The Rise of Marius and Jugurtha: The Years 120-118 BCE


  • The people’s tribune Quintus Decius puts the former consul Lucius Opimius on trial for executing Gaius Gracchus’ supporters without trial; Opimius is acquitted (120 BCE);
  • Gaius Marius is elected people’s tribune (120 BCE);
  • A law tabled by the people’s tribune Lucius Calpurnius Bestia allows the former consul Publius Popilius Laenas to return from his exile (120 BCE);
  • Tiberius Gracchus’ land reform act, the Lex Sempronia agraria, is abolished in three stages (ca. 120-118 BCE);
  • The Lex Maria de suffragiis makes the bridges (pontes) used during the voting in the assembly more narrow to reduce voter intimidation (119 BCE);
  • The consuls Lucius Caecilius Metellus and Lucius Aurelius Cotta campaign against the Segestani in present-day Croatia (119 BCE);
  • Lucius Caecilius Metellus wins himself a triumph and the nickname ‘Delmaticus’ for victories over the Dalmatae (118 BCE);
  • The consul Quintus Marcius Rex defeats the Alpine tribe of the Styni (118 BCE);
  • King Micipsa of Numidia dies and leaves his kingdom to his sons Adherbal and Hiempsal and his nephew and adopted son Jugurtha (118 BCE);
  • The colony of Narbo Martius is founded in Southern Gaul and the Via Domitia and Via Aquitania are constructed (ca. 118 BCE).

The murder of Gaius Gracchus and the heavy-handed persecution of his supporters seem to have brought an eerie calm to the streets of Rome. For the moment the optimates were back in charge and the years discussed here were in fact largely uneventful. But none of the problems that rocked Roman society had been solved yet. The distribution of land was still unfair, the number of poor Romans was ever growing, the army was still short of manpower and the Latin and Italian allies grew ever more discontent because the Roman authorities kept refusing them Roman citizenship.

Tribunes, trials and tribulations

Remains of the Temple of Concordia on the Forum.

In 120 BCE, the former consul Lucius Opimius was put on trial by the people’s tribune Quintus Decius for having incarcerated and executed Roman citizens without trial. Opimius received support from the acting consul Gaius Papirius Carbo, a former popularis who had aided Tiberius Gracchus, but who had recently defected to the optimates again. Opimius was acquitted by the popular assembly, and unfortunately the details of the trial have not survived. It was a controversial decision, but it was very important. The verdict seemed to imply that the Senate’s decree that had charged the consul to take all measures necessary to protect the Republic – often incorrectly called the senatus consultum ultimum or ‘ultimate decree’ – legitimised the killing of Roman citizens without a trial. Normally such killings violated the laws on provocatio, but the acquittal of Opimius suggested that the Senate’s decree set aside these laws in cases of emergency. It basically entailed that the Senate could legally declare martial law if this was necessary to protect the continued existence of the state itself.

Also in 120 BCE, a 37-year-old veteran of Scipio Aemilianus’ Spanish campaigns was elected people’s tribune. His name was Gaius Marius and he had been born in a small village in the vicinity of Arpinum named Cereatae. Although his biographer Plutarchus claims that his parents were poor people, they more likely belonged to the local equites and were therefore actually quite well-off. Arpinum had once been a town of the Volsci, who had been lethal enemies of the Romans in the days of the Early Republic. In 188 BCE, the citizens of Arpinum had been granted Roman citizenship and Gaius Marius (born ca. 157 BCE) was every inch a Roman. Marius took his new position as people’s tribune very seriously, and in 119 BCE, he tabled a bill for a Lex Maria de suffragiis to make the bridges (pontes) used during the voting in the assembly more narrow. The aim was to reduce voter intimidation (less space probably meant that voters had to walk to the ballot box in a tight line and that there was no room for spectators and hecklers).

