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.