Thursday, 5 September 2019

The First Servile War

The face of a free man
I suspect that most folk have heard of the name Spartacus, although many will not be able to appreciate his place in history beyond a hazy and vague extent. Of course, those who have had the pleasure of watching that most excellent 1960 film epic, ‘Spartacus’ will have a better idea of what Spartacus the man and rebellion was about. This is not to say that the film was entirely historically accurate, but for a Hollywood film of its time, it did a decent job. As for Tony Curtis' haircut- there is no excuse. This post is not about the Spartacus Rebellion of 73 BC, or the Third Servile War, from the ancient Roman perspective. Today, I hanker to introduce my readers to an earlier slave revolt: The First Servile War of 135 BC.        

The ancients had a problem and this was particularly so with Rome of the Republic. Slavery was endemic in the ancient world and indeed in many societies, the slave population outnumbered the free-born citizens. There was always the real horror that the slaves would band together, rise up and massacre their masters. There was no police system in Rome and Italy and even a small rebellion in a provisional town involving a few scores of slaves could do immense damage before militia troops could intervene. And due to the communications of the day, this might take a while.

During the Punic wars with Carthage (three wars between 264 BC and 146 BC) the Romans acquired their first Provence, Sicily. Sicily was a fertile and rich island and Roman speculators descended on the island to purchase cheap arable land previously owned by the Carthaginians and their displaced Sicilian allies. The land was worked by the influx of cheap slave labour fueled by successive and successful Roman wars. As land and lives were cheap the new owners tended to treat their slaves poorly. The slaves were worked from dawn to dusk on meagre rations and the death rate through exhaustion and malnutrition was high. But this did not matter to the landowners as the labour force could easily be replaced.

Eunus was a particularly lucky slave as he had the skill to entertain. He would delight his masters at dinner parties where he would enthrall the rich revelers with his accomplishments. It is said that he was a skilled conjuror and fortune teller and would delight the dinner guests with fire breathing; not a single toga was singed. Whilst thus engaged, Eunus would keep up a constant humorous patter about how one day he would become king and that the assembled listeners would be massacred. For some reason, the Romans found Eunus’ repartee mildly amusing- more fool them say I.    

What follows is a good example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. A group of slaves belonging to a particularly harsh landowner approached Eunus and asked him to lead a rebellion. How could Eunus refuse after the espousal of his rise to greatness? With a band of 400 slaves, Eunus stormed the city of Enna. The citizens of the city were put to death except those will the skill of the smith. These men were quickly put to work making arms for the swelling numbers of the slave rebellion. The revolt quickly spread and a Greek slave by the name of Cleon joined Eunus with a band of 5,000. Other major cities were captured and the slave army rose to over 70,000. One source suggests (Diodorus Siculus) that the rebel rabble may have been high as 200,000. The Romans responded by sending out a Sicilian militia under the leadership of a minor Roman official. The slave army easily and quickly defeated the militia and the Romans sent out a further three detachments; each being defeated in turn (the definition of madness). In this way, Eunus and his slave army came to occupy most of the island and as prophesied, Eunus proclaimed himself king.

In 134 BC, the Romans decided to send a Roman army under the consul, Flaccus. But the resulting campaign was desultory and achieved very little. Thereafter, in the following year the consul Lucius Calpurnius Piso was sent with a consular army. Piso and his army quickly secured several rebel cities and the resultant captured slaves were cruelly put to death.

After his successive victories, Piso descended on the centre of the rebellion, the city of Enna. Eunus’ second in command, Cleon, decided to sally out of the city rather than await the inevitable siege. During the battle, Cleon died of wounds and the Romans quickly secured the city and massacred the slaves. The rebellion in the rest of the island was quickly crushed with a further 20,000 slaves suffering the acute agony/ignominy of crucifixion. Eunus was eventually captured but died in captivity before he could be tortured and put to death.

And so in 132 BC, the First Servile War came to an end. In truth, the rebels could never have triumphed against the might of Rome. But for a brief time, the slaves became free men. Sadly, Eunus never foretold their ignoble end.

Eunus remains a mysterious figure. He must have been a man of charismatic ability and intelligence in order to weld/wield the disparate slave army into an effective military force. Did he actually believe his own propaganda and prophecy? Or did he use his testimony as a means to coalesce his slave followers and imbue them with a sense of purpose? This question can never be answered. I’m of the opinion that he may have truly believed his outrageous rhetoric, especially after his spectacular initial success. It is to be remembered that the ancients truly believed in prophecy and the Romans of the period were particularly fond of augury. Even the educated classes, with a few notable exceptions, indulged in divination.

The Romans greatest fear had become manifest and a further two slave rebellions would follow culminating in the famous and immensely destructive rebellion led by the Thracian slave, Spartacus. Another post, for another day, perhaps?

Eunus statue outside the walls of Enna

No comments:

Post a Comment