The class struggle in the Roman Republic

By now, the parasitic nature of Roman society was clearly illustrated in a systematic plundering of the productive provinces by the unproductive centre. This provoked a revolt of the Italians who rose up against Rome, known as the Social War, but they were defeated after several years of bloody conflict and out of this emerged powerful generals such as Marius and Sulla.

The Italians revolt

The intolerable burdens imposed by a parasitical capital city eventually drove the provinces to revolt. The political upheavals in Rome gave the Italians some hope of redress, but this led nowhere. The provincials first allied themselves to the Popular Party, then to the aristocrats, but to no avail. No matter which party ruled at Rome, the provinces were always the losers. Nowhere is the parasitic nature of Roman society more clearly illustrated than in this systematic plundering of the productive provinces by the unproductive centre.

The cities of Italy were theoretically independent allies of Rome, but in practice Rome dominated them, demanding tribute money and soldiers. By the second century B.C., between one half and two-thirds of the soldiers in Roman armies were from the Italian allies. Rome also controlled the allies’ foreign policy and their relations between one another. In compensation, the allies received a slice of the booty and lands taken in the course of Rome’s conquest in the Mediterranean. But as time went on, the burden of impositions grew.

As we have seen, the Romans’ policy of land distribution was carried out unjustly and at the expense of the Italians. This led to huge and increasing inequality of land ownership and wealth. Appian writes that this led to the “Italian race… declining little by little into pauperism and paucity of numbers without any hope of remedy.” (Appian, The Civil Wars). For nearly two centuries they had shared dangers and victories with the Romans; they now eagerly demanded all their privileges.

In 91, the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus courageously took up the banner of reform. Like the Gracchi, he was noble, wealthy, and popular, and he hoped to settle the question peacefully and fairly. But his attempt to reform the courts alienated the equites, his agrarian and corn laws earned him the hostility of the big landowners, and his attempt to admit the Italians to the rights of Roman citizenship aroused the jealousy of the Roman city rabble.

In an exact repeat of what had happened with the Gracchi, his laws were passed, but the senate pronounced them null and void. He was denounced in that body as a traitor, and was struck down by an assassin in the same year. The death of Drusus drove the Italians to despair. Eight nations entered into a defensive alliance. They formed a Federal Republic to which they gave the name Italia, with Corfinium, in the Pelignian Apennines, as its capital. All Italians were to be citizens of Corfinium, and here was to be the place of assembly and the Senate House.

This Italian rebellion is known as the Social War (from Socii, meaning allies, which formally the Italians were). The lead was given by the Samnite tribes, followed by other Latin tribes from the Liris and the Abruzzi down to Calabria and Apulia. Soon all of central and southern Italy was in arms against Rome. Only the Etruscans and Umbrians stuck to Rome. Here the landed and moneyed aristocracy ruled, and the class of independent small peasants had totally disappeared.

This war was at first disastrous to Rome. The Italians overran Campania, defeated the Romans several times, and entered into negotiations with the Northern Italians, whose loyalty to Rome began to waver. In the face of this challenge to its power Rome took decisive action. The Consuls, Lucius Julius Caesar and Publius Rutilius Lupus, both took the field. Each had five lieutenants, among whom were Marius and Sulla.

The Social War was the last expression of the vigour of the class of small peasants that had once been the backbone of the Roman republic. The revolt was partly national in character – the Italians were a separate people (or rather, peoples) who spoke languages different to Latin. But there were also elements of class warfare – particularly on the issue of debt. The free Italian peasantry, undermined by slave labour and the rise of the big latifundia run by the class of Roman capitalists, were being crushed under the weight of debt. They demanded the liquidating of all outstanding debts.

The war dragged on for five bloody years. But in the end the Italians suffered defeat. Their revolt had served to unite all the classes in Rome against them. The radical demands on debt pushed the capitalists into the arms of the aristocratic party. The differences between aristocrats and capitalists were forgotten in the fight against the common enemy. The city rabble was implacably opposed to sharing their privileges with the Italians and enthusiastically supported the war. Under such circumstances, the defeat of the Italians was just a matter of time.

As usual, the Roman ruling class used a combination of cunning and brutality to get what it wanted. It decided to make concessions. Towards the close of the year 90, the Consul Caesar introduced the Julian Law, by which the Roman franchise was extended to all those Italians who had not yet revolted. This law was supplemented in the following year by the Plautian Papirian Law, which allowed every citizen of an Italian town the franchise, if he handed in his name to the Praetor at Rome within sixty days. Yet another law, the Calpurnian Law, permitted Roman magistrates in the field to grant Roman citizenship on all who wished it. These laws had the desired effect. They divided and disorganizing the rebellion. The Samnites and Lucanians held out till the bitter end, but were finally crushed by Marius.

