Italian Aims in the First Civil War 87-82 BC

Italian Aims in the First Civil War 87-82 BC

By Andrew Swidzinski

Hirundo, the McGill Journal of Classical Studies, Volume 5 (2006-07)

Map of Italy, Corsica and Sardinia – The Gallery of Maps – Vatican Museums.

Map of Italy, Corsica and Sardinia – The Gallery of Maps – Vatican Museums.

Introduction: The Social War of 91 BC was a turning point in the development of the Roman state and citizenship. During the course of this conflict, half of Rome’s Italian allies rebelled against Roman rule and established a full fledged counter-state, possessing a Senate, a capital and a patriotic notion of Italia, perhaps best symbolized by their minting of coins depicting an Italian bull goring a Roman wolf. It was a desperate struggle, in which the Romans were driven so close to defeat that they were forced to conscript former slaves to defend their coasts. Both sides initially fielded armies in excess of 100,000 men. Because the Italian troops had themselves contributed massively to the Roman armies of the past decades, they undoubtedly enjoyed similar training and abilities as the legions. The result was that, equally matched, both sides suffered horrendous casualties. Yet rather than being a long and drawn out conflict, the Social War ended after only three years with the Romans victorious. As the war progressed, rather than imposing more stringent conditions upon their enemies, the Romans steadily granted the rights of Roman citizenship to the whole of Italy. Moreover, in the civil war that immediately ensued, the Italians played a role that seemed radically different from that of a conquered population. They deployed enormous armies to support both sides in the conflict, and by the end of the war their political rights had been significantly enhanced.

Several important questions have arisen as to the causes and the nature of this conflict. The ancient sources, of which there are few for the period in question, viewed it largely as a response on the part of the Italian allies to the refusal of the Romans to grant them the citizenship, and thus allow them to share in the benefits of the empire which had been created in great part due to the efforts of their own soldiers. This is the view taken by Appian, an Alexandrian Greek who composed a history of Rome’s civil wars during the reign of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, and Velleius Paterculus, a Roman knight who wrote during the principate of Tiberius and was himself descended from participants in the conflict. Their view has been defended by many modern scholars, notably Sherwin White (1971), Brunt (1988) and Keaveney (2004). Yet both Appian and Velleius lived in periods in which the idea of universal citizenship had become common among the Romans, and Italy and Rome had come to be viewed as one and the same, and so they may have reshaped the narrative in accordance with their own inherent biases.

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