In the entrance hall of a fairly ordinary house in ancient Pompeii, buried beneath layers of later paint, are the faint traces of an intriguing sketch of two men fighting on horseback. They are named in captions above their heads, written in Oscan—one of the early languages of South Italy that was eventually wiped out by the Latin of the Romans. The name of one is scarcely legible, but probably says “Felix the Pompeian” (or “Lucky from Pompeii”). The other reads clearly, in Oscan, “Spartaks,” which in Latin would be “Spartacus”—a name best known to us from the slave and gladiator who in the late 70s BC led a rebellion that, it is said, very nearly managed to defeat the power of Rome itself.
At first sight, the scene painted on the wall looks like a military battle. But the trumpeters on either side of this pair of fighters match those often found next to gladiators in ancient paintings. So this is probably meant to depict mounted gladiatorial combat. The men must be the equites, or “horsemen,” who sometimes appeared in those bloody Roman spectacles, alongside the more familiar, heavily armed characters who fought on foot.
It is, of course, possible that the painting has nothing to do with the famous Spartacus, and that it refers to some other gladiator who just happened to have the same name; that is certainly what some skeptics argue. But there are nevertheless good reasons for linking the painting to the famous rebel: it very likely dates to the lifetime of “our” Spartacus, in the early years of the first century BC (as both the archaeological setting and the use of the Oscan language suggest); and Pompeii was, in any case, less than forty miles from Capua, where Spartacus underwent training for combat and from where he is said to have launched his rebellion—the two towns were presumably on the same gladiatorial circuit. There is a fair chance that this image gives us a glimpse of the future enemy of Rome when he was still just an ordinary gladiator—and to judge from the picture, not a totally successful one. For “Felix the Pompeian” is certainly getting the better of the retreating Spartaks. In fact, we might guess that it was to celebrate the victory of the local man that the Pompeian householder put up this image in his front hall.
It was not until 1,800 years after this largely forgotten gladiatorial contest that the familiar modern image of Spartacus was born: the freedom fighter, the hero of the oppressed, the man who came close to victory over Rome…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.