In the first century BC, a slave named Spartacus threatened the might of Rome. Spartacus (c. 109 BC-71 BC) was the leader (or possibly one of several leaders) of the massive slave uprising known as the Third Servile War. Under his leadership, a tiny band of rebel gladiators grew into a huge revolutionary army, numbering about 100,000. In the end the full force of the Roman army was needed to crush the revolt.
Despite his well-deserved fame as a great revolutionary leader and one of the most outstanding generals of antiquity, not much is known about Spartacus the man. It is always the victors who write history and the voice of the slaves throughout the centuries can be heard only through the accounts of the oppressors. What little information we have is from accounts written by his mortal enemies. The surviving historical records are all written by Roman historians and therefore hostile. They are often contradictory.
There were other leaders of the revolt whose names have come down to us: Crixus, Castus, Gannicus and Oenomaus – gladiators from Gaul and Germania. But of these even less is known. History is always written by the victors, and they faithfully reflect the interests, psychology and class bias of the ruling class. Trying to understand Spartacus from these sources is like trying to understand Lenin and Trotsky from the slanderous writings of the bourgeois enemies of the Russian Revolution. Through this distorting mirror one can only catch tantalising glimpses of the real Spartacus.
“And seizing upon a defensible place, they chose three captains, of whom Spartacus was chief, a Thracian of one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding, also, and in gentleness superior to his condition, and more of a Grecian than the people of his country usually are.”
These words by an enemy present Spartacus in a personally favourable light, which requires an explanation. This is not hard to find. A man who defeated one Roman army after another and brought the Republic to its knees had to be possessed of extraordinary qualities. Only in this way could the Roman commentators begin to come to terms with the fact that “mere slaves” had defeated their invincible legions.
Other Roman historians attempt to make him out to be of royal blood, for exactly the same reason. He is said to be endowed with superhuman attributes. His wife is said to have been a priestess, and so on and so forth. All this is clearly part of Roman propaganda that aims to present Spartacus as somebody very special, and in this way to try to reduce the sense of shame and humiliation felt by the master class when it had been defeated by farm labourers, kitchen skivvies and gladiators.
Spartacus' real origins are unclear as the ancient sources do not agree on where he came from, although he was probably a native of Thrace (now Bulgaria). He seems to have had military training and experience and may even have joined the Roman army as a mercenary. Plutarch also says Spartacus' wife, a prophetess of the same tribe, was enslaved with him. In any case, he was enslaved and sold at auction to a trainer of gladiators in Capua. Appian says he was “a Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier with the Romans, but had since been a prisoner and sold for a gladiator”. Florus says he “had become a Roman soldier, of a soldier a deserter and robber, and afterwards, from consideration of his strength, a gladiator”.
The Gladiators’ Revolt
At the time of Spartacus' uprising, the Roman republic was entering a period of turmoil that would end with the rule of the Caesars. Roman territories were expanding east and west; ambitious generals could make a name fighting in Spain or Macedonia, then carve out a political career in Rome. Rome was a militaristic society: battles were staged in the newly popular entertainment of gladiatorial combat. While successful gladiators were idolised, in terms of social status they ranked little above convicts; indeed, some gladiators were convicted criminals. Others were slaves. By this time slavery accounted for roughly every third person in Italy. Slaves were liable to extreme and arbitrary punishment from their owners; while the death penalty for free Romans was rarely invoked (and humanely executed), slaves were routinely crucified.
Spartacus was trained at the gladiatorial school (ludus) near Capua, belonging to one Lentulus Batiatus. It was here that in 73 BC, Spartacus led a revolt of 74 gladiators, who armed themselves, overpowered their guards and escaped. This is how Plutarch deals with it in the section of his Roman History, The Life of Crassus:
“The insurrection of the gladiators and the devastation of Italy, commonly called the war of Spartacus, began upon this occasion. One Lentulus Batiatus trained up a great many gladiators in Capua, most of them Gauls and Thracians, who, not for any fault by them committed, but simply through the cruelty of their master, were kept in confinement for this object of fighting one with another. Two hundred of these formed a plan to escape, but being discovered, those of them who became aware of it in time to anticipate their master, being seventy-eight, got out of a cook's shop chopping-knives and spits, and made their way through the city, and lighting by the way on several wagons that were carrying gladiators' arms to another city, they seized upon them and armed themselves. And seizing upon a defensible place, they chose three captains, of whom Spartacus was chief, a Thracian of one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding, also, and in gentleness superior to his condition, and more of a Grecian than the people of his country usually are.”
