Spartacus & class struggle in ancient Rome
by Graham Stevenson
Roman agriculture was originally dominated by free peasants, each cultivating land for their own family needs. But, as Rome expanded its territory, the peasants were increasingly drawn away from the land for the army and huge estates created out of the individual smallholdings. In the process, some great fortunes were made. The mass of Roman citizenry became a “mob of do-nothings more abject than the former `poor whites’ in the southern country of the United States, and alongside of them developed a mode of production which was not capitalist but dependent upon slavery”. [Karl Marx. Letter No 167 in Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence. (1943)]
It was not so much that slavery was necessarily the dominant means of production in the heyday of Rome; it may well in fact have been overshadowed to some extent in societal terms by a combination of small scale subsistence farming and by artisanal production. (Regular, hired labour played a very minor role in Roman economics.) It was not so much the relative significance of free and unfree labour but the extravagant value extracted from the latter, “in providing the dominant propertied classes with their surplus”, that was of such importance. [G E M de Ste Croix “The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World” Duckworth (1983) p133]
Intrinsically linked to the use of slavery as an economic tool was the need for constant territorial expansion. Warfare became the norm, a way of life, the motor for economic growth. After the first Punic War, with Carthage, which established Rome as the dominant Mediterranean power, the expansion of the Roman republic brought about a period of wealth and power for the noble patrician class. As for the ordinary Roman, many of the men were now largely preoccupied with military service and their previous economic role was partially filled by the labour of slaves in a new large-scale agricultural economy.
With the peasant away at the wars, more and more prisoners of war were sent back to Rome as slaves with more and more victories. Enormous numbers of slaves would be captured in war. It was said, probably exaggeratedly but nonetheless indicating the kind of scale involved, that some 20,000 prisoners were enslaved in the first Carthaginian war. Soldiers would return from battle to find that the much cheaper slave system had undercut them and that money capitalists forced the peasant into greater and greater debt, or took over his land. In this way, enormous estates were created from defaulting debtors. The ordinary Roman found that landowners of these great estates, or latifundia, dominated the system of government. [From the Latin for `broad’ (latus) and `estate’ (fundus)]
With legitimate forms of protest denied them, the Roman plebeians resorted to military tactics in abortive but violent attempts to end the widespread debts and break up the latifundia. These estates became truly huge. A unit of one thousand acres would be considered quite small. When one owner died in 8 BCE he left four thousand slaves, three thousand yoke of oxen and 257,000 other animals. The lands of one of the richest Romans, Marcus Licinius Crassus (115-53 BCE), were valued at 50 million denarii, the basic unit of Roman currency. (Crassus would become a key player in the war against Spartacus.) One senator, supposedly rather poor as the standards set by senators went, left 370,000 denarii when he died. But this was some 900 times the legacy that a legionary might be expected to bestow. One Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in 49 BC owned some 270,000 acres, or 400,000 iugera. (One iugerum equalled 2,529.28 square metres.) Standard farms, by way of contrast, were from 100 to 240 iugeras of land, but ordinary citizens usually owned less than ten iugeras. Another latifundist, Isidorus, owned 3,600 pairs of oxen and 257,000 other animals, which probably needed more than 300,000 iugera to work them efficiently.
The latifundia, unlike family owned peasant smallholdings were highly vulnerable to armed attack and the slave population was an instantly recognisable source of potential hostility. No wonder that Roman society was highly militarised. At its height, the native Roman army was at one of the highest proportions to the citizenry at large ever known, at one eighth of the entire population. Estimates about numbers in this period are a contentious area of historiography but some basic assumptions are possible. One source considers that, in 28 BC, there were some three million slaves and some four million free citizens. Perhaps only a tenth of artisans were of free birth. Another suggests that, out of a population of six million in Italy (at the time of Augustus) a third were slaves. Either way, a leader of a slave rebellion needed perhaps one in ten of all slaves to revolt to put together a massive enough army to confront the Roman state. More difficult would be the task of arming and training them to constitute an effective enough force to combat the strongest power in the Mediterranean. (An estimate on the total number of slaves in the wider Empire suggests that there would have been ten million in all, about 20% of the entire population at the most.)
Despite the large numbers of slaves in its midst and the periodic revolts, it generally proved possible for Roman society to maintain its control over them. Yet the rebellion of the followers of Spartacus, let us call them Spartacans, very nearly ruined Rome, which was practically brought to its knees in a very short space of time. How was this so? Who was Spartacus? What happened in this great event, known to Rome’s historians as the Servile War? But first, was slave rebellion a common feature of classical antiquity, or did Spartacus lead something entirely unique?
Slave rebellion before Spartacus
Slavery has its origins in the deepest mists of antiquity, usually arising from putting prisoners of war to servitude as reparation. Before southern Europe came to be dominated by Rome, slaves usually rebelled only when a vast number congregated together, as at Chios in Greece, where slaves regularly escaped to the mountains and formed bandit groups that existed by the occasional raid on isolated farms. In the fourth century BCE (Before Common Era – previously `Before Christ’), there was even a slave king, called Drimachos, who became the subject of much folklore. A series of social upheavals associated with the city state of Sparta had their origins in the formalised enslavement of one tribe by another. For example, in 413 BCE, twenty thousand Attican slaves deserted to the Spartans during the Peloponnesian war. A large proportion of these were miners. Ultimately, this general process resulted in a revolutionary solution at the end of the third century BCE, when the `red’ King Nablis abolished debts, taxed the rich and freed the slaves.
Slaves did not have much of a common identity, except where they were a conquered people. The typical rebellious act of a slave was therefore an act of flight away from slavery to somewhere where their current property status did not matter to the inhabitants, if indeed there were any. Sometimes this might be done in a collective way, but the slave was not generally a social rebel. If anything, the early experience of slave rebellions proved the value of keeping slaves in small groups, at all costs avoiding anything which generated social cohesion, especially concentrating them in one place in large numbers. As long as slave holding was relatively domestic in character, slaves did not act and think as a dispossessed class. The latifundia changed all that by collectivising the economic role of the slave and, in doing so, contradicted earlier experience.
Crucifixion was originally a form of execution first used by Carthage. Its use by Romans, generally, as a means of punishment for slaves began, possibly almost ironically, after a rebellion of Carthaginian slaves in 197 BCE. As in Sparta, this revolt was associated with the resistance of a conquered people. (By the time crucifixion was employed in its most celebrated circumstance, in Judea, it had come to be associated with the execution of common criminals.) However, serious revolts with more social connotations occurred in many parts of Roman territory in 198, 196 and 185 BC. Attica, Macedonia and Delos saw slaves and poor peasants join together in revolt, such was the consciousness-raising effect of large-scale production when coupled with `national’ consciousness.
A rising of slaves took place at the Laurium silver mines in Attica in Greece in 134 BCE. Whilst, in the same year, a major rebellion of mainly `Asiatic’, we would say Middle Eastern, slaves in Sicily needed the use of military force of such a character that a consul was required to lead it. (The Consuls were the annually elected joint Presidents of the Republic and commanders-in-chief of the armed forces. Normally, they had to be mature men of 39 or 43 years of age. As the consularship was the highest level of the electable magistracies in Rome, there were normally two of them, a device to establish checks and balances, not that it always worked thus!) Relevant to this uprising was the fact that there was a special reliance on the latifundia system on the island. Beginning on one large farm belonging to a Greek from Enna, called Damophilius, a shatteringly effective slave rebellion broke out.
The leader of this revolt was one Eunus, from Apamea in Syria and his followers were dubbed the `Syrians’. Eunus styled himself a king, with the name of Antiochus, and led a rebellion that affected the entire island and even some of the mainland Greek cities. His choice of name was surely no accident. A dynasty of a dozen kings called Antiochus ruled vast tracts of territory in today’s Iran, Iraq and Syria. The capital of that regime was based on the city of Antioch. That a slave rebellion did not promote a more egalitarian model of government by calling its leader a king does not lesson the force of the event, which must be seen in the context of a likely cohesive `national’ identity. Kingly systems of government dominated the Middle East region for centuries, with considerable success, and Roman republicanism was hardly a model of attraction for embittered slaves. The substantial settlements of Enna, Tauromenium and Morgantina fell to the slaves, bringing the virtual ejection of Romans from the island. Whilst expeditions were sent to crush the revolt in 134 and 133 BC, each failed until the final and successful attempt in 132 BC. Messina fell to the Romans and the beaten slave army was crucified.
