Following the Punic Wars, Rome entered into an era of class warfare. Tiberius Gracchus and his brother, Gaius, attempted reforms to fix Rome’s economic and military problems. Their efforts awoke the lower classes and non-Roman Italians. Those groups wanted their rights and became a political players. Meanwhile, Gaius Marius’ military reforms benefited the lower classes and transferred soldierly loyalty from the state to the generals. The new soldiers also brought their new political consciousness and the military became politicized. In 91 B.C., the reforms which created a new consciousness in the lower orders, Italians, and military came together. The Italians revolted demanding their political rights. Rome put down the revolution, but the Italians won their rights.
By the third century B.C., Rome conquered Italy and became the dominant power on the peninsula. The Italians formed alliances with Rome which theoretically guaranteed their independence. However, the Romans extracted tribute and drafted Italians into military service. Additionally, Rome controlled Italian foreign policy. However, the allies did receive some benefits.
At first, the Italians received a portion of the spoils of war. By the Punic Wars, the Romans stopped sharing the rewards. The Italians began to question their alliance. They protested, but Rome ignored them until Gaius Gracchus became tribune. Gracchus attempted to extend Roman citizenship to Italy. His reforms guaranteed Italian access to cheap grain as well as voting rights. The Roman lower classes protested and blocked the reform. They wanted their rights and did not want to share. However, the Italians took note of Gracchus’ reform efforts.
By 91 B.C., Roman policy reduced most Italians to extreme poverty. The poverty combined with the desire for rights pushed Rome’s allies to the brink. In Rome, a newly elected tribune, Marcus Livius Drusus, made another attempt to extend citizenship to Italy. Under the bill, Italians gained access to cheap grain and a great measure of local autonomy.
Romans from all classes opposed Drusus. The elites worried about losing their land while the poor did not want to share the grain. Word leaked that the Italians swore loyalty to Drusus. If the bill passed, Drusus powerbase exponentially increased. This worried the Senate. His opponents moved quickly and assassinated the tribune. Poltical reform died with him and the Italians took matters into their own hands.
Drusus’ assassination led the Italians to revolt. They wanted independence and hoped to form their own country. They named their country Italia and set the capital at Corfinium. To fight Rome, they formed an army and minted coins. Many soldiers were experienced veterans of the Roman army.
Rome needed to defeat the allies quickly so others did not revolt. They called on their client states and colonies for help. Gaius Marius returned to combat the crisis. The allies scored victories and had Rome on the ropes. In 90 B.C., Marius became the sole commander and stabilized the situation. Soon after, he suffered a stroke and remained incapacitated for the remainder of the conflict. Meanwhile, Lucius Cornelius Sulla took command on the southern front.
By 88 B.C. Sulla successfully defeated the Italians. His offensive effectively eliminated resistance. The Senate awarded him the highest honors for his efforts and bravery. Eventually, Sulla used the military to become dictator. During the same year, Consul Strabo defeated the Italians in a decisive battle. Although some continued to hold out, the war effectively ended.
Following the military victory, the Roman political leadership needed to ensure another rebellion would not happen. A new law guaranteed citizenship to cities and communities that remained loyal. The Romans passed a subsequent law awarding citizenship to those people that did fight against Rome. The inhabitants of the Roman Peninsula lost the war, but achieved their goal. They won their Roman citizenship.
The Social War was the first major shock to Rome during the first century B.C. Reform efforts of the previous century motivated the Italians to revolt against Rome. They lost the war, but won their citizenship. Despite the hard won peace, the Social War left everything in place for civil war. The military remained politicized and loyal to their generals. Additionally, Rome remained a highly stratified society. Only the Italian question was settled.