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The reputation of Spartacus, like so much of what we know about the leading figures of the ancient world, can be compared to an upside-down pyramid: a huge structure of legend and speculation sustained by a tiny foundation of text. There is no doubt that Spartacus really existed or that, in the years 73–71 B.C., he led a major slave rebellion in southern Italy. But everything we know about him and his military campaigns, which for a moment threatened to bring down the Roman Republic, comes from two historians, Plutarch and Appian, who lived some 200 years after Spartacus; taken together, both devote no more than ten pages to him. Earlier historians, such as Sallust and Livy, also wrote about Spartacus, but only scraps of the relevant works survive; and there are some scattered references in other historians, including Julius Caesar.
Yet on this slender basis, Spartacus became a powerful symbol — the slave who stood up to an empire, the liberator who turned a rabble into an army. In 1918, when Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg founded a new revolutionary Communist party in Germany, they called it the Sparticist League. For Americans today, probably the most enduring image of Spartacus comes from the 1960 movie in which the slave leader was played by Kirk Douglas; not coincidentally, that movie was based on a novel by the steadfastly Communist writer Howard Fast. Indeed, it's possible that the modern world, with its dreams of equality and liberation of oppressed groups, has made more of Spartacus than any earlier period.
In this biography, the Italian historian Aldo Schiavone attempts to drill down through the sedimented legends to the bedrock of historical fact. Because there are no sources except literary ones, this means that his short book often takes the form of hermeneutics — closely parsing the exact language of the historians to deduce what really happened, or, just as important, what those historians wanted to conceal. For the central premise of Schiavone's book is that Spartacus represented a dangerous challenge to Roman values and power, which the official Roman sources could not fully acknowledge. To understand who Spartacus was and what he wanted, Schiavone argues, it's necessary to read against the grain of the text, and to place him as far as possible in a broad historical context.
It is not possible, Schiavone writes, to enter into Spartacus' mind, the way a biographer might do with a modern subject. His world was just too different from ours, and there is too little surviving material: "Nothing of what he had in mind is known to us directly. His psychology and mental landscape are completely inaccessible; a fascinating theme, but entirely obscure. Our protagonist's intentions can only be deduced from the bare sequence of his actions."
What we do know with some degree of confidence, on the other hand, is the kind of society Spartacus lived in. Rome in the first century B.C. was, Schiavone shows, in the throes of transforming itself from an agrarian city-state to a world-spanning empire. Perhaps the most important element in this change — certainly the most important for understanding Spartacus — was the huge increase in the slave population of Italy. At this time, most slaves were prisoners taken in war, and the Romans had just conquered huge swaths of the eastern Mediterranean, flooding the market with new supply.
At the same time, the demand for slaves was on the rise, as Rome's small landowners — once the backbone of the Republic — were giving way to huge agricultural estates, owned by landlords and worked by slave labor. "The relationship between slavery and civilization," Schiavone writes, "was perceived as one of necessity and sheer common sense in the imperial world." This transformation of society had led, in the years before Spartacus' birth around 100 B.C., to a series of violent slave rebellions in Sicily and southern Italy.
Spartacus was born in Thrace, the area that is now Bulgaria, a primitive and recently conquered area of the Roman Empire. As a young man, he seems to have served as a Roman soldier, before deserting and becoming a bandit or highwayman — though this may be a slander invented by his Roman enemies. At some point — the sources do not say how or when, but Schiavone thinks it was about 75 B.C. — he was taken prisoner and, as was standard practice, sold as a slave. Because of his strength and military training, he was taken on by a trainer of gladiators, one Lentulus Batiatus, and sent to Capua in southern Italy. "Spartacus would certainly have fought in the arena," Schiavone writes. "He must have won, and killed."
In the spring of 73, Spartacus began his career as a rebel leader, organizing a breakout of about 200 slaves from his gladiatorial camp. As Schiavone notes, one of the first things the former gladiators did was to exchange the weapons they had used in their shows for professional arms: this was "a full-blown rite of passage from the arena to the battleground, a purification, a scraping away of the past, which restored...dignity to men who felt they had lost it, and transformed them from slaves into real warriors."
It was a sign of how precarious social order remained in Italy that thousands of slaves, and even some poor freemen, soon joined Spartacus' band. The figures in ancient histories are notoriously unreliable, but Schiavone thinks that at his peak Spartacus must have commanded some 50,000 fighting men. He was a tactician of genius, managing to defeat a series of small Roman forces sent to put down the rebellion. His army crisscrossed the Italian Peninsula, from Sicily to the Po, and at one point seemed to have an open road to Rome itself.
The big question for historians has to with the kind of rebellion Spartacus thought he was leading. Was he, in fact, a kind of liberator, raising an oppressed servile class in revolution against their masters? Did he aim to abolish slavery in the Empire and set all the slaves free? Schiavone's answer is that it is anachronistic to think of Spartacus in such terms. The Romans, he notes, had no conception of social classes in the modern sense, and their worldview could not include a society without slaves: "The idea of a society without servile labor formed no part of the ancient Mediterranean cultures."
Indeed, Spartacus himself enslaved the Roman soldiers he captured. On one occasion he even forced his prisoners to put on a gladiatorial show, a dramatic sign of the reversal of fortunes. What he envisioned, Schiavone argued, was raising the Italian cities in civil war against Roman domination, turning himself from a mere slave leader into the chief of a legitimate army. He hoped to play on the social and political fissures in Roman society, just as other conspirators of his period had done and would do, until the rise of Augustus Caesar put the Empire on a new footing.
