I'm delighted to welcome Ben Kane back, on his virtual blog tour to promote his new novel, SPARTACUS THE GLADIATOR (St Martin's Press, hardcover, $26.99). Steven Pressfield calls Ben's latest book "Gritty, passionate and a damn good read. Brings Spartacus -and ancient Rome - to vivid, colorful life." I couldn't agree more. I'm currently reading it and am enthralled by Ben's keen sense of the violence and splendor of the era, as well as his sensitive, unique approach to this legendary man. Today, Ben offers us a guest post on the history behind his work. Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Ben Kane!
Spartacus ― the man, and the history behind the fiction
There are few names in history as recognizable as that of Spartacus. At first glance, this may seem unsurprising. Spartacus’ achievements were truly remarkable. Having been sold into slavery ― we are told by one ancient writer that he deserted from the Roman auxiliaries, but by another that he was innocent of any crime ― he escaped with some seventy others from a gladiator school in Capua, Italy. Through a combination of ingenuity and pure luck, the motley group put to flight not only the first Roman force sent against them, but also the second. Neither set of soldiers were not the Republic’s crack troops, but the second unit outnumbered the gladiators by more than forty to one. Unassailable odds, one would have thought, yet the gladiators prevailed.
Word spread fast. Slaves began running away from their masters to join Spartacus’ band. Soon he had a force of over ten thousand men; within a year, it was quadruple that number, or if some of the sources are to be believed, more than ten times. The gladiators’ breakout had become a full-scale rebellion that saw much of southern Italy laid waste. It sent shockwaves through the corridors of power, and in the two years that followed, Spartacus and his army won at least nine major victories over Roman legions. Ultimately, however, he was defeated.
How is it, then, that for thirteen hundred years after the fall of Rome, he was forgotten? It wasn’t until the 1760s that Spartacus’ memory was resurrected ― in France. This was due to the movement for political freedom that was sweeping Europe, and the frequent slave uprisings that were taking place in the European powers’ overseas colonies. Spartacus’ renown spread far and wide once more. His name was taken up by revolutionaries all over the world. Karl Marx thought of him as a hero. Lenin, and later Stalin, used Spartacus as the ultimate icon of the class struggle, as the model whom the proletariat should emulate. Howard Fast, American author of the bestselling novel, was a Communist who used Spartacus’ struggle in a similar manner. But his appeal was not just to left-wingers. Spartacus crossed the political divide in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan mentioned him as a symbol of the fight for freedom.
So what were the causes of Spartacus’ slide into obscurity after his death? The fact that not a single written word survives from the man himself, or from any of his followers, has to be a major reason. Another is that little over four thousand words survive that mention him – that’s about ten pages of a typical novel. More was written about Spartacus, but sadly it did not survive. Thirdly, Roman scholars chose not to comment too much on this dark chapter in their history. It’s a common feature for great powers to brush the details of their military defeats under the carpet. Human beings prefer to dwell on the glories, the heyday and the wars won. As the saying goes, the victor takes the spoils ― and they also get to write the history.
Was Spartacus really the man we think of today? First, let’s take a look at the world in which he lived. By the first century BC, Rome had conquered all of its potential enemies in the Mediterranean. Its conquests provided a huge influx of wealth into the Republic. At the same time, agriculture was changing, becoming larger-scale. The result was an enormous demand for labour, a need that was satisfied by the import of hundreds of thousands of slaves to Italy. They provided the workforces for the latifundia, or estates that covered much of the countryside.
The human tide of slaves that came from the eastern Mediterranean, from north of the Rhine and Danube rivers, and from the areas beyond the Black Sea. Thrace (roughly, modern-day Bulgaria) was one of the crossroads for this trade, and its people were also subject to enslavement. Other slaves came from northern Europe, from the regions east of the Rhine, and from Gaul. The influx of a huge number of free-born slaves into Italy over a short time had a dramatic effect. One of the least welcome was slave rebellions. Spartacus’ uprising was not the first, but the third, slave war to rock Rome in a turbulent period of only sixty years. The first two took place on Sicily, the first from 135-132 BC, and the second from 104-100 BC. It is ironic that these rebellions, both of which lasted longer than that of Spartacus, have all but been forgotten ― despite being better documented. What’s clear about the first two uprisings is that they were not about ending slavery. Nor was that of Spartacus. What they were about was men and woman, many of whom had been freeborn, seeking to escape their enslavement.
Today, there are few better symbols of the small man’s fight against overwhelming tyranny or brutal oppression than Spartacus. Much of what we think about the man comes from films, TV shows, or novels. Many modern-day portrayals depict Spartacus as a warrior in the fight against evil, even someone who wanted to free all slaves. As I’ve mentioned, the real situation was very different to these depictions. It is all too easy ― yet erroneous ― to place modern sensibilities on people who lived two thousand years ago. Yet life and morals then were totally different. Slaves were part of everyday life. Like washing machines or automobiles, everyone who could afford one, had one. Wealthy slaves had their own slaves. Freeing a favoured slave was common enough, but the idea of ending the practice of slavery would have seemed bizarre to the vast majority. Spartacus was a talented and courageous man, a charismatic and canny general. He worked to his strengths and was adept at exploiting Rome’s weaknesses.
But he was not a man whose burning desire was to free all slaves.
Thank you, Ben! To find out more about Ben and his work, please visit his website.