XH Social War History

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Social War History: 91 BC - 88 BC

The Social War: 91 BC

Origins of the Conflict & the Birth of Italia The Social War in Italy began in late 91BC when, after a long period of unrest over the issue of Roman citizenship, the Italian peoples, who had linked up as allies in the last two centuries to the Roman state, revolted and formed the makings of their own republic. They called their new polity Italia and inaugurated their nation and their capital in the city of Corfinium that was itself renamed Italica. They created their own coinage to both pay their troops and as gilded popular propaganda against Rome. Their coins displayed the Italian bull gorging and raping the Roman wolf. The Italian armies of the new state were trained and led by the battle-hardened veterans of Rome’s many wars, and were generally organized at the lower levels on the Roman pattern in Legions & cohorts. The peoples of Italia initially were able to field over a 100,000 men divided up into individual armies according to their positions within Italy. The organization of the infant state of Italia mimicked the style of the Roman republic. Like the Romans the Italians selected two consuls to lead their armies and their new government. Lesser posts in the Italian republic were parceled out to prominent Italian nobles to head the forces newly raised from the various peoples of Central and South-Central Italy. The Italian consuls were Quintus Poppaedius Silo of the Marsi, and Gaius Papius Mutilus of the Samnites. The Italians also formed their own Senate of about 500 members. The Roman Senate and people were caught by surprise at the sudden onset of the war and the genesis of Italia. They had to hastily cobble together Legions, recruit volunteers, levy taxes on the wealthy classes, and call for the help from their outer Imperial provinces as well as the Roman client kingdoms. Italia’s very existence posed a dire threat to the integrity of what remained of the Roman confederation. Non-Roman or partly Roman/Latin areas of Italy, particularly in Umbria, northern Campania, and Eturia, as well as scattered & initially besieged cities like Alba Fucens, Acerrae, and Asernia remained precariously loyal to Rome, but almost all of Lucania, Apulia, and parts of southern Campania quickly moved into the Italian column via both Italian invasions and diplomacy. It was necessary for the Romans and their remaining loyal allies to survive the first onslaughts, and quickly recover from their early defeats as this would discourage further defections and allow time for Rome’s ultimately superior resources and greater cohesion to be brought to bear to strangle the new nation of Italia in the crib. The initial trigger for the start of the Social War in late 91BC, and the revolt of the Italian Allies was the assassination of the Roman Tribune Livius Drusus, who had proposed laws for the enfranchisement of the rest of Italy and the purchase & distribution of land by the state to settle lower-class Romans. He was struck down on the poorly lit portico of his house while conducting business with his clients one evening. A knife was discovered driven into his hip. The Course of the Social War in 90BC: The Scales of Victory and Defeat The consuls of Rome for the year 90BC were Sextus Julius Caesar and Publius Rutilius Lupus. Sextus Caesar took command of the southern front in Campania, while Lupus commanded an army in central Italy opposite the Marsic homeland. The first months of the war featured a series of stunning Roman defeats—Strabo was driven into Firmum Picenum, Sextus Caesar was defeated by Scato in the Melfa gorge with the loss of 2,000 men, Gaius Perpena was ambushed in a mountain pass where 4,000 Romans fell. The survivors of Perpena’s defeated force were incorporated into Gaius Marius’ new army. But the worst was yet to come. Asernia and Nola fell to the Italians---Publius Lupus, the consul for Rome, was killed along with his legate and the force with him virtually wiped out by Scato. This defeat was partly retrieved by Marius’ arrival the following day. Scato’s camp was over-run and his army was forced to retreat from the site of their victory with the loss of 2,000 dead. Another Roman army under Quintus Caepio, after a successful skirmish, near Varia, was lured by Silo, the Italian consul, into an ambush and utterly destroyed. In Campania the initial advances of the Italians were balanced out by a victory won by Sextus Caesar at Acerrae. The other Italian Consul Mutilus was defeated there via a sudden cavalry counterattack out of the back gates of the Roman camp. Sextus, however, was himself badly defeated in turn during his second foray into the Melfa gorge, and the Italian stranglehold over southern Campania was hardly disturbed. Meanwhile in faraway Lucania, P. Licinius Crassus, commander of the local Roman garrison, was driven from his burning camp, set alit by the Lucanians under the command of Lamponius, with the loss of 800 men, and was forced to take refuge behind the walls of Grumentum. Much of Apulia was also lost to Rome through the sudden raids conducted by Vidacilius, with many cities, including Canusium and Venusia being won over to the Italian cause. On the central Marsic front the scales finally tilted toward Rome in the latter part of the year. Gaius Marius led a successful campaign against the Marrucini and the warlike Marsi** under Silo. In the final battle Marius managed to push the Marsi out of an area of rolling vineyards, over stone walls, and into the shields of Sulla’s legions, perhaps 15-20,000 Marsi were killed or taken prisoner. Pompey Strabo too won a major success against Lafrenius and the Vestini thereby breaking the siege of Firmum Picenum. Strabo sent his legate Sulpicius behind the enemy camp. When the two main armies engaged the Italian camp was set alight resulting in a panic. The Italians fled in rout back to Asculum and their general, Lafrenius, fell in the fight. As the year ended the military situation had, at the very least, reached a condition of stalemate. The Romans had suffered hard blows, but on the whole maintained themselves in the field, and had prevented wholesale defections among the still loyal Italian and Latin communities. In fact, among the many Latin cities, only Venusia had turned coat. The surviving consul, Sextus Caesar, returned from the war to Rome at the end of the year to conduct the consular elections for the next year (89BC). More importantly he pushed through the so-called “Lex Julia” law which offered full Roman citizenship to all communities in Italy which had not revolted. This necessary political concession took much of the wind out of the Italian rebels’ cause and prevented any significant future defections from the Roman confederacy. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------- **

