You are here

Staging Revolt: Theater in the Sicilian Slave Wars

Grace Gillies

In this paper, I argue that Diodorus Siculus uses theater to frame the Sicilian slave revolts of 135 and 104 BCE, characterizing them as a broken fourth wall.  Diodorus tells us that before Spartacus, the Sicilian slave revolts were the biggest in the Roman world, their leaders charismatic slaves who styled themselves after Seleucid royalty.  His account presents a rare opportunity to explore how an ancient author approached the paradox of the slave king.  My paper focuses on Eunus, the leader of the first rebellion and the one most associated with theater: he is described as a performer before the revolt, where he pretends to be king with Saturnalian license, declares himself a real king while onstage, and then uses mime to recruit more rebels.  I conclude by suggesting that this narrative gives the revolts a greater coherency, and can even help us to reconstruct Spartacus's rebellion, of which only one sentence remains.

Although the historical value of Diodorus's writing has been discussed (Bradley 1983, 1989, Morton 2013), his rhetorical and narratological choices have been less studied.  No one has yet investigated the role theater plays in his account of the revolts, but it has precedent in other historical narratives, especially Livy (Scafuro 1989, Walsh 1996), and Cicero (Geffcken 1973, Leigh 2004, 2004a).   But unlike these two authors, who map comedic storylines onto historical events, Diodorus uses theater to emphasize breaks in the expected narrative.  He begins by characterizing Eunus as a performer: he plays the king at his owner's parties, for instance, showing the playful subordination that is often typical of slaves onstage, especially in Roman comedy (34/5.2.8-9).  Audiences would recognize this role, and I argue that Diodorus emphasizes it in order to juxtapose it with his ascendancy to real power, grounding the impossible reality of a slave king by putting it into more familiar terms.  This is made clear from the fact that Eunus is chosen as the rebellion's leader in a theater (34/5.15-16).  I then examine Eunus's use of theater even after he has crowned himself as King Antiochus, demonstrating that Diodorus continues to characterize him as a rebel actor by describing the mime Eunus stages outside of a besieged city to convince other slaves to kill their owners (34/5.2.46). 

Diodorus's use of theater, I argue, has to do with illustrating the revolt for his elite audience.  My emphasis on how Diodorus talks about slaves to free people differs from other scholars' approaches, who discuss how free people used slaves to talk about themselves (Parker 1989, McCarthy 2000, Fitzgerald 2000), or how slaves talked to each other, as Amy Richlin argues in her article on Plautine comedy (2014).  Diodorus wrote in Greek, but he spent a long time in Rome (1.4.3), and is aware of his Roman audience.  His Sicilian background caused him to have a critical perspective on Rome evident in his writing, but his histories also show a prudent cautiousness (Sacks 1991).  This duality appears in his version of the revolts, in which the majority of the rebels are pathetic slaves whose poor treatment is described with notable sympathy (Urbainczyk 2008), but whose leaders are power hungry cowards.  Diodorus uses the abused masses to criticize Rome's abuse of Sicily (Sacks 1991), but his contempt for the slave kings would appealed to elite Roman audiences, especially in the wake of Spartacus's rebellion.  My focus is on this half of the narrative, which has received less attention.

I conclude by pointing out the echoes of theater in the second rebellion, especially in its leader, Salvius, and suggest that the ending of the second rebellion, in which slaves are forced to fight in the arena, recalls the theatrical break in the first rebellion and puts slaves back in their expected roles.  It also looks forward to Spartacus's rebellion, and the connections implied by theater in the Sicilian rebellions might help us reconstruct this otherwise lost one.

Session/Panel Title

War, Slavery, and Society in the Ancient World

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy