Spartacus revolt: inspiration for the proletariat

Spartacus revolt: inspiration for the proletariat

While waiting to hear someone justify what looks at first sight at least like an attempt to sell the Spartacus story as a form of pornography, it's worth drawing attention to why communists from Marx onwards and no doubt before have held the name Spartacus in such high esteem. This is an article published in World Revolution and the ICC's website. It came out not long after the success of Russel Crowe's Gladiator.

Spartacus revolt: inspiration for the proletariat

The world wide success of the film Gladiator has generated a renewed interested in Ancient Rome and the role of gladiators. Any inquiry into this question has to raise the spectre of the slave war between 73 and 71 BC, which was lead by the gladiator Spartacus. Unlike the fictional Gladiator which opposes the central character and his small band of gladiators to the truly wicked emperor Commodus, the real slave revolt saw 100,000 or more slaves waging war on their Roman oppressors and defeating the seeming invincible legions time and time again. This revolt, though bloodily crushed, has inspired revolutionary movements. The main grouping of revolutionaries in Germany who opposed World War 1 adopted the name of the Spartacus League to express their determination to wage war on the ruling class; and like Spartacus and the slave army the revolutionary struggle of the workers in Germany was drowned in blood. Thus the name Spartacus became synonymous with the revolutionary aspirations of the exploited. Whereas Gladiator is about the hero and his small band of gladiators standing up for an empire based on 'justice' (no mention of the exploitation of slaves) against the oh-so-wicked Commodus: in short for democracy against dictatorship.

The aim of this article is not to make a critique of Gladiator or to produce a detailed history of Spartacus, but to show why the Spartacus revolt, though carried out by a different exploited class, can really only be understood and claimed by the movement of the exploited class in this society, the modern proletariat. By the same token we will show how the modern class of 'slave-owners', the bourgeoisie, has tried to distort the history of Spartacus and tried to use it for its own ends.

The Slave Wars

The rising of the slaves between 73-71 BC did not come out of nowhere. It reflected the wider social turmoil rocking the Roman Republic. By the second century BC the Roman army had conquered the Mediterranean and was extending itself throughout Europe. These ever-expanding conquests brought with them an increasing supply of slave labour, which was used to replace the peasantry that had been the bedrock of the Roman Empire. Instead of the old system of peasant smallholdings, there was a growth of huge estates that used slave labour to extract raw materials and produce agricultural goods. In the cities the artisans were increasingly being replaced by slave labour. At the same time, a very small minority of the ruling class was able to take over the control of the exploitation of the resources of the newly conquered territories. This produced powerful social tensions: between the ruling class and those driven into unemployment in the cities or to the cities from the countryside, and also between the different interests within the ruling class. We do not have space here to go into a detailed analysis, but would recommend readers to consult Karl Kautsky's The Foundations of Christianity. These tensions lead to a series of bloody civil wars from 130 BC. During that period the Gracchus brothers led movements of the dispossessed, particularly the former legionaries who had once received parcels of land for their years of service, against the state: "The private soldiers fight and die to advance the wealth and luxury of the great; and they are classed the masters of the world, while they have not a foot of ground in their possession" (Tiberius Gracchus, quoted by Plutarch, cited in M Beer's The General History of Socialism and Social Struggles. Russell & Russell, 1957). In 132 BC Tiberius and his supporters were slaughtered by the ruling party, and in 121 BC his brother Caius and his supporters met a similar fate. In the following years, massacre and bloody civil war became the norm as tens of thousands were killed as different fractions of the ruling class fought each other for control of the state.

It was in the middle of this turmoil that the slave war led by Spartacus broke out. But again this has to been seen in the context of the two previous slave wars that had taken place in Sicily (BC 134-32, 104-101). In these wars tens of thousands of slaves on the massive estates that covered the island rose up and defeated their Roman masters, and then fought wars against Roman legions until being crushed with great violence. At the time of the first war, in Asia Minor in the Kingdom of Pergamum, Aristonikos, the half-brother of the former king, faced with the Romans, freed the slaves and set up the Sun State, which was taken to mean a 'communist' order. There was "complete political democracy; the whole of the inhabitants, native and foreign, property-owning and disinherited, received the franchise and the independent administration of their State" (Beer, ibid, p153). From 133 to 129 the Romans waged war against the Sun State until they finally crushed it

Against this background of social turmoil and a succession of bloody slave wars, the 3rd great slave war broke out.