So, armed with the knives in the cook's shop and a wagon full of weapons that they seized, the slaves fled to the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, near modern day Naples. The news of the breakout encouraged others to follow. A steady flow of rural slaves soon joined the mutineers, whose numbers began to swell. The group overran the region, raiding the farms for food and supplies. Thus the rebels began by winning small victories, which lead to bigger things. Plutarch continues his account: “First, then, routing those that came out of Capua against them, and thus procuring a quantity of proper soldiers' arms, they gladly threw away their own as barbarous and dishonourable.”
One can almost picture the exhilaration of these early victories and the joy with which the gladiators cast aside the hated uniform of their trade and dressed themselves as proper soldiers, not slaves. This little detail reveals something far more important than weapons and equipment. It reveals a growing confidence, the rejection not only of the servile state but also of the servile mentality. We see the same thing in every strike and in every revolution in history, where the ordinary workers – the lineal descendants of the slaves – draw themselves up to their true height and begin to think and act like free men and women.
This slave mutiny was by no means a unique event. When the news of the outbreak reached Rome, it caused some concern, but neither surprise nor undue alarm. In the previous century, two slave revolts, both on Sicily, had been put down at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. There could be no doubt in the minds of the august Senators who held control of the whole world in their hands that the outcome of this rising would be no different.
In the first instance, therefore, the Roman authorities did not rate Spartacus as highly as later commentators. The Senate did not even bother to send a legion to suppress the rebels, but only a militia force of about 3,000 under the praetor, Claudius Glaber. They clearly considered that this was a mere police operation and easily dealt with. They thought this would be more than enough to suppress a small number of badly armed slaves. But Spartacus' camp had become a magnet for slaves from the surrounding area, several thousand of whom had joined him. Unlike the Roman soldiers and their officers, the slaves were fighting a desperate battle for survival. By contrast, the Roman generals underestimated the enemy and were unduly lax in the beginning.
It is a well-known fact that revolutionaries can only win by going onto the offensive and showing the greatest audacity. The Romans besieged the rebels on Vesuvius, blocking their escape. The slaves found themselves besieged on a mountain, accessible only by one narrow and difficult passage, which the Romans kept guarded, “encompassed on all other sides with steep and slippery precipices”. In an impressive tactical coup, Spartacus had ropes made from vines and with his men absailed down a cliff on the other side of the volcano, to the rear of the Roman soldiers, and launched a surprise attack.
Plutarch describes the situation:
“Upon the top, however, grew a great many wild vines, and cutting down as many of their boughs as they had need of, they twisted them into strong ladders long enough to reach from thence to the bottom, by which, without any danger, they got down all but one, who stayed there to throw them down their arms, and after this succeeded in saving himself. The Romans were ignorant of all this, and, therefore, coming upon them in the rear, they assaulted them unawares and took their camp.”
Claudius Glaber, expecting an easy victory over a handful of slaves, probably did not bother to take the elementary precaution of fortifying his camp. He did not even post adequate sentries to keep a lookout. The Romans paid a heavy price for this neglect. Most of them were killed in their beds, including the praetor Claudius Glaber. This was an ignominious defeat for the Romans. The slaves now possessed weapons and armour. More importantly, they developed a sense that they could fight and win. This was the biggest gain.
Spartacus marches north
Spartacus was an excellent military tactician, which tends to confirm the idea that he had served as an auxiliary soldier under the banners of Rome. If this is true, he would have been acquainted with the tactics of the Roman army, and this, together with the audacity that is a necessary quality for a revolutionary, made him a formidable enemy. However, his army was mainly composed of poorly armed and untrained former slave labourers. This dictated his tactics, which were at first defensive. They hid out on the heavily wooded Mount Vesuvius until such time as they had been trained properly for the inevitable showdown with the Roman army.
