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Pinning Down Spartacus

Spartacus

by Aldo Schiavone, translated from the Italian by Jeremy Carden
Harvard University Press, 177 pp., $19.95
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Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato, Rome
‘Spartacus Fresco,’ detail, from Pompeii, early first century BC. The rider on the left is thought to be labeled ‘Felix the Pompeian’ (or ‘Lucky from Pompeii’) and the other is ‘Spartaks’ (reading right to left), or ‘Spartacus’ in Latin

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 with an army of the desperate and the destitute, and certainly not the type to be worsted by some “Lucky from Pompeii.” Roman writers who, in the centuries following Spartacus’ uprising, reflected on his career were generally damning; predictably enough, there was no sympathy among the Roman elite for the instigator of a violent rebellion of slaves. He was, in the relatively measured tones of the historian Appian, writing in the second century AD, “a wholly disreputable person.” The Christian historian Orosius, three centuries later, lamented the “slaughter, arson, theft, and rape” that were carried out in his name in the course of the uprising. The best that could be said was that Spartacus was a brave man and a clever tactician, fighting in support of a dreadful cause.

Only in the radical literary atmosphere of the 1760s did Spartacus start to become the popular figure we now know from film and fiction—above all, of course, from the classic Stanley Kubrick movie of 1960 starring Kirk Douglas. One of the first attempts, if not the first, to create this “new Spartacus” was a lengthy dramatic eulogy to human liberty by Bernard-Joseph Saurin, entitled Spartacus: une tragédie en cinq actes et en vers. This play premiered in Paris in 1760, was revived after the French Revolution, and (as Maria Wyke has spotted) was still well enough known to be mentioned, albeit slightly inaccurately, in the publicity material for the Kubrick film (“taking our influence from the sublime verses of Bernard Joseph Sauria [sic],” as it claimed).1

Saurin added a personal side to the story. Where Plutarch in the second century AD had referred in passing to Spartacus’ wife (an ecstatic prophetess from Spartacus’ original homeland of Thrace, in northern Greece), Saurin concocted a much more implausible romance. He tragically paired the rebel slave with Emilie, the daughter of Crassus, the Roman commander, who finally managed—after a series of humiliating defeats under other generals—to secure victory for the Romans. But more important, the plot focuses on debates about freedom of various kinds, and different costs. At one point Spartacus rejects the (entirely fictional) offer by Crassus of a seat in the Senate for himself and Roman citizenship for his slave followers, provided only that they would give up fighting Rome. He refuses on the grounds that to become Roman would mean turning his back “on the liberty of the world.” And in the final scene the two lovers choose another kind of freedom in mutual suicide. In the very last words of the play Spartacus insists that “he dies a free man.”

These themes were revisited and developed over the next two hundred years by critics and theorists as well as by novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers—from Voltaire, who famously concluded that the rebellion of Spartacus was “the only just war in history,” to Karl Marx, who saw the rebellion as a precursor of class conflict and Spartacus himself as “a genuine representative of the ancient proletariat.” In the 1960s, the Kubrick movie came quickly to symbolize for a much wider audience the struggles of the underdog and the oppressed, thanks not only to its Roman plot but also to the political biographies of some of those involved in its making, and the circumstances of its production: it was based on the novel of Howard Fast, who had begun to write it while jailed for refusing to give information to the House Committee on Un-American Activities; the screenplay was written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (who had to be smuggled into the studio to see the first cut); and there were more or less overt, if only partially successful, attempts by the studio’s censors to tone down its radical message.2

It is ironic, given the popular renown that the movie still has, that almost all of those involved came close to disowning it: Kubrick claimed that it was the only film he had made that he did not like (“it has everything but a good story,” he wrote—oddly, because that is one thing it does have); Fast thought the film did not live up to the radical implications of his own book; Trumbo was disappointed that the extraordinary successes of Spartacus were not given sufficient emphasis, and that the rebellion ended up seeming little more than a plucky jailbreak (he produced an eighty-page critical dissection of the first cut). Kirk Douglas alone appears to have been reasonably content with the way the finished product came close to his own vision of “Spartacus the slave, dreaming of the death of slavery, driving into the armor of Rome the wedge that would eventually destroy her.”

