The first of the generals to achieve power was Marius, leader of the populares, who had won victories against the Numidians (led by their king, Jugurtha) in what is now eastern Algeria, and against a group of largely Celtic peoples called the Cimbri and Teutones. Violating the custom that a consul had to wait ten years before serving a second term. Marius had himself elected five times in succession as the savior of Rome. He began a major reorganization of the army, abolishing the requirement that a Roman citizen must pay for his own equipment—a rule that had automatically excluded the poor.
Now that the state furnished the equipment, professional volunteers gradually replaced the former citizen soldiers, who in the past had gone back to their normal peacetime occupations once the fighting was over. These professionals wanted booty and a veteran’s bonus, and they supported a leader who could provide them. Thus the contest in the Senate often was between a man like Marius and a contender more likely to placate the military.
When Rome went to war against Mithridates in 88 B.C., Marius emerged from retirement and demanded the command. Instead, the Senate chose Sulla, a younger general who was an optimate, and a bloody civil war broke out between the two factions. Marius died in 86, and after Sulla drove Mithridates from Greece, he returned to assume the office of dictator.
It took Sulla two years of bloody fighting to establish himself in power. He had his opponents killed and tried to move the Senate back into its ancient position as the chief force in political life. He curtailed the powers of the tribunes and the Tribal Assembly and put through laws designed to curb the rise of new, younger politicians. He broke all precedent by prolonging his tenure as dictator beyond the prescribed six months. He finally retired in 80 B.C., but the Senate proved unable to recover from the bad fiscal examples set by his rule.
Within ten years Pompey (106-48), a ruthless and arrogant young veteran of Sulla’s campaigns, rose to power. Having won victories first in Spain and then at home, where he worked with the millionaire Marcus Licinius Crassus (c. 112-53) to suppress a slave rebellion led by the gladiator Spartacus (73-71), in 70 B.C. he became
consul before he had reached the minimum legal age. Pompey and Crassus forced the Senate to restore the tribunes and the Tribal Assembly to their previous power.
After defeating troublesome pirates in the Mediterranean, Pompey took command of a new war against Mithridates. By 65 B.C. Pompey had driven Mithridates into exile at the court of his son-in-law, Tigranes, king of Armenia. Mithridates committed suicide in 63 B.C., and Pompey reorganized Asia Minor and the entire province of Asia and territories beyond it. Syria, where the last effective Seleucid had died in 129 B.C., had largely fallen to Tigranes by 83, and Pompey made it a Roman province as well. In 64 B.C. he took Jerusalem. The western fringe of Asia was now virtually Roman.
On his campaigns Pompey enjoyed unprecedented special powers, forced through by the tribunes of the people against much senatorial opposition. He commanded huge resources in men and money. In 63 there came to light a conspiracy, led by Catiline, of a group of discontented and dispossessed nobles who had been the victims of Sulla’s purges and who now planned a revolution and a comeback. Cicero, a consul and famous lawyer, discovered the plot and arrested the plotters, some of whom he illegally executed. His speeches in the Senate against Catiline are among the finest surviving examples of the Roman oratorical style. Cicero hoped to cooperate with Pompey in governing Rome and ending the Roman domestic quarrels, but he lacked the family background and personal following necessary to get to the very top in Rome, and Pompey was not responsive.
Having returned to Rome as a private citizen in 62 B.C., Pompey reentered politics because the Senate would not ratify his eastern settlement or give his veterans the usual land grants. He joined in a triumvirate (team of three men), with Crassus and Gaius Julius Caesar (102-44 B.C.).