Eunus, the slave who would be king

In the second century BC, Eunus led the biggest slave uprising Rome was to see until Spartacus’ rebellion sixty years later. His story is one of the power of charisma and the tragedy of finding oneself elevated beyond one’s competence.

Statue of Eunus at Enna.
Statue of Eunus at Enna. Credit: Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

The First Sicilian Slave War (135-2 BC) was one of three slave rebellions in Italy between the 130s and 70 BC. The last of these was led by Spartacus, a former gladiator. The Roman government treated each of these revolts as dangerous threats to established society. The first was catalysed by a revolt led by a Syrian man named Eunus (‘the kindly one’), who toppled most of the slaveowners of Sicily and commanded a force of roughly 70,000, which could only be defeated by the full weight of the Roman military in 132 BC. There is little evidence for Eunus’ life – his name was probably given to him by his owners – but we are fortunate that the Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus tells his story.

Owned by a man called Antigenes in the city of Enna, in central Sicily, Eunus made a name for himself as a ‘wonderworker’, claiming to be able to predict the future and dazzling Antigenes’ dinner guests with jokes, clairvoyancy, and fire-breathing. He would claim brazenly that the Syrian goddess Atargatis had appeared to him to prophesy that one day he would be a king. Antigenes put in special requests for Eunus to elaborate these claims with fabulous tales because guests found them so funny. We cannot know what Eunus felt about all these experiences, but he provides a fascinating insight into the liminal ways in which enslaved people with favourable talents – in this case a knack for theatricality – could game the system. Whether or not his skill in terateia (‘wonderworking’), oracular or fire-based, was a sham or genuine (almost all sources report his charlatanism), was secondary to the fact of his sheer charisma. Eunus’ clairvoyancy was not always proven correct, a critical mass of good calls were impressive enough to kindle a mystique.

Rome’s recent defeats of Carthage and Corinth (both 146 BC) had left Italy and Sicily with immense wealth. Merchants purchased large tracts of land for farming and pasture, and vast numbers of slaves were readily available, from both North African and Greek trading routes. Many of them were poorly treated. Wandering enslaved shepherds were driven to violence by malnourishment. Their lifestyle became extreme: they lived in the open, armed with spears and clubs, dressed in wolfskins, eating a diet of meat and dairy, and accompanied by packs of killer dogs.

The sufferings of the enslaved in Sicily were all too obvious compared with the lives of the propertied classes of Sicily. They lived in luxury and either degraded their domestic slaves or ignored their rural workers, denying them basic living requirements. A merchant called Damophilus is singled out for such poor behaviour. A native Sicilian who lived in Enna is reported to have branded slaves with hot irons, kept domestic labourers in sunergasiae (‘slave pens’), and thrust herdsmen out to fend for themselves with no support. The picture of his wife Megallis is more vaguely negative: Diodorus merely references harsh timoria (‘punishment’) and apanthropia (‘inhumanity’) towards their slaves (Bibliotheca historica 34/35.10). Damophilus’ treatment of his slaves would not have been unparalleled in the ancient world, but its extremities were clearly inhumane enough to spark their revolt.

When they’d had enough, they consulted the prophetic virtuoso Eunus about the likelihood of success. He replied that the gods favoured their plot and that they should act immediately. The stars aligned for him again: Rome’s attention had been diverted by the Numantine War in Spain. Posidonius, a likely but fragmentary source of Diodorus’ account, also explains that the Romans did not appreciate the scale of the Sicilian outbreak until much later. Eunus’ green light led to an assault on Enna by some four hundred slaves, which culminated in the murder of Damophilus and Megallis, but not their daughter, who, Diodorus informs us, was spared owing to the previous kindness she had shown them.

Success at Enna forced a choice upon the insurgents: commit to further fighting outside the city or face retaliation. They opted for the former, but they needed greater organisation. Immediately after Damophilus was beheaded in a theatre by Zeuxis, one of his slaves, Eunus was crowned king by the rebels and took the name Antiochus. This extraordinary moment has prompted some scholars to describe him as Messianic, straddling the boundaries of prophet, priest, and king.

The coronation brought Eunus’ grandiose prophecies to fruition. We can also interpret it as an especially charged moment in the context of second-century Roman drama. On an obvious level of relevance, it took place in a theatre; but the ceremony bears a striking parallel with the slaves of Roman comedy. It realises, albeit indirectly, the fantasies of many enslaved characters of Plautus’ comedies some sixty years earlier. They joke about their schemes as mighty military achievements worthy of kings and heroes from Greek mythology (e.g. Chrysalus in Bacchides 645-50, 925-78, Tranio in Mostellaria 775-7). An especially notable instance is the fantasy of the fisherman Gripus in Plautus’ Rudens (930-7). Part of his catch is a chest that he suspects is filled with gold, and he fantasises about how it will lead to a life of luxury and status (931 apud reges rex perhibebor, ‘I will be spoken of as a King amongst Kings’). Eunus’ showmanship and charismatic leadership had rich theatrical precedent.

