King, magician, general … slave: Eunus and the First Servile War against Rome

Buried in chains – a Roman-era skeleton, thought to be that of a male slave, excavated near Bordeaux. The body was buried with shackles around the neck, and dates from the 1st century AD.

Buried in chains – a Roman-era skeleton, thought to be that of a male slave, excavated near Bordeaux. The body was buried with shackles around the neck, and dates from the 1st century AD.

The omens had been terrible that year. In Rome, a slave girl gave birth to a monster: “a boy with four feet, four hands, four eyes, double the usual number of ears, and two sets of sexual organs,” most likely a case of Siamese twins. In Sicily, Mount Etna erupted “in flashes of fire,” spewing gouts of molten rock and scorching ash that torched rich landowners’ property for miles around.

It all pointed to trouble – to trouble in Sicily, and most of all to trouble with the slaves. And when that trouble came, it made sense of the portents, for it was the work of a slave who was in Roman eyes a monster. He was a magician who belched flames like the volcano, an adept who foretold futures, and a messianic priest-king who served a grotesque foreign goddess and led his people in a revolt that lasted half a decade, taking five large Roman armies to put down.

A statue of Eunus outside the walls of a citadel in Enna, the formidable hill-top fortress that was his ancient capital.

A statue of Eunus outside the walls of the citadel at Enna, in the interior of Sicily. The formidable hill-top fortress was once his ancient capital.

His name was Eunus – which may be translated, roughly, as “the kindly one” – and although he is practically forgotten now, he was a leader fit to rank alongside Spartacus – or, in truth, above him, for while both men were slaves who masterminded wars against Rome (Spartacus six decades later), Eunus’s rebellion was four or five times as large, and it lasted something like three times as long. He built a state, which Spartacus never tried to do, and all the evidence suggests that he inspired fierce loyalty in ways the Thracian gladiator could not – after all, Spartacus (to the surprise of those who know him from romantic film and television portrayals) was undone as much by dissension within the ranks of his own army as he was by the might of the legions that were sent against him. And when the end came for Eunus, it did so in a götterdämmerung reminiscent of nothing so much as the fall of Masada, the Jewish mountain-top fortress taken by Rome around 74 A.D. At Masada, the 960 surviving defenders committed suicide en masse rather than fall into the hands of their enemies. In Sicily, the thousand picked men of the slave-king’s bodyguard hacked their way out of encirclement, only to kill one another in an identical pact when their position became hopeless – leaving their leader and his last four followers to be hunted down in the furthest reaches of the mountains that had protected them for years.

We first meet Eunus in 135 B.C. – or perhaps in 138; our sources are not precise, and we know only that the rising that he led began some 60 years after the peace that Rome imposed on Carthage at the end of the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) He was then the household slave of a man named Antigenes, a rich Roman who lived in the Sicilian interior; but he had been born a free man, and had been captured and brought to the island some years earlier, most likely by the Cilician pirates who ran a flourishing slave trade in the eastern Mediterranean. We know little about Eunus as a person, but the fragmentary accounts of his rebellion make it clear that he was unusually intelligent, and must have been highly charismatic. He had a reputation as a prophet, delivering predictions of the future in a trance state, and he was especially noted for something that the chroniclers who told his story present as a piece of parlour magic, but which – reading between the lines – we can reconstruct as something more impressive and portentous. He breathed out sparks and fire as he spoke, “as from a burning lamp” – an effect that he supposedly produced by concealing a hollow nut-shell with holes drilled in it in his mouth, and filling it with “sulphur and with fire.”

Household slaves in the Roman period, from a 2nd century A.D. mosaic from Tunisia. They wear clothing typical of the period, and lucky charms in the form of amulets.

Household slaves serving wine in ancient Rome, from a 2nd century A.D. mosaic found in Tunisia. They wear clothing typical of the period, and lucky charms in the form of amulets.

However Eunus produced his effects, and whether or not he truly believed himself to be divinely appointed and inspired, he was plainly an arresting character, and Antigenes used to enjoy wheeling him out at dinner parties to amuse his guests. In the course of these events, we’re told, Eunus frequently assured the assembled Romans that he was destined to be a king one day, and painted word-pictures of the ideal state that he would rule. According to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, Antigenes was so “taken by his hocus-pocus” that he would “cross-question him about his kingship, and how he would treat each of the men present.” When Eunus smilingly assured the masters that he would behave with moderation, the guests

“were always stirred to laughter, and some of them, picking up a nice tidbit from the table, would present it to him, adding, as they did so, that when he became king, he should remember the favour.”

The punchline of this story, naturally, is that Eunus’s prediction did come true; he did become a king, and he did come to hold the power of life and death over the Romans whom he had once entertained at the dinner table. And while the vengeance that he wrought against the slave-owning class in Sicily was truly terrible, he did remember the smirking kindness of the men who had once gifted him with bits of meat. They were permitted to live, and tell the tale of the slave who had risen to such heights.

The circumstances that brought Eunus to power had their roots in the history of the preceding decade. The chroniclers who wrote about his rebellion present it as something that came as an absolute surprise to the Roman citizens of Sicily, but while it seems plausible enough that a complacent group of farmers failed to spot the early signs of trouble brewing, they probably were there for those who looked for them. We know that there had been a sharp rise in the number of slaves sold in the province, as the island was turned into a bread-basket capable of feeding Rome’s fast-growing republic; wheat cultivation was highly labour-intensive, and it fuelled an insatiable demand for more and more captive workers. We know that there was a large community of Greek-speakers on the island, who could remember times when it had been more than a mere appanage of a greater state – and that there may have been as many as 200,000 slaves in Sicily in all, living on an island with a total population of no more than 600,000. We know that the conditions that most of these slaves endured were frequently atrocious; they were branded, shackled, whipped, sent out to work the fields in chain-gangs, and kept confined in their hundreds in subterranean barrack-cells known as ergastula. And we know there was resistance. Some time in the late 140s, five or six years before the rebellion began, a one-time governor of Sicily set up a stone on the mainland, a commemorative inscription in which he boasted of rounding up 917 captives who had escaped to the mainland, and of returning them to their masters. Peter Green suggests that rebellion may have been in the air for at least two or three years before it actually occurred, and that slaves in several different parts of the island probably conspired to bring it about.

