Monday, January 3, 2011

The Social Revolution of the Roman Republic

Around the middle of the 7th century AUC (1st century BC), relations between the Roman Republic and its Italian allies, the Socii, began to deteriorate precipitously.  Also during this time, the political infighting between the various Roman factions began to intensify.  This period is arbitrarily generally said to begin with the death of the acclaimed general, Gaius Marius, in 654 AUC (100 BC), due to a heavy night of drinking while ill, thus ending the career of the most prominent Roman of the era. 

Depiction of Gaius Marius

With the death of Marius, many causes lost their chief advocate, particularly the causes of land reform and veteran settlement.  The desire for reform did not end with his death, however, and soon, less scrupulous demagogues began to attempt to push through various laws to those ends.  Further complicating the situation were the many Italian cities and their demands.  Marius' army had included many Italian soldiers among them, and he had granted them citizenship after the Battle of Vercellae in 653 AUC (101 BC).  The cities were becoming increasingly resentful of their subordination to Rome and wanted greater representation.

As the various factions fought over their causes, a few individuals began to realize that having the support of the Italian cities would likely tip the scales in favor of one side or another.  On the side of the senatorial faction, known as the optimates, was Marcus Livius Drusus, who spent much of his political career trying to subvert the equites to the senatorial cause, and wanted to similarly tie the Italian cities to the same cause.  Meanwhile, Gaius Memmius, who had grown to great popularity as a plebeian tribune, and had almost lost his life at the hands of a mob stirred up by political rivals, took on the cause for the populare faction.

It is telling that neither man was willing to cooperate with his counterpart in the enfranchisement of the Italians.  In fact, their political supporters spent time levying charges against and blocking measures supported by the opposition that would have been acclaimed, had they been suggested by their own faction.  Neither side fully supported the cause on its own merit, nor did they want to see their opposition receive credit for the deed.  The Italian allies began to tire of the endless debate and wrangling, as well at the sense of being used as pawns by ambitious Roman politicians.

Drusus' faction seemed to catch a break when, in the summer of 659 AUC (95 BC), Memmius died of fever.  However, it came to light that Drusus had an agreement with the various Italian cities that they would enter into a patron-client relationship with him, contingent on him procuring their enfranchisement.  The impact of this information, which would have granted Drusus nearly unlimited political resources, ruined his political career, and it was not long before he committed suicide out of despair and shame.

Having lost both potential champions, largely through happenstance, in one year, many cities became increasingly restive.  Though no outright rebellion occurred, organized or not, riots were becoming a regular occurrence in many Italian cities, and Roman officials were increasingly being harassed, even attacked.  As tensions heated, unrest began to spread into traditionally more loyal cities.

Faced with these problems, in 662 AUC (92 BC), action was taken.  Lucius Cornelius Cinna and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the leading stars of the populares and optimates, respectively, as well as distant relatives, took it upon themselves to resolve the issue.  Sulla had just finished a year as Consul and Cinna currently held the office.  Together, they broke faction lines and supported a law to grant full Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of Latin and Social cities of Italia.  This law, known as the Lex Cornelia, was passed with their support, thus resolving the crises and expanding the vote to almost all of Italia.


The Social Revolution takes the place of the Social War of our history.  Due to a variety of political changes within Rome, the Republic is able to relatively peacefully maneuver its way through the trying time, avoiding both the death toll and the instability of war in Italia.  The death toll of the Social War in our history has been estimated to be around 300,000 killed.  Further, the effects of the Social War, apart from extending rights to the Italians, must have made Rome to appear weak and unsteady, inviting attack.  The Mithridatic war may have some impetus in the perceived opportunity to attack the Republic.

This is all precipitated by the early death of Marius.  Quite frankly, Marius was good for one thing and one thing only: fighting Rome's wars.  He had almost no political or administrative talents.  However, he was extremely popular with the Roman people, due, of course, to his immense military reputation, which was certainly deserved.  However, when there wasn't a war handy for Marius, his lack of skill with civil government became a huge liability, both for him, and, ultimately, the republic.  He was far too popular to stop, a popularity which bled over into any individuals that he supported, such as Saturninus and Servilius, two popular rabble rousers with little respect for the law (not that many others respected the law as much as it should have been).  With Marius' death, the political land scape becomes much different.  The populares are much less organized, but, at the same time, much more persistent, without an easy figurehead of a leader.

By avoiding some of the political violence of the time, as well as the Social War, the republic is a tad bit stronger by the 80s BC.  Not to an extreme extent, but enough to change history greatly.  Marius' death can be considered to be the primary point of divergence for this timeline, though the early introduction of coffee likely presumes a smaller earlier POD, unless one wants to make the leap of faith that coffee made the journey from being eaten by Ethiopian goats to being traded by Arabs in less than four years.  Not impossible, but highly unlikely.

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