A short essay on the politics (real and imagined) of the Three Servile Wars that shook the Roman Empire, with an emphasis on the rebellion led by Spartacus between 73 and 71 B.C.
There is arguably no other figure from Classical Antiquity that has been more lionized and idealized by posterity as the symbol of popular resistance in the face of oppressive injustice, than Spartacus. His life story has inspired people from wildly different backgrounds: from eighteenth century Haitian rebel leader Toussaint Louverture, nicknamed the “black Spartacus”, to early twentieth century German Marxists (who formed the Spartacist League), to sixties American film directors. It is ironic however that this modern, and universally positive, view of Spartacus is ultimately derived from a few inconclusive passages in some ancient sources, which contradict each other in several respects, and barely form a coherent narrative. What this contradiction ultimately points to, is not necessarily that posterity has chosen to substitute historical facts for heroic tragedy, but rather that the historical facts themselves are tragically lacking. A reading of all the available sources will undoubtedly give us some valuable details as to the succession of events that constituted the Third Servile War, but will it reveal the intentions, hopes and plans of the people who fought with Spartacus against the legions of Rome? Ultimately, we are left to wonder if Spartacus and his troops were truly fighting against slavery and oppression, as popular myth seems to suggest, or if they were rather concerned simply with evading enslavement themselves without necessarily seeking to abolish slavery as an institution.
For this reason, in this essay, I will be analyzing in detail the available historical sources, with the purpose of understanding the motivations of Spartacus and the people who fought on the losing side in the war of 73-71 B.C. I will start with an in-depth discussion on the information pertaining to the Spartacus rebellion that we have available from ancient authors. To better frame and understand the real significance of these events, I will place the events of the Third Servile War in the wider context of conflict between slaves and slave-owners during the Republican period; this will reveal that while Spartacus’ rebellion was in many ways unique, it was by no means a singular event. The discussion will conclude with an evaluation of the literature pertaining to Spartacus, that will hopefully help reconstruct the personality and opinions of the Thracian leader, and put the ill-fated rebellion he helped lead in a new historical perspective.
One of the more complete, albeit not necessarily accurate, accounts of Spartacus’ exploits is given by Plutarch in his Lives, and more specifically in the chapter on Crassus. Here we learn that the last great slave rebellion of Antiquity started in fact as a minor disturbance at a gladiator school in Capua. Because of what Plutarch describes as the injustice of the school’s owner, two hundred slaves, mostly Thracians and Gauls, planned to rebel, but owing to treachery, only seventy-eight managed to escape, armed initially only with kitchen tools and improvised weapons.1 Among them was Spartacus, a Thracian, who is described by Plutarch as being of “great courage […] strength […] sagacity […] culture […] and more Hellenic than Thracian.”2 This is a great compliment coming from the Greek Plutarch, for whom “Greekness” was the most important quality that any great leader could possess,3 and although great leaders tended, as a rule, to come from Greek and Roman stock in Plutarch’s Lives, Spartacus is seen as the one great barbarian exception. It is ironic that even though this account is part of the Life of Crassus, Plutarch thinks very little of Crassus himself, and describes him as cruel and opportunistic,4 traits that stand in sharp contrast with Spartacus’ Hellenic quality.
Plutarch’s description emerges then as the basis for the myth of Spartacus as the noble barbarian warrior, and is perhaps largely responsible for how the rebel leader has been historically reappropriated by popular opinion. Plutarch’s account of Spartacus’ military prowess and conduct in battle also reinforce this view. We are told, for example, that while Spartacus was committed to obtaining freedom for himself and his fellow slaves, he never hungered for fame and glory and “took [the] proper view of the situation” when dealing with the numerically and militarily superior Roman army. It was only because of the overconfidence and small-mindedness that characterized some of his troops, that he was gradually weakened and ultimately defeated.
What Plutarch has to say about Spartacus’ ultimate goals is little and confusing. We are told that Spartacus was originally intent on ensuring for his men safe passage to their countries of origin (most being from Gaul and Thrace), but that this plan was largely sabotaged by some factions of his armies who were more content with the idea of ravaging through Italy indefinitely. After retreating to Southern Italy, Spartacus’ long-term strategy changed to a suspiciously more aggressive one; Plutarch tells us that he was bent on crossing into Sicily where he intended to rekindle servile unrest, but was betrayed at the last moment by the Cilician pirates that were supposed to ensure safe passage for him and his troops. It is doubtful however that the slave rebellion of the Second Servile War, which had occurred almost thirty years before Spartacus’ time, was still alive and needed “only a little additional fuel.” Adding to that was the lack of cohesiveness inside Spartacus’ own camp, and the fact that his rebellion had not managed to inspire any solidarity movements in Rome or anywhere else in Italy. We can only speculate therefore as to what Spartacus’ plans for Sicily would have been, but it is likely that he himself did not know for certain, and that crossing into Sicily was a desperate move in an attempt to avoid a war with the superior Roman forces.
One other account that deals in some detail with Spartacus’ rebellion comes from Appian, who, although writing in a markedly more ambivalent tone than Plutarch, still manages to give us some precious details concerning the conduct and character of the rebel leader. Appian’s account confirms the number of seventy-eight initial insurgents found in Plutarch, and also mentions that Spartacus was soon joined by a number of “freemen from the fields”5 (Plutarch refers to them specifically as herdsmen and shepherds). It is also revealed that Spartacus had been formerly a Roman soldier, something which helps explain his tactical intelligence on the battlefield. Unlike Plutarch however, Appian emphasizes the fact that this was first and foremost a slave rebellion; we are told thus that no Italian city joined the rebellion by choice; that those individuals who did, were mostly slaves and “riff-raff,” and that Spartacus personally refused many Roman deserters who “offered themselves to him.”
While the portrait of Spartacus found in Appian’s account is by no means exhaustive or more complete than that found in Plutarch, it does offer us certain intriguing details. Although Appian describes Spartacus as an efficient and brave leader (without explicitly praising him), he also gives us a somewhat more nuanced picture of the servile leader. For example, we are told that after a successful move against the Romans, Spartacus sacrificed 300 prisoners “to the shade of Crixus,” one of his officers, who had fallen in battle, and began marching on Rome with the remainder of his troops. This is in stark contrast with the picture of the almost excessively rational and prudent Spartacus that we find in Plutarch. It could be that Appian was simply not as convinced of Spartacus’ Hellenic character, but the ways in which his account differs from that of Plutarch do not always cast a bad light on Spartacus. We are told in fact that Spartacus soon abandoned his plans to march on Rome, realizing that this would be a suicidal endeavour, and, more interestingly, that while he occupied the city of Thurii, Spartacus “prohibited the bringing in of gold or silver by merchants, and would not allow his own men to acquire any.” As Barry Baldwin has observed, this is one of the few aspects of Spartacus’ strategy that can be seen to somewhat justify the image of him as a supporter of an utopian ideal.6 Spartacus’ insistence to keep the rebellion a slave rebellion, something which can be inferred both from Plutarch’s as well as Appian’s accounts, also seems to support the idea that the slave leader could have been motivated to a degree by a sense of class consciousness. It would be inappropriate and anachronistic however, to assign a specifically class-based and revolutionary agenda to Spartacus, and, as a discussion of the first two Servile Wars will reveal, slave rebellions in ancient Italy were generally not concerned with, and perhaps even opposed to, abolishing slavery as an institution.
Despite Appian’s ambivalent tone, Spartacus is ultimately presented as a shrewd and able leader. Appian even claims that Spartacus tried to strike a peace deal with Crassus, who, we are told, scornfully rejected it; this suggests that despite his occasional ruthlessness (something which is not found in all accounts, and certainly not in Plutarch), Spartacus was not by any means a blood-thirsty tyrant, and was equally open to diplomatic, as well as military, solutions.
