Ancient History & Civilisation

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Author’s Note

I have used Roman place names wherever possible, with the exception of such common names as Italy and Spain.

I have translated all ancient Greek and Latin quotations myself unless otherwise noted.

Chronology

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Introduction

Lucius Cossinius was naked. Senator, commander and deputy to the general Publius Varinius, Cossinius usually wore a full suit of armour and a red cloak, fastened with a bronze brooch on his right shoulder. But now he was bathing. A bath was a luxury in wartime, but no doubt hard to resist after leading 2,000 men on the march. As he had approached, Cossinius could have seen the pool glistening in the grounds of a villa at Salinae - ‘Salt Works’ - located on a coastal lagoon near Pompeii. In the distance stood Vesuvius, still a sleeping volcano in those days, its hills green with pine and beech trees, its orchards overflowing with apples and with grapes that made wine good enough for a senator’s table; its soil teeming with hares, dormice and moles that the locals favoured as hors d’oeuvres.

While Cossinius let down his guard, the enemy prepared to strike. Runaway slaves, gladiators and barbarians, they were a rabble in arms, but they had already beaten Rome twice that summer. Their leader was as cunning as he was strong, as experienced as he was fresh, and he spoke words to steel the most timid soul. His name was Spartacus.

There was probably only a moment’s warning, maybe a centurion sounding the alarm or the shouts of the men. Cossinius, we might imagine, moved quickly out of the water and onto his horse before his slave finished rearranging his master’s cloak. Even so, Spartacus’s men burst into the grounds of the villa so fast that Cossinius barely escaped. Not so his supplies, which the enemy captured, and which would now go to feed the rebel force.

They hounded Cossinius and his men back to their camp. Most of the Romans were new recruits. Children of Italy’s abundance, they had nothing but hasty training to prepare them for a savage foe, some of them giants, red-haired and tattooed, and buoyed by success. In spite of the curses and threats of their centurions, some Romans ran away; the rest stayed and were slaughtered. Everything they had now belonged to the enemy, from their camp down to their arms and armour. Lucius Cossinius was naked again, but this time he was dead.

It was the autumn of 73 BC. After several months of rebellion, the fortunes of the Senate and people of Rome were heading towards a low ebb. A city that had shrugged off Etruscan adventurers, weathered a Gallic invasion, stood up to Hannibal’s charge, endured civil war, survived annual outbreaks of malaria, and fought its way to such power that it could think of itself as the head of the world, was afraid of a runaway gladiator.

What began as a prison breakout by seventy-four men armed only with cleavers and skewers had turned into a revolt by thousands. And it wasn’t over: a year later the force would number roughly 60,000 rebel troops. With an estimated 1-1.5 million slaves in Italy, the rebels amounted to around 4 per cent of the slave population. To put that figure in perspective, the USA in the nineteenth century had about 4 million slaves, and yet Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 involved only 200 of them.

Rome had seen slave rebellions before but this one was different. Earlier revolts had either been relatively small or, if extensive, far off in Sicily, but this enormous army had come within a week’s march of Rome. Not since Hannibal crossed the Alps had foreigners done so much damage to the Italian countryside. Earlier slave revolts coalesced around mystics and gang leaders, not gladiators and ex-Roman soldiers. Spartacus struck a chord in the Roman psyche. No other leader of rebel slaves was so well remembered or so feared. As a gladiator, Spartacus belonged to a group of men who were licensed to kill - to kill each other, that is: Romans had a lurid fascination with the arena but rebel gladiators aroused first disgust and then dread.

Spartacus came from Thrace (roughly, Bulgaria), an area known to Romans for its fierce fighters and ecstatic religion, and for its alternation between alliance and rebellion. As a one-time allied soldier in Rome’s service, Spartacus should have been a Roman success story. Instead, he had become the enemy within. Thracians, Celts and Germans - barbarians all, in Roman eyes - made up most of his followers. Earlier slave rebels came from the citified Greek East; fairly or not, the Romans scorned their warrior prowess. But they dreaded a fight against barbarians.

Timing made matters worse. When Spartacus began his revolt, Rome faced major wars at both ends of its empire. Mithridates, a king in Asia Minor (today, Turkey), had sparked a substantial war against Rome in 88 BC that had spread to Greece and Thrace and was still going strong after fifteen years. Meanwhile, in Spain, the renegade Roman general Sertorius ran a breakaway government whose Roman leaders had the support of a native resistance movement. Finally, at the same time, off the coasts of Crete, the Roman navy struggled to catch pirates who were wrecking the sea lanes. We know that Rome eventually defeated all these challengers. But in 73 BC that outcome was not yet clear.

