"The only way to deal with an unfree society
Looking back on the Spanish War, in his essay 'Looking Back On the Spanish War', George Orwell goes off on a tangent and riffs on the theme of slavery. "When I think of antiquity," he writes, "the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose back civilisation rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever. We do not even know their names. In the whole of Greek and Roman history, how many slaves' names are known to you?"
Orwell confesses he knows only two: Epictetus, the Greek slave and Stoic philosopher, and Spartacus. "The rest have gone down into utter silence."
So how much do we know of Spartacus? Not as much as you think, because most of what most people think they know comes from the movie. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, and starring a plethora of Hollywood greats, it’s a great movie for sure. Its very existence is an act of rebellion, because it has a screenplay by a black-listed Communist, Dalton Trumbo, at the height of the McCarthy witch-hunt. But many of the characters do not exist at all and the ones that do don't do what they are portrayed as doing. And as much as I love the fictional ‘I am Spartacus’ scene, it actually denies Spartacus his remarkably brave death on the battlefield. As John Cornford will write over a thousand years later, “Freedom is an easily spoken word / But facts are stubborn things”.
Stubborn or not, facts are rare at this time and we know very little about Spartacus before the uprising. Plutarch describes him as being "of great courage", speaks of his "strength", "sagacity", and "culture" before characterising him as "more Hellenic than Thracian". But there is a tendency amongst historians of the ancient world to talk up those who defeat them in order to make the shame less embarrassing; and Plutarch is also making a point about Crassus, whom he despises, by contrasting the "opportunism" of Crassus with the Greek class of Spartacus. Later, Horace thinks he is no more than a common robber and Roman children are being threatened by Spartacus the bogyman.
So he may have been born in 109BCE, maybe in Thracia, a region based on modern-day Bulgaria with a bit of Greece thrown in. He may have served in the Roman army as an auxiliary, he may have deserted, and may have been involved in banditry before being captured and sold into slavery.
But we do know that it is as a slave that he finds himself in one of the gladiator schools near Capua, a Roman resort town north-east of present-day Naples. This ludus, the gladiatorial school, belonged to Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Batiatus, and it is probably no more or less brutal than any other, although Plutarch attributes the uprising to the ‘injustice” of Batiatus. But we can be sure that it is very brutal: harsh discipline and harsher punishment is the order of the day as gladiators are subjected to strict diets and exercise regimes and trained in the use of a number of weapons. Usually, they come to specialize in a single weapon, and it may be that Spartacus specializes in the short, curved scimitar known as the sica, which was the Thracian style.
It makes sense that it was the sheer brutality of existence which prompts the initial uprising and escape from the ludus. Plutarch and Appian both report that there are 78 of them - Livy says 74 - and that they overpower the guards using cleavers from the kitchens, before chancing on a wagon loaded with gladiatorial weapons travelling to another city.
Suddenly, a riot has become a rebellion. And Spartacus, perhaps because of his military experience, is a natural leader. So too are the Gauls Crixus and Oenamus. These three are chosen by the slaves as their leaders and they embark on a reign of terror across the countryside of Campania, gathering field workers and house slaves as they go.
But the Third Servile War has not yet begun. Not seriously. Back in Rome, despite the experience of the two slave revolts in Sicily in 135BCE and 104BCE, which took two and four years to put down, it’s regarded as a minor issue, and the force dispatched to deal with it reflects this massive underestimate of the strength – the growing strength – of the slave army. The untrained and untested militia, commanded by Clodius Glaber, base themselves at the bottom of Mount Vesuvius, blocking the only road to the slaves’ camp on the higher slopes. The plan is to starve them out.
Of course, reasons Glaber, there’s no need to worry about the other side of Vesuvius. It’s a precipitate cliff. Unscaleable.
Unless you have ladders. Which, under the direction of Spartacus, the slaves do – fashioned from the vines growing near the summit. After dark, the slave army descends on these crude ladders, kills the token force of sentries, and massacres the sleeping militiamen, taking possession of some serious military weaponry at the same time.
