Ancient History & Civilisation


In the consulship of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer and Lucius Afranius, the year we call 60 BC, a small army marches southwards from Rome under the command of Gaius Octavius. Down the great highways of Italy the men tramp, past Capua and Vesuvius, across the hills of Lucania and under the peaks of Mount Pollino, where they finally turn eastwards into Bruttium and Italy’s far south. Their goal is in sight. A dirty mission, and one postponed by the Senate for a decade, it is nonetheless essential to Roman honour. They have come to exorcize the ghost of Spartacus.

For Octavius, it is a detour from his destiny. He has been named governor of Macedonia, a province across the Adriatic Sea and gateway to the Thracian front, with its rebellious tribes. Victory in arms there might lead to a triumph, which is an ambitious Roman’s dream. Octavius is the very model of the young man on the make. The product of the local aristocracy of a central Italian town, he has married into a prominent Roman family and is climbing the ladder of political and military office. Greatness beckons, but before Octavius can take ship at Brundisium, he has a job to do in Italy.

Eleven years after the end of the great uprising, the last of the rebel’s men still controlled the hills around the plain of Thurii in Bruttium. A rich agricultural region, the plain housed many villas. Spartacus had once scored a great coup here; Thurii is the only city that he and his men ever captured. No wonder the remnants of Spartacus’s army chose to make their way back to these hills after Crassus’s victory in 71 BC.

As far as we can tell, they survived as raiders not revolutionaries, content to huddle in the hills and sally forth for supplies. They no longer dared to face the legionaries’ steel on the open plains. Perhaps the dreamers among them hoped that Spartacus was still alive somewhere and that he would return - after all, his body had never been found. But Spartacus was dead, and a long row of crosses signalled the fate that awaited those who came out in the open to fight Rome.

They continued on local raids for eight years when the tide of another failed uprising washed up on them. In 63 BC the renegade Roman aristocrat Catiline tried to raise a revolt of debtors and slaves, but the Senate crushed it. Survivors of that lost cause fled to Thurii and reinforced the Spartacans. The Senate now decided to wipe out the maroon communities around Thurii. Enter Octavius.

‘He put an end to them on his journey’: so say the sources, without wasting too many words on the fate of rebel slaves. But we can imagine the details: from the Roman cavalrymen suddenly riding in to the crash of swords, some of them perhaps even wielded in defence by men trained in the house of Vatia long ago. We can hear the screams and the crackle of the flames and, finally, the hammering of nails into the inevitable crosses on the roadside.

Whether Octavius knew it or not, his mopping-up operation marked the end of an era. It had lasted about three generations, from the outbreak of the First Sicilian Slave Revolt c. 135 BC until 60 BC. Each of the two Sicilian slave wars had continued for several years, while Spartacus’s uprising lasted more than two years. No further slave uprisings of that magnitude would follow. For example, Catiline’s ‘conspiracy’, as Cicero famously called it, took Rome three months to suppress, and it was largely an operation of free men, rather than of slaves.

All was not peaceful with Rome’s slaves or gladiators, however. Having learned its lesson with Spartacus, the Senate now recognized the revolutionary potential of gladiators and moved to stop it. During the Catiline crisis of 63 BC, for example, the Senate decreed that gladiators be sent out of Rome and moved to Capua and other Italian cities. Both sides recruited gladiators to the political gangs whose violence plagued Roman politics in the decade of the 50s, as civil war loomed between Caesar and Pompey. When Caesar finally crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC and marched on Rome, his rival Pompey seized Caesar’s gladiators at Capua and distributed them among Roman colonists to be guarded: the gladiators were 1,000 or more men. The senators were right to worry about gladiators.

No new Spartacus arose to rally Italy’s slaves. Leaders of his calibre do not come often, and any who did would have had a hard time convincing men to risk the fate of Spartacus’s followers. Slaves took up arms again but in the service of one or another of Rome’s revolutionary politicians rather than under the banner of a rebel slave. The best-known case is that of Sextus Pompey, son of Pompey the Great, who ran a successful pirate fleet from Sicily between 43 and 36 BC. His men included 30,000 runaway slaves.

