Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.17

Theresa Urbainczyk, Slave Revolts in Antiquity.   Berkeley/Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 2008.  Pp. xiii, 177.  ISBN 9780520257023.  $19.95.  

Reviewed by Teresa Ramsby, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (
Word count: 1920 words

The treatment of slaves in ancient Rome is one of the clearest indicators that the Romans well applied what they believed about human nature. Indeed, threats of brutal violence resulted in the obedience of many slaves in the Roman empire, but incentives guaranteed the compliance of many also. The possibility of manumission and the nearly immediate inclusion of freedmen into the fabric of Roman society were significant factors in preventing frequent revolts among the slave population. Even so, there were periodic slave revolts in the Roman empire and in pre-Roman Greece. By whom and what conditions were these revolts instigated?

In her recent book, Theresa Urbainczyk finds answers to these questions in histories by Athenaeus, Appian, Diodorus Siculus, and others. In addition, she tries to answer some tougher questions: is there value in comparing ancient slavery to that in New World colonization; did the slaves who revolted have an identifiable ideology of freedom; were the leaders of slave rebellions exploiting an opportunity, or did they have a vision of a free state without slavery? In this respect, Urbainczyk's book ambitiously seeks to analyze those moments in ancient history when armies of slaves put Roman legions and Greek armies to the test, and when the humblest class may have called into question the justice of the institution that nearly all ancient cultures took for granted. Urbainczyk does not quite answer these questions to full satisfaction, however, and perhaps she cannot; but she has also organized this book in a way that thwarts a clear understanding of the material she hoped to illuminate.

In the process of dealing with these questions, Urbainczyk offers us something that is very useful: summaries of and quotations from a diverse array of ancient sources (the above mentioned historians, plus Velleius Paterculus, Strabo, Orosius, Florus, and Julius Obsequens). She also points us to relevant passages in the copious narratives by more familiar authors: Cassius Dio, Livy, and Plutarch. The organization of the book is thematic and somewhat philosophical, not the best format for providing factual data, but this deficiency is supplemented somewhat by a handy timeline in the front of the book. The titles of Urbainczyk's chapters are: Chapter 1: The significance of slave revolts; 2: Preparing for revolt; 3: Maintaining Resistance; 4: The role of the leader; 5: The ideology of slaves; 6: Sympathy for the slaves: Diodorus Siculus; 7: The secret of the success of the Spartan helots; 8: Slave revolts in the ancient historiography. There is difficulty here in reading an analysis of any one revolt: its significance, leadership, maintenance, and ideologies get treatment separately among the chapters. To get a holistic analysis of Spartacus' Slave War, for example, one may wish to read Urbainczyk's earlier book (Spartacus. London: Bristol Classical, 2004) or chapter 5 - The Slave War of Spartacus - of Keith Bradley's still significant work Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, 140 B.C. to 70 B.C. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989).

In her first chapter Urbainczyk explains that there are limitations on any attempt to compare ancient slavery rebellions with New World slave rebellions due to the lack of information we have about ancient rebellions. She quotes and summarizes some important scholarship on Europe's colonial slaves (by Herbert Aptheker, Niall McKeown, and Eugene Genovese, among others), but at least one reflection on the material is a bit simplistic (p. 7: "What Nat Turner's revolt illustrates is that slaves were prepared to take extreme action to gain their freedom, as they have always done when possible"). She summarizes Genovese's useful analysis of conditions that often result in slave rebellion, conditions met in the Late Republic (pp. 4-5), and develops that further in the following chapter. She poses the interesting idea that captives spared by Roman armies to be sold into slavery (servi) might have felt psychologically less powerful than slaves merely captured and sold (manicipia) (p. 8), but she does not develop that idea there or elsewhere in the book.

Chapter 2 offers us the mitigating factors in the emergence of most of the known slave rebellions in the Greek and Roman world. She examines similarities between the First Sicilian Slave War (roughly 141-131 BCE) and an uprising of slaves and free citizens in Pergamum in 133: one being a split within society: in Sicily it was between magistrates and equestrian slave-owners, while in Pergamum it was between Romanized land-owners and the poor free-citizens of Pergamum who supported local control. Urbainczyk explains that such sociological divides aided the emergence of a full-scale revolt. U. then approaches the possibility that a few small uprisings sparked the second full-scale Sicilian Slave War (104-100 BCE). The weight of her argument lies on the suggestion that slaves were ubiquitous and thoroughly involved in the delivery of news and messages. She therefore thinks it likely that reports of slave uprisings would have inspired others to act. (By way of contrast, Keith Bradley preferred to see these events as isolated, and rather dependent on similar failures on the part of slave owners of the period (Bradley 1989, 73).) Urbainczyk then provides information about circumstances that surround the emergence of the Second Slave War on Sicily and the Spartacan uprising. She closes this chapter with a look at Sparta, her main point being that the helots took advantage of external threats against Sparta to deliver themselves from their bondage.