Realizing that time was running out before a new and more serious battle, Spartacus delegated to the gladiators the task of training small groups, who then trained other small groups and so on. In this way he was able to create from scratch a fully trained army in a matter of weeks. And what the slave army lacked in military experience they made up for with the heroism of people fighting for their very survival, with literally nothing to lose but their chains.
There were many skirmishes with the Roman army, all of which ended in victory. Publius Varinus, the praetor, was now sent against them with two thousand men, which they fought and routed. Then Cossinius was sent “with considerable forces”, and narrowly missed being captured in person, as he was bathing at Salinae. He made his escape with great difficulty, while Spartacus possessed himself of his baggage. The slaves followed the retreating Romans, slaughtering many. Finally, they stormed the Roman camp and took it, and Cossinius himself was killed.
With every such victory, the morale of the rebels grew. The reports to the Senate at Rome must have made grim reading. Slowly, the truth was beginning to dawn in the minds of even the most dull-witted aristocrat that here they were facing a most dangerous enemy – one that possessed a vast number of reserves infiltrated in the very heart of the enemy camp – on every farm, in every household, there were slaves, each of whom was a potential rebel, to be watched with suspicion and fear. After this successful battle, the fame of Spartacus grew. The message was clear to all: the Romans were no longer invincible.
A large number of runaway slaves joined and soon the small band of rebels grew into an army. By some accounts, the slave army may have finally numbered as many as 140,000 escaped slaves, used to living in harsh conditions, hardened by years of heavy labour and with nothing to lose by fighting their former masters. Plutarch writes: “Several, also, of the shepherds and herdsmen that were there, stout and nimble fellows, revolted over to them, to some of whom they gave complete arms, and made use of others as scouts and light-armed soldiers.” In the end the word “several” should read several tens of thousands.
Spartacus's army spent the winter of 73 BC camped on the south coast of Italy, all the time building up its numbers, armaments and morale. In the spring, it headed north; the audacious plan appears to have been to march the length of Italy, cross the Alps and escape to Gaul (present-day France, then largely outside Roman control). According to Plutarch: “Wisely considering that he was not to expect to match the force of the empire, he [Spartacus] marched his army towards the Alps, intending, when he had passed them, that every man should go to his own home, some to Thrace, some to Gaul.”
Divisions among the slaves
The Senate, now thoroughly alarmed, sent two legions under the consuls, Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus against the slaves. Now Spartacus faced his greatest challenge so far: an army of two legions – 10,000 men – commanded by Cassius Longinus, the Governor of Cisalpine Gaul (“Gaul this side of the Alps”, present-day Northern Italy). The Romans scored one victory, when they defeated a Gaulish contingent led by Crixus. The reason for this setback was divisions in the ranks of the rebels.
It cannot have been easy to maintain unity and discipline in an army of slaves from different lands, speaking different languages and worshiping different gods. It required a leader of colossal stature to achieve this, and even he did not always succeed. Crixus and the Gauls had refused to march under Spartacus' leadership. It seems that Crixus wanted to stay in Italy, seduced by the prospect of plunder. Spartacus wanted to continue North to Gaul, as Plutarch points out:
“But they, grown confident in their numbers, and puffed up with their success, would give no obedience to him, but went about and ravaged Italy; so that now the Senate was not only moved at the indignity and baseness, both of the enemy and of the insurrection, but, looking upon it as a matter of alarm and of dangerous consequence, sent out both the consuls to it, as to a great and difficult enterprise.” (Plutarch, Crassus)
The Roman commentator understood the root of the problem. Some of the leaders of the rebels had become over-confident, intoxicated by their early successes. For this reason, Crixus left Spartacus, taking around 30,000 Gauls and Germans with him. This split was a disastrous mistake: Crixus was defeated by Publicola and fell in battle. The Gauls paid a terrible price for this and 20,000 of them were killed. This was the first warning of the dangerous consequences of divisions in the ranks of the slave army.
