ECHO Molise
  Emigration and Cultural Heritage of the Molise

The Social and Civil Wars


There in the brutal hills the men scratched at stony plots, the women spun wool; they worshiped oak groves and springs and woodpeckers, and their talk was of war.  From time to time the Samnites would descend to the poppy-strewn fields of Campania, which they devastated.  For years they fought the Romans, but in 290 BC. Rome defeated them.  The struggle had always been unequal.

After that defeat—much of their territory gone, and their power broken—the Samnites slowly and sourly picked up Roman ways.  Some even became citizens.  But they were still mostly peasant fighters, as intractable as their mountains, and when civil war broke out between Marius and Sulla in 86 BC, the Samnites tried to wrestle free again.  This time Sulla defeated them just outside Rome itself, right by the Colline Gate, and the reprisals were brutal.  The few Samnite leaders who survived were executed; their mountain villages were burned like torches; the people were killed or scattered, and soft-skinned Roman colonists were sent to take their places…

There would never again be a mountain redoubt where people dreamed of liberty in quite the same way.

Quote from the book Pontius Pilate by Ann Wroe

The Roman economy was primarily agricultural (over 80 % of its people lived and worked on farms). 

Public land, often confiscated during Roman expansion, was rented to tenant farmers.  Wealthy landowners acquired large tracts of it by seizure from tenant farmers unable to repay their debts

 “Social” war came from the word “socii,” meaning “allies.”  
Romans referred to their allies as socii Latini. Opposing them were the Italian socii wholly annexed to the Roman state, (e.g., Samnites, Etruscans, Umbrians and Vestini).

Roman citizenship and the right to vote was limited by the requirement to be physically present on voting day.  After 88 BC, candidates regularly paid expenses for supporters to travel to Rome in order to vote.

See Sulla in Roman Who's Who

By 86 BC, Roman citizen numbers increased only by 70,000.  Salmon attributes the low numbers to pro-Sulla censors who “were not very energetic in listing the Italians,” probably enrolling only the wealthy.  He also suggests that the general population was enrolled in the year 70 BC, as the rolls doubled to 900,000 (from 450,000 in 86 BC).

Sulla, more than the victor, was the exterminator of the Sannio…“ Masciotta

After the Punic War.  The Samnium severely suffered the aftermath of the Second Punic War.  History records Rome the victor.  But the Samnium was the unrecorded, practical loser. 

Rome had encouraged loyalists to “scorch the earth” and move populations to deter Hannibal’s advance.  She conscripted Samnite recruits, confiscated crops and levied taxes to support the long war and rebuild after.  She reined terror on cities that had sided with Hannibal and turned their lands over to displaced veterans.

Hannibal ravaged the territory, destroyed cities loyal to Rome and cities he had taken but could no longer defend.Salmon  He conscripted Samnite recruits, confiscated crops and food stores, and sacked the cities.

All of the Italian territory under Rome suffered economically following the war.  During his 15 years in Italy, Hannibal had slain more Romans than were left living capable of bearing arms against him.Abbott  More than half of the men over 17 years old had died on the battlefield.  Crops were not tended for lack of labor.  The price of wheat tripled.

The Roman currency was debased.  War contractors had furnished supplies on credit, then cheated the republic.  Soldiers had not been paid.  When they retuned home, they found their ancestral farms laid waste and the land in the hands of absentee noble landowners.Global  Slaves (exempt from military service) now worked the large farms (jumps to Villa Rustica at Colonization article), displacing small farmers.  Appian describes the “Italian race declining little by little into pauperism and paucity of numbers without any hope of remedy.”

Push for Citizenship In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus passed an agrarian law redistributing land. However, only Roman citizens could legally hold Roman land, and the Italian socii were not citizens.  Rome could now confiscate their land, but could not grant them public land.  “To the Italians, the process must have appeared a poor reward for their loyalty in a century of campaigning overseas alongside the very ex-legionaries who were now displacing them.”Wikipedia

Consequently, the Italian socii began a strong movement to obtain full citizenship and rights.  But their efforts were effectively blocked in the Roman senate.  Marcus Livius Drusus, champion of the socii cause, was assassinated in 91 BC; the socii formed a league to fight the Romans.  Even the Frentani, who possessed separate political existence independent of the Samnite confederacy and fought against Pyrrhus (Pyrrhic War) and Hannibal (2nd Punic War), joined the league.Cramer

Coin shows 8 Italian socii taking oath against RomeThe Italian socii planned to regain their ancestral lands and form an independent nation called "Italia." 

Social War coin depicts 8 Italian socii taking oath against Rome.

The War (91 BC-88 BC)
.  “Rome had already triumphed over Carthage, Macedon and Antiochus, and was regarded as mistress of world, when a greater danger than any she had before encountered threatened her dominion in Italy, and shook the very seat of her power.  This was the breaking out of the Social war, which affords the most convincing proof that the Samnite people were not yet conquered.”Cramer  

Gaius Papius Multius served as consul for the Samnite group and Marius Egnatius commanded the army until 88 BC when he died in action.  Pontius Telesinus succeeded him, but was killed the following year.

