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Marius vs Sulla: A Timeline of the Rivalry that Changed Rome Forever

The rivalry between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla was perhaps the most consequential personal feud in Roman history. Their struggle for power in the late 2nd century BC led to two epochal civil wars, saw the erosion of sacrosanct political norms, and opened the door to decades of bloodshed that ultimately undid the Roman Republic. The Marius-Sulla conflict became embedded in the Roman cultural imagination as the origin point for the string of warlords whose battles would tear the Republic apart. Here is a timeline of the key moments in their world-shaking collision.

The Early Lives of Marius and Sulla

Marius (157-86 BC) and Sulla (138-78 BC) were born a generation apart into very different stations of Roman society. Marius came from a nouveau riche equestrian family in the small Italian town of Arpinum. As a novus homo ("new man") without the noble pedigree typical of Roman statesmen, Marius would have to earn his place through military achievement.

Sulla, by contrast, was born into one of Rome‘s oldest patrician bloodlines – although his immediate family was poor. While Marius worked his way up the army ranks, Sulla gained entry into elite political circles by serving as quaestor under Marius in 107 BC during the war against King Jugurtha of Numidia.

After a string of Roman humiliations, Marius finally managed to win the war by capturing Jugurtha in 106 BC – with no small help from Sulla. According to the Greek biographer Plutarch (writing 200 years later), it was actually Sulla who secured Jugurtha‘s betrayal and capture by negotiating with the Numidian king Bocchus. As Plutarch tells it:

"There was a discussion between [Bocchus and Sulla], the upshot of which was that Bocchus… decided to betray Jugurtha to Sulla… This was the first seed of that bitter and incurable hatred between Marius and Sulla which almost destroyed Rome."

Bust of Gaius Marius
*Bust of Gaius Marius*

So while Marius took the lion‘s share of credit for the victory over Jugurtha, Sulla‘s role may have planted the first seeds of resentment between the two men. It was a dynamic that would repeat throughout their careers – Marius the glory-seeking generalissimo overshadowing his junior partner.

The Cimbric War and Marius‘ Reforms

After defeating Jugurtha, Marius enacted a revolutionary reform of the Roman army. His Marian Reforms, as they came to be known, professionalized the legions by abolishing the property requirement for service. Now even the landless poor (the capite censi or "head count") could enlist.

Modern historians have debated Marius‘ motives. Some argue it was a cynical ploy to create an army loyal to him personally rather than the state. Others like R.E. Smith contend that "Marius‘ military reforms… were not devised to marshal the proletarii for his political advancement," but were a necessary response to the manpower shortages Rome faced in its wars.

Regardless of intent, Marius now commanded a new model army that he would wield to devastating effect. From 104 to 101 BC, he won a series of spectacular victories against the Germanic Cimbri and Teutones tribes who had invaded Italy and Gaul.

In the climactic Battle of Vercellae in 101 BC, Marius crushed the Cimbri. Ancient sources claim a staggering body count: 140,000 Cimbri killed and 60,000 captured, compared to just 300 Roman dead. Modern estimates are more modest but still number Marius‘ army at 30-50,000 men and the Cimbri host at 60-100,000.

Battle of Vercellae
*Marius‘ victory over the Cimbri at the Battle of Vercellae in 101 BC*

Whatever the precise figures, there was no denying the scale of Marius‘ triumph. He returned to Rome hailed as the savior of the Republic, a third founder of Rome on par with Romulus and Camillus. At the peak of his popularity, Marius broke precedent by holding the consulship for an unprecedented five consecutive years from 104-100 BC.

While Marius basked in his glory, Sulla languished in obscurity, fuming at his commander‘s arrogance. According to Plutarch, Sulla considered leaving Marius‘ service, "feeling that he was no longer given opportunities for achievement, but was actually held back to make way for Marius‘ growth in power."

The Social War and Sulla‘s Ascent

The simmering tensions between Marius and Sulla would boil over during the Social War of 91-87 BC. The conflict erupted when Rome‘s Italian allies (the socii) revolted after the Senate rejected their demands for full citizenship rights.

Both Marius and Sulla served as commanders in the war but enjoyed very different fortunes. Marius, now nearing 70, failed to distinguish himself. Meanwhile, Sulla won a string of victories, most notably the Battles of Nola and Bovianum.

Bust of Sulla
*Bust of Lucius Cornelius Sulla*

By war‘s end in 87 BC, Sulla had eclipsed Marius as Rome‘s premier general. In the words of historian Arthur Keaveney, "Sulla came to be seen as the natural successor to Marius." This shift in their relative stature and Marius‘ bitterness at being upstaged set the stage for their coming clash.

The Sulpician Laws and Sulla‘s March on Rome

The flashpoint came in 88 BC when Sulla was elected consul and awarded command of the war against King Mithridates VI of Pontus in Asia Minor. However, Marius coveted this lucrative posting for himself.

