The first century BCE was an extremely turbulent period in the history of ancient Rome. During this time, there were struggles for power and influence between the populares and the optimates. The main enemies were Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who committed a huge number of murders.
It should be noted, however, that the first who started them on a really large scale was the famous general and multiple Roman consul Gaius Marius. This famous Roman winner and hero, who repulsed the Teuton and Cimbri invasion of Italy at the end of the 2nd century BCE, still tried to influence Roman politics in his old age. His dream was to obtain the seventh consulship and thus go down in history as the first Roman to hold the consulship so many times. What’s more, he hated with all his heart the younger and at his best Sulla.
When in 88 BCE Sulla made a coup d’état with the help of a faithful army and forced Gaius Marius to flee, the situation seemed comfortable for the optimates. Sulla carried out his reforms (including increasing the size of the senate to 600 people), left his supporters in the city and went in 87 BCE. east to stop the threat of Mithridates VI, king of Pontus. The populares led by Lucius Cornelius Cinna and Gaius Marius, who came from exile, took advantage of the situation.
The fury and anger of the populares were so great that they started mass-murdering political opponents. The heads of senators were cut off and impaled on the prows of ships that decorated the Roman rostrum – rostra. According to Plutarch, Gaius Marius had an “interesting” way of determining who should be murdered. When he walked the streets of Rome and did not shake hands when greeting someone, it meant that he should be killed. There was great fear and barbarity in the streets of Rome; Sulla’s companions were killed, their property confiscated, and Sulla himself was declared a public enemy. Ordinary citizens could not be safe in Rome, because many slaves also entered the city, who were promised freedom in exchange for enlarging the army of the populares. The slaves from Illyria were especially cruel – “[they] butchered fathers of families in their houses, outraged their children, violated their wives”1. The scale of the cruelty made the representative of the populares, Quintus Sertorius, order to kill them – a total of 4,000 brutal tormentors were to die.
As it turned out, Gaius Marius did not rule for long, because at the age of 71 in 86 BCE he died. The only thing he achieved was obtaining the consulship for the seventh time. His final years, however, proved how much he craved power and what he was willing to do to regain it.