Spartacus, history’s nowhere man

Spartacus is a figure who floats between history and allegory, an empty void, like the upper slopes of Vesuvius, where he and his supporters first took refuge, now obliterated by eruptions.

Promotional poster for the film, Spartacus. 1960.
Promotional poster for the film, Spartacus. 1960. Credit: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

In 73 BC, 6,000 rebels were crucified on the orders of the victorious Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus at regular intervals along the Appian Way, between the Campanian city of Capua and Rome. Crucifixion, if  handled correctly, can be a long and agonising death lasting several days, and the rotting corpses would have stayed strung up for much longer than that. Even by Roman standards, this was a big statement to make.

This especially brutal treatment was partly the result of the humiliating defeats that the rebels had inflicted on at least five Roman armies, three of them led by consuls, over the previous two and a half years, and the huge amount of damage they had caused across southern and central Italy. At their height, their numbers had risen to 120,000 men and, at one point, it had looked like they might march on Rome itself. Some areas where they had passed through did not recover, either economically or demographically, for a century. Yet, far more significant was who they were. The rebels were slaves who had been marshalled by their charismatic leader, the gladiator Spartacus, into an extremely effective fighting force that terrorised Italy between 73 and 71 BC in what is known as the Third Servile War.

Spartacus, a Thracian, was said to have once fought as an auxiliary soldier for the Romans before being enslaved and sent to the gladiator school at Capua. There, in 73 BC, Spartacus had managed to escape with 70 comrades and sought sanctuary on the upper slopes of Mount Vesuvius. The Roman forces sent to recapture them were rebuffed when the rebels used ropes made of vines to scale down the sheer side of the mountain and launch a successful surprise attack on the Roman camp. Subsequently, another expedition was defeated, leading to the capture of Roman military equipment and a sizeable increase in the rebel numbers as other slaves learnt of their success and absconded, often murdering their owners before they fled. During the following winter, the slave army trained and armed their burgeoning number of recruits while raiding across southern Italy for supplies and booty. The spring of 72 would see Spartacus’s greatest military success when, after an initial reverse, his forces defeated two Roman legions which had been dispatched against them.

The Roman senate, in a state of alarm, now sent Crassus with eight legions to put down the insurrection. The campaign started disastrously for Crassus when his deputy, Mummius, ignored his instructions to avoid engaging with the rebels, with the result that his army, made up of two legions, was defeated with extensive loss of life. However, Crassus doggedly forced Spartacus and his army southwards. By the last month of 71 BC, Spartacus and his army were trapped at Rhegium in the toe of Italy. After a failed attempt to evacuate his forces to Sicily, Spartacus broke the Roman blockade but suffered an emphatic defeat when Crassus’s pursuing legions caught up with his army. A few days later, Spartacus’s remaining forces made a final stand in Lucania, where most, including their leader, were killed, with the remaining 6,000 survivors meeting their gruesome fate along the Appian Way.

Spartacus is one of the most famous figures of the ancient world, the great freedom fighter, although his current celebrity has far more to do with Hollywood and Netflix than familiarity with the Roman and Greek writers who recorded his feats. In fact, the Spartacus that we know is very much a post-enlightenment heroic creation and was the subject of a plethora of plays, novels and works of art. In 1760, the French writer Bernard-Joseph Saurin’s tragedy Spartacus drew parallels between the oppressive conditions of ancient Rome and those of his own times. Spartacus’s celebrity as a freedom fighter dedicated to the overthrow of tyranny and the repressive social order grew further during and after the French Revolution.

Always understandably popular with revolutionaries, Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743–1803), leader of the Haitian revolution against French rule, was likened to Spartacus. In 1874, the Italian writer Raffaello Giovagnoli wrote his historical novel Spartacus, which drew parallels between Spartacus and Garibaldi. The early twentieth century saw Spartacus being adopted as a darling of the burgeoning socialist movement. Karl Marx had argued that Spartacus was among the greatest, if not the greatest, heroes of the ancient world and held him up as an example to be followed. The German socialist revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht named the Spartacus League after him. However, Spartacus has also had champions on the other side of the political spectrum, with Ronald Reagan casting him to be a great champion of freedom fighting against the oppression of the state.