Marius formed an alliance with the ambitious tribune Publius Sulpicius Rufus. Sulpicius proposed a series of reforms including transferring control of the Mithridatic War from Sulla to Marius. After violent clashes between their partisans, the motion passed.

But Sulla would not accept this public humiliation. In an unprecedented act, he marched his legions on Rome itself, forcing Marius and his allies to flee the city. Sulla then moved to rescind Sulpicius‘ laws and consolidate his command in the east before departing for Greece.

Cinna, Marius and the Domination of Rome

In Sulla‘s absence, the populist consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna joined forces with the exiled Marius to seize control of Rome in 86 BC. After a brief but bloody fight, Marius entered Rome in triumph, taking his long-awaited seventh consulship at age 70.

What followed was a gruesome purge as Marius and Cinna took revenge on Sulla‘s supporters still in the city. As described by the historian Appian:

"The slaves of Marius ran riot through the city killing everyone who came in their way… For some they had no motive except the plunder and lawlessness that are usual in the midst of such tumult and confusion. Others killed their personal enemies or plundered their political opponents."

Marius died just weeks into his consulship in January 86 BC. His son Marius the Younger and allies like Cinna would dominate Roman politics for the next three years. According to Plutarch, just before his death, Marius told friends that "no man of sense would ever again surrender his power."

Sulla‘s Bloody Triumph and Dictatorship

After securing peace with Mithridates, Sulla returned to Italy in 83 BC spoiling for a fight. With his battle-hardened army of veterans, he march relentlessly towards Rome, crushing Marian resistance along the way.

In 82 BC, Sulla won the decisive Battle of Sacriportus against the army of Marius the Younger and his allies. Marius retreated to the stronghold of Praeneste where he was besieged by Sulla‘s forces. After the city fell, the younger Marius committed suicide.

Sulla then faced a last desperate attack by a Samnite force allied to Marius in the Battle of the Colline Gate just outside Rome. It was an incredibly bloody struggle – ancient sources claim 50,000 casualties. Sulla emerged victorious but in a shocking act had all 3-8,000 captured Samnites executed en masse.

With all opposition now crushed, Sulla forced the Senate to appoint him dictator in late 82 BC (the first use of the title in over a century). He then unleashed his infamous proscriptions – a reign of terror in which hundreds of his enemies were executed or exiled and their property confiscated. The historian Plutarch relates the surreal horrors of this time:

"Spies and informers were everywhere, so that in the twinkling of an eye men who a moment ago had been walking about in public were lying murdered; while others who thought themselves safe in their houses were driven out of them to slaughter, which became only the more piteous from a contrast between their high position and their misfortunes."

Sulla's proscriptions
*An 18th century artistic depiction of the horrors of Sulla‘s proscriptions*

Along with the proscriptions, Sulla enacted a series of constitutional reforms aimed at restoring the dominance of the patrician aristocracy and curtailing the powers of the plebeian tribunes. Modern historians see these reforms as largely reactionary – an ultimately futile attempt to turn back the clock to an idealized past era of uncontested senatorial supremacy.

In 79 BC, his mission accomplished, Sulla stunned Rome by voluntarily resigning the dictatorship and retiring to a life of leisure. On his tombstone he had inscribed: "No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full."

The Legacy of Marius and Sulla‘s Rivalry

The Marius-Sulla conflict marked a critical turning point in the history of the late Roman Republic. The unprecedented violence and constitutional disruptions of their struggle mortally wounded the republican system. As historian H.H. Scullard writes:

"The age of Marius and Sulla saw the erosion of the authority of the Senate, the growth in importance of the army… the transformation of the Tribunate from being an organ of orderly government into an instrument of revolution, and the emergence of powerful commanders who could dominate the government and challenge the Senate‘s traditional right to control policy."

In this sense, Marius and Sulla created a template for the Republic‘s final decades. The generals who followed in their wake from Pompey and Caesar to Antony and Octavian would similarly wield their armies as political bludgeons to achieve dominance over the state.

But beyond being exemplars of the "warlord politics" that ultimately undid the Republic, Marius and Sulla took on deeper symbolic importance in the Roman psyche. As the classicist Mary Beard observes:

"Marius was the inspiration to the populist opponents of the aristocracy. Sulla was the darling of the conservative elite. Each represented contrasting and for the most part utterly irreconcilable visions of the res publica and its future."

So their feud came to epitomize the ideological struggle between the populares and optimates that would define Roman politics until the Republic‘s very end. And their iconic rivalry – the ruthless patrician strongman against the rough-hewn man of the people – would embed itself in popular memory.

Over 2000 years later, Marius and Sulla‘s epochal clash still resonates as the moment that, in setting general against general and Roman against Roman, marked the beginning of the end of history‘s greatest republic. The unthinkable brutality and bitterly personal nature of their conflict shattered norms in a way the Roman body politic could never truly recover from. It was a confrontation whose aftershocks would stretch down the remaining years of the Republic to the wars of Caesar and Pompey and finally the rise of Augustus and the new imperial order.