Review of “Slaves Revolts in Antiquity”, Theresa Urbainczyk

I recall, rather dimly, writing this for the newsletter of the Classical Association of Ireland. Even more dimly, I think it was published but I am not really sure…


Modern admiration for the classical world comes up hard against the fact of slavery. For us, it is the ultimate wrong. No one argues in its favour, even in jest. Slavery was ubiqitous, entrenched and, as an institution, unchallenged in antiquity. There was no abolitionist movement,and while having too many slaves, or having slaves do too much for one, was condemned by moralists, the practice itself was almost never criticised. Of course, before we congratulate ourselves too much, at this very moment there are at least 27 million slaves in the world – and who knows which of our practices will seem grossly repugnant to the enlightened of future generations.

A corollary to our discomfort at the unchallenged existence of slavery is the question why didn’t slaves run away, or rebel, more often? Theresa Urbainczyk ‘s thesis is that slave rebellion and dissent was more common than we suspect, and that this danger loomed large in the classical imagination. She draws on the entire history of slavery to develop a framework to analyse slave unrest.

Utiliising research on slave revolts in the Americas, six factors increasing the chances of a successful rebellion are identified; a ‘deteriorated master-slave relationship’, economic adversity among slaveowners, a preponderance of slaves over masters, a large number of slaves born in freedom, opportunities for slaves to become leaders, and an accessible area in which hiding and regrouping was easy.

Two factors which could potentially encourage a rebellion are discussed – one being discord between free subjects and slaveowners and masters, which could lead to freemen siding with slaves, the second being the example of successful slave revolts elsewhere. Urbainczyk also discusses the limited aims of recorded slave revolts in the Americas, which sought liberation for the rebels themselves rather than the end of slavery per se. There is a paucity of information about this issue for the ancient world, although she argues that slavery itself provided a network of communication.

Rather than a strictly chronological framework, Urbainczyk uses a thematic analysis perhaps best illustrated by considering the chapters as they arise. Chapter one discusses the significance of slave revolts overall, while the following three discuss the conditions and preparation (if any) required for a revolt, the factors involved in continuing resistance and then we read about the leader’s role. Spartacus is one of the very few lifelong slaves whose name has come down to us from antiquity and the mere names of slave revolutionaries were objects of terror. Urbainszyk the discusses the ideology of slave revolts, including the issue of whether the aim was abolition and liberation for all slaves, or simply freedom for the rebels, which could incorporate the right to enslave. She then discusses Diodorus Siculus, one of the major sources for Sicilian slave revolts and a rare example of a classical writer sympathetic to the plight of slaves, especially as a mirror to the cruelties and follies of Roman Imperialism. The secret of the success of the Spartan helots is then discussed, and finally Urbainczyk discusses slave revolts in the ancient historiography, especially in the narratives of Roman decline and eclipse. Overall a vast range of material is handled, and this general reader learned much he didn’t know and much to provoke thought.

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