A new perspective on 
antiquity’s greatest slave rebel


Translated by Jeremy Carden

Posterity has left us little more than a dozen pages of writing from antiquity about Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator who in 73-71 BC led the largest slave uprising in the history of the Roman Empire. These accounts and fragments were written long after the events passed, by Roman historians who certainly were not sympathetic to their subject. And yet two millennia later the story of Spartacus still inspires novelists, historians, and filmmakers. Marx once called him the “finest fellow antiquity had to offer.” This rebellion still thrills us with its size and scope—Spartacus’s army, which possibly numbered as many as 40,000, defeated several Roman armies sent to crush it—and the way in which it humbled, even if for only a few years, the greatest empire of the day. It is no accident that the German Revolutionaries led by Rosa Luxemburg called themselves the Spartakusbund.

Aldo Schiavone, professor of Roman Law at the Institute of Human Sciences, retells the Spartacus story in this short book with deftness and poetic skill. He writes, for example, of how in the Rome of Spartacus’s time, gladiatorial combats became “increasingly detached from funerary rites and memories of sacrifice, and were now a stable component in the experience of the festivity, of the spectacle, of city munificence—of the heady sharing in the pleasure of blood and its contaminating heat.”

But the book is much more than a poetic retelling. It places Spartacus in a deep historical context, and, through intelligent conjecture, tries to explain the movements and decisions of the slave army, challenging a number of previously held assumptions along the way.

Most accounts of the rebellion argue that the slave army sought to find a way to escape from Italy, either northward to Thrace (Spartacus’s homeland), or, when that path was thwarted, southward and toward ships to disembark to other shores. Schiavone argues that this story doesn’t make sense, and that a more likely explanation for the movement of Spartacus’s army was that he sought to “transform his revolt into an Italic war and into a civil war.”

Though careful to note that the paucity of information makes hard conclusions impossible, Schiavone’s case is well reasoned, situating the Spartacus revolt in the context of a transitional period full of uncertainty and contradiction between the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of the dictatorial rule of the Caesars.

This period, as Schiavone describes, is marked by a dramatic expansion of the empire through military conquest. The early empire had been built on the basis of the “citizen-soldier,” the small landowning farmers who provided the backbone of Rome’s conquering armies. But the very success of this model undermined it. Conquest opened up vast tracks of land for exploitation by the Roman landed aristocracy, as well as providing the labor—slaves from conquered peoples—to work them. The increasingly powerful landed aristocracy pushed out the small farmers who had been the backbone of the Republic and of its armies, appropriating their land and concentrating them into large estates worked by slave gangs. Economically ruined, many of these former citizen-soldiers were driven into Rome and other cities to become a “proletariat” dependent on the plunder of empire for their subsistence. The increasing demand for slave labor in turn fed the drive toward greater conquest. 

The old republican system of rule could not contain these new developments. Increasingly, power became concentrated in the hands of successful generals, posing as either defenders of the privileges of the senate elite or of the dispossessed urban masses and their own soldiers, each competing for political power by using Rome’s urban plebs “as a mass to be maneuvered by opposing forces.”

Spartacus’s revolt coincided with this period of dramatic change and ferment. Schiavone speculates that Spartacus was aware of the Sicilian slave revolt that had taken place a generation earlier, and that he was probably conscious of the difficulties Rome faced in its outward expansion and the wars and conflicts it engendered, including the “Social War” of 90-88 BC, waged between Rome and several Italian cities that had long been Rome’s allies and now wanted fuller citizenship rights. Spartacus was probably also aware that Rome’s best legions were tied up suppressing a rebellion in Hispania and a war with Mithridates’s Pontic Empire to the east. 

Spartacus, writes Schiavone, “really did try to step into the political and social vacuum which he somehow felt lay before him, and to take a leap into the dark.” He built up a substantial army, recruiting not only slaves, but also free poor people. But he was never able to conquer and hold any city, and though he was able to defeat several armies sent to crush him, Spartacus was eventually defeated by legions led by Rome’s richest man, Lucinius Crassus. 

In the end, Spartacus was not able to trigger a wider revolution or civil war in Rome that might have provided him with the forces necessary to succeed. As Schiavone notes, in “his scheme to win the support of whole populations and cities, Spartacus underestimated the limit represented by the servile origins of his movement. When it came to the crunch, the strong prejudice against slaves ended up closing many doors and debarred many alliances that must have seemed possible to him.”

Most importantly, argues Schiavone, Spartacus’s plan foundered on the “lack of a real political and social perspective to offer to the rebels, capable of going beyond a simple break with Rome and not merely looking to the past, to the autarchic egalitarianism of bygone days.”

The only weakness in Schiavone’s argument is his insistence, drawing perhaps on the great antiquities scholar Moses Findlay, that Rome was a society of “orders” and “statuses,” but not of classes. The concept of classes, the author argues, is merely the superimposition of industrial capitalist relations onto the past. Indeed, he seems to make the case that one can only speak of classes and class society with the rise of capitalism, modern political parties, and the waged working class. He notes in defense of his point that slaves had no real sense of class-consciousness. 

Perhaps Schiavone was motivated in his analysis by the fact that the urban struggle in Rome, which pitted representatives of the people against defenders of the power of the senate oligarchy, used the masses as a battering ram—the latter being largely not a producing or exploited class, but a group of propertyless consumers living off the crumbs of empire. These conflicts were not, strictly speaking, class struggles so much as social and political struggles between factions of the elite.

And yet, it is undeniable that a great portion of the wealth of Rome’s ruling elite was derived, outside of direct plunder and taxation, from the labor of slaves. For Marx, classes were determined not only by their consciousness, but of their objective position in the production of society’s surplus wealth. The slaves may not have been a class “for themselves,” to use Marx’s famous term—that is, a class capable of conscious organization in its own interests—but they certainly were a class “in themselves,” that is, an exploited class whose labor was the foundation of Roman wealth.

This weakness, however, does not detract from the great insights and the new, dynamic interpretation Schiavone gives to antiquity’s greatest slave revolt.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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