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Rome, Slaves and the Revolt of Spartacus

*The following essay was written in 2020 and received a HD grade, as part of my studies on Rome and the Roman Empire. This essay is published here as part of an online portfolio reflecting the culmination of 5 years of my undergraduate study.


Rome’s foundation in 753BC by Romulus would mark the beginning of a new era of military expansion and socio-cultural transformation which would spread across the known Mediterranean world for centuries to come.[1] The sheer might and influence of ancient Rome was not achieved overnight, but over the course of many years of military acquisition and economic development.[2] On one factor historians agree, the development of this vast civilisation had a common denominator that ensured its success and longevity; the employment of slaves.[3] Slavery predates the written record with evidence that forced servitude of one human to another exists in almost every culture of the ancient world, and their very existence was of considerable value to their society.[4] This essay will discuss slavery as a “historical institution” that helped shape the economic, social and military facets of ancient Rome.[5] The economic advantages of slave labour, the social standing and prestige slavery provided slave-owners, and slavery as a result of military campaigns and warfare will be discussed in reference to the development of Rome and the Republic.[6]


This essay will further discuss the Revolt of Spartacus in 73BC and analyse the implications and consequences that slavery posed to both the oppressed and the oppressor, and how it brought the mighty Roman Republic to its knees.[7] This discussion is aided by its reference to ancient sources, including Appian’s Civil Wars and Plutarch’s Life of Crassus, which illuminate the institution of slavery and the specific experiences of Spartacus as an infamous gladiator in servitude and a skilled general during the Third Servile War.[8] While ‘Republic’ and ‘Empire’ constitute a broad time frame of constitutional change and expansion, for the purpose of this essay, the ‘Roman Republic’ will be used in its discussion of slavery and the Third Servile War of 73-71BC.

Image: An artisists impression of Ancient Rome.


It is commonly agreed upon by historians that “slavery occupied a central position in the Roman economy,” and the economic benefits it yielded was the reason for its longevity.[9] The economic advantage of slave labour coupled with the wealth associated with agricultural pursuits and land investment that was aided by the placement of slaves on the field rendered slavery of significant value to ancient Rome.[10] Prior to the civilisation of Rome, much of the Republic’s wealth came from land investment, agricultural production and warfare.[11] As more land was acquired as a result of military expansion, more peasants and farmers were needed to ensure agricultural surplus was maintained.[12] However, due to the need for more able-bodied men to enlist in the army, slaves were placed on the land in their stead as Appian stipulates, “the land was held by the rich who employed slaves instead of freemen as cultivators.”[13]While Appian provides a detailed account of the institution of slavery, his Roman citizenship should not be ignored. Appian was born c. 95CE in Greece, yet he became a Roman citizen sometime after his visit to Rome in c.120CE.[14] As such, while he provides a valuable first-hand witness of the conditions and treatments of slaves, a certain level of class bias exists around his writings as it can be assumed that he also employed slaves, as was the inclination of many Roman citizens.[15] According to Dr Keith Hopkins, the introduction of massive wealth and slaves into the Roman economy had a “similar effect as the rapid development that comes from technological innovations.”[16] Ultimately, the demand for slave labour must have been extraordinary enough to render other means of production insufficient, as stipulated by Schiedel.[17] Not only was agricultural production an important area in ensuring Rome’s economic prosperity, but as the Republic grew and its civilisation developed, the beautification of Rome was a task relied upon by slave labour.[18] Due to the large proportion of the slave population residing in Rome, many of these slaves were employed by the state to construct buildings, roads, temples and other projects that reflected the prosperity and might of the Republic, as they were significantly easier to manage than free workmen.[19] In addition, the influx of slaves from subjugated territories resulted in a steady supply of slaves to ensure the construction of Rome and they were “free from military conscription, thus ensuring longevity.”[20]Furthermore, the idea of the value of slave labour is reinforced by the fact that “slave prices were considerable”, as ancient sources ascertain that the price of a “young adult male slave, fell in a range of 4 tons plus/minus 40 per cent in the Roman Empire,” a figure of great wealth in ancient Rome.[21] The ultimate benefits that the slave population offered Rome could not be ignored, and as such were of considerable economic value to the Roman Republic.[22]