The '"Polla elogium," an inscription found in Basilicata in the central Appennines which dates to the 2nd century BC, records the deeds of a Roman consul. It includes mention of the rounding up of 917 runaway slaves who had crossed to the mainland from Sicily – a statement read by several scholars as evidence that the island was haunted by unrest in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First Servile War.

The ‘”Polla elogium,” an inscription found in Basilicata in the central Appennines which dates to the 2nd century B.C. The stone records the deeds of a Roman consul, including the rounding up of 917 runaway slaves who had crossed to the mainland from Sicily – a statement read by several scholars as evidence that the island was haunted by unrest in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First Servile War.

In some respects, the slaves of Sicily seemed poor material for a rebellion. They were divided by language and culture – we read that some came to the island from Spain, others from Greece and Macedonia, others again from Syria and the coast of Anatolia. Most worked in the open in the boiling summer sun, while the lucky few lived, like Eunus, as servants in Roman households, where for the most part they enjoyed privileges that we can reasonably assume made them objects of envy and hatred to their less fortunate brethren in the fields. There was a third group, too – more fearsome than the other two combined, and destined to provide  Eunus with his most effective troops. These were the herdsmen of the mountainsides, slaves set to watch over their masters’ cattle and sheep. By virtue of the duties they performed, these men were armed with clubs, spears and “imposing herdsmen’s staffs,” controlled packs of half-wild dogs that were nurtured on a diet of raw meat,  and were more or less encouraged into lives that incorporated acts of brigandage and murder. This was because, in order to save money, some Roman masters withheld even the basics of food and clothing from their herdsmen, telling them to steal what they needed from neighbouring farms and passing travellers instead. Such men soon formed what amounted to paramilitary groups, infesting the interior like “scattered bands of soldiers,” and, as they became increasingly experienced, they were “filled with arrogance and daring.” Away from the safety of the coastal towns, it seems, the Sicily of the second century B.C. was a lethally dangerous place for a stranger to be. We are told that the whole island was “full of murder,” and this was probably considered normal; writing more than half a century later, the Roman orator Cicero could still speak of going to “the wild hill-country of Lucania [in the boot of Italy] … where … we find cattle-barons with their hired hands – armed slaves, that is, raiding and plundering one another’s herds and homesteads.”

In such a dangerous environment, one spark could turn into a brush-fire with terrifying rapidity, and the chroniclers agree that in the Sicily of the 130s B.C. that spark was provided by a slave-owner by the name of Damophilus. “A man of great wealth, but insolent in manner,” he lived in Enna, deep in the interior, and had a wife, Megallis, who “vied even with her husband in punishing the slaves and in her general inhumanity to them.” The names suggest this pair were part of the large colony of Sicilian Greeks, centred on the great city of Syracuse, that dominated the east coast of the island and claimed descent from immigrants who had once contended with Rome for control of the whole island. They were, it seems, unusually brutal to their slaves, even by the standards of the day. They beat their men “beyond all reason,” and scourgings were regular affairs. “There was not a day on which Damophilus did not punish some of his slaves,” so Diodorus tells us, “and never for any just cause.”

Sicily at the time of the First Servile War (from Donaldson). Place names mentioned in the text are underline in orange.

Sicily at the time of the First Servile War (from Donaldson). Place names mentioned in the text are underlined in orange. Click to view in higher resolution.

Damophilus is painted as the villain of the piece in all surviving accounts of the rising. Not only did he travel the countryside “in a coach drawn by stately horses, and guarded by a company of armed slaves,” he also “carried about with him many beautiful boys, flatterers and parasites.” He was arrogant, “surpassed the luxury of the Persians,” and he was also uncouth, having been brought up “without learning, or any liberal education.” In short, Damophilus and Megallis were asking for trouble. In Eunus and his men, they found it.

The Roman historian Lucius Annaeus Florus's history contains an epitome of lost lines from Livy offering vital clues to the character of Eunus.

Lucius Annaeus Florus’s history of Rome contains an epitome of now-lost lines from Livy offering vital clues to the character of Eunus.

Exactly what role Eunus himself played in the rising – the First Servile War, as it would eventually be known, Spartacus and his fellow gladiators featuring in the Third – remains a matter of dispute. Diodorus Siculus is explicit in stating that he was the shadowy figure behind the whole rebellion, which had been planned in advance, but most historians of the period prefer a much more straightforward narrative. In these accounts, the harsh treatment that Damophilus and his wife meted out drove their own slaves to such a pitch of desperation that they resolved to do away with them. This was a crime so terrible that it was punishable with crucifixion, and one pregnant with such grave consequences for the killers’ souls that it required approval from the gods. So Damophilus’s slaves sought out the one man in Enna who could offer that approval to them; they went to see Eunus the miracle-worker.

