Slave Revolts – Ancient Rome


Spartacus and the Slave Revolt, 71 BC – art by Brian Palmer

Through constant warfare over the last five hundred centuries BCE, Rome built an empire across the Mediterranean region and took large numbers of captives as slaves. During the seven years from 58- 51 BCE, Julius Caesar took a million slaves from Gaul (France) alone. This massive influx of slaves gradually replaced the agricultural peasant class, which was increasingly conscripted into the military and forced to sell their land to the elite, whom booty, plunder, and tributes made increasingly wealthy. These affluent Romans established large estates worked by slave gangs, similar to the plantations later established in the New World. Long before Augustus Caesar officially established the Roman Empire in 27 BCE, Rome had become a slave society with an economy based on slave labor. In addition to agricultural workers and herders, slaves worked as household servants and craftsmen, as miners, on such public works projects as roads and aqueducts, and as gladiators, forced to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of the urban public.

Captives sometimes staged collective rebellions. In 290 BCE and again in 130 BCE, major slave revolts occurred on the island of Chios, locale of one of the Mediterranean region’s most active slave markets, but both were quickly quelled. In 198 BCE, a group of Carthaginian prisoners of war collaborated with Carthaginian slaves to take over the town of Setia, but a Roman military force of two thousand crushed the rebellion and executed some five hundred rebels.

The second century BCE saw many Roman slave uprisings, all brutally suppressed. In 196 BCE a revolt in the province of Etruria (Tuscany) was suppressed before it was fully set in motion, and several of its leaders were crucified, a cruel method of execution borrowed from the Carthaginians. In 185 BCE more than seven thousand rebelling cattle herders in southern Italy were quickly subdued. In 176 BCE, thousands of slaves were killed after a rebellion on the island of Sardinia. A 132-129 BCE revolt inspired by the Stoic philosopher Gaius Blossius in Rome’s province of Asia Minor (Turkey) was also quashed.

Slaves assigned to the empire’s mines, who worked under extremely harsh conditions and suffered high mortality rates, managed to rebel despite being carefully guarded. An uprising at the Greek silver mines of Mount Laurium in 134 BCE, and another at the gold mines in Spain in the year 50 BCE, were both brutally suppressed.

These were minor rebellions compared with three uprisings so vast that they came to be called slave wars. As many as twenty thousand slaves are estimated to have lost their lives in the first of these rebellions, which took place on the island of Sicily. It actually started as two separate uprisings around 139 BCE, one led by a slave magician and religious leader named Eunus and the other by a herdsman named Cleon. After supporters proclaimed Eunus king, the men joined forces and Eunus appointed Cleon his chief military leader. With tens of thousands of followers, they captured several towns, killing masters who had treated slaves cruelly and sparing those who had shown kindness. But after a long siege, Roman forces retook the final rebel stronghold of Enna and crucified the captured rebels. Eunus, protected by a thousand bodyguards, managed to escape, but when his position became futile he allowed himself to be captured. His soldiers beheaded each other rather than surrender to certain torture, but Eunus subsequently died in prison-a surprising fate for a rebel leader.

The second slave war (104-99 BCE) also took place on Sicily and, like the earlier one, was a confluence of separate rebellions. It began with an uprising in the town of Halicyae, where a slave named Varius persuaded thirty fellow slaves to kill their masters. They were subsequently joined by two hundred additional slaves, but an informant within their ranks allowed the island’s governor to quickly organize a militia and put down the rebellion. Almost immediately another eighty slaves rose up, and within weeks their force had swelled to over two thousand. Led by a capable domestic slave named Salvius, whom they made king, this army won decisive victories over Roman forces. Meanwhile, a rebellion in western Sicily produced another army of tens of thousands under the leadership of Athenion. The two armies merged under Salvius but were defeated by a Roman army during the second year of the war. Salvius appears to have been killed in this battle, for the rebels regrouped under Athenion and, after inflicting several defeats on the Romans, gained control over extensive territory. Additional Roman troops under a new commander broke the back of the rebellion in 101 BCE. Within a year, Athenion was killed and nearly a thousand remaining rebels were forced to surrender. The captives were taken to Rome and scheduled to fight wild beasts in an arena but killed each other instead, with the lone survivor committing suicide.

The third slave war is well remembered in literature and film as the Spartacan Revolt after its leader, Spartacus, the gladiator who, with an army of escaped slaves that numbered in the tens of thousands, held off Roman forces for two years. In the summer of 73 BCE, Spartacus and seventy fellow gladiators escaped from their training camp in the city of Capua and fled to nearby Mount Vesuvius, where they were reinforced by scores of fugitive slaves. From this stronghold the rebels plundered the region, although it is said that Spartacus tried to restrain them. Thousands of slaves escaped and joined Spartacus and co-leader Crixus, who organized huge armies that became a serious threat to Rome. For more than two years, Spartacus directed the rebels from southern to northern Italy, defeating several Roman legions. However, the Romans defeated a rebel army under Crixus, who was killed in battle. Spartacus moved his forces to northern Italy, but instead of crossing the Alps, he led them once again to southern Italy. Pursued by ten Roman legions, the rebels continued southward toward the sea, perhaps with the intent of crossing over to Sicily. In 71 BCE, Spartacus and his army were trapped at the Bruttium Peninsula and decisively defeated. Spartacus was killed in battle, but six thousand followers were captured and, as a warning to other slaves, allegedly crucified along the Appian Way between Capua and Rome.

After the Roman Republic officially became the Roman Empire in 27 BCE, the rate of territorial expansion slowed and the acquisition of new slaves declined. No longer considered outsiders, second and subsequent generations of slaves assimilated into Roman society and had better opportunities for advancement. Many were emancipated and became Roman citizens, and some eventually gained prominent positions such as governors of provinces or advisors to the emperor. In 285 CE a former slave even became Pope Calixtus I. Stoics and Christians encouraged better treatment of slaves, but neither sought to end slavery. As the possibilities of meliorating their condition improved, slaves no longer resorted to mass rebellions during the imperial era.


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