Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.05.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.05.35

Federico Santangelo, Marius. Ancients in action.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.  Pp. xii, 124.  ISBN 9781474214711.  $29.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by S. J. Northwood, Charterhouse (


Federico Santangelo’s Marius is the latest addition (along with Silvermintz’s Protagoras) to Bloomsbury’s Ancients in Action series, formerly under the imprint of BCP. For a series with this title there are surprisingly few so-called men of action, but Marius certainly fits the bill, and provides a useful companion to Levick’s Catiline in the same series. The aim is to be an accessible introduction to the essentials of the subject’s life and later significance, and Santangelo’s Marius certainly achieves this aim. Indeed it will be the starting point for any student or academic wanting something more in-depth than offered by standard text books and dictionary or encyclopedia entries but without access to the standard biographies in English by Carney and Evans.

Santangelo wants to avoid writing the history of a so-called great man without recognising the multifarious social and political changes in Marius’ lifetime. The weakening of checks and balances that had traditionally kept aristocratic ambitions in check, the demands of protecting an empire, an expanding citizen body, and new relationships between general and army are all developments that Marius engaged with ‘in an original and highly effective fashion’ (3). Santangelo aims ‘to discuss the role that Marius played in that process of change’ (4) and to ask ‘what aspects of short-term discontinuity and long-term change he introduced’ (1). The format of the series requires this to be done within a traditional narrative survey of Marius’ career.

Starting with his discussion of Marius’ background, we can see that Santangelo wants to engage with the problem of sources and their reliability in both fact and interpretation. Here discussion focuses on the relationship between Marius’ origins and his later politics, his supposed disavowal of Greek, the poverty of his family, and Aemilianus’ alleged prophetic remarks. Santangelo lands some heavy blows, e.g. debunking the idea that Marius could have made political progress without considerable financial resources. While perfectly justifiable, this approach has its problems. Santangelo has to use as the foundation of his narrative the very sources he repeatedly undercuts: ‘as x makes clear …’, ‘if we are to believe a story retold by y …’ ‘z takes the opportunity to point out …’. This is the perennial problem with weaving a discussion of sources and the problems they raise into a definitive narrative. Thus, for example, in Sallust ‘Metellus is depicted as a typical member of his social group … driven by a deep-seated sense of … entitlement … In Sallust’s vision, the negative consequences of the inability of the nobles to rise to the challenge of the present times are very far-reaching indeed’ (30). But it is not clear to what extent Santangelo thinks this is a false view that compromises Sallust as a source for Marius’ campaign for the consulship, and he cannot avoid (who could?) building his account of this and of the capture of Jugurtha (the latter in much detail) on him. Likewise, with regard to the war against the Cimbri and Teutones, we are told that ‘one of the fundamental features of the literary tradition’ is that ‘his role in the crucial stages of the war is marginal’ (50-1): influenced by Catulus’ autobiography (and Sulla’s), Plutarch presents Catulus as a worthy commander and downplays Marius’ role at Vercellae. But the bias can be quite the reverse when Marius is presented by him as a ‘selfless statesman’ willing to forgo the triumph he had been granted (52).

There are some benefits to this approach. The reader is left in no doubt that ancient history is based on selection from and analysis of partial and inconsistent accounts that themselves rely on earlier equally compromised versions (we learn in particular of the effect of the autobiographies of Marius’ opponents). The narrative as presented by Santangelo would function well as the outline of an early undergraduate course (the relevant texts are not footnoted but listed in a useful conspectus at the end of the volume [113-19]) and it is no surprise that in the ‘Acknowledgements’ Santangelo remarks, ‘This book stems from teaching, and sets out to be used primarily (though by no means exclusively) in the classroom’ (viii). This genesis can be seen also in the welcome care Santangelo has taken to include locations mentioned in the text (no more and no less) on the map on p. xii. Santangelo also has a suitably light but effective touch when explaining those aspects of the Roman political system possibly unfamiliar to his audience but necessary for their appreciation of events.

The downside is sometimes a loss of narrative clarity and authority. Attention is distracted from some nuts and bolts, e.g. we must look to the ‘Chronology’ (ix-xi) for the dates of Marius’ tribunate, praetorship, the capture of Jugurtha, the battle of Vercellae, and Saturninus’ first land law, since the dates are omitted from the main text. Likewise the important questions about Marius’ role in relation to global developments, and his own political aims, presented at the outset as a main focus, tend to get drowned out in a narrative sometimes distracted by discussion of sources. Overall it might have been better (especially given the inexperience of the intended audience) to have approached Marius’ career by presenting what can be known for sure before moving on to a separate discussion of problematic and contradictory aspects of the sources, maybe in several paired chapters.

