Needing soldiers in 104 BC, Consul Gaius Marius ordered the release of all slaves that had been freemen in any territory that was now an allied of Rome. In Sicily, over 800 slaves gained their freedom but the Governor of the island ordered them back into servitude. The rebels elected one Salvius as their leader. Salvius took the name of Tryphon, after the Seleucid king Diodotus Tryphon.
The initial uprising took place in Sicily in 135 BC. After the Second Punic War, Romans and Sicilians who supported them took over vast estates in the island. They made slaves out of the Sicilians who had backed the Carthaginians. While the Romans and their allies did well, the slaves were ill treated and poorly fed. Hunger drove them to robbery and then to revolution. The leader was Eunus, a Syrian magician who performed for the slaves. He became the leader because of his supposed supernatural powers.
Slave revolts in Ancient Rome could and did happen on large and small scales. Pliny the Younger recounts a story where a cruel slave-owner is attacked by his servants while in the bath. The master is beaten and thought dead by his attackers. He is not. Before dying of his injuries a few days later, the master has the sole consolation of knowing that his disloyal slaves have been brutally executed.
The great slave revolts of the second and first centuries B.C. in Sicily and Italy were brought about by three causes. These were: the excess of captured soldiers and the fact that these soldiers had already been hardened to dangerous and cruelties by experiences in war; the freedom from restraint necessarily permitted these dangerous men when they were employed in ranching; and the neglect and cruelty engendered in the masters both by the brutalized type of the slaves employed and by the method of their employment.
To use modern terms, the Romans were “equal opportunity” enslavers: they did not limit their enslavements to one people, place, or, in our terms, race. From the late third century BCE through the early third century CE, as the Romans conquered the Mediterranean basin, the Balkans, much of the modern Middle East, Europe west of the Rhine River, they often enslaved at least some of their defeated enemies. Although the numbers given in ancient sources are notoriously unreliable, a few examples indicate the scale of capture and enslavement.
The Romans had various sources of slaves—war, birth, piracy, and the long distance trade from outside the empire. Of these, war, the enslavement of Rome's defeated enemies, was one of the most important. The commanding general determined the fate of war captives, whom the Romans considered part of the plunder. Usually, the general handed over the captives to an official who sold them at auction to traders who followed the armies.
In general, early Roman slavery was very similar to the systems that developed around Italy before 300 BCE. William D. Phillips Jr. noted, "From their earliest beginnings, the Romans practiced slavery on a small scale, using a few slaves as farmhands and household servants." The sparse dispersal of slaves in the Mediterranean was likely due to the fact that noblemen and aristocrats commonly owned the slaves in Greece and Rome. David Turley noticed that only the wealthy could afford slaves to perform all of the household labor and, "other heads of households or elders of the lineage had to work or rely on some other resource apart from slaves."
Slave auctions were common throughout Rome and Italy. The slaves would be acquired by Roman slave dealers who would follow the Roman armies around the continent. After each battle the wholesalers would buy the warriors from the Roman army for a cheap price, as the army couldn't keep prisoners. The dealers would then travel back to Rome and sell their stock at a higher price. The slaves would wear a wooden plaque around their neck stating their origin, health, character and intelligence. The prices of slaves varied a lot based on age, gender, skills and experience.
Slaves were considered to be property to Romans and had no legal status. If they were seen convicting a crime they would be subject to punishment. This could involve corporal punishment, torture and execution. Slaves were unable to own property; however, higher skilled slaves could earn a small amount of money, and sometimes after a considerable time of saving could buy their freedom.
Slavery was such a charged metaphor because it was an exceptionally important component of the Roman social edifice. Slavery has been a virtually universal feature of human societies, but it is highly unusual for slavery to become a central rather than peripheral institution. Societies with slaves are common, but slave societies are exceedingly rare. The notion of a "slave society", although it has a long pedigree, was most influentially formulated by Finley to describe societies where slaves are present in large numbers, where slave labor is instrumental in central productive processes, and where the domination of slavery has deep cultural consequences.
Roman slavery should not be confused with American slavery. Although they were similar, American slavery became largely an issue of race and superiority. Roman slavery was not based on race but on conquest. People sometimes chose to enter slavery to pay their debts and some earned a small salary and could buy their freedom.
The Roman empire was home to the most extensive and enduring slave system in pre-modern history. Slavery has been virtually ubiquitous in human civilization, but the Romans created one of the few "genuine slave societies" in the western experience. The other example of classical antiquity, the slave society of Greece, was fleeting and diminutive by comparison. Stretching across half a millenium and sprawling over a vast tract of space, Roman slavery existed on a different order of magnitude.