Ancient Men of War: The 5 Most Effective Roman Commanders

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Gaius Marius: Great Reformer and Defender of Rome

Marius is more known for his military reforms than for his victories, and perhaps rightly so, but his victories really were extraordinarily important for the future success of Rome. Marius gained the Consulship in 107 BCE where he abolished the land ownership requirement for joining the Roman army.

This simple change on its own drastically changed the Roman army. Poor citizens joined in droves, hoping for steady pay and meals and a payoff of land ownership on their retirement. This also led to more professionalism as most recruits joined for decades at a time and were molded into capable forces that were almost an extension of their general’s mind.

On top of this change, Marius instituted countless other reforms. Now a standing army, the legions trained year-round and had standardized equipment, and looked to their generals for land-grants and other retirement benefits. These reforms did make legions more loyal to their generals than to Rome, leading to civil wars, but when pitted against foreign foes, the Roman armies dominated.

Marius gets his place on this list mostly due to his reforms, but he also has two victories that possibly saved Rome from an invasion that could have been deadlier than Hannibal’s lengthy invasion of the Second Punic War.

The Germanic tribes of the Cimbri and Teutones stormed out of the Jutland Peninsula around 113 BCE and eventually came into Roman-occupied Gaul. When Roman armies marched to stop them, they were soundly defeated. Eventually, the battle of Arausio saw the Romans lose 80,000 men in the worst defeat in Roman history and Marius was elected to put an end to the losses.

At Aquae Sextiae, Marius’ 40,000 men faced an army three times their size. Marius poked at the Teutons and made them attack the Roman position on a hill. After marching uphill to fight against a well-trained Roman army, the barbarians were then attacked from behind by a well-hidden Roman force and soundly defeated.

The next year, Marius would take on the Cimbri at Vercellae. Here, Marius decided to attack when the sun was facing the Romans, an unorthodox move. The result was that the sun caught the glittering metal of the Roman’s standardized equipment, namely their helmets, and blinded the horde of Cimbri. Cimbri prisoners said it seemed like heaven was on fire. This, combined with a flanking move similar to Hannibal’s at Cannae won the day against the Cimbri.

These Germanic tribes numbered in the hundreds of thousands and had won a string of defeats at the very doorstep of Italy. Fears of an invasion were very real until Marius stepped in and soundly defeated armies vastly larger than his own and saved the Republic.

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