Rome is going to have to take these slaves seriously. There are, after all, some two million slaves at work in Italy (or so it is estimated) and a Roman proverb states that "We have as many enemies as there are slaves". It is true. And thousands of them are flocking to join the Spartacan army.
"Perhaps the only just war in history"
This time, the response in Rome is more substantial. It’s still not enough, though. Two legions of militia, this time under the command of a praetor, one down from a consul, is dispatched. But the praetor Publius Varinius has serious problems. He doesn’t know the terrain, whereas Spartacus has amongst his now 40,000 fighters local shepherds who know this difficult region like the proverbial back of their hands. The Roman troops are suffering from disease and are mutinous. And of course, being a patrician Roman, he refuses to take the slaves seriously.
But Spartacus is deadly serious as he fights what Voltaire will call, in 1869, “perhaps the most just war in history; perhaps the only just war in history”.
Spartacus takes out the advance column of 2000 under the command of the appropriately named Furius. Another column near Herculaneum is slaughtered, with the commander Cossinius escaping by the skin of his teeth, but killed during the retreat. In Lucania, Varinius stumbles into the rebel army deployed in battle formation. His army mutinies, with those who don’t immediately flee slaughtered or captured. Although Varinius manages to escape, his horse and all official ensignia, his symbolic fasces, even the lictors who carry them, are captured – a humiliation in Roman terms. Spartacus rubs it in. He crucifies many of the captives – a form of execution reserved for slaves and bandits in Rome – and forces others to fight each other in mock gladiatorial games.
Campania, Lucania and Bruttium are now under rebel control and they settle in for the winter. They manufacture weapons. they capture and train wild horses. In short, they create a new model army, based on the slaves who had been gladiators but also including those who had been part of armies who had fought against the Romans. It is estimated that, at its peak, there were a hundred thousand of freed slaves.
As they prepare for the new campaign, this is spring of 72BCE, things are changing back in Rome. Holding their noses, the Senate address the issue of declaring war on a bunch of slaves. The decision is to send six legions together with cavalry – 40,000 men – under the command not of a single praetor but both consuls, Lucius Gellius and Gnaeus Lentulus. This is pretty much unprecedented, especially for what is still regarded by many as merely a restoration of order.
Meanwhile, there is trouble in the rebel ranks, with divisions perhaps on ethnic lines. Spartacus and Crixus are at odds about strategy. Despite the fears of the citizens of Rome, there was never any serious threat to the city itself. Crixus however is threatening this and has left – Plutarch says amicably – the main body of rebels, leading a force of around 30,000 Gauls and some Germans – in other words, Celts – on a campaign of pillage in the heel of Italy. Two legions are sent to trap them against the coast near Mount Garganus. They are caught, surrounded, and slaughtered.
But Spartacus and his Thracians are on a roll. He takes his gladiator army north, defeating first Lentulus, then Gellius and the slayer of Crixus, the praetor Arrius. Then, at Mutina, the governor of Cisalpine Gaul leads out an army of battle-hardened legionnaires - 10,000 men in total. Quite what he was doing is unclear – he had not been requested by the Senate to become involved – but he was probably a glory-seeker with the typical patrician’s contempt for slaves. Whatever his plan and its motivation, it went horribly wrong, as Spartacus and his Thracians destroyed the legionnaires, including according to Livy, the governor himself, Proconsul Gaius Cassius Longinus. Spartacus pauses to sacrifice hundreds of Romans to appease the ghost of his fellow gladiator and rebel, Crixus. And perhaps while this is going on, he takes stock.
It is widely accepted that Spartacus intends to cross the Alps, reach free Gaul (which will not be conquered by Caesar for another decade or so) and then return to his homeland. That’s what Plutarch says, what Orosius says, what Sallust says.
