Roman Slave Rebellions: First Servile War
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Roman Slave Rebellions: First Servile War

August 16, 2019

After its final victory over Carthage in the
Third Punic War in 146 BC, the Roman Republic was enjoying a period of relative peace, having
established itself as the dominant power in the Mediterranean. However, when there are
not enemies abroad, enemies within will emerge. This is the story of the Servile Wars, a string
of 3 slave rebellions that rocked the Republic in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, culminating
in the famous gladiator revolt and last stand led by Spartacus. Though Spartacus’ revolt in 73 BC is the
most well-known today, it was by no means the first. That honour belongs to the one
which happened in Sicily 60 years earlier in 135 BC. The Romans had conquered the majority
of the island at the end of the First Punic War in 241 BC. Previous conquests on the Italian
peninsula had resulted in annexation, and the locals in the areas, the socii, were granted
a substantial degree of autonomy. Though contributing troops to the Republic, they were not required
to pay tribute and they were treated more as allies with Rome holding hegemonic power.
Meanwhile Sicily became the first Roman province and so was a different case; not only was
it a mix of numerous different cultures, but it was also a place of substantial wealth
thanks to its fertile lands and ideal location. As a result, the Romans imposed a new system
of provincial rule over the island, with a governor being assigned and tribute collected.
Although the province was under Roman rule, the Carthaginians still had substantial interest
and influence there, and it would not be until after the Second Punic War in 201 BC that
these last Carthaginian vestiges were forced from the island.
Following the war, sympathisers of the Carthaginian cause had their land confiscated, resulting
in huge swathes of land being claimed by the Republic. This fertile but cheap land attracted
many investors, who bought huge tracts and began establishing vast estates, precursors
to latifundia. Slavery was rife, not only in Sicily, but
throughout the Mediterranean, and large numbers of these slaves were bought to Sicily in order
to work the farms of the estates. However, conditions were poor; many land owners did
not provide enough food or clothing for the slaves, who, as a result, often were forced
to turn to banditry and plundering to survive. Though this was a constant worry for the Senators
in Rome, the lands in Sicily were often held by powerful equites who had judiciary powers.
Thus, whenever charges were brought against the landowners, they were simply dismissed.
With the Senate effectively powerless, it was only a matter of time before such a disenfranchised
group were unified and rose in revolt, something that finally happened in 135BC. Eunus was a Syrian slave, one of many who
had been brought over to the island and now lived in the city of Enna. But, instead of
being a labourer, he was somewhat of an entertainer. He performed magic tricks, fire breathing,
and claimed to have divine visions and messages that prophesied him becoming a king. Antigenes,
Eunus’ master, would often parade Eunus at dinner parties, having him perform his
tricks and laughing at his claims to kingship. However, the slaves in Enna were treated particularly
badly, and when they conspired to revolt in 135 BC, they turned to Eunus as their leader,
inspired by his proclamations of divine favour. The revolt began when 400 of these slaves
rose up in Enna, killing their masters, along with their masters’ wives and children,
and gathering other slaves in the city to their cause.
The revolt was brutal; kangaroo courts were established and the accused tortured and executed,
and Eunus ordered that all of the wealthy male citizens of Enna be hunted down and killed,
save those who could forge weapons. These, the slaves themselves put into chains and
forced them to work producing weapons for the rebels.
Eunus proclaimed himself king and took the name Antiochus, after the famous Seleucid
king. Soon, he was able to assemble and arm a force of 6,000 slaves, some with proper
weaponry, others with more basic weapons; slings, hatchets and rudimentary spears. Having
been forced into a life of banditry by their masters, most had at least some fighting experience
and some had even been soldiers who had been enslaved as prisoners of war, or bodyguards.
With this force assembled, he began ravaging the countryside and gathering still more men
to his cause, until his army numbered some 10,000. The Romans did make attempts to quell the
revolt, however, they had not fully realised the seriousness of the situation, and the
small forces that they sent to deal with the rebels were quickly overcome by sheer force
