The First Servile War was a large-scale slave revolt that lasted from 135 to 132 BC. The uprising, which broke out on the island of Sicily, pitted the
The First Servile War was a large-scale slave revolt that lasted from 135 to 132 BC. The uprising, which broke out on the island of Sicily, pitted the rebellious slaves against the Roman Republic. The slaves were led by a man named Eunus, who claimed to be a prophet.
The rebels enjoyed some success initially, seizing control over a chunk of Sicily from the Romans. Moreover, they were able to repel several Roman attacks. Ultimately, however, the Romans managed to crush the rebellion. Although this was the first large-scale slave revolt faced by the Roman Republic, it was not the last, as two more Servile Wars followed, the last of which being the most famous, due to its connection with the gladiator Spartacus.
Origins of the First Servile War
Although the First Servile War had its direct causes in the 2nd century BC, its origins can be traced further back to the middle of the 3rd century BC. In 241 BC, the Carthaginians were defeated by the Romans in the First Punic War, and were forced to cede the island of Sicily to them. The island became a province of the Roman Republic, and was governed by a praetor. The soil of the island was extremely fertile, which made it highly suitable for agriculture, especially cereal grain. In fact, Sicily became known as the breadbasket of the Roman Republic.
Consequently, rich Romans bought large tracts of land on the island. In order to work their fields, the Roman landowners relied on slave labor. While some of these slaves were prisoners of war, others were bought from the slave markets of the eastern Mediterranean, i.e. Rhodes and Delos. As a result of this practice, the Sicilian countryside was soon crowded with slaves.
Diodorus Siculus provides a vivid account of the First Servile War, including the living conditions of the Sicilian slaves prior to the rebellion. The ancient Greek historian observed that the slaves were treated like animals, as they were “driven in droves like so many herds of cattle from the different places where they were bred and brought up”, and “were branded with certain marks burnt on their bodies”.
Cruelty by masters against slaves in ancient Rome. ( Erica Guilane-Nachez /Adobe Stock)
Additionally, Diodorus claimed that the slaves were treated badly by their masters, “their masters were very strict and severe with them, and took no care to provide either necessary food or clothing for them”. Consequently, the slaves were forced to rob and steal for these necessities, so much so that “all places were full of slaughters and murders, as if an army of thieves and robbers had been dispersed all over the island”.
From Diodorus’ description, it can be inferred that the slave problem on the island of Sicily predated the First Servile War. The slave owners created this problem not only by their inhumane treatment of their slaves, but they also exacerbated it by tying the hands of the local Roman authorities. According to Diodorus, the provincial governors “did what they could to suppress them; but they did not dare punish them, because the masters, who possessed the slaves, were rich and powerful”.
Eventually, the slaves decided that they would no longer tolerate these harsh living conditions, and began to plot together how they might be able to overthrow their masters, and gain their freedom. As it was quite normal for slaves from the same ethnic group to be bought together, it was easy for gossip to spread, and for the slaves to plot, since language barriers would prevent their masters from finding out the content of their conversations.
A Roman slave. ( Jérôme FOVIS /Adobe Stock)
Eunus: Leader of the Uprising
In any event, the key figure in the First Servile War is Eunus, who became the leader of the uprising. Diodorus provides three pieces of information regarding Eunus’ background. Firstly, he was a Syrian form the town of Apameia. Secondly, his owner was a man by the name of Antigenes of Enna. Thirdly, he was a magician and conjurer. This third piece of information is important, as Diodorus states that “he pretended to foretell future events, revealed to him (as he said) by the gods in his dreams, and deceived many by this kind of practice”.
As time went by, Eunus grew bolder, and resorted to even more ambitious deceptions. Diodorus wrote that he “pretended that he saw the gods when he was awake, and they declared to him what was to come to pass”. Diodorus believes that Eunus was a charlatan, but nevertheless acknowledges that many of his predictions turned out to be true, likely through sheer luck.
These were widely celebrated, whereas the prophecies that were not fulfilled were conveniently ignored. Eunus also employed theatrics to make his prophesying look even more convincing. According to Diodorus, “By some artifice or other, he used to breath flames of fire out of his mouth as from a burning lamp, and so would prophesy as though he had been at that time inspired by Apollo”.
Eunus’ most audacious claim, however, was that “the Syrian goddess had appeared to him, and told him that he should reign”. Eunus told this to everyone he met, including his master. Antigenes was so amused by Eunus that he would bring his slave with him to feasts and dinners as a sort of entertainment.
There, dinner guests would ask the slave how they would be treated when he became king, to which Eunus would reply that he will treat his masters well. This delighted the guests, who would reward Eunus with food from the table, and asked him to remember their kindness to him. Although this was done entirely in jest, Eunus did become a king, as a result of the slave revolt, and, according to Diodorus, he rewarded those who had been kind to him (even in jest) in earnest.
The Uprising Begins!
This prophecy of Eunus, though treated as entertainment, would soon be realized. As mentioned earlier, the slaves had been plotting against their masters. It was one of these plots that was the direct cause of the First Servile War. According to Diodorus, it was the cruelty of Damphilus of Enna and his wife, Megallis towards their slaves that caused this war.
Roman mosaic depicting a master beating a slave . ( hybonoticeras /Adobe Stock)
When the slaves of Damphilus and Megallis decided that they would not tolerate the cruel treatment of their masters any longer, they resorted to killing them. Before taking action, however, they consulted Eunus, who encouraged them, and prophesied that their undertaking would succeed.
