Gaius Marius was born in 157 BC to an equestrian class family well outside of Rome. Plutarch thinks that Marius' dad was a shit-shoveling menial laborer, though most historians seem to agree that this is probably a load of crap (no pun intended). They're pretty sure Mr. Marius was a member of the equestrian class, which, despite its name, didn't really have that much to do with those women in leather chaps and silly hats who set a bunch of picket fences on fire and then try to jump over them on horseback, but basically just means he was like a knight – he wasn't an aristocratic senatorial-class patrician douchebag, but he wasn't some chump from the teeming unwashed masses of plebian dirt-eating mud-farmers either. Being of a social class that was prestigious enough to allow for military service but low enough to preclude him from a luxurious life reclining on chaise-lounges being hand-fed grapes by half-naked slave girls, Marius did the true Roman badass thing and enlisted in the Legions as soon as he was old enough to hoist a sword above his head without his arm snapping in half.
Marius signed on to serve the Republic as either a junior officer or an enlisted man, fighting in the army of the mighty general Scipio, though it's probably not the same Scipio you're thinking of. Marius rose quickly through the ranks, proving himself as a man who didn't abide the barbarians' bullshit and who didn't appear to have any capacity for feeling fear, pain, or compassion in any way ever, a trait he once demonstrated when he underwent surgery on his leg without even flinching (and this was in the days when strong wine was the closest thing they had to anesthesia). As a young officer, Marius won the respect of the troops by proving that he was one of them – he ate dinner with the enlisted men, slept on an ordinary bed in the barracks, and was always in the middle of the action, regardless of whether they were digging trenches or impaling Gauls in the throat with javelins – but his parade-ground, no-bullshit voice always kept the men from getting too undisciplined. This guy was allegedly so shit-your-pants scary that, according to Plutarch he once thwarted an attempt on his life just by getting pissed-the-fuck-off and yelling at the assassin until the guy lost heart and ran for it like a punk bitch. I'd imagine that winning a number of battles against the unruly barbarian hordes didn't hurt his cause any, either.
At 34, the already-well-known war hero Gaius Marius decided to run for public office under a platform that basically boiled down to, "aristocrats are a bunch of soft-skinned, lazy douchebags and I am seriously fucking awesome." At public speaking events he constantly cracked people up by talking a ton of shit about how the senatorial class wasn't fit to hold Marius' armored codpiece, including one speech he gave where he tore the top of his toga off Hulkamania-style to show the assembled crowd how his upper body was covered in battle scars from being slashed a few dozen times by Spanish longswords and Numidian spear-tips. Then he dared anyone running against him to get up there and show the crowd their ridiculous flabby abs in comparison. (As an only-sort-of related side note, Marius also routinely mocked the patrician aristocratic class for taking the time to study and read classical Greek texts, saying that there was "no point in learning the language of a civilization you have subjugated.")
As you can imagine, Marius won a lot of popular elections. First he was elected Quaestor, then Tribune of the Plebians, then some other offices that were probably important but that don't really mean anything to anybody anymore. He became super-wealthy and powerful, and eventually married a prominent babe from the Julii family – a once-powerful clan of Romans that by this point in history had fallen onto some hard times (don't worry, the Julii would eventually be revived thanks to Marius' profound life-long influence on his wife's young nephew, a kid named Julius Caesar). He continued winning battles in a war against the North African Numidians, and eventually his popularity became so great that he decided to run for Consul – the most powerful position in pre-Imperial Rome. Marius was second-in-command of the Roman Army in Africa at the time he decided to run for this prestigious office, but when he told his incompetent douchebag commander he was going to enter the election the jackwagon general laughed in Marius' face and then told him he was a fucking asshole fore even thinking that Rome would consider appointing a non-aristocrat to the Consulship. Marius not only won the office, but then he then went out and persuaded the Plebian Assembly to sack Marius' asshole boss and appoint him commander of the army instead. Who's laughing now, motherfucker?
Well beating down the Numidians was great and everything, but by this point a new threat was brewing, and this one was just outside Rome's doorstep. Three major barbarian tribes from the North – the Cimbrii, the Teutones, and the Ambrones – were on the move. Four hundred thousand people, including men, women, and children, were wandering around Europe, tearing shit apart, searching for a place to settle, and presenting the Roman Senate with an immigration problem that would give Ron Paul a coronary. The sort-of-well-known Roman commanders Caepo and Manlius rode out to stop the barbarians' march towards the Alps, but not even a guy named Manlius could stop this horde of bloodthirsty warriors – in a series of epic beatdowns the Romans got their fucking asses hammered into the ground like tent pegs, losing 80,000 soldiers and leaving the door wide open for these angry Germans to rush in and pummel Rome into rubble with their nutsacks.
Marius was just finishing his war in North Africa when the news came down that he needed to get the fuck back to Italy or every single person in the peninsula was going to get humped by a barbarian in a large variety of unsavory ways. He hauled across the Mediterranean, stopping in Rome just long enough to get re-elected consul for a second term and lead the vanquished African King through the streets in chains before rushing out to fight the invaders. Poor Marius didn't even have time to properly execute the Numidian King – he ended up having to just leave the guy in jail, where he eventually died of starvation.