Hollywood has had a long-held fascination with Spartacus. The 1960s saw Stanley Kubrick’s muscle-bound Kirk Douglas in fighting pose with sword and shield, but Kubrick’s Spartacus is an oddly puny affair, with much of the violence, anger and menace that are such a staple of the ancient accounts of the insurrection jettisoned for a saccharine love story and a life-affirming parable on camaraderie (‘I am Spartacus!’). Kubrick’s Spartacus is a rebel without a cause. Far more interesting and complex are Roman attitudes to Spartacus. Here there is little trite allegory but vilification, unease and pregnant silence. Spartacus holds a very similar position in Roman historiography to that other great general who took the fight to Rome’s Italian backyard, the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who had spent nearly a decade marauding across the peninsula some 130 or so years earlier, before also being penned in the south and defeated. Like Hannibal, Spartacus is admired for his courage, trickiness and skills as a general, while also being equally despised for his barbarity, impiety and cruelty. The two great foes of the Roman Republic often appear as something of a double act of favourite bogeymen in later Roman literature. The poet Horace, writing two generations later in a time of civil war, bemoaned how Rome was now completing what violent Spartacus had ultimately failed to do – its own destruction. Horace also somewhat whimsically wondered whether any of the fine Italian wines of the early 70s had avoided being looted by ‘Spartacus and his marauding bands’.

Roman attitudes towards Spartacus were a manifestation of a wider societal unease about slavery, although these were not founded on moral objection or a desire to end it as a practice. There are no champions of total emancipation in the Roman world. Considering how much slavery haunted the Roman psyche, it is fitting that the first Roman ghost story featured an apparition of a slave. According to the Roman writer Pliny, a Greek philosopher rented a house in northern Italy at a very cheap price because the landlord, a Roman senator, had been unable to let it due to a ghostly apparition, whose chains clanked around the house all night. The philosopher solved the mystery by following the ghost to a courtyard and marking the spot where it disappeared. The next morning the ground was dug up and a skeleton covered in chains was discovered. After the remains were removed and properly buried, the ghost never appeared again.

Spartacus’s servility, his status as a non-human when matched with his defeat of a series of Roman armies, made him an extremely unsettling proposition for generations of Roman historians, particularly as an unwelcome reminder of Roman Italy’s huge societal and economic reliance on millions of slaves (they made up around one third of the population). But, equally importantly, he represented the ambiguities and inconsistencies in Roman attitudes towards freedom and personhood.

For Romans, the most terrifying aspect of Spartacus’s revolt was that his vast force was largely made up of faceless, expendable and extremely badly treated slaves, who toiled on massive agricultural estates in the Italian countryside, many chained together and living in barracks. Essentially treated like livestock, punishments for disciplinary infractions were often fearsome, with brutal floggings, branding and mutilations common. The Roman agricultural economy was addicted to slave labour. The wars of conquest of the third, second and first centuries BC against Carthage, the Hellenistic East and the Gauls, had brought a vast influx of slaves, with 75,000 captives from the first Punic War alone. The peasant farmers, who had once tilled the lands of Italy and been the backbone of Rome’s armies, often returned home from many years of military service to find their families in debt and their small holdings bought up cheaply by the senatorial class, who had been the main beneficiaries of the wars of conquest. These new senatorial landowners created huge tracts of land across central and southern Italy called latifundia, where vast numbers of the new prisoners of war were put to work as slaves. Slave plantations were not the locations for the luxurious country villas that we often imagine them to be, but grim barracks and simple housing for the bailiffs and trusties that ran them. The surplus produce would be sold on to feed the newly landless poor of Rome, the former peasant farmers.

Romans’ unease over slaves was not just a matter of their economic reliance on them, but also emanated from the intellectually ambiguous position that they themselves had adopted in relation to slavery. Ancient
Rome was the most efficient enfranchising system that the ancient world has ever seen – barbarians could eventually become Roman, and slaves (legally non-humans) could transition to being free (legally human). Romans did free slaves in relatively large numbers, often for good service, in their masters’ wills. Other slaves saved up money and bought their freedom. Manumission served as an important engine of Roman social and economic mobility, with some freed men becoming the backbone of Rome’s business class and hugely rich themselves. Ex-slaves became slave owners. This point is well illustrated by the tombstone of a slave dealer and auctioneer, Publius Syrus from Mount Tifata in Campania, who had himself been a slave before being freed by his master and becoming his business partner. However, freedom was the lucky fate of just a privileged, talented and visible few. It was a Darwinian system, whereby those with skills and proximity to their masters – accountants, teachers, doctors, nurses – had a chance to earn their freedom, unlike the majority of invisible agricultural slaves marooned on distant plantations which the masters were very unlikely to visit.