We learn a little more about the power that the slave-priest wielded from L. Annaeus Florus, whose chronicle incorporates an epitome of the lost 56th book of Livy’s History of Rome. Livy paints Eunus as a “fanatic,” and adds that he “waved his dishevelled hair in honour of the Syrian goddess.” From this we can deduce that he must have been a devotee of Atargatis, the mother-goddess venerated by the people of his homeland, the Seleucid Empire – by this point a fast-declining Middle Eastern successor-state to the old Macedonian empire carved out by Alexander the Great. Atargatis is portrayed as half-woman, half-fish: a long-haired first mermaid, who was married to the sun-god, Hadad. But it was the behaviour of her acolytes that disgusted the Romans most, and if Eunus was a faithful follower of hers, it would explain not only his ability to command his fellow-slaves, but also some of the horror that his enemies felt for him. In Syria, the priests of Atargatis wore make-up, and they bit, whipped and cut themselves to induce religious ecstasies. Their initiation is luridly related by the Greek satirist Lucian, who describes how the goddess’s followers emasculated themselves in order to serve her:

“The youth… throws off his clothes, rushes to the centre with a great shout, and takes up a sword which, I believe, has stood there for this purpose for many years. He grabs it and immediately castrates himself. Then he rushes through the city holding in his hand the parts he has cut off. He takes female clothing and women’s adornment from whichever house he throws those parts into. This is what they do at the Castration.”

We have no evidence that Eunus was himself a eunuch; indeed, it seems he had a wife, a woman who came from the same city that he did. What we do know is that he had priestly attributes. He was a prophet, claiming to have experienced visions of the Seleucid gods, who told him the future “from their own lips,” and we know that at least some of the predictions that he made came true. That, combined with the fire-breathing and frenzies, would have been enough to impress a wide circle of potential followers, for while the chronicles of his life and times are sceptical, we know enough about the popular religion of the time to understand the influence it had. After all, it was generally accepted that the gods did act through ordinary men, and could work miracles when they chose to do so. Whether Eunus was a charismatic zealot, or – as the weight of evidence suggests to me – a much more canny figure who had found his own way to acquire power, matters relatively little. What is significant is that his standing in the slave community of Enna led the would-be assassins of Damophilus and his wife to seek him out.

The Seleucid mother-goddess, Atargaxis.

The Seleucid mother-goddess, Atargatis.

They came, says Diodorus Siculus, to receive blessings. Eunus gave them. Four hundred slaves gathered in a field outside Enna’s walls shortly before midnight, and there, “after making pledges to each other and exchanging vows by night over sacrificial victims, they armed themselves as far as the occasion permitted.” By this, the chronicler implies that the rebels were very poorly armed; elsewhere we read that they were equipped mostly with staves, sickles and kitchen spits. But they were driven by a desperate resentment. “They put on the strongest of weapons,” Diodorus says, meaning “their angry determination to wipe out their arrogant masters.” Then, with Eunus at their head, belching flames in the darkness, the slaves stormed into the city.

It is likely, after 60 years of peace, that the gates of Enna were either open, or at least no more than weakly manned, and very probable that the garrison consisted of a barely-trained militia. In any event, the rising was a complete success. Other slaves within the city joined it, killing their own masters as part of what appears to have been a general massacre of the free inhabitants. The rebels were implacable. “They did not spare even suckling children,” we’re assured, “but plucked them violently from their mothers’ breasts and dashed them against the ground.” Eunus himself killed both Antigenes and a former master of his named Pytho. His men slaughtered the other slave-owners of Enna, and the women were raped. Damophilus and Megallis were tracked down to a property that they owned outside the walls and while their young daughter was spared – she had always been kind to the slaves, we’re told, even dressing their wounds when they were beaten –  they themselves were dragged, alive, back to the city.

One question that arises at this point is how well-organised the rebels were, and whether they had any sort of strategy. Most of the handful of historians who have studied the Servile War believe that the rising was more or less spontaneous, and insist that its leaders lacked any sort of ideology. In this view, Enna was merely a local affair that happened to gain traction thanks to Roman incompetence, and which spread across the island more or less haphazardly. The contrary opinion, which I find more plausible, is that there must have been at least a basic plan. One piece of evidence for this lies in the treatment of Damophilus, who might – given the general massacre that had already occurred – have expected little mercy from the rebels. What actually seems to have happened was that he was brought to Enna’s amphitheatre, and there allowed some semblance of a trial.

This vista of modern Enna, perched high in the mountains of central Sicily, gives a good idea of the town's excellent defensive position. Eunus's capital was, says Diadorus Siculus, all but impregnable to ordinary siege tactics, and fell only as a result of betrayal.

This vista of modern Enna, perched high in the mountains of central Sicily, gives a good idea of the town’s excellent defensive position. Eunus’s capital was, says Diodorus Siculus, all but impregnable to ordinary siege tactics, and fell only as a result of betrayal.

If this was an attempt on Eunus’s part to establish something resembling the rule of law, the idea rapidly backfired. Damophilus proved to be unexpectedly eloquent – one reason for doubting Diodorus’s depiction of him as a loutish, uncouth man. He made a case for the fundamental justice of his treatment of his slaves, swaying many of the audience with his rhetoric, and it seemed for an instant that he might escape with his life. It took two of Eunus’s disconcerted principal lieutenants, Hermeias and Zexius, to rush forward and summarily behead him. Megallis was then turned over to her female slaves, who thrashed her and hurled her to her death from a precipice.

There are at least two further indications that Eunus had planned the rising, and that he was a good deal more than simply its ad hoc leader, acclaimed at the last second before it actually began. One is that, amid the general massacre at Enna, the slaves were far-sighted and disciplined enough to identify and spare the city’s blacksmiths and its armourers; these men were clapped in chains and then put back to work, forging iron swords and shields to supplement the makeshift weapons of the first stage of the rising. The other, still more convincing, is that we’re told a second rebellion broke out almost immediately, in quite a different part of Sicily; less than a month after Enna fell, another slave, named Cleon, gathered several hundred men and seized the southern port of Akragas. Even more tellingly, he soon marched north – and though we’re told the Romans dared to hope that the two slave armies would fall upon each other, they actually joined forces. The Cleon of the chronicles is a tough character who seems to have been one of the herdsmen-soldiers so despised by Cicero. He was certainly no stranger to violence (he had “committed murders all over the place,” Diodorus assures us.) But he willingly swore fealty to Eunus, and was appointed generalissimo of the rebel armies in return. Green finds it hard to believe that this turn of events was not planned in advance; I suspect he may be right.