Lucius Julius Caesar was Roman consul for the southern war theater; Lucius Cornelius Sulla his general.  Sulla had an “implacable” hatred for the Samnites.  Not only had they opposed his ancestors in the Samnite Wars, they supported his opponent (Gaius Marius) in the Civil War.  

The Samnites fought courageously and brilliantly, often bringing 80,000 foot and 8,000 horse into battle.Cramer  At points, the Samnites so severely pressed the Romans, Rome began admitting freed slaves into the army.Abbott

          Samnite soldiers, detail from 4C BC tomb

Reform, Lex Julia.  Pressured by Italian successes in 90 BC, Caesar introduced the Lex Julia de Civitate Latinis Danda, granting citizenship to communities that had remained faithful to Rome or would immediately lay down their arms.  This was as much a political maneuver as a concession--the Italian league began to crumble as many of the Etruscans and Umbrians abandoned the Samnites for new citizenship.  Yet the Samnites fought on, suspecting Rome would use loopholes in the Lex Julia to their detriment.Salmon  

They were correct.  Instead of enrolling them into the existing 35 Roman “tribes” (voting districts), the Romans assigned them to newly-created tribes that could vote only after all the others; that is, they could only vote after the issue had already been decided.Salmon

Lex Plautia Papiria and Lex Calpunia supplemented the Lex Julia in 87 BC.  They closed loopholes and allowed registered males of allied states to obtain Roman citizenship by presenting themselves to a Roman praetor within 60 days.  As such, residents of towns disqualified in the Lex Julia could still obtain citizenship.  This was the crushing blow to the Italian league.

Civil War
.  In 89 BC, Sulla penetrated the heart of the Samnium, defeated Mutilus and captured Bovianum.  The remaining socii continued to hold Aesernia.  But their numbers were greatly reduced.  The Italians had lost more than 300,000 in a few short years, and many of their towns were heaps of ruins.Abbott  At the beginning of 88 BC, the Samnites were down to 30,000 infantry; 20,000 runaway slaves and 1,000 cavalry. 

Roman senateHowever, Rome was on the verge of civil war between Sulla and Marius.  The Senate decided to negotiate with the Samnites, to allow Rome to recall its forces.  In 87 BC the Samnites demanded and received full citizenship, retention of booty, and return of captives and deserters.  The Samnites realized the agreement would only last if Marius obtained power in Rome, and thus supported him against Sulla.

The Samnites were reassigned to the Voltinia tribe; the Hirpini to the Galeria tribe.  Later, Augustus divided the Samnium into 11 regions (so it would no longer exist).  Between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the 11 regions were further divided into 17 provinces.Salmon  

Sulla, Exterminator of Samnium.  In 83 BC, Sulla needed a cause to re-ingratiate himself with the Roman people.  He used the Samnites, the ancient enemy of Rome.  According to Appian, “Sulla was not merely planning punishment, correction and alarm for them, but destruction, death, confiscation and wholesale extermination.”Salmon  Thus, for the Samnites, the war continued.  This time they fought Sulla’s familial hatred, embarrassment at past defeats, political ambition and indignation at the Samnite’s ability to dictate peace terms at the end of the Social War.

“It was not till he had achieved the total destruction of the last Samnite army at the very gates of Rome, that [Sulla] at length felt assured of permanent success, and ventured to assume the title of Felix.  His fear of the Samnite name, however, led him still further to persecute that unhappy people, thousand of who were butchered at his command, and the rest proscribed and banished:  he was said indeed to have declared that Rome would enjoy no rest so long as a number of Samnites could be collected together.” Cramer 

The Samnium was left a mere collection of hamlets;Strabo  Sulla had hardly left one stone upon another, "so that inside Samnium it was almost impossible to discover Samnium.”Salmon cites Florus  Once again, the Samnium was left “depopulated, disposed, and pauperized.”  But the Samnites did not disappear.  Salmon notes that the Samnium held few large population centers and numerous hiding places, and no doubt many escaped.  But he also tells us not to doubt Sulla’s vengeance: 

“He did make some kind of a desert and call it peace in Samnium.”

And the Samnium became Roman.


Abbott, John S. C.  Italy.  New York: Peter Fenelon Collier, 1882. 

Colabella, Michele.  Binifero, Una Storia Millenaria.  Milano: Tipolitografia Nuova Polistylegraf, 1999.

Cramer, the Rev John Antony, M.A., A Geographical and Historical Description of Ancient Italy, Volume II; Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1826

Masciotta, Dott. Giambattista, Il Molise dalle origini ai nostri giorni, Volume 1, Napoli:  Tipogafico Luigi Pierro e Figlio, 1914.
Salmon, E.T., Samnium and the Samnites.  Cambridge University Press, 1967. 
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  “Socii.”
Wroe, Ann.  Pontius Pilate.  New York:  Modern Library, 1999.



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