Elsewhere, around the same time, Attalus, the childless king of Pergamum (sometimes rendered as Pergamon) in Asia Minor, willed the leadership of his wealthy state to Rome, so as to prevent a burgeoning slave revolt. This became the first Anatolian province of Rome in 133 BCE and laid the basis for a lucrative Asian empire. (The city-state and its immediate surrounding territory were confined to the west-central area of modern Turkey.) An illegitimate member of the royal household, one Aristonicus, led a revolt against the Romans. Defeated in this, he withdrew into the interior. His aim, probably unachieved, was to found a new city state, significantly to be called Heliopolis, the traditional name for a Greek utopia. The chief advisor to Aristonicus was a Stoic of egalitarian views and all slaves who would follow him were to be granted freedom. (The Stoic school of thought originated around 308 BCE with Zeno, who made virtue the highest reward within his thinking, concentrating on ethics, control of passion and indifference to pain. Hence our contemporary use of the phrase.)
Within less than three decades, Sicily faced similar problems once again. Slaves in the west of the island, belonging to Publius Clonius, rebelled. Some six thousand slaves elected a `king’, or leader, one Salvius, who then took the name of Tryphone. Another, separate, outbreak of rebellion occurred elsewhere on the island. Athenion, the commander of a 10,000 strong army of slaves, led this. Soon both armies joined forces and Tryphone set up his capital at Triocala in the south west of the island, fortifying this against attack. From 104 to 101 BCE slaves were masters of Sicily, with only the towns outside of their control. Lucullus led an attempt to suppress the revolt but this did not work. Only in 100 BCE did the consul Aquilus manage to seize Triocala and thus destroy the slave rebellion.
The aftermath of a century of waves of militant slave rebellion encouraged a tendency amongst the ruling circles of the Empire towards a policy based on the better treatment of slaves. Seeing the need for a more rational, yet economic, view of the humanity of the slave, Pius (138-61 BCE) prohibited certain forms of inhuman treatment, reasoning that if some slave owners behaved outrageously then a rebellion of slaves could easily spread to the slaves owned by others. After all, this is exactly what happened when Athenion’s rebels had been inspired by Tryphone’s revolt. In the general property interests of all slave owners therefore, the less farseeing elements needed to be kept in check.
Large numbers of slaves would be kept in underground barracks, or ergastula, where life expectancy was disastrous short. Slaves who lived and worked in close proximity to their owner, or who held some special skill or knowledge, could generally expect to be treated with some consideration. This might sometimes even mean the chance of freedom at some point in the future, as an incentive to perform well. A proportion of earnings would be allowed to the slave, a `peculium’, to save up so as to be able to buy freedom. Despite all this, the treatment of most slaves was if not actually vicious then at least curt. The Romans called their slaves `speaking tools’, especially in the southern latifundia, a phrase that succinctly conveyed what they thought of them. A slave’s diet would rarely include meat, and clothing would be supplied only in quantity and quality needed to maintain modesty and warmth.
Agricultural slaves would usually be chained at night to prevent escape and their hair was cut oddly to distinguish them as slaves, half of the head perhaps shaved closely. Potential rebellion was dealt with severely. If a slave murdered his master, then all the slaves belonging to him would be crucified. Perpetual tension, especially on the fringes of Rome’s rule, with `barbarian’ tribes was a ready reminder of the danger of allowing what lay beyond to connect with what lay within. The slave owner would view the possibility of barbarian invasion, which would only ensue in the later stages of the Empire, as an unimaginable disaster. But the slave might dream of liberation by those of the same ethnicity or similar language group.
Pre-classical peoples often shared a common ideology, which had its roots in pre-farming civilisations. All slave rebellions were utopian and backward looking in character, harking back to a golden age of equality and justice. Early societies expressed such communal concepts in natural terms. The sun symbol was common across many cultures as a symbol of a life that was natural, good and just. Many slave rebellions expressed their strategic aims in visionary ideology that was summed up in the iconography of the sun symbol. Concepts concerning the liberation of the nation, defined as tribal, cultural and linguistic expression, intertwined with this general ideology. Slave rebellions had as a figurative aim the achievement of a new city state, of Heliopolis, the sun state. Something of this notion lay behind the idea of HeavenlyCity, or Ouranopolis, an egalitarian city state in the third century BCE. The Stoic philosopher, Zeno, was thought to be communistic in outlook.
In stark contrast to this dreaminess, slavery was a brutal experience. To ensure its effectiveness, slaves carried out most work that needed to be performed in gangs. Heavy and dirty jobs like mining, galley rowing, road building certainly were the preserve of slaves. Although slaves were much used in domestic work as well. Despite the increasing adoption of a carrot and stick approach by the owners as a class, the life of a slave was unpleasant. It was irritatingly obvious that this was so to slaves, for they often lived amidst great pleasure and opulence, always denied to them. Small wonder then that there were periodic slave rebellions in the Roman world, as there were in other ancient civilisations based on this mode of production. Even more worrying for the patrician class was the political instability that arose amongst the poor citizenry of Rome. It’s impossible to say how far the general instability arising from the efforts to maintain control over the slave class fed into the discontent of native plebeians, and vice-versa. For there are no records that we can read, which speak of this from the perspective of the commoner. We only have histories written after the event. Mostly, these proceed from the perspective of horror at the thought of having to wage war against such a lowly form of life. All politics is viewed as being an expression of the relationship between leaders and the mob. Clearly, the historic nature of slavery owed much to victory in external warfare against other peoples. Patriotism and language barriers would surely cloud any sense of commonality in struggle against the patrician class. But can it be that the example of rebellion itself held no ideological influence on the plebeian class of Rome? In later centuries, during the French revolution for example, the history of plebeian struggle and the names of their leaders would certainly inspire social revolutionaries. At the very least, the instability caused by one form of rebellion often looked very much like another. Were there no poor Italian peasants who took vicarious pleasure in the discomfort of the aristocracy as it ineptly sought to bring the slave rebellion under control?
Certainly, a period of civil war beset Rome in the opening years of the first century BCE, after Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was elected tribune. This office – there were originally two, but incumbents would expand to as many as ten – was chosen by the Roman people specifically for the purpose of protecting the liberties of the common folk against the senate and consuls. (The word came from the root word for `tribe’ and must surely have been a vestigial expression of the concept of a full tribal council, that is the whole tribe in gathering, from the most ancient of times. It is also noteworthy that a late 18th century French `communist’ would take the name of Gracchus in tribute.) Sempronius Gracchus had a plebeian background, so was receptive to land reform and now pressed hard for this as tribune. His popularity was so great that, against the rules, he ran for a second term. Conservative senators mobilised against him, however, and he was assassinated, along with around three hundred of his followers. But pressure for reform continued. The younger brother of the murdered man, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, was also elected tribune in 123 BCE, for two successive years in fact. But he too was killed, leading an outright assault against the conservative forces in the senate.
This largely agrarian based class struggle increasingly became formalised into `parliamentary politics’, as conservatives and reformers jostled for position in the senate and amongst the consuls. The plebeian faction became known as the `populares’, or the peoples’ party. From 107 BCE, their leader, Gaius Marius, was elected no less than six times as a consul. Interestingly, he particularly distinguished himself as a general in war in Africa, when social peace in time of imperial expansion ought to have been possible. But a period of intense social conflict followed, up to 88 BCE. Lucius Cornelius Sulla, of the `optimates’ (or nobility) faction, was elected consul and, unprecedentedly, marched his legions in battle order on Rome to forcibly exile Marius. Undaunted, Marius returned in 86 BCE, was then elected to his seventh consulship and launched a bloody offensive on the optimates. But, following his death, the populares were eventually defeated and reaction set in. The oligarchy, under the dictator Sulla, triumphed at the decisive battle of the Colline Gate in 82 BCE. But, after he died in 79 BCE. Rome went through a complex period of instability. Nothing had really been resolved.
