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Book Review


Theresa Urbainczyk, Slave Revolts in Antiquity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008. Pp. 191. $19.95 (paperback).


     Slavery, in one form or another, is virtually ubiquitous in world history and even persists to this day;1 however, because of the nature of the sources, it is often difficult to get an undistorted picture of the aspirations and intentions of slaves when they rebelled against their masters. Theresa Urbainczyk confronts this problem in this concise book on Slave Revolts in Antiquity, a complement to her research on Spartacus, the leader of a decade-long slave revolt against the Romans in the first century BCE.2 In the works of historians in ancient Rome, Spartacus was the worst nightmare of members of the slave-owning classes; in the age of revolution, Spartacus became a symbol for those striving to overthrow despots, as illustrated on the cover by Denis Foyatier's the heroizing sculpture of Spartacus. Toussaint L'Ouverture was called "the black Spartacus" because he dared to lead a revolt against the French in Haiti. L'Ouverture's revolt, unlike Spartacus', was successful. It is this important difference that launches this book's inquiry into revolts in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.

     Urbainczyk's book rests on the solid foundation provided by Keith Bradley's Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, 140 B.C.–70 B.C.3 The explicit aim of the book is twofold: "to remind readers that slaves did rebel in antiquity" and "to discover why the material that remains has been, to a large extent, ignored or dismissed as historically insignificant" (p. 1). To do so, Urbainczyk closely reexamines ancient sources and interrogates modern scholarship for unexpressed assumptions about the nature of slavery. Eugene Genovese's analysis of the conditions leading to slave uprisings in the New World informs the structure of the inquiry.4 The author highlights six conditions in particular: the deterioration of master-slave relationships; economic distress and division among masters; existence of large slave-holding units where slaves outnumber masters; the prevalence of slaves who were born free; opportunities for slave to become leaders; and finally, geography that allows slaves to unite (pp. 4-5).

     Ancient slavery was a vast and varied phenomenon. There were hardly any jobs that were not performed by slaves – holding political office and fighting in war being the significant exceptions.5 Urbainczyk does not survey the range of forms of ancient slavery (and leaves the important issue of gender aside completely), but instead takes the definition given by Justinian's sixth-century ce Digest of Roman law as her starting point: "slaves (servi) are so called because commanders generally sell the people they capture and thereby save (servare) them instead of killing them" (p. 7). While this concept sheds light on how slavery was justified, it would be misleading to assume that all slaves in the ancient world were war captives. For example, the importation of war captives into Italy after the initial burst of imperial expansionism in the second and first centuries BCE tapered off, though the institution of slavery did not. Nevertheless, this is an appropriate place to begin a discussion of slave revolts. For the most part this book deals with a distinct sub-group of the entire slave population; namely, men who were capable of using violent means to attain their end – simply, immediate freedom for themselves.

     The tumultuous late Roman Republic in the second and first centuries BCE afforded many opportunities for revolt throughout Rome's rapidly growing empire. Two slave wars that broke out in Sicily in the late 140's-130's BCE and 104-100 BCE are the instances which are best documented in the ancient sources, and so are the most discussed in this book. So, for example, in chapter 2, "Preparing for Revolt," Urbainczyk argues that the slave population of Sicily in the middle of the second century BCE consisted of an influx of slaves taken captive after the destruction of Carthage in 146 BCE. She adduces from the ancient sources that there were tensions in Sicily between the Roman governors who faced problems of marauding gangs of rebellious slaves, and the landowners who needed slaves to work their growing estates. Parallels from other places and times at times seem to stretch the strict definition of a slave revolts but nevertheless, Urbainczyk argues, support her contention that news of slave revolts travelled widely. Among the parallels are the revolts in Pergamum under Aristonicus (133-129 BCE) and in Southern Italy under Titus Vettius Minutius (beginning of the first century BCE): technically, both leaders were free men who drew rebellious slaves to their causes (Aristonicus protested Eumenes' bequest of the kingdom of Pergamum to Rome whereas Minutius' protest was purportedly sparked by his romantic infatuation for a slave woman he not afford to buy). Some of the conclusions are tenuous, but they succeed in raising important questions.

