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91-88 BC - The Social War

The Social War was a war of singular character, unlike any in ancient history. It was formidable, short as it was; it cost more blood than had ever before been shed [except by Hannibal] in Italy, and yet, contrary to all ancient usage, neither of the two adversaries desired to destroy the other. The Italians, a few of their leaders excepted, did not seek to destroy Rome, neither did Rome wish to exterminate the Italian peoples, and before the war was ended the victors granted to the vanquished what the latter had asked for before the first battle had been fought. In fact, the real victory lay with the Italians.

The allies of Latium and of Italy had been instrumental in building up the power of Rome, but the title and the rights of Roman citizenship were denied them. For many years past, tribunes who had been solicitous to obtain supporters had been in the habit of promising laws which should remedy this state of things. Upon such occasions the allies crowded into Rome, thronged the public places of assembly, and waited for fulfilment of these promises, but without effect. Italy rose in anus; the standards of the allied towns, of the municipal towns, and of the colonies themselves, were borne from every part of Italy towards the Roman capital. The war was a short but a bloody one. Consuls, Roman legions, and allied legions perished in the struggle. Italy lost no fewer than three hundred thousand men. The advantage in the early part of the war rested with the Italians, and within a year and a half of its outbreak Rome was forced to grant the right of acquiring Roman citizenship to the citizens of allied states who should register their names with a Roman praetor within sixty days. This concession satisfied a majority of the Italians, and before the close of the year 88 the disaffected, who still held out among the Bruttii, in Samnium, and in Lucania, were forced to submit by Sulla. Rome finally triumphed, by first enrolling within the numbers of its citizens those who had not taken up arms, or who were the first to lay them down, and afterwards by admitting those who were still able to retain them (lex Julia, B.C. 90; lea; Plautta, BC 89).

Thus, in the space of two years the rights of Roman citizenship were acquired by nearly the whole of Italy, including the suffrage, the only condition imposed being that of a declaration that the new citizens should adopt the civil law of Rome. But in order to diminish the influence of these new citizens, they were placed in eight new tribes, which were added to the already existing tribes, so that in all public deliberations the whole of Italy had but eight votes, whereas Rome had thirty-five. This disproportion did not last long, for the Italians soon succeeded in securing their distribution among the thirty-five Roman tribes.

Thenceforth Italian territory became in a general manner assimilated to the ager Romanus and was recognized as the property of its inhabitants, who had thus become Roman citizens, and who were in consequence free from the tribute or annual rent (vectigaF) which was ordinarily imposed upon the occupiers of conquered territory; and thenceforth to indicate the existence of the proprietary right, dominium ex jure Quirittum, and for the application of the civil law which they had now acquired, the usual practice was to distinguish between Italian and provincial soil. The importance of considering whether a town was a colony or a municipality, and what concessions had been made to it, ceased, except as a matter of history or in connection with the form of government. As to the condition of the inhabitants and the land they occupied, the importance of the distinction as regards Italy disappeared and was exclusively confined to the provinces.

The extension of Roman citizenship to the Italians brought about a complete transformation in the relation of the Italian cities to one another. They were no longer communities vested with the right of self-government in varying measure, carefully isolated from one another, and acting under the leadership of Rome, but they were on a plane of political equality with one another and with Rome, and their citizens were Roman citizens. But in practice this did not mean that the people of the small towns throughout Italy exercised all the political rights of Roman citizens. Just so long as they were obliged to go to Rome to vote that was impossible.

Had the Romans, when they granted citizenship to the Italians, adopted the method of electing magistrates which we follow to-day, and provided that elections should be held in all the Italian 'towns simultaneously with the elections in Rome, and that the candidates receiving the majority of all the votes thus cast should be declared consuls, or praetors, or tribunes; or if they had even admitted representatives of Italian cities to the senate, then the Italians would have actually enjoyed the political rights of Roman citizens. But the old plan was adhered to, of keeping the senate a close corporation, and of holding the comitia in Rome only. Now only those living near Rome could come to the city to vote, and consequently magistrates were still elected, and laws were still enacted, as they had been in the past, by the populace of Rome. Rome was still a city-state, and the equalization of political privileges throughout Italy which the Social War brought about was one in form rather than in reality.

Had some adequate system of representation for Italy been adopted, it is conceivable that the republic might have been given a new lease of life thereby. But under the new settlement all the weaknesses and evils of the old system persisted, and the drift toward autocracy was the more rapid, for it was intolerable that Italy and the world should be ruled either by a selfish Roman aristocracy or an ignorant, fickle city mob. A question of internal politics, which it seemed impossible to settle by peaceful means, had been settled by the arbitrament of arms. Why might not other domestic questions be disposed of in the same way ? The war had raised up a great leader in Sulla, supported by a well-trained and devoted army and enthusiastically welcomed as the champion of the conservative cause. Over against him stood Marius, late ally of the democrats, whose veterans, already impatient of a farmer's humdrum life, were waiting for his call to arms. Neither of these men succeeded in substituting the will of one man for that of the many, but they prepared the way for a successor, Caesar, who had the clearness of vision to see the trend of affairs, and the daring n,nd ability to take advantage of it.

When governors rendered themselves independent of the senate, and tribunes endeavored by force to retain themselves in power after the natural termination of their office (Marius had been named consul during six successive years), a fatal blow was struck at the constitutional law. which required that an interval of ten years should elapse between the two consulships of the same individual. But amid all these political troubles and violations of the public law there had been no rising of one section of the community against another. The social war was a prelude to that which followed, and Marius and Sulla brought on the civil wars. It was then no longer a question of a struggle for power by the plebeians, or by the senate, nor for the preservation of the laws, but for individual aggrandizement. Rome then became a scene of indescribable misery and crime, and the historian may, with Montesquieu, pray to be permitted to turn away his eyes from the wars of Marius and Sulla.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:28:33 ZULU