Although Plutarch and Appian do not give us a definitive picture of who Spartacus was and what he hoped to achieve, their accounts are unfortunately the most complete ones that have been preserved. If we are however to attempt a synthesis of all the different perspectives on Spartacus that ancient authors have to offer us, into a more coherent and authentic portrait of the slave leader, it will be useful to look at other more fragmented accounts as well. In a short and poorly preserved fragment from The Histories, Sallust, closest chronologically, out of all those who wrote to some extent about the events of the Third Servile War, gives us a glimpse into the character of Spartacus as military leader. We are told that while Spartacus’ officer, Crixus, wanted to recklessly engage the enemy at all costs, Spartacus himself proposed a strategy of “[moving] out into wider plains […] where chosen men would increase their numbers before [the Romans] could arrive with a fresh army.”7 Some slaves, we are told, preferred however to engage in pillaging, raping and looting, “things [that] Spartacus was powerless to prevent although he begged them with frequent entreaties.” We can see here a picture which, although severely incomplete, tends to converge with Plutarch’s description of Spartacus as an evenhanded, pragmatic, and even compassionate leader, and it is of course possible, and likely, that Plutarch had access to, and was influenced by, a more complete version of Sallust’s account, that is now lost to us.
Livy also mentions the Spartacus rebellion, in passing, indicating that the revolt started with seventy-four (as opposed to the seventy-eight mentioned by Appian and Plutarch) gladiators in Capua, and soon grew large enough that Crixus was in charge of 20,000 men (Appian purports a figure of 30,000) when he was defeated by the praetor Quintus Arrius.8 For the final battle between Spartacus and Crassus, Livy advances a figure of 60,000 troops on the rebels’ side, a figure which rises to 90,000 in the pro-Crassus account of Velleius Paterculus.9 One of the more decidedly anti-Spartacus accounts is that of Lucius Annaeus Florius, writing in the second century A.D. He agrees with Appian that Spartacus had initially been a mercenary in the service of Rome before ending up as a gladiator in Capua, but carefully avoids presenting the Thracian as a hero (although he concedes that Spartacus fought his last battle with great bravery, in a manner befitting a Roman general).10 For Florus, writing at the height of Rome’s imperial power, an army of slaves was no more than an abomination, a pack of “ravening monsters.” He argues that Spartacus’ supreme goal was to march on Rome, something which he was dissuaded from only by the timely intervention of Crassus’ forces. This is probably a distortion of Appian’s account however, in which Spartacus, before confronting Crassus, briefly considered the option of marching on Rome but soon dismissed it as unrealistic. Keith Bradley has argued that whatever ambition the rebels may have entertained of occupying Rome, the plan to do so, if ever there was one, cannot be conclusively attributed either to Spartacus or to any of his officers as the rebels effectively lacked a unified war strategy or single long-term goal.11 Barry Baldwin has suggested that Spartacus was probably “in much the same dilemma as Hannibal after Cannae,” and that given his military prowess, attested to, among others, by the ancient military historian Frontinus,12 Spartacus would most certainly have been aware that he lacked the siege weapons necessary to take a major city like Rome, and the manpower to keep the newly arriving Roman legions at bay.
The remaining sources that deal with Spartacus are either combinations of sources that we have already discussed, like Orosius, a fifth century A.D. historian who borrows from Appian, Sallust and Florus in his short treatment of the Third Servile War,13 or offer us so little information (sometimes no more than a sentence) that it is hard to infer what the author’s opinion concerning Spartacus truly was. From this latter category, the more noteworthy references are from Varro, who stated that Spartacus “was an innocent man, [but] was condemned to a gladiatorial school,”14 Diodorus Siculus, who praised Spartacus for his altruistic and moral character,15 and Athenaeus, who compares Spartacus to Eunus, the man who had led the slave rebellion in Sicily during the First Servile War.16 This final reference leads us into a discussion on the two major slave rebellions that preceded that of Spartacus, both of which took place in Sicily, a discussion which will better help us understand both the success of Spartacus’ revolt as well as the reasons for its ultimate failure.
