The Social War, waged from 91 to 88 BC, was one of the most politically important conflicts in the history of the Roman Republic. While the actual war did not last long the events which it brought about changed the Republic forever.
Rome’s Italic citizens were tired of being excluded from politics. By the 1st Century BC the Roman Republic had won an empire that stretched from Asia Minor to the Pillars of Hercules. But the Romans alone had not won that empire, her former enemies the Italicpeoples had as well. Though officially citizens of the Republic the Italics had been deprived of the right to vote, and hence they had no say in the politics of their state. In 91 BC one politician sought to change all that. Marcus Livius Drusus the Younger, the son of the man of the same name who opposed Caius Sempronius Gracchus a few decades before, introduced radical legislation. He proposed to give Rome’s Italic citizens full voting rights. In reality the younger Drusus, like his father, was an Optimate (conservative) disguised as a Populare (liberal). His plan was to use his powers as a tribune to shore up the Optimate cause with new voters who would side with the conservatives to preserve the peace of the Republic from the more radical Populares.However his plan backfired.
Drusus already had a reputation as a radical reformer. He had been the primary force behind the promotion of 300 equites to thesenatorial class in an attempt to reform the court system by balancing it out. In the process he had effectively made enemies of theequites, whose power as a class had been undermined by his legislation. He then proceeded to make enemies of the very Optimateshe sought to help through a series of agrarian reforms, which made him popular with the plebian class but made the wealthy conservative senators unhappy. This new legislation was the last straw. Drusus had failed to realize just how many enemies he had made. And the Optimates failed to see that his efforts actually helped them. Led by Consul Lucius Marcius Philippus the Senate struck down the voting reforms. Drusus was unfazed and he kept introducing them again and again, only for the Senate to keep striking them down. The political battle continued until one evening while speaking to a crowd of supporters Drusus was assassinated on the portico of his house. The Italics, who had put all of their hope into Drusus and his reforms, finally snapped following the assassination. In late91 Italia from the Apennines to Samnium was set aflame with the fires of revolt.
The Social War had begun. Organized under the leadership of Quintus Poppaedius Silo, a Marsic, the Italics were no ordinary rebels to Roman authority. They choose how to stage their uprising with care. The place to feel the hammer fall of the revolt was Campania. Over the centuries Campania had become the exclusive dwelling place of the rich and famous. Nearly all of the Roman elite had a villa in Campania and stayed there for at least a few months a year. The Samnites, Rome’s old enemy, armed in secret and upon receiving word from Silo they launched an invasion from the hills down onto the Campanian plain.
Completely caught off guard and with only a token garrison rich Campania fell easily. Ironically the Samnites choose Nola, the pleasure capital of the south, to be the new chief fortress of the newly proclaimed Samnite Republic. Before Rome could react similar revolts occurred up and down the Apennines range, and the rage of the Italics could no longer be contained. Despite the best efforts of Silo and his fellow leaders that rage more often then not took a wildly violent form. When the city of Asculum fell all Roman men and women were slaughtered, and the women scalped. Despite this optimism was still high and as other groups established their own republics Silo and the leadership of the revolt made their crowning move.
In the town of Corfinium they proclaimed the formation of the Republic of Italica, made up from the republics of the Marsic, Samnite, Marrucini, Paeligni, Praetutii, Vestini, and Frentani, Venusini, and Lucanian peoples. This new government quickly took shape along theRoman model; a Senate was formed from the 500 representatives of the rebels and two Consuls appointed to lead the struggle. Coinage was minted and distributed, with the provocative image of an Italic bull goring a Roman wolf. But most shocking of all toRome was the new rebel army, which was formed from Italic deserters, and every bit a match for the Romans. Even with all of the grumblings made beforehand the Senate would never had expected a rebellion of this scale to occur.
