By Federico Santangelo
Pub (2016) Bloomsbury p/b 124pp £16.99 (ISBN 978474214711)
Why and how throughout history have states with apparently secure constitutional safeguards acquiesced in the circumventing of these safeguards by strong personalities? How big a part is played by external military threats, real or contrived, by internal unrest, weak or corrupt government or personal ambition and charisma? Such questions come to mind when reading this study of the life and times of Marius in the Bloomsbury Ancients in Action series. I say ‘life and times’ because right from the start the author eschews what he calls oversimplified ‘Great Man’ history.
The author, a Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Newcastle University, tells us that his book ‘sets out to be used primarily (though by no means exclusively) in the classroom.’ Accordingly he warns time and again of the speculative nature of much of what is constructed as the foreground and background of Marius’ career. Words such as ‘probably’, ‘likely’, ‘arguably’ abound. The author is prepared to speculate himself, but always tells us when he is doing so.
He reminds us that the ancient sources writing many years after the events, but with access to contemporary, but now lost works, had their own agendas whether literary symmetry (Plutarch) or political ideology (Sallust), and he picks his ways carefully through the evidence with regular caveats, such as ‘it would be unwise to draw any conclusions on Marius’ character and personal beliefs’ from the written material; and points out that even the tradition of Marius’ very humble, rural background must be treated with caution. Likewise he leaves open many questions about the complicated and sometimes contradictory politicking and intrigue in which Marius is said to have been involved.
But he has a story to tell and treats us to exciting narratives of military campaigns and dedicates several pages to Marius’ escape from Rome in 88 BC, commenting that for all the inconsistences between the ancient writers it is a good adventure story and should be enjoyed as such.
The ancient sources are cited at the end of the book for those who wish to follow them up. There is a helpful guide to further reading and a serviceable index.
The thoughtful student will benefit from this well–argued example of how to handle ancient sources and perhaps be helped to think though the questions with which I started this review.