As the Empire experienced greater unrest from even amongst its own citizens, the state proved unable to exercise authority. A cavalier attitude to the former rigid requirements of Rome’s primitive democracy emerged. Age limits regarding magisterial office became more fluid; political machinations became even more florid, coups d’etat more acceptable. Rival political gangs battled on the streets, constitutional government gave way to tyranny, pirates roamed the seas and highwaymen and robbers the lands. More dangerously, slave rebellions became more and more frequently serious affairs. Runaways freely roamed across the Apennine highlands. The preceding period of instability had created a basis whereby the rebellion led by Spartacus might be able to grow. Large sections of the Italian peninsula were disaffected. The Samnite people in particular, native to the south central part of the country had long been the historic enemies of Rome and had periodically engaged in rebellion. Much of their traditional lands were in open and rough terrain, naturally suited to guerrilla war. There had been lengthy tensions over voting rights for non-Roman Italians, an issue allied to discriminatory laws regarding property and trading rights. Romans had divided between reformers and reactionaries over these issues.
But there was no obvious connection normally between the struggle of poorer Romans, or even the wider Italian people, and the slave population. Perhaps we have to think of the anomalous position of poor whites in the USA, vis-à-vis black slaves, to grasp the impossibility of a significant development of social solidarity. Even so, sympathy for slaves from the Roman people was not unheard of. In 61 AD, 400 slaves belonging to a murdered prefect were executed, according to the obligations of ancient law, which stipulated that all of the slaves of an owner murdered by one of his slaves be eliminated. The common people of Rome “demonstrated violently for the relaxation of the savage ancient rule”. Since the slaves were urban, perhaps many of them had some connection, or even kinship, with the populace? Citizens could easily become formally enslaved and slaves were not exclusively always foreigners. Or, the sympathy may have been plebian hostility to the typical high-handedness of a patrician practice. [G E M de Ste Croix “The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World” Duckworth (1983) p409]
Our difficulty, of course, is that there is so little evidence to go on. The thinking of the common people and of slaves was hardly recorded. One aspect of ideological evidence that has survived is the fable, which is certainly particularly, if not exclusively, associated with slaves. It seems that, much as in the old south of the US, stories and songs were a mild form of protest that was often so thought provoking that even the ruling circles became fond of the folksy wisdom. The historian, de Ste Croix, relates the tale of the old man fleeing a hostile army, coming across a donkey and pleading with him to help him escape its path. The donkey asks if the incoming potential masters can force him to carry two packs, instead of the one he presently bears. If not, what difference does it make to him who his master is, so long as he only has to carry one pack? [G E M de Ste Croix “The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World” Duckworth (1983) p444] It is easy to imagine such stories leaping from groups of slaves to groups of peasants, maybe even occasionally accompanied by some kind of shared sense of burden.
The struggle of the `democrats’ harkened back to the agrarian society of the early Roman state, when political power was more evenly distributed. Land monopolists now dominated the Senate and it was divisions over the imbalances of super wealth, created by massive levels of slave ownership of a small elite, which gave rise to the bitter civil wars. There is little evidence that there was any significant consciousness of the possibilities that a freeborn-slave alliance could have against the oligarchs. In any case, language and cultural barriers between the poor freeborn and slaves were immense. It was in this contradictory setting that the great revolt of the Spartacans took place.
The great slave revolt
The name Spartacus was not unknown in the Eastern Mediterranean before the slave leader used it. It had been the name of several kings in the Cimmerian Bosphorus, those nomadic peoples who overran Asia Minor in the 7th century BC. While, in mythology, a race of fully armed men born of the soil from sown dragon’s teeth were called ‘The Sown Men’, or the Sparta. Spartacus himself was said by Roman historians to be of Thracian royal descent. Thrace, located in the north-eastern corner of Greece, roughly equivalent to modern Bulgaria, was a client state of Rome until 46 BCE, when it became an official province of the Empire.
However, this story of royal descent is generally considered probably not to be accurate. The nobles of Rome, in popularising this myth, no doubt found it uncomfortable to contemplate their regular and often punishing military defeat by a commoner. It is even possible that Spartacus was originally a shepherd who had served as an auxiliary in the Roman Army in Macedonia and perhaps deserted. He had certainly led raids of a bandit group and was caught and sold as a slave after one of his attacks. It may be that he had ended up a bandit after his defeat of his tribe. The Maedi tribe, based near the River Strymon, were allies of the King of Pontus, Mithridates Eupator VI, a big rival of Rome. (Pontus was located on what is now the Black Sea coast of Turkey.) An alliance with Athens saw the introduction of democracy in Pontus. From 89-85 BCE, Rome was formally at war with Mithridates but he was driven out of Greece by an army led by Sulla in 86 BCE. Nonetheless, an on-off war with Mithridates was only finally at an end by 67 BCE. Spartacus would probably have been an adolescent, a formative stage in life, at the start of this time of great instability, whilst his rebellion came right in the midst of it all.
Either way, whether Spartacus had a history of being a deserter or freedom fighter, Thracian troops were noted as being excellent light infantrymen and their gladiators were especially famed. Gladiators at this juncture were still trained fighting slaves, really private armies, rather than the showpieces of the barbaric ring sports that had begun to become popular from 105 BC. The experience that Spartacus had as an auxiliary in the Roman army and as a bandit chief made him suitable material for gladiatorial training and he was sold to a trainer. In 75 BC, he was being held at the gladiatorial school of Gnaeus Lentulus Batiatus, in Capua, in readiness for the games in Rome. Many of these schools were in this region of Campania, at a safe distance from Rome. [For Roman accounts of this episode see: Plutarch, “Life of Crassus” 8-11; Florus, “Epitome” 2. 8. 20; Appian, “The Civil Wars” 1. 111-121; Orosius, “Histories” 5. 24. 1-8]
Such a fate was obviously by no means to the liking of these proud men. The subsequent scale of the Servile War was certainly not anticipated when some 200 gladiators plotted to revolt. But their plan was discovered and 74 to 78 of them (different sources use varying numbers) were able to break out of the `school’. These were mostly Thracians, Gauls and some Germans. Their first act was to arm themselves as best as they could. A cook’s shop was plundered of sharp spits and cleavers. Outside of the city walls, they met some wagons loaded with armour and seized this, putting to flight the band of soldiers sent to suppress them. The rebels soon made their encampment at the relative safety of Mount Vesuvius, which was inactive at this stage. (It became volcanic again in 79 AD.) Spartacus was chosen as leader, with two Gaullish swordsmen, Crixus and Oenomaus (these were their slave names), as his lieutenants. Oenomaus was to die very early in the war.
Naturally, as far as the Roman authorities were concerned, such an outrageous rebellion had to be stopped at once, even though it was, as yet, small in size. As the encampment at Vesuvius became the objective of more and more slaves, eager to join the rebellion, some 3,000 rapidly conscripted militia were despatched to crush it. Equivalent to half a legion, this force was under the command of Clodius Glaber, a Divisional General, or Praetor. (Clodius is possibly a demotic version of the aristocratic-sounding Claudius.) A step below a consul, there were normally six praetors, or middle-ranking officials, who could be a magistrate, a civil judge, a commander, a governor of a province, or a legislator. The age range supposedly required varied from a minimum of 33 to 39. Another rank below this, requiring an age limit of 30, was an aedile. This office oversaw the maintenance of roads and water supplies, and organised games and festivals. The lowest rung of the magistracy ladder was the quaestor, normally only concerned with public administration or financial records, which required an age limit of only 28 years.
