First Servile War

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First Servile War
Part of the Servile Wars
Date135–132 BC
Result Roman victory
Vexilloid of the Roman Empire.svgRoman Republic Slaves of Sicily
Commanders and leaders
Vexilloid of the Roman Empire.svgLucius Calpurnius Piso, consul
Vexilloid of the Roman Empire.svgPublius Rupilius, consul
Vexilloid of the Roman Empire.svgGaius Fulvius Flaccus, consul

The First Servile War of 135–132 BC was an unsuccessful slave rebellion against the Roman Republic. The war was prompted by slave revolts in Enna on the island of Sicily. It was led by Eunus, a former slave claiming to be a prophet, and Cleon, a Cilician (from present-day Turkey) who became Eunus's military commander. After some minor battles won by the slaves, a larger Roman army arrived in Sicily and defeated the rebels.


Following the final expulsion of the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War, there were great changes in land ownership in Sicily. Speculators from Italy rushed onto the island, buying up large tracts of land at low prices, or occupied estates which had belonged to Sicilians of the Carthaginian party. These were forfeited to Rome after the execution or flight of their owners.

The Sicilians of the Roman party also became rich out of the distress of their countrymen. According to Diodorus Siculus, politically influential slave-owners, often Roman equites,[1] did not provide enough food and clothing for their slaves. The Roman conquest of Macedonia, in which thousands of the conquered were sold into slavery; the slave dealing of the Cretan and Cilician pirates whose activity was practically unchecked at this time; as well as the oppression of corrupt Roman provincial governors, who were known to organize man-hunts after lower class country provincials (to be sold as slaves), all contributed to a constant supply of new slaves at very cheap price, which made it more profitable for their masters to wear them out by unremitting labor, harshness, exposure and malnutrition, to be cheaply replaced, than to take proper care for their nourishment, health, and accommodation.[2][3] Accordingly the plantation system which took shape in Sicily led to thousands of slaves dying every year of toil in the fields from dawn to dusk with chains around their legs, and being locked up in suffocating subterranean pits by night.[4] For food, the slaves had to turn to banditry to survive.[5] The Roman Senate failed to take measures to curb this dangerous tendency, which converted one of the most beautiful and fertile provinces of the Republic into a horrible den of misery, brigandage, atrocity and death.[6]

Servile War[edit]

In 135 BC, the plantation slaves in Sicily finally rose in revolt, having as their head a certain Eunus of Syrian origin, who, as a conjurer and self-proclaimed prophet, had long foretold that he would be king. Recognizing his talents, his plantation master used to employ him as an entertainer at symposia, where he would perform sleight-of-hand magic tricks that included breathing fire. During the performance he kept up a patter—thought humorous by his listeners—saying that Sicilian society would experience a role-reversal, in which his aristocratic audience would be killed or enslaved, and he would become king. To those who gave him tips, Eunus promised that they would be spared once he came into his kingdom. During the revolt, he spared the lives of at least some of those individuals.

The discontent of the slaves sparked into the major revolt at the particularly severe cruelty of a certain plantation-owner called Damophilus, whose slaves, in despair at their intolerable treatment, at last sought the advice of Eunus. Declaring that his prophecy was now to be fulfilled, Eunus organized about 400 into a band, and stormed the prominent city of Enna, in the interior of the island, the habitation of Damophilus; the unprepared town was captured and savagely sacked by the insurgents, who executed every inhabitant but the iron-forgers, who were chained to their smithies and put to manufacturing arms for their captors. Damophilus was butchered after being insultingly paraded through the theater, abjectly begging for his life, while his wife was tortured to death by her servants. Singularly, their daughter, who had once attempted to alleviate the slaves' sufferings, was spared and delivered with an honorable escort to the Roman garrison at Catana.

After the capture of Enna, the revolt quickly spread. Achaeus, a Greek slave, was named commander-in-chief by Eunus, who simultaneously proclaimed himself king Antiochus, of Syria. A group of 5,000 slaves on the south side of the island under Cleon rose to capture Agrigentum, after which they joined Eunus, the numbers of whose army rose from 10,000 to 70,000 by the lowest estimate(Livy and Orosius following him)[7], or as many as 200,000 according to Diodorus Siculus,[8] including men and women and possibly counting children.

The Praetor Lucius Hypsaeus marched with a body of Sicilian militia to quash the revolt, but the slaves routed him,[9] defeated three other praetors in succession, and occupied almost the whole island by the end of the year.[10] In 134 the Roman Senate sent Flaccus, the consul for the year, but his campaign, the details of which are obscure, ended without conclusive result.[11] In 133 the consul Lucius Calpurnius Piso was sent out, who recaptured Messana, putting 8,000 surrendered slaves to death, and laid siege to the important town of Tauromenium on the north-east coast, though he was unable to take it.[12][13]The revolt was finally defeated in the next year by Publius Rupilius. The latter laid siege again to Tauromenium, and captured it by treachery from within.[14] All the prisoners were first tortured, and then thrown from a cliff. Next he invested Enna, the center of the revolt, where Cleon had taken refuge. Cleon soon died of wounds sustained during a desperate sally from the gates on the Roman siege lines, and this city likewise soon fell due to traitors inside the walls.[15] The rebellion in the rest of the island was quickly stamped out, 20,000 prisoners being crucified by Rupilius in retribution.[16]

As for Eunus, little is known about his actual participation in the war. Only his enemies left accounts of him, and they gave credit for his victories to his general, the Cilician Cleon. But Eunus must have been a man of considerable ability to have maintained his leadership position throughout the war and to have commanded the services of those said to have been his superiors. Eunus was captured after Tauromenium while hiding in a pit, and was taken to the city of Morgantina, where he died of disease before he could be punished.[17]

The war lasted from 135 until 132 BC. It was the first of three large-scale slave revolts against the Roman Republic; the last and the most famous was led by Spartacus.


  1. ^ Photius' and Constantine Porphyrogennetos' summaries of Diodorus, quoted by Brent D. Shaw, Spartacus and the Slave Wars, pp. 80–81 and 88–89.
  2. ^ T. Mommsen, The History of Rome (Meridian Books, 1958), ch. I. p. 27
  3. ^ A. H. Beesely, The Gracchi, Marius, and Sulla Epochs of Ancient History, (Kindle edition), ch. I., loc. 205
  4. ^ Mommsen, p. 28
  5. ^ Photius' and Constantine Porphyrogennetos' summaries of Diodorus, quoted by Brent D. Shaw, Spartacus and the Slave Wars, pp. 80–81 and 88–89.
  6. ^ Mommsen, p. 29
  7. ^ The Periochae and Orosius, quoted by Brent D. Shaw, Spartacus and the Slave Wars, pp. 95 and 97.
  8. ^ Photius' summary of Diodorus, quoted by Brent D. Shaw, Spartacus and the Slave Wars, p. 85.
  9. ^ Mommsen, p. 30
  10. ^ Beesely, loc. 225
  11. ^ Beesely, ibid
  12. ^ Mommsen, p. 31
  13. ^ Beesely, ibid
  14. ^ Beesely, ibid
  15. ^ Beesely, ibid
  16. ^ Mommsen, ibid
  17. ^ Beesely, ibid

18. Peter Green, “The First Sicilian Slave War”, Past & Present, nr. 20 (1961): 10–29.


  • Mommsen, Theodor, The History of Rome, Collins & Saunders edition, Meridin Books, 1958.
  • Beesely, A. H., The Gracchi, Marius, and Sulla Epochs of Ancient History, Kindle edition.
  • Arnold, History of Rome, Vol. III. pp. 317–318, London edition.
  • Shaw, Brent (2001). Spartacus and the Slave Wars: a brief history with documents. pp. 79–106.(at google books)
  • David Engels, Ein syrisches Sizilien? Seleukidische Aspekte des Ersten Sizilischen Sklavenkriegs und der Herrschaft des Eunus-Antiochos, in: Polifemo 11, 2011, p. 233–251.