The end of the Social War did not bring peace to Rome. Far from being satisfied with the concessions, the new Italian citizens were embittered and resentful. In Rome, the Senate was torn apart by violent personal rivalries. All classes were affected by the prevailing austerity. The huge expense of the War had drained the treasury, and many capitalists were plunged into bankruptcy. To make matters worse, war with Mithradates, King of Pontus, had been declared. And the two ambitious generals, Marius and Sulla were fighting each other for command of the legions. A new and turbulent chapter was opened.

Sulla and Marius

The Social War had tilted the balance of forces sharply to the right. The senate, whose ranks had been depleted by the long period of wars and revolutions, was filled up by the admission of 300 new senators – all of them naturally loyal to the ruling aristocratic clique. The voting system was reorganised so as to give a crushing preponderance to the propertied classes: those with estates greater than 100,000 sesterces in value possessed almost half the votes. In practice this meant that the poorer classes were excluded from the franchise.

Once more the triumphant reactionaries abolished progressive legislation. The Sulpician Laws were pronounced null and void and their author, Publius Sulpicius, was condemned to death. His head was sent to Sulla as a present. Nothing was done for the debtors, except to enforce the already existing rules for the maximum rate of interest. The people’s tribunes were forbidden even to appear before the people unless the senate gave permission.

The Italian wars also led to the rise of powerful generals like Sulla and Marius. The Roman army was now an army of mercenaries. The soldiers were loyal only to their general and indifferent to politics or the interests of the Republic. The reactionary Sulla led two legions into Rome itself, in defiance of all laws and traditions of the Republic. His men murdered two tribunes who annoyed them. Very soon Sulla, the representative of the aristocratic party, was master of Rome. This was a fatal precedent. For the first time the army decided the outcome of the political struggle, as Mommsen remarks:

“The first military intervention in civil feuds had fully demonstrated, not only that the political struggles had reached the point at which nothing save open and direct force proves decisive, but also that the power of the bludgeon was of no avail against the power of the sword. It was the conservative party which first drew the sword, and which accordingly in due time experienced the truth of the ominous words of the Gospel as to those who first have recourse to it.” (Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 250.)


To the social and political crisis was added an economic slump. Rome was now in the grip of a deep commercial and monetary crisis. The Italian revolt and the wars with the Armenian king Mithradates in the East drained the coffers of the Republic and disrupted trade. So unpopular were the Romans with the oppressed provinces that as soon as Mithradates’ troops entered Greece, most of the smaller Greek states – the Achaeans, Laconians, Boethians – joined them.

As we have seen, the economic system depended upon a steady supply of slaves, and that depended on successful foreign wars, and entire cities were sold into slavery to guarantee a continuous supply of cheap slaves for the mines of Spain or the latifundia of Italy. But when the Romans met with serious resistance, as in the wars of Mithradates, the flow of slaves dried up, and the disruption of trade immediately provoked a crisis. This was, in fact, the most serious financial crisis that Rome had ever experienced.

The capitalist party at Rome was discontented with the rule of the oligarchy that had not been able to prevent these ruinous wars and the economic crisis that accompanied them. They had, of course, supported the aristocrats when the latter suppressed the masses. But now they began to move into opposition again. There were clashes between the two sides at election time, in which swords were drawn and blood ran in the Forum. On one occasion it is said that 10,000 people were killed. (See Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 298.)

Mithradates understood that the best way to strike at Rome was to disrupt its trade. His fleet commanded the eastern Mediterranean, and he controlled most of Greece and Asia Minor. Delos, the centre of Roman trade in the eastern Mediterranean, was occupied and nearly 20,000 men, mainly Italians, put to the sword. Mithradates skilfully combined military methods with revolutionary measures such as the cancellation of debts and even the liberation of the slaves. This made him a formidable enemy.

After a hard struggle, the Roman armies eventually defeated those of Mithradates. But even here the corrupt spirit of Roman capitalism was manifest. War had ceased to be a patriotic duty for free citizens and had become a simple business affair, an opportunity to plunder and rob. The troops serving in northern Greece under the Roman general Flaccus mutinied against their commander, accusing him of embezzling the soldiers’ spoil. The accusation must have had some basis because Flaccus was deposed by the army and executed. Needless to say, after the Roman victory, the slaves were brought back to their previous position and the debts cancelled by Mithradates were reintroduced.

