Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Marius

Duncan Grey, Dickson College, 2010

Duncan Grey wrote this essay in response to the following question; 'Why did Lucius Cornelius Sulla oppose Gaius Marius, and what consequences did this have for the Roman Republic?'. He has also contributed The Assassination of Caesar to Clio.

The rivalry between Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Marius was one of the most intense in the history of the Roman Republic. The reason for their rivalry encompassed not only their vastly different political views, but was also based around both men’s thirst for power and position. Both men were famous generals and their opposition to each other was based partly on each man's desire for military command and the rivalry that ensured as they vied for these positions. Their opposition to each other would cause immense damage to Rome and have far reaching consequences that extended after each man’s death.

At the time of the feud between Marius and Sulla the Roman Republic was immensely powerful and "had achieved total mastery of the Mediterranean." (Keaveney: 1982, p.1.) As Rome was a Republic it was nominally based upon democratic principles. Rome was led by Consuls, of whom there were two at any one time, who were each elected by the Senate every year. (Boardman et al., 1986) The consuls wielded enormous power themselves within the Republic. The Senate, during most of the Republican period, was "the dominant organ of government" (Keaveney, 1982, p.1.), indirectly controlling Rome’s military and social affairs.

Sulla and Marius were both influential members of the two most prominent political factions in the Roman Senate. Rome at this time did not have conventional political parties but factions dominated along ideological lines. (Boardman et al., 1986, p.464). Sulla was closely identified with the Optimates, the faction which was favoured by the nobility while Marius was a member of the Populares the faction of the people. (Keaveney, 1982, pp.29-30) The political positions of both men greatly reflected their backgrounds. Sulla had come from a noble yet unimportant family, and was so inclined to support the Optimates. (Taylor, 2008, 51) Sulla was also used by the Optimates to counter the popularity and power of Marius, whom they disliked. Sulla had "made his quarrel with Marius the first principle of his political life." (Plutarch, 1983, p.46.) Politically Marius directly contradicted Sulla. He was of ignoble birth, and his parents "were entirely undistinguished".(Plutarch, 1983, p.15). Marius’s position was therefore built on his political and military skill, and he was more likely to join the Populares. This class difference was an early point of contention between Sulla and Marius, which mirrors the class orientation that was an important part of Roman political life.

The Optimates and Populares were fierce opponents and often clashed over their differing political ideologies. The factions helped to expand the conflict between Marius and Sulla; using the power they had in the Senate to attack each of the two men. As the rift between Marius and Sulla grew, so did the fighting and bickering between the two factions. Between 96 BC and the start of the Social War in 90 BC the factional conflict escalated, with Marius’s followers attempting to have Sulla tried for extortion. The bickering continued to escalate, nearly culminating with outright fighting had the Social War not broken out. (Marius and Sulla) The two Senatorial factions, while not causing the rivalry between Marius and Sulla, were decisive in stirring up their conflict. This feud between the Optimates and Populares was to intensify further into open war in the Civil War fought between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great in 49-48 BC. (Scullard, H.H, 1970, pp.138-139)

Related Article: The Military Reforms of Caius Marius
Both Sulla and Marius were highly ambitious men, known for their ruthlessness and dominance of the Roman state. Each man dominated Roman politics to the point "That two men with such overwhelming ambition and drive for personal glory should march the streets of Rome at the same time could have none other than a bloody end." (Taylor, 2008, p.53.) The rivalry between them was built partly on their ambitions and desire for power. Marius held the consulship an unprecedented seven times, using the position to control the Senate and dispose of his rivals. (Plutarch, 1983, p.62.) Sulla similarly flouted the system holding the office of Dictator indefinitely and although he instituted reforms to the Roman legal and governmental systems, he was known for ruthlessly "destroying his enemies and rewarding his friends". (Boardman et al., 1986, p.460.) The stranglehold on power held by Marius and Sulla during their different periods in power shows that any ability for the two to co-exist in sharing political power in the long term would have been untenable.

The rivalry between the two men was also intensified by their experiences in military command. The first time that Sulla and Marius shared command was in the Jugurthine War against Numidia, between 112-105 BC. Marius at the time was Consul and so gained command of the Roman army fighting the Numidians, while Sulla had acquired the role of Quaestor and so served as his subordinate.(Plutarch, 1983, p. 67.) However this did not stop Sulla from playing a key role in the conflict, as he ended the war by capturing the Numidian Prince Jugurtha. Marius was officially given the credit for ending the war and was presented with a Triumph. However many Senators in Rome "claimed that it was Sulla who deserved the credit, and Marius though he said nothing, was still annoyed." (Plutarch, 1983, p. 68.) Sulla boasted about his achievements, helping to stir up acclaim for himself among the nobility of Rome. This "marks the beginning of the great quarrel between Marius and Sulla." (Keaveney, 1982, p.31.)

Clashes such as this over military command and acclaim were a feature of the antagonism between Sulla and Marius. The last such clash over command of the army to fight Mithridates of Pontus would lead to direct conflict between the two men. The command had originally been given to Sulla, after his successes in the Social War. However, Marius used his power within Rome to "secure the transference of the Mithridatic command from Sulla." (Scullard, 1970, p.71.) This insult caused Sulla to take control of his legions and march on Rome, starting a Civil War with Marius, the first time that this had happened in Roman history itself.<ref>Shackleton Bailey, 1971, p.10.) Sulla’s example was to be repeated by Julius Caesar in 49 BC, when he too marched on Rome in opposition to the Senate.(Scullard, p.138.)

The series of events leading to Civil War had significant political implications for the Republic. Marius’s taking of the Mithridatic command from Sulla was unheard of in Rome and achieved through corruption. (Plutarch, 1983, p.76.) Sulla however was to similarly flout convention by marching on Rome. His march on the city directly defied the decision, albeit corrupt, to remove him from command. He also caused outrage by ignoring the convention about bringing soldiers into the city. This challenge to Marius and the Senate set in motion a period of instability in Rome where power switched between Marius and Sulla and their supporters. (Sulla Marches on Rome) Sulla’s march on Rome would have a lasting legacy providing an example for Caesar to challenge the Senate in 49 BC.

Sulla’s opposition to Marius was based on a complex series of disagreements that would have dire consequences for the future of Rome as a Republic. Each man was highly ambitious and unwilling to share power as well as failing to abide by the democratic processes of Rome. Their bickering over who would take the glory for shared military campaigns was enhanced by their differing political alignments. Marius and Sulla’s fighting over command for the Mithridatic War would lead to open conflict between the two, starting the first outright civil war in Rome’s history. (Scullard, 1970, pp.79-81.) Their feuding and war led to a temporary breakdown of the system that governed the Republic and set the example for the future wars between Caesar and Pompey that led to the final collapse of the Republic.

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Boardman, John, Griffin, Jasper, Murray, Oswyn,(Eds), 1986, The Oxford History of the Classical World, Oxford University Press, Great Britain.

Keaveney, Arthur, 1982, Sulla the Last Republican, Croom Helm, Great Britain.

Plutarch, 1983, Fall of the Roman Republic, Penguin Books, Great Britain.

Scullard, H.H, 1970, From the Gracchi to Nero, Methuen & Co, Great Britain.

Shackleton Bailey, D.R, 1971, Cicero, Charles Scribner Sons, U.S.A.

Taylor, Brian, 2008, The Later Roman Republic: The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, a Chronology, Spellmount Limited, Great Britain.

No Author, Marius and Sulla. Sighted 7/11/2009.

No Author, Sulla Marches on Rome. Sighted 12/11/2009.