By exploiting propaganda masterfully Spartacus threatened to widen his base of support. He sounded themes that appealed not only to slaves but also to Italian nationalists and to supporters of Mithridates. Although his message probably attracted few free men to his banner in the end, it was enough to frighten Rome.

Spartacus’s was antiquity’s most famous slave revolt and arguably its largest. It was a revolt that absorbed southern Italy, caught Rome with its homeland virtually defenceless, led to nine defeats of Roman armies and kept antiquity’s greatest military power at bay for two years. How was it possible? Why did the rebels do so well for so long? Why did they fail in the end? And how could the world’s only superpower have let such a problem persist in its own back yard?

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It’s a story that should have been in pictures, and, of course, it is. In 1960 Spartacus appeared, a Hollywood epic starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Stanley Kubrick. The film was a hit then and remains a classic. It was loosely based on a bestselling 1951 novel by Howard Fast, which he wrote after serving a jail term for contempt of Congress during the McCarthy era. An American Communist who eventually left the party, Fast was not the first Communist to admire Spartacus. Lenin, Stalin and Karl Marx himself saw Spartacus as the very model of the proletarian revolutionary. German Marxist revolutionaries of 1919 called their group the Spartacus League; their failed uprising grew legendary. Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian wrote a ballet about Spartacus that won him the Lenin Prize for 1959.

Non-Communist revolutionaries admired Spartacus as well. Toussaint L’Ouverture, the hero of the Haitian Revolution, history’s only successful mass slave revolt, emulated Spartacus. Giuseppe Garibaldi, who fought to unify Italy, wrote the preface to a novel about Spartacus. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Zionist revolutionary, translated that novel into Hebrew. Voltaire, the French Enlightenment philosopher, judged Spartacus’s rebellion as perhaps the only just war in history. Even anti-Communists approved of Spartacus: Ronald Reagan, for example, cited him as an example of sacrifice and struggle for freedom.

But while Spartacus was the stuff of legend he was no myth. He is, however, an enigma to us. Spartacus left no writings. His followers scratched out no manuscripts. Surviving ancient narratives come from Roman or Greek writers who wrote from the point of view of the victors. To make things worse, few of their writings survive. Still, they leave absolutely no doubt about it: Spartacus was real.

Plutarch (c. AD 40s-120s) and Appian (c. AD 90s-160s) provide the most complete accounts of Spartacus to survive from antiquity but they are short, late (150-200 years after the revolt) and each come with an axe to grind. Even shorter is the discussion by Florus (c. AD 100-150), but his concise remarks are full of significance. These three writers relied on important but now mostly lost earlier works by Sallust (86-35 BC) and Livy (59 BC - AD 12). Almost nothing of Livy’s discussion of Spartacus survives, and we have only a precious few pages’ worth of selections from Sallust’s account of the war.

Three other contemporaries of Spartacus comment briefly on his activities: the great orator Cicero (106-43 BC), the scholar and politician Varro (116-27 BC) and the inimitable Julius Caesar (100-44 BC). Many other ancient writers over the centuries mentioned Spartacus, from the poet Horace (65-8 BC) to St Augustine (AD 354-430), although they add but little. Even by the standards of ancient history, it represents slim pickings.

However, there are archaeological finds, the results of topographical research, and experiments in historical reconstruction ranging from gladiators’ contests - without real weapons, of course - to weaving vines into ropes such as Spartacus’s men used to climb down Vesuvius. Coins, frescos, sling balls and fortifications all record the rebels’ path through the Italian countryside. The bones of a gladiators’ cemetery in Turkey reveal training secrets and recall the agony of death. Tombs, shrines and towns; gold and iron; plaques and paintings: all take us beyond the stereotypes of barbarians in Greek and Roman texts. Finally, Roman slavery comes to life through graffiti, chains, auction buildings, slave quarters and slave prisons.

The story of Spartacus is, first of all, a war story: a classic case study of an insurgency, led by a genius at guerrilla tactics, and of a counter-insurgency, led by a conventional power that slowly and painfully learned how to beat the enemy at his own game. The Spartacus War is also a tale of ethnic conflict. Spartacus was Thracian but many of his men were Celts; they were proud, independent and fighting-mad. Tribal divisions turned the rebels into feuding cliques who ignored their chief. The march for freedom degenerated into gang warfare, and, as so often in history, the revolution failed.

In addition, the Spartacus narrative is a love story and a crusade. Spartacus had a wife or mistress; her name is not recorded. A priestess of Dionysus, this unnamed companion preached a rousing message. She drew on the liberation theology that had fired Rome’s earlier slave revolts and still fuelled the anti-Roman war that had raged for fifteen years in the eastern Mediterranean. Spartacus had a divine mission.

