The Marian Reforms

By Terikel Grayhair

Every player of Rome:Total War knows that the advent of the Marian Reforms is the single most influential event in the game. It opens up a totally new technical tree for the Romans, deletes the weaker units, massively improves the quality of recruitable Roman units, and paves the way for the Romans to conquer everything. But what exactly are the Marian Reforms? Why did they come about? And what effect did they have in history?

The Marian Reforms in ancient Rome were a set of laws quite simple, effective, and yet relatively earth-shattering for their day. Gaius Marius passed laws that simply waived the property requirement for men wishing to serve in the legions. Those recruited under these laws would receive their equipment from the State, and serve a sixteen-year term of service (which was later raised to twenty). After that, they would be granted land upon which to settle. In addition, allies who volunteered were granted Roman citizenship after the end of their service. That was it, in a nutshell.

Why did these reforms come about? Some will point out that these Reforms were a natural progression of Roman military might, and being practical people, the Romans made the change. This is wrong. The Romans were indeed a practical people, but practical people do not change something that works adequately- they come up with solutions to problems of things that do not work. And there were problems aplenty to be fixed- but very few with the will or the means to apply a solution until Gaius Marius.

Rome was in deep trouble. Her laws had always been scrutinized carefully upon their proposal, and tweaked where necessary, before passing from the Senate to the People for ratification. Then they were inscribed in bronze plates and stored for eternity. This worked well, but times changed and the laws did not. One of those laws was the statutes for serving in the legion. One had to be at least of the Fifth Class, and provide his own equipment in order to serve in the legions. The Senate felt that men who had a stake in Rome- a farm, a standing, a vote that counted- would be more willing to fight than those who did not. The People agreed- most armies in the known world at that time were raised that way. A term of service was one campaign long- normally a single summer. The system worked well for centuries, but times change.

Tiberius Gracchus noticed changes fifty years after Hannibal destroyed Roman armies in battles at the River Trebia, Lake Trasimene, and the colossal carnage at Cannae. He saw the senators and wealthy buying up the empty small farms, consolidating them into large latifundia, and importing slaves to work them. He saw the small farmholders being squeezed out, losing their homes and status while the Senate and wealthy prospered. He saw the military strength of Rome waning as the pool of eligible men shrank. And he was determined to do something about it.

He became a Tribune of the Plebs and instituted his Lex Sempronia Agraria, which attempted limit the amount of public land available to individuals- including senators. His laws were passed with violence, and he was soon assassinated, his laws torn down or ignored. His brother Gaius Gracchus took up the flame of reform, and met the same fate. The situation steadily declined as the Senate forgot the message of the Gracchi and returned to business as usual.

The bloody mess of the Second Punic War was but eighty years past and the Gracchi thirty years in their graves when a new threat emerged. These were the Germans- the Cimbri, to be exact- who were searching for a new home. Their low-lying homeland on Jutland had been flooded with seawater, making the once fertile land incapable of producing grain or sustaining life. Thousands died, and the majority fled to seek new lands. They traveled with the Teutoni, and later the Ambrones as well. And they came towards Italy in 112 BCE.

Gaius Papirius Carbo was sent to drive them away. He levied his legions, went to Noricum, and fought the Cimbri in the Battle of Noreia. He was stomped hard, and lost most of his army in the process. Over the next few years, the Romans would lose battles at Gallia Narbonensis where the consul Marcus Junius Silanus would be killed, Burdigala where Gaius Cassius Longinus Ravilla and his entire army was killed, in the Alps where they were defeated again, and finally at Arausio in 105 BCE.

Here, the two consuls, each with an army, faced the Cimbri. Neither consul would allow the other to command his army, so they met the Cimbri as two small warhosts fighting independently rather than as a single, large, and unified army. The Cimbri annihilated both armies. Rome lost eighty thousand soldiers and two entire armies in one bad day.

Rome lost in total between one hundred fifty thousand and one hundred eighty thousand propertied legionaries in those few short years, not four generations after the massive losses incurred during Hannibal's Invasion of Italy- which itself virtually annihilated the entire class of men eligible for legionary service.

Meanwhile, Gaius Marius was elected consul to take over the war against Jugurtha in Numidia. The outgoing general, Quintus Caecilius Metellus, gave his army to the senior consul Ravilla, who took those veterans and lost them all at Burdigala. Marius had command of a war, but no troops with which to wage that war. So like every consul before him, he sent recruiters throughout Italia to raise a new army. His recruiting teams returned to Rome empty-handed.

Marius wondered why.