Wanting to squash this relatively small rebellion was one thing; however doing it was quite another matter. The major difficulty was that it was difficult to confront the besieged slaves, as their camp was approachable only through a narrow pass and this required individual hand-to-hand combat. Not waiting to be starved out, the slaves overcame the Roman militia by the crafty but simple expedient of attacking them from the rear. Using ladders made from the wild vines that covered the volcano crater, the rebel slave army was able to enter the Roman camp via an unguarded quarter. With this victory, even more thousands of run-away slaves flocked to the rebels. Most of these new recruits came not from the towns, but from the countryside. Spartacus now proclaimed freedom for all slaves in the name of his army.
In the autumn of 73 BCE, the praetor Publius Varinius Glaber led two legions of 12,000 against the slaves, who were mostly still armed only with clubs and stakes and adopting guerrilla warfare tactics to wear down Roman strength. Varinius twice drew up his army for pitched battle but the slaves army melted away, avoiding confrontation at this stage. Regrouping, the slave army turned south to Picentia (Vicenza, near Amalfi). Varinius overtook them but couldn’t prevent a crossing of the Silarus, into Lucania. This had long been the favourite retreat of bandits, due to its difficult terrain. Now, Spartacus organised a series of punishing counter-attacks and spread out some 7,000 men across the countryside to prevent direct defeat. To counter this, Varinius divided his own army to get better marching speeds against the disparate forces. But an advance guard of 2,000, under Furius, was wiped out, having marched ahead. Another division, under Cossinius, followed the route to annihilation. Spartacus almost caught him bathing at Salinae but, with great difficulty, Cossinius made his escape but lost his baggage train to the slave army. In retreat, Cossinius was himself killed when the rebels stormed his camp.
The entire stratagem is deeply reminiscent of the way Yugoslav partisans harassed German forces in similar terrain in the Second World War. Having severely weakened the Roman enemy, Spartacus now struck hard against the bulk of Varinius’s army, dispersing it in defeat and confusion. Varinius himself escaped, but suffered the indignity of seeing the capture of his own horse, his fasces, or badge of office, (a symbolic bundle of rods bounds together) and of his lictors (an official bodyguard of a dozen men, each carrying a fasces, in front of the consuls and praetors as a sign of their authority.) His excuse to leave the field of battle was to fetch reinforcements, but even the small corps he left behind was wiped out.
The Spartacans ranged all over Campania. Lucania and Bruttium were controlled absolutely. To obtain food and other materiel, the towns of Nola and Nuceria in Campania, along with Metapontium in Lucania were sacked. Bases were established for the winter at Thurii and Consentia in the Bruttian countryside. The port of Thurii was important, since the lack of a cavalry was not easy to rectify, manufacturing an enormous quantity of metal weapons was an absolute must. Copper and iron were bartered from merchants at the port with plundered goods. Interestingly, Spartacus forbade the use of gold and silver in his encampments, perhaps to inhibit trade and the argument that went with this, maybe as a conscious means of creating a `war communist’ economy. (Interestingly, unlike his predecessors in the Syrian revolt in Sicily, Spartacus did not style himself as a king. Perhaps this reflected his comfort with the ideological mores of the Thracian nomadic tribes he came, which would have been primitive communist in character?) The process of forging weapons, often by melting down leg irons, and crude shields from horse or other animal hides, went hand in hand with the next step of creating a disciplined army by training and morale boosting activity. Most of the slaves had not been gladiators but many would have been veterans of earlier wars against the Romans in their own countries, being citizen soldiers of `barbarian’ armies. Wild horses were captured and trained, to provide a rudimentary cavalry. All this gave the Spartacans control over vast portions of Italy. Up to 100,000 joined arms with the initial 70 odd rebels to make the Servile Army most decidedly unservile.
But Spartacus’s own generalship was always crucial to the stunning success of the rebels. Marx, who read the Egyptian writer, Appian, on the Roman civil wars in the original Greek (just for relaxation!) was fulsome in his estimate of Spartacus. For Marx, Spartacus was “revealed as the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history. Great general … noble character, real representative of the ancient proletariat”. [Selected Correspondence (1943) p126] His experience, acquired as a soldier and as a bandit chief, was absolutely crucial to the success of the slave army. For normally no slave could ever be trusted to military service for Rome in case they learnt such skills. Knowledge of the strategies and tactics of the form of warfare then employed, such as was clearly possessed by Spartacus, was inevitably denied to the average slave, for obvious reasons. Even freed slaves who became citizens were still restricted in what military service was allowed to them. Also of great significance was the fact that the rebellion started with gladiators and not manual slaves.
In the spring of 72 BCE, swallowing distaste for the very idea of having to wage formal war against mere servants, the Senate took the unprecedented step of discussing the sending both Consuls against the slave army. Such an approach was normally reserved only for the most serious of circumstances. Six legions and auxiliary cavalry were assembled. This amounted to 40,000 men – probably seen as the upper limit of an army in the classical period. The best troops were still engaged in Spain, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, usually referred to in history as `Pompey’, has been sent there at the exceptionally young age of 24 to finish off the last signs of civil war led by Sertorius, a follower of Marius the populares leader, which had been underway on and off for several years. Further stretching resources was the fact that the thirty year war against Pontus was still live. Whilst separate conflicts both with Crete and, right across the Mediterranean, with pirates were very much alive.
Given the nature of slaves, the main aim of the Spartacans must have been to escape back to their own homeland and hence freedom, really the only realistic option. The vulnerability of the slave army lay in its ad hoc creation. There was no social programme, or ideology to guide the fore to a clear, achievable objective. Changing the economic character of the Empire, overthrowing its state, or even carving out liberated territory in mainland Italy were all impossible stratagems. Moreover, there was a complete absence of even a modicum of unity with the poorer citizens of Rome. Indeed, the ethnic disparity of the slave army was its greatest weakness, with differing elements looking to escape to the east, the north and the north-east of Italy. But to reach each of these routes was only conceivable by crossing the Alps, forcing way northwards through the peninsula of Italy. The slave army had formed itself into two forces, composed of disparate national and ethnic groups. That led by Spartacus was, however, mainly Thracian. The second group, led by Crixus and Oenonmaus was mainly made up of Gauls and, to a lesser degree, Germans. In cultural terms it was a Celtic army. Differences amongst the slave generals over the correct strategy and timing to achieve their aim of breaking out of Italy had lead to an amicable, if sad, parting of the army.
The Celts ventured forth, looking for provisions and plunder. Spartacus kept his army in the Apennines, possibly feeling the terrain to be familiar. The praetor, Quintus Arius, surrounded the Celts on MountGarganus, near Arrius in Apulia and defeated them. Gaulish battle tactics would have had the slaves fighting behind a circle of wagons. Short of an intensive siege, almost impossible to mount ad hoc out in the field, the Romans could not have achieved victory had not the slaves unwisely left their defensive positions after a feigned flight by the Romans, thus leaving a poorly defended gap in their circle. A battle out in the open left the Celts vulnerable to the superior weaponry of the Roman force. Both consuls were now despatched, with appropriate forces, to defeat the rebellion.
The consul Gellius encountered and destroyed a party of Germans who had set off on their own. With his own two lieutenants dead, Spartacus struck out north for the Alps, through Picenum. But Publius Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus (died 63 BC) waited for the rebels, just north of the River Po, with a consular army. Another army in two columns, led by Arius and L. Gellus Publicola, came in from the south, to attack the Spartacans from the rear. In a pincer movement, Lentulus met up with one of the two southern columns, partially encircling the slaves on one side, leaving an inviting gap as if in error. This was to invite the Spartacans to split in half, stretching their numbers across the battlefield in the process and then retreat either side of the gap.
Had Spartacus fell into this trap, the Romans would have closed in on his extended lines, creating confusion in his ranks. Instead, Spartacus split his army, leaving a small force to keep the smaller Roman force busy. He then led the bulk of his army head on to the larger of the two Roman forces, beating it comprehensively. He then turned his troops to the smaller force and smashed that! The Roman leadership escaped capture, but enormous number of prisoners and equipment fell in the hands of the slave army. The coolness and astuteness of Spartacus’s generalship, in the face of a classic encirclement strategy, is there for all to see in the outcome. Essentially, he had used lateral thinking to turn the Roman strategy against themselves. There were now no structured Roman forces left in Italy proper able to stop the slave army. A kind of stalemate ensued for some time throughout 72, whilst Rome held its collective breath. But, instead of marching on Rome, which would have been difficult to sack without the necessary siege machines, the slave army began preparations to strike north, towards Cisalpine Gaul, modern Lombardy.
