand. He had enlisted at a very young age, and he had earned rank, medals and scars on the field. Returning, he had made a good marriage: he had married a Julia, sister of a Caius Julius Caesar, and in the grace of his military exploits, he had been elected tribune.

Since 111, Rome had been at war with Jugurtha, the king of Numidia, and in the early years of the military campaign, the Consuls seemed to proceed without effectiveness. Some senators were even suspected of being bribed by Jugurtha; they were tried and found guilty and exiled. In Rome, the tribunes of the plebs inflamed the people against the arrogance and lifestyle of the nobles. The equites, dissatisfied with the conduct of the war, which was damaging trade, supported Marius in his run for consul amid the enthusiasm of the populares and the plebeians.

Marius’ rise showed the crisis of the traditional role of the nobles as the effective leaders of the State: when he spoke at the people’s assembly on the occasion of the enlistments, he insisted on the contrast between the empty prestige of the nobles, founded on the distant feats of their ancestors, and the merit of individual value, independent from the family reputation but obtained through a long personal commitment.

In the same spirit of opposition to noble traditions, Marius reformed the enlistment in the army. He realized that the State could no longer rely on citizens required to serve in the military but who just did not want to. Also, the army was in serious need of soldiers because it had suffered many casualties in the battles of the previous years against the Cimbri and the Teutons, the Germanic populations who had invaded Gaul.

Until then, those who enlisted had to provide their own equipment at their own expense, so a minimum wealth was needed, at least the property of a plot of land. Now, Marius turned to the needy, the desperate, attracting them with good pay and with the promise of loot and lands after the victory. From now on, enlistment was voluntary, and even citizens who did not own anything could enlist, and the State would equip them. The national army was being replaced by an army of mercenaries, professional soldiers were substituting soldiers-farmers: a risky operation, and in the long run catastrophic, but necessary, due to the decay of Roman society, to the lower commitment of the Roman citizens towards the State.

With the help of veteran non-commissioned officers, Marius trained his proletarian recruits, hardened them with marches and trained them in battle with skirmishes on minor objectives. And with these enthusiastic troops, in just two years, from 107 to 105, Marius defeated Jugurtha, who sought refuge with the King of Mauretania, Boccus, his father-in-law. But a young nobleman, Lucius Silla, induced Boccus to deliver the king to the Romans. The war was over, without any more fights. Marius celebrated a glorious triumph in Rome, dragging Jugurtha in chains behind his chariot amid the people's enthusiasm, who saw him as their champion.

In 105, the Germanic tribes of the Cimbri and the Teutons, who had repeatedly beaten the Roman armies beyond the Alps, pointed decisively towards Italy, throwing Rome into a panic. Marius seemed the only man who could stop them: so they elected him consul a second time for 104, although the law forbade him to run for another term, and still from year to year until the year 100. It was a sign that the ancient traditions of Roman politics, which aimed to avoid an accumulation of personal power, were gradually dying out, cancelled by the events and by growing social contrasts.

Between 102 and 101, Marius defeated first the Teutons at Aix-En-Provence and then the Cimbri, who had already penetrated in Italy, near Vercelli, in present-day Piedmont. A new province, Gallia Narbonense, was established in present-day southern France to bring it under permanent Roman control. This territory would take its modern name of Provence from the Latin "provincia". In the same years, on this side of the Alps, Gallia Cisalpina was organized as a province, corresponding to the Po Valley.

In Rome, Marius was welcomed as a second Scipio, and in gratitude, they gave him all the spoils taken from the enemy. So he became a wealthy landowner and, for the sixth consecutive time, was elected consul.

Marius had been the right man at the right time, and at this moment, he was the undisputed  master of the Republic. But soon, someone would follow in his footsteps and use his creation, the professional army, to conquer a greater power, the power of a king. 


Read 1340 times Last modified on Tuesday, 14 November 2023 07:56
Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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