Why has Spartacus’ fame endured?

Other than Julius Caesar and Hannibal, there are few names from ancient history as recognisable as Spartacus. Pretty much everyone has heard of him. At first glance, this seems unsurprising. His achievements were remarkable. Having been sold into slavery, he escaped with some seventy others from a gladiator training school in Capua, Italy. Through a combination of ingenuity and pure luck the group soon put to flight not only the first motley Roman force sent against them, but also the second. This, a unit of three thousand men, were not crack troops, but the fact is that they outnumbered the gladiators by more than forty to one. Unassailable superiority, one would have thought, but incredibly, the gladiators prevailed.

This stunning victory served to increase Spartacus’ appeal. From that day, slaves began running away from their masters to join his band. Within a few months, he had a force of over ten thousand men; within a year, it was more than forty thousand, or if some of the ancient sources are to be believed, more than one hundred thousand. Like a bushfire starting from a small spark, the gladiators’ breakout rapidly became a full-scale rebellion that saw much of southern Italy laid waste, and which sent shockwaves through the corridors of power in Rome. In the months that followed, Spartacus and his followers, the vast majority of them men who had never before fought as soldiers, won at least nine major victories over Roman armies. This unique feat makes Spartacus’ slave uprising the largest and most successful of its kind in ancient history. To comprehend the magnitude of their achievements, one only has to realise that no one had done as much harm to the Republic since Hannibal Barca had stalked the land more than a hundred years previously.

And yet these astonishing triumphs did not mean that Spartacus and his struggle were to be revered or even remembered as the centuries passed by. It may come as a surprise to learn that for thirteen hundred years after the fall of Rome, Spartacus was largely forgotten. It wasn’t until the 1760s that his memory was resurrected in France. This was in no small part because of the movement for political freedom that was sweeping Europe, and the frequent slave uprisings that were taking place in the European powers’ overseas colonies. Subsequent to this revival, Spartacus’ renown spread far and wide. His name was taken by revolutionaries all over the world from Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian hero, to Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian military and political figure. Karl Marx thought of him as one of his heroes. The underground Spartakusbund (Spartacus league) became famous in Germany from 1916-1919, and was immortalised when its leaders were assassinated. Lenin and later Stalin used Spartacus as the ultimate icon of the class struggle, as the model whom the proletariat should emulate.

But his appeal was not just to left-wing politicians. Spartacus crossed the partisan divide when the U.S. president Ronald Reagan mentioned him as a symbol of the fight for freedom. Yet in my mind, the most inescapable modern day image of Spartacus comes from the seminal Kubrick movie. Made in 1960, the film was a worldwide success, and has remained hugely popular in the decades since. Of recent years, that fame has perhaps dimmed a little, but the arrival in 2010 on our TV screens of the miniseries Spartacus: Blood and Sand has ensured that today’s generation will not forget the man from Thrace.

What exactly, then, were the causes of Spartacus’ slide into obscurity before the late eighteenth century? The reasons are not all clear, but the fact that not a single written word survives from Spartacus himself, or from any of his men, has to be one major reason. The dearth of historical  records about him is also another significant cause. Sadly, little over four thousand words on the subject of Spartacus survive – that’s about ten pages of a typical novel. There was definitely more written about him that did not survive, but there were never lots of books recording his life and achievements as there were with heroes such as Julius Caesar. It isn’t surprising to me that Roman historians and scholars chose not to record or comment too much on this dark chapter in their history.

Today, there are few better symbols of the small man’s fight against overwhelming tyranny or brutal oppression than Spartacus. Yet most of our information about him comes not from historical records but from the recent past, from what we have seen in films, on the stage, or read in books. It is thanks to these depictions that we think of Spartacus as such a famous figure. Many, if not most, of the portrayals of the last two hundred and fifty years portray Spartacus as a warrior in the fight against evil, even someone who wanted to free all slaves. As is usually the case, the real situation was actually very different to these depictions. Spartacus was not out to end slavery, or to free all men. Such ideas did not enter ancient people’s mind-sets, where slavery was an endemic, intimate part of everyday life. It is all too easy to place modern sensibilities on people and events that happened more than two thousand years ago, when life and morals were totally different ― yet it is erroneous to do so.


