The revolt of the gladiator Spartacus in 73-71 BCE remains the most successful slave revolt in the history of Rome. The rebellion is known as the Third Servile War and was the last of three major slave revolts which Rome suppressed. The story of Spartacus has been told by historians, novelists, and filmmakers up to the present day when it enjoys a wide following as a very popular television series but admiration for the hero of the Third Servile War is nothing new. Karl Marx once noted in a letter to Engels that Spartacus was among the greatest, if not the greatest, hero of the ancient world and held him up as an example to be followed (Volume 41, 265). Stanley Kubrick's famous 1960 film Spartacus, based on the Howard Fast novel, portrayed him as a freedom fighter leading his people against the oppressive system of Roman slavery and every portrayal of the rebel gladiator which has come after Kubrick's film has followed suit to greater or lesser degrees.
Roman SlavesThe actual Spartacus, however, was not a proto-Marxian proletariat revolutionary nor a hero of his people fighting for their freedom; he was simply a man who had endured enough of the Roman institution of slavery and, one day, decided he would endure no more. The revolt of Spartacus began, more or less, as an accident; the original plan of the gladiators, according to the historian Plutarch (c. 45-120 CE), was simply to escape. Once that plan was discovered, however, they had no choice but to fight for their freedom or submit to execution.
THE REVOLT OF SPARTACUS BEGAN, MORE OR LESS, AS AN ACCIDENT; THE ORIGINAL PLAN OF THE GLADIATORS, ACCORDING TO THE HISTORIAN PLUTARCH, WAS SIMPLY TO ESCAPE THEIR SLAVERY.
The actual motivations behind Spartacus' revolt do not detract from his accomplishments, however. They became irrelevant starting in 18th century CE France when the gladiator became elevated to iconic status as an enemy of oppression and champion of freedom. The terrible conditions of life as a slave in ancient Rome have since been compared to those of any group suffering oppression and Spartacus is the most recognizable hero from the ancient world to serve as a symbol. In 73 BCE, however, he seems to have had no other motivation than his own freedom and escape from the punishments he could expect from his masters.
SLAVERY IN ANCIENT ROME
These punishments would have been brought swiftly once his escape plan was discovered. Slavery was widespread in ancient Rome and the Romans greatly feared an uprising of their lowest working class. Historian Mark Cartwright comments on this:
Slavery was an ever-present feature of the Roman world. Slaves served in households, agriculture, mines, manufacturing workshops, construction and a wide range of services within the city. As many as 1 in 3 of the population in Italy or 1 in 5 across the empire were slaves and upon this foundation of forced labour was built the entire edifice of the Roman state and society.
Rome's economy relied chiefly on agriculture and war: farming sustained the populace while military campaigns generated necessary funds for various other needs. The soldiers used in these campaigns were farmers who were kept in the army for longer and longer periods of time as Rome expanded in conquest. Their farms would often go bankrupt and their lands were then purchased by the wealthy who used slaves to work them.
The historian Appian (c. 95-165 CE) writes, "The rich used persuasion or force to buy or seize property which adjoined their own, or any other small holdings belonging to poor men, and came to operate great ranches instead of single farms. They employed slave hands and shepherds on these estates to avoid having free men dragged off the land to serve in the army, and they derived great profit from this form of ownership too, as the slaves had many children and no liability to military service" (Civil Wars, 1.7). These slaves were brought in from a number of different sources as Cartwright notes:
Aside from the huge numbers of slaves taken as war captives (e.g. 75,000 from the First Punic War alone) slaves were also acquired via piracy, trade, brigandage and, of course, as the offspring of slaves as a child born to a slave mother (vernae) automatically became a slave irrespective of who the father was. Slave markets proliferated, perhaps one of the most notorious being the market on Delos, which was continuously supplied by the Cilician pirates. Slave markets existed in most large towns, though, and here, in a public square, slaves were paraded with signs around their necks advertising their virtues for prospective buyers.
Roman Auriga (Gladiator Slave)Slaves were used for a wide array of tasks throughout Rome from field work to housework, tutoring children in reading, writing, music and other arts, personal attendants, and any other job which they could fill. They were completely at the mercy of their master. The Roman writer Seneca the Younger (4 BCE-65 CE) describes the lot of the house slave to his friend Lucilius, advocating for better treatment of slaves, and makes clear how even the smallest sound or action on the part of the slave was dictated by the master's whims. Here he describes the slave waiting on his master at dinner:
The master eats more than he can hold; his inordinate greed loads his distended belly, which has unlearned the belly's function, and the digestion of all this food requires more ado than its ingestion. But the unhappy slaves may not move their lips for so much as a word. Any murmur is checked by a rod; not even involutary sounds - a cough, a sneeze, a choke - are exempted from the lash. If a word breaks the silence the penalty is severe. Hungry and mute, they stand through the whole night (Nardo, 51).