The explanation was simple. The military disasters of the last hundred years had killed off many of the propertied men who qualified as legionaries before they could replace themselves with children. Further, the recent campaigns like the Siege of Numantia, or the Third Punic War, lasted far longer than a single season. The farms, left unattended or in the hands of women and children for that long a time, faltered and went bankrupt or were bought up, reducing the once-proud citizen-soldier to a poor and jobless mouth to feed at State expense upon his eventual return.

The disowned farmers, former legionaries and their families had flocked to Rome, where they were classed by censors into the capite censi. These people were so poor they were merely counted, not classed into centuries like the upper classes. They had no vote, no say, and no property worth mentioning- only mouths to feed. This lowest class became so large, that it actually affected politics, with men like the Gracchi appealing to them with their laws. As defeat heaped upon disaster on the field of battle, this poorest class grew and grew.

This situation, growing worse with every season, effectively denuded Italy of men qualified to serve- as foreseen by the Gracchi- and increased the expenses of the State who subsidized the grain of the poor. Few men except the rich had property, and they would serve as officers, not legionaries. Legionaries had to be found. Rome had hundreds of thousands of able-bodied men, but very few of them were qualified to serve. So Marius removed the one thing barring these men from serving- the property qualification.

He then equipped these legions of the poor with the many sets of armor and weaponry in storage at Capua and other cities. This Rome had in droves from its many recent defeats. With typical Roman efficiency, Rome had afterward cleaned up every battlefield where her men had died and stored the arms and armor of the dead for future use. Marius used this equipment and with his law removing the property barrier, he now had the manpower. Man plus equipment equals soldier.

Marius as a general reorganized the legion itself. He had to. Times had changed, as stated before. Starting in 104 BC, he was elected senior consul of the Roman Republic five times in a row, giving him the time to firmly entrench his reforms and work out the bugs.

The old Camillan system was based upon hastati graduating to principes, who would graduate to triarii. This is where one problem lay. There were no more hastati to become principes, no more principes to become triarii. Spears had fallen out of favor with Romans after crushing the phalanxes at Pydna in 168 BCE, and he had not the time to teach to four separate groups of men the tactics of the Camillan velites, hastati, principes, or triarii. So he abolished that deadwood and reduced the various Camillan parts to a single branch based on the principes- who had provided the backbone and muscle of the Camillan legions.

The legions of Marius and his successors would consist of ten cohorts, in place of the thirty maniples of the Camillan legions. Camillus had grouped centuries into maniples because the century had become too small a unit to be effective on the battlefield as warfare evolved. Marius replaced the maniple with the cohort for the same reason. Auxilia were classified and assigned to legions to fill holes in the order of battle, and transferred about as needed.

The legionary himself was armored in the lorica segmentata, or chainmail. He carried a pair of pila, into which Marius introduced a wooden pin that broke upon impact. This prevented a foe from casting the pilum back at the Romans. In addition, the legionary was armed with the gladius and scutum, a combination the Romans had used with great success for two hundred years, despite the recent reverses. All equipment was standardized, easily made and repaired wherever a forge and materials were at hand. The training was also standardized, which meant a legionary from one legion could be transferred to another and know exactly what to do and where.

Marius also cut away much of the baggage train a legion had with it, making it more mobile. This was not so popular with the legionaries themselves, as they now had to carry most of their equipment on forked sticks, instead of letting an oxcart carry it. Oxcarts and mule-pulled wagons are slower than men and require roads, while legions of Marius's Mules could cross lands where no roads existed at the pace of a marching man.

The legionary now served for sixteen to twenty years, instead of a single campaign. Previous legionaries were recruited as needed, served their campaign, after which they returned to their homes, if they still had homes. Marius turned serving as a soldier into a full-time occupation. The legionaries were now recruited, equipped, and trained by the state, then remained in service until the end of their term. This standing professional army was unlike any seen in the Western World at that time, and the fact that it was a standing army meant that it drilled and trained year-round, and was ready for action immediately. No longer would precious time be spent recruiting and training when a crisis threatened- the legions were at hand.

All of this gave the professional Roman legionary a huge advantage over the part-time and self-equipped warriors of their opponents.

Marius got his legions, and with the help of good lieutenants, captured Jugurtha and ended the war. He then destroyed in the Cimbri in the battles of Aquae Sextiae and Vercellae, ending that threat to Rome.

Rome survived. She would pay for her folly in trying to hamper his reforms later, but Gaius Marius and his reforms had made immediate and positive effects. Rome was safe from the Germans, for the time being. The midterm effects of the reforms launched Rome from a large city-state with foreign territories to a great empire. But the long-term effects would help bring down the Republic.

