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Marius and the Soldiers

Marius and Recruitment to the Legions

In the mid and early Republic, not all Roman men were eligible to serve in the legions: there was a property qualification. That qualification excluded the poorest in Roman society. In a military emergency in the last decade of the second century BC, Marius dropped the property qualification.

This change is sometimes seen as altering the relationship between the general and his troops. It is offered as an underlying cause (a structural reason) for the increasing level of military intervention in Roman politics in the last century of the Republic.  The soldiers are seen as becoming mercenary and fighting for money and other rewards rather than from love of country. Soldiers demanded rewards from their generals. If generals provided those rewards, they would receive the political loyalty of their troops. That loyalty extended to supporting armed interventions in Roman politics.

But is this a credible explanation:

Is there a problem that needs explaining?

  • Those who did use their troops to intervene politically did reward those troops lavishly upon success.
  • The behaviour of troops and generals does seem to change in the first century.

What would allowing the very poorest into the legions change?

  • We have no idea how many Romans were landless. We might imagine that many of the very poor would have had tiny plots of land insufficient to live off, but survived by labouring or craftwork. The very poorest may have found it it difficult to survive. The numbers completely without land may have been very small.
  • Just because of the poorest in Roman society could join the legions, it does not mean that everyone in the legions came from the poorest social stratum.
  • Why would the poorest in Roman society have very different loyalties and socio-political values than others?
  • Before Marius, the census requirement to serve in the legion had been reduced. The Marian reform meant that the requirement changed from having almost no property to having no property at all.
  • There is some contradiction in blaming the woes of Rome on the poorest and least powerful in the social system.

What other explanations might there be for the change in the relationship of soldier to generals and to the Roman state?

  • Roman politics became more tumultuous and violent from 133 onwards. If violence became an increasingly accepted way of resolving political disputes, was military intervention more than a minor escalation?
  • The Roman soldiers were never a politically separated group, as modern Western militaries are supposed to be. Soldiers were citizens under arms and thus could be expected to have political views and rights and to express those views and rights.
  • From 86 BC onwards, legionaries were recruited from all across Italy and not just the Latin communities. It might be expected that this would change the cultural relationship of the legionaries to Rome itself.
  • The first-century saw a number of very lucrative campaigns. These increased the political and financial benefits of military service.
  • Campaigns were often longer, with soldiers spending years away from Rome. Such time apart encouraged loyalty to the groups to develop more strongly.
  • A successful general could reward his troops and establish himself as their representative.
  • After long campaigns, soldiers needed to resettle into civilian life. Generals might offer to support that transition by supply them with land. This gave a material inducement for soldiers to maintain their loyalty to the general.
  • In the third and second centuries, generals changed frequently. There was an expectation that every general was equally competent. By the late second century, there was an erosion of trust in the capabilities of the aristocracy in general. Troops depended on a general being competent and being able to bring them through a war safely. Consequently, we see popular support for the appointment of generals with a proven record, such as Scipio Aemilianus, Marius, Sulla and Pompey. The result of such concerns was that the major military appointments tended to be monopolized by a particular dominant general.


It seems evident that the soldiers did come to play a more important role in Roman politics in the last century of the Republic. Military interventions were frequently crucial in bringing in escalating and then in ending political conflicts. The very fact that soldiers intervened in Roman politics points to a change in their relationship with the political system.

Changes in the way in which the legions were recruited are of uncertain significance. They seem unlikely to have determined the behaviour of the soldiers.

The crucial changes in the late Republic related to:

  • Conflict in the aristocracy and the violence with which that was pursued.
  • The wealth and other benefits that accrued from successful campaigns of imperial expansion.
  • The duration of military campaigns.
  • The political relations between the people and the aristocracy.

When Augustus took control over the Roman state, he needed to keep control over the army. The soldiers were a potential source of unrest and a group which could be mobilised against Augustan rule. Conversely, if Augustus could maintain the loyalty of the troops, then he could deploy them or threaten to deploy them in his favour. It is sometime said that Augustus took the army out of politics. It would be more accurate to say that he embedded the soldiers as a supporting element in his regime.


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