A coin struck by Eunus, showing him as King Antiochus.

A gold coin showing a long-haired god or ruler, allegedly excavated near the rebel town of Morgantina. It has been suggested that it was struck by Eunus and shows him as King Antiochus; both Peter Morton and Keith Rutter, however, suggest it is a forgery.

It’s worth pausing for a moment here to sketch a context for the rising. Slavery, to begin with, was an important part of Rome’s economy. Slaves accounted for something like one in five of the total population – enough that when, in Nero’s time, a proposal was made to issue all the captives then in Rome with uniforms, it was shouted down on the grounds that the slaves would realise how numerous they were. They came from a wide variety of backgrounds – a man might be enslaved after a military defeat, trafficked, as Eunus was, from lands beyond Rome’s borders, rescued from the rubbish tips where Romans abandoned unwanted babies, or simply be born a slave. They were regarded as investments, akin to livestock, and practically every authority insists that slavery itself was so embedded in the warp and weft of Roman society that the slaves took it for granted. There are a few dissenting views – Theresa Urbainczyk thinks it ridiculous to suppose “that everyone in antiquity lacked imagination and could not conceive of a society without slaves.”  But there is certainly no evidence that Eunus, in his four or five years in power, made efforts to abolish slavery, and the limit of his successor Spartacus’s ambition was to make it home to Thrace as a free man himself. The most that it seems safe to say, thinks Green, is that even if the leaders of the rebellion “had nothing against slavery as an institution, [they] objected violently to being enslaved themselves.”

Slave risings, in consequence, were scarcely commonplace, but they were not unheard of. At least a dozen are known to have taken place between 501 and 135 B.C., five of them in Rome itself and two more in the southern parts of Italy. But none were as anything like as large or widespread as the Sicilian rebellion, and few seem to have lasted longer than a week or two. What made Eunus’s rebellion truly dangerous was that it endured long enough to inspire other captives across the Mediterranean. According to a fragment written by the usually reliable Julius Obsequens in the 5th century A.D., Eunus’s war prompted a  vast conspiracy of thousands of slaves in Italy. A second chronicler, Orosius, notes that 450 slaves who rose at Minturnae, south of Rome, were crucified; a thousand more cast off their chains in the silver-mines of Athens, and 4,000 at Sinuessa, on the Appian Way (where their rebellion took two years to put down). Others again rose on Delos, a sacred island in the Aegean, where a rebellion remained in progress as late as 132 B.C. There was even a rising of 150 slaves in Rome.

The rump of the once-mighty Seleucid Empire in about 188 BC, is shown here (untinted, right, labelled "Syria") half a century before Eunus's revolt. The Cicilian pirates who operated along its mediterranean coast had their bases at the foot of the Taurus Mountains.

The rump of the once-mighty Seleucid Empire in about 188 BC, is shown here (untinted, right, labelled “Syria”) half a century before Eunus’s revolt. The Cilician pirates who operated along its mediterranean coast had their bases at the foot of the Taurus Mountains.

What was it, though, about Eunus’s rising that made it so much larger and more troublesome to the Republic than any other slave rebellion? Part of the answer to this question is that the Rome was badly stretched by a number of concurrent crises; the fall of Enna was followed not only by the insurgency on Delos but by the Numantine War in Spain – two emergencies that between them must have absorbed a third or more of the Republic’s military resources. Still more importantly, however, Eunus seems to have been an able commander. Having been elected king, and been acknowledged as such by popular acclaim, he quickly created a council of “such men as seemed to be gifted with superior intelligence,” and even passed that crucial test of leadership, acting on the advice of a man who dared to openly challenge him. This was one Achaeus, a Greek who “excelled both at planning and in action,” and who drove home the unwelcome point that the fall of Enna marked the start, and not the end, of the rebellion. Seizure of a Roman city (Achaeus reminded his fellow slaves) – not to mention the murder of so many of her citizens – could not fail to bring retribution down upon the rebels. They needed to be ready for it.

Eunus now took two important decisions. Within a week of the initial rising, he had armed a force supposed to number 6,000 men, using axes, hatchets and slings as improvised equipment. He also contrived to feed his troops by raiding the estates around the city. The ranks of the slave army soon rose further: to 10,000, we are told, and then to 20,000. The numbers given in the chronicles should not, of course, be taken literally; they mean little more than that the slaves seemed very numerous. We can safely assume, nonetheless, that Eunus and Cleon must have had command of forces considerably in excess of 5,000 men. Not only did they handily defeat the Roman praetor – governor – of Sicily, the hapless Lucius Hypsaeus, when he moved against them with a levy of all the local Greeks and Romans he could scrape together; they went on to rout three other praetors in turn, each of whom would have commanded a legion. Since a Roman legion, at this time, numbered 5,000 battle-hardened men, it is reasonable to suppose that this string of victories would scarcely have been possible had the rebel army not outnumbered its enemies by two or three to one.

What Eunus was up against: a Roman legion of the 1st century B.C.

What Eunus was up against: a Roman legion of the 1st century B.C.

Eunus’s second move was considerably more significant. He began to forge a kingdom of his own in the interior of Sicily. I am awkwardly aware that, in describing what he did in terms of state-building, I am setting myself at odds with several leading authorities on the Servile Wars, most notably with Keith Bradley, for whom almost everything that Eunus did is best understood as crude propaganda or a short-term manoeuvre for position. The evidence that we have, though, seems fairly conclusive. For Eunus to have had himself crowned king means little; plenty of ordinary megalomaniacs have done the same. To claim kinship with the gods, and magical abilities, might be nothing more than a weak man’s way of leveraging power. But to do as Eunus did, and proclaim that he would henceforth be known as “Antiochus,” suggests that his state was making significant new claims. That’s because the name is generally agreed to have been chosen to invoke the memory of Antiochus the Great (222-187 B.C.), one of the most powerful of all the rulers of the Seleucid Empire.

