H.M. Hyndman

The Evolution of Revolution

Chapter 9
Slave Revolts

During the whole of the early period of Roman slavery the Romans, like the Greeks and the Carthaginians, lived in constant fear of the uprising of their slaves. It was this perpetual dread which inspired the cruelty with which they were treated in times of peace, and the terrible punishments inflicted upon them when they failed in war. The disproportion in numbers between the slaves and the Roman citizens increased this feeling of suppressed panic when, during the whole period of Rome’s great advance in power and her perpetual conquests, slaves, like other wealth, were poured in upon the Republic from all quarters, and were distributed in all the previously conquered provinces. It is tolerably certain, if we are to judge by the manner in which the histories of the great revolts were eviscer­ated and the official records suppressed, that organised risings on a smaller scale, and the destruction of separate masters who distinguished themselves for their inhumanity, with their families, were much more common than is generally admitted by Roman writers. The law or custom that all the slaves belonging to an owner who had been killed by one of them should be put to death, and the entire legislation enacted to strike terror into slaves and even freed men, showed that the dominant class had no doubt as to the possibility of sudden outbursts, accompanied by indiscriminate massacre, which lay all round them. By a careful selection in the appointment of the slaves, so that no large bodies of men coming originally from the same districts might be gathered together, by a constant use of spies when any organised disaffection was anticipated, by the prevention ordinarily of any access to supplies of arms, and by the prompt imprisonment or removal of slaves who showed exceptional vigour or initiative, slave-owners as a class were able to lessen the likelihood of effective combinations for the purpose of attack.

But, above all, use and custom could as a rule be relied upon to uphold the existing system when once it had been set on foot. With the Romans, as with the Greeks and every people among whom slavery had become the prevailing form of labour, making all other forms seem more or less degraded, slaves became imbued with the ideas of their masters. In modern times we observe precisely the same phenomenon. Wage slavery is obviously only chattel slavery in disguise, and the wage slaves form the great majority of the population in most highly civilised countries. Yet they usually accept this permanent subjugation as inevitable, are ready to believe that the position they have inherited is quite as it should be, and follow the economic teach­ings dictated by their employers as revelations of inspired truth. Having thus become hypnotised by use and custom, it was no easy matter to move Roman slaves to any serious action in their own interest. In the great towns, where a successful blow would have been most effective, the slave-owners were so well organised, and so perpetually on the alert, that preparation for a combined attack by their chattels was extremely difficult, without their getting wind of it and being able to gather together police and soldiery to crush it. In the country the distances from one possible rallying point to another, the lack of arms, and, in spite of the contentions of some writers, the inefficiency of such slave-organisations as may have existed to ensure permanent cohesion, rendered anything like the formation of an army capable of holding its own against Roman legions apparently impossible.

So that the acceptance of servitude and the apathy of the slaves themselves about their social condition, as well as the natural obstacles which stood in the way of vigorous and organised endeavour, made any successful upheaval of the masses of the servile population almost beyond their reach. If a really favourable opportunity came, and men of almost superhuman courage and genius rose up as leaders of the oppressed classes, jealousy, bribery, treachery and the want of any definite policy of social reconstruction nearly always made their success only temporary. Thus in Greece when the slaves of the Laurium silver mines, the men who were condemned to life-long suffering and death under merciless contractors, attained their freedom by a successful insurrection at the crisis of the Peloponnesian War to the immense injury of Athens: when in the island of Chios the slaves, under Drimakos, gained the mastery and dominated their owners, nothing definite was achieved for the slaves or their successors. At Chios Drimakos, their leader, was driven to death by the very same people whom he had helped to emancipate. Only in Tyre did the slaves win outright; and, having slaughtered their oppressors, they took possession of the city. They held it until their descendants, after a magnificent resistance, were butchered by Alexander the Great. But during the interval they effected no genuine social revolution; they simply carried on the system which had been established by their Phoenician masters, taking their place and enslaving their former oppressors.