Eight hastily assembled legions set out in pursuit of Spartacus, but further military success was still available to him. Moving north, the slave army faced forces of 10,000 men led by a pro-consul, (vice-consul) the military governor of the Gaulish province around the River Po, Gaius Cassius Longinius and a pro-praetor (or vice-praetor) Manlius. Near Mutina, at the foothills of the Alps, the slave army once again defeated the Romans. Cassius himself was lucky to escape, although one source suggests Spartacus was able to kill him in battle at some point. Inexplicably, the slave army now turned south once more, failing to cross into Gaul, perhaps to lead a liberation movement there, as it could have done. There was nothing to stop them. Perhaps the displaced Gauls did not know how to find their way to their specific home territory? Maybe the Thracians just did not relish another foreign country. Perhaps there were notions of total victory?
It was not a time to attract candidates for high office in the service of the Empire, especially since Spartacus now had as many as 120,000 followers. But, in the autumn of 72 BCE, the previously mentioned Marcus Licinius Crassus agreed with several other volunteers to lead the war against the slave army. Crassus, a noble from an old patrician family, had been a praetor in 73 BCE but currently held no high office. Nicknamed `Dives’, or `The Rich’, he was the wealthiest man in Rome, having made a huge fortune out of buying the confiscated property of civil war opponents cheaply and then selling it on. Even in Roman terms, he was not a pleasant man. Having very little support from the conservatives who dominated the Senate, the `optimates’, he had allied himself to the `populares’ faction, although his father had been a key opponent of Marius. But, arguably, as the person with most to loose, it was not such a reckless thing as it might have seemed for the Senate to give him extraordinary powers of action to achieve the task of smashing the rebellion completely.
But Spartacus led his forces to yet another brilliant victory in the most difficult of circumstances, defeating Roman forces lead by Quintus and Crassus’s state paymaster-general, Tremellius Scrota, at Petelia. The victorious slave army marched southwards towards the main body of the Roman army – the camp of Crassus. Spartacus proposed a negotiated settlement, but Crassus refused this out of hand in the most contemptuous way.
Mummius, a deputy of Crassus, found himself and his troops routed in the region of Picenum. Mummius, with two legions had been given the task of harassing the flank of the slave army, slowing it down to enable the main force under Crassus to catch up. But Mummius became emboldened by his relative success and attacked prematurely and unsuccessfully. The remnants of his legions were forced to retreat. This promoted Crassus to revive what was by then an obsolete practice. The remains of the legions led by Mummius were stood before the entire army led by Crassus and faced with decimation. That is to say, every tenth man selected from a group of 500 that had started the flight away from the slave army, who were randomly stood in line, was summarily executed. Demoralised and disorganised, the forces of Rome were treated to a thoroughgoing reform by Crassus, who restored confidence and discipline.
At this point the fortunes of the slave army began to fail. Once again dividing forces, the rebels experienced two defeats in battle. Crassus took his entire army into direct confrontation with the slave army. Whilst the day favoured the Romans, Spartacus led his own forces, minus some 6,000 dead and 900 captured, into orderly retreat to Thurii, through Lucania.
Having sought to stiffen morale and discipline after this, Spartacus then led the army further south to Rhegium, on the `toe’ of the peninsula of Italy, facing Sicily. Cassius directed forces to surround Rhegium. Now with much larger forces than the slaves, he was able to prevent their escape to the north, aided by the natural geography of Italy. Hemmed in near Rhegium, Spartacus looked towards nearby Sicily as a temporary haven from this danger. Of course, as we have seen, a generation before, the island had previously experienced fierce slave rebellion and the Spartacans could be sure of a warm welcome. The slave population would surely welcome their army as liberators. The island was also ruled by a particularly brutal and corrupt governor, L Verres, implying both the likelihood of a welcoming uprising and perhaps some lethargy on the part of the Senate in ordering an attack on the island, which itself would provide natural defence against attack. Moreover, Sicily was the major source of grain for Rome. Enough therefore to feed the slave army and enough thus denied to Rome to weaken her for any further attack. If the crossing could be managed, then the move was not just a last resort – but also the best retort. A large island such as Sicily might just be defendable as an independent liberated territory.
But getting thousands of people there was also more difficult than it might seem. How to cross the two and a half miles of the Straits of Messina? Pirates of Asiatic origin dominated the seas around Sicily and it was necessary for Spartacus to negotiate a passage across the straits from the mainland. Payment was agreed and made, but the pirates took their pay but treacherously failed to supply the passage. An attempt to cross to the island on rafts and wicker boats was made by the slave army, but this was simply not a serious proposition in the face of the intensive and daily assaults launched by Crassus’s troops on the rebels.
In a rare, but purposeful, example of brutality, Spartacus had a Roman soldier crucified to show his own people what they could expect from their enemy if all was lost. The situation the slave army was in inevitably led to more and more desertions. Two strenuous efforts to break free from the blockade of Crassus were made, but no less than 12,000 men were lost in battle and the main force of the Spartacans were still trapped. But Crassus had to stretch his forces across the entire length of the fortified ditch, which Plutarch says was 300 furlongs long and fifteen broad and as much in depth. The slave army eventually found a weak spot and, one stormy night – now in the winter of 72-71 BCE – having disarmed the local Roman defences, the rebels were able to clog the Roman trenches at this point with bundles of sticks thrown across in vast quantities. The lines thus breached, the slave army was able to get behind the main body of Roman forces. Rome was once again filled with fear. Was this the end of their counter-attack, would they fall on Rome itself?
Crassus had been hopeful of defeating the Spartacans with his own forces unaided. Seeking a dictatorship for himself, he had thus far opposed a recall of Pompey from Spain and Lucullus from Thrace with their armies. However, he was now compelled to call upon the assistance of Pompey, who had returned from Spain where he had been busy suppressing a rival faction in the Roman power stakes. Sertorius, a leader of the Democrats, had made his last stand and been defeated by Pompey.
Desperate to secure the initiative before Pompey’s arrival Crassus saw a possible move. The Gaulish section of the slave army had separated under the command of Granicus, or Gannicus, and Castus, survivors of the massacre at MountGarganus. Some 50,000 were surprised at their camp in the area of Croto, near the LucanianLake, after a forced march led by Crassus. Superior numbers and equipment would have overwhelmed the Celts had not Spartacus come to their rescue. Crassus had to retreat. But now he had to resolve the situation before Pompey arrived, if he was to gain any political credibility out of it all.
Segments of the slave army pitched camp separately once again. Perhaps the need to forage far and wide for food made this a necessity. Crassus made a pretended attack on the camp of Spartacus with his infantry, making a rapid attack on the Celts, camped by the River Silarus. Between ten and twelve thousand rebel slaves lay dead at the end of the day. It was said by Plutarch that only two men out of the entire slave force attempted to retreat from certain death, evidenced by wounds in their back. Previous disgrace was now partially recovered with the retrieval of symbols of authority, eagles and fasces – the bundles of rods that were tokens of magistracy. Crassus now saw his aim of finishing the war without Pompey’s help, and thus acquiring all the kudos this would bring, not as a hope bust as completely achievable.
Spartacus retreated to the hill country of Calabria, to resort once again to guerrilla warfare. Yet again a Roman advance force under Quintius, one of Crassus’ officers, and Scrofa, the quaestor, hung on to harass the retreating column. Spartacus wheeled his forces around to face the Romans head on in an advantageous position and was able to utterly rout them. With some difficulty, even the quaestor was carried away wounded. It was, however, the last victory. Encouraged by their seemed invincibility, the slave army clamoured for a last stand. The showdown took place at the mountains of Petelia, near Strongoli in Calabria; it was now March of 71 BCE. But, attempting to seize the shipping at Brundisium (modern Brindisi) harbour, perhaps to sail to Sicily, the Spartacans had discovered that the Governor of Macedonia, Marcus Lucullus, having been recalled by the Senate, had landed there with a vast force, after having travelled from Epirus. Now, both Pompey and Lucullus were about to arrive with their separate armies. It seems that Spartacus was against seeking an engagement with them, preferring to keep to a war of manoeuvre. But he consented to lead the army in its desire to end matters once and for all. It was now all or nothing.