However, even the privileged household slaves could come under suspicion. As the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca memorably said: ‘So many slaves, so many enemies.’ He goes on to describe how poor house slaves stood motionless and starving as their master greedily wolfed down expensive delicacies in front of them – any sound, cough or sneeze was met with a savage beating. Indeed, masters were most likely to be murdered by house slaves rather than their agricultural peers precisely because they had the opportunity to lay their hands on them. Such incidents were met with brutal collective punishment. When Pedanius Secundus, Prefect of Rome, was murdered by a slave, all 400 servile members of his household were marched out of the city and strangled.

Seneca was one of the few Roman authors to remind his friends of their slaves’ humanity. Yet it is worth remembering that he was no Roman William Wilberforce. He was merely advancing a philosophical position and was a slave owner himself. Christianity made little to no difference to Roman attitudes toward slavery. When Augustine of Hippo, in the early fifth century AD, rescued the cargo of a slave ship that had docked at his port in North Africa, it was only because they had previously been free Christians.

Yet Seneca’s reminder of slaves’ humanity hints at the unease that lay behind Roman attitudes towards their slaves. They might be treated as livestock, but the fact that they all had the possibility of becoming free, however remote, suggested a capacity for humanity. Roman views here have all the weaknesses of a philosophical justification backfilling a legal judgement. It has been argued that the monstrous in the ancient world is always associated with something that has been touched by humanity. With Spartacus’s revolt, the monstrosity of the slave in the Roman world was writ large.

With the coming of the autocratic rule of the emperors, the Roman senatorial elite were also served with uncomfortable reminders that the distinction between themselves and their slaves might be less than they thought. It would take an ex-slave, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, to teach the Roman senatorial elite to preserve a tiny bit of freedom in a world where the emperor had the power of life and death over everybody. In Epictetus’s eyes, the difference between slavery and freedom was minimal.

But what of Spartacus himself? What did he want? What were his aims? The answer is almost certainly not the one for which today’s freedom fighters yearn. There is no evidence that Spartacus saw his mission as one of fighting against the cruel institution of slavery, nor the oppressive imperialism of Rome. The sources are agreed that he was simply fighting for his own and his family’s freedom. Vengeance was also a strong motivation for the slave army, many of whom had experienced the extreme cruelty of the plantation system. Material gain also played a major role. Contemporary commentators were genuinely shocked by the wholesale massacres, rapes and other atrocities that the slave armies inflicted on the villas, towns and cities that had the misfortune to be in their path.

In his first novel, The Gladiators, Arthur Koestler, the famously repentant communist, viewed Spartacus as an allegory for the socialist leaders of his own age. Here, Spartacus’s vision is a radical new utopian settlement called Sun City, where there are no slaves, ranks, gold or silver. For Koestler, Spartacus’s fatal flaw (unlike his then-hero, Stalin) was that he was too weak with his men, unable to stop the rape and slaughter that was the fate of every settlement that the slave army captured. He had not ruthlessly eradicated internal dissent and thus failed the crucial revolutionary test, dooming the revolt to inevitable failure.

In his review of The Gladiators, George Orwell made the crucial observation that Koestler failed to nail Spartacus down, leaving him floating aimlessly in limbo somewhere between the 1930s socialist leader and the ancient man. Orwell was right. Koestler’s Spartacus is a nowhere man, unable to articulate his motivations either as a historical or allegorical character. Orwell was particularly exercised by what he viewed as Koestler’s failure to bridge the cavernous moral divide to an ancient world, unlike Flaubert, who had been able to imagine himself in ‘the stony cruelty of antiquity’. In contrast, Koestler’s Spartacus is revealed as a would-be twentieth-century proletarian dictator in a tunic. Yet, it seems to me that here Orwell, for once, misses the point. Koestler’s Spartacus is, in fact, the perfect portrait of a figure who floats between history and allegory, an empty void, like the upper slopes of Vesuvius, where he and his supporters first took refuge, now obliterated by eruptions. The real power of Spartacus is that he remains as impossible to pin down as the many conflicting forms of liberty for which he has been claimed as champion.


Richard Miles