Seneca goes on to detail the abuses slaves suffered and the arrogance of their masters who, by their cruelty, have given rise to the proverb, "So many slaves, so many enemies." He asks Lucilius to remember that "the man you call `slave' sprang from the same seed, enjoys the same daylight, breathes like you, lives like you, dies like you" and yet these people are treated as less than human:
We abuse them as one does pack animals, not even as one abuses men. When we recline at table one slave wipes up the spit, another crouches to take up the leavings of the drunks. One carves the costly game, separating the portions by deft sweeps of a practiced hand - unhappy man, to live solely for the purpose of carving fowl neatly...another has the assignment of keeping book on the guests; he stands there, poor fellow, and watches to see whose adulation and whose intemperance of gullet or tongue will get him an invitation for the following day. Add the caterers with their refined expertise of the master's palate; they know what flavors will titilate him, what table decorations will please his fancy, what novelty might restore his appetitie when he feels nauseous, what tidbit he would crave on a particular day. With slaves like these the master cannot bear to dine; he would count it an affront to his dignity to come to table with his own slave. Heaven forbid! (Nardo, 51).
The poor treatment of slaves was so widespread it came to be regarded as natural. One needed to break the slaves' will as an individual in order to have a compliant servant who would meet the expectations of a slave in Roman society. Free labor meant greater leisure and profit for those who owned slaves but those slaves were only profitable if they were submissive and did as they were told without question or hesitation. The fact that the slave population was so great is testament to the Roman ability to maintain this kind of control over those they enslaved.
It should be noted that not all slaves were treated poorly. In Seneca's same letter, he writes of slaves who were treated well by their masters and who would give their lives to safeguard the home, property, and life of that master. Two famous philosophers were slaves, Diogenes of Sinope (c. 404-323 BCE) in Greece and Epictetus (c. 50-130 CE) in Rome and both were treated as family members. Diogenes was given complete control over the education of the boys of the house and Epictetus' master sent him to study stoic philosophy. These are notable exceptions to the general rule, however, and most slaves endured hard lives with little hope of winning their freedom and no rights under the law.
Gladiator mosaicIn time, there were more slaves than free people in Rome. The unemployment rate rose sharply as more and more slaves were used for jobs which Roman citizens used to hold and the countryside around the city of Rome increasingly became a vast network of slave colonies residing on large plantations of the very rich. Those slaves not employed in domestic or agricultural jobs were used as gladiators in the arena. If the life of the house-slave was bad, that of the gladiator was worse. The gladiator was a slave whose sole purpose was to fight for the entertainment of the Roman crowds. Gladiators were usually male (though there were some females) and could win freedom through exceptional feats but, most of the time, lived and died a slave in the arena. Slaves were most often selected as gladiators based on a robust physique which would be appealing to spectators; and one of these was Spartacus.
EARLY LIFE & ENSLAVEMENT
Spartacus was a Thracian, originally from a region north of Macedonia, which was considered by both Greeks and Romans as uncivilized and barbaric. Spartacus, however, is described by Plutarch as "more Greek than Thracian" and notes that he was exceptionally intelligent and highly cultured. Nothing is known of his youth nor how he became a slave to Rome. The primary sources on Spartacus' revolt are the historians Appian, Florus (c. 130 CE), and Plutarch who each select those details they found most suitable from the earlier works on the revolt by Sallust (c. 86-35 BCE) and Livy (59 BCE-17 CE) both of which exist now only in fragments.
FLORUS CLAIMS SPARTACUS WAS A ROMAN MERCENARY IN THE LEGIONS WHO WAS IMPRISONED FOR DESERTION AND ROBBERY.
According to Appian he was a Thracian "who had once fought against the Romans and, after being taken prisoner and sold, had become a gladiator" (Civil Wars, I.116). Florus claims he was a Roman mercenary in the legions who was imprisoned for desertion and robbery before being selected as a gladiator "thanks to his strength". Plutarch gives a similar account of Spartacus as a mercenary for Rome but adds he was captured along with his wife after deserting. His wife is described as a prophetess of her people who escaped with Spartacus during the revolt and traveled with his army afterwards, most likely dying with him in the final clash with Rome.
However he was captured, and for whatever reasons, his military training and physique made him a perfect candidate for the arena. Spartacus is described by all the ancient sources as tall and exceptionally strong. He was bought by a trainer named Lentulus Batiatus and sent to a gladiatorial school south of Rome in Capua. These schools regularly relied on harsh treatment of the slaves to prepare them for the games in the arena and this discipline, like that used with all slaves, was intended to break the individual's will and make them compliant.
Roman Gladiator MosaicIn 73 BCE, Spartacus and some other conspirators devised a plan to escape from the compound and head north to freedom beyond the Apenines. This plan included over 200 other slaves and, with so many involved, it was no surprise when word was leaked to the authorities. Spartacus knew they would be tortured before they were killed and so led 78 of his fellow slaves in a revolt. They raided the kitchen and armed themselves with knives and spits and then mur...
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