All this, however, enables us to appreciate more fully the tremendous fights of the slaves of Spain under the leadership of Viriathus in Sicily, under Eunus, Achceus and Cleon, and later under Athenion, and, lastly, in Italy under the splendid generalship of Spartacus. In every case Rome triumphed in the end. But Eunus, a native of Syria, with his two generals, held his own against the Roman forces for seventeen years, giving him­self all the importance of a king. The cause of the insurrection was, as usual, the frightful cruelty with which the slaves, brought to Sicily from all the territories recently conquered, were worked to death in the mines and on the land. It was a long war of massacre on both sides.

If Eunus, instead of surrounding himself with pomp and luxury, had spent his time, together with his experienced officers, in thoroughly training new armies and getting sound civilian government on foot, could he have established Sicily, with its great resources, as an independent republic? Probably not, seeing that Rome was then in full march towards worldwide supremacy. But since he did not take the means to ensure the possibility of permanent rule, and went off into wonder-working and Asiatic mysteries, it is evident that he never saw his way clearly out of the struggle. This again proves that, neither his generals nor anybody else having been able to supplant his theocratic incapacity, after ten years of almost unchallenged supremacy in the island, the slaves, with all their numbers and success, had no real perception of what they themselves desired to achieve.

It is a part of the irony of the whole situation that Piso, the Roman democrat, who completely defeated Eunus’ armies and captured Eunus himself, was as unmerciful to the vanquished slaves as the most reactionary aristocrat of them all. Whole­sale crucifixions of thousands of slaves, and the condemnation of the remainder to more relentless slave-driving than ever, were the outcome of this serious and lengthy insurrection, begun at a time when Rome had plenty of difficulties on her hands from every quarter. Incidentally it may be noted that modern writers on the great struggle between Rome and Carthage nearly always show favour to the former power; giving the idea that Carthaginians were more ferocious and ruthless than their successful enemies in the treatment of their slaves and their colonists. It is, however, difficult to imagine anything more horrible than the treatment by the Romans of the peoples who, defending their own countries, were defeated in battle; nor could the punishments inflicted on the slaves in the great servile revolt in Carthage have exceeded the atrocities committed by Roman generals on defeated slaves in the course of two or three centuries.

The popularity of the gladiatorial displays, not only in Rome itself but in all the chief cities of the Empire, was a form of blood-lust and butchery to which, so far as we know, the Car­thaginians were not addicted. Nothing could be more frightful than the scenes of the arena when, apart from fights to the death between the gladiators, who at least had a remote chance of survival, unarmed men, women and children captives were thrown into the great circuses to be devoured by wild beasts. Moreover, the noblest Romans, aristocrats regarded as the highest type of humane men in regard to their own fellow-citizens and their allies, were so entirely the creatures of their day and generation that even Titus and Trajan were unable to emanci­ate themselves from the horrors of the prevailing system. The former pursued the familiar practice of crucifying prisoners by the thousand, and selling thousands more into slavery after the capture of Jerusalem; the latter, whose goodness passed into a proverb for generations after his death, was remarkable for his encouragement of gladiatorial exhibitions on a vast scale for the delectation of his people. Of the two, then, it appears that the Semitic aristocrats and plutocratic merchants and slave-owners of Carthage were less cold-blooded in their ruthlessness than the Aryans of the Italian peninsula, and those whom they absorbed into their growing republic and empire. It makes very little difference.

But the immensity of the Roman Empire, its magnificent public works, its great jurisprudence based upon the strictest rights of property, its fine literature, which has been drilled into successive generations of our well-to-do and relatively well-educated classes, its marvellous steadfastness under good and bad fortune, have together partially closed the eyes of modern Europeans to the dreadful system of worldwide extortion and infamy upon which this imposing superstructure was based. Not only so, but the effect of slavery in corrupting the whole moral sense of the highest among the Romans is overlooked. While, for example, we admire the forensic and political oratory as well as the philosophy of Cicero, who may fairly be considered as the founder of our somewhat verbose modern style, alike of eloquence and of writing, we are apt to forget that this vehement champion of the reactionary aristocracy of Rome itself not only advocated the most diabolical cruelty towards the slaves, but often, it may almost be said habitually, caused his political opponents to be executed without trial, and even without any formal accusation. Among other misdeeds, he strangled Catiline in prison with his own hands, fearing the consequences of an open trial. But in the end he received his reward.

What is true of Cicero is true also of most of the leading men of the Republic. Caesar, who professed and to some extent practised democratic opinions about the Roman populace, who was murdered by the ferocious aristocratic usurer Brutus and his hired cut-throats, who was the most formidable enemy of “the old families” since Caius Gracchus, who also was the real founder of the Empire which did something to curb the power of that merciless oligarchy – Caesar himself, merely as a matter of political business, and as a step to supreme power, devastated a great part of Gaul, slaughtered the inhabitants wholesale, and is estimated to have sold not fewer than a million Gallic captives into slavery. The Romans, that is to say, possessed the most powerful and ruthless social machine for the extension of human oppression that had ever been seen.

Their military system was persistently used to plunder, butcher and enslave less perfectly organised populations, and their financial greed and impersonal money power stepped in to complete the ruin wrought by their arms. So completely, likewise, did the Roman governing classes of all shades of opinion believe in Rome’s manifest destiny to crush the proud, and spare, after her ruthless fashion, the vanquished, that it was quite impossible for them to think of foreign affairs or general administration except in terms of conquest, rapine, slave-selling and usury, followed by considerations as to the most effective means of extracting perpetual tribute. None escaped from this foul influence.

When nearly the whole of the provinces of the Repxiblic were in revolt against almost the last stage of this tremendous ad­vance in worldwide domination, the great servile insurrection in Italy under Spartacus occurred. Never could there have been a better opportunity for such an upheaval. In east and west alike the Roman armies were fully occupied. The result of the fresh struggle against Mithridates hung in the balance. The war in Spain looked doubtful. Italians of the south who had suffered terribly in the so-called “social war” were greatly disaffected and ready if not to aid, at least to refrain from obstructing, a rising that might incidentally help them. In Rome itself the class wars and bloody faction fights were never more threatening. The recent arrival of large bodies of slaves from powerful and warlike tribes provided the numbers and the vigour needed to furnish a fine slave army, if only arms could be obtained. Beginning with two hundred slaves and a trifling success, arms were obtained by attack on a convoy, and Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator, took the leadership of the revolt, and showed himself, from first to last, a man of military genius and of great political foresight. No ordinary general could have created a powerful, well-disciplined and adequately supplied army of at least a hundred thousand men out of un­trained slaves of different nationalities, speaking various tongues. Hannibal himself performed no greater feat. Nine successive victories over the best Roman generals then available for home service showed the Romans what sort of genius they had to contend against, and made them fear that Spartacus might be completely successful and capture Rome itself. But the slave commander was too wise to attempt such a dangerous siege. Where the famous Carthaginian hesitated he too held back. If jealousies had not arisen, and the familiar weapons of bribery and treachery had not been used, or if he had succeeded in getting to Sicily, he and his men could perhaps have continued the war which he had carried on for four years and a half on the mainland, releasing slaves, freeing prisoners and relieving debtors in every direction.

But it seems certain that Spartacus felt from the first that his magnificent effort was doomed to failure, unless he could induce his troops to withdraw from Italy to some district where he could make reasonably sure of continuous support. He himself looked to Thrace, and only when a march thither was rendered impossible by the ardour of his soldiers for loot did he try to embark his army for Sicily. But throughout Spartacus, the greatest leader the proletariat ever had, kept his head. He neither set up his kingship like Eunus and Athenion, nor neglected the discipline of his forces like Viriathus. There is every reason to believe that so far as possible he was merciful to the armies he defeated and to the people of the towns and cities where he quartered his men: a policy which was not only humane but advantageous. At length, by no fault of his own, he was defeated in a decisive battle by a great concentration of the Roman armies which had been brought in from a distance. He died fighting in the field. The usual results followed. Many thousands of slaves were crucified along the Roman roads, impalement and other Asiatic tortures being also resorted to. The rest became slaves again.