Hostilities seemed to have begun in an unpremeditated way, as slaves attacked Crassus’s army as it struck camp for the day’s march. Both generals accepted the engagement, perhaps almost certainly understanding that this was the final battle. It seems difficult to believe that Spartacus believed his forces had the tactical advantage; perhaps he knew that it could only end in death? What else was there to do? Fierce resistance was provided but, the fact of the slave army engaging in this unprepared way, coupled with fresh Roman troops accidentally being placed in a tactically superior position, the slave army was routed. They had now no cavalry and only limited armoury. Spartacus killed his own warhorse in front of his troops when it became clear that a difficult position faced his army. His recorded explanation was the cheery comment that he would have plenty and better horses once they had won and, if he lost he wouldn’t need one! But such a clear sign of defiance could only ever mean one thing – a fight to the death, no sneaking away from death, as many a `noble’ leader would have done by racing away on his charger.
Spartacus was last seen at the head of the River Silarus in the very thick of the fighting, his place marked by heaps of slain Roman soldiers who ventured to engage him. It is said that at the end he was cutting his way through the Roman troops to get to Crassus, in one last desperate attempt to save the day. He was to die in circumstances of extraordinary defiance and bravery, rarely recognised in fictional accounts. Two centurions attacked him together but both were quickly despatched simultaneously. In the heat of this, Spartacus found himself surrounded by a sea of Romans. He and a desperately loyal group were cut off from the rest of his side. Spartacus was wounded in the thigh by an arrow or spear but must have shrugged it off. For he sank to his knee, holding his shield in front of him, killing Romans even as he was being cut to pieces from all sides. In the end, thousands of men lay dying and dead, with Spartacus simply one traceless butchered body amongst many. How many slaves died that day is uncertain. The Roman historian Plutarch says 12,500 lost their lives, whilst Orosius says 60,000. Either way, clearly, it was a bloodbath. Even the most hostile of Roman historians record their admiration of the personal heroism and talent of the slave general.
The remnants of the slave army dispersed into four fragments, which fought until they perished. Some 5,000 slaves made their way north, lead by one Publipor. Reaching Lucania, they were intercepted by forces lead by Pompey. Waylaying them in this way enabled him to make the claim that he had finished the war and not Crassus; that, while Crassus had routed the slaves, he had ended the slave rebellion by cutting out its roots. Rebels prisoners were picked up all over the countryside. Six thousand captives were crucified on each side of the Appian Way, a major road south from Rome to Capua, in a despicably cruel display of revenge and retribution. Stretching 150 miles, there would have been a crucified slave every 30 yards or so, sending a powerful, fixed message to all and sundry. The treatment contrasted sharply with the fact that, after the slave army’s defeat, 3,000 Roman prisoners of war were found at Spartacus’s camp at Rhegium, alive and well treated. As ever, property rights being violated by the rebellion, Rome was indignant and intolerant of the rebels. A fierce lesson needed to be conveyed to the much depleted slave population.
By the following year both Crassus and Pompey were made joint consuls in honour of their part in the defeat of the rebellion, the latter perhaps with less justice than the former since he had not actually taken part in any battles against Spartacus. Not that this stopped him trying to claim the credit. Since the prevailing view was that a period free from purges or faction fighting was needed, the Senate sought a balancing solution and voted Pompey a `triumph’ for his victory in Spain and Crassus an `ovation’, requiring a far less elaborate parade, since his victory had been `merely’ against slaves. Crassus and Pompey continued to be great rivals and served as joint consuls in 70 BCE, even though Pompey was actually below the relevant age limit and had not held the necessary pre-qualifying lower offices. As consuls, they repealed some of the unpopular laws of Sulla and restored the powers of the tribunes. Neither, however, would achieve their aim of becoming sole military dictator. That `honour’ would fall to a younger, then rather dissolute, Caius Julius Caesar in 49 BCE. His victory began the long period of Imperial rule that resolved a century of civil wars between conservatives and reformers, over whether to break up the big land estates and recreate a land-holding peasantry. Crassus would die fighting the Parthians, whose empire centred on what is today’s Iran, in 53 BCE. His severed head, with great irony, would `appear’ on stage in a famous Greek drama, the Baccanae of Euripedes, which was set in Thrace – the home country of Spartacus!
The former owners of the slaves suffered great financial loss by the mass killings in battle or executions after capture. But the safety of the Roman slave state system over-rode the individual property rights of the slave owner, in that it was judged that the slave class needed a totally unforgettable lesson. The revolt had come after a period of great disturbance, the republic had floundered, civil war became a periodic experience and ruthless leaders, seeking dictatorship, had come and gone ceaselessly.
The greatest story ever told?
No less than 71 legions were needed to suppress the revolt of the Spartacans, which may have numbered 150,000 at its height. Such an event cannot fail to rebound down history, a discipline once defined as a story that did not happen, written by someone who was not there! Whilst some sense of the likelihood of events and the context of these happenings can be judged even at this distance in time, all of our `original’ sources are Roman and all date from a period long after the event. The sheer hatred of Spartacus betrayed by these less than balanced histories of the Servile Wars, as the Roman victors knew this general period subsequently, testifies to the loss of nerve the affair must have caused amongst the governing classes. Some commentators talked up Spartacus’s `noble’ origins, out of disbelief that a `sub-human’, as slaves were thought of generally, could have been as clever, charismatic and physically dynamic as the slave general. Even Annaneus Florus, a deeply hostile commentator from the second century AD, found himself obliged to respect the integrity of Spartacus, although it might be said that such propaganda was designed to excuse the nine embarrassing defeats inflicted on the Roman military by forces led by Spartacus. Cicero compared him to the least dishonourable of Romans, Horace described him a no more than a common robber, while Roman historians more than 300 years later were still writing of him with disgust and Roman mothers used his name as a bogy man to frighten wayward children into obedience! But modern history and culture looks back on his name with greater generosity than it does his adversaries, who are largely forgotten to all but a few academics.
Marx and Engels personally were at some pains to bring some knowledge of the greatness of Spartacus to their followers. Indeed, shortly after the First World War, one strand of the early German Communist movement adopted his name, calling themselves Spartacists. There had been interpreters of the classical writers’ accounts even before Marx and Engels. Susannah Strickland wrote “Spartacus – a Roman Tale” in 1822. Even earlier there had been a French 18th century tragedy, written by B J Saurin. Whilst Voltaire had studied the Roman sources, commenting that “The war of Spartacus and the slaves was perhaps the most just war in history; perhaps the only just war in history.”
Versions of the story as a ballet and a film of the revolt were produced in the Soviet Union. Arthur Koestler wrote a novel of the story called “The Gladiators”. Two left-wing writers, the Scot, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and the American, Howard Fast, also produced sympathetic novels. Gibbons’ book was published first, in 1933 under his own name, James Leslie Mitchell, and was based on Appian’s text, that which Marx was addicted to. The only published factual account would seem that produced by F A Ridley, based on his 1944 ILP pamphlet, which used Plutarch and Annaeus Florus as sources. [F A Ridley “Spartacus – The Leader of the Roman Slaves” Frank Maitland (c1961)]
Howard Fast’s version was used by Dalton Trumbo, a previously black-listed Communist American screen-writer, to produce the script for the 1960 epic film, starring and produced by Kirk Douglas. Douglas consciously put Trumbo’s name in the credits, cracking the glacial blacklist for the first time, a move that led to its demise. Previously, Hollywood had steered away from `political angles’ in its productions. Yet this was one of the first mainstream films that had some regard for historical accuracy and took big risks in handling such a theme. Even so, the result seems “unsure about its commitments, the hero emerging as the standard Hollywood figure”. [John Cary “Spectacular – the story of epic films” Castle Books (1974) p52] Nonetheless, its impact cannot be denied: “a businessman, a hard-headed experienced person, complained that he could not sleep after seeing the ill-treatment and crucifixion of slaves in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus”! [R Stephenson and J R Debrix “The Cinema as Art” Penguin Books (1965) p203]
Yet, much about the film was pure invention, its opening scene of Spartacus as a slave in a gold mine in Libya, before being spotted as a potential gladiator, being a case in point. Many of the characters did not exist in history, such as the songster, Antoninus (Tony Curtis) and some of the women. Spartacus did have a wife but we don’t know her name. She is said by Roman sources to have been a Thracian prophetess. The finale of this film, with its now almost Pythonesque mass reply to Roman queries as to the hero’s whereabouts: “I am Spartacus”, actually denies the leader the truth of his furiously brave death.