As these disagreements themselves hint, the modern image of Spartacus is flexible enough to allow his story to be told in different ways and for significantly different ends, including—in Spartacus’ turn as a gay icon (his priestess wife notwithstanding)—sexual liberation too. Even within the narrowly political sphere, we are faced not only with the question of quite how large a wedge he did in fact drive into the armor of Rome (was he really close to destroying Rome, or was he never honestly a serious threat?). There is also the question of how far he represented a symbol specifically of the emancipation of slaves, or (as Douglas saw it) of the abolition of slavery itself. In France, at the very end of the eighteenth century, Spartacus certainly did become an important figure for those who supported the Haitian revolution under Toussaint Louverture. But it remained possible to see the liberty claimed by Spartacus in a much more general way, or even—paradoxically—to exclude the very slaves who had been at the center of the historical uprising.

One of the most popular American reworkings of the rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century was The Gladiator, a play by Robert Montgomery Bird, which was originally written as something close to an abolitionist tract. Bird, however, seems to have shifted his position after Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia (decrying the slaves’ “murdering, ravishing and burning those whom the Grace of God has made their masters”), and the play became increasingly presented and interpreted as a plea for the political liberty of the free citizen, not for the bodily liberty of the slave.

A hundred years after Bird, in 1939, Arthur Koestler offered a view of Spartacus that also conflicted with many modern romantic treatments. In his first novel, The Gladiators, Koestler’s Spartacus was originally driven to revolution by noble ideals but, as time went by, he turned into a cruel dictator. With a thinly disguised reference to twentieth-century politics, Koestler aimed to explore the ethics of revolution and to expose the weakness and corruption of Soviet-bloc ideology—as a noble experiment that went disastrously wrong. It was written before Howard Fast’s novel, but was reissued—as a counter-blast—after the Kubrick movie, as a warning of where the politics of Spartacus might lead.

These different interpretations partly go back to the ancient evidence for the rebellion, or rather to the paucity of it. Ancient writers provide a clear but very skeletal narrative of Spartacus’ actions. He was, they tell us, a man from Thrace who had been enslaved and sold as a gladiator, based in Capua. With a small band of fellow slaves he escaped from his barracks in 73 BC and attracted large numbers of other dissidents, both slaves and the free poor, to what quickly became his “army.” Together they scored a number of victories against some inexperienced Roman legions and some very second-rate Roman generals, until in 71 BC they were themselves decisively defeated by better-trained and more experienced Roman soldiers under Marcus Licinius Crassus—and Spartacus himself was killed, “fighting bravely at the front of his men, like a true general” (as Florus imagined, when he told the story in the second century AD).

But as with many of the most evocative episodes in Roman history, these ancient accounts are very brief; even the longest is not more than a few pages. They are mostly written at least a couple of centuries after the events in question (frustratingly, the account of Sallust, who was writing less than forty years after the rebellion, survives only in manuscripts so damaged that it is often not possible to work out the original order of the snatches of text that are preserved). And they differ substantially in the details of what happened, including the route taken through Italy by Spartacus’ army over the couple of years it was at large.

Even more to the point, they leave all kinds of intriguing gaps and unsolved puzzles. What, for example, were Spartacus’ aims once he had broken out of the gladiatorial camp? How was the command of the slaves organized? How many of them were there? There were surely fewer than some of the exaggerated figures given by ancient writers (Appian claims 70,000 or even at one stage 120,000 men); but how many fewer? It is in these gaps that the popular modern picture of Spartacus has grown up: part extrapolation, part projection of modern concerns, part fantasy.

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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.

  1. 1

    See Maria Wyke, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History (Routledge, 1997), p. 34. 

  2. 2

    See especially Spartacus: Film and History, edited by Martin M. Winkler (Blackwell, 2007). 

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