Thus this, by far the most extensive and best-organised slave insurrection of antiquity, broke down. Unlike the Romans, Spartacus had no definite centre and no recognised social system. He desired, not to constitute in Italy a rival republic to Rome, but to return to his native Thrace; and this, as all historians agree, shows conclusively that he believed the slaves by themselves had little chance of eventual success within the area where he won his amazing victories. And that was the truth. Courage, sagacity, initiative, statesmanship, noble qualities of every kind, were powerless finally to make head against the vampire growth which he had to encounter in the days of its apparently inevitable expansion. The time was not yet; and force by itself was not sufficient to push forward the evolution of human society into the next stage of its still un­conscious development. The insurrection headed by Spartacus, with all the reputation gained by his early victories and admirable judgment, could not overthrow Roman domination, even in a period of serious crisis at home and abroad. Therefore we must conclude that such risings, justifiable as they were, and useful as they might be in urging on the enactment of palliatives of slavery and in keeping alive the spirit of the dominated class, were entirely futile as practical efforts to obtain premature emancipation. The two essential elements of triumphant social revolution were both wanting: the economic and social evolution was not ready for the transformation: the class striving for emancipation was not yet able to comprehend and control its own surroundings.

From this time onwards, therefore, through the entire period of the Empire, slavery remained the deciding factor in the economic and social field. Free farmers struggled with varying fortune against slave-worked properties in the country; free artisans with their “colleges” were in competition with the trained slaves in the city; the coloni, who were the economic and social ancestors of the serfs, held a position midway between the free peasant farmers, who had plenty of troubles of their own, and the slaves. There is never a period when one element of method of production completely overwhelms or supplants the others. Even Egypt, with its constant supply of slaves from without, in its greatest period of prosperity saw small proprietors still carrying on their hereditary business. But slavery once introduced, all the class antagonisms above had little or no interest for the slaves themselves, either before or after the great Spartacus rising.

From the very first, the inflexible courage and determination of the free legionaries who at last fought down the power of Carthage brought about their own ruin, in the very surroundings of the city for whose welfare, as they believed, they had striven. By the exquisite irony of economic history, as we have seen, the slaves and the wealth which the peasant soldiery secured for Rome were the agents which assured, in the long run, their own expropriation and poverty. Their losses on the field of battle terribly depleted the ranks of the free yeomen, leaving them with less force to encounter their enemies at home; while their victories strengthened the aristocrats and rich plebeians in their social and political campaign against the rights of their fellow-citizens. The slaves from abroad, beaten on the field of battle, avenged themselves with all their sufferings on the field of production. Given the existing conditions, the immediate results were inevitable. Everything combined to enable the great landowners, more especially in Italy, to defeat the upholders of the old system with its equitable distribution of the public land. Aristocrats with land slaves and money steadily overcame freemen farmers with land but with no resources.

Slavery, particularly on pasture lands with cattle, was remunerative. Pasturage, given a market not too remote for the advantageous disposal of the products, relatively yielded more return to the land and slave owner than arable cultivation, for the number of slaves employed. This has been seen frequently in agricultural history, notably in our own country during the reign of Henry VII and in the nineteenth century.

