Long before imposters claimed to be Anastasia of Russia’s Romanov dynasty, a genealogical mystery consumed ancient Rome. No later than 45 BC, a man emerged who claimed to be the famous Gaius Marius’ veritable grandson. Most ancient and contemporary writers have labeled him a fraud, but could there be any truth to this man’s claims?
Sulla – Gaius Marius’ Rival
Gaius Marius was a celebrated lawmaker and general who was considered one of Rome’s founders because he saved the Republic from being overrun by menacing barbarians. During his career, he and his former lieutenant Sulla became bitter rivals, and sometime after Marius’ death in 86 BC, his only known son – Gaius Marius the Younger – resumed his dispute with Sulla. This culminated in a bloody civil war in which Marius’ son was defeated and he subsequently killed himself in 82 BC. Once firmly in power, Sulla outlawed images of the elder Marius, had his remains abused, and killed a host of his friends and relatives, resulting in perhaps thousands of unsanctioned deaths.
The so-called ‘Marius’ and ‘Sulla’ busts. (Egisto Sani/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 ) The bust in the foreground depicts the consul – general Gaius Marius (157 – 86 BC); behind him, his contender Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (c. 138 – 78 BC).
A Grandson Appears
Sulla and his allies likely believed that they had exterminated all of those who were directly related to the once-beloved Marius, but less than 40 years later, an obscure eye doctor whom the ancient writers called variously Amatius, Herophilus, and Chamates surfaced. He claimed to be Gaius Marius’ grandson and demanded to be recognized as such. Even though Sulla was dead by this point, this was somewhat dangerous given that much of the ruling class was comprised of Sulla’s partisans. Despite the risks, Amatius entered Rome and its surrounding areas, expounded his lineage, and was quickly noticed.
Sculpture of a Roman Man excavated near the Ministry of Finance in Rome, Italy 3rd-2nd century BC. (Mary Harrsch/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
Before long, Amatius was a national celebrity. After visiting with many of Marius’ veterans and their families, they adopted him as their patron. Many of the collegia – essentially business guilds – in ancient Rome also accepted Amatius as Gaius Marius’ true heir. Within a relatively short matter of time, the once-unknown oculist had enormous support in Rome. Yet, he wished to have Julius Caesar, who was Gaius Marius’ nephew by marriage, publicly validate his genealogical claims.
Two Untimely Deaths
First, in September of 45 BC, Amatius and a throng of his supporters met with Caesar’s grandnephew, Octavius, and demanded that he accept Amatius as an authentic relative. Many of the Caesarian women loudly lobbied for this action, but despite their entreaties, Octavius claimed that he wasn’t the head of the Caesarian household. As such, he didn’t have the authority to substantiate Amatius’ claims. Supposedly, Octavius’ mother agreed with his decision because she was skeptical of the oculist. Undaunted by the recent setbacks, Amatius waited for a meeting with Julius Caesar.
Later, in September of 45 BC, they finally crossed paths. When they did, Caesar realized that, at times, Amatius’ level of support rivaled his own, which he must have found unsettling. There’s no record of their conversation, only the conclusion. Julius Caesar banished Amatius from Rome.
Representational painting of Julius Caesar. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
But his exile was short-lived because on March 15, 44 BC, Caesar was assassinated. This allowed Amatius to return to Rome, where he mobilized his supporters and demanded justice for his purported cousin’s murder. Eventually, Amatius’ and his followers’ cries for retribution turned into direct threats against Caesar’s killers as they terrorized the conspirators. One of Rome’s sitting consuls, Mark Antony, quickly grew tired of the commotion and the perpetual agitation. Therefore, he ordered Amatius to be executed without a trial. After his death, around April 14, 44 BC, he was punctured with a hook and likely dragged about the city in a morbid display that served as a warning to his adherents.
The Death of Julius Caesar, by Vincenzo Camuccini (1771-1844) ( Public Domain )
After Amatius’ untimely death, there were no other serious assertions of direct lineage to Gaius Marius, but was Amatius’ claim legitimate? Without testable DNA, it’s entirely impossible to know with any certainty, but there’s still other circumstantial evidence. The ancient writers unilaterally claimed that Amatius was an imposter. Yet, they never presented any proof for their beliefs. The same goes for Octavius’ mother, who believed that Amatius was a fraud. While Caesar’s order to banish the eye doctor may appear to be a strike against his claims, it really isn’t. He was likely exiled because Caesar didn’t want to share power with his alleged cousin and because he found him to be an incorrigible nuisance. The strongest piece of evidence against Amatius was the fact that there is nothing to suggest that Gaius Marius the Younger ever sired a child. Yet, this is hardly the death knell in Amatius’ argument. He could have easily been quietly adopted or been Gaius Marius the Younger’s illegitimate son. Considering that he had engaged in at least one well-known extramarital affair, this is a distinct possibility.
Gaius Marius the Younger. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
While there is circumstantial evidence that weighs against Amatius, the opposite is also true. There were several Caesarian women who accepted him as an authentic relative, but unfortunately, the ancient historians never recounted why they came to this conclusion. The strongest evidence for his claims is probably the fact that within a short period of time, he went from a veritable unknown to a man whom Marius’ veterans and their families, much of the collegia, and large swaths of the urban proletariat believed was Gaius Marius’ grandson. This was a widespread feeling, but it’s hardly ironclad proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Amatius could have simply been a silver-tongued persuasive speaker and one of the world’s greatest con men.
The truth about Amatius will never be known with any certainty, but to automatically dismiss his claims as many ancient and modern researchers have done is somewhat unfair. The evidence is so severely limited that a justified conclusion cannot be reached. There must have been strong reasons why so many people received Amatius as Marius’ grandson, while others rejected him. As I pointed out in Gaius Marius: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Saviour , given the evidence at this point, it seems prudent to remain skeptical but ambivalent regarding his claims.
Top Image: ‘Marius sitting on the Ruins of Carthage’ (circa 1791-1794) by Pierre-Joseph François. Source: Public Domain
By Marc Hyden