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Social War

(91-88 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Legionaries in the graphic
Legionaries in graphics

Social War (bellum sociale) was one of the most serious internal conflicts in the Roman Republic. The revolt that broke out in the Apennine Peninsula resulted from the fact that Italian allies (the so-called socii) were in a worse political situation than ordinary Roman citizens. Despite the fact that they paid the same tribute to the state, they did not have full political rights and could not have a real influence on the fate of Rome. The death of one of the representatives of socii interests led to the uprising.

These were one of the bloodiest fights in the history of Rome, the defeat of which could mean the annihilation of the Republic. This is what Plutarch described it:

This war, terrible in its dimensions and very changeable in its fate, brought on Rome countless misfortunes and the most dangerous dangers.

Plutarch of Cheronea, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, VI

Background of events

Worse than Roman citizens

Map showing the distribution of Italic tribes around the 4th century BCE.
Author: Decan | Under Creative Commons license Attribution - On the same terms 3.0.

The conquest of Italy by the Romans during the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE resulted in numerous alliances, the terms of which depended on whether they were entered into voluntarily or whether the allies were forced into them by defeat in the war. The allies, though burdened with taxes and military aid (in the 2nd century BCE, allies were between half and two-thirds of the Roman army), did not have Roman citizenship. Rome also controlled their foreign policy completely, forbidding it from having any other allies other than itself. For years, the policy of “divide and rule” was kept under the rule of many cities and peoples of Italy. The allied states, however, maintained the form of systemic distinctiveness.

Agrarian projects did not take into account the Italians in the distribution of land, envisaging plots of ager publicus only for Roman citizens. This led to vehement opposition from allies who wished to obtain Roman citizenship and full political rights.

The question of allies could not, however, remain unresolved and be forever ignored. Political parties began to notice in the socii population the actual electorate. In addition, along with the Roman financial strata, their Italian counterparts played an important role in the economy. Wealthy allies more and more often visited Rome and established valuable relations with great Roman families, which resulted in their integration into Roman society. There was also a rapid rapprochement at the lowest social levels. The prospect of receiving land, opened by the Saturnin reform of 100 BCE (the possibility of receiving land after military service), was to transform the lives of both. Entry into the army was made possible by Marius’ reform, which allowed people without wealth (the so-called proletarians to join the army). All these aspects meant that sociiItalians increasingly identified with Rome and felt the need to extend their rights. Although the attachment to local autonomy still existed, most inhabitants also considered themselves to be the inferior part of Roman society – they did not have citizenship and did not have full public rights.

Evidence of the worse treatment of non-Roman citizens was the story that Gaius Gracchus presented in his speech at the end of the 2nd century BCE. The brothers Gracchi (the aforementioned Gaius and Tiberius) demanded as tribunes of the people that Italics be granted Roman citizenship; which was an unpopular decision among the elite. Gaius told the story of a Roman aristocrat, the wife of a consul, who stopped during a trip in the Italian city Teanum, in Campania, where she also wanted to use the services in thermal baths. For this purpose, it was demanded that the object be carefully cleaned and the people visiting it left the sanctuary. As it turned out, however, according to high-born Roman guests, the whole process of preparing the baths took too long; Therefore, the Italian owner was tied to a post in a forum in the city and padded with sticks. This situation was only to be a drop in the ocean of similar events in Italy and universal injustice.

In 98 BCE, populations led by Gaius Mariusbegan applying for these citizenships for a larger group of Italian allies. Marius’s followers – censors Marcus Antony and Valerius Flakkus a year later granted the first citizenships to Italian allies present in Rome. Such a policy was opposed by consuls Lucius Licinius Crassus and Publius Mucjus Scewola, representatives of the Optimates, who in 95 BCE forced a law depriving Italians of citizenship and expelling them from Rome. In Rome, there was a regular political war between the senatorial class and the equites who were supported by the masses. Both parties brought court cases against each other, convicting, among others, Gaius Nerban, chairman of the judiciary.

Gaius Marius. A great reformer who was marked in the history of the Roman republic by the passing of many ground-breaking laws. The most important was the military reform concerning the rules of recruiting the Roman army.