Similarly, the institution of slavery as a social entity cannot be understated as the prestige that slaves afforded their masters was substantially significant and rendered slaves of considerable value as to own a slave was “a critical mark of any individual’s social standing.”[23] According to Joshel, it is estimated that slaves made up 20-30 per cent of the Republic’s population, and by the late first century BC, “slaves numbered 1 to 1.5 million out of a population of 5 to 6 million” in Roman Italy.[24] Despite Joshel’s assertation, Schiedel stipulates that due to the nature of slaves and the fact that they were likely deemed an unworthy subject for discussion in the historical record, the raw number of slaves in Rome cannot be known with any degree of certainty.[25] Historians agree, however, that the large proportion of slaves not only produced a greater quantity of wealth for the upper classes but were significantly beneficial to the social status of slave-owners.[26] This was a result of the role of slaves regarding their duties and responsibilities. For many members of the nobility, slaves served as servants for their owners, tending to their every need and even providing services as “administrators, financial agents and secretaries”, depending on the education and literacy levels of said slaves.[27] As a result, “elite wealth, status and leisure were all built on the labour and lives of slaves,” as the socio-political benefits slaves provided for their masters drastically increased their value.[28] This is supported by ancient historian Appian who asserts that “ownership of slaves brought them great gain from the multitude of their hegemony,” as slaves were so numerous and the ownership of many meant higher prestige and influence on a socio-political level.[29]

Image: The Roman Empire was an expansive institution, with slaves taken from conquered tribes and countries. Ancient Rome, ironically, was brought to its knees by one slave - Spartacus.


Despite this inherent value, the ‘servile mentality’ that existed in ancient Rome shaped the institution considerably and as a result, slaves were commonly mistreated and considered ‘disposable.’[30] While the discussion of mistreatment of slaves is subjective to the specific master-slave relationship, it is believed that the consensus of the experiences of slaves was overall negative.[31] This is reflective in the sheer number of slaves who rebelled against their masters in 73BC and joined the Third Servile Rebellion as Spartacus’ revolt, while initially constituting around 74 men, grew to 70 000 men due to the rapid influx of slaves who sought liberation from the institution.[32] The ‘servile mentality’ was also furthered by the martial tradition that existed in Rome.[33] Since slaves were primarily made up of subjugated peoples from defeated territories, they were looked down upon and degraded due to Rome’s contempt for defeated peoples.[34] This is evident in the contempt Rome had towards Spartacus who is believed to have been “Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier with the Romans, but had since been a prisoner and sold for a gladiator,” according to Appian.[35] Despite the contempt Rome had for Spartacus, evident due to the class bias that exists in the historical discussion of the Third Servile War, he was also revered by some ancient historians.[36] Plutarch often comments on Spartacus’ admirable qualities comparing him more to “a Grecian than the people of his country usually are,” with a “high spirit and valiant, and in gentleness superior to his condition.”[37] It is important to note that while Plutarch, a Greek writer, was writing favourably about a slave, it reflects the innate class bias of Rome during the time which can still be seen in Plutarch’s works.[38] The Romans could not fathom that a slave could cripple the Republic, and so many Roman/Greek writers credit Spartacus with omnipotent-like qualities, further reflective of Roman propaganda in an attempt to mitigate the shame and humiliation of suffering defeats at the hands of slaves.[39] This is further reflective of Spartacus’ social significance in the servile historical record and renders his rebellion of considerable significance in analysing this record.

Image: A statue rendered in Spartacus' image.


Additionally, the military foundation for the greater proportion of slaves is considerable as slaves were primarily from the subjugated territories of ancient Rome.[40] The military value that slaves provided ancient Rome was somewhat complex, as while slaves were not conscripted into the Roman army, except in times of emergency, they replaced peasants and farmers on the land who were called into military service.[41] In terms of the Spartacus revolt, the military might of the rebellion was made up from the bulk of slaves, many of whom fought as gladiators and were of great significance in the Third Servile War.[42] During Rome’s foundation, skirmishes and conflicts with neighbouring communities occurred over land and resource disputes and as military expansion occurred, the citizens of subjugated communities were either killed or enslaved and forced into servitude for ancient Rome.[43] According to Livy, in 146BC, 30 000 men and 25 000 women were enslaved after the destruction of Carthage and between 58 and 50BC, Julius Caesar enslaved more than one million people after his conquest of Gaul.[44] These slaves were primarily sold into farming households and given domestic duties or used for agricultural labour.[45]


