Spartacus: the slave who became a liberator

The Spartacus WarBy Barry StraussWeidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009240 pages, $55 (hb)

Spartacus was thrice reviled in Roman eyes — as a foreign "barbarian", a gladiator and a slave. But fear was added to revulsion once he had escaped, raised an army of 60,000 liberated slaves and fought off the might of the Roman army for two years.

Barry Strauss' The Spartacus War is a plausible reconstruction of the life of Spartacus. Sparadakos (Spartacus in Latin) was born in the first century BCE in Thrace (modern Bulgaria) where he served in an allied unit of the Roman army, a draftee of a conquered people fulfilling their military service to Rome.

He deserted, was captured and sold into slavery to a trainer of gladiators in Capua near Naples.

Gladiators had a short life expectancy — nearly all died before 35, many before reaching 25. All resented the humiliation of fighting to the death for the entertainment of others.

Spartacus convinced two hundred fellow slave-gladiators that there was a higher fight, and 74 of them, armed only with kitchen skewers and cleavers, managed to escape.

A shrewd military tactician and outstanding guerrilla fighter, Spartacus defeated the first wave of Roman counter-forces. He defeated untrained soldiers under second-rate generals, dispatched by a complacent Roman Senate, which thought the rebellion, like earlier slave revolts, could be stamped out with a simple policing action.

Spartacus' military success attracted new recruits to his growing army. Rural slaves flocked to his banner from the large plantations where they had been kept in chains, whipped, beaten and abused. Now, they offered up their masters to Spartacus' army.

The slaves' chains were melted down and beaten into swords and spearheads.

Spartacus' social order was also a potent recruiter. As Appian, the ancient Roman historian and wealthy aristocrat put it, fearfully but accurately – "since Spartacus divided the profits of his raiding into equal shares, he soon attracted a very large number of followers".

Whether this sharing of wealth was "from justice or prudence is unclear", says Strauss. However, for a slave leader who outlawed gold and silver as symbols of corruption and inequality, the ideology of a radical egalitarianism seems probable, as it also was among the early Christians.

Spartacus also harmoniously held together a multi-ethnic group of Thracians, Gauls, Celts and Germans. This defied the deliberate strategy of Rome to mix the nationalities of its slaves as a deterrent to broader class solidarity.

Strategic differences however, strained this social cohesion. Spartacus knew that, ultimately, Italy would be their graveyard once the Roman army regrouped, and he favoured escape over the Alps to Thrace or Gaul (modern France).

Other leaders, notably the Gaul, Crixus, however, were seduced by their uninterrupted victories, the prospect of more loot in Italy and possibly a vision of Rome itself in flames.

A split, or friendly divorce, of forces occurred in 72 BCE. Crixus' force of 10,000 was soon defeated by the Romans.

Spartacus' army, perhaps daunted by the Alps, perhaps learning that Thrace was no longer safe because of a Roman invasion, turned back from a potential mountain crossing and into a trap set by Crassus, the Roman general who was to prove Spartacus' nemesis.

An escape plan to the island of Sicily through a deal with pirates was betrayed, the slave army split again, and with the Roman state concentrating its military forces against the rebels, Spartacus' remaining army was defeated after a long and hard battle in April, 71 BCE.

Spartacus was killed in battle, and Crassus captured 6,000 survivors. He had them all crucified on the road between Capua (the scene of the original "crime") and Rome.

Spartacus was gone but the Roman elite never forgot him nor forgot to blacken his name.

Roman historians (Sallust, Livy, Plutarch, Appian, Florus) from who we have our only recorded knowledge of Spartacus, all had an axe to grind against this upstart slave. They present him as a terrorist and a brigand.

They cite the atrocities and wanton plunder carried out by sections of Spartacus' army (particularly those under the command of Crixus) without, however, noting that these were the exception to Spartacus' rules of behaviour.

They also indict Spartacus for the gladiatorial games he once held. He made the slaves the spectators and 300 captured Romans the gladiators. But the historians do not, however, dwell on how this spectacle was intended as a symbolic declaration of freedom and the turning upside down of an unequal world.

Spartacus' hostile historians also condemn him for having a Roman prisoner of war crucified, ignoring its role as a dramatic warning of what would happen (6000-fold, as it turned out) to his army if they failed in battle. Certainly, Spartacus was no spotless humanitarian, but this is to project modern standards back into a past where cruelty was common coin and minted in bulk by the slave-owning class.

The Roman historians query (as does Strauss) whether Spartacus, who freed only gladiators and rural slaves, wanted to abolish all slavery.

The historical record of Spartacus' intentions is ambiguous but we can conclude that, although his failure to link up with the urban slaves was a political weakness, the 60,000 slaves he did liberate are 60,000 arguments in his favour as a slave liberator.

Despite the sketchy detail about Spartacus the man, concludes Strauss, Spartacus the legend retains undiminished "symbolic power" because a "certain greatness of soul" runs through his story.

Strauss notes how the Spartacus uprising inspired Karl Marx ("the finest fellow produced by the whole of classical history … a real representative of the ancient proletariat"), Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the German communists (the Spartacist League) in the abortive German revolution of 1919, and Toussaint L'Ouverture, the leader of the successful 19th century mass slave revolt which created the first Black republic of Haiti.

The perennially popular 1960 Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas, was based on a novel by a blacklisted US communist, Howard Fast, with a screenplay by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo.

The Spartacus legend is, observes Strauss, a legend that "might topple empires still".

More to the point, Spartacus remains revolutionary because his fight - slaves against slave-owners - was a fight of classes, of poor against rich, of the unfree against the powerful, a fight that is far from over.

Spartacus liberated slaves who literally had nothing to lose but their chains. The spirit of Spartacus can do as much against the modern chains of exploitation in today's world.