First Servile War

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=First Servile War
partof=the Servile Wars

date=135– 132 BC
place=Sicily, Achaea
result=Roman victory
combatant1=Roman Republic
combatant2=Slaves of Sicily
commander1=Lucius Calpurnius Piso, consul
Publius Rupilius, consul, Scipio Aemilianus
The First Servile War of 135132 BC was an unsuccessful slave uprising against the Romans on the island of Sicily, in Enna. It was led by Eunus, a former slave claiming to be a prophet, and a Cilician "Cleon", his military general. After some minor battles won by the slaves, a larger Roman army arrived in Sicily and defeated the rebels.


The uprising was mostly caused by great changes of property ensuing upon the final expulsion of the Carthaginians, about the middle of the Second Punic War. Speculators from Italy rushed into the island and, to the general distress of the Sicilians, bought up large tracts of land at a low price, or became the occupiers of estates which had belonged to Sicilians of the Carthaginian party and had been forfeited to Rome after the execution or flight of their owners.

The Sicilians of the Roman party followed the example, and became rich out of the distress of their countrymen. Slaves were to be had for cheap and grain was likely to find a sure market whilst Italy was suffering from the ravages of war. Accordingly, Sicily was crowded with slaves, employed to grow grain for the great landed proprietors, whether Sicilian or Italian, and so ill-fed by their masters that they soon began to provide for themselves by robbery. The poorer Sicilians were the sufferers from this evil; and as the masters were well content that their slaves should be maintained at the expense of others, they were at no pains to restrain their outrages. Thus, nominally at peace, full of wealthy proprietors, and exporting grain in larger quantities every year, Sicily was nonetheless teeming with strife. After seventy or eighty years, pressures broke out in the atrocities of the Servile War.

Servile War

The chief of the slaves had at one time two hundred thousand men and women as his followers, probably including children. He was a Syrian of Apamea, named Eunus, and had been a prophet and conjurer among the slaves. To his prophecies and tricks he owed his elevation when the rebellion broke out. While still a slave his master employed him as an entertainer at symposia. He would put on a slight-of-hand magic show that included breathing fire. During the performance he kept up a patter, thought humorous by his listeners, 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 he promised that they would be spared once he came into his kingdom. During the revolt he did spare the lives of at least some of these individuals. In "Jesus the Magician" Morton Smith suggested that this is an important and neglected comporanda for Jesus' preaching about the kingdom.

According to some accounts, Eunus was more cunning than able; but it should be recollected that only his enemies have drawn his portrait. The victories he often won over the Roman forces are credited to his lieutenant, a Cilician of the name of Cleon; but he must have been a man of considerable ability to have maintained his position so long, and to have commanded the services of those said to have been his superiors. Cleon's superiority was probably only that of the soldier. He fell in battle, and Eunus was made prisoner, but died before he could be brought to punishment.

The war lasted from 135 BC until 132 BC. It was the first of a series of three slave revolts in the Roman Republic; the last and the most famous was led by Spartacus.


* Arnold, "History of Rome", Vol. III. pp. 317-318, London edition.

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