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Resisting Empire: Slave Wars and Free Constituencies

Peter Morton

University of Manchester

This paper presents an examination of Rome’s impact on its provinces via an analysis of local disaffection with Roman rule across the Mediterranean, focusing on the period from c. 150-70 BC. In this period Rome extended its empire across the Mediterranean, exposing diverse regions to Roman practices and attitudes. The affects of this expansion on the provinces has in the past been studied in relation to Rome and the elite (Santangelo 2007) or in relation to individual provinces or areas (eg Richardson 1986; Meloni 1987; Kallet-Marx 1995; Prag and Quinn (eds) 2013). What is missing from our current analyses of Roman imperialism is a connected understanding of how Rome’s expansion affected those further down the social order – both slave and free – and how these groups responded to Rome’s power. How did the expansion of Roman power and the integration of local provincial elites into the imperial system affect those outside the elite group? Was this resisted, and if so, in what ways?

This paper explores these questions via a study of the three major ‘slave revolts’ of antiquity – the first and second Sicilian ‘Slave Wars’ and the Spartacus War – as well as other minor ‘slave revolts’ documented in Italy during the second century BC. These events have traditionally been studied in terms of the history of slavery (eg Dumont 1987; Bradley 1989; Hermann-Otto 2009). By placing these events into their immediate contexts – second century BC Sicily on the one hand, and second-to-first century BC Italy on the other – this paper will show that the events arose in each case out of the contemporary and preceding actions of the burgeoning Roman empire. The Sicilian ‘Slave Wars’ and the Spartacus revolt have been seen as the result of rampant increases in slave ownership in Sicily and Italy. However, in each revolt there is evidence of attempts by the rebels to connect their movements to contemporary free concerns and draw strength from them. I will argue that these attempts can only be understood when analysed in the context of Rome’s reshaping of public land in both Sicily and Italy, and how this reshaping altered the relationships and statuses of groups of free peoples in each area. These revolts, therefore, can be best understood not only as revolts against servility or the imposition of servile status, but as assertions of the intrinsically free nature of the rebels that is presented in dialogue with other free inhabitants of the areas in which these revolts occur. Understood in this way, the ‘slave revolts’ of antiquity become less reactions to slavery than attempts to redefine identity and space from the ground up, in competition with the Roman and non-Roman elite view.

In sum, this paper points towards the need to study revolts and low level resistance within their immediate context and in connection between regions. So doing will allow us to better understand responses to imperial power beyond the elite and how these responses demonstrate similarities and interconnections when studied alongside one another. In the process we will also be able to narrow the gap between slave and free as political actors in those areas that were aggressively redefined by Rome spatially and in terms of status. Most of all, this paper will show that Rome’s imperialist drive had to contend with attempts to resist and challenge Roman rule from the ‘lowest’ status individuals, and that these attempts helped in part to drive Rome’s integration of local provincial elites. 

Session/Panel Title

Power and Politics: Approaching Roman Imperialism in the Republic

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