The First Servile War (135–132 B.C.) began with a rebellion led by a Syrian slave, Eunus, which rapidly spread to the city of Enna, and then to most of Sicily. The main source that deals extensively with these events is the work of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus but Livy, Florus and Appian, among others, also discuss the revolt. Diodorus traces the causes of this uprising to a background of brigandage perpetrated by mistreated, and increasingly numerous, slaves, whose masters were however too powerful to be prosecuted or in any way held responsible by the Roman governors and magistrates in charge of administering the affairs of the province. Appian confirms the notion that the landed Sicilian aristocrats were largely to blame for the events of the First Slave War, by suggesting that they relied heavily on the use of slave labour and avoided as much as possible employing freemen (who were subject to the military draft), a problem which, as we well know, concerned not only slaves but also Roman reformers like Tiberius Gracchus. Diodorus also points out that many of the slave-brigands were usually employed as herdsmen by their masters, which recalls Plutarch’s account of Spartacus’ revolt, where we are told that amongst the first to support the rebellion where the shepherds and herdsmen of the various regions of Italy that Spartacus passed through. This suggests that the living conditions of Italian slaves were similar to those of Sicilian slaves, and this is one possible explanation for why a rebellion started and led by a group of gladiators, found great support amongst the wider slave population of the peninsula.
There are also some interesting, albeit somewhat conjectural, similarities between the leader of the first Sicilian revolt, Eunus, and Spartacus. We are told for example that the former was known in Enna as a magician and prophet and that prior to the revolt he claimed that a “Syrian goddess appeared to him, saying that he should be king.” Spartacus too had associations with mystic prophecy; Plutarch recounts that when the Thracian was first brought to Rome to be sold into slavery, “a serpent was seen coiled about his face as his slept” and that his wife, a prophetess of Dionysos, interpreted the incident as “a sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue.” Eunus, we are told, most probably made up such mystical stories himself to impress gullible audiences, and it is very likely that the prophesy reported by Plutarch, is a popular myth that Spartacus himself had nothing to do with. What this similarity nonetheless tells us, is that slave rebellions were often tied in with religious fervour, and that whatever chances the slaves thought they stood against the Roman legions, going to war in the first place required the sanctioning of divine providence.
Unlike Spartacus however, Eunus never even pretended to be fighting for any type of social justice; all he presumably desired was to defeat the slave-owners at their own game. Diodorus tells us that he crowned himself king and that he traveled around with an entourage suitable to a real monarch; when he was later captured, Eunus had with him a personal massager and a buffoon, both presumably his slaves. This points to what is perhaps the most confusing feature of the first two servile wars (and arguably of the third one as well), namely that they did not express in any manner a mass opposition to slavery per se, on moral and ethical grounds. As Peter Green has argued, it would be a mistake for modern historians to ascribe to the Servile Wars any sort of primitive socialist agenda, as the slaves had no noticeable desire to own and manage the means of production in an egalitarian fashion; rather they sought to appropriate “the existing institutions and natural amenities of an exceptionally fertile island, and presumably to hold it against all comers.”17
This explanation could easily be extended to other revolts if we remember that the one led by Eunus, despite its extremely short-sighted goals and its leader’s flamboyant persona, inspired a series of similar rebellions at the time all throughout Italy (including Rome itself) as well as in some Eastern provinces like Attica. If it was not ideology that inspired these uprisings, it must have been the power of example; for all his megalomania, Eunus represented a success story of armed resistance against the Roman landed elite. Why then, we may ask, was Spartacus not only unable to inspire even one copycat would-be rebel leader, but unable even to create a clear hierarchy of power amongst his own followers? Why did he not declare himself king in the manner of Eunus and pursue a campaign of terror against the general populace?
One possible answer could be that Spartacus could not command the same respect and authority from his own followers as the mock king of Sicily, but the great number of men that remained with him even after the defeat of Crixus, and the fact that almost all ancient authors writing about the Third Servile War agree on Spartacus’ bravery and strength of character, if on nothing else, seem to make that answer implausible. Another possibility is that Spartacus had in fact a much more subtle strategy that did not resonate with the opportunistic short-term goals of previous rebellions, especially after the escapist plan of returning to his homeland had proven unrealistic. We can infer that Spartacus found some support with the population of freemen that he encountered across Italy from the fact that his armies grew considerably in the span of only a few months despite the absence of any concomitant slave uprisings.18 The fact that the Spartacan cause managed somewhat to bridge the divide between proletari and slaves, suggests that it did perhaps contain ideological promises of a more just and egalitarian societal order. There is no way of knowing for certain of course, but given the available historical evidence, it does stand out as a remarkable possibility.