80,000 soldiers is a lot of men to replace, but Marius had a radical plan to replenish his force with a new layer of meat-shielding – by expanding the recruit pool and allowing landless Romans into the military. At this point in time the Roman Army was made up entirely of landed citizens who bought their own weapons and then showed up for action decked out with whatever they could afford, but Marius changed all that. He standardized the equipment, improved discipline, gave regular everyday Joes the chance to win glory and wealth in combat, and ultimately laid the foundation for a professional standing army that would go on to conquer the entirety of the Western world. He also re-organized the troops from Maniples into Cohorts (developing the Roman Legion as we know it), instituted the Legionary Aquila battle standard, engineered the pilum javelin, and streamlined the logistics of moving huge armies. From that point on, legionaries were also known as "Marius' Mules", presumably because they kicked asses.
Ok, that's great I guess, but there was still this nagging problem of the 400-some-odd-thousand screaming berserkers bearing down on Rome with their crazy intelligible screaming and axe-swinging debauchery, and Marius still had to go out and ram some discipline down their throats until they barfed themselves to death. And that's just what he did.
The Barbarians split their forces at the Alps, with the Cimbrii horde heading one direction and the Teutones and Ambrones hordes headed the other. Marius sent his second-in-command to slow down the Cimbrii while he went out and blocked the other fuckers. The Teutones were gigantic, super-scary dudes with heavy two-handed broadswords and skinned animal heads for helmets, and they outnumbered the Romans three to one, but Marius didn't seem to give a shit. He set an ambush for them, chose the battlefield, and forced them to fight uphill on rough terrain – and just as the huge line of 'zerks were getting ready to crash into Marius's front lines, a second group of Roman infantry popped up from the bushes behind the Teutones, swung in behind the barbarians, and cut them down where they stood. The Ambrones and Teutones hordes were routed, fled in disarray, and the Romans slaughtered them and plundered their camp, killing 100,000 people in a single day of battle. The people of the nearby city of Marseille built fences from the bones of the dead and used their corpses as fertilizer in their vineyards, and from that point on every time they popped the cork on a bottle of Corpsewine they thought of their hero Marius.
But this crazy Gaul-smashing machine of barbarian mutiliation still wasn't done crushing his foes into bone dust with his iron-helmeted headbutts of mercilessness. The night of Marius' celebratory funeral pyre (where he torched all of the barbarians' possessions he deemed unworthy of being carried through Rome in a triumph), he got word that the Cimbrii had crushed the Romans to the West and were now blitzing through Italy towards the capital. Fucking bullshit.
Marius took the last eight Legions in Rome – about fifty thousand soldiers at this point, and sent them into combat against a horde of about 300,000 barbarians (though this number includes the women and children that traveled with the warriors). Despite being heavily outnumbered once again, this time by a tribe of battle-hardened warriors from Gaul, Britannia, and Germania, Marius' cavalry turned the flank on the enemy, crushing them in a ridiculous manner and then riding after them spanking their asses with cavalry swords as the Cimbrii ran for it like chumps. We're not sure on the actual numbers, but historians claim 140,000 Cimbrii were left dead and the remaining 60,000 survivors were sold into slavery. What we do know for sure is that after Marius was done with them the Ambrones and the Cimbrii ceased to exist as peoples. The Roman Army suffered 2,000 casualties. In both battles. Combined. Marius was understandably hailed as the savior of his people. He was given a huge triumph, proclaimed the Third Founder of Rome, and was naturally re-elected consul (four more times).
Celebratory fist pump.
Unfortunately it turned out that Marius wasn't really a great politician, mostly because he didn't give a crap. This guy was a soldier, not a politician, and his leadership style was kind of like a State of the Union address being given by George S. Patton. Over the next several years he went back and forth between retiring, inciting riots, destroying people, and getting elected consul, but it just wasn't the same. Sure, eventually he helped defeat a bunch of disgruntled rebels in the Social War in 89 BC, but during that war he took a back seat to his former subordinate, another seriously badass motherfucker named Sulla. It certainly didn't help things that Marius was almost 70 years old at this point and in really shitty health.
Still, when the senate declared war on yet another badass classical warrior – King Mithridates of Pontus – they asked Marius to command the Roman Army on the campaign. Sulla took this as a slight against his talents, got his toga in a wad, and completely over-reacted like a motherfucker – he put together six Legions, marched his army on Rome, sacked the town, appointed himself dictator, and declared Marius an outlaw. Marius, who was caught completely off-guard by the mind-blowing idea that anyone would ever march troops on Rome, fled to Africa, where he lived in a town set up by veterans of his army. As soon as he heard that Sulla had left to face Mithridates, however, Marius seized the opportunity to do some insane shit himself – he landed his army of grizzled old veterans on the shores of Italy, marched his d00ds into Rome, murdered fourteen senators who failed to support him, appointed himself Consul a record 7th time, then promptly stroked out and died. There was just no way to top that, so why even try.
"He was visible himself in the front rank, putting into practice the advice he had given,
for he was in as good training as anyone and in daring he far surpassed them all."
1911 Britannica Entry Wikipedia
Appianus. The Civil Wars. Trans. John MacKenzie Carter. Penguin, 1996.
Hazel, John. Who's Who in the Roman World. Psychology Press, 2002.
Plutarch. Life of Marius. Trans. Rex Warner. Penguin, 2005.
Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. Salamander, 1980.