It makes sense. He’s too intelligent a leader to believe that Rome could be taken or that an army rampaging through Italy would not provoke a military response which would make what he has encountered so far akin to child’s play. If he did serve in the Roman legions, he would know that sooner or later, things will change.
At this point, he has to all intents and purposes achieved his objective. The road to freedom is open. The Alps, Gaul and home await.
But Spartacus turns south. No-one knows why. There is certainly no ideological objective mentioned in the sources (although of course there are no sources from the Spartacan side).
Whatever the reason, turning south is the turning point.
The Senate make Marcus Crassus the commander-in chief, taking charge of the soldiers who remained from the legions of Varinius, together with several newly raised legions. Crassus is as rich as Croesus. He is the richest man in Rome and also the only citizen ready to take on the role, seeing victory over the slave army as a route to high political office. But he has some military experience, having served under the general and later dictator Sulla.
And he doesn’t take prisoners. Not literally; not figuratively.
The first to discover this, though, are not the Spartacans but his own troops. Crassus orders his lieutenant Mummius to circle behind the slaves, who are this moment marching along the Adriatic coast. His orders according to Plutarch are specific: not to join battle or even engage in a skirmish at this stage.
So Mummius does exactly that, attempting to take the slaves by surprise from the rear. Losses were heavy. Thousands break ranks and flee the battlefield. Crassus is not best pleased. He brings back the ancient tradition of decimation. We use the word today to mean, loosely, something destroyed or devastated but in Rome it had a specific meaning, “removal of a tenth”. The procedure is that all those accused are divided into groups of ten and then draw lots. The one who draws the short straw, and it was often straw, is clubbed and bludgeoned to death by the remaining nine. The first recorded decimation is back in 471BCE and it is regarded even in Rome as a particularly harsh punishment and is very rarely used. Its revival by Crassus is a measure of how shameful is this defeat. Crassus makes his entire army witness the decimation of a cohort of 500 legionnaires accused of cowardice.
He has, as Appian notes, "established himself in the eyes of his men as more to be feared than a defeat at the hands of the enemy".
With discipline restored, he pursues Spartacus south and drives the Spartacan army to the very toe of the Italian peninsula and the town of Rhegium, across the Strait of Messina from Sicily. Spartacus, perhaps with the First and Second Servile Wars in mind, pays the Cicilian pirates who control the seas in the area for passage to Sicily, where – he may think – he will receive a warm welcome from a slave population which has tasted success only a few decades previously. What’s more, Sicily might be defensible in the long-term, providing the opportunity to found a free, independent state.
But he’s dealing with pirates here and he pays up front. Not a good idea. The pirates loads the silver and gold and sail away into the blue yonder, leaving Spartacus and his army trapped. Sea on three sides, the army of Crassus on the fourth. Crassus has built a blockade – a fortified trench 300 furlongs long according to Plutarch – across the land. Two attempts to break out fail at a cost of 12,000 men but one dark and stormy night, it really is dark and stormy according to Plutarch, Spartacus identifies a weak spot, fills the trench with wood, and make it across. Once again, the Spartacans are behind the main body of the Roman forces with no serious defence between them and Rome.
But there are issues on both sides which are going to change the course of the campaign.
On the slave side, the tribal differences are manifesting themselves again. Despite the defeat of Crixus in similar circumstances, the Celts set up on their own – only to be wiped out in an attack by Crassus. On the Roman side, Crassus is desperate to bring the war to an end before the arrival of Pompey and Lucullus with their respective armies and thus claim all the credit.
It appears that Spartacus, sensibly, is trying to avoid a pitched battle in favour of a guerilla campaign, but after a spectacular victory against a force commanded by Scrofa, the quaestor, who was carried wounded from the battlefield, the momentum is too much. His army wants the defining battle to be fought and Crassus is happy to allow them to do it. Spartacus recognizes that this is the key moment, and embraces it. He kills his horse to show his army that he will not be fleeing any time soon. It is to be a fight to the death. In fact, he is never to leave the field. He is hacked to death trying to reach Crassus.