The Marian terror

The struggle between the parties at Rome acquired an increasingly ferocious character. Lucius Cornelius Cinna, who had distinguished himself as an officer in the Social War, was the most visible head of the capitalist party. At one point, he even appealed to the slaves to support the struggle against the oligarchy, in return for freedom. But the appeal fell on deaf ears. After all that had happened, the slaves had no reason to trust the capitalists to give them freedom. Finally, the senate deprived Cinna of his consular office. Others were pronounced outlaws and fled to Africa. But these measures did not calm things down but quite the opposite.

The spirit of the soldiers at this time was inclined to be revolutionary and democratic except when individual generals succeeded in purchasing their loyalties. Therefore, when Cinna appealed to the soldiers stationed in Italy against the unconstitutional proscription against him, he got an immediate response. The army of Campania recognised him as consul and marched on the capital. He invited the exiles back. More importantly, as he marched on Rome Cinna freed the slaves whom he armed and included in his rebel army. He ordered his soldiers to break open the ergastula, the buildings where the landowners shut up their field-labourers for the night.

Cinna issued a proclamation offering freedom to any slave who should desert to him. As a result, many slaves left the city to join the rebels. In desperation, someone suggested that the senate should offer freedom to any slave who joined the army, but this was too much for the senate to swallow. Many others flocked to his standard, and his army soon grew to 6,000 and 40 ships. He was joined by Marius, who was made commander of the rebels in Etruria. Rome was besieged.

The armies of the senate just melted away. Defeat now stared it in the face. The senate was forced to capitulate ignominiously, only asking that there should be no bloodshed. This was a vain hope, given the extremely inflamed and embittered mood of the populace. No sooner did the rebels enter the city than they launched a bloody reign of terror, in which Marius played the leading role.

The noted general, now over 70 years of age, was driven by the thirst for revenge against all those who had engineered his downfall. As Mommsen put it, Marius repaid every sarcasm with a stroke of the dagger. The victors decided not to waste time prosecuting individual senators but to deal with their enemies by a far simpler method: they decided to kill all the members of the ruling party and confiscate their property. The city gates were closed to stop them from escaping.

For five days and nights the slaughter went on uninterruptedly. Even after this, the executions continued throughout Italy. A large number of Rome’s wealthiest citizens were put to death in what became known as the Marian terror. In theory, the republican laws and constitution remained. But what use are laws and constitutions when all the important questions are settled by armed force? Cinna, the head of the popular party, ruled for four years as Consul but then regularly nominated himself and his colleagues without consulting the people, although he continued to lean on them for support. In effect, he made himself dictator of Rome.

Cinna naturally abolished the reactionary laws introduced by Sulla. He gave the freedmen (freed slaves) the vote in order to turn them into a fixed clientele. He introduced measures to ease the position of debtors. A new law on debt reduced the level of every private claim to one-fourth of its nominal amount and cancelled three quarters in favour of the debtors. To please the Roman proletariat, he removed the restrictions on the free distribution of grain. In this way the Roman people accepted the loss of their political power in exchange for material benefits. The era of “bread and circuses” was born.

The real basis of Cinna’s regime was the army. The capitalist party, which might have backed him, was alienated by his measures on behalf of debtors, which hit them in the most sensitive part of their anatomy – the purse. But the smashing of the aristocratic party produced a situation of relative stability for about three years, until a new wave of agitation upset the status quo. Those members of the oligarchy who had survived the Marian terror, fled to territory controlled by Mithradates. Sulla, the chief of the reactionary party, established something like a government in exile.

In the spring of 83 BC, Sulla landed in Brindisium at the head of his legions. As Sulla advanced northwards, he successfully bought the support of other generals of the Popular Party. His soldiers mixed with theirs, fraternised, joked, got drunk together. Naturally, Sulla’s troops, generously supplied with gold from their master’s coffers, bought the drinks. This was not a struggle for political ideas but simply for loot. The general who promised more loot got the army’s backing. On this occasion, Sulla promised more. The armies of Rome once again melted away like snow in springtime. Bribed by Sulla’s gold, they passed over en masse to his side.

