Lesson #68: Spartacus

While I was stateside at Christmas, I saw some commercials for a new series called Spartacus: Blood and Sand and so I thought I’d give it a go, hoping it would be like the HBO series ROME, which was phenomenal. It wasn’t. At all. It was awful; I didn’t last 15 minutes. The sole benefit of my 15 agonizing minutes of watching the utter crap that is Spartacus is today’s lesson.*

Spartacus, I knew, was an actual historical figure, leader of a slave rebellion in ancient Roman history. And that ends what I knew. Unless you count the scene in the movie where everyone stands up claiming to be Spartacus in a show of solidarity, which was likely poetic license.

What I know is actually not all that little given how much history knows about him. Beyond the events of the Third Servile War, narrated in Appian’s Civil Wars, Plutarch’s Life of Crassus, Livy’s Periochae, Florus’ The Epitome of Roman History, Sallust’s Histories, and Frontinus’ Strategem, very little is known of Spartacus. What exists in historical narratives, however, as is often the case in ancient history, are sometimes contradictory.

What the narratives agree on is that Spartacus was a Thracian** who served, at one time, in an army — either in the Roman Auxiliary or as an opposition force, no one seems confident as to which — before somehow winding up a slave and, consequently, gladiator and trained at the gladiatorial school near Capua. In 73 BC, Spartacus and 70 other members of the school plotted an escape — which was betrayed, but they got out with a full wagon of gear and weapons anyway — and went galavanting about the Roman countryside doing the whole raid, pillage and plunder thing, recruiting other slaves to join them and killing the small posse sent to haul them back in. The group then set up their defences on Mount Vesuvius and chose Spartacus and two Gallic slaves to lead them.

The Romans, having little in the way of legions to send after them due to the Third Mithridatic War and ongoing clashes with pesky rebels in Spain, and rightfully seeing the whole thing as a simple policing issue, sent a militia to starve out the rebellion, except that Spartacus, having been trained as a soldier, beat them at that game and killed them, eventually recruiting upwards of 70,000 slaves for the cause who were extraordinarily resourceful and despite their lack of military training figured out how to most effectively use local materials. Which, as would be expected, did not please Rome.

There’s a whole bunch more on the Third Servile War that is interesting, but since that’s not the point of the post, I’m just going to skip right over it. You can read about it here and oddly enough, more in depth and better footnoted here.

Moving along…Rome sent people with a lot of money and a lot of legions in to take care of it, Spartacus planned to march his men across the Alps, a plan which could have come to fruition but for the slaves’ general inclination towards pillage and plunder rather than returning home, a sort of “if it’s good enough for the Romans…” sort of attitude. Later Spartacus tried to bribe some pirates to take him and his men to Sicily to build up reinforcements and launch a slave rebellion, but was double-crossed by the pirates who took his money, but not him. You know how pirates are. Oh, and he crucified a few Roman prisoners. Attempts to negotiate with Crassus (the guy the Senate sent to deal with the rebellion) once the rebels were outnumbered in 71 BC failed and the rebellion was quashed and Spartacus literally just vanished into thin air. No one knows what happened to him. Appian and Florus both say he was killed in battle, and in truth, that’s his most likely end, but his body was never found, so who knows what really happened. Some groups of his men escaped into the mountains and continued to launch small assaults for a time, but they too were eventually defeated. In the end 6000 gladiators were taken alive…and then crucified along the Via Appia in a typical “do not f**k with us” Roman display.

Interestingly, up through the middle ages and renaissance, Spartacus was seen as an enemy of the state, traitor, thief, general criminal. It wasn’t until the publication of the 1760 tragedy Spartacus by the French playwright Bernard-Joseph Saurin that he was portrayed as a hero. This play, and Karl Marx’s endorsement of him by way of Appian’s work, are what have led to the modern view of Spartacus as popular hero.***

Autobiographical note: As a scholar, I find that last bit really interesting because it is another strong representation of how a character, much reviled through history, can undergo a drastic rehabilitation with the help of art, a revisionist’s history and the backing of a highly regarded scholar. Judas Iscariot, the much maligned bastion of treachery the Church has been holding up for two millenia, has undergone a similar re-casting in the last 40 years or so owing, in part, to the discovery and publication of gnostic texts, a movement among religious scholars, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. (Yeah, I’m not even kidding a little bit about Andrew Lloyd Webber.) In my personal opinion, Judas, if he existed, is the single most interesting character in all of history. If I could have dinner with any historical person, alive or dead, I would have dinner with Judas Iscariot.****

*To be clear, I didn’t actually learn anything from the show except that girls from Texas do terrible English accents. It just made me go look up Spartacus.

**Of allies to the Trojans fame. This is the second Iliad reference in the short history of this blog. If you haven’t read it, go read it. It is truly stellar.

***More about Spartacus can be read here and here.

****If you’re interested in reading more on Judas Iscariot as modern religious scholars view him, see the following books: The Gospel of Judas, William Klassen’s Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus?, Kim Paffenroth’s Judas: Images of the Lost Disciple, and Bart D. Ehrman’s The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed.

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