Servile Wars

B.C. 135 to 70
Rome — versus — Rebellous Slaves

First and Second Servile Wars : 135-132 and 104 to 103 B.C.

There were three slave revolts in Rome during the period from 135 to 70 BC The third of these, was the Gladiator revolt led by Spartacus, and is by far the most famous of the three. The other two slave revolts both occurred on the Island of Sicily, which had a large number of slaves that worked on plantations for owned by wealthy, and often absentee land-owners. This was due to the fact that the portion of Sicily which had been controlled by Carthage was sold off to wealthy land-owners, whereas much of the land in Italy was owned by private farms whose owners lived on or near the property. The conditions of life for slaves on large plantations was often significantly worse than on smaller farms.

The first slave revolt on Sicily was lead by a slave named Eunus who was thought to have some supernatural powers. He was not himself a general, but had an able General named Cleon, who resisted the Roman forces sent to put down the rebellion, using guerilla tactics rather than open warfare. The rebellion took three years to put down, but eventually Cleon was killed and Eunus captured.

Twenty-three years later a similar rebellion on Sicily broke out, but little is known about this conflict. It also took several years to bring to an end.

Third Servile Wars : 73 B.C.

The third slave revolt, and the one to occur on the Italian mainland during the republican period, was led by an escaped Gladiator named Spartacus. The revolt however, which started in 73 BC, was not taken seriously by the senate in Rome until several militias of ever-increasing size, were sent against the rebel army and routed. Brigandry was not an uncommon occupation in the Roman republic, and bands of thieves were often held-up in mountain fastnesses. Spartacus was considered to be the leader of a particularly large band of bandits for his first year of operation.

After the first two militias sent against Spartacus were rebuffed, however, thousands of slaves in the region of Campania joined them in the mountains, swelling their ranks up to 70,000. They wintered in the south and continued to plunder local towns in order gain supplies, and especially arms for their new recruits. Spartacus is thought to have imposed a great deal of discipline on his troops, so even in their plundering raids they functioned as an army, and distributed spoils in an organized fashion.

In the spring of 72 BC Spartacus moved his army to Cisalpine Gaul. There he met his first defeat when one of his divisions engaged a consular army sent against it. One of his generals was killed along with up to 20,000 of his men, but his ranks continued to swell from a stream on new-comers. It is thought that Spartacus intended to lead his band of slaves over the Alps to freedom, but many preferred to stay in Italy and continue to plunder the outlying cities. The motivations of Spartacus are not entirely understood, but instead of escaping over the Alps, he returned the following winter to Southern Italy. In the spring of 73 BC, the Roman Senate raised an army of over 40,000 men under Crassus. Pompey, the leading general in Rome at the time was also called to bring in reinforcements, but Crassus desired to win the glory for himself, and so pressed the war against Spartacus with great urgency. He won his first victory when a portion of Spartacus's army broke away from the main body and was annihilated by the Roman legions. Spartacus, realizing that more Romans reinforcements were arriving imminently, and having no viable means of retreat, decided to give battle. Most of his army was slain and the slave hero himself was killed in the struggle.

DateBattle Summary
71 BC  
Battle of Silarus River (Austrians vs. Prussians ) Romans victory
Fought B.C. 71 between two Roman legions under Crassus and the remainder of the slave army under Spartacus, who had escaped to Brundisium. The rebels were surrounded and captured at the Silarus river, and over 6,000 were crucified. The Romans then discovered 3000 Roman captives unharmed in the rebel camp.

Short Biography
Spartacus Gladiator who led a slave revolt. Held out for two years.
Crassus Very wealthy general. Fought Spartacus. Formed triumvirate with Pompey and Caesar.

Story Links
Book Links
Spartacus in  Lucius. Adventures of a Roman Boy  by  Alfred J. Church
Revolt of the Slaves  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Gladiators' Revolt  in  The Story of Rome  by  Mary Macgregor
Revolt of the Gladiators  in  Historical Tales: Roman  by  Charles Morris

Image Links

Lucius unhorsed and taken prisoner by the troops of Spartacus.
 in Lucius. Adventures of a Roman Boy

Spartacus and Hermann in the arena
 in Lucius. Adventures of a Roman Boy

Slave market in Rome: The inscription on the picture is mango Latin for slave-dealer.
 in Famous Men of Rome