Civil War between Marius and Sulla

B.C. 87 to 82
Populares (party of Maruis) — versus — Optimates (party of Sulla)

Marius Sulla civil war
In the final years of the Roman republic, the government was split between two factions, the optimates, or "best men", faction, which championed the traditional organization of Roman government which kept most of the government in the hands of the senate and patricians, and the populares, which used the special rights and powers of the popular assemblies, to enact their own agendas. The populares, were of course, not led by the actual "people", but rather by an aristocratic party that sought power to circumvent the majority of the senate, and in order to win the support of the plebeians, supported popular measures such as land-reform. The division between these two factions had begun in earnest during the era of the Gracchi, two generations earlier, and the contest between them eventually led to the Caesarean Civil War which brought about the fall of the republic. But forty years before their final show-down the parties engaged a terrific frenzy of bloodshed, known as the Civil War of Marius and Sulla. Although Marius himself was already dead before most of the fighting began, the populares party, which had supported Marius, was thereafter known as the "Party of Marius."

The Feud between Marius and Sulla

Marius was a very successful general, who had defeated the Cimbri, reformed the army, and held the consulship an unprecedented six times. Once he retired from power he was appalled to see his long time rival, Sulla rise to a position of great power. Their rivalry broke out into open hostilities when Sulla was elected consul in 88 B.C. , and was also chosen to lead an army against Mithridates. The populares however, favored Marius to lead the army, and revoked Sulla's commission, so that the leadership of the army became a point of contention between the two political parties, thus turning what had been a political rivalry into a contest of wills between two powerful generals. When the populares faction prevailed, Sulla fled to his army, camped outside the city, and then, for the first time in history, he led a Roman army into the city itself, in gross violation of all principles of government. He was welcomed by the senate however, who considered the election of Marius an illegal act.

Exile and Return of Marius

The optimates, now reinforced by the army, declared Marius and his followers public enemies, condemned them to death, and they fled in exile. Sulla then marched to Asia, to fight the First Mithridatic War. Marius spent a year in miserable exile before a chance came to return to Rome. One of his allies, Cinna won a consulship soon after Sulla left the city, and attempted to recall Marius. For this Cinna himself was exiled. When Marius heard of this, he joined his ally and the two raised armies to march against Rome. The fearful Senate had no recourse but to allow them to enter, since they did not have the means to defend the city from such a large force. Cinna and several of the other generals who had led the armies promised moderation, but Marius was too infuriated, and perhaps incapacitated from his sufferings in exile. He did not promise, or exercise moderation, but led a band of murders and ruffians to take revenge on all who had opposed him. The consul was cut down in his consular chair, and his head delivered to his enemies, and allies of the Senators who had opposed Marius were ruthlessly butchered. Eventually even Cinna, Sertorius, and other leaders of the populares became alarmed at the bloodshed. They, themselves, put a stop to much of it by killing many of Marius's ruffians. Marius himself died shortly thereafter, leaving Cinna and his cohorts in control of Rome.

The Return of Sulla


Many of the senators and optimates fled from Rome during this period, and joined Sulla in his camp in Greece. When Cinna and his colleagues realized that Sulla was intending to march upon Rome they began to raise an army to resist him. They sought alliances with many of the Italian cities who had recently revolted against Rome in the Roman Social War , reminding them that Sulla and his army had opposed their cause. As a result, the populares forces were scattered throughout Rome, and it was the work of some of Sulla's Generals, Pompey, Lucullus, and Metellus Pius, to see that they did not unite effectively.

In early battles, the populares general Norbanus was defeated at Mount Tifata and then Faventia. Sulla's army then marched towards Rome and defeated the populares forces, led by the son of Marius in a large scale battle. From that point, the path to Rome was blocked only by a large army of Samnites, who fought not for the populares, but in order to win the undefended city of Rome for themselves. The largest and bloodiest battle of the war, therefore, was fought outside the city gates after the populares army had already been defeated. The hero of the day was Crassus, who led the right wing, and decisively routed the Samnites. The butchery following the defeat of the Samnites was appalling, even by ancient standards. In the end Sulla took 6,000 prisoners and butchered them all outside the gates of Rome on the day he took possession of the city.