The Reforms of Marius were a social earthquake upon the established system. As mentioned above, the propertied classes of Romans eligible for service had been depleted by the massive and repeated disasters which befell the incompetent generals prior to Marius's consulship. This in itself caused unrest, as the defeated general was often seen as a vulture who reaped financial benefits from his own ineptitude and deaths of the men he led. Those legionaries fortunate enough to survive their general often found themselves without a home, if having been bought in bankruptcy court while they were away fighting for Rome. Rome was polarizing into a State of the Very Rich and the Very Poor- with almost nothing in the middle. The Gracchi saw the dangers, but were killed trying to correct the situation.

Something had to be done or Rome would break apart.

Marius did something. He opened the legions to the poor, giving those who enlisted a steady job for sixteen to twenty years. As an incentive to fight for Rome, they were to receive a parcel of land upon which to settle after their term. Marius had far better luck with his solution- the Gracchi had no terrifying Germanic hordes breathing down Roman necks.

In effect, Marius was trying to inject new blood to repopulate the small farmer-middle class of Rome that was nearly extinct. As the powerful senators had swept up most of the available land in Italy, or refused to use it for settling veterans because they hated Marius, he was forced to settle his veterans on lands captured from an enemy. This seeded Roman citizens and Roman values in the conquered lands while trying to rebuild those lost middle-classes for future wars. In that he failed, though he did further Romanization and provided legionaries for many years to come.

The Reforms were also political dynamite. The senators hated Marius- to them, he was a mushroom from Arpinum who had no ancestral claim to enter their exclusive club of senior Roman magistrates. They voted down his reforms, stating that the poor would not fight well as they had no farm or home for which to fight. So Marius passed over the Senate and went directly to the People of Rome, who passed the laws. He proved the Senate wrong at Aquae Sextiae and again at Vercellae, where the Marian legions fought very well indeed.

When Marius declared he could not tell Roman from ally in battle, he effectively cancelled the notion of allied legions. Hereafter all legions were Roman legions. But the Senate, protecting its exclusivity, refused to consider the allies as equal to Romans. They even went so far as to punish certain allies for daring to claim Roman rights. The result was the Social War, Rome versus its former allies. Rome almost lost before recovering under Sulla, and in the end negotiated a peace giving the former allies Roman citizenship.

When Marius attempted to get land for his veterans, the Senate balked time and again to disburse good land to the peons of Marius. The main senatorial objections to this section of the Reforms seem to be that they threatened the Senate's own means of wealth (senators were required to have an income of at least four hundred thousand sesterces per year from land). And that they came from the mind of Marius.

This was most foolish, for in making a general apply for land upon which to settle his veterans instead of granting it automatically whenever a legion retired, the Senate turned the loyalty of the legionary away from the State and to his general instead. The State was seen as a puppet to the Senate, out only to enrich itself over the bones of the People, while the general was seen as a patron and a way to wealth for his legionaries.

The senatorial quibbling also forced each general to be dependent upon conquering foreign lands upon which to settle his veterans. The four hundred years after the reforms were marked by Roman expansion from Italy, North Africa and a bit of Gaul to reign over the entire Mediterranean world, to the southern reaches of Scotland, to the Rhein, deep into the Balkans, and as far east as Parthia. True, much of this conquering happened after the fall of the Republic, but it gained a big boost in the time between Marius and Augustus until the latter finally tamed the Senate and could settle veterans by decree. Yet the damage was done- legionaries were steadfastly loyal to the general who would earn them spoils and land, and not the State who supplied his equipment and salary.

The legionaries, loyal to their generals above Rome, marched time and again on Rome to make their favorite general emperor. It began with Sulla and Caesar, but continued with Galba, Vitellius, Vespasian, Septimus Severus, and many others. Civil war, which Rome had not faced before Sulla, became commonplace, especially in the Year of Four Emperors (69 CE) and in the years after the Five Good Emperors. Thus the Marian Reforms contributed greatly to the destruction of the Republic and wracked the Empire with civil war due to this conflict against senatorial obstinacy.

Towards the end of the Empire in the West, the same situation arose, but due to different causes. Most of the troops then were not even of Roman or even Italian origin- they were allied foederati or Germanic legionaries. The Roman and Italian legionaries who had built the empire were long since pushed further and further into oblivion, until at last the Empire they built was defended by men whom their forefathers had considered the enemy.

The Mules of Marius built an empire, but the same social ineptitude leading to their creation continued and eventually caused its downfall five hundred years later. Marius had given Rome a means to survive, which she used, then ignored, and eventually squandered away over the next half-millennium. Five hundred extra years he gave the Eternal City- not bad for a mushroom from Arpinum with no ancestors.