Spartacus -- a symbol of struggle that still resonates


Spartacus (Revealing Antiquity)
By Aldo Schiavone (translation by Jeremy Carden)
Harvard University Press, 2013
208 pp., $29.95

Karl Marx was a great admirer of ancient Roman and Greek philosophers and leaders. However, there was one he singled out as the “finest fellow antiquity had to offer”: Spartacus, the Thracian who led the most significant slave revolt against the Roman empire.

Marx was not the only member of the Spartacus fan club. German Communists led by Rosa Luxemburg named their party after him.

Stanley Kubrick made the film in 1960 — starring Kirk Douglas, who hardly looked Thracian. The film ends with a famous scene in which the defeated slaves are interrogated by the Romans as they search for their leader. In solidarity, each slave declares “I’m Spartacus” and so joins him in being crucified.

Earlier, in 1939, Arthur Koestler’s first novel, titled The Gladiators, depicted Spartacus as trying to build a City of the Sun in which escaped slaves would live as equals. Koestler’s point was that Spartacus’s idealism could not surpass the slave mode of production that surrounded him and so was doomed. (He was also making a broader point about the Soviet Union.)

Now, Italian academic Aldo Schiavone brings modern archaeological analysis and understanding of Roman history to bear in separating the truth from modern projections onto Spartacus.

His skills as an historian are well deployed in explaining such things as the origins of the gladiatorial spectacles and the barely healed wounds of civil conflict on the Italian peninsula that he believes Spartacus tried to use in building his forces.

There are other compelling bits of information colouring the narrative. These include Spartacus’s Thracian priestess companion who consecrated his efforts and treacherous pirates who betrayed the revolt.

Schiavone is deft at describing Spartacus’s military prowess. The slave leader assembled armies of up to 40,000 ex-slaves and propertyless plebeians, leading them to victory against superior Roman forces.

Schiavone also argues against the modern belief that Spartacus tried to escape the Peninsula or struggled to instigate a revolutionary slave insurrection.

Rather, he says, Spartacus tried to broaden the social base of his insurrection by reaching out to regional cities that had a history of enmity towards Roman control and then march on the capital itself.

He believes it was the urban centres’ rejection of Spartacus’ diplomacy, due to disgust at the idea of uniting with slaves, that sealed the revolt’s fate.

These are interesting possibilities, which serve as an alternative to earlier views. Schiavone says previous assessments are based on romantic projections of modern class warfare back onto Roman society.

However, there is also the possibility that Schiavone’s historical glasses are similarly coloured by his trenchantly argued view that classes did not exist in ancient Rome.

His line is that Romans were acutely aware of social status but had no subjective concept of social class. This argument simply does not hold water.

Do social classes exist in the current day United States? Michael Moore’s film Capitalism: A Love Story shows how unionised auto workers won decent wages and conditions in 1950s and 60s Michigan. This class struggle is not any less true because Moore insists on calling those people “middle class”.

Similarly, in contemporary Australia, the workers are a class that dares not speak its name. ALP leaders insist on referring to us as “working families”, fudging the class question.

Just as objectively there are social classes today, there were social classes in ancient Rome. The most basic of those classes, the slaves, revolted under the leadership of Spartacus. No matter the subjective understandings within Roman or modern society, Spartacus’s name and exploits arouse dreams of similar feats to this day.

Such is the allure of Spartacus, through all these centuries: the rulers tremble at his name and the exploited draw inspiration.

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