A short essay on the politics (real and imagined) of the Three Servile Wars that shook the Roman Empire, with an emphasis on the rebellion led by Spartacus between 73 and 71 B.C.
‘As Many Enemies as There Are Slaves’: Spartacus and the Politics of Servile Rebellion in the Late Republic
There is arguably no other figure from Classical Antiquity that has been more lionized and idealized by posterity as the symbol of popular resistance in the face of oppressive injustice, than Spartacus. His life story has inspired people from wildly different backgrounds: from eighteenth century Haitian rebel leader Toussaint Louverture, nicknamed the “black Spartacus”, to early twentieth century German Marxists (who formed the Spartacist League), to sixties American film directors. It is ironic however that this modern, and universally positive, view of Spartacus is ultimately derived from a few inconclusive passages in some ancient sources, which contradict each other in several respects, and barely form a coherent narrative. What this contradiction ultimately points to, is not necessarily that posterity has chosen to substitute historical facts for heroic tragedy, but rather that the historical facts themselves are tragically lacking. A reading of all the available sources will undoubtedly give us some valuable details as to the succession of events that constituted the Third Servile War, but will it reveal the intentions, hopes and plans of the people who fought with Spartacus against the legions of Rome? Ultimately, we are left to wonder if Spartacus and his troops were truly fighting against slavery and oppression, as popular myth seems to suggest, or if they were rather concerned simply with evading enslavement themselves without necessarily seeking to abolish slavery as an institution.