The First Servile War was a slave rebellion on the island of Sicily during the second century BC. The island had been recently seized from the Carthaginians by Roman conquerers, and new Roman estate managers were notably more brutal in their treatment of the slave labor force on the island. The Romans also imported large numbers of slaves bought or captured as prisoners of war elsewhere, swelling the population of disatisfied laborers. The rebellion was led by Eunous, a Syrian prophet and wonder-worker, and another slave named Kleon. They raised a slave army of several thousand and won a series victories before the rebellion was finally and ruthlessly crushed by a newly arrived Roman army led by Publius Rupilius in 132. The first century Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote an account of the rebellion which has since been lost, but summaries and excerpts of his narrative from Photius, the ninth-century patriarch of Constantinople, and the tenth century Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus survive.

Diodorus Siculus’ Account of the First Servile War (c. 135–132 BC)

Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Excerpt 2 (1), pp. 302f. (25) Diodorus Siculus says that no civil conflict was ever so great as that of the slaves which took place in Sicily. Many cities suffered terrible catastrophes in the course of this conflict, and countless men, women and children experienced the greatest misfortunes, and there was a danger that the whole island might come under the control of the runaways. The only standard they set themselves for the exercise of their power was that it should cause the maximum harm to the free population. For most people these occurrences were surprising and unexpected; but for anyone able to judge things realistically they didn’t appear to arise without due cause. (26) Because of the extreme prosperity of the people who enjoyed the natural products of this very great island, almost everyone as he got richer adopted first a luxurious, and then an arrogant and provocative pattern of behaviour. As a result of these developments, slaves were coming to be treated worse and worse, and were correspondingly more and more alienated from their owners. When a suitable opportunity occurred, this hatred broke out into the open. Consequently, many tens of thousands of slaves rallied together to destroy their masters without any need for incitement. Something similar also happened in Asia Minor during these years, when Aristonikos laid claim to a kingdom which didn’t belong to him and the slaves cooperated with him because of the ill treatment that they had received from their masters, involving many cities in terrible disasters. (27) …that in the same way all the men who owned a lot of land bought up entire consignments of slaves to work their farms…some were bound with chains, some were worn out by the hard work they were given to do; they branded all of them with humiliating brand-marks. As a result such a huge number of slaves flooded the whole of Sicily that those who heard it thought it exaggerated and unbelievable. The Sicilians who controlled all this wealth were competing in arrogance, greed and injustice with the Italians. Those Italians who owned a lot of slaves had accustomed their herdsmen to irresponsible behaviour to such an extent that instead of providing them with rations they encouraged them to rob. (28) This freedom was given to men who because of their physical power were able to put into practice anything they planned to do, men who because of underemployment and leisure could make the most of their opportunities, men who because of their lack of food were forced into risky undertakings; and this soon led to an increase in the crime-rate. They started by killing people who were travelling alone or in pairs in particularly out-of-the-way places. Then they got together in groups and attacked the farms of the weak by night, plundering their property and killing those who resisted. (29) They became more and more bold, and Sicily was no longer passable for travellers at night. It ceased to be safe for those who had been living in the countryside to stay there; every place was affected by violence and robbery and murder of every kind. But because the herdsmen were used to living out in the open and were equipped like soldiers, they were (not surprisingly) full of courage and arrogance. They carried around clubs and spears and hefty sticks and wore the skins of wolves or wild boars, so their appearance was frightening and in itself not much less than a provocation to violence. (30) A pack of trusty hounds accompanied each of them, and the great amount of milk and meat which was available for consumption dehumanised their minds as well as their bodies. So the whole country was, as it were, occupied by scattered groups of soldiers, since under their owners’ maladministration these dangerous slaves had been armed. (31) The governors did try to control the fury of the slaves, but because they didn’t dare to punish them because of the power and importance of their masters, they were forced to overlook the fact that the province was being plundered. This was because most of the landlords had the status of Roman equestrians, and since they provided the juries when provincial governors were accused of anything, they were greatly feared by those who held these offices.

Photius, Bibliotheca, p. 384. (4) The slaves were exhausted by the hardships they had to put up with, and humiliated by beatings which were often quite unjustified. They could not take any more. They got together when they had the chance and talked about revolting and in the end they put their plan into effect. (5) Antigenes of Enna owned a house-slave who was a Syrian by race, from Apamea. This man was something of a magician and wonder-worker. He pretended that he could foretell the future by means of commands that came to him from the gods when he was asleep, and because he was so good at this he managed to deceive a lot of people. He went on from there and didn’t just prophesy on the basis of dreams, but even pretended to have visions of the gods while awake and hear from them what was going to happen. (6) Of the many fantasies he invented some happened to come true. Since no one refuted those that didn’t, while those that did turn out true were widely acclaimed, his reputation increased enormously. In the end he would produce fire and flame from his mouth while in a trance, by means of a trick of some sort, and in this way produce inspired utterances about the future. (7) What he did was put some fire and the fuel needed to keep it going inside a walnut or something similar which had had holes bored into it at both ends; then he would put it into his mouth and breathe and thus produce sparks or even a flame. Before the revolt he said that the Syrian Goddess was appearing to him and promising him that he was going to be a king. He insisted on repeating this not just to others but even to his own master. (8) The thing was treated as a joke, and Antigenes, bewitched by his marvellous trick, introduced Eunous to his dinner guests (that was the wizard’s name) and asked him all about his kingdom and what his policy would be towards each of the people present. He had no hesitation in explaining the details, stating that he would have a very moderate policy towards the owners of slaves and generally producing an amazingly entertaining story, so that the guests were amused and some of them would take considerable portions of food from the table and give them to him, asking that when he became king he should remember the favour they were doing him. (9) But indeed his magic-working had reserved a genuine kingship for him in the stars, and the favours received as a joke at these dinners were reciprocated under conditions which were serious indeed. The insurrection as a whole began like this.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Excerpt 2 (1), p. 304…. (34) There was a citizen of Enna called Damophilos who was both extremely wealthy and extremely arrogant. He cultivated a huge area of land which he filled with herds of cattle owned by him and competed with the Italians living in Sicily not only as regards his luxurious lifestyle but also the number of his slaves and the harshness and inhumanity with which he treated them. He would proceed about the countryside accompanied by a retinue of expensive horses and four-wheeled carts and a paramilitary escort formed by his own slaves. In addition, he thought it very prestigious to have lots of beautiful boys and a crowd of uneducated hangers-on. (35) Both at Enna and in his country houses he insisted on displaying his great wealth of embossed silverware and purple carpets, and served huge meals which were provocative and more suitable for kings; in terms of the expense and waste he surpassed the luxuriousness of Orientals. So did his arrogance. Here was a man who was totally uneducated, in possession of power without responsibility together with vast wealth, and it first made him bored, then made him behave insolently towards others, and in the end destroyed him and brought horrible disasters upon his country.

(36) He bought large numbers of slaves and treated them in a humiliating way, marking with branding irons the bodies of men who had been of free birth in their own countries and experienced the misfortune of capture in war and enslavement. He bound some of them with chains and threw them into his prisons, and he appointed others as herdsmen without providing them with appropriate clothes or rations. (37) Because of his wilful and savage character, there wasn’t a single day on which this same Damophilos didn’t torture some of his slaves without just cause. His wife Metallis [sic; Photius calls her Megallis] took equal pleasure in these insolent punishments and treated her maids and those slaves who were under her jurisdiction with great brutality. The slaves developed the feelings of wild beasts towards their masters as a result of these humiliating punishments, and thought that nothing that could happen to them would be worse than the evil state they were in.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Excerpt 4, p. 384…. (38) that Damophilos of Enna once refused to accept a request for clothes from some naked slaves who came up to him, but replied, ‘Why ask me? The people who travel across the countryside don’t go about naked—don’t they provide a ready source of cloaks for those who need them?’ He ordered the petitioners to be tied to pillars and beaten, and after this humiliation sent them away.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Excerpt 3, pp. 206–7. (24b) The slaves got together to consider rebellion and the murder of their master and mistress. They went to Eunous, who lived nearby, and asked him whether their plan had the approval of the gods, He made a show of being divinely inspired and asked them why they had come, and pronounced that the gods would grant them their revolt if they didn’t delay but put their plans into effect immediately. For Fate had decreed that Enna, the citadel of the whole island, should be their State. When they heard this they assumed that the spirit world was behind them in their undertaking, and their emotions were so intent on rebellion that nothing could delay their plans. So they immediately set free those slaves who were chained up and got together those of the others who were living nearby. About four hundred of them assembled in a field near Enna. They made a solemn agreement amongst themselves and exchanged oaths on the strength of nocturnal sacrifices, and then armed themselves as well as the occasion permitted. They all seized the most effective weapon of all, fury, directed towards the destruction of the master and mistress who had humiliated them. Eunous led them. Shouting to each other in encouragement they broke into the city about the middle of the night and killed many people.

Photius, Bibliotheca, pp. 384–6. (11) Eunous was leading them and working the miracle of the flames of fire to encourage them. They broke into the houses and committed much bloodshed; not even babes in arms were spared— (12) they tore them from the breast and dashed them against the ground. I can’t say how they humiliated and outraged the women, even in the sight of their husbands. A large number of slaves from inside the city joined them; they first did their worst to their masters and then turned to the slaughter of others. (13) When Eunous’ group heard that Damophilos was staying in an orchard near the city together with his wife, they sent some of their number to drag him and his wife away from there, with their hands tied behind their backs; they had to put up with all sorts of insults along the way.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Excerpt 2 (1), p. 305…. (39) that in Sicily, Damophilos had a grown-up but unmarried daughter, who had an extremely decent and humane character. She always used to be kind and comfort anyone her parents had whipped and help those slaves who had been chained up, and because she was so nice, she was extraordinarily popular with everybody. At this moment her previous kindness brought her unexpected help in the shape of those she had been kind to: not only did no one dare to lay a finger on the girl to humiliate her, but they all made sure that her virginity would remain untouched. They selected some suitable men from amongst themselves, including her particular friend Hermias, and escorted her to some relatives at Catania.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Excerpt 4, p. 384…. (40) that the rebellious slaves were furious at all their masters’ household; their insolence and desire for revenge were implacable; yet it was clear that it was not because of any natural savagery, but because of the humiliation that they had previously had to endure, that they went mad, and turned on those who had previously wronged them to punish them.

…that human nature is its own teacher even among slaves when it comes to a just repayment either of favour or of revenge.

Photius, Bibliotheca, p. 385f. (14) As I said, those who had been sent to get Damophilos and Megallis dragged them into the city and brought them to the theatre, where the mass of insurgents had gathered together. Damophilos made an attempt to trick them into keeping him safe and was winning over many of the crowd with what he was saying. Hermias and Zeuxis hated him bitterly; they called him a deceiver, and instead of waiting for the formality of conviction by the People, one of them pushed a sword into his chest, the other struck his neck with an axe. Next, Eunous was elected king. This was not because he was particularly courageous or able as a commander, but simply because of his wonderworking and because he had started the revolt off, and also because his name seemed to symbolise that he would be well disposed towards those who would be subject to him.

Photius, Bibliotheca, p. 386…. (24) that the rebel King Eunous called himself Antiokhos and the mass of the rebels Syrians…

…(15) Established as lord of the rebels in all matters, he summoned an assembly and killed off the people from Enna who had been captured, except for those who were skilled at making weapons; he forced these to carry out their work in chains. He gave Megallis to the female slaves to treat as they saw fit; they tortured her and threw her over a cliff. He personally killed his master and mistress, Antigenes and Python. (16) He put on a diadem and decked himself out as a king in every other respect, proclaimed the woman who was living with him, who came from the same city as he in Syria, as his Queen, and made those men who seemed to be particularly intelligent his councillors: one of them, a man who was exceptional both in planning and in action, was a man of Achaean origin who was also called Akhaios.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Excerpt 4, p. 384…. (42) that King Antiokhos’ advisor Akhaios wasn’t pleased at the things the slaves had done and criticised the adventures they had dared to undertake and told them very boldly that they would swiftly be punished. Instead of having him executed for speaking so freely, Eunous gave him his master’s house as a present and made him his advisor as well.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Excerpt 2 (1), p. 305…. (43) that there was also another insurrection by runaway slaves who concentrated in considerable numbers. There was a Cilician from the area of the Taurus mountains called Kleon, who was used to living as a bandit from childhood and had become a herder of horses in Sicily, but continued to commit highway robbery and murder of every kind. When he heard about Eunous’ progress and the successes of the slaves with him, he revolted, persuaded some nearby slaves to share his madness and overran the city of Akragas and the countryside round about. Photius, Bibliotheca, p. 386. (17) Everyone had high hopes that the rival groups of slaves would start fighting amongst themselves so that by destroying each other the rebels would rid Sicily of the revolt. But they unexpectedly combined; at a bare word from Eunous, Kleon placed himself under his command and behaved towards him as a general would towards his king. He had a personal following of about five thousand soldiers. This happened about thirty days after the insurrection.

(18) Soon after, the rebels fought against Lucius Hypsaeus, who had been sent out from Rome as governor and had eight thousand soldiers from Sicily itself. They had twenty thousand troops, and were victorious. In a short time they managed to concentrate a force of up to two hundred thousand, and they were successful in many battles against the Romans and were rarely beaten. (19) When news of this got around, a conspiracy of a hundred and fifty slaves was hatched at Rome, one of over a thousand in Attica, and others at Delos and in many other places. But in each place the authorities of the local communities quickly suppressed the insurrection by acting swiftly and inflicting harsh punishments; so they restrained anybody who was on the point of revolting. But in Sicily the situation continued to deteriorate.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Excerpt 4, pp. 384f. (46) Eunous stationed his forces out of range of their missiles and directed insults at the Romans— it was not they, he pointed out, but the Romans who were runaways: runaways from danger. From some distance away, he put on a show of mimes for those in the city, in which the slaves performed the story of how they had revolted from their own particular masters, reproaching them for the arrogance and inordinate pride which was now leading them to their destruction…. (48) When the people of Sicily suffered from many serious difficulties, the citizen masses not only failed to sympathise with them, but on the contrary rejoiced because they were jealous at inequalities of wealth and differences in lifestyle. Their jealousy turned from the dumb grief it had previously been into open joy when they saw how the good fortune [of the wealthy] had been changed into a condition which would previously have been treated with utter contempt by the same people. What was most terrifying was that the insurgents were intelligent enough to think about the future and didn’t set fire to farm buildings or destroy the equipment they contained or the harvests which had been stored there, and didn’t touch any of the people working in agriculture; but the free masses, because of their jealousy, would go out into the countryside on the pretext of attacking the runaways and plunder the property there, and even burn down the farms.

Photius, Bibliotheca, p. 386. (20) Cities and their entire populations were captured and many armies were destroyed by the insurgents, until the Roman governor Rupilius recaptured Taormina for the Romans. He had besieged it so effectively that conditions of unspeakable and extreme hunger had been forced upon the insurgents—so that they began by eating their children, then their womenfolk, and in the end they didn’t even hesitate to eat each other.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Excerpt 4, p. 387…. (Ch. 9.1) There was no respite from their pains for those who ate the sacred fish. For the spirit world ensured that all those who had been so stupid received no help—as though as a convenient example to everyone else. These people have suffered criticism by historians equal to the punishment they received from the gods, and thus obtained the reputation they deserved.

Photius, Bibliotheca, p, 386. (20) This was the occasion when he captured Kleon’s brother Komanos as he was trying to flee from the besieged city. (21) In the end the Syrian Serapion betrayed the citadel and the governor was able to bring under his control all the runaways in the city. He tortured them and then threw them over a cliff. From there he went on to Enna, which he besieged in the same way; he forced the rebels to see that their hopes had come to a dead end. Their commander Kleon came out of the city and fought heroically with a few men until the Romans were able to display his corpse covered with wounds. This city too they captured through treachery, since it couldn’t be taken by even the most powerful army. (22) Eunous took his bodyguard of a thousand men and fled in a cowardly fashion to a region where there were lots of cliffs. But the men with him realised that they could not avoid their fate, since the governor Rupilius [MS: Routilios] was already driving towards them, and they beheaded each other with their swords. The wonder-worker Eunous, the king who had fled through cowardice, was dragged out from the caves where he was hiding with four attendants—a cook, a baker, the man who massaged him in the bath and a fourth who used to entertain him when he was drinking. (23) He was put under guard; his body was eaten up by a mass of lice, and he ended his days at Morgantine in a manner appropriate to his villainy. Afterwards, Rupilius [MS: Routilios] marched across the whole of Sicily with a few selected soldiers and freed it from every trace of brigandage sooner than anyone expected.

Source: Thomas Wiedeman, Greek and Roman Slavery, London: Croom Helm, Ltd., 1981.