The Spartacus War

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

As Barry Stauss recounts in The Spartacus War, between 73 and 71 b.c.e., the Thracian gladiator Spartacus terrorized the Italian peninsula as the leader of a slave rebellion. Long after his death, Romans continued to remember him with horror, and his memory has not tarnished with time. Nineteenth century freedom fighters such as Haitian Toussaint L’Ouverture and Italian champion Guiseppe Garibaldi idolized Spartacus as a revolutionary hero, as did the eighteenth century French philosopher Voltaire. Marxists have long celebrated him as the champion of a repressed segment of society and an example to the contemporary proletariat.

Hollywood has ensured Spartacus’s place in modern mythology and culture. A 1950 novel by the disillusioned Marxist Howard Fast inspired Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film starring Kirk Douglas. Although teeming with historical inaccuracies, this film made Spartacus a cinematic icon who most Americans would recognize. Because of Kubrick’s film, most would also sympathize with Spartacus’s doomed but “noble” campaign.

The Spartacus commonly represented today, Strauss notes, is a puzzling mixture of soldier, slave, gladiator, general, orator, noble egalitarian, and freedom fighter. His complex story blends legend, history, romantic love story, crusade, liberation theology, and identity politics. Exactly who was this Spartacus? What were his goals and intentions? Was his campaign just a slave revolt or actually an uprising against Roman nationalism? How Roman was the Thracian Spartacus? Strauss, an ancient historian, uses a variety of historical resources to seek answers to these questions and to fill out the personality of Spartacus and the details of his revolt.

Only the barest outline of the Roman war against Spartacus is known. Sometime in the spring or summer of 73 b.c.e., a small band of gladiators under the leadership of Spartacus broke out of their barracks in Capua and occupied Mt. Vesuvius. In the next few months, tens of thousands of runaway slaves and disaffected Italians flocked to the gladiator’s camp, as his forces defeated Roman units led by Glaber and Varinius and launched raiding expeditions in the area. The rebels, relying mostly on guerrilla tactics to withstand the Romans, wintered in the southern Italian city of Thurii.

In the spring of 72, the rebels marched north as far as Mutina in the Po Valley, where a Roman army led by both consuls was defeated. Why Spartacus and his followers did not, at that point, attempt a crossing of the Alps into either Gaul (modern France) or his native Thrace (modern Bulgaria) remains one of the most puzzling riddles of the story. Instead of doing so, the rebels split into two armies, one led by Spartacus and the other by the Celtic gladiator Crixus, who was soon defeated and killed by Roman forces.

By the summer of 72, Spartacus and his forces had returned to southern Italy. During the following winter, they attempted, with the help of some pirates, to cross over to the island of Sicily. Cheated by the pirates, Spartacus was gradually isolated in southern Italy by the forces of Crassus. Sometime around April of 71, Crassus defeated a breakaway rebel army led by the Celts Cannicus and Castus and forced Spartacus into a pitched battle, where Spartacus was killed. In the following month, Crassus crucified thousands of Spartacus’s followers along the Appian Way. Bands of rebels apparently continued their guerrilla tactics in southern Italy for at least a decade, because Octavian (the future emperor Augustus) is said to have wiped out the last survivors in 60 b.c.e.

Unfortunately, the real man and his followers left no historical record, no explanation of their motives and plans, so Strauss must comb incomplete and biased sources for information. As is often the case, the history of the vanquished is told only through the words of the victors. Even this record is fragmentary and distant in time from actual events. Spartacus’s famous contemporaries, Julius Caesar and the orator Cicero, both in their thirties at the time of the revolt, make only passing (but valuable) references to Spartacus and the Roman campaign against him. The only contemporary Roman who wrote directly about the war in any detail was...

(The entire section is 1776 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 12 (February 15, 2009): 19.

Christianity Today 53, no. 6 (June, 2009): 56.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 30.

Library Journal 134, no. 2 (February 1, 2009): 81.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 2 (January 12, 2009): 38.

The Washington Post, April 5, 2009, p. B06.