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  1. Mike Reed
    Posted 16 July 2012 at 14:16 | Permalink

    That’s a very good write-up Ben, and in nearly every way you took the words right out of my mouth. It is merely coincidental that the revival of Spartacus happened just as writers like Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Rousseau and (as you mentioned) Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti. I may also mention Jacques Louis Davide who became the chief painter during the French Revolution, whom I studied at art college both in Blackpool and in Swansea (where I graduated). He did portraits of Napoleon, and I think his most celebrated painting is the Oath of the Horatii, subject to Horatius’ fight against the Tarquins at the beginning of the Roman Republic. Such works symbolised these political struggles that lasted right up to the riots all over Europe in 1848. Whatever the political movements right up to World War II, it is amazing how such figures as Spartacus and Horatius were used to coincide with a political cause, and all of them never went by without anything symbolic of Ancient Rome.

  2. TLockyer
    Posted 17 July 2012 at 08:07 | Permalink

    In view of what you say about the political significance imparted to Spartacus by figures like Marx and Lenin, it may be worth noting that one of the authors most responsible for his modern image since World War II, Howard Fast (1914-2003), upon whose 1951 novel Spartacus were based both Kubrick’s film and a more recent television production, was himself, like not a few left-leaning and anti-fascist intellectuals and writers of the time on both sides of the Atlantic, sympathetic to the Communist Party during the 1930s, and a member from 1943 until 1957 (by which time, again in common with many others, the knowledge of the abuses of the Stalinist era had contributed to disillusionment and separation). I do not know whether his choice of Spartacus as subject was influenced directly or indirectly by the Marxist and Communist tradition, or whether he came to it independently; however, the novel was written and published during his period of direct involvement with Communist politics, and is one of several Fast novels in which ancient subjects combine with his contemporary political and social concerns.

  3. Posted 17 September 2012 at 21:44 | Permalink

    How very insightful. I can only speculate that the reason for his memory being nearly forgotten, is mostly due to the fact that slaves feared another mass execution and Romans did not want to be reminded that they were in fact capable of being dominated over. Rome was a very strong and powerful empire. If a band of slaves could grow into an army and wreak havok on them, what’s to stop a more polished army from doing so. So it wouldn’t be a surprise if talk of Spartacus was banned or 3ven erased. For example in Egypt, if Pharoah wanted his rival or enemy forgotten he would erase all evidence of their very existence. So I can imagine the same thing happening to Spartacus. When you stop all talk of something eventually its popularity does down and is forgotten.

  4. ksenia
    Posted 22 September 2012 at 21:43 | Permalink

    Well, you can all speculate about the USSR and communist government —you see, I grow up there & have different view on some things (like Roman Empire and it’s role in slaving West Europe). However I’d like to mention another wonderful work–Ballet by Aram Khachaturian, Spartacus. You might see it as film adaptation, featuring choreography by Yuri Grigorovich. This’s at least soviet view on Spartacus and his historic role that you might yet enjoy.

  5. Zeraphim
    Posted 3 March 2013 at 14:21 | Permalink

    Hi Ben! I’ve got a small request, I hope you can somehow make this happen. Just as you write about the West I hope that before I am too old, I get to read about Heroes of the East. Read the Forgotten Legion has convinced me you can make history come alive; especially the vivid description of the Parthian War was certainly amazing.
    I’m really waiting for a book of Indian Heroes, Indian History and Indian Mythology

    Also, something about the origins of Rome (About Remus and Romulus) would certainly be fun to read.


  6. Ben Kane
    Posted 11 March 2013 at 20:28 | Permalink

    @Zeraphim: Apologies for the delay in replying. Thanks for your comment – and I will bear it in mind…I have so many ideas in my head, however!

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