Chapter 3 focuses on the maintenance of longer term slave-resistance that rarely happened in ancient Greece or Rome. The few exceptions, like the resistance led by Spartacus, are intriguing, and Urbainczyk presents a good summary of a slave-community on Chios led by Drimakos in the third century BCE (pp. 30-31). Urbainczyk then launches into a discussion about "maroons," or communities of fugitive slaves that developed in the Caribbean and Americas. She argues that although we have little evidence of such communities in the ancient world, surely they existed, and what little evidence we do find points to the possibility that among Greek and Roman slaves there may have been hope of creating a society without slavery. This is a problem that Urbainczyk cannot convincingly resolve, particularly when one considers how frequently former slaves became slave-owners themselves. Take, for example, C. Caecilius Isidorus of the mid first-century BCE, a former slave who owned 4,116 slaves when he died (Bradley 1989, 128). Finally Urbainczyk takes on the maintenance of armies in the slave wars, but she does not provide much in way of tactical explanations. Urbainczyk's main concern here is to argue that leaders like Spartacus may have taken inspiration from prior slave uprisings (in Sicily and elsewhere), and that they may have intended to separate their people from Roman rule and the system of oppression that they had so long suffered.

Chapter 4 provides more information about the leaders of various uprisings mentioned in previous chapters. It is somewhat inconvenient that these more detailed portrayals are kept separate from the larger narratives of their revolts. It is also curious that Urbainczyk has so little to say (two sentences on page 60) about the regalia and coinage that some slave-leaders adopted to reinforce their authority over their followers. Keith Bradley has 8 pages on the topic (Bradley 1989, 116-123), and surely there is much more Urbainczyk might have used from that discussion to address the motives and possible intentions of these temporary rulers. She does, however, include a praiseworthy analysis on Plutarch's treatment of Spartacus and his motives for doing so (pp. 67-71).

Chapter 5 provides some of the philosophical or literary musings upon the institution of slavery that we can glean from the ancient sources. Urbainczyk is reluctant to assert that slaves had the intention to create slave-free societies, but "only that we are not entitled to declare definitely that they did not" (p. 80). Fair enough; but it is curious that she does not engage the evidence that she presents in any depth. For example, there is a distinct difference between the pagan Roman notion that slavery is inconsistent with the natural order (a convenient way of criticizing things one has no intention of altering) as espoused in the legal text called the "Digest," and the Christian notion that slavery is a sin (and therefore incompatible with Christian living), as proposed by Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century. Lots of things in ancient Rome were considered by various philosophers to be inconsistent with the natural order (seafaring, mining, eating meat, eating to excess, sleeping in the daytime), but that did not inspire populations to abolish their practice. Chapter 6 addresses the various aspects of sympathy Diodorus Siculus expresses for the slaves involved in the uprisings that he reports. Urbainczyk suggests that Diodorus has a mind to criticize Roman imperialism in general, and therefore finds in the slave revolts a narrative that highlights the intractable and cruel nature of Rome's empire. Chapter 7 comes back to the helots, and this is one her most successful chapters (despite its repetition of material from Chapters 2 and 4) because she deals solely with the Spartan helots, and explains much about the history of and attitudes towards that oppressed group. The final chapter is an interesting analysis of the historians who report the first century BCE slave revolts, principally Appian, Polybius, Florus and Orosius. Overall, she finds that ancient writers tended to see these rebellions not as isolated events, but as events integral to the narrative of the decline of Rome's Republic.

The book ends with a closing quote from St. Augustine, but without Urbainczyk's own conclusions - an indication of weakly supported arguments throughout the book. Sad to say, there are also many errors in this book: loose threads, typographical errors, and poorly constructed sentences that stifle one's enjoyment of the reading experience. Regarding loose threads, the point I mentioned above regarding slave psychology is a throw-in without development (p. 8). Similarly, on page 60, she moves from Diodorus' account of the slave wars in Sicily to Florus' account, but first mentions his obscure reference to a slave revolt in the fifth century BCE without any further development. See also the awkward transition from one thought to another here on page 16: "That is, although slaves who rose up against their masters elsewhere helped the rebels in Sicily, they themselves were overwhelmed by the forces against them. In Pergamum the situation was more like that in Sicily in that the region was clearly split between those who supported the Romans, or at least saw opportunities for themselves under their protection, and those who objected to the dramatic last will and testament of their king." Note also the strange correlation made in this sentence without any further context (appearing at the end of a section on Spartacus) on page 24: "In other words, we learn about slave revolts by accident because they are added to indicate that Nero was a bad emperor, in the same way that we hear about the birth of a deformed child." Lastly, although the timeline in the front of the book is useful, I wonder why she did not list there all the leaders of the slave rebellions instead of only a few.

Perhaps Urbainczyk might have organized this book with historical sources and narratives of slave rebellions in one section (with more quotations from the ancient sources and greater integration of the material in the footnotes into the main text) and thematic considerations in another section. It would then have been an ideal book for an advanced course on ancient slavery or slavery in general.

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