     The next two chapters examine the conditions that sustained revolts. Chapter 3, "Maintaining Resistance," makes a compelling analogy between the maroon communities in the Caribbean and the Americas, and ancient slaves who struck agreements with their masters that allowed them to live in their own "cities." Some communities were large, roaming groups of armed slaves who, much as an army, had to be organized, fed, and supplied. In chapter 4, Urbainczyk narrows her focus to "The Role of the Leader." She pieces together the military and political histories of slave revolts and in effect rewrites them from the perspectives of those individual slave leaders whom the ancient sources mention by name. Spartacus, the leader of the Italian slave wars of the middle of the first century BCE, of course, will be the one with the most name recognition today, but readers will also learn of other leaders such as Eunus, the wily, Syrian soothsayer who, until he was captured and imprisoned by the Romans. In addition to Eunus, the second Slave War in Sicily gave rise to the "careful and methodical" Athenion, the Cilician bandit Cleon, and the slave general Salvius who appropriated the title "King Tryphon," the name of a usurper who had recently attempted to seize the Seleucid throne (p. 58). That the revolts all ultimately failed is beside the point: the author brings to life these leaders' logistical and political strategizing.

     This inevitably leads to the question of intention; chapter 5 thus covers "The Ideology of the Slaves," sadly, but inevitably, the shortest chapter of the book at a mere five pages. Inevitably because of the nature of the primary sources, all of which come from the slave-owning classes. Urbainczyk touches on the important dichotomy between the concepts "slave" and "free" in ancient rhetoric, a huge topic. She also identifies traces of the consciousness among ancient thinkers that slavery was an unnatural, and unjust, condition. She concludes this brief discussion by restating the obvious; namely, that "the dominant ideology of the time was that freedom was to be preserved and slavery avoided." But with a twist: she points out that this was not only patently true to free people, but was also shared by the slaves themselves.

     The final chapters of the book treat topics that are raised throughout the book. In chapter 6, Urbainczyk makes the case that of all the ancient sources, the first-century BCE historian Diodorus Siculus, himself a resident of Sicily, shows the most sympathy for the slave revolts. Writing—or, arguably cutting and pasting the writing of others—a universal history that covered 1138 years in forty books, Diodorus writes with the "moral" purpose to show "divine justice bringing down the arrogant" (pp. 81-2). The Sicilian slave wars are thus an object lesson for the Romans in the consequences of imperial expansionism. Such a lesson does not work without a certain degree of sympathy for those slaves that rebel against Roman hubris. Chapter 8 provides a brief, critical overview the depiction of slave revolts not only in ancient historiography, but also in modern scholarship.

     An additional chapter on the "secret of success" of the helots of Sparta seems somewhat parenthetical yet useful nevertheless. To what degree the helots, the inhabitants of Messenia who were reduced to serf-like status by their more militant neighbors, the Spartans, in the 7th century BCE, were analogous to the slaves who lived under the Roman Empire deserves more scrutiny. Although the helots rebelled at every opportunity, unlike the slaves taken captive in Rome's many wars of expansion, the helots stayed in their natal homeland, and presumably were allowed to live in families as long as they obeyed their Spartan overlords.

     The book's strength lies in its fresh reexamination of the question of slave revolts in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. The author avoids theoretical jargon and takes care to explain ancient terms and to identify named individuals. However, this sometimes slows the narrative and makes it seem repetitive. Some chronological jumping around necessitated by the book's thematic organization might lead to some confusion, but an extensive, four-page timeline is provided as a useful guide at the beginning of the book. Despite these weaknesses, a second reading—not too onerous, considering the brevity of this boo—will pay dividends for advanced undergraduates as well as for teachers interested in designing a document-based project on slavery, either in antiquity or more generally in world history.6 Urbainczyk demonstrates and lays before the reader the tremendous critical analysis of the primary sources that undergirds any modern historical study of an underreported but historically important social phenomenon such as ancient slave revolts. This study demonstrates how careful and painstaking scholarship may rise to the challenge of answering historical questions of great value and importance – questions for which, sadly, so much primary historical evidence has been irretrievably lost.

Saundra Schwartz is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa. She can be reached at



1 Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999).

2 Theresa Urbainczyk, Spartacus (London: Bristol Classical, 2004).

3 Keith R. Bradley, Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, 140 B.C.-70 B.C. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

4 Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979).

5 Moses I. Finley, "Was Greek Civilization Based on Slave Labour?" Historia 8 (1959): 147.

6 A veritable gold mine of sources on Spartacus is to be found in Brent D. Shaw (ed.), Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001).



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