Eunus, in this reading, was engaged in nothing less than an attempt to establish a Greek kingdom in the Roman west. Peter Morton, who has conducted a detailed survey of the coinage that survives from the period of his reign, sees in it symbolism that can be read as an attempt to identify the rebel state with what might be termed a form of Sicilian nationalism, and it’s true that one of the most common symbols on the coins are sheaves of corn that link them to the local cult of Demeter – patron goddess of Eunus’s capital at Enna. But Demeter was also the Greek equivalent of Atargatis, and the names of the new king’s three leading advisors – Achaeus, Hermias and Zeuxis – also happen to be, surely not coincidentally, those of three of Alexander the Great’s most trusted lieutenants. Green suspects that Eunus may actually have believed himself to be a member of the Seleucid royal line, and though it is simply not possible to know whether or not this was so, we can plausibly assume that he had picked up quite a lot about the workings of his home state in his days as a freeman in the east. We know that the slave-king had been born in Apamea, a city on the banks of the Orontes in what is today Syria – and Apamea was a crucial nexus of Seleucid power, being home to both a royal treasury and the royal stud. It seems highly significant, in this context, that one of Eunus’s first proclamations was a declaration that all his followers should consider themselves “Syrians.” By this he seems to have meant all were equal citizens of his new state, one that his own divine authority had given him the right to remake as he chose.

A poor-quality bronze coin issued in Sicily around Eunus's time. Peter Morton suggests that this, more than any other surviving piece of evidence, is likely to show the head of "King Antiochus" as he wished to be seen by his subjects.

A poor-quality bronze coin issued in Sicily in or around Eunus’s time. Peter Morton suggests that this, more than any other surviving piece of evidence, is likely to show the head of “King Antiochus” as he wished to be seen by his subjects.

At least four different types of bronze coinage have been linked to Eunus, and, collectively, their survival suggests that Bradley is wrong to dismiss the minting of currency as little more than a propaganda trick. Coins would surely have been required to grease the internal workings of a state that endured for at least two and more probably for four or more years, and which, at its height, may have controlled anywhere between one fifth and one half of Sicily. Certainly Eunus was able to keep large bodies of troops in the field, which has to imply that they were paid; he and Cleon soon took Tauromenium, a port midway along the eastern coastal road, along with Catina and Morgantina, an important supply centre in the interior that was also the home to one of the island’s mints. They even laid siege unsuccessfully to the metropolis of Syracuse, remaining camped outside the walls for so long that their army was forced to eat fish, even though they were sacred to the mother-goddess. The failure of the siege tells us something of the limits of slave power, but it probably did not prevent Eunus from controlling the proverbially fertile triangle of farmland around Leontini – an area productive enough to have sustained his armies and his state indefinitely. He and Cleon were also sufficiently confident to stage a remarkable show of defiance outside the walls of another of their targets; having stationed themselves safely out of range of any archers on the walls, the rebels put on a sort of play, depicting not only the gaining of their freedom, but also the violent retribution that they had taken against their former owners. It has been suggested that their aim was to give hope to the slaves within the city, and to strike fear into their masters.

Diodorus tells us that these achievements were made with scanty resources – “their pressing needs,” he explains, “forced the rebel slaves to have a good opinion of everyone; they did not have the luxury of selecting only the stronger and better men.” But this is to neglect another crucial aspect of the rebellion: the ability of the insurgents to find common cause with the low-born freemen of the island. The poor, we’re told, flocked to the rebels’ banners, substantially augmenting the forces available. These men seem to have been more angry, or perhaps simply less disciplined, than the slaves themselves, burning down estates and setting fire to some of the harvests that Eunus had prudently set aside to feed his men. According to Diodorus, moreover, while the slaves cut off the hands of their Roman prisoners, the native Sicilians cut off their whole arms. These accounts have encouraged several of the authorities on the insurgency – most notably Peter Morton – to suggest that it is best regarded not as a slave war at all, but at a general rising of Sicilians, desperate to throw off the invaders’ yoke.

Antiochus the Great, the Selucid emperor after whom Eunus named himself "King Antiochus." A bust in the Louvre.

Antiochus the Great, the Seleucid emperor after whom Eunus named himself “King Antiochus.” A bust in the Louvre.

However we choose to view Eunus’s rebellion, we can certainly say that its first stages were the work of men whose aim was revenge, and whose chief motive was desperation. It seems reasonable to add that many of those involved were probably first-generation slaves, who knew of freedom and may have had a free man’s familiarity with weapons – a situation intriguingly analogous to what happened in Haiti two millennia later when the only truly successful slave rebellion known to history took place. The Sicilian rising was held together by nationalism or religion – most likely by a potent combination of the two – and both Adam Donaldson and Peter Green detect explicitly “millenarian overtones” in the accounts that survive of it; Green goes so far as to argue that Jewish slaves present at the time of the rebellion could have supplied Eunus with a “ready-made apocalyptic ideology made for just such a struggle as this.” Whether or not this was true, there is certainly no doubt that the rising was a large-scale challenge to the power of Rome – the largest that had risen within the borders of the republic to that date, and almost certainly the largest, longest-lasting that ever would be.

Of course, the Romans did not stand idly by while all this happened. Much is missing from surviving versions of events, but we’re told that there were “many great battles” between the insurgents and the Republic. As many as eight different Roman commanders seem to have taken the field – a suggestion that, in itself, argues that the First Servile War probably lasted for at least four years – and two praetors, Manlius and Lentilus, and even a consul, C. Fulvius Flaccus, were among those who attempted unsuccessfully to engage with Eunus’s men. Each successive Roman force, we read, was “cut to pieces,” and Florus’s epitome of Livy notes that even the praetors‘ own camps were captured by the slaves – “the most disgraceful thing that can occur in war.”

