Slavery was the basis of ancient society. Its appearance is explained by the transformation of nomadic agricultural society into sedentary, the appearance of trade and the accumulation of wealth, the establishment of private property and the development of more complicated social hierarchies. Wars were the most effective way to get slaves and for that reason many conflicts were declared, periodically, by the dominant empires.
Rome in its beginnings was a very humble settlement, with quite primitive customs and organization. Roman families, who only inhabited a narrow strip of land on the right bank of the Tiber River, engaged in subsistence agriculture and all members of these families devoted their efforts to the heritage of their lands. Slavery, in addition to being unnecessary, was considered harmful.
When the city develops and the victorious campaigns against the neighbours begin, a need for labour is generated to build the great public works. Probably slaves were employed, although at first the hiring of mercenary workers was preferred. In the gradual expansion of the Republic and later of the Empire, the old traditions of austerity and rigidity are transformed into ostentation and materialism, through contact with the subjugated peoples and through trade with neighbouring nations. All this degenerates into a justification of slavery as a sign of personal power, of national strength, and as a necessity to build infrastructures, since the mercenary workforce was scarce. Let us not forget that the Roman people were, among many other things, an eminently practical people, so at this juncture it is no longer considered a harmful practice, it is now considered necessary.
In its beginnings, both the nobility and the plebeians lived in the countryside, dedicated to livestock and the cultivation of their lands. Cato the Censor and other illustrious people of the Republic, idealized and extolled the tradition judging it as virtuous and wanted to recover it.
Times had changed and the economic and demographic growth of Rome, together with foreign influences such as Oriental refinements, brought about the success of the urban world. In the cities, the rich built increasingly large and sumptuous houses, and they ended up in need of slaves to attend the countryside and domestic services in the city.
In this social horizon, massive slave auctions begin to take place and cruel methods are used to subdue or punish them. Rome had adopted the customs of neighbours that were considered barbarians, and it was something that everyone did not like, but everyone used. In addition, the development of games and shows, the use of slave gladiators to fight among themselves or with beasts in the sand, ends up soaring the demand for slaves throughout the Empire.
Take as an example the data provided by the historian Titus Livius on the captured prisoners, mostly in campaigns of war, and reduced to slavery:
Year 210 BC——————————- more than 10.000
Year 208 BC———————————————- 4.000
Year 202 BC———————————————- 1.200
Year 200 BC——————————————— 35.000
Year 197 BC——————————– more than 25.000
Year 190 BC———————————————- 14.000
Year 167 BC——————————–more than 150.000
The data vary considerably depending on the campaigns carried out by the armies. While the Iberian slaves were little valued because they tended generally to suicide by their pride and rebellion, the oriental market opened the doors to the massive commerce of human beings, due to its more submissive and dominable character.
Anyway, during the millennial Roman history, multiple slave revolts occur. The rebellious slaves were condemned to death or to fight in the circus, sometimes they were marked with fire. One of the most famous severe punishments was a decapitation in Rome of more than 150 slaves in the year 621 BC.
Of the most important uprisings have highlighted and gone down in history the three servile wars:
-The first servile war had its importance by its character of authentic civil war, and took place in Sicily (139-133 BC), where the majority of slaves was dedicated to agriculture and herding. It was led by the Syrian Eunus, who gathered an impressive army of 80,000 men, but committed great excesses, such as assaulting the city of Enna and putting all citizens to the sword.
The rebellious slaves established their capital there and their leader was made king under the name of Antiochus. For three years he defeated all the armies sent against him, but when he tried to conquer Messina he was totally defeated by the proconsul Rupilius, who returned to Rome and celebrated a triumph. Eunus ended up dying and his army was reduced to small bands of rebels that no longer worried Rome. It was the bloodiest rebellion.
-The second servile war also took place in Sicily (104-100 BC) and was led by Athenion and, mainly, by a follower of Eunus: Salvius, who chose the name of Tryphon. In their struggle they managed to command 60,000 men, until the consul Manius Aquilius managed to crush the rebellion.
-The third servile war was the rebellion of slave gladiators. The best known and mythical, for their desire for freedom. It happened in Italy (74-71 BC) and was headed by Spartacus, of Thracian origin, and who had defected from the Roman army, which earned him slavery. Along with other seventy gladiators killed their guards and fled to the mountains, and ended up gathering an army of almost 90,000 men. His revolt caused the same panic to the free people as Hannibal when he wandered at ease on the Italian peninsula, and some historians of the time believed that his ultimate intention was to enter Rome.
The reality is that Spartacus and his followers defeated the consular armies of Lentulus, Gellius and Mummius.
When they were about to reach freedom by sea, they were betrayed and had no choice but to face the powerful combined forces of the 8 legions of Marcus Licinius Crassus, 7 of the great Gnaeus Pompey the Great, and 5 of Varrus Lucullus, which added in total 20, more than 100,000 soldiers, in the famous battle of the Silarius river. In it, tens of thousands of rebels died, and 6,000 were crucified as a warning. The hope of thousands of slaves who dreamed of freedom was destroyed.
This last war’s consequences weren’t less important: Crassus and Pompey took advantage from the victory for making political career and contributed decisively on the process of transition from the Republic to the Empire.
With the arrival of the Christianism the slavery didn’t end, because it was a very rooted institution on society, but it stablished spiritual equality between the slave and the owner. This was the first step on the evolution to a new social system that would prevail on the Middle Ages: servitude or servus of the feudal regime.
Author: Eduardo Ortiz Pardina