The Latin for Rome’s
Italian ‘allies’ (socii) gave
rise to the description of this
peninsular conflict known as the
Social War (91–88 BC), also known
as the Marsic War or the War of
the Allies.

Rome’s absorption of Italy between
the fourth and third centuries BC
(Early Repub 2) resulted in a
patchwork of alliances between
Rome and the city-states of central and
southern Italy. Not all of these were as
favourable to the allies, depending on whether
the alliance was made voluntarily (generally
speaking, the Latin states) or through defeat
(the socii, such as the Marsi in the north and the
Samnites to the south).

The war was sparked by Rome’s consistent refusal to give
her Italian allies the rights of citizenship. Since citizens paid
no taxes, the full burden of raising finance to maintain Rome’s
growing number of legions fell primarily on the Italian allies, in
addition to supplying most of the legionaries for the ranks – by the second century between one half and two-thirds of the soldiers in Roman armies were drawn from the allies. This situation caused continual friction, even more so when the question of land ownership became pressing.

There were those at Rome of the Populares party who could see that, in a growing empire, the inequality of the socii was a sore – both unfair but, more importantly, impractical and dangerous. As the Roman historian Appian, writing in the second century AD observed, the unfair land distribution led to the ‘Italian race…declining little by little into pauperism and paucity of numbers without any hope of remedy.’ In protecting the patrician status quo, Optimate reactionaries had already killed the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius in 133 BC and then Gaius Gracchus in 121, for daring agrarian reform. Their cause was later taken up by the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus, who proposed admitting all Italians to citizenship. This was vigorously resisted by the patricians and Senate. When he was mysteriously murdered in 91 BC, revolt broke out in Asculum in Picenum and rapidly spread, although the Etrurians and Umbrians remained aloof of their neighbours.

Even though he was a democrat, Gaius Marius felt he was the obvious choice to take the field against the rebelling socii, but the Senate had good reason to fear his growing ambition, he having already held five consulships in a row (104 BC–100 BC) and kept him out of the picture – for a bit. Sulla was given a command in the south, under the consuls Lucius Marcius Philippus and Sextus Julius Caesar. In the following year the consuls were Caesar’s brother Lucius (father of Gaius Julius Caesar) and Publius Rutilius Lupus. It was after the latter's death that Marius was given a command. However, he retired from the war soon after, arguably from poor health.

Sulla served with brilliance as a general. He outshone both Marius and the consuls for 89 BC, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (the father of Pompeius Magnus) and Lucius Porcius Cato. In that year Sulla captured Aeclanum, the chief town of Hirpini, and his success brought him the consulship for the first time in 88. He also exhibited great bravery and was awarded the Grass Crown (corona graminea), considered the highest military honour, since it was only given – and very rarely – by a general’s own soldiers. The crown was traditionally woven from the grasses cut from the battlefield.

While Sulla’s efforts subdued the military uprising, it was the political work of Lucius Julius Caesar who had helped pass a law while he was consul that granted Roman citizenship to all Italians who had not participated in the revolt and to those who had but were ready to immediately lay down their arms. This move pacified many of the socii, who soon lost interest in the struggle. The crisis was concluded just in time for Rome to reorganise and counter the threat posed by Mithradates, who had masterminded the masssacre of thousands of Roman and Latin colonists on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor.

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