The first and second Servile Wars were massive slave uprisings that threatened Roman control of Sicily, which in the century since it was conquered had become a crucial source of wheat for the city of Rome. The first war came at a time when Rome was generally on the front foot, expanding in the east at the expensive of the Hellenistic kingdoms, but the second came at the same time as the threat of the Cimbri and the Teutons, and some of the largest defeats in Roman military history. They also came at a time when the Republic itself was beginning to crumble as politics in Rome became increasingly violent, and the figures who were to dominate in the civil wars to come came to the fore.
The book starts with some very useful background material, looking at the nature of slavery in the ancient world, a history of Sicily and a gazateer of the cities of ancient Sicily. This is followed by the accounts of the two revolts themselves, interwoven with the background in Rome.
The account of the first of the uprisings does help explain some of its apparently unusual aspects. When discussed in isolation, the rebels decision to call their new kingdom the Western Syrian Kingdom (CHECK), and of their leader to adopt the title King Antiochus both seem rather odd. However when placed in its context the reasons become more clear – many of the slaves involved in the revolt were Syrian, or had fought in armies of the Seleucids, who still ruled a fairly sizable kingdom based in modern Syria at the time, and in 136 BC the Empire was ruled by Antiochus VII Euergetes, the last powerful Seleucid ruler. Even in 105 BC a rump of the empire still survived.
The pacing is sometimes rather uneven. The campaign that ended the second slave revolt gets less than a page, with no explanation of why. This follows a rather pointless diversion into the over-familiar story of the late Republic (in which Marius is intermittently refered to as Mario, with both versions used in the same sentence at one point). Part of the problem is that the end notes are rather misused, with many of them containing important material that actually needs to be part of the text and not buried at the very back of the book somewhere. This includes key quotes from the original sources which really should be part of the main discussion, as they tell us what the author is basing their conclusions on.
English isn’t the author’s first language, and that does sometimes show in the use of phrases that wouldn’t normally be encountered, such as the use of ‘free proletariate’ to describe the non-servile peasants and urban workers who joined the revolt. I also don’t entirely agree with some of the author’s attitudes to these conflicts, in particular the idea that the rebels should be treated as having established fully independent states soon after each revolt began – that seems to be to be giving them a status they would only have deserved if they had managed to throw off Roman rule or had actually gained control of all of the island. I also don’t agree with the claim that these were the ‘largest and longest lasting challenge to the power of Rome that had ever risen within the Roman world’ – that’s only justifiable if you treat the two revolts as a single incident lasting for over three decades, but that would be to ignore the almost three decade gap between them! Spartacus’s revolt may not have lasted as long, but it was on the Italian mainland and at one point appeared to directly threaten Rome, while earlier centuries had seen prolonged wars that came very close to home.
Despite these minor problems, I did find this book to be an interesting read, and a good account of these large scale and very significant slave uprisings, giving us an idea of what the rebels were attempting to achieve, the methods they chose, and each revolt managed to survive for so long before being crushed
Introduction: Slavery and Slave Rebellions
1 – The Slave Trade
2 – First Uprisings
Part I; The Hellenistic Sicily
3 – A Large Triangle Shaped Island
4 – From the Phoenicians to the Romans
5 – A Vibrant Urban Life
6 – Grain, Slaves and Banditry
Part II: The Revolt of Eunus
7 – The Slave Insurgeny in Henna
8 – The Birth of a Kingdom
9 – King Antiochus’ Army and its Commanders. Looting and Taking Cities. The Joining of Free Proletarians
10 – Like a Fire Driven by an Impetuous Wind, the Rebellion Spreads
Part III: The Roman Army Moves
11 – The Reasons of Rome
12 – A Hole in Water
13 – Chasing the Final Victory
14 – The Turning Point
15 – A Bloodbath
Part IV: The Revolt of Salvius
16 – Twenty-Eighty Years Later
17 – The Rebirth of the Phoenix Arab
18 – Disorder, Famine, Death
19 – Lucullus’ Reverse
20 – Meanwile in Rome…
21 – The End of the Story
Appendix: The Rebellion of Spartacus
Author: Natale Barca
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military