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History of Rome and the Servile Wars

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Published: Wed, 06 Sep 2017

Can we understand the servile wars and revolt of Spartacus in terms of a proletariat uprising against Rome?

My research focused on the view of slavery as such within the Roman empire from 140 B.C to 70 B.C. My hypothesis is that the Servile wars and Spartacus revolt, did lead to a proletariat uprising against Rome, but these caused the revolt, not the lower classes themselves. However, my main research question, identifies cultural problems in the history of slavery, in terms of the uprising and open revolts against Rome staring with the servile wars, leading through to Spartacus, and how this caused the uprising, as the challenge to roman rule was a direct follow on from the events that preceded it. My aim, therefore, is to show how the impact of the institution of slavery on roman society at large and identify the responses and resistance, in order to show how slavery was integral in roman society, which would inevitably lead to a proletariat uprising.

The slave rebellions were extraordinary in Roman time, nothing like them had ever happened before and after the final suppression of Spartacus in 70 B.C, no comparable rising ever took place again.[1] In terms of a reaction from ancient scholars, our evidencestems almost wholly pro roman sources; at best from writers who saw no moral justification in servile revolutions as such[2], indicating somewhat of a bias towards infolding events.

Modern scholars such as Bradley and Green, have shown that the uprisings stemmed from the ruthlessness of the Roman’s military expansion, this can be supported by the fact that, territorial expansion in the Roman empire is considerably linked with the use of slavery, as warfare became inextricably linked with economic growth[3]. To focus on “slave,” therefore, in terms of the events creating a proletariat uprising, we must consider the views of the ancient and modern scholars, as well as Marxist thought, in order to reason why the wars created the issue of an uprising as slavery has its origins in the deepest mists of antiquity, usually arising from putting prisoners of war to servitude as reparation[4].

In terms of the servile wars, although they were the first warning of an assault against the Romans from a slave perspective, in regard to a proletariat uprising, it didn’t have as much of an effect as Spartacus did, and that is why this essay focuses largely on the success of Spartacus in the sense of an uprising. The first slave war had its begging in Enna, this was significant as Sicily had become the first overseas province in the wake of the first war against Carthage, 264 B.C – 241 B.C[5]. The massacre which would ensue the destruction of Enna led to full control being taken, leading to complete possession of the area. The prosperity of Siciliy drew comment from Diodorus a land “so rich in grain”[6] signifying why the Romans wanted it, and furthermore its slaves for economic purposes. Diodorus gives two different accounts of the motives that instigated the slave rebellion. In the first, they are entirely private and domestic. A group of house slaves have been driven to desperate action by the ill treatment they have suffered at the hands of their master and his wife. In the second version, the slaves are clearly deputies from a much larger and more general body. The first version is Roman propaganda, designed to minimise the political motives of the uprising.[7] This clearly identifies the means of a proletariat uprising as early propaganda aimed to stop any kind of opposition before it even began. Furthermore, Diodorus gives the usual catalogue of child-murder and rape[8], this supports the fact mentioned earlier, as many sources came from pro-romans, who didn’t support any kind of uprising, so they portray the rebels as doig horrible things in order to stem other citizens’ participation. In addition, various testimonia suggest that the majoriy of sicilain slaves were field labourers, the chain gangs of the ergastula[9]this only intensifies the proletariat uprising, as with legitimate forms of protest denied them, the Roman plebeians resorted to military tactics in abortive but violent attempts to end the widespread debts and break up the latifundia[10]. This, then can argue that Diodorus considered the violence of the Sicilian masters’ and the power they had over their slaves was a key factor in the outbreak of the rebellions. The Sicilian slave uprisings were suggestive of long-term social change that was required, and though they do signify problems that would lead to an uprising, it was mainly Spartacus actions, that would make Roman society contest the higher powers. The slave rebellions aided as an excuse for the men to release their anger against their owners, this is supported by the fact that the Sicilian slave wars, were essentially revolts of an agricultural workers contesting their own owners rule.

