Remembering Spartacus

Slave war

Spartacus the slave, a short paragraph in the history books, who had to be forgotten and marginalized in the socio-political history of the Roman Empire. Spartacus as a symbol of sacrifice and freedom was employed by Ronald Reagan, who symbolized the US Imperialism, at the end of the Cold War era in 1980s. Spartacus the legend and symbol of the war of the oppressed against the oppressor…

Spartacus: “a real representative of the proletariat of ancient times.” (1)
Spartacus the slave, a short paragraph in the history books, who had to be forgotten and marginalized in the socio-political history of the Roman Empire. Spartacus as a symbol of sacrifice and freedom was employed by Ronald Reagan, who symbolized the US Imperialism, at the end of the Cold War era in 1980s. (2) Spartacus the legend and symbol of the war of the oppressed against the oppressor…
When Spartacus with 74 slave-gladiator break free from a gladiator school near Capua in Companio, south of Rome, in 73 B.C the first historically noted class resistance and struggle was born. Spartacus, or Sparadokos as his true Theracian name (3), who was sold into slavery and trained at the gladiatorial school in Capua, north of Naples, initiated an extraordinary socio political phenomena by escaping with other slaves and taking refuge on the rocky heights of Mount Vesuvius: thousands of slaves escaped from the Companio and joined him and his slave band.
The slave insurrection came to be known as the Third Servile War. With an army of runaway slaves and free poor farmers, which has been estimated to have reached 100,000 men, Spartacus and rebellious slaves defeated one Roman army after another and brought the Republic to its knees.
After the large and often undisciplined slave army of Spartacus defeated a series of Imperial Roman’s invincible legions, he and his escaped slaves army moved down the Italian peninsula, at the end of 72 BC only to be hunted down and defeated by the well trained, heavily equipped and massive armies led by politician and general Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome, in 71.
Roman Empire‘s class society
In the first century BC, the slavery based class society of Roman Republic with its militarized society of Rome was actually moving towards a period of political turmoil that would end with the rule of the Caesars. The historic evolution of prehistoric Rome to a city-state society of class society, from a classless society of the Stone Age periods, led to the emergence of civilization epoch and rise of the class divided societies of slavery. The ancient Egypt from Mesopotamian area and classical Greece and Republican Rome, from Mediterranean part, are historical evidence of the move towards slavery based class societies. The slavery mode of production in which slave labor permeated all sectors of the economy and played a central role in economic output outside the sphere of family labor – were the core of the Roman Empire. In late fourth-century BC, Rome created a new dichotomy of (fully) slave, leaving slavery as the only viable form of readily exploitable labor for those whose assets required them consistently to employ others to work. In this perspective, class relations take center stage: the remarkable creation of slavery labor based society. (4)
The establishment of slavery mode of production, historically occurring set of social relations through which labor is deployed, as a production force, to deal with the socio-economic and political demands of the society. The process of Roman Empire building that was connected to a series of warfare directed for conquest of the Mediterranean ended by the mid-second century BC. The elimination of its competitor for power in Mediterranean provided the tremendous external access to wealth: the imperial rent. And, internally the large scale agricultural production demands, due to development and enlargement of Roman city-state, inform of both demographic and institutional developments, provoked the emergence of a new economic system based on organizing and use of the slave labor. The small numbers of Romans and Italians rose to a new ruling and dominant class through the concentration of the imperial rent and large amounts of land as their own. The dominant class of land owner needed labor power to work on their properties. The slavery labor power logistically and economically was provided after Roman Empire’s successful military expedition in the Mediterranean and other areas.
On this context, the influx of imperial rents, commercial revenue and raise of a large scale agricultural production set only facilitated the division of labor in society and accumulation of class inequality in assets. This in turn was materialized and galvanized through the access to slaves that was increased dramatically during the last two centuries BC, ultimately because of successful Imperial warfare. Ancient Rome created the largest slave society in history, through containing several million slaves for twenty or more generations, anywhere from 100 to 200 million individual slaves. (3, 4)
In key areas, slaves were not merely present, but supported what has been termed a „slave mode of production,‟ a mode that rested both on an integrated system of enslavement, slave trade, and slave employment in production, and on “the systematic subjection of slaves to the control of their masters in the process of production and reproduction. (4) Slaves were engaged in an enormous variety of activities, as estate managers, field hands, shepherds, hunters, domestic servants, craftsmen, construction workers, retailers, miners, clerks, teachers, doctors, midwives, wet-nurses, textile workers, potters, and entertainers. In addition to private sector employment, they worked in public administration and served in military support functions. They were owned by private individuals as well as the state, communities, temples, and partnerships. (6)
The rapid expansion of agrarian slavery production rested on the massive enslavement took place, in main, in eastern Mediterranean where the warfare of Roman Empire caused a political chaos and military destruction in the region and the situation was fully used by the main operating slave merchants and suppliers present in this geographical part at the time.