The Marian army was routed and forced to retreat, but not before putting to death all those prisoners who had so far escaped execution. Sulla finally entered Rome, where he made himself dictator and immediately instituted a White terror. A regime of blood and iron was imposed. The Latin tribe of the Samnites, who had obtained a de facto independence under the popular government, was ruthlessly crushed and their cities given up to pillage. The Samnite nation, said Sulla, should be forever extirpated from the face of the earth.

Sulla’s dictatorship

Sulla’s government was supposed to represent the Roman aristocracy, but in fact its members were chosen mainly from defectors from the Popular Party and wavering elements – the equivalent of the men who in the French Revolution were called “the Marsh”. He understood that the social base of the aristocracy was too narrow to guarantee stability to his regime, which, like that which it had overthrown, rested mainly on the army.

Among the deserters from the Popular Party were Lucius Flaccus, Lucius Philippus, Quintus Ofella, and last but not least, Gnaeus Pompeus – later known as Pompey the Great. Like his father, Strabo, the young Pompey was not originally a supporter of the oligarchy and had identified himself with the Popular Party, even serving in Cinna’s army. But in this age of cynical military adventurers, principles and ideas could change with every change of the wind. Men like Pompey were not the exception but the rule.

The fact that Sulla’s dictatorship rested on the army is shown by his nomenclature: he did not call himself Consul but Proconsul – an office of a purely military character. He wrote to the senate, explaining to them that in his modest opinion, they should hand all power to one man, who, again in his modest opinion, should be himself. Since he had a large army at his back, the senators were in no position to argue. Here for the first time, the state – in the form of the army – lifted itself above society and dominated it without any restraint.

The title “dictator” originally signified a magistrate appointed by the senate during an emergency. It had fallen into disuse at the time of the wars with Hannibal. Now Sulla revived it, assuming supreme control of the state. But the original idea was for a short term period – not more than six months – after which the dictator would step down. What happened under Sulla was quite different. His dictatorship had no limits of any kind. It was rule by the sword, pure and simple.

In order to protect the oligarchy against the proletariat, Sulla established his personal dictatorship over the oligarchy. Although Sulla spoke in the name of the senate, and in fact represented the interests of the senatorial class (the oligarchy), he expropriated them politically, concentrating all power into his own hands. Thus, the ruling class lost power over its own state. As Mommsen correctly comments: “the protector of the oligarchic constitution had himself to come forward as a tyrant, in order to avert the ever-impending tyrannis. There was not a little of defeat in this last victory of the oligarchy.” (Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 330.)

Following the now familiar pattern, Sulla launched a campaign of proscriptions, arrests and executions of his enemies. Every day saw new political murders. The death roll amounted to at least 4,700 names, mostly members of the Marian party. On Sulla’s instructions, their heads were piled up for public display at the Servilian Basin near the Forum. But these bloody reprisals were not confined to those members of the Marian party directly implicated in the previous terror. The victims included Roman capitalists who had sat in judgement on senators or had made money speculating on confiscated lands. There were about 1,600 equites on the proscribed lists.

Sulla’s terror dragged on for months and spread all over Italy. Spies and informers were everywhere. People were denounced out of spite, personal hatred or plain greed. Some were murdered even before their name was placed on the proscribed list to justify murder ex post facto. Naturally, Sulla and his family and friends did not neglect the opportunity to enrich themselves by getting their hands on the confiscated property of their enemies. One of his freedmen is said to have purchased property worth six million sesterces for just 2,000, while one of his subalterns is said to have accumulated an estate worth ten million sesterces through speculations.

Sulla’s terror was different in kind to anything that went before. The Marian terror was mainly the product of the desire for personal revenge. It was relatively haphazard in comparison to the systematic campaign of Sulla with its cold, calculating cruelty: Sulla’s confiscations amounted to the staggering value of 350 million sesterces. Many of the wealthiest men in the republic were ruined by this. Mommsen writes:

“It was altogether a fearful visitation. There was no longer any process or any pardon; mute terror lay like a weight of lead on the land, and free speech was silenced in the market-place alike of the capital and of the country town. The oligarchical reign of terror bore doubtless a different stamp from that of the revolution; while Marius had glutted his personal vengeance in the blood of his enemies, Sulla seemed to account terrorism in the abstract, if we may so speak, a thing necessary to the introduction of the new despotism, and to prosecute and make others prosecute the work of massacre almost with indifference. But the reign of terror presented an appearance all the more horrible, when it proceeded from the conservative side and was in some measure devoid of passion; the commonwealth seemed all the more irretrievably lost, when the frenzy and the crime on both sides were equally balanced.” (Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 334, my emphasis, AW.)