Nonetheless, it was a good film, deservedly winning Oscars for supporting actor (Peter Ustinov as Lentulus Batiatus, the slave dealer – a real historical figure), cinematography, sets and costumes. Good use was made of its gigantic cast of extras but the film’s reputation is possibly better than it deserves and it is notable that the Oscars were not in the best film, leading man or woman categories. Some of the pseudo-romantic dialogue is delivered woodenly and there are too many needless plot twists. The action drags at times and many of the characters are drawn too starkly as `goodies’ and `baddies’. Remember the heavily censored homoerotic bath scene between Curtis and Olivier, designed to make us dislike Crassus? (Some original footage was restored only in 1991.) In contrast, Ustinov makes the most of his slave dealer, portraying him as a slightly seedy businessman. As the executive producer and star, Douglas had the best of intentions and was genuinely moved by Fast’s novel to make the film. In itself it was a heroic act, given the state of American politics at the time.
Even so, it is perhaps sad that Spartacus’s honour, courage and nobility (in the best sense of the word) have been most notably portrayed for millions to see by Hollywood. But perhaps that too is recognition of that which cannot be denied – Spartacus’s sheer humanity and greatness, which echoes timelessly down the ages as one of the boldest, earliest and most memorable of struggles for democracy.
And then what happened?
What of the legacy for both slaves and their owners in the years immediately after the great slave rebellion of the Spartacans? Long afterwards highwaymen, left over from the slave army, plagued noble travellers and bandits roamed the pastoral uplands – virtually unchecked at times. Only five and ten years after Spartacus had been slain, hired gangs of ex-gladiators and runaway slaves were quite common, in what was a period of general break-down of law and order for the slave owner and wealthy noble. The revolt actually caused a major shortage of slaves – for the obvious reason of simple extermination in the general slaughter. But substantial numbers of fresh slaves from foreign conquest were unavailable, due to the fact that the domestic counter-offensive against the Spartacans simply prevented foreign intrigue. Organised manhunts combed the more accessible parts of Italy for years afterwards in a profitable search for escaped slaves.
In consequence of this shortage, there was a noticeable short-term rise in the demand for temporary debt-bondsmen, or freemen who sold themselves for a definite period as a slave for money or release from debt, including as gladiators. But the deep attachment of the Roman economic system to slavery was not fundamentally broken. The period of most startling Roman expansion was between the conquests of Carthage and of Gaul, from 202 to 49 BCE. During this period, it was not unusual for 10,000 slaves to change hands in a single day in the great slave market on the Aegean island of Delos. An influx of Spaniards, Sardinians and Gauls, from time to time, created crises of over-supply, causing prices and markets to slump. The conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar from 59-49 BCE, coming after the Spartacan war, resulted in 400,000 more slaves coming on to the market and may have been an important motive for the entire enterprise, if not the means of financing it at the very least. (Caesar was to become dictator in 48 BCE, ushering in the long period of authoritarian rule that was to last for the duration of the Empire itself.) At its height, Roman society relied on possible 60 million slaves across its empire.
So was there a long-term decline of reliance on slavery, caused by the revolt? The statistical data is contested. Some think that there was no serious long-term drop until AD150, when Roman society began to look as if it had run out of initiative. It was a period of plots, assassinations and faction fights, when palace conspiracies and military coups were the order of the day. But the short-term effect of the revolt will surely have been dramatic. One source considers that by 50 BC or thereabouts there were possibly less than 750,000 slaves in total in Rome, a substantial reduction indeed. Roman citizens – especially the rural freemen who constituted the bulk of the poor in Roman society – continued to engage in a struggle against oligarchy and the debt system. This political turmoil brought down the republic, amidst social anarchy, in favour of a politically strong and stable Empire, led by a system of pseudo-inheritance. For the lower orders of Roman society there were no lasting gains from this struggle, beyond stability and the dole – `bread and circuses’ bought their quiescence.
While for the slaves, although the supply and the treatment of slaves altered, there was no fundamental change to the dominant mode of production. This was a period of primary accumulation of capital in the human form. The supply of slave labour may have stabilised during the period of the Caesars by resorting to a complex amalgam of sources. Prisoners of war continued to be one source, having been historically the origin of the system. Indeed, the anti-Roman struggles that colour much of the story of Jesus, took place against the background of a clash of social systems. The pre-Roman economy of Palestine was strongly dominated by free wage labour and landed peasantry.
But many more slaves were bred, born at home and kept within the `familia’, `vernae’ as they were termed. Slave marriages were encouraged. But this supply was not sufficient to meet the demands of the economic system. A profitable market in kidnapped victims, sold into slavery by trades developed, both from within and without the Empire. The sale of offspring into slavery by parents occurred, perhaps being a fairly minor source, both within and without the Empire. The former in times of great financial distress, the latter sometimes in the form of `tribute’ by border tribes, anxious to keep the military mighty of Rome at bay.
Yet there was another, much more significant and yet surprising source. There is considerable evidence for the deliberate practice of baby and infant child-exposure, at all levels of status among Roman citizens across the Empire. This form of euthanasia was not necessarily considered immoral in many ancient societies. Girl babies, other than the first born, and the abnormally deformed, the nature of which could be fairly minor by modern standards, were considered appropriate for such treatment. Roman authorities were often deeply worried at the level of the `custom’. But little action took place, since it was considered entirely legal to rescue such unwanted children from the dung-pile for enslavement. Some authorities have suggested that this was because the practice was so widespread that it turned into a major source of supply for the slave market. Plutarch wrote bluntly that “poor people do not rear their children”, suggesting that there was almost an industry devoted to this form of slave breeding.
Self-sale could even occur, although it was never formally legitimised, both in an endeavour to enter Roman society with a view to eventual citizenship and by citizens as a means to offset bad debts. (Manumission, or achieve freeborn status was allowed. Buying oneself free was a possibility and a tiny minority of slaves in particular circumstances could accrue wealth to do so.) Penal enslavement for grave crimes was also a source of fresh slave labour. There is some certainty that the supply of labour was maintained but that it was something of a struggle to organise it.
Whatever the facts about the future supply of slave labour after the great rebellion, slavery could not claim to be – in a global historical sense – an efficient means of production in society. Slaves continued, perhaps even to a greater degree, to ‘mistreat’ their masters’ animals. (Why should they not lighten their own burden, even if it meant devaluing their master’s livestock?) And to ‘steal’ whatever food and valuables they could. There is a very long tradition of treating the property of the master as ‘fair game’!
Nonetheless, reasonably well-managed slave-labour farms would be profitable, even if less efficient than `free’ one manned by labour. But what did social inefficiency matter to the master whose loyalty to society did not extend beyond the state’s obligations to him? Free tenant farming produced more goods for less capital expenditure, but that was of little consequence to the owner of land and capital. The ordinary Roman family depended upon their domestic slave – although some did not own one – to do the basic work around the house, contributing to sense of mastery and well being amongst citizenry. A variation of the notion of a property owning democracy, no doubt! But it surely inhibited the development of labour saving devices both at the domestic and industrial level. This profitable and practical advantage for slavery as a system only rested upon the continued flow of slave labour at a low price, the imperial flavour of Rome, both internally and externally, owed little to the desire to spread enlightenment to barbarians and had much to do with keeping the supply of slave labour system as buoyant as possible.