The territories of the Roman Republic at the time of the First Servile War – shown in dark and light red. The map shows some areas of Sicily in orange; these were former Greek cities bound to Rome by treaty obligations and at this stage at best only nominally independent. Source: Wikicommons.

The territories of the Roman Republic at the time of the First Servile War – shown in dark and light red. The map shows some areas of Sicily as unincorporated in 133 B.C.; these were former Greek cities bound to Rome by treaty obligations and at this stage at best only nominally independent. Source: Wikicommons.

Making sense of these events means engaging more closely with the surviving sources, for the historiography of the ancient period is notoriously fraught. The Library of History composed by Diodorus Siculus, for instance – which has been quoted so frequently – is not contemporary (it dates to around a century after Eunus’s revolt) and survives not as an original manuscript, but in two very late, incomplete and occasionally contradictory fragments that date to the Byzantine period: one compiled by Photius in the ninth century A.D., and the other on the orders of the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, in the 10th. Insofar as we can grapple with Diodorus at all, it is by viewing him as an equivocal source; his history, written in Greek, has a moralising tone and is concerned to paint the post-Punic Wars Republic as decadent – a decadence that, the Cambridge Ancient History points out, the historian thought had its origins in “the greed and lawlessness of the Romans of the provinces.”

This suggests that the Library of History may contain significant bias – but, on the other hand, as Green explains, Diodorus spent 30 years compiling his work, and travelled widely to do so. He came, moreover, from Sicily, and may easily have had had access to older records from the province, while the writer long supposed to be his main source, Posidonius (whose work is lost), hailed from Apamea – the same city as Eunus – and had a known interest in slavery. It’s certainly the case that the works of both Diodorus and Livy are studded with vivid details, which may suggest that they derive from unknown eye-witness accounts preserved in some lost history; Green argues a likely candidate is a monograph known to have once existed, The Servile Wars, by Caecilus – a rhetorician from Caleacte in northern Sicily who flourished in the time of Augustus. Equally – the view preferred by Peter Morton – the presence of these anecdotes may simply suggest that Diodorus penned what amounts to a literary argument, and felt no compunction in inventing evidence to fuel his attack on the decadence of Rome.

A slave chain-gang. The Romans used these men to work the fields of Sicily, and such men probably made up the majority of Eunus's forces in the first days of the Servile War.

Slave chain-gang. The Romans used these men to work the fields of Sicily, and such groups probably made up the majority of Eunus’s forces in the first days of the Servile War.

One rather alarming hint that this is indeed the case can be found in the remarkable parallels that Diodorus says existed between Eunus’s rebellion and the Second Servile War, which broke out in the same province 30 years later (104-99 B.C.) In this account, both risings began with an attack on a single slaveowner, carried out by his own slaves, and each was led by a “magical king.” Salvius, the rebel commander in the Second Servile War, possessed the power of divination and was apparently a devotee of the god Dionysius. He, like Eunus, was also reinforced by the army of a second slave leader, in this case a Cilician named Athenion. All in all, it’s obvious that our sources need to be treated cautiously, and that it is difficult to be certain of more than the broad outlines of Eunus’s revolt.

What can safely be said, I feel, is that it’s still possible to read between the lines of these accounts to discern a remarkable rebellion. We’ve already noted that the First Servile War was unprecedentedly large and unprecedentedly long-lasting. We know that Eunus’s kingdom was attractive enough to secure the allegiance of many Sicilian freemen, and sophisticated enough to mint its own currency and maintain large armies in the field. (If Morton is correct, it was also capable of creating elaborate quasi-nationalistic propaganda.) It was sufficiently well-led win a number of major battles, capture several large Roman cities, and to defend them against the inevitable counter-attack. It maintained good supply lines and built up significant productive capacity – armies that may have numbered 15,000 or 20,000 men were both equipped and fed. The rebellion may even impacted on life in Rome itself; in what may or may not be a further coincidence, the revolt coincided with the rise of the populist “people’s tribune” Gaius Gracchus, whose programme involved assuring every citizen of a supply of grain. In one reading of these events, Gracchus’s platform was a response to a shortage of basic food stocks, directly caused by Eunus’s revolt.

Gaius Gracchus, the radical tribune of the plebs, whose political career was ended by a bloody assassination in 121 B.C.

Gaius Gracchus, the radical tribune of the plebs, whose political career was ended by a bloody assassination in 121 B.C.

It was not until 133 B.C. that the Romans finally achieved the upper hand in Sicily. The turning point seems to have come with the arrival of the consul L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi, who disembarked at the head of a force that may have comprised of two full legions, or about a quarter of the entire Roman army at this time. He promptly unleashed a flurry of disciplinary measures – “a new broom sweeping things very clean,” says Green. It may be that, by this time, Eunus’s regime was already struggling; it had simply grown too large to be self-sustaining, Bradley argues, and posed too much of a threat to Rome. If so, it was not found entirely wanting; the new Roman campaign was no more successful than its predecessors for the first few months, and a large force of cavalry, commanded by one Gaius Titus, was surrounded by Eunus’s men and forced to disarm. According to Valerius Maximus, whose Memorable Deeds and Words was written in the first century A.D., Titus was severely punished for this extraordinary humiliation, being forced to wear a toga “cut into tatters,” to forgo bathing, and to stand on guard barefooted outside Piso’s headquarters for the remainder of his time on the island. His men were turned into a slingshot unit, the lowest of the low in the hierarchy of the Roman army.

Titus’s defeat was also the last significant triumph enjoyed by Eunus. Piso himself took the field, and soon recovered the city of Morgantina, which fell after a siege. The rebel garrison – said to have been 8,000 strong – was crucified, and Piso advanced on Enna, which we know he reached because about 30 slingshot “bullets” stamped with his name were dug up outside the city walls in 1808; it is tempting to imagine these being among the equipment issued to Gaius Titus’s disgraced cavalrymen. By this stage, Donaldson suggests, the rebels no longer felt confident of meeting the Romans in the open. Certainly what was left of their forces collapsed not in battle, but after a series of sieges.

