Army reform of Marius

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Portrait of an unknown person, identified with Marius, Munich Glyptothek (Inv. 319)

The term “army reform of Marius” or “Marian army reform” summarizes a series of developments in the Roman army system, which in older research were attributed to the Roman general and politician Gaius Marius.

Reform measures attributed to Gaius Marius

According to older research, Gaius Marius fundamentally reformed the Roman legions during the campaigns against the Cimbri and Teutons. The reform is said to have included the following individual measures:[1]

  • the grouping of the 30 maniples (about 160 each) into 10 cohorts (about 480 each),
  • the standardization of the armament of the legionaries (and thus the abolition of the hastati, principes and triarii as troop types),
  • the abolition of velites,
  • the introduction of a new pilum,
  • the improvement of training through gladiator trainers, endurance marches and runs,
  • the reduction of the number of legionaries by letting them carry their own luggage (hence the nickname muli mariani – “mules of Marius”)
  • the introduction of the silver legionary eagle(aquila) as field emblem(signum) to strengthen the esprit de corps of the legionaries,
  • as well as the determination of the period of service of the legionaries to uniform 16 years

Thus the Roman army would have changed from a citizen militia into a professional army of volunteers.

The reform in the tradition

This reform was derived from a number of passages from ancient authors:[2]

  • Sallust (bell. iug. 84) speaks of Marius recruiting confederates and handpicking men without characterizing this as a breach of tradition.
  • Plutarch (Marius 9,1) writes that Marius, contrary to custom, recruits the dispossessed and slaves as volunteers.
  • Also in Plutarch (Marius 25,2ff) the new pilum is found.
  • The nickname muli mariani is found in Plutarch (Marius 13) and in Frontinus Festus (Strat. IV 1,7). Plutarch gives two possible explanations for the meaning of the nickname: the heavy baggage the legionaries had to carry under Marius, or that they were well fed and obedient.
  • The introduction of the legionary eagle is found in Pliny the Elder (X 4). According to Pliny, the eagle was only one of five standards until Marius’ second consulate (104 BC). However, he also reports that it had already become customary “a few years earlier” to leave the other standards in the camp and to take only the eagle with them.[3]

Measures without source evidence are the cohort legion, the standardization of armament, the transformation of the militia army into a professional army and the establishment of a uniform period of service. The improved fencing training of the legionaries by gladiator trainers, on the other hand, goes back to Publius Rutilius Rufus.

Results of recent research

However, the results of recent research contradict the conventional picture of a massive army reform under Marius. The cohort had already been deployed in the Spanish theater of war since the Second Punic War.[4] In the East, the cohort did not make its appearance until after the defeat of the Hellenistic states; it was not until a certain Lucullus – probably in 114 BC under Gaius Porcius Cato – that it was used against the Scordisci. Apparently the cohorts were better suited than the maniple in the fight against little organized, “barbarian” opponents.[5] Finally, in Africa, Marius’ predecessor Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus used both maniple and cohorts.[6] In the course of this lengthy conversion from maniple to cohort, the standardization of armament probably also took place, the cost of which had been borne by the state at least since the reforms of the Gracchi in 123-122 BC.[7] The new model of the pilum introduced by Marius proved to be flawed; by the time of Caesar it had already been replaced by a further development.[8] The increasing standardization of the armament of the legionaries was also not connected with a formal abolition of the hastati, principes, and triarii, which continued to exist as service categories, but whose distinction lost its significance. Velites are still documented under Caesar.[9]

At the time of the Republic, the training of legionaries was in the hands of the respective commander. Marius was able to draw on the example of Scipio Aemilianus, under whom he had served before Numantia. Fixed standards in training were not developed until the reign of Augustus.[10] That soldiers had to carry their own baggage was also a common measure in antiquity: in addition to the models of Philip II of Macedonia and Alexander the Great, Metellus in Africa had also required this of his legionaries.[11] The silver legionary eagle had also existed before Marius. Marius, however, abolished the other four standard motifs wolf, minotaur, horse and boar.[12]