The precise nature of Eunus’ monarchy has caused debate. The name Antiochus has connotations of the Seleucid kings who ruled over, among other regions, Syria. The sources, however, do not specify what sort of relationship was being envisaged between this king and his subjects of former slaves, or what state they intended to establish, if any. It is not clear how far in advance they were planning. The survival of coins, stamped with Eunus’ face and the words ‘King Antiochus’, and the creation of a council, suggest an organised power structure; but Eunus never instituted the ruler-worship that was typical of Hellenistic kings. His coronation at the very least attests to his charismatic leadership and its inspiration for later revolutionaries; in the Second Sicilian Slave War (104-100), Salvius, a slave who also had a reputation for entertainment and oracles, was crowned King Tryphon.

Eunus’ first act as cyrios (‘supreme commander’) was the execution of the entire citizenry of Enna, except for those who could manufacture weapons; they were spared, in chains. He murdered Antigenes, assumed the regalia of a Hellenistic monarch, and armed more than six thousand men in three days. His success inspired other slave revolts further afield. Diodorus informs us that a Cilician man called Cleon began a revolt in the coastal town of Agrigentum, south-west of Enna. He added his force to Eunus’ and submitted to his command. Rome initially sent the praetor Lucius Hypsaeus to deal with the revolt, but thanks to Cleon’s support they outnumbered the Romans by 20,000 to 8,000. Eunus’ cause went so viral it prompted further revolts in Rome, Attica (the region containing Athens), and Delos. His army took Morgantina, to the south-east of Enna, and Tauromenium on the north-eastern coast, and doubtless much of the land in between. One vignette stands out for Eunus’ commitment to spectacle as a powerful tool of inspiration and resistance. Outside a town that had garrisoned Roman forces, Eunus drew up his soldiers out of missile range and had them perform a theatrical mime. They acted scenes of revolt from their individual masters, abusing their treatment of them, in a kind of carnivalesque Haka.

It was not until 132 BC that, Publius Rupilius, Rome’s leading official for that year (consul), besieged Tauromenium and Enna, crushing the rebellion. Both cities were lost thanks to betrayal. Eunus, after fighting his way out of Enna, fled to a cave with an entourage made up of a bath attendant, a baker, a cook, and a dinner-party entertainer (much like he had been to Antigenes). Found and captured, he died of scabies in prison.

Scholars vary in their views of Diodorus’ account. The classicist Moses Finley’s observation of Diodorus’ ‘unexpected compassion’ towards Eunus has been met with the argument that the account paints him negatively. This holds some water. Diodorus says that his death fitted his ‘knavery’ (rhadiourgia) and that his election to leader of the revolt was not due to bravery or military expertise. Furthermore, the language used to describe Eunus has been shown by Peter Morton to carry connotations of disapproval and moral condemnation. His account is also compromised by the circumstances of its survival: we only have it thanks to two Byzantine excerpts written by Photius and Constantine Porphyrogenitus some ten centuries after Diodorus’ death. The original books 34-6, containing the First Sicilian Slave Revolt, are otherwise lost. We cannot know whether the non-excerpted Diodorus was balanced in its study of Eunus. The description of his death as cowardly may indeed be how he viewed it. He says that Eunus was elevated to leadership for frivolous reasons rather than bravery or military skill (34/35.14), and there is something deeply human in choosing to flee when all is lost and your position has been attained quite arbitrarily. Eunus displayed admirable effort as a leader but he was no soldier. His escape taps into our less heroic parts, where the will to survive at the expense of bravery lurks.

The account’s biases do not invalidate its usefulness for conveying Eunus’ compelling personality. The threat posed to Roman hegemony and Eunus’ theatrical inclinations were red rags to bullish conservative historians (the Roman establishment took a dim view of acting), but there is an undeniable fascination with his talents. Whether Diodorus likes Eunus or not is immaterial to his fascination with him: Amy Richlin has even said that Diodorus doth protest too much and ‘loved terateia’. This fascination is confirmed by its place in the work. The narrative is in a section filled with melodramatic tales: Ptolemy Physcon, who killed his own son and sent the body in a chest to his sister for her birthday in 131 BCE (34/35.14.1); the ascent and death of Gaius Gracchus (34/35.24-30); Antiochus Cyzicenus, King of Syria in 113 BC, who fashioned giant animal puppets covered with silver and gold foil (34/35.34.1). The description of Eunus’ cowardice in death and military incompetence may be a way of lessening his appeal, but these flaws add complexity to a beguiling slave who got lucky and had a knack for capitalising on his good fortune. We can glimpse deeper into the life of a man who used his gifts to their fullest but got in way over his head.


Orlando Gibbs