At the end of the Social War Sulla was elected Consul for 88 BC just as war with Mithradates was breaking out. Mithradates took control of Asia Minor, slaughtering Roman citizens by the thousands. Sulla, in his senior Consular position was appointed to command the campaign, but the aged Gaius Marius desperately sought the command for himself. Opposed by the Senate, Marius was unsuccessful through traditional methods, and Sulla assembled his legions and began the march to the east.
No sooner was Sulla out of Rome, however, than Marius, at the age of 70 and probably mentally unbalanced, reverted to his old political tactics of circumventing the system through the Plebeian Tribunes. Sulpicius Rufus, acting on Marius' behalf, proposed that Marius be given command through the citizen assemblies. Extremely popular with the common citizens, Marius was successful and the command was officially and legally transferred. Sulla though, was not a man to be so easily dismissed.
Hearing the news of Marius' appointment and his dismissal, Sulla reversed course and headed back to Rome with his 6 legions. This marked the first time that a Roman commander marched upon Rome with a full army, with malicious intent and against legally appointed government authority. Sulla took Rome with a vengeance, killing Rufus and other Marian supporters. Marius managed to escape through the Italian countryside, but Sulla's men caught up with him near Minturnae in Latium. The ancients suggest that despite Sulla's proclamation for Marius to die, Marius was still larger than life among the army and non-Roman citizens. A Gallic trooper who was supposed to behead Marius was unable to do so when faced by the old legend. The infamous quote, "I cannot kill Gaius Marius" was supposed to have been recorded when the trooper looked into Marius' eyes, and the local residents refused to do him harm. Sending him off to safety by ship, Marius fled to Africa. The political ramifications of helping Marius vs. allowing him to pass were different matters however, and rather than oppose the authorities in Rome he was refused entry to a colony near Carthage. Settling on the island of Cercina with his son, Marius simply bided his time.
Back in Rome, Sulla got his political agenda in order and then set out to deal with Mithradates as originally intended. Lucius Cornelius Cinna then took center stage in Roman politics, causing a fervor with his new Italian enfranchisement proposals. Attempting to organize the new countryside citizens into the city existing assemblies, Cinna was removed from his office and exiled from Rome. Much like Sulla, Cinna was not to be denied. Turning to the one man who could help implement his agenda Cinna organized a revolt with Marius and recruited heavily from among the Italians and marched on Rome himself. Marius landed in Italy shortly after with a force of cavalry and supplemented them with locals on his way to join Cinna. On the way, the Roman port of Ostia was sacked to finance the operations and 87 BC turned into a siege of Rome itself.
Thousands were killed by Cinna in his purge and his killing only stopped when the Senate surrendered and opened the gates to the city. Marius however, made no arrangements to enter peacefully and took his vengeance on the inside. 5 days of murder and mayhem ruled supreme in which Marius killed anyone with the slightest opposition to him or support of Sulla. Severed heads of his enemies were placed on spears all around the Forum as a show of Marian strength. But in Marius unstable mental condition and advanced age, neutral bystander and foe were often confused. Massacred enemies were equally mixed with the innocent, forever staining the streets and Marius' reputation. Clearly in command through brute force, Marius and Cinna next forced through their own elections as joint Consuls of 86 BC. Before additional plans could be put into action, however, the brief reign of terror ended just 17 days into Marius 7th consulship, when he died of a 'fever'.
Once again, violence and bloodshed was proving to be the order of the day in Roman politics. The mass murders conducted by Marius and Cinna would be nothing compared to those of Sulla when he would return some years later. Marius was both a great general and sometimes adequate, if not good politician. He was credited with saving Rome by defeating the Germanics, and created an atmosphere of enfranchisement with the Italians that was a necessity for Roman growth. The reform of the legions was of the greatest benefit to the army and Roman power, but perhaps above all else, he was a deep influence on the life of his nephew Gaius Julius Caesar.
Without Marius, and the lessons taught by using the Tribunes and the people as a source of power, Caesar may never have come to power. The parallels in their careers are striking despite the differences in them personally. Marius was a new man and an outsider, while Caesar was as patrician as a Roman could be, but both saw the advantage in power derived from the support of the people and through military success. While Marius and his successor, Sulla, used proscription and murder to settle scores and establish power, Caesar learned that such actions did nothing but destroy healthy Roman politics.
With the death of Marius, however, there was still a long time for the 14 year old Caesar to come into his own. This was still the time of Cinna and Sulla. Events in the 80's BC and beyond would continue to rip apart the fabric of the Republican system. A series of demagogues now ruled Rome and the fate of the Republic rested with these men.