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Pinning Down Spartacus

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Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Charles McGraw and Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, 1960

Most hard-headed modern historians are now concerned to deconstruct that popular picture, and to go back directly to the ancient sources, limited as they are, to recover the real Spartacus from the grip of romantic filmmakers, utopian social theorists, or naive humanitarians; they want, in a sense, to get back closer to that image of the gladiator on the wall in Pompeii. Spartacus, by Aldo Schiavone, a distinguished Italian scholar of Roman law, is the most recent of these attempts to strip away the myth from the historical rebel. It is an intelligent, learned, and challenging account, even if occasionally let down by awkward translation from the Italian (Spartacus was not active in the “seventh decade of the first century BC” but in the 70s BC; and “an easy and pleasant reading” is a strange version of “an easy and pleasant read”). It is also sensibly succinct. As a basic rule of thumb, the longer a book on Spartacus is, the less historically accurate it is likely to be.

Schiavone is particularly concerned to investigate Spartacus’ ultimate objectives. Like most others who have recently tried to see through the Spartacus mirage, he roundly rejects the idea that there was some kind of class war or proletarian revolution in his uprising. It certainly suited Marx and, particularly, Lenin to see Roman slave rebellions as the ancient equivalent of the class struggle. “History,” Lenin wrote, “is full of the constant attempts of the oppressed classes to throw off oppression”; and for him, Spartacus was one of the earliest of those attempts to be documented. But as Schiavone insists, following many others (including M.I. Finley), “class struggle” implies the existence of “class consciousness.” Mere “social stratification” is not enough; any form of class action in the Marxist sense requires, as a necessary precondition, a clearly conceived relationship between the possessors of the means of production and the possessors of labor. “Such a relationship,” Schiavone writes, “never emerged in ancient societies, not even in first-century Rome.” Ironically, that was because of the institution of slavery, which “prevented labor from coming onto the market…as a commodity sellable by free workers, and consequently to give rise to a class structure.”

Very few modern historians would now see Spartacus’ rebellion as a proletarian revolution in Marxist terms. (Perhaps the most distinguished recent exception was the Oxford classicist Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, author of The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World—which, despite its title, included lengthy discussion of Roman history and slavery.) But if the uprising was not an early example of class warfare, then what was driving Spartacus? What were his aims?

The standard view among scholars would now be some version of the “plucky jailbreak” model that so irritated Dalton Trumbo when he saw the first cut of the movie. Spartacus and his fellow rebels just wanted to go back home. They were not looking—for whatever reason, Marxist or otherwise—to abolish the institution of slavery. So far as we can tell (and we are, of course, entirely dependant on elite, slave-owning sources here), no form of abolitionist agenda lay behind any slave uprisings in the ancient world. The rebels wanted to free themselves from slavery; and in a world where most slaves came from overseas, usually as war captives, they wanted, as both Appian and Plutarch suggested of Spartacus, to get back home to their family and friends, and to the life they led before captivity. Spartacus’ aims were no grander.

Schiavone has no more time for this idea than for the fantasies of a proletarian revolution; and he has a point. Ancient writers may choose to imagine no loftier ambition for runaway slaves than a return to their roots. But it is very hard to see why on earth a group of runaways who simply wanted to get back to their various homelands should have troubled to enlist followers in large numbers (it’s unlikely that they were simply joined spontaneously by local discontents). And it is even harder to see why they should have taken on the Roman legions, rather than splitting and fleeing. Schiavone also observes that if you track the route that ancient writers claim the rebels followed through Italy, it is clear that they must have had several opportunities to break out for home—which they did not take.

In Schiavone’s reconstruction, Spartacus’ aims were (or came to be) much more straightforwardly political and military. He saw himself at the head of a real army, not just a band of “fugitives and drifters,” and he determined “to strike at the heart of Roman power and snatch Italy from its dominion.” He had a good sense of the political discontent in Italy that still lingered after the so-called “Social War” almost twenty years earlier (to all intents and purposes a civil war between Rome and its allies across most of South Italy); and he wanted to reignite it as a challenge to Roman control of the peninsula. In short, he saw himself as a major adversary of Rome directly on the model of Hannibal (to whom Orosius and Eutropius, another early Christian historian, obliquely compared him).