Spartacus was dead, but his legend was alive and well. Twenty years after Spartacus’s death, Caesar cited the lessons of Spartacus’s revolt when he fought Celts and Germans in Gaul. Thirty years after Spartacus’s death, the Roman general Mark Antony threatened the Republic with his armies. There were no slaves among them but Cicero branded the man ‘a new Spartacus’, nonetheless. Spartacus echoed in Horace’s poetry fifty years after his death. A hundred years after his death, Spartacus’s name came up at the spectre of a gladiators’ revolt in central Italy.

From Caesar to Tacitus to Augustine, the Roman elite never forgot Spartacus. Two of the first historians to write about him were Sallust (probably 86-35 BC) and Livy (59 BC - AD 17). To Sallust, Spartacus was a great man, a hero and patriot who tried to keep his soldiers from committing atrocities and who wanted to lead them out of Italy homewards. But Sallust despised the Senate and much of Rome’s political elite, so his sympathy for a rebel slave makes sense. Livy, a more establishment figure, saw a darker Spartacus, to judge by what little remains of his chapters on the revolt of the gladiators. To Livy, Spartacus was the man who had terrorized Italy.

The voices of ordinary people and slaves are nearly impossible to recover, but they may have left the trace of a whisper. To them, Spartacus might have been a figure of resistance and hope, a reminder of Rome’s Achilles’ heel. The evidence is especially speculative, but we should consider it. Let us begin with Crassus’s chosen instruments of punishment. Pieces of the 6,000 crosses on which Spartacus’s men were crucified might have ended up as relics in the hands of ordinary Italians. The Romans believed in the magical value of a nail or piece of cord used in a crucifixion. Wrapped in wool and placed around the neck, these amulets were thought to cure malarial fevers. The Romans also believed that the hair of a crucified person could ease the disease. Malaria was endemic to Roman Italy, and people sought whatever relief they could find. We can imagine soldiers grabbing nails and cord from the slaves’ crosses and cutting hair from victims’ corpses, and then perhaps even selling such items. If only in amulets kept in Italians’ cupboards, the memory of the slaves’ final agony lingered.

In Rome there was precedent for treating great men like demi-gods. For example, the Gracchi brothers had been assassinated (in 133 and 122 BC) after trying to put through land reform for the common people of Rome. They enjoyed a virtual martyr cult, including statues and daily offerings, while the places where they died were considered sacred. In 86 BC, to take another case, Romans erected statues to a now obscure praetor, Marius Gratidanus, and offered wine and incense to thank him for currency reforms. Slaves could not erect statues to Spartacus, but they could bless his memory and keep it alive.

Worshipping great men might have come naturally to Roman slaves. Slaves took part in the rituals of the little religious community that every Roman household represented. It was standard practice for slaves to worship the genius - that is, the ‘life force’ - of their master, although many would have preferred to worship the memory of the man who had tried to free them.

A painting in Pompeii, though fragmentary and puzzling, may tell us something about popular memory. A cartoon-like fresco, it labels one of its characters as Spartacus: literally, SPARTAKS, which is the Oscan version of the Latin name Spartacus. Oscan was the language of Pompeii. After Sulla planted a colony of his veterans there in 80 BC. Latin quickly dominated the city’s public life, but the Oscan language lingered. Did it record the great rebel gladiator? In truth, Pompeii could not have forgotten Spartacus easily.

A reminder of Spartacus dominated Pompeii’s skyline: Vesuvius, visible throughout the city, and once the scene of Spartacus’s triumph. Some Pompeians might have suffered personally from his raids, which ravaged the local countryside. As a gladiator, moreover, Spartacus had an added claim to Pompeii’s attention, because Pompeians were dyed-in-the-wool fans. Archaeological evidence shows this, at least for the first century AD.

The Spartacus fresco decorated a building on a busy street. In AD 79 its location was the entrance hall of a private house. But the fresco was painted much earlier, well before the volcanic eruption of AD 79; in fact, the fresco had been covered over by two layers of plaster by then and was no longer visible. In those days, it is possible that the room where it was found was part of a tavern next door; the evidence suggests that the architecture had been changed before AD 79. The painting is monochromatic, with reddish chestnut-coloured figures drawn on a white background, a common style in pre-Roman Campania. It looks a little bit like a comic strip.

