Seeds of Change
From its earliest days the Roman army was based on a militia system designed
for home defense. Membership was only open to the propertied classes. Roman
political thought argued that only those with a stake in a society could provide
the patriotic service and sacrifice necessary to preserve it.
Men between 17 and 43, most of whom were small land-holders, were liable to
call up. Each one was expected to provide his own arms, armor and
material. What pay they received was small as it was considered a man's duty to
defend the state.
Exempt from military service was the vast ocean of urban poor - - the
capite censi-- literally translated as the "Head Count." The name arose
because the censors would examine the property qualifications of members of the
Senate and equestrian orders, as well as the lower recognized "classes."
But when it came to review the urban poor, for whom there were no property
considerations, the censors would only count them.)
As long as Rome's legions were primarily militia organized for home defense
or short campaigns in Italy the system worked well. But Rome's victory in
the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) and her resulting involvement in overseas
ventures caused dramatic changes in the demographic basis of the recruitment
Now legionaries found themselves expected to serve for long in foreign lands.
While gone they could not work their land or sire children to work it in
their absence. So they went into debt or lost their land, and thus the steady
income that was their qualification for recruitment. With each small or
medium farmholder who sank into the bottomless sea of the capite censi,
Rome lost another potential soldier. A self-feeding spiral was set into motion,
and bit by bit, the population base upon which the entire recruitment system
The disappearance of the small farmers was noted by the leading oligarchs,
but only, it appears, as an opportunity to expand their own considerable
holdings. The same land that had once supported large numbers of potential
legionaries, was now owned and controlled by a much smaller number of
aristocrats who established latifundia (plantations) tilled by slaves.
Ironically, this new source of labor had been captured by the same legionaries
whose lost land they now labored on. This change in land ownership
led to one of Rome's greatest social crises. The violent conflict between
the Gracchi brothers and the oligarchs on the issue of land reform assured that
there would be no political solution to this imbalance. As time passed, matters,
for the defense of the Republic, only became worse.
At the same time the demographic problem of a dwindling supply of eligible
recruits was exacerbated by a series of military disasters that left thousands
of Romans dead. By the time Marius was elected consul, some 60,000
citizen-soldiers had died in the two generations since the Gracchi.
Marius was among the first, if not the first, to realize that there was a
crisis in the recruitment system. The usual classes from which Rome's
armies came had been bled white by war and the impoverishment of the
farmers. Only the capite censi had grown in size as the farmers,
bereft of their land, poured into the cities. Change was necessary, or
Rome would have no armies.
Using his considerable political skills and aided by those with enough
foresight to see the end of the old system, Marius was able to get a law passed
over the violent objections of the conservative oligarchs. The law allowed him
to recruit "not according to the classes in the manner of our forefathers, but
allowed anyone to volunteer, for the most part the capite censi."
(Sallust, Jugurtha, 86). Rome would now supply the men with their arms
and armo, and pay them as well. In exchange, each legionary committed
himself for twenty years of service. Marius had opened the ranks of the
Roman army to all citizens irrespective of their property qualifications.
Marius was able to assure the permanence of his reforms because he was,
contrary to law and tradition, elected consul five consecutive years. (The
lex Villi required that ten years pass between election as consul).
The reason was military -- roving Germanic tribes (among them the Cimbri and the
Teutones) were threatening to invade Italy. Their enormous numbers and the
incompetence of Roman generals had consistently defeated every Roman army sent
against them. Marius was able to use his unprecedented power to raise the
Roman's army's equipment and organization to new levels of efficiency.