The course of the revolt

The information that we have on Spartacus and the slave war is very limited - a few thousand words, written by ancient historians from the ruling class: Sallust, a Roman Senator (1st century BC), Plutarch and Appian were wealthy aristocrats (2nd century AD). The very fact that these members of the ruling class felt the need to deal with this revolt demonstrates how important it was.

As we have said, our aim is not to give a historical account, but it is necessary to lay out the main aspects. Initially, Spartacus and 70 odd other gladiators broke out of their gladiatorial school in Capua, after their plan for a bigger break-out had been discovered. The fact that such a group of gladiators from different ethnic backgrounds, trained to kill each other, could have formed such a plan, testifies to a real solidarity between them. Once free they fled to mount Vesuvius. Here Appian says many slaves and some freemen joined them "Since Spartacus divided the profits of his raiding into equal shares, he soon attracted a very large number of followers" (Appian, in Spartacus and the Slave Wars, a Brief History with Documents, by Brent D. Shaw, p140). Such proto-communist measures marked Spartacus's leadership: "Spartacus did not permit merchants to import gold and silver, and he forbade his own men to acquire any. For the most part, he purchased iron and copper and did not censure those who imported these metals" (Appian, ibid, p 142). These measures must have been a very important feature of the slave war because the Roman Historian Pliny compares it to the greed of the Empire: "We know," says Pliny in the thirty-third book of his Natural History, "that Spartacus did not allow gold or silver in his camp. How our runaway slaves tower above us in largeness of spirit!" (quoted in Kautsky's The Foundations of Christianity). These actions cannot have been imposed on the mass of the slave army by Spartacus but must have reflected the desire of the majority for a more equal society. Spartacus was also against the wanton plunder carried out by sections of his army, particularly those under the command of the Gaul Crixus. "Spartacus himself was powerless to stop them, even though he repeatedly entreated them to stop them and even attempted by sending on ahead a messenger" to warn other towns (Shaw, p148).

It was these divisions within the slave army that appear to have been one of the main reasons for them not escaping Italy, even though the army reached the Alps twice. However, Florus (2nd century AD) said that after obliterating the army led by Lentulus in the Apennine Mountains and then attacking the camp of Gaius Crassus, Spartacus thought of attacking Rome itself.

In the end, after being forced into the very south of Italy by Crassus and with the arrival of more legions from abroad, Spartacus and the slaves were faced with either capture or making a last stand. The slave army chose the latter. They turned in full battle ranks and marched on the pursuing legions. 36,000 died on the battlefield and many more after, as the ruling class relentlessly hunted down all those that had had the audacity to defeat their legions, to kill their generals and nobles, and to stand up to the ruling class. As a warning to all other rebels, the ruling class crucified 6,000 survivors of the slave army along the main road to Rome.

The eventual defeat of the slave army was not simply the results of internal divisions or tactical errors. It reflected the historical limitations of the epoch: despite being the most advanced civilisation the world had yet seen, Roman slavery could never have developed the productive forces to the point where a truly universal communist society could have come out of it. The downfall of slavery could only have been replaced by a more progressive system of exploitation (thus, following its decline, there was the development of feudalism in Europe). Within this framework, it has to be understood that the slaves were not a revolutionary class in the sense of carrying within their struggle the foundations of a new social system, still less a conscious programme for its realisation. Their hopes for a society where private property would no longer exist were doomed to remain dreams, based on memories of a lost tribal order and on myths of a primordial golden age. This does not mean that marxists look down on the revolts or the communistic dreams of previous exploited classes: on the contrary, these revolts have rightly inspired generations of proletarians, and these dreams remain indispensable stepping stones towards the scientific communist outlook of the modern working class

The response of the bourgeoisie to Spartacus

The development of the bourgeoisie's response to the slave war is very enlightening. In 18th century France the revolutionary bourgeoisie held Spartacus as a hero and expression of their own struggle against feudalism; in 19th century Italy he was also adopted by the revolutionary bourgeoisie. However, once the bourgeoisie had established its undisputed supremacy, Spartacus became a dreaded figure, because the slave war was uncomfortably close to the class war now beginning to take shape between the bourgeoisie and its deadly enemy, the working class. This horror became manifest with the revolutionary struggles between 1917 and 27 when "Spartacism" became synonymous with Bolshevism and world revolution: "the name 'Spartacist' now adopted by the German Communists, the only party in Germany which is really fighting against the yoke of capitalism, was adopted by them because Spartacus was one of the most outstanding heroes of one of the very greatest slave insurrections, which took place two thousand years ago" (V. I Lenin, The State, in Collected Works no 29). Echoing Rome's bloody suppression of the original Spartacus movement, the Germany bourgeoisie crushed the modern day slave war with great brutality.