Shortly after that, a body of 400 slaves was raised. Having armed themselves, the slaves, led by Eunus, broke into Enna, and began to wreak havoc. As Diodorus describes:
“Then entering the houses, they made such a great a slaughter, that they did not even spare even the suckling children, but plucked them violently from their mother’s breasts and dashed them against the ground. It cannot be expressed how vilely and filthily, for the satisfying of their lusts, they used men’s wives in the very presence of their husbands.”
This sight encouraged the other slaves in the city to join the uprising, and once their own masters were dealt with, they went on to kill the other inhabitants of the city. Ironically, Damphilus and Megallis were not in Enna at that time, but were in an orchard outside the city. When Eunus learned of this, he sent some slaves to bring them back to the city.
In contrast to his earlier description of the slaves’ indiscriminate cruelty towards the people of Enna, Diodorus shows that they were also capable of compassion. Although Damphilus and Megallis were eventually executed by their slaves, they did not hurt their daughter, “they declared that they would be kind in every respect to their daughter, because of her pity and compassion towards the slaves, and her readiness always to be helpful to them”. Diodorus may have been sympathetic towards the slaves, as reflected in the following, “This showed that the savage behaviour of the slaves towards others arose, not from their own cruel nature, but from a desire to have revenge for the wrongs they had suffered previously”.
Eunus Becomes King
As for Eunus, he killed his own masters, and was made king by his fellow slaves. Diodorus notes that the kingship was not given to him because of his “valour or skill in warfare, but on account of his extraordinary tricks, and because he was the leader and author of the defection”. Eunus would later adopt the name Antiochus, in honor of the Seleucid kings who ruled his native Syria.
Enna, bronze coin in the name of Antiochos (Eunus). O/ Head of Demeter right, wreathed with grain. R/ Grain-ear, BACI ANTIO around. (British Museum/ CC BY 4.0 )
Within three days of Eunus attaining the kingship, the army of slaves had swollen to more than 6000 men. As Eunus’ army ravaged the countryside, more slaves joined the revolt, and eventually, the slave king had more than 10,000 men under his command.
Eunus’ army drew its strength primarily from its sheer numbers. Diodorus reports that “after he had been joined by an infinite number of slaves, he grew to such power and boldness as to engage in a war with the Roman generals, and often defeated them in battle, by overpowering them with the number of his men”. In another part of Sicily, a Cilician by the name of Cleon incited a slave revolt. The two slave armies would eventually join forces, with Cleon serving in a subordinate role to Eunus. By now, the Romans took the uprising seriously, and sent a general by the name of Lucius Hypsaeus to Sicily.
Lucius Hypsaeus and his army, however, were defeated. As news of the slaves’ victory spread, it inspired other uprisings across the Roman Republic. In Rome itself, for instance, 150 slaves revolted, while in Attica, 1000 slaves rose against the Romans. These uprisings, however, were relatively small, and the local authorities acted quickly enough to crush the rebels before things got out of hand.
In Sicily, on the contrary, the slaves continued their reign of terror, and the armies sent by Rome against them were defeated. Eventually, the Romans managed to gain control of the situation. The turning point came when the town of Taurominium was captured by Rupilius. The town was subjected to a lengthy siege, during which the slaves turned to cannibalism. The town was ultimately betrayed to Rupilius, who had the surviving defenders “scourged and thrown over the cliff”.
The Fall of the Slave Turned King
Next, Rupilius’ army marched to Enna, which was also placed under a long siege. The town was only captured after it was betrayed to the Romans. During the siege, Cleon was slain, after making a courageous sally from the city. Although Eunus was also in the city, he did not have Cleon’s courage. Instead, he decided to flee with 600 of his guards up a cliff. When the slaves realized the hopelessness of their situation, they killed each other, preferring death at the hands of their comrades rather than at the hands of the Romans.
It seems that Eunus was too cowardly to take his own life, and hid in a cave, along with four companions – his cook, barber, jester, and the man who rubbed him in the bath. Rupilius, who was hot on their heels, eventually caught up with Eunus. The five men were found, and dragged out from their hiding place.
Rupilius, however, did not execute Eunus immediately. Instead, he was thrown into prison. Diodorus ends the story of Eunus’ life with the following, “and there consumed by lice, and so ended his days at Morgantina by a death worthy of the former wickedness of his life”. This marked the end of the First Servile War, though Rupilius, with a small army of men, went around Sicily to clear up the remnants of the revolt.
Eunus was thrown into prison. ( Erica Guilane-Nachez /Adobe Stock)
To conclude, although the First Servile War ended in 132 BC, three years after it broke out, this was not to be Rome’s last war against its own slaves. Another slave revolt occurred about three decades later. The Second Servile War was also fought on the island of Sicily, though the circumstances of its outbreak were different.
Yet another slave uprising broke out in 73 BC. The Third Servile War, known also as the Gladiator War, or the War of Spartacus, is arguably the most famous of the three uprisings, and the only one that was fought on the Italian mainland. Like the First Servile War, the two subsequent slave uprisings were also crushed by the Romans.
Top image: A modern statue of Eunus, leader of the First Servile War, in Enna. Source: rachid amrous /Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren