The class struggle in the Roman Republic

The changes in the mode of production in the Roman Republic after the Punic Wars required greater and greater use of slave labour. This forced Rome into war after war as it sought to replenish its supply of slaves. This abundant supply of cheap labour explains why there was no incentive to invest in labour-saving technology. It also explains the brutal treatment of the slaves and the subsequent mass revolts that broke out.

Productivity and culture

It is possible to describe the whole course of human history in terms of the struggle to raise the productivity of labour. This is the secret motor-force of all progress: the way in which humankind achieves power over its natural environment and society gradually lifts itself from a lower to a higher stage of development. The transition to a slave economy undoubtedly raised the productive powers of society, and was accompanied by a notable advance of art, literature and culture.

Before the Punic Wars, the Romans were not at all interested in the fine arts. Learning was not highly regarded, and the top statesmen devoted most of their energies to agriculture. This was very different to Athens. Among the Romans fine talk was regarded with suspicion. Romans tended to speak in practical terms of what they had to do, preferring substance to style. Fine writing was no better regarded: the literature of the early Republic was confined to purely factual annals. But the latter phase of the Republic was characterised by the rise of new literary trends and philosophical schools: poets like Catullus and Lucretius became fashionable. This reflected a change in the lifestyle and outlook of the ruling class. Conservatives like Cato railed against these tendencies, but he was already regarded as a crank by his contemporaries.

All this elegance and culture was based on the labour of the slaves, whose conditions steadily deteriorated. A vast gulf opened up between the wealthy elite and the mass of poor Romans, not to speak of the slaves. There are certain parallels between the transformation of the mode of production in the Roman Republic after the Punic Wars and the rise of capitalism in Europe in the 18th century. Indeed, the word “capitalism” is frequently used when speaking of this phase of Roman development. Yet, though there are certain analogies, the comparison is not exact. Modern capitalism depends on a free market for goods and labour. Large-scale slavery is incompatible with modern capitalism, which abolishes slavery as it develops. The American Civil War is sufficient proof of this assertion.

The basic mode of production of the Roman Republic was agriculture. Other parts of the economy (mining, crafts and trading) were dependent on this. The small peasants produced mainly for self-consumption. Only the surplus (if there was any) could be sold. Production for exchange (commodity production) was not developed until after the Punic Wars. All this changed with the rise of the big estates (latifundia) and the large-scale use of slave labour. Gradually the old order was subverted by slave labour that ruined the free Roman peasantry.

The Roman capitalists continued to buy up the small landholdings, and where the peasants proved obstinate, simply seized their land without even the pretence of a sale. According to Mommsen (Roman History, vol. 3, p. 79) in Etruria by the year 134 BC there was not a single free farmer left. The following extract from The Complaint of the Poor Man against the Rich Man from the pseudo-Quintilian’s collection of declamations, describes the spread of the latifundia in the complaint of an impoverished peasant:

“I was not always the neighbour of a rich man. Round about there was many a farm with owners alike in wealth, tilling their modest lands in neighbourly harmony. How different is it now! The land that once fed all these citizens is now a single huge plantation, belonging to a single rich man. His estate has extended its boundaries on every side; the peasant houses it has swallowed up have been razed to the ground, and the shrines of their fathers destroyed. The old owners have said farewell to their tutelary gods and gone far away with their wives and children. Monotony reigns over the wide plain. Everywhere riches close me in, as if with a wall; here there is a garden of the rich man’s, there his fields, here his vineyard, there his woods and stacks of grain. I too would gladly have departed, but I could not find a spot of land where I would not have a rich man for my neighbour. Where does one not come up against the rich man’s private property? They are not content any longer to extend their domains so far that they are bounded by natural boundaries, rivers and mountains, like whole countries. They lay hold even of the furthest mountain wildernesses and forests. And nowhere does this grasping find an end and a limit until the rich man comes up against another rich man. And this too shows the contempt the rich have for us poor, that they do not even take the trouble to deny it when they have used violence on us.” (II, p. 582f., quoted by Kautsky, op. cit.)

Contradictions of slave economy

In this period we see a considerable strengthening of the ruling oligarchy, which increases its grip on society and the state. Together with the old aristocratic families we see the rise of the Roman capitalists: the new rich, big landowners, merchants and usurers. But in the last analysis, all the wealth of these layers was derived from the products of agriculture. Since land was the main source of all wealth, everybody strove to get land, and to add to the land they already possessed. But in order for it to be profitable, someone has to work the land. This was provided by slave labour. The Carthaginians had developed slavery on a large scale, and the Romans learned it from them. When they seized the provinces owned by Carthage in Sicily, Sardinia, Spain and North Africa, they also took over the large-scale farms, which they found there, and developed and extended them further.

In the slack times between harvesting and Spring ploughing, the slaves were put to work weaving, tanning and leather working, making wagons and ploughs, pottery making of all sorts. But commodity production was so far advanced that they produced not only for the individual farm, but also for sale. The only cost to the slave-owner was the price of purchasing the slave in the first place, and the minimal costs of keeping him or her alive afterwards. Kautsky says:

“There could be no question at that time of any technical superiority of large-scale agriculture; on the contrary, slave labour was less productive than the labour of the free peasants. But the slave, whose labour power did not have to be spared and who could be sweated to death without a second thought, produced a greater surplus over the cost of his subsistence than the peasant, who at that time knew nothing of the blessings of overwork and was used to a high standard of living. There was the further advantage that in such a commonwealth the peasant was constantly being taken from the plough to defend his country, while the slave was exempt from military service. Thus the sphere of economic influence of such large and warlike cities saw the rise of large-scale agricultural production with slaves.” (Kautsky, The Foundations of Christianity, 2:1)

The wars that provided cheap slaves ruined the Roman free peasants who were the backbone of the army. The ruined peasant was forced to resort to banditry or else join the army of unemployed lumpenproletarians in Rome or other cities. This social disintegration led to an unprecedented wave of crime and banditry, which furnished a new source of slaves in the form of convicted criminals. Prisons were unknown, and criminals were either crucified or sentenced to forced labour.

Although we refer to Roman capitalism, it was unlike modern capitalism. It was not based upon industry but on trade, money lending and slave agriculture. As we have seen, it is a peculiar feature of slave labour that it is not very productive. Although slavery enormously raised the productive powers of society, it contained a contradiction. It signified an increase in the productivity of labour in the aggregate, but the labour productivity per unit of an individual slave was far lower than that of a free peasant.

The labour of an individual slave has a low level of productivity because it is forced labour. Slave labour only becomes profitable when it is employed on a vast scale. What is important is the aggregate of production, where individual slaves are literally worked to death and quickly replaced by others. Thus, the conditions of the slaves worsened continually. The big estates or latifundia were worked by gangs of slaves during the day, branded with a hot iron and shackled together in gangs. They were locked up at night in common, frequently subterranean labourers’ prisons. Cato used to say: “a slave must either work or sleep”.

And just as the nomenclature of “capitalist” is not really adequate to describe the functions of the Roman slave owners, so the word “proletariat” is misleading when applied to the dispossessed peasants forced to flee to the cities. There is a fundamental difference between the modern proletariat and that of the ancient world. The modern working class is the only really productive class (together with the peasantry, insofar as it still exists), but the Roman proletariat did not work – it had an entirely unproductive and parasitical character. As we have seen in Part Four of this article, the modern proletariat feeds society, whereas the Roman proletariat was fed by society – that is to say, by the slaves, who were the real productive class.


The basis of modern capitalism is the accumulation of capital for the purpose of re-investment. Such a conception would have been totally incomprehensible to a Roman capitalist. The existence of a mass of cheap slave labour made such an idea unnecessary. Competition of slave labour undermined the development of free crafts. The craftsmen led a precarious existence, always on the verge of sinking into the lumpenproletariat.

Slavery also inhibited the development of industry and technology. The modern capitalist invests a large part of his profit for improving technology in order to get an advantage over his competitors. The case with the Roman slave-owner was very different. Slavery is incompatible with technological advance. For the reasons already stated, only the crudest tools could be put into the hands of the slaves on the large estates.

One of the most striking contradictions of the ancient world is that, having come so close to a capitalist economy, it always drew back from the edge and failed to develop, when it would seem that a potential existed. Take just one example: the Alexandrine Greeks invented a steam engine that worked. But they regarded it as a mere curiosity – a toy. Its productive potential never occurred to them. Why should it?

With cheap slaves, the biggest surpluses came from large landed estates. This was not the result of the application of new technology to large-scale agriculture. With a mass of cheap slave labour, there was no need to develop technology. Moreover, technology is incompatible with slave labour, as slaves working under compulsion will not treat delicate instruments with care – they will break them on purpose. The mule was developed in the slave states of the Southern USA because the slaves could not be trusted with a horse, which was too delicate to survive in their hands. Only the crudest, most resistant implements and tools could be entrusted to the slaves. Marx had pointed this out. He says the following of “production by slave power”:

“To use an expressive phrase of the ancients, the slave is merely a vocal instrument, distinguished only as vocal from the beast as semivocal instrument, and from the inanimate tool as dumb instrument. But he himself is careful to let both beast and tool know that he is of a different order from them, that he is a man. He has the self-satisfaction of convincing himself that he is different, by misusing the beast and damaging the tool. Consequently, it is a universal principle in production by slave labour that none but the rudest and heaviest implements shall be used, such tools as are difficult to damage owing to their sheer clumsiness. In some of the slave states of the American Union, those bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, the only ploughs used were constructed upon an old Chinese model; ploughs which burrowed into the soil like a pig or a mole, but did not cut a furrow and turn the earth over... In A Journey in the Seaboard States, Olmsted writes: ‘I am here shown tools that no man in his senses, with us, would allow a labourer, for whom he was paying wages, to be encumbered with; and the excessive weight and clumsiness of which, I would judge, would make work at least ten per cent greater than those ordinarily used with us. And I am assured that, in the careless and clumsy way they must be used by the slaves, anything lighter or less rude could not be furnished them with good economy, and that such tools as we constantly give our labourers and find our profit in giving them, would not last out a day in a Virginia cornfield – much lighter and more free from stones though it be than ours. So, too, when I am asked why mules are so universally substituted for horses on the farm, the first reason given, and confessedly the most conclusive one, is that horses cannot bear the treatment that they must always get from the Negroes; horses are always soon foundered or crippled by them, while mules will bear cudgelling, or lose a meal or two now and then, and not be materially injured, and they do not take cold or get sick if neglected or overworked. But I do not need to go further than to the window of the room in which I am writing, to see at almost any time treatment of cattle that would ensure the immediate discharge of the driver by almost any farmer owning them in the North.’ ” (Capital, Vol. I., Eden and Cedar Paul translation, London, 1928, p.91.)

Thus, for the whole period of slavery, no great advances were made in technology and productivity remained on a low level. The slave owners, like the feudal lords who succeeded them, were not in the least interested in accumulating for investment. The purpose of accumulation was for their personal enjoyment and consumption on a most lavish scale. This explains the extravagantly luxurious lifestyle of the wealthy Romans, their sumptuous banquets and so on. The description of the extraordinary banquets, parties and orgies that have come down to us, the consumption of such things as stuffed lark’s tongues and pearls dissolved in wine, are the end result of the labour of the slaves, along with extravagant games and festivals, silk dresses, colossal public buildings and – last but not least – the free handout of grain to the unemployed mob in Rome.

Since the slave owners had no use for productive investment in labour-saving machinery, he could use his entire surplus (apart from the fixed costs and replacements of tools, cattle and slaves) for his personal consumption. There was some investment in trade and usury, but in the end, this too could not be applied in any other way than in consumption. In some trades the number of free workers might increase in absolute terms, because of the increasing demand for luxuries, like paintings, statues and objects of art, as well as silk clothes, expensive perfumes and ointments etc. But all this luxury was squeezed from the blood, sweat and tears of an army of slaves.

“The modern capitalist is marked by the drive to heap up capital; the noble Romans of the Empire, the time at which Christianity arose, were marked by love of pleasure. The modern capitalists have accumulated capital to an extent that dwarfs the riches of the richest ancient Romans. The Croesus of all of these was said to be Nero’s freedman Narcissus, with a fortune of some twenty million dollars. What is that compared to the billions of a Rockefeller? But the expenditures of the American billionaires, no matter how reckless they are, are not to be compared with those of their Roman predecessors who served dishes of nightingales’ tongues and dissolved precious pearls in vinegar.” (Kautsky, op. cit.)

