Comparing the Sources of Spartacus’ Slave Revolt

Spartacus’ slave rebellion (73– 71 BC) has become a symbol of ultimate resistance to a certain oppression. Aside from Spartacus, the leaders were Celts, Germans and Thracians, and unlike the Sicilian slaves their objective (insofar as it was not simply to plunder Italy) was not to set up a Hellenistic monarchy, but to return to their tribal homelands.

In fact, several people had presented the symbolisms of the rebellion that Spartacus led: In 1760, the French tragedy Spartacus by Bernard-Joseph Saurin presented him as a noble hero. This play, which was based on the story of Plutarch, is the origin of the modern, positive image of the slave leader. Karl Marx, after reading Appian, was equally impressed by the Thracian gladiator. Since then, Spartacus has often been used as a symbol of emancipation: of the poor, of repressed nationalities (e.g., Bulgaria), and of the working class – especially in the Communist countries during the Cold War. After Kirk Douglas’ heroic nudity in Stanley Kubrick’s sentimental movie Spartacus (1960), the gladiator became a symbol of the emancipation of male homosexuals (Lendering, n.d.). All these impressions ultimately relied on four sources of the account of the rebellion that came from Plutarch, Florus, Appian and Orosius. Although there have been obvious differences about the facts and bias of the writer, the story of Spartacus’ rebellion voiced out the thirst of slaves as they aimed for equality.

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The earliest and most descriptive narrative of Spartacus’ rebellion consists of four sections (8-11) of the biography of Crassus, written by Plutarch of Chaeronea (circa 45 A.D.-120 A.D.) in the last two decades or so of his life. The collection as a whole is educational and ethical in purpose, for Plutarch intended his portrayals of character to allow his readers to achieve virtue through imitating or avoiding (as appropriate) the moral conduct of the great public figures of the past. But because moral biography of an improving kind, with its concentration of focus on a single individual’s personality, encouraged a selective mode of writing rather than full historical analysis, and because information was drawn from vast reading and transmitted in part through reliance on memory, the modern historian cannot expect from Plutarch total accuracy and comprehensiveness of detail on Spartacus, who was after all only incidental to Crassus from Plutarch’s point of view.

The Crassus is a very imbalanced biography, more than half its contents comprising an account of the campaign against the Parthians in which Crassus lost his life. His grisly demise, which Plutarch elaborates with a dramatic description of the delivery of Crassus’ head to the Parthian king, depended on an excess of ambition, one of Crassus’ two serious failings, the other being avarice. Crassus was clearly not for Plutarch a figure to emulate. Still, Plutarch has a grudging sympathy for him: Crassus at least aimed high, and his death was not that of a coward; poor judgment was the immediate cause of his downfall.

The first two sections offer a summary of the rebellion before Crassus was appointed to the command against Spartacus, and they illustrate Plutarch’s occasional tendency to digress irrelevantly (but here fortunately) from his main theme. The material is introduced abruptly, but because of Pompey’s final intervention, the account as a whole eventually provides a variation on the topic of rivalry between Crassus and Pompey. The early details may simply be due to Plutarch’s recollection of what he had read about Spartacus. But in a sense the relatively abundant treatment of the Spartacus’ war foreshadows the even more detailed account of the Parthian campaign. These were the two most important military undertakings of Crassus’ career, and Plutarch’s view of the dangers of ambition is made the more tellingly when the reader understands that the success of the first led directly to the catastrophe of the second in Crassus’ desperate struggle to keep pace with Pompey.

The second of the main narratives on Spartacus is provided by Appian of Alexandria, who was writing a generation or so after Plutarch. With Appian’s version of events there is no need to take account of an author’s concentration on one specific figure. But again his record depends on much earlier writings no longer available. It has been maintained that Asinius Pollio’s history had a very large influence on Appian’s account of the late Republic and that Appian used supplementary sources when Pollio was inadequate for his purposes. Essentially, Plutarch’s and Appian’s accounts similarly stress the responsibility of slave-owners who behaved brutally for alienating their slaves, and also the religious legitimation which was required for a leader. It can also be noted that the Romans’ contempt for men on no other grounds than that they were slaves was a major reason for their failure to recognize the seriousness of the revolt (Wiedemann 1980, p. 207).

The Epitome of Roman history, written by Florus, lacks all objectivity, his point being, as far as the slave wars are concerned, to illustrate the extent of Rome’s disgrace in having to fight slaves at all. His writing even emanated some anger due to the said revolt:

The war raised by the efforts of Spartacus I know not by what name to call, for the soldiers in it were slaves, and the commanders gladiators; the former being persons of the meanest condition, and the latter men of the worst character, and adding to the calamity of their profession by its contemptibleness. Spartacus, Crixus, and Oenomaus, breaking out of the fencing school of Lentulus escaped from Capua, with not more than thirty of the same occupation, and, having called the slaves to their standard, and collected a force of more than ten thousand men, were not content with merely having escaped, but were eager to take vengeance on their masters (Epitome, Florus).

Although dependent on the historical accounts written by Livy, the writing of Florus is careless and inaccurate. His presentation of facts gives us only a very small amount of information, but much emotion and strong opinion about the event. More detail appears in Orosius, the Christian historian whose History against the Pagans, undertaken early in the fifth century at the instigation of Augustine, was designed to refute the charge that Christians were responsible for current misfortunes by pointing to the disasters of pre-Christian history. As a repository of Livian material, Orosius’s account of the slave wars is important, but his bias is also unmistakable.

Quite evident among the historical facts was number of slaves who broke out of Capua is variously reported: Plutarch, Crassus: seventy-eight; Florus, Epitome: thirty plus; Appian, Civil Wars: about seventy; and Orosius, Histories: seventy-four. However, the important point is the sources’ agreement that the beginnings of the rebellion involved only a relatively small number of individuals. According to Plutarch, the outbreak was preceded by a plan to escape made by two hundred gladiators; when the plan was betrayed, seventy-eight gladiators left at once. But no other source refers to prior planning. Plutarch does not introduce Spartacus until the occupation of Mount Vesuvius, where the slaves chose three leaders, Spartacus being one of them, and indeed the most important; the other two were Crixus and Oenomaus, Gauls according to Orosius. Florus has Crixus and Oenomaus escaping with Spartacus from the school; whereas Appian (Civil Wars), while agreeing that they were gladiators, shows them emerging as Spartacus’s subordinates once pillaging from Mount Vesuvius was in progress. However, Orosius suggested that Crixus, Spartacus and Oenomaus were all more or less equal leaders when Vesuvius was occupied.

Moreover, given the associations of the region with chronic brigandage, it comes as no surprise to learn of further increases in the numbers of rebels. Oenomaus may now have been defeated and killed. But Crixus is reported to have had ten thousand followers under him, and Spartacus three times that figure. In total, at this point, Appian puts the rebel numbers at seventy thousand (Bradley, 1998, p. 96).

No matter what the source of Spartacus’ rebellion, with much contradicting information and the writer’s personal biases injected in their accounts, what the most rebels in the past wanted was not to destroy slavery as an institution, but to win the privileges of their former masters. It was only Spartacus himself who appeared to have fought for a genuine ideal. Uniquely among the leaders of slave revolts in the ancient world, he attempted to impose a form of egalitarianism among his followers. This is why he became a famous historical figure who had the earliest inkling of what genuine human rights meant.


Works Cited

Appian. The Civil Wars. Sources for the Three Slave Revolts. Fordham University Website. Retrieved 5 Oct. 2006 at