Despite the disastrous actions of Crixus, Spartacus held funeral games in honour of the Gaulish leader, including gladiatorial combat between captured Roman soldiers. This detail reveals a nobility of character and true leadership qualities. Later Spartacus first defeated Lentulus, and then Publicola, as Plutarch relates:
“The consul Gellius, falling suddenly upon a party of Germans, who through contempt, and confidence had straggled from Spartacus, cut them all to pieces. But when Lentulus with a large army besieged Spartacus, he sallied out upon him, and, joining battle, defeated his chief officers, and captured all his baggage. As he made toward the Alps, Cassius, who was praetor of that part of Gaul that lies about the Po, met him with ten thousand men, but being overcome in the battle, he had much ado to escape himself, with the loss of a great many of his men.”
This was a heavy blow to Roman prestige and it shook the confidence of the Senate. Not only had their army been massacred, but Spartacus had captured the fasces, the symbol of Roman authority (from which the word fascism is derived). At Mutina (now Modena) the slaves defeated yet another legion under Gaius Cassius Longinus, the Governor of Cisalpine Gaul. The leader of the slaves now seemed to be completely invincible.
The slaves change direction
What happened next is one of the great mysteries of history. The slaves were in sight of the Alps and could have crossed into Gaul and entered Germany, where they might have escaped from Roman rule, or even to Spain where a rebellion was raging. Then, for some reason, the plan changed and Spartacus turned back: his army once more marched the length of Italy. What was the cause of this change? We do not know. Perhaps they were put off by the logistics of getting an army across the Alps, or perhaps the slaves were intoxicated by success and drawn by the prospect of plundering the rich Italian cities.
However, events were no longer moving Spartacus' way. By now, Spartacus's army was swollen by a large number of camp-followers, including women, children, and elderly men who joined the rebels in the hope of escaping from a life of servitude. The non-fighting followers may have numbered some 10,000 people, all of whom would have had to be fed. This must have considerably complicated his movements. Moreover, the Romans were no longer making the mistake of underestimating the qualities of their enemy.
When the Senate learned that Spartacus had scored new victories over the armies of the Republic, they were furious at the consuls, and ordered them to keep out of the conflict. Instead they gave Marcus Licinius Crassus charge of the war. He was the richest man in Rome, a very ambitious politician and hungry for glory. Crassus was no fool and he did not make the mistake of underestimating his opponents. His aim was to carefully build up his forces and avoid a decisive battle, confident that in the end the superior resources and wealth of Rome would wear down the rebels and create favourable conditions for a military victory.
However, many of those who joined him in the pursuit of glory did not share his understanding of the enemy they were confronted with. They were rich young fops who did not realise what they were up against. They must have set out after the slaves with the same spirit as they would embark on a fox hunt. Plutarch informs us: “A great many of the nobility went volunteers with him, partly out of friendship, and partly to get honour.” Once again, this excessive over-confidence was a recipe for disaster.
While Crassus stayed on the borders of Picenum, expecting Spartacus would come that way, he sent his lieutenant, Mummius, with two legions, to observe the enemy's movements, but gave him strict orders upon no account to engage or skirmish. They were ordered to capture a small hill, but to do it as quietly as possible, so as not to alert the enemy.
Overconfident, on the first opportunity, Crassus’ lieutenant joined battle, and was heavily defeated. They would have been annihilated, had it not been for the fact that Crassus immediately appeared, and engaged in a battle. It proved a most bloody one. A great many of his men were slain, and a great many only saved their lives by throwing down their arms and ignominiously running away. By contrast, writes Plutarch: “Out of twelve thousand three hundred rebels whom he killed, two only were found wounded in their backs, the rest all having died standing in their ranks and fighting bravely.”
This bravery of the slaves contrasts with the cowardly conduct of the Romans in earlier battles, which had compelled Crassus to revive the ancient Roman method of punishment: decimation. In an attempt to restore discipline, Crassus first rebuked Mummius severely. Then he armed the soldiers again, but in a humiliating gesture made them pay a deposit for their arms, to make sure that they would part with them no more.
