The Sicilian Revolts of Enslaved Persons and Spartacus

Illustration of Spartacus' Death, 1882

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According to Barry Strauss in "The Spartacus War," prisoners of war enslaved at the end of the Second Punic War rebelled in 198 B.C. This uprising in central Italy is the first reliable report of one, although it was surely not the first actual uprising of those enslaved. There were other uprisings in the 180s. These were small; however, there were three major revolts of enslaved persons in Italy between 140 and 70 B.C. These three uprisings are called the Servile Wars since the Latin for 'slave' is servus.

First Sicilian Revolt of Enslaved Persons

One leader of the revolt in 135 B.C. was a freeborn enslaved person named Eunus, who adopted a name familiar from the region of his birth—Syria. Styling himself "King Antiochus," Eunus was reputed to be a magician and led those enslaved in the eastern section of Sicily. His followers wielded farm implements until they could capture decent Roman weapons. At the same time, in the western part of Sicily, a manager or vilicus named Kleon, also credited with religious and mystical powers, gathered troops under him. It was only when a slow-moving Roman senate dispatched the Roman army, that it was able to end the long war with those enslaved. The Roman consul who succeeded against those enslaved was Publius Rupilius.

By the 1st century B.C., roughly 20 percent of the people in Italy were enslaved—mostly in agricultural and rural, according to Barry Strauss. The sources for such a large number of enslaved people were military conquest, traders, and pirates who were particularly active in the Greek-speaking Mediterranean from c. 100 B.C.

Second Sicilian Revolt of Enslaved Persons

An enslaved man named Salvius led others who were enslaved in the east of Sicily; while Athenion led those enslaved in the west. Strauss says a source on this revolt claims those enslaved were joined by impoverished freeman. Slow action on the part of Rome again permitted the movement to last four years.

The Revolt of Spartacus 73-71 B.C.

While Spartacus was enslaved, as were the other leaders of the earlier revolts of enslaved persons, he was also a gladiator, and while the revolt centered in Campania, in southern Italy, rather than Sicily, many of those enslaved who joined the movement were much like the enslaved of the Sicilian revolts. Most of the enslaved southern Italian and Sicilians worked in the latifundia 'plantations' as agricultural and pastoral workers. Again, local government was inadequate to handle the revolt. Strauss says Spartacus defeated nine Roman armies before Crassus defeated him.