Note: It was a saying among the Marsi at the time, who had fought as staunch allies in all of Rome’s many wars about the Mediterranean for the last two centuries that: ‘It is impossible to celebrate a triumph either over the Marsi or without them.’ The Social War in the annals of ancient Rome is often referred to also as ‘The Marsic War’. The Course of the Social War in 89-88BC: The Final Battles For the year of 89BC the Romans elected as consuls Pompey Strabo (the father of Pompey the Great) and Lucius Cato, a scion of the famous patrician Cato family. Strabo was dispatched from Rome to his old stomping grounds in the north with several legions to reinforce the siege of Asculum that was being conducted by Sextus Caesar acting as pro-consul, while Cato, remaining near Rome, commanded the central front opposite the Marsi. This left Sulla, by default, in almost sole defacto command for Rome as legate in Campania where he soon laid blockade to the Italian-held town of Pompeii. Sextus Caesar, for his part, was busily tightening the siege of Asculum to the point were one the Italian generals, Vidacilius, lost all hope and committed an elaborate pre-planned suicide on a funeral pyre in the center of the town. He had broken into the siege with a handful of troops leaving the others outside to be defeated by Sextus Caesar when they were caught while switching camps. Reputedly up to 20,000 Italians were killed or captured in that action alone. Caesar, however, was unable to rest on his laurels dying soon after from some illness before Strabo had even arrived to take command. Strabo, possibly while on the march from Rome, managed to intercept a force of 15,000 Picentes who were trying to make common cause with the Etruscans against the Romans without the knowledge that the domestic situation in Etruria had calmed down following the passage of the “Lex Julia” laws on Roman communal citizenship. The hapless Picentes were caught in the mountains—Strabo killed half of them and drove the other half toward the wintry peaks of the Apennine range where most of the remainder starved and froze. On the central Marsic front the Romans sustained a major defeat and the loss of the second consul in the war to the fierce Marsi. Lucius Cato first faced insubordination from his own officers, as well as raw recruits, but managed to penetrate as far as Fucine Lake where his army was over-run and he fell in the fight. Meanwhile to the north everything continued to focus on the siege of Asculum. After the defeat of Cato the Italians soon gathered about 60,000+ men to break the Roman blockade, while Strabo had up to 75,000 men under his command to combat their attempts. The Italian rebels were defeated in the major decisive northern battle of the war and Pompey Strabo hunted their remnants through the mountains of Picenum and back southwards into the Marsic and adjoining lands. In Campania and surroundings equally dramatic and decisive military events unfolded with fortune’s favor strongly on the scales on behalf of Rome. Sulla’s threat to Pompeii and the other Italian-held coastal towns was disturbed by the arrival of large army of Samnites leavened with turncoat Gauls under the command of Cluentius. In a surprise move the Samnites took station close to Sulla’s hilltop camp provoking him to sally out before the return of his foragers from the nearby countryside. Sulla at first was defeated and had to draw back into his fortifications, but the arrival of his foragers on the field allowed another more successful attack. Cluentius was then himself also forced back towards his camp and rallied back to the attack when he received reinforcement from the Gallic deserters. The Italian army advanced again, but was thrown into dis-order when the Gauls suddenly bolted supposedly over the loss of one of their number in a single combat with a Moor in Sulla’s