He then selected five hundred men who were the first to run away and he divided into fifty groups of ten, one of each was to die by lot, “with a variety of appalling and terrible circumstances, presented before the eyes of the whole army, assembled as spectators”, as Plutarch relates. This terrible punishment had long fallen into disuse and by reviving it, Crassus wanted to show that he meant business. From this moment, every Roman soldier learned to fear his general more than he feared the slaves.
At the end of 72 BC, Spartacus and his army set up camp in Rhegium (Reggio Calabria), near the Strait of Messina. Spartacus attempted to strike a deal with Cilician pirates to get the slaves across the Straits to Sicily. According to Plutarch: “He had thoughts of attempting Sicily, where, by landing two thousand men, he hoped to new kindle the war of the slaves, which was but lately extinguished, and seemed to need but little fuel to set it burning again. But after the pirates had struck a bargain with him, and received his earnest they deceived him and sailed away.”
This shows a sound grasp of tactics and strategy. If they could get to Sicily and stir up a new slave revolt there, they might be able to defend the island against Rome. Having failed to take the opportunity to cross the Alps, this was perhaps the only option left to him, other than a direct assault on Rome itself. But the project failed because the pirates betrayed the slaves. It may be that Crassus’ agents had bribed them, or simply that they feared that by helping the slaves they would bring the whole weight of the Roman army down on their heads. Whatever the reason, Spartacus' army now found itself trapped in Calabria.
We can imagine the terrible blow this represented for Spartacus and his followers. Once the plan to escape to Sicily fell through, the position of the slaves was desperate. At the beginning of 71 BC, eight legions under Crassus were thrown against them. They had their backs to the sea with nowhere to escape. Worse news was to come. The assassination of Quintus Sertorius, who had been leading a rebellion in Spain, enabled the Roman Senate to recall Pompey from that province. And just to make sure, they also recalled Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus from Macedonia. The Roman state, which had earlier shown such contempt for the slaves, was concentrating all its forces against them.
It seems that after a small skirmish, Spartacus had a Roman prisoner crucified. The Roman propagandists cited this as proof of the “barbarous and cruel nature” of the rebels. However, crucifixion was a normal punishment for slaves. And all history shows that the masters, not the slaves, always display the most barbarous cruelty. It may be that this was a calculated act of defiance, since crucifixion was a particularly cruel and degrading method of execution not normally used on Romans. By this act, Spartacus was saying to his enemies: you think the lives of slaves are cheap, but we will make you pay dearly for your actions. This report, like all the other reports published by the Romans, were intended to justify their bloody suppression of the slaves. But they really did not require any excuse to do what they were already determined to do. These slaves must be taught a lesson that the whole world would never forget!
Excessive confidence played a big role in the defeat of the rising, as Plutarch explains:
“Spartacus, after this discomfiture, retired to the mountains of Petelia, but Quintius, one of Crassus' officers, and Scrofa, the quaestor, pursued and overtook him. But when Spartacus rallied and faced them, they were utterly routed and fled, and had much ado to carry off their quaestor, who was wounded. This success, however, ruined Spartacus, because it encouraged the slaves, who now disdained any longer to avoid fighting, or to obey their officers, but as they were upon the march, they came to them with their swords in their hands, and compelled them to lead them back again through Lucania, against the Romans, the very thing which Crassus was eager for.” (my emphasis, AW)
The ever-cautious Crassus did not want an immediate battle with an enemy whose strength, courage and resourcefulness had defeated the Romans many times. Instead of attacking, he ordered his troops to build a wall across the isthmus, in an attempt to starve the slaves into submission. All the technological prowess of Rome was summoned to defeat the slaves. In the words of Plutarch:
“This great and difficult work he perfected in a space of time short beyond all expectation, making a ditch from one sea to the other, over the neck of land, three hundred furlongs long, fifteen feet broad, and as much in depth, and above it built a wonderfully high and strong wall.” (Ibid.) By building this wall, he achieved two objects: keeping his soldiers from demoralising idleness and denying the enemy food and forage.
