“I am Spartacus!”
A famous line from the 1960 movie, Spartacus, it’s one that has often been repeated when an unexpected hero emerges.
Turns out this Spartacus character was a real person, not just some movie character. And his story, which involves inciting the largest slave rebellion in Roman history, threatened the security of Rome like never before, and, in the process, brought its transition to an empire even closer.
Yes, Spartacus gets all the glory for this. But he was hardly the first slave in Roman history to rebel against their bondage. He just happened to be the third in a group of three that shook Rome to its core starting in 135 BC.
Collectively, these three conflicts are known as the Servile Wars and are an important chapter in early Roman history.
Role of Slavery in Roman Society
Although the modern perception of ancient Rome is that it was this glorious, expansive, and prosperous empire, we must remember that much of Roman society was actually built on the backs of slaves.
Slaves were not only used in farming, as modern readers often think. Instead, they were assigned to a wide number of roles, even as accountants.
Most slaves were acquired when the Romans conquered new lands. To put their foot down and assert their authority, they would sell the local population off into slavery, scattering them throughout the empire.
This is why so many people throughout the ancient world feared the Romans. And with the threat of lifetime slavery looming, can you blame them?
During the early stages of Roman expansion, the Romans sold many captured soldiers into slavery, hoping this would weaken their conquered enemies. But just because they had been captured didn’t mean they’d stopped being soldiers. And the harsh conditons of slavery drove them to resist Roman rule, sending Rome into a period of chaos.
First Servile War
The first major case of a slave revolt came in 135 BC on the island of Sicily. Led by a man who called himself Enna, and who came from the recently conquered lands that would today fall in Syria, the slaves on the island united and revolted agains their masters.
The Romans did not have a very large military force on the island at the time of the revolt, and so the slaves were able to win several decisive victories and take control over the entire island.
It wasn’t until two years later, in 133 BC, that the Senate could muster up a force large enough to land on Sicily and put the rebellion to an end.
To finish it off, the Romans put to death the slaves who didn’t die in battle.
Second Servile War
Almost 30 years later (31, to be exact), the slaves of Sicily started making noise once again. This time, they were motivated by events far away, in the north of Italy.
There, another military commander, Gaius Marius, was trying to recruit people to support a conquest mission of his own. But when he asked one of his allies for help, he was refused. His “friend” claimed that all his good men had been enslaved, which would make it quite tough for him to supply Marius with troops, as he had requested.
In response, the Senate changed the rules and said allies of Rome could not be enslaved. This gave Marius the troops he needed, but it stirred up trouble in Sicily.
For one, it freed some slaves and not others. Those who had been deemed “allies of Rome,” around 800 men on the island, were granted their freedom. The rest? Tough luck. You’re still slaves.
This sparked some unrest, not only amongst the slaves, but also amongst the slaveowners. Many of them had just lost a considerable amount of what they deemed property in the blink of an eye.
Feearful of what they might do, the magistrate of Sicily changed his mind and did not free the 800 slaves he was going to let go.
A bit irked by the fact they’d been freed and then re-enslaved, these men, alongside the rest of the slaves on the island, launched a full-scale rebellion.
Once again, the slaves were able to gain control of the entire island and it took the Romans totally by surprise (not sure why; this did happen 30 years prior) So, it wasn’t until three years later, in 101 BC, that the Romans were able to push the slaves back and retake Sicily.
The punishment this time? The remaining slaves were sent to Rome to fight beasts in the arenas for the amusement of the people of Rome.
Better than being put to death? Maybe? Maybe not?
Third Servile War
A little more than 27 years later, and the Romans once again had to deal with a slave rebellion.
This time, however, things got a little closer to home. The revolt took place on mainland Italy and briefly threatened the city of Rome itself.
Things got started in 73 BC when a group of gladiators (slaves who had to fight each other and animals to entertain the Roman people), broke free from their training school and ransacked a nearby Roman force.
From there, this group, led by a former soldier named Spartacus who had deserted from the Roman army, traveled around central Italy, ransacking and robbing for supplies, but also gaining in numbers.
In just a little more than a year, Spartacus was leading a group of more than 120,000 men, women, and children. They were no longer just a band of rebellious bandits. Now they were an army to be reckoned with.
The Romans gathered an army to chase down Spartacus, but they were defeated several times throughout 72 BC, which brought even more people, mostly slaves, into the rebellion.
Given how close this group was to Rome itself, this rebellion can be seen as more successful than the previous two. But just like the others, it came to an abrupt end.
Wanting to end the revolt once and for all, the Senate called on Marcus Licinius Crassus, one Rome’s most powerful generals, to assemble a force and defeat the rebellion, which he did by the end of the year.
An Unequal Society Produces an Empire
Although none of the three Servile Wars ended with things improving for the slaves, they did have a powerful impact on the development of ancient Roman society, mainly by helping powerful men rise to power.
Specifically, after defeating Spartacus and his army, Crassus’s power rose to new heights, until he eventually joined forces with men named Pompey and Julius Caesar, paving the way for the fall of the republic and the rise of the empire.
Something else these wars tell us about ancient Rome is just how unequal it was. Slavery was so widespread, and so brutal, that within 100 years, there were three widespread revolts. But inequality in Rome was not just because of slavery. Most Romans, particularly the landless plebeians, were poor, and this limited how much say they could have in the government.
Controlling and pleasing these people was an important function of the Roman government, and as Rome grew and became more unequal, this became difficult. Over time, this made the republic less effective, opening the door for something new: an empire run by a dictator.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao