The story of the Third Servile War (73-70BC) began a hundred miles south of Rome, at Capua, an important center of trade back then. A school for gladiators was located there; not just any school but a top-of-the-line academy, inside which Rome’s most ferocious gladiators were trained in the art of staying alive, at least till tomorrow.
It was in this school that the ultimate fate of the man, whose name would forever be linked to every human being’s inner thirst for freedom, was decided. He was a Thracian ex-Roman Army auxiliary and slave named Spartacus.
The above was just in case you haven’t been paying attention to Parts 1 to 3 of this epic saga.
The Third Servile War is the one that the world has come to know almost by heart and is also known as Spartacus’s War, though I like to call it ‘Operation Kick Roman Ass (at least for a while)’.
The term ‘servile’, though an adjective, meaning being slavish and fawning, in this case it is used to mean ‘of the slaves’. And since it has a ‘third’ attached to it, obviously there had been two preceding wars that were also slave rebellions. The first was a 3-year uprising of Sicilian slaves (135-132 BC) and the second, 104-100 BC, was also a Sicilian uprising. Both were put down brutally by vastly superior military might of the Roman legions.
From time immemorial, the Sicilians have always been rebelling against everything. Just as the Afghans can’t think of life without conflict and insurgency, so do Sicilians depend upon strife to maintain their identity. Wrong a Sicilian and he won’t rest till he has avenged the slight. Make laws, set rules and you can bet your ass, the Sicilian is going to break them all. It is not for nothing that the modern-day organized crime had it’s roots in Sicily.
Back in the days of ancient Rome, the sea lanes across the Mediterranean were very busy. Trade between the Italian mainland and North Africa was burgeoning. So was piracy. Ships laden with cotton, timber, marble, precious metals and spices from North Africa and Asia Minor were being routinely hijacked and then released for astronomical ransoms. The problem – Sicily came in the way. And Sicily was a rogue bee-hive, buzzing with pirates.
Like Sicily, there was another rogue state those days, situated in present-day southern Turkey, called Cilicia, on the eastern Mediterranean coast, north of Cyprus. Cilicia was another pirate kingdom and they had all the merchant shipping in the Mediterranean, from Malta to Sidon (present-day Israel), by the balls.
Legend has it that, as a young man, Julius Caesar was sailing to the Greek city of Rhodes to study oratory to become a lawyer. His ship was hijacked by Cilician pirates, who wanted twenty talents for his release. To the pirates’ astonishment, Caesar laughed at the demand. I’m worth at least fifty talents, he told them and sent his aides who had been captured with him, to get the money.
Now a talent was a certain quantity of pure gold coins that made up 32.3 kilos. Today, a talent would be worth $700,000, give or take. So Caesar was offering the pirates 35 million in today’s USD. Reasonable, considering that at the time, he was an aedile, a senior government official responsible for maintaining public buildings, bridges, roads and such like.
While his aides went away to the mainland to organize the funds, Caesar remained in the custody of the pirates for a few weeks, during which time, he lived and hunted with them and joined in their games and revelry. He laughed at their jokes and even cracked a few, like the one he told them of how he’d crucify them all one day.
Never imagining how prophetic those words would be, the pirates thought that was funny and laughed till they doubled over and rolled around the fire. They now considered the spirited and thoroughly amusing young man truly as one of their own. They practically adopted Caesar.
After the ransom was paid, Caesar sailed to the mainland, commandeered four ships with some of the meanest Roman brutes he could find and sailed back to the pirates’ lair. The pirates welcomed Caesar and his crew with open arms into their den, like a long lost pal, only to be arrested and tortured till they had returned all the gold and some. And then? He had them crucified of course.
Moral of the story for ancient Romans? If Caesar cracks a joke at your expense, maybe it is time to buy that one-way ticket to Timbuktoo.
But wait. Before you start feeling sorry for the Cilician pirates, I have to tell you that they were one sorry bunch of two-timers who could never be trusted. The eventual downfall of Spartacus and his wild bunch was in greater part, due to the duplicity of Cilician pirates. If you keep on reading this series I’ll tell you all about that one, maybe in Part-7 or 8.
The reason why we remember the Spartacus revolt and not the first two Sicilian ones is not because they were in any way less in terms of either blood, gore and body bags or the will to be free but mainly because Spartacus’s revolt was recorded for posterity in more vivid detail, by a bunch of rock star-like historians, chief among them being the 1st century AD historian, Plutarch, who loved to embellish his narratives, especially those on the heroes he idolized.