The biggest uprising of the three major slave wars in the Roman republic was the last of them, the rebellion of the gladiator Spartacus. The war raged through the core of Italy, not in Sicily like the previous rebellions had, and this significantly challenged Roman power and authority. In the case of the revolt, it’s importance in linking in to a proletariat uprising is imperative, this is due to the fact that it began as only a few slaves escaping, whereas what it became is hugely important. Slaves did not have much of a common identity, except where they were a conquered people[11]. This led to an escalation of individuals who had grown distasteful of roman citizen rule over the lower class. This suggestively links with modern Marxist thought, and is significant in arguing why Spartacus began the proletariat uprising against Rome. ‘Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes’[12] This quote from the communist manifesto, links heavily with the problems non-roman citizens faced, as the escaped slaves that began the revolt were the lowest-ranking members the roman society. I argued earlier that despite their importance, the servile wars were not as significant s Spartacus revolt in terms of a proletariat uprising against Rome. This can be supported by add Marxist quote from Doc 3, this clearly shows his visionary leadership in objection of the oppressing rule. Thus, the complexity of the argument changes somewhat, as it’s no longer just about slaves, it is about all citizenry contesting roman rule, which occurred after the defeat of Spartacus. In terms of the occurrences during Spartacus’ revolt, limitations on the sources used again must be considered, as like Diodorus, pro-roman writers contested any happenings of an uprising as such. limitations of the literary sources that provide our evidence. There are only a handful of accounts of the war, and the fullest of these were composed centuries after the events they describe. Importantly, no account of the war from the view of Spartacus himself or any of the rebels exists. What remains is the representation of the revolt that was written by ancient scholars who believed slavery to be part of the hierarchical society norm.

It is important to note that the uprisings that occurred heavily linked to the roman economy. Capua were Spartacus’ revolt began prior to its defection of Hannibal had previously been Rome’s equal[13], this is significant as it shows why slavery was so rife as it was the center for bronze manufacturing and the extraordinary production of grain and relied on a large servile population[14]. Capua had access to a certain amount of wealth and manumission was sufficiently practiced to allow the assimilation of some slaves with established frameworks of authority. Thus, collaboration with the status quo was once responsive to servitude that could at times lead to really social advancement[15]. This can be supported by the fact that Bradley argues that the violence of the revolt was the product of the violence slave owners themselves had long fostered into their slaves[16], this is important as it shows why the battle engaged so many to up rise against roman rule. Furthermore, he argues that the escalation of the revolt of gladiators into a sustained war of servile resistance cannot possibly have been what they hoped to achieve when they made their escape from Capua.[17] It is important to note that at the time of the uprising lead by Spartacus gladiatorial contest where still in the process of becoming prolific entertainment[18] and so early witnesses to the ‘sport’ didn’t understand the barbaric actions of some gladiator owners. First of all, it is important to note that Gladiators tended to be the first-generation slaves[19] and so thus, a proletariat uprising led by Spartacus was significant as the attractiveness of manumission was a motivating impulse[20] to most slaves who joined the rebellion. This is significantly supported by the fact that Spartacus’ practice of equally dividing the spoils and special inducement for encouraging discontented agricultural workers to join the movement[21] increased the number of radicals joining the movement. He wasn’t like most leaders as he had been subject to the horrors of slavery himself, and so believed in helping all who wanted to fight for their freedom. General servile involvement in political and civil strife had now come into being[22]. This was also major as this led to many thinking that Spartacus was a figure who was surrounded by an aura of religiosity, and this is aided by the fact that he was known to be manipulating religious associations for the purpose of promoting resistance to slavery[23].

The aftermath of Spartacus death is significant in why he led a proletariat uprising in the first place leading on from the events of the servile wars. After the battle, the legionaries found and rescued 3,000 Roman prisoners in their camp – all of whom were unharmed[24]. This is particularly significant as it shows how all the rebels wanted was freedom and change. This civilized treatment of the Roman prisoners contrasts starkly with the fate meted out to Spartacus’ followers. Crassus had 6,000 slaves crucified along the Appian Way between Capua and Rome – a distance of about 200 kilometres. Their corpses lined the road all the way from Brundisium to Rome. Since Crassus never gave orders for the bodies to be taken down, for years after the final battle all who travelled that road were treated to this macabre spectacle[25]. This was significant as it sent a message, and heightened the sense that slavery was imperative to the economy and survival of roman rule and even more so the hierarchal system in operation, which led to a proletariat uprising. While the slave rebellions were intensified by the substantial volatility of the later Roman Republic, the slave wars and the Spartacus revolt significantly challenged the Roman Republic on a social and economic front. This was indefinitely aimed to increase the power of Rome, which would lead many modern historians arguing the fact that Spartacus’ revolt was an uprising against the brutal treatment of slaves throughout the roman world.

