In Our Time: Spartacus

Spartacus was not just the subject of a famous film, but also a real life gladiator in the 1st Century BC who successfully escaped and orchestrated a slave rebellion in Italy. He had some success for a couple of years before being killed by Crassus, and his rebellion was put down. Talking about it on In Our Time were Mary Beard (University of Cambridge), Maria Wyke (University College, London) and Theresa Urbainczyk (University College, Dublin).

The programme began by putting the era in context. The 1st Century BC is a time when Rome has conquered large swathes of the the land around the Mediterranean, but has not yet become an Empire. It is still running this territory using the political mechanisms and infrastructure of the city state it used to be. The line between politicians and generals is blurry, and both roles are filled by the same people – to be a general you need to be elected to public office. The republic runs on slavery, there are large numbers of slaves throughout Roman ruled Italy. This segment of the programme overturned an idea I’d acquired (I don’t know where from) that the more recent slavery in the US was somehow qualitatively different from slavery in the classical world. That slavery in the classical world was more along the lines of being unable to leave your job, rather than being penned in at night and treated as if you weren’t really human. But Beard explained that whilst house slaves might not have such a bad life, the majority of the slaves were agricultural slaves. And Italy was covered with plantations – large farms each owned by a family who kept a large number of slaves to work the land, and treated them poorly and kept them penned in under guard when they weren’t working.

So it’s not that surprising that slave revolts were a thing that happened in this time period. Spartacus may’ve lead the most famous one but it was neither the first nor the most successful. There had been a couple of large scale revolts during the century preceding Spartacus’s revolt. Both of these lasted for 5-10 years before being put down, and in one of them the former slaves took over Sicily and set up their own independent country (state? community? I’m not sure of the right word here). It wasn’t always just slaves that got involved, either – disaffected free people from the various Italian city states that had been subsumed into the Roman Republic also rallied to these rebellions.

What’s known of Spartacus’s early life is pretty slim, he was originally from Thrace in what is now the Balkans. He was captured, along with his wife, and sold into slavery. There is some speculation that he may’ve been in the Roman army for a while (before capture? after capture? I’m not sure) due to his later success as a general. He definitely ends up as a gladiator in a training school in Capua by 73BC, and whilst being a gladiator was often a punishment there’s no evidence it was for any particular reason perhaps increasing his sense of injustice. Spartacus along with 70 or so of his fellow trainees successfully escaped from this gladiatorial school. As Beard said, escaping was the easy bit – keeping highly trained fighting men locked in once they decided to get out was almost certain to be beyond the resources of the school. There is one source that says the men escaped using kitchen implements as weapons, before finding a cache of gladiatorial weapons after they’d got out.

Once out the gladiators made for the slopes of Vesuvius (which was not actively volcanic at the time) trying to evade the Roman soldiers who were now hunting them. The sources say that the gladiators and others led by Spartacus set up camp in an area surrounded by steep cliffs, with only one narrow path out – and so the Romans set up camp at the end of the path and planned to starve them out. But Spartacus displayed the military ability he was to become famous for, and organised the men to make ropes from the abundant vines in the region they were camping. They then abseiled down, snuck round to the Roman camp and took them by surprise. After this they were armed with army grade weapons, made for practicality, rather than gladiatorial weapons (made as much for show as use).

After this quite a lot is known about what the force did and where they did it, but nothing about motivation. So it’s known that many people joined this revolt over the two years it lasted, both slaves and free people as I mentioned above, and by the end there were about 10,000 people involved. It’s also known that early on the group split more than once with a Spartacus led force going one way and a force led by someone else going the other way. Generally what happened there was that Spartacus won his battles, the other leaders weren’t so successful. But what we don’t know is why this happened – arguments over leadership? disagreements about where to go? attempts to spread themselves out to make better use of available resources?

Spartacus led his force up to the north of Italy to the alps, but once there didn’t cross and instead led his army back down through Italy to the south of the country. Some people speculate that this was because he changed his mind – initially they say he intended just to go home, but then he decided to try and take down Rome (whether to replace it, or to abolish slavery or some other reason). But the experts on this programme seemed to think it was much more likely that if his original intent had been to go home he’d’ve gone across to the east coast of Italy and got on a boat for Thrace as quickly as possible. Instead they speculate that the movement up and down the length of Italy was partly to keep the army fed – they were basically scavengers and keeping a large force fed off the land (even with help from sympathetic locals) would mean they would need to keep moving. And also by marching throughout Italy they could gather support from the non-Roman city states – ending up in the south of Italy perhaps with an eye to getting to Sicily where a previous revolt had been successful for a while.

But Spartacus was to be defeated in 71BC by an army lead by Crassus. Crassus was a wealthy Roman citizen who was a general and politician. Bragg referred to him as a statesman, but Beard corrected this to “thug”. It’s important to remember that as officials were elected every year then it would be very useful to someone like Crassus to have a victory under his belt to show off about to the electorate. So Crassus took a considerable fighting force to hunt down Spartacus, and was in the end successful. Opinion was divided between the three experts as to whether or not the average Roman would actually have been much bothered about this slave revolt. One point of view was that if you were living in Rome it would all seem to be happening “over there, somewhere else”. But the other was that being surrounded oneself by slaves all of the time would make it a frightening time.

Spartacus’s legend grew after his death. This is down, in large part, to the needs of Crassus’s PR campaign. By building up the rebellion lead by Spartacus to be a big deal he made his own victory look that much more impressive. In actual fact it wasn’t, as I said earlier, the most successful slave revolt. Much later, in the 18th Century AD the legend that had grown up around Spartacus was taken up by the movement for the abolition of slavery. And since then it has been used by many different groups of people as a rallying point for their cause – ranging from the left wing (ie Karl Marx) to the right (ie Ronald Reagan).