The Spartacus fresco depicts a series of combats. On the far right there is a trumpeter. To his left ride two horsemen armed with lances, helmets and round shields. The first rider looks as if he is trying to escape the second, but without success: the second horseman spears him in the thigh. To the left of the horsemen two men are fighting on foot. They are armed with swords, large body shields and helmets. Finally, on their left, comes a rectangular shape, possibly an altar.

Some say the fresco depicts an actual battle, but it is clearly a gladiatorial combat. The two pairs of fighters and their arms and armour point to this conclusion. So does the altar, which recalls the tombs around which the earliest gladiatorial games took place. And then there is the trumpeter. Musicians accompanied gladiatorial games, and they sometimes dressed like animals. This trumpeter is wearing a mask, possibly representing a bear. He may be draped in a bearskin cloak as well. We know of another example of a trumpeter in the games who wore a mask and bearskin. That man’s stage name was URSUS TUBICEN, ‘the Bear Trumpeter’, presumably in reference to the instrument’s deep roar.

Each of the four gladiators is labelled. The names of the men on foot are illegible while the name of the conquering horseman is FEL . . . POMP . . ., plausibly restored as Felix the Pompeian, which also means ‘the lucky Pompeian’. The wounded horseman is clearly labelled SPARTAKS.

But was he the Spartacus? The experts disagree. Some say yes and argue, moreover, that the fresco depicts Spartacus’s last battle. Some even suggest that the man who commissioned the painting - Felix of Pompeii? - had claimed to have wounded Spartacus. But the fresco depicts gladiators, not soldiers.

Still, the fresco shows Spartacus in combat, and so it might have been meant as a symbol of his revolt. Some scholars insist, however, that the date of the painting makes that impossible. Stylistically, the fresco is most easily dated to the last period of Oscan Pompeii, before 80 BC, after which we no longer find examples of Oscan in public inscriptions in Pompeii. But easy answers are not always right. Besides, we don’t know for certain that Oscan wasn’t used after 80 BC, especially in a private inscription. Oscan inscriptions dating as late as the first century AD are found elsewhere in southern Italy.

In fact, after 80 BC native Pompeians might even have wanted to flaunt the Oscan language in the face of Latin. The sources refer to bitter and protracted tension at Pompeii between Oscan-speaking natives and Latin-speaking colonists. The colonists held the upper hand but the natives had ways of resisting. They found friends and influence in Rome, as Cicero notes, and they could express local pride at home - the Spartaks fresco might just be an example of the latter. The fresco might be thumbing its nose at the colonists by reminding them of an enemy who humiliated Rome.

The evidence does not permit certainty, but the reader might accept this hypothesis: the fresco offers a snapshot of myth turning into history. Spartaks is Spartacus as one segment of the public remembered him. Outside books and schoolrooms, historical truth usually becomes myth. Spartacus was larger than life; he was whatever people made of him. They might even have made him into a religious figure - the Spartaks fresco suggests that too. The possible presence of a tomb in the fresco points to funeral games, a common subject of Italian wall painting, documented in other wall painting at Pompeii. A funeral was a religious occasion; it was also, from time to time, an occasion for gladiators. It was a time-honoured Italian custom to celebrate the death of a great man with a gladiatorial combat beside his tomb; a death for a death, as it were.

In the fields of southern Italy, Spartacus might have entered the Orphic-Dionysiac pantheon as a symbol of hope. If the Roman elite shivered at the thought of Spartacus returning, the slave masses might have thrilled at it.

It remained a bloody time for many of those who survived Spartacus. His followers were slowly annihilated. Many of the other important figures in this drama also met with disaster. Oddly, the minor characters seem to have done better than the great men, but perhaps that is a misreading of the sources, which revel in lurid details about the elite while passing over secondary players.

To take the lesser figures first, it seems that defeat by Spartacus was not a career killer. For example, as praetor in 73 BC Varinius had barely escaped Spartacus. Yet there is evidence that eight years later, in 65 BC, he held office as governor of the province of Asia (western Turkey).

The consuls Gellius and Lentulus recovered from the dishonour of their defeats by Spartacus in 72 BC. They were elected censors for the year 70. From 67 to 65 they served as commanders under Pompey in the war against the pirates; they were entrusted with guarding the Italian coast and patrolling the Tyrrhenian Sea. How ironic if any of the pirates who had betrayed Spartacus ended up in their hands! Both men remained active in politics where they supported Pompey over Caesar. Rumour stained Gellius with domestic scandal: Gellius’s adopted son is said to have committed adultery with Gellius’s second wife.

In 72 BC Quintus Arrius had served as propraetor and helped Gellius defeat Crixus. He worked his way through the maze of Roman politics over the next two decades, appearing now as a friend of Crassus, now of Caesar, but never of Cicero, who repaid the compliment by denigrating Arrius in his writings. Arrius retired from public life in 52 BC, in a violent era when peaceful retirement was rare for senators.

Turn to the principal players in the defeat of Spartacus and the record gets bloody. Verres, for example, may have saved Sicily from Spartacus, but that did not help him in 70 BC when Cicero exposed the former governor for having looted the island. Facing a likely conviction after Cicero’s devastating prosecution, Verres did not wait for the verdict. He fled Rome for Massilia (modern Marseille), where he would spend the next quarter-century in self-imposed exile. Finally in 43 BC Roman politics caught up with him. In that year Mark Antony had him murdered, allegedly because Verres refused to turn over to him art treasures that Verres had stolen long ago in Sicily. That last detail, however, is probably too good to be true. Ironically, Cicero himself was murdered at Antony’s command in the same year. Antony took revenge on the orator for having skewered him in public speeches, just as Cicero had once denounced Verres.

It was Pompey who had advised Verres to go into exile. Similar advice might have saved Pompey’s neck, but Pompey was too ambitious and, for a time, too successful, to do such a thing. During the decade of the sixties Pompey was the first man in Rome. He won top military commands: Pompey cleared the seas of pirates, finally defeated Mithridates, and added the Levant to the Roman Empire. Still, Pompey was no dictator, and in 60 BC he entered into a deal with Crassus and Caesar to run Rome as a triumvirate. But the First Triumvirate, as historians call this arrangement, eventually fell apart. In the end, things came down to civil war (49-45 BC) between supporters of Pompey and Caesar. Defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus in northern Greece in 48 BC, Pompey sailed to Egypt. He was murdered as he stepped ashore. Caesar, of course, was assassinated four years later, on the Ides of March, 44 BC.

Crassus avoided this civil war because he was dead. In 53 BC he too had met a violent end. Building on his success against Spartacus, Crassus served as consul twice and as censor, championed the tax collectors of the province of Asia (western Turkey), dabbled in social and political reform, and built up formidable connections and influence. Finally he won a great command in the East and left Italy in 55 BC to conquer Parthia, as the Persian kingdom of the day was known. But the Parthians were no army of ill-equipped slaves.

The Parthians excelled at cavalry, both heavy- and light-armed, and were famous archers. All Crassus had was infantrymen, apart from a small cavalry corps led by his son Publius and manned by Gauls. He failed to understand the challenge that faced him. After staging in Syria, Crassus crossed into western Mesopotamia. The enemy met him near the city of Carrhae. After crushing the Gallic cavalry and killing Publius, the Parthians faced a demoralized enemy. Crassus agreed to negotiate but he was killed in a scuffle with the enemy. They cut off his head and his right hand. His men either surrendered or fled, but most were caught and either killed or taken captive.

The story goes that Crassus’s decapitated head suffered a final indignity. It reached the court of the Parthian king at the city of Seleucia, near modern Baghdad. There, Crassus’s head supposedly showed up as a prop in a performance of Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae.

