Gaius Marius[nb 1] (/
Marius was born in 157 BC in the town of Arpinum in southern Latium. The town had been conquered by the Romans in the late 4th century BC and was given Roman citizenship without voting rights. Only in 188 BC did the town receive full citizenship. Although Plutarch claims that Marius' father was a labourer, this is almost certainly false since Marius had connections with the nobility in Rome, he ran for local office in Arpinum, and he had marriage relations with the local nobility in Arpinum, which all combine to indicate that he was born into a locally important family of equestrian status. The problems he faced in his early career in Rome show the difficulties that faced a "new man" (novus homo).
There is a legend that Marius, as a teenager, found an eagle's nest with seven chicks in it – eagle clutches hardly ever have more than 3 eggs; even if two females used the same nest, finding 7 offspring in a single nest would be exceptionally rare. Since eagles were considered sacred animals of Jupiter, the supreme god of the Romans, it was later seen as an omen predicting his election to the consulship seven times. Later, as consul, he decreed that the eagle would be the symbol of the Senate and People of Rome.
In 134 BC, he was serving with the army at Numantia and his good services brought him to the attention of Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus. Whether he arrived with Scipio Aemilianus or was already serving in the demoralized army that Scipio Aemilianus took over at Numantia is not clear. According to Plutarch, during a conversation after dinner, when the conversation turned to generals, someone asked Scipio Aemilianus where the Roman people would find a worthy successor to him. Aemilianus then gently tapped on Marius' shoulder, saying: "Perhaps this is the man." It would seem that even at this early stage in his army career, Marius had ambitions for a political career in Rome. He ran for election as one of the twenty-four special military tribunes of the first four legions who were elected (the rest were appointed by the magistrate who raised the legion). Sallust tells us that he was unknown by sight to the electors but was returned by all the tribes on the basis of his accomplishments.
Next, he ran for the quaestorship after losing an election for local office in Arpinum. The military tribunate shows that he was already interested in Roman politics before the quaestorship. Perhaps he simply ran for local office as a means of gaining support back home, and lost to some other local worthy. Nothing is known of his actions while quaestor.
In 120 BC, Marius was returned as plebeian tribune for the following year. He won with the support of Quintus Caecilius Metellus (later known as Metellus Numidicus), who was an inherited patronus. The Metelli, though neither ancient nor patrician, were one of the most powerful families in Rome at this time. During his tribunate, Marius pursued a populares line. He passed a law that restricted the interference of the wealthy in elections. In the 130s voting by ballot had been introduced in elections for choosing magistrates, passing laws and deciding legal cases, replacing the earlier system of oral voting. The wealthy continued to try to influence the voting by inspecting ballots and Marius passed a law narrowing the passages down which voters passed to cast their votes in order to prevent outsiders from harassing the electors. In the passage of this law, Marius alienated the Metelli, who opposed it.
Soon thereafter, Marius ran for the aedileship and lost. This loss was at least in part due to the enmity of the Metelli. In 116 BC he barely won election as praetor for the following year (presumably coming in sixth) and was promptly accused of ambitus (electoral corruption). He barely won acquittal on this charge, and spent an uneventful year as praetor in Rome (as Urban Praetor, Peregrine Praetor or President of the extortion court). In 114 BC, Marius' imperium was prorogued and he was sent to govern Hispania Ulterior (Further Spain), where he engaged in some sort of minor military operation: according to Plutarch, he cleared away the robbers whilst robbery was still considered a noble occupation by the local people. During this period in Roman history governors seem regularly to have served two years in Hispania, so he was probably replaced in 113 BC.