of numbers. Soon after this, another group of slaves on
Sicily revolted, this time led by a slave and infamous brigand called Cleon. He had
been a fighter since his youth in Asia Minor, and upon hearing of Eunus’ success had seized
upon the opportunity. The Romans initially hoped that these two factions would fight,
and thus destroy each other, but instead, Cleon sided with Eunus, bringing a further
5,000 men to his cause and acting as his general. Together, they were able to capture the city
of Acragas, whose defences had been left in disrepair. The slaves were careful to target
the wealthy, mostly leaving the lower classes alone and, due to the huge economic disparity
in Sicily, many of the lower class even rallied to Eunus, further swelling his numbers. After a month, a Roman Praetor, Lucius Hypsaeus,
was sent with 8,000 Sicilian militia to quell the revolt. Though the fact that a Praetor
was sent shows that the Romans were now taking the revolt more seriously, they were still
not doing enough. By this time, Eunus and Cleon had 20,000 men under their command.
The 8,000 militia proved no match for their more numerous and determined rivals and were
quickly routed. Following this, the revolt spread even further
across the island, the slaves taking numerous cities and rallying still greater numbers
to their cause. Three other Praetors with similar sized forces were also sent against
the rebels, each being defeated in turn. Their success inspired revolts in other parts of
the Republic, small revolts rising in both Rome itself and Greece, though both of these
were quickly crushed before they could develop. In 133 BC the revolt in Sicily was still going
strong though, the slave’s numbers now growing to as many as 60,000, controlling the majority
of the islands key cities and even minting their own coins. But Rome now decided to act
with force, sending an army headed by the Consul, Lucius Piso. Under his command, the
Romans were able to make their first significant gains, recapturing Morgantina, killing 8,000
slaves in the battle and crucifying those taken as prisoners. This would act as a turning
point in the Roman’s fortunes. The following year, another Consul, Publius
Rupilius, was also sent to the island. Rupilius began a ruthless campaign to finally quell
the rebellion. He first besieged the city of Tauromenium, forcing the rebels inside
to resort to cannibalism. Finally, a slave called Sarapion betrayed the rebels, opening
the gates to the Romans. The Romans stormed the city and the slaves, starved and in no
condition to fight, put up little resistance. Rupilius ordered that all the slaves be round
up, tortured, and then thrown off a cliff. Following this, he marched to the rebel’s
de facto capital of Enna where Cleon was stationed and once again, besieged the city. Realising
that he would soon face the same fate as those at Tauromenium, Cleon decided to sally out,
preferring to die in battle then starve behind the city walls. He fought bravely, but was
nonetheless cut down, his body displayed by Rupilius to those still defending the city
walls. The rebels’ moral broke at the sight, and once again, they were betrayed, with the
Romans seizing the city. Eunus had not been present during the siege
but upon hearing the death of his general and fall of Enna, he fled with 1,000 men into
the mountains. By this point, the slaves knew they were defeated. Rupilius’ ruthless tactics
had worked in breaking the morale of the rebels, and the few who remained with Eunus knew that
Rupilius would soon be marching on them next. Rather than face the brutal punishments of
Rupilius, the slaves instead decided to behead each other rather than be taken alive.
When Rupilius arrived in the mountains, he found Eunus with a few close friends hiding
in a cave. The slave leader was dragged out and imprisoned. Though the Romans planned
to torture and execute Eunus as they had with other slaves, he died of illness in prison
before they could. The following year, 131, Rupilius was left in Sicily with a select
group of soldiers to mop up the remnants of the revolt, but with the deaths of Cleon and
Eunus, the First Servile War was over. In total, the war had cost the Romans as many
as 20,000 in battle as well as an unknown number of civilians. Up until this point,
it was the first mass slave revolt the Romans had faced, but it was only the start of numerous
to follow. Our mini-series on the anti-Roman revolts
will continue, so make sure you are subscribed to our channel and have pressed the bell button.
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  1. Jupiters Cock!
    I've often heard of these kangaroo courts….what evil and deviant creatures always presiding over people…. over the centuries kangaroos were exiled to Australia and rightfully so.

  2. I’m surprised at how much more of a threat this first revolt seem to have been than the more known one of Spartacus

  3. I notice that these wars typically happen in Italy. Was it bcuz it was richest n had most slaves. I assume the rich nobles of Roman Gaul should hv slaves too.

  4. Slaves, peasants and lumpen social elements have no revolutionary potential. Marx could have told those naive Sicilians that.

  5. The slaves should have focused on taking Messina to cut off the straits so they Romans couldn't enter Sicily.

  6. Aww man you guy failed me when the romans crucified some one it was not a cross but a stake it was more painful and logical than to go the extra mile and put cross beams on it

  7. Awesome vid as always! I wish there was a playlist of your battles in chronological order, by the year the battle took place. That would be epic.

  8. Thank you for commemorating our Independence day with an educating video on Oppressed people fighting for their freedom.

  9. Have you considered covering the Social wars of c90bce? They have vey little youtube coverage but are quite significant in many ways.

  10. i guess the second video will be the revolt of Salvius of Syria and Macedonian Arthenius again in Sicily on 107 bc??

  11. There always seems to be that one guy who, either because, I guess, he thinks he’s helping people or just wants to save his own skin/get paid, opens the door during a siege and gets everyone massacred. Anyone who has worked a job where teamwork is essential knows those people certainly still exist….no shortage of selfish pricks

  12. One of your best videos yet! I'm so excited you've made this into a series! But I wonder: have their ever been any successful slave revolts in antiquity, ones that led to the formation of new nations or reconquests of old ones?

  13. how the fuck did the roman empire last so long!! fighting so many wars taking so many casualties. they sent 8 armies to quell this rebellion did i hear that right? then u have all the losses against hannibal. the civil wars and dictators. sulla, then caesar vs pompey. then the second triumvirate civil wars. then teutorborg forest. this is all within like 150 years. point is they must have had alot of fucking sex to replenish these armies. for fucks sake might have been the most horniest empire ever!!! mongolian empire didnt even last as long and they were horny!!! tactics and strategy dont win wars horniness does. the more men you have the more you have to throw at them

  14. I even learned about this rebel in Chinese high school textbook. However, your video covered much more details than I had expected. Thank you and please keep up with your work.

  15. Was Sicily more heavily forested at time than it is now? My understanding is that all of the Mediterranean islands were gradually deforested by humans over many centuries thus creating dry and open landscapes that we see today.

  16. Anti-Roman revolts? so the series will include more than just the Servile Wars? that would be amazing as it would maybe cover some rather obscure conflicts like the bloody Kitos War or the revolt against Constantius Gallus, the brother ofJulian the Apostate.

  17. If I learned anything from history Is, if u a slave, just keep slaving it could be worst. You could get captured by a Roman army and get torched for revolting.


  19. You guys gave me quite a headache with the roman dates that you used! Took me quite a while to see the A.U.C at the end… 🙂 When you refer to dates in the video please stick to BC/AD or otherwise my head will explode. Great video as always, looking forward to hear from you on Sunday!

  20. First of anti roman revolts to be covered?! Oh man, please cover the Iberian Peninsula revolts and wars against Roman conquest! See Viriato's role over the Celtiberian Wars and Lusitanian Wars, and the final clash with the Cantabrian Wars, an end so dark and brutal that even Octavian Caesar did not wanted a Triumph on his return to Rome!

  21. This video made me look about Roman calendar and dates.
    By the way, the art is good, but I prefer the previous 🙂
    As always, nice video !

  22. Hello Guys, I'm new to youtube, Please take a visit to my channel as same as this channel. Presently I have uploaded one video. I will upload more in future.

  23. Ancient Civilizations: Gives slaves/lower class deplorable living conditions.
    Also Ancient Civilizations: “Where did this Revolution come from?”

  24. am lost with the Roman numerals. I write 135 B.C. = -CXXXV, and not DCXIX, which to me is 619. Am missing something then!!!!!!

  25. I refer to the comments of shit. sicily is europe. ther average of the Greek-Italian legacy is 80% the rest Germanic-Iberian-Semitic stop the anti-europa propaganda.I am Sicilian.

  26. 4:25 I endorse this revolt based on what I hear until the timestamp provided here. 100%. That's also something that I find disgusting about abolitionism centuries later: The slave masters were often not harmed but even paid off to "free" the slaves from direct ownership – there was no punishment for centuries of torture and the material conditions of people were left unaddressed.

  27. I'd love to see more content about more slave revolts or peasant revolts. It's a part of history that is surprisingly lacking in good content about it.

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