But slavery was a definite holdback on scientific progress. Not that philosophers has not thought of the possibilities of applied technology rather than brute manpower. Aristotle had written of a time far ahead when “galleys sailed with oars and lyres played without strings”, when slavery would become abolished. [F A Ridley “Spartacus – The Leader of the Roman Slaves” Frank Maitland (c1961)p16] A good, efficient waterwheel and the maximum exploitation of animal power as a source of energy were not developed until medieval feudalism. Not that this was because the technological know-how was absent; it was simply a matter of economic needs. A good water wheel was invented in principle in Roman times, but was not widely developed because there was no economic need. Such a water wheel produced the same power as one hundred slaves, while an efficiently harnessed horse pulled as much as ten slaves. The only people with experience to initiative innovation were the slaves who “with no education, no leisure and no hope of reward was not in a position to invent better productive methods; the citizenry largely despised manual labour, and even despised the process of invention as being connected therewith.” [Sam Lilley “Men, Machines and History” (1965) p55] Power assisted and ingenious mass distribution systems for transportation of water was a feature of Roman engineering, but seemingly restricted to particular state sponsored initiatives.
Slavery certainly diminished in importance in the later stages of the Roman Empire and in the first years of the so-called Middle Ages. Successive waves of barbarian invasions brought experience of the less sharply defined elites of these communities, with varying degrees of class division of labour. This experience combined, out of necessity, with the reversion to pre-slavery localised self-sufficiency productive systems to engender the medieval manorial system of serf and lord. Slave labour gave way to a system whereby land was offered for rent or a fixed amount of the crop, coupled with some obligatory labour on the landowners’ own productive land for part of the week. It was a system that suited both the tenant and the landowner and given a certain level of productive force provided a large degree of stability for the European world for centuries.
The landowner got his land cultivated without having to expend capital on the buying of slaves and subsequently keeping them, while the tenant had the freedom to utilise some land for his own domestic use. These free tenants, or `colonii’, were legally free to begin with, but their role was so invaluable to the powerful and wealthy that gradually they found their ability to move from place to place restricted, especially so if they wanted to move to another landed estate. A statute was passed in 332 AD preventing unauthorised removals on pain of the ‘free man’ being chained in the way that slaves were. The colonii were thus bound to the great estates on what became a hereditary basis. At a moment of great turbulence in human history, with the massive invasions from the east of successive tribes, a revolution in the mode of production took place in consequence.
In Lydia, in 399 AD, masses of slaves joined the Ostrogoth army. Slaves plundered Thrace in 401 AD. Revolts abounded. With the siege of the Visigoths (408-9 AD), virtually all slaves in Rome, 40,000 in all, simple escaped to the Gothic camp. As the Empire slowly declined, came apart and split over hundreds of years, a period of increasing marginalisation of slavery took place. Robin Hood style brigands become frequently mentioned in the historical record. One Roman historian advised: “Feed your slaves, to stop them becoming brigands.” Constant desertions, peasant revolts in Gaul and Spain and `barbarian’ incursions weakened the system. The latter was more and more tolerated, or even welcomed, by the poor – mainly as a relief from the heavier and heavier state taxation that they were subject to. Totila the Ostrogoth ruled Rome from 541 to 552 AD, seemingly with considerable support from the poor, especially after he accepted slaves into his army. The Roman Empire had been a destructive political system at its very core. The super exploitation of slaves required a militaristic regime of such magnificence that it effectively drained the economy of investment and vitality. Rather than strengthening Rome against `barbarian’ invasion, in the end it weakened all resistance. [G E M de Ste Croix “The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World” Duckworth (1983) p477-9, 482 ]
As slavery was supplanted by serfdom, the focus went from the great cities to the manor and the village around it. The tribes from the east simply settled into this mode of production, some more easily and quickly than others. For instance, it took a thoroughgoing change in the social and economic elite following the Norman invasion in Britain in the 11th century, before feudalism could be said to have decisively replaced tribal modes of production in Britain. This was particularly problematic in the Celtic areas, where communal practices lingered even to the nineteenth century in the Orkneys and other Scottish highlands. Capitalism, not as a dominant mode of production but as a small, but rapidly rising part of the economy of Western Europe, emerged only in from the 13th to the 15th centuries. As an economic system with its own forms of state power, capitalism emerged only from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
Had there been a successful slave revolution in Roman territory, perhaps by colonising Sicily and denuding Italy of its slave population, then a kind of proto-capitalism arguably may well have emerged a millennia before it did. As it was, when slavery ultimately translated into feudalism, it was to remain stable for an immense period of time. Invasions had unsettled the slave population – giving them ideas beyond their station as it were – it was rarely enough to lay the basis for a complete transformation of society. Nor could it reasonably be supposed that slave revolts had such ambitions, or could have got anywhere near achieving such a goal if they had even envisaged the possibility. Only the rebellion of the Spartacans came near.
The slave labour force was a heroic, but unlikely revolutionary force. Only a very small number of slaves had any education or learning at all. These were always professional men – clerks, teachers and doctors. Some very few were able to accumulate wealth, but these were an infinitesimal group. Disparate in nationality, culture, language and religion the slaves found little to unite them but a weary sense of the inevitable. There was also a sense in which slavery paralleled the status strata divisions of the barbarian nations, more subtle certainly than was the case with the sub-divisions in Roman society. There was the peasant-turned-slave and the rich-farmer-turned-slave and each was aloof from the other. Whilst in Roman society a kind of fundamentalist racism was all pervading, philosophical schools of all kinds recognised the validity of the democratic ethic. But few could even realise that there might be such a valid notion as world unity or mutual respect between nations, interestingly such ethics came entirely from anti-Roman sources. There was no sense of humanity en masse; rather there was the contrast between the barbarian and the civilised, pointed out with disdain by Romans without notable exception. Barbarians were sub-human, ergo they could be enslaved in body, no soul being allowed to the slave by the gods. The notion of enslavement by life-long time labour, accompanied by the everlasting free soul, having to wait until feudalism required such concepts.
It was here, in the spiritual vein, that Roman proletarian and barbarian slave might find common ground in the end. Indeed, it was religion that offered a safe haven to body and debt slaves of all kinds. As Engels has written, “where was the way out, salvation for the enslaved, oppressed, and impoverished, a way out common to all these groups of people (slaves, ex-slaves, the plebeian mob, impoverished free men) whose interests were mutually alien or even opposed?” Christianity, at least in how the Roman state adapted its early message, provided such an ideology. [F Engels “On the History of Early Christianity” Die Neue Zeit Vol XIII – ed. L S Feuer “Marx and Engels – Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy.” p 225]
Perhaps it was no accident that the era of slave unrest, having been crushed by the Roman victory in the Servile War, was followed by a period of mysticism and confusion. Previously, in some classical cultures, life after death was considered to be a misfortune, but the idea of continuity to life after death – as a form of recompense – was irresistible. And it was as a `sigh of the oppressed’, not a princely-administered opiate that the concept of the Christian paradise emerges; as much the slave seeking revenge for earthly misdemeanours, as reward for his own tolerance of misery. Hints of the ideology of the period remain in the heavily selective version of contemporary thinking contained in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Interestingly, the texts of more coherently revolutionary and earthly utopian works are lost to us. Only the basic details and title are known, for example “Heliopolis” (“The Sun State”) by Iambulus, a democratic utopia for the masses figuratively located in the Indian Ocean. What distinguished the subversion of the new Christianity was its unearthliness. In a political sense, the early Christians agreed to accept the social order that prevailed, so long as it did not in turn actively impede the practise of their religion itself. While there would be no division into freeman and slave in Heaven, here on earth slavery – and ultimately serfdom – was an established institution not to be meddled with.
Summer 73 the Capua break out
Autumn 73 Varinius
Winter 73 Thurii
Spring 72 Mt Garganus
Autumn 72 Crassus took the commission
March 71 the end
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