In the years of counter-revolution which followed, the ruling class felt less threatened by the spectre of class war, and by the 1950s, felt confident enough to recruit Spartacus for the cold war.

To this end the American ruling class used the vehicle of Hollywood and Stanley Kubrick's film Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas. This is not to deny the artistic merit of the film, which is vastly superior to the 'up-to-date' glut of special effects in Gladiator; indeed, it contains moments which beautifully convey the liberating power of solidarity, as in the portrayal of the original break-out from the gladiator school and above all in the immortal scene when the Roman victors are trying to identify Spartacus and thousands of captured slaves step forward proclaiming "I am Spartacus". Nonetheless the ideological intent of the film is never far from the surface. Spartacus himself is turned into a Christ-like figure leading the slaves to freedom. This is made clear at the end of the film when he is crucified. This is a deliberate lie used to pacify the memory of the slave war. Spartacus did not die on the cross but fighting his way towards Crassus, the very symbol of the Roman ruling class - he was the richest and most powerful man in Rome - in the final battle. "When his horse was brought to him, Spartacus drew his sword and shouted that if he won the battle, he would have many fine horses, but if he lost, he would have no need of a horse. With that, he killed the animal. Then, driving through weapons and the wounded, Spartacus rushed at Crassus. He never reached the Roman, although he killed two centurions, who fell with him" (Plutarch, ibid 136).

The film is used to boost the values of the "West" against dictatorship. The film drove home the message that dictatorship could only be opposed by freedom, democracy and Christianity. At the beginning of the film the voice-over says that whilst the war of Spartacus and the slaves was defeated, it was Christianity that eventually freed the slaves (while not mentioning that Christianity was a pillar of European slavery from the 16th to the 19th centuries). Slavery itself is presented as a 'stain' on Roman civilisation, rather than as its foundation.

It was also part of the US's drive to win the markets of the former British colonies. Kirk Douglas says in his autobiography The Ragman's Son that he insisted that all the main Roman ruling class characters were played by British actors whilst the slaves were Americans or others.

Stalinism also contributed to distorting the meaning of the Spartacus revolt. The film's screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, a Stalinist, equated Spartacus with Stalin and the hot headed Crixus, who in the film breaks away from Spartacus to attack Rome, as Trotsky.

The film is based on the novel by Howard Fast. In the film the slaves are shown as following Spartacus to the bitter end, but in the book the slaves are held responsible for the failure of the war. Fast, as a good Stalinist, had nothing but contempt for the working class. This is reflected in the book where the slaves are portrayed as not being up to Spartacus's revolutionary ideals. This is also the message driven home in Arthur Koestler's novel The Gladiators. Koestler had been a Stalinist in the 30s but had become openly disillusioned with the revolution and the proletariat. For him, as for Fast, Spartacus is the revolutionary leader leading a rabble not up to his ideals.

A more vicious recent attack is made by Alan Baker in his book The Gladiator: the Secret History of Rome's Warrior Slaves, a book that rides on the back of the success of the film. In a chapter on Spartacus Baker affirms the opinion of the historian Christian Meir that he was "a robber chief on the grand scale". This shows the low level the bourgeoisie will fall to in order to attack a movement that challenged their ancestors. The ancient historians had more dignity and, though hating Spartacus and all he stood for, still acknowledge his strength of personality. "Spartacus was a Thracian, born among a pastoral nomadic people. He not only possessed great spirit and bodily strength, but he was more intelligent and nobler than his fate, and he was more Greek than his (Thracian) background might indicate" (Plutarch, op cit p131-2).

At the beginning of the year Channel 4 had a programme on Spartacus. Again, although the programme was more balanced, it still showed Spartacus as not being up to his revolutionary image, because, on one occasion, he made captured Romans fight in gladiatorial games and even crucified a captured Roman. Perhaps more significant is that the documentary was made by a former military man and concentrated on Spartacus's extraordinary strategic and tactical abilities. It said nothing about the social ideals of the movement and still less about how such a huge mass of slaves and other oppressed strata managed to organise for the struggle (indeed, this remains almost completely obscure to this day).

The ruling class will certainly continue to make whatever use it can of the great class warriors of the past. But as for Spartacus, we will end with Marx's assessment, written in a letter to Engels: "Spartacus emerges as one of the best characters in the whole of ancient history. A great general, a noble character, a genuine representative of the ancient proletariat".

