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From enslavement to rebel gladiator: The life of Spartacus - Fiona Radford


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Spartacus was enslaved — one of millions taken from territories conquered by Rome to work the mines, till the fields or fight for a crowd’s entertainment. Imprisoned for deserting the Roman Army, he and other enslaved people fought their way free and started a rebellion. How did an enslaved man become synonymous with freedom and courage? Fiona Radford delves into the life and legend of Spartacus.

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In the Roman world, slaves and gladiators were at the bottom of the social ladder. Because of this, there is often little information about the individuals that made up these groups. Spartacus’ revolt understandably made him well-known and a person of interest to the Romans, and often a figure of fear. However, even as an exception to the rule, there are no sources from Spartacus or the slave perspective for the events depicted in the video. It is based on material from the Roman point-of-view, which means that the perspective is generally also that of an upper-class male.

There are a number of references to Spartacus in pro-Roman sources, including two lengthier accounts from Appian (Civil Wars, 1.116-120) and Plutarch (Life of Crassus, 8-11), both written in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD and therefore between one or two hundred years after the revolt. Many of the events shown in the video can be found in these sources. The earliest accounts, written by men such as Varro and Sallust who lived through the conflict itself, are sadly very fragmentary. Some references, such as those in Cicero’s speeches, are brief and serve mostly to show that Spartacus’ name could be used as an insult or to inspire fear. Scholars over the years have attempted to reconcile these sources and patch them together to form as complete a picture as possible. This can be difficult, as some sources present a negative view of Spartacus, whereas others are unexpectedly positive. The historian Sallust (Histories, 3.91) describes him as a leader possessed with great strength and courage and Plutarch (Life of Crassus, 8.2) paints him as a wise leader. Within the various traditions, there are episodes that show Spartacus striving to be an effective leader and forge an army out of rebels and runaways.

The legendary escape/ambush via vine ropes from Mt Vesuvius can be found in multiple accounts (Plutarch’s Life of Crassus, 9.1-3; Frontinus’ The Stratagems and the Aqueducts of Rome. 1.5.21; Florus, 2.8.3-4; Orosius, 5.24.1) and the second escape in which the slaves tricked the Romans into believing corpses were their sentries shows that they were taking precautions in setting up proper camps (Sallust, Histories, 3.96; Frontinus, 1.5.22). Spartacus is recorded ordering his followers to manufacture weapons and armour. On a grislier note, Appian’s Spartacus executes all prisoners and pack animals to expediate the movement of his army when they had decided to march on Rome (App. B.C. 1.117).

The important factor to remember when consulting the primary material is that there was not a unified approach to Spartacus. His story or reputation were often shaped according to the author’s genre and motivations. The writers could be more concerned about what Spartacus and the revolt revealed about Rome than in telling the ‘truth’ about the gladiator himself. Plutarch may have been using Spartacus to critique the Roman subject of his biography – Crassus. Marcus Licinius Crassus, the man who finally defeated Spartacus, played an important role in the Late Republic and is worthy of further study in his own right. He was allegedly the richest man in Rome in his day and would form an infamous alliance (the so-called First Triumvirate) with Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar.

Without the slave perspective, it can be difficult to know why Spartacus or the slaves acted in the way that they did. Why didn’t they escape Italy when they seemed to have the chance? Was it really because they wanted to continue to loot in Italy? Was it overconfidence? Why not start your own investigation? Brent Shaw’s Spartacus and the Slave Wars is an excellent collection of material, including many primary sources, relating to Spartacus and slavery in the Late Republic (133-31 BC). For those looking for suggested readings and some archaeological remains on gladiators in general, look here. This article in particular provides a good discussion of the position of the gladiator in Roman society.

You can explore Spartacus’ life more in the following podcasts:
In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg & guests

Biography (in three parts) from Latrobe University with Matt Smith and Dr Rhiannon Evans

The Partial Historians – a podcast about Ancient Rome which Fiona Radford cohosts with Peta Greenfield

The History of Ancient Greece with Ryan Stitt and Fiona Radford for a discussion of Greek and Roman slavery

Spartacus has become a popular culture icon, particularly from the 18th century onwards. There are variety of interesting adaptations of his life to choose from if you wish to engage with his story in other formats. A reasonable list of ballet, plays, novels, films, and television programs can be found on Wikipedia. If you are interested in Spartacus’ active ‘afterlife’, you can consult the following scholarly publications on Spartacus in novels and film.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Fiona Radford
  • Director Serin İnan, Tolga Yıldız
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Producer Serin İnan
  • Designer İbrahim Hakkı Uslu
  • Illustrator İbrahim Hakkı Uslu
  • Storyboard Artist İbrahim Hakkı Uslu
  • Animator Gökhan Gürkan
  • Sound Designer Tolga Yıldız
  • Composer Tolga Yıldız
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Fact-Checker Francisco Diez

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