In 91 BC, the Roman Republic found itself fighting a not-quite civil war, when a large part of Rome’s allies and conquered peoples in Italy rebelled and tried to bring down the Roman Republic. Cataclysm 90 BC is about this conflict, and several directly related subjects.
The “Cataclysm” name is justified in the first chapter with the idea of ‘cataclysmic adjustment’. This is an idea that if an unstable situation is left alone long enough, it will solve itself by turning into a different (generally more severe) problem. This is presented as a pre-existing concept, though I have not run into the phrase before, and while Matyszak is on solid ground in his assertion that the Social War was the opening act in the civil wars that brought about the Roman Empire, use of the word ‘cataclysm’ in the title still feels overly dramatic.
The subtitle ‘The Forgotten War that Almost Destroyed Rome’ is far more justified. As it happened, the two sides were fairly even for the first year or so, and it was quite possible that more of Italy would join the revolt against Rome, and Rome would fall. It might be worth wondering just what the Roman Republic would have been replaced with in such a situation? Likely, the various peoples involved would have tried going their own way, and return to the general situation before Rome dominated the peninsula. But they had just banded together to fight Rome, had adopted some of the forms of the Republic, and the actual cause of the conflict was a desire to be counted as Roman citizens. It is possible that some form of Italian Republic would have emerged, that would have explicitly included full rights for everyone involved, and gone on its business in much the same way as the Roman Republic—just without the Romans. Finally, it is very true that the Social War is not very well known. In popular knowledge, the period between the Punic Wars and Julius Caesar is silent. At the same time, it is somewhat ironic that the events covered here are also covered by two volumes of the fairly recent popular Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough, so it is not quite as forgotten as it has been.
Matyszak does a very good job of introducing the general situation, and showing the roots of the conflict. He takes a look at both sides, and shows how the recent history of the Republic had been rife with incompetence. This includes a rundown of reform attempts in the Republic, including the Gracchi brothers and Livius Drusus. The war is also handled well, and gives those details that are available, with appropriate asides about where sources are thin, or disagree. He also continues the narrative into the war between Marius and Sulla, and then Sulla’s campaign in Italy after the Mithradatic War and his attempt to reform the Republic. This is largely there as it follows on so naturally to the main subject, but the fact is that it also saw the last bits of the Social War play out (in further fighting against the Samnites, one of the prominent rebel tribes of the war).
This is a good short overview (only ~160 pages) of about a decade, and would only really benefit from perhaps some further reading suggestions and better maps. The one map provided is quite serviceable, but by no means exceptional. The editing seems fairly good with the only flub I noticed being Marius being introduced as ‘Caius Marius’ the first time, and then called ‘Gaius Marius’ for the rest of the book (both are correct; interestingly, he’s listed as Caius in the index). Speaking of Marius, Matyszak takes a dim view of him, seeing him as overly ambitious and jealous, and seems unconvinced of his military ability, in contrast to McCullough’s glowing depiction. As such, I wish he’d spent a bit more time on the man, because while he’s on solid ground with other historians on the first part, he is bucking the trend in his judgement of military ability.