Monday, January 28, 2013

Part III: The Social War

Individuals who follow my blog know that I spend a lot of time comparing the United States to Rome, specifically the Rome of the late republic.  The reason why I do so is because I do see a lot of similarities between the two polities, politically and culturally. Late republic Rome had to deal with it's new found position as the biggest power in the Mediterranean and growing internal strain due to inequality, lack of opportunity, growing entitlements, and abuse of their constitutional system, all leading to a series of crises that helped lead to the end of the republic.

Currently America finds itself in a rare position of near unchallenged power and growing internal issues are starting to tear apart the traditional fabric that lead America to be a great, and more importantly, free nation.  Previously wrote about Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, and how their attempts at addressing some reason social issues that troubled Rome, by running roughshod over their constitution, had long term ramifications that lead to the ultimate downfall of the republic.  The Social war is one of these long term items I refer too, though the point is relatively minor.

Now, the Social war is perhaps one of the events that bears the least similarity to the United States as it stands now. I cannot think of anything approximating the social war that we have gone through in the last century, or will about to go through in the near future. An event like the Social War today would have to entail that America's allies wage a war against the United States with the end goal of obtaining citizenship. This isn't going to happen, largely because our alliance structure as it stands now is more beneficial to our allies than the Romans alliance structure was for theirs around that time.

I mention the social war, because I do think the actions of Tiberius and Gaius do relate, however minutely, but more importantly, it is a great example of what happens when a known problem is ignored until it becomes critical. Tiberius had campaigned for allied citizenship back in 133 B.C and the Social War didn't break out until 91 B.C, which means the Romans knew of this problem for at least four decades, and quiet possibly longer, but failed to address this issue. In short, the Social War was an entirely unnecessary war, thousands dies that need not of died, and this war was the impetus for the civil wars between Marius and Sulla.  There is no guarantee that the Republic would not have collapsed if it were not for this war, I think the Republics eventual demise was a given after the Gracchi brothers, but the war was the first noticeably large brick that fell out of the foundation of Rome. And that is why I feel compelled to write about it, because it serves as a stark reminder for the living today the potentially dire consequences that can be reaped when we ignore what we sow.

Before I continue I, once again, recommend that you go to this and listen to this podcast about the Social War.  It's a good podcast to listen too if your doing some menial task work.  Now onto the rest of the blog itself, there is a lot that plays into the Social War that I won't cover, such as the distribution of colonies and what happened with Roman versus non-Roman colonies, but that could a very long time. I am going to try to keep this blog post as streamlined as possible.

The catalyst for the Social War was the assassination of populist tribune Marcus Livius Drusus the younger, who had attempted to address Romans allies growing discontent with the current political order by trying to get citizenship extended to them. This is interesting for two reasons, one, his father was elected as a tribune to the people, by members of the conservative party, in order to stymie Gaius Gracchus. His son was a populist and had enjoyed some success securing greater participation of the wealthy plebeians, the equestrians, into the political system.  His downfall came when he tried to press his luck and address an issue that was beginning to boil over. And this is where the second interesting point comes in, Drusus was partially responsible for the death of Gaius by the mob, and Tiberius was responsible for the breaking of the personal sanctity of the Tribune, by having his supporters forcibly remove a rival tribune. Both these instances are seen when Marcus Drusus, whose body is sacred as long he is a tribune, is stabbed by an unknown assailant and died.

However, unlike Gaius, where the mob was instrumental in his death, it is most likely that a paid assassin from one of the conservatives senators was responsible. The reasons for the assassination stem from reports, though solid unbiased information from this period is difficult to find, that some of the senators had found out that Drusus had made agreements with the Italian allies. The allies would become his patrons in exchange for his pushing through a citizenship bill. If this were true then it would have made Drusus a very powerful man, the most powerful man in Rome. On the flip side, others have said that Drusus was simply trying to include more wealthy Italian patricians, which would have shifted the balance of power back to the Senate and away from the demagogue Tribunes that had come into being with the rise of the Gracchi brothers.

