Social War (91–88 BC)

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Social War
Part of the Roman unification of Italy
The Growth of Roman Power in Italy.jpg
Map of the Roman confederation in 100 BC, on the eve of the Social War. Note the patchwork political configuration. The Roman possessions (in grey-blue) straddle the strategic centre of the Italian peninsula and the Tyrrhenian coastal plain. Latin colonies (dark red) are scattered in strategic locations. Other socii (pink) are concentrated in the mountainous interior
Date 91–88 BC
Location Italy
Result Roman military victory, although Italian rights guaranteed
Status quo ante bellum
Roman Republic Marsic Group: Marsi,
Samnite Group:
Commanders and leaders
Publius Rutilius Lupus ,
Gaius Marius,
Pompeius Strabo,
Lucius Julius Caesar,
Lucius Cornelius Sulla,
Titus Didius ,
Lucius Porcius Cato 
Quintus Poppaedius Silo ,
Gaius Papius Mutilus,
Titus Afranius

The Social War ("Social" being a mistranslation from socii ("allies"), thus Bellum Sociale;[1] also called the Italian War, the War of the Allies or the Marsic War) was a war waged from 91 to 88 BC between the Roman Republic and several of the other cities in Italy, which prior to the war had been Roman allies for centuries.


Roman victory in the Samnite Wars resulted in effective Roman dominance of the Italian peninsula. This dominance was expressed in a collection of alliances between Rome and the cities and communities of Italy, on more or less favorable terms depending on whether a given city had voluntarily allied with Rome or been defeated in war. These cities were theoretically independent, but in practice Rome had the right to demand from them tribute money and a certain number of soldiers: by the 2nd century BC the Italian allies contributed between one half and two-thirds of the soldiers in Roman armies. Rome also had virtual control over the allies' foreign policy, including their interaction with one another. Aside from the Second Punic War, where Hannibal had some limited success in turning some Italian communities against Rome, for the most part the Italian communities were content to remain as client states of Rome in return for local autonomy.

The Romans' policy of land distribution had led to great inequality of land-ownership and wealth.[2] This led to the "Italic people declining little by little into pauperism and paucity of numbers without any hope of remedy."[3]

A number of political proposals had attempted to address the growing discrepancy whereby Italians made a significant contribution to Rome's military force, while receiving disproportionately small shares of land and citizenship rights. These efforts came to a head under the impetus of Marcus Livius Drusus in 91 BC. His reforms would have granted the Roman allies Roman citizenship, giving them a greater say in the external policy of the Roman Republic. Most local affairs came under local governance and were not as important to the Romans as, for example, when the alliance would go to war or how they would divide the plunder. The response of the Roman senatorial elite to Drusus' proposals were to reject his ideas and assassinate him. This brusque dismissal of the granting of rights that the Italians considered to be long overdue greatly angered them, and communities throughout Italy attempted to declare independence from Rome in response, sparking a war.

The War

The Social War began in 91 BC when the Italian allies revolted. The Latins as a whole remained largely loyal to Rome, with the one exception of Venusia. The rebellious allies planned not just formal separation from Rome, but also the creation of their own independent confederation, called Italia, with its own capital at Corfinium (in modern-day Abruzzo) that was renamed Italica. To pay for the troops, they created their own coinage that was used as propaganda against Rome. These coins depict eight warriors taking an oath, probably representing the Marsi, Picentines, Paeligni, Marrucini, Vestini, Frentani, Samnites and Hirpini.[4]

The Italian soldiers were battle-hardened, most of them having served in the Roman armies. The 12 allies of Italia were originally able to field 120,000 men. The Italians divided this force according to their positions within Italy.[5]

The Roman strategy focused on surviving the first onslaught, while simultaneously trying to entice other Italian clients to remain loyal or refrain from defection, and then meet the threat of the revolt with troops raised from provinces as well as from client kingdoms. One of the two separate theatres of war was assigned to each of the consuls of 90 BC. In the north, the consul Publius Rutilius Lupus was advised by Gaius Marius and Pompeius Strabo; in the south the consul Lucius Julius Caesar had Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Titus Didius.

Events in 90 BC:

  • Roman consul Strabo successfully besieged Asculum
  • Rutilius was defeated and killed in Tolenus Valley
  • Quintus Servilius Caepio was defeated and killed by Poppaedius
  • Marius was able to retrieve these losses and was left in sole command
  • Besieged Aesernia — a key fortress which covered the communication between the north and south areas — forced it to surrender
  • Papius Mutilus burst into southern Campania and won over many towns and held them until defeated by Caesar
  • Other Italian commanders led successful raids into Apulia and Lucania

Despite these losses, the Romans managed to stave off total defeat and hang on. In 89 BC, both consuls went to the northern front whilst Sulla took sole command of the southern front.

Events in 89 BC:

  • Lucius Porcius Cato (one of the two consuls) defeated and killed
  • Strabo (other consul) left in sole command – decisive engagement defeated Italian Army of 60,000 men – after success forces Asculum to surrender
  • Sulla moved to the offensive — he defeated a Samnite army
  • Recovered some of the major cities in Campania

By 88 BC, the war was largely over except for the Samnites (the old rivals of Rome) who still held out. It is likely that the war would have continued a lot longer had Rome not made concessions to their allies.

Roman concessions to the Allies

L. Julius Caesar proposed the Lex Julia during his consulship which he carried before his office ended. The law offered full citizenship to all Latin and Italian communities who had not revolted.

However, the law offered the option of citizenship to whole communities and not to individuals. This meant that each individual community had to pass the law, most likely by a vote in assembly, before it could take effect. It was also possible under the Lex Julia for citizenship to be granted as a reward for distinguished military service in the field.

It is assumed that the Lex Julia was closely followed by a supplementary statute, the Lex Plautia Papiria, which stated that a registered male of an allied state could obtain Roman citizenship by presenting himself to a Roman praetor within 60 days of the passing of the law. This statute enabled inhabitants of towns disqualified by the Lex Julia to apply for citizenship if they desired.

See also


  1. Durant, Will (1944). Caesar and Christ. The Story of Civilization. 3. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 122. This is a time-honored mistranslation of Bellum Sociale – the War of the Allies (socii) against Rome.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Appian, Civil Wars, p. 1.7<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  3. Appian, Civil Wars, p. 1.9<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  4. Scullard, HH (1970), From the Gracchi to Nero, London: Methuen & Co. Ltd<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Salmon, ET (1958), "Notes on the Social War", Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association (89), pp. 159–84<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Smith, William (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. 3. Boston, Little. p. 735.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>