This basic model then allows Schiavone to interpret rather differently some of the puzzling aspects of the ancient accounts of the rebellion. On several occasions, for example, the rebels are said to have split up into separate groups and traveled by different routes. Ancient writers tend to put this down to disagreements between them: these poor runaway slaves just couldn’t make up their minds what to do next. Schiavone sees it instead as a clever “strategic choice” on Spartacus’ part: to increase the number of local people they might meet and recruit, to make feeding the troops easier, and to multiply the opportunities for ambushing the Roman forces.

Schiavone defends this interpretation vigorously and engagingly, with plenty of sharp observations and well-judged criticisms of earlier reconstructions. But he is not himself entirely convincing. He is forced on several occasions to some rather desperate special pleading. Orosius and Eutropius certainly did compare the fear and devastation suffered by Italy to that wreaked by Hannibal (“terror spread through the city of Rome, just as it had in the time when Hannibal had threatened its gates,” as Orosius put it). But that does not mean, as Schiavone suggests, that the comparison between the two enemies of Rome went back to some section of Livy’s earlier History, now lost to us; still less, that “the motif dated back to the time of Spartacus—the new Hannibal.” And the fact that Spartacus “organized a grandiose funeral for Crixus,” his fellow rebel, certainly cannot be taken as “further proof there had been no rift between them”—as we know from many such modern lavish occasions.

But the problems here, as with every modern interpretation of Spartacus’ rebellion, go deeper than this, and directly back to the ancient writers themselves. Quite a lot of what they report is frankly implausible, but we have no firm criteria—beyond first principles—to judge which “facts” to accept and which to reject. Numbers are a good case in point. Schiavone is understandably skeptical about Appian’s claim that Spartacus commanded 70,000 men. But why trust Orosius’ figure of 40,000? Suppose Orosius did get it from Livy—how did Livy know? Even more fundamental, though, is the problem of how we can now have access to Spartacus’ aims and strategy. The only way is to scrutinize the accounts of what he is supposed to have done and to infer a strategy out of that (as if what he did was, in fact, all part of a grand plan).

Ancient writers saw some of the difficulties with that. There are many inconsistences and puzzles in some of Spartacus’ reported actions. Why, for example, march all the way up to the top of Italy, then all the way back down to the toe? Hence all those tales, in the Roman sources, of disagreements between the rebel leaders: an economical way of making sense of the sometimes nonsensical. I would be tempted to go further and to say that the evidence of the uprising that we have is equally compatible with a group of rebels who had no grand strategy at all. Their minds were not on rekindling the embers of the Social War (I wonder how much a group of slave gladiators even knew about the Social War anyway). They were facing the dilemmas that many in their position have faced throughout history: that it is easy to bring off a jailbreak, but much harder to know what to do next. They took some lucky chances and had some lucky breaks; some probably had grandiose ideas, others hardly knew where they were. But maybe strategy is the last thing we should be looking for.

In the end, it is the most famous, and most imitated, scene in the Kubrick movie that inadvertently sums up the “Spartacus dilemma” best. When the rebels have finally been defeated, Crassus demands that the prisoners identify Spartacus, so that he can be punished and the rest spared. As Spartacus starts to reveal himself, all the others get up one by one, shouting “I’m Spartacus.” “I’m Spartacus.” In the film, it is meant as a moving demonstration of the solidarity and shared humanity of the rebels—even, as it will turn out to be, at the cost of their own lives. For a historian it is a nice symbol of the multiple identities that Spartacus now has, and of the sheer impossibility of pinning him down. It’s a very long way from the gladiator on horseback on the wall at Pompeii.

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