The sins of Tiberius and Gaius had come full circle, now even the senators were blatantly ignoring the laws set down by their countries constitution, and like Gods punishment on Cain for his fratricide, the Social War was the punishment meted out for the breaking of their cities covenant.  For a long time the allies of Rome had become increasingly restless, and it was Drusus alone, who promised enfranchisement, that kept them at bay.

The allies were part of a confederation, with Rome at it's head, that was something not quiet as strong as a federation of states into a nation and not quiet as week as a military alliance, like NATO today. Essentially, it was a hegemonic relationship with Rome. Roman allies would be guaranteed protection by Rome in exchange for letting Rome dictate foreign policy while still maintaining sovereignty domestically. Additionally, during military campaigns, Roman allies would make up half of all the military units mustered, with the other half being comprised of Roman citizens and the spoils of war would be shared equally.

Italians benefited from this arrangement since the enjoyed protection from foreign aggression from Rome, their individual military burden was lessened, and they maintained their sovereignty, at least domestically. For the Romans, it ensured that they wouldn't have to worry about being attacked by their neighbors, their military force would be supplemented so it lowered their own individual burden, and they got to dictate when and were the forces would fight.  This set up lasted for hundreds of years, and even Hannibal was unable to get Romes allies to break ranks during his invasion.

However, with the land crisis of the mid to late 2nd century BC, and growing corruption by the senatorial class, began to change all this.  Other Italian and Latin cities had the same sociological make up as the Romans, with their own patricians and plebeians. For the Italian patricians, even though they did not enjoy say in policy of Rome, they benefited from the arraignment. Yes, many were frustrated that Roman patricians were increasingly taking a greater share of the spoils of war, however, they also benefited from the growing impoverishment of plebeians, and were able to also acquire tracts of land as well.  They were second class citizens, but they benefited from the arraignment since their interests were largely the same as the patrician Romans. Gaius and Tiberius changed all that.

The land reforms implemented saw the lands of the Italian patricians being confiscated and given away to Roman plebeians. This was a grave insult to the patricians, and it reminded them, that yes, they were patricians like the Romans, but they were second class citizens. The dregs of Rome mattered more than the gentry folk of non-Roman citizens. This had effectively started to regionalize the alliance, and regional differences are often the seeds of civil war.

It is telling though, that it took almost forty years for war to break out, the political leaders of the allied cities did not want to fight Rome, they felt that alliance with Rome served their best interest, but they increasingly viewed the situation as intolerable. It was only when political options had been completely exhausted, in the eyes of the allies, that war was considered. It is also a testament of the stupidity of the elected leaders of Rome, there was no reason why this war couldn't have been prevented, but the leaders of Rome continued to stick their heads in ground and tell themselves that if it hadn't happened in 133 B.C then it wouldn't in 123 B.C, then 113 BC, and finally, in 91 B.C it finally did. This should serve a stark reminder to us, because our politicians are doing exactly what the patrician senators did in regards to our national debt and growing socialism.  It may take half a century or more for the ills of ignoring poor policy to be felt, but eventually they will be felt.

After the assassination of Drusus the younger the Italian allies formed their own confederation, complete with a capital city, Corfinium, their own senate, consul, praetors, quaestors, and magistrates. It was just like the Roman confederation, save that Rome wasn't a part of it.  Both the allies and Rome knew this couldn't be solved peaceably, so they mustered their legions. However, at this point, fully 60% of Romes legions had been made up of allied soldiers.  Rome was severely understrengthed for the fight ahead.

At first war went very poorly. Rome faced enemies to the north and south, and a much smaller military force than it had historically commanded. Consul P. Rutilius was defeated in several engagements up north, until he was finally killed in battle, which prompted Marius, who I will write about later, to come out fo self exile and campaign in the north.  In the south, several towns were captured and sacked by the Italians until Lucius Julius Caesar, father of Gaius Julius Caesar, was able to defeat the Italians in a crucial battle.