Marius’s most fundamental breaks with tradition have been portrayed as the recruitment of the dispossessed and the enlistment of volunteers in the legions. Volunteers, however, are documented long before, such as in 200 and 198 BC in the war against Philip V of Macedonia. Scipio Aemilianus also recruited among his friends and clients before setting out for Numantia.[13] The abolition of the census previously in force, which allowed only citizens with a certain income to serve in the legions, is thought to have taken place after Marius was first elected consul in 107 BC. However, the one-time enlistment of only 3,000 to 5,000 volunteers prior to the departure for Africa in 107 BC can hardly be considered a significant break with tradition in the enlistment of legions, according to recent opinion,[14] especially since the old, census-based method of raising the dilectus persisted[15] and was also used again and again by Marius himself.[16] In the 2nd and 1st century BC, however, a slow change took place, the dilectus lost importance while the number of volunteers increased.[17]

A lowering of the minimum wealth for military service had apparently already taken place during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. From an original 11,000 aces during the 2nd Punic War, the census was lowered to 4,000 aces and finally, probably in 129 BC, to 1,500 aces.[18] Practically, this meant that eventually almost anyone who owned a hut could serve in the legions.[19] Thus, during the 2nd century, a creeping proletarianization of the legions took place.[20] Explicit recruitment of the dispossessed also has examples in earlier Roman history, mostly in emergency situations, such as during the 2nd Punic War.[21] There is also no evidence that Marius’ recruitment of the proletarii was intended to be a permanent reform. As late as Augustus, the legions probably consisted simultaneously of volunteers (including proletarii, some effectively as professional soldiers) and propertied conscripts.[22]

The conditions under which service in the legions took place remained unchanged under Marius. The pay remained the same (112.5 denarii per year),[23] the term of service was a maximum of 16 years, and the legionary by no means knew when he entered the army whether he would actually have to serve it. Recruitment and dismissal was as required.[24]

Consequences and evaluation of the Marius measures

According to recent research, there was probably no profound, selectively effective reform of the Roman army by Marius. The changes attributed to him were rather the result of a longer-term process of professionalization of the Roman army in the course of the 2nd century B.C. At the time of Marius’ consulate, many of these developments had already been underway for some time or were almost complete.

On a completely different level, however, Marius set a precedent that is weighted far more highly in today’s research than the army reform traditionally attributed to him: apparently he promised the volunteers of 107 BC a piece of land on their release.[25] Presumably the promise was made to keep the veterans of the African War in the legions after its end. At any rate, when the army was discharged after the war against Jugurtha, no distribution of land took place.

This example seems to have been followed again and again by later commanders, so that the legionaries soon derived from this a claim to be allotted a piece of land when they were discharged.[26] The fact that army leaders such as Marius succeeded in enforcing land distributions even in the face of opposition from the Senate led to significant changes in the relationship between the army and the Roman state: “The veterans thus became virtually clients of the politician in question – and thus devoted supporters. They formed a significant part of the so-called ‘private’ armies of the civil wars of the 1st century BC.”[27]

Marius is thus considered to have paved the way for the dissolution of the political system of the Roman Republic. The soldiers’ attachment to the commander ultimately became so great that popular commanders such as Marius himself, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, and others were able to use the personal loyalty of the legionaries to defy the Senate and gain extra-constitutional power by threatening or using force. According to today’s prevailing opinion, this contributed not insignificantly to the downfall of the republican state.[22]