Plutarch wrote a series on famous men, comprising twenty-three pairs of biographies, arranged in tandem to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman, as well as four unpaired, single lives. One of the biographies in his book, was on Marcus Licinius Crassus, a Roman general who went on to become one of the first Triumvirate. Crassus’s bio has in it, a glowing eulogy of Spartacus, which went thus….
“…Spartacus was a Thracian from the nomadic tribes and not only had a great spirit and great physical strength, but was, much more than one would expect from his condition, most intelligent and cultured, being more like a Greek than a Thracian. They say that when he was first taken to Rome to be sold, a snake was seen coiled round his head while he was asleep and his wife, who came from the same tribe and was a prophetess subject to possession by the frenzy of [the god of ecstasy] Dionysus, declared that this sign meant that he would have a great and terrible power which would end in misfortune….”
Plutarch went overboard in his lavish praise, as matter of habit. Remember Alexander the Great? You and I were made to believe right from primary school that he was this heroic guy, a fair ruler who believed in justice and secular societies, whereas he is known to have been personally responsible for the genocide of at least two million enemy soldiers and civilians and the enslavement of over 500,000. And it was not as though he was being threatened and decided to retaliate. It was deliberate aggression and the thirst for glory. So, please, take Pluty the way you take my musings – with a pinch of salt.
Thanks to Plutarch’s eloquence, there is arguably no other figure from classical antiquity that has been more lionized and idolized by posterity as the symbol of popular resistance in the face of oppressive injustice, than Spartacus. His life story has inspired people all over, from 18th century Haitian rebel leader Toussaint Louverture, nicknamed the “black Spartacus”, to early twentieth century German Marxists (who formed the Spartacist League), to the film director, Stanley Kubrick, for his 1960 blockbuster Spartacus, to the ‘No, I am Spartacus’ chant.
‘No, I am Spartacus’ refers to a scene in the Stanley Kubrick movie where, after Spartacus’s defeat at the hands of the Romans, their general, Crassus, stands before the 6000 captured surviving members of the slave army and demands that they turn over Spartacus, or else all of them would be executed.
Not wanting his friends to be executed, Spartacus stands up and says “I am Spartacus.” However, the loyalty of his men is so great that each of them steps forward in succession, shouting “I am Spartacus!” until the shouts dissolve into a cacophony of thousands of prisoners, each insisting “No, I am Spartacus!”
Crassus is impressed by the loyalty Spartacus has inspired in his men, though that does not save their asses. Crassus has all 6000 slaves, including Sparty, crucified in a miles-long display alongside the Appian Way leading back to Rome.
Thus the phrase “I am Spartacus!” is often used to start a playful chorus of “No, I am Spartacus” in a congregation.
Plutarch’s verbal histrionics have been criticized by his own contemporaries. If he had been born in modern times, he would have found a job in the White House, probably as an Assistant Secretary of Spin or he could be a VP-Public Relations for Big Oil or Big Tobacco or something.
Read enough about Sparty and trust me, you’ll be left to wonder if he and his motley crew were truly fighting against slavery and oppression, as popular myth seems to suggest, or if they were only concerned with evading enslavement themselves without necessarily seeking to abolish slavery as an institution all over the land, as Plutarch seems to suggest.
If you got the chance to have a word with Spartacus himself, he might have said,” Hey, I just wannid ta split and go back to my ol’ lady and maybe have some kids, okay? I wasn’t countin’ on all these ass—les joinin’ in and getting’ in my way. Don’t bust my ass. I am no liberator. Gimme a beer and some pus… er… little cats, an’ I’m good, capiche?”
All this however does not take away the fact that Spartacus obviously must have been a very charismatic individual, to have been able to gather together 100,000 slaves and instill fear into the very heart of Rome. To almost all who have come to know of him, Spartacus is remembered as a hero, a military genius and a mad man, all rolled in one.
Besides that, little is known of the man. Historians like Plutarch were too wrapped up in his rebellion to want to know about the personal history of Spartacus. He was simply the slave from Thrace, in the Black Sea coast of present-day Bulgaria, who had at first, fought the Roman invaders and then impressed the Romans enough to make him a legionary in it’s auxiliary armed forces and from there, turned into a slave and gladiator.
(to be continued…)