Taormina – Roman-era Tauromenium – showing the dramatic cliffs from which Eunus's rebel garrison were hurled to their deaths after the fall of the city.

Taormina – Roman-era Tauromenium – showing the dramatic cliffs from which the men of Eunus’s rebel garrison were hurled to their deaths after the fall of the city.

By the time that Piso was replaced by a no-nonsense former tax-clerk named Pubilius Rupilius in 132 B.C., the rebels were hard-pressed. Eunus’s second city, Tauromenium, was placed under such a close investment that, we’re told, the men of its garrison were forced to eat first their children, then their women, and eventually each other. Cleon’s brother, Comanus, was captured in a fruitless attempt to break out of the encirclement, and the rebels were eventually betrayed by one Serapion – a name that suggests the man was a Graeco-Egyptian slave. This time the surviving members of the rebel garrison were scourged and then hurled to their deaths from the surrounding sea-cliffs.

That left Enna as the sole surviving rebel stronghold. It’s not clear whether Piso had given up his siege before his departure from Sicily, or whether Rupilius took over an existing operation; either way, by the latter part of 132, Eunus and his remaining men were afflicted by plague and had been reduced to starvation. Cleon sallied from the city, much as his brother had done at Tauromenium, only to be cut down; his body, covered in wounds, was recovered and displayed before the city walls. Once again, we’re told, the rebel stronghold fell not to a general assault, but as the result of betrayal from within (it’s hard not to suspect that Diodorus Siculus is making another of his rhetorical points by stressing all these parallels), and almost the whole garrison was massacred or hanged in chains.

Modern Taormina was once the Greek port of Tauromenium – a strategically vital link in Eunus's east coast communications.

The Greek port of Tauromenium was a strategically vital link in Eunus’s east coast communications.

It was at this point that Eunus himself escaped from Enna. He did so surrounded by his bodyguard, an action that seems to undermine Diodorus’s portrayal of him as “the cowardly king” – a man whom others would not serve. There can be little doubt that the Sicilian historian expected his readers to draw negative comparisons between Eunus, who fled to the mountains, and the the actions of the bodyguard (who, as we have seen, preferred honourable mass suicide to capture when their position became hopeless). But this rather begs the question of how the slave-king escaped from Enna in the first place, if not surrounded by loyal soldiers, and it also seems reasonable to question Diodorus’s climactic account of Eunus’s last hours. In this version of events, the rebel leader ended his reign reduced to a ridiculous caricature of his former self – accompanied, as he fled “in unmanly fashion” to a last bolthole in the mountains, accompanied only by a cook, a baker, a masseur and an entertainer whose role had been to arrange his banquets. As Morton points out, this is a portrayal of a man who had become the exact opposite of what Greek kings were supposed to be; rather than ending his reign fighting heroically, at the head of his men, Eunus did so in the company of a group of degenerates, apparently carefully chosen to symbolise the life of luxury he had chosen to lead. Diodorus even adds a neat little literary twist; a man who had begun his career as a servant beguiling his master, Antigenes, ended it in the company of a servant whose job it had been to beguile him.

A satirical portrayal of the capture of Eunus, from the 19th century Comic History of Rome. The slave-kings bewilderment, and the motley group of companions captured with him, accurately reflect the tone of Diodorus Sicculus's lines.

A satirical (and thoroughly ahistorical) portrayal of the capture of Eunus, from Gilbert á Beckett’s Comic History of Rome (1852). The slave-king’s bewilderment, and the motley group of companions captured with him, nonetheless accurately reflect the tone of Diodorus Sicculus’s lines. Eunus himself wears a phrygian cap, the symbol of a revolutionary.

According to the Library of History, Eunus and his four degenerates were discovered hiding in a remote cave. Captured alive, he was taken off to Morgantina and thrown into a cell, where, before long, “his flesh disintegrated into a mass of lice” and he died. Bradley suggests scabies, but the reality is that Eunus’s fatal disease may also be no more than a literary device; the end that Diodorus writes for him is typical of the fates reserved for evil men in much Roman history. Among other figures said to have ended their days consumed by worms or insects are Herod the Great, the Emperor Galerius (a keen persecutor of Christians) and one of the Roman Republic’s most controversial strongmen, L. Cornelius Sulla.

With their leader gone, the rump of the rebel forces either surrendered or were disposed of in the mopping-up operations that Rupilius launched across the length of Sicily. Now that the insurgents no longer posed much threat, we’re told, the Romans stopped killing them. A slave economy needs slaves, and we are invited to suppose that what must have been a comparative handful of survivors (if Diodorus’s accounts of massacres are true) returned to lives of servitude.

Certainly the aftermath of the rebellion was as dreadful in its own way as the rising had been at its height. According to Strabo, the geographer, much of the Sicilian interior around Enna remained depopulated 80 or 100 years after the First Servile War had ended – which, given what we know about the wealth of the area in Eunus’s day suggests that considerable devastation must have been wrought by the rebels and the Romans. A new law code – the Lex Rupilius – was introduced, and Sicily reincorporated into the bosom of the Republic, at least until the outbreak of the Second Servile War.

Roman slave full - nr Bordeaux 1st century AD

The shackled skeleton unearthed near Bordeaux – note a second manacle around the leg.

As for Eunus’s Hellenistic monarchy, that was vigorously swept aside. We hear no more of eunuch priests running through the streets with their severed genitals in bloody packages; no more of governments in which shock-haired kings engaged in ritual marriage with gods (as Green suggests the slave-king must have done with Atargatis). And though Eunus was not the last king to issue prophecies, he was the last who ever spoke with “tongues of fire” – whether or not those flames came from a walnut.