And finally, The Spartacus War is also a story about identity politics. A rebel against Rome, Spartacus was more Roman than he cared to admit and certainly more than the Romans could admit. He terrified the Romans not just because he was foreign but because he was familiar.

Spartacus was a soldier who had served Rome, and his behaviour might have reminded Romans of their heroes. Like Marcellus, perhaps Rome’s most red-blooded general, he thirsted to kill the enemy commander with his own hand. Like Cicero, he was an orator. Like Cato, he was a man of simple tastes. Like the Gracchi, he believed in sharing the wealth among his men. Like Brutus, he fought for freedom.

Like the most ambitious Roman of them all, he claimed to have a personal relationship with a god: like Caesar, Spartacus was a man of destiny. No sooner had he died than men began to dream of Spartacus’s return. The human Spartacus fell to the power of Rome; the legend might topple empires still.

The Spartacus War describes the complexity of slave revolts too. We do not know if Spartacus wanted to abolish slavery but, if so, he aimed low. He and his men freed only gladiators, farmers and shepherds. They avoided urban slaves, a softer and more elite group than rural workers. They rallied slaves to the cry not only of freedom but also to the themes of nationalism, religion, revenge and loot. Another paradox: they might have been liberators but the rebels brought ruin. They devastated southern Italy in search of food and trouble.

In the end, the story comes back to Spartacus. Who was he? What did he want? Our answers must be based less on what Spartacus said, about which we know little, than on what he did. By necessity, we must be speculative. But we can also be prudent in our speculation because Spartacus’s actions speak loudly. They fit the timeless patterns of insurgencies and uprisings, as shaped by the particulars of his case.

Rome was big, strong and slow; Spartacus was small, hungry and fast. Rome was old and set in its ways; Spartacus was an innovator. Rome was ponderous, while Spartacus was nimble. The Romans suffered so badly from Spartacus’s ambushes, night moves, sudden turnabouts and mobile flank attacks that eventually they gave up facing him in battle. They insisted on isolating his forces and starving them out before they were willing to risk combat.

The ancient sources describe a man of passion, thirsting for freedom and burning for revenge. Spartacus’s actions tell a different story. He was no hothead but a man of controlled emotions. Spartacus was a politician trying to hold together a coalition that was constantly slipping out of control. Whether by nature or training he was a showman. His greatest prop was his own body but Spartacus used many symbols, from a snake to his horse, to form his image. A cult of personality helped attract tens of thousands of followers but at a price of luring them into the delusion of invincibility.

Spartacus was Thracian, and in Thrace warfare was the most honourable profession. The name Spartacus - Latin for Sparada kos - is plausibly translated as ‘Famous for his Spear’. Thracians were masters of the horse, which made them fast, mobile and utterly different from the Romans, who were born infantrymen with little talent for cavalry. And the Thracians had a genius for guerrilla warfare. They perfected light armour for foot soldiers and hit-and-run tactics, to which the heavy-armed Romans were vulnerable. And thanks to his service in an auxiliary unit of the Roman army, Spartacus had been schooled in conventional warfare too.

When it comes to the Romans, our evidence is better, if still limited. The Romans were constrained by the enduring strategies of counter-insurgency. They had to locate, isolate and eradicate an enemy who avoided pitched battle while harassing them via unconventional tactics. To do this required achieving superiority in intelligence, which in turn required local knowledge. Still, while no Roman adopted a strategy of winning popular support, they displayed more savvy in dealing with locals than we might expect.

But the Romans had a lot more on their minds than Spartacus. In 73 BC Rome was a city of scars. Italy was a peninsula divided between Rome and its often unwilling allies. Over the centuries Rome had conquered Italy’s hodgepodge of peoples, including Greeks, Etruscans, Samnites, Lucanians and Bruttians. Many tensions existed, and two decades earlier they had exploded into a rebellion (91-88 BC). The Italian War (also called the Social War, that is, war of the socii, Latin for allies) took three years of bloody battles and sieges before Rome restored peace, and only at the price of granting citizenship to all the allies. Especially in the south, some Italians remained bitter and unreconstructed. The Italian War was followed by a civil war between the supporters of Sulla and the heirs of his late rival, Marius. Sulla won and served as dictator, but after his retirement in 79 BC and death a year later, civil war flared up again in 77 BC. Italy was at peace in 73 BC but stripped of legions, should trouble break out anew: they had been sent abroad to fight Rome’s many enemies.

The Italian countryside included a large population of slaves, who often ran away and who sometimes rose in armed rebellion. In 73 BC Roman Italy was, in short, a bone-dry forest in a summer heatwave. Spartacus lit a match.

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