In other instances, due to the nature of many prisoners of war having been trained in battle and warfare, soldiers who were enslaved were often sold into servitude as gladiators, as was the case with Spartacus.[46] The gladiatorial games were vastly popular in ancient Rome as they appealed to the militaristic traditions of the Roman Republic and served as a distraction from the political issues and socio-economic grievances that were occurring during a time of great military expansion and uncertainty.[47] The gladiators were revered and praised for their courage and skill in conflict, and many were prisoners of war or slaves forced into the arena.[48] Glory was considerable for gladiators who showed promise and courage in the arena and many were given the promise of freedom if they assured victory for their masters.[49] It is told that Spartacus was sold into slavery after deserting the Roman army and bought by “Lentulus Batiatus (who) trained up a great many gladiators in Capua, most of them Gauls and Thracians.”[50] Batiatus’ ludus, a gladiator training school, was said to be particularly cruel in its treatment of the slaves who lived and worked there, especially the gladiators who “simply through the cruelty of their master, were kept in confinement for this object of fighting one with another.”[51] The Spartacus revolt occurred as a result of this mistreatment when 200 gladiators in the ludus formed an escape, yet only 74 were lucky enough to succeed.[52] Over a period of months, Spartacus and his fellow gladiators including Crixus, Oenomaus and Gannicus, pillaged the Roman countryside and word soon spread of the slave rebellion and its early successes against the Roman army.[53] Due to the tumultuous years of the Roman Republic as a result of military expansion and political dissent, the Spartacus revolt shook the foundations of ancient Rome which found itself facing a great military and social threat.[54] Despite these early victories, dissent in ranks and having “grown over-confident in their numbers” was the ultimate cause for Spartacus’ defeat and the suppression of the rebellion.[55] The significance of the rebellion, however, was considerable as it served as a warning to ancient Rome that the foundations of servility that ensured and maintained the might of the Republic could also cause its destruction.[56]

Image: A depiction of Spartacus in battle against Ancient Rome.


Ultimately, the prestige and wealth of ancient Rome and the Republic was built upon the institution of slavery, which is considered to be “as old and enduring as Rome itself.”[57] By its very nature, slavery ensured an efficient and easily controlled mode of production that yielded great economic, social and military benefits to the Republic.[58] The economic surplus of slave labour, the prestige and social standing that the institution afforded its masters and the sheer size of the population that was ensured from military campaigns and expansion rendered the institution of slavery of considerable value to ancient Rome.[59] Despite this inherent value, the implications that arose as a result of the social grievances and mistreatment of slaves across the Republic gave insurgence to bands of slaves who sought liberation.[60] This was the direct cause of Spartacus’ rebellion in 73BC which not only shook the foundations of ancient Rome but brought it to its knees over a period of years.[61] Whilst the rebellion ended in Roman victory and the ultimate death of Spartacus and the slaves in 71BC, the enduring legacy of the insurrection was significant as it threatened the institutions with which Rome was founded upon and challenged the mightiest civilisation of the known Mediterranean world.[62]



Written by Megan Adler.

BA/BCMS (DS), MTeach (Sec)