Barry Baldwin. “Two aspects of the Spartacus slave revolt.” The Classical Journal 62 (1967); Mary Beard. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.  London: Profile, 2016; Keith R. Bradley. “Slave kingdoms and slave rebellions in ancient Sicily.” Historical Reflections 10 (1984); Keith R. Bradley. Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, 140 B.C – 70 B.C. Bloomington [IN]: Indiana University Press, 1990; T. Corey Brennan. “The commanders in the First Sicilian Slave War.” Rivista di Filologia e di Istruzione Classica121 (1993); J.A. Crook et al [eds]. The Cambridge Ancient History IX: The Last Age of the Roman Republic, 146-43 B.C. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985; Diodorus Siculus. Library of History, books 34 &35; Adam Donaldson. Peasant and Slave Rebellion in the Roman Republic. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Arizona, 2012; ‘E.S.G.R.’ “Antiochus, king of slaves.” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society. 4S.20 (1920); Peter Garnsey and Dominic Rathbone. “The background to the grain law of Gaius Gracchus.” The Journal of Roman Studies 75 (1985); Richard L. Gordon & Francisco Marco Simón [eds], Magical Practice in the Latin West: Papers from the International Conference Held at the University of Zaragoza, 30 Sept-1 Oct 2005. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2010; Peter Green. “The first Sicilian slave war.” Past & Present 20 (1961); J.P. Mahaffy. “The slave wars against Rome.” Hermathena 7 (1890); Peter Morton. Rebels and Slaves: Reinterpreting the First Sicilian Slave War. Unpublished University of Edinburgh MSc thesis, 2008; Peter Morton. Refiguring the Sicilian Slave Wars: From Servile Unrest to Civic Disquiet and Social Disorder. Unpublished University of Edinburgh PhD thesis, 2012; Peter Morton. “Eunus: the cowardly king.” In The Classical Quarterly 63 (2013); W. Rhys Roberts. “Caecilius of Calacte.”  American Journal of Philology 18 (1897); Brent Shaw. Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History With Documents. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001; Theresa Urbainczyk. Slave Revolts in Antiquity. Oxford: Routledge, 2014; Gerald P. Verbrugghe. “The elogium from Polla and the First Slave War.” Classical Philology 68 (1973).

eunus alternate

Eunus square

25 thoughts on “King, magician, general … slave: Eunus and the First Servile War against Rome

  1. Woooow. This made an interesting read, and ranks way less in my books when compared to watching the Spartacus movie. This I would like to watch, this would take years to produce. However, I think we ought to learn something from this in this century. Oppression in all forms should be fought against, this gives an idea of what would occur when a person(s) are under oppression. I enjoyed this a lot, thanks for sharing felt like I was in a cinema. The pictures did justice to the write up as well.

  2. The Romans had quite a lot of slave rebellions. Which isn’t surprising, considering that in the later periods the helots outnumbered Roman citizens by as much as 7:1.

  3. I think the moral of the story is, if you force your underclass to become heavily armed brigands who must live by murder and theft to survive,while you administer constant cruelty on top, it will not end well for you. No matter how heavily imbued they are with the social system they were born into.

  4. There’s a remark somewhere in George Orwell about how terrifying it is that, out of millions of slaves in antiquity, only a handful of names are remembered or known.

    • I was struck as a child that how few names are known from any age. And that I too would likely be unremembered within 100 years. I was kind of a dark kid.

  5. it seems, the Sicily of the second century B.C. was a lethally dangerous place for a stranger to be. We are told that the whole island was “full of murder.”

    Has this changed? Ever?

  6. To my disappointment a cursory search finds no reference to Eunus in the works of David Brion Davis, yet surely this lesson of Roman history undergirds so much of American history.

    A secondary observation: ‘He breathed out sparks and fire as he spoke, “as from a burning lamp” – an effect that he supposedly produced by concealing a hollow nut-shell with holes drilled in it in his mouth, and filling it with “sulphur and with fire.”’

    Surely , then Eunus, who apparently although quite unsupported by any etymological documentation I could find either lent or took his slave-name from the word or referent “eunuch” must be the prefigurator of GRRM’s GoT playa known as Varys. The article dodges the issue but notes that Eunus’ probable faith practice included violent public self-castration).

    • Putting on a play depicting the violent retribution meted out to your enemies is pretty GoT Season 6, as well – and you can hear Dany Targaryen in Diodorus’s comment that the slaves’ greatest weapon was “their angry determination to wipe out their arrogant masters.”

  7. Arguing somewhere else on the internet today it struck me that Ancient Rome was something of an analogue to The Hunger Games, not just a future dystopia, with the large idle urban capital population(s) dependent on the provinces for food.

  8. Another fascinating foray into history; I (and so many others, I suspect) await all of your posts with such eager delight, Mr Dash. Thank you again for this articulate glimpse into an extraordinary man, in an extraordinary time…

  9. I think that the siege and fall of Masada (in your third paragraph) was later than the 31BC you say. I seem to remember that it is described by Flavius Josephus in The Jewish War around 73 AD. Legio X Fretensis under Lucius Flavius Silva did the job, the reigning Emperor being Vespasian.

  10. I knew of him. I learned of this man in high school Latin class. No other students in school knew of him.
    Latin class was very,very small.

    There is little education at all anymore and the youth imagine they have learned it all over their elders.
    Just as then….(in ancient Rome).

  11. Great article. One quibble: I believe you mean C. Gracchus’s brother Tiberius given the timing. Caius Gracchus was active in the latter 120s BCE. Tiberius was elected Tribune and was assassinated in 133 BCE. Their programs were essentially the same. Tiberius’s popularity was certainly bolstered by a grain shortage (exacerbated by the Servile War).

  12. Pingback: Day 13, 14, 15, Enna, Sicilia – Sue & Eric's Adventures

  13. Pingback: Eunus and the Mermaid Goddess: The Show Notes - Ancient History Fangirl

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