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The Pirate Connection: Rome’s Servile Wars and Eastern Campaigns

The Second Servile War (~104-100) and the Cilician campaign of Marcus Antonius Orator (102 onwards) are rarely thought to have anything in common. In this paper, I suggest they were actually tightly connected—specifically, that there was some link, real or imagined, between the slaves in Sicily and the Cilicians in Asia Minor that caused the Romans to suspect that the slave revolt had professional backing from a foreign power (the freelance mercenaries/pirates of Cilicia) and furthermore, that they believed in order to crush the slaves, the Cilicians had to be dealt with as well. Thus the eastern command of Marcus Antonius Orator was believed to be (or promoted as) a useful complement to the ongoing Sicilian affair.

Discussions of the campaign of Antonius (e.g. Freeman 1986, Keaveney 1982, de Souza 1999, 102-108) are decidedly limited, and the question of what prompted this action at this particular time is unanswered. Historically, the Romans had been content to ignore the southern coast of Anatolia from Apamea (189) onward and to allow Rhodes and Lycia a free hand, despite piracy in the area. At the time of Antonius gaining the Cilician command, Marius was fighting the Teutones in the north and the Second Servile War was in full swing in the south. With such unfavorable timing, I suggest this move on Cilicia was not, at the time, considered a separate affair but was somehow linked to Sicilian matters.

In the ancient accounts of the First and Second Servile Wars (aptly compiled in Shaw 2001), we can note the clear prominence of Syrian and Cilician slaves, both as combatants and as leaders. The self-declared kings Eunus and Salvius were Syrians and the generals Athenion and Cleon Cilicians. While this may simply be a love of symmetry on the part of Diodorus Siculus (our principal source), it is hardly an unlikely situation. In the second half of the second century, Rome had fought fewer large wars and needed alternate sources for slaves, while at the same time Seleucid Syria had been beset by numerous civil wars. It is reasonable to suppose that amidst the chaos in Cilicia and Syria, numerous slaves were taken and sold in the Aegean. The Syrian and Cilician slaves thus almost certainly had the most military experience among the slave population of Sicily. Furthermore, the slaves themselves emphasized links with the Hellenistic East. Eunus renamed himself Antiochus, while later, Salvius took on the name Tryphon, invoking Diodotus Tryphon, who, as Strabo (14.5.2) informs us, had organized the Cilician pirates to work together.

Despite the lack of evidence concerning the campaign of Antonius, (known through such sources as Livy, Ep. 68; Obsequens, Prodig. 44; and ILLRP 1.342), I argue that Antonius was given the command not as a separate campaign, but as a supplement to the Sicilian. This hypothesis is further supported by the so-called ‘pirate provisions’ in an unusual law: the lex de provinciis praetoriis (described by Crawford 1996 in Roman Statutes). This law (dated to 101/100) makes the consuls write letters to most of the Hellenistic rulers and insists that they not allow any pirates from Cilicia access to their lands. Based on Roman depictions of earlier pirates (albeit from historians writing later), it is reasonable to predict any and all forces still at large in Cilicia would have been considered pirates regardless of their initial status. I argue that the Romans are not concerned with piracy per se, but rather with sending a message. The fugitive Cilicians are regarded similarly to fugitive slaves. Nevertheless, the kingdoms of the east would readily have noted the punitive invasion of Cilicia. The LdPP, in talking about Cilicia, can only be fully understood in reference to Sicily. In justifying the Roman invasion of Cilicia, it also serves as a warning to not repeat the (supposed) Cilician mistake in Sicily.