Smarty Sparty (Part-1) – The business of slavery

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Statue of Spartacus at Sardanski, Bulgaria (Image:Wikimedia)

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There are two dudes in this narrative. One was a Roman general, a cunning and ruthless landowner-soldier by the name of Marcus Licinius Crassus, who later went on to become one of the three men who ruled Rome jointly for a while between 60 and 53BC, with two others – Julius Caesar and Pompeii, in an oligarchy that was known as The First Triumvirate.

Rome, at this point in time, was no longer a city-state but an empire that had spread from modern-day Spain in the west to modern-day Turkey in the east. Besides gold, silver, precious stones, ivory and food grains, Rome was filling to the brim with another wealth – slaves. Already the slave-to-citizen ratio was touching 30-35% inside Rome. Historians estimate that there were about a million slaves in the Italian mainland alone, at that time.

Although Rome was already an empire then, it didn’t have an emperor yet. The first Roman emperor, Augustus, was not even born at that point in time. Rome was run as a republic, ruled by a senate, an assembly of 300 political leaders (mainly rich land and slave owners) who were elected by the people of Rome and held office for a year. Political office and military leadership went hand in hand. Most senators were also military generals.

Imagine a vast empire being ruled by 300 rich guys, most of them fighting men, all of whom had their own agendas and intense rivalries that spilled into murders and poisonings. It is no wonder that the political scene was pretty chaotic. But somehow they stuck on, I guess because they found common cause against constant threats of invasion by murderous nomadic huns who were itching to get even for all the Roman conquests into their lands.

Around 60BC, in the interests of having a more stable government, the 300 senators got together and elected three of their own as joint heads of state – the triumvirate. The following is an account of the period a few decades prior to the formation of the First Triumvirate.

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Crassus was an immensely rich man who owned silver mines, prime real estate and farmland and traded in slaves. All military men traded in slaves, able-bodied men that they had captured in conquered lands and brought over to Rome.

Machiavellian in his demeanor, Crassus stopped at nothing, in order to prevail, his ends always justifying the means he used, like a bygone-era Al Capone. At one point, he created a fire brigade and rode around town lighting fires at prime properties that he had eyes on and then offering to buy the property at greatly devalued prices, just before he extinguished the fires.

While he was maybe the richest man in Rome, Crassus was not the most powerful. That would be a guy named Pompeii the great, later to become one of the First Triumvirate. Pompeii was a brilliant military commander who had gained fame by ridding the Mediterranean of pirates, who were becoming a huge pain in the butt for merchants plying between North Africa and Europe.

In order to prove himself in front of Rome’s shakers and movers as being no less a military man than Pompeii, Crassus needed a conquest of his own and it was not long before providence thrust the opportunity of a battle and a conquest of a new enemy, this one from within the empire – a ragtag band of slaves led by an auxiliary soldier-turned-slave-turned-gladiator named Spartacus.

Spartacus is the other dude I was referring to when I began shooting my mouth off.

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Spartacus hailed from the conquered city of Thrace, a town on the Black Sea coast of present-day Bulgaria. In 73BC, displaying astonishing personal courage, he gathered fellow slave-gladiators together and mounted a revolt against the Romans. Word of the revolt got around and it soon snow-balled into a empire-wide uprising which you could term today as the ‘slave spring’. During the course of the rebellion, Spartacus managed to defeat several Roman legions, before he was finally killed in battle.

Though there have been many films and TV movies on Spartacus, the one I liked the most and also historically more accurate, though romanticized to appeal to today’s audiences, is Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus, a narrative about Spartacus’s short but violently spectacular life.

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At a break during the shooting of ‘Spartacus’. From right to left – Kirk Douglas(Spartacus), Sir Lawrence Olivier(Crassus), Tony Curtis(Crassus’s lover-slave, Antoninus), Peter Ustinov(Batiatus) and John Gavin(Julius Caesar). The film was co-produced by Kirk Douglas.

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Spartacus was a free-born citizen of Thrace who might have served as an auxilliary in the Roman army in Macedonia. Auxilliary forces were essentially soldiers from conquered lands who had chosen to fight with the Roman army, somewhat like Romanian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian SS troops in the German armed forces during the Second World War.

Rome was perpetually at war, either repelling invasions, quelling dissent or simply invading and expanding their territories. The 50% plus casualty rate in any armed conflict those days demanded constant replenishment in able-bodied fighting men and therefore the creation of those auxiliary forces.

A belligerent hot-blooded man by nature and physically an immensely powerful guy, Spartacus’s fellow soldiers in the legion knew not to mess with him. Historical accounts suggest that he was anything but the dreamy-eyed guy shown in the Stanley Kubrick film. Historians have however romanticized him, just the way that Alexander the Great has been made to look like a strong and righteous guy, in spite of the fact that he is personally responsible for the killings of at least a million enemy soldiers and civilians and the enslaving of around 500,000.

The 1st Century AD Roman historian, Plutarch, had a high opinion of Spartacus. Here is how he described him in his work, ‘Parallel Lives’ – Spartacus, a Thracian of Nomadic stock, 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, a prophetess, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue…. (No matter that Spartacus didn’t survive in the end).   

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It all started when Sparty-pants got into a drunken brawl one night and killed two of his fellow centurions with his bare hands. He was immediately summoned before a summary court-martial. Rome didn’t become an empire by having liberal policies toward criminals. There was no such thing as rehabilitation. You committed a crime and you were history. Nearly everything could be interpreted as a capital crime. I don’t know if you could be executed for letting out a fart but if I were you, I would try to hold it in, if I was living in 1st century BC Rome.

Spartacus knew that the punishment for the killings would be harsh. As a mere auxiliary, it was virtually certain that he would be executed. So he did the only thing that he could, under the circumstances. He split and tried to high-tail it into the furs above the snow-line beyond his garrison and hide out the winter inside a cave. Unfortunately he was given away by a peasant who happened to be wandering by. Don’t try to look this up. Smarty Sparty came in my dreams and told me that’s how he got caught.

Arrested, Spartacus was given a choice between crucifixion and being enslaved and forced to fight as a gladiator, kind of like a modern-day plea bargain. Spartacus chose the latter of course. He loved getting into brawls anyway. And he was lucky too, in that the Romans saw a business potential in him. If he could be trained, he could be a great gladiator. Much like we stereotype the Gurkhas as quintessential fighting men and assets to the Indian army, Thracians were then known to be awesome at close-quarters combat.

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Most criminals on death row were offered a chance to fight in the arena but only the ones that held promise as fighters were offered the chance to train. If on the other hand, the convict turned out to be a nerdy little white-collar criminal who maybe got caught defrauding a consul or a tribune, he would be mince-meat on the very first day.

Among the gladiators were Christian martyrs too, on death-row for refusing to renounce their faith. Like the white collar convicts, it was open season on the Christians too. These sorry sods, the Christians and the geek nerds, were given no body armor, helmets or shields. It was simply entertainment that delayed death for them. A dance of death before a bloodthirsty audience, gladiatorial muneras were by far the most horrific sport that mankind had ever devised.

But hang on, there were also some free men who fought as gladiators. They were usually S&M loving kooks, social outcasts tired of life and freed slaves. A few were PTSD-stricken vets who, unable to settle down to a quiet civilian life, were able to identify only with more gore. There were also former gladiators, who had come to love the adrenalin-drenched orgy of blood.

Even Senators and Emperors have fought as gladiators. The Emperor Commodus (AD 180-192) enthusiastically fought as a gladiator. He boasted victory in a thousand matches and even had a trademark killing method – he would have his opponent (usually some hapless wimp who had no previous fighting experience in hand-to-hand combat) injured beforehand, so that he would be starting off with a distinct advantage. He would then proceed to slice off his opponents’ body parts, one at a time, maiming them till they finally fell, a mass of flesh, bones and blood.

Commodus is the guy portrayed by Joaquim Phoenix in the Ridley Scott movie Gladiator. Set in the fag end of the rule of Commodus’s father, Marcus Aurelius, the blockbuster is a fictionalised version of history, not fact. He is shown being killed in a gladiatorial fight with the Russell Crowe character, General Maxumus, whereas the real Commodus was assassinated, strangled while canoodling in the bath with Narcissus, his wrestling coach.

