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Roman Army - Reforms of Marius

According to an old practice which dated from the time when the state did not pay its soldiers nor furnish their armor, the legions were, until the time of Marius, recruited from propertyowning citizens. In the days when property consisted mostly of farms, this system was excellent. The middle-class farmers were hardened to difficult army work by labor in the fields, and were deeply concerned in the welfare of the state of which they were full citizens and in which they held their property. But this class rapidly decreased in number during the second century.

Under the plantation system, the owners of the soil became, for the most part, absentee landlords who lived in leisure in the city, and naturally were not inured to severe campaigning. The men who actually tilled the soil belonged largely to the slave class, or, at best, to the class of free tenants who went down in the census rolls as proletariate and were therefore ineligible for ordinary army service. The middle-class population was not numerous in the city because of the inactivity of industry and commerce. Moreover, the liberal corn distributions introduced by Gracchus encouraged pauperism. Thousands of men who might have created an independent income for themselves were satisfied to five a shiftless, hand-to-mouth existence. All these able-bodied butunpropertied men were ineligible for service in the legion according to the old regime, and Rome, accordingly, found difficulty in making up a respectable levy in time of war.

Marius presently took matters into his own hands and called for volunteers from all classes. The senate probably realized that the new experiment was necessary. In fact, it must have remembered that a precedent for such a reform had already been established during the Punic war. Fortunately for Marius, the barbarians of the north made an excursion into Spain so that he had time to train his rabble into good legionaries; and Marius possessed the qualities of leadership which quickly brought out the fighting spirit of such men.

However, in order to make his levy a success, Marius had spread a report abroad that the state would allot lands to the army after the war, and the sequel to this report was entirely in character. Marius, acting through his spokesman, the tribune Saturninus, introduced a comprehensive agrarian law by which he intended to pay his promises. The public lands of Italy were gone, but he proposed to give his men whatever public lands the state owned in Greece and Macedonia. The senate opposed the scheme, and riots ensued, in which the tribune acted with such violence that Marius himself had to throw in his support with the senate. The measure, therefore, was lost, but Marius finally succeeded in obtaining for his men a plot of land in Corsica and the site of the battle field in Cisalpine Gaul where he had defeated the Cimbri.

The success of Marius' army reform in securing a large army marked it as the accepted method henceforth, and subsequent events prove that his allotment of lands to his soldiery also became a precedent. Henceforth, the army was recruited from the city proletariate, a class that had little to lose by joining the ranks, a nervous, unoccupied people, brought up to seek excitement, and ready to stake life on a chance for adventure, booty, and a possible gift of public land at the end. Obviously the commander who promised most succeeded best in securing such recruits. Obviously, also, the general who could at the end of the war procure good allotments for his soldiers might, in the future, command a strong personal following in whatsoever cause. Such soldiers fought for the liberal paymaster, and the time was not far distant when they were found ready to fight for their paymaster, whether for or against their country.

It was partly because of this reorganization of the army that the repeated reelections of Marius introduced a new danger into the state - the danger that some one popular leader might gain control over the army and employ it for his own ends. The senate had always realized that it must suppress individualism in order to retain control of the state, but, so long as the army remained small and consisted of a citizen soldiery which had the welfare of the state at heart, there was little to fear from unscrupulous leaders. During the Punic war the senate had never hesitated to prolong indefinitely the command of efficient generals. Curiously enough it was Cato's democratic faction which, fearing the domination of powerful noble families, introduced the laws that required a long term in the civil service as preparation for the consulship and then forbade reelection to that high office.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:28:21 ZULU