Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Real Spartacus

Slaves and fighters

In Spartacus's time, the Roman republic was entering a period of turmoil which would end with the rule of the Caesars. Roman territories were expanding east and west; ambitious generals could make a name fighting in Spain or Macedonia, then carve out a political career in Rome. Rome was a militaristic society: battles were staged in the newly popular sport of gladiatorial combat. While successful gladiators were idolised, in terms of social status they ranked little above convicts; indeed, some gladiators were convicted criminals.

Others were slaves. Slavery accounted for roughly every third person in Italy. It was an increasingly slave based economy. Slaves were liable to extreme and arbitrary punishment from their owners; while the death penalty for free Romans was rarely invoked (and humanely executed), slaves were routinely crucified. In the previous century, two slave revolts, both on Sicily, had been put down at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.

Gladiators and rebels

Spartacus was a native of Thrace (now Bulgaria). After joining the Roman invaders as a mercenary, he was enslaved and sold at auction to a trainer of gladiators in Capua. In 73BC, Spartacus led a revolt of 74 gladiators, who escaped and fled to the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, where they set up camp.

Rome's response was swift and forceful: an army of 3,000 was sent to suppress the rebellion. Meanwhile, Spartacus's camp had become a magnet for slaves from the surrounding area, several thousand of whom joined him. In an impressive tactical coup, he defeated the Roman army by abseiling his forces down the side of the mountain during the night and attacking from behind. A second army was sent out, numbering 6,000 and bearing the fasces, the symbol of Roman authority. This too was defeated. Spartacus captured the symbolic fasces- ac act dramatised in the Kubrick film.

Spartacus's army spent the winter of 73BC camped on the south coast of Italy, building up its armaments and morale. In spring, it headed north; the audacious plan was to march the length of Italy, cross the Alps and escape to Gaul (present-day France, then largely outside Roman control). Two armies were sent to intercept it, and both were defeated.

But Rome scored one victory, defeating a Gaulish contingent which had refused to march under Spartacus's leadership; 20,000 Gauls were killed. In honour of the Gaulish leader Crixus, Spartacus held funeral games, including gladiatorial combat between captured Roman soldiers.

Winners and losers

At Mutina (Modena), Spartacus faced his greatest challenge: an army of two legions – 10,000 men – commanded by Cassius Longinus, the Governor of Cisalpine Gaul (Piedmonte). The army was massacred; Spartacus seemed invincible.

Then the plan changed. Perhaps drawn by Italian plunder, perhaps put off by the logistics of getting an army across the Alps, or perhaps even a sense of invincibility amongst the rank and file, Spartacus turned back: his army once more marched the length of Italy, repulsing an attack by two legions under the command of Licinius Crassus. By the end of 72BC, the army was encamped in the south, this time at hegium (Reggio Calabria) on the Strait of Messina: a few kilometres from Sicily, homeland of the previous slave revolts.

But events were no longer moving Spartacus's way. Crassus, a wealthy and ambitious Roman politician, built up his forces. For reasons which are unclear, Spartacus proved no more able to cross the Strait of Messina than the Alps. Seeing Spartacus trapped, Crassus built fortifications, which contained the rebels in the peninsula.
After a small skirmish, Spartacus had a Roman prisoner crucified, in sight and earshot of the Roman army. Spartacus had continually subverted a Roman Ideology that perceived slaves to be unintelligent.

The crucifixion served the double purpose of warning his own men of their potential fate if they lost This new transgression was the final provocation for the Romans. Two Roman generals were recalled, Pompey from Spain and Lucullus from northern Turkey. Spartacus carried out one final coup, breaching Crassus's impregnable wall and making for the port of Brundisium (Brindisi), where Lucullus's army was landing. In the event, Spartacus's army was intercepted and trounced by Crassus. Crassus was keen for the glory of victory in his competition for power with Pompey.

Myth and reality

Contrary to the celebrated sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film, Spartacus, the survivors of the battle were never asked to identify Spartacus; he had died on the battlefield cut down trying to reach Crassus. . The subsequent mass crucifixion scene, however, is historically accurate: Crassus had 6,000 men crucified along the Appian Way between Capua and Rome – a distance of about 200 kilometres.

Spartacus was a brilliant battlefield tactician with an eye for the defiant gesture. ( Before one battle he had killed his beloved white horse in front of his army saying that if they won he could pick any horse from the Romans he wanted and if they lost , then it didn’t matter as they would all be crucified anyway) Little united his army except the goal of continuing survival. Internal dissent and sheer confusion sealed its fate as surely as Rome’s superior forces . The revolts took place at a time when conditions made success virtually impossible.

Nevertheless, the legend of Spartacus lived on. For the Romans, the story of the slave revolt was an awful warning: it suggested that a society built on the backs of slaves and subject peoples might one day be overthrown by them. Four centuries later, this is exactly what happened, and Rome fell to the 'Barbarians'.

Peter Burton- July 2009- Info from the documentary “The Real Spartacus “

No comments: