The Numantine War: The Year 135 BCE


  • The consul Quintus Calpurnius Piso pillages the territories of Pallantia, but does not attack Numantia;
  • Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus is elected consul for the next year to end the Numantine War;
  • A Syrian slave called Eunus leads a slave revolt on Sicily, the so-called First Servile War;
  • Eunus is joined by a Cilician slave named Cleon, and together they crush the army of the praetor Lucius Plautius Hypsaeus;
  • The consul Servius Fulvius Flaccus intervenes in Illyria;
  • The praetor Marcus Cosconius fights the Scordisci.

The war against the Arevaci and their principal city of Numantia was continued by the consul Quintus Calpurnius Piso. He did not achieve much. Piso was loath to attack Numantia itself, and instead contented himself with pillaging the territories of Pallantia further to the west. His expedition there was hardly a raging success either. The consul retired to his winter quarters in Carpetania early.

Clearly something needed to change. It was widely believed that the only man capable of ending this war was the general who had conquered Carthage: Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus. Towards the end of the year, he was a candidate in the consular elections. Scipio was now about 50 years old, so Appianus’ claim that he was still not old enough to be consul (which was indeed the case in 148 BCE) is rather silly. More than ten years had elapsed between his first consulship and his candidacy for a second one, so there were no legal problems there either. Scipio was duly elected to be next year’s consul.


Map of Sicily (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

Rome’s foreign wars and conquests had brought her immense quantities of booty, including human booty. After each conflict that had been won by the Romans, tens of thousands of conquered people had been led away in chains to the slave markets. Slaves were usually sold locally; there was no point in taking them all the way back to Italy, as slave traders simply followed the legions. The abundance of available slaves probably meant that prices went down and many people could afford one or more slaves. These slaves could end up anywhere in the Ancient World. An important slave market was to be found on the island of Delos, which the Romans had turned into a free trade zone in about 166 BCE.

Certainly many slaves ended up in Italy too, where they were employed as cheap labour on the latifundia of Roman and Italian noblemen or in their households as cooks, cleaners, tutors, musicians or prostitutes, all depending on their qualifications. The island of Sicily also had a large slave population. Slaves worked on the estates of rich Roman equites who owned or leased land there, and on the estates of the traditional Greek aristocracy of the island. As one might expect, working conditions were often horrible and the slaves were frequently victims of all sorts of abuse. This year, there would be a slave rebellion on Sicily. There had been slave revolts before, for instance in Italy in 198 BCE,196 BCE and 185 BCE, but these had been easily suppressed. The revolt on Sicily would turn into a genuine war and it became known as the First Servile War. An important source for the conflict is the first century BCE historian Diodorus Siculus. As his name suggests, he was a native of Sicily. So let us see what happened.

Slaves on a second century CE Roman mosaic (photo: Pascal Radigue; CC BY 3.0 license).

The situation of the slaves on the island was pretty bad. Diodorus claims that the praetors sent to govern Sicily knew all about it, but were reluctant to intervene as they feared being prosecuted for maladministration when back in Rome. After all, writes Diodorus, many of the Sicilian estates were owned by Roman equites, and it was the equites who served on the juries of the Roman extortion court. Now it should be noted that Diodorus was probably mistaken. Equites did serve on juries in the historian’s own time, but during the First Servile War the Lex Calpurnia de repetundis of 149 BCE was still in force, which presumably stipulated that only senators were allowed to serve as jurors for the quaestio perpetua de repetundis. Nevertheless, there is no reason to doubt Diodorus’ claims that life for a slave on Sicily was hard.

A local Greek aristocrat named Antigenes of Enna had a Syrian slave called Eunus, who could do all sorts of tricks, like breathing fire. Eunus was popular with his fellow slaves for his alleged ability to foretell the future. In Enna there also lived a man named Damophilos who, together with his wife, was known for the cruel treatment of his slaves. Some of these slaves consulted Eunus, whom they saw as a sort of prophet. Eunus encouraged them to revolt and they elected him as their leader. Some 400 slaves burst into Enna and murdered, raped and pillaged their way to freedom. Damophilos and his wife were executed, but the couple’s young daughter was apparently spared because she had shown some compassion for the slaves.

Replica of a Roman gladius (left).

Soon thousands of slaves joined Eunus. Most of them were not even properly armed, but what they lacked in weaponry, they made up for in bravery. The situation was made worse for the Romans when a Cilician slave named Cleon instigated a second revolt. Cleon quickly joined forces with Eunus, and together they ravaged the entire island. The praetor Lucius Plautius Hypsaeus went after them with an army of just 8.000 men. These were all local auxiliaries, and although there were likely well-armed, they were completely defeated by the slave army. It would take the Romans the better part of four years to quell the rebellion, which left the beautiful island of Sicily in ruins.


Suddenly the Romans found themselves engaged in a (badly documented) war in Illyria again, after some twenty years of peace in the region (see 159-154 BCE). Two tribes living outside the Roman sphere of influence, the Ardiaei and the Palarii raided into Roman Illyria, probably the part that was formally part of the province of Macedonia. The Romans were busy fighting a war in Spain and on Sicily (see above), while the praetor governing Macedonia was occupied elsewhere. This Marcus Cosconius was campaigning against the Celtic tribe of the Scordisci, so it was impossible for him to intervene in Illyria at the same time. The Senate first decided to send envoys to the marauders, but when these ignored the Roman threats, an army of 10.000 infantry and 600 cavalry was sent to the region. It was led by the other consul of this year, Servius Fulvius Flaccus. This was a very small force for a consul, only half the normal size. It seems likely that Flaccus merely expelled the two tribes and then perhaps launched small-scale counter-raid before retreating again.


Primary sources

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  1. Pingback:The Annalist: The Years 132-131 BCE – – Corvinus –

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