In conclusion, the Spartacus rebellion was the last main slave revolts that Rome would face. This being quite possibly due to the fear which Crassus instilled with the crucifixions of all the rebels who were captured after the defeat of Spartacus[26]. The fear instilled on the roman hierarchy prompted by the three main slave wars would worry the Roman rule for the rest of its dominance, this because it seriously challenged the power and authority of the hierachy. Spartacus had defeated one Roman army after another, and it baffled many scholars how ordinary slaves had defeated legion after legion with ease. As Engels has written, “where was the way out, salvation for the enslaved, oppressed, and impoverished, a way out common to all these groups of people (slaves, ex-slaves, the plebeian mob, impoverished free men) whose interests were mutually alien[27].” This is suggestive of the fact that the proletariat uprising was due to a common cause, which in fact it was, as the mass of Roman citizenry became a “mob of do-nothings more abject than the former ‘poor whites’ in the southern country of the United States, and alongside of them developed a mode of production which was not capitalist but dependent upon slavery.”[28]

Finally, for Marx, Spartacus was “revealed as the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history. Great general noble character, real representative of the ancient proletariat”.[29] This finalises my argument, as I have argued that Spartacus, more so than the two servile wars instigated a lower class uprising due to his actions, and furthermore by Crassus murders of his followers, it showed how imperative slavery was to Rome.


[1] Peter Green, “THE FIRST SICILIAN SLAVE WAR”, Past And Present, 20.1 (1961), pp. 10-29 .

[2] Peter Green, “THE FIRST SICILIAN SLAVE WAR”, pp. 10-29.

[3] Graham Stevenson, “Spartacus And Class Struggle In Ancient Rome”, [accessed 23 March 2017].

[4] Graham Stevenson, “Spartacus And Class Struggle In Ancient Rome”, [accessed 23 March 2017].

[5] Keith R Bradley, Slavery And Rebellion In The Roman World, 140 B.C. – 70 B.C, 1st edn (Bloomington, Ind. [u.a.]: Indiana University Press, 1998), p.46.

[6] Keith R Bradley, Slavery And Rebellion In The Roman World, p.47.

[7] Peter Green, “THE FIRST SICILIAN SLAVE WAR”, pp. 10-29.

[8] Peter Green, “THE FIRST SICILIAN SLAVE WAR”, pp. 10-29.

[9] Peter Green, “THE FIRST SICILIAN SLAVE WAR”, pp. 10-29.

[10] Graham Stevenson, “Spartacus And Class Struggle In Ancient Rome”, [accessed 23 March 2017].

[11] Graham Stevenson, “Spartacus And Class Struggle In Ancient Rome”, [accessed 23 March 2017].

[12] “Communist Manifesto (Chapter 1)”, Marxists.Org, 2017 [accessed 23 March 2017].

[13] Keith R Bradley, Slavery And Rebellion In The Roman World, p.83

[14] Keith R Bradley, Slavery And Rebellion In The Roman World, p.83.

[15] Keith R Bradley, Slavery And Rebellion In The Roman World, pp.83,84.

[16] Keith R Bradley, Slavery And Rebellion In The Roman World, p.92.

[17] Keith R Bradley, Slavery And Rebellion In The Roman World, p.98.

[18] Keith R Bradley, Slavery And Rebellion In The Roman World, p.84.

[19] Keith R Bradley, Slavery And Rebellion In The Roman World, p.85.

[20] Keith R Bradley, Slavery And Rebellion In The Roman World, p.89.

[21] Keith R Bradley, Slavery And Rebellion In The Roman World, p.93.

[22] Keith R Bradley, Slavery And Rebellion In The Roman World, p.90.

[23] Keith R Bradley, Slavery And Rebellion In The Roman World, p.93.

[24] Alan Woods, “Spartacus – A Real Representative Of The Proletariat Of Ancient Times | Ancient History | History & Theory”, Marxist.Com, 2017 [accessed 23 March 2017].

[25] Alan Woods, “Spartacus – A Real Representative Of The Proletariat Of Ancient Times | Ancient History | History & Theory”, Marxist.Com, 2017 [accessed 23 March 2017].

[26] Alan Woods, “Spartacus – A Real Representative Of The Proletariat Of Ancient Times | Ancient History | History & Theory”, Marxist.Com, 2017 [accessed 23 March 2017].

[27] Graham Stevenson, “Spartacus And Class Struggle In Ancient Rome”, [accessed 23 March 2017].

[28] Graham Stevenson, “Spartacus And Class Struggle In Ancient Rome”, [accessed 23 March 2017].

[29] Graham Stevenson, “Spartacus And Class Struggle In Ancient Rome”, [accessed 23 March 2017].


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