All this effort, however, was in vain. Despite these frightening odds, Spartacus yet again displayed an uncanny grasp of tactics. On a stormy night, in the middle of a snowstorm , Spartacus ordered his followers to fill up part of the ditch with earth and boughs of trees, and so passed over with one third of his army. But this was just a last show of strength, one last burst of energy before the final collapse of the revolt. With this daring blow, he managed to break through Crassus's lines and escape towards Brundisium (now Brindisi), where Lucullus' army was landing.
When he saw that Spartacus had evaded him, Crassus was terrified that the slave army was going to march directly to Rome. In reality, that was probably the best option open to him – indeed the only option: to chance everything on one last desperate throw and strike at the enemy’s head. But this was rendered impossible by a new outbreak of divisions in the ranks of the slaves. Once again, part of Spartacus’ army mutinied, abandoned their commander and set up a camp upon the Lucanian lake. And once again the lack of unity had disastrous consequences. Crassus fell upon the dissident slaves and beat them from the lake. He would have slaughtered them, except that Spartacus suddenly appeared, rallying the troops and checking their flight.
The final battle
Despite his recent setback, it was clear to Crassus that the slaves were in a difficult position. Sensing that victory was within his grasp, Crassus began to regret his earlier action of writing to the Senate to call Lucullus out of Thrace, and Pompey out of Spain. As a typical politician of that period, he saw war as a means of winning prestige and glory that would help him to win high office in the state, as Julius Caesar did very effectively later on. If the other generals were to arrive at the last moment, before the decisive battle, it would look as if they, and not Crassus, had won the war. This is just what happened. Crassus won the decisive battle against Spartacus but it was Pompey who got all the glory.
Crassus was therefore anxious to be the one to give battle as soon as possible:
“For news was already brought that Pompey was at hand; and people began to talk openly that the honour of this war was reserved to him, who would come and at once oblige the enemy to fight and put an end to the war. Crassus, therefore, eager to fight a decisive battle, encamped very near the enemy, and began to make lines of circumvallation; but the slaves made a sally and attacked the pioneers.” (Plutarch, Crassus)
Crassus had superior forces and was eager to fight a decisive battle. He intercepted Spartacus’ army and encamped very near the enemy in an obvious provocation to get the slaves to fight. The slaves obliged by attacking. Spartacus, seeing that fresh reinforcements were arriving from all sides, understood that there was no longer any possibility of avoiding a battle. Every moment that passed meant a strengthening of the Roman host. As he watched fresh supplies coming from every side to the Roman camp, Spartacus had to bet everything on one last superhuman effort. In the words that Karl Marx later used to describe the heroic uprising of the Paris Commune, the slaves decided to “storm Heaven”. He therefore gathered his army and strove to raise their fighting spirits for the coming battle.
We can only guess at his state of mind at this fateful moment, when the entire destiny of the rebellion rested on the outcome of one last battle. Displaying the extraordinary qualities of a great commander, he calmly set all his army in battle order. What followed then is one of the most moving incidents in history. When his horse was brought to him, Spartacus drew out his sword and killed him in front of the slave army, saying: “If we win the day I shall have a great many better horses from the enemy, and if we lose, I shall have no need of one.” By this action, Spartacus not only showed great personal courage and complete disregard for his personal safety, but also sent out an uncompromising message to the slaves: we win this battle or we die.
For the last time the slaves fought with desperate courage, as even the Roman historians are compelled to admit. But the outcome of this battle was never in doubt. According to Roman accounts, Spartacus cut his way through the mass of fighting men and made directly for Crassus himself. Amidst the deadly rain of blows, and covered in wounds, he did not reach his goal, but killed two centurions that fell upon him together. Finally, being deserted by those that were about him, he himself stood his ground, and, surrounded by the enemy, bravely defending himself, was cut to pieces: The Roman historian, Appian: describes the scene thus:
“Spartacus was wounded in the thigh with a spear and sank upon his knee, holding his shield in front of him and contending in this way against his assailants until he and the great mass of those with him were surrounded and slain”. (Appian Civil Wars).