For Marx the greatness of Spartacus, in the final analysis, stems from the fact that he was "a genuine representative of the ancient proletariat": in other words, he was a product of the struggle of an exploited class which dared to challenge its exploiters. In a world still based on the exploitation of one class by another, Spartacus remains a potent symbol for the modern proletariat, which has the capacity to end all forms of slavery once and for all.

Phil, 17/7/01.


May 17 2010 22:28

Help - someone tell me how to put an image into a post....I was going for the (ahem) full frontal version of the statue. But this is what the Louvre website says about it:

Story of the Sculpture (from

Foyatier presented the plaster model for his statue of Spartacus at the Paris Salon of 1827. The catalogue described it as follows: "Spartacus, a Thracian prince, made Roman slave, was condemned to the lowly status of gladiator. Having escaped from prison, he raised an army of malcontents, and struck terror right into heart of Rome. He is represented at the moment when he has just broken his chains." The story of Spartacus was told by Greek author Plutarch in his Lives (v. 46-v.125), a work that drew parallels between famous Greeks and Romans.

Highly expressive sculpture

This sculpture won instant acclaim. It was considered by some to herald the revival of neoclassical statuary. It indeed corresponded to academic canons: Spartacus is naked, as were antique heroes, and his imposing stature is consistent with the grand style that established a correlation between the dimensions of a work and the impression it created. This sculpture was no doubt inspired by the work of Canova, especially his Damoxenes (Vatican Museum, Rome): it has the same pose and tense, muscular concentration.
On the other hand, the character's expressivity - the air of contained rage communicated by his attitude - was sometimes associated with Romantic sensibility.

Political opportunism

The success of this work was also due to its subject. Spartacus was rarely represented in sculpture, and the statue was perceived as a symbol of opposition to the regime of Charles X, although this does not seem to have been the artist's original intention. Foyatier made the model at the Villa Medicis in Rome, where he was a guest from 1822 to 1825. He exhibited it at the 1827 Salon, and the marble used was commissioned by the royal administration. But by the time the sculpture was finished, the Trois Glorieuses (the July Revolution of 1830) had overthrown the regime of Charles X. Foyatier took this opportunity to make Spartacus a Republican icon, by dating the work 29 July 1830 (the last day of the Revolution).

May 17 2010 22:36

find the image online you want to use, right click it and click "copy image location". Then in your comment box click the button above the text box "image" and paste in the URL in the URL box

May 18 2010 04:22

I got that far I think but got defeated by the business about the width and height of the image....

May 18 2010 04:31

if you leave width and height blank, it should still work fine.

Boris Badenov
May 19 2010 23:59

Very interesting article Alf. However I think the notion that the rebelling slaves demonstrably wanted to return to the equality of a "primordial age" is somewhat simplistic and misleading, and I would argue that the Spartacist episode is indeed an inspiration but more as myth than as actual history.
I don't want to blow my own horn here, but I think it would be useful to include here the text of a short paper I wrote about the Spartacus rebellion when I was an undergrad. I think it might add to the historical context of the article and perhaps offer a different set of conclusions on the revolutionary (or not) nature of the revolt. Feel free to use it for subsequent revisions if you wish [I left out the endnotes for now as I can't figure out how to include them in the copy-paste]

[article now posted to the library]

May 21 2010 10:15

Vlad, why don't you post that as a library entry in itself?

Dec 19 2012 19:06

Only just noticed the reply from Boris. Must be my age. I will read your your paper and think about your comments here. If you're still around....season's greetings

Dec 20 2012 10:28

I read the essay by Boris and was impressed by its rigorous approach to the sources. However, I think that it lacks a theoretical dimension which could have shown more clearly why there were so many limitations in the slave movement, especially at the level of its self-understanding. The marxist view of the revolts of exploited classes prior to the modern working class is that the objective situation confronting these classes would not have made it possible for them to have developed a lucid understanding of communism. That doesn't mean that such movements lack communist aspirations, but they do tend to be distorted by mythology, in particular the hope for a return to a lost golden age. This was certainly a feature of early Christianity, with its very limited 'communism of possessions', and again of the peasants' revolt in 1381, with its references to the Garden of Eden, and to many other messianic movements. I think it's likely that similar ideas played a role in the Spartacus movement, along with the search for more immediate and 'achievable' solutions (like going home, or burning Rome to the ground...). But it's true that the hard evidence for this is very scanty and we only have a few indications to go on.

May 2 2014 16:15

Very good article and many thanks, besause now, I can look to the photos I toke around the sculpture in a richer way.