There can be no complaint, however, about the reliability of Santangelo’s content or judgements. For Santangelo, Marius’ novelty in recruiting volunteers from the proletariiwas driven by his need to raise his army quickly and involved him in taking an ongoing trend just one step further, and from our point of view his bond with his soldiers was more important than their social origins. It is likely that Saturninus’ land law of 103, which aimed to appeal to Marius’ veterans, had his approval, especially since Saturninus seems to have supported him for the consulship of 102. Celebration of Marius’ achievements, though contested, ‘placed him in a domain not quite comparable to that of any of his contemporaries’, including offerings of food, and libations. (54) Marius’ willingness to allow Catulus to share in his triumph may have been calculated to appease Catulus’ army and propel him to a sixth consulship. With the temple of Honos and Virtus a new stage in his career was begun in which ‘he set out to establish himself as a major presence in the political and religious landscape of the city’ and coincided with the first electoral campaign in which he could not rely on a military emergency (56). Marius was closely involved in Saturninus’ second land law, in spite of his public distance, and while land distribution and use of external funds to finance it stood in the popularis tradition of the Gracchi, veterans as beneficiaries was a departure. Ruthlessness (the murder of Nonius) and guile (the ensnaring of Metellus via the clause in the land law requiring an oath from senators) reflect the fact that divisions among the people made the coalition’s success no foregone conclusion. There was potential for a new phase of politics with an alliance between consul, veterans, and radical tribune, but this never materialised because of his allies’ increasingly flagrant actions: ‘Marius was therefore called by a series of traumatic developments to make a choice between individuals with whom he had a strong political connection and the Senate …’ (64).

Santangelo explains that the reason for Marius’ journey to the East in 98-97 is unclear. Publicly it was to visit the sanctuary of Magna Mater at Pessinus, but it is suggested that Marius wished to consolidate connections with Italian business interests in the East (thus repeating his strategy in Africa when manoeuvering for his first consulship?) and to stir up another war, against Mithridates. Santangelo admits that this remains problematic owing to the possible influence of the autobiographies of Sulla and Rutilius Rufus, and sensibly adds that Marius may simply have wished to avoid the atmosphere of violence (and I might add prosecution) in Rome.

We can see (in spite of the hostile tradition) that Marius resurrected his military reputation during the Social War, but not as much as did Sulla. How much it must have irked Marius that Sulla (and particularly Sulla) became consul and was to command against Mithridates is something that could have received more emphasis. Again Marius entered an alliance with a tribune, this time with one whose policy of distributing new citizens among all the tribes was a ‘thinly-veiled attempt … to establish a firm control over the outcome of future elections’.

It is at this point, in his description of Marius’ flight in the face of Sulla in 88, his recovery of Rome in 87, and his reign of terror with Cinna that Santangelo’s narrative hits its high point (81-94). While he does not quote Velleius, we nevertheless get a real sense that Marius’ victory would have stood as the cruellest in Roman history had it not been followed by Sulla’s (Vell. Pat. 2.22.1). Santangelo also puts these events in a broader context: ‘It was not simply the clash between two consuls, or between a consul and the Senate, over a point concerning political or constitutional matters. It was a war between two factions, which had among their leaders some elected magistrates, but also included private military forces, under the leadership of an individual that, for all his remarkable political record, had no official status whatsoever’ (89).

In discussing Marius’ legacy Santangelo offers a vigorous account of Sulla’s return, in which due attention is given to Marius the younger. Damnatio memoriae meant that not until by Julius Caesar in 69 was Marius’ image displayed in public, and his trophies restored in 65. Clearly a sanitised version of Marius was being presented, especially given his adoption by Cicero as a model politician. For Lucan, Marius was a precedent and model for Caesar. In Valerius Maximus and the elogium in the Forum Augustum, Marius’ career is boiled down simply to military victories, remarkable office-holding, and disingenuous summaries of 100 and 87-6, in the manner of Augustus’ self-presentation in the Res Gestae. Santangelo’s discussion is acute and pithy and heartily to be recommended.

Finally to the production values of this volume. There are only a few clear misprints, but that does not mean a professional standard of editing has been achieved. In fact the author has been let down by his publisher, since an afternoon’s attention by a competent editor could have removed a number of unidiomatic expressions that have crept into his otherwise impeccable English. Stronger editorial support is therefore something which Bloomsbury will want to provide if it wishes to attract and retain the best academic authors.

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