Italian Social war (91-88 BC)

The Italian Social war (91-88 BC) was a conflict between Rome and her Italian allies, triggered by the refusal of the Romans to give their allies Roman citizenship, and with it a say in the government of the empire that the allies had helped create and defend. 

The war had several names in antiquity. At first it was known as the Bellum Marsicum (Marsic War). By 78 BC the name bellum Italicum (Italian War) had appeared on official documents. The more common modern name, bellum sociale (Social War), didn't appear until the second century AD, when it replaced the earlier names in historical accounts.

The exact course of the war is rather difficult to follow. Appian provides us with a narrative, but it tends to leap around, and often fails to give names or locations for the events it describes. This may well reflect the nature of the conflict, which appears to have involved a large number of Italian and Roman armies each operating semi-independently. Other sources provide more details, including giving names to some of Appian's battles, but the various accounts don't always agree.

Background to the War

The main cause of the Social War was the tension caused by the denial of Roman citizenship to her Italian allies. As the Republic has expanded three categories of citizenship had developed. At the top were the Roman citizens themselves, a group wasn't just restricted to the citizens of Rome herself, but also included large areas of central Italy across to Picenum, on the Adriatic, large parts of the west coast south of Rome and other scattered colonies.

Next came the Latini, originally members of the defeated Latin League, but eventually used to describe anyone who held Latin Rights. These areas were also scattered around Italy. Latin Rights gave the possessor the right to trade on the same basis as Roman citizens, the right to marry and the right to move around Italy without losing their status.

At the bottom came the Allies, or socii, which were semi-independent states across Italy, allied to Rome by a perpetual treaty of military alliance. The socii didn't count as citizens and had no say in the government of Rome, but at the same time provided a sizable part of every Roman army.

A number of attempts were made to alter this situation. In 122 BC the tribune Gaius Gracchus put forward a bill that would have seen all Latin citizens made into Roman citizens and all of the Allies made into Roman citizens. On this occasion he lost the support of his plebeian allies in Rome, who didn't want to share the practical benefits of Roman citizenship, which included subsidised grain.

In 95 BC the Romans made a major mistake in their handling of the situation, when the consuls Lucius Licinus Crassus and Quintus Mucius Scaevola Pontifex passed the Lex Licinia Mucia, which was aimed at prosecuting anyone who was falsely claiming Roman citizenship. As this group probably included many of the wealthier allies, it was bound to cause more anger.

Late in 91 BC the tribune M. Livius Drusus put forward a law that wound have granted Roman citizenship to all of the Italian allies. Drusus had close connections with the Italians, and was a friend of Quintus Poppaedius Silo, soon to be one of the main Italian leaders in the war. This proposal raised the level of tension in Rome, where Drusus's earlier reforms were already controversial. Silo  may have planned a march on Rome at the head of 10,000 men, to try and put some pressure on the Romans, and a plot was developed to assassinate the two consuls. This was foiled when Drusus discovered it, and reported it to the consul Philippus. Soon after this Drusus's earlier laws were repealed, and Drusus himself was assassinated.

The allies had also been alienated by the attempts at land reform in Rome. These were meant to break up the larger estates that had been formed on the public land (areas conquered by Rome in earlier wars in Italy but not officially distributed). Unfortunately these laws allowed land to be confiscated from the allies, but only given to Romans and Latins, providing another cause for complaint.

Outbreak of War

We don't know how long the allies had been preparing for war, but their plans were clearly at quite an advanced stage by this point. The Romans began to suspect that something was in the air, and sent out envoys to the various allied towns. One of these envoys discovered that a hostage was being sent from Asculum, in southern Picenum, to another town. The unnamed envoy passed this news onto the praetor C. Servilius, who was serving as a proconsular governor in the area. He went to Asculum, and threatened the people during a festival. They assumed that the plot had been discovered and murdered Servilius, his legate Fonteius and then every Roman citizen who was found in the town.

