Road to Dictatorship: Rome Before the Social Wars

Updated on October 23, 2019
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ata1515 is a student of history, focusing on the modern, medieval, and ancient histories of Europe.

Undisputed Mastery

As the Roman Republic approached the Social Wars it had become the undisputed master of the Western Mediterranean world and had its fingers firmly entrenched in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Rome’s military might had secured the fledgling republic from direct attack. Carthage and Macedon had been defeated in a series of wars, with the former having been completely razed to the ground. Near Gaul and Hispania were under the Roman yoke. Greece, Illyria, and Asia Minor had all been turned into client states.

Though it was militarily secure on several fronts, the Roman Republic would find danger on the Germanic border as internal issues that had plagued the growing state were coming to a head.

The Roman Army

Prior to the Marian Reforms the Roman Army only drew its soldiers from land owners. Depending on the amount of property owned the resulting recruit would be placed in a position fitting to his income.

As the Roman Army in this period was not a professional army his method of conscription allowed for the sudden raising of forces that had similar gear at a lower cost to the state.

Roman allies in Italia, the Socii, were also required to supply soldiers and materials, but they were not given full citizenship, only specific protections. Effectively they were making an equal sacrifice while being treated as second class citizens. The wars of the 2nd century ensured that growing numbers of farmers were enrolled in the army, leaving their fields and families barren, and subsequently bankrupting families who had to move to Rome to live off the dole.

Tiberius Gracchi
Tiberius Gracchi

Agrarian Domination

As Rome’s wars began to wind down the soldiers were dismissed back to home, but many had already lost their land and came to Rome to live on the dole. The upper class had used Roman laws to deprive the poorer of their homes and replaced the labor with slaves gained in the very wars that the poor had been fighting in. Furthermore, without conquests to fuel growth, former veterans were no longer able to acquire war booty.

Increasingly the loss of land among the common folk caused social tension to rise, both in Rome and in the allied cities of Italy. Furthermore without the property to qualify for the army Rome was facing a shortage of manpower to maintain the borders.

Some among the upper class saw the dangers this posed to the Republic and made proactive laws to try to ease the burden. The Gracchi brothers were first among the Roman lawmakers to take action to restore the rights of the people to the Roman people, and for their efforts they were both assassinated.

A Society in Collapse

The Gracchi brothers managed to distribute a fair amount of land and place more of the power of legislation and judicial matters back in the people’s hands, but their efforts were cut short by murderers and a population that was short sighted.

As the memory of the Gracchi faded the Senators were able to delay, dismember and reverse the laws they had implemented. Small property owners seeking an easy meal sold their land at the expense of their futures.

As the property ownership began to tilt back towards the established upper class Roman society began to spiral yet again. War along the Germanic border and in Africa at the same time would result in several defeats, followed by radical political activity that rewrote the fabric of Roman society, but still excluded the Allies from society, leading to the devastation of the Social Wars and rise of the dictators in the Civil Wars.

The Final Blow

Marcus Livius Drusus was a Roman politician during the latter years of the Roman Republic who recognized the dangers of a stratified society. Drusus was well connected, both with dome of the Roman elite and among the people.

Notably, Drusus had contacts with many of the Socii, and it was from these contacts he most likely learned of the impending revolt of the Italian allies. In an effort to stave off rebellion, Drusus passed a number of motions and brought a law before the Senate aimed at giving citizen to the Latin allies.

For his foresight Drusus was ostracized and murdered. With the assassination of Drusus the Socii lost their patron and their hope. Rising in revolt all across Italia the Socii rebelled en masse in numbers ever seen before. The Social War had begun.


Beesly, A. H. The Gracchi, Marius, and Sulla. London: Longmans, Green, 1921.

Duncan, Mike. The Storm before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic. New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2017.

Stephenson, Andrew. Public Lands and Agrarian Laws of the Roman Republic. Middlesex: Echo Library, 2006.

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