It had become all too clear to the Caesar at this point that the resolution of the allied conflict was impossible with out granting citizenship.  There were simply too many cities for Rome to hold down by military force, and revolts would continue to break out, weakening Rome in the Mediterranean, and possibly leaving it vulnerable to a new power in the future.  With this in mind, Lucius Julius Caesar proposed the Lex Julia, which granted citizenship to any Italian who was not in revolt, and also to any allied city that immediately put down their arms.  For most Italians, this was exactly what they had fought for, so they put down their arms and swore allegiance to Rome. Nevertheless, a few formerly allied cities, held out and continued their war. And a war that was already interesting, becomes even more so, because it is in these final years of the Social War that you begin to see the seeds of conflict between Sulla and Marius as well as the rise of Pompey clan.

Lucius Julius Caesars time as consul was over and Sulla had returned from praetorship and was granted command in the south. Instead of picking Marius to lead the armies, as he had made many enemies in the Senate, they one of his opponents Caepio, for the command in the north. Caepio was killed in battle, but Marius was slighted again, when Pompeius, father of Pompey the Great, was picked to lead the Roman armies.  This wounded Marius pride greatly, and it was became worse when Sulla, victorious in his campaign down south and formally ending the Social War, was elected to a consulship.

The Social War is the last time that Rome, and her various factions, are unified as one people..I mark the end of the republic, in regards to the Roman constitution, with the tribuneships of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus.  Marius and Sulla mark the end of the republic as a political entity governed by the senate.  The next few decades will see bloody purges, civil wars, the first triumvirate, the second triumvirate, and finally Augustus.  Less than 60 years later, the republic had completely consumed itself. August, learning from the murder of his uncle, and adoptive father, Julius Caesar, would rule discreetly and behind the scenes, keeping the charade of the republic alive.  But the republic by that time was well and truly dead.

There is no indication that this would not have eventually happened to Rome even if they had avoided the Social War.  A growing class of plebeians dependent on the patronage of wealthy patricians for sustenance would have eventually resulted in a man powerful enough to try and grab the reigns of the most powerful nation in the ancient world, he only needed the ambition.  But the Social War certainly exacerbated the problem.  What probably would have been a slow decline of the republic, ended up ending quiet rapidly. Caesar was a boy when the Social Wars had started, and the Senate still a viable, if horribly corrupt, governing entity.  By the time he crossed the Rubicon 41 years later, the senate had become completely impotent.

Next in the series of the decline of the Republic, Marius and Sulla, bloody purges, and civil wars.


  1. A large part of the Roman Republic's downfall was that the patricians had been squeezing out the assidui during the Punic Wars (via both legal and extralegal means), to the point where Rome's yeoman farmers were too few in number to man the legions. Latifundian agriculture was made possible by the wealth (slaves and silver) captured from Carthage, which was largely concentrated in patrician hands. Too, the Lex Licinia Sextia, which limited an individual's cultivation of private lands to 500 iugera, was widely disregarded, putting pressure on the familes of the assidui while they were on campaign and thus unable to defend their farms.

    Had the Roman elite followed their laws in the first place, the populares would have had a much harder time gaining political traction. Arguably, "one rule for me, another for thee" is fatal to any republic's constitution, written or unwritten.

    1. Very true. The squeezing out of the yeoman farmer by the wealthy patricians, coupled with the importation of cheap slave labor, leading them to Rome and join the dole had many disasterous effects. It forced the senate to start devaluing their currency and lead to the rise of Tiberius and Gaius, men who began to utter desecration of Rome's most sacred laws.

      I will be doing posts on Marius and Sulla next, both men marking the final death kneel of the republic as a governing entity, and the beginning of the civil war years which marked the rise of Crassus, Pompey and Caesar until Augustus finally restores order.


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Seattle resident whose real name is Kevin Daniels. This blog covers the following topics, libertarian philosophy, realpolitik, western culture, history and the pursuit of truth from the perspective of a libertarian traditionalist.