After the battle, the legionaries found and rescued 3,000 Roman prisoners in their camp – all of whom were unharmed. This civilized treatment of the Roman prisoners contrasts starkly with the fate meted out to Spartacus' followers. Crassus had 6,000 slaves crucified along the Appian Way between Capua and Rome – a distance of about 200 kilometres. Their corpses lined the road all the way from Brundisium to Rome. Since Crassus never gave orders for the bodies to be taken down, for years after the final battle all who travelled that road were treated to this macabre spectacle.
Around 5,000 slaves somehow escaped capture. These shattered remnants of the slave army fled north and were intercepted on the shores of the river Silarus in Lucania by Pompey, who was coming back from Roman Iberia. The slaves, who by now must have been exhausted by all their exertions, were confronted by the fresh, well-trained and confident legions of the most prominent Roman general. He proceeded to slaughter them, and later used the butchering of a depleted and dispirited band of exhausted runaway slaves as a pretext to claim the credit for ending the slave war.
Pompey immediately wrote a letter to the Senate, claiming that, although Crassus had defeated the slaves in a pitched battle, he (Pompey) had put an end to the war. Subsequently, Pompey was honoured with a magnificent triumph for his conquest over Sertorius and Spain, while Crassus was denied the honour of a triumph that he so earnestly desired. Instead, he was compelled to accept a lesser honour, called an ovation. Thus was Pompey “the Great” greeted as a hero in Rome, while Crassus, to his great chagrin, received neither credit nor glory for saving the Republic from Spartacus.
This ingratitude tells us something about the psychology of the slave-owning Roman ruling class. These wealthy scoundrels and hypocrites could never admit that in Spartacus they had found an enemy that made them tremble. The noble Senators conveniently forgot the terror that the name of Spartacus had struck in their hearts only a few months earlier. How could a war against a slave army merit the honours of a triumph?
Desperate to win the military triumph that the Senate had denied him, Crassus again tried to achieve glory in Asia, where he met a well-deserved death under ignominious circumstances. Pompey himself was later murdered in Egypt after his defeat in the civil war against Caesar. One might conclude from this that there is some justice in history after all. The names of these men are half-forgotten today, while the name of Spartacus is honoured and his memory cherished in the hearts of millions.
Myth and reality
The legend of Spartacus lived on long after his death. For the Romans, the story of the slave revolt was an awful warning: it suggested that a society built on the backs of slaves and subject peoples might one day be overthrown by them. Four centuries later, this is exactly what happened, and Rome fell to the barbarians. The memory of Spartacus lives on as a symbol of the power of the oppressed masses to confront their oppressors. It retains all its force and is an inspiration for all who today fight for their rights.
It is no accident that during the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht adopted the name of the Roman revolutionary when they launched the Spartakist League. Karl Marx was also a great admirer of Spartacus. Marx said Spartacus was his hero, citing him as the “finest fellow antiquity had to offer”. In a letter to Engels dated 27th February, 1861, Marx says that he was reading about Spartacus in Appian’s Civil Wars of Rome: “Spartacus emerges as the most capital fellow in the whole history of antiquity. A great general [...], of noble character, a ‘real representative’ of the proletariat of ancient times. Pompey a real shit [...]” (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 41, p. 265). Anyone who has even a superficial knowledge of history would find it hard to disagree with this assessment.
The figure of Spartacus, and his great rebellion, has become an inspiration to many modern literary and political writers. Howard Fast wrote a famous novel about the rising. Stanley Kubrick later adapted Howard Fast’s novel to make his outstanding film Spartacus (1960). In his book Spartacus, F.A. Ridley is dismissive of both Kubrick and Fast, but is unjust in both cases. This is just another sad example of how a narrow and mechanical interpretation of Marxism is always incapable of seeing the wood for the trees.
Fast was not attempting to write a history book but a historical novel, and while he may have taken certain liberties, the novel conveys very well the spirit of its subject. This is not history, but the best kind of historical novel that represents real events in an imaginative way, without seriously departing from the historical record. Of course, there are some things that are definitely non-historical, especially in the film. Contrary to the celebrated sequence in the film, the survivors of the battle were never asked to identify Spartacus, because he had died on the battlefield.