There are those who contend that, owing to the numerous drawbacks attendant upon it, such as the carelessness or actual disinclination of the slaves in relation to their work, the cost of supervision, the gaps in the application of their labour on the land, and the losses due to escapes and disease, slavery must under all circumstances succumb to free labour. But the fact remains that the enormous accumulation of riches for those times in Egypt, the Grecian States, in Asia Minor and the East generally had all been piled up by slave hands. It could have come from no other source. If the Romans failed to produce similar results from the employment of the slaves, this must have been due to faulty management – not, certainly, to any humane scruples as to the treatment of their slaves. Moreover, when, as on well-managed estates, slaves who had little to do during winter were employed industrially on spinning, weaving, and handling metals in the slave work-prisons called ergastulae, one source of leakage was at once stopped, to the benefit of the owners. In the city also trained slaves, whether for direct employment by their owners or for letting out to contractors, were valuable property, as was proved by the sums paid for the lease of such slaves by their hirers in various departments, alike in Greece, in Rome and in the Roman provinces. Slaves, indeed, worked side by side with free labourers on public works and elsewhere, which seems to prove that they showed no great inferiority. Again, it is certain that slave labour, even in modern times, built up large fortunes in the Southern States of Africa as well as in the West Indies. There is, in fact, no absolute rule in the matter beyond this: while slaves were cheap and plentiful and supervision easy, slave labour was more remunerative. But when the slave markets grew empty, and these human chattels became more scarce and dear, the economic balance, as we shall see, swung the other way. Yet a born slave-driver and extorter of the last ounce of personal gain out of everything he touched, such as Cato the Censor, would never have employed slaves unless they had returned him something very handsome per head. That it was purely a matter of money with him was shown by the fact that he recommended all his fellow slave-owners to sell or get rid of the old slaves that were past work – a cynical recommendation which seems to have shocked decent Romans of the period. (They appear to have felt a personal responsibility for their decrepit and worn-out chattel slaves which the employers of wage slaves do not generally feel.)

What the effect of the slave system was upon the slave-owning slave-employing class while slavery was the controlling labour form has often been described, and does not affect its omic significance. That it was in every way morally de-;

ing, from the great gladiatorial conflicts in the arena to at

murderous displays at private entertainments, from the

;e of parasites who swarmed round the Imperial Court and cumbered the palaces of the very rich, is found recorded in all descriptions of the time. But cruelty, blood-lust, excess,

-’rntation, extravagance, vice and wholesale debauchery had no direct influence in destroying slavery as an institution. Ethics have little or no effect on the course of human development. Not Rome alone but all the great slave empires of antiquity are convincing evidence of this. The question to be decided in the long centuries of Imperial domination was, could the free labourers and farmers, artisans and freed men who stood between the slave-owners and the plebs – that body of gratuitously fed poor citizens which only existed in Rome – hold their own in the future against their servile rivals? Combinations of free citizens, buttressed and strengthened by the freed men rising from the slave class, as well as by the large numbers of free official servants of the Republic and Empire in the lover grades, helped the artisans in this silent conflict. We know that they were even regarded as a danger on this account not only from general remarks upon their growth and importance, but from the observations of so capable and wide-minded a ruler as Trajan. In one of his letters to Pliny, as we have seen, he speak with strong prejudice against a very small group of citizens in the capital of Bithynia, who had organised themselves for some sort of joint economic protection.

It is remarkable that under the Empire the slaves themselves rarely made any organised effort against their oppressors. But at various periods we hear of what we should now call anarchistic outbreaks, which could scarcely have been carried out apart from their connivance. The great incendiary attempt to burn down Rome under Nero was attributed to the Christians; and as many of the slaves were members of that faith the imputation may not be wholly groundless, while the same can be saiu of similar proceedings in other cities. Three times the palace of Diocletian was burnt over his head. And the Christians, who repudiated any share of their co-religionists in the Roman conflagration, have never been at any pains to deny that this wholesale arson committed at the expense of their persecutor, Diocletian, was quite possibly carried out by persons of their own creed. But anarchy had as little effect in upsetting slavery as it had in intimidating the Emperors. Such mitigations in the lot of the slaves as were introduced were certainly not due to the terror inspired by their risings; nor did the teachings of the Church prevail until the time when the stream of economic progress set strongly towards emancipation. Here, as in other cases, economics, speaking generally, ordain the course of im­provement; ethics approve what economics have rendered inevitable or advisable; religion winds up by blessing result-manifestly about to be achieved or already attained.