Takes all kinds, no?

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The toughies (often court-martialled soldiers like Spartacus or hulking slaves from foreign conquests) who looked like they might put on a hell of a show, were given formal gladiatorial training in schools like the one that Spartacus was sent to – an academy run by a Roman slave trader and lanista (gladiator trainer) named Lentulus Batiatus, in a hick town called Capua, near Mt.Vesuvius in southern Italy. Here Spartacus trained as a lightly armed gladiator who would have to fight with a broad bladed sword, helmet, padded arms and leggings and a parmula, which was like a tiny shield.

During the period from 1st Century BC to the 2nd Century AD, gladiatorial games (known as muneras) were a regular fixture in the Roman social calendar. Muneras were organized for all sorts of reasons. A wedding could be solemnised with a munera with 50 slaves fighting each other to the death. The funeral of a noble demanded at least a hundred pairs of gladiators. In 65BC, elected an aedile (a public official like a public works minister), Julius Caesar hosted a munera with 320 pairs of gladiators wearing body armor made from solid beaten silver, in memory of his father who had died 20 years prior. No, Julius Caesar didn’t appear in my dream. The 1st Century AD historian, Pliny the Elder said so. Muneras could be hosted as a form of sacrifice to the Gods too, with gladiators as the sacrificial suckers of course.

As the BCs gave way to the Anno Dominis however, gladiatorial games gradually began taking on the look of staged farcical spectacles, with bronzed fighters merely going through the motions, their punches not making real contact, much like those stupid World Wrestling Federation matches that we see on TV these days. And later, as Christianity began gaining acceptance, the gruesome spectacle of a munera came to be seen more and more as a depravity and shunned. Gate receipts dropped and so did TV sponsorships. What? Of course there was TV those days. Would I lie to ya?

During Spartacus’s time (~ 75BC) however, the muneras was very much a fight to the death. Gladiators were a breed by themselves. Reared and bred like stallions, they lived, ate, drank and trained together, morning noon and night. And the training was so close to the real thing that attrition rate (of trainee gladiators who either gave up and made a run for it or perished in a hand-to-hand combat training session) was as high as 20%. Another 20% died in the arena on their very first fight.

So, we are looking at an immediate 40% overall attrition and the consequent demand for fresh blood. No wonder a gladiatorial school in ancient Rome was a recession-proof business for guys like Batiatus. Gladiatorial games were big money but like all shows through the ages, new thrills had to be invented in order to maintain the gate receipts. It was not long before wild animals (tigers, lions, bears, wild boars) were thrown in and the whole thing began feeling more like a circus, a word derived from ‘circle’ or ‘arena’.

Gladiatorial games were presented in these arenas that the Romans used to call colloseo, large elliptical, tiered amphitheaters that seated thousands of spectators, huge multiplexes dedicated to barbarity. A magnificent specimen that is still standing, though in ruins, is the Coliseum of Rome, which came up in decade around 80AD, during the rule of the three Roman Emperors of the Flavian dynasty – Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. Built to accommodate 80,000 spectators, the Coliseum saw thousands of munera before it turned into the ruin that we see today, still bearing testimony to the horrendous brutality of ancient Rome.

When they were not training, the gladiators were rested and fed well, living a life that was far more comfortable than fellow slaves, who slogged in the granite quarries and silver mines outside town, a line of work that was just as hazardous as a gladiator’s. Still, it was captivity and naturally, there was a universal yearning to be free, just as there was a formation personal bonds of kinship between the men. This was in spite of the fact that getting too close would make it difficult to kill, in the arena where, once you were given the thumbs-down, you either killed or were executed for insubordination.

But the kinship formed anyway, till one day in 73BC, it exploded into a rebellion that at one point threatened to engulf the whole Italian mainland and carve out from it an independent state with free slaves as it’s citizens.

(to be continued…)

1 thought on “Smarty Sparty (Part-1) – The business of slavery”

  1. Gary Robinson said:

    Gosh, this is exciting, Achyut! 🙂

    Like

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