According to Appian the Marsi, Peligni, Vestini and Marrucini declared war first. This placed the revolt dangerously close to Rome - the Marsi lived around Lake Fucinus in the Apennines east of Rome, and the Vestini, Peligni and Marrucini took the revolt across to the Adriatic coast. Next to declare war were the Picentines (just to the north of the first group and the area that included Asculum) and a group of tribes further to the south -  the Frentani (south of the Marrucini), the Hirpini (southern Samnites), the Pompeiians, the Venusini, the Apulians, the Lucanians, and the Samnites. The Picentines, Marsi, Peligni, Vestini, Marrucini, Frentani, Samnites and Hirpini were probably the most important, and may have been represented by the eight figures seen on one of the league's coins.

The Allies formed a new league. Its headquarters were at Corfinium, in the territory of the Peligni. The city was renamed Italia. They chose two consuls, twelve praetors and created a senate. The two consuls were Poppaedius Silo, the Marsic leader and Papius Mutilus, the Samnite leader. The new league issued its own coinage, a sign of its serious intent.

Both sides began with war with field armies of about 100,000 men, with more men guarding their communities. The Italians were able to mobilised the forces that would normally have served with the Romans, while the Romans had their own citizens, their Latin allies and those Italian allies who remained loyal.

90 BC

Appian's account of the events of 90 BC begins with a victory for Vettius Scato over the consul Lucius Julius Caesar, followed by the start of an Italian siege of Aesernia, a city on the Apennine route between the two halves of the Italian alliance. Orosius adds a relief effort by Sula, which may have temporarily lifted the siege, or at least got supplies into the city, but couldn't prevent it from falling.

At this stage the Italians also captured Venafrum ( about 20 miles to the south-west of Aesernia), defeated Perpenna at an unknown location and defeated Licinius Crassus near Grumentum in Lucania in the south of Italy.

In Campania the Samnite leader Gaius Papius Mutilus took Nola by treachery, then moved south, captured Stabiae, Surrentum and Salernum, and plundered the area around Nuceria (all in the area to the south of Pompeii, between the Gulf of Naples and the Gulf of Salerno. He then returned north to besiege Acerrae, between Nola and Naples. Caesar attempted to lift the siege, but retreated after an attack on his camp. In the east Canusia, Venusia and much of Apulia were convinced to join the Italians by Vidacilius.

We then return to the Marsi front, where the consul Publius Rutilius Lupus and his legate Gaius Marius were attacked by Vettius Scato on either the Liris or the Tolenus. Rutilius refused to accept Marius's advice to train his troops, and was caught and killed in an ambush. Marius restored the situation by attacking Scato's camp, forcing him to retreat on the day after the battle.

No new consul was elected, and command of Rutilius's army was split between Q. Caepio and Marius. Caepio was then lured into a trap by Q. Poppaedius Silo and killed with part of his army. Marius was given command of the combined army.

Back in Campania Caesar had raised a new army, but lost most of this force in an ambush in a rocky defile. He escaped to Teanum, where he received reinforcements, and moved south to try and lift the siege of Acerrae, which was still holding out. Caesar and Papius Mutilus camped close to each other, but neither was willing to risk a battle. After this we don’t hear any more of the siege of Acerrae.

Appian then moves immediately on to a major victory for Marius and Sulla over the Marsians, at an unnamed location somewhere in Marsian territory (the battle took place around some of their vineyards).

Appian's focus then turns north, to Picenum, where the rebels held Asculum. Pompey Strabo (father of Pompey the Great), attempted to besiege the city, but he was defeated by three Italian commanders at Mount Falernus, somewhere to the north, and had to east to Firmum. He was besieged there until news arrived that another army was approaching (Appian doesn't say whose side this was on, but as it triggers an attempt at a breakout it was probably Italian reinforcements). Pompey sent his legate Sulpicius to attack Lafrenius's besieging forces from the rear, while he attacked from the front. Sulpicius was able to burn the Italian camp, and Lafrenius was killed in the battle. As a result the siege was lifted. The surviving Italians fled south to Asculum, and Pompey laid siege to the city.