These wealthy parasites lived for pleasure, since there was nothing else they could do with the surplus extracted from the slaves. The extravagances of the ruling class were deplored by conservatives like Cato the Elder (234-149 BC), who also denounced the debilitating effects of Greek culture on the Roman mind. “We know,” says Pliny in the thirty-third book of his Natural History, “that Spartacus (the leader of a slave uprising) did not allow gold or silver in his camp. How our runaway slaves tower above us in largeness of spirit!”

Slavery – the motor-force of Roman expansionism

A new contradiction arose out of the constant demand for more slaves to make up the shortfall, as large numbers of slaves were worked to death. As slavery can only be profitably employed on a massive scale, and since slaves do not reproduce in sufficient numbers, a constant renewal of slave labour can only be achieved through war or other violent means. Therefore, new wars were constantly needed to replenish the supply of cheap slaves.

The owners of large estates were always naturally in favour of war, as the most effective way to get cheap slaves, and of seizing new territories. This gave a powerful impetus to Roman expansionism. After the Punic Wars, the wars waged by Rome often assumed the character of large-scale slave hunts. A steady flow of cheap slaves played a fundamental role in stimulating the slave economy. War was therefore a necessary element in the Roman slave economy. Within two centuries, Rome had conquered all the lands bordering the Mediterranean and was proceeding from the conquest of Gaul to subjugate Germany, the conquest of which provided a rich harvest of slaves.

All the wars of the period ended in the capture of a vast number of prisoners, which swelled the army of slaves working in the mines and big estates on Roman territory. To cite just one example, in the Romans’ third war against Macedonia in 169 B.C. seventy cities in Epirus alone were sacked and 150,000 of their inhabitants sold as slaves. Appian tells us that on one occasion in Pontus prisoners of war were sold at 4 drachmas (less than a dollar) apiece. When Tiberius Gracchus raided Sardinia, he took as many as 80,000 captives, to be dragged to the slave market at Rome, where the expression “as cheap as a Sardinian” became a proverb.

By the end of the Republic, slaves were present at all levels of social life. They were put to work on the construction of public buildings, aqueducts and roads. They also worked as carpenters and blacksmiths who repaired the farm tools and carts. Others looked after the cattle, sheep and pigs. The wool from the sheep was spun and made into items which were used by the Roman army and navy. The Roman farm products such as wine, oil, tools, meat were exported to other counties. They kept accounts, cooked the master’s feast and read Greek poetry (which they sometimes composed) after it. Finally, they fought and died in the arena.

Slave revolts

However, slavery in general is not possible without a reign of terror. The conditions of the slaves on the big estates worsened continually in the later Republic. The slave had no rights and had to accept whatever conditions the master offered. They could be forced to work, kept in barracks and fed as much as was needed to keep them alive. Whereas a free wage-worker (in theory at least) can choose his employer, and withdraw his labour to put pressure to get higher wages, this is impossible for a slave. The only alternative was to escape, but a slave who escaped from his master or refused to work would be put to death.

The only real restraint on ill-treatment or neglect was similar to that involved in looking after a horse or an ox. If a slave dies it was a dead loss to the owner, who would have to pay out money for a replacement. If there was a scarcity of slaves, this might be an argument for treating them well. However, in a period when Roman armies were conquering the world, slaves were cheap and there was no reason to treat the slaves in a humane manner. In an age of unending wars and civil wars, the price of slaves fell continuously, as captives flooded the market.

There was a Roman proverb: “so many slaves – so many enemies”. That is why Plato, Aristotle and the Carthaginian, Mago, warned masters against bringing together slaves of the same nationality, lest they should combine and stage conspiracies against their masters. The slave-owners were always anxious about the possibility of a slave uprising. The free Romans lived permanently like a man sitting on a volcano waiting to erupt. Therefore, any expression of insubordination was punished with extreme cruelty. This explains why even petty offences could be met with arbitrary and sadistic punishments.

Since, in the eyes of the law, slaves were private property, the master's power over the slave (dominica potestas) was absolute. He was allowed to torture, degrade, beat without cause, and even kill a slave when he was old or sick. A slave could not legally hold property, make contracts, or marry, and could testify in court only under torture. If a slave tried to run away, he could expect to be whipped, burned with iron, or even killed. Many cases of extreme cruelty have been recorded. When a slave of Vedius Pollio broke a crystal dish, he had him thrown into a pool of lampreys to be eaten alive by the fish.