The populares party members inside the city had every reason to be terrified. Sulla had vowed revenge and he took it in horrendous measure. Thousands of his political enemies were murdered without trial or mercy. The proscriptions, or lists of doomed citizens grew daily, and the murders of Sulla far surpassed even those of the blood-thirsty Marius. Sulla was elected dictator and held the position for three years, because no one dared to opposed him. But after three years he wearied of the slaughter and retired to his country house to write his memoirs. The Civil war of Marius and Sulla—probably the most horrific episode in the history of the Roman Republic—was finally over.

DateBattle Summary
83 BC  
Battle of Mount Tifata   Optimates victory
Fought B.C. 83, when the legions of Sulla defeated the army of the Consul, Norbanus, with heavy loss, and drove them to take refuge in Capua.
82 BC  
Battle of Faventia   Optimates victory
Fought B.C. 82, between the consular army of Norbanus, and the Sullans under Metellus. Norbanus attacked with his army wearied by a long march, and his force was totally broken up, only 1,000 remaining with the eagles after the battle.
82 BC  
Battle of Praeneste (Burgundian Wars ) Optimates victory
Fought B.C. 82, between the legions of Sulla and the army of the younger Marius, 40,000 strong. Sulla's veterans were too steady for the newer levies of Marius, and the latter was routed, with the loss of more than half his army killed or captured. After this victory Sulla occupied Rome.
82 BC  
Battle of Colline Gate   Optimates victory
Fought B.C. 82 between the adherents of Sulla, and the Roman democrats and Samnites under Pontius, outside the walls of Rome. The battle was obstinately contested, but, after a fight lasting throughout the night, the insurgents were routed, and 4,000 prisoners taken. This victory of the aristocratic party ended the civil war.

Short Biography
Marius Renowned general. Modernized legions. Waged a bloody feud with party of Sulla.
Cinna With Marius, raised an army, and took possession of Rome for populist Party.
Marius the Younger Son of Marius. Defeated at Praeneste, and committed suicide.
Sertorius Led rebellion against Rome in Spain; held out for 8 years.
Norbanus Commander of the Marian forces at Mount Tifata. Fled Italy to avoid Sulla's vengence.
Carbo Commander of the forces of the Marian party. Fled Italy when he failed to relieve Praeneste.
Sulla Defeated Mithradates in Greece. Marched on Rome, defeated the party of his enemy Marius.
Pompey Very renowned general. Defeated pirates. Led opposition to Caesar in civil war.
Lucullus Led Rome against Mithradates in third Mithradatic War. Known for extravagant lifestyle.
Crassus Very wealthy general. Fought Spartacus. Formed triumvirate with Pompey and Caesar.

Story Links
Book Links
Marius and Sylla  in  Julius Caesar  by  Jacob Abbott
In the Days of the Dictator  in  Roman Life in the Days of Cicero  by  Alfred J. Church
General Who Ate Dry Bread  in  Tales of the Romans: The Children's Plutarch  by  F. J. Gould
Red General  in  Tales of the Romans: The Children's Plutarch  by  F. J. Gould
Flight of Marius  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Proscription Lists  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Marius  in  Famous Men of Rome  by  John H. Haaren & A. B. Poland
Sulla  in  Famous Men of Rome  by  John H. Haaren & A. B. Poland
Caius Marius  in  Our Young Folks' Plutarch  by  Rosalie Kaufman
Sylla  in  Our Young Folks' Plutarch  by  Rosalie Kaufman
Marius Returns to Rome  in  The Story of Rome  by  Mary Macgregor
Sulla Saves Rome from the Samnites  in  The Story of Rome  by  Mary Macgregor
Exile and Revenge of Marius  in  Historical Tales: Roman  by  Charles Morris
Proscription of Sulla  in  Historical Tales: Roman  by  Charles Morris

Image Links

Sulla Fights his Way into Rome
 in Greatest Nations - Rome

Gaius Marius sitting in exile among the ruins of Carthage
 in The Story of Rome