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  • The Spartacus War:An Interview with Barry Strauss
  • Donald A. Yerxa (bio)

Yerxa: Who was the "real" Spartacus, and how does he compare to Kirk Douglas's character in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film?

Strauss: Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the Kubrick film isn't complete fiction, but offers some historical truth. The truth is that Spartacus really was a slave and a gladiator in Capua, Italy, and he really did lead a revolt. As the movie shows, it started in the kitchen of the gladiatorial barracks with the men using basic kitchen utensils to fight the guards and break out. And it's even true that Spartacus had a ladylove as he did in the movie. But there are some real differences as well. The movie Spartacus was born a slave and was the son and grandson of slaves, but the real Spartacus was born free. He came from Thrace, roughly equivalent with today's Bulgaria. And far from being a lifelong opponent of Rome, he started out as an allied soldier in the Roman army. He fought for Rome. His fate, ending up as a slave and gladiator, was quite unexpected and quite unjust. The Romans themselves admitted that Spartacus was forced to become a gladiator even though he was innocent.

So what went wrong? We don't precisely know, though the sources allow us to make several suggestions. I think the most likely explanation is that Spartacus, while on campaign with the Romans, campaigned against other Thracians. Spartacus was taken prisoner, and as often happens to prisoners of war, he was sold back to the Romans as a slave. Now he might have expected that the Romans would intervene to ransom him. And he certainly had every right to expect the Romans not to buy him as a slave themselves. So if that is in fact what happened, Spartacus had a justified sense of outrage at how he had been mistreated.

The other huge difference between the movie and what actually happened is more subtle. The movie depicts Spartacus as someone who was against slavery philosophically and who wanted to create a world in which slavery wouldn't exist. But we simply can't say that was true of the real Spartacus. We have very little evidence that there were people in antiquity who were opposed to slavery outright. There is very little evidence of an ancient abolitionist movement and no evidence that abolition was Spartacus's motive. In fact, the closest we come to understanding his motive from the sources, which are sadly lacking, is that he wanted to take the army he raised out of Italy back to his native land of Thrace.

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Hermann Vogel's death of Spartacus. From Otto von Corvin, Illustrierte Weltgeschichte für das Volk (Leipzig, 1880).

Yerxa: What would he do there?

Strauss: We don't know, but quite possibly continue struggling against Rome in a part of Thrace that had not been conquered by the Romans. But we can't say that abolishing slavery was his goal. More likely, getting revenge on Rome, escaping, and then leading the struggle against Rome from his homeland were his goals. He wanted to get home.

Yerxa: Is the depiction of Roman gladiators we get from movies like Spartacus or Gladiator close to being accurate?

Strauss: The picture we get in Spartacus is more accurate than what we get in Gladiator. Kubrick went to some pains to provide a certain amount of historical accuracy in how the Romans staged gladiatorial contests and trained gladiators. In Gladiator, though it is a technically beautiful film, we get the impression that gladiators fought in big teams and that gladiatorial contests were big group events. That was very rare. Usually gladiatorial contests were like modern boxing matches: they were one-on-one. They were very stylized affairs with referees and rounds. It wouldn't just be anybody fighting anybody. The Romans were very clear on the different categories of gladiators and who should fight whom.

Yerxa: How was Spartacus able to forge a military force that defeated several Roman legions and remained a threat for over two years...