Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome

By Victor Davis Hanson | Go to book overview

8.
Slave Wars of Greece and Rome

BARRY|STRAUSS

BUTCHERY OF CIVILIANS, charismatic religious leaders proclaiming reigns of terror, insurgents running circles around regular soldiers, legionaries chasing runaway slaves into the hills, rows of crosses lining the roads with the corpses of captured insurgents, shrines later springing up to the martyred memory of a chivalrous rebel: some of the images are familiar, some are not; some were popularized by Hollywood, others seemingly “ripped from the headlines,” as the tabloid phrase goes. They are real images of ancient slave revolts. Except for a seventy-year period in the Late Roman Republic, however, from about 140 to 70 BC, slave revolts proved rare events in the ancient world.

That may seem odd, because slavery played a central role in the economy of Greece and Rome. Millions of men and women around the ancient Mediterranean lived and died in chains. Most of them made their peace with the banal truth of enslavement; some found an escape route in manumission, which was more common in ancient than in modern slave societies. Others responded to mistreatment and humiliation with daily acts of resistance. Slaves misbehaved, manipulated the master, or fled—or simply accepted their fates and made the necessary accommodations. Yet rebellion—that is, armed and collective uprisings in search of freedom—was exceptional.

Spartacus, the rebel gladiator whose revolt upended Italy between 73 and 71 BC, was as unusual as he is famous. Special conditions, as we shall see, made the Late Roman Republic the golden age of ancient slave wars. For the rest of antiquity, few slaves were willing to risk what little they had in a war against the Roman legions or Greek phalanx; fewer

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