It was the failure of the Italian cities and their working people to take up his standard that doomed Spartacus' rebellion. Finally, after two years, the Senate began to take the threat he posed seriously and sent a large army under Crassus to fight the rebels. In the spring of 71, Spartacus was brought to battle and defeated. The surviving accounts of his death say that he perished in the thick of battle, slaying Romans to the very end. Ironically, he would become more potent in death than he ever was in life: no longer a local warlord but a symbol of freedom who still has the power to inspire and fascinate more than 2,000 years later.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Nextbook.org. He is the author of Why Trilling Matters, Benjamin Disraeli, and The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.
Reviewer: Adam Kirsch
From Chapter Two: The Commander
The autumn wheat was ripe in the fields. The rebels felt safe, and were probably tired after the long trek. Casting aside all restraint, they ran amok in a sudden outburst of violence—bloodshed, torture, burning, and rape. The local slaves, possibly tipped off about their arrival, sided with them en masse in a more or less spontaneous insurrection of a kind that had already occurred elsewhere—bonds and solidarity formed in an instant. It was they who led Spartacus’s men to hastily concealed provisions and belongings, and pointed out the hiding places of their terrified masters. Power relationships fixed by the unremitting exercise of physical force dissolved instantly. Nothing seemed excessive or inviolable in the fury of the uprising—“barbarous rage and a servile nature” combined, Sallust writes coldly.
Spartacus, however, did not participate in the frenzy. In vain, he did everything he could—pleading even—to halt the massacre and to wrench his men out of a terrible spiral of “hatred:” in the writing of the Histories his figure once more stands out alone against the backdrop of his companions—a leader, but a leader in solitude.
How much truth and how much literary construction there is in this account is again hard to say: without a doubt, in Sallust’s time, a whole Italic—above all southern—tradition about the cruelty and violence perpetrated by the rebels in their forays was still alive: and it is quite feasible that what happened at Forum Anni rightly formed part of this reliable body of memories. But also Spartacus’s aloofness from the conduct of his men, undoubtedly played up by Sallust in stylistic terms, is not improbable either. We are told by Appian that the rebel chief often tried to impose a form of behavior which, though realistically accepting the harsh realities of war, prevented his men from becoming unbridled booty hunters—brigands without rules or scruples. It is information we have no reason to doubt—nobody had anything to gain from inventing it—and deserves to be judged with attention. Spartacus always “divided the plunder in equal parts” (a policy which, according to Appian, made recruiting easier). What’s more, “he prohibited the bringing in of gold or silver by merchants [into his camps], and would not allow his own men to acquire any: they only bought iron and bronze at great expense, without harming the merchants.” The detail is reported by Pliny as well, which suggests he and Appian drew on the same source: probably Sallust (and Varro), but perhaps we should not exclude Posidonius.
Where did Spartacus get these models of behavior? We should look in various directions. Towards more learned influences, which might have reached him from Greek democratic extremism and the economic egalitarianism that had long been spreading on the edges of that tradition, or even to the condemnation of the corrupting role of wealth found in significant strands of important philosophies (Stoicism, Cynicism), which might not have been unknown to him. Or, more simply, to basic notions of primitive rural communitarianism perhaps inherited from the customs of his own Thracian stock. Or, again—and this may be the most likely hypothesis—to a heterogeneous mix of overlapping cultural elements: doctrinaire ideas and popular reminiscences. Without forgetting that even bands of latrones often set rules for themselves. But in any case, I think it is less important to choose between these possible origins than it is to grasp what I would describe as the political-pedagogical aspect of Spartacus’s conduct, whatever its provenance.
Posted August 4, 2013
Spartacus, while a factual Thracian gladiator, has grown throughout history in to one of the greatest fictional superheroes ever born. Little is actually known about Spartacus beyond his historic leadership during the Third Servile War. While many books, movies, and even an in-depth television series can be found on Spartacus, much of what is portrayed is fictional or heavily exaggerated upon the little information about his life we do know.
“Spartacus unquestionably had a charismatic power- by virtue of culture, military and perhaps even oratorical talents, and capacity of vision- superior to that of others, which would have given him an indubitable preeminence.”
Author Aldo Schiavone dove deep into history providing fourteen pages of worthy sources shedding further light upon a man who rose from the ash and dust, leading an army of slaves against Roman troops and defying narrowing odds against them. He proved to be of great courage, leadership, and a steadfast tactician as he, alongside no more than seventy other slaves, armed themselves with meager kitchenware and rose up against the guards of Capua.
This book is broken up into three main sections, The Fugitive, The Commander, and The Loser, and heavily utilizes the resources provided to obtain as accurate a story on Spartacus as possible. The author has done a superb job in ensuring that he didn’t glorify or elaborate upon what little knowledge was provided. This book, while on a limited source topic, is profoundly written in such a way as to evoke powerful emotions as Spartacus battles demon after demon, never giving up, and leaving his mark rooted deep within history. This is definitely a book you will want to pick up. You won’t regret it.
*This book was provided in exchange for an honest review*
*You can view the original review at Musing with Crayolakym and San Francisco & Sacramento City Book
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