In like manner those that had large possessions in Sicily bought up whole gaols to till their lands – some they shackled, others they overcharged with hard labour, and branded and stigmatized everyone of them: so that such a multitude of slaves, even a deluge, overflowed all Sicily, that the excessive number may seem incredible to all that hear of it; for all the rich men of Sicily vied with the Italians for pride, covetousness, and vicious practices; for many of the Italians who had great numbers of servants, accustomed their shepherds to that degree of rapine and licentiousness, as that they suffered them to rob and steal for want of necessary subsistence from them themselves.2So says Diodorus the first century B.C.E. Greek historian.
Diodorus further says:
The slaves, distressed by their hardships and frequently outraged and beaten beyond all reason, could not endure their treatment. Getting together as opportunity offered, they discussed the possibility of revolt, until at last they put their plans into action.3Later Diodorus says:
Because of the superabundant prosperity of those who exploited the products of this mighty island, nearly all who had risen in wealth affected first a luxurious mode of living, than arrogance and insolence. As a result of all this, since both the maltreatment of the slaves and their estrangement from their masters increased at an equal rate, there at last, when occasion offered, a violent outburst of hatred. So without a word of summons tens of thousands of slaves joined forces to destroy their masters.4Slave owners, not only treated their slaves brutally but they did not feed them, further they encouraged the slaves to rob and plunder to satisfy their needs. They also imported large numbers of slaves to work in the mines of Sicily. This was especially true of the slaves in the country side who were employed as shepherds and herdsman. The result was a massive increase in lawlessness and eventually many slaves became brigands involved in attacking travellers, engaging in murder and pillaging homes. Large areas of the Sicilian countryside became unsafe. Further attempts to control the widespread brigandage were thwarted by the slave owners who benefited by the brigandage in so far as it reduced the cost of the upkeep of their slaves.5
Finally Diodorus says concerning the Italians who after the second Punic war (218-201 B.C.E.), invested and bought land in Sicily:
The Italians who were engaged in agriculture purchased great numbers of slaves, all of whom they marked with brands, but failed to provide them sufficient food, and by oppressive toil wore them out … (Note there is a gap here in Diodorus account)6
If the above was the background to the slave revolt in Sicily, (c. 136-131 B.C.E.), the spark that stated the revolt was the behaviour of a man named Damophilus and his wife Megallis. Diodorus writes:
There was a certain Damophilus of Enna, a man of great wealth but insolent manner; he had abused his slaves to excess, and his wife Megallis vied with her husband in punishing the slaves and in her general inhumanity toward them. The slaves reduced by this degrading treatment to the level of brutes, conspired to revolt and to murder their masters.7
The slaves sought the advice of a fellow slave named Eunus, who had the reputation of being a wonder worker and psychic. He became the leader of the revolt and he told them to go ahead with their plans.8
Damophilus is described by Diodorus as insolent, and cruel towards his slaves along with being luxury loving and arrogant. Diodorus says that Damophilus:
...emulated not only the luxury affected by the Italian landowners in Sicily, but also their troops of slaves and their inhumanity and severity towards them.9
Diodorus was in many respects, as indicated by his history as having an anti-Roman / anti-Italian bias.10
Diodorus then describes Damophilus as extravagant and luxury loving and a total boor, along with being very wealthy. Damophilus also branded and tortured his slaves on a regular basis; chaining his slaves and devising along with his wife Megallis ways to torment their slaves.11
On one occasion when approached by a group of naked domestics with a request for clothing, Damophilus of Enna impatiently refused to listen. “What” he said, “do those who travel through the country go naked? Do they not offer a ready source of supply for any one who needs garments?” Having said this, he ordered them bound to pillars, piled blows on them, and arrogantly dismissed them.12
Well the revolting slaves seized control of the city of Enna and captured Damophilus and his wife Megallis just outside the city. The slaves chained and bound them and abused them. Later Damophilus was dragged out in front of an assembly of slaves were upon he was killed in the following manner:
Hermeias and Zeuxis, men bitterly disposed toward him, denounced him as a cheat, and without waiting for a formal trial by the assembly, the one ran him through the chest with a sword, the other chopped off his head with an axe.13
Regarding Damophilus’ wife Megallis her fate was as follows:
He (Eunus) gave Megallis to the maidservants to deal with as they might wish; they subjected her to torture and threw her over a precipice.14
The slaves did not similarly deal with the rest of Damophilus’ and Megallis’ family. Damophilus and Megallis had a daughter who the revolting slaves treated well because she was:
…seen to show consideration throughout, and this was because of her kindly nature, in that to the extent of her power she was always compassionate and ready to succour the slaves.15
In another place Diodorus describes this women, whose name is unknown has:
…remarkable for her simplicity of manner and kindness of heart. It was always her practice to do all she could to comfort the slaves who were beaten by her parents, and since she also took the part of any who had been put in bonds, she was wondrously loved by one and all for her kindness.16
The result of her kindness was that she was treated with consideration by the revolting slaves and escorted to safety to the home of relatives who lived in the Sicilian city of Catana.17
The lesson is clear Damophilus and Megallis reaped their deserved reward for their brutal treatment of their slaves, but their daughter who treated them with kindness reaped the deserved reward for her kindness and humanity.
For has Diodorus says regarding Damophilus, Megallis and their daughter and the larger message:
Thereby it was demonstrated that the others (other slave owners) were treated as they were, not because of some “natural savagery of slaves,” but rather in revenge for wrongs previously done.18
Although the rebellious slaves were enraged against the whole household of their masters and resorted to unrelenting abuse and vengeance, there were yet some indications that it was not from innate savagery but rather because of the arrogant treatment they had themselves received that they now ran amuck when they turned to avenge themselves on their persecutors.
Even among slaves human nature needs no instructor in regard to a just repayment, whether of gratitude or revenge.19
Diodorus’ account is in many ways unusual. His sympathy for the slaves was for his time not very common. He apparently believed that arrogance, brutality and pride reaped or should reap the reward of punishment. It is also clear that Diodorus felt very strongly that slaves deserved and were entitled to decent and fair treatment. Further masters who abused their slaves richly deserved the “reward” of drastic punishment. It is quite obvious that Diodorus had little sympathy for abusive slave owners who were killed by their slaves.
Further Diodorus clearly views slaves as moral agents, who could recognize right and wrong and that they had the right, so to speak, to take revenge and also to take note of acts of kindness and consideration.
Such an attitude was unusual at the time when slaves were habitually viewed as less than human and usually not recognized as agents. The general attitude of antiquity seems to have been one of fear and contempt. Slaves were the “other” not quite human and certainly not aware moral agents. Acts of vengeance or rebellion were frequently attributed to the alleged innate qualities of being a slave. Diodorus instead viewed it as rebellion against the basic human decency of the slaves being outraged by arrogant and brutal slave owners.20
From this Diodorus doesn’t just draw a moral concerning the treatment of slaves but a judgement concerning the obligations and behaviour of elites.
Not only in exercise of political power should men of prominence be considerate of those of low estate, but also in private life they should - if they are sensible – treat their slaves gently. For heavy-handed arrogance leads states into civil strife and factionalism among citizens, and in individual households it paves the way for plots of slaves against masters and for terrible uprisings in concert against the whole state. The more power is perverted to cruelty and lawlessness, the more the character of those subject to that power is brutalized to the point of desperation. Anyone whom fortune has set in low estate willingly yields place to his superiors in point of gentility and esteem, but if he is deprived of due consideration, he comes to regard those who harshly lord over him with bitter enmity.21
Thus Diodorus comes to a conclusion that elites should treat their less fortunate neighbours with consideration and at least minimal respect not simply because it is the due and right of those less fortunate but also out of sheer self interest.
In antiquity the attitude of elites, i.e., the rich, to the poor, (which was the great majority of the population), and especially slaves was one of snobbish contempt mixed with not a little fear. Ascribing basic human decency or feeling or moral values to such people was unusual. These attitudes were reflected in the literature produced during those times given how the great majority was produced by and for the elites of the time and so reflected the conceits and snobbery of those elites. Diodorus in his attitude towards the so-called lower orders, especially slaves indicates a belief in their basic human dignity and in their moral value.22
1. Urbainczyk, Theresa, Slave Revolts in Antiquity, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 2008, pp. 10-11, Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, Bradley, Keith R., Indiana University Press, Indianapolis IN, 1989, pp. 50-55.
2. Diodorus, The Historical Library of Diodorus the Sicilian, v. 2, J. Davis Military Chronicle Office, London, 1814, p. 621-622.
3. Diodorus, Book 34/35, s. 4, quoted in Yavetz, Zvi, Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Rome, Transaction Books, Oxford, p. 15. (Book is a collection of source material on the Servile wars in ancient Rome).
4. IBID, s. 26, p. 19.
5. IBID, s. 27-31, pp. 20-21.
6. IBID, s. 32, p. 21.
7. IBID, s. 10, p. 16.
8. IBID, s. 5-11, p. 16.
9. IBID, s. 34.
10. Urbainczyk, pp. 81-90, Sacks, Kenneth S., Diodorus Siculus and the First Century, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1990, pp. 142-154, 157-159.
11. Yavetz, Diodorus, Book 34/35, s. 34-38, pp. 21-22.
12. IBID, s. 38, p.22.
13. IBID, s. 14, p. 17.
14. IBID, s. 15, p. 17
15. IBID, s. 13, p. 17.
16. IBID, s. 39, p. 22.
17. IBID, s 13, 39, pp. 17, 22.
18. IBID, s. 13, p. 17.
19. IBID, s. 40, p. 22.
20. Footnote, 10.
21. Yavetz, Diodorus, Book 24/35, s. 33, p. 21.
22. Footnote 10.