Today, we think of Rome as an empire. But in reality, Rome came to dominate the ancient world as a republic then slowly went into decline after its transition to an imperial dictatorship. The Roman Republic was an extraordinary state: bustling, powerful, and seemingly capable of anything. Here are the men who killed it.
Gaius Marius is almost forgotten today, but he arguably did more than anyone to ensure the overthrow of the Republic. He was one of ancient Rome’s greatest generals, famous for his victory over nomadic German tribes that threatened Italy.
But to defeat the Germans, Marius had to change Roman society forever. Rome’s legionaries were traditionally small landowners, who served for a short term before returning to their farms. However, Rome’s overseas conquests required legionaries to be away from their farms for long periods, plunging many into poverty. Wealthy aristocrats bought up small estates and merged them into huge plantations.
This meant that Rome struggled to find enough soldiers. Marius’s solution was to allow the urban unemployed to join up. This turned the legions into a full-time profession, with paid solders serving for up to 25 years. The manpower allowed Marius to defeat the Germans, but it also created a dangerous new political force.