Voting scene from Ancient Rome (113-112 BCE). A voter receives a ballot from an official (left), a second voter drops it into the ballot box. Both are standing on a bridge (source: Münzkabinett Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

The bill was opposed in the Senate by the consul Lucius Aurelius Cotta, who got support from his colleague Lucius Caecilius Metellus. Metellus was from an influential plebeian family and the Marii were among his clients. He had even helped Marius win his tribuneship. However, Plutarchus claims that during the debate Marius threatened to throw Cotta in prison and actually had Metellus arrested for obstructing his bill. This was an extremely harsh measure, to which he was entitled as a tribune, but it certainly did not endear him to the man who was still his patronus. None of the other tribunes stepped forward to give their auxilium to Metellus, so in the end the Senate backed down and the Lex Maria could be adopted by the popular assembly. Although his action seemed to confirm Marius’ position as a popularis, he subsequently opposed a bill by one of his colleagues about a grain dole, another typical popularis measure.

And there was more tribunician activity during the years discussed here. In 120 BCE, the tribune Lucius Calpurnius Bestia had the assembly pass a bill that allowed the former consul Publius Popilius Laenas to return from his exile. He had been living abroad since 123 BCE because of his role in the persecution of Tiberius Gracchus’ supporters. Tiberius’ land reform act, the Lex Sempronia agraria, was now dismantled in three stages, a process that was complete by 118 BCE. The law originally stipulated that citizens who had been granted public land were not allowed to sell it. This provision was scrapped, an action that led to the mass sale of land by poor Romans to rich Roman and Italian landholders. Then a tribune named Spurius Thorius prepared a bill that cancelled the redistribution of land, legalised the status quo and ordered the rich landholders to pay a special tax, the revenue of which would be divided among the poor. The Lex Thoria seemed like a reasonable compromise, but it was later annulled by a third law. Tiberius Gracchus’ work had been destroyed. The tribune and his younger brother had died in vain.

Military campaigns and foreign affairs

Bust of Gaius Marius (Glyptothek, Munich; photo: Bibi Saint-Pol).

Not long after their confrontation with the tribune Gaius Marius, so still in 119 BCE, the consuls Lucius Caecilius Metellus and Lucius Aurelius Cotta campaigned against the Segestani. This was an Illyrian or Pannonian tribe that lived in what is now Croatia. The Roman campaign was a success, but it did not lead to a lasting subjugation of the tribe. Metellus stayed in the region, eager for a triumph. In 118 BCE, he declared war on the Dalmatae who lived in the vicinity of Salona. Appianus’ brief description of the conflict suggests that there was little actual fighting, but it was apparently enough to be awarded a triumph the next year and to earn the agnomen ‘Delmaticus’. Quintus Marcius Rex, one of the consuls for 118 BCE, was also awarded a triumph. He had defeated the Styni, a Celtic or Ligurian tribe that lived near the Alps.

There were important developments in Numidia in 118 BCE. King Micipsa died and left his kingdom to his sons Adherbal and Hiempsal and his nephew Jugurtha, whom the king had adopted as a son. Jugurtha was the natural son of Micipsa’s brother Mastanabal and a concubine. He was well known to the Romans and had shown his military skills during Scipio Aemilianus’ siege of Numantia. The Numidian kingdom was divided among these three men, but Jugurtha would soon be at his cousins’ throats.

The Romans consolidated their hold on Southern Gaul and the newly created province of Gallia Transalpina by founding the important colony of Narbo Martius in 118 BCE. The city still exists and is now known as Narbonne. It was an important stop on the Via Domitia which was likely also constructed around this time, as well the Via Aquitania running from Narbo to Tolosa (Toulouse) and Burdigala (Bordeaux) further to the west.

Map of Southern Gaul (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

Rome’s empire had grown so fast that she was now somewhat short of magistrates who could act as governors. The six annually elected praetors and the two consuls were no longer sufficient to govern both the ‘old’ provinces of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, the two Spanish provinces and occasionally Gallia Cisalpina and Illyria, as well as the new provinces of Africa, Macedonia, Asia and Gallia Transalpina. Former consuls and praetors were now usually nominated by the Senate to govern a province for a few years once their term of office was up. This offered interesting opportunities for profit if a magistrate was in debt. Plenty of them were, as Roman politics were highly competitive and candidates had to borrow heavily to cover their campaign expenses.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The men who won the Roman Empire, p. 129-130.


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