But we must bear in mind this is a work of art and as such is entitled to a certain latitude in presenting historical events in a dramatic light. More importantly, a work of art may present a profound truth even when it departs from the strict historical record of events. This dramatic scene, when one by one, the slaves rise to defy their masters, each one declaring “I am Spartacus”, does in fact contain a profound truth that is applicable not only to the Spartacus revolt but to every such revolt of oppressed people throughout history. For the strength of Spartacus was precisely the fact that in his person he embodied the hopes and aspirations of the mass of slaves yearning for freedom. And within each of these rebellious slaves one can say that there was lodged a small particle of Spartacus. As for the subsequent mass crucifixion scene, that is historically accurate.
What little we know about this great man we know from what his enemies wrote about him. What do we know? We know sufficient to deduce that Spartacus was a brilliant commander and a skilful battlefield tactician. Probably, he was the greatest general of all antiquity. But he was probably not, as the film and novel presented him, the revolutionary leader of a disciplined fighting force. If he possessed a clearly defined political strategy, we do not know of it. Little united his army except the goal of continued survival and in the end, internal dissent and sheer confusion sealed its fate as surely as Rome’s superior forces.
Was Spartacus an early forerunner of Communism? In his novel Howard Fast places the following words in the mouth of the slave leader: “Whatever we take, we hold in common, and no man shall own anything but his weapons and his clothes. It will be the way it was in the old times”. Where Fast got the idea for this I do not know, but it is not impossible that some kind of primitive communist and egalitarian ideas existed at the time – in the same way that they later surfaced among the early Christians.
It is possible that utopian or communist currents were present in the great slave revolt of 71 BC, based on the dim memories of a remote past when men were equal and property was held in common. But if that were the case, they would have been backward looking, rather than progressive, and would have manifested themselves as a communism of consumption (“equal sharing”) and not collective production.
In the given conditions, such an option would not have carried society forward, but backwards. Real communism (a classless society) cannot be built on the basis of backwardness and austerity. It supposes a high development of the productive forces, such that men and women can be freed from the burden of labour and can possess the necessary time to develop their full human potential. These material conditions did not exist at the time of Spartacus.
What would have happened if the slaves had won? Had they succeeded in overthrowing the Roman state, the course of history would have been significantly altered. Of course, it is not possible to say exactly what the outcome would have been. Probably the slaves would have been freed – although even this cannot be taken for granted. Even if that had occurred, given the level of development of the productive forces, the general tendency could only have been in the direction of some kind of feudalism.
Several centuries later, this began to happen under the Empire, when the slave economy reached its limits and entered into crisis. The slaves were “freed” but tied to the land as serfs (colonii). If this had occurred earlier, it is likely that economic and cultural development would have proceeded more quickly and humanity might have been spared the horrors of the Dark Ages.
However, this is just speculation. The fact is that the rising did not succeed, and could not succeed for a number of reasons. Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto that the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles:
“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”.
The fate of the Roman Empire was a striking example of the second variant. The basic reason why Spartacus failed in the end was the fact that the slaves did not link up with the proletariat in the towns. So long as the latter continued to support the state, the victory of the slaves was impossible. But the Roman proletariat, unlike the modern proletariat, was not a productive class. It was mainly a parasitical class, living off the labour of the slaves and dependent on their masters.
The failure of the Roman revolution is rooted in this fact. The end result was the collapse of the Republic and the rise of a monstrous tyranny under the Empire, leading to a long period of inner decay, social and economic decline and finally a collapse into barbarism.
The spectacle of these most downtrodden people rising up with arms in hand and inflicting defeat after defeat on the armies of the world’s greatest power is one of the most amazing and moving events in history. Ultimately, Spartacus failed. It may be that his revolt was always doomed to fail. But this glorious page in history will never be forgotten as long as men and women are motivated by the love of truth and justice. The echoes of this titanic uprising reverberate down the centuries and are still a source of inspiration to all those today who are continuing the fight for a better world.
London, March 20, 2009