‘The Cimbrian War: 113-101 BC: The Rise of Caius Marius’

An interesting study on how Marius’s right military decisions led to political chaos.
‘The Cimbrian War: 113-101 BC: The Rise of Caius Marius’
Back of a silver denarius by Gaius Fundanius in 101 B.C. depicting Gaius Marius as triumphant on a chariot. (Public Domain)
Dustin Bass

General discussions about the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire typically reflect the civil war between the factions of the Roman generals Julius Caesar and Pompey (49–45 B.C.). But Sulla’s Civil War (88–82 B.C.) between generals Gaius (also called Caius) Marius and Lucius Sulla, the first full scale civil war in Rome’s history, demands more attention. Military historian Nic Fields takes readers a quarter century prior in his new study “The Cimbrian War: 113-101 BC: The Rise of Caius Marius.”

Caesar may be known for setting precedents, but it was his uncle, Marius, who set several of his own—precedents that undoubtedly irked his political opponents. One of the precedents Mr. Fields discusses is Marius’s seven-time consulship, a number that was not technically legal. Its lack of true legality intimates the situation the republic found itself in, but such is the power of necessity.

Mr. Fields describes how the military failures of Quintus Metellus against the Numidians, specifically King Iugurtha, led to the rise of Marius. The author defends the tactics and strategy of Metellus, though they did not culminate in victory. He defends them because Marius found success using the same methods. Marius also found success against the Germanic and Celtic tribes (the Cimbri, Teutones, and Ambrones). This latter success came after the Cimbrian War had already started in earnest.

Marius and the ambassadors of the Cimbri, depicted by W. Rainey in the 1900 book “Plutarch's Lives for Boys and Girls.” Marius is sitting on a chair surrounded by Roman officers and obstinate-looking Germanic barbarians. (Public Domain)
Marius and the ambassadors of the Cimbri, depicted by W. Rainey in the 1900 book “Plutarch's Lives for Boys and Girls.” Marius is sitting on a chair surrounded by Roman officers and obstinate-looking Germanic barbarians. (Public Domain)

A Man of Victory

The author describes Marius as a man who seemed always to find a path to victory both militarily and politically. Devastating defeats in the years 113, 109, 107 B.C. (despite an initial Roman victory, followed by the army’s destruction after trying to secure the Gauls’ baggage train and the disaster at the Battle of Arausio in 105 B.C., where the armies of Gnaeus Mallius Maximus and Quintus Servilius Caepio were annihilated, forced Rome to call on their reliable general.
Mr. Fields notes that the tribes did not pursue an invasion of Rome after these victories. It seems from the beginning they were looking for land to settle (and, more threatening, a kingdom to plant). After the Romans’ good faith betrayal orchestrated by Gnaeus Papirius Carbo at Noreia (a lost city in modern Austria) in 113 B.C., the Romans remained bent on forcing these tribes out of their sphere. It was 11 years later that the Romans finally found success at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae (located near the southern coast of modern France). A smashing victory the following year in 101 B.C. at Vercellae (probably present-day Vercelli located in the Piedmont region of modern Italy) ended the war.

Military Changes

These battles (won and lost) are important, but the author suggests that Marius’s military decisions were the most consequential. These decisions he refers to, however, were not during the heat of battle (though his battle strategies were indeed sound).

Mr. Fields describes how Marius changed the Roman army, from breaking it into sections to establishing the eagle as the singular standard to dropping the property requirement to become a soldier. The issue was not dropping the requirement, as it had been done before, but that the requirement was never reinstituted. This last decision to increase the size of the Roman army by means of volunteers, the author argues, opened the door for soldiers to shift their allegiance from the republic to their military commanders who would later become politicians, if they weren’t already.

Mr. Fields calls these changes Marius’s “rational reform,” which were done out of sheer necessity. But the armies were soon built on the shoulders of necessity―personal necessity. These volunteer soldiers were part of the “proletarii” and joined primarily, if not solely, to escape their poverty. It was not the promise of adventure that lured these young men, but rather the prospect of booty from defeated enemies and sacked cities. Soon, veteran soldiers were being promised land in conquered places. The potential for financial windfalls provided extra incentive to fight, survive, and win. As the author notes, prior to these changes, the Senate had never accommodated victorious soldiers financially.

War and Politics

Mr. Fields suggests that the mix of war and politics ultimately led to the decay of the Roman Army, while placing the republic, and therefore the Senate, in a vulnerable state. This field of thought is the crux of Mr. Fields’s study on Marius’s role in the Cimbrian War, as it tends to have a longer-lasting and more emphatic impact on the Roman Republic. Mr. Fields does, as aforementioned, discuss the battles (maps and graphics included) and the soldiers, as well as the weapons used.
Ultimately, the reader will take away what is most consequential, and that is how a military hero and political juggernaut begrudgingly left politics, was later exiled by Sulla, only to conduct a murderous rampage on his return, and bring about civil war. Although Mr. Fields briefly ties these latter parts together in the final section of the book, without much detail, it is his configuring of the previous moving parts that makes it a good introduction to the subject of Marius.
‘The Cimbrian War: 113-101 BC: The Rise of Caius Marius’ By  Nic Fields Osprey Publishing, Aug. 15, 2023 Paperback: 96 pages
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Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.