Thus, by the mid second century BC, the Roman Empire developed a historically new agricultural economic system; in the ancient world basically build on the intensive agrarian slavery labor. The center of this slave agriculture was at the heart of the Roman Empire: southern part of Italian peninsula, in the region of Campania and also on the island of Sicily.
Slave wars 130s-70s BC
The sudden transformation of Italian peninsula to the large scale agrarian slavery economics, through the adaptation of a large number of slaves, introduced preconditions favorable to comprehensive armed resistance and open war of slavery class against the ruling class: slave owners. Southern Italy and Sicily witnessed history’s three major slave class uprising and wars between 130-70 BC. The first war broke out in the mid 130s BC and ended in 132.
The second war erupted in 104 BC and ended four years later. In both wars the large, better trained legionary forces of the Roman army was needed to defeat the slaves and end the war. The third slave war happened to be the last great war of slave class in the heart of Roman Empire, known as Spartacus war. The last slave war differentiated from its previous one:
- The location: it was centered outside the Sicily and centered in southern Italy.
- Another sector of slavery class, Gladiator, not agricultural initiated and directed the uprising and war.
However, the major part of rebellion salves that joined all three uprisings and fought the wars against the slave owners and Roman army were simple agricultural slave laborers. The slave ownership and exploitative nature of slavery class system aggravated constantly the antagonistic relationship of production that existed between the subordinated slave class by the dominant class of slave owners. The slaves normally applied different forms of resistance, e.g. stealing, petty sabotage, running away or murdering the master, as modes of discontent. Wars of slave army engaging the worlds most powerful military of the time was apex of an aggravated class struggle of the slave laborer.
The class struggle of slaves
What signifies the rebellion slaves and the wars of 135 BC to 70 BC is the first historical confrontation of main classes in the epoch of civilization and division of society to antagonistic classes with the Roman society as a forerunner. Rise of Roman society to the largest slavery system of the old world, meant a new socially well-developed structure to maintain diametrically opposing classes in the slave society of Roman Empire. The Roman Empire had to create a new state through external warfare, trade and internal consolidation to deal with external and internal treats. Thus, the glorious class war of slave army with magnificent Spartacus and other slaves cloud only be defeated by the world class military state power.
The last glorious class wars of slaves, the same two previous one, in antiquity with Spartacus as its leader became an expression of classical class struggle of subordinated laboring class. The history of a class and its struggle for breaking free from the rules of a class society build upon the relations of production based on, exploitation of man by man. However, historically and materially limitation of the Roman slavery system in general, was reflected in all slaves‟ wars and perspective on challenging the slavery Roman Empire. Spartacus and the slave army were running away from Rome in searching for a lost freedom or free world. They could not understand that the era of free man prior to the discovery of civilization and class society, by man had been lost as lost paradise. With no revolutionary perspective to defeat the slaveowner class and change the slavery system of production in Roman Empire, slave war of Spartacus and his slave army lost the final battle in a courageous and desperate fight against Crassus and his army. Spartacus and his slave army mainly composed of poorly armed and untrained former slave labourers lost the final battle bravely with an outcome almost clear before the last deadly engagement.
“Spartacus was wounded in the thigh with a spear and sank upon his knee, holding his shield in front of him and contending in this way against his assailants until he and the great mass of those with him were surrounded and slain”. (7)
After the battle, the legionaries found and rescued 3,000 Roman prisoners in Spartacus’ camp – all of whom were unharmed. This civilized treatment of the Roman prisoners contrasts starkly with the fate meted out to Spartacus’ followers. Crassus had 6,000 slaves crucified along the Appian Way between Capua and Rome – a distance of about 200 kilometres.
Spartacusian legacy
Spartacus and his agrarian slaves in arm cannot speak to us, but they have created a legendary story about history’s first noted class struggle, in the form of slave war that can still inspire its modern class equivalent, i.e. the proletarian class: globalised wage laborer. Despite the fact that the slave wars did not alter the socio-political situation of slavery mode of production in the ancient Rome, they created a historical struggle path for proletariat’s class consciousness:
“The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determine their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” (8)
To historically generalise what Marx defined as the role of the proletarian class struggle in Franc in mid-18th century, for materialising memories of the slave class society, slave wars and Spartacusian story of Roman Empire and antiquity:
“On the other hand, proletarian revolutions…, constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals – until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible…” (9)
In line with slave’s wars of antiquity, perhaps we need to materialise memories of the Paris commune of 1871 and the Russian revolution of 1917…
Hamid Moradei 2014-04-08
1) Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 41, p. 265
2) Speaking to the British Parliament in 1982
3) Slavery and Society at Rome: Bradley, 1994, chapters 11-22
4) Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology by Moses I. Finley (1998), 298
5) Hunt, A. and Wickham, G. 1994: 2005-260.
6) Bradley 1994: 57-80)
7) The Roman historian, Appian, Civil Wars: C, I:116-120
8) A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
9) Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire

Posted By

Apr 26 2014 22:52


Attached files


Apr 24 2014 14:08

I'm just starting reading Lewis Grassic Gibbon's novel Spartacus put out most recently by RedWords. Tell you what I thinh when I've finished it.