Roman Consul Gaius Marius and the Marian Reforms

Although Consul Gaius Marius (157-86 BCE)1 of Ancient Rome is known as one of the most controversial players on the stage of Ancient Roman history, he is likewise perhaps the greatest contributor to the increased battlefield proficiency that became what people today think of when we think of the powerful Roman Army. In fact, in many ways Marius set the standard by which most future successful military forces were to operate on at the tactical and logistical levels.

The Marian Reforms played a pivotal
role in the future of the Roman military, economy, political and social cores of Roman society. While his Reforms took care of some problems, a whole new problem took hold. That problem came when
during the Jugurthan War in Numidia, Gaius Marius raised the first Roman volunteer army in 107 BCE.2 The army was made up of mostly poor, landless, and or unemployed men. He trained them and then defeated an enemy that had been fighting well against the Roman Army.Not only did this make Marius a hero because he defeated the enemy with his volunteer army, he managed to relieve a
great portion of Rome’s economic problem of rampant unemployment by accepting men for service that were previously not allowed into the Roman armed forces due to societal status. Ironically, some of these men had once been lower class land owners who farmed, and while away on military service their homes had been confiscated and sold off by the wealthier classes of Roman citizenry. Once they had served, but
now homeless, landless, and unemployed, without Marius they no longer were qualified for service. Marius changed that by allowing them into service in spite of their societal position.

These veterans whose homes had been sold off naturally had a great level of distrust of the Roman central government and aristocracy. Likewise so too did the poor, and
unemployed of the lower classes of Roman society. This distrust, along with the fact that under Marius, an army’s general was to pay his soldiers rather than the state turned the loyalties of the Roman soldier to his own commanding officer rather than to the nation itself. Thus, while a great economic burden on Rome had been lifted
to a large extent, Marius’ volunteer army and method of paying them served the purpose of dividing Rome and eventually paved the way for generals and their armies to fight civil wars for ultimate power of Rome. Here is where Marius’ controversy comes into play.

There is further irony here as well. Marius went to great length successfully to bring the Roman military under a more unified and uniform fighting force in spite of the fact
that he caused the great divisions that took place. One simple way in which Marius brought a greater level of cohesion and single identity to the Roman military was the change their standards from the five different symbols of the minotaur, horse, eagle, wolf and boar to being uniformly an eagle across all of the legions.4

Another vital aspect that Marius focused on was the individual training of each soldier. The Roman soldier was without question a formidable and capable fighter in
single combat, but his specialty was fighting as part of a cohesive unit. Giaus Marius dramatically improved the Roman soldiers’ abilities in single combat by employing the use of gladiators in their training.5 The gladiators had imported a vast number
of different fighting styles from their homelands and the weapons to go with those styles. The training given by the use of the gladiators gave the Roman soldier of vast knowledge of the different styles of fighting he may encounter as well as the use of a large variations of weapons. The Roman soldier became much more effective in single
combat than in previous periods of Ancient Rome.

While Marius had his soldiers trained in many different fighting styles and weapons, Marius made yet another key reform that brought an excellent level of military
efficiency to the Roman Army. That change was the standardization of weapons and equipment. Previously it was not uncommon to see Roman soldiers carrying a number of different weapons in a formation. This was because the soldier had to supply his own. Marius made changes that mandated all soldiers, in particular the heavy infantry, would have standardized weapons, shields, and armor. The soldier did still have to pay for his gear, but he purchased it from the state while in service. With each soldier carrying the same types of weapons, it was much easier for smiths to repair or replace a weapon or piece of gear when damaged or lost in battle. This made life easier for the combat soldier and for support personnel.

Marius was able to also reduce the
size of his army by drastically limiting beasts of burden to carry
soldiers’ gear and ordered that soldiers carry most of their
equipment on their person. This reduction in army size as opposed to the added weight on the individual soldier still made for an army that was able to move on march faster than before.6 They were able to march approximately 20 miles a day on favorable road
conditions while carrying roughly 80-90 pounds.7 Much like King Philip II of Macedon in previous Greek history, Marius removed as many non-essential personnel and animals from his army as possible and thus made it faster and easier to move on campaign.

After Gaius Marius had been victorious in the Jugurthan War in Numidia, Marius found himself once again dealing with a war, and that war was with the Germanic barbarians of continental Europe. What he found was that he needed a military
organized in such a way that it was better suited for dealing with the large numbers of German warriors within the German battle formations. Marius needed more combat troops on the battle line, but needed to maintain flexibility of maneuverability. What Marius did was change the military organization from a maniple based army to a
cohortal based force by changing the cohort from an administrative element to a tactical element in the army. This placed more men in the fray, but did not sacrifice tactical flexibility or maneuverability, and allowed for greater independent action by forces if need be.