Acts of Mark Livius Drusus

To prevent the escalation of the social conflict in the Roman state, in 91 BCE, Marcus Livius Drusus came to the fore. The young and determined people’s tribune intended through his bills to ease internal disputes in the Republic and gain the support of some moderate representatives of the senatorial and equestrian side. He realized that both sides were actually looking for an agreement, and he wanted to help them. To this end, it submitted four laws, the first of which provided for a reduction in the price (to the lowest level) of grain. In this way, the withdrawn Act of Saturnin was brought back to life, and it was hoped to win over large masses. Another act provided for the handing over of the judges’ commissions to the senate and increasing the size of the senate itself by another 300 seats, to be taken by equites. The Gracchus reform in terms of separating the rest of the public land (ager publicus) was also reintroduced, including Campania, which was previously excluded from the project.

The intention of the Drusus acts was to satisfy all sides, but as it turned out, everyone saw only flaws. Firstly, the enormous burden that the state had to bear in the event of lower prices for grain was noticed. Both sides also did not like the equites joining the senate. Senators did not agree to share honourable seats with equites, and they, in turn, feared the loss of reliable representatives if they found themselves with the highest class in one institution. The division of ager publicus obviously did not suit the great landowners. This aspect was inflamed by Drusus’ declaration on the possible future granting of Italian citizenship and their access to parcelling. This, of course, involved a smaller percentage of land for large owners than it was before.

Despite fierce resistance, the popular assembly adopted the Drusus laws. The Senate, however, realizing that the entry into force of the laws would raise disputes over the issue of granting citizenship to Italian allies, looked for a way to block the new law. The Senate eventually succeeded in proclaiming the collective bill invalid due to procedural errors that had arisen during the legislative phase. Probably, when the law was passed, the required religious practices were overlooked and not complied with, and divination was not referred to (it was a frequently used ruse).

For the ambitious politician Drusus, the whole thing ended up “cheek to face”. Hungry for retaliation decided to support the Italian allies in political activities. His project provided for them to be granted Roman citizenship and equal rights. Sources also say that the Italians are bound by the oath and tribune of having friends and enemies. Numerous groups of Mars flocked to Rome to support Drusus in his political activities. At this point, the tension in the country had reached its zenith. The greatest opponent of Drusus and his bill was consul Lucius Marcus Philip, whose initiative could have murdered the people’s tribune. One evening, Drusus was returning home with his henchmen, when an unexpectedly unknown person stabbed him in the back with a sword. It is not certain who ordered the murder, but it is certain that the death of Drusus led to the outbreak of a revolt that spread across Italy.

The death of Drusus ignited a long-smouldering war with allies. And so, during the consulates of Lucius Caesar and Publius Turilius twenty years ago, all Italy took up arms against Rome. Evil began with the Askulans who killed Praetor Servilius and his legate, Fontey, then moved to Mars, and soon took over all the surroundings. On the side handicapped by fate was righteousness: the peoples who with their weapons guarded its rule with their weapons, providing twice the number of infantry and cavalry throughout all the years and in all wars, applied for civil rights in Rome; they were denied their civil rights by the state, which thanks to them rose to such heights that it could treat representatives of the same nationality and blood in advance – on a par with neighbouring and foreign tribes.

Velleius Paterculus, Roman history, 15

Bellum sociale

The Senate, having received contradictory information about the alliances being formed between the cities and the Italian peoples, decided to send some officials to check the situation on the spot. One of the senate representatives, Propretor Gaius Servilius, upon his arrival in Asculum, was brutally murdered by an angry crowd. All Roman citizens in the city died with him. This event resulted in the issuance of law at the request of the tribune of Varius, which was found guilty of the crime of the state of anyone who would also help the Italians indirectly, e.g. proposing laws that would harm Rome’s interests. This law aroused fear among all parties, which blocked the possibility of establishing a political agreement with Italian allies. The Italic representation that appeared in Rome and sought a compromise was not even accepted by the Senate. Thus, all political steps were exhausted.

A wide coalition of Italian cities and people, who wanted to fight for their political rights, began to form in the Peninsula. The insurgent movement in central Italy took over Mars (the war was called bellum Marsicum in in those days), Vestins, Picenes, Marrucinas, Peligns, and in the south Osci from Campania, Samnites, Lucani, Frentani.