Of the three Roman generals who closed in on Spartacus in 71 BC, only Marcus Lucullus died of natural causes. Lucullus celebrated a triumph for his success in Thrace, but the rest of his public life was not easy. His older brother, Lucius Lucullus, won great military success against Mithridates but made important enemies in Roman politics who forced him out of power. They made trouble at Rome for both brothers over the next decade. Lucius went insane and died around 56 BC. His grieving brother Marcus buried him on the family estate in the countryside near Rome and then died shortly afterwards.

After the frustration of serving under Gellius in 72 BC, Cato the Younger went on to greatness and tragedy. He became the Late Republic’s leading member of the old guard; no one defended the Senate’s privileges more stubbornly. Although Cato distrusted Pompey, he detested Caesar, so Cato fought for Pompey in the civil war that broke out in 49 BC. After serving in Sicily, Epirus and Asia Minor, in 46 BC Cato ended up in North Africa, where Caesar defeated Cato and pardoned him. Cato preferred suicide. Like Spartacus, his name became legendary. Cato lives on as an icon of Republican virtue.

Thracian rebels would continue to rise in arms against Rome for a century after Spartacus’s death. Big revolts broke out in 11 BC, AD 11 and 26, which forced Rome to send in the legions. Finally, in AD 46, Rome formally annexed Thrace, which had been a client state, as a province. Six years later, in AD 52, a Thracian from the tribe of the Bessi received Roman citizenship as a reward for loyal service in the Roman navy, where he had been a marine for twenty-six years. His name was Spartacus - or, rather, to use the variant spelling of his citizenship record, Sparticus. Sparticus assimilated, unlike the gladiator. Yet the great rebel, too, had once served Rome; if fate had taken a different turn, Spartacus might have headed towards Roman citizenship in 73 BC instead of rising in revolt. But Rome was a much more open society in AD 52 than it had been 125 years earlier.

It is in the shadow of Vesuvius that our story ends. In AD 14 an old man lay dying just west of Vesuvius, at the foot of the mountain or perhaps on its slopes: in either case, within the territory of the Italian city of Nola. He called for a mirror, had his hair combed and his sagging jaws set. Surrounded by his friends, he asked wittily whether he had played his part well in the comedy of life. He displayed coolness in the face of death that a gladiator would have envied. But he was no gladiator: he was the first man in Rome, the ‘father of his country’, as the Senate called him. Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, better known as Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. As Augustus made his exit, Spartacus took a bow with him.

Nola lies at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. When Spartacus and his men poured down from the summit in 73 BC, they victimized the territory of Nola. As he lay dying, the man who ruled the world is unlikely to have turned his attention to local history. But in truth, Augustus had reason to look up towards the summit and think of the slaves who had once ruled the mountain. Without them, he might never have become emperor.

As a young man, Augustus held the honorary title of Thurinus, ‘the man from Thurii’. The sources disagree as to the origin of that title, but the likeliest explanation is a souvenir from his father. Augustus’s father was Gaius Octavius, the man who had cleaned out the nests of Spartacus’s remaining followers around Thurii in 60 BC. If Octavius senior had lived, he might well have gone on to other titles. As governor of Macedonia, he won a smashing victory over Thracian rebels; he was on his way back home to Rome in 58 BC to claim a triumph when he suffered an untimely death. His son was cheated of the bragging rights of having a pater triumphator, but he was entitled to call himself ‘Thurinus’. Not exactly military glory on the grand scale, but the label recalled Octavius’s finest hour.

For a young fatherless boy, being ‘Thurinus’ was a start. He would begin his career with an honour attached to his name. Ironically, his father’s marriage turned out to be even more helpful to his son than his military success, for Octavius had married Julius Caesar’s niece. Caesar would adopt the boy and young Thurinus grew up to become Octavian Caesar and then Augustus.

The shrewd Augustus might have considered, nonetheless, how much he owed Spartacus, at least indirectly. Spartacus’s rebellion had helped to make it possible for Augustus to end the Republic and become emperor. As scholars have pointed out, Spartacus had more symbolic than actual importance in the history of the later Roman Republic. Yet symbols matter. If Romans clamoured for order, if they willingly submitted to dictatorship, it was in small part the result of Spartacus’s symbolic power.

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