For neglect of duty or petty misconduct slaves were often punished by flogging. In more serious case, slaves were sold to be gladiators. Since nothing was so much dreaded throughout all Italy as an uprising of the slaves, any attempt on a master's life or taking part in an insurrection, was punishable with death for the criminal and his family in a most agonizing form - crucifixion. Indeed, after the defeat of Spartacus’ uprising, Pompey erected six thousand crosses along the Appian Way to Rome, on each of which a survivor of the final battle was nailed. In fact, the word crux (cross) was used among slaves as a curse.

In spite of all these repressive measures – indeed one could say because of them ‑ there were several large-scale slave revolts, of which the uprising led by Spartacus is the best known. (See also: Spartacus - a real representative of the proletariat of ancient times) But there were several other cases. The first recorded Slave Revolt took place in 135-132 B.C. in Sicily. The uprising was provoked by great changes of property ensuing upon the final expulsion of the Carthaginians, about the middle of the Second Punic War, when an army of speculators from Italy rushed into the island and, to the general distress of the Sicilians, bought up large tracts of land at a low price, or became the occupiers of estates which had belonged to Sicilians of the Carthaginian party and had been forfeited to Rome after the execution or flight of their owners.

The Sicilians of the Roman party, by contrast, became rich out of the distress of their countrymen. After the ravages of war Italy was in need of grain and the abundance of cheap slaves could be used to produce grain that had a sure market. Sicily was therefore flooded with slaves, employed to grow grain for the great land owners. The slaves were so ill-fed by their masters that they began to take to robbing the poorer Sicilians; and the masters were glad that their slaves should be maintained at the expense of others. After seventy or eighty years, pressures broke out in the Servile War, which was accompanied by the most horrible atrocities.

Roman sources give us some idea of the kind of bad treatment that provoked this uprising, which was accompanied by the most horrible atrocities. One slave owner, Damophilus, is specifically named (together with his wife) as one of the cruellest:

“36. Purchasing a large number of slaves, he treated them outrageously, marking with branding irons the bodies of men who in their own countries had been free, but who through capture in war had come to know the fate of a slave. Some of these he put in fetters and thrust into slave pens; others he designated to act as his herdsmen, but neglected to provide them with suitable clothing or food.

37. Because of his arbitrary and savage humour not a day passed that this same Damophilus did not torment some of his slaves without just cause. His wife Metallis, who delighted no less in these arrogant punishments, treated her maidservants cruelly, as well as any other slaves who fell into her clutches. And because of the despiteful punishments received from them both, the slaves were filled with rage against their masters, and conceiving that they could encounter nothing worse than their present misfortunes began to form conspiracies to revolt and to murder their masters.”

Tormented beyond endurance, the slaves took their revenge. Damophilus and Metallis were both murdered. But their daughter, who had treated the slaves kindly, was spared, and this detail was noted by the Roman historian as proof that the slaves were not naturally bloodthirsty, but only desired to revenge themselves for the unspeakable torments inflicted on them. When the slave army captured the town of Enna we are told that they killed “many”, and in general the Roman historians stress the injuries they inflicted on the free citizens. But we must be on our guard here, since it was in the interests of these historians to blacken the name of the slaves as much as possible in order to justify the bloody reprisals they later inflicted on the defeated rebels.

We know almost nothing of the leader of this revolt, except that he was a freeborn slave named Eunus, and seems to have been born in Syria. Styling himself "King Antiochus," Eunus was reputed to be a magician, evidently because the Romans were embarrassed that a mere slave or freedman could defy their power, and therefore attributed magical powers to him (similar nonsense was written about Spartacus). He led the slaves of the eastern part of Sicily. A Roman source informs us:

“In three days Eunus had armed, as best he could, more than six thousand men, besides others in his train who had only axes and hatchets, or slings, or sickles, or fire-hardened stakes, or even kitchen spits; and he went about ravaging the countryside. Then, since he kept recruiting untold numbers of slaves, he ventured even to do battle with Roman generals, and on joining combat repeatedly overcame them with his superior numbers, for he now had more than ten thousand soldiers.” (Diodorus Siculus, Books 34/35. 2. 1-48)

At the same time, in the western part of the island, a slave manager or vilicus named Cleon (also, naturally, accredited with religious and mystical powers) gathered together a slave army. It is interesting that Cleon was a manager or overseer of slaves, that is to say, a man who was recognised by his master as having sufficient intelligence and strength of character to be put in charge of other slaves. History knows many similar examples of this kind of thing. It is known, for example, that most army mutinies were organized and led by sergeants or other Non-Commissioned Officers. Such men tend also to be the natural leaders of the working class.