Florus, an unusually hostile historian of the second century CE, reports that “it is “an appropriate end for men commanded by a gladiator, they fought to the very end with no release from their fate. Spartacus himself died fighting bravely at the front of his men, just like a true general”.
Appian gives more detail: "Spartacus himself was wounded by a spear-thrust in the thigh but went down on one knee, held his shield in front of him, and fought off his attackers until he and a great number of his followers were encircled and fell". Florus adds: "Spartacus himself fell, as became a general, fighting bravely in the front rank".
Both sources agree that his body is never found nor identified.
Spartacus is among 60,000 (according to Orosius, Plutarch says 12,500) rebels slain, with between five and six thousand taken prisoner and three thousand Roman prisoners released. Also regained, according to Frontinus, are twenty-six battle standards, five bundles of ceremonial axes and rods. plus five Roman eagles.
The Spartacans have defeated five Roman legions, and inflicted no less than nine major defeats on what is probably the finest fighting force in the world at this time. It is a remarkable achievement, but it is all for nought. Spartacus and the Spartacans are defeated.
The captured slaves, more than five thousand of them, are crucified along the 125 mile Appian Way which leads from Rome to Capua where it all began, and are left there to rot for years. A further five thousand who had escaped the battle are mopped up by Pompey who claims total victory and receives a triumph for his victory in Spain. Crassus gets an ‘ovation’, a much more low-key parade, on the basis that his victory is against ‘mere’ slaves.
Slavery after Spartacus
Writing some hundred years later to his friend Lucilius, Seneca the Younger talks of “the man you call ‘slave’. He “sprang from the same seed, enjoys the same daylight, breathes like you, lives like you, dies like you”. And yet “we abuse them as one does pack animals, not even as one abuses men.”
He describes house slaves waiting at table: “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 road; not even involuntary sounds – a cough, a sneeze, a choke – are exempted from the lash.”
Field slaves and gladiators suffer even more appallingly, and the wonder is not that some rebelled but that more didn’t. Of those that did, Spartacus is the one we all remember. From Voltaire to Bernard-Joseph Saurin, from Marx and Engels to Liebknecht and Luxembourg and Brecht and Kubrick, Spartacus is feted (and idealized) as a seminal figure in the history of the oppressed.
But at the beginning of the Spartacus War, at the time of the break-out from the ludus, it is probable that Spartacus is simply attempting to escape from the harsh treatment he and other trainee gladiators are undergoing on a daily basis. His motivation is simple: freedom. And it is probably the same for the overwhelming majority of those who joined his force and were slaughtered in battle or on the cross.
Such were the casualties that there is a serious shortage of slaves in the period immediately after the War. There is also a consequent increase of those who sell themselves into slavery for a specific time in order to pay debts. The same source which estimates the slave population at the beginning of the war at around two million puts the number in 50BCE as less than 750,000. It’s still a hell of a lot, but it’s a hell of a lot less. And it includes the first of the massive importation, some 400,000, of slaves during and after the conquest of Gaul by Caesar.
Just as the price of slaves increased after Spartacus, so it diminished after Gaul. It’s supply and demand. Prices and markets rise or slump. But it is still a massive market. Between the conquests of Carthage and Gaul, the slave market on the island of Delos would see 10,000 slaves bought and sold in a day.
So the heroic campaign fails and makes no significant difference to the slave-based economy, nor to the Roman treatment of the slaves.
Not until the final days of the Roman Empire do things change, as slavery gradually gives way to early feudalism. Slave labour is replaced by land rented for money, for a percentage of the crop, or for labour on behalf of the landowner. In other words, lord and peasant: what we know as serfdom.
What if Spartacus and his slave army had succeeded and established a free state in Sicily?
Their very existence would be an act of rebellion.