Clearly, Consul Gaius Marius was the author of a great number of innovations in the Roman military machine that dramatically improved its capabilities. His impact was felt in tactical ability, logistical ability, in the sphere of Roman economics, and in the social and political realms. Much of what he did was to serve Rome well against its enemies, but likewise the Marian Reforms pulled Roman allegiance apart. Consul Gaius Marius is a figure that can be greatly admired for his achievements, and yet is
viewed as perhaps having done more damage to Rome than many, if not any other Consul of Rome serving before him.

1.Carey, Brian Todd, Allfree, Joshua B., Cairns, John. Warfare in the Ancient World. Barnsley:UK Pen and Sword Books Ltd 2009. 106

2. LeGlay, Marcel, et al, A Historyof Rome, 4th ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 124-125.

3.Webb, J. P., From Marius to Patreaus: The Relevance of the Marian Reforms to the Modern American Warrior. Waco,TX: Webb Publishing 2011. 7

4.Goldworthy, Adrian. Roman Warfare. London:UK Phoenix 2007. 107

5.Carey, Brian Todd, Allfree, Joshua B., Cairns, John. Warfare in the Ancient World.

6. Webb, J. P., From Marius to Patreaus. 11-12

7.Carey, Brian Todd, Allfree, Joshua B., Cairns, John. Warfare in the Ancient World. 108

8.Carey, Brian Todd, Allfree, Joshua B., Cairns, John. Warfare in the Ancient World. 106


Adrian Goldworthy. Roman Warfare. London:UK Phoenix 2007.

Appian. The Civil Wars: Book I. Chicago,IL: University of Chicago, 2006.

Brian Todd Carey, Joshua B.Allfree, and John Cairns. Warfare in the Ancient World. Barnsley:UK Pen and Sword Books Ltd 2009.

 J. P. Webb. From Marius to Patreaus: The Relevance of the Marian Reforms to the Modern American Warrior. Waco,TX: Webb Publishing 2011.

 Marcel Le Glay, et al.  A History of Rome, 4th ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.


Roeland Oosterloo and Luke Piersma. 2009.

Roman Soldiers: 2011.

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1 Comment

  1. I think that even the most despised leaders can bring about some of the most drastic and beneficial changes in a country’s history. There are a great many examples to be seen throughout time to support this. The best that comes to mind is Napoleon Bonaparte. Though he was not seen as France’s greatest leader he was the one that changed the face of France’s military. Napoleon was a brilliant tactical mind when compared to the standard of his day. He set a style of army for the European nations and used them to conquer a great deal of land in the name of France. Quite possibly his greatest achievement was not his conquest however, but rather his innovation of supplying rations for his men. It was Napoleon who is famous for saying “An army marches on its stomach.” The innovation that I speak of is of coarse the introduction of canning to the armies of France that allowed them to carry readily eatable and clean foods without the use of vinegar of some other strong and usually disgusting fermentation substance. This gave an army the ability to eat nutritious food without risk of disease, thought they did still spread among the ranks.
    And not only do the people who bring these changes get met with resistance and disapproval, they are often removed or limited in some way by those who do not support them. I believe that it is in fact partially because Marius brought these reforms that he was disliked so greatly. He stood against the common flow and took a stand to benefit the country and its people.
    Now it is easily said that Marius was of coarse not entirely stable in his life and was not the most trustworthy man, but when a man has a truly beneficial idea it is his right and more his responsibility to do all he can to see it come to fruition for all those it will benefit. Now that is not to say that all men who aspire must succeed, because as history has proven the winner determines who is right and who is wrong. As we have seen In both world wars, men can have very poor beliefs and act upon them with great tenacity to some extent reach their goal. However, These are not truly the ideas that shape the world (or land) for the betterment of all its citizens. Of course the obvious name that comes to mind is Adolf Hitler. Hitler was in no way a man with a beneficial vision, but the reform and technology that he spurred on was undoubtedly a vast and decisive gain for the German people that served him as well as the other Axis powers. His drive to create a master race led him to fund the production of the first true assault rifles which have obviously revolutionized modern warfare to an extreme that no one could have envisioned. As well his revolutionary tactics were of great use in later wars and battles afar. These tactics also spurred on his enemies to create their own irregular system of survival and attack, as can be seen on the Normandy assault.

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