By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB
When one thinks of Spartacus, the first words that come to mind are “freedom fighter”, “revolutionary”, “selfless hero”, etc. But in reality these appellations would be more appropriate to describe Spartacus the myth rather than the real historical character who led the famous slave rebellion known as the Third Servile War. In this article, I will look at the historical facts and determine how much we really know about this famous figure. Was he perhaps turned into more of a hero by later historians? Was he the first abolitionist in recorded history? Let’s see!
The Real Sources
For starters, his real name has been forgotten by history. “Spartacus” was a gladiator stage name given by the crowd or his slave masters after a lineage of Thracian kings with this name.
The primary sources for Spartacus are the writings of Appius and Florius, according to whom he was of Thracian origin and served in the Roman auxiliarii. Neither historian makes any mention of why Spartacus was forced into slavery, but they describe the rebellion against his lanista, Batiatus, the defeat of the legatus Claudius Glaber at Mount Vesuvius, the plundering of Roman villas, the final defeat of Spartacus, and the crucifixion of about six thousand slaves involved in the revolt.
Spartacus: The Myth
After they die, many historical figures are forgotten for hundreds or even thousands of years. Then one day some historian or politician may decide to play Dr. Frankenstein and resuscitate the dead figure in order to satisfy a personal agenda. Spartacus most likely first became known as a freedom fighter and abolitionist because of Karl Marx, who described him as “a noble character, a real representative of the ancient proletariat”. Following his example, many left-wing groups started promoting the notion of Spartacus as a selfless freedom fighter with revolutionary ideals. It’s worth mentioning that the same metamorphosis has happened to other historical characters, such as the well-known Nat Turner, and the not-so-well-known King Zoombi, who pratically built his own kingdom of ex-slaves in Brazil, but whose tale was almost entirely made up by modern historians!
On the other hand, nothing in the ancient sources suggests that Spartacus ever wanted to reform society. Spartacus clearly didn’t want to be a slave, but he probably wouldn’t have minded having slaves of his own. The media show him as a hero who would never become as vile and cruel as the Romans, but honest historians would certainly have their doubts. For example, when Spartacus’ general Crixus died, Spartacus forced Roman prisoners of war to fight in mock gladiator games.
Historians should interpret facts with impartiality and always go to the primary sources. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case with much of the last five thousand years of recorded human history. As a result of manipulation, real heroes are forgotten and others are born! History is a fascinating study but, if you want my advice, I’d say: de omnibus dubitandum est!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.
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