The Servile Wars: Spartacus & the rebellions that threatened the Roman Republic
A series of conquests turned the Roman Republic into the centre of a vast slave empire that spanned the Mediterranean. But, as Danny Bird reveals, this exploitative system provoked not one, but three major slave-led rebellions that threatened the security of Rome itself
What were the Servile Wars?
Between 135 and 71 BC, the Roman Republic was shaken by three separate large-scale slave uprisings known as the Servile Wars. The first two of these occurred on the island of Sicily. The third war, which was much larger in scale, and is probably the best-known, was led by the insurgent gladiator Spartacus.
By the last two centuries BC, Rome had amassed an empire that encompassed the full span of the Mediterranean. Several dazzling military conquests had enabled the small city-state to wield dominance over a vast array of cultures and civilisations. Control of trade routes and exotic commodities brought untold wealth and prestige, including a plentiful supply of slaves from places as far removed as Gaul, Syria and Greece.
The withdrawal of Rome’s great rival, Carthage, from Sicily at the end of the Second Punic War in 201 BC triggered a scramble for land by wealthy Romans. An exploitative plantation system soon covered the island, through which slaves were forced to toil under abysmal conditions.
Rome’s military might was such that a stable market for cheap slaves was always guaranteed, and many slave owners found it more economical to ‘wear out’ their slaves and replace them with fresh cohorts rather than to tend to their provision and care. Thousands of people perished each year.
What happened in the first two Servile Wars?
In 135 BC, slaves on Sicily turned to a Syrian-born conjurer called Eunus to deplore their owner’s brutality. Proclaiming himself their king, Eunus and hundreds of slaves rebelled and captured the central city of Enna. Following the massacre of most of its inhabitants, the uprising spread to other towns, including Agrigentum, which was overrun by approximately 5,000 insurgents under the command of a slave named Cleon.
The slaves routed every general the Senate dispatched to Sicily until Publius Rupilius triumphed in 132 BC. After besieging several cities, the Roman consul ordered the mass execution of prisoners, who were first tortured before being hurled off a cliff. Cleon was killed during the siege of Enna, while Eunus was captured and succumbed to disease while in custody.
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Decades later, in 104 BC, a second war broke out as a result of Rome’s geopolitical machinations. When the allied Kingdom of Bithynia (in what is now northern Turkey) was unable to satisfy a request for human chattel to fight along the Republic’s northern frontier, slaves from Rome’s allies were freed by the Senate. Enraged, those who remained in bondage seized major cities, including Morgantia on Sicily. In 100 BC, Rome reasserted its control and condemned the insurrectionaries to face wild beasts in the arena. Defiant to the end, they killed one another instead.
Who was Spartacus?
Aside from accounts suggesting that he was born in Thrace (in the eastern Balkans), very little is known about Spartacus’s early life. A possible deserter from the Roman army, he was sold into slavery with his wife, a prophet, who is said to have discovered a snake coiled on her husband’s face as he slept – a portent of greatness. Spartacus was then consigned to a gladiatorial school at Capua in southern Italy, where condemned men were trained to fight to the death for popular entertainment.
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How did Spartacus ignite a slave rebellion?
In 73 BC, Spartacus escaped the school, leading a band of fellow gladiators to Mount Vesuvius, where they set up an encampment. Alerted to the fugitives, a Roman militia of 3,000 men blocked the volcano’s only access route, hoping to starve them into submission.
However, the slaves had an ingenious plan. After fashioning vines into ropes and ladders, they abseiled down the opposite side of Vesuvius (seen in an illustration above), before ambushing the militia and annihilating them. A second Roman force met a similar fate, and soon, other slaves were rallying under Spartacus’s banner. The third war had begun.
Where did Spartacus and the other slaves go next?
Spartacus’s slave army swept across the Italian peninsula, their ranks swelling to more than 90,000 men. The rebels resisted Roman offensives and marched as far north as the Alps, but – in an extraordinary volte-face – they turned back in the opposite direction and ended up in the southwestern region of Lucania. Historians such as Plutarch later speculated that Spartacus and his comrades may have sought to return to their homelands, but there isn’t a reliable primary source regarding their intentions.
Did Spartacus’s rebellion have any political consequences in Rome?
Alarmed by the threat, the Roman Senate deployed consular armies to crush the uprising. Among the most powerful was the army led by the wealthy general Marcus Licinius Crassus, who assumed command of more than 48,000 fighters. Their initial efforts were weak, however, and around 10 per cent of Crassus’s soldiers were executed as punishment (a practice known as decimation).
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However, Crassus’s entry into the conflict marked a crucial turning point. As he pursued Spartacus southwards, he managed to trap the rebels in the ‘toe’ of the Italian peninsula by digging 40-mile-long trench. Although Spartacus was able to pass over the trench after nightfall, a splinter group of Gallic and Germanic slaves was slaughtered by the Romans.
Pressing his advantage, Crassus petitioned the Senate to recall two other generals, Lucius Licinius Lucullus and Pompey, from overseas. With these reinforcements, Spartacus was killed in combat during a decisive battle near the mouth of the River Silarius, and the remnants of the slave army were either picked off by Pompey or crucified by Crassus along the Appian Way. Pompey was accorded a triumph, and both he and Crassus were appointed consuls in recognition of their service to the Republic.
What was the legacy of Spartacus’s rebellion and the Servile Wars?
The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire described Spartacus’s rebellion as “the only just war in history”. Notably, he would also be a key source of inspiration to the victors of the slave-led Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), with their leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, even lauded as the ‘Black Spartacus’.
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Later figures to cite Spartacus as a personal hero would include Karl Marx, while in the early 20th century, German communists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht branded their radical movement the ‘Spartacus League’ in his honour. More than 2,000 years after his death, the gladiator-turned-rebel leader remains a universal icon of the struggle against oppression in all its forms.
This article was first published in the March 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Revealed, responsible for researching and producing the magazine’s features
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