The same source tells us:

“17. Meanwhile a man named Cleon, a Cilician, began a revolt of still other slaves. And though there were high hopes everywhere that the revolutionary groups would come into conflict one with the other, and that the rebels, by destroying themselves, would free Sicily of strife, contrary to expectations the two groups joined forces, Cleon having subordinated himself to Eunus at his mere command, and discharging, as it were, the function of a general serving a king; his particular band numbered five thousand men.” (Ibid.)

The Roman sources are reluctantly obliged to pay tribute to the bravery of the rebel slaves:

“18. Soon after, engaging in battle with a general arrived from Rome, Lucius Hypsaeus, who had eight thousand Sicilian troops, the rebels were victorious, since they now numbered twenty thousand. Before long their band reached a total of two hundred thousand [possibly this figure included women and children also], and in numerous battles with the Romans they acquitted themselves well, and failed but seldom.” (ibid.)

Significantly, news of the rebellion in Sicily sparked off uprisings of the slaves elsewhere – even in Rome:

“19. As word of this was bruited about, a revolt of one hundred and fifty slaves, banded together, flared up in Rome, of more than a thousand in Attica, and of yet others in Delos and many other places. But thanks to the speed with which forces were brought up and to the severity of their punitive measures, the magistrates of these communities at once disposed of the rebels and brought to their senses any who were wavering on the verge of revolt. In Sicily, however, the trouble grew.

“20. Cities were captured with all their inhabitants, and many armies were cut to pieces by the rebels, until Rupilius, the Roman commander, recovered Tauromenium for the Romans by placing it under strict siege and confining the rebels under conditions of unspeakable duress and famine: conditions such that, beginning by eating the children, they progressed to the women, and did not altogether abstain even from eating one another. It was on this occasion that Rupilius captured Comanus, the brother of Cleon, as he was attempting to escape from the beleaguered city.” (ibid.)

The Roman senate was obliged to dispatch the Roman army to end the slave war. The Roman accounts that have come down to us, describe him as more cunning than able; but it should be remembered that these reports were written by his enemies who would not wish to depict him in a favourable light. His lieutenant, Cleon, was given the credit for the many victories he won over the Roman forces; but this may just be spite on the part of the latter. This rebel chief must have been a man of considerable ability to have maintained his position so long, and to have commanded the services of those said to have been his superiors. Cleon fell in battle, and Eunus was made prisoner, but died before he could be brought to punishment.

This was the first of a series of three slave revolts in the Roman Republic. A second Slave Revolt followed, that lasted from 104 BC until 100 BC. The leader of this slave revolt named Salvius led the slaves in the east of Sicily, while Athenion led the western slaves and it took Rome four years to suppress. The Roman consul M. Aquilas quelled the revolt only after great effort. In addition to these slave uprisings, and the great, last and most famous uprising led by Spartacus, the war against Aristonicus and his “Heliopolites” in Asia Minor was also in reality a war of the landowners against insurgent slaves.

In some cases the free labourers made common cause with the slaves. In fact, at one point, the whole island of Sicily fell into the hands of the slaves. According to even the most moderate estimates, the active slave army amounted to at least 70,000 men capable of bearing arms (see Mommsen, vol. 3, pp. 76-7.) The only way of assuring the total submission of the slaves after such revolts was by applying the most ruthless and brutal methods. Thus, in every case, the revolt ended with a massacre of the slaves. In the capital of Sicily, 150 slaves were executed, in Minturnae 450, and in Sinuessa, as many as 4,000. After the suppression of the revolt in Sicily the consul Publius Rupilius ordered that every rebel slave who was captured be crucified – some 20,000 in all.