Vidacilius, who had been one of the commanders at Firmum, and who was from Asculum, decided to try and save his home town. He managed to break into the city at the head of eight cohorts (4,000 men), but his orders for a sally had been ignored. He was greatly discouraged by what he found in the city, and after killing his political opponents he committed suicide.

Appian now introduces a somewhat confusing element to the story. For most of his account Pompey Strabo was the Roman commander at Asculum, but he now introduces two new commanders. First is Sextus Caesar, one of the consuls for 91 BC and now serving as a proconsul. Sextus is credited with winning a victory over 20,000 Italians while they were changing their camp, and then dies of disease while besieging Asculum. He was replaced by Gaius Baebius. These events might belong to 89 BC, when Pompey was consul, with wider responsibilities, and suggest that Sextus Caesar and then Gaius Baebius conducted the day to day management of the siege. It is also possible that they were in charge while Pompey was in Rome for the elections, or while he was dealing with an Italian army heading for the Etruscan coast (see below). In either case Pompey appears to have been in command of the siege when Asculum fell (probably in the following year), although frustratingly Appian doesn't actually mention the end of the siege.  

The most important event of the year probably came in the autumn, after Lucius Caesar had returned to Rome from Acerrae. The Etruscans and Umbrians, who had not yet joined the revolt, were becoming increasingly agitated. In order to prevent them from rebelling, the Romans gave in to the original Italian demands for citizenship. The Lex Iulia de Civitate Latinis Danda granted Roman citizenship to all Latin communities and to all Italian communities that had not yet joined the revolt. Although there appears to have been a minor outbreak of trouble in both areas, it wasn't important enough to be mentioned in Appian.

89 BC

The consuls for 89 BC were Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo and Lucius Porcius Cato (the uncle of Cato the Younger). At the start of the year Strabo was still engaged in the siege of Asculum. Cato operated against the Marsi in the area to the east of Rome. Sulla held the main command in Campania, where he fought the Samnites.

The threat of trouble amongst the Etruscans must have been fairly significant, for the Italians on the Adriatic coast sent 15,000 men across the mountains to try and assist them. Pompey Strabo intercepted this army, killed 5,000 and forced the survivors into a costly retreat across the mountains.

Early in the year Cato was killed in a battle on Lake Fucinus, only fifty miles to the east of Rome.

Appian then moves on to Sulla's activities in Campania and against the Samnites. First he moved into the hills near Pompeii, which was under siege. Lucius Cluentius camped nearby, and an impatient Sulla attacked before his army was united, Cluentius won this first clash, but was defeated in a second clash after Sulla's army was reunited. Cluentius then received Gallic reinforcements, but was heavily defeated in a third clash, and fled north towards Nola. Cluentius and 20,000 of his men were said to have been killed outside the city.

Nola was apparently too strong to attack, and would remain in Samnite hands for the rest of the decade. Sulla took his troops east into the mountains, where he quickly captured Aeclanum, and forced the Hirpini to surrender. He then turned on the Samnites, ignoring the most obvious routes, which were guarded by Papius Mutilus. Instead he took a longer route, surprised Papius and defeated him at yet another unnamed location. Papius fled to Aesernia, 55 miles to the north-west of Aeclanum, which at least gives us some idea of which direction Sulla had moved in. His next target was Bovianum, 15 miles to the south-east of Aeclanum, where the Italians had their common council (Corfinium presumably having been abandoned after earlier Roman successes). Bovianum also fell to Sulla, who then returned to Rome to stand for consul.

89-88 BC

The timeline of the war now becomes a bit confused. Appian tells us that Pompey completed the conquest of the Marsians, Marrucini (on the Adriatic coast around Chieti in Abruzzo) and Vestini (in modern Abruzzo). In Apulia the praetor Gaius Cosconius captured Salapia (in northern Apulia), captured Cannae and then besieged Canusium. The Saminites defeated him at Canusium, but were then defeated in turn at a battle between Canusium and Cannae. The survivors retreated to Canusium. Cosconius then overran the territory of Larinum, Venusia (on the northern and western edges of Apulia) and Asculum (modern Ascoli Satriano in Apulia) and received the surrender of the Poediculi (western and central Aupilia).

