Just how did the ancient rebel and war leader Spartacus become a modern symbol of the struggle against oppression?
The list of figures from ancient times who are still universally known is vanishingly small. In my mind, it totals just five men and one woman. Tutankhamen. Alexander the Great. Hannibal. Julius Caesar. Cleopatra. Spartacus.
Spartacus is unusual because he is the only one of the six who is known not for what he did ‘for his race’ or in the interests ‘of his people’. (Technically, I know that neither Julius Caesar and Alexander were acting in this manner ― one could argue that they were megalomaniacs ― but they were at least operating within the norms of what was done by other generals and leaders of their respective peoples.) Spartacus is also the only one of these icons who was not just an ordinary person, but a slave. This makes his lasting fame even more remarkable.
As with any controversial figure, there are those who rush to downgrade the scale of Spartacus’ success. The only legions in Italy were newly raised and poorly led, they say. If the veteran legions from Spain or Pontus had been recalled, his forces would have been defeated far more quickly. And so on. While there is some validity to these arguments, I also think that it’s possible to stand back and be amazed by what Spartacus did. I’ll list just a few of the details that survive in the ancient texts.
Having escaped from the gladiator school in Capua, he and his seventy-odd companions were besieged on Mount Vesuvius by about three thousand Roman soldiers. These may not have been crack troops, but consider the odds. In a daring night attack that involved scaling down a cliff on ropes made from vines, Spartacus and his men put the Romans to flight.
In the ensuing months, tens of thousands of slaves ran away from their masters to join Spartacus. Another military force was sent from Rome to deal with him, but he roundly defeated its three parts in separate battles. Marching north, he was pursued by one of the two consuls. Having laid an ambush for the consul’s legions, he and his men drove them from the field. A month later, they did the same to the second consul and his army, and shortly after that, annihilated two more legions who garrisoned the Republic’s northern border. After Spartacus had made the fateful decision not to leave Italy, he was confronted by the united legions of both consuls. Again the slaves won a decisive victory.
Events after that began to go wrong for Spartacus, but I defy anyone to say that what he did was not extraordinary. In a short space of time, he trained and armed thousands of men who had either never handled weapons, or who, as herdsmen, had only hunted wild animals. He forged his men into an army that was capable of standing up to, and roundly defeating, full-size Roman armies. They may not have been made up of veteran soldiers, but they were still properly trained, fully armed legions, forces which would have been well capable of dispatching just about any other opponents.
Typically, however, all is not as it seems. Spartacus’ achievements were astonishing, but he has not been constantly remembered since the first century BC. When one does a little digging on the subject, it soon becomes apparent that after more than a thousand years of obscurity, Spartacus’ memory was resurrected in France in the mid to late eighteenth century. This was a time of great social change, when the notion of political freedom was being born, and when slave uprisings were regularly sweeping the European powers’ colonies. For those downtrodden individuals who were dreaming of success or freedom against unassailable odds - whether that be an absolute monarch or a slave master, Spartacus’ story must have seemed like a message from the gods.
In the nineteenth century, revolutionaries from the Haitian leader Toussaint L’Ouverture to the Italian Giuseppe Garibaldi used Spartacus’ name to rally support for their causes. Karl Marx regarded him as one of his heroes, so it’s no surprise that Spartacus was also adopted by Lenin and Stalin as the ultimate symbol of class struggle, and the model whom the proletariat should emulate. More recently, politicians on the other side of the divide, notably former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, have also commented favourably on his fight for freedom.
Yet for all the portrayals of Spartacus by politicians, revolutionaries, writers and filmmakers, it is very likely that he was not a man whose mission was to end slavery. To think that he was is to look back at history with all of our modern sensibilities, which abhor slavery, the mistreatment of women and so on. To put it simply, slavery was embedded as deeply in ancient life as having a washing machine to wash our clothes is for us today. People who lived two thousand years ago would have simply accepted it for what it was, not tried to stop it.
With this in mind, I have portrayed Spartacus as a courageous fighter, a charismatic leader and skilled general, but not as a revolutionary in the modern sense. In my opinion, this doesn’t make his story any less appealing. If anything, it makes it more so. I hope that my readers agree!