He was a gladiator, rebel, and hero of Hollywood. But who was the man behind the myth?
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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's 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.