From first to last the economic and financial condition of Imperial Rome was in a state of unstable equilibrium. Even during the period of the generally peaceful and successful rule of Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines, financial troubles at the centre were by no means uncommon, and the people and slaves suffered below when all seemed secure at the top. Later, even during the fortunate Imperial career of Diocletian, there was no permanent security. Neither peace nor well-meant measures for social improvement could breathe new life into a system wliich was decaying at its base. It was not the presumed un­productive character of slave labour, with all its admitted draw­backs, which was the cause of this continuous trouble. It was the fact that, all the time, the great Imperial metropolis, Rome herself, was continually absorbing wealth from without and making no commercial return, luxuriating in unproductive and extravagant expenditure of every kind, regardless of the future. The metropolis was peopled to a large extent by citizens who made no pretence of working for their own or the general benefit. They were dependent, even for the necessaries of life, upon sea-borne supplies from without gratuitously distributed. To such a pitch of economic stress had matters been brought that, just when the Empire was immensely powerful in the field – capable even of retrieving such a terrible disaster as that which befell Diocletian’s associate-emperor Galerius – the mischiefs of the whole financial, fiscal and monetary system were felt more acutely than ever.

While the economic and social situation was thus threatening, and war was being waged on the frontiers and in Britain, a very formidable insurrection of the slave peasantry broke out in Gaul. These unfortunate people, the Bagaudae, were suffering from every conceivable form of oppression and robbery. They were chattel slaves in all but name of the local landowners of the same race as themselves. They were also at the mercy of Imperial tax-gatherers, and the military anarchy which devastated Gaul put an end to any security for property or life. At last, driven to despair, these unfortunate peasants rose in insurrection all over the province. There is no full account of their campaign against their oppressors, but it is at least certain that at the commencement of their upheaval they were fully successful against their immediate landowners and tyrants, and that the Bagaudae became for the time being masters of rural Gaul.

This was not surprising. Notwithstanding the success in arms of the joint Emperors, discontent was rife everywhere. Roman prestige had been much shaken, and the influence of the great Imperial capital over the provinces had been continually sapped by the habitual absence of the Emperor himself from the metropolis and the declining power of the Senate. If ever in Roman history there was a time when the slave class, thoroughly organised, could possibly have succeeded in putting forward the hour of the day which the sun recorded on the dial of human progress, this was the moment for such an attempt on their part. The campaigns of Eunus, Spartacus and Viriathus had been carried on under circumstances which, as we can now see, on looking back at them, rendered permanent victory quite im­possible. Rome was then a great rising power. Her prodigious force was based upon the patriotic determination and courage of her free citizen farmers who were beguiled into the idea that they were fighting for their own well-being against enemies abroad and enemies at home. Even if the great slave leader had won final and not temporary success, they thcemselves could have done no more than establish the same slavery with a new face, the slaves being the masters and the masters the slaves. No other issue of the struggle could be. The social evolution would have gone on as before; slavery would still have been the economic foundation of the whole social structure.

But now the situation was different. The class in revolt had apparently some genuine chance of obtaining economic and social freedom. Not only had slavery passed its highest point, the central administration had been split up and was much weaker in consequence; even the great mercenary legions were widely distributed, while the high price of food favours (?) production and payment in kind. But the class to be freed by this slave peasant revolt was not yet ready for emancipation, was not organised enough to administrate its own affairs or to conquer even local political power; and was not sufficiently educated to understand the difficulties to be met. Also it wholly lacked the military discipline which had distinguished the newly captured slaves under Spartacus. So, when they encountered the Imperial legions which were rushed into Gaul, they fell to pieces and underwent the fate of all insurrectionists who bravely and legitimately anticipate their epoch. They had only won temporary revenge, like their followers in the valley of misery more than a thousand years afterwards, upon the nobles who outraged them.

But the Bagaudae had earlier successes than the Jacquerie of the fourteenth century. Within a century and a half of this unfortunate failure in A.D. 297, their children and grandchildren, undeterred by the defeat of their forbears, constituted so formidable a combination under the same name that a large part of Gaul, and a still larger part of Spain, fell for a short time under the control of the peasants. The Roman Government itself had become so hateful in every way, with its excessive taxes and proscriptions and terrible atrocities, that the whole country was in a continuous state of revolt; and the invasions and attacks of barbarian tribes were preferred to the civilised and systematic outrages of decadent Rome. In short, the economic and social breakdown of chattel slavery and centralised taxation and rapine by a nominal government would have compelled the introduction of some fresh organisation, even if the hordes of the frontiers had never entered the Roman dominions.

Last updated on 7.7.2006