With the finale of one of my favorite shows Spartacus and the news of a sequel to the movie 300 coming out, I thought I would talk a bit about the history of slave wars. The wars did not start with Spartacus. Rather, Spartacus was one of many leaders of freedom fighters in the course of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, British, and American history. Before Rome had Spartacus, Sparta had Aristomenes. (Fun fact: Spartacus was not from Sparta but was from Thrace, though he is named after the famous city-state).
In 750 BCE, Spartan king Theopompus went to war over the northern city-state of Messenia, which was also Greek. He did so because his territory needed expanding and his men needed slaves so they could focus on warfare. The First Messenian War lasted twenty years and enslaved the population of Messenia. The ratio of Messenian Helots to Spartan citizens was 7:1. It is estimated that around 700 BCE, the Spartan population was between 10,000 and 20,000. The only thing I could compare this to would be if Arizona went to war with California and enslaved all the Californians. We are all Americans, but live in separate states. What the Spartans did to the Messenians was unprecedented. Typically, in ancient times, you made slaves of foreign people, not domestic.
The Spartans became feared, like the Romans after them, because they had a slave class called Helots to do their agricultural farming, construction, cooking, household servitude, and tradecraft. As with Spartacus and the gladiators of Rome, the Spartans kept their slave Helots in order through strict martial law, murders, and gruesome brutality.
That was until a man named Aristomenes led a Helot slave revolt in 685 BCE. Although Spartacus and Aristomenes had different upbringings, both eventually became the leaders of their respective revolutions. Aristomenes fought the Spartans valiantly for seventeen years. In fact, he was despised among Sparta because of his ingenuity in battle and his use of guerrilla tactics, including pillaging and night raids. Spartacus emulated Aristomenes’ strategy during his own slave revolt, almost six hundred years later.
Unfortunately, both Spartacus and Aristomenes’ campaigns ended in tragedy. Like Spartacus eventually retreated to Rhegium, where Crassus’ legions surrounded him, Aristomenes was also harried by the Spartan soldiers until his army was surrounded.
Spartacus of Greece took refuge in Rhegium and hurled the last of his slave army at the Romans. Aristomenes withdrew his revolutionary force to the fortification of Mount Eira, where they managed to withstand Spartan sieges for eleven years. In the end, Aristomenes’ army was forced out through the acts of one man who defected to the Spartans. They had no choice, like Spartacus after them, but to advance against the Spartans in a valiant last stand.
Both Spartacus and Aristomenes fought against oppression and slavery. While Spartacus of Greece led his revolution against the Roman Empire, Aristomenes led the Messenians against the Spartans. Six hundred years separated the two men, and it would take almost another 1,200 years before Western civilization ended the practice of slavery for good.