After the initial shock passed Rome knew that Italica had to be destroyed. A plan was formulated in 90 BC to fight the rebellion on two fronts, each lead by a Consul. The northern front was led by Publius Rutilius Lupus, with Caius Marius (the great reformer and soldier) and Cnaeus Pompeius Strabo (the father of Pompeius Magnus) as advising generals. The southern front was led by Lucius Julius Caesar (a distant relation of Caius Julius Caesar) with Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Titus Didius as advising generals. The first year of the war went badly for the Romans, especially in the north. On that front Consul Rutilius was heavily defeated in the Tolenus valleyand killed in the aftermath. The defeat of the main northern army was a massive blow to Roman morale, and it was only through the talents of Marius and the great victory by Pompeius Strabo at Asculum that the remaining Roman forces did not dissolve then and there. In the south the war went slight better, as Consul Caesar was able to win some victories in Campania after a hard fought campaign.
As the campaign season drew to a close the battle lines solidified into an ancient prequel of World War One as trench lines were dug by both armies. As soldiers on both sides of the line began to intermingle the Roman commanders discovered the best way to bring the conflict to a close. The Lex Iulia de Civitate Latinis Danda proposed by Lucius Julius Caesar at the end of his Consulate would give full voting rights to the Italics who had not joined the rebellion as well as the Latins. The Lex Plautia Papira was added on to allowItalics or Latins not living in their home communities a chance to gain voting rights by registering with the local praetor in sixty days. A further amendment, the Lex Calpurnia, was also added to authorize Roman officers in the field to grant voting rights to whomever he saw fit. The whole body of these laws effectively took the steam out of the rebellion. Over the course of the winter massive numbers of enemy troops re-defected back to the Roman side, whole towns surrendered, and the rebel cause effectively teetered on the brink of collapse.
The tide of the war had turned. As the year 89 began the Romans returned to the field with renewed confidence, but also with a sense of hurry. For in the east the Hellenistic king of Pontus, Mithridates VI, had launched an invasion of Asia Minor. Whoever won the most glory against the Italics would almost certainly be chosen to lead the war against Mithridates, a command that promised great things for whoever was appointed to it. This time both Consuls, Lucius Porcius Cato and Pompeius Strabo, went north as the war would be decided there. Sulla, by virtue of the victories he won in Campania with Lucius Julius Caesar the previous year, was given an independent southern command.
Almost from the start it was clear that the war had taken a new course. The town of Asculum fell to the forces of Pompeius Strabo, who in revenge for the horrible massacre of Roman citizens, laid waste to the town and its inhabitants. He proceeded to Picenum, his home town and original target. Other events did not go as well for Rome as Lucius Porcius Cato was killed by Italic forces, as was his advising general Quintus Servilius Caepio the Younger. This prompted a major political scandal, as Caepio had been an opponent ofMarius, and his son Caius Marius the Younger had been the second advising general.
In the south the war went at a brisk pace. Sulla was quickly proving himself to be in possession of an extraordinary military mind, as one by one the fortresses of the Italic cause fell to him. Before long he had cleared the entirety of Campania save Nola, and after he put that town under siege he proceeded to enter Samnium proper. In the hills Sulla went on to pull a reverse Caudine Forks on theSamnites, destroying their ability to field an effective army, before going on to reduce the cities.
Back north Marius the Younger was cleared of all charges and the war continued. Corfinium, the rebel capital, fell to Pompeius Straboand most of the rebel leadership was captured. Quintus Poppaedius Silo, the ringleader of the revolt in the eyes of Rome, escapedCorfinium. He was killed in battle a little while later by Mamercus Aemilius Lepidus Livianus, the brother of Drusus the Younger. About the same time Sulla had successfully reduced the last Samnite strongholds in the south, effectively killing the rebellion and winning the war. The Social War was over.
In conclusion the Social War was one of the most important conflicts in the history of the Roman Republic. As a result of the conflict the face of Italy and Roman politics had been radically changed. Italic language and culture vanished as the people themselves became Romanized and adopted Latin, Roman culture, and Roman practices. Italy was effectively unified. The Social War was also important in that it made the career of several budding military leaders, the greatest of which was Sulla, who would go on to dominate Roman politics for the next decade.