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Spartacus without the Legends



Rob Hardy


The legend of Spartacus has proved inescapable for fiction writers, filmmakers, even ballet composers. Part of the ease with which his story gets told is that there is only a tiny amount of text about him handed down to us from ancient writers, some of whom were merely drawing upon other writers, so that there is a lot of room for the story to take different themes. Spartacus is often understood as a slave who inspiringly fought for his freedom; for Americans this is the enduring image in Stanly Kubrick's movie of 1960, but perhaps the modern world, which stresses equality and freedom more than the ancients did, makes more of Spartacus than the actual history will bear. The thin historical data and what we can justifiably draw from it are the themes within Spartacus (Harvard University Press) by Aldo Schiavone (translated by Jeremy Carden). Schiavone is an Italian Professor in Roman Law, so it is not surprising that his book contains considerable explanation of what slavery meant in the first century BCE, and other social issues within the Roman Empire, as well as the facts we can know about Spartacus's life. 




That Spartacus was a flesh and blood figure is sure, and he really did lead a major slave revolt in southern Italy in the years 73 - 71 BCE. He didn't write his memoirs, of course, and all we know about him is what his Roman foes wrote about his military campaigns. Sallust and Livy wrote about him, but only pieces of their works survive. Julius Caesar mentioned him, but most of what we know comes from Plutarch and Appian whose histories devote a few pages to him written a couple of centuries later. Though the sources are slender, we know for sure that he did pose a threat which was realistically considered to be potentially lethal to the Roman Republic. It has been enough to make him a symbol for the ages. Schiavone throughout his book explains how thin the sources are, and takes pains to show how they may be interpreted with a little judicious speculation. 




Spartacus was born in Thrace (now the region of Bulgaria) somewhere around 100 BCE. Rome had conquered Thrace not long before, and Spartacus served as a Roman soldier. For reasons hidden from us, he deserted and he may have turned into a highwayman (or maybe those Roman historians wanted to libel him as such). Somehow he was taken prisoner, and was sold into slavery. He would have been valued for his military experience, and so a trainer of gladiators named Lentulus Batiatus bought him and took him to a training camp in Capua. At this time it was slaves who fought in the arena, not the free Romans that would compete in later years. We don't know his win / loss record, but he was held as a gladiatorial slave for a few years, so he must have been in the arena, and since he lived, his opponents must have died. 




In 73 BCE, Spartacus organized a breakout from the training camp, leading around 200 other slaves. The Romans had a garrison in Capua, but the soldiers were poorly trained; Rome had sent its military strength to distant lands for the purpose of conquest. The escaped slaves were able to take the garrison and most importantly to gain real weapons of battle instead of the show weapons of the arena, which, Plutarch says, "they cast aside contemptuously as dishonorable and barbarous." It was symbolic of their transition from performing slaves into true warriors. Spartacus and his 200 men could not themselves have been much of a threat to Rome, but others joined in, other slaves and even poor freemen. Throughout this book, Schiavone casts doubts on the numbers assigned to armies or to casualties in particular battles, but he estimates that Spartacus had around 50,000 fighting men during his peak. There were also women and other people within his camps. This would have included his wife, or at least his female companion, a woman who was a priestess and a prophet who would have had a high standing among his fellow Thracians and might indicate "...that Spartacus's ties and roots were anything but humble." 




Spartacus proved to be a brilliant tactician. Roman forces sent against him were defeated each time as his army ranged over Italy. It does seem that he was fighting for more than just an escape from slavery; he never, for instance, made arrangements to get back to his Thracian homeland. He and his men fought after their escape from the camp for something more than keeping themselves alive or getting revenge. Schiavone warns us, however, not to think of Spartacus in any sort of modern terms. It would not have made any sense in Spartacus's own mind to be fighting to abolish slavery and free all the slaves. Everyone took slavery for granted at the time; servile labor was a foundation of all the Mediterranean cultures. Spartacus could not have been fighting to bring down a servile class system when the system was so widely accepted. Indeed, when Spartacus took Roman soldiers as captives, he made them slaves, just as they would have expected, and he even made them fight as gladiators.  




Schiavone admits that we cannot understand Spartacus's mind and motivations, because of the difference between his world and ours and the scant information about him, and only the basic sequence of his actions and battles can be "read" to illuminate what he might have been thinking. Schiavone's reading is that Spartacus aimed to be more than a leader of a slave rebellion but actually the general of something like a national, legitimate army, uniting the Italian cities in a civil war against their administrators in Rome. This made him far more dangerous to the empire than just a commander of angry slaves. Schiavone reads a clue about how Spartacus came to reject applications from deserters to join him by concluding that Spartacus "no longer regarded himself as being at the head of an army of fugitives and drifters, but behaved like a genuine commander in the field, a victorious warlord from the East placed by divine predestination at the head of a real army committed to achieving a goal that would alter the course of history: to strike at the heart of Roman power and snatch Italy from its dominion." 




He came close. Eventually, he could not enlist enough of the cities in the region or their working men into the cause. Rome had originally sent armies whose strength and skill were matched by the clever tactics of Spartacus, and after those embarrassments, the Senate sent a sufficient army under Crassus to do the job. The accounts of Spartacus's death say he died in the midst of battle, just as he would have wanted. The famous "I am Spartacus!" finale of Kubrick's film is thus just fantasy, but an inspiring one. Spartacus did not gain the nation he wanted, and his real life has too thin a documentation, and the circumstances of his slavery were too different from our own more recent history of it, to be the sort of inspiration that the film gave. Schiavone shows that he was, however, able to overcome his own slavery in a dramatic fashion, and if he never became a leader of a government in his own time, he will always be a model for those fighting oppression.



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