Schiavone transports us to Italy of the first century bce, where the pervasive institution of slavery dominates all aspects of Roman life. In this historic landscape, carefully reconstructed by the author, we encounter Spartacus, who is enslaved after deserting from the Roman army to avoid fighting against his native Thrace. Imprisoned in Capua and trained as a gladiator, he leads an uprising that will shake the empire to its foundations.
While the grandeur of the Spartacus story has always been apparent, its political significance has been less clear. What were his ambitions? Often depicted as the leader of a class rebellion that was fierce in intent but ragtag in makeup and organization, Spartacus emerges here in a very different light: the commander of an army whose aim was to incite Italy to revolt against Rome and to strike at the very heart of the imperial system. Surprising, persuasive, and highly original, Spartacus challenges the lore and illuminates the reality of a figure whose achievements, and whose ultimate defeat, are more extraordinary and moving than the fictions we make from them.
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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.