The final battle of the war came at River Teanus, probably also in Apulia. The Roman army was probably commanded by Metellus Pius, described as the successor of Cosconius as praetor, who defeated the Apulians. Poppaedius Silo was killed in the battle. After this battle only the Samnites and Lucanians were still in arms against the Romans, and their fate began tied up with the Sullan civil wars.

Livy gives us some possible dates for these events, and adds more of his own. He places the surrender of the Vestinians to Pompey, and a battle between the Romans under Cosconius and Lucanus and the Samnites under Marius Egnatius in 89 BC.

If the periochae of book 76 of Livy covers the events of a single year, then this would be 88 BC, as Pompey is described as pro-consul. Pompey's legate Sulpicius accepts the surrender of the Marrucinians. The Marsians surrendered after suffering defeats against Cinna and Metellus Pius. Asculum finally fell to Pompey. Poppaedius Silo was killed in battle.

Aftermath and Lingering Conflict

The end of most of the fighting in the Social War didn’t see the return of peace at Rome. This time the cause of the war was the rivalry between Sulla and Marius. As consul, Sulla was granted the command against Mithridates VI of Pontus (First Mithridatic War). Marius also wanted the command, and used a combination of the support of the tribune of the plebs Sulpicius and mob violence to seize the command. Sulla went against all precedent, and refused to accept his political defeat. Instead he went to the army at Capua (perhaps the army he was using to besiege Nola, and that expected to be used in the potentially lucrative eastern war), and convinced them to support him (Sulla's First Civil War). Sulla led this army against Rome, and occupied the city (battle of the Esquiline Forum, 88 BC), the first time in centuries that a Roman army had been led against the city (possibly the first time in the entire history of the Republic). Sulla put in place a number of reforms, and then left for the war in the east.

Sulla's allies soon lost control of Rome. In 87 BC the consul Cinna attempted to overturn some of Sulla's reforms and was expelled from the city. He gathered an army, and besieged Rome. The senate ordered Metellus Pius to make peace with the Samnites, but he refused to accept their terms. Marius, who had returned from a brief exile in Africa, offered to accept the Samnite terms, and they supported Cinna.

This marked the real end of the Social War. Although the Samnites still held Nola, they were now allies of the anti-Sullan Roman establishment. The respite would be short-lived. When Sulla returned to Italy in 83 BC (Sulla's Second Civil War), the Samnites supported the Marian establishment. They attempted to raise Sulla's siege of Praeneste (82 BC), and when this failed launched a desperate attack on Rome. Sulla arrived just in time to save the city (battle of the Colline Gate, 82 BC), and in the aftermath of this victory massacred thousands of Samnite prisoners. During his time in power Sulla proscribed or banished most of the surviving Samnite leaders, and Strabo reported that most of their cities had decayed into villages.

The Social War is an almost unique example of a war in which the defeated side got what it wanted. The Italian allies gained Roman citizenship, although the details of their new status would continue to cause problems for the rest of the Republic. At first they were placed into eight or ten new tribes, each reflecting one of their tribal groupings. As the tribes voted in order of seniority, their votes would thus rarely ever count. Over the next few decades a series of attempts were made to place the new voters in the existing Roman tribes, each of which caused a political crisis in Rome. Unfortunately for the Italians, they gained their new status in the dying days of the Republic. At the start of 49 BC Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, at the start of the Great Roman Civil War. This triggered a period of almost non-stop civil conflict that didn't end until Octavius had established himself as the uncontested ruler of the Roman Empire after the defeat of Mark Antony at Actium in 31 BC. The political significance of Roman citizenship disappeared as the traditional magistrates of the Republic lost their power, although most of the legal benefits did remain. The Social War ended the patchwork of different levels of rights that had covered Italy since the original Roman conquests, and turned most free Italians and Latins into Romans.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 June 2017), Italian Social war (91-88 BC) ,

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