Spartacus – Hero or Barbarian?

There is very little evidence on the existence of Spartacus, all of which comes from ancient written sources and is in connection with the great Servile Wars and the the so-called “Spartacus Revolt“. Especially Appian and his reports on the raging Civil Wars of the late republican era (App. Civ. XIV 116 – 121) and Plutarch (Greek historian of the 1st century AD) who wrote a biography about the Roman centurio (commander) Crassus (Plut. Crass. 8 – 11) are of great value. Both authors write about Spartacus, but he is not in the leading role of those tales, for Appian writes especially about the revolt, while Plutarch depicts the deeds of Crassus. Spartacus is merely a minor character. And now we encounter the great danger of written sources, for as valuable as they are to our understanding of the ancient world, we have to keep in mind that authors at that time wanted to please at least one party. This means that our transmission is partial!

App. Civ. XIV (116) “At the same time Spartacus, a Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier with the Romans, but had since been a prisoner and sold for a gladiator, and was in the gladiatorial training-school at Capua, persuaded about seventy of his comrades to strike for their own freedom rather than fort he amusement of spectators (…) (117) (…) Spartacus sacrificed 300 Romans prisoner to the manes of Crixus, and marched on Rome with 120,000 foot, having burned all his useless material, killed all his prisoners, and butchered his pack-animals.”

In the descriptions of the Roman historian Appian, (1st century AD) Spartacus is mainly the rebellious barbarian that conducts as the leader of the slave army in the honourless war against Rome. Most of his reports contain details on war-related events and only very few on the character of Spartacus. He only mentions Spartacus’ Thracian origin and his arrest and training at the famous gladiator school at Capua. Every other aspect of his persona relates to his “barbarian“ deeds by killing Roman legionaries. We get more information from the Greek author Plutarch (1st century AD). As a Greek, Plutarch is not bound to Roman diplomacy and is allowed to write the story of the Servile Wars and Spartacus’ life from a different perspective. In his biography our hero Spartacus is playing Crassus foil and he is even declared as a Hellene (by this meaning a cultural and virtual heir of the Greek) by his “great courage and strength, but also in sagacity and culture superior to his fortune”. Plutarch gives us also the only source for Spartacus family relations. His wife is said to be a „prophetess” and interprets Spartacus call and gives him a Greek-Heroic destination.

Plut. Crass. 8 “Then they took up a strong position and elected three leaders. The first of these was Spartacus, a Thracian of Nomadic stock,a possessed not only of great courage and strength, but also in sagacity and culture superior to his fortune, and more Hellenic than Thracian. It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue. This woman shared in his escape and was then living with him.”

Judging the historic written sources we have to be most careful with the political, social and cultural background of each author.

Spartacus and his wife in the series "Spartacus - Blood and Sand", starring Andy Whitfield and Erin Cummings (found in http://bit.ly/1xziUAi)
Spartacus and his wife in the series „Spartacus – Blood and Sand“, starring Andy Whitfield and Erin Cummings
(found in http://bit.ly/1xziUAi)

Appian was an Egyptian at first and only later was he granted Roman citizenship, therefore all events in his writings are carefully described and rather in favour of Rome. Plutarch on the contrary was Greek and moreover a priest. Therefore he provides Spartacus’ character with cultic and prophetic elements. Unfortunately we know no more than this about Spartacus’ characteristic. All further descriptions can only be made through his reactions during the Servile Wars, e.g. his strategic gift as a general. Indeed it is explicitly written that Spartacus was a good leader and commander, but moreover it is interpreted by the success in the course of the Servile Wars. His caring and dutiful nature arises from his well-known goal to lead the slaves over the Alps back to their countries. Appian’s sources make a, careful but still clear, characterisation of Spartacus as a courageous and militant hero, who finds death fighting on the front. These and many other elements written and told about Spartacus are only shadows of an ancient event that were used in for a modern hero in the series “Spartacus – Blood and Sand“. Those shadows developed over the years to an exemplary, leading figure that did not exist in ancient times but rather were formed by a modern mind. Therefore, if we are referring to a so-called “hero“, we should keep in mind that in the ancient world this title could only have been held by a “great man“ who embodied the social norms that could only have been achieved by the aristocracy in most cases.


Bibliographic references: Lochmann, T., Späth, T. and Stähli, A. 2008 (eds), Antike im Kino. Auf dem Weg zu einer Kulturgeschichte des Antikenfilms, Kolloquium auf Castelen/Augst bei Basel 20.-22. September 2005, Basel;  Schröter, J., Die Fernsehserie, ihre Form und ihr Wissen. Ein kurzer Überblick, tv Diskurs 62; Yavetz, Z. 1925, Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Rome, New Jersey.
Acknowledgment: Dr Tobias Bitterer, Dr Sascha Priester, Freya Redman
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