Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
From Republic to Empire
The Roman Republic was in big trouble. That was the sentiment at the end of the 2nd century BCE. There were rebellions popping up around the city, Roman territories were under attack, and Roman politics had become too corrupt to function.
Even if the people of the time didn't know it, they were witnessing the beginning of the end for the Roman Republic. Several events in the early 1st century BCE set Rome firmly on that path, but few were as significant as the Social War (91-88 BCE) and Rome's Civil Wars (88-83 BCE).
To understand these wars, we need to step back to the late 2nd century BCE. Rome was pulled into a series of conflicts, starting with the Jugurthine War against the African kingdom of Numidia. Rome won this war, and out of it came a new hero, the consul Gaius Marius.
Marius became extremely popular and was elected to a second consecutive term as consul in order to fight the Celtic and Germanic invasions to the north. It was against Roman law for one person to be consul twice in a row, but the people had come to believe that only Marius' military prowess could save them. Marius would end up being consul a total of seven times.
With unprecedented power, Marius reorganized the Roman military, transforming it from a body of volunteers into a professional army. Marius also introduced a new relationship with Rome's Italian allies, collectively called the socii. Marius opened up military service to people in Italy's other kingdoms and cities in order to fight his wars, giving them a path through which to gain Roman citizenship and all the rights therein.
Unfortunately, Marius' reputation would not last. Riots against the Senate arose in Rome, and Marius was forced to intervene. This cost him his popularity with the people, giving the Senate a chance to reclaim power and they began reneging on the promise of citizenship to non-Roman Italian soldiers.
One man, Drusus, emerged to fill Marius' position as champion of the people and worked tirelessly to enfranchise the Italians. When he was murdered around 91 BCE however, tensions boiled over and the socii revolted against Rome.
The Social War
At the death of Drusus, the socii declared independence from the rough authority that Rome had extended over the Italian Peninsula and created their own republic, one in which all Italians could participate as equals. The revolt grew quickly in size as nearly all the cities of central and southern Italy banded together. This became the Social War.
Rome realized that it was in extreme danger, and called back Marius to help lead. Main command, however, was given to Marius' younger commander, Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Under Sulla, the Roman army defeated the socii rebellion, but at an extreme cost of Roman and Italian lives.
The socii were punished by being stripped of their autonomy and were formally incorporated into Rome. Ironically, this made the Italians Roman citizens, giving them exactly what they wanted at the beginning of the war.
Unfortunately, the enfranchisement of the Italians was not enough to resolve Rome's problems. Marius, still upset that the Senate had replaced him with his former subordinate, became even more jealous as Sulla became the new hero of Rome. Marius jumped back into Roman politics and regained enough support of the people to pass a law demanding Sulla's troops to be turned over to him in 88 BCE.
Sulla, however, was unwilling to give up an army legally bestowed to him by the Senate. He marched out of northern Italy and into Rome, where his troops fought against Marius' in the beginning of the Marian-Sullan Civil Wars. It was the first time that the Rome itself had become a battleground, or that the military had been used to resolve a political squabble. Marius was forced to flee and Sulla purged the Senate of Marius' supporters.
Sulla was then called to defend Roman territories in Greece and Asia Minor, and headed east. With Sulla gone, Marius' supporters rallied together and called for his return. The result was a period of immense violence in the streets of Rome, as Marius' and Sulla's supporters fought for control.
This fight brought Marius out of exile, who marched on Rome and conquered it. Rome plunged further into chaos as Marius had Sulla's supporters hunted down and killed. Thus, Marius began his 7th term as consul, although this would only last for 17 days as he died of natural causes in 86 BCE.
By 83 BCE, Sulla had defeated the rebellions in the east, restored Roman authority over Greece, and now found himself an outlaw of a war-torn Rome. With support of the non-Roman Italians, Sulla marched again into Italy.
After another bloody campaign, Sulla emerged victorious. He held near absolute power over Rome's military, violently killed off those who had supported the rebellion against him, and exercised immense control over the Senate. It was more control than one person had held over the Roman Republic since its inception.
While Sulla worked to restore the authority of the Senate, his power would later be emulated in the person of Julius Caesar, and then in Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.
In the beginning of the first century BCE, Rome was politically and socially fractured. The consul Gaius Marius had used non-Roman Italians from the socii (Italian allies of Rome) to fight his wars. The Italians interpreted this to mean that they deserved Roman citizenship, and when the Senate balked on this promise the socii rebelled in what is called the Social War (91-88 BCE).
Rome found a new hero in Lucius Cornelius Sulla, to Marius' resentment. Rome then descended into the Civil Wars between Marius' and Sulla's supporters. While Marius claimed control in 86 BCE, Sulla would ultimately come out on top by 83 BCE. In the end, Sulla amassed more power than any single Roman in the Republic's history, setting a dangerous precedent that brought Rome one step closer to empire.
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