  • Heribert Aigner: Thoughts on the so-called army reform of Marius. In: Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Kulturwissenschaft. 18, 1974, ZDB-ID 507453-8, PP. 11-23.
  • M. J. V. Bell: Tactical Reform in the Roman Republican Army. In: Historia. 14, 1968, S. 404–422.
  • P. A. Brunt: The fall of the Roman Republic and related essays. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1988, ISBN 0-19-814849-6.
  • Richard J. Evans: Gaius Marius. A Political Biography. University of South Africa, Pretoria 1994, ISBN 0-86981-850-3 (Hiddingh-Currie 4).
  • Emilio Gabba: Republican Rome, the Army and the Allies. University of California Press, Berkeley CA et al. 1976, ISBN 0-520-03259-4.
  • Kate Gilliver: Towards Empire. A History of the Roman Army. Theiss, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-8062-1761-0.
  • Adrian Goldsworthy: The Roman Army at War. 100 BC – AD 200. Clarendon Press, Oxford et al. 1996, ISBN 0-19-815057-1(Oxford Classical Monographs).
  • Lawrence Keppie: The making of the Roman Army. From Republic to Empire. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK 1998, ISBN 0-8061-3014-8.
  • Bernhard Linke: Die römische Republik von den Gracchen bis Sulla. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2005, ISBN 3-534-15498-3 (Geschichte kompakt – Antike).
  • Martin Miller: The professionalization of the Roman Army in the Second Century B.C. Loyola University of Chicago, Chicago IL 1984 (dissertation).
  • Nigel Pollard, Joanne Berry: Die Legionen Roms. Translated from English by Cornelius Hartz, Theiss, Stuttgart 2012, ISBN 978-3-8062-2633-1, pp. 19-23 (“The Reforms of Marius”).
  • J. W. Rich: The Supposed Roman Manpower Shortage of the Later Second Century B.C. In: Historia. 32, 1983, pp. 287-331, online (PDF; 1.88 MB).
  • Michael M. Sage: The Roman Republican Army. A Sourcebook. Routledge, New York NY et al. 2008, ISBN 978-0-415-17880-8.
  • Richard E. Smith: Service in the Post-Marian Roman Army. Manchester University Press, Manchester 1958(Publications of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Manchester 9, ZDB-ID 1490743-4).
  • George R. Watson: The Pay of the Roman Army. In: Historia. 7, 1958, pp. 113-120.

Individual references

  1. This account essentially follows Goldsworthy and Linke.
  2. This point is based on Aigner (1974), pp. 11-16.
  3. Nigel Pollard, Joanne Berry: The Legions of Rome. Stuttgart 2012, p. 20.
  4. Livius XXV,39,I and Frontinus II,6,II name Lucius Marcius as the originator, who had first combined maniple into cohorts in 210 BC. Polybios II,23,I and II,33,I mention the use of cohorts in the battles of Ilpia and on the Ebro in 206 B.C. For documentation of other uses, compare Bell (1965).
  5. Bell (1964), pp. 408-416.
  6. Sallust bell. iug. 49,2, 49,6 and 51,3. On this also: Bell (1964), p. 415 f.; Sage (2008), p. 200.
  7. Gabba (1976), p. 11; Gilliver (2003), p. 24 f.
  8. Aigner (1974), p. 12 f.
  9. Bell (1964), p. 421.
  10. Sage (2008), p. 229; Keppie (1998), p. 47.
  11. Keppie (1998), p. 66.
  12. Aigner (1974), p. 13; Keppie (1998), p. 67.
  13. Gabba (1976), p. 11; Keppie (1998), p. 31; Miller (1984), pp. 138-141; Smith (1958), p. 5.
  14. Rich (1983), p. 324.
  15. Brunt (1988), p. 255; Gabba (1976), p. 15; Keppie (1998), p. 77; Smith (1958), p. 44 f.
  16. Evans (1994), pp. 82 and 118; Rich (1983), p. 327.
  17. Smith (1958), p. 46.
  18. Gabba (1976), p. 6. Rich (1983), however, points out that no ancient author described these processes and that the “subsidence” is only an attempt by modern scholars to explain them in order to reconcile the divergent figures of different authors (pp. 305-314). Livius I,43 mentions 11,000 aces, Polybios VI,19,3 4000 and Cicero Rep. II,22 1500.
  19. Brunt (1988), p. 16; Rich (1983), p. 298. Miller (1984) includes the stipend paid upon joining the Legion in the minimum wealth, so that in this case anyone could actually serve even if they had almost nothing before joining (p. 21 f.).
  20. Gabba (1976), p. 4.
  21. Miller (1984), p. 13. Miller (1984) also considers it possible that proletarians were already mustered during the 1st Punic War (p. 91).
  22. a b Nigel Pollard, Joanne Berry: The Legions of Rome. Stuttgart 2012, p. 23.
  23. Watson (1958), p. 117.
  24. Brunt (1988), p. 256
  25. Evans (1994), p. 117f.
  26. Keppie (1998), p. 63.
  27. Eduard Nemeth, Florin Fodorean: Römische Militärgeschichte (Geschichte Kompakt). WBG, Darmstadt 2015, p. 43.