[1] Bradley, K. R. Slavery and Society at Rome. London: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 7. [2] Walter Scheidel, ‘Slavery in the Roman Economy’, Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, vol. 1, no. 1 (2010), p. 4. [3] ibid. [4] Michael Grant, ‘Creation of the Roman Empire’, in Don Nardo (ed.), Classical Greece and Rome (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002), p. 57. [5] Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (London: Profile Books, 2015), p. 20. [6] ibid. [7] Howard Fast, Spartacus (London: Taylor & Francis), pp. 8-10. [8] Sandra R. Joshel, Slavery in the Roman World (London: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 8. [9] Schiedel, ‘Slavery in the Roman Economy’, p. 16. [10] ibid, p. 2. [11] Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, p. 13. [12] Schiedel, ‘Slavery in the Roman Economy’, p. 3-4. [13] Description of Slavery by Appian of Alexandria (c. 132AD), Civil Wars 1.7, taken from Alain Gowing, The Triumviral Narrative of Appian and Cassius Dio (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1992), p. 24. [14] Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome, p. 7. [15] ibid. [16] Moya K. Mason, ‘Roman Slavery: Social, Cultural, Political and Demographic Consequences’, 2020. [17] Schiedel, ‘Slavery in the Roman Economy’, p. 3. [18] ibid, p. 2. [19] ibid, p. 3-4. [20] Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome, p. 6. [21] Schiedel, ‘Slavery in the Roman Economy’, p. 10. [22] ibid. [23] Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome, p. 3. [24] Joshel, Slavery in the Roman World, p. 8. [25] Schiedel, ‘Slavery in the Roman Economy’, p. 5. [26] W.G. Hardy, ‘Pax Romana: Roman Rule brings Peace and Prosperity’, in Don Nardo (ed.), Classical Greece and Rome (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002), p. 57. [27] Joshel, Slavery in the Roman World, p. 8. [28] ibid, p. 9. [29] Schiedel, ‘Slavery in the Roman Economy,’ p. 16. [30] Joshel, Slavery in the Roman World, p. 10. [31] Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, p. 18. [32] Jorg, Rupke, On Roman Religion: Lived Religion and the Individual in Ancient Rome (United Kingdom: Cornell University Press, 2016), p. 67. [33] Joshel, Slavery in the Roman World, p. 10. [34] Mason, ‘Roman Slavery: Social, Cultural, Political and Demographic Consequences’, 2020. [35] Rupke, On Roman Religion, p. 51. [36] Schiedel, ‘Slavery in the Roman Economy,’ p. 3. [37] Description of the leadership of Spartacus by Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 8-11, taken from ‘Spartacus,’ Livius.org, 1995-2020. Accessed: 21/09/2020. [38] Schiedel, ‘Slavery in the Roman Economy,’ p. 3. [39] Fast, Spartacus, p. 18. [40] Schiedel, Slavery in the Roman Economy,’ p. 2. [41] Mason, ‘Roman Slavery: Social, Cultural, Political and Demographic Consequences’, 2020. [42] Fast, Spartacus, p. 5. [43] Mason, ‘Roman Slavery: Social, Cultural, Political and Demographic Consequences’, 2020. [44] ibid. [45] Schiedel, ‘Slavery in the Roman Economy,’ p. 6. [46] Fast, Spartacus, p. 22. [47] ibid. [48] ibid, p. 24. [49] ibid. [50] Peter Chrisp, ‘Rome’, in Dominic Rathbone (ed.), Civilisations of the Ancient World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009), p. 105. [51] Description of Spartacus’ gladiatorial inclinations by Publius Annius Florus, Epitome, 2.8, taken from ‘Spartacus,’ Livius.org, 1995-2020. [52] Chrisp, ‘Rome’, p. 108. [53] ibid. [54] Fast, Spartacus, pp. 34-5. [55] Description of the leadership of Spartacus by Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 8-11, taken from ‘Spartacus,’ Livius.org, 1995-2020. [56] Fast, Spartacus, p. 22. [57] Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome, p. 7. [58] Schiedel, ‘Slavery in the Roman Economy,’ p. 3. [59] Joshel, Joshel, Slavery in the Roman World, p. 8. [60] Fast, Spartacus, p. 15. [61] ibid. [62] Ian Crofton, World History: 50 key milestones you really need to know (London: Quercus Publishing, 2011), pp. 34-5.


References

-Beard, Mary. ‘SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.’ London: Profile Books, 2015.

-Bradley, K. R. Slavery and Society at Rome. London: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

-Chrisp, Peter. ‘Rome’. In Dominic Rathbone (ed.). Civilisations of the Ancient World. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009, pp. 200-271.

-Crofton, Ian. Word History: 50 key milestones you really need to know. London: Quercus Publishing, 2011.

-Description of Slavery by Appian of Alexandria (c. 132AD), Civil Wars 1.7, taken from Alain Gowing, The Triumviral Narrative of Appian and Cassius Dio (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1992), p. 24.

-Description of the leadership of Spartacus by Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 8-11, taken from ‘Spartacus,’ Livius.org, 1995-2020. Accessed: 21/09/2020. URL: https://bit.ly/2Hbmrl0

-Description of Spartacus’ gladiatorial inclinations by Publius Annius Florus, Epitome, 2.8, taken from ‘Spartacus,’ Livius.org, 1995-2020. Accessed: 21/09/2020. URL: https://bit.ly/2Hbmrl0

-Fast, Howard. Spartacus. London: Taylor & Francis, 2015.

Grant, Michael. ‘Creation of the Roman Empire’. In Don Nardo (ed.). Classical Greece and Rome. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002, pp. 114-121.

-Hardy, W.G. ‘Pax Romana: Roman Rule brings Peace and Prosperity’. In Don Nardo (ed.). Classical Greece and Rome. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002, pp. 130-135.

-Joshel, Sandra. R. ‘Slavery in the Roman World.’ London: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

-Mason, Moya. K. ‘Roman Slavery: Social, Cultural, Political and Demographic Consequences,’ M.K. Mason.org, 2020. Accessed: 23/09/2020. URL: https://bit.ly/2HtfzQ5

-Rupke, Jorg. On Roman Religion: Lived Religion and the Individual in Ancient Rome. United States: Cornell University Press, 2016, pp. 1-42.

-Scheidel, Walter. ‘Slavery in the Roman Economy’. Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, vol. 1, no. 1 (2010), pp. 1-22.


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