army. Cluentius’ army was chased back some miles to the walls of Nola and cut to pieces with their commander right at the gate to that city. The Italian-held cities of Campania were now at the mercy of Sulla’s forces. Stabiae, Pompeii and Herculaneum soon fell to the Romans and Nola was left isolated. Sulla then embarked on his victorious campaign into Samnium that with the associated Apulian debacles destroyed many of the remaining embers of the rebellion per the Cambridge Ancient History: “This brilliant maneuver dealt telling blows against the Samnites and must have aided operations in Apulia and Lucania. Sulla first marched against the Hirpini and captured two of their cities, Aeclanum and Compsa. At Aeclanum, he forestalled the arrival of help from Lucania by giving the inhabitants one hour’s notice of battle; he then set fire to the wooden walls and captured the city. Bursting into central Samnium by an unexpected route he surprised the Samnite commander, Papius Mutilus, and drove him in rout to Asernia. This success enabled him to strike at Bovianum Vetus, a principal city of the Samnites and a rebel headquarters, which fell after a short engagement. Leaving an army to blockade Nola, he went to Rome to stand for the consulship. In Apulia a competent (Roman) legate…Cosconius, recovered practically all the ground which had been lost to Vidacilius in the previous year. He burned Salapia and crushed a Samnite army on the northern bank of the Aufidus near Cannae. Winning freedom of movement by these victories he ravaged the territories of Larinum, Ausculum, and Venusia and secured the undulating moorlands which lie north of the Via Appia between Venusia and Tarentum…” At the end of the year Cosconius was replaced in the field by Q. Caecilius Metellus who proceeded to attack the Iapygae. Metellus also advanced further into northern Apulia stamping on the last sparks of the rebellion in those parts. By the close of the year 89 BC the Italian rebellion that represented the issue of the Social War had been reduced, with the Marsic defections from the cause, mainly to the Samnite heartland. Silo the Italian consul of the Marsi took refuge among the Samnites and led them in the final campaign of the war. The Samnites tried to convert their national struggle into a confrontation between classes, freeing and arming some 20,000 slaves to beef up their forces. Initially that approach offered some success with the recapture of Bovianum Vetus and in skirmishes with Roman detachments. The desperate Samnites even sent embassies to King Mithridates in Asia seeking help and alliance against Rome. It was all for naught, the Samnites and their Marsic consul were beaten down in a great battle later that year (88 BC) by Metellus, virtually closing the book on the Social War, but as the famous Roman historian Appian notes (below) the war itself added greatly to the threats facing the creaky Roman Republic and the instability, factions, and conflicts generated and brought to their fatal fruition by the war give rise to future civil disorder and internal wars in the decades to come: ‘This was the state of affairs when the so-called ‘Social War’ broke out, involving the many peoples of Italy. It began unexpectedly, rapidly became serious, and caused enough apprehension to extinguish factional strife in Rome for some time. When it died down it too gave birth to other internal conflicts, and to faction leaders who were more powerful and employed against each other not legislative programmes, not demagoguery, but whole armies. And for these reasons I have included it in this history, because it originated in the civil dissensions in Rome and it resulted in much worse conflict of that type.”

(From Appian’s “Civil Wars” Book 1 Chapter 34 originally written in the early to mid-2nd century AD)

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