Book Review: Cataclysm 90 BC: The Forgotten War That Almost Destroyed Rome


by Philip Matyszak

Barnsley, Eng. / Philadelphia: Pen & Sword Casemate, 2021. . Pp. xii, 176. Map, notes, index. $22.95 paper. ISBN: 1399085182

Rome’s “Allies War”

Rome’s “Social War” * (90-88 B.C.), was sparked by the Romans’ refusal to extend citizenship to their Italian allies, who bore much of the burden of empire, yet gained little of the benefits. After several years of desperate fighting, in which for a time the Romans seemed doomed, they “won” the war, essentially by conceding to the demands of their erstwhile allies, which they could have done earlier, at no cost in blood. But even before this “victory”, the Republic had plunged into nearly a decade of internal unrest, civil war, and the Sullan dictatorship, leaving still-festering social, economic, political, and class tensions that would lead to further conflict.

A number of books have been written about the Social War – sometimes called the “Marsic War” after one of the principal Italiot allies – none of which has been very satisfactory. Despite the war’s importance, it is very poorly documented. Many anecdotes, asides, and even battle pieces survive in the works of various Graeco-Roman writers, but no coherent account survives from Antiquity, so all this evidence lacks a sound chronological framework. Until now.

Dr. Matyszak, author of The Enemies of Rome: From Hannibal to Attila the Hun, Gladiator: The Roman Fighter's [Unofficial] Manual, and many other works in ancient history, has done a superb job piecing together the many fragments of information on the war, and with the help of some comparative history and some modern military analysis, has written an account of the conflict that – with some of his own “caveats” – presents a coherent, logical overview of the events.

Matyszak gives us a concise look at the background and causes of the war, essential Rome’s abandonment of its ancient policy of extending citizenship, as well as the political, geographic, and cultural setting. We get an analysis of the policies and strategies of both sides, and a reasonably coherent chronological account of how the events unfolded, within the framework of contemporary Mediterranean power politics.

Matyszak also offers, as far as is possible, profiles of the many actors, albeit more on the Roman side due to the poverty of material on the others, including Marius, Sulla, the very young Pompey the Great and Cicero, Sertorius, Pompaedius Silo, Mithridates of Pontus, and many more.

Cataclysm 90 BC is an invaluable read for anyone with an interest in the last century of the Roman Republic.


* In Latin, ally is “socius”, from which we get “Social War”, which is oft assumed by some with particular political bents, but no Latin, to mean the war had Marxian flavor.




Note: Cataclysm 90 BC is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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