Rob Hardy: Compelling historical narrative of Spartacus exciting, satisfying

May 12, 2009

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


You know the name Spartacus, probably from the many fictional descriptions of his life, especially Kirk Douglas playing the title role in the 1960 film by Stanley Kubrick. There are novels about him, too, and a ballet by Khachaturian. Ronald Reagan was no scholar of Roman history, but in an address in Britain, he referred to the rebellious slave Spartacus as a symbol of the fight against totalitarianism. Spartacus''s name seems as if it will resound forever, and so a case could be made that we ought to know more about him than the "facts" presented in a Hollywood biopic. 


Here''s where to find the facts: "The Spartacus War" (Simon and Schuster) by classicist Barry Strauss. It is a compelling story, the sort of history that makes sense of the far-distant Roman world while being frank about how little we can know for sure. Strauss has authoritatively put together facts from the original ancient documents, or the ancient documents citing older documents now lost, and has judiciously filled in the gaps. 


Spartacus didn''t write a biography, of course, but his followers didn''t write about him either, and it is only from a few Roman or Greek writers that we get some idea of what Spartacus did. Those writers were writing from the point of view of those who had put down Spartacus''s rebellion. We can''t even put together some of his battles with certainty; those around Vesuvius, for instance, were more than a century before the volcano had its famous explosion in 79 A.D., and the terrain was changed completely. Nonetheless, Strauss''s narrative is compelling, and the excitement of the story combined with its detail make this a superb history. 


Spartacus was a Thracian (from the area now Bulgaria) and he fought in the Roman army. He deserted; he might have had a private grievance, or he might have wanted to join the army of Mithridates then warring against Rome, or he may just have become a thief. Whatever the reason, he was later captured, made a slave and condemned to become a gladiator. Gladiators were privileged slaves, and history, as Strauss points out, shows that the privileged slaves are the ones to lead revolts. They got money, celebrity and sex, but they were still slaves and they were in a brutal occupation of killing each other for the entertainment of free people. 


Spartacus became the property of one Vatia, an entrepreneur who put on fight shows, and trained for his position in Vatia''s gladiator school in the shadow of Vesuvius. Again, we don''t know what his particular grudge was; perhaps he simply craved freedom and wanted to go back to Thrace, or perhaps he didn''t like the short-term life prospects gladiators faced. In 73 B.C., for whatever reason, he convinced 70 other slaves to revolt from the school, using kitchen knives as weapons. They escaped to Vesuvius and Spartacus began his two years of ravaging the countryside and defeating one Roman army after another. 


They didn''t need a recruiting campaign; as they went on the march up and down what is now Italy, other slaves were happy to join in. Spartacus may have commanded as many as 100,000 men at one point, including other Thracians. 


At his side was his lover, a mysterious Thracian woman who was a prophetess in the service of the god Dionysus, who stood for power, prosperity, and liberty. Roman rulers didn''t like this particular god much, because of his potential to unite the powerless. It is quite likely that the prophetess (we don''t know her name) helped unite the diverse components of Spartacus''s force. She may have helped them see him as not only a brave and intelligent leader, but also a holy warrior in service of Dionysus whose enterprise was blessed by the god. There were Celts from Gaul and Germans, both of whom were enthusiastic about battle and had skills in guerilla fighting and in horsemanship that made them formidable opponents. 


Spartacus was a principled leader, and seems to have had faith in some concept of equality, although he and his armies were not heroically fighting to abolish the barbarity of slavery. They were fighting to get themselves out of slavery. As they made their way to their different encampments and battles, they imposed on the locals for labor and produce, just as their former owners had done. The Romans underestimated the power of the slave revolutionaries, and the first armies sent out against Spartacus were badly defeated. 


There was a problem of motivation; against a slave uprising, no general could count on gaining glory or spoils. When the Romans eventually realized they were facing an internal threat greater than any previous one, and at least as dangerous as the external enemies ranged around them, they finally sent in Marcus Licinius Crassus. 


He was a member of the Roman elite, but had yet to attain high public office. He took over the troops in the most forceful of ways, literally decimating any deserters; 500 runaways were divided into 50 groups, and nine men clubbed the selected tenth man to death. He was hungry for a victory, not least because he wanted to win before his rival Pompey could return from battles in Spain and take some of his glory. Crassus pursued the slave army, splitting it and eventually gaining a victory for Rome. 


The Romans seem to have admired Spartacus, for all the threat he was to their entire society. He was clever and brave. His end came mostly because he was betrayed by pirates he had commissioned to get his army out of the Italian peninsula and into Sicily. He was not, despite what Hollywood might show, crucified. Crassus did crucify 6,000 of the captured slaves, hanging them up along the Appian Way. 


Spartacus died on the field of battle, after an act of heroism his soldiers and his enemies would have admired: He slaughtered his horse in a religious ritual, not only to make a vow to victory, but to show he was not going to be a mounted general who could easily flee to the rear. The Romans loathed slaves and had contempt for their rebellion, and it is only Roman commentators who wrote about that final battle, but they all commented in awe upon his bravery, and that of his slave troops: "They met with a death worthy of real men," wrote one. 


Strauss writes, "Spartacus was a failure against Rome but a success as a mythmaker. No doubt he would have preferred the opposite, but history has its way with us all. Who, today, remembers Crassus? Pompey? Even Cicero is not so well remembered. Everyone has heard of Spartacus." Yes, and almost everyone has sparse ideas about the facts of the man, who was a genuine hero. Strauss''s book, which is both about Spartacus''s history and about the limits of history, brings as much truth to the tale as we are ever going to get. It also provides surprisingly satisfying excitement.

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]