This is how Appian describes forcing alliances:

So they secretly sent messages communicating in this regard and passed hostages to one another as a pledge of allegiance. For a long time, the Romans did not know about it as a result of the processes and riots taking place in the city, and when they found out, they sent people who had the greatest relations in each of them to the cities to investigate imperceptibly what was happening.

Appian of Alexandria, Roman history, XIII.38

The Latin colonies, Etruscans, Umbras and the Greek cities from the south did not join the coalition. This decision resulted from the differences in the interests of individual peoples.

The Italian revolt mainly affected the eastern part of the Picenum area on the Gargano peninsula, Samnium with Campania and Lucania, territories with poor economic and urban development, with large pasture areas and modest living conditions compared to the rest of Italy.

A separate Italian state

The rebellious Italian peoples began with a clear declaration that their goal was to separate and sever ties with Rome. A constitution modelled on the Roman one was adopted: 2 consuls, 12 praetors, and 500 members of the senate represented by all peoples were appointed. The capital of the country became Corfinium, the main town of Pelignów, situated at the crossroads of mountain roads. To mark the occasion, a large square for meetings (with the temple) was built there and the city was also re-baptized under the name “Italy” to affirm the unity of the Allied Peoples. A coin with the legend Italia was also minted – one depicts a bull, the symbol of the Italians, which conquers the Roman she-wolf; in another, eight Italian soldiers sacrificed a pig as evidence of their oath; on yet another, an Italian soldier guarding the calf is trampled on by Roman insignia. The military organization of the Italian forces also imitated the Roman one, in terms of building troops, tactics and weapons. The army of the allies, after the ranks of the fighting in the Roman army, as an auxiliary army was motivated and well-connected.

Roman troops from the times of the Republic

The forces mobilized by the insurgents numbered about 100,000 men1. Rome raised an army of similar or greater strength. The camps of Italian troops were located: in the north under the command of Pompedius Silon from the tribe of Mars and in the south under the command of Samnite Gaius Papius Mutilus. The two armies were to meet in the vicinity of Latium. Rome mobilized all its resources to put down the revolt – even freedmen, not normally used in legions, were recruited to this end. They wanted to entrust the command to Marius and Sulla (the latter had just returned from Cilicia).

Civil War

Originally, the Romans suffered defeats in the war with the Italian coalition. A Roman army of 7 legions under the command of Consul Publius Rutilius Lupus was defeated at Picenum in the north of Italy. Meanwhile, the legate Gnaeus Pompey Strabo withdrew to the Firmum colony and laid siege to Asculum, where he met fierce resistance. Gaius Marius also had problems, unable to stop Mars from reaching Latium.

In the south of the Peninsula, the consul Lucius Julius Caesar operated. There, the insurgents dragged Venusia and the Japygs to their side. The Italics also captured the colony of Aessernia, then southern Campania. The siege of Pompeii was underway and Nola was transferred to the coalition side. Unexpectedly, news began to spread across the Peninsula that Etruria and Umbria were going to the rebels’ side. The Romans ahead of the fact sent troops into the inflamed region and nipped the rebellion in the bud.

The tribes of central Italy.

Rome in 90 BCE was not really sure it would be victorious in the war against the Italians. To make matters worse, worrying news was coming from the east, where the king of Pontus – Mithridates was in the process of expanding his country’s borders, and perhaps even contacting insurgents. At the news of the outbreak of an ally revolt in the Apennine Peninsula, unrest began to spread in the western provinces. In addition, Rome was faced with a scourge of piracy in the Mediterranean, which was hindering trade.

The search for a solution and the growing advantage of the Romans

The wide range of dangers awaiting Rome at one time meant that a way to ease the conflict with the Italians was sought. Gaius Marius, for example, did not forbid any display of brotherhood between the Roman and Italian divisions. Gradually, the opinion began to spread that the Italic uprising was in fact due to the need to defend one’s rights against the abuses of Roman authority. The injustice was noticed when the allied communities, which contributed enormously in people and resources to the Republic, could not decide to the same degree about their state. This gave rise to an idea to get out of a difficult situation. The draft law provided a path to Roman citizenship for those Italians who remained faithful to Rome. Lucius Julius Caesar approved these laws before the end of 90 BCE as lex Iulia. This law gave commanders the power to grant citizenship to Italians fighting in the appropriate units. It was a defining moment of the war. The aggressive attitude of the rebels was tempered, and people wanting to join the coalition eventually gave up on this idea.

In the late 90 BCE, Gnaeus Pompey Strabo strengthened the siege of Asculum. His son was in his army Gnaeus Pompey, Catilina and numerous Italic troops. Near the city, in January 89 BCE there was an important battle, in which 75,000 Romans and 50,000 Italians faced each other. As a result of this clash, Asculum fell, and the heroic Spanish cavalry units were awarded Roman citizenship.

Bust of Lucius Cornelius Sulla without a nose.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same conditions 3.0.

In the South, the Romans were also successful at that time. After the initial failures of consul Portius Cato, who died at Lake Fucinus, Lucius Julius Caesar succeeded. His legate Sulla, after separating Nola from Pompeii with a strict blockade, began to systematically advance deep into the Samnites. His extremely brutal demeanour allowed him to quickly suppress his rival’s fighting spirit, and soon the capital of Bovianum and then the northern city of Sulmona were captured.

During this time, Pompey Strabo subdued the Vestini and Pelignes, forcing Corfinum to surrender. Mars also surrendered, who were encouraged to do so by Marius (the Roman commander referred to as the old brotherhood). Some of the last rebels who were also defeated took refuge in Aesernia. The fate of Aesernia was shared by Venusia, in whose ruins Pompey Silo, the brave commander of Mars, died. At the news of Silo’s death, the Iapygians surrendered. In the south during this period, Sulla took steps to finally put down the rebellions in Samnium, Nola and Lucania.

On the news of the favourable turn of events in the war, lex Plautia Papiria was issued, a law that guaranteed citizenship to those Italians who laid down their arms within 60 days and addressed an individual application to the praetor. In addition, thanks to Pompey Strabo, a law was created granting the inhabitants of Pre-Alpine Gaul the privileges enjoyed by the Latin colonies, i.e. limited Roman citizenship. The war was de facto over.


The allies from the war came out militarily defeated, but politically gained what they were fighting for. They were given access to Roman citizenship, which placed them on an equal footing with the Romans. However, great success was paid for by a huge number of victims. Velleius Paterculus even mentions up to 300,000 killed in a fratricidal war2. These figures, even if they are overstated, underline the tragedy of the situation.

The war with the allies took over three hundred thousand Italian youth. During it, the most famous leaders on the Roman side were: Gnaeus Pompey, father of Gnaeus Pompey the Great; the already mentioned Gajus Marius; the praetor of the previous year, Lucius Sulla; Quintus Metellus, son of Numidian, gifted with the well-deserved nickname Pius (Zbożny); for thanks to his godliness, with the support of the senate and with the consent of the Roman people, he restored to the bosom of his homeland his father, expelled from the country by the tribune of the people, Lucius Saturninus, because he himself would not swear his rights. Metellus Numidian, on the other hand, was not so famous for his triumphs and supreme dignities as either for the reason for his exile or for exile or for his return.

On the part of the Italians, the most famous leaders were: Silo Popedius, Heraeus Azinius, Insteyus Cato, Gaius Pontidius, Telesinus Pontius, Marius Egnatius and Papius Mutilus.

Velleius Paterculus, Roman history, 15-16

Further steps were required to integrate the allies with the Roman population. It was necessary to overcome cultural, systemic and economic differences. Moreover, great war damages had to be repaired.

The number of Roman citizens increased from 400,000. before the war up to 900,000. So although the allies were defeated in the war, they became equal to the Romans by citizenship. In practice, their political rights were constrained by the need to personally appear for the vote in Rome. Censors also restricted new citizens’ enrollment to only 8 tribus (out of the current 35), reducing their political weight for fear of being outnumbered by old Roman citizens. With time, however, these differences were blurred, and access to the Roman army itself was not hindered in any way. The legions were gradually dominated by soldiers from the non-vital provinces who were undergoing the process of romanization.

  1. Velleius Paterculus, Roman history, 2.15.3
  2. Appian, Roman history, XIII.39
  • Historia Powszechna t. 4. Konsolidacja hellenizmu. Początki Rzymu i przemiany świata klasycznego, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski
  • Jaczynowska Maria, Dzieje Imperium Romanum, Warszawa 1995
  • Swidzinski Andrew, Italian Aims in the First Civil War 87-82 BC

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