Social War & Marian-Sullan Civil War: Summary & Timeline

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Social War and Marian-Sullan Civil War were some of the last major moments in Rome's history before the transition into an empire fully began. In this lesson, we'll explore these wars and see how they influenced the last years of the Roman Republic.

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.

Bust of Marius

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.

Bust of Sulla

Civil Wars

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.

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