The fact however remains that the principal way in which slave rebellions became influential, and thus dangerous to the stability of the state, in the ancient world, was through the power of example. This is reinforced by the events of the Second Servile War (104-100 B.C.) which mirror those of the First to such an extent, that some modern historians have suggested that the latter is in fact no more than a literary afterthought on the former, concocted by ancient Greek and Roman historians.19
There are however sufficient differences to warrant the view that the Second Servile War was a real and distinct event. One such difference lies in its causes, which, as Diodorus tells us, had to do with a crisis brought on by the Senate’s decree to free from slavery all citizens of allied states. This was done in response to the increasing inability of some vassals, like the king of Bithynia, to meet the military quota imposed on them by Rome. Eight hundred slaves were freed in Sicily as a consequence, at the governor’s request, and the remaining slave population of the island, many of whom probably had vivid memories of Eunus and his men, grew increasingly restless. An armed rebellion soon followed, divided initially into two main factions that later merged under the rulership of one Salvus. Like Eunus and Spartacus, Salvus was connected to spiritual activity and divination, and like Eunus, he was a self-interested and short-sighted leader who was unable to take full advantage of his initial military successes.
Spartacus’ failed attempt to take Sicily marked not only the end of major slave uprisings on that island, but throughout all of Italy. This was due in part to the improvement in the working conditions on the Italian and Sicilian latifundia during the period following the Servile and Social Wars, but also to what was visibly the dead-end strategy that had informed the leaders of the great slave rebellions. Eunus and Salvus had been moderately successful in their efforts against the slave-owning landed gentry of Sicily, but their intentions had never been to replace the oppressive and dehumanizing system of slavery with something better; ultimately, their attempts to beat the slave-masters at their own game were bound to fail. In the case of Spartacus’ failure, the explanation is harder to delineate. As I have argued in this essay, it is possible, and even likely, that the military pragmatism of the Thracian leader, coupled with his ability to quickly raise impressive numbers of troops both from amongst slaves as well as freemen, suggest that his long-term plans were far more sophisticated and nuanced than the monarchical travesty of his Sicilian predecessors.
Unfortunately however, the “Sicilian strategy” was in many ways the norm that most rebel slaves would have adopted in the case of an uprising, and we clearly see in Crixus (as well as in Oenomaus, Spartacus’ other dissenting general) the tendency to replace any notion of class-based warfare with the short-termed benefits of looting and pillaging. What Spartacus’ real intentions were, during those couple of years of desperate fighting and retreating, we can only speculate within the bounds that historical evidence and common sense suggest, viz. the self-indulgent opportunism of Eunus on one extreme, and the idealized stoic revolutionary of Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece on the other. What emerges however, out of such speculation, is bound to be, more or less, the picture of a person trapped, through a sudden chain of events, in a no-win situation, trying to make ends meet; a picture which, as the embodiment of human precariousness, helps perhaps explain the enduring legend that is Spartacus.
- Plut. Cras. 8.
- Theresa Urbainczyk, Slave Revolts in Antiquity (Stocksfield: Acumen Publishing, 2008), 68.
- Plut. Cras. 10-11.
- App., BC, I. 116.
- Barry Baldwin, “Two Aspects of the Spartacus Slave Revolt,” The Classical Journal 62 (1967): 291
- Sallust, The Histories, III. 3.96 (Maurenbrecher)
- Livy, Periochae, 96.
- Valeius Paterculus, Compendium of Roman History, 2.30.5-6. Paterculus even argues that it was Crassus, not Pompey, who finished off the war and celebrated a triumph in Rome.
- Florus, Epitome of Roman History, 2.8.
- Keith Bradley, Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989), 96.
- Sextus Julius Frontinus, Strategies, 1.5.20-22, 2.5.34.
- Paulus Orosius, History against the Pagans, 5.24.
- Varro in Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents, trans. and ed. by Brent D. Shaw (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001), 156
- Diodorus Siculus in Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents, 156.
- Athenaeus in Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents, 155.
- Peter Green, “The First Sicilian Slave War,” Past and Present 20 (1961): 20
- Michael Parenti, “Roman Slavery and the Class Divide: Why Spartacus Lost